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A Tale of Tales

Michael Bérubé

THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: How Stories Make Us Human. Jonathan Gottschall. xviii + 248 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. $24.

Once upon a time there was a group of literary critics who got very excited about neuroscience. They especially liked what neuroscience seemed to be able to offer their field: a good, hard-science foundation for the importance of their work. For the neuroscientists were telling people that Homo sapiens sapiens is hardwired for storytelling. And these scientists weren’t telling just-so stories, either; they had clear evidence that human brains universally make up narratives, ranging from religions to sports to memoirs to dreams to delusions to conspiracy theories, and they could even point to the specific areas of the brain that light up when certain stories are told. Now, thought the literary critics, we can finally live happily ever after. And Steven Pinker will be our friend!

The only problem was that it wasn’t clear what neuroscience could offer the study of literature other than the claim that humans are hardwired for storytelling. It didn’t seem to have anything very interesting to say about specific stories, nor did it evince any great interest in getting into the textual details of those stories—or the various interpretive disputes about those stories—that make up so much of the work of literary criticism. In On the Origin of Stories (2009), which I covered in an earlier review for American Scientist, Brian Boyd tried to make neuroscience the basis for the study of literature, and although his account of neuroscience was compelling, he couldn’t come up with anything to say about literary works other than that their creators devised various storytelling techniques to hold our attention. And as Laurent Dubrueil wrote in an essay in Diacritics, Boyd “seemingly believe[s] language to be a diabolical invention of ‘Theory,’” which, Boyd complained, “cuts literature off from life by emphasizing human thought and ideas as the product of only language, convention, and ideology.” Unfortunately for this branch of literary criticism, it turns out to be very difficult to talk or write about extralinguistic matters.

The most enthusiastic evocritics (for that is what they have named themselves) insisted nonetheless that the universality of storytelling is evidence for its survival value—that storytelling is not merely useful and delightful but adaptive, in the sense that it is somehow fundamental to how our species managed to take over the planet, and not a mere ornament or spandrel. In a new book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall sets out to explore why human beings “crave story,” and whether narrative “shapes us as individuals and as cultures.” Gottschall is officially agnostic on the question of whether narrative has an adaptive function—and perhaps wisely so:

I don’t know for sure whether story is an evolutionary adaptation or a side effect, and neither at this point does anyone else. . . . My own view is that we probably gravitate to story for a number of different evolutionary reasons. There may be elements of storytelling that bear the impression of evolutionary design, like the tweezing grip we can make with our fingers and thumbs. There may be other elements that are evolutionary by-products, like the specific pattern of freckles and hair follicles on the backs of our hands. And there may be elements of story that are highly functional now but were not sculpted by nature for that purpose, such as hands moving over the keys of a piano or a computer.

Nonetheless, Gottschall clearly considers it safe to say that storytelling has something to do with helping us navigate our social worlds, since we are such thoroughly social animals: “We are attracted to fiction not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high.”

Innocuous as this conclusion sounds, there are some serious problems lurking here. The first, which Gottschall readily acknowledges, is that some fictions are very bad for us, encouraging us to identify strongly with one human subgroup at the expense of all others; he adduces a few obvious examples, such as the silent film The Birth of a Nation, which aided the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the inspiration Richard Wagner’s operas provided for a young man named Hitler. Still, Gottschall insists that on the whole, fiction has a generally moral effect on us, creating communities not unlike those formed by religious belief, which in turn rests on the power of stories. But then, how is this understanding of literature any better than that proposed by Matthew Arnold long before the advent of neuroscience? Likewise, Gottschall rightly suggests that humans need a sense of order and coherence that only narrative can provide. But then, how is this understanding of narrative any better than that proposed by Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending (1966)?

The more important problem is that an understanding of stories as agents of morality and social cohesion doesn’t have anything to say about the difference between oral and written literature, or literature and visual media. Gottschall posits that fiction works by “literally rewiring our brains,” but Maryanne Wolf’s 2007 book Proust and the Squid: The Story of Science and the Reading Brain made a much more persuasive and detailed case for the way the invention of writing rewired our brains—and regrettably, Wolf goes uncited here. Although Gottschall has an appropriately expansive understanding of “story,” it unfortunately prevents him from saying much about how different kinds of stories work. As a result, his book might prove useful for people who have never stopped to think about how thoroughly immersed in stories we humans are, but it’s not going to provide significant insight into the workings of any particular story.

And although The Storytelling Animal offers a genial overview of new research on how stories rewire our brains (such as experiments where people watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly while their brains are scanned by MRI machines), it is not clear, finally, whom Gottschall himself is writing for. I wondered at the function of identifiers such as “Sherlock Holmes, the great literary patriarch who paved the way for a thousand fictional detectives.” What reader might need that explanation—or, for that matter, Gottschall’s concluding pieces of advice, which include “read fiction and watch it” and “allow yourself to daydream”? Strangely, the book is dotted with numerous illustrations—pictures of children playing, a Navy jet landing on an aircraft carrier, a teenaged girl giving us the finger, and photos of Richard Wagner, Sigmund Freud, Anton Chekhov, Stephen King, Larry David and John Wayne Gacy, among others. Why would anyone need these illustrations? Or are they merely decorative (and if so, why such decor)? Great storytellers know their audiences, it is said, or else (as Wordsworth wrote) they create the taste by which they are to be enjoyed. Gottschall is a capable and fluent writer, but The Storytelling Animal seems to be unsure of its readership—and, at some points, unsure whether its readers are very familiar with reading.

Michael Bérubé is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor and the Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State University. He is the author of, among other books, Rhetorical Occasions: Humans and the Humanities (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) and The Left at War (New York University Press, 2009).

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