Duncan Wu discovers that what we call stories are inextricably intertwined with real life and our perception of the world.
What does Moby-Dick have in common with Jurassic Park , Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven ? What links Humbert Humbert, Macbeth, Faust and Anna Karenina? Those questions take us to the heart of Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots . In fact, the main title of this book undersells it.
It is true that Booker's essential proposition is that there is "a hidden landscape in all stories", and that were we but to perceive that landscape we could begin to understand how any narrative runs a variation on one or more of the seven basic plots. These are: Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Rebirth; Comedy; and Tragedy. They are outlined in considerable detail in the first part of the book and, in doing so, Booker takes us on a whirlwind tour of storytelling that for many would be matter enough for an entire volume. But the remarkable thing is that this is only the start of a more ambitious enterprise.
He goes on to argue that the seven basic plots he describes are based on "archetypes programmed into the human psyche that cannot be cheated and can never die". These dictates of character and action serve to articulate "the same central preoccupation that lies at the heart of storytelling". He documents this in the only way he can - by means of a cultural history revealing the archetypal symbolism of novels, plays, films, music and paintings through the ages. Not only that, he is also able to show how archetypes shape our perception of historical events and of the present; they even enable us to make sense of our own lives.
Booker has taken more than three decades to bring his work to its conclusion, and the care he has taken shows on every page. This is a book that wears its learning lightly, laden though it is with insights acquired over years of prolonged meditation; that is why it is so persuasive. I began The Seven Basic Plots as a sceptic but finished it as a believer. Not that there is anything messianic about Booker - though (as it happens) he writes perceptively on the subject of apocalypse - it is simply that his ideas are carefully considered and his conclusions unimpeachable.
Even if you do not go along with what he says, this book deserves to be read for the brilliance of its analysis, unblemished by the sloppy thinking and botched prose that mars so much academic criticism. Booker is good on sentimentality, for instance, which he traces to the tendency, stemming from the Romantic period, for works of art to become "the vehicle for ego-centred fantasies or daydreams" often featuring "betrayed, imprisoned, violated, dead or dying heroines". As a Romanticist, I am inclined to react defensively to this, but his analysis of Stendhal, Balzac and Dostoevsky bears out what he says. He goes on to show how A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is "the greatest monument to human egotism in the history of storytelling: a book so preoccupied by the ego-life of its author that it is not so much a story as a case study: the self-portrait of a man so frozen in immaturity by the unresolved tie to 'Mother' that he is incapable of making any contact with the deeper Self". The only problem with that, if you happen to like Proust, is that Booker's reading of the novel is so sensitive and accurate that it is not easy to quarrel with him.
Turning to Ulysses , he argues that Joyce creates "an exact reflection of what happens when human consciousness becomes restricted to no more than the ego, and the complexities of human love are reduced to no more than the physicality of the sexual drive". Again, there is nothing unsympathetic about this; his point is that these works portray egos that have "lost touch with the selfless components of love". And the next stage in the development of narratives where that is so, is to find them describing frustration, which in turn leads to violent action - thus explaining the chief preoccupation of so many narratives of recent years. All the same, it is a neat irony that the Terminator film series, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which at first glance seems best to exemplify that argument, in fact articulates, with Arnie's selfless act of self-sacrifice at the end of the second film, a denial of the ego and return to the values of the Self. How very old-fashioned.
The Seven Basic Plots is not principally a work of literary criticism, nor is it much concerned with the mechanics of storytelling (though critics and writers would be well advised to pay heed to it). The central question it sets out to answer is where the urge to tell stories originates and what function they serve: it finds that they "emerge from some place in the human mind that functions autonomously, independent of any storyteller's conscious control". The implications of this are far-reaching. It ratifies the view that archetypes, programmed from before birth, dictate the way in which we apprehend the world.
That applies not just to our psychological development but also to the wider arena of public affairs. The dream of a communist utopia in Russia, for instance, "drew on the power of the archetype of the Self. In claiming to act in the interests of all mankind, it tapped into that sense of moral righteousness that could be generated around the dream of building a community that transcended selfish interests, when in fact it was only expressing the collective egotism of a particular group." Whatever academic historians make of this, Booker makes sense of the acute tension between Self and ego at that particular moment.
More recently, he argues, a new archetype has come to shape our view of ourselves - one in which we are "infantilised, reduced psychologically to a child-like state of dependence on that 'Great Mother' which had been called into being by late-20th-century technology". That is the cause, he suggests, for the masculinisation of women and feminisation of men, licensed by political correctness, a by-product of the same kind of moral righteousness that fuelled the Russian revolution. Hence the rise of "super-feminist" heroines Lara Croft and Ripley in the Alien films, as well as real-life figures such as Margaret Thatcher, whose "significance as a leader was that, at a time when politicians had been long losing their masculinity, she stood for masculine qualities in politics more effectively than any of the men around her".
In the past decade, politics has been dominated by two figures who seem, uncannily, to bear out Booker's claims about the male tendency to engage in ego-driven fantasy - "the vain, promiscuous President (Bill) Clinton, and the puer aeternatus figure of Tony Blair who, as much as any politician before him, relied on projecting a fantasy-image of himself which bore scant relation to reality". Both could be said to exemplify the infantilised male surrounded by strong women-figures, bringing them perilously close to the profile of the tragic hero whose "fundamental problem is that he is frozen into too close a tie with 'Mother' and therefore locked in opposition to the values of 'Father'".
One of Booker's central themes is the conflict between the self-centred claims of the ego and the more holistic aspirations of the Self - a struggle that, one imagines, has not played much part in the career of Clinton, but that seems to make some sense of the tormented persona of Blair. As Booker shows, it is echoed also in Christian myth, with Satan as "a complete personification of all the treacherous, self-deceiving, self-destructive power of the human ego" and Christ as "a personification of the Self". Booker argues that the most revolutionary thing about Christianity is its determination to address the central problem of human psychology. "The essence of Jesus's message, much of it put across in the form of parables or stories, was that, for any of us, this is the only test which matters. Is our personality centred on the ego or the Self?" That message is also, of course, central to most of the literary works Booker discusses.
There is not room here to do full justice to Booker's ideas, spread out as they are across more than 700 pages, but it should be evident by now that The Seven Basic Plots takes its reader on an epic journey. It is as essential for anyone studying literature at degree level (not least because Booker is such an exemplary writer) as it is for anyone with the slightest interest in the world around them. What, for instance, were the creators of Stonehenge trying to do? They were attempting to "reconnect themselves with that sense of unity from which they had been exiled by the emergence of their new type of consciousness. The structures they created to that end we recognise from storytelling as representations of the archetype of the Self." When one understands how that fits into a larger theory of art and society, it becomes clear that the insights on which The Seven Basic Plots are based are fundamental to an understanding of our evolution.
Booker's terminology may be familiar from the science of psychoanalysis, particularly the work of Jung, but it is outlined without complication, accessible to the non-specialist and specialist alike. It should also be noted that he goes further than Jung in proposing that the symbolic language of the unconscious affects the whole of the process whereby we imagine stories in our conscious lives. That is the big idea of this astonishing book. It follows that what we call "stories" are inextricably intertwined with "real life". And not only that: they mirror the world around us, providing a key to its interpretation. Booker's achievement is to provide readers with the means to recognise the archetypal symbolism built into works of art and embedded in life itself, and by that means to gain access to their inner meanings.
Duncan Wu is professor of English language and literature, Oxford University.
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories
Author - Christopher Booker
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 728
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 8264 5209 4