Between Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome
Part 24: The Unquenchable Thirst for a Narrative
so truly himself as when he is acting a part.
-WILLIAM HAZLITT (1778-1830)
In addition to geographical and temporal determinants as outlined in Part 23 (Do We Choose a Belief or Does a Belief Choose Us?), another reason why we believe in something—rather than nothing—is our psychobiological nature. As we know, psychobiological is the adjective of psychobiology (noun) which is "the study of mental functioning and behavior in relation to other biological processes" (Merriam-Webster).
We believe in something because that something (belief, religion, ideology, whatever) provides a comforting Grand Narrative that satisfies our unquenchable thirst for one. I would go as far as stating that a narrative is perhaps the oxygen of our spiritual existence. As a matter of fact, the three super bestselling books in our civilization—the Bible, Quotations from Chairman Mao ("Little Red Book"), and the Qur'an—frame Grand Narratives which are or had been subscribed one way or another by their respective believers, whether Jews, Christians, the Chinese, or Muslims all over the world. Granted, some of these books might not have been bought voluntarily by willing readers. In fact, they might have been ordered wholesale by the Powers That Be (whether the Gideons or the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee), then efficiently distributed for maximum readership—either as required or complimentary reading available 7/24/365 in a hotel room nightstand. In any case let's give them, whoever they are, the benefit of doubt.
"Every life is in search of a narrative," argued Richard Kearney in On Stories: Thinking in Action (2002). "The narrative imperative has assumed many genres—myth, epic, sacred history, legend, saga, folktale, romance, allegory, confession, chronicle, satire, novel… But no matter how distinct in style, voice or plot, every story shares the common function of someone telling something to someone about something." It's not an exaggeration to say that the human mind needs narratives as desperately as the body needs nourishment.
And here is the interesting part: It does not matter whether that something is true or not, or whether it is based on empirical fact or fiction. "What men believe to be true is true in its consequences," claimed English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). In fact, aggregated data compiled by booksellers shows that fiction books outsell non-fiction ones by a ratio of 3 to 1. All best-selling books with approximate sales of 100 million copies or more are fiction, instead of non-fiction: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (200 million), The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (150 million), The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (140.6 million), Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (140 million), Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling (107 million), And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (100 million), Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (100 million), and She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard (100 million).
Humans being humans, they will always listen to, and even demand, stories—any story that is. This phenomenon is poignantly illustrated by Ciaran Carson in Fishing for Amber: A long Story (2000): "It was a stormy night in the Bay of Biscay and his sailors were seated around the fire. Suddenly the crew said, Tell us a story, Captain. And the Captain began, It was a stormy night in the Bay of Biscay…" Replace the word Captain with Prophet A, Guru B, Wise Man C, Chairman Mao, or Supreme Leader Kim Yong-un, and … you'll get the big picture. (I should know a thing or two about this addiction to stories, as admittedly I'm a hopeless collector when it comes to Zen parables, Sufi teaching-stories, and Taoist folktales.)
Therefore it should not be surprising that even implausible, preposterous, bizarre, and even socially taboo stories will find a willing and receptive audience. I still remember when my sociology professor lectured about cultural relativism, he underlined the fact that even though certain prehistoric cultures condone cannibalism, practically all cultures universally condemn the practice of sexual incest. Consequently we would think that a Grand Narrative that contains repeated cases of incest would be instantly trashed; right? Well, think again.
As meticulously cataloged by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (1889-1951), there are no less than nineteen (19) cases of incest that are explicitly described in the most popular Grand Narrative, the Bible: Lot with his elder daughter (Genesis 19:33), Lot with his younger daughter (Genesis 19:35), Abraham with his half sister (Genesis 20:12), Nahor with his niece (Genesis 11:27, 20), Reuben with his father's concubine (Genesis 35:22, 49:4), Amram with his aunt (Exodus 6:20), Judah with his daughter-in-law (Genesis 38:16-18), Amnon with his sister (Second Samuel 13:2, 14), Absalom with his father's ten (10) concubines (Second Samuel 15:16, 16:21-22), and Herod with his sister-in-law (Mark 6:17-18). Universal condemnation? Quite the opposite; there are those who even take the Bible literally.
No wonder Argentine essayist and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) once declared: "Theology is a branch of fantastic literature."
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter