The Mahabharata (Penguin Classics)

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Stories in Formaldehyde: The Strange Pleasures of Taxonomizing Plot

Somewhere within the storerooms of London’s staid, gray-faced Tate Gallery (for it’s currently no longer on exhibit) is an 1834 painting by J.M.W. Turner entitled “The Golden Bough.” Rendered in that painter’s characteristic sfumato of smeared light and smoky color, Turner’s composition depicts a scene from Virgil’s epic Aeneid wherein the hero is commanded by that seventh-century-old prophetic crone, the Sibyl of Cumae, to make an offering of a golden bough from a sacred tree growing upon the shores of crystalline blue Lake Avernus to the goddess Prosperina, if he wishes to descend to Hades and see the shadow of his departed father. “Obscure they went through dreary shades, that led/Along the waste dominions of the dead,” translated John Dryden in 1697, using his favored totemistic Augustinian rhyming couplets, as Aeneas descends further into the Underworld, its entrance a few miles west of Naples. As imagined by Turner, the area around the volcanic lake is pleasant, if sinister; bucolic, if eerie; pastoral, if unsettling. A dapple of light marks the portal whereby pilgrims journey into perdition; in the distance tall, slender trees topped with a cap of branches jut up throughout the landscape. A columned temple is nestled within the scrubby hills overlooking the field. The Sibyl stands with a scythe so that the vegetable sacrifice can be harvested, postlapsarian snakes slither throughout, and the Fates revel in mummery near hell’s doorway. Rather than severe tones of blood red and sulfurous black, earthy red and cadaverous green: Turner opted to depict Avernus in soft blues and greys, and the result is all the more disquieting. Here, the viewer might think, is what the passage between life and death must look like—muted, temperate, serene, barely even noticeable from one transition to the next.

As with the best of Turner’s paintings, with his eye to color the visual equivalent of perfect pitch, it is the texture of hues that renders, if not some didactic message about his subject, a general emotional sense, a sentiment hard to describe and registering at a pitch that can be barely heard and yet alters one’s feelings in the moment. Such was the sense conveyed by the Scottish folklorist James George Frazer who borrowed the artist’s title for his landmark 1890 study The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, describing on his first page how the painting is “suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape.” This scene, Frazer enthuses, “is a dream-like vision of the little woodland…[where] Dian herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild.” An influential remnant of a supremely Victorian enthusiasm for providing quasi-scientific gloss to the categorization of mythology, Frazer’s study provided taxonomy of classical myth so as to find certain similarities, the better to provide a grand, unified theory of ancient religion (or what Edward Casaubon in George Elliot’s Middlemarch, written two decades before, might call The Key to All Mythologies). First viewing Turner’s canvas, and the rationalist Frazer was moved by the painting’s mysteriousness, the way in which the pool blue sky and the shining hellmouth trade in nothing as literal as mere symbolism, but wherein the textured physicality—the roughness of the hill and the ominous haze of the clouds, dusk’s implied screaming cicadas and the cool of the evening—conveys an ineffable feeling. Despite pretensions to an analysis more logical, Frazer intimates the numinous (for, how couldn’t he?). “Who does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough?” he writes.

His argument in The Golden Bough was that religions originated as primitive fertility cults, dedicated to the idea of sacrifice and resurrection, and that from this fundamentally magical worldview would evolve more sophisticated religions, to finally be supplanted by secular science. The other argument from The Golden Baugh is implicit in the book’s very existence—that structure can be ascertained within the messy morass of disparate myths. To make this argument he drew from sources as diverse as Virgil to the Nootka people of British Columbia, classifying, categorizing, and organizing data as surely as a biologist preserving specimens in a jar of formaldehyde. And like Charles Darwin measuring finch beaks, or Thomas Huxley pinning butterflies to wood blocks, Frazer believed that diversity was a mask for similarity.

As reductionist as his arguments are, and as disputed as his conclusions may be, Frazer’s influence was outsize among anthropologists, folklorists, writers, and especially literary critics, who thrilled to the idea that some sort of unity could be found in the chaotic variety of narratives that constitute world mythology. “I am a plain practical man,” Frazer writes, “not one of your theorists and splitters of hairs and choppers of logic,” and while it’s true that The Golden Bough evidences a more imaginative disposition, it still takes part in that old quixotic desire to find some Grand Unified Theory of Narrative. While Frazer’s beat was myth, he was still a reporter in stories, and percolating like a counter-rhythm within discussion of narrative is that old desire, the yearning to find the exact number of plots that it is possible to tell. Frazer, for all that was innovative about his thought, was neither the first nor the last to treat stories like animals in a genus, narratives as if creatures in a phylum.

That grand tradition claims there are only 36 stories that can be told, or seven, or four. Maybe there is really only one tale, the story of wanting something and not getting it, which is after all the contour of this story itself—the strange endurance of the sentiment that all narrative can be easily classifiable into a circumscribed, finite, and relatively small number of possibilities. While I’ve got my skepticism about such an endeavor—seeing those suggested systems as erasing the particularity of stories, of occluding what makes them unique in favor of mutilating them into some Procrustean Bed—I’d be remiss not to confess that I also find these theories immensely pleasing. There is something to be said about the cool rectilinear logic that claims any story, from Middlemarch to Fifty Shades of Grey, Citizen Kane to Gremlins 2, can be stripped down to its raw schematics and analyzed as fundamental, universal, eternal plots that have existed before Gilgamesh’s cuneiform was wedged into wet clay.

Christopher Booker claims in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories that “wherever men and women have told stories, all over the world, the stories emerging to their imaginations have tended to take shape in remarkably similar ways,” differences in culture, language, or faith be damned. With some shading, Booker uses the archetypal psychoanalysis of Carl Jung to claim that every single narrative, whether in epic or novel, film or comic, can be slotted into 1) overcoming the monster (Beowulf, George Lucas’s Star Wars), 2) rags to riches (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Horatio Alger stories), 3) the quest (Homer’s The Odyssey, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark), 4) voyage and return (The Ramayana, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit), 5) comedy (William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski), 6) tragedy (Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde) or 7) rebirth (Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day).

That all of these parenthetically referenced works are, of course, astoundingly different from each other in character, setting, and most of all language, is irrelevant to Booker’s theory. While allowing for more subtlety than my potted overview would allow, Booker still concludes that “there are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any storyteller ever entirely to break away from them.” Such a claim is necessary to Booker’s contention that these narratives are deeply nestled in our collective unconscious, a repository of themes, symbols, and archetypes that are “our basic genetic inheritance,” which he then proffers as an explanation for why humans tell stories at all.

The Seven Basic Plots, published in 2004 after 34 years of labor, is the sort of critical work that doesn’t appear much anymore. Audacious to the point of impudence, ambitious to the level of crack-pottery, Booker’s theory seems more at home in a seminar held by Frazer than in contemporary English departments more apt to discuss gender, race, and class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice than they are the Orphic themes of rebirth as manifested in that same novel. Being the sort of writer who both denied anthropogenic climate change and defended asbestos (for real), Booker had the conservative’s permanent sense of paranoid aggrievement concerning the treatment of his perspectives. So, let me be clear—contra Booker’s own sentiments, I don’t think that the theories in The Seven Basic Plots are ignored by literary critics because of some sort of politically correct conspiracy of silence; I think that they’re ignored because they’re not actually terribly correct or useful. When figuring out the genealogical lineage of several different species of Galapagos Island finches, similarity becomes a coherent arbiter; however, difference is more important when thinking through what makes exemplary literature exemplary. Genre, and by proxy plot, is frequently more an issue of marketing than anything. That’s not to say that questions of genre have no place in literary criticism, but they are normally the least interesting (“What makes this gothic novel gothic?”). No stranger to such thinking himself, author Kurt Vonnegut may have solved the enigma with the most basic of monomyths elucidated—“man falls into hole, man gets out of hole.”

Booker isn’t after marketing, however, he’s after the key to all mythologies. Like Frazer before him, he won’t be the last critic enraptured by the idea of a Periodic Table of Plots, capable of explaining both Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as well as Weekend at Bernie’s, and he won’t be the last. If you wish to blame somebody for this line of thinking, as with most disciplines of human endeavor from ethics to dentistry, look to Aristotle as the culprit. The philosopher’s “four conflicts,” man against himself, man against man, man against nature, and man against the gods, have long been a convenient means of categorizing plots. The allure of there being a limited number of plots is that it makes both reading and writing theoretically easier. The denizens of high culture literary criticism have embraced the concept periodically, as surely as those producing paperbacks promising that a hit book can be easily plotted out from a limited tool kit. Georges Polti, of Providence Rhode Island and later Paris France, wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations in 1895, claiming that all stories could be categorized in that number of scenarios, including plots of “Crime pursued by vengeance” and “Murderous adultery.” “Thirty-six situations only!” Polti enthuses. “There is to me, something tantalizing about the assertion.” Polti’s book has long been popular as a sort of lo-fi randomizer for generating stories, and its legacy lives on in works like Ronald B. Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them and Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s A Writer’s Guide to Characterization: Archetypes, Heroic Journeys, and Other Elements of Dynamic Character Development.

There is also a less pulpy, tonier history surrounding the thinking that everything can be brewed down to a handful of elemental plots. My attitude concerning such thinking was a bit glib earlier, as there is something to be said about the utility in this thinking, and indeed entire academic disciplines have grown from that assumption. Folklorists use a classification system called the “Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index,” where a multitude of plot-types are given numbers (“Cinderella” is 510A, for example), which can be useful to trace the ways in which stories have evolved and altered over both distance and time. Unlike Polti’s 36 plots, Tobias’s 20, or Booker’s seven, Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature goes to six volumes of folk tales, fairy tales, legends, and myths, but the basic idea is the same: plots exist in a finite number (including “Transformation: man to animal” and “Magic strength resides in hair”). As with the system of classification invented by Francis James Child in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, or the Roud Folk Song Index, the Aarne-Thompson Uther Index is more than just a bit of shell collecting, but rather a system of categorization that helps folklorists make sense of the diversity of oral literature, with scholar Alan Dundes enthusing that the system was among the “most valuable tools in the professional folklorist’s arsenal of aids for analysis.” Morphological approaches define the discipline known as “narrative theory,” which draws from a similar theoretical inclination as that of the ATU Index. All of these methodologies share a commitment to understanding literature less through issues of grammar, syntax, and diction, and more in terms of plot and story. For those who read with an eye towards narrative, there is frequently an inclination, sentiment, or hunch that all stories and novels, films and television shows, epics and lyrics, comics and plays, can have their fat, gristle, and tallow boiled away to leave just the broth and a plot that’s as clean as a bone.

A faith that was popular among the Russian Formalists, sometimes incongruously known as the Prague School (after where many of them, as Soviet exiles, happened to settle), including Roman Jacobson, Viktor Shklovsky, and Vladimir Propp, the last of whom wrote Morphology of the Folktale, reducing those stories to a narrative abstraction that literally looks like mathematics. A similar movement was that of French structuralism, as exemplified by its founder the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and as later practiced by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and the literary critic Roland Barth. In the Anglophone world, with the exception of some departments that are enraptured to narratology, literary criticism has often focused on the evisceration of a text with the scalpel of close reading rather than the measurement of plot with the calipers of taxonomy. Arguably that’s led to the American critical predilection towards “literary” fiction over genre fiction, the rejection of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and romance as being unserious in favor of all of those beautifully crafted stories in The New Yorker where the climax is the main character looking out the window, sighing, and taking a sip of coffee, while realizing that she was never happy, not really.

There are exceptions to the critical valorization in language over plot, however, none more so than in the once mighty but now passé writings of Canadian theorist Northrop Frye. Few scholars in the English-speaking world were more responsible for that once enthusiastic embrace of taxonomic criticism than this United Church of Christ minister and professor at Toronto’s Victoria College. Frye was enraptured to the psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s theories of how fundamental archetypes structure our collective unconscious, and he believed that a similar approach could be applied to narrative, that a limited number of plots structured our way of thinking and approaching stories. In works like Fearful Symmetry on William Blake, and his all-encompassing Anatomy of Criticism, Frye elucidated a complex, baroque, and elegant system of categorizing stories, the better to interpret them properly. “What if criticism is a science as well as an art?” Frye asked, wishing to approach literature like a taxonomist, as if novels were a multitude of plants and animals just awaiting Linnaean classification. For those who read individual poems or novels as exemplary texts, explaining what makes them work, Frye would say that they’re missing the totality of what literature is. “Criticism seems to be badly in need of a coordinating principle,” he writes, “a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as part of a whole.”

Frye argued that this was to be accomplished by identifying that which was universal in narrative, where works could be rendered of their unique flesh down into their skeletons, which we would then find to be myths and archetypes. From this anodyne observation, Frye spun out a complex classification system for all Western literature, one where he identifies the exact archetypes that define poetry and prose, where he flings about terms like “centripidal” and “centrifugal” to interpret individual texts, and where phrases like the “kerygmatic mode” are casually used.  Anatomy of Criticism is true to its title; Frye carves up the cadaver of literature and arrives at an admittedly intoxicating theory of everything. “Physics is an organized body of knowledge about nature, and a student of it says that he is learning physics, not nature,” Frye writes. “Art, like nature, has to be distinguished from the systematic study of it, which is criticism.” In Frye’s physics, there are five “modes” of literature, including the mythic, romantic, high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic; these are then cross listed with tragic, comic, and thematic forms; what are then derived are genres with names like the dionysian, the elegiac, the aristophanic, and so on. Later in the book he supplies a complex theory of symbolism, a methodology concerning imagery based on the Platonic Great Chain of Being, and a thorough taxonomy of genre. In what’s always struck me as one of the odder (if ingenious) parts of Anatomy of Criticism, Frye ties genres specifically to certain seasons, so that comedy is a spring form, romance belongs to the summer, autumn is a time of tragedy, and winter births irony. How one reads books from those tropical places where seasons neatly divide between rainy or not speaks to a particular chauvinism on the Canadian’s part.

For most viewers of public television, however, their introduction to the “There-are-only-so-many-stories” conceit wasn’t Frye, but rather a Sarah Lawrence College professor who was the titular subject of journalist Bill Moyers’s 1988 PBS documentary Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Drawing largely from his 1949 study The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell became the unlikely star of the series that promulgated his theory of the “monomyth,” the idea that a single-story threads through world mythology and is often focused on what he termed “the hero’s journey.” Viewers were drawn to Campbell’s airy insights about the relationship between Akkadian mythology and Star Wars (a film which George Lucas admitted was heavily influenced by the folklorist’s ideas), and his vaguely countercultural pronouncement that one should “Follow your bliss!,” despite his own right-wing politics (which according to some critics could run the gamut between polite Reaganism to fascist sympathizing). Both Frye and Campbell exhibited a wide learning, but arguably only the former’s was particularly deep. With an aura of crunchy tweediness, Campbell seemed like the sort of professor who would talk to students about the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in an office which smells of patchouli, a threadbare oriental rug on the dusty floor, knick-knacks assembled while studying in India and Japan, and a collapsing bookshelf jammed with underlined paperback copies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer above his desk. Campbell, in short, looked like what we expect a liberal arts teacher to look like, and for some of his critics (like Dundes who called him an “non-expert” and an “amateur”) that gave him an unearned authority.

But what an authority he constructed, the hero with only one theory to explain everything! Drawing from Jung, Frazer, and all the rest of the usual suspects, Campbell argued in his most famous book that broad archetypes structure all narrative, wherein a “hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Whether Luke Skywalker venturing out from Tatooine or Gilgamesh leaving Ur, the song remains the same, Campbell says. Gathering material from the ancient near east and Bronze Age Ireland, the India of the Mahabharata and Hollywood screen plays, Campbell claimed that his monomyth was the skeleton key to all narrative, a story whose parsing could furthermore lead to understanding, wisdom, and self-fulfillment among those who are hip to its intricacies. The Hero with a Thousand Faces naturally flattered the pretensions of some artists and writers, what with its implications that they were conduits connected directly to the collective unconsciousness. Much as with Freud and the legions of literary critics who applied his theories to novels and film, if Campbell works well in interpreting lots of movies, it’s because those directors (from Lucas to Stanley Kubrick) happened to be reading him. The monomyth can begin to feel like the critical equivalent of the intelligent design advocate who knows God exists, because why else would we have been given noses on which to so conveniently hold our glasses?

Campbell’s politics, and indeed that of his theory, are ambivalent. His comparative approach superficially seems like the pluralistic, multicultural, ecumenical perspective of the Sarah Lawrence professor that he was, but at the same time the flattening of all stories into this one monomyth does profound violence to the particularity of myths innumerable. There is a direct line between Campbell and the mythos-laden mantras of poet Robert Bly and his Iron John: A Book About Men, the tome that launched a thousand drum circles of suburban dads trying to engage their naturalistic masculinity in vaguely homoerotic forest rituals, or of Canadian psychotherapist/alt-right apologist Jordan Peterson who functions as basically a Dollar Store version of the earlier folklorist. Because myths are so seemingly elemental, mysterious telegrams from the ancient past, whose logic seems imprinted into our unconscious, it’s hard not to see the attraction of a Campbell. And yet whenever someone starts talking about “mythos” it inevitably can start to feel like you’re potentially in the presence of a weirdo who practices “rune magik,” unironically wonders if they’re an ubermensch, and has an uncomfortably racist Google search history. We think of the myth as the purview of the hippie, but it’s just as often the provenance of the jackbooted authoritarian, for Campbell’s writings fit comfortably with a particularly reactionary view of life, which should fit uncomfortably with the rest of us. “Marx teaches us to blame society for our frailties, Freud teaches us to blame our parents,” Campbell wrote in the posthumously published Pathways to Bliss, but the “only place to look for blame is within: you didn’t have the guts to bring up your full moon and live the life that was your potential.” Yeah, that’s exactly it. People can’t afford healthcare or get a job because they didn’t bring up their full moon…

The problem is that if you take Campbell too seriously then everything begins to look like it was written by Campbell. To wit, the monomyth is supposed to go through successive stages, from the hero’s origin in an ordinary world where he receives a “call to adventure,” to being assisted by a mentor who leads him through a “guarded threshold” where he is tested on a “road of trials,” to finally facing his ultimate ordeal. After achieving success, the hero returns to the ordinary world wiser and better, improving the lives of others through the rewards that have been bestowed upon him. The itinerary is more complex than this in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but this should be enough to convey that Campbell’s schema is general enough that it can be applied to anything, but particular enough that it gives the illusion of rigor. Think of Jesus Christ, called to be the messiah and assisted by John the Baptist, tempted by Satan in the desert, and after coming into Jerusalem facing torture at the hands of the Romans, before his crucifixion and harrowing of hell, only to be resurrected with the promise of universal human salvation. Now, think of Jeff Lebowski, called to be the Dude and assisted by Walter Sobchak, tempted by Jackie Treehorn, battling the nihilists, only to return in time for the bowling finals. Other than speaking deep into the souls of millions of people, it should be uncontroversial to say that the gospels and the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski are only the same story in the most glaringly of superficial ways, and yet the quasi-conspiratorial theory of the monomyth promises secret knowledge that says that they are.    

But here’s the thing—stories aren’t hydrogen, plots aren’t oxygen, narratives aren’t carbon. You can’t reduce the infinity of human experience into a Periodic Table, except in the most perfunctory of ways. To pretend that the tools of classification are the same as the insights of interpretation is to grind the Himalayas into Iowa, it’s to cut so much from the bone that the only meal you’re left with is that of a skeleton. When all things are reduced to monomyth, the enthusiast can’t recognize the exemplary, the unique, the individual, the subjective, the idiosyncratic, because some individual plot doesn’t have a magical wizard shepherding the hero to the underworld, or whatever. It’s to deny the possibility of some new story, of some innovation in narrative, its to spurn the Holy Grail of uniqueness. Still, some sympathy must be offered as to why these models appeal to us, of how archetypal literary criticism appeals to our inner stamp collectors. With apologies to Voltaire, if narrative didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it—and everything else too. The reasons why archetypal criticism is so appealing are legion—they impose a unity on chaos, provides a useful measure of how narratives work, and give the initiate the sense that they have knowledge that is applicable to everything from The Odyssey to Transformers.

But a type of critical madness lay in the idolatry of confusing methodological models for the particularity of actual stories. Booker writes of stories that are “Rags to Riches,” but that reductionism is an anemic replacement for inhabiting Pip’s mind when he pines for Estella in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations; he classifies Bram Stoker’s Dracula as being about “Overcoming the Monster,” but that simplification is at the expense of that purple masterpiece’s paranoia, its horror, its hunger, its sexiness. There are no stories except for in the details. To forget that narratives are infinite is a slur against them; it’s the blasphemy of pretending that every person is the same as every other. For in a warped way, there is but one monomyth, but it’s not what the stamp collectors say it is. In all of their variety, diversity, and multiplicity, every tale is a creation myth because every tale is created. From the raw material of life is generated something new, and in that regard we’re not all living variations of the same story, we’re all living within the same story.  

Bonus Links:—The Purpose of Plot: An Argument with MyselfThe Million Basic PlotsOn Not Going Out of the House: Thoughts About Plotlessness

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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