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The storyteller's paradox
Who tells the storyteller stories?
We need stories like we need food, and Dan Harmon, the creator of Rick and Morty, has figured out how to make Cheetos.
But what happens when you make a factory farm out of the mystic art of storytelling?
If you use storytelling for only your gain, it will eat your alive. It’s psychologically hard for you to know the story that you’re simultaneously trying to live.
We can see the price great storytellers end up paying (Hemingway, Foster Wallace [both committed suicide], and Harmon himself) for their mastery. Hopefully, we can avoid their fate.
How Dan tells a story
Dan famously uses a distilled version of Joseph Campbell’s story circle. Whenever he’s stuck, he draws a version of this circle.
Here’s his blog post on how to tell stories. It’s incredibly useful if you want to write addictive stories.
Most of the episodes of Rick and Morty are Rick (a genius stand-in for Dan) meeting a storytelling trope (AKA, an archetype), seeing through the pattern, and humiliating them with his superior intellect.
Here he is meeting the devil.
In many ways, the show is about Dan and his relationship with stories. And it is insanely popular. It especially seems to make young men feel that their intellectual narcissism is justified. Thus, the rise of cringy Reddit memes.
I get it. It’s comforting to think of yourself as Rick: high IQ and smarter than the silly old stories of the world. Beyond any of the archetypes–even the idea of God.
Sure, Rick has vulnerable moments–on more than one occasion, he considers killing himself.
Or where he pleads to God for a moment–only to take it back once his intellect has saved him again.
This, I think, is the logical conclusion of this outlook.
If you use storytelling (or anything else, for that matter) for nothing but your own gain, you alienate yourself from humanity.
As David Foster Wallace put it:
“Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
How to use the power of stories for your own gain
The funny thing about Rick and Morty is that even though it usually makes fun of TV tropes/archetypes, it relies on them. Without their endless appeal to human nature, the show would have no audience. It would only be the chaotic nihilism part–which would not make for an enjoyable watch.
We watch for a moment of schadenfreude; To see the archetypes get kicked in the nuts.
So, in a way, by being a cynic about the archetypes–but still suckling at their power–Dan is a parasite. A storyteller drawing on the magic of old tales, only to cut their heads off when he’s done. Thus, Dan struggles with a sense of his life having no meaning.
David Foster Wallace
Let’s look at Wallace again, who plays with this idea in a slightly different way.
A true master of the craft, he uses his gift in Infinite Jest to screw with us.
He spins complex and interesting narratives only to snuff them out in an inglorious way. He intentionally plays with our archetypal intuitions–but endlessly shoves them up their own ass.
We never feel satisfied–but we feel smart for noticing how pointless everything is.
Wallace struggled with this question of “meaning” until he ended his own life.
His writing is a beautiful exercise in the futility of finding it in a chaotic world. He wanted to believe in something. That’s so interesting. I admit it. It was an important moment in literature. Infinite Jest is a masterwork.
But where does that leave us in the end?
Where did it leave him?
Treat archetypes like your old dad
We should treat stories like our old dad.
Sure, they’ve seen stronger days. But we respect what they’ve done. They put a damn roof over our head, after all. So, we give them the benefit of the doubt. We try to embody their values in our lives–and maybe push them farther than they ever could (humbly).
Otherwise, we have no stories to guide us. And, believe it or not, we need stories like we need food.
Archetypes and narratives are part of our lives, no matter how genius we are. Humiliating them just strips us of our meaning.
Without them, all we have is whatever Dan and David had.
By telling better stories than our parents ever could, we have a chance to create a whole new era of sustaining meaning.
That can be our story.
Share this with someone looking for a story to believe in.
Thanks for reading,
Here’s what I’m reading:
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
I picked up this book at the Philosophical Research Society after a couple of friends, and I saw a lecture on the mythical history of Halloween. William James is the favorite philosopher of a lot of people I admire, and a unique on for actually being a good writer. Excited to dig deeper.
Quotes I’m pondering:
“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” ― William James
“To change one’s life: 1. Start immediately. 2. Do it flamboyantly. 3. No exceptions.” ― William James
"We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep." —William James