(Read Part 1 of Rory Mackey’s The Visionary Fiction Revolution here)
We tell stories for a reason
Mythology, which is storytelling at its most essential level, was not purposeless. It played an important role in shaping and sustaining society and, according to Campbell, had four primary functions. The first was to open the eyes of the individual and awaken a sense of awe, humility and wonder about the very nature of existence; to become aware of an interplay of tangible physical and elusive metaphysical realms.
The second function was cosmological; using stories and metaphor to help people understand the universe around them, making sense of time, space and biology. On a sociological level, mythology was also used as a means of forming and maintaining social connections. Having a shared narrative enabled tribes to stick together, supporting the social order and maintaining customs, beliefs and social norms.
On a more personal level, the tribe’s stories provided signposts for navigating life, sometimes reflected in ritual and rites of passage. The individual was not left to muddle through life without guidance. The epic tales of mythology were used as metaphors for dealing with the challenges and conflicts we face along life’s journey. These stories, properly understood, contained great wisdom and guidance.
Mythological tales were reflections of the human psyche and the conflicts and desires that drive it. The catastrophic battles between heroes and demons, the sacrifices, betrayals, jealously and love were reflections of the forces powering the human mind and heart. Furthermore, as stated before, Campbell believed that they could all be reduced to the same basic pattern, the same essential story: a story of trial, transcendence, rebirth and redemption. It was always a story of overcoming great adversity and conflict and finding that most cherished of all things, the true goal behind all human endeavor — freedom, whether a literal freedom or freedom of mind, heart and soul. Adversity and emancipation were therefore the themes of this ancient monomyth.
The basic motif of the mythological hero’s journey is repeated endlessly throughout time and across widely different cultures. It still has relevance to us today, for it is a universal story that transcends any particular cultural context. It is the story of the human condition and our striving to overcome conflict and adversity (both inner and outer); to know ourselves, to find our place in life and to be all that we are and are capable of being. It is a tale of redemption and the quest for power through transcendence and self-knowledge.
This message is needed as much today as it ever was — perhaps even more so. We live in precarious times. Economic and social structures are eroding, political and religious conflicts are rife, and through exploitation and greed we are in danger of irreparably damaging the environment that sustains us. We are essentially destroying ourselves–a long, slow suicide caused by human insanity on a wide scale. If we as a species are to survive and thrive, we clearly must change our trajectory.
Campbell was adamant that we need mythology: for “when a civilization loses its mythology, the life goes out of it.” Without a functioning mythology to make sense of reality, to provide meaning, self-knowledge, inspiration and social cohesion, society begins to break down. Mythology must continually adapt itself to stay relevant to the ever-changing society, or else it becomes not only obsolete and irrelevant but maybe even dangerous — as might be seen with some religions. When our stories no longer serve us, we must invent new stories that utilize the same monomyth framework but which work for the age, culture and context in which we live — reinvigorating the ancient wisdom for a modern age, sharing the same essential tale of redemption and emancipation in new and accessible ways.
Words and ideas can change the world
Writers have a responsibility. As Robin Williams’ character in the film Dead Poets Society said: “No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” While it’s perfectly permissible for writers to write and sell trashy fiction (and there is a sizable market for it), writers have a higher calling.
Words can set people free. The greatest novels have always been about the emancipation of the human spirit. That is why books such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are still celebrated and immortalized centuries later. By exploring the nature of human suffering, writers can offer solutions, answers and new paradigms of thought. Like the shamans of ancient times, writers have the potential to be healers in some way, offering a way out of pain and suffering by presenting new ideas, new interpretations and new ways of understanding and relating to life.
Amid the increasing diversification of the literary world, a number of writers are pioneering a new genre called Visionary Fiction. Really this isn’t a new genre at all, for writers have been producing visionary works for thousands of years, from the Indian epic The Mahabharata, to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hesse’s Siddhartha and Coelho’s The Alchemist. There is now a growing recognition that words have the power to heal, to inspire and to change our experience of reality from a mindset of lack, loss and disconnection, to one of wholeness, connection and power.
Visionary Fiction echoes the best of ancient myth, utilizing the functions of mythology as elucidated by Joseph Campbell, by reinventing the great monomyth for a modern age. If we’re essentially telling the same great story, the story of human adversity, struggle and transcendence, then it has to continually be told in fresh, engaging and relatable ways.
Many books can have a visionary element. Such stories draw attention to the power and potential of the human mind and spirit; our inherent struggle for identity, wholeness and freedom from limitation. The story is driven as much by the internal journey of the characters as by external events, exploring the expansion of mind and consciousness. Following the timeless pattern of the hero’s journey, the characters face adversity, challenges and a symbolic (or perhaps even literal) death and rebirth. These stories may question the nature of reality and consciousness, opening the reader to new ways of looking at life. Some of the most famous authors whose work includes a visionary element include Richard Bach, Herman Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Paulo Coelho and James Redfield.
Visionary Fiction is not about getting the reader to share the author’s same beliefs and ideas, but an invitation for the reader to explore for themselves, to question, think, dream and push the boundaries of what they previously thought possible. An entire life can change in an instant with a simple change of perspective. As Marcel Proust said, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” The best stories enable us to see with new eyes; taking the reader out of our ordinary, mundane existence, and presenting new ways of understanding and relating to life.
That is the gift of a great story. That is why storytelling is still immensely relevant to our lives and why, if they choose to accept the challenge, writers have a whole lot more to offer their readers than simple escapism. They can offer people the tools they need for dealing with life’s inevitable pain and suffering. Joseph Campbell stated, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” Changing the stories we tell changes the way we see life, which in turn changes life.
There tends to be a great focus on darkness and human dysfunction in modern literature, film and television; a fascination and almost glorification of the very worst distortions of human nature. Many excellent writers are adept at exploring the darker side of the human psyche and its reflection in our culture, but visionary writers take us beyond the darkness into the light at the end of the tunnel, revealing that which is highest and best in us, and highlighting our endless capacity to grow, reinvent ourselves, and rewrite our own faltering narrative. Literature needs this. The world needs it.
Writers are not just here to entertain the world. Writers have the potential to change the world, and they should be content with no less than that. More and more people are waking up to the reality of 21st century life — that we have to change the way we are living in order to survive and create a sustainable future for our children. As this continues, I suspect that Visionary Fiction will come to the fore as a means of awakening our collective imagination and our capacity to live, dream, love, and change our cultural paradigm for the better. A good story can change lives. A great story can change the world.
A natural born writer, thinker and dreamer, Rory Mackay was born and lives in Scotland. As an ardent student of Vedanta, Zen and Taoism, one of Rory’s true passions is exploring the potential of fiction and art to elevate mood and expand consciousness. His second novel, The Key of Alanar, a visionary fantasy/sci-fi epic will be published September 14, 2015. He is also the author of the novel Eladria, a translation and commentary of the Tao Te Ching, and several short stories. He is in the process of writing a self-help book and writes a regular blog at http://beyondthedream.co.uk. His website is http://www.dreamlight-fugitive.co.uk.
Artwork by Josephine Wall, used with permission.