In 2011, the New York Times posed this question as a headline, “Can a novelist write philosophically?” drawing on the work of novelists Iris Murdoch, teacher of philosophy at Oxford, and Philosophy PhDs such as Rebecca Goldstein and Clancy Martin, as well as David Foster Wallace (a one-time philosophy PhD candidate at Harvard).
But the New York Times misses the point entirely. All narratives express a philosophical worldview since the author must select the subject, the context, the events, and draw the characters and express their choices. Whether implicitly or overtly, a novelist makes these selections in terms of his view of the world. So he cannot but express a philosophical position.
Yet stories can have a greater impact than any statement of a philosophical position.
Cognitive Science, the scientific study of the mind and its processes, has been researching the question of why humans are pervasive consumers of story, and how it affects them.
In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human, author Jonathan Gottschall makes a compelling case that stories help us learn and navigate through life’s problems, in the way flight simulators assist pilots in training. Gottschall quotes neuroscience researcher Michael Gazzaninga: “It [the brain] is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.”
This is why archetypes in stories stick in one’s mind and the lessons, even if untrue, survive the truth being outed—the mind does not like to let go of a framework it holds as a way of managing life.
According to Associate Professor Michael Dahlstrom of Iowa State University, “Results from belief-based studies, which examine the acceptance of specific, factual assertions made within narratives and their incorporation into mental belief structures about the world, generally find that individuals do tend to accept narrative assertions and utilize them to answer questions about the world.” And, he argues, “Engagement with the narrative, as well as identification with characters, serves to increase persuasive impact through reducing the formation of counterarguments, lessening message scrutiny, and inhibiting psychological resistance.”
Engagement with the narrative, as well as identification with characters, serves to increase persuasive impact through reducing the formation of counterarguments, lessening message scrutiny, and inhibiting psychological resistance.
Thus stories that connect with us emotionally leave an indelible imprint on our psyche. And that effect is often reversible only with an even greater emotional impact from another narrative.
Enter Ayn Rand, probably the most famous formal philosopher who chose to express her worldview quite overtly within a narrative form. Rand had perceived the point that, as the New York Times puts it, “Philosophy is written for the few; literature for the many.”
Rand passed away in 1982, well before 21st century cognitive science confirmed her reasoning about the power of narratives to teach and affect, and even to change a worldview inexorably, particularly in the young. In The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, published in 1971, Rand articulated the simulation learning effect: “Without the assistance of art, ethics remains in the position of theoretical engineering; art is the model builder. Many readers of The Fountainhead have told me that the character of Howard Roark helped them to make a decision when they faced a moral dilemma.”
Given that stories are “the flight simulators of life,” particularly for the young, who are often voracious consumers of stories, what is a good basis for judging how good these simulators are?
Rand’s work provides one such framework. Using literature as the primary example, Rand constructed a dichotomy which addresses the making of art in a most fundamental way: Romanticism vs Naturalism. The distinction does not mean that every artistic work is completely one or the other; most in fact are mixed; there is a spectrum, not two boxes. Nevertheless it assists us to identify the two bookends of the spectrum.
Rand redefined Romanticism, then a pre-existing literary movement, as “a category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition, and Naturalism, as the category that denies it.” Romanticism “showcases” purposeful action by which men and women try to shape the world around them as against being shaped by it.
The medium of film is tailor-made for showcasing purposeful action, so let’s look at a few illustrations from the world of screen stories that elucidate this dichotomy. The examples are drawn from “Do Film Critics Understand Film?” which is a fuller treatment of how film critics have convoluted standards.
“Show, don’t tell”—the filmmaker’s Holy Grail—is also about connecting at an emotional level with illustrative concretizations—not speeches, essays, and tirades. Every story has a moral. When the narrative ends, there is always an underlying message, best kept implicit. If nothing of consequence happens, the subliminal inference that your subconscious makes is that human life is about chance, ordinariness, or even despair if it all ends badly without hope. If consequences are dictated by coincidences, the young would infer that life is about chance or fate. But story events propelled by humans in purposeful conflict suggest the opposite.
Consider for example, the film The Counterfeiters (2007).
Based on a true WWII story, this German-language film is a telling of an incredible internal value-clash within a Jewish artist, Salomon Sorowitsch (Sal). Sal makes a living as a forger of passports and currency. The Nazis hunt him down and send him to a concentration camp. Here, he uses his portraiture skills to get himself a better bunkhouse and food.
The Nazis want to use him to forge the British pound and the U.S. dollar. Initially motivated by survival to comply, he is conflicted by the fact of assisting the Germans in the war. The conflict runs deep—Sal takes pride in his work, but he has never been able to forge the U.S. dollar to perfection, and the Germans are throwing money at securing a foolproof counterfeit in order to debase the currency.
His fellow prisoners are on both sides of the debate—is it better to die honorably now, or die after helping the Nazis while retaining a slim possibility of escape? Sal engages in covert delaying tactics to buy time, which starts an engrossing cat-and-mouse detection game among purpose-driven humans in conflict who shape events via their struggle. It won the best foreign language film Oscar for 2007.
Now, consider these instead:
Crash (2004): Using an enormous ensemble cast, with no singularly visible protagonist, and no definitively pursued desires in the face of an ascending conflict, the story liberally uses repetitive coincidence as a plot device to demonstrate that victims of racism are often racist themselves in different contexts and situations in a world full of moral gray. Critically acclaimed, Crash won two Academy awards, including Best Picture, and two British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards (including Best Screenplay).
The Hurt Locker (2009): One of the most plot-less stories ever to hit the screen, this is a journalistic slice-of-life account of unconnected incidents that befall a bomb-explosives expert. At the end, he confesses to his infant son that the risky excitement of war is his only true love. This film won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director, and substantive critical acclaim.
These Best Screenplay winners are narratives that feed a sense of helplessness, resignation, and determinism. They are inculcating the wrong lessons.
There Will be Blood (2007): A meandering, plot-less story of an oil prospector, initially shown as an entrepreneurial spirit, cognizant of his own strengths, and compassionate to boot, adopting the son of a colleague who suffered a fatal accident. Over time, the prospector morphs into an evil and highly eccentric person, without reason. Tormented (as though even lawful pursuit of wealth must lead to unresolved conflicts), he then disowns his adopted son, and turns eventually into a cold-blooded killer. This film got into some critics’ Best film of the decade lists, winning two Academy awards, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe, plus the Academy nomination for Best Picture.
Having conflicts unresolved at the end implies subliminally that resolution is not likely in real life. Having accidental or coincidental events determine the fate of the key characters conveys the meaning that accidental events are the key to outcomes. The repetitive depiction of a world full of moral gray engraves a pessimistic streak in the viewer’s mind.
This is obnoxiously lazy writing, lazy in the sense that the writer is unwilling or unable to undertake the large amount of thinking needed to write a fully integrated plot and express it well. To elevate such writing to world-class with pseudo-awards only deepens the confusion in the young mind.
People with an achievement-oriented outlook on life love the triumph of an integrated plot. Only the narrative with a non-defeatist perspective grips them; it tells them that, for good or bad, humans shape their destiny. It is much harder to create such a narrative as compared to a meandering navel-gazing story, but it is the higher form of art. It is the genre that is consonant with the spirit of enterprise, daring, and self-reliance.
Film critics however, have long since completed their journey into the dark world. For sixty consecutive years (1952-2012), film critics classified a wayward examination of an unhappy newspaper baron (Citizen Kane, 1941) as the greatest film of all time, offering little more than new techniques at the time and a gimmicky narrative structure as the reasons. Citizen Kane is a purposeless story, essentially an inferior screenplay. Perhaps, like their literary counterparts, the critics did not dare to state the real reason—Orson Welles made Naturalism chic and initiated the debasement of humanity in movies. Citizen Kane was initially a commercial failure, until it received a glowing recommendation—the kiss of existentialist despair—from Jean-Paul Sartre. Then the critics began to fawn over it.
Since then, film critics have often elevated the mundane to a mountaintop alight with pompous glory. Their pretentious literary and visual art cousins had paved the way. Rand had foreseen this trend. "Don't set out to raze all shrines—you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity—and the shrines are razed," says Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead.
For how far in the gutter modern art has landed, see Emptiness and Nausea in Modern Art by Stephen Hicks.
The flight simulators that are teaching our young pilots how not to fly, are being heralded as sublime works of art.
A writer’s subconscious will always show through his or her work by the act of selection. The work speaks to us at a subliminal level. We respond positively when it accords with our own worldview. And in the young, it can shape their worldview.
That is why we need to pay attention here: The flight simulators that are teaching our young pilots how not to fly, are being heralded as sublime works of art.