'Most fables contain at least some truth, and they often enable people to absorb ideas which the ordinary patterns of their thinking would prevent them from digesting.'
Idries Shah, The Sufis
As I have mentioned in other posts on this blog, I am fascinated by the fundamental paradox that I see within story, in that while it encourages us to conform to society, it also encourages us to become true individuals by shedding mindless conformity. And it is this aspect of story that I keep returning to, asking myself how a narrative can enable us to evolve as individuals. I believe there is an alternative knowledge structure deeply embedded within story, a structure that enables and encourages personal transformation, and that echoes thousands of years back to the first stories of the shamans and the ancient myths of indigenous peoples around the world, as well as being evident in many contemporary narratives. People write, read and listen to stories, not because they wish to escape from themselves, but because they wish to find themselves. So perhaps then, a key to self transformation is embedded within story.
The idea that stories might contain hidden meanings is not a new one, stretching back to the interpretation of early religious texts across many faiths and persisting to the current day through continued scholarly analysis of literature. These theories are also rooted in mystical knowledge associated with Sufism and other esoteric groups, some of this knowledge dating back thousands of years. The ancient Aesops Fables which are popular in the West, are an example of stories that are designed to jolt us out of the boundaries that restrict our thinking. In his book, The Sufis, Idries Shah writes that the popular and humorous Nasrudin Stories which date from around the thirteenth century, 'may be understood at any one of many depths. . . and the experiencing of each story will contribute towards the 'homecoming' of the mystic'. Perhaps then, rather than reinforcing blind acceptance of society's constructed realities, stories might use hidden meanings in order to innately question them. Idries Shah goes on to explain the use of humour in the Nasrudin tales, saying that 'humour cannot be prevented from spreading: it has a way of slipping through the patterns of thought which are imposed upon mankind by pattern and design.' While humour is not a strong element in my writing at present, I agree that it has great power, encouraging us to question and laugh at what we hold sacred or simply take for granted.
Much of our interpretation of a text relies on how we read. Joseph Campbell emphasised the importance of poetic interpretation, as compared to literal reading, warning that 'wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history or science, it is killed.' Karen Armstrong too, wrote passionately of the need to re-engage with story, using 'intuitive, mythical modes of thought' instead of the 'more pragmatic, logical spirit of scientific rationality.' When I was writing Flight, I began to wonder how I could layer the story in order to encourage different interpretations on the part of the reader. I wanted my readers to read intuitively, to find a story a that spoke to them in unexpected ways. In the end though I found myself unable to plan a novel in this way and decided instead to trust my unconscious to do this for me through the use of symbols and metaphor, as well as through the way in which the story structure formed itself around the character arc.
While it is clear that stories can and do contain hidden meanings, Campbell went further than this in his analysis of heroic myth, by suggesting that the very structure of story has a hidden meaning, that it is a metaphor for Jung's individuation process or the journey to self. Now that Flight is complete and published, and there has been time to receive reader feedback, it has become clear that the novel does act on a number of levels: as entertainment, as a psychological study and as a document of a spiritual journey, one in which readers can find themselves. I have always felt strongly that in my writing I am holding a mirror up to readers and helping them remember who they are, perhaps because this is what I seek from my own reading. However, my motives are not entirely altruistic, because first and foremost it is myself I am finding, both through the process of writing and through the mysteries of the unfolding story. It is my own past I am exploring and my own scars I am acknowledging and releasing, as I seek to uncover the treasure within me, the essence of self, by breaking down my fixed thinking patterns. Perhaps ultimately this is what stories are for.
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