Romance and its Dark Side.


Romance now takes center-stage on the horizontal axis of the story-telling model I’ve been developing in postings over the last year.

Romance defines the undying human urge to “believe in better.” Romance is the most energetic of storytelling moods, because it awakens us to new possibilities and to our own hidden power to transform “what is now ” into “what could be.”  It is the foundation of all our Utopias. Through the Romantic process we have a shot at reaching “the new normal” — a place of contentment or creativity.

Yet to reach this better world, we must first experience some level of pain. That is the dark side.

Recently I wrote about the astonishing success of the silent film The Artist, which affects viewers strongly by perfectly encapsulating the Romantic trope. I’ve also explained how the three-dimensional story axis works, and how Romance fits in as one of the four core narratives that define our mood and emotional reaction to the basic facts of any story.

The object of Romance may be individual: a new life, a new love or partnership, a new personal quest. Or it may be collective: a new society or community, a new philosophy or religion. Either way, what’s important is our faith in an expanding or evolving universe of new and ever-greater possibilities that we can shape through our free will, courage, and open hearts.

Using Romance as a storytelling mode unlocks the power of dreams and imagination. And Romance confronts the demobilising powers of Satire, irony and nihilism, replacing them with the power of what’s possible. Romance is the storyteller’s most powerful tool, as it can transform daily events into a mythic journey with the power to mobilise the most timid soul.

Whilst the Classical or conservative mind-set holds that man’s greatest achievements lie behind us and that modern civilisation may be ironically summed up as “footnotes to Plato,” the Romantic spirit holds firmly that the best is always yet to come. Because Romance – whether expressed in the form of poetry, drama, novels, film or any other medium – explores life’s journey and the fulfilling (or otherwise) of human potential, these stories always unlock huge amounts of energy in audiences.

That’s why, of course, the image of the Romantic Hero is so important. There is one inside each of us. The Adventure of the Hero and the cycle of change described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces may seem forbidding and inaccessible, with its extremes of initiation, transformation, rebirth and return.

But Campbell made clear this journey underlies every personal transformation, great or small. He wrote: “The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale. That is why it is formulated in the broadest terms. The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general formula, and let it assist him past his restricting walls.”

Not everyone must follow in the dramatic footsteps of big-screen heroes or heroines, to live the life of Madame Bovary or Tom Jones or Anna Karenina. The Romantic element is defined as having the courage to undertake the transformation, rather than its scale. But in every case, the Romantic is willing to put aside the familiar, in search of a new and enhanced life.

Return is possible, but by no means certain. In Ulysses, the poet Tennyson describes the ageing Greek hero’s decision to abandon his kingdom to sail away into unknown adventures with his companions:

‘To follow knowledge like a sinking star

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.’

The adventure and its rewards are so compelling, that risk of failure is less of a threat than the peril of remaining home to simply rust away with age:

‘It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.’

But Romance, of course, celebrates success and the happy ending. The triumph of good, of virtue rewarded, after many trials and tribulations. Despite their failings and self-deceptions, Emma and Jane Austen’s other heroines all end up with the men of their choice. Indiana Jones always ends up safely back at his teaching job, another talismanic trophy stored in a museum out of harm’s way. After the loss of everything else in his life, the hero of The Artist finally gets his tap-dancing starlet.

From an individual perspective, how should men or women honour their Romantic ideals? How can we be true to Campbell’s principle of life as a courageous journey of change – when so many ties bind us to the present, and to the old or familiar? The price that Romance exacts is a high one.

The truth is that the Romantic’s destiny is to deliver hurt to others by journeying forwards – or to hurt himself by placing the needs of others above his own urge for growth and discovery. We must choose between the pain of leaving, or the pain of getting stuck.

Believing in this power of renewal conflicts with belief in gradual incrementalism: there will always be a jolt, a crisis, a loss, as the thresh-hold is crossed and the initiation begins. To “believe in better” often means we must inflict the worst. Yet the pain of being untruthful to oneself is greater than any temporary suffering the journey of discovery may bring.

The revelation of a fuller life demands that we be purged through catharsis: the old self must be burned away as we experience loss, as the price of being able to go forward. The revival of our powers and vitality demands a sacrifice, a little death, before we can return. That is why, in Campbell’s trajectory, Refusal of the Call is an ‘early exit’ that turns the Hero into a victim and suspends his journey.

The anguish of the Romantic is to contemplate loss, and then plunge deliberately forward into crisis in search of an ideal. Equipped with no more than a sense of destiny to guide him, he must cast off into the unknown ocean.

But before that, of course, he must heed the Call to Adventure (the first phase of the Journey identified by Campbell). By definition, this Call is improbable, unlooked-for,  and after years in a stable or secure environment, perhaps unwelcome. This “awakening of the self” opens the Romantic adventure.

Do I myself possess the authenticity, courage and the heart needed to confront more Romantic journeys of discovery? I hope so. Over 40 years of  incessant journeying and life-transitions, and travel to the corners of the earth – sometimes with just a one-way ticket and a reporter’s notebook – I thought I had earned the spurs of an adventurer, who no longer felt the pain of attachment and detachment. Untrue.  I know that each contemplated departure is just as much of a wrench as the first time. There is no shame in admitting that fear, uncertainty, doubt assail me.

For any Romantic, there is no avoiding the pain, or avoiding the deep questions about what must be left behind. But there is a profound difference between behaviour driven by fear or shame, and behaviour that rests on the inner security of truthfulness to an inner vision – regardless of what the world thinks.

“Romantic” might suggest the journey and the chaos of initiation must always be about emotional or sexual attachment; the search for the true life-partner. That’s not always so. Last year I wrote a post that posited the modern entrepreneur or small businessman encapsulates the archetypal journey of the Hero. I suggested that the entrepreneur’s journey – setting out in business alone – is truly a Romantic image for our modern times. I suggest this entrepreneur’s journey revisits all the Seven Basic Story types in my storytelling model.

In business and in public arenas such as the world of entertainment, many don’t make it through.

Last year I wrote about the interrupted journeys and unresolved narratives of three types of modern hero who occupy top places in our celebrity pantheon: the rock star, the sports personality, and the mass murderer. What I tried to show, taking the death of singer Amy Winehouse as my starting-point, is that the Romantic myth exacts a high price and many get lost along the way – perhaps because we as audiences require our celebrities live that risk and danger.

In collective terms, Romance also has its dark side – the moment when the euphoria of belief turns on itself and in turn attacks the faithful. What we believe in can – if left untended – turn into its opposite. There’s no greater example of the Romantic spirit undone than the transformation of the French Revolution of 1789 into the 1794 Terror of Robespierre.

I’ve picked this example because a study of the way historians approached the French Revolution is one of the key themes of Metahistory, the 1973 study by historian and cultural critic Hayden White. His work significantly influences my thinking about how all narratives are formed and presented. I made extensive use of his ideas on narrativity.

Basically, White’s book reveals through a study of leading 19th century historians and philosophers, that there’s no such thing as an empirical account of events. Everyone is telling a story, consciously or not. His case studies of historians use rules that can equally be applied to politicians, economists, business leaders or sportsmen.

White showed even respected historians play with the facts to create emotionally coherent narratives around four familiar types of plot: Tragic, Comic, Satirical or Romantic. He uses the historian Jules Michelet’s treatment of the French Revolution as his case study for the Romantic view of human history. In the end, White says Michelet believes: “everything appearing in history must be assessed finally in terms of the contribution it makes to the realisation of the goal.”

For Michelet (1798-1874), the French Revolution was good for “worshippers of the future” because it swept away the darkness and oppression of the monarchy, and put human society back in contact with its true nature. It was only temporarily bad because as the dream faded, evil and division in human life was reborn. The promise of Utopia was battered yet still intact.

But whatever the tragedies unlocked by the Terror, the French Revolution was fundamentally a good Romantic plot. And that, says White, is why Michelet picked “Romance as the narrative form to be used to make sense out of the historical process conceived as a struggle of essential virtue against a virulent, but ultimately transitory vice.”

The other great example of this same Romantic story turned on its head is the Russian Revolution and its transformation into the Stalinist Terror of the 1930s. There’s no better way to attack a Romantic ideal than to use the power of Satire. Which is why George Orwell’s Animal Farm is such a powerful indictment of Communism that it was in compulsory use for decades as a school set book in countries with a deep-seated fear of  socialism, like the UK.

The Romantic dream of Old Major, the patriarchal pig who teaches other farm animals the utopian song “Beasts of England,” is transformed through Rebellion into a nightmare situation where a new generation of pig-oppressors treat the other animals worse than humans ever did. Orwell’s bleak satire shows how Romantic ideals of egalitarian, socialist economy are corrupted by inherent inequality.

Personal or collective, the Romantic journey is one of belief in better – and the pain of choice. Yet such is the promise of gain, of growth and of self-realistation, we will always confront the pain.

©2012 Richard House

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Rhetoric: the ‘Once and Future MBA’ of the Power Persuaders.


This is the first in a series of posts about the Art of Rhetoric and its place in the modern world of persuasion.

Later I’ll be going into detail about the practical applications, but this one is about the origins, the disappearance, and resurgence of the ancient discipline of Rhetoric. Hats off to Giles Abbott and Leon Conrad of the Academy of Oratory, who run a great course on mastering Rhetoric and its practical applications for speakers, performers and storytellers.

In recent months I’ve been writing about the power of communication, of storytelling and of delivery, for instance using an analysis of The King’s Speech film to approach the subject of effective  Rhetorical delivery in great speeches. I also presented a three-axis conceptual model for classifying stories and their effects.

I call Rhetoric the “Once and Future MBA” because it was, and again will be, the preferred study of Masters of the Universe. The day will come when the whole proliferating superstructure of salami-sliced business schools collapses under its own weight and is banished even from placing ads on the back pages of The Economist. ‘MBA Man’ will seek new freedom and new frontiers.

Two thousand years ago, just as they are today, men in positions of great power and financial influence were often slaves.

During the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (37-68 AD), doctors, government officials, accountants, lecturers, architects, goldsmiths, “men of business” (a term embracing the equivalents of today’s executives, investment bankers, hedge fund managers, marketing directors or corporate financiers), were just some of the millions of legally-bound slaves who maintained the economy of the world’s greatest empire.

But some pursuits and some forms of training were blocked to even the most intelligent or resourceful slaves. They were not allowed to study the Trivium or classical curriculum of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric that forms the basis of our Western Liberal Arts heritage. Liberal because it was not safe to hand slaves the hidden power to rouse the rabble and start revolutions to win their freedom.

Rhetoric is defined as the use of language to instruct or persuade. But through history, it was seen as a dangerous power-tool that could not be allowed to get into the wrong hands. For over a thousand years, from the Roman to the medieval world, the study of Rhetoric was the semi-secret discipline that opened the gates to power and influence.

In ancient Rome – and in Greece before it – the key to real political power was the study of Rhetoric. This was the MBA of the ancient world. Quintilian, the master rhetorician of Nero’s time, wrote a 12 volume best-seller called The Institutes of Oratory, and on the back of it rose to become a Consul. He tutored Pliny, Tacitus, and several imperial princelings.

Or indeed Aristotle. 300 years before Quintilian he laid the foundations of the whole business with his works on Rhetoric and Poetics. No CEO today need doubt that Rhetoric was a true power-play. After all, Alexander the Great was Aristotle’s best student.

Describing Roman times in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare makes the key event of the tragedy (Act 3 Scene 11I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”) revolve around Mark Anthony’s dazzling powers of Rhetoric to reverse the entire plot sequence. Brutus, the co-murderer of Caesar, delivers a self-justificatory eulogy that means he’s let off free by the crowd… but only until Mark Anthony takes the podium to spread revenge, mutiny and revolution through his power of persuasion.

In fifteenth century Italy, Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince and one of the creators of modern political science, was first and foremost a teacher of Rhetoric. So Machiavelli, whose name has (unfairly) become a synonym for the morally-dubious wielding of power, wrote the manual for rulers willing to use the persuasive arts to acquire and keep political power. As well as toppling popes and princelings, Macchiavelli’s teachings helped give Florence the political stability that underpinned its great cultural and artistic flowering.

Do how could our understanding of this awesome power-tool, Rhetoric, have dwindled to today’s parodic dictionary definition of bombast, falsity, exaggerated verbiage and word-smithery? The Oxford dictionary glosses it carrying “implication of insincerity, exaggeration, etc.” What on earth happened to this branch of secret knowledge?

My contention is that Rhetoric was a collateral victim of the Enlightenment and its (sometimes over-enthusiastic) embrace of Science as the new religion. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the death in 1727 of Sir Isaac Newton, the polymath scientist who discovered classical mechanics and the laws of motion, coincides roughly with the eclipse of Rhetoric as the basis of all study in European universities.

By condemning “logic-chopping” academics to ridicule, while glorifying new “empirical” studies based upon logical approaches, the foundations of our modern consciousness were laid. But history is never so simple. Newton himself was a theologian and an accomplished Alchemist. His literary executors at Cambridge University burned his entire Alchemical oevre because they wanted to project him purely as a modern scientist, and not as a more rounded Renaissance man.

In much the same way, Rhetoric has been effectively suppressed to make way for the “new sciences” of social persuasion.In its place have emerged modern disciplines based on recent scientific discovery – sometimes of the most tendentious nature.

The modern edifice of moral persuasion – based on the original definition “the use of language to instruct or persuade” – now represents about 20% of global GDP.

The great Babel-like Tower of commercial and political marketing, advertising, thought leadership, opinion formation, opinion polling, profiling, audience research, focus groups, corporate anthropology, corporate communications, social media, viral online communications, web search optimisation, Pavlovian conditioning, Myers-Briggs, subliminal influence, Neo Linguistic Programming, Ericksonian hypnotherapy, Maslow’s Hierarchy, “coach-approach” based learning – you name it – the whole thing adds up to not a lot more – or less, than Quintilian was preaching 2,000 years ago.

In modern culture meanwhile,  Rhetoric hardly gets a name-check these days — unless it’s through quirky outliers such as Robert M. Pirsig’s superb 1974 philosophical enquiry  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 comedy Synecdoche, which draws its name from the Rhetorical trope sometimes confounded with metonymy.

So what’s my beef with MBA-land?

In terms of education for business management, what we’ve developed is an empirical model based on the observed behaviour of financial, material, technological or political variables in the present and the past, which are then projected as reliable guides and cure-alls for the future. Facts, data, and spreadsheets define the logical challenges facing the modern corporation. The facts should speak for themselves. Sufficient application of MBA-power by a large enough body of trained consultants will crack any problem whose roots lie in logic.

At the margins, HR type solutions based on character profiling using social science-based tools will increase personnel alignment and engagement to protect investment in “human assets” and so increase staff productivity. “Soft stuff” away-days to work on team-building and motivation will smooth over any unsightly cracks. Top it off with a corporate value system, and everyone should be happy, efficient and value-generating.

But a cursory glance at the business pages of any newspaper will show that both financial life and corporate reality is stochastic, not deterministic or linear. The past is no guide to the future. Only future probabilities count, not old facts. And on the human-interest pages, we see that what guides behaviour is not looking backward to old realities, but the looking forward and power of being asked to imagine new and possible futures.

Probability – and not certainty – is what guides much of human action. When it is presented to us with sufficient attractiveness, we respond to the possible (or even the impossible)  by actually making it happen. This is precisely the terrain of Rhetoric we have chosen to forget.

So why the “new MBA” of logic, over the accumulated wisdom of the “old MBA” using language to instruct and persuade  — and thereby making the probable come true? Seen through the lens of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, why did we select the Brutus of rational, reasoned debate, over the fiery passion of Mark Anthony?

In terms of our shared moral and intellectual development, I’d contend that somewhere in the 18th century we passed a fork in the road where we opted for the logic of science over the probability of rhetorical persuasion.

Logic is concerned with reasoning to reach scientific certainty, while dialectic and rhetoric are concerned with probability and, thus, are the branches of philosophy that are best suited to human affairs.  Rhetoric helps leaders – politicians and business leaders – to persuade a general audience using probable knowledge to resolve practical issues.

You can fix the past with logic, but you can only fix the future with probability.

My proposition is that – faced with a world of ever-proliferating uncertainties and complexities derived from our inability to deliver satisfactory logical outcomes to every challenge – we should take a step back, rediscover the old ways, and embrace the power of possibility.

We remain, at heart, tribal people who need leaders able to present us with new worlds and new possibilities; we are inspired by passions; we aspire to build satisfying futures.

We cannot change the past, but we can change the future – by mobilizing people to accept the powerful and engaging stories we tell of how things will be, by sharing this story, and striving to turn this possibility into reality. They don’t teach that at business school.  Yet the tools to do just that are lying disregarded in the dust.

As the plight of a King Canute unable to hold back the advancing waves once showed, no leader can change the powers of nature and of established fact. But another story – that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – shows that by using persuasion to draw others along behind us, we can shape and build a new world.

Some leaders can play the pipe: other leaders play with words using the power of Rhetoric.

© Richard House

Silent Storytellers, Romance, and ‘The Artist.’


What makes The Artist such a satisfying film to watch, and why do so many people emerge from the theatre believing they’ve seen it before?

The film’s success is based on rather more than a counter-intuitive revival of the era of silent movies to entrance us after 80 years of “talkie” sophistication, reinvention and computerised special effects.

If it’s not the silence, the outstanding acting, or even the retro charm of black-and-white, what gives Lithuanian-French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s film its magic? This movie set in the 1920s and early 1930s is a masterful piece of storytelling that deserves its Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award, its three Golden Globes and no less than five Oscars too, including best actor and best picture.

Any teller of stories would do well to follow the Hazanavicius principle: stick with the archetypal plotlines that reflect our collective unconscious, and you can’t go wrong.

Stories that re-validate what’s known to us, are every bit as valuable as pure innovation. That too, was the lesson George Lucas applied when in 1975 he plundered the monomyth concept in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for the essential plotlines in the Star Wars sequence of movies. Likewise, the Wachowski Brother’s The Matrix trilogy follows the same tried-and-true pattern.

As viewers, we too are on familiar and very satisfying terrain. The success of The Artist derives in large part from the odd sensation that we have seen this film at least not once, if not hundreds of times before. And we have. The film brings together in almost textbook form the archetypal plots and inversions that made Hollywood such a powerful dream factory. Predictable? Yes. Corny? No.

We know exactly what is going to happen in what is a carefully crafted synthesis of every glamorous Hollywood love story, which takes pastiche to the point of perfect recipe. When an experienced yet proud older man attracts a younger woman, their destinies entwine with powerful consequences for both.

There’s a predictable inversion of roles, as the brightly opportunist young girl (Peppy Miller played by Bérénice Bejo) rises rapidly in the new world of talking pictures. This rise mirrors the collapsing fortunes of the older man (George Valentin played by Jean Dujardin), a Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn-like hero of exaggerated charm encapsulating the vanishing era of silent film.

The stages of his decline are as carefully (and predictably) defined as those in Dante’s Inferno: loss of work, money, home, marriage, possessions, pride, servant, identity. Then the would-be suicide and “rescue.” There follows the redemptive  and revivifying power of the girl’s love – and the cunning reinvention of the pair, not as talkie actors but as dance-and-tap Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers lookalikes.

With a clear nod to the Hollywood buddy movie, there’s even a four-footed side-kick in the form of Uggie the acrobatic Jack Russell, who almost steals the show from Dujardin.

The plotline is a ‘Tale of the Expected’ that cleverly encapsulates one of the four key elements or tropes in the horizontal Narrative Axis of the three-dimensional Storytelling matrix that I’ve been developing and describing in previous posts and lectures. You can view my earlier posts describing StorytellingNarrativity, and watch a TED Talk outlining this matrix.

Specifically, the script is a calculated exercise that triggers a Romantic reaction to the narrative being played out. I’ve now reached the point in my year-long Storytelling analysis where we focus on the Romantic trope and its effect on listeners/viewers. I’ve already addressed in part how, in the sphere of public affairs, Romantic narratives can inspire us to change and to believe in better. I used the example of our reviving faith in our own western democracy, thanks to the (seemingly) satisfying upheavals of the Arab Spring during 2011.

But of course, the true terrain of the Romantic trope is the human heart itself.

For a student of storytelling techniques and methods such as myself, the movie in question brings powerful validation of these underlying principles. What’s important is how we respond to Romantic narratives. They give us confidence. They make us active: we want to change the world for the better. We feel satisfied and optimistic. Every journey has its redemptive nature. Our belief in the transformational power of love is reborn.

In this movie we derive pleasure from the narrative because its structure plays out stories and fully completes them in their purest and most satisfying form. Readers of my blogs will recognise at least one of the Seven Basic Plots. Beauty and the Beast is in there, and so too is Cinderella.

In his Quest to find a new way to express himself in a world of speech that no longer needs his art, the hero Valentin must Overcome the Monster of silence. His is a journey of Voyage and Return. And as his new screen partner lives the Rags to Riches scenario, he himself experiences Rebirth. Comedy, of course, abounds, for this is a process of setting a disordered world to rights.

Expressed this way, the plot sounds predictable, even dull. Don’t we want to be surprised and thrilled by the unexpected? Yes – but we seek validation too.

The lesson here for corporate storytellers as well as scriptwriters is just the same. Originality is often over-rated in a world where many people are seeking comfort, reassurance, and the fantasy of escape from the humdrum. That, after all, was the essence of the Hollywood ‘Dream Factory’ in its golden era.

Let’s see how The Artist fares at the Oscar ceremony 26th February 2012.  And let’s see whether Uggie the Jack Russell goes for gold when he makes his final bow in Tinseltown – or should that be his final bark?

©2012 Richard House