Meaning and Stories

Last night I finished reading a novel that made me so angry. It was very well-written, and, in fact, that made me more angry than had it contained mediocre prose. It ended up being a novel about a sociopath and the people who populate her world are scarcely less selfish than she is. In many ways, they seem appalled by her actions not because they are morally wrong, but because she is so good at getting what she wants that no one can stand against her. The difference between her and the other characters in the novel is more that she is more skilled and less encumbered by moral strictures, so she can get her way.

I rarely read a book that I actively wish I had not read. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t spent the time on a book, but I rarely feel like I am a worse person for having read a book, or that the world is a worse place for the book being in it.

And this morning I am still angry, but I think it is more because this novel threatened my worldview, and that is why my anger is so strong, probably out of proportion to the substance of the novel. (And I like darkness in books I read, because a struggle against darkness, or to find meaning in the face of profound darkness is a very satisfying struggle. I do not like books that show only darkness. I know people do awful things. Awful things in and of themselves are dull.)

Coincidentally, or not, I recently read Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton and am now reading What Should I Believe?: Why Our Beliefs about the Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life Dominate Our Lives by Dorothy Rowe. Rowe is a psychologist who has written several books I value, and a recurring theme in her books is that humans are constantly creating meaning–telling stories–and when the bedrock beliefs that allow us to create that meaning are threatened, anxiety, terror and depression are some of the things our minds create to try to deal with that existential anguish.

One of my deepest beliefs is that almost every person is trying to see him or herself as a good person and do the right thing for themselves. No one is the villain of his or her own story. I am proud of how I did that in the novel I’m working on right now. Everyone who has read the drafts praised (or noticed) that every character has understandable motivations. Everyone is trying to get what they need for themselves and their families and the conflicts occur because they cannot all get what they want. No evil mastermind to supply the conflict.

And I’m proud of that because it expresses my deepest beliefs about how humans and the world works, that we are selfish but we are not evil. We try to be good to ourselves and our families and we want to see ourselves as good people.

I dislike stories about sociopaths because they seem to me more like weather phenomena than expressing something true about humanity. A sociopath story, a serial killer story, can only be interesting to me in how it shows “real” people reacting to those phenomena. A story where almost everyone has some degree of sociopathy not only doesn’t reflect the real world to me, but feels damaging at some essential level, because it proceeds from core beliefs that I think are fundamentally and morally wrong.

Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists is a wonderfully optimistic book. It seems that one of his bedrock beliefs is that being an atheist does not mean that one must lack a meaning structure or be immoral. The book does something I’ve always wanted to see, which is address the positive things that religion can do or has done, things that the atheism movement tends to sweep under the carpet. Religion is about meaning. Religion gives people stories to tell about the world to explain how it is and how we should be. I think fiction does the same thing–there is no such thing as a novel that does not take some kind of moral stance, because it puts a meaning structure around events. Even a novel that comes to the conclusion that life is meaningless has come to that meaning structure.

Rowe’s book addresses the various ways that beliefs and meaning structures can cause problems, for societies and people, while de Botton’s book discusses how the urges to religious organizations and expressions

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