7 votes

Tildes Video Thread

So, quite a few people don't like/watch video content, and don't like seeing the homepage filled with videos. Let's try something new, see if it sticks.

What are the best videos you have watched this past week/fortnight?


  1. aphoenix
    Hank Has Cancer - I enjoy Vlogbrothers a lot, and Hang Green is a treasure. The announcement is informative, and touching.

    Hank Has Cancer - I enjoy Vlogbrothers a lot, and Hang Green is a treasure. The announcement is informative, and touching.

    9 votes
  2. cmccabe
    Some time back, someone on Tildes posted about a Lithuanian daredevil urban explorer named Shiey. I really enjoyed some of his long distance train hopping videos and have watched several more...

    Some time back, someone on Tildes posted about a Lithuanian daredevil urban explorer named Shiey. I really enjoyed some of his long distance train hopping videos and have watched several more since. More recently I found the channel of an old school train hopper who goes by the name Hobo Shoestring. He’s been living the transient, train hopping life for more than three decades and has an amazing knowledge of the US rails network and familiarity with train yard operations and track scheduling. His love of trains and the untethered hobo lifestyle makes his videos a really unique watch. Has anyone else here watched his videos? Here’s his channel: https://youtube.com/@TheHoboShoestring He has posted a lot of videos.

    5 votes
  3. [8]
    What's Literature? 4,000 Years of Storytelling in 4 hours It's a long one, I'm slowly working my way through.

    What's Literature? 4,000 Years of Storytelling in 4 hours It's a long one, I'm slowly working my way through.

    3 votes
    1. mundane_and_naive
      Link Parent
      Here's the transcript of the first 2 sections. I'll continually update it in the comments as a way to keep track of my own progress and also as assists for people who prefer reading. Intro If...

      Here's the transcript of the first 2 sections. I'll continually update it in the comments as a way to keep track of my own progress and also as assists for people who prefer reading.


      If humans were computers, the hardware is animal and the software? I say stories. Our animal body has seen very little change in the last few thousands years, but our software has changed a bit. With each generation the narrative changes. New stories replace the older ones. So the biggest difference between humans and animals is our ability to tell stories. But also our ability to believe in fictional stories. So our hardware is ape but our software is storytelling.

      In this video, I will tell you the story of literature encompassing an incredible 4000 years of storytelling history. By the end of this video, you will know all the great works of literature, literary movements, as well as some of the most literary minds from around the world.

      The video has 3 major parts and 11 sections. In part 1, I will answer the most fundamental question. Why are humans the only species who tells stories? What functions do stories have in our evolution? I will also highlight some important events in history that shaped the way we tell stories, and the literary movements of the last 4,000 years.

      In part 2, I will look at the origin of storytelling and how it is rooted in nature. The most fundamental event in a human life is death or the awareness of it. So in this part, I will discuss storytelling in four segments each on the topic of death, wars, sex and laughter. In other words, humans woke up to the realisation of death, so the first stories are stories of mortality and immortality. Then we humans moved to wars and wrote epics that lamented the demise of an empire or celebrated their triumphs. Since the victors got the spoils and we moved to tell stories of sex and mating, romance became an important topic of storytelling. In other words, how boys meet girls. With sex came laughter, so storytelling entertained us through comedy.

      In part 3, we move away from nature-inflicted tales towards human-centred stories, as in when storytelling meets rationality and humanism. So instead of gods and nature, we humans became in charge of our own destiny. The age of reason also resulted in a counter-enlightenment movement of romanticism which took us back to nature. Then came realism, in which ordinary people became the heroes of stories, not some king or general. Then we moved to naturalism in which evolutionary biology became the window through which stories are told. This was followed by modernism in which we told stories through psychology. And finally magical realism which took us back to the early humans when gods and demons interfered with our stories.

      In part 4, we again move away from humanism into what’s termed as post-humanism. Here the whole idea of truth telling is questioned. If humanism tried to clarify and solidify things that humans are the only gods on earth, posthumanism, and postmodernism partly fuelled by quantum physics, muddied the water so we no longer know what’s going on, despite our scientific and technological advancement, or in some cases because of that.

      In this video, the real hero is not a human or demon or a beast, but the real hero is literature or storytelling itself. Human mortality gave birth to storytelling. Conflicts gave it its fuel and energy. Sex added flavour. Laughter made it reflective. Then came reason to dominate storytelling, through physical reality, biological truths, psychological depth, and finally quantum magical thinking. And today literature seems a bit muddled as it has questioned truth-telling. You could say literature is suffering from old-age Alzheimer. So the question is can literature and storytelling survive robots?

      1: Why Literature? Distilled Emotions It’s been suggested that the human mind is wired to think in narrative form. It was Albert Camus, the French philosopher and novelist, who said that we humans innately crave for meaning, but the universe offers no answer, therefore our existence has this inherent absurdity. We want meaning but the world doesn’t care.

      But I think since no meaning can be found in the universe, we humans have invented storytelling to compensate for the lacking of meaning. In other words, stories are our cure for our human thirst for meaning. Stories come to us so naturally that we instinctively seek new stories.

      In fact our memory can retain vital information through stories far better than mere facts. Now if you think about it from a rational point of view, we should retain facts better than stories because they help us survive better. But we remember stories, and easily forget facts and figures. Now why is that?

      Storytelling is a survival tool. Narrative storytelling has been as important as tool making. What makes us distinct from other animals is our ability to reason. Rationality is one of the biggest differentiators of humans from other animals. Simply put, rationality is a learned skill. It is based on our own experiences and the experiences of others, like parents, teachers and past ancestors.

      But rationality cannot compete with emotions. On a deeper level, we are emotional creatures. Rationality can help us survive but through emotions we find meaning and purpose. Our passion motivates us far better than our ability to reason. Reason can tell us to go to work every day, but it is passion that conquers the world and triumphs over the impossible. Passion is heavily tied to our emotions and storytelling stems from emotions.

      But why do we need emotions? The simple answer is we are social beings and emotions allow us to bond. Our shared emotions are like a glue that bonds a selfish individual with a group and in the process we become less selfish and more selfless. Soldiers dying in wars is a good example. Millions upon millions of soldiers have died since the dawn of history to protect their families, tribes and empires. Sure it is rational to protect your own genetic group but rationality is not the main force that moves soldiers to face death, but it is emotions. And emotions are perfectly manifested through stories. How? Humans as a species have lived and survived in groups. Now how do you keep groups together? Of course bloodline is the natural glue. We stick together because we are family. But what if the groups get bigger and bigger? One of the biggest challenges of keeping a large group is that we cannot know everyone in the group personally.

      What if our survival demands that we unite with a much larger group. According to the Israeli historian Yuval Harari, humans have evolved to have personal relations or close ties with up to 150 people. When human societies increased in number, stories played a crucial role in creating bonds among the members. So if our bloodline couldn’t unite us, now we have a common myth or legend that can unite us. Not only that, stories survive much longer than we do, so future generations can hear the same stories and myths. This is how major religions are passed down from generation to generation. The same is true about empires. They are kept alive through stories.

      Another theory was developed by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst who argued that we humans have evolved with a collective unconscious. In every human culture, there are stories and archetypes that are either the same or very similar. He concluded that these collective memories were formed in our early human ancestors, so we respond to those archetypes of characters that are repeated in stories from around the world. For example, the wise old man, or the wise old woman, the hero, the villain and so forth.

      So stories are innately human. If our DNA tells us our biological tales, for example the shape of your nose, the colour of eyes, and the hair, literature tells our psychical and sociological tales. It’s through literature and stories that a community and its culture and language survive. Evolution works through replication in which each gene replicates itself, but also from time to time, evolution throws random mutations to see what sticks. Since mutation causes mistakes and chaos in the gene pool, nature counter-balances this chaos with order that most genes replicates the same thing. The same is true about human societies, so stories or storytelling is our human invention that brings order to the chaos of nature. So stories are very much human. It’s our human response to tame the chaos of nature.

      1a: Philosophy vs Literature

      In a previous 2.5 hour-long video, What’s philosophy, I told you the story of human philosophy. So how are they different? Literature tries to explain the human condition through stories, while philosophy through reason. Stories have existed long before philosophy so our narrative brain is far more sophisticated than our rational faculty. Children from an early age are drawn to stories, but less so to rationality.

      But philosophy and literature compliment one another. Since philosophy tends to be abstract and generalisation, literature on the other hand is concrete and very much individual. Stories always take place in concrete time and space. The most important question in storytelling is what happened next. So questions like who, where, when are extremely important for literature, but not so much for philosophy. This is why some of the best philosophers throughout history were drawn to literature, either to explain their ideas through novels and stories written by others or even have written novels themselves to illustrate their philosophical ideas.

      Another major difference is that philosophy touches our rational faculty while literature touches our emotional faculty. So throughout history, philosophy was primarily a masculine domain as men prioritised rationality as they had to work outside tackling survival problems of food, shelter and security. Literature and storytelling on the other hand, while still dominated by men, had far more female representation because women tend to prioritise emotions as they bond with children since they incubate a child for 9 months. In fact the bond between a mother and child becomes stronger as she tells stories. As a result literature is much closer to our natural foundation which is emotional and often volatile therefore stories can be far more transformative. By listening or reading a piece of literature, not only we react rationally, it also stirs our emotions which can inspire us far better than reading about a philosophical idea.

      Philosophy and rationality tend to focus on the why question or the outcome, while literature and emotions tend to focus on how or the process. Philosophy asks why we exist in the first place and literature tells the story of how others survived, and procreated. Philosophy asks what ought to be and literature says what was. Philosophy asks abstract questions that often do not resonate with many people, while literature resonates with most people through stories. This is why millions of people go to the cinema while very few attend a philosophy lecture. The same with novels and philosophy books.

      How did literature and storytelling come about? Imagine our early ancestors living in caves. Returning from a hunt, men would tell their stories as to why they came empty-handed or how they managed to bring back such a large or small prey. Children would be mesmerised by those stories of triumph, mistakes or failure.

      So the main reason humans are wired to love stories is because we learn through stories. Stories teach us about life, how to survive, how to mate and how to bond with others. These are our three basic instincts or urges. Survive, have sex to procreate and bond with a community, because the stronger the bond is the higher the likelihood of survival. It is a cycle. So stories and literature as a whole teach us about other people’s mistakes so we can learn from them. Good stories are like sex, we cannot have enough of them. In the same way that sex guarantees our survival as a species, stories too guarantee our survival as an individual as well as a community.

      So the second reason we have stories is that it bonds us with others. Just as sex bonds us together, stories do the same thing. One of the best ways to really understand someone is to listen to their story. Think of the most hated person on the planet, if you really lend your ears to that person to tell their story, I promise, you will sympathise with them on some level. For example, when you read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, you truly understand but most crucially empathise with a cold-blooded murderer. Why? Because we truly understand him. On a rational level, we do not agree with his actions, but we can understand why he did what he did because we can see his flaws. So stories are incredibly powerful ways to relate with others. This is why tribes, groups, states, empires, and civilisations all have a common myth, which is often origin stories that unite everyone. All religious texts have amazingly powerful stories in them. The Bible, the Torah and the Quran have many stories of real people in order to bring people together. Now, let’s imagine a modern setting, an office. People gather near the water-cooler. Or near a coffee machine. In the same way the cave people did, we all tell each stories to bond.

      The third reason we tell stories is that it’s transformative for the storyteller too. We often think about how impactful stories are on the listeners, but it’s as impactful on the storyteller as it is on the audience. Not only does it help the teller to let it out as in Freudian catharsis, but it also allows the storyteller to get clarity of mind. The more you tell your story, the clearer, the smoother it becomes like a pebble created in a river. It was the Italian writer, Italo Calvino who said that folktales come to us like a pebble, smooth and perfectly shaped because they were told and retold. Today in psychotherapy, storytelling is used to heal patients. Listening to someone is perhaps one of the best gifts you can give someone.

      So to sum up, storytelling helps us learn from other people’s mistakes, it bonds us with others and it has transformative power on the storyteller. What’s the story of literature?

      One of the first works of literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh in which the hero-god is in search of immortality, which is psychologically speaking the first subject of storytelling, death itself. But as humans developed sophisticated religions and philosophy, literature became more concerned with wars so great epics were born. For instance, the Homeric epic of Iliad is a good example in which the Greeks are fighting the Trojans. Another example is the Mahabharata, the Indian epic that tackles war and morality. As history became a separate discipline, literature focused on sex or romance, the art of mating. Great romantic tales were born. A good example is the chivalric tales of mediaeval Europe and Heian literature of Japan. Then with the age of reason literature shifted focus on either telling stories of colonial world adventures such as Gulliver's Travels and Robison Crusoe or rebelling against reason for example in Don Quixote. Then during the scientific revolution, literature returned to nature through romanticism in the 18th century. In the 19th century, literature got stuck in realism, telling the stories of ordinary people. But in the late 19th century after Darwin’s evolutionary theory, literature took up on biology to come up with its own naturalism. In the early 20th century, psychology was the new kid on the block so literature turned inside and modernism was born that focused on the inner consciousness of the individual. Then in the late 20th century with the collapse of European colonial power, post-modernist, post-colonialist movements were born. So literature now questioned the whole notion of truth-telling. So literature began with telling the stories of gods, demons, fairies and ogres, then heroes and villains and now it is heading towards telling the stories of future robots and machines.

      One of the most central questions in literature is the question of style versus substance. Some argue that good stories are good no matter who tells them or how you tell them. But others argue that style is as important as the story. So storytelling itself has become an art form. And this is what literature is today. So over the centuries, as human societies changed, not only the focus of stories changed, so did storytelling itself. New forms became the norm and the old ones died down. As we are evolving so is our storytelling.

      1b: History and the story

      The root of the word story is the same as history. Both history and literature teach and entertain us. They are both about time and place, as well as heroes and villains. They both deal with survival and death.

      The crucial difference between a story and history is that history utilises reason while literature utilises emotions, in the same way literature differs from philosophy. Another crucial difference is that history is sociological, while stories tend to be psychological. Great works of literature are like distilled stories of our deeper psychological well. They contain our deeper desires, urges and cravings which we cannot satisfy in real life, so we seek them in stories. Another big difference is that history is usually written by the victors or from their point of views, while literature tells the story of the outsiders.

      The Russian giant, Leo Tolstoy summed up great literature as either a stranger comes to town or a hero takes a journey. Either way, he or she is an outsider. We get to understand the characters’ motivations, goals, successes and failures, which can teach us about life but also allow us a cathartic release. History is factual and tends to generalise about the whole society while stories are always particular and about a bunch of individuals. So history is top-down while literature is bottom-up. It empowers the outsiders.

      A few important historical events were very important in the development of literature. First it was the language itself. Our ape-like ancestors evolved to develop a sophisticated language that could describe events in great detail. So the first stories were oral tales. Even to this day, it is still the case in many parts of the world. People pass down stories from generation to generation. With each retailing the stories become more and more refined and changed. God turned into humans and beasts turned into gods. Italo Calvino was a huge fan of folktales simply because he thought folktales resemble smooth pebbles with their rough edges are smoothed out with every re-telling. As pebbles tumble in a stream, it gets smoother, folktales are the same.

      Then the second biggest historical event was writing. Now you could keep stories for many generations. The oldest surviving piece of written literature is of course the Epic of Gilgamesh, said to be almost 4,000 years old. So writing meant humans didn’t have to keep stories in their memories anymore. They could store stories on a stone, clay tablets, papyrus, bamboo scrolls, leather, paper and now digitally.

      Another important event took place in Germany in the 15th century, when a young German inventor, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Of course, print existed in China centuries before, but it remained exclusively in that region. Gutenberg’s invention meant that more people had access to books, which according to some historians gave Europe the sharpest weapon to rapidly progress, industrialise and conquer the world. If you could educate a huge mass of people, you were more likely to have many bright scientific minds to flourish the society and help the state develop new technology.

      And the last big event took place in the 20th century with the invention of the Internet. Now anyone with internet access in the world can read whatever is available online. But this also has created a problem of its own. Now there’s so much to read that we are often a bit paralysed by so many choices. So now we have to sift through so much rubbish to find something great.

      Time can help us sift through as good works of literature survive better and bad ones are forgotten. So in this video, I will discuss works of literature that have stood the test of time.

      But first … What’s story? Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, came up with a simple structure for stories. He was talking about the Greek tragedies. But it stuck with us. So simply put, stories have beginning, middle and end. Just like life. We’re born, we grow up to procreate and we die.

      As a result literature primarily started with asking the question why we die? For me, literature is a distilled form of truth-telling. Good literature captures the emotional tales of our human condition and helps us make sense of existence. One of our deepest urges is our desire for meaning in life. This explains why we invented stories in the first place. Stories give us meaning. How? It gives our ideas, motivations, urges, desires, actions, etc a proper context.

      For example, in religious texts, the origin story is one of the most important aspect of any religion. Where do we come from and where we going? So god created us and if we behave well, we end up in heaven and avoid hell. This simple story is pretty much at the heart of most religions. Our urge for meaning is so strong that we have invented religions, gods, demons, fairies, etc to explain that there is meaning behind life and death. That we are not alone. That our life is not for nothing. Our belief system and storytelling are closely tied. Without a cracking solid and beautiful story, it is hard to believe in any religion or ideology. This is why at the heart of every religion or ideology is a very strong story that unites all members. We all know about religious tales, how they neatly tell us about heaven and hell, death and after-life, sin and redemption, etc. Two of the most powerful ideologies of the 20th century were socialism and fascism. Both relied on stories. For the fascists it was the story of racial superiority backed by science or pseudoscience. Socialism too believed in creating an equal society, a heaven-like world on earth. So we cannot believe in anyone unless we believe their story first.

      You might say, what is the difference between a story and identity? The simple answer is that identity is something solid, stuck with you. For instance a stone’s identity is its shape, size and stiffness. But its story is where it came from, where it’s now and most crucially where it’s heading. An asteroid has a story because it is heading somewhere.

      Just a quick side-note, this is why it is generally women who push their partner as to where their relationship is going. Men generally dread this question. Women are generally more wired to storytelling than men are, because biologically speaking mating for women is always tied to a future birth, 9 months to be precise. For the male animal, the goal is mainly the sex, but for the female it is always what happens next, which is tied to storytelling. So storytelling while deals with the past has always a strong connection to the future. Also traditionally men were the hunters who had to deal with the wild while women had to deal with children, so stories are also a bonding mechanism.

      On a psychological or philosophical level, we humans face three fundamental questions in life. Where have I come from? Where am I now? And where am I heading? For some people, the goal is getting rich, finding a partner, or changing the world. For example Gandhi didn’t care about nice clothes, because he knew his story wasn’t about wearing nice garments, but it was to change the world. But for a supermodel, a nice garment is far more important. The same, a man who wants to marry the woman of his dreams, would work 80 hours a week inside a dark mine putting his life at risk. Why? Because he believes his story. While his body is stuck hundreds of metres beneath the earth’s crust, in his head, his story is somewhere else. The same is true about a mother who endures enormous pain because she has a story to which she’s tied to biologically, and emotionally.

      So to sum up, we tell stories because it gives us meaning. Storytelling is our mental tool. If fire helped us digest our food better, stories help us digest the harsh realities of life but even harsher reality of death.

      In the next segment, I will discuss our earliest surviving stories that tackled the issue of mortality.

      3 votes
    2. mundane_and_naive
      Link Parent
      2: Tales of Immortality (existentialism) In the previous segment I discussed the reason why we tell stories and how emotionally deep stories go in our survival and bonding within communities,...
      2: Tales of Immortality (existentialism)

      In the previous segment I discussed the reason why we tell stories and how emotionally deep stories go in our survival and bonding within communities, tribes and even empires and nations.

      One of the first and most important reasons behind storytelling is our awareness of death. Death is the harshest reality every living being faces and humans are aware of death at an early age. This has a massive psychological impact in how we perceive life. So our stories reflect that. Since the dawn of time, humans have tried to explain death, either through religious or non-religions stories.

      So in this segment, I will highlight some of the greatest works of literature that deal with death and immortality.

      The oldest surviving piece of written literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh written around 2100 BC, about 4000 years ago, in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq.

      The name Gilgamesh is in Akkadian but its original name in Sumerian was Bilgames.

      The epic tells the story of Gilgamesh, who is half god and half man, the tyrant king of Uruk, modern-day Iraq.

      People are so fed up with Gilgamesh that to stop his tyranny, the mother goddess creates an animal-like creature from clay called Enkidu. But we need to civilise him enough to fight the tyrant god. How do you civilise an animal? Through love-making. So Enkidu is seduced by a prostitute. After spending seven nights of love-making with her, he is civilised and made into human, so he is ready to challenge the tyrant Gilgamesh. Unfortunately, Gilgamesh is too powerful for him and defeats Enkidu.

      But what the battle does is bring the two together, so they become really good friends. They decide to unite to kill a monster called Humbaba. After they kill the monster, Gilgamesh gets entangled with a goddess called Ishtar who wants to marry him. When he refuses to marry her, she calls on her father to attack the two friends. This results in the death of Enkidu, which devastates Gilgamesh. Now for the first time, through the death of his best friend, Gilgamesh realises his own mortality.

      So he embarks on a journey to find the secret of immortality. He goes to Utnapishtim, the immortal man who tells Gilgamesh to stay awake for 7 nights but Gilgamesh fails as he soon falls asleep. Then he is given a gift of a plant that would make him young but it is stolen by a serpent. Gilgamesh is depressed by the futility of it all.

      And on his return to Uruk, he notices the impressive walls of the city that he had built and understands that human life is mortal but the city lives on. Here, Gilgamesh is transformed from a selfish tyrant to a just king and becomes content and wise.

      So to sum up, the oldest masterpiece of literature is a meditation on life and death. This very same question baffled humanity 4,000 years ago and it does today. So the oldest surviving piece of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, is a perfect metaphor for humans’s search for immortality. We cannot live forever, but we can create art or tell stories that can live on long after we are gone. We cannot see or hear or touch Gilgamesh but we surely know his story. It’s the story of every human being. In our search for immortality, some of us make babies as legacy, some make cities and monuments and some create art or tell stories in order to live longer than our own limited time on earth.

      Some 1500 years after the Sumerian-Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Greece, Homer’s epics written sometime in 8th century BC also tell the stories of mortality.

      But what’s different here is that by now humans have accepted the distinction between the immortal gods and mortal humans.

      In the Iliad as well as in the Odyssey, Homer doesn’t question the mortality of humans, simply takes it for granted. But now, the immortal gods dictate humans’ fate on earth, deciding how, when and where they die. For instance in the Iliad, Achilles’s death is decided upon his birth. If he kills Hector, he would die soon after. Despite the fact that Achilles’s mother begs him not to kill Hector, Achilles refuses to listen to her so by killing his enemy he seals his own fate. Even Hector, before being killed, tells Achilles but he is too enraged to listen.

      In ancient China, however, they saw life and death not as opposites but two sides of the same coin.

      In other words, life and death are false dichotomies.

      This is best illustrated in the old Chinese book of Zhuangzi, supposedly written by the Daoist master Zhuangzi sometime between 476 and 221 BC. The book of Zhuangzi is one of two important texts of Daoism, the other being Tao Te Ching written by the founder of Daoism, Laozi.

      While Tao Te Ching contains religious aphorisms, The book of Zhuangzi however, includes stories, anecdotes, fables, and allegories which teach you to be spontaneous. It’s a meditation of an artistic mind that promotes a kind of free-flowing action that mimics nature’s flow.

      The story goes that when Zhuangzi was on the verge of death, his disciples wanted to prepare a lavish funeral for him. But the master told them it was not necessary because whether he was buried or not, the result was the same. He would be eaten by other creatures. In other words, his death is no major event in nature, just part of a bigger process. We eat others and they eat us back. This is to question the dichotomy between life and death.

      Not just that, the book questions many other dichotomies we take for granted in life, such as good and bad, small and large and human and nature, reality and dream.

      One of the most famous stories in the book of Zhuangzi is the Butterfly Dream. One day Zhuang Zhuo dreamed he was a butterfly who danced in the air as happy as he could be. He had no idea he was Zhuangzi. All he knew he was a butterfly and that was that. Then when he woke up, realising that he was no butterfly but a human being called Zhunag Zhuo, he suddenly wondered for a moment and asked himself this question. Was he Zhunag Zhuo who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or was he a butterfly who had dreamt he was Zhunag Zhuo? Finally he comes to the realisation that there must be a distinction between the two. He concludes that this transformation is a kind of false dichotomy between waking and dreaming.

      The connection between death and storytelling is nowhere clearly focused than in the Arabian Nights.

      Here, the storyteller uses stories as a method of living another day.

      In the Middle East, the book of One Thousand and One Nights or the Arabian Nights is a collection of stories told for centuries that dates back to the 8th century. The collection includes Arabian, Indian, and Persian stories which were put together in Syria in the 15th century.

      The book is structured as a frame narrative in which the main story is about the storyteller herself. Princess Scheherazade, the wife of Prince Shahryar, is the storyteller, who faces execution. Why? Because the prince’s ex-wife cheated on him, he doesn’t trust women and kills them after their first night together, to prevent future betrayal. In order to stay alive, Scheherazade devises a novel plan. She decides to tell stories, each night ending the tale on a cliffhanger so the husband keeps her alive for the following and so forth. By the time she tells stories for 1001 nights, the husband decides to pardon her.

      So One Thousand and One Nights is perhaps the greatest piece of literature that literally saves a person’s life. Scheherazade tells stories to stay alive.

      So literature is about avoiding death, literarily and metaphorically. In fact, this is recorded in many prisoners' diaries and accounts that when in isolation, it is stories that sustain their spirits and keep them alive.

      But of course, we cannot avoid death, so the next best thing we can do is to tell the story of death and after-life.

      Dante who lived between 1265 and 1321 wrote the Divine Comedy between 1308 and 1320. It depicts a journey through death and afterlife.

      If you think one has to struggle in life, and once you’re dead, you can take it easy and rest. You are wrong. Dante shows us that death is just as challenging a journey as life is. You go through hell and back. Literally. All the nine circles of it. You drop to the bottom of hell and then you have to climb 7 levels of purgatory mountain, and 9 spheres of heaven in order to reach god. Unfortunately, only Christians can get there. Virgil, the Roman poet, who accompanies Dante through hell and purgatory has to stop there because he was born before Christ.

      So one of the most important works of European literature is a tale of death and afterlife. This is very similar to the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead. They too tell the stories of after-life as the deceased struggle to navigate the journey through the afterlife.

      Death is also a central theme in one of the most important works of Korean literature.

      The Cloud Dream of the Nine, a novel written in 1689 or thereabout by Kim Man-Jun (1637-1692) set in China during the Tang Dynasty that ruled China between 600-900.

      It’s about a man who travels back and forth between two separate lives or reincarnations. In one life he’s a Buddhist monk and in another life of Confucian politician.

      It is a philosophical thought experiment on what if all your life’s dreams came true? Would you be happy? The tale begins when a young Buddhist student monk gives in to temptations. When he sees 8 beautiful girls by a stream, he starts flirting with them. The girls are also flirting. As punishment he is reincarnated as Yang the smartest and the most handsome man with all the worldly pleasures. He gets to live with eight beautiful maiden fairies as his wives and lovers. Life couldn't be more perfect. He has power, prestige, romantic conquests, brain and brawn. We are in China so he has to pass all the exams of civil and military service to become a huge figure in the kingdom for his fight against the Tibetans. Years pass and our hero lives a life most people would dream of.

      But at the heart of this novel is this central question. Would you be happy if you had everything? It turns out the answer is no. But it takes him a long time to realise this. First he notices that all his fortunes and pleasures are transient and fleeting. They come and they go. At the height of his power and prestige he realises death. This breaks his heart. The more you have the more difficult it is to say goodbye. Be it love, money, power, fame or fortune. He realises that worldly pleasures and attachments make him miserable. In order to be happy he has to live a simple life. At the end, he becomes a Buddhist monk, detaching himself from all the worldly possessions that Confucian order had offered him, so he returns to his Buddhist ways.

      From 17th century Korea, we move to 20th century France.

      One of the most beautiful novels of the last century was written by Marcel Proust.

      In his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, Proust tackles our biggest enemy of all. Time. How time is slowly decaying us and killing us. How do you fight time? It seems impossible.

      But Proust being Proust, has one of the most beautiful answers you will ever read. He taps into our evolutionary biology, more specifically our sensory physiology. We can defeat time through involuntary memory triggered by our sense of smell, sound, touch and taste. As we grow old, we go through a succession of metamorphoses. In other words, we die on a daily basis but we hardly ever notice this. Since we age gradually, we do not notice how much we have changed since our childhood, or teenage years or early adulthood. Then comes a time when you are struck by an involuntary memory triggered by a song, a taste of food or a sudden touch and suddenly you’re transported to your past which you had forgotten. In that moment, you live in both the past and the present. You have defeated time. Just for a moment, you have travelled in time. That is our shortest and briefest immortality.

      But for Proust, in order to be immortal much longer, one has to create a beautiful piece of art that stands the test of time. He did it. I will discuss Proust more in detail in later segments.

      As we can see, our human desire to be immortal is very innate in us. Of course, biologically speaking, we are programmed to procreate for the future generations so our genes can live on in our children. That is biological immortality, so to speak. In fact, fiction writing and storytelling in particular, are also forms of immortality. Great writers die but their stories live on for centuries and millennia.

      I would even argue that most religions have invented after-life as a way to prolong this life. Most religions do believe in an after-life. Of course the promise of the afterlife is also used to keep people behaving well in this life. To keep order in society and morality intact, heaven and hell are the carrot and stick. But on a deeper psychological level, the religious after-life is nothing but our desire for immortality. With religious belief declining, people have become more self-indulgent in this life.

      I think all stories are our human attempt to be immortal. We love stories because we want to know how they all end. Stories distract us but also reassure us that death is okay. Life continues and your story continues. One of the biggest questions the Epic of Gilgamesh presents us is this. If you had the chance, would you want to live forever? Utnapishtim, the only immortal man, lives alone with his wife. He has no friends, no neighbours and there is no end to this. He cannot die. In other words, he’s condemned to live forever. A life sentence for eternity. Think of the boredom. Think of the impasse. As if you’re facing a wall for the rest of eternity. Think of the frustration that this will not end. Never. This same fate is inflicted on Sisyphus, the Greek titan who is condemned to push a rock up a mountain, endlessly. This became the basis of Albert Camus’s philosophy of absurdism which I discussed in a separate video.

      So one of the harshest and most fundamental realities every human faces is death. As a result humans have searched for immortality far and wide. From the ancient Egyptians who mummified their deceased kings to today’s world of plastic surgery. It’s our attempt to fight time. To fight mortality. But the best method of immortality is neither medicine nor building tombs. It’s the invention of storytelling. So if your stories resonate with everyone, you are likely to live long. While our bodies decay, our stories do not. They live on. We know Gilgamesh because his story, and his story is the story of every single human being who wished he could live longer. So you tell stories and that’s how you live longer. This is why literature has been at the forefront of existentialism. No wonder that the most important existentialist philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were all deeply interested in literature. In the face of death, life has no meaning, but we find meaning through stories.

      In the next segment I will talk about another natural affliction on humanity. Violence and war have dominated human history so we have also told many stories about them.

      3: Tales of War and Loss: Epics of Good vs Evil In the previous segment I discussed how literature is a human response to the harsh reality we all face: death. In other words, it is through storytelling that we fight against mortality and it is literature that makes us almost immortal.

      But the human condition is not just that we are condemned to death. The human condition is also about survival. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection works on the basis of competition. Humans are not exempt from this reality. So our human competition is not just against the elements and other animals, but it is also against other humans. Human history is an ongoing conflict, so violence is deeply ingrained in us. So much so that we cannot get rid of it. Today the world is quite peaceful and civilised so we have invented sports and video games to let it out. Despite that, conflicts are still ongoing in many parts of the world.

      In this segment, I will discuss how literature tells the story of wars. How some of the greatest epics tell the stories of loss and triumphs. It tells the story of good against evil.

      Literature has been instrumental in creating myths for a society, empire or civilisations. As I discussed before, the best way to unite a large group of people, or even a large empire is to have a common story. The best way to unite us is if we have a common enemy who are the bad ones. Myths are generally about good and evil. Every myth tells the story of how we are the good ones and they are the bad ones. This allows empires to mobilise a large number of people to fight for its existence, survival and expansion. Originally human societies were made up of small tribes which in the course of history progressed and turned into empires and then civilisations.

      One of the first works of literature that directly deals with the issue of war is the Indian epic of Mahabharata.

      It tells the story of a conflict between cousins. You could say it is a family feud, somewhat similar to the Bible story of Abel and Cain. But the conflict here involves the question of who is the true ruler of the kingdom.

      The epic is far more philosophical than just telling the story of the conflict. It tackles the morality of wars. More specifically in the section called the Bhagavad Gita, the issues of war are confronted head on. The central question is this: Is war ever justified?

      There is a debate between Arjuna, a prince who doesn’t want to go to war against his cousins, and Krishna, a Hindu god, who tells the prince that he has a duty to fight a just war. Arjuna, one of five Pandava brothers, all the sons of King Pandu, has a dilemma whether to fight his cousins, the Kauravas, over the succession of the throne to the kingdom of Hastinapura, modern-day Uttar Pradesh, Near Delhi, in the north of India.

      Arjuna considers wars against his own principle. He believes that violence and killing go against his morality. But the god Krishna tells him that he has a duty to protect his people so he has to put aside his personal feelings. It’s his people’s rights and freedom that are on the line. It’s his responsibility to fight against those who attack his people. In other words, the duty to protect your people is far more important than your moral principle of non-violence. The epic turns the pacifist prince Arjuna into a decisive warrior who triumphs over his enemy and the kingdom is restored.

      In other words, fighting in a war is almost a necessity of life. The old adage of either kill or get killed has been with humans and only those who survived passed on their genes. Our greatest heroes and legends have come out of wars. In peacetime, anyone is a hero but in wars, we truly know who the real heroes are.

      Now we move from Ancient India to Ancient Greece. The topic of war gave us one of the most influential epics of all time.

      Homer’s poem the Iliad is one of the greatest works of western literature. It was written sometime in the 8th Century BC. It’s one of two important pieces of ancient Greek literature, the other being the Odyssey, which mainly deals with what happened after the war.

      In the Iliad, the story centres on a famous war between the Trojans and the Achaeans or the Greeks. Whether the war was real or not is open to speculation. Most scholars believe the story is a mythologised version of an actual war during the Bronze Age between the Greeks and their eastern neighbours, perhaps another Greek tribe or another Indo-European people who also has Zeus as their god.

      Today we know the Trojan horse as a metaphor of infiltrating the enemy from within. So on the one side we have Achilles the greatest Greek hero and on the other hand we have Hector the greatest Trojan hero. And in the middle we have one of the most beautiful women in the world, Helen who is abducted by the Trojan prince, Paris.

      Similar to Mahabharata, in this epic, too, gods are participants in the war, either directly or indirectly. While gods have some supernatural power, they still fight, deceive, and seduce one another, just like humans. While the war in the Mahabharata is fought over the survival of the people, in Homer’s Iliad it is over a woman. The Trojan war was over Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world who was abducted by the Trojan prince, Paris. Just like male animals who lock horns over the chance of mating with the female, men also waged wars over women.

      Throughout human history the biggest wars are fought over two basic main instincts: survival and sex. Perhaps the most common reason humans fight is over territory which brings sustenance and resources that help survival. The second main reason for many wars has been over women who allow mating.

      In the Iliad, the two men, Menelaus, the king of Sparta and Paris, the Trojan prince, agree to have a duel, and the winner gets to marry Helen. The Spartan king wins. It’s all over. But then Paris refuses to give Helen up so the Greeks unite to get her back.

      While the Iliad is about the war, it also deals with other issues, such as honour, courage, fate and so on. But at the heart of the epic is human passion or desire for revenge. Just like in Mahabharata, the main hero, Achilles refuses to fight for a large portion of the war. While the god Krishna persuades Arjuna to fight, in the Iliad, Achilles only gets up when his close friend is killed during combat. His decision is not strategic but passionate.

      So for Homer, wars are fought by men over women for the same reason wars are fought for revenge. It taps into the human irrational passion. Of course today, wars tend to happen over territory more than women but the deeper urge is always the same. Humans fight for survival and mating.

      While earlier epics were about the rise or defence of an empire or civilisation, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the greatest work of Persian literature is a nostalgic lamentation of a bygone empire or civilisation.

      So it is a story of loss.

      Shahnameh is considered the longest poem by a single author, with almost 50,000 couplets, encompassing an entire history of the Persian civilisation. Written in the 10th Century by Ferdowsi who lived between 940 and 1020, a thousand years ago from today. Shahnameh covers some 6 thousand years of history of Iran and central Asia from the first humans to the arrival of Muslim Arabs in 650.

      It has three sections: mythical, heroic and historical -or- beginning which deals with the origin story of the Iranian people, middle which deals with the legendary hero Rostam and end which has a more historical truth to it.

      The mythical section is pretty short and deals with creation of first people, the discovery of fire, Zoroastrian religion, agriculture and the origin of Nowruz, the Persian new year which is still celebrated in the region on March 21. The world is divided into three kingdoms, Iran, Turan (or central Asia) and Salm (Anatolia and the Caucuses).

      The main conflict is between Iran and Turan which takes the bulk of the epic, specially the entire heroic section. The heroic section, which is almost 60% of the book, is mainly about one family of heroes and at the heart of it is one man, Rostam who is like the Greek hero Hercules or Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. Rostam is the bravest and noblest man who is always called for when the kingdom is under attack, so he is like a king-saver. Despite his invincibility, he’s also very human, sometimes making mistakes that are very costly. The most heart-wrenching part of Shahnamah is when Rostam kills Sohrab, only to find out that it was his own son. This part is written with so much emotion that really breaks your heart. This giant of a man is reduced to gut-wrenching sorrow. Here the poetry is absolutely amazing and some scholars argue that Ferdowsi was lamenting the death of his own son who died at a very young age.

      The historical section deals with historical events from Alexander the Great’s invasion of Persia to the Arab conquest of the region in 650 AD which ended the Persian empire, where the epic also ends.

      Shahnameh in Persian means book of kings, therefore has a lot of gory violence and killings. Despite peaceful periods, war appears to be constant which depicts human history filled with wars. The Persians or Iranians were at the crossroads between Rome, China, Arabia, Central Asia and India, so anyone moving between these places had to go through Iran. But partly because every time a king dies, there is always a battle as to who succeeds him. A ruler’s succession is the most volatile period within any human society.

      Because it covers such a vast length of time, Shahnameh is like a little time-lapse of history. Kings come and kings go. But with every new king, he has his own ideas and policies which can either prosper the kingdom or destabilise the empire. So if every birth is an opportunity in nature, every death is also an opportunity for the newcomer to change things up.

      So according to Ferdowsi, the fight between good and evil is sewn in us humans, which makes wars inevitable. Just like in the Iliad and the Mahabharata, in Shahnameh, too, good and evil is more nuanced than just black and white. Ferdowsi doesn’t paint the Turanian enemies as caricature evils but far more nuanced. Ferdowsi also recognises the mistakes and misdeeds of the Iranian kings. In other words, humans are just flawed creatures.

      Some consider Shahnameh to be lamenting the end of Persian civilisation but also by writing this book Ferdowsi forever persevered the Persian myths and most crucially the Persian language which is spoken in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which is almost identical to the language of Shahnameh. So Shahnameh, while called the Book of Kings, is a time-lapse of human conflicts that with every new generation, flamed the embers of this conflict.

      Now moving from ancient Persia to northern Europe, the story of human conflict continues.

      Beowulf was written sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries. It existed as an oral story among the Danes for centuries before that but in the written form it has taken a more Christian tinge.

      As stories travel through time and place, they take the shape of the culture and time. Stories are like rivers or pebbles. So Beowulf originated in Scandinavia, but when brought to England it was changed. Another example is the Turkic epics of central Asia, for example Dede Korkut when written down, took an Islamic outlook.

      Beowulf’s author is unknown, and the story is set in Scandinavia and is about the hero of the same name. Just like in Homer’s Iliad or Ferodowsi’s Shahnameh, Beowulf is a great hero who comes to rescue the kingdom of Denmark. However, his enemies are not humans, but mostly dragons and monsters, which shows how old the original story must have been.

      As we go back in time, the conflict is not between humans, but some other creatures, or animals which through time and thousands of retellings become mythical creatures. It’s possible as humans lived in smaller communities, they had to fight other animals but as we grew into kingdoms and empires, the enemy became other kingdoms and empires.

      So in Beowulf, Grendel is a huge monster whom Beowulf the hero has to fight and defeat. It’s much shorter in comparison to other epics here. But it deals with the same themes of loyalty among men, good and evil and courage, but most importantly it is a nostalgic tale of loss of their homeland among the Nordic people who ended up in England. It’s a reminder of their heroic past.

      Speaking of the Nordic past, another literary tradition is the Icelandic sagas who also look back to their Nordic past.

      Around the same time as the Danes in England were lamenting their Nordic past, the Icelandic people were also returning to their Scandinavian roots by writing a genre of storytelling which is called saga which literally means story or saying. The Norse sagas have existed for centuries before, but what the Icelandic people did was to write them in prose, which was revolutionary at the time.

      There are many Icelandic sagas that mostly deal with wars and conflict in the old world of Scandinavia, often among different kings in Norway, or family feud or people’s struggle in Iceland.

      One of the most famous ones is Njal’s Saga written sometime in the late 13th century. Unlike the previous epics, this was written in prose which is quite unusual in early literature. It deals with a long, bloody family feud. The main characters are Njal, a lawyer and Gunnar, a powerful warrior. In the saga, physical strength is always matched by mental strength. Being strong is so important for the Icelandic people that even today, most of the participants in a sport called the strongest men are from Iceland. Just like in Homer’s epic, honour and revenge are central to the Icelandic sagas.

      Around the same time as the Icelandic people were writing down the sagas, one of the greatest works of Chinese literature was also penned down. So we move from the cold of Iceland to the land of the middle Kingdom to talk about wars fought among Chinese kings.

      Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written around the 1320s by Luo Guanzhong, some 250 years before Don Quixote, making it the first novel according to some experts. While China doesn’t have an official epic, this novel could count as China’s de facto national epic and one of Four Great Chinese Classic novels. It was written during the Ming Dynasty which ruled China between 1330 and 1400, but experts believe it existed in oral tradition for centuries before and Luo Guanzhong compiled them into a book. It’s about 800,000 words long with more than hundreds of characters.

      The story is about the fall of the Han dynasty which ruled China between 206 BC and 220 AD, and the aftermath of the collapse which resulted in China being divided into three warring kingdoms. These three kingdoms fought each other over a period of 111 years.

      The epic is partly factual history and partly fiction. The main theme is political loyalty between men because in warfare, having each other’s back is the most important weapon one can have. The novel also has many war strategies, military skills and diplomacy, as a result it has been used to teach warfare, history, as well as business in China, Japan and Korea. As I said before, war has been at the heart of human existence, so strategies used in wars can be applied in other areas of life including business and even love. People often use the game of chess as an analogy of war tactics. Just as chess is ruthless, a tiny mistake can cost your king, in wars too, a small mistake determines whether you live or die. The novel has clear heroes and villains, and somewhat satisfyingly the villains get the punishment they deserved.

      The ultimate message of the novel is this: we want order and the best way to establish order is through conflict. In other words, the biggest paradox of human life is that in order to have peace, we must fight wars. But the novel is not pessimistic as it says that default for human life is order and peace. But to create order, wars are inevitable.

      So as we can see, literature is filled with the stories of human conflict. If our awareness of death fuelled our desire to tell stories, the urge to continue telling stories is conflict. It’s conflict that makes stories entertaining and worth reading. Without conflict, stories cannot exist. Of course, in today’s literature the conflict is not just violent wars but also social conflict or moral dilemmas. So conflict fuels stories. It is the main ingredient.

      We can see that early epics such as Mahabharata and the Iliad are about defending empires or civilisations, but later epics such as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms were mostly about the loss of empires and civilisations.

      In fact all epics are generally about a nostalgic look at the past glory of a people, empire, or civilisation. By having an epic, the old remains in our consciousness and the story continues. Wars create, restore and maintain empires and civilisations, while epics keep them alive in our collective consciousness.

      Next I will move away from war to discuss the literature that deals with another human instinct, sex and mating, which we have given a softer title, romance.

      I never knew how many old stories are in poem forms. Does anyone know any examples of modern stories being written that way?

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      4: Tales of Mating (Sex) In the previous segments, I discussed how death triggered us to tell stories and how conflict sustained storytelling and literature. In other words, our awareness of death...
      4: Tales of Mating (Sex)

      In the previous segments, I discussed how death triggered us to tell stories and how conflict sustained storytelling and literature. In other words, our awareness of death triggered storytelling and conflict has fuelled and sustained it.

      In this segment, I discuss another natural instinct that has fuelled literature: our urge to mate. The saying goes that sex sells and the same is true in literature. Stories of immortality and wars intrigue us about how to survive, but stories of mating intrigue us and teach us how to mate with the opposite sex. While conflict is an integral or structural part of a story, romance is the decoration within the building. Conflicts determine whether you have a house or not, while romance determines whether you have someone to share the house with you. After our instinct for food, the most important instinct is our urge to mate. It has given us sex, romance, courtship, love, heartbreak, betrayal, jealousy and even murder. Here is a fact, in safe countries, you’re more likely to get murdered by someone who once loved you than a total stranger. So our sexual instinct is incredibly powerful that determines most of our behaviour.

      The origin of romance goes back to the Roman Empire when Latin was the language of the elite, romance on the other hand referred to prose about passionate love that was more common among the ordinary people. Today we associate Italians and Spanish with being warm and passionate people compared to the cold, stern people of northern Europe. Before European chivalric tales became common, let’s go back to the far east.

      One of the first romance novels was written in Japan. The tale of Genji is considered the world's first ever novel written exactly a thousand years ago by a female author Shikibu Murasaki.

      Lady Murasaki who lived in the Heian Court in Kyoto sometime between 973 and 1031 was born to a Japanese noble family in the capital city of Kyoto. She was employed as a lady-in-waiting, which basically means a tutor and personal poet for princesses at the Heian court, where she was asked to write entertaining tales.

      As we can see in the Tale of Genji, it appears it was primarily written for a female audience. The 'sex in the city' of the day, so to speak. Or the 'fifty shades of grey'.

      The Tale of Genji tells the story of Hikaru Genji, a prince and his romantic pursuit of women which becomes the main purpose of his life. Genji whose handsome looks has given him the name Hikaru meaning shining, is the son of the emperor and a concubine. He is also a poet, a thinker and a very sensitive man, which women valued at the time. Without any royal duties, he chases women, smokes pots just like Prince Harry back in the day. Joking aside, Prince Genji is in search of a perfect wife. How do you find a perfect wife? He sleeps with countless ladies, some of whom he wives and some through secret affairs, some old, young, high rank, and low rank. He even has a child with his own step-mother, behind his father’s back. He doesn't get everyone he wants though. Some women refuse, some escape and some become Buddhist nuns.

      What’s remarkable about the thousand year old book is how deeply psychological it is. It turns out all roads lead to …not Rome but childhood. Genji lost his mother at a young age, so he is infatuated with any woman who resembles his mother, which is very Freudian for a novel written 900 years before the Austrian psychoanalyst started formulating his theories. Genji’s favourite partner is Murasaki who resembles his own mother. She becomes a central character throughout the novel and Genji seems to love her the most. Why? Because she’s the most innocent of all the women he sleeps with. She’s also the least headache for him as she is the most feminine and docile of all the women he deals with. In other words, her ultimate superpower is her feminine energy, so much so that her death in the novel is also the death of Genji. Genji is not just a womaniser or a playboy in the modern sense, he is nervous, anxious, stressed of secrecy, has bad dreams and goes through the ups and downs of any romance. Despite all this, he is obsessed with a variety of women, but never seems satisfied. While other men go for women of power and money, Genji’s motivation seems to be purely romantic or sexual and always goes for difficult or unusual relationships.

      The book covers some 70 years, all Genji’s romantic and political adventures. It’s interesting to note that the novel doesn’t talk much about politics or warfare because at the time Japan was going through one of its most peaceful periods in history. Another reason is that it was written by a woman and generally women at the time had little or no dealings with politics and warfare. After Genji’s death the novel takes a more pessimistic tone as it follows his son’s and grandson’s romantic adventures.

      Overall it is about love in all its forms, from the most beautiful, poetic and sublime to the most ridiculous, tragic and horrible. Romance in all its colours that even today’s novels find too risky to tackle.

      So our urge to mate has given us some of the most beautiful works of literature and to illustrate it further, let’s move from old Japan to the Middle East.

      In Persia, one of the most important literary figures is Nizami Ganjavi, who was born and lived in Ganja, modern-day Azerbaijan. He is perhaps the best known romantic poet of Persian literature. He is famous for writing the Khamsa, five love stories including Leyli o Majnun, Khosrow Shirin, The tale of Alexander, and 7 Beauties.

      Nizami’s influence on European art is important. Just as an example, Pucini’s last opera Turandot is based on Nizami’s 7 Beauties. Turandot in Persian means daughter of Turan. In Nizami’s tale it's the princess of Slav people who live in the North. In the Persian epic Shahnameh, Turan means the north of Oxus River, today Central Asia. Puccini has the exact same story but set in China.

      Nizami’s best known work is Leyli o Majnun written in 1192. It tells the story of two lovers, Leyli, most likely an Arab princess and Majnun, which means madman, due to his obsession with her which leads him to insanity. When the two fall in love, the family forbids Leyli and forcefully marries her to someone else. But she refuses to have sex with her husband. Eventually the husband dies and the two lovers are able to unite. But in Nizami’s work, love is rarely consummated, perhaps partly due to Islamic sensitivity but also partly because for Nizami love as a sufi concept is not physical but more spiritual and psychological. By the time they meet, Majnun has an ideal image of Leyli in his head that doesn’t match the reality of her face so this mismatch forces him to run away into a desert. Leyli is heartbroken and when Majnun comes to his senses, it is too late.

      Nizami was influenced by another great Persian writer, Gorgani, whose 11th century romantic tale of Vis and Rāmin is one of the earliest romantic narrative poems in Persian. It is a love story between a prince and a married queen, somewhat similar to the tale of Genji and his stepmother. The prince manages to woo the queen, and after many trials and tribulations the two get together to have a happy life.

      The happy ending, however, didn’t impress Nizami so much so he wrote tragic love stories instead. But the happy romance of Vis and Rāmin by Gorgani was well received in Europe and some suggest it sparked the Mediaeval chivalric tales. In particular Gorgani’s Vis and Ramin may have inspired the famous tale of Tristan and Iseult.

      In Europe during the Middle Ages, a new literary genre emerged. Chivalric tales replaced the old battlefield epics.

      Instead of men fighting in wars, they turned their attention to rescuing women. The damsel in distress is still a common phrase used when men step up to help a woman. Of course, feminism has put a stop to it in the West as they consider the chivalric culture too patronising towards women. However for centuries these chivalric tales entrained millions of men and women in Europe.

      Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae written in 1138, started off the Arthurian legends that became very popular throughout western Europe. One of the most famous of these chivalric tales is Tristan and Iseult about a man who is supposed to accompany a woman from Ireland to England to be married to his uncle, but ends up falling in love and sleeping with her. In other words, the bodyguard becomes the lover. This is why in ancient times they used to castrate their bodyguards who were known as eunuchs.

      Another example of Mediaeval chivalric tale is Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart written by Chretien de Troyes, some time between 1175 and 1181 in France. It’s also in the Arthurian style. In this novel, Lancelot’s job is to rescue a woman named Guinevere from an evil man named Meleagant but in doing so, he falls in love with her. After many mishaps and misadventures, they manage to come through and triumph in their love.

      So most of the chivalric tales had happy endings, in that the boy and girl get together to mate and procreate. Also in all these stories the women are beautiful while the men are courageous. So evolutionarily speaking, women exchange their beauty while men exchange their courage.

      While Mediaeval romantic tales were happy stories of successful mating, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet follows Nizami’s line of tragic end. Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most well-known love story around the world, perhaps thanks to the global reach of the English language.

      But in every culture, there is a similar story that is told of a tragic love story. While in Europe it was courage, honesty and strength that won over beautiful women, in 17th century China, it was more to do with money, corruption and deception that gave birth to one of the most unique novels of Chinese literature.

      The Plum in the Golden Vase by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng was written in 1610. There is a legend that the author wrote it to avenge his father’s murderer, so he sent them a copy of this book smeared with poison. The novel was so interesting that the murderer couldn't stop reading it and died by the time he had finished the story.

      Hsi-men Ch’ing, the protagonist of this novel is a businessman who is so corrupt and so involved in sex that he actually dies at the young age of 33. You might ask what was the cause of his death? He had too much sex. But that’s a very crude summary of this novel, it is so much more than that. It’s a psychological study of how power abuses, how the obsession with money corrupts society and your soul and how sex can be beautiful as well as terrible. This is considered an erotic novel so much so that it was banned by various regimes in China. It is not part of the four great classic novels simply due to its explicit sex scenes that some even say is pornographic.

      In this novel, sex is mundane like any other everyday acts, like eating, drinking or taking a piss. In other words, the novel treats sex as a very basic human instinct like eating and sleeping. For example at one point during an oral sex scene, before the man ejaculates, the woman casually mentions that they have been invited to someone’s house. This is like in Hollywood movies, while they take a sip of drink or smoke a cigarette they casually say something like that. But in this novel, the casual sex is really casual.

      Now let’s move from 17th century China to 18th century France. Published in 1782, Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos who lived between 1741 and 1803 is a story about the art of sexual seduction, told in a series of letters.

      Two aristocrats, a man and a woman, challenge one another to seduce female targets often just for fun and game. It depicts the decadence of the French aristocracy who had nothing else to do.

      This was just prior to the French Revolution and some consider it a critique of the system that allowed rich people to play sexually seductive games while most of the French people suffered in poverty.

      At the time of its publication it was a hugely scandalous book as it’s full of manipulation, scheming, revenge, and betrayal in the pursuit of romantic love. The novel turns love into the state of nature where one uses all means available in order to mate. It exposes that on a deeper level, we all want to have sex with those who are most difficult to attain. What’s easy is not fun. We all want something that’s a little challenging. While sex is incredibly difficult for a lot of men, it comes far too easy if you’re an aristocrat, so they set their sights on those who are difficult. This was the case with Genji in the Tale of Genji. He too pursued women who were more difficult.

      Dangerous Liaison depicts how sex is a challenging and delicate dance between males and females. It’s an art form and those crafty enough get to be more successful. If you take morality out of sex, it is an art form that every human needs to learn in order to leave a legacy behind. Those who fail the game, die without leaving a trace of their genetic legacy.

      But how the sexes go about this mating game and ritual is quite different between males and females. This is most clearly illustrated in the novels of the 18th century. The English author, Jane Austen who lived between 1775 and 1817 wrote 6 novels about the art of mating.

      She wrote about the English aristocrats as well as those of lower socio-economic status. In her novels, it is usually women who seek a man of fortune. So in other words, women have the tendency to marry someone of higher social status than themselves. In her stories, when the girl meets the boy, they start on the wrong foot. Why? We need drama and mating is a dance. But the main reason is that the male characters are arrogant and females are too judgmental. In other words, the males have to be tamed from their arrogance and pride, just like in the story of the beauty and the beast, not through force but with the superpower of femininity. So Jane Austen’s boys and girls part on bad terms, which is clever because even if they don’t like each other, they remember each other. When they meet again, they already know each other a bit, so the initial negative interaction is a perfect setup for the story as well as their romantic adventures.

      Her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Set in the English countryside, it's about Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist of the novel, a very bright but also a very judgemental young lady which makes it hard for her to see through between the apparently good husband material and the truly good husband material. When it comes to mating, men lie and women have to see through the bullshit. This makes women to use their judgment which makes them judgmental. She represents prejudice. Among most animals, it’s usually the females who choose so they are the judges of the males. Also because males approach therefore females have to be good judges otherwise end up with a bad partner, at least for 9 months or more. Mr Darcy on the other hand, symbolises pride, given his high social status, he is a little too direct in his approach and lets his pride dictate his encounters with others. So the novel centres on their romantic back and forth. I hate you. I love you. I hate you. I love you. Like a salsa dance. One step forward and two steps back. Yes, many leaves are plucked. Finally Elizabeth and Mr Darcy manage to peel through their prejudice and pride respectively to find what truly makes them happy.

      Pride and Prejudice is more than a romance. It has psychological depth, a comedy of manners and a study of human mating rituals. Some criticise that Jane Austen’s novels are also somewhat formulaic in its courtship manoeuvrings, in that boys and girls meet, first they hate one another, later they discover something about each other and fall in love and get married. But it is also deeply psychological. We might think we are different and unique individuals, but deep down we do the same dances and we are the same animals who want to procreate. Jane Austen’s female characters are practical and realistic about the importance of money. Only men with fortunes are in contention to get married. To boil it down to the point of crudity, men share their food in exchange for some sex.

      So we humans invented storytelling to fight mortality and then added conflict to make it more interesting and then we told stories about sex and mating. So literature was about death, then about wars and then it became about sex. What’s next? What do we do after sex? We need some laughter. So in the next segment, I will discuss how stories make us laugh. In other words, storytelling meets comedy.

      5: Tales of Laughter

      In the previous segments I discussed how humans have used storytelling to navigate nature’s curve balls such as death, violent competition and sexual dimorphism. When death no longer scares us, wars are all fought and sex is all done, it’s time for some laughs.

      Comedy has been with us since the dawn of time. I am sure cave people had a few farting tales or sexual stories filled with innuendoes. Apparently the oldest joke is Sumerian and 4000 years old which involves a wife farting in her husband’s lap. In ancient Greece, Dionysus was the god of wine who symbolised human passion and fun. When the Greeks get drunk, they start having fun by smashing plates. With wine comes laughter so the Greek literary giants such as Aristophanes and Euripides wrote and staged many plays, mostly tragedies but also some comedies. While their comedies had a lot of scenes with sexual connotations, they brought a lot of laughter and joy for the spectators.

      One of the earliest pieces of comedic prose literature is the Metamorphoses by Apuleius is often referred to as The Golden Ass written sometime in the 2nd century in the part of the Roman Empire which is modern-day Algeria.

      It’s often considered the world’s first novel as it was written in prose.

      The story is about a man named Lucius who turns up to be from the same town as the author, Apuleius. Lucius, as a very curious soul, is obsessed with magic and witchcraft just like Harry Potter, so he tries his hands on all kinds of magic. But he is no wizard so after witnessing a woman turning herself into a bird, he begs her to turn him also into a bird. But it turns out, she is not a great witch so she accidentally reads the wrong spell and turns him into an ass, or a donkey, hence the golden ass of the title. While they try to return him into a human, a band of robbers use him to transport their stolen goods. Imagine you want to be a bird, and suddenly you become a donkey loaded with tons of stolen goods. Sometimes life throws things at you for no reason.

      As the novel progresses, we read other stories that concern other characters, tales within a tale so to speak, just like in the Arabian Nights. Meanwhile Lucius is still an ass and desperately trying to get out of his nightmare of carrying other people’s burden. At one point he manages to escape the thieves with two people, one of them also happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Being a Mediterranean man in the presence of a beautiful lady, Lucious curses his luck being stuck in a donkey’s body. Later he comes the possession of a few priests and here, the author reveals that homosexuality was commonly practised among the priests. Lucius still as an ass ends up in the hands of a cook who wants to kill and eat him. He escapes but ends up being sold to a baker who uses him to turn his mill. So Lucius the ass is sold from one person to the next, which is a really clever way of storytelling. We learn about all kinds of people and their professions and the things they do. In other words, as he is sold from person to person, we get to know all these characters. After taking so much crap as an ass, Lucius is rescued by the goddess Isis who turns him into a successful lawyer.

      So the moral of the story is that one has to go through trials and tribulations in order to become someone. Lucius as an accidental hero has to suffer which makes us all laugh but his true character is shaped by his misfortunes. At the end we learn that Lucius is from Madaurus, the same town as the author, perhaps telling us that the parts of the story might have been autobiographical.

      In many cultures, donkey is used to signify hard-work without complaining. So the author perhaps had toiled in his life and by the end he was able to tell a cracking story. This reminds me of Cervantes who went through hell and back in his own life before he sat down to write on the most original novels of all time. There are a lot of similarities between the Golden Ass or Golden Donkey with Don Quixote.

      But before I tell you about that, let me take you to France first to meet the giants of comedy.

      Published in 1532, Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais is one of the first works of French literature that made comedy its main focus.

      Rabelais who lived between 1480s and 1553, in addition to being a comic genius, was also a monk, a physician and a Greek scholar. But his most important legacy today is his book, Gargantua and Pantagruel, which satirises the adventures and mishaps of two giants, Gargantua the father and his son Pantagruel. The tales are often crazy, grotesque, crude, vulgar, and full of contradictions that combine the high-brow with the lowbrow. In one of the scenes the giants use the neck of a goose to wipe their bottoms.

      Rabelais pokes fun at the human condition, allegorising that nothing is really sacred or important in life. There is a sense of freedom in this book that will surprise you even 600 years later. Rabelais says, quote: “Seeing how sorrow eats you, defeats you. I'd rather write about laughing then crying, For laughter makes men human, and courageous.” Despite its vulgarity and childishness, it was meant to be educating people on humanist values that we are all the same despite our ranks and social status. We all experience the same human condition that we have to find a good way to wipe our bottoms, whether you are a kind or a peasant. At the time, church dominated social life, so there was little freedom of expression so this book was meant to liberate people.

      It had a huge influence on the future writers from around Europe. Two of the most famous examples are the Spanish giant, Cervantes and the English writer, Laurence Sterne. Rabelais is often referred to as the greatest writer of French language and this book is considered a pioneer of satire which bridges the pre-modern and modern French literature.

      Cervantes published Don Quixote in two parts. Part 1 in 1605 and Part 2, which is a sequel to part 1, 10 years later, in 1615. Part 1 is the main story of Don Quixote’s adventures and part 2 continues the actions but mainly it acts as a mirror to reflect on the previous adventures as the characters are aware of the book’s success and their own fame. So Don Quixote is not only the first modern novel, but also the first psychological meta-narrative in which the characters are aware of their fame.

      From the outset, Don Quixote is the story of a man named Alonso Quixano who belongs to a lower-ranking nobility or you might say a middle-class family, which allows him access to books, who later claims the knightly title of Don Quixote. He’s 50 years old and has read a lot of chivalric tales, so much so that he wants to enact those events in his own life by going on similar chivalric adventures. He changes his name to Don Quixote, names his horse Rocinante, and chooses a farm girl as his romantic love lady, Dulcinea, without her knowing anything about it. Don Quixote is a low-budget hero, instead of a princess he uses a peasant girl, instead of a real esquire he employs a labourer, Sancho Panza, perhaps the greatest supporting character in literature. It’s all acting. It’s a front. He uses his neighbours as props, a cheap hotel as a castle, and prostitutes as grand ladies. The people he meets tend to go along with him in his crazy requests to take part in his low-budget movie. Except that it is not a movie, it is real life. There is a child-like quality to Don Quixote and this entire story is like a child play.

      What’s the story? Don Quixote embarks on a chivalric adventure and his first stop is at an inn where he tells people that it’s a castle and people thinking he’s mad so they play along. The first scene is done. He then encounters a slave being punished by his owner so Don Quixote being a knight feels it is his duty to free him. But the owner, seeing him as a ridiculous man, decides to play along, but as soon as he is gone, he continues to beat the slave so Don Quixote’s interference made things even worse for the poor slave. So Don Quixote was the first social justice warrior if you think about it.

      So far things are going as he imagined. So Cervantes turns it up a notch by pushing Don Quixote to pick a fight with some travelling salespeople whom he accuses of insulting his lady Dulcinea, the farm girl. He challenges them to a fight but here for the first time his delusional mind results in him being beaten quite badly. He barely makes it home alive.

      To make matters worse, when he gets home, he finds that his beloved library is burned by a priest who deemed them immoral. Here Cervantes exposes the duplicity of the priest class, too. It turns out the priest has read them all, including some steamy sex stories, so even the most pious members of the society are secretly addicted to these cheap romances, the pornography of the day so to speak. It’s like the Vatican City has a secret computer that they delete the history of the last hour.

      If you thought the beating might have put some senses into Don Quixote’s head, you would be wrong. Instead of giving up, Don Quixote decides to have a backup. Here comes Sancho Panza who has to deal with the consequences of Don Quixote’s mistakes and madness. Sancho is on an ass instead of a horse, given Don Quixote’s low-budget, of course. One of the most famous battles in literature happens when Don Quixote fights with a bunch of windmills as if they’re giants. Sancho corrects him that they are not giants, just windmills. Don Quixote corrects Sancho that he is not used to knightly adventures because he is a simpleton. Before Sancho can stop him, Don Quixote charges against the windmills only to face a ferocious wind moving the sail that smashes into him and his horse. He rolls down the hill and Sancho has to help him. Don Quixote has to go through many such incidents to finally come to his senses and denounce his chivalric adventures. In part two, he reflects and apologises to his friend, Sancho for putting him through so many mad adventures.

      Don Quixote is often called the first true modern novel for its originality and innovation. The most original idea is that Don Quixote is influenced by other stories. In other words, for the first time, we see how stories inspire us, quite clearly. Since the dawn of time, stories have inspired us to do great things as well as cause great calamities. But never the power of stories was acknowledged fully in literature.

      So Cervantes connects the dots that we humans not only learn from stories, but we subconsciously enact on those same stories, albeit in our own limited ways. We want to get out and do crazy things yet we are kept in check by our own reasons but also society. Don Quixote is a liberated character as his rational head is no longer controlling him. But subconsciously we enact stories we have heard as a child and even those from our collective unconscious as Jung said.

      Somewhat similar to the author of the Golden Ass, while in captivity, Cervantes’s mind must have seen giants roaming around inside the dark room, coming to rescue him or even attack him. Captivity allows your imagination to balloon. Cervantes had a very rough life, so by the time he sat down to write Don Quixote, he had been through years of prison at home and abroad, poverty, debt, breakups and more. So aged 50, he realises that life is not meant to be taken seriously but its absurdities should make us laugh.

      So he invented one of the greatest characters in literature. Today Don Quixote is synonymous with madness, heroism, courage, innocence, and all the goodness that human nature allows us. His tragic tale is a genius tale of comedy.

      Now moving from 17th century Spain to 18th century England to meet another great novel of laughter. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne was published in the 1760s.

      It is one of the funniest novels of all time. Laurence Sterne, an Anglican priest himself, a job that requires you to be serious and stern does the opposite, he pokes fun at people, life, but most importantly he makes fun of modernity or the age of rationality, just as Cervantes and Reblais did before.

      Tristram Shandy, loosely the main protagonist of the novel, narrates his own story. There are two main plots in the novel. The first is Tristram Shandy’s own life, which is nothing but a series of mistakes, from conception, birth, schooling, and later his travels and writing. Tristram’s father, Walter Shandy is a pseudo-intellectual, science-minded person who believes that by focusing his attention during sex, he can create a good, balanced baby. Just like an artist who works diligently to produce a masterpiece, he thinks, by paying attention during sex, he can make a baby that’s a masterpiece too. But unfortunately his wife interrupts him at a very crucial moment as he is climaxing. She asks him if he wound up the clock. “Damn you woman, you didn’t let me make a smart baby.” It’s too late, the sperm hits the egg. Then during his birth, his nose gets flattened as he moves through the birth canal so the boy grows with a flat nose, which is not a good look for a man of good social standing. To remedy this, his father chooses a grand name for him, but during his naming ceremony, a miscommunication results in the priest giving him the wrong name. Then years later, while his father tries to educate him as best as possible, he is accidentally circumcised when a window falls down on his penis as he is peeing through a window.

      So this novel tells us that life is nothing but a series of accidents and none of them of our own choosing. Even the storytelling is chaotic. Tristram promises to tell us how he was born in the following chapters but he then gets distracted by other people and goes into a long, winding digression.

      So Tristram’s life is a series of misfortunes and accidents. So what’s the secondary plot? The second plot involves his uncle, Toby, a war veteran injured in Europe, who is now romantically pursuing a widow. While trying to seduce her, he is also obsessed with the enacting of a battle scene in his own backyard. He sees a parallel between fighting an enemy during a war and chasing a woman. So successful men in war are also successful men with ladies. In other words, you win a battle and defeat the enemy, you get all the women. Both war and mating need careful tactics and strategic manoeuvring. But unfortunately, the novel shows that Uncle Toby loses it all. He gets injured in the war, apparently in the most delicate part of a man’s body, between his crotches, and as a result, he fails to get the woman. So you lose in wars, you lose women.

      Similar to Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote, Laurence Stern in Tristram Shandy pokes fun at the age of reason when people were starting to embrace modern scientific discoveries and rational thinking. Laurence Sterne, a religious priest himself, saw rationality’s shortcoming in explaining the human animal that we are. Despite all the scientific discoveries helping our lives, when it comes to important stuff we have no say, for example in our conception and birth. Once we are born, we don’t walk on a clear path either, instead we tumble, drift, meander in time and space and somehow make it to an adult like a drunk person going home from a pub. The novel’s style of writing mimics life, full of digressions and interruptions. But life’s accidents continue to shape, lead and determine our future. Modern science and reason promise predictability but Sterne in this novel celebrates and laughs at life’s unpredictability and chaos. Life’s little accidents, which are beyond our own control, have huge consequences in our lives.

      Another great novel that deals with the funny side of life is a Brazilian masterpiece, Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Machado de Assis.

      It was inspired by Tristram Shandy. But instead of having a living narrator, we have a narrator who tells his from beyond the grave. He looks back at his life. It’s as though we can only see the funny side of life from the other side of the grave. While living, we often do not notice the absurdities of life. Bras Cubas is not serious about his life. He says one shouldn’t take things too seriously because once you’re dead, nobody cares. You become food for worms. Worms eat kings or peasants in the same way, just as we eat other animals.

      So awareness of death triggered humans to invent storytelling in order to combat mortality, but then added conflict and violence to make stories interesting and then sex added a bit more flavour. With sex came laughter. Comedy is the best way to reflect on life. It’s a mirror through which we can see the absurdities of life. If you really look at it from a distance, you will notice how comical life is. While in the midst of living, we often do not notice the funny side of it because we are too absorbed.

      So literature tells the human stories through death, violence, sex and laughter. But all four of them were inflicted on us by nature. We cannot escape death. Violence also seems to be ingrained in us because we have to compete for limited resources as well as mating. Without sex we cannot survive as a species. And laughter makes it all a bit more bearable as we ponder and reflect.

      In the next segments, we move away from nature and enter the age of reason where rational science flourishes to make humans the masters of earth. We don’t need gods or demons or fairies to explain our existence, instead we can use rational science to explain everything. So with rationality, comes reality, and scientific progress, biological understanding, psychological analysis and finally magical thinking of quantum physics. So in the next few segments, we will learn about storytelling in a world dominated, not by gods or nature, but by man. Now enters the rational man.

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      6: Storytelling meets rationality (Reason conquers the world) Death, wars, sex and laughter are forces of nature. But now we move to a new age in which reason helps us tame, control and exploit...
      6: Storytelling meets rationality (Reason conquers the world)

      Death, wars, sex and laughter are forces of nature. But now we move to a new age in which reason helps us tame, control and exploit nature. The age of rationality started in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. The age of reason simply means instead of going to church for solutions to human problems, we turned to reason which produced scientific and technological tools. As a result we have been learning to not only tame nature, but also tame our own inner nature. So in this segment, I discuss novels and stories of how rationality conquered the world.

      We start in England, a tiny country that conquered half of the world. William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet written around 1600s is the story of Hamlet the prince of Denmark as well as the story of the political elite at the top of a society.

      It’s a tragic tale of power, scheming, murders and betrayals, so rational thinking, scheming and calculated decisions are the heart of the story.

      I have compared Hamlet to Don Quixote, which is in most ways the complete opposite of Hamlet. There are many differences, but the most important difference is how they employ rationality. Don Quixote is not rational which gets him in all kinds of troubles because he’s driven by passion and courage. Hamlet on the other hand, is a deep thinker who asks questions and strategises. Hamlet famously pretends to be a madman or idiot to achieve a goal. Hamlet is anxious all the time, the reason being that because when you’re at the top of society, competition is fierce, at any moment someone might kill you and take away your throne, wealth, status and power. Not just that, when you move tactically, or strategise your plans, you have to calculate risks. For Don Quixote, risk doesn’t even cross his mind. Hamlet, on the other hand, tortures his mind. We all know the famous line, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” He exemplifies the extreme of a thinking man, even his love for Ophelia is not genuine, but opportunistic. And today, we are more like Hamlet, therefore more anxious. This modern rational thinking led Soren Kierkegaard, who incidentally is also Danish, to conclude that anxiety comes with choice or freedom to do something or not to do something. So Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the first true modern character who has to weigh all the risks as rationally as possible.

      What’s the story? Hamlet gets a message from the ghost of his dead father that he needs to take revenge on his uncle who killed Hamlet’s father and became the king of Denmark. Not only that, his uncle also married Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet is enraged. But to avenge his dead father, Hamlet devises a clever plan. He plays mind-tricks, fakes his own madness, writes a play in order to trick his uncle to betray himself. In Don Quixote nothing goes according to plans, but Hamlet’s plan works and it proves that his uncle did kill his father. At the end, Hamlet confronts him and this results in all parties getting killed, which is not perhaps a very rational outcome.

      But with his plays, Shakespeare started a literary revolution in which he emphasised the stories of those at the top of social hierarchy, and how they achieve, maintain and defend their power. It’s often through ruthless scheming and tactical battle. In other words, it is more often rationality that wins. While in the previous segments, it was natural forces, such as violence, death, sex and laughter, now we enter a new era in which conscious and rational thinking take centre stage in fictional stories. Hamlet is a sceptic who questions reality, doesn’t trust his uncle, and he even doubts himself. It’s no surprise that some 37 years after Hamlet was staged, Rene Descartes, the father of rationalism, wrote his famous philosophical line. In the literature the most famous line comes from Hamlet: To be or not to be, that’s the question. In philosophy the most quoted line is Descartes philosophical idea: I think, therefore I am.

      So humans became a rationally thinking machine, which led to the Europeans conquering the entire world. One of the most famous stories of world conquest is of course one that went wrong. But again, it is reason and wit that triumphs at the end.

      Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe was published in 1719. It tells the story of a British man stranded on a desert island where through practical wisdom and sheer resourcefulness he survives for 28 years. He fights off cannibals, pirates, mutineers and the most important enemy of all: nature.

      So Robinson Crusoe symbolises the arrival of humanity defeating nature. It coincided with the European colonisation of the rest of the world where they introduced rational and scientific approaches to life. There is a suggestion that the story was based on the real adventures of a Scottish castaway on a Pacific Island that is now renamed Robinson Crusoe Island.

      On a more philosophical level, the novel is often used to describe a new type of economic individualism that we are so used to today. We choose our job, how many hours, what to do with our money and leisure time. If Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark, pushed away by his uncle, Robinson Crusoe is the king of his own island therefore he can decide whatever he wants.

      This idea gave rise to individualism in Europe which has now spread to the rest of the world. So not only it inspired the British and Europeans to get out there and explore the world, it also encouraged a sense of individual autonomy among people. Thousands upon thousands of Europeans left their homes in pursuit of fortunes and kingdoms of their own around the world. The result? Modern day USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are populated by these people. So the age of reason meant western Europeans were no longer condemned to live and die in the same village. They could chase happiness elsewhere.

      But it also turned out that chasing happiness outside Europe will not give you fulfilment in life. This comes from the philosopher who often symbolises the age of reason. Candide by Voltaire was published in 1759.

      Voltaire the French philosopher who lived between 1694 and 1778 is considered one of the most influential European enlightenment philosophers. Enlightenment philosophy is often defined as humans becoming adults, therefore rational and practical rather than living in religious bubbles. Voltaire is famous for his secular, human-centred philosophy. His defence of free speech and individual freedom is lauded by many. The famous quote: "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" is often attributed to Voltaire but it was by his biographer who summed up his philosophy. Voltaire not only embraced the age of reason, but he is often considered the foremost representative of that age.

      His most famous novel, Candide or Optimism came after a few terrible events in Europe, namely the Lisbon Earthquake in 1755. Candide is about a man who believes in a philosophy of optimism popularised by the German rational philosopher Leibniz. The novel tells the story of Candide, a happy-go-lucky kind of man who is exposed to all kinds of adventures and hardships of life. He’s a more rational and sensible version of Don Quixote. In the story, he even visits Eldorado, a mythical town in South America where everything is perfect and even the streets are made of gold. Despite being a heaven-like place, Candide is still not satisfied. His adventures take him from Europe to South America and finally he settles somewhere in Turkey on a small patch of land to grow his own food.

      It’s a coming-of-age novel with an individualistic message that we each have to cultivate our own garden. In other words, we are each responsible to find our own meaning and paths in life instead of following a collective ideology or religion. Quote: “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others?” Voltaire looks at a man’s insatiable desire for happiness and prosperity and concludes that happiness is not out there, but it is right here.

      This makes the novel feel very contemporary. But at the time, the novel symbolised man’s maturity and rational thinking, so not chasing things blindly or obsessively or because the church told them. So individuals were masters of their own destiny. Today we take this idea for granted, but back then, the church as well as traditions had a massive psychological grip on the individuals.

      When you combine rationality with obsession, it’s a recipe for disaster according to our next novel. Published in 1818, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is considered the first science fiction novel about a young scientist who creates a monster.

      Frankenstein has The Modern Prometheus as its subtitle referring to the Greek titan who created humans and taught them to hunt and kill animals. In other words, Prometheus made humans carnivores which resulted in us becoming violent creatures. Now when you combine this violent tendency with reason, you create a killing machine, a nuclear monster.

      What’s the story? Mr Victor Frankenstein born in Italy into a wealthy Swiss family, grows up to attend a German university where he excels in science, especially chemistry. As a young scientist, he realises that with the help of electricity he can reanimate a creature made up of dead body parts. So we are in 18th century Europe, where every man wants to make a name for himself by pushing the boundaries of science. Creating life is the ultimate goal of a man. Nature has gifted only women to create life. Now with the help of science men can also do that. So Dr Frankenstein spends two years working on it as he patches body parts together like Michelangelo creating the Statue of David. His dedication, painstaking attention to detail and hard work pay off. He puts the last touches and then turns on the electric switch to animate his baby. Unfortunately the creature is so hideous, with yellow skin, translucent blood vessels, watery eyes that Victor flees his lab. Soon the monster escapes the lab and guess what. Everyone is terrified of him. The monster tries to be friendly, everyone runs away from him.

      Now rejected by everyone, he wants to take revenge on his creator for bringing him to this terrible world. Just as humans killed god with rationality and science, the monster wants to kill his creator too. First he kills the scientist’s brother and then he starts chasing Victor himself. Finally when they meet, he asks Victor to make a female monster so he can have a companion. The scientist, too scared, asks what if they have babies and their babies have babies which can grow into a species that can annihilate the human race. He runs away but the monster chases after him. Finally things get worse and worse until the scientist has to chase his own creation to kill him. The story ends in many tragedies.

      In 1799, one of the Greatest artists, the Spanish Francesco Goya painted his masterpiece, called the Sleep of Reason Creates Monster. He was celebrating human rationality. But in Frankenstein which came some 20 years later, Mary Shelley wanted to show how reason can create monsters too. So human rationality is not a saviour of the human race, but it has made humans into gods who can create terrible weapons and monsters that can destroy humanity as a whole. So rationality is a double-edged sword. It can eliminate many illnesses that save millions of lives, but it can also create atomic bombs that can kill millions.

      Reason allows us to tame nature, so it’s our greatest weapon for survival. But what if you use this weapon, reason, for the wrong reason. Moby Dick by Herman Melville was published in 1851.

      Herman Melville who lived between 1819 and 1891 has a towering presence in American literature. Moby Dick, considered by many to be the greatest novel in American literature, is about Ahab, a ship captain and his quest to take revenge on a sperm whale that bit off his leg. If someone bites off my leg, I would probably do the same, except on land, you cannot really chase someone with one leg. But chasing a sperm whale to take revenge takes human self-confidence to a whole new level, close to delusion. Our civilisation or modernity rests on a single idea that humankind is the master of this earth and nature is ours to tame, control, exploit and even destroy. So one can say that modernity, while it has given us many good things, has also turned humans into mad monsters of nature. Ahab in his mad quest to take revenge, chases the whale which ends with some tragic consequences. You could argue that getting rich or increasing profit is a kind of modern-day madness that results in deforestation, overfishing, and over polluting the air and water.

      So Moby Dick, just like Frankenstein, questions the modern rational man’s obsession to control everything including sperm whales. Do not fight nature because nature is far more dangerous in the long run. It’s like a baby killing its own mother.

      Literature also tells the stories of modern urbanisation, which brought many opportunities for people, but also a lot of disappointments. Charles Dickens who lived between 1812 and 1870 is sometimes considered one of the greatest English novelists, only second to Shakespeare.

      He mainly wrote about what modernity had done to the poor so his themes were mainly poverty, growing up and social mobility in England.

      Great Expectations, published in 1861, is about Pip, a young orphaned boy living with his married sister who treats him very poorly. One day at a graveyard he meets an escaping convict and this encounter changes the young boy’s life forever. Then there is an old woman, Miss Havisham who hates men because she was betrayed by a man. At her house, Pip falls in love with a girl named Estella but she’s cold, very cold. Modern rationality has made humans warmer on the outside but colder on the inside. We’re far less friendly, less kind and less helpful to others. We see homeless people on a daily basis and never think twice about it. Years pass and one day he’s told to quit his blacksmith job and move to London to become a gentleman due to the money he receives from some unknown patron.

      It’s a kind of modern fairy-tale. But this is not your ordinary fairy-tale. It's a colonial fairy-tale. His patron turns out to be this convict who made his fortune in Australia. With this shocking revelation his dreams start tumbling down as the man is soon arrested and his fortunes confiscated. Pip’s great expectations turn into smaller expectations and many misfortunes, and many lucky escapes. But life goes on and he trudges along. He makes a man of himself by working hard and manages to have a son of his own. At the end he manages to meet his first love, Estella again for a happy ending.

      Great Expectations tells the story of modernity from inside out. Instead of focusing on what’s happening in the rest of the world, Dickens takes us to the heart of industrial England which allows some social mobility. Now ordinary people can chase their dreams. So the previous generations of writers were writing about the educated elite or aristocrats, Dickens takes us to the bottom of society. And you know that modernity has given every single person the ability to dream. Not some pipe dreams, but actual dreams of bettering their lives.

      While Dickens had a measured optimism about modernity helping the poor, his fellow countrywoman was also optimistic about how modernity was helping women. George Eliot who lived between 1819 and 1880, wrote during the industrial age, just like Dickens.

      While Dickens was a bit less optimistic about the industrial age, George Eliot saw lights at the end of the tunnel for the less privileged.

      Her novel, Middlemarch published in 1872 is set in a fictional town of Middlemarch in Midlands, England. It tells a few stories but the main plot centres on Dorothea Brook, a bright young woman who marries a clergyman much older so she can showcase her talent as an intelligent woman. In other words, she uses the old man as a platform to climb up socially. But it comes at a cost. Their marriage is unhappy. When her husband dies, Dorothea marries a more average man and becomes more of a typical wife than an intellectual or woman of society.

      It somewhat mirrors George Elliot’s own life. Dorothea marries up but doesn't get any respect and then marries an average man and she is content. Many male authors saw the industrial revolution as destroying nature and beauty but George Elliot saw the change brought more opportunities for women to move out of their fixed traditional roles and exercise some intellectual manoeuvring.

      We move from the 19th century optimism about the industrial age, to the industrial nightmare of the 20th century. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka published in 1915 tells the story Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself turned into an insect or vermin, something that’s repulsive.

      Initially he hopes it’s a temporary state, or perhaps a nightmare, but as days pass, he slowly realises that this is no nightmare. It’s real that he’s no longer human. Unable to leave his room, he reflects on his job and those around him, and his desperate situation as the sole bread-winner of the family. His absence at work alerts his boss who sends someone to visit him. But his family and colleagues fail to communicate with him. His father tries to keep him inside the room, in the process injures him twice. Only his sister, Greta, brings food for him. Then one day their tenants notice him and they are repulsed. They decide to leave the house without paying the rent. Now their financial situation is dire. Gregor’s sister, his only close ally in the family, has had enough and tells his father to get rid of it. Not get rid of him, but get rid of it. Upon this realisation that he’s no longer wanted by anyone including his loved ones, Gregor starves himself to death. The family takes a vacation to refresh themselves and plan Greta’s wedding.

      Kafka depicts a modern man whose only value is what he brings to the table. Without the ability to provide provisioning, he becomes a useless creature. So modernity promised us liberation from nature, now has turned us into beasts of burden. Our only use is to provide something and as soon as we fail in our job, we are discarded. On average we work longer hours at work. We have fewer children. Yet we still complain that we don’t have enough of anything. This is the paradox of modernity. We were supposed work less as we have machines that eases our burden. We were supposed to be happier.

      But it has nothing to do with modernity. It’s always been the paradox of individuals against systems. Individuals pursue happiness while systems want efficiency and control. Rationally speaking it makes sense. For a system to function efficiently, it should only reward those who contribute. Those who only extract without giving anything back are ignored, rationally speaking of course. Gregor’s only function in the family was to provide for them. Without bringing in any food, he is not only useless but also a parasite. Without fulfilling his role as provider, you might as well be dead.

      Kafka himself was twice engaged to the same woman and each time it was called off because Kafka was deemed too sickly to be marriage material or a good provider. So Gregor Samsa in the Metamorphosis is any man deemed useless in society. I think Kafka tells us that your value to modern society and to some extent to your family is only as long as you’re a provider, useful and productive member. Once you’re no longer able to do that, you have no worth. It’s a rational world. Reason has given society and people a tool to prioritise the productive from the unproductive ones.

      So to sum up, the first few novels championed reason as a force for good in rescuing man from nature, but the last few novels critique rationality. While rationality liberates us from strict religious rules and strict social traditions, at the end of the day it is just a tool. It can be used for good and bad.

      We have done it. While literature and storytelling championed reason and science, it also countered it by taking us back to nature. If the enlightenment or the age of reason is humans waking up or a child becoming mature, there is also the tendency to return back to sleep, back to natural freedom and back to human passion. In the next segment, I will deal with a real and genuine challenge to rationality that came from the Romanticists who wanted to return to the raw nature and human passion.

      7: Back to Nature (Romanticism)

      In the previous segment I discussed how literature told the stories of rationality. While it helped us through its science, rationality is a tool and if it is taken too far, it can destroy us all. So in the early days of industrialisation, some writers saw how dirty, polluted and crowded the cities of Europe were becoming, so they fled to the countryside, or wrote about how industrialisation was destroying the beauty of nature. This is when romanticism was born.

      Romanticism is perhaps the last rebellion against humanism and rational thinking. In Greek tragedies, two opposing forces balanced one another. The Dionysian passion counter-balanced the Apollon reason. But with the European Enlightenment, reason became the dominant force in science and literature so much so that writers, poets and artists felt stifled with the structured rationality that promoted conformity rather than originality and creativity. Heroes were no longer heroic but smart, not honourable but scheming and deceitful. But rationality wasn’t just stifling on the inside, it filled cities with smoke and pollution through industrialisation and urbanisation.

      In 1750 the French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau wrote an essay titled Discourse on the Arts and Sciences in which he saw rationality not only dominating the scientific arena but it was also driving the arts. He saw it as a dangerous trend. Some 20 years later a literary movement began in Germany called Sturm und Drang which means storm and stress which is a precursor to romanticism. The German Sturm und Drang movement in art, music and literature means pouring out emotions that is characterised by individual freedom. It was as a direct response to the Enlightenment which emphasised rational thinking and hard work as the only way to become a genius. But this limited and structured approach, not only felt stifling to the artists, it also created a kind of uniformity, which goes against the artistic endeavour of creative originality. In Britain too, poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lord Byron and others rebelled against the Enlightenment rationality to champion nature and human passion.

      So in Europe between 1760s and 1860s is often considered the age of romanticism in literature. Nature, human passion, and the courage to go against the grain became the main themes in literature and storytelling. Some of the literary figures not only wrote about such subjects but also lived like that. They opposed industrialisation, urbanisation and machines and moved to the countryside or even abroad in search of more authentic experiences.

      One of the earliest pioneers of what we call Romanticism was the German literary giant Johann Goethe, a poet, playwright, also a scientist and intellectual who lived between 1749 and 1832.

      Published in 1774, The Sorrow of Young Werther was his first novel when he was 24 years old and his most well-known too, which he based on his own personal experience of an unfulfilled love. Through a series of letters to his friend, Werther, a young artist, talks about his romance with Charlotte, a country girl engaged to another man. He relates his intense emotional torture of a doomed love from the very start, the rejection and seeing her marrying another man. The love triangle means one of them has to lose. Evolution cannot accommodate everyone, which means some people simply cannot procreate. In this case it is a tragic end for the young artist. He commits suicide with a pistol that was sent by his lover, Charlotte.

      Goethe himself became a celebrity after the publication of this novel. Even Napoleon loved it. Also the novel’s tragic end caused “Werther Fever” among young Europeans, with copycat suicides. It also intensified the German romantic movement that spread throughout Europe. You can even see its impact on great Russian writers like Pushkin and Lermontov both dying in romantic duels. This romantic movement also influenced many philosophers, such as Arthur Schopenhauer who incidentally was a friend of Goethe, and Friedrich Nietzsche who questioned the entire western philosophy and civilisation for focusing too much on reason and neglecting human passion.

      Goethe is also famous for another work, the story of Faust in which the main character sells his soul in exchange for happiness through pleasures. This is an allegory of how humans embraced reason that allowed us physical comfort while leaving us empty in meaning.

      Goethe wasn’t alone, there were other writers who saw the problems with the reason-fuelled enlightenment. Friedrich Schiller who lived between 1759 and 1805, was a sickly man but a genius as a playwright and storyteller.

      Schiller’s 1782 play the Robbers which tells the story of two aristocratic brothers with somewhat opposing views on life. Karl is an idealist who thinks honour, courage and honesty are the best values by which a man should live his life. Franz, however, believes one should use any means, including deceit in order to gain material success in life. In other words, Karl is a romantic hero in search of ideals while Franz is a practical hero in search of material success.

      As expected Franz manages to deceive his father in order to steal his brother’s inheritance, leaving the idealist Karl high and dry and without a penny. Karl being an honourable man is outraged by this cunning manoeuvring by his scheming brother. His outrage turns into passion and terrible violence. Karl takes refuge in a forest where he becomes the leader of a gang of robbers. Now they are no longer bound by social or moral norms so they turn savages in the violence they inflict.

      The play depicts the natural outrage of a passionate young man into one of the most important works of German literature.

      Just as Europe was modernising, the Russians too saw the shiny things and got very excited. But with this modernity, came a giant in world literature. Russian literature is a giant that woke up with the help of the romantics. Alexander Pushkin, considered the father of Russian Literature, was born in 1799 and died in a duel in 1837, aged 37.

      His masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, published in 1837 tells the story of Eugene or Evgeny, who initially embraces the cold personality of modernity by refusing the love of a young country woman. But it turns out, his rational approach in not believing in love, was just a facade he had copied from others. He realises that he was sold a lie that romance was stupid. Growing up and living in Saint-Petersburg, the most westernised city in Russia, he had learnt to reject his passion and see things through a rational lens. But when he moves to the countryside, he notices how simple people are and how innocent, naive and even stupid the country folks are. He laughs at their simplicity, and sincerity. When Tatiana confesses her love for Eugene, he laughs at her naivety. Why? Because he considers himself a modern man who doesn’t believe in love or romance. He is a rational man. Years pass but then there is a chance encounter between the two. Now she is married to someone else. Eugene is shocked. Despite his rational mind, something stirs inside him. Something really strong. A deep passion for her. But it is too late. Now it is her turn to refuse him.

      Pushkin wanted to portray that no matter how much you’re exposed to reason and rationality, passion always wins at the end. For Pushkin the profoundest happiness can be found among the country people who are close to nature. A city might offer you convenience but it also takes away your connection with the truest sources of genuine happiness. These are nature, human connection, sincerity, honesty and most importantly human passion.

      And true to his own words, Pushkin died in a duel aged 37.

      With the shocking death of Pushkin, another star was born in Russia. A young 22 year old poet wrote one of the most influential poems about Pushkin’s death which propelled him to replace Pushkin as the national poet of Russia. Mikhail Lermontov was born in 1814 and he was also killed in a duel in 1841, aged 26.

      His masterpiece, A Hero of Our Time was published in 1840 when Lermontov was 25 years old. It’s a collection of 5 interconnected stories mainly about one man named Pechorin, an anti-hero, young army officer and his sexual, romantic adventures which mirrors Lermontov’s own life. Pechorin is a sensitive, romantic and self-deprecating hero but also hard-rock arrogant who never bends to anyone else’s will and at times is deeply unpleasant.

      His name comes from the River Pechora in the North Russian Republic of Komi, just like Pushkin’s hero, Onegin is named after Onega River, also in the north of Russia. This symbolises that both writers took their cues from nature, not modernity. So a typical romanticist hero is a man of nature, violent, unruly and untameable.

      Pechorin’s philosophy on life is quite simple. A man’s life purpose is to go out to conquer and slay the dragons. When he comes back, he gets the woman to procreate with. In other words, women would not even entertain a man who has not done something in life. A man just by mere existence is not enough. He has to do something. Achieve something. Conquer something. This is why when you ask women, the most important quality they see in a man is his ambition. But Pechorin, despite being a man of passion and action, is also full of contradictions, which is nature. His biggest contradiction is between rationality and irrationality or reason and passion. He thinks sensibly but then acts impulsively. His only explanation for these contradictions is that he is a man. In other words it is his fate as a man to live in contradictions.

      So both Pushkin and Lermontov told stories of how deep down we are driven by passion, not reason. On the outside, we may think we are rational, but on the inside the thing that stirs us the most is our passion.

      Now we move from the cold of Russia to the heart of the industrial revolution in England. The Bronte sisters are extremely unique in world literature.

      Charlotte, Emily and Ann were great novelists. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre is also an important English novel. But Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights published in 1847 represents romanticism as it is written in a gothic style, centred on the wild and dark side of human passion and perhaps its Emily Bronte’s response to Jane Austin’s light entertaining romantic tales.

      Wuthering Heights is about two land-owning families but one young man in particular, the untamed and wild Heathcliff, a romantic hero who defies everyone and everything in pursuit of his own money and love. Heathcliff and Catherine grow up together and love each other. But Catherine gets married to another man. Why? Because she prefers stability and financial security more than the wild romance with Heathcliff. This becomes the central conflict in the story. Heathcliff decides he needs to be wealthy to get revenge so he schemes against everyone to accumulate his wealth. Despite his business acumen, his love for Catherine is so intense that people witness their ghosts around the area for generations that come after them.

      Emily Bronte’s masterpiece depicts the intensity and darkness of human passion, the wild side of human heart, the irrational side of existence. This was in response to machines and factories ruining the landscape of Europe with noise and smoke, therefore Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is dark, pessimistic at times.

      This pessimism is shared by another English writer.

      Just like other Romanticists, Thomas Hardy who lived between 1840 and 1928, had a very pessimistic view of industrialisation and urbanisation, therefore he sets his novel in the countryside.

      His 1891 novel, Tess of D'Urbervilles, is set in fictional Wessex in England.

      The female protagonist, Tess discovers that her family name D’Urbervilles might be of a higher class or nobility. Faced with much poverty and adversity, Tess decides to find out about her family’s possible fortune so she visits a mansion belonging to some rich D’Urbervilles. She meets a young D’Urbervilles named Alec who finds Tess very attractive so he gives her a job. Then one night, Alec rapes Tess. Tess returns home and gives birth to a boy who dies soon after.

      Years pass and she finds another job as a milk-woman and meets another man, Angel Clare and they fall in love. When he proposes marriage, Tess is torn but decides to hide the fact that she is not a virgin. On their wedding night she confesses and tells him the truth. The marriage ends right there and then. We are animals after all, so if male lions kill cubs belonging to other males, human males always look for virgin women to make sure the kids belong to them. Nature is cruel but it dictates our lives. They walk their separate ways, Angel Clare goes to Brazil and Tess returns to her parents’ home and her life turns for the worse.

      Meanwhile Alec the bad guy becomes a religious priest, which is yet another of his many tricks to trick Tess once again. His pursuit is rejected. But time passes and Angel Clare returns to find that Tess has given in to Alec’s pursuit. Tess is so torn that she takes matters into her own hands and decides revenge on Alec who had ruined her life. She kills Alec and together with Angel Clare, they flee towards Mexico. I mean they head to the countryside, the jungles of England. I mean the forest of England. Whatever is left of it after the industrial revolution.

      The ending is quite sad but also beautiful as the couple escape from the police and spend a night in Stonehenge. Back to the olden days of prehistoric freedom. But sadly modernity catches up with them. The police arrive and arrest her. Tess is swiftly convicted and sent to jail.

      It’s a novel of bad luck and suffering. I guess you can't change your fate. This shows Thomas Hardy’s pessimism. For him, nature represents innocence, unspoiled while money represents corruption. The poor Tess is the symbol of purity and the rich Alec is the symbol of corruption. So modernity and industrialisation did the same thing to nature, according to Hardy as Alec did to Tess.

      So in the age of reason, science and technology flourished so we could tame and control nature. But the romantics saw nature as the ultimate refuge and man-made industries and cities were nothing but another chain for humans. So nature symbolised freedom while modernity symbolised rigidity and control. So storytelling told the story of the romantics rebelling against reason.

      But you cannot survive in the wild for too long. You need to return to the cities for better opportunities. So at the end, no matter how romantic a person you are at heart, reality always wins at the end. So in the next segment, I will discuss realism, when storytelling meets reality.

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      8: Storytelling meets reality (Realism) In the previous segments we saw how rationality rose to dominate human life and how the romantics rebelled against reason and moved back to nature. In this...
      8: Storytelling meets reality (Realism)

      In the previous segments we saw how rationality rose to dominate human life and how the romantics rebelled against reason and moved back to nature. In this segment, after spending some time in the wild, we return back to big cities to tell the stories of ordinary heroes. Literature and storytelling mainly focused on heroes who generally did extraordinary things, either fought a whale, reigned over kingdom or battled some wild beasts.

      By the 1830s Europe had already seen the rise and demise of one of the biggest military heroes, Napoleon. People were settling for a more peaceful time where life’s practicalities were far more important than heroic deeds of some French general. So writers began shifting their attention from the heroes to ordinary people. So the period between 1830s and 1880s is now considered the age of realism in literature.

      Another reason is that by this time, empirical science was becoming more and more important in people’s lives. As a result, the method of storytelling too changed to focus on what really happened in life. Not some escape into a fantasy land or back to the wild nature but see what happens in the harsh reality of the urban jungle. Literature has always dealt with extraordinary heroes and tales. But now, it turned its attention to the reality of how common people lived. Again, Napoleon, a low-level man rising to the top of Europe had paved the way that any human being, no matter how ordinary and humble their background, was capable of doing extraordinary things, therefore heroes can be found anywhere and everywhere, in every street corner so to speak.

      Another important phenomena was the spread of newspapers at the time. With journalism as a source of information, a new class of reporters were writing about real stories of ordinary people. So literary figures started to mimic this new journalistic style to write their novels.

      So we have literary realism that is rooted first in France and then spread to other parts of Europe. Stendhal, who lived between 1783 and 1842, is a pen name, just as Voltaire was. Stendhal was the pioneer of realism.

      Published in 1830, his masterpiece The Red and The Black is about an ambitious, yet idealistic young man from the country trying to rise in society. But his humble background means he faces many challenges and obstacles. In his romantic quests with women of high society, his naivety is exposed and finally things reach a stage where the protagonist takes things into his own hands with a huge gun trying to kill a woman he once had an affair with. The incident sends him to prison and the novel ends in tragedy.

      The novel was a critique of French society dominated by aristocracy that promised social mobility but in practice there were far more obstacles than opportunities. Napoleon’s rise inspired millions, yet in reality very few could do. In other words, the society was organised in such a way that prevented people from the bottom to rise up the ladder in order to better their lives. Why? Because the French aristocracy prevented people like the protagonist of this novel from encroaching on their territories, taking their positions and stealing their women.

      The Red and The Black also questions the idea of love itself. You only love someone who is hard to get. As human animals we only love what’s hard to get, not something that’s readily available.

      This pessimism about the lives of ordinary people is shared by another giant of French literature. Balzac (1799 –1850) is often called the father of social realism who influenced writers like Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola and even Karl Marx.

      In his Human Comedy series, he produced about 90 novels and novellas in 30 years trying to capture every aspect of life in Paris, which was one of the biggest cities in the world at the time. That is three novels per year.

      Père Goriot, published in 1835, is about three characters, an old man Pere Goriot who sacrifices his life for his family but gets nothing in return. Then there is a criminal who sees Paris as a jungle like a Darwinian world, where only the cleverest can survive and get to eat. And finally a young country man who has moved to Paris trying to rise in society and in the course of the novel is educated in the ways of Paris, some pleasant and some unpleasant lessons.

      The main theme is class inequality, family relationship and love seen through the lenses of some ordinary French folks. So Balzac’s comedy is that no matter how hard you work, sometimes life happens and you can do nothing about it. That is the absurdity of life.

      One of the greatest realist writers was the French writer, Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), whose debut novel, Madame Bovary was published in 1856.

      To make the connection between realism and journalism even more concrete, in fact the story of Madame Bovary was based on a newspaper story of similar events and characters.

      Madame Bovary tells the story of Emma Bovary, a married woman who is unsatisfied with her boring husband and therefore engages in a few affairs to get some excitement in life. Her husband, Charles, a mediocre doctor, thanks to modern science, however is oblivious to everything and does everything he can to make her happy. Emma, however, has read a lot of cheap romance novels in her youth and thinks real life should meet her expectations, just like Don Quixote. But as it turns out, the affairs, too, over time become dull. Now she turns to shopping to create some excitement in her life. But you know where it all ends. When nothing satisfies her, she takes her own life.

      Today the story might seem quite mundane, but go back 150 years ago, it was revolutionary and extremely scandalous. When it was published it was banned and Flaubert was taken to court for writing so explicitly about women’s desire and their sexual freedom. Flaubert contrasts between fantasy and reality of life. Emma had expected marriage to be happy, exciting and full of wondrous experiences but real life tends to be dull, mundane and full of chores. What makes this story resonate with us is how realistic it is even in today’s world where superficiality has become mainstream. Even today, 50% of marriages end in divorce, perhaps because we go into it thinking we will be in some perpetual happiness that Cinderella promised us. Flaubert showed that real life is a lot harsher than what we fantasise about in our youth.

      While Napoleon’s rise influenced generations of French people to dream big and move out of their socio-economic situation, in Russia, however, it was the defeat of Napoleon in 1812 that inspired some of the greatest writers to write about the reality of life in Russia, often in response to Europeanisation of Russia.

      The 1860s was a volatile decade in Russian politics after the Emancipation of 31 million Russian serfs. In literature, however, the 1860s produced some of the greatest novels of all time.

      We start with the most artistic writer of Russian literature. Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) was perhaps the most western of all Russian writers in the 19th century whose influence on other Russian writers was immense.

      His novels are written in a more objective and journalistic style, letting his characters act and talk as they wish, similar to Gustave Flaubert, who incidentally was also his friend.

      Fathers and Sons published in 1862 is about an angry young man Bazarov, educated in Europe who returns to Russia in order to destroy the old Russia and replace it with a new, modern Russia, as though Russia is a house in need of a real renovation. We know we are here for a cracking story. He first clashes with his father and other men of the older generation over their different outlook on the world and life. Conflict between generations and the theme of nihilism dominate the novel. But the conflict that brings the young brazen man is the conflict on the inside. He falls in love with a woman and with that his political ambition collapses. But at the very crucial moment, he duels with another man and the first sight of blood transforms a ruthless revolutionary into a caring doctor.

      It’s the power of Turgenev’s storytelling that leaves you with tears in your eyes. Fathers and Sons tells the story of nihilism, an intellectual movement that wanted to replace the old system with a radical new system that ran only on reason. A common offspring of nihilism has been the Russian socialism in which machines and science were given priority over faith, arts and traditions. Turgenev saw this change some 50 years before the Russian revolution of 1917 in which the Bolsheviks took over Russia, ending the Russian empire and setting up a socialist state. So ordinary Russian toppled the old and replaced it with ordinary leaders, albeit they too became like the old guards.

      While Turgenev had a more ambivalent outlook on modernity and the western scientific approach, his fellow country man saw things very differently. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is one of the greatest writers of all time who took a very psychological approach to storytelling.

      But in his novels he tried to depict real life from an individual point of view. Nowhere he’s more precise and articulate than in Crime and Punishment, published in 1866. It’s the first Russian novel to confront western philosophical ideas and schools head on but on the narrative front it mainly concerns what was happening in Russia at the time. Young men were influenced by western ideas, therefore wanted to change Russia and its social and moral fabrics.

      Crime and Punishment is a crime novel about a young man named Raskolnikov whose poverty prevents him from achieving his Napoleonic dreams of becoming someone great in order to change history. In order to alleviate his immediate poverty, he decides on murdering an old pawn broker who is no use to society. He justifies his decision based on western moral philosophies such as utilitarianism that end justifies the means as well as socialism in which the rich are nothing but parasites in society sucking the blood out of the poor. His third moral justification is that because he is an extraordinary man, he sets his own morality so he can justify the murder simply because he wants to do extraordinary things in society in the future.

      Of course the murder goes wrong, horrible wrong. Dostoevsky shows that reality always bites you in the neck. No matter how lofty your ideas or dreams are, reality keeps you in check.

      While Dostoevsky wrote about the reality of Russian life, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) who lived between 1828 and 1910 wrote extensively about Napoleon and his adventures through Russia and the famous battles between the French and the Russians in his masterpiece War and Peace. It’s partly history and partly fiction which depicts reality of what happened during those wars and most importantly why they happened. So Tolstoy’s approach was not only philosophical but also historical.

      But his 1878 novel Anna Karenina, somewhat similar to Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary, which depicts the reality of life in Russia during peacetime. Tolstoy himself called Anna Karenina his only true novel.

      The novel tells the story of a married woman, Anna, who is not satisfied with her husband’s boring lifestyle, who is incidentally a bureaucrat, another job created thanks to modernity. She falls in love with an army officer at a train station. Tolstoy mirrors how the trains changed people’s lives. Now you could travel at a speed you couldn’t dream before. All thanks to modern science. But this speed also brought a change in people’s psyche that you could get happiness also faster. If you are not happy in this station, you could just hop on the train to the next station in search of happiness. Anna does exactly that. She leaves her stable, reliable husband for a fun and exciting officer. But unfortunately the grass is never greener at the other train station. The consequences are disastrous for both. The novel ends in tragedy, again at a train station.

      Tolstoy shows how 19th century Russian aristocrats were torn between tradition and modernity. How machines like the trains were changing Russians. Tolstoy’s realism is mainly concerned with those at the top.

      The 19th century was a huge era of upheavals that produced some of the greatest works of literature. The French trio of Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert pioneered a journalist style of literary realism in which they tried to paint a picture of reality within French society, focusing their attention on the ordinary people. The Russian trio of Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy focused on the individual characters and the choices they make in life. Turgenev took an artistic, objective approach, while Tolstoy took a communitarian and sociological approach meaning society determines an individual’s choices, and Dostoevsky took an individualistic and psychological approach in which the individual has the responsibility for their choices.

      But all realist writers were concerned about the harsh reality of life of real characters. How an individual's choices in life can have real world consequences, no matter if you are rich or poor, young or old, weak or strong. Reality always wins. Realism mimicked the scientific, objective approach to storytelling, depicting real lives of ordinary people.

      In the next segment we discuss naturalism in which storytelling meets evolutionary biology. Realism didn’t dig deeper into our animalistic past, but barely scratched the surface, so naturalists saw bigger biological trends among humans.

      9: Storytelling meets Biology (Naturalism)

      In the previous segment I discussed that realism was inspired by the scientific method in which storytelling became an objective art that reported reality as it was, without judgement. Writers like Flaubert and Stendhal in France and Turgenev in Russia took a very journalistic style to storytelling. However by the 1860s, this journalistic style was considered to tell half of the truth. The other half was buried deeper underground, mainly in our evolutionary biology.

      Charles Darwin’s influential book, On the Origin of Species published in 1859, revolutionised our understanding of our evolutionary origin. He concluded that humans have evolved from apes, just all other animals evolved from a previous species.

      This had a huge influence on philosophy but its impact on literature resulted in a literary movement called naturalism which was between 1880s and 1930s. Unlike realism, naturalism sees reality not as it seems or appears on the surface but tries to explain the underlying evolutionary or biological truth to our social life. Naturalism also coincided with socialism that viewed society through class or groups, not through individuals. In other words, biology sees things through species and naturalism sees societies through a communitarian lens.

      One of the earliest examples of naturalism can be seen in the works of Leo Tolstoy. In his 1869 novel War and Peace Tolstoy says history books are like works of fiction.

      Great men of history, like Napoleon are more like fictional heroes; created, shaped and glorified by historians. In reality we might think that it’s the great men who shape history but Tolstoy says the opposite is true. It is history that shapes great men. Tolstoy believed these so called historical heroes such as Napoleon couldn’t have changed the course of history by themselves, but it was the entire society, from those fighting in the trenches, to the peasants producing the food, to the farmers feeding the horses and to the women who looked after the children, they all contributed to historical events, but historians hardly ever mention the millions of soldiers or ordinary men and women collectively. As a result, Tolstoy believed individual free will doesn’t exist because prior historical events have shaped most of what we can do or would do.

      In War and Peace, Tolstoy wanted to understand Russia, especially what led to the emancipation of serfs in 1861 when 31 million Russians were suddenly free. He knew this event had its roots in the 1820s, specially the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 when the aristocrats revolted against the Tsar but failed. Tolstoy, then thought to understand the 1820s, he had to look at what had happened before, so he noticed the 1812 Russian victory over Napoleon. But what led to that? To understand that he had to go back again to when Napoleon decisively defeated the Russians and Austrians at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. So War and Peace begins in 1805 and ends in the 1820s.

      So for Tolstoy most of history is determined by those who came before. This he called the force of history, just as Darwin saw species evolved from other species that came before. So naturalism sees a deeper truth that is often hidden beneath the surface.

      War and Peace is a monumental work of literature with hundreds of characters, but to boil down, the novel tells the story of several Russian aristocrats who were caught up during the Napoleonic wars of 1805 and 1812. At the heart of the novel is a young aristocrat called Pierre, a France-educated Russian man. He embraces many of the French cultural values but he is also Russian so the French-Russian wars should be a perfect test for his loyalty but it turns out he has no say in it. He almost drifts from scene to scene and gets dragged into the middle of the conflict and even attempts to assassinate Napoleon, a man he had deep respect for. In a way it makes no sense. We ought to see things in black and white but Tolstoy sees many shades of grey. History and life in general is far more nuanced than historians tell us. At one point Pierre gets captured by the French army so has to endure captivity where he finds solace in the company of a Russian peasant. At the end he survives it all but his friends are not so lucky.

      So Tolstoy wanted to show that in life, individuals have little or no free will. We think we are free but in reality we drift in the ocean of history. It’s all determined by history and those who came before us. So the so-called theory of great men shaping history, according to Tolstoy, is nothing but fiction, created by modern historians. Great men like Napoleon are as much shaped by history and dragged to the front to lead an army than the soldiers he orders.

      In the footsteps of Tolstoy, other writers who also leaned more towards a more sociological approach to storytelling, also leaned more towards socialism. Emile Zola born in 1840 and died in 1905 is considered the most important literary figure in the naturalist tradition.

      He combined realism with the psychological and emotional expression of the characters. Zola was a very successful writer in his lifetime and made a huge sum of money with his writing, also a huge celebrity. His most famous novel, Germinal, published in 1885, refers to germination of seeds, thus considered a scientific-biological effort by Zola to understand society. Just as plants germinate, social movement also germinates and in this case in a mining community in France, so it is a working class novel.

      Germinal is about a naïve, but idealistic young mine worker who tries to better his life, a common theme in all of 19th century literature. While working at a mine, the young man shows keen interest in socialism, but as things heat up, he is pushed to the front to become the leader among miners who decide to go on strike but it results in suppression by the police and army. Later the young man is trapped inside the mine and finally released and fired from his job.

      The theme of the novel is the struggle of humans, the nature of violence and raw emotions. Even to this day, the novel has a special place among the French working class. Just like in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Zola depicts society like a living organism that organises itself through forces which go beyond the individual members.

      Naturalism as a literary movement has close ties with socialism that also had a more deterministic view of history. Marx saw socialism as the inevitable child of capitalism. So who knows in a few hundred years from now, the human species may become like a colony of ants where everyone is equal. Babies are born in factories rather than individually. Once we get rid of old-school sex between males and females, we can eliminate differences and create babies who are identical in looks and size. That’s the only way we can create Communism, a truly equal society. But if left to nature, it is hard to achieve equality but nature inherently favours competition through which the cream rises to the top. The most proficient animals survive and the least skilful animals perish.

      Now we move from the mines of France to Scandinavia. The Red Room, published in 1879, is August Strindberg’s most famous novel.

      It tells the story of Arvid Falk who is perhaps the young August Strindberg himself disguised as a civil servant who hates his job, the terrible bureaucracy and the slog of working in an office. He asks himself the question: What does his life mean? He doesn't have an answer. He quits his job, and returns to his elder brother whom he thinks has cheated him out of his inheritance. But he is too timid to confront him, instead he takes refuge among a group of poor artists who meet regularly in a red room of a restaurant to talk politics, art and writing. As the story progresses Arvid tries to be a writer. We meet other Swedes, politicians, publishers, philanthropists and the theatre elites of Stockholm who show common traits such as corruption, deception and hypocrisy. Like a Darwinian social world, behind the scenes it is a dog-eat-dog world. Poverty on the one hand and a corrupt elite who turn a blind eye to inequality and injustice on the other.

      The group of artists struggle with poverty. Some commit suicide but most of them appear to accept the society as it is without managing to make any dent in the system. By the end they all end up being what you might characterise in a modern sense as reformed of their early revolutionary ideas. Arvid gets married and finds a job at a school. In a sense he is rehabilitated into the society he deeply hated.

      The bottom line is that no matter how you fantasise about a brighter future, social change, and revolutions, there are bigger forces in the society that determines most of what happens anyway, which makes the individual almost hopelessly weak. So no matter how great an idea you may have, the forces at play are far greater than you might imagine. I say biology is the biggest force out there. So one of the biggest problems with socialism was their lack of understanding of human nature. We’re more selfish than altruistic. We are lazier than revolutionary. We like order more than chaos. And when we get power, we want to keep it to ourselves and our family and friends. We do anything to keep the power we have. So if you replace the old elite, you don’t change the system, you just change the elite members. This is nature 101.

      Speaking of nature, we move to America now to talk about another writer with socialist tendencies. Jack London who was born in 1876 and died in 1916 was a successful writer and a celebrity of the day.

      You see a trend here? Emile Zola, Tolstoy, August Strindberg and now Jack London were all huge celebrities while alive. When you write about the poor, you appeal to a large audience. Why? Because most people are poor than rich. If nature is like a pyramid, human society is no different. So these writers appealed to the masses who happen to be at the bottom of the pyramid.

      Published in 1905, The Call of the Wild, a very short novella of about 80 pages tells the story of a sled dog employed to work in the cold part of Canada during the gold-rush. The main character is a dog called Buck. He is stolen in California and taken to the cold climate of Canada. It’s nature at its worst. As the environment gets worse and worse, so does Buck. When survival comes to the front more and more, he becomes more like a wolf as his natural instincts kick in.

      Jack London seems to suggest that as things get worse, we become worse too in our dealings with others. In peacetime, we all have lofty dreams of helping others and promising things, but as soon as the shirt hits the fan, we return to our animalistic natural tendencies. As children we learn to treat others well, but in the right environment or wrong environment, we can also unlearn it quickly and become savages. Jack London and Jose Saramago were both socialists so they believed we are nothing but the product of our social environment. Thousands of years ago dogs were wolves and humans turned them into domestic dogs.

      The Call of the Wild appears like a children’s story, but it is very dark, somewhat similar to The Lord of the Flies by William Golding where teenagers turn into brutes on a desert island. So in this novel, Jack London takes us back to a Darwinian world of instincts ruling dogs and people.

      So to sum up, naturalism in literature combined evolutionary biology with storytelling in order to get to a deeper instinctive truth about the human condition. While realist writers were focusing on the objective truth, naturalists tried to look beneath the surface, at deeper biological and evolutionary truths that shape our surface-level choices in life to reveal hidden motivations. In a sense naturalism is a bridge between the empirical science of realism and the psychoanalytical approaches of modernism. Naturalism has elements of realism combined with psychological elements of the unconscious and biological realities of survival of the fittest.

      Naturalism had two main focuses, biological reality of survival materialism and ideal socialism of creating a just society. In other words, naturalism told stories of this paradox. We want a fair society but our biology is not helpful. Ideally we want to live in a fair, peaceful and equal social order, but biologically we are not made that way. We come in different sizes, shapes, looks, intelligence, temperaments like resilient, hardworking, lazy, etc. So in our higher-ape mind we like equality but in our hind-animal body and animalistic tendencies we want everything for ourselves. The gap between ideal dream and biological reality cannot be bridged. We promise freedom but as soon as we become powerful we do everything in our power to restrict freedom for ourselves, not for others. This was beautifully illustrated in George Orwell’s Animal Farm in which the revolutionary freedom fighters after taking over the farm slowly turn into the old rulers’ habits and slowly start behaving the same as the old tyrants.

      So the pessimism of naturalism led some writers to turn to psychology to understand what’s happening inside the animal psyche of ours. Why are we so nice in good times and as soon as we face challenges or as soon as we get some power, we become the people we once hated? So naturalism was followed by modernism which instead of biology turned to psychology.

      So in the next segment I will discuss when storytelling met psychoanalysis.

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      10: Storytelling meets Psychology (Modernism) In the previous segment we saw how Darwin’s theory of evolution had a massive impact on literature and storytelling. The same can be true of...
      10: Storytelling meets Psychology (Modernism)

      In the previous segment we saw how Darwin’s theory of evolution had a massive impact on literature and storytelling. The same can be true of psychoanalysis. So in this segment, we move away from biology and turn to psychology’s impact on a literary movement called modernism. Instead of social change, we zoom in on what’s going on inside the mind of the individual. So storytelling meets psychology.

      Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical talking cure had a profound influence on literature. It liberated you from your inner burdens, suppressed urges, and repressed emotions. It was a release that provided you with catharsis. Writers used the talking cure techniques in literature by allowing their characters to talk without any restrictions or interruptions.

      The result is what is often called modernism and the most famous style has been the stream of consciousness, a term coined by the French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. So modernism also has a close affinity with existentialism as the focus is not material success but meaning in life.

      Also I should note that William James, the American psychologist had a huge influence on the study of consciousness who likened it to a stream. Psychologists before saw consciousness as a structure with different rooms like subconscious, unconscious and ego, but James didn’t consider it a structure but a stream that runs like liquid. So the stream of consciousness perhaps was more influenced by James than Freud. Freud’s view of consciousness is more like a structure, a house with many levels, conscious the upper floor and the unconscious the basement. But modernism took its method of storytelling from psychoanalysis of talking cure. By allowing the characters to talk without following any grammatical rules or punctuations, they can tap into a deeper consciousness, the subconscious or the unconscious to bring out things otherwise hidden.

      The arrival of psychology as a separate discipline in philosophy had a profound influence on literature. The German psychoanalytical approach of Freud and later Jung made literature a more psychological endeavour than a philosophical one. So between 1910 and 1930, modernist fiction became prominent.

      While the naturalists had a sociological approach which put the collective as a focal point, the modernist returned to the individual. While realists and naturalists focused on what was happening on the outside, the modernists shifted their focus on the inside, the inner thoughts and monologues of their characters. What was going on inside the head, i.e. the internal experience and emotions, the subjective experience, was as important as the outside world.

      The origin of modernism can be traced to a very short novella written in the 1860s in Russia. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground published in 1864 tells the story of a sick man who has gone underground like an injured animal.

      So not only are we inside his head, but he himself is hiding inside a basement. He narrates his own story of how he was humiliated on the outside by an officer, and relates his cowardly botched and comical attempt to take revenge on him. But as it turns out the officer doesn't even notice him because he is so insignificant.

      His second story is how he tried to borrow money from his boss, but found no courage to do so, again in a comical fashion showing his cowardice. Later on when he forces an invite to a school reunion, his friends show no respect for him. After a fight they abandon him, but as pathetic as he is he follows them to a brothel where he meets a prostitute, named Liza. The underground man feels his life is taking a positive turn when he manages to sleep with Liza, but despite his own pitiful life, he looks down on her. He even admonishes her for selling her body and her soul for money. She leaves him, and he is devastated. Now he is back to square one: alone and a loser. Since society treated him as an insignificant entity, he has become deeply resentful and petty and wants to enact it on someone weaker than him, someone like Liza.

      Now that the Underground Man feels like a total loser, he has nothing to lose so what does he do? He isolates himself from society like an injured animal that goes somewhere quiet to die, away from others. The underground man is physically ill because his liver has gone kaput perhaps too much drinking. Who knows. But importantly we know that he is so deeply psychologically wounded that he no longer wants to receive any treatment for his illness. He has given up on society and life in general. However, he wants to warn us about how modernity with its rationality-driven progress can turn us all into someone like him, isolated, dissatisfied, and resentful.

      So Dostoevsky’s underground man is the first modernist hero whose pathetic experience on the outside turns him inward.

      We move away from a dark basement in Russia to the dark streets of Oslo. Knut Hamsun who lived between 1859 and 1952 published Hunger in 1890. It’s often called the first modernist novel.

      Set in Kristiania, the old name of Oslo, the unnamed protagonist is a struggling writer unable to pay rent or buy food. He almost sleep-walks from park bench to park bench, from prison to his work. He is not in control of his life. Once he is so hungry he chews on his fingers, and worse still almost eats his own pencil, the very tool that allows him to be a writer. Imagine me eating my computer, a tool I use to make this video.

      Despite his poverty, he is a deeply proud man, always refusing to take money from others. At one point he tries to become close to a woman but she refuses to show her face. Then one day he is kicked out of his lodging for interfering with the family’s affairs. At the end, he volunteers to be a crew on a boat heading to England. We don't know whether he gets to England or he is still drifting at sea.

      Quote: “The dark monsters out there would suck me up when night came on, and they would carry me far across the sea and through strange lands where no humans lived.” The madness of a modern man is depicted beautifully in this short novel. We see things from the perspective of a man on the outer edge of society whose external experiences induce an internal madness.

      Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is one of the best examples of a man living in his head. His reality is what he has constructed for himself. It personifies Rene Descartes’s quote, I think, therefore that’s who I am.

      The modern condition in which individuals felt more and more isolated, turned many writers to be more pessimistic. But one French writer turned this pessimism into optimism. How? He filled modern emptiness with artistic beauty. It’s art that fills all the emptiness modernity has thrown at us.

      Marcel Proust’s novel, In Search of Lost Time, published between 1913 and 1927, holds the record for the longest novel.

      The novel tells the story of a man named Marcel who surreptitiously finds himself transported to his past after eating a tea-soaked cake. The taste of the cake combined with the aroma of the tea triggers in him something he thought he had lost: his past memories. Not just that, but his past selves come back to him. The memories of his childhood flashes right in front of him. But it is in the taste of the cake. The people he once loved. The places he lived. All these were inside the taste of the cake. This involuntary trigger is so incredibly strong that Marcel finds himself almost outside of time. He is able to exist two times at once. He can be in the present drinking tea while also simultaneously being in the past, a child full of wonders, a teenager full of angst, an adult in love, jealous, disappointed and so much more. He realises one of the most fundamental questions in life. Why do we age? Why do we forget things? He realises that time is our biggest enemy. It’s slowly killing us, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day and year-by-year. Time is decaying us.

      But the only weapon we have against time is our memory. Through involuntary memory triggered by taste, smell, touch, or sound, we can regain the past selves, experiences which liberates us from time. But it is a momentary liberation. And also since these memories are involuntary, you cannot predict them. Maybe when a smell hits your nostrils you might find yourself a child waiting for your mother making dinner. Or you might hear a song, you suddenly remember your teenage self in love with a girl next door. While beautiful as these involuntary memories are, they come without you knowing and they also disappear in the same way they come. Suddenly.

      So how can we defeat time? To fully liberate oneself from time, Proust turned to art. While we die, art lives on. So by the end of the novel, Marcel becomes a writer and writes one of the most beautiful novels of all time.

      For Proust, our internal experiences have a far deeper meaning than our external experiences. Throughout the novel, the protagonist is always disappointed by the reality on the outside. Seeing a beautiful cathedral, or a painting or love, never matched what he had created in his imagination. So beauty is an internal and psychological experience. But Proust also understood that our memory is not just stored inside our head, they are also stored in external objects, a piece of art, a rock, a sentimental object, a pathway, a house but also in smells, sounds and taste.

      So Marcel Proust’s novel is a perfect example of how we find meaning through storytelling. How storytelling can make us immortal. Time is killing us but we are fighting back with storytelling and art.

      Now we move from Paris to Dublin in our journey of consciousness. James Joyce spent 7 years writing Ulysses and published it in 1922.

      The title, structure and some other aspects of this novel come from Homer’s poem the Odyssey written some 2500 years ago in Ancient Greece. James Joyce wanted to link 20th century Ireland with Ancient Greece. In Homer’s poem the main character Odysseus or Ulysses in Latin is returning home after the Trojan war that took ten years, but it takes him another ten years to get home. While Homer’s hero spent 20 years getting back home, James Joyce sets his novel on a single day in Dublin, Ireland. June 16, 1904 is a Thursday, which was a half day's work back then. With 265,000 words, now it’s probably the longest day or the slowest day in literature. If Proust travelled back in time, Joyce stretched time in this novel.

      So another element of modernism is time. Why time you might ask? We can register the passage of time through consciousness. If we have no consciousness, we have no clue how time passes. We register the passage of time through change. Day turning to night or people aging, or plants growing. So our consciousness is the only tool we can notice time moving.

      Ulysses tells the story of Leopold Bloom, a half Jewish advertising agent, his wife Molly Bloom, a singer, and Stephen Daedalus, a part-time teacher. The day starts at 8am. First Stephen goes to teach a class and arranges to meet his housemate Buck at the pub later on. Leopold Bloom goes to place an ad in a newspaper. He wanders through the streets of Dublin from place to place, drifting like some log in the ocean, just as Odysseus did through the Aegean sea. Leopold ends up on a beach where he masturbates at the sight of a girl’s naked leg. Finally Bloom and Stephen meet in a hospital. Bloom follows Stephen and his friends to a brothel, just like in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Stephen gets too drunk and they both end up at Bloom’s house around midnight. They drink cocoa while talking about themselves and then urinate together. So modernism liberates the characters from their repressed or suppressed urges and treats them like animals. Stephen leaves and Bloom goes to bed next to Molly, so we enter Molly’s head as she remembers her affair as well as the time she agreed to marry him.

      James Joyce’s style of writing is considered the prime example of what’s called stream of consciousness. The novel doesn’t follow conventional punctuation and each section takes the form of the place it is told, just like some water taking the shape of a container. For instance, the time Bloom visits a newspaper office, the narrative takes a journalistic style.

      For Joyce, the internal monologues told without hesitation is how the human mind works. At any moment, a million things go through our consciousness. But since we are social beings, we hide, suppress and censor ourselves. This was so much true in Joyce’s fellow Irish writer Samuel Becket who wrote his plays in French because he wanted some freedom from the repression of his culture and the English language.

      So Joyce thought what if you let the consciousness loose and free, the result is Ulysses, which is perhaps barely a scratch on the surface. Freud’s talking cure was meant to allow his patients to express their suppressed emotions, urges and memories that are stored in their unconscious. Joyce obliges and the result is Ulysses.

      While Joyce’s characters are free to roam in the city of Dublin. In the Magic Mountain, published in 1924, Thomas Mann’s characters are locked in a particular place from where they cannot leave.

      Just like in Kafka’s novels, his characters are physically paralysed to some extent. Due to physical illness they have to remain in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. This is similar to the lockdown of the previous years. But the novel is much more than that. Thomas Mann juxtaposes physical illness with societal illness.

      Europe was experiencing a kind of madness during the first half of the 20th century. Two world wars that cost millions of lives. So the novel balances two tensions, the psychological and ideological. On the outside ideologies fight one another but inside the individual psyche, the battle is far deeper, it is about life and meaning.

      At the heart of The Magic Mountain is the battle between three different philosophies. On the one hand, we have humanism which promotes individual freedom and rationality and wants to change the world for the rational individuals. While on the other hand, we have socialism that promotes economic equality and wants to get rid of classes. Somewhere in the middle we have romanticism which promotes the enjoyment of life and beauty and doesn't want to change a thing. So all these different philosophies are depicted inside a sanatorium, in other words.

      The whole of Europe was recovering from the First World War to recuperate and plan for another great war that came some 15 years later after the publication of this novel.

      So while realism took its cue from the scientific objective method to paint reality as it is, naturalism took its cue from evolutionary biology to get to some deeper social truths, modernism relied on psychology to understand what’s happening inside the head of the individual.

      Next we turn to magical realism, in which storytelling returns to its ancient roots of sprinkling some magic on the mundane reality of life to give it a bit of a spark.

      11: Storytelling meets Quantum Physics (Magical realism)

      In the previous segments, I discussed how storytelling met sciences such as physics realism, biology’s naturalism and psychology’s modernism, but it all seemed to lack something. It lacked a spark of unpredictability and spontaneity. Since the old science is all about predictability, storytelling needs a bit of randomness. So with the discovery of quantum physics, came the magic of spontaneity. So in this segment, I will discuss magical realism. Rational sciences sucked the energy out of storytelling so we return back to the olden days when fairies and beasts appeared out of nowhere.

      Literary realism dates back to the 1830s and by the 1930s it had incorporated magic to give birth to another literary movement called magical realism. Although it is very prominent in South American literature, its origin goes back to our deeper past. Magic has always been part of human life, since the dawn of human civilisation. To give you an example, the ancient Egyptians saw magic as part of their religion. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, magic spells are an integral part of life as well as death. Without magic, you could neither survive life, nor death. For the Egyptians if you thought of something, it became reality, so thinking itself was magical. Religious miracles are also magical events which become myths and widely used in storytelling. Another important event in our recent history is the discovery of quantum physics where the old physical certainties were challenged by the uncertainty of the quantum mechanics, often described through Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or Schrödinger’s cat. Erwin Schrödinger argued that at any moment due to subatomic randomness, a cat can be dead and alive which is paradoxical.

      The classic physical certainty was now challenged so novelists, partly inspired by quantum physics and partly by thousands of years of magical thinking, started to combine reality with a pinch of magic to cook a new storytelling technique. The early magical realism had more religious flavour but later on with quantum physics and the also the development of psychoanalytic unconscious, it took a more secular turn. So storytelling became more like dreams where bizarre events take place yet when reading we suspend disbelief. Just like in dreams while we are dreaming, we never question what’s happening at the time. Both Freud and Jung used dreams to reach the hidden unconscious. Writers also tapped into the unconscious to tell dream-like magical tales.

      The 1930s novel, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov was one of the pioneers of magical realism.

      Bulgakov (1891-1940) was a doctor, just like Chekhov. But when he was injured, he gave up medicine to become a full time writer. While his physical illness prevented him from practising medicine, writing during the Stalin rule, however, also had its problems. You were not allowed to write about certain things. So Bulgakov had to be careful how he told his stories to avoid censorship but worse still, the cold of Siberian labour camp. A fate Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn couldn’t avoid. Although he was close to Stalin at one point, he also had problems with him. He was banned, then saved by the man with the moustache and banned again.

      In order to escape censorship, he devised a plan to write a novel in which reality is constructed in a way that is almost unbelievable. You couldn’t tell the story of reality how it was but you could certainly tell a magical tale. Another reason was of course religion. Since Bulgakov was drawn to religion, perhaps as a coping mechanism given the horror of witnessing human misery as a doctor, he used miraculous events to construct a story about Moscow. Although The Master and Margarita was written in the 1930s it was only allowed to be published in the 1960s.

      The story is about Satan visiting Moscow, targeting a group of writers. Master is an embittered and gloomy author, a stereotypical Russian man who never smiles. Why smile? For what reason? He’s so pessimistic that he burns his manuscript after being refused publication, but his mistress, Margarita, is a very optimistic young lady. What does she do to save the gloomy Master? Well, she cannot fight the devil, so she uses her wit to save his man. Margarita joins Satan in his game and by the end they all vanish. Satan and his entourage are like a tornado that brings chaos to Moscow for a few days and then vanishes, taking away both Master and Margarita with them.

      There might be an allusion to those defecting to the West, because the West was considered Satan among the Soviet elite. In fact, one of the most important Soviet writers, Maxim Gorky, the social realist novelist, wrote a book called, The City of Yellow Devil, he was referring to New York and the West as a whole that has fallen in love with money too much. In Master and Margarita, there is a character called Ponyryov who is based on Maxim Gorky. The novel is considered the first critique of Stalin, and a precursor to the South American tradition of magical realism. The novel has a talking cat, and many bizarre events.

      Now we move from religion-induced magic of Master and Margarita to a magical tale that was induced by opium. To make our connection between religion and opium even stronger, Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. The 1936 novel, the Blind Owl by Sadeq Hedayat is one of the most important works of modern Persian literature.

      It’s a beautifully vivid tale that weaves between reality and an opium-induced dream that grabs you and gives you a new lens into another realm of reality. The narrator is a painter who is tormented by a pair of black eyes, similar to Edgar Allan Poe’s blue eyes in the Tell-Tale Heart. Those two black eyes become the other main character in the story, perhaps a metaphor for society watching us. Sartre’s famous idea that hell is other people is represented by an old man whose laughter brings shudder to the narrator’s back.

      In order to free himself, the protagonist thinks he has to murder his wife who refuses to sleep with him. So the narrator is a painter in part one and confessor of a murder in part two. Just like Dostoevsky’s underground man, he is mocked by everyone, so shame becomes a central theme in the novel. At one point, when he is alone with her, he goes to get some wine, which appears like a trip back in time when drinking wine was legal in Iran before the arrival of Islam, but when he returns, he notices that she’s already dead.

      To revive her, he sleeps next to her naked body, hoping his own body heat can bring her back to life. Once he fails to revive his dead wife, he decides to draw her. Perhaps telling us that art makes a person immortal. But he fails to draw her properly. He tries many times to really capture her until finally he manages to complete his drawing, only to discover that the same drawing was done thousands years ago, showing the futility of his effort.

      The old man who laughs with his entire body, helps him bury her in a ditch inside a suitcase. As they carry the body, the story takes a Jungian turn, we are suddenly transported to a thousand years back in history, at the height of the Persian civilisation. The narrator realises that someone else a thousand years ago had painted the very same image on an ancient jar.

      Hedayat was influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead which describes a kind of hallucination, so death is almost like a major character in the novel. The moment you’re born, your death is also born with you. It follows you everywhere you go, like a shadow. When time comes, it liberates you as though life is a life-sentence. One of the unique aspects of the novel is that characters are recycled like a low budget movie that hires five people to play 15 characters. The uncle becomes the gravedigger. The wife becomes a muse of his painting, whore, and an angel.

      So Hedayat uses opium to numb the pain of existence but also an escape from reality. If Bulgakov used a religious miracle, Hedayat uses a drug-induced miracle to escape reality.

      Now we move from Iran to Mexico to talk about another masterpiece of literature which blurs the line between real life and death. The Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo, born in 1918 and died in 1986, published his masterpiece, Pedro Paramo, in 1955.

      It influenced generations of Latin American writers and most notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

      It’s a short novella that tells the story of a boy, Juan Preciado, who after the death of his mother, Dolores Preciado, sets off in search of his father Pedro Paramo in order to confront him for the years of neglect for him and his mother. He arrives at the village of Comala with his companion, Abundio, another son of Pedro Paramo. When they arrive, they face a ghost village. But it is no problem, because in this novella, the ghosts are just as alive as the living beings.

      So our hero meets a few dead people who continue the story. Through dead people’s fragmented accounts and voices, a picture of his father emerges as a corrupt, murderous, cruel man who took other people’s lands, money, wives and daughters. He slept with different women and fathered many children. With it Juan learns about the tragic and violent end to the town and its people and a bit about his own origin.

      So in other words, it’s the story of death merged with the origin story, so in a sense we return to our early ancestors inventing storytelling to fight mortality.

      Through the fragmented stories and accounts of the dead people, we get a picture of the man who ruled the town and its people and how he was consumed by the love of one woman, Susana San Juan. When the notorious Pedro Paramo dies, the whole town is consumed in revolutionary violence and slow destruction into dust. Suddenly everything crumbles like a sand castle.

      The novel has no chapters, or clear markers of who is talking. It is like you're in a desert graveyard, with a microphone in the shape of a tumbleweed that lends itself to different characters and they start speaking unprompted and randomly. You hear voices and you don’t know who is talking. There is a moderator but he falls asleep from time to time. Characters appear and then fade away. The narrative too shifts from first person to the third person and back again, also between past and present. It appears fragmentary and disjointed and without a clear structure, and that’s the genius of this novel. Juan Rulfo takes us into one of the most profound dreams that is deeply tragic but also incredibly beautiful. This story takes us back to our early past when consciousness mingled between dream and reality.

      Now we move away from the desert of Mexico to Europe. The 1959 novel, Tin Drum by German author Günter Grass (1927-2015) is about a Polish child, Oskar Matzerath, who narrates his own story while in a mental hospital.

      At a young age, Oskar refuses to grow up because he wants to avoid becoming a shopkeeper. Throughout history, for men growing up was bundled with going to war. But luckily for Oskar, he has a super power that not only he can control his height, but also when he screams he can shatter glass. Just like Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream shows the deep human angst at the madness of the world, Tin Drum also depicts the madness of war.

      Oskar lives during the wars. His only prized possession is a tin drum that he would do anything to keep. He tells about his life and many of his love affairs before, during and after the second world war. During the war he beats his drum to encourage soldiers to fight and after the war he becomes a famous musician. So ultimately Tin Drum is a novel of sound and how music is a magical human invention, just as important as storytelling.

      Despite his success he cannot untangle himself from his guilty past, helping soldiers to kill other fellow human beings. His drumming hyped up the soldiers to kill more. Throughout history, stories triggered young men to fight while music helped them to keep going. That’s why every army had their own band of musicians.

      At the end, Oskar’s guilt is too overwhelming to continue on living so he implicates himself in a murder that would send him to prison for the rest of his life, symbolising the German guilt that affected the generation after the war, which Gunter Grass was part of.

      The novel depicts the madness of war through magical realism, fantasy, erotic sex while asking deep philosophical questions. Oskar is an unreliable narrator who feels suspended between being good and evil. A Jesus figure and a Satan figure, all in one. So when it comes to the morality of just and unjust war, it’s not as black and white as we think. This moral dilemma can be extremely painful so we take refuge in stories tinged with magic.

      Now we return to South America. Gabriel Garcia Marques’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude was first published in Spanish in 1967.

      It tells the story of 7 generations of the Buendia family in a town in the middle of the Colombian jungle. South America’s landscape is depicted like some mythical world, undiscovered and unspoilt by humanity. By the end of the novel , however, everything is in ruins.

      It all starts when José Arcadio Buendía kills a man for insulting him. He and his wife Úrsula have to flee their home. They wander for a long time until one night Jose dreams about a city of mirrors that reflect the world. They decide to found a new city called Macondo, which becomes the setting for this novel. In a way, this town represents the entire world. In biblical terms, it is Earth after humans were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Macondo, believed to be surrounded by water on all sides, is extremely isolated. The Buendias think they’re the only inhabitants of the known world. The couple, Jose and Ursula have kids, and their kids have kids, and their kids have more kids until the 7th generation of this same family.

      But soon other people show up. First the Gypsies with their music, then soldiers of the civil wars, then the railway and finally American capitalism establish their banana company. Then suddenly Columbia appears out of nowhere to claim sovereignty over Macondo, and this brings politics, warfare, revolution, violence and strange happenings. One of the most bizarre events is the years of insomnia, perhaps alluding to the invention of the electric light bulb, now humanity never sleeps. You can work all day in the sun, and all night under the light bulb.

      At the end Macondo is ruined and abandoned and only one person remains of the once huge Buendia family and he is isolated and about to die. The optimism of early generations now turned to pessimism and final destruction of once a huge family.

      The novel is full of sex, violence, infidelity, murders, executions, strange happenings, until the town falls like a fallen empire. Soon everything is wiped out completely. The first generation die of natural causes, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations die due to wars, the 5th generation killed by their kids and the last ones are eaten by ants.

      Gabriel Garcia Marquez uses magical realism to create comedy, enhance storytelling, but most crucially to condense as well as expand time.

      So 100 Years of Solitude is the loneliness of our species. As the only species with a high level of consciousness, we are alone. To find friends, we imagined gods to hold our hands. Then we suddenly stopped believing in our invented friends, as Nietzsche proclaimed that god was dead. Then we became lonely.

      So Gabriel Garcia Marquez told the story of our solitude. Despite living in large cities, we are always alone.

      The theme of loneliness is perhaps best depicted in the works of the Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami.

      Murakami’s style of writing combines magical realism with surrealism to tell gripping stories of the modern condition where we all struggle for meaning and purpose in life. His novels are widely popular making the most successful Japanese author of all time.

      His 2005 novel, Kafka on the Shore tells the story of a young man named Kafka who, just like the real Franz Kafka, hates his own father. Unlike the real Kafka, our hero, Kafka Tamura escapes his home, but what ensues afterward is a sequence of many bizarre events, including cats talking to humans, fish raining from the sky, and terrible and tragic experiences of other characters.

      Murakami has written so many novels in which he brings little magic and spontaneity to the banality of modernity. Ordinary people implicated in bizarre events give us the feeling of old fairy tales but with a modern setting. Murakami’s popularity shows that we still crave a bit of randomness, a bit of spontaneity and some magic in our stories.

      So for thousands of years humans loved magic and told stories full of magical creatures, then we woke up to reason and science and considered those tales too childish or immature. But when quantum physics was discovered, we realised that even science is bizarre and unpredictable, so we returned to magical storytelling.

      But this scientific uncertainty also shook humanity at its core. We once believed in our own ability and had confidence and trust in our scientific and rational capabilities. But we are not as confident as we used to be. So storytelling started to question human capacity for finding the truth and most importantly our capacity to tell the truth.

      So in the next segment, I will discuss how storytelling reflected our shaken confidence in truth-telling. Storytelling, once gave us clarity, now is muddled in confusion and uncertainty. So in the next segment storytelling meets postmodernism.

      2 votes
    7. mundane_and_naive
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      12: Storytelling meets Postmodernism (Truth-Uncertainty) Previously I discussed how quantum physics combined with psychoanalytical dreams gave us magical realism in which ordinary turned into...
      12: Storytelling meets Postmodernism (Truth-Uncertainty)

      Previously I discussed how quantum physics combined with psychoanalytical dreams gave us magical realism in which ordinary turned into bizarre and random. This was absent from storytelling for almost 300 years of rational thinking dominating our sciences and literature. But quantum physics and the mystery of the unconscious questioned our human ability to really understand reality. So truth-telling became a lot more challenging.

      The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche challenged western philosophy by arguing that rationalist humanism was no antidote to nihilism that was spreading after the death of god. God symbolised one truth. But science killed it and replaced it with rational-empirical truth. But this rational truth couldn’t satisfy our innate human thirst for meaning in life. For Nietzsche the solution was art. For Schopenhauer it was music. For Sartre it was defining the self and for Camus it was work and creativity. But Nietzsche also questioned the single universal truth posited by western philosophy. This became the basis of a new philosophical tradition that took a stronger root in France. It’s generally understood as postmodernism or sometimes called relativism in which the European way of seeking truth was questioned and argued that there is no single truth. Other cultures can have as much claim to the truth as the Europeans did.

      After the philosophical postmodernism in the 2nd half the 20th century, it also influenced literature and storytelling. Now truth-telling was no longer the domain of the powerful Europeans. This also coincided with yet another big historical event, the decolonisation of Asia and Africa so new post-colonial voices became prominent in literature. So now Europeans no longer held the political dominance and postmodernism also questioned its legitimacy as the source of truth-telling. New voices from other parts of the world came to the fore.

      It wasn’t just the truth that was challenged, Nietzsche also challenged individuals as a solid entity but rather as a malleable and fragmented entity, since we have no prior essence. This was particularly hammered in by Sartre, it opened the possibility that you could be anything you wanted. Existentialist philosophers such as Sartre and Camus also influenced literature by focusing on the meaning of life as an existentialist quest. Absurdism is most visible in the works of the Irish playwright Samuel Becket, specially in his famous play Waiting for Godot in which nothing happens.

      Later in the 21st century, environmentalism, vegetarianism and veganism also brought other animals to the fore, so now human’s perspective is no longer the only valid perspective. We ought to consult dogs, cows, pigs, birds and reptiles. For example in Haruki Murakami’s novels, he often introduces animals as major characters who are often on the same level as humans. In other words, we humans no longer have the monopoly in stories and moral superiority to decide what’s good and what’s bad. This is also often called post-humanist literature in which the humans are not the gods of this earth, but just another species. In some literary works, humans are the villains on earth because we have caused the extinction of many plants and animal species.

      One of the earliest post-colonial pieces of literature is Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness published in 1899.

      It tells the story of European colonialism in Africa. The story follows a journey through the Congo River in search of a mythical, yet brutal European man, named Kurt who is not there to civilise or build Africa but loot it of its prized commodities.

      But despite it pioneering a new look at colonialism, it still sees things from a European gaze. To give a more African perspective, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart published in 1957, tells the story of colonialism from the other side so to speak.

      Its protagonist is an African strong man, Okonkwo, who grows up humiliated by his feeble father, who is mocked by everyone for his weak artistic sensitivities, pacifism, and laziness. To compensate, Okonkwo becomes a wrestling champion, grows vegetables, and rules his house and three wives with an iron fist. He’s a proud and very violent man. During a tribal warfare, a boy is captured and kept in his household and he becomes like a father to him. When the tribe decides to kill the boy to prevent further violence, Okonkwo has a dilemma, but he doesn't want to show weakness so he takes part in the murder of the boy. He’s shaken a bit. Then some time later he accidentally kills someone of his own tribe when his gun goes off, so he is exiled for 7 years in a different village.

      During this time the white Christians show up and build their churches. Okonkwo’s own son converted to Christianity. When a white man’s killed, the European colonial ruler massacres a whole village in revenge. Okonkwo is furious but there is nothing he can do. After 7 years he returns to find his village unrecognisable under the white people's reign. When a Christian church is burned down, Okonkwo is arrested. Once a huge fine is paid by the village, he is freed. At this point he has had enough. He kills a white man. When the white authorities show up, he is nowhere to be seen. Later they discover that he has committed suicide. He couldn't bear witnessing his world falling apart.

      Achebe’s novel is a revolutionary piece of literature as it sees Europe through the lens of tribal Africans’ encounter with the white colonisers. But what’s crucial here is that neither the African hero nor the Europeans are painted as good or bad, but a bit of both.

      So here we see that modernity, while great in many ways, was achieved through a lot of brutality in Africa. This is also depicted in our next novel, in which modernity tries to tame a man who is not able to cry. Published in 1942, The Stranger is Camus’s most famous novel.

      It tells the story of Meursault, a French man who lives in Algeria. The story has three main plot points or three deaths: the death of Meursault’s mother, the murder of an Arab man, and finally Meursault’s own execution. The awareness of death makes humans unique in the animal kingdom, so each death awakens something in Meursault from his animal state of indifference and gives him clarity of sorts. If Sartre said we are condemned to be free, Camus says we are condemned to death, but also to be guilty, if we do not cry and show emotions.

      Meursault gets the news that his mother has died of old age. He takes time off work to be at her funeral, but contrary to common societal expectation he doesn’t cry or show sadness. He acts as though nothing has happened. He drinks, he smokes and he has sex with girlfriend. He’s also indifferent to those around him, including his boss, girlfriend and neighbours.

      One day, Meursault, while walking on the beach, encounters the same Arab man who had a quarrel with Meusault’s friend. He’s armed with a knife. Meursault shoots him, not one time but five times. He is arrested and put in prison. He promptly confesses to the murder. But why did you kill him? His only explanation is that the sun was too hot and bright so he acted instinctively and somewhat reflexively. While in prison, days turn to weeks, then months and years, as he waits for his trial. In court, the focus is not so much on the murder of an Arab man, but more on Meursault’s inability to cry at his mother’s funeral, therefore, the prosecutor portrays him as a remorseless monster. He is sentenced to death.

      As he waits for his execution, Meursault spends days soul-searching to understand his fate. Finally he settles on one incredible conclusion, nobody can escape death. This simple, yet profound conclusion allows Meursault to accept his fate. He is finally awakened to the human condition. He was an animal but now he realises death as a human experience. Meursault is finally happy.

      In the Stranger, Albert Camus shows the absurdity of life in the face of death. Despite our deep urge for meaning, life offers us no meaning, so Camus argues that the only way to find happiness is to accept the absurd. Life’s absurd because we can only understand it by understanding death. It’s through the lens of death that we can be happy in life.

      But Camus also reveals something about modernity. Modernity is predicated on the idea of taming nature through science and technology, but most importantly modernity is also an attempt to tame men. So Meursault’s lack of emotion is a problem for modernity. The justice system has to break him down so he is able to cry. So a criminal who is unable to cry is more guilty than a criminal who is able to cry. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, it was the female prostitute who tamed Enkudu and in the Beauty and the Beast, it was the woman who tamed the beast, but in Camus’s Stranger, it is the legal system that tames Meursault. So modernity uses a rational mechanism to tame and civilise men, while in olden time it was through sexuality.

      Now we move from the courthouse of modernity to enter the bottomless well of human imagination. Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel was published in 1941 after a head injury to the author which transformed him from an ordinary writer to an extraordinary one.

      The short story tells the story of a librarian who is giving a tour of a library. The building is hexagonal that goes infinitely in any direction. To show the true size of it, he says if he is thrown down after his death he would decompose on the way down, so his tomb would be in the air. In other words, human imagination is infinite. How to anchor this bottomless well? However to counter-balance this infinite endlessness of this library, the shelves on each wall, books, pages, lines and words all have fixed numbers.

      In other words, it is our rationality that limits things. Rationality allows us to solidify our endless imagination. In other words, reason anchors down our imagination. So the idea that the education system which predated on rationality kills creativity. It seems the library has existed forever. Many have tried to understand and organise the books but it is futile because for every rational thing you find, there are millions of irrational nonsense.

      People believe the library is complete, containing all books ever written. But the search for the origin of the library has caused a lot of misery among librarians. Some committed suicide, some destroyed books in frustration, some worshipped some books, which has caused many conflicts. Despite the library being infinite, if you travel far enough in any direction, shelves and books are repeated, therefore suggesting that the library is cyclical and periodic.

      The old idea of certainty about the world is challenged by Borges’s power of storytelling. Why? Because human imagination is infinite. No matter how rational we become, there is no way you can tame our human imagination. Rationality is barely a scratch in our endless conscious mind.

      We move from infinite imagination to infinite space. Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, is often considered a postmodernist novel. It combines many media forms to tell the story of racism, colonialism, conspiracy and astrophysical science.

      Set in Europe during the Second World War, it tells how the Nazis and the corporate machine were working together, how the war machine was fuelled by corporate greed on both sides. At the heart of the novel is the quest to uncover the German V-2 rocket programme. The plot is full of bizarre sex-related activities as well as fantasies about death and immortality. There are also elements of psychological experiments.

      But at the heart of the novel is the second law of thermodynamics or entropy that everything is heading towards decay. In other words, the central theme of the novel is that history is not moving towards perfection as seen through a western philosophical lens, but towards paranoia and destruction. European modernity rests on the idea that we are moving towards perfection, progress and justice. But according to this novel, that is not the case. Our weapons have become so sophisticated that it only means an inevitable destruction. Just as Borges showed the limitlessness of human imagination, it also means our unlimited desire for destruction.

      Speaking of destruction, war is the main theme of our next novel. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut was published in 1969, in which he infused science fiction with satire and postmodernism.

      It’s also an anti-war novel that uses science fiction to allow the main character, a war veteran, to travel to his past. The novel reflects on the nature of war and the meaning of life or lack of it. The narrator remembers bits and pieces of his past war memories. Those memories come to him at random in a kind of flashback. He is almost suspended between the past and the present, with neither being a comfortable place for him. This psychological uncertainty is also reflected in the novel’s lack of clear structure. The main characters seem as lost as we the reader are which is a very clever storytelling technique.

      The novel tells us that our being on this earth, the conception in which millions of sperms compete for one egg, birth, coming through a narrow canal that squeezes your head, growing up all are so unlikely events that the existence of wars which destroys all that in a blink of an eye seems not only stupid but highly absurd. Life is such an amazing miracle that it raises the question why we are so eager to wage war in order to end many lives.

      It’s a novel of being in time, travelling in time, and seeking purpose in time. Time is a prison we all live in. But ultimately it is a novel of uncertainty. Life is anything but certain. And to make it even more uncertain, we wage wars against each other because this uncertainty is not enough apparently.

      So for thousands of years human storytelling was based on natural uncertainties such as death, wars, sexual urge and laughter. Then we became the master of earth and tried to tame nature and reduce the natural uncertainties, so storytelling centred around human-made certainties fuelled by reason and sciences such as physical reality, biological truths, psychological depth and quantum uncertainty. Then we slowly questioned this man-made rational certainty. So we live in a post-modern or post-certainty.

      But one thing is clear, storytelling is our only solid weapon to fight uncertainty. It’s through storytelling that we try to make sense of the world and bring a bit of clarity to our chaotic lives.

      So in the next segment I will first summarise what I have discussed so far and give you a future prediction of storytelling.

      Conclusion: Future of Storytelling

      Back in the days, our early human ancestors discovered fire so they cooked their food. Cooked meat allowed faster digestion. Now they had more time to do other things. Among those other things, came time to reflect and think. We became a hunting machine who could also think and ponder. Then we became aware of death. Our high level of consciousness gave us the knowledge that we would die one day. As Dostoevsky said, consciousness, while amazing as it is in our understanding of the world and ourselves, is also a disease in that it makes us anxious about our own demise one day. While ignorance might be bliss for most animal species, we humans cannot escape the knowledge of our death. We know we have a finite amount of time.

      So what did our ancestors do to combat the fear of death? We invented one of the most important tools ever. It wasn’t the wheel, or weapons or the discovery of fire. It was our story. We invented stories to give our limited lives on earth meaning. Our earliest human stories that have survived today are about immortality. Religious stories about the afterlife means we gave ourselves an extra life after this life. This basically means that death is nothing, it is just a passage to the afterlife. Then these tales became origin stories, i.e. where have come from, and heaven and hell, i.e. where we are heading. Then gods came into the mix and then demons and beasts. One of the most important works of human literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh who travels far and wide in search of real immortality. But his focus shifts from religious understanding to leaving a concrete legacy as an attempt to live forever. A concrete city. Today we all try to leave a legacy, through making babies, arts, monuments, businesses, buildings, charities, etc. Once we invented gods, our storytelling shifted more towards wars, in which good guys battled the bad guys, or believers against non-believers, so we have war epics that are read even to this day. It’s the same story in every part of the world, from ancient Greece to ancient India, China, Middle East and Africa. These epics became the biggest weapon for empires to unite a huge swath of people around a common enemy. If storytelling was triggered by mortality, human conflict gave it its fuel. Even to this day, stories must have conflict in order for us to enjoy it. Since in most conflicts in history, one side defeated the other, the victors had all the spoils. This meant the ability to mate with women. Then storytelling turned to mating and sex to tell us some great romances. With sex came laughter and comedy.

      So early storytelling was about grown up men who invented stories to combat their mortality, then went to war to defeat the bad guys and came home to mate with the women and afterwards had some laughs.

      This is the story of our literature up until about 400 years ago, when the age of reason put humans as the masters of earth. We didn’t need gods or nature to guide us, we used our reason and science to tame nature. As we humans utilised rationality more, storytelling told stories of reason and its limitations. Then storytelling took us back to nature through the romantics. Reason alone wasn’t enough, we needed passion too. Then storytelling thought passion is all good and well, we need to talk about the ordinary heroes, the poor and the middle class. So realism told the stories of everyday men and women’s struggles in life. Then Darwin changed everything. We’re animals. So storytelling moved to look at our deeper animalistic tendencies through naturalism that told stories of how we survive and thrive as animals. But naturalism mainly focused on the social or group aspect of human life as in packs or herds i.e. class or community and didn’t cover what went inside the individual mind. So storytelling entered the consciousness of the individual to let out what was happening inside, consciously or subconsciously through modernism. So storytelling became akin to dreaming. And this dreaming turned storytelling into magic through magical realism.

      So to put it very crudely we have come a full circle. We started with magical tales of monsters, demons and fairies and slowly woke to embrace reason and sciences but then we slowly returned for a bit more magical spontaneity. The final phase has been post humanism in which we move away from humans to robots and other animals.

      So what’s next for storytelling?

      For thousands of years we told stories and those stories in turn shaped us how we viewed the world. Stories are like nests or web or hammock or window. They shape our mind, thoughts and psychology. We see the world like a story which gives us clarity and meaning. When this narrative perspective breaks down, we break down too. When our life lacks a story, we lose hope. We lose purpose. We lose all meaning. So stories give us hope, purpose, meaning and motivation.

      Just as it evolved to give our ancestors purpose beyond the fear of death, stories still give each individual a purpose that his or her life is meaningful or he or she is heading somewhere. This is why we wake up every morning, go to work and repeat that until we no longer can. Simply because we tell ourselves a story. Our level of motivation depends on how solid or sturdy our story is. So when storytelling dies, we humans die. That’s when you know that robots have taken over.

      No matter how much reason you utilise or how rational you are, your drive is always fuelled through stories you tell yourself, some consciously and some unconsciously. For example, if you work hard, you become successful, it is a conscious tale. We all want success, financial or artistic or familial or sexual, but it’s wired inside us as a narrative. We grow up to journey through life to procreate or leave an alternative legacy. So life is a story itself. We are born, we grow up to experience ups and downs until we die.

      As Schopenhauer said that we are at the mercy of a blind will that’s aimless, purposeless and shapeless. And storytelling is our attempt to give this blind will or nature an order. So storytelling is our first attempt to tame nature’s chaos. While storytelling is our tool to bring order to nature, it is on a psychological level. It’s in our head. Rationality, on the other hand, is our second attempt to tame nature more on a practical level. It appears that storytelling is the old tool that also works on a psychological level, but rationality is less psychological and more rooted in the outside physical world.

      Today the media also uses storytelling to shape the narratives of who we should hate and who we should like. Depending on the media outlet, the villains and heroes can be the same people. The media has the same trick which the old empires or tribes used to paint the enemy as villains. So stories are incredibly powerful today when it comes to uniting or dividing people.

      So what’s the future?

      We humans go through change and transformation, just like other species on earth. But the only difference is that we are now aware of evolution and how it works. So as we change, and evolve, we find new stories to tell. Science fiction didn’t make sense in a time where there was no science or very limited science.

      But stories are also the stories our deeper desires. On a very deep fundamental level, our greatest stories are our deeper, greater cravings for things we really want. Heroic myths were our desire to rise up above everyone else. War epics were about our craving to crash the enemies and restore our tribe, empire and community. Great romantic tales are our desire to find the partner we genuinely desire. Of course, reality is often against us in achieving these urges so we satisfy those desires through stories.

      You might ask what are today’s human desires or cravings? Reaching other planets, meeting aliens, creating a powerful machine, but the ultimate desire, the one craving, we still have not changed since the dawn of time. We wish we could live a long life and be happy.

      So storytelling will continue to tell us tales that can quench our thirst for immortality and endless happiness. Reality sucks so we take refuge in stories to keep us going. To fuel and nourish our souls. To motivate us, to inspire us so we continue the human journey.

      So the future of storytelling is bright as long as humans are alive. We cannot separate stories from humans and humans from stories. The ultimate aim of stories is to provide us with clarity of mind, sharpen our purpose and create order in the chaotic lives we lead. Even if we die as humans and the AI computers take over, they will continue our stories.

      What do you think? Where is storytelling or literature heading?

      Phew, it's done. I hope it was enjoyable for the 2 people who's been following my career with mild interest.

      2 votes
  4. [3]
    Hurt - Nine Inch Nails (Bardcore | Medieval Style Cover)
    3 votes
    1. [2]
      Link Parent
      I really enjoyed this cover. Most of the "Bardcore" stuff that came with the brief fad in 2020 was fairly low quality, but there were a couple of standouts that I still check out from time to...

      I really enjoyed this cover. Most of the "Bardcore" stuff that came with the brief fad in 2020 was fairly low quality, but there were a couple of standouts that I still check out from time to time. Hildegard von Blingin' is probably the best of them, her voice is absolutely stunning and really works for slow, haunting songs like this one and House of the Rising Sun. Algal the Bard was another that is a cut above the rest, since he actually owns and plays a bunch of pre-modern instruments and seems really good at arranging for them. The collabs they've done together were really great.

      3 votes
      1. mundane_and_naive
        Link Parent
        Yeah her stuff made me curious about actual medieval music. I wonder what people back then would think about our music if they could hear it, would they find it weird even when we played them in...

        Yeah her stuff made me curious about actual medieval music. I wonder what people back then would think about our music if they could hear it, would they find it weird even when we played them in "their style" so to speak.

        3 votes