I enjoyed Michael Austin’s Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature much more than I thought I would. It’s an excellent introduction to the field of cognitive literary studies, which is a bit trendy right now, and as with all new theories has it’s rabid proponents and frothing detractors, even more so because it’s fuel for the ongoing battles over the social and hard sciences and their uses and abuses by the humanities. I’m particularly taken by Austin’s focus on anxiety and how narratives create and alleviate anxiety and the potential evolutionary reasons for this. This book is a difficult one to excerpt, but I think I’ve found a passage that works for my purposes because I do want to impart a bit of the flavor of the prose and the argument:
I have discussed a number of neutralizing strategies in this chapter. When a narrative lacks detail, we augment it. When a narrative over-burdens us with detail, we edit it down to a manageable story line. And when a narrative that we consider true conflicts with another narrative that we consider true, we create a third narrative capable of resolving the contradiction. These acts of narrative creation are not governed by any selection pressure in favor of accuracy or truth. All that matters is that they neutralize anxiety effectively. Usually a neat, simplistic fiction will do a better job resolving tension than the truth, which is often messy, complicated, and devoid of closure. Like Robinson Crusoe, we commonly gravitate toward narratives that we can understand, that have a definite linear structure, that resolve all of the issues they raise, and that make us feel better when we are through. This often describes our fictional narratives, but it rarely describes the world we live in. (78-79)
This all may seem to take the magic out of storytelling. But I think it’s just the opposite — I think it (and the book as a whole) shows how integral narrative is to the development of humanity and that fact that it (the evolving via culture of the evolutionary uses of narrative) has led to the complex, beautiful, varied narrative forms and genres currently available to artists is kinda awesome.