We’re surrounded. Surrounded by art, ambushed by narrative, pinned in place by poetry. Art in the age of mass production has become ubiquitous, and in its omnipresence has become invisible. We tell stories – yes, through novels and through television shows, but also through the news and through math textbooks and through the tales we tell ourselves about how the world really works.
We’ve become very good at it.
We’re very convincing.
Through practice, we’ve mastered certain formulas of narrative. Heroes’ journeys, struggles of good against evil, sex and violence, truth and beauty. They’re the stories we know, so they’re the stories we tell, whether or not they’re accurate. And all that would be fine, except we’ve lost track of where they start and end. We need to tell each other things, to communicate, so we can survive, but the guiding form of our narrative structure shapes those words out of our mouths, adds an element of aesthetically pleasing but ultimately distracting noise. Modern televisions, with their up-scaled resolutions and noise reductions making everything look too smooth, too pretty, too waxy, subtly wrong in ways so common that they become right, supplanting our images of what our skins actually look like.
We have people who think that because they’ve beaten a hard video game they know what it is to overcome adversity, people who justify war crimes based on scenarios they saw on television, people who believe the best will happen, the worst will be avoided, because the world is written to have a happy ending. We’ve created fake challenges, fake justifications for fake violence, fake saccharine happiness, and these things are fine and they serve a purpose but they cannot be all we get, we cannot live on bread alone. No matter how you shape bread, it’s still just bread.
Even though we all have, to varying degrees, felt real terror, felt real oppression, real pain, real sorrow, so often we turn these into stories, narratives about who we are and where we’re going, the ultimate triumph of justice, our undeniable status as the heroes of our story. Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes we need to wrap the fresh wounds in a bandage of narrative – but we lose flexibility. It becomes easy to mistake the crutch for the leg, and go on limping long after we might have healed.
Maybe this is just the new outfit of an old habit. Perhaps the news and the movies and the games and the novels are just a new way of telling ourselves the same reassuring stories we always have, supplanting oral traditions and religious teachings, shaping for us a story of the way to be, the way to struggle, the way to transcend. Maybe this is just a new way to tell an old story.
But this time we want a happy ending. We want clear heroes and villains and we want a nice three act structure. We want meaningless sex and justified violence. We want it all wrapped up, nice and tight, nix the begats, forget the boring stuff. Just bread, please.