In 1998 Columbia University published a lecture given by the Pulitzer winning playwright David Mamet. Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama is a tiny, brilliant book. In just 80 pages, Mamet sets us straight on the human impulse to dramatize. We all do it, we cannot not do it, it is one of the tools we use to survive. Things such as the weather, traffic jams and the exploits of celebrities are all routinely taken as part of the drama of our daily lives, when in truth they are wholly impersonal events. "The dramatic urge" as Mamet called it, is an anthropomorphic mechanism used to impose pattern onto random events so we can understand them.
Joseph Gold, a university professor and psychotherapist from Northern Ontario, is also interested in the human impulse to dramatize. At the outset of The Story Species: Our Life-Literature Connection, he states, "This book argues that a biological approach to Literature will restore our connection to language and to the stories that form our view of the world and our identity."
Exciting stuff, if only Gold could pull it off.
Biology is a science, but readers looking to Gold for a scientific explanation of the dramatic urge will come away disappointed. There is almost no hard science in this book. Instead what we get is a smattering of case studies accompanied by copious doses of conjecture, metaphor and common sense.
Gold posits a biological theory in chapter one of why humans are so adept at stories: "I think the answer lies in the sequential nature of cellular formation," he writes, "and how cells are assembled by their responses to information genetically encoded. In other words, the sequential assembly of human bodies at the cellular level seems to bring with it an imperative that carries over to human nature, the story-making behaviour."
He is saying that because cell structure resembles the plot graph of a story, the two might be related. Cute, but anyone can theorize. Science pulls theories down from aloft and, with reasonable certainty, separates them from metaphysics by empirical means. Pie in the sky becomes fact. Gold has a serious and important social agenda in this book. He is deeply concerned about the state of the world and he believes that a systematic reduction in literacy is disconnecting us from our inherent biological qualities and making us slaves to commerce.
Only a fool would not agree that there are profoundly troubling dehumanizing forces at work in today's world. Gold argues that the loss of language is the tip of the wedge driving society apart. Language connects people. Sever those connections (through industrialization, television and the internet) and you can control people. Anyone who loves literature, will surely agree with Gold's assertions that reading has a deeply humanizing effect. One does not dispute his common sense. His call for stronger literacy programs in schools, for example, can only be applauded. But because he provides no empirical evidence to support his biological theory¨no lab testing, no significant case studies¨his passionate presentation is undermined, and everything that follows is a house of cards.
"When we speak of reading we are describing a way of acquiring information," states Gold. "Information has no weight, no mass. But it is recorded somehow, somewhere inside us, presumably by means of a molecular code which can be activated into consciousness by the appropriate stimulation."
Somehow? Somewhere? Just because cell structure can be perceived to resemble a plot graph does not mean the two things are connected. Poodles and hyacinths have sequential cell structures. They do not write Shakespearean sonnets.
"...the subject of drama is The Lie," states Mamet. Think of Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Don Quixote. Lies propel stories in literature. But the truth¨the scientific truth¨is that literature itself is a lie. The world is not a play. It took Gold 300 pages to say what Mamet said in 80, and while his extraneous biological theories may eventually be proved right by science, any claim he makes now to possessing knowledge of how literature is made is still just good story. ˛