One of the most interesting things about novels is the extent to which the very thing a novel is about — a quest — is also the thing that best describes the writing of the novel itself.
Our characters go on a quest. We go on a quest to tell their story.
Our characters struggle. We struggle. Our characters strive. We strive.
This is one reason Moby-Dick is my favorite novel. It’s truly an insane novel. Meandering, strange, packed full of things that don’t belong, filled with moments of brilliance and stretches of tedium. What better living metaphor to the writing process than a psychotic chase for a white whale who may or may not exist, has already taken its adversary’s leg, and who most likely wants him dead?
And, similarly, I’ve already written about how the striving of Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby is best understood as a writer’s own wish that the world would conform to our wishes rather than what exists in front of us.
So naturally I was drawn to an article in Quartz yesterday about the secret to happiness: always wanting and pursuing more.
Science, take it away!
Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp argues that of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important… It can also explain why, if rats are given access to a lever that causes them to receive an electric shock, they will repeatedly electrocute themselves.
Panskepp notes in his book, Affective Neuroscience, that the rats do not seem to find electrocution pleasurable. “Self-stimulating animals look excessively excited, even crazed, when they worked for this kind of stimulation,” he writes. Instead of being driven by any reward, he argues, the rats were motivated by the need to seek itself.
Yes, you read that right. When rats are given a means of shocking themselves, they will go ahead and do that even though it’s completely unpleasurable.
The quest to explore our surroundings and boundaries is powerful. So is the drive to tell the story. And explore still more in the process.
Art: Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick by A. Burnham Shute