The Narrative Microbiome
Digesting the World Around You
With the new year, I began yet another reading of the Iliad, because I find it immensely inspiring and purifying. One of the biggest takeaways from the events of the last few years for me has been the absolute necessity of strictly curating one’s media intake and “narrative environment.” We all know that you are what you eat - but you’re also what you read. If you’re not intentional about what narratives you expose your subconscious processes of preference formation to, you are surrendering a crucial piece of your own sovereignty.
And rest assured that there are many entities out there, be they conscious actors or automated process-golems, eager to pick up that leash if you drop it. I choose to surround myself with the classics because they’re vital, primal, honest, and human, and they spur growth and clarity in a way that the modern and secular media environment just can’t replicate. If you dare to look closely at this modern environment, and are brave enough to accept what you see, you might actually notice there’s hardly even an attempt to do what the classics do. Let’s quickly scope out what the average person’s narrative environment looks like:
“News” that’s precision-engineered to combine troubling information with vocal, body language, and graphical cues that penetrate the limbic system to produce a sense of authority and immediacy. By Hercules I cannot stress enough how much this garbage needs to be excised completely from your life. It’s metabolically inflammatory and destabilizing. You are better informed *without* it, and you aren’t missing anything beyond exhausting water cooler conversation topics.
Social media feeds which, if not curated and optimized for useful content and healthy mutuals, by now are so censored that they serve mostly to disseminate the narratives of the News media in a nebulous and socially distributed way that makes them even harder to avoid, trace, and refute. The dominant political narrative proliferated by these channels is one in which the consumer, depending on their identity and affiliations, is either the victim of exploitative social dynamics or a beneficiary of such dynamics who must atone for them. Such a narrative is poisonous, not just to the self esteem but to one’s actual agency in enacting change; it is too easy to handwave problems as “systemic” or to accept explanations of your troubles as excuses for their continued existence.
Entertainment that focuses either on comfort or cheap titillation. “Adult” cartoons peddle nihilism and are picking up the torch of glorifying antisocial behavior from the dying genre of sitcoms. Many young adults retain fixations on childrens’ cartoons or media properties as well, valuing them as tokens of a better past or as refuges from an unfair world. What passes for “mature” media now tends to be along the lines of Game of Thrones or House of Cards: their claim to maturity rests entirely on the shoulders of their sex scenes and their plausibly-deniable celebrations of cruelty and sociopathic intrigue.
Video games that parasitize the urge for progress, accomplishment, and conquest by providing the brain a path of least resistance towards the hormonal signals that indicate success. That’s not to say they totally fool people, but as opportunities for freedom, competition, conquest, and progress grow sparser in a rotting, sclerotic, and fake economy, people take what they can get. The explosion of gaming’s popularity during the lockdowns in 2020 is a pointed microcosmic example of this.
Pornography. Everything said in the last paragraph also applies here, with the added factor that pornography alters social expectations and behaviors in the already volatile and fragile arena of sexuality.
Now, in order to understand why this is such a disaster, I’m going to have to introduce a new concept: the “Narrative Microbiome”. Where the Narrative Environment is the range of stories and formulas that surround a person situated in a particular culture and social order, the Narrative Microbiome is the selection of stories and logics that a person has absorbed and integrated into their own mental functions. Exactly as we absorb bacteria and enzymes through our diet that colonize our gut and affect how our body absorbs and redeploys nutrients, the Narrative Microbiome affects how we metabolize new information, how we assign ideas value and legitimacy, and how we relate them to already-integrated information. The process of learning is epistemic digestion; obstacles to it, like lacking prerequisite or contextual knowledge, or worse, having an established assumption that conflicts with new information, produce indigestion. Along with it come nasty side effects, like cognitive dissonance or an excess of hot air.
In Platonic terms, we deem that things relate to each other primarily through likeness. The more similar things are, the easier they fit together. Ultimately the whole cosmos is manifested through a vast procession of increasingly particular individuations. These are in fact only lenses that each provide a new way to see the same supreme principle, the One Good, which is the only thing that absolutely all things that exist or ever could exist share with each other in likeness. Through these lenses and their progressive unfolding from each other, the One Good actualizes its unlimited potential - and, through death and decay, recycles actuals back into the sea of potential.
So, in perceiving things and determining their relations, doing so effectively means being able to recognize their likenesses in already-metabolized ideas and images, which requires an adequately broad and healthy epistemic microbiome. For example, we recognize a similarity between murder and a gentlemanly duel, but we’re able to differentiate them because they differ in terms of how they relate to the ideas of consent or honor. The more severely the microbiome is lacking, the more our mentally constructed model of reality strays from outer reality, which is itself a mental model projected forth by the Nous or Demiurge, Zeus, who is the One Good’s faculty of self-recognition. Such gaps between the model and the original is the root of all adharma, ignorance. This is also why Platonism affirms that evil has no reality or “positive” existence to it - it can only be a shadow, an unfinished fruition, of the Good.
Of course, because we are mortal (or rather, because our own Nous is currently experiencing mortality for some reason or another), we have no choice but to work with inherently incomplete models. This is because our physical sensory perceptions - sight, smell, touch - share likeness with the material, not with the Ideal and Real. Nonetheless, those sensory perceptions are being piloted by something which is in likeness with the Real, and all those material things they are perceiving are projections of the Ideal and Formal. Thus it is possible to “check our work” and try to make sure our embodied models align with the ideal original through the processes of logical dialectic and intuitive recollection, which ought to feed into each other and be refined through practices such as those preserved in Vedanta’s system of four Yogas. Because our model and understanding determines how we think and act, a more accurate model of the One Good’s own projected reality always results in actions that better project and further the Good, which is itself the Real. To scrub away your own evil is not to self-efface or self-deny; it is to make yourself quite literally more real, more yourself, and to destroy whatever un-realities had been parasitizing you.
This is the proper goal of education, and a healthy mental microbiome is one which is at least progressing in this direction. Understandably, for most people the focus will inevitably best resemble Karma Yoga simply because the world must keep turning and food must be put on the table - but if these ends ever come to outright conflict with the ends of yogic and Platonic self-knowledge, it can only be because some worldly influence has compelled not only individuals but an entire cultural ecosystem to adopt a faulty mental model that skews their incentive structures. This is what has happened in the west, and the result is that entire generations are walking around with narrative microbiomes which are fine-tuned to an inhuman environment and thus insufficient for metabolizing desperately needed ancient truths and building with them a model of reality that can actually recognize and develop their own humanity. Let’s examine a few of the basic building blocks of such a model, and why and how they’re deficient in the modern secular media environment.
1: A good model recognizes the role and influence of the unseen and unseeable. It recognizes an inner human spirit, and through that spirit encounters, however opaquely or obliquely, a hidden world of causes and correlations which is overflowing with other spirits and is undergirded by certain sublime and immaterial laws. This is not even entirely lacking today - the laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics all acknowledge some sort of motive force that is not strictly speaking embodied, and nuclear science proves that there is not just relation but outright transition between matter and energy. What is missing, though, is the psychological and ritual technology our ancestors took for granted that would allow us to conceive of our interactions with these forces and the spirits inhabiting them as reciprocal relationships worthy of attention and maintenance. For my part, I am not willing to hold my breath for another couple hundred years while the mutated Jnana Yoga of the scientific method takes the slow route to conclusions already reached intuitively and logically by the ancients. After an admittedly long process of learning to recognize that my own modernist bias against the immaterial was not a matter of cold logic but was in fact socially conditioned, and that such social conditioning emerged not from a sober observance of facts but from a change in the mental metabolic health of an industrial and post-industrial society, I eventually became ready to take those ancients at their word. A willingness to accept the increase in our awareness of the physical world afforded by science is also important, but there must be a proper ordering of priorities: the soul comes first, because the soul is what you are.
2: A good and humane model understands the human individual as being intimately embedded in the composite entities of family, clan, and tribe, and as having his or her sovereignty and cognition distributed across these things rather than being invested solely in some sort of antisocial island. This manifests through our own limbic and hormonal reward systems making sociality central to physical health, but it is also true on a higher level, on the unseen level acknowledged by our first maxim. Every traditional system of spirituality places importance on the spiritual continuity of ancestor to descendant, and most attach this process to a Genius or spirit common and particular to that family, recognizing it as the family itself, the worldly family’s source and substance which issues itself forth temporally through the procession of living members.
Deprived of sacrificial offerings, the ancestors of such corrupt families also fall. Through the evil deeds of those who destroy the family tradition and thus give rise to unwanted progeny, a variety of social and family welfare activities are ruined. O Janardan (Krishna), I have heard from the learned that those who destroy family traditions dwell in hell for an indefinite period of time.
- Bhagavad Gita, 1.41-1.44
3: A good model recognizes that social understanding of humanity as a reflection of the spiritual structure of the cosmos. This recognition relies on the understanding of a few essential nutrient-ideas. The most important of these is the “fractal”: the recognition that certain patterns manifest themselves above and below on different scales and degrees of reality, but maintain the same forms. This is the reason a God may be called “Father” or “Lord” and a Goddess may be called “Mother,” “Queen,” or “Maiden” - we recognize that those human offices reflect in our social lives what those entities do on the cosmic scale. Because the world is fundamentally fractal, this model also reveals that a wider society must be patterned the same way a family is patterned. This is actually the basis for the banning of inter-family violence, without which humanity would never progress past feuding clans. It is also the basis of monarchy, with the monarch serving as pater familias, and thus the basis for the various royal cult practices seen across the world, such as the Pharoah’s religious duties or the Roman practice of devotion to the Genius of the Emperor.
As you may have noticed, family is an intensely sore spot for the modern west. Dysfunction in family structures has become so severe that it must at this point be treated as systemic and endemic. Such dysfunction is leaking into every aspect of life, even the economic and political. Familial dysfunction contributes, for example, to the variance in outcomes between different races and classes in multicultural societies. It is also heavily predictive of patterns of drug abuse and crime. Its much subtler effects must not be neglected, though, in an age where the internet makes a person’s inner life, or at least their projected image of it, effectively an open-source program plugged into a porous miasma of other individuals and their hyperspecific subcultures. Even if dysfunctional or traumatic situations are only directly affecting 3-10% of the population, the impact on wider culture reaches much farther. A perfect example is the absolute glut of media and content centered around teenage depression and suicide since ~2007. Similar cultural narratives will only become more and more influential on the epistemic microbiomes of youth populations as their hapless Gen X or Millennial parents retreat into their Grateful Dead posters or Bernie Sanders graphic tees, totally unable to instill values and thought patterns into their children that the baby boomers never instilled into them.
If the human Polity is an extended family, yet its constituent families - its fractal cells, its very mitochondria - are all fatherless, cousinless, scattered to the wind chasing job opportunities, and torn apart by sexual dysfunction or irreparable schisms in basic values, what happens to the Polity? Quite literally, it grows tumors. Its heart sputters out. Its blood stops flowing. Its own metabolism grinds to a halt and it grows brittle as it vomits out the very ideas and nutrients it would need in order to heal. Autophagy sets in, and the body starts cannibalizing its own tendons and muscles just to meet the minimum quota of amino acids. Autoimmune disorders emerge as deranged white blood cells run rampant, pointing fingers, imposing mandates.
As you put an end to your raging muse, you pleaded that the same peace that rules the heavens would also rule the earth. But since such a storm of passions has come upon you and you are pulled about by conflicting feelings of pain, anger, and sorrow, you cannot, in such a mind, be given stronger remedies. And so I’ll apply gentler ones for now, so that your wound, which has hardened and grown scarred… may grow softer with gentle treatment and become ready to receive a more effective cure.
- Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
For true flourishing, we will need meat and vegetables and models that let us digest them - models that give honor, duty, and piety their proper place in human life, because those virtues are in fact the best tools we have for enduring and transmuting hardship and suffering. Better than ben and jerry’s, better than netflix, better than SSRIs. But these supremely important tools are metabolically intense, and they can only exist at the summit of a pile of other ideas that all serve to digest each other, ideas that Geriatric America and the Zoomers strung out inside its intestines cannot yet handle. And so we start with some hot tea and honey.
We have spoken much of the fractal correspondence between family and society, a correspondence which means that changes on either level affect conditions in the other - a true double-edged sword. But it must be remembered that this fractal scaffold extends farther in both directions: Downwards into individual persons, and upwards into their Gods, who are the pure and whole roots of everything which serially descends from them. The human being, a peculiar double-creature, is both part and whole, having his own serial body in likeness with the projected objects around him and his own noetic seed in likeness with the Gods who project them. It is almost as if his bodily life is the closing of a circuit, and thus his proper execution of it - his exercise of health, power, and virtue - is the cornerstone of the continued health, power, and virtue of the family and polity that he proceeded from.
Really, that’s all just a very long way to say this: You, personally, have both far more responsibility and far more power than you may currently accept, and your success is conditional on whether you can manage to discover and tend to your own divinity. If that sounds too abstract, then remember - we have already said that it is simply the process of making yourself more real and more yourself.
Now, there are numerous obstacles to that, many of them social or environmental. For example, our culture has forgotten how to deploy the tools of shame and inspiration productively towards the right ends, and our current set of federal subsidies and market incentives contribute to making much of our food supply do more harm than good. All of this, though, is just extra weight on the barbell, extra obstacles which are by no means insurmountable to someone who is facing the right direction. Such things are most important on a large scale, where sheer probability means that the more hostile the environment is the greater number of people are swept up and unable to even conceive of resistance. Still, even on that large scale, the deciding factor is the same as it is on the individual scale: which direction are they facing, and how much Will can they muster? Entire civilizations have endured famines, floods, invasions, and earthquakes, and emerged from those trials far more coherent, far more recognizable to their predecessors, than western culture has become in mere decades of unprecedented material prosperity. What did they have that we are lacking?
To find out, we must first answer two questions - what did they love? And after that, what do we love? The tongue is the unsung hero of the digestive system, a vital gatekeeper, but it is also easily fooled. A culture’s artistic tastes are analogous to the food cravings of an individual - so a quick look at how ours compare to our ancestors’ should answer those questions for us.
The most striking difference is in our relationship to protagonists and what themes set the stage for their journeys. The mythological hero has a straightforward function: He represents the human soul or mind, he navigates a dangerous landscape which is magically correspondent to both the outer and inner lives of man, and his success or failure conveys a moral and/or spiritual lesson. Herakles’ labors, for example, are representative of internal processes one must go through in order to become divine as Herakles did. The killing of the Nemean lion and wearing of its pelt is the development of self-control and self-awareness, the cleaning of the Augean Stables is the cleansing of one’s mental microbiome by purging the byproducts of certain habits and attachments, and the marriage of Hebe is the reconciliation with one’s own immortal soul. His primary canon does not dwell on individual traumas or neuroses and it does not dwell on the social and structural factors of the world around him; implicit in the Heroic cycle is a mild disregard for such things with the understanding that they are only “Maya”.
Now compare this to what stories moderns consider relevant or insightful. Very often they revolve primarily around questions of identity on the material or psychological level, either as acquired or as imposed. Themes of conflict with society or family and with the concept of duty are common. Genres like sci-fi and fantasy descend into bean-counting world building as though their settings are dollhouses and not microcosms for the human inner life or fields for the exploration of philosophical questions. While intelligent fiction like Asimov’s can spur the reader to valuable or enjoyable contemplations, recognition of the transcendent in even explicitly mythical stories like Percy Jackson are either absent or filtered through so many layers of genre trope and kitsch that they’re essentially meaningless. The result is that even the brightest minds absorb a set of narrative microbes that may help them break down social dynamics or questions of fairness, but which meet serious roadblocks and completely ignore fundamental questions if their host attempts to face them inwards against problems of the self. They may discover legions and legions of discursive explanations and external factors, but these will all serve only to compound a sense of dread or futility and will bear no fruit except depression, apathy, or dysphoria because none of their microbes ever bothered to include the important detail that You are Herakles, and you must put on the pelt.
There is another issue that arises when such a reductive and modernist cognitive toolset is deployed against the Self, which I must add is inevitable because the modernist idea of an “objective” universe divorced from the conscious subject is a fantasy born out of alienation from both halves of reality. Just as the Moon reflects the rays of the Sun, the light by which we see the world also sees us - and our vision is only a portion of its own. The mind parses this light as though it were passing through prisms - the condition of the modern microbiome is such that a person may see red, blue, and yellow, and yet not call them “light” and refuse to see that they all unfolded out from one pure, clear, colorless beam - it cannot be “seen,” so there is no “proof!” Consequently the modern mind conceives of itself as a mechanical assembly of red and blue and yellow which can be manipulated according to the whims of a totally unexamined and unacknowledged desiring-faculty. When suffering inevitably follows to collect its karma, such a mind entrenches its sickness even deeper and treats mere symptoms because it cannot perceive that its desiring-faculty may have been misled, as it acknowledges no higher principle.
We may reasonably conclude from this, though more extensive exploration is warranted and will be undertaken elsewhere, that the ancients revealed through their stories that what they loved was a spiritual, moral, and aesthetic perfection in the individual which could in turn clear the ground for a polity that would cultivate such perfection, just as Herakles cleared Greece of the wild monsters and allowed cities to flourish and just as Aeneas laid the groundwork for a Latium that would become world-ruling Rome. In turn, such spiritual, moral, and aesthetic perfection in the individual is brought about by a process of distillation and purification, not by accretion and acquisition - Herakles was denied the throne of Tiryns. This distillation is the buried grapes becoming wine, Dionysus being rent apart and reconstructed, and it is the hardship of the twelve labors. Clearly the ancients posited that a person must love something more than they love comfort, wealth, or even life itself - they must love the source of all those things, and be willing to forego its fruits in order to draw nearer to it itself. The great irony of worldly life is that only such people are able to guarantee their dependents and descendants those fruits; in their assimilation to the Good they become the seed, the vine, the sacrifice. This is the single great truth that our own modern fictions eschew in favor of unsubstantiated happily-ever-afters or pointless nihilist wallowing, because we do not have the love of the Good in itself and we do not have the stomach for the sacrifices it asks of us.
You, individually, my reader, must develop that stomach. Doing so means climbing the ladder of likenesses and learning to digest each rung, building the colony of epistemic biota that will allow you to endure every possible obstacle and injustice and ignorance and still transmute them into wisdom and virtue and piety, pressing the wine from the grape, clearing the ground for your people’s fields. The cornerstone of this endeavor, the first rung of the ladder, as touched on earlier, is simply the knowledge of which direction to face, where to project your Will so that it returns and compounds on itself like a rolling snowball.
The answer is clear - upwards. It all begins with the perfectly simple willingness to love the divine - from this emerge the willingness to trust it and to follow it. For many, even this will be difficult to digest for reasons that we touched on above. That difficulty is the first test. The obstacles to the acknowledgement of the supra-physical and spiritual that the modern world erects are the skin of the first grapes to be burst beneath your heel, and the young sweet juices that come gushing out will be the fuel for the entire rest of the fermentation process.
The process from there is still long, but the inertia is established. To preserve that momentum requires practice, contemplation, self-control, self-knowledge, and prayer, which are the next rungs of your ladder. For now, I can give you at least this much - the Gods are beautiful, and their beauty is the lynchpin of their entire cosmos. There is an idea today that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this idea is quite limited; beauty is beauty no matter what, our ability to appreciate it is what’s conditioned. Our ability to appreciate it is where the narrative microbiome comes in; think of a child who resents broccoli. As they mature, if they heed their parents, they will continue to eat it because they trust that it is healthy, and as they continue to eat it they will acquire a taste for it because their palate and their awareness has expanded to accept the bitter vegetable’s taste and, more importantly, its effects on the rest of their organism. Likewise there is a mystery and an uncanniness and a brutality to the cosmos. As your awareness expands, itself a vine being stamped by the tumult of life, if you can but trust that above and beneath and beyond it all is One Good and its divine stewards, then its infinite beauty, indeed the form of Beauty itself, will become slowly apparent to you. Furthermore, your own awareness of its presence will become like a fire about your head that pulls everything else around you into harmony with the gravity of a God, lashing out like solar flares to ignite your friends and sons and daughters with the miraculous self-motion by which the Augean stables are flushed, the Hydra’s heads are crushed, and Hebe is wedded.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the corners of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo (Mitchell Translation)
Post script - thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this essay, then you may be interested in my recent book Hymns for the Gods. In it, I go into more detail about many individual gods in their Greco-Roman and Norse/Germanic forms and address how they relate to the world and to ourselves. My hope is that it will serve as a helpful and accessible source for anyone interested in polytheism, and especially the philosophical and syncretic approaches to it.