Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Rhizo Narratology: The Positive Power of Narratives

As I recover from a total knee replacement, I'm reading the book Your Brain on Art by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, and it is forcing me to recognize a serious bias in my thinking about the Trump stories, which I tend to think of negatively as disruptive and destructive fictions and outright lies. In short, they are stories that harm. I must correct this bias if I am to understand the Trump narratives.

Magsamen and Ross take a different, more positive approach to art, which for them includes narratives and other literary forms as well as the visual, musical, plastic, and performing arts. Their book is mostly about how art and our aesthetic responses to art can restore and heal us, and they approach their topic in a manner that works with complexity. In the first chapter of Your Brain on Art, they say:

You may think of yourself as a body moving independently through the world, but you are interconnected with and part of everything around you. You and your environment are inseparable. Your senses lay the foundation for how and why the arts and aesthetics offer the perfect path to amplify your health and well-being. (8)

Note that Magsamen and Ross are framing human identity and health within an enclosing, complex environment. Art is an aspect of the enclosing environment, and our aesthetic response is the interaction between ourselves and this external art. This works quite nicely for a rhizo narratology that considers any entity as a knot of lines of energy, matter, information, and organization flowing from enclosing and enclosed environments into and through the entity to inform and energize it and to feedback into the extra-environments. The art, the artist, and the audience are all entities within a given environment. While I have not yet finished the book (I'm reading slowly and writing even more slowly as I recover), the authors' default position appears to be that arts are generally healing and restorative, more positive than negative, helping entities such as humans to adjust to their enclosing environments.

I believe that a positive approach to narratives as art can work for my rhizo narratology. First, it forces me to explain what I mean by narrative art, forcing the question: are Trump narratives art? Let's see if Magsamen and Ross can help me answer this.

The book opens with a quote from San Francisco artist Richard Kamler who says of art:

Art is our one true global language … It speaks to our need to reveal, heal, and transform. It transcends our ordinary lives and lets us imagine what is possible. (ix)

I'm inclined to dismiss as hyperbole Kamler's assertion that "art is our one true global language." He seems to be contrasting the visual and hearing arts with the literary arts, but I'm mostly interested in the literary arts which tend to require heavy and sensitive translation before transcending cultural bounds. Anyway, I've seen and heard lots of art from other places that did not translate so well into my aesthetic sensibilities.

Fortunately for me, Magsamen and Ross do not focus on the universal aspect of art but on its ability "to reveal, heal, and transform" and to transcend "our ordinary lives and [let] us imagine what is possible." First, they tend to speak of art in positive terms. They elaborate on Kamler's definition this way:

You know the transformative power of art. You've gotten lost in music, in a painting, in a movie or a play, and you felt something shift within you. … The arts bring joy. Inspiration. Well-being. Understanding. Even salvation. And while these experiences may not be easy to explain, you have always known they are real and true. (ix)

All of us are, of course, familiar with such joyful experiences of art, but I'm also familiar with art that disgusts, terrorizes, destroys, and otherwise leaves one feeling much less than before one encountered it. I'm familiar with art that can challenge, rearrange, even destroy one's worldview, leaving one feeling and believing much differently. Such art is seldom soothing, but often traumatic as one's firm reality is shifted in light of a new vision. It seems to me that the highest art always has this transformative potential. Such art approaches the salvific experiences that Magsamen and Ross allude to in the quote above, but the authors never face the potential trauma of salvation. Often, salvation can be called healing and bring joy only long after the fact, when the trauma subsides, and one can begin processing the new reality they find themselves inhabiting. So my first problem with Magsamen and Ross' book is its too narrow focus on only that art which heals and transforms.

A second problem is their mixing of art and aesthetics, especially their contention that nature is the ultimate aesthetic experience (15). Perhaps so, but does that make nature art? For me, art is a human activity. People sing, play music, dance, paint, perform, and write. People do not arrange sunsets over the mountains – not natural ones, at any rate. And while much art is mimetic, copying nature in some way, it is still recognizable as a human-produced artifact and largely valued or not as such. Am I to consider nature as God's artwork? Magsamen and Ross certainly don't suggest so, but they also don't help me distinguish between art and nature and our aesthetic responses to each. Are they different? Magsamen and Ross don't say.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to Magsamen and Ross as these questions are somewhat tangential to their argument, but these are things that I need to resolve in future posts if I'm to treat the Trump stories as art. A more complete answer will require more reading and writing in other sources, but I can say now that I believe the Trump stories to be art – if not artifice, but artifice exposes my bias again, so for the moment, I'll stick with art. The Trump stories are human narratives told to express some vision of the world and to elicit from the audience some aesthetic response. Art can aim for other, more practical responses – political, social, religious, economic, and so forth – but I think aesthetics are included in all of those and will persist in the artwork in the absence of those other responses. As far as I can tell, Magsamen and Ross limit their discussion to positive aesthetic responses: those responses to art that in someway benefit the artist and the audience. While I hold to a wider range of aesthetic responses, in this post I'll consider mostly the positive benefits of Trump stories. First, a story.

My brother, a retired Evangelical minister, first told me how Trump is like Cyrus, the Old Testament king who helped restore Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem. In an NPR interview, Robert P. Jones, president and founder of Public Religion Research Institution (PRRI) says that many Evangelicals have compared Trump to:

the Persian king Cyrus from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. And that's important because there, Cyrus is presented as an ungodly king who nonetheless frees a group of Jews who are held captive in Babylon. So by comparison, Trump here is the powerful, strong, authoritarian liberator, someone who by definition and maybe even by necessity is even above the law and who alone is capable of liberating conservative, white Christians from their oppressors.

Jones should have also noted that a number of prominent national leaders and at least one international leader, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, have compared Trump to King Cyrus of Persia. The story possibly originated in 2016 with a vision by Lance Wallnau in his article "Why I Believe Trump Is the Prophesied President in which, three days before Trump won the 2016 election, Wallnau says:

This is the proposition I give to Christians who are dispirited by the failure of their favorite candidate to capture the nomination: Don't ask, "Who is the most Christian?" Instead ask, "Who is the one anointed for the task?" … From my perspective, there is a Cyrus anointing on Trump. He is, as my friend Kim Clement said three years ago, "God's trumpet." I predicted his nomination, and I believe he is the chaos candidate set apart to navigate us through the chaos that is coming to America. I think America is due for a shaking regardless of who is in office. I believe the 45th president is meant to be an Isaiah 45 Cyrus.

Whenever and however it originated, the story has gained traction in Evangelical circles and has become an article of faith for many. What does this narrative offer Evangelicals that they will so readily accept it not just as a convincing story but as fact? Using the definition of art from Kamler, I can ask what revelation, healing, and transformation does this story provide to Evangelicals? How does it help them transcend their situation? Or does it do these things? I think it does.

I think that, in general, repurposing an ancient story into contemporary times has several benefits for the community repurposing the story:

  • Reinterpretation: Any modern storyteller can retell the Cyrus story in a fresh way. This could be a play or a graphic novel, but in the case of modern Evangelicals, it has been mostly social media memes and sermons. The core message of persecution and liberation remains, but the format changes to resonate with a contemporary audience.
  • Local Application: The story can be adapted to reflect a modern community's struggles. I know first-hand – and any reading of modern social media and attention to Evangelical sermons will confirm – that Evangelicals perceive themselves as persecuted by the mainstream society (the World) and media (Fake News). Retelling the Cyrus story with a local twist can spark conversations among Evangelicals about how to confront persecution and to anticipate deliverance through a flawed Trump and by a beneficent and loving God.
  • Shared Values: Ancient stories remind us of the enduring human values we share across time. Cyrus's story highlights the hardships and eventual deliverance by an Act of God of the Israelites, a theme that transcends cultures and eras. The story also highlights Cyrus's emphasis on justice and tolerance, rare in ancient times, a justice and tolerance that Evangelicals see for every other social group, but not for themselves – except from Trump. Evangelicals can use this story to clarify their position in the World and to promote internal social cohesion.

Note that in this post I am discussing a specific story (King Cyrus and the Israelites) shared within a specific community (Evangelicals), but I'm convinced that all human communities share stories that provide the same kinds of benefits.

I've still much to unpack about the positive benefits of narratives within communities, but I'll save it until I've done some more reading and more discussion with my AI assistant, Google's Gemini. Yes, I use AI in my writing these days. I really can't imagine that I will ever do without the far reach and rapid response of a competent large language model. As slowly as I've been writing, I would have been much slower without Gemini.