The stories we tell, whether fictional or “real,” are adaptations in social evolution. That is their function, and our brains have evolved to crave them. A people, or a person, without stories is without a framework of life and without hope.
Stories are experiments in which we test hypotheses about how to live in a world of limitations and conflicts. In addition, I believe that all stories are just one story, the story of love, which is always costly. Stories are not mere entertainment. They are the way we members of the primate species Homo sapiens live in the world.
As such, stories (whether fictional or not) must weave together plots that provide some sense of cause and effect (without which the world is meaningless) and offer some hope for going forward. Reality may, in fact, be unmitigated depression and hopelessness, but stories should not be, for stories are our way of coping with hopelessness and maybe overcoming it.
These are my thoughts after seeing a movie many of you have seen and all of you have heard about, Twelve Years a Slave. It is the story of a free black man living in New York, Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Georgia. Such kidnappings happened hundreds of times, and Northup was one of the few people to ever escape from this situation. For almost the entire two hours, I felt totally asphyxiated with depression. Nearly every person and event in the movie was the picture of hopelessness. Every time it looked like there might, just might, be a flicker of hope, it was dashed. For example, Northup realized that he might be able to use blackberry juice to make ink in order to write a letter to tell his friends where he was so they could rescue him. But his hopes were crushed by the treachery of the white man whom he trusted. The slaves were subjected to every imaginable indignity and suffering, and some that I had previously (despite my fertile writer’s imagination) never imagined, such as when the clinically crazy plantation master made his slaves act out ballroom dances so that he could pretend that he had a social life. Oh, it’s all true; slave owners did not treat their slaves as property, to be managed wisely, but would inflict suffering on them even though it entailed economic loss. The principal demon of the story personally beat his most productive slave nearly to death—a process shown in full graphic detail. Every possible hopelessness was depicted, such as Northup crushing his beloved violin.
At the end, I felt sick for being mostly white, as if the suffering of my Native American ancestors counted for nothing. But there were even blacks in this movie who were cruel. This movie made me feel filthy for being human. It’s enough to make you wish we would just go extinct.
This is not what a story is supposed to do. If Twelve Years a Slave were fiction, it would be totally unacceptable; its only saving grace is that this story actually happened.
But the producers of this movie made their story even worse than the reality. According to historical records, Northup’s white friends back in New York kept trying to locate and rescue him. Now this would have conferred a plot line of hope had it been included in the movie. But in the movie, the rescue was nothing but random good luck, when a random Canadian (Brad Pitt) happened to randomly pass through and take Northup’s message back to his white friends in New York.
What is the message of this story? That all humans are depraved? Or is it that we should, like Solomon Northup, persist in our circumstances no matter what they are just in case a one-in-a-thousand random rescue comes along? Neither of these messages offers any hope.
A story, in order to fulfill its evolutionary function, should offer a reason for hope, not just random good luck at the end. In this sense, the movie almost reminded me of the P.D.Q. Bach opera (by the humorist Peter Schickele) in which all the characters died at the end then got up and started singing “Happy ending, happy ending…” The producers of Twelve Years a Slave excised every possible element of hope, even the one that really happened.
The movie was very well done, and deserved the acclaim it received. My review is from the viewpoint of a scientist who sees stories as an evolutionary adaptation, and who also writes fiction. As a matter of fact, I finished writing a novel only two hours before seeing this movie.
The contrast with another famous slave movie, Amistad, could not be greater. Amistad, like Twelve Years a Slave, was based on a real event. But Amistad had a message of hope woven through it. If, in fact, it could be shown that the captives on the ship Amistad were part of an illegal (as opposed to legal) slave operation, there was the real chance that they might be freed by the American court system. Eventually, they were. And it was not random luck that freed them, but the persistent efforts of an old and retired John Quincy Adams. Amistad inspired me. Twelve Years a Slave just made me just want to crawl in a hole.
Why did human language and human intelligence evolve? Nobody knows. But I’ll bet one of the first uses to which either was put was to offer the tribes that developed these abilities a sense (even if it is a delusion) of hope that kept them going despite desperate circumstances and eventually made them prevail. We are the descendants of the people who told stories of hope, not those who wallowed in depression.