When Homer spoke the story of The Odyssey, he was doing more than laying down a story that would fundamentally shape the culture of the West. Within The Odyssey was its own contained logic, its own denizens, its own laws. In short, its own reality. Any narrative we create has its own reality to it, whether we purposely set out to make it or not, and because we are human, it is generally simpler than the one we inhabit.
Our world is infinitely complex, in ways that cannot be grasped by nature of who we are as human beings. It is pure anthro-centric arrogance to think that with enough technology and progress, we will someday be able to truly uncover the secrets of our world. We’ve made incredible progress certainly, but there are unknown unknowns that, in order to comprehend, we would have to cease being human.
So the truth is that narratives can never be stories set in objective reality. Realism and naturalism have always been a farce. Instead, each book, movie, and video game creates its own world, its own rules, whether explicitly or not. In narratives the world makes sense, even if just to the author. It has to, otherwise it’s not a narrative. This is the biggest difference between the reality we live in, and the narratives we create. Things make sense in our stories, they have a purpose. In our world they don’t.
Thus narrative can never be contained to the pages of a book or the frames of a film. Narrative is everywhere.
Let’s take Coca-Cola as an example. In the world of Coca-Cola, life makes sense. Life is beautiful, and it’s beautiful because we possess that sweet syrupy elixir of happiness. If you buy a bottle of Coke, you too can live this narrative. Except you can’t, it doesn’t exist in real life. This isn’t to demonize Coca-Cola by any means, any successful product crafts a narrative. In fact, the more powerful the narrative, the more successful the product. Look at Apple computers. Say what you will about Steve Jobs’ design work or business acumen, but his most successful ability was the narrative crafted for Apple, which incidentally revolves around himself: the lone genius, the love of craft, the beauty of minimalism and the cult of innovation. Jobs created a world so compelling that we all wanted to be a part of it (I write while looking at my Macbook).
This does not just exist for companies. For all the rhetoric about knowing yourself, the possibility simply does not exist for us to truly understand who we are. You are composed of a bundle of senses connected to the past through a thin line of memories, many of which are made up, while the vast majority are forgotten. Let’s be honest, you can’t remember every memory, you probably can’t even remember what you ate for dinner six days ago. So our only option is to build narratives over those sparse memories. Once again, the stronger the narrative, the happier the individual. That feeling of “being lost”, of “not knowing who I am anymore” is simply the cognitive dissonance of our narratives clashing with our incomprehensible reality. To properly function as humans, we need to create a simpler version of reality, a narrative, where we know truths and have some form of control.
I’m not trying to set up narratives as some horrible phenomenon. They are simply what humans do, an inextricable byproduct of our high consciousness. We can embrace simple narratives, or complex narratives, destructive narratives, or empathetic narratives, we can ignore their existence, or embrace their prevalence. All of these narratives are in our grasp to do with as we please. They always have been. The question isn’t whether we use stories to explain our world, the question is what stories will we tell.