Stories are about individuals, the challenges they face, and how they cope. There’s a protagonist (which come from the Greek for first struggler) and an antagonist (which means opposing struggler). Right?
Wrong. Or, at least, it’s right for contemporary Western literature, but not true of all places and all times. It wasn’t always so in the West either. Different cultures use very different ideas of the individual.
That idea seems so natural to us that it’s hard to imagine an alternative. But, in fact, we invented the individual only quite recently.
What Guatemalan refugees can teach us about the self
As a way of explaining this odd suggestion, let me tell you a true story. I used to be involved with aid projects in Latin America. One of the projects we supported was psychotherapy for indigenous women fleeing the civil war in Guatemala. The therapists, who were from North America, would say to the women “tell me about yourself.” The women would describe their villages, and where the maize fields were, and their community, and so on. And the therapist would say, “Yes, but tell me about you.” And the women would look puzzled and say “But I just did.”
The therapists and the refugee women had different understandings of what a self was. Obviously, if we can have different understandings view of the self, there will be correspondingly different forms of story-making.
Is Antigone a heroine?
Let’s take, for example, the ancient Greek story of Antigone, famously dramatized by Sophocles. The events of the play follow an unsuccessful invasion of Thebes by Polynices to oust his brother from the throne. Both brothers are killed in the battle. Their uncle, Creon, ascends the throne, and decrees that no burial rites should be performed for Polynices. Antigone, sibling to the brothers, defies the order, arguing that the religious duty to honour the dead overrides human law. Creon orders her buried alive.
What does this story mean? It depends on whether you are an ancient Greek. Berthold Brecht staged a performance in 1948, when the crimes of the Second World War were still raw in memory. He set it in a Berlin air raid shelter. Brecht’s Antigone is a heroine, standing up to the cruelty and tyranny of Creon.
But this is not how Sophocles understood her, as Kenan Malik argues. Though Antigone is championing religious duty, Creon defends the safety of the people. Antigone is guilty of what the Greeks knew as hubris, overweening pride that sets the individual above the law. Her unswerving confidence that she is right causes her to go too far. For Sophocles, this was her tragedy. For the Greeks, heroes embody the best values of the community. They do not stand against the community.
The Greeks were more like the Guatemalan refugees in this than like the therapists. In the more communitarian cultures of Asia, stories today still often focus less on changes in the protagonist than on the unfolding of events.
The change in thinking in the West was quite recent. Malik argues that, until the sixteenth century, most Europeans would have readily understood Sophocles’ original intention. The individual had no meaning, except as a member of a community. It is a person’s actions rather than their thoughts or intentions, which are important.
The proper end of love is death
According to a fascinating essay by Laura Ashe, modern Western fiction could only come into being when it became culturally meaningful and interesting to wonder what was going on in someone else’s head. She argues that it was the development of the troubadours’ tales of courtly love that spearheaded this change in the twelfth century.
Though love has always been a feature of stories throughout ages and cultures, the idea of romantic love, which sprang from the troubadour tradition, is distinctly different. Before this, in great love tales such as Tristan and Isolde, love was a devastating destructive force.. There is no room for the modern idea of the protagonist who has a desire and struggles to achieve it. So a “happy ever after” ending is not available. Love is independent of the wills of the lovers, is incompatible with everyday life, and its proper end is death. Even in the sixteenth century, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet embodies this older understanding of love.
It took the historical uproar of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the rise of mercantile and industrial capitalism to create a world in which modern Western fiction, particularly the novel, could exist. A world which created the ideas that individuals matter, and that they can have agency outside of fate and social station.
Why does any of this matter?
This little romp through a couple of thousand years of Western history tells us how important culture is. What we can imagine depends on the resources our culture gives us. People in Sophocles’ day were probably much the same as they are now. There simply hasn’t been enough time for evolution to have made us biologically different to the ancient Greeks. And people in London or Los Angeles have pretty much the same dreams as people in Lagos or Lima. But all of us live in worlds shaped by the societies we live in. The ancient Greeks lived in a world shaped by fate. The power today of possessive individualism is probably more marked in Los Angeles than in Lima. As they say in Southern Africa, “Motho ke motho ka batho” (people become people through other people).
We can, perhaps, investigate through different stories different ways of being people.