Conflict simulation, violence and order

I’m skeptical if intrigued about using the tools of evolutionary biology to trace the genealogy of myths and folktales, but the idea that stories that demonstrate good conflict resolution are adaptive (more useful and thus more likely to survive) stood out to me as insightful:

“Little Red Riding Hood,” the tale of Polyphemus, and other ancient tales are all preoccupied with peril. They are populated by predators real and imaginary. They are replete with physical and interpersonal threats—in particular deceit. They confront characters with at least one crisis and force them to either resolve it or meet a terrible fate. Even the folktales of the Agta, which emphasize harmony, only do so through a sharp contrast with discord. When we try to define the qualities of memorable narratives today, we often fall back on clichés and tautologies. Stories need conflict, we say. Why? Because conflict makes for a good story. But maybe there’s a deeper reason.

Not only are ancient myths and folktales almost universally concerned with danger and death; they are blatantly didactic. If we remove their layers of symbolism and subtext—which have been interpreted and reinterpreted for millennia—and focus on their narrative skeletons, we find that they are studded with practical and moral insights: people are not always what they seem; the mind is as much a weapon as the body; sometimes humility is the best path to victory. Modern stories frequently plunge us into lengthy interior monologues, exhaustively describe settings and people’s physical features, delight in the random, absurd, and orthogonal, and end with deliberate ambiguity. The earliest stories were, for all their fantasy, far more pragmatic. Their villains were often thinly veiled analogies for real-world threats, and their conclusions offered useful lessons. They were simulations that allowed our ancestors to develop crucial mental and social skills and to practice overcoming conflict without being in actual danger. Though we may never definitively know what confluence of biological and cultural pressures hatched the first stories—though narrative has far exceeded its preliminary role in human evolution—it seems that our predecessors relied on stories to teach each other how to survive.

The idea of story as practical simulation makes intuitive sense and provides a neat alternative to the received wisdom of “stories need conflict because conflict makes for good stories,” which I had never recognized as a tautology until this article called it out.

Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human makes a similar point about stories as conflict simulation, but I while I read that book I was thinking only in terms of how stories do their work, and not about where the “rule” for writers came from.

The other book this makes me think of is Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, which claims that a story needs a dramatic question, and then needs to answer it—another way of describing the didactic function. At the time I read that book, that claim seemed suspect—if you have a lesson to impart, just be direct and write an essay! Dressing up a lesson in the guise of a story felt both dishonest, like hiding medicine in food, and like a good way to waste the unique strengths of fiction.

But now I wonder. Maybe there are questions and answers that are best addressed through fiction—ones that aren’t “lessons” because the questions are ineffable or the answers are multiple or contingent or otherwise complicated. The article above lists lengthy interior monologues, randomness, and ambiguity as evidence that modern stories have abandoned their didactic function. But isn’t that instead evidence that we are facing different sorts of conflict in the modern age?

Man versus ennui. Man versus the algorithm. Man versus his own alienation. These are a long way from the old “man versus man” and “man versus nature” models of conflict you get in high school. Maybe a better framing for modernity is not conflict/resolution or question/answer but disorder/order. Tzvetan Todorov talked about the idea of “violence” rather than “conflict” in his book Introduction to Poetics. There is a system in a certain order, some violence is done that upsets the order, and then work has to be done to put things back into (probably a new) order. (I think I’m remembering my Todorov correctly—I admit to working from one sentence I jotted down in school a decade ago.) This feels to me like a mental tool as well adapted to modern fiction as “versus” is to fairy tales.

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