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Monday, 5 April 2010

Darkness falls in stories and in our hearts

A book I asked my mother to get me for my birthday considers some questions I have wondered about for some time.

Christopher Booker's "The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories" is a treatise on archetypal theory - the notion that there is only a limited number of stories or plots in the world and those story forms reflect our relationship with the world and connect our conscious and unconscious selves to the external world and community around us.

I've only just started reading this one, and am conscious there is much to be drawn from and criticised about the work. What follows therefore is by no means untrammeled eulogy, merely some questions rooted in his suggestions.

Booker suggests that our storytelling has taken a darker turn in the last two hundred years. (which is not to say it wasn't dark before) borne out of the convulsions of the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and the Industrial Revolution with its sense of overcoming Nature. Mankind was on the threshold of something very new.

At this point in history the psychic and physical convulsions of the era helped separate our Ego (consumed as it was by power of the new science and ripped apart from its sense of morality and order by the tumults of history) from the whole of the Self.

This in his mind drove 'dark' versions of plot to become more common. Although we already had tragedy as an inherently 'dark' plot form, now other forms were being inverted. In these stories there weren't happy endings and the characters often failed to grow or be transformed by their journey.

If, and of course it is a big if, this is accepted as true then I wonder what impact this had on emotional development in the Western world.

In the last post I suggested that the Enlightenment and subsequently the Industrial Revolution had created both a sense of individualism and the economic wealth to create greater private physical space in which that individualism could grow. Is there a sense in which that private space and philosophical drive towards individualism created an Ego that became separated from the rest of our Self? It seems highly possible.

It is this I would suggest that has had a major impact on our emotions and how we relate to them. Here may be the seeds of the shift where emotions become about individual feeling and not public harmony. At the risk of moralising, I think this shift towards internal emotions was seduced by our newly fuelled Ego and pushed our emotions into selfishness in many forms.

Obviously of course, this is only speculation on my part and Booker himself focuses much more on the literature than the history of the time. And of course terms like Ego and Self in this case are Jungian and not exact representations of reality.

I don't think this conflicts with traditional historians of emotions like Prof William Reddy's ideas of societies oscillating between control and lack of control over there emotions. Nor does it contradict Prof Barbara Rosenwein's ideas about emotional communities able to have alternative themes and relationships to emotions. This idea of privacy, individualism and Ego is merely a broad brush that may impact on aspects of Western societies without overwhelming all different groups.