The Value of Stories as Teachers
I write fiction and I worry sometimes about how my chosen genre affects how my message is read. The lens of high fantasy or paranormal fiction is easy to write off as noisy, senseless, action heavy fluff directed toward an unthinking audience. Comic books and video games have had to deal with this limited perspective for decades and books much, much longer. Every story that has ever been told... Show more
The Value of Stories as Teachers
I write fiction and I worry sometimes about how my chosen genre affects how my message is read. The lens of high fantasy or paranormal fiction is easy to write off as noisy, senseless, action heavy fluff directed toward an unthinking audience. Comic books and video games have had to deal with this limited perspective for decades and books much, much longer. Every story that has ever been told has had its own lessons to teach. It’s easy to write off Batman’s policy of no killing (which he didn’t always have) as just an effect of the fact that his parents were murdered in front of him and with a gun, but do you as a reader ever think about the reasons beneath that? Do you consider that perhaps Batman was taught a deeper lesson that night in the alley? More than just the base understanding that murder hurts the people close to the victim? Did he come to understand that injuring criminals (sometimes even quite grievously) and incarcerating them for years is still the better option, because while incarceration still separates families (criminals are people too,) there is an unbearable finality in death. Killing a person is denying the possibility that they may yet be a force of good in the world. It is accepting a loss of potential. Refusing to kill even the most seemingly irredeemable criminals is Batman’s denial of the idea that there is no saving some people. It is his declaration of hope, because to take an extermination approach is to give up. To kill those who have done wrong is to acknowledge the pointlessness of negotiation. And where is the line? What crimes deserve death and what ones life? To kill in the name of justice is to play god, and it is Bruce Wayne’s modesty and humanity that keeps him from this dark path, lest he become just as bad as the criminals he persecutes. Its deeper meaning can be found in that famous quote by Dutch Philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who said that “Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition of benevolence, confidence, justice.
And that is only one lesson that more than Batman has tried to teach us. All stories are more than they appear to be on the surface, because even the prose appearing most shallow has a piece of the writer in between the lines; their fears, their hopes, and their state of mind. More than a sci-fi fantasy that tells fart jokes, Rick and Morty is a study in cosmic nihilism and like Soren Kierkegaard and Franz Kafka asks us to examine how we would live our lives in a universe absent of god; which is to live life without an all-encompassing morality, rules, or consequences handed down from on high. This is a world where we all have to accept that there is no plan for us and never was. No one is watching us and no one is going to punish us. We are our own masters. Would we all become Rick? Spending our lives treating others as commodities, constantly lamenting the pointlessness of our struggles, with both hands clutched firmly around a bottle because we can’t reconcile with the lack of definition in our lives? To accept that there is no god may be accepting that there is no good or evil, because those are human ideas, human constructs put in place for one motivation or another, and who are humans to decide such a thing?
At the root of these examples is the most important thing that stories can teach us; a thing that no amount of physics, math, or finance classes possibly could. Stories can teach us empathy. They show us the world through the eyes of another person. American Psycho is claimed by some to be a shallow novel filled with shallow characters, over-the-top gore, and filthy, unabashed sex scenes. Maybe it is, but value can found in its unreliable narrator, Patrick Bateman. In between all of the sex and violence are brief glimpses is the mind of a weak man, sad and alone. His “friends” ignore him when he talks about anything that probes at the edge of their shallow existence and hardly anyone could even tell you his real name. It has gotten to the point where he barely knows himself, but he knows this: he only wants someone to love him. Am I claiming that vicious serial killers only need a little understanding? No, but I would put to you this: should we kill him, if not to put him out of our misery, then his own? How would you feel if someone made that choice for you? Labelled you as sick and unredeemable, and used that label to treat you however they saw fit, and even render that final solution? Perhaps a better example of the symptoms of a shallow existence is the TV show Californication. In it you can also observe shallow characters that come and go, quickly forgotten, then observe brief moments of violence and unabashed sexuality. The protagonist also craves love, but is not framed in the persona of a sociopath, which I could argue that he is, only for less extreme reasons than Mr. Bateman. Both of their worlds are shallow, and that’s the point.