Why Do Stories Matter?
  • Stories are important because human beings are conceptual.

    This among other things means that humans survive by use of their reasoning brains.

    Humans evolved neither the balls of bulls, nor the trunks of elephants, nor the claws of bears, nor the necks of giraffes, but the brains of Homo sapiens, with a capacity to think.

    And we think by means of abstractions.

    Thus stories — as all other legitimate forms of art — concretize our abstractions.

    “The function of art is to recreate, from the rough material of actual existence, a new world that will be more marvelous, more enduring, and more true than the world that common eyes look upon.”

    Said Oscar Wilde.

    Art starts with an abstraction, such as jealousy, and, in an artistic work like Othello, shows us how in human life jealousy manifests.

    Jealousy is the abstraction. How Shakespeare dramatized it is his play is the concrete.

    The degree to which a story (or any other artistic creation) persuades or seems plausible is the degree to which it is good or bad.

    Painting and drawing perform the same function as Othello but in a purely visual manner.

    Sculpture does so by visual-tactile means.

    Music — which is unique among the arts — captures emotional abstractions, via sound, so that when you hear music, you feel yourself perhaps excited, or melancholic, or thoughtful, or excited.

    To qualify as a legitimate art form, the medium must have the power to convey ideas (i.e. abstractions) in a perceptual form — which is to say immediately.

    This is why culinary art is not, in the true sense, an actual art but a skill: the best foie gras in the world cannot convey even the simplest human abstraction, let alone something as complex as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

    The same thing is true of sewing, gem-cutting, rope-tying, carpentry, and many, many other difficult skills and trades as well. They don’t qualify as actual art, valuable and important as they may be, because they don’t have the power to capture or convey a wide range of abstract meaning. They cannot, in other words, objectify reality through their medium.

    That is what art does.

    Art objectifies the human experience.

    That is why art is a necessity.

    To truly qualify as art, the medium must be able to reproduce nature and then infuse that data with conceptual content.

    Abstractions are thoughts — or, to put that more precisely, abstractions are the human way of grasping reality. We do this by means of thought. And we think by means of words.

    Art assists in this. Which is why, philosophically speaking, esthetics is a sub-branch of epistemology: the science of thought.

    Stories recast reality and show us our abstractions made solid. In this way, stories enhance reality, as all art does.

    It is, paradoxically, artists themselves who are among the most inarticulate when it comes to explaining the nature and function of their art — and so in order to get beyond their artsy jargon so that we can see at last what gives rise to art, we needn’t listen to the artists and the critics but instead observe how the artistic drive develops in children.

    Observe the stories that children write. Observe what the child with that big stick of sidewalk-chalk draws upon the concrete:

    A large yellow crescent with blue stars around it.

    A white house in a green field.

    A blazing sun over black mountains.


    Stick figures.


    Ask yourself: what drives the child to make those drawings? What drives the child to tell those stories? What is that child thinking about that makes her want to set it down in concrete form? What dictates her subject-matter? Why did she choose this and not that?

    What, in short, is the child doing? And what is that process doing for her?

    Why did prehistoric humans paint animals and hunting scenes upon cave walls? What drove that urge? Why did they tell stories? Why did these men and women choose the subjects they chose? And what did those stories and paintings fulfill within them?

    Why have humans always invented stories?

    Why have humans always enjoyed listening to those stories, or seeing them played out?

    Why the human invention of musical instruments?

    Why did David “dance with all his might before the lord”?

    What need is being fulfilled in all this?

    The answer to these questions is the same:

    Each one of those things, through whichever medium, captures the abstract and makes it real and immediate.

    Humans — the rational animal — need this because our rational mind operates in the opposite manner: it is thoughtful, it is inductive, it is long-range. Art brings the entirety of the universe into our immediate perceptual ken.

    Art makes the conceptual perceptual.

    That is why stories are important.

    There is no mood or passion that art cannot give us…. Art is mind expressing itself under the conditions of matter, and thus, even in the lowliest of her manifestations, she speaks to both sense and soul alike…. It is through art, and only through art, that we can realize our perfection; through art, and through art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence…. Like Aristotle, like Goethe after he had read Kant, we desire the concrete, and nothing but the concrete can satisfy us.
    — Oscar Wilde