Gotschall ‘Storytelling Animal’

“Tell me a story.”

Put on the spot like that, one’s mind tends to go blank. Based on the context, and the identity of the person demanding the story, you might dust off your hazy recollection of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, or perhaps something more along the lines of Fifty Shades of Grey (no, that book is not the subject of this review; speaking on behalf of all true deviants, I can claim with confidence that the appetites explored in that particular text are, at best, pedestrian).

The fact of the matter, however, according to Jonathan Gottschall in his new book The Storytelling Animal, is that a conscious decision to tell a story is just a pimple on a fly standing on the tip of the iceberg of the inherent human storytelling inclination. We are predisposed to storytelling. It’s hardwired into us, and we spend a lot more time than we think doing it.

The question Gottschall is most concerned with is “why.” What evolutionary purpose does storytelling serve? To cite his own leading question, if you had two proto-human societies, alike in every way except that one spent some of its time and energy, not hunting or gathering food or resting or finding a safe place to sleep away from predators, but telling tales that explained why the stars looked the way they did and what caused thunder and lightning, which society do you think would survive? It’s a trick question of course, because we know that it’s the storytellers who survived. They are us.

At the core of the book is his contention that there is a universal grammar of storytelling, that in every society throughout human history, people have told stories about other people, or anthropomorphized animals or gods, dealing with some sort of problem and either overcoming it or succumbing to it.

“Stories universally focus on the great predicaments of the human condition,” Gottschall argues, and it’s hard to see many exceptions to the conditions he cites. Blithely noting the almost uniquely 20th Century conceit of breaking out of this general pattern and telling stories where nothing much happens, Gottschall observes sharply that very few people really read books like Finnegans Wake.

In manageable chapters of relatively jargon-free, somewhat breezy prose, Gottschall navigates through the cognitive theories behind the apparently universal human need for storytelling. There is a deep, some would say fundamental link between storytelling and our other desires, for food, sex, love, and life itself. Why else, he wonders, would we waste our time on an activity that adds nothing tangible or useful to our lives?

But the stories we consciously concoct do not nearly exhaust the inventory of our storytelling stores. Our dreams, our memories, our very notions of who we are and what our purpose in life is are all shaped by a narrative unconscious that is as natural to us as breathing or walking upright. This isn’t always a good thing, as we tend to deceive ourselves about the things we remember and our motives for the things we do, but it’s nothing we can ever escape. If you doubt this, says Gottschall, look at children. There’s not a child in the world who does not play, and there’s almost no play scenario that doesn’t take the form of a story. Perhaps, he suggests, story play is analogous to play in the animal kingdom, where the young practice in play the skills they will need to survive in adulthood.

Gottschall digs deeply into this and multiple other ideas about the purpose and function of storytelling, and if he insists on none of them to the exclusion of any other, he never doubts the validity of his conclusions about the innate human need for storytelling, or allows his infectious enthusiasm for his subject to flag. There’s not a dry, academic passage in a book that could that could have been full of both.

Gottschall’s main purpose here is to explore the evolutionary function of storytelling and offer possible explanations for its ubiquity in human culture, and he does a very good job. Thinking about it though, I would say that one could push the idea of the origin of storytelling even further. Granted, this is somewhat outside of Gottschall’s stated purview, but if we stipulate to the premise that all stories involve something happening, isn’t storytelling a function of existence itself? And I don’t just mean life, but all existence. Think about it: a system starts out in a particular physical state. Over time, that changes, and the system transforms. Eventually, the system’s existence concludes. The addition of human concerns about the causes and the good or bad of this transformation and conclusion are conceits we apply, rather parochially, to our own stories, but the underlying structure is still there no matter what you look at. Maybe story is a function of entropy. Maybe the whole

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