Tuesday, 4 January 2022

The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears them DownThe Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears them Down by Jonathan Gottschall
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Essential Poison

Sugar-coating hemlock doesn’t reduce its toxicity but I’ll bet it would be a real boost to sales. Perhaps this is the theory behind Jonathan Gottschall’s book about language. He makes his concern explicit. “I think of storytelling as humanity’s ‘essential poison,’” he says. By describing the poison in terms of stories and claiming we can tell the difference between better and worse stories, Gottschall implies that certain species-death is avoidable if we read the instructions on the label. Socrates, I’m sure, would object to the pitch on moral as well as health grounds.

Oddly, Gottschall doesn’t think scientists and mathematicians tell stories. This is because he dissociates stories from language, so that he can later claim a sort of priority for science in checking prose stories. But the specialised languages of formulas and equations are as much stories as The Story Paradox itself, including all the messy conclusions of self-referentiality. It’s part of his programme to make the medicine go down easier I suppose.

Gottschall also would like us to think that stories only became problematic with the internet and social media. This is, of course, ridiculous as the history of religion and its varied myths, all of which he cites, demonstrates so obviously. In fact Gottschall has got the chronology wrong. Stories created the internet. Language is the fundamental technology. Gossip is the killer app that allowed the species Homo Sapiens to survive in a world of stronger, faster, and more quick-witted predators. Language creates the collective human mind which is the most predatory instrument on the planet, perhaps in the cosmos. As Gottschall notes correctly:
“Behind all the factors driving civilization’s greatest ills—political polarization, environmental destruction, runaway demagogues, warfare, and hatred—you’ll always find the same master factor: a mind-disordering story.’

Gottschall thinks we can escape what he calls the magic of stories by knowing that they’re stories. Such an escape however would require some sort of final story about stories, an ultimate story like say that of the Catholic Church in its doctrinal statements, or the Fundamentalist’s Bible or the much sought after Theory of Everything in Physics. But these ultimate stories are just more of the same, that is, hopeless attempts to evade the hideous necessity of language through yet more language. Nevertheless Gottschall wants us to have hope, to think that he and we can discern better from worse stories. According to him, the solution is at hand, “We need more reason in the world.”

Where is such reason to be found? Gottschall thinks he knows: “Above all, we need to double down on our commitment to science because science is for standing up to stories.” Has he never heard of epistemology, that centuries-old failed attempt to identify better and worse scientific stories? In other words, his buck-passing solution to what he calls “a pandemic of conspiratorial thinking” has no credibility whatsoever. There is no vaccine (or anti-venom) that can cure us. His book is just another catalogue of useless, largely pornographic, anecdotes about QAnon, Trump, Hitler, Stalin and the various other nutcases who have committed atrocities.

I take the publication of this book as helpful in only one respect - evidence that the the quality editorial staff at Basic Books has deteriorated markedly over recent years.

View all my reviews


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home