Natalie Thiel


Key Themes of Research

A key theme recurring in my research throughout my master’s coursework is the role of myth and narrative in the evolution of human consciousness, and the role it plays in our contemporary understanding of the unprecedented cultural and ecological crises humanity is facing. What draws me to this topic is in the power that storytelling has to represent the plurality of voices and experiences across the globe, and the potential of imagining new possible realities not yet realized. Storytelling spans across history and across cultures, a topic with the ability to bridge between scholarly and popular audiences. As Robert Bellah stresses repeatedly in his landmark text, Religion in Human Evolution, “human beings are narrative creatures. Narrativity, as we shall see, is at the heart of our identity.” Bellah’s in-depth history of human religious consciousness spanning from the Paleolithic into the Axial Age, shows how mythic thinking is foundational to human society. Bellah’s chorus throughout his book is that “nothing is ever lost.” With the advent of theoretical thinking in the Axial age, myth is not displaced; rather, myth creates the conditions by which the theoretic can arise, and then also serves as the medium through which the theoretic can be disseminated. Bellah’s thinking on these topics, which span the disciplines of history and philosophy, are foundational to my own research in this topic.

Not only am I interested in a genealogy of myth and narrative through history and the stories we have come to write, but how stories write us in return. My inquiry stands alongside thinkers in process philosophy, shifting from questions of being towards a process of becoming. The stories that we tell have the potential to, and often do become, a lived reality. I am interested in this permeable boundary between “fiction” and “real,” as well as the artificial and natural. The questioning of these dichotomies run parallel to the dissolution of the bifurcation of nature and culture, a move that many thinkers argue is necessary for sake of our global future. In the very broadest sense my thesis - that imaginary worlds can change the “real” world, perhaps best by blurring this distinction altogether - reflects the larger vision of reenchantment put forth by the PCC program.

There are numerous other thinkers from a diverse set of fields who influence my thinking on this topic. Iris Murdoch, philosopher and novelist, makes the bold claim that, “for both the collective and the individual salvation of the human race, art is doubtless more important than philosophy, and literature most important of all.” Murdoch’s moral philosophy draws upon Plato’s transcendentals; she considers art and literature as a contemplative practice of Beauty, which has the power to habituate our thinking and actions towards the Good. In Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement, he calls upon the literary community to address climate change in their writings head-on rather than skirting the issue, acknowledging that literature should be a frontline by which to address this global crisis. The fictional works of Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Leguin, Kim Stanley Robinson and Richard Powers all come to mind here. Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is beautiful example of what she describes as literary biology, blending her training as a biologist with prose and poetry, eliciting a reverence and awe of the natural world for her reader. Donna Haraway’s concluding chapter of Staying with the Trouble contains a selection of “The Camille Stories,” her science fiction short stories which imagines a world in which human children are symbiotically and genetically raised alongside nonhuman species. Haraway’s literary venture serves as an example of what she theorizes throughout the rest of the book; that multispecies storytelling across transdisciplinary lines is necessary to understand our deep inter-relational bonds with our nonhuman kin. I am inclined to agree with Haraway that, “we become-with each other, or not at all.”

To conclude this abbreviated introduction to my key theme, my interest in storytelling erupts out of the very heart of the PCC goals, a program which draws upon metaphysics and ethics, history and ecology, towards bringing about global change. I am drawing upon all of these disciplines to engage with my question of what the role of storytelling, and literature in particular, might have upon a shifting Western worldview. I want to consider a multitude of storytelling here, as I do not believe one metanarrative will suffice, but rather a chorus of different imaginings spanning the local level and the global. We as humans are embedded in this planetary community of human and nonhuman persons, in need of creative re-imaginings of the world for the sake of our survival and our nonhuman kin.

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