(Roughly) Daily

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world”*…

Shortly after 335 B.C., within a newly built library tucked just east of Athens’ limestone city walls, a free-thinking Greek polymath by the name of Aristotle gathered up an armful of old theater scripts. As he pored over their delicate papyrus in the amber flicker of a sesame lamp, he was struck by a revolutionary idea: What if literature was an invention for making us happier and healthier? The idea made intuitive sense; when people felt bored, or unhappy, or at a loss for meaning, they frequently turned to plays or poetry. And afterwards, they often reported feeling better. But what could be the secret to literature’s feel-better power? What hidden nuts-and-bolts conveyed its psychological benefits?

After carefully investigating the matter, Aristotle inked a short treatise that became known as the Poetics. In it, he proposed that literature was more than a single invention; it was many inventions, each constructed from an innovative use of story. Story includes the countless varieties of plot and character—and it also includes the equally various narrators that give each literary work its distinct style or voice. Those story elements, Aristotle hypothesized, could plug into our imagination, our emotions, and other parts of our psyche, troubleshooting and even improving our mental function.

Aristotle’s idea was so unusual that, for more than two millennia, his account of literary inventions existed as an intellectual one-off, too intriguing to be forgotten but also too idiosyncratic to be developed further. In the mid-20th century, R. S. Crane and the renegade professors of the Chicago School revived the Poetics’ techno-scientific method, using it to excavate literary inventions from Shakespearean tragedies, 18th-century novels, and other works that Aristotle never knew. Later, in the early 2000s, one of the Chicago School’s students, James Phelan, co-founded Ohio State’s Project Narrative, where I now work as a professor of story science. Project Narrative is the world’s leading academic think tank for the study of stories, and in our research labs, with the help of neuroscientists and psychologists from across the globe, we’ve uncovered dozens more literary inventions in Zhou Dynasty lyrics, Italian operas, West African epics, classic children’s books, great American novels, Agatha Christie crime fictions, Mesoamerican myths, and even Hollywood television scripts.

These literary inventions can alleviate grief, improve your problem-solving skills, dispense the anti-depressant effects of LSD, boost your creativity, provide therapy for trauma (including both kinds of PTSD), spark joy, dole out a better energy kick than caffeine, lower your odds of dying alone, and (as impossible as it sounds) increase the chance that your dreams will come true. They can even make you a more loving spouse and generous friend

Recurring story elements that have proven effects on our imagination and our psyche: “Eight of Literature’s Most Powerful Inventions—and the Neuroscience Behind How They Work.” (Excerpted from Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.)

* Philip Pullman

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As we noodle narratives, we might send a combo birthday and St Patrick’s Day greeting to Catherine “Kate” Greenaway; she was born on this date in 1846.  Creator of books for children such as Mother Goose (1881), Little Ann (1883), and The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1889), she was one of the most the most accomplished illustrators of her time– and the inspiration for The Kate Greenaway Medal, awarded annually by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in the U.K. to an illustrator of children’s books.

Greenaway’s illustration of the Pied Piper leading the children out of Hamelin; for Robert Browning’s version of the tale.

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