Je suis Madame Bovary et vous êtes Chewbacca

The need to tell stories has always been with mankind, whether it be to describe reality or to imagine alternative worlds.

Photo of the article published at Jot Down Magazine nº 10, Filias y fobias (y parafilias)

Photo of the article published at Jot Down Magazine nº 10, Filias y fobias (y parafilias).

The need to tell stories has always been with mankind, whether it be to describe reality or to imagine alternative worlds. When we read, we become heroes, adventurers, aliens, detectives, lovers, and beings with a thousand masks in utopian scenarios and invented futures and pasts. This exercise in escapism can spill beyond the pages of a book and give rise to subcultures that try to recreate the worlds that we see in our imaginations. You can read the full article in issue 10 of Jot Down Magazine.

I’m normally not a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me Superman!
Homer Simpson

Once upon a time in the city of Providence there lived a man called Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose great skill in concocting horror stories led him to invent a magic book of malign power called the Necronomicon. He invested every detail of that grimoire with so much authenticity that many of his readers wondered whether it might not actually exist, or even insisted that it did. In order to perpetuate the delusion, several artists decided to create their own copy of the work, and in 1962 the Antiquarian Bookman published a classified ad announcing the sale of a copy of the book with “calf covers rubbed and some foxing, otherwise very nice condition”, and quite a few university libraries ended up having a file on a volume with this title. Even today, many people claim that the fictional origins of the Necronomicon are inspired on a much darker and more terrifying reality. Cthulhu fans are a world onto themselves.

All this is nothing new. Don Quixote binged on chivalresque literature to such an extent that, suffering from hallucinations, he ended up charging at windmills that he mistook for giants and destroying a puppet theatre with sword thrusts to save a Christian couple from the troops of King Marsile. Emma Bovary could not find in her husband Charles the passionate love that she had read about in innumerable romantic novels, and found herself forced to seek it in the arms, and other members, of various lovers. Bastian was a lonely orphan who read The Neverending Story as a refuge from bullies and ended up discovering Fantastica, a world that grew larger every time he made a wish.

Mankind’s love of telling stories is universal. From the rudimentary oral narratives of even slightly civilised isolated tribes through the ages, to the multimedia experiences of our society today, almost everybody has enjoyed the feeling of following a story and losing themselves in it. Our ingenuity has managed to capture the essence of traditional storytellers in formats that are accessible to our range of different tastes: theatre, literature, film, comics and videogames. A good story will find a way to reach us.

This fondness for stories is no accident: our thoughts arise from a constant, indefatigable process of making up stories. We can understand the world around us because we remember past events, evaluate and interpret the events of the present, and plan and imagine those of the future; and all along, we are telling a story.

The close links between the way our brains work and how they engage with stories have been the subject of many research studies, such as the one carried out by Gregory Berns and his colleagues in 2013. These scientists used functional magnetic resonance to analyse the short- and long-term effects on patients of reading the novel Pompeii. The results showed an increase in neural connectivity in the areas of the brain associated with movement and physical sensations, leading Berns to conclude that reading can put us in the protagonist’s shoes, not just figuratively but also biologically.

Oddly enough, even though we wander through a continuum of allegories, parables, stories and fables, we remain hungry for more. The creators of all these alternative experiences – writers, film directors, comic book illustrators, scriptwriters – seem to have little doubt about the reason for this cultural appetite: in fiction we live other lives and tread other universes that would otherwise have been improbable or impossible for us to visit. So close and yet so far away.

An illustration from Jules Férat from a Jules Verne's novel (1870).

An illustration from Jules Férat from a Jules Verne’s novel (1870). Source: Wikipedia.

Through the Looking Glass

Most mortals cross that tenuous ontological boundary between fiction and reality at some point in their lives, but many people who plunge into an invented world bring back more than just that simple experience. These wanderers through imaginary worlds can spend exhausting days thinking about what type of insect Josef K. turns into in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and end up coming to blows with those who don’t share the same opinion. Others watch the film Avatar and decide to adopt the habits of the Na’vi and take up residence under a tree. And we probably know of more than one reader of a certain trilogy who subsequently took up new habits in the bedroom and swapped their pyjamas for a corset. In their journeys to these other places, these men and women gather fictional ingredients that they can use on their return to brew up a Balm of Fierabras, a cure-all for their earthly woes. They are true alchemists of reality.

Fictional worlds seem to refuse to remain shut away in the works that contain them, and need to expand any way they can, in our imaginations and outside of them. All of us – although some more than others – have had the experience of missing a fictional character after sharing his or her adventures, or dreamed of seeing some fantasy world again. But in this kind of symbiosis some people don’t limit themselves to nostalgia for the characters and places after reaching “the end”, and instead they create a whole subcultural world around them that is worthy of praise and of a multitude of sociological studies. They organise part of their lives around continuing, in everyday physical reality, the universes that have made them so happy, and they can do so because the same seed has germinated in kindred minds. Boundaries blur when their favourite manga comic spills beyond its pages and into Internet forums, into ‘fan fiction’ – the paradigmatic case in which fans of a work recycle its characters and events and turn them into new stories – into works about the work, into animes and resin figures, and also into meetings in bookshops, specialist stores and manga salons where they can display the cosplay that they have worked on for the last few months. They share their love of that manga, those films, or that series with others, and a kingdom of chimeras unfolds across the fertile ground of their social relations. They modify this life so as to feel more comfortable in it.

Comfortable and safe. Characters become real people in our minds and we end up sympathising with them, hating them, or stepping into their shoes in order to feel what they feel. How are these types of connections created? As in magic, the trick is in what you don’t see. Any story is incomplete by definition and requires us to complete it with our imaginations, which means that all characters and settings will contain a little piece of us. For many people, those fantasy places end up being an oasis of satisfaction in their boring daily routines, and they end up feeling at home in them. They look at themselves in the mirror and they see an image of what they are and of all that they have been. This level of intimacy and protection is truly tempting for those who, like Emma Bovary, are unhappy with the tedium of their lives, and prefer another version idealised on paper or on film. But this is where popular folk wisdom chimes in to remind us that too much of anything is bad for you.

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Je suis Madame Bovary et vous êtes Chewbacca