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The Seven Basic Plots

Posted by on April 23, 2011

I wrote this the other day, intending to polish it later, but on further examination of the SBP book, I don’t feel the book is worth the investment.  Here, therefore, is an unfinished polemic.

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In 2004 Christopher Booker, a British journalist, published The Seven Basic Plots, a book that purports to show that all stories conform to one or more of seven basic archetypes.  Everything is either Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth, or a combination.  (There are also two auxiliary plots: Rebellion and Mystery, bringing the total to nine.)  Aside from some of these being rather broad, one of the biggest problems is he’s never entirely clear if he’s saying that other types of stories can’t be written or that, if written, they will not be “resonant.”  If the former, the theory may be disproved by the production of a story that doesn’t conform to a Basic Plot; and if the latter, he’s susceptible to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy (A: “All Scotsmen enjoy haggis.”  B: “But my Uncle Hamish is Scottish and he hates haggis.  A: “Well, he is clearly no true Scotsman, because all true Scotsmen enjoy it.”), i.e., any story that doesn’t conform is dismissed as “non-resonant.” He does say “it is virtually impossible for any story-teller to ever entirely break away” (6), but in a book full of stridently categorical statements, this one is notably hedged (twice: with virtually and entirely).  “Any effective work of art always combines. . . ”  (552); the certainty of that always is negated by the question-begging of that effective.  Sometimes he writes that all stories must conform to the archetypes, and at other times that stories will be more or less successful depending on to what extent they conform to the archetypes, a contradiction.

I’m also still not sure whether the fact that all stories conform to one of these plots is supposed to be proof they’re innate, or if their innateness is supposed to be proof that all stories must conform to them.  Probably, my guess is, both at once.  Wherever possible, he attributes the causes of behavior to the ancestral environment, and then takes the evolutionary origin of the behavior as proof of its depth and importance, speaking with a special sort of confidence precisely because the evidence can only be inferred.  Most of the time he says the archetypes arise out of instincts, but sometimes he says the opposite.  Chapter 34, “The Age of Loki,” is devoted to the idea that, starting around the beginning of the 19th century, a great change or rupture took place: “up to that time the vast majority of stories imagined by mankind had reflected an instinctive harmony with the values of the Self.  But now something unprecedented happened” (648); “in the past two centuries, something extraordinary and highly significant has happened to story-telling in the western world” (7).  He calls it a “psychic earthquake,” “marked out […] from almost anything the world had seen before.”  Storytelling, he claims, underwent “trivialization”, “disintegration”, “perversion,” and “violation”.  But surely, unless he wishes to postulate a change in the human organism since 1800, this indicates that the causes of these modern stories lie in the personal environmental histories of their creators, not in a general genetic inheritance from our ancestors.  It cannot be the case that innate structures of the human organism necessarily manifest themselves in the telling of stories of certain kinds, and simultaneously, that a particular culture, suddenly and recently, began to produce quite a different kind of story.

Booker is a Platonist; that is, he believes ideas create reality rather than vice versa.  “The prevailing mood of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was that of a great burst of liberated energy, reflected in all the nervous frenzy and hedonistic materialism” (661).  He believes that what actually happened in the 1920’s were only symptoms or manifestations of much more important events occurring on some other plane of existence, events whose existence can only be inferred: “nervous frenzy and hedonistic materialism” were mere “reflections” of the “liberated energy.”  The rise in the DJIA, the Charleston, the Model T, and the Manhattan skyline were all “manifestations of the spirit of the age.”  Of course, the only evidence any such spirit existed, is the phenomena it was invented to explain.

It amounts to inventing a God in the image of man, and then using the similarity between the two as evidence that man was created by God.

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Booker believes that every aspect of behavior of all species except humans is fully genetically determined.  He continually uses the most categorical phrases: “knows only one way,” “governed by instinct at every step,” “operate entirely instinctively,” “governed entirely by instinct,” “must always follow the same model,” and “every other species is wholly instinctive” (italics mine throughout).  I may accept that worms or other very simple organisms truly can operate in only one way, but for most species, including the examples he uses, he’s not correct.  If his statements about instinct quoted above were true, it would be impossible to train a dog to heel, shake, or basically anything else, because these are not instinctive behaviors shaped by the dog’s ancestral environment of hunting in packs on the central Asian steppe.  Booker writes, “When a lion feels hungry, it knows only one way to satisfy that urge, which is to identity some suitable prey, track it down and kill it” (p.549).  This description obtusely ignores what lions actually do.  Lions do in fact train to hunt.  A mother starts her cubs out with small or wounded prey.  Later they assist in hunting larger prey in company.  Finally they can hunt independently or as the leader of a group.  A lion raised in captivity will not hunt, or will do so ineffectively, if it has not had these experiences.  No doubt a lion does have some propensity toward hunting, but their ancestral environment has not been so stable, in important aspects, as to give them “genetically coded instructions which enable the individual animal in every way to relate to the world around it.”  The Earth’s diurnality has been a stable feature of the ancestral environment long enough to create, probably*, species fully and permanently adapted to it, but in other aspects, such as what the most common prey species will be, the environment has not been so stable; hence the species would be well-served to maintain some flexibility.  This flexibility lies in the fact that what the organism inherits is not a totalizing repertoire of behaviors controlling every aspect of life, but a capacity to be affected by its environment in certain ways.  A lion endowed with genetically determined behaviors specifically adapted for hunting wildebeest would be at a disadvantage if the most plentiful prey species is impala.  The point is the individual organism’s environmental history and immediate environment are as important as its ancestral environment.  But that doesn’t work for Booker, whose theory demands that the “universals” he sees in various stories be the creation of innate structures of the human organism.

And that brings us to another point he never makes clear: does he believe these structures are physical, or only conceptual?  If the latter, how are they transmitted from generation to generation**?  We now know that, as hard as it is to imagine, what one is aware of when one is angry, jealous, or euphoric, is a state of one’s own body in exactly the same sense that one is aware of hunger pains or the onset of appendicitis.  Emotions and thoughts are physical states, involving the movements of physical objects, because there is nothing else for them to be.  It makes no sense to say there’s any aspect of an organism which is genetically controlled that is not created by the organism’s physical structures.  What is conceptual cannot be genetically caused, because genetic causes create physical structures only.  Again, the SBP theory is fuzzy on this, but neither alternative makes much sense in its context.

* But of course we can only assume this, and not really know, until we have the opportunity to raise lions in, say, a permanently crepuscular environment.

** And if the former, how could we see the human organism change behaviors too quickly to be accounted for by Darwinian processes?

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Booker’s sexual politics are notably retrograde.  John Berger summarized the division of labor between the sexes thus: men act, women appear; Booker agrees whole-heartedly.  For him, satisfactory resolution is achieved only when the sexes accept their natural, essential roles.

Booker also barely notices any non-Western stories, aside from “creation myths.”  Excluding mythology, the number of non-Western stories, out of perhaps 300 total analyzed in the book, can be counted on one’s fingers.  If you exclude borderline cases (e.g., Longfellow’s Hiawatha), only one hand is needed.

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Booker’s theory is most risible when applied to real-world events.  The rise and fall of Napoleon and Hitler, the French and Russian Revolutions, the Roman Civil War of 32-30 BC, the Falklands War, all enact some archetype or another, which are “not just an arbitrary construct of the human imagination.”  The history of the 20th century is the history of the fluctuation between the forces of the Self (good) and the Ego (bad).  Again, I’m uncertain as to whether he’s saying events unfolded the way they did because an archetype caused them to do so, or if they could have unfolded a different way but would not have been “resonant” if they had.  One might call the former the “strong” version, and the latter the “weak.”  If anything, Booker seems to come down on the side of the strong version; we see, he writes, the same pattern of events “constantly being acted out in the world around us, because it is the pattern of what may follow whenever people […] are drawn to embark on a course of action based on ego-centered fantasy.”  In 17th century England, 18th century France, and 20th century Russia, “the unconscious logic of the fantasy led eventually to the murder of the King/Father.”

His most detailed analysis is of the Second World War: after an Anticipation Stage ending in 1933, Hitler’s Dream Stage reached its height in 1940, followed by a two year Frustration Stage, and then a Nightmare Stage.  Here Booker seems to contradict himself, because whereas in most places he pays obeisance to the exalted freedom of the human will, in some cases he suggests that people had no choice but to act as they did: for example, after a momentary check in the failure of his proposed invasion of Britain, “it was in the nature of Hitler’s dream-state that this merely fired up his fantasy to yet greater heights, as when in 1941 he invaded, firstly, Yugoslavia and Greece, and finally, in his greatest gamble of all, the Soviet Union.”  First, don’t you think that the Yugoslavian coup of March 27, 1941, had more to do with Hitler’s decision to invade that country than what was in the nature of his dream-state?  Second, the only proof that Hitler was bound to invade more countries was that he did in fact invade them; had the Soviet Union appeared intimidatingly strong, I doubt Hitler’s dream-state would have still counseled so vigorously for its invasion.  Once again, imaginary actions, taking place on some magical level of the psyche, are constructed in the image of overt actions, and are then used as explanations for those same actions.

All he has done is reframe the question from, “Why did Hitler invade the Soviet Union?” to “Why did Hitler’s psyche tell him to invade the Soviet Union?”  Does this reframing represent an advance in understanding?  Are we closer to answering the question by reframing it in this way?  The truth is, rather, that the question has receded from understanding, because instead of dealing with actual facts that might possibly be relevant—e.g., statistics of relative demographic and economic strength—we now have to deal with surrogates for those facts interacting in an inaccessible realm of the mind.  I think it’s clear that whatever was in Hitler’s mind was derived primarily from Hitler’s environment.  It’s that relationship between the environment and the behavior of the organisms in it that needs to be studied.  Booker would study that relationship also, but not directly; instead, he invents mental surrogates, and these surrogates then become the subject of his science.  He writes that during the Blitz, “the British people had never felt so united,” as though what mattered was what they felt, rather than what caused them to feel that way.

If Hitler’s life is an example of the archetype of Overcoming the Monster, what of tyrants like Stalin or Mao, who were arguably as bad in some ways, yet were victorious and never suffered in the slightest way for their crimes?

Here we see the ridiculousness of Platonism.  Hitler was defeated by the armies of the US and the Soviet Union, not by a “titanic concentration of masculine values” (581).  Britain in 1941 was defended by the pilots of the RAF, not by “Churchill’s rock-like presence focus[ing] his countrymen’s resolve with a manly strength” (667).  The judgment of what Churchill’s presence was like is mainly post facto; had Britain been invaded, his presence would be thought considerably less rock-like and his strength much less manly.  Instead, he would have been seen as deluded or foolhardy.  As Marx wrote, “It is not the consciousness of man that creates his being, but, rather, his social being which creates his consciousness.”  If ideas are posited as underlying causes, one still must answer the question, “What caused the ideas?”; whereas if the material world is posited as the underlying cause no such problem arises, because the material world needs no specific cause to exist or change; its particles simply have existence a priori, and move and change on their own.  It has long been observed that certain attitudes dominate in certain settings; e.g., the thoughts of Ayn Rand are said to be quite popular among people who work in the financial industry.  It would be consistent with Booker’s Platonism to say that the financial industry emerged as a creation of the attitudes of its workers.  Of course, this would require that the attitudes came into existence first, which is not only usually demonstrably not the case, but raises the question of, “From where did the attitudes come?”  Booker would surely answer, “From its possessor’s own mind,” which is tantamount to, “It’s magic.”  A more reasonable answer seems to be, the conditions, especially the social conditions, under which financial workers live created in them their attitudes.

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If it is true that behavior is controlled, partially or otherwise, by unconscious archetypes, and if historical events necessarily follow these patterns, it must also be true that knowledge of archetypes could be used to predict the future.  It’s easy to describe how past events conform to some imagined story, but if that story is indeed “not just an arbitrary construct of the human imagination,” but a real feature of the world, then if one were able to identify, say, an Anticipation Stage while it was actually happening, then knowledge of the forthcoming Dream Stage could be profitably used.  No doubt knowledge that German forces on the eastern front in 1943 were in a Frustration Stage would have been valuable to Soviet generals?  But what Anticipation Stages are we witnessing today?  In terms of, say, US-Iran relations, are we on the verge of Overcoming the Monster, or are they?  If knowledge of archetypes fails to predict, say, the course of a future revolution, then there’s no reason to believe it has any more validity as an analysis of the past.

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Another serious problem is Booker’s treatment of works that seem to offer the strongest counter-examples.  Beckett, for instance, along with such works in other media as John Cage’s “4.33” and the paintings of Ad Reinhardt, is a “dead end;” perhaps, but what does that say about the SBP theory?  If, in these works, the “tradition of story-telling […] was at last being sucked down into a black hole of nothingness,” what does that indicate about the alleged story-telling instinct which “the evolutionary process has developed in us” (543)?  He does not ever really deal with Beckett’s less accessible works—Krapp’s Last Tape, Breathe, Not I, The Lost Ones—except to dismiss them, or at all with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Le Chien Andalou, Finnegans Wake, Oulipo, B.S. Johnson, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugene Ionesco, John Barth, Ronald Sukenick, David Markson, Richard Kostelantetz, the Codex Seraphinianus, or the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  If the SBP are universal, innate features of the human psyche, what enabled these writers and works to come to be?

Human beings display a wide range of behaviors, but Booker would claim that some of these behaviors are “natural,” arising from the ancestral environment, and hence good, while others are “unnatural,” by which he apparently means arising from the individual’s immediate environment and personal environmental history, and hence bad.  Not only is this the naturalistic fallacy, but he offers no evidence, other than the phenomena requiring explanation, that the specific behaviors of story-telling in conformance with the archetypes really are genetic.

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This is a side issue, but one may be interested to know that Booker has spoken favorably of the theory of intelligent design, which is, according to him, a “movement gathering way among many respected scientists in the US and elsewhere who have become profoundly sceptical about the adequacy of Darwinian natural selection to explain the complexities of evolution.”  The conventional theory of evolution, on the other hand, “rest[s its] case on nothing more than blind faith and unexamined a priori assumptions.”*  I doubt I have to explain what quality of mind holds these views.  This is perhaps irrelevant to his views on narrative, except that he bases so much of his arguments in that field on (garbled) evolutionary claims.

*http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1495664/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html

 

One Response to The Seven Basic Plots

  1. J Thomas

    A fine example of the Law of Fives in action.

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