Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On Stories That Don’t End Happily Ever After

Sometimes a fog obscures our vision.
         Recently we adventured into the African village where the princess searches for her perfect match and discards all the suitors: too fat, too smelly, too boring, pretentious, naïve, goody-goody, too quiet, too loud. All are disdained mirrors. Finally, her father gives the ultimatum for her to find an acceptable man in a week or he will do it for her.
         In an interesting way, this story turns around the theme we explored with Dame Ragnell and the dynamic of choice. How far is the just reach of an individual’s freedom to choose? With Ragnell and Gawaine (and King Arthur!), we suffered the damages of male prerogative and worked into the perennial rebalancing of masculine and feminine from one side.
         In this African tale, Princess Nikun shows the other extreme. What happens when the feminine presumes to know-it-all (cf., Jung’s anima/animus possession). She acts as if the right to choose is cheaply won? In our “real world,” it seems that at every moment someone's hurting due to the illusion of invulnerability. Surely this illusion ranks high among false beliefs. In the mirror of Nikun, we might glimpse our danger and wake up before it’s too late.
         For we are perilously endangered. A great strength also makes a tremendous risk. In Brian Boyd’s summary of the evolution of consciousness, he emphasizes the potential we have to unmask false belief.
Because other agents--prey, predators, and especially human friends and foes--make the most dramatic difference to our chances and choices day by day, our understanding of other minds has evolved into our richest natural mental capacity. We explain the visible behavior of agents of all kinds, especially human agents, in terms of things we cannot see-beliefs, desires, and intentions-and we find these explanations powerful. We see psychological cause as a paradigm of all cause. . . Precisely because we understand false belief, because we realize we may err in action if we err in knowledge, we try to explain events more deeply. (pages 281-2, On the Origin of Stories, my emphasis)
To our extreme risk, we often do not recognize false belief. Our desires can spin delusion, at least misimpression. At times, we don't acknowledge our failure to see, and we even refuse to admit what stands clearly before us.
         Nikun looks so ridiculous especially when she has targeted her dream-match and as she refuses to acknowledge the clear signs that her choice pursuit is not only disgusting but also highly dangerous. No one would act like that, we might scoff. Well, try talking to someone who has watched a loved one sink into addiction. Ask if the wrecks, the lost relationships, the health issues were much too clear to be missed—and yet like Nikun they get denied.
         Good stories offer a chance to witness forecasts of unhappy consequences. Hubris. The old stories often warn us of presuming to know too much, of rushing into freedom as if it demanded little responsibility, as if we knew love. Helen Luke opens the treasure in Good Stories including the Biblical account of Jacob. Her analysis suggests that although Nikun receives a terrible disfigurement, perhaps even the scars, inner and outer, serve a purpose.

If we dare to wrestle as Jacob did, we may be in some way crippled in ordinary collective living. Without this we would not be able to stand it. We would rise out of the weakness of our humanity into the hubris of fancied equality with the gods. After a new insight there are two dangers; either an inflation of the ego may possess us, or we may fall into discouragement, imagining that the insight means that we ought now to be free of all our old inadequacies. The “lameness,” accepted, cures both these delusions. (page 116; Helen M. Luke, The Inner Story: Myth and Symbol in the Bible and Literature)