Remember the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail? There’s this scene where King Arthur cuts off both of the Black Knight’s arms, and the Knight exclaims, “It’s just a flesh wound.” And even after Arthur makes the astute observation: “You’ve got no arms left!” the Knight declares, “Yes, I have!”
This is one of the countless anecdotes Jonathan Gottschall tells in his book The Storytelling Animal, a fascinating discussion of how we live in a world of make believe. We invent stories in order to live, even when the stories are, as in the Black Knight’s case, “confabulations– lies, honestly told.”
Gottschall makes a compelling case for the completeness in which our day-to-day lives are enshrouded in storytelling. We organize most everything into the context of a story– even seemingly unrelated things. Gottschall gives the example of telling someone three completely unrelated sentences and asking what they make of them. Inevitably, the person organizes the three sentences into the framework of a story, so that they’re associated in a specific way. Numerous exercises like this one “show how unwilling we are to be without a story, and how avidly we will work to impose story structure on a meaningless montage.”
And who imposes story structure on meaningless material more than the conspiracy theorist? Those who believe that 9/11 was a government-planned attack, those who believe President Obama is a radical Muslim, those who believe Tupac and Elvis are alive, partying on an island somewhere. Gottschall argues that these tales are storytelling at its finest. “Conspiratorial thinking is not limited to the stupid, ignorant or the crazy,” he writes. “It is a reflex of the storytelling mind’s compulsive need for meaningful experience.”
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, and for the conspiracy theorist, that compulsive need for meaning extends to the extreme. Their stories answer big, unknown questions. Their stories provide explanations for the unanswerable, the unacceptable and the horrific. The conspiracy theorist’s stories “provide nothing less than a solution to the problem of evil.”
Of course, one extreme reflects another, which leads Gottschall to follow his conspiracy theory section with a discussion of religion, which he calls “the ultimate expression of story’s dominion over our minds.” Religion has been around since the dawn of human expression, and it has always gone hand-in-hand with storytelling. The holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the god and goddess laden myths of the Greeks, the scrolls of Buddhism and Hinduism–– all of them are stories at their core.
Gottschall says poignantly that religion must be an evolutionary adaptation, an evolutionary side effect or a mixture of the two. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have survived (and flourished so wholly) for this long. And the constant in all religions since the beginning has been stories. “The world’s priests and shamans knew what psychology would later confirm: If you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story.”
If storytelling truly defines and nuances our day-to-day lives, as Gottschall expertly shows in The Storytelling Animal, our presentations should not be without them. We’ll continue to make the case for storytelling in presentations next week as we continue through Gottschall’s extraordinary book.