Shapes of Stories – Applying Vonnegut’s Tool to an Ancient Story

By: Heero Yuy

shapes-of-stories

Once upon a time the Ketuvim (כְּתוּבִים‎‎) was written. In it contained three poetic books called Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. It also includes a collection of five scrolls (Megillot) that has the book of Ecclesiastes. The introduction to Ecclesiastes the author is introduced as “son of David, king in Jerusalem” or better known as Solomon.

This book is a very good candidate to analyze and discuss with Shape of Stories as used by Kurt Vonnegut. All of stories can be mapped on an axis such as the one below:

plot
All stories have a beginning and an end filled with a mixture of good and ill fortunes. Within each story there are sub stories that follows the same principle. This is how all stories are told since the beginning of time and some get creative by jumping around on the timeline to tell slices of the story in non-chronological order (i.e. Fight Club or better yet Pulp Fiction).

The story of Ecclesiastes is told from the perspective of a King who’s done it all and seen it all and can truly profess that “there is nothing new under the Sun.” Each pursuit begins with purpose, progresses to fruition, celebrated with delight upon triumph, and ends dismissive as a useless and meaningless journey. Each chapter is a mini story and each paragraph a sub-story that follows this story arc.

For instance, the story begins where everything is meaningless in a very bottom-line upfront approach in story telling. Next the author tells the audience that:

  • Wisdom
  • Pleasures
  • Wisdom and folly
  • Toil

There is an intermission where the element of time is introduced and different elements on the spectrum of human experience in opposing pairs such as:

  • Birth and death
  • Plant and uproot
  • Kill and heal
  • Tear down and build up
  • Weep and laugh
  • Mourn and dance
  • etc, etc
  • War and peace

Before resuming his negative stream of consciousness the author also gives a hint at the idea of infinity, eternity, and God. Along with these elements the author describes beauty, happiness, satisfaction, toil, and fear.

A continuous chorus of “everything is meaningless” is song constantly throughout the dialog to drive the point home to remind the reader of this “ill journey” on the shape of the story. The “ill journey” on this journey is eternal confusion and failing to comprehend eternity to be stuck in an infinite loop of questioning in a finite world without knowing how to migrate to the next level of infinity.

Before resuming to telling the next elements of meaninglessness the author runs through yet another mini-story explaining the meaninglessness of toil, dragging down the story towards “ill journey”, and then at the end offers a solution which is to journey in life with a battle buddy and never going it alone:

“Two are better than on, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”

Journey resumes and the list of meaningless continues with:

  • Advancement (Keeping up with the Jones’) [Part 1]
    • No way any normal man can keep up with a King, and no way a life can have meaning if a King cannot find meaning in it… Right?

Another intermission to remind man of eternity and “fulfill[ing] your vow to God.”

Meaningless list drags on with:

  • Riches [Part 2]
    • Can’t take money to the grave!
    • Your clout doesn’t matter worth a damn in a finite life vs. infinity

Now the entire meaning of life, major elements of it, and the toils and pleasures are all essentially worthless the author turns over a new leaf to then bring meaning back into all forsaken elements one by one. This is powerful for two reasons:

  1. He got your attention by riding the story up and down the line of good and ill fortune
  2. All your current perceptions and prejudices against all known things in life are now wiped clean
    1. You are now a clean canvas
    2. The teacher can start his lesson anew to build one up again

Each brick of the foundation is thus laid as follows (rising up from ill fortune to good fortune):

  • Wisdom
    • “A person’s wisdom brightens their face and changes its hard appearance”
      • Metaphoric for internal self image and perception
  • Obey the King
    • Basic law and order
  • A common destiny for all
    • We all die (Sorry!)
  • Wisdom is better than folly
    • “Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength.’ But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.”
      • People chase paper credentials and social status more so than real life wisdom (Even back in the day!!!)
  • Invest in many Ventures
    • Talks about diversification to hedge against risk
    • Observe market conditions to know when to throw down and toil, when to restrain oneself
    • Concludes with step-by-step investment strategies and the mechanics of investing
  • Remember the Creator while young
    • A troubled heart and anxious mind confuses the young
    • Message is to ponder about the infinity and see how small your daily problems are in comparison

Author after mentoring the young closes his Sales pitch by saying the hard earned truth is the most concise guide to a no non-sense life without any addition or subtraction from the principles outlined. Studying too much and reading too far into other texts in search of the distilled wisdom is a pure waste of time.

Major arcs in the story consists of a beginning where it is “ill fortune” with mini-stories of ill and good fortune and the story progresses to “good fortune” until the conclusion where it remains neutral like the glass surface of a still lake on a calm day. Stories conclude like this for only one reason and that is to leave the choice up the reader to willfully live a different life or remain the same as before even after learning of this knowledge.

The lights fade, curtains drawn, stage empty, and either the audience applauds or walks out in silence.

 

Valuing Yourself – You vs. the World [Part 1]

By: Heero Yuy

bateman-relaxing

In this Four Part post I will explore how valuation is done on the individual and the difference between extrinsic, intrinsic, and universal perception of our worth in this world.

A Scene from American Psycho:

Evelyn Williams: Thousands of roses and lots of chocolate truffles. Godiva, and oysters in the half-shell.
Patrick Bateman: [Bateman narrating] I’m trying to listen to the new Robert Palmer tape, but Evelyn, my supposed fiancée, keeps buzzing in my ear.
Evelyn Williams: Annie Leibovitz. We’ll get Annie Leibovitz. And we’ll have to get someone to videotape. Patrick, we should do it.
Patrick Bateman: Do what?
Evelyn Williams: Get married. Have a wedding.
Patrick Bateman: No, I can’t take the time off work.
Evelyn Williams: Your father practically owns the company. You can do anything you like, silly.
Patrick Bateman: I don’t want to talk about it.
Evelyn Williams: You hate that job anyway. I don’t see why you just don’t quit.
Patrick Bateman: Because I want to fit in.”

Unfortunately, we will not discuss the movie American Psycho in full today as it is a topic for another day. However, we will explore the subject of conformity in today’s society and how we or society assigns us a value. For some, the valuation done by society is taken at face value equates to the value assigned by the individual to themselves. A few individuals disagrees with the way in which society values them and their talents and calculates their values differently. Both topics will be covered and differences expounded upon.

Part 1 – How Society and the World Values Us:

This video from The School of Life YouTube Channel best explains how society and our families (esp. Asian households) values most of us (9min video):

When asked about wealth the first thing that comes to mind is money for most people. They want to believe that the 1’s and 0’s stored in the database of various accounts accurately present your networth to this world. The universe cares not what your bank account statement says or most man-made metrics. What’s the worth of one small planet in a universe this vast? How much power can one man have on a one little rock if the entire rock is not even a speck of sand in the river of time?

Society values people and their net economic output and appropriately compensates them for their worth so that they can extract value from us in order to commoditize, market, distribute, and sell it to others for a profit.

The value assigned to you by your friends and families can also vary depending on how you were nurtured and which company of friends you keep. It can be either extremely motivating or powerfully destructive and this ultimately determines our outcome as a human being. We shall explore these ideas in depth in the following posts [Click for Part 2!].