Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kurt Vonnegut is Wrong, or Alan Explains Drama (with help)

This article has been making the rounds of the interwebs:

Kurt Vonnegut explains drama.

In it he basically says:

because we grew up surrounded by big dramatic story arcs in books and movies, we think our lives are supposed to be filled with huge ups and downs! So people pretend there is drama where there is none.

I immediately disagreed with that assertion. One of the comments (#66 from "Susan") started to get at why:

I think that's putting the cart before the horse.

Back in the ancestral environment, day-to-day survival could be pretty dramatic. "Lion ... coming right for us! Run!" "We're running out of animals to hunt and berries to gather. Oh noooo!" "Hey, there's plenty of food in this new place. Yaaaay!"

Now survival pretty much consists of going to work and shopping at the supermarket. Between the legitimate dramatic events -- births, deaths, major life transitions -- the landscape is fairly flat.

Maybe our psyche manufactures drama out of insignificant events the way immune systems in a too-sterile environment develop allergic reactions.

I think that pretty much hits it on the nose for me. I would go further to say that the stories aren’t conditioning us to expect drama. Popular stories are dramatic because that’s how we’re evolutionarily conditioned to expect life to be. When it's not, we need the stories to scratch that itch in our lives.

If we didn’t create drama where there is none, we wouldn’t know how to react to real drama when faced with it.

I noticed that as a kid when I realized that the things that were important to most of my friends and me weren’t really that important at all from a larger perspective. But because we didn’t have to worry about things like feeding ourselves, we made the trivial matters before us into life and death struggles.

It makes sense, really. A human animal that’s always expecting drama will be prepared for it and be more likely to survive it.

You might think “we haven’t lived in the wild for centuries, why haven’t we evolved past that?” Keep in mind that humans have been around for about 200,000 years (if you believe in evolution). If you shrink that down to the length of the month of January, all of recorded history (which is just history since the invention of writing—there are huge gaps in “recorded history”) would fit into just the last day. We’re much closer to the wild than we think.

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In 1789, the governor of Australia granted land and some animals to James Ruse in an experiment to see how long it would take him to support himself. Within 15 months he had become self sufficient. The area is still known as Experiment Farm. This is my Experiment Farm to see how long it will take me to support myself by writing.