[Paleopsych] Book World: Once Upon a Time

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Once Upon a Time
Washington Post Book World, 5.5.8

    Reviewed by Denis Dutton
    Sunday, May 8, 2005; BW08

    Why We Tell Stories

    By Christopher Booker. Continuum. 728 pp. $34.95

    In the summer of 1975, moviegoers flocked to see the story of a
    predatory shark terrorizing a little Long Island resort. The film told
    of how three brave men go to sea in a small boat and, after a bloody
    climax in which they kill the monster, return peace and security to
    their town -- not unlike, Christopher Booker observes, a tale enjoyed
    by Saxons dressed in animal skins, huddled around a fire some 1,200
    years earlier. Beowulf also features a town terrorized by a monster,
    Grendel, who lives in a nearby lake and tears his victims to pieces.
    Again, the hero Beowulf returns peace to his town after a bloody
    climax in which the monster is slain.

    Such echoes have impelled Booker to chart what he regards as the seven
    plots on which all literature is built. Beowulf and "Jaws" follow the
    first and most basic of his plots, "Overcoming the Monster." It is
    found in countless stories from The Epic of Gilgamesh and "Little Red
    Riding Hood" to James Bond films such as "Dr. No." This tale of
    conflict typically recounts the hero's ordeals and an escape from
    death, ending with a community or the world itself saved from evil.

    Booker's second plot is "Rags to Riches." He places in this category
    "Cinderella," "The Ugly Duckling," David Copperfield and other stories
    that tell of modest, downtrodden characters whose special talents or
    beauty are at last revealed to the world for a happy ending.

    Next in Booker's taxonomy is "the Quest," which features a hero,
    normally joined by sidekicks, traveling the world and fighting to
    overcome evil and secure a priceless treasure (or in the case of
    Odysseus, wife and hearth). The hero not only gains the treasure he
    seeks, but also the girl, and they end as king and queen. Related to
    this is Booker's fourth category, "Voyage and Return," exemplified by
    Robinson Crusoe , Alice in Wonderland and The Time Machine . The
    protagonist leaves normal experience to enter an alien world,
    returning after what often amounts to a thrilling escape.

    In "Comedy," Booker suggests, confusion reigns until at last the hero
    and heroine are united in love. "Tragedy" portrays human overreaching
    and its terrible consequences. The last of the plots of his initial
    list is "Rebirth," which centers on characters such as Dickens's
    Scrooge, Snow White and Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov. To this useful
    system he unexpectedly adds two more plots: "Rebellion" to cover the
    likes of 1984 and "Mystery" for the recent invention of the detective

    Booker, a British columnist who was founding editor of Private Eye,
    possesses a remarkable ability to retell stories. His prose is a model
    of clarity, and his lively enthusiasm for fictions of every
    description is infectious. He covers Greek and Roman literature, fairy
    tales, European novels and plays, Arabic and Japanese tales, Native
    American folk tales, and movies from the silent era on. He is an
    especially adept guide through the twists and characters of Wagner's
    operas. His artfully entertaining summaries jogged many warm memories
    of half-forgotten novels and films.

    I wish that an equal amount of pleasure could be derived from the
    psychology on which he bases his hypothesis. Booker has been working
    on this project for 34 years, and his quaint psychological starting
    point sadly shows its age. He believes that Carl Jung's theory of
    archetypes and self-realization can explain story patterns. Alas, Jung
    serves him poorly.

    Malevolent characters, for example, are constantly described by Booker
    as selfish "Dark Figures" who symbolize overweening egotism. (Booker
    is from a generation of critics who used to think that simply
    identifying a symbol in literature can explain anything you please.)
    In Jungian terms, the dark power of the ego is the source of all evil,
    along with another of Booker's favorite Jungian ideas, the denial of
    the villain's "inner feminine."

    Granted, egotism may explain the wickedness of someone like Edmund in
    "King Lear." But Grendel? The shark in "Jaws"? Oedipus is arguably a
    more egotistical character than Iago, who in his devious cruelty is
    still far more evil. The malevolence of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or
    the Cyclops in The Odyssey lies not in their egotism. These creatures
    just have a perfectly natural taste for mammalian flesh. They are
    frightening, dramatic threats, to be sure, but not symbols of anything
    human. Sometimes in fiction, as Freud might have said, a monster is
    just a monster.

    In Booker's account, denying your "inner feminine" is bad news, and
    all evildoers, including Lady Macbeth, are guilty of it. Not only do
    such Jungian clichés wear thin, they get in the way of adequate
    interpretation. Having seduced so many women and killed the father of
    one, Don Giovanni will "never develop his inner feminine" and act with
    the strength of a mature man, according to Booker. This ignores a most
    piquant feature of Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto: The Don stubbornly
    stands up to the Commendatore's ghost at the opera's end and is pulled
    down to hell on account of it.

    Booker's discussion of what he calls "the Rule of Three" reveals his
    obsessive, self-confirming method. From the three questions of
    Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood to Lear's three daughters, sets of
    three are ubiquitous in literature, Booker claims. "Once we become
    aware of the archetypal significance of three in storytelling," he
    explains, "we can see it everywhere, expressed in all sorts of
    different ways, large and small."

    Sure, and anyone who studies the personality types of astrology will
    see Virgos and Scorpios everywhere too. Relations among three, four or
    five characters in a narrative enable more dramatic possibilities than
    relations between two. This is a matter of ordinary logic, not
    literary criticism. The "archetype of three," as he calls it, is no
    archetype at all, though he contrives to find it where it is plainly
    absent. Scylla and Charybdis may look like two dangers to you and me,
    but the middle way between them actually makes, as Booker explains,
    three possibilities for Odysseus, thus saving his Rule of Three. That
    Jane Eyre spends three days running across the moors "conveys to us,
    by a kind of symbolic shorthand, just how tortuous and difficult" her
    escape is. But why three? If Jane had spent five days on the moors, or
    40 days, she'd have been even more tuckered out. And while there are
    three bears, three chairs and three bowls of porridge in "Goldilocks
    and the Three Bears," there are actually four characters. The story
    would better support Booker's theory were it "Goldilocks and the Two
    Bears." But, like astrologers, he is not keen to consider negative

    The first thinker to tackle Booker's topic was Aristotle. Write a
    story about a character, Aristotle showed, and you face only so many
    logical alternatives. In tragedy, for instance, either bad things will
    happen to a good person (unjust and repugnant) or bad things happen to
    a bad person (just, but boring). Or good things happen to a bad person
    (unjust again). Tragedy needs bad things to happen to a basically good
    but flawed person: Though he may not have deserved his awful fate,
    Oedipus was asking for it.

    In the same rational spirit, Aristotle works out dramatic relations: A
    conflict between strangers or natural enemies is of little concern to
    us. What arouses interest is a hate-filled struggle between people who
    ought to love each other -- the mother who murders her children to
    punish her husband, or two brothers who fight to the death. Aristotle
    knew this for the drama of his age as much as soap-opera writers know
    it today.

    Booker has not discovered archetypes, hard-wired blueprints, for story
    plots, though he has identified the deep themes that fascinate us in
    fictions. Here's an analogy: Survey the architectural layout of most
    people's homes and you will find persistent patterns in the variety.
    Bedrooms are separated from kitchens. Kitchens are close to dining
    rooms. Front doors do not open onto children's bedrooms or bathrooms.

    Are these patterns Jungian room-plan archetypes? Hardly. Life calls
    for logical separations of rooms where families can sleep, cook, store
    shoes, bathe and watch TV. Room patterns follow not from mental
    imprints, but from the functions of the rooms themselves, which in
    turn follow from our ordinary living habits.

    So it is with stories. The basic situations of fiction are a product
    of fundamental, hard-wired interests human beings have in love, death,
    adventure, family, justice and adversity. These values counted as much
    in the Pleistocene era as today, which is why evolutionary
    psychologists study them intensively. Our fictions are populated with
    character-types relevant to these themes: beautiful young women,
    handsome strong men, courageous leaders, children needing protection,
    wise old people. Add to this threats and obstacles to the fulfillment
    of love and fortune, including both bad luck and villains, and you
    have the makings of literature. Story plots are not unconscious
    archetypes, but follow, as Aristotle realized, from human interests
    and the logic of what is possible.

    Booker ends his 700-page treatise with a diatribe against literature
    of the past two centuries. Modern fiction has "lost the plot," he
    argues. Moby-Dick initially may look like a heroic Overcoming the
    Monster tale, but in the end we do not know who is more evil, Captain
    Ahab or the whale who kills him. While the ambiguities of modernism
    trouble Booker, some of his readers will be even more disturbed to
    find "E.T." and Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" movies
    extravagantly lauded in a book that disparages the complex moral
    pessimism of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" and the achievement of Marcel
    Proust's Remembrance of Times Past , which he dismisses as "the
    greatest monument to human egotism in the history of story-telling."

    Fail though it might in its ambition to offer a single key to
    literature, The Seven Basic Plots is nevertheless one of the most
    diverting works on storytelling I've ever encountered. Pity about the
    Jung, but there's no denying the charm of Booker's twice-told tales. ·

    Denis Dutton edits the journal Philosophy and Literature and the Web
    site Arts & Letters Daily.

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