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This book, which by all accounts has taken Christopher Booker 30 years to write, isn't the first attempt to distil all of storytelling down to a few archetypes. I dare say it won't be the last, either. While it's a fantastically learned, well-read, and at times insightful entry on the subject, it encounters the same problems others like Joseph Campbell have: that that the facts of actual literature tend to sit uneasily with the unifying theory, and that the unifying theory itself tends to rest on an analysis of human psychology which sounds like it might be so much bunk, and a particular world view - moral objectivism - which definitely is.
Both Jungian psychoanalysis and moral objectivity are taken as read by Christopher Booker and as such he spends no time justifying them (perhaps understandably - the arguments for and against each would fill this book many times over). Nonetheless, in my view, he's simply wrong about both of them, and it blows a Big Hole in his Big Idea.
Booker's Big Idea is this: when you boil them down, there are only seven archetypal stories in all of literature, and further that if you boil those archetypes down, they are in many ways the same story viewed from different perspectives. This is perhaps intuitively understandable: in the broadest sense all stories are a variation of "there once was a problem, and it got resolved" - but the kicker is this: Booker asserts that any story which fails to follow his prescription is - objectively - flawed. Now that sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn't it.
The first observation to make is that this significantly undermines his claim to have found a unifying theory: Suddenly, it's not all literature that follows the archetype, but all *good* literature. As a moral objectivist, that doesn't seem to Booker like much of a concession, but from any other perspective it is: what Booker is saying is that all literature *which he likes* meets one of the seven archetypes. What seemed to be a bold assertion about the nature of literature is instead a simple indictment of Booker's appreciation of it.
That seems more plausible, anyway: the point and content of a story, you would think, cannot be straight-jacketed in this way. The fact that popular stories tend to have similarities speaks to our cultural heritage, the common dilemmas of life and death we share, and perhaps to our lack of imagination, not to some cosmic rule of fiction. This has been borne out in more "enlightened" times (literally - since the enlightenment), as Booker notes to his dismay that these similarities have tended to fade. But even without that modern interference, Booker notes that the seven archetypes tend to fragment under the weight of closer analysis - there are "dark inversions" of each, and inversions of various characters. So, the seven become fourteen or more.
The second problem is that, as mentioned, the last couple of centuries have seen stories fail more and more to keep to the archetypes. Booker blames this on romanticism, and is required by his theory to claim that these divergent stories are intrinsically flawed. That might not be a problem were these flawed stories not to include almost all the classics of modern literature, except perhaps Lord of the Rings and the Narnia chronicles (both of which, quelle surprise, have a fundamentally Christian, and therefore morally objectivist, subtext).
So, you can write off Melville, Nabokov, Balzac, Lawrence, Stoker and Shelley, or write off Booker's theory.
For me, it isn't a difficult choice.
11 internautes sur 11 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
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I love books that attempt grand syntheses: Aristotle's Poetics, V. I. Propp's Morphology of the Folk-Tale, Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, and the writings of Kenneth Burke, to name just a few. For 30 years, Booker worked on this, and has for the most part achieved something spectacular. Like most great ideas, this starts off with very basic observations and questions -- indeed, questions that seem too obvious to ask: Why do stories have heroes? Why do they portray some sort of conflict? We take such things for granted. Booker, to his credit, does not.
The book is in several large parts. The first talks about the "seven basic plots": Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; Voyage and Return; The Quest; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth. The second part talks about the four major archetypal characters (Booker acknowledges a debt to Jung) -- Father, Mother, Animus, Anima -- in their dark and light manifestations and revisits the plots in terms of these interactions. The third part talks about how plots go wrong. The fourth part, the least worthwhile chapter of the book, tries a tour-bus view of millennia of intellectual history with a view to showing inexorable decline.
Just coming up with his 7+4 theoretical framework constitutes a major achievement. As long as works conform to his archetypal plots and characters, he provides brilliant analysis, although here and there I may disagree with this view of certain aspects of a work (his downgrading of Frodo as a character in Lord of the Rings and his underestimation of Spielberg's Close Encounters seem major misreadings, despite a generally wonderful discussion). He's also very sharp on where conforming plots go wrong. The problem comes when he insists on his archetypes as the only successful patterns.
I grant that these patterns are extremely satisfying. I see the basic dramatic movement most easily in comedy. Booker lets me understand why I find Bringing Up Baby and Clueless ultimately more satisfying than Duck Soup, as funny (to me, actually much funnier than the previous two) as the Marx Brothers epic undoubtedly is. All of these plots are metaphors for an unformed or destructive set of circumstances resolving in various ways toward light and wholeness.
The problems with the book come up with stories that don't conform to the archetype. Booker rightly points out a weakening of these patterns in the 17th and especially the early 18th centuries. According to Booker, it's due to mankind's increasing alienation from a sense of cosmic wholeness. Dante's Divina Commedia can't be written now, I think we'd agree. The decline of religious dogma and the rise of scientific or empirical observation have been responsible for this. Booker blames the alienation, which I think a sentimental cop-out. It's hard to write a classic, convincing rags-to-riches story in the age of Trump. The rain falls largely on the just, while the unjust seem to have cosmic umbrellas. Millions of innocents died during the Great Leap Forward. Stalin and Mao died in their sleep. These stories also need to be told. They may be less satisfying, but they show something true, rather than, as Booker tries to argue, sentimentality. Booker refers to the Book of Job as a "good" resolution of the problem of innocent suffering. I find the end of that story incredibly hollow. Sure, Job gets a new family, but what about the old family? Why does God allow Satan to afflict Job? According to Robert Frost in his Masque of Reason, "I did it on a bet," says God, citing the very beginning of the story. Job replies, "I expected more than I could understand, and what I get is almost less than I can understand." Job is brought back into wholeness with the One (Booker uses terms like this), but does this really satisfy anybody? "Gaining the kingdom" doesn't make everything all right and indeed comes with its own set of problems. Stendahl, Proust, Joyce, and Melville don't write their stories solely out of individual psychosis or neurosis, but out of universal experience and sharp observation.
The fourth part of the book is to me little more than sentimental nostalgia for the good old days before the post-lapsarian Fall represented by Romanticism, Realism, and Modernism. As he himself shows, Booker's archetypes persist with wonderful results to the present. But that's not the only way great art can be made. Booker has fallen so in love with his own analysis that he has closed his mind to the possibility of other ways to artistic success.