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Stories and myths

Watch humanist Natalie Haynes describer the value we get from fictional stories
I can’t imagine not being creative. It seems to me like the absolute worst thing that you would, if I could imagine a secular hell that’s what it is, it’s not be able to make things. I do it all the time even if, I will finish the day of writing and then I will start knitting, I can’t help it I like making things the act of making makes me happy and it literally always has and I hope it always will.
It would just be perverse I think to fail to acknowledge how important those stories are, these are foundational myths in our culture. A long time ago I was very briefly a teacher and my boss there always used to intone that the house of Western thought has many rooms but only one basement and I find that still an incredibly compelling argument.
All our stories pretty much are built on these blocks and there’s a reason why Freud went to Greek myth rather than say Norse myth when he wanted to - there are plenty of issues you may have with Freud and I’m not going to dispute you on them at all - but if you want to explain the human condition, Greek myth is by far the more plausible place to go.
When you want to understand why perhaps, you know, teenage girls have a resentment of their mothers or teenage boys have a resentment of their fathers then looking at Aeschylus’s ‘Agamemnon’ or Sophocles’s ‘Electra’, looking at ‘Oedipus the King’ (‘Oedipus tyrannus’), I can’t see anywhere else where you go, it seems perverse to me that you wouldn’t start there.
I think stories probably have the power to tell us everything about the human condition, I mean obviously it depends how you write them and it certainly depends how you read them or watch them or listen to them or any, you know you can consume story in all kinds of different formats but I think that’s it almost certainly is the way, isn’t it, that we learn to understand ourselves and each other. I mean it seems kind of hard to argue, doesn’t it, if you spend your, if you spend your life only looking at the world from your perspective, it is just going to be harder to imagine other people’s perspectives.
If you spend your whole life jumping from inside your world to inside somebody else’s, I think you probably will be more empathetic. I think it’s why people feel that sort of strange rush sometimes of slight kind of concern when somebody says ‘oh I never read fiction’, ‘I never read novels’ and they sort of present it as a sign of intellectual height, so ‘I’m too busy reading proper non-fictional books about the world’ and quite aside from the fact that it implies that there’s not fiction lurking within nonfiction which of course there is, we all make decisions about what we include and what we omit in writing nonfiction, and that in itself as a creative act, it’s a storytelling act but also I think ‘god really, so you never spend any time imagining what it’s like to not be you?’
That sounds terrifying to me.
I think thinking about writing novels particularly just makes you think so much about the kind of truism that everybody is fighting their own war. There’s that sense you know when you get off the phone, where you have a difficult conversation with somebody in a shop or something, you think ‘why are they so mean?’ They just didn’t need to be, you know, well, you’ve no idea what’s happening in the rest of their day and when you have to come up with the kind of backstory for the minor characters who were, you know, you think god, yeah, that is exactly, that is exactly how it is, everybody is living their own world and they’re not just here for your kind of benefit.
They’re not just bit parts in your movie, you are a bit part in theirs and vice versa and that’s how it goes, and so I think that kind of breadth of thinking about people which seems to me very closely linked to my humanism, that has definitely changed me as a person, it’s changed the way I work, I think and the kinds of things I write about but it’s changed the way I interact with people on a daily basis. I like to think it’s made me kinder. I obviously have to hope that’s true.

Natalie Haynes is a classicist, comedian, and writer. She is the author of several books including The Ancient Guide to Modern Life.

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