Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Story Gene

The concept of story emerged in direct proportion to the development of the human brain and the ability of humanity to observe and wish to preserve survival-related information.

Accordingly, squirrels probably convey some form of story and, had they a more sophisticated range of language, would use it to produce many a cautionary tale. Make no mistake, squirrels are beset by predation and, based on my observation of their behavior outside my bedroom and living room windows, they are beset with social issues. Squirrels in my neighborhood probably tell sudden fictions in the nature of, Watch out for the hawks. In a social kind of story, they're remind me of my one time friend of the piano bar and carouse, Huntz Hall, one of the original Dead End Kids of 30s films. Huntz's on screen persona was epitomized by, Who you shovin'? Squirrels do tend to get territorial around peanuts.

Although the squirrel trope may be a bit of a stretch, at least it falls into a kind of logic that follows the common denominator that we all have a narrative we act on. Another splendid example is the soldier ant, busily pursuing its wired-i purpose in spite of sprays, poisons, or temporary barriers. Nature has provided the worker ant an imperative which the ant is bound to follow. In other words, the ant's story is motive the means justify the ends.

It could be argued that the human story began with the myth of Sisyphus, which, if taken in the full sway of its metaphor, means Don't mess with the Boss. Sisyphus was discovered by Zeus to have been messing with one of Zeus's girlfriends, for which he had to pay the horrendous price of a life of eternal boredom and frustration. Prometheus got into severe liver problems for having messed with the gods, and thus another cautionary tale in which the interloper is caught and punished. Such cautions may cause some human interlopers to lead a more conservative, reverential-of-higher-authority lives, but on the other hand, such cautions may impress on the reader or hearer of a tale to exercise greater caution and ingenuity, which is to say, Avoid being caught.

To bring any individual, from the merest amoeba to the most significant homo spaien sapien to life, we need only set that individual in motion, enhance the landscape, say the primordial ooze, and impart an agenda, say getting out of the primordial ooze, or rat race or rut or relationship.

There you have it, story begins with someone wanting something, then venturing pursuit of that something. Such is our nature as readers that we will attribute wired-in responses to the elements of a story, allowing us to make of it as we will.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported the invasion of the state of Texas by a particular species of ant that sought refuge--and presumably sustenance--in computers. Some of us were discussing the ramifications this morning at our coffee venue of Peet's, when an earnest-looking man at the next table wondered aloud, How can you people be concerned about ants when the Federal Government is eating our savings and holdings before our very eyes? You might think this wold be a conversation stopper, and it was for a brief moment, before I recovered. Excuse me, sir, but you're a Republican, right? The man was every bit as stopped in his way as we had been in ours. Why, yes. How could you tell?

At one historical plateau in the evolutionary process of story, there was the Gothic brutishness of Beowulf, which moved to the armed-conflict epic, the self-interest of knights errant (perhaps hopeful of a deferment from their father/),the intriguing sweep of romanticism, the orderliness of the turn of the century, the need for optimism and redemption of the Depression, and now the fragmented cynicism of the modern era.

Story is built into us, to see it as it is, was, or might have been. There is no correct choice except that of the teller, when the teller tells and when the tables are turned and the teller becomes the reader.

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