Warning: this is a rather philosophical piece. I tried to find ways to work some sex and violence into it to be in keeping with so much of today’s media, but I guess I am not clever or perverted enough to pull it off. On the plus side, no animals were killed or maimed in the writing of this essay.
People like stories. We know that from as early as Homer; but well before the great author of epic poems in classical antiquity, people were doubtless telling stories around the fires in their caves. Only humans the magnificent faculty for conceiving and telling stories. Indeed nothing makes life more interesting and introspective than the art of de-constructing and re-constructing human experience. And what is more human than to approach life individually as a story each of our lives have to tell. Some stories are memoir, others biography, or history, but fiction and “revelation” are frequent contaminants.
If you are like me (isn’t that a scary thought) you like a good story. Stories (history as well) are the way we organize events in time. But there is a good deal of arbitrariness in the manner in which we do it. Making a story is always an editing job—we arrange elements and arbitrarily begin and end it where we choose or find aesthetically interesting. For me, the classic example of this is the “Hollywood ending.” I even published a novel based on just such an ending (shameless self promotion below*). We have all watched such endings: riding off into the sunset; bad guys get what’s coming to them; boy and girl in love get married; crime is solved; military airplanes kill giant ape on Empire state building; etc.
We enjoy our stories, in novels, histories, memoirs, Scripture, and movies. We like our reality edited and re-arranged and fitted to neat conclusions. The narrative is the way we remember things—and the way in which we assign existential meaning to them. The narrative has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it follows a linear course. The story of Christ is a good example. The world begins (Adam and Eve) and people turn bad and become sinners. In the Middle Jesus comes along and says don’t worry I’ll die for you sins; you just believe in me and after the resurrection I’ll be back. Then the end—the Second Coming, or Rapture, at the “end times” and we go with Jesus to heaven, like for-evvvver.
So what does this story mean, what does it tell us—about us and the way we think about us.? Well, there’s this six plus some billion years of creation beginning with a Big Bang we weren’t around to hear. A humungous universe comes into being in which we live in a little, tiny corner in a minor galaxy in a third-rate solar system. Then life starts, and little tiny organisms take a few more billion years of making and discarding species as big as a brachiosaurus (98% of all species have gone extinct) and along comes us (after discarding a few monkey-like prototypes)—presumably to live out that Biblical story recounted above. In other words, this existence—the universe and this world of ours comes to and end because we, presumably (presumptuously!) are the reason for the whole freakin’ 6 billion year enterprise. Our going to Heaven with Jesus is the end purpose of Creation! Yup, everything that happened for over six billion years was pointed to our coming into being and salvation. Can you believe that?
Well, a lot of people do; maybe most of the people in the world believe it in one form or another. This world ends, but not existence—there is a Hollywood ending we have put into this story, a happily-ever-after-ending in Heaven, Nirvana, Elysium, across the River Styx where the 72 virgins are waiting, the Afterworld—a new and eternal and blissful place. All of this was set up for us—humans—the most hubristic, self-absorbed, and imaginative species ever to come into existence.
It is easy to become a linear-narrative thinker because we are, in addition to being self-conscious, short-lived, and aware that we are. Each of our lives is a little story, some more interesting than others.
But what if the “story” is an astrophysical story, not say a Jesus story. And what if that story is cyclical, not linear. A Big Bang happens, but then a Big Implosion happens. It takes many billions of years of course, but Nature is running on its own clock. This movie is not too long; it’s just as long as it needs to be. Maybe the cycle of banging and imploding has been repeating, over and over, for gazillions of eons. Maybe this pulsation of the universe as we know it (is the same thing happening at a micro scale in every atom in creation?) has been producing life forms, higher and lower, or the same as us—one’s that evolved a self consciousness that that thought they could defy the certainty of death by creating by imagination their own alternate eternities. We are the centers of our own universes; until we pull the camera on tat existence further and further away and we fade into infinitesimal insignificance. The awareness that we are each in our own solipsistic bang-implosion cycle causes us to construct a death-defying counter narrative the way of lonely child clings to he comforts of an imaginary friend.
The counter (linear) narrative is admittedly much easier for us to connect with. It is scaled to lie within our historical-literary reach. If creation is beyond our ken the creations of our imaginations are not. The cyclical non-narrative leaves us with our petty fruit fly lives in the dust with the dino poo—part of a process, not the reason for it. There is no “happily ever after ending” because the end is the beginning, or whichever way you would like to look at it. It is not a process leading to some insubstantial afterlife (despite the material ascension dreams of the Rapturists), because the process is the substance—E = mc2 .**
This might all seem like aimless philosophical musing, but I have a more urgent point to make, which is that the narrative might be the most dangerous features of human consciousness. When narratives become shared and transmitted by myths, superstitions, religions, ideologies, from the Bible to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the Star Wars cosmology, the danger exists in the need to follow the “story” to its conclusion. When we assign the creation with a plot, a purpose, then everything that happens must incline to, and serve, that teleology, as must all the elements of a narrative remain integral to its conclusion. When we see the dramatic properties of tension and conflict, of the necessity for “good” to triumph over “evil,” death and destruction become integral to the scenario. When we conceive of a story with a purpose of perfection or a transformation to an alternate level of existence we are compelled to do everything we can in service of that ending. When our fictions become fact, the proposition that “the purpose of Life is Life itself,” Life’s purpose becomes to play our role in the narrative.
But, importantly, how we regard the story of life can make a big difference in our behavior toward this life. If we regard life as we know it as only preparatory to another life, an eternal afterlife, then the earth and this existence become something merely instrumental, not dissimilar from the way the body of a credulous martyr or an ascetic is “sacrificed” to some greater reward promised by a narrative. Indeed, life, personal, or in toto, must come to an end in order for the afterlife to eventuate. All things must be summed up and accounted, good must vanquish evil, for the new beginning—the beginning without end (per omnia saecula saeculorum) to begin.
Narratives do matter. They are fiction, or even an amalgam of fact and fiction. They don’t have to be true; because sometimes believing they tell the truth is sufficient to make them self-fulfilling prophecy.
To be continued.
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.19.2009)
**Shameless implied association with famous scientist.