A Treatise On Storytelling, I: All Art Is Formative

“The Boyhood of Raleigh,” by John Everett Millais

An oft-ignored fact, brushed over in the seductively insidious claim that film, television, video games, books and the like are “simply entertainment,” is that all art (and thus storytelling) is formative to one degree or another. Art cannot exist within a vacuum, detached from one’s life experience, and it will always form the viewer or hearer to some degree. This is an inescapable truth that must be grasped before any proper evaluation of good or bad storytelling can begin.

Human beings are endowed with the ability to reflect. This ability is what sets us apart from all other forms of life. Of course, certain animals are, to limited degrees, able to emerge from the naturalistic cycle, but human beings are able to transcend the fight for survival to a level impossible for any other creature. This is the significance of leisure in the human life: the ability to cease the thoughtless, purely instinctual aspects of our existence and reflect. (For a detailed exploration of this idea, see Leisure, the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper) This reflection enables us to, in a way, transcend the constraints of time, to recall memories, to allow ourselves to be formed by our past experiences in a manner far greater than the mere associative memories of animals.

We must also recognize that human beings cannot choose to not be reflective. Put another way, barring some physical injury or mental illness, a human being cannot choose not to remember or think on what they have experienced. Human beings reflect on the whole of their experiences, and these experiences shape their future thoughts, decision-making, and actions. In this way, no part of a person’s existence can be divorced from any other part of it. The human soul is a vast, interconnected web of relationships of both innate characteristics and exterior influences. It is not the comparatively scattered and incoherent experience of, say, a squirrel governed primarily by the laws of survival. By the very fact that a human being can transcend the Darwinian laws and choose to participate in a hunger strike for a moral cause, we can also derive that no aspect of human existence exists in a vacuum.

If no aspect of human existence exists in a vacuum, every experience being internalized, reflected upon, and responded to, we must conclude that any experience of art is formative. And this returns us to storytelling, one of the most prominent art forms, and also a refutation of the lie that any form of entertainment can be mere escapism and should not be judged based on reflective and moral criteria. This excuse is often used to swipe the carpet right out from under legitimate criticisms of popular books, films, and video games, arguing that the simple knowledge that such a narrative is fiction can negate any negative influence. This easy and reassuring response, however, neglects the inherently formative nature of the experience. This is not to say that the purpose of art is formative, for then art would exist merely as didactic instruction. Art, rather, is an overflowing expression of genuine human experience. Even the most fantastic of stories, as it was conceived of by a human mind, must be anchored in some sort of authentic human experience.

The very act of submitting to a storyteller’s narrative means seeing a world through the lens of an Other, temporarily interpreting events through the perspective of the narrator. It is the exploring of experiences and perspectives not our own. This is a good thing that ought to be prized, for it often challenges our presuppositions and broadens our narrow visions of reality. However, while for the storyteller the artistic expression may in fact be just an expression, for the hearer, the reader, the viewer, the act of listening, reading, or viewing is formative. As we have seen before, every part of a human’s experience, however infinitesimal, shapes that person’s reflections in some way. Because of this, adopting a storyteller’s lens for viewing is unavoidable practice for making sense of our own personal narratives. How we perceive our own personal narratives is shaped by how we practice viewing the narratives of others. All art is formative. This is why we must think about and consider deeply the narratives which we regularly consume. This is why we must consider what types of people these narratives shape us to be. This is why we must refute the lie that entertainment merely entertains and is therefore free from moral and critical judgment.

These considerations are vital, for narrative media is present to a degree that is probably unprecedented in the entirety of human history. Luke and I have, in recent months, noted alarming trends in the most popular and beloved of stories, and in this piece we hope to have laid a foundation for fruitful and thoughtful consideration of these stories. In the coming weeks we shall critique examples of storytelling that we see as problematic, as well as explore commendable stories which form us not only to be better readers and viewers, but better people. Considering the prevalence of film and television in modern society, much of our analysis will center around these contemporary forms. We hope that you will join us in thinking on the narratives we consume on a regular basis, and contribute your voice to these necessary discussions. To paraphrase Wordsworth, I hope that we will all bring with us a heart that watches and receives.

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