Literature: The Human Experience

Years ago, when I was a student of foreign languages and literature I came across a book titled “Literature: The Human Experience”. The title left a deep impression on me because so far I had assumed that my love for reading literature (as well as writing it) represented more a kind of escapist attitude to life than a realistic one. Escaping from reality is what I had loved most since early childhood. Writing for many authors is a kind of self-medication, to make life more bearable. However, upon seeing that book title it struck me that literature often represents a deeper reality than the one that can be seen with one’s eyes; or in the words of the Little Prince: “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The vast majority of writers are NF types in Myers-Briggs, or “gatherer” types, as I call them. In fact, my own INFP type is overrepresented in world literature, from Homer, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Orwell to George R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman. A lot of these writers’ experience does not only reflect human experience and the experience of hunter-gatherer types living in a farmer-herder society in particular. To begin with, there is often an idea of parallel worlds, one of muggles and one of wizards. This kind of motif can be found in, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia books, The Wizard of Oz and many more. Alternatively, strange, mutant-like beings live among “normal” humans: superheroes, X-men and aliens (like in My Favorite Martian). The Percy Jackson and Miss Peregrine books are examples of this kind of fiction.

Joseph Campbell found that The Hero’s Journey is a common pattern in many narratives. The hero lives in an ordinary world and gets called for a mission. The reluctant hero starts his journey into a special world, has many adventures and finally returns to his own world. What has changed is not only that the hero completes his mission, but also the hero himself has changed, he has found his true self. This pattern is well known from many stories, like The Lord of the Rings (Frodo), Harry Potter and The Hunger Games . This cycle represents the stepping outside of ones’ comfort zone as a hunter-gatherer type. We do not like conflict, but we don’t like conforming to a world that isn’t ours either. Hunter-gatherer types find it hard to conform to an “ordinary world” and frequently try to find self-actualization outside conventional jobs. A situation that is beautifully expressed in Robert Forst’s poem “The Road Less Traveled”:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Here are some more famous examples from the literature that reflect the experience of hunter-gatherer minds:

The Ugly Duckling : Hans Christian Anderson (INFP)

The ugly duckling represents the feeling of so many children with ADHD, ASD or gifted children who don’t fit in. They often have feelings of inferiority or even worthlessness. Once grown up, these ugly ducklings often turn into beautiful swans: the kid with dyslexia and ADHD who becomes the founder of a multimillion business (Richard Branson — he was told that he was stupid lots of times and probably doubted himself a lot), the nerdy Asperger’s kid who comes up with the Theory of Relativity (Einstein) or Hans Christian Anderson himself. When the critic Georg Brandes questioned Andersen about whether he would write his autobiography, the poet claimed that it had already been written — “The Ugly Duckling”. The very author whose story gave name to the Ugly Duckling Syndrome suffered from it himself. Hunter-gatherers live a life of self-doubt, considering themselves imperfect “farmer types/duckling, when they are really adapted to a different kind of lifestyle.

The Little Prince : Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (INFP)

In the story, the author is represented by the pilot, obviously. However, at the same time, he is the “Little Prince” himself. The Little Prince is his alter ego that has travelled through a whole universe in his own mind and who is from another planet. Hunter-gatherer minds often have the feeling that they are beings from a different planet and live their lives inside their heads. “An Anthropologist on Mars”, this is how the autistic Temple Grandin is described in Oliver Sachs’ book by the same name. Ultimately the Little Prince is the author talking to himself in his mind. That’s something we hunter-gatherer minds do, a lot, often preferring ourselves as conversation partners to people who we can’t relate to.

The Invisible Man H. G. Wells (INTP)

This novel about a scientist who invents a way of becoming invisible is considered one of the first sci-fi novels. Apart from the nerdy science part of the story, there is some deeper level of human experience here: the experience of feeling invisible, of not belonging to society, of being the wallflower at the party.

Peter Pan , J. M. Barrie (ENFP)

This story about the boy who refused to grow up is a childhood classic. Once again, on a deeper level if reflects the experience of hunter-gatherer types, who have a hard time growing up in a farmer-herder world. It’s a world that seems dangerous and rough, like the pirates that Peter Pan has to fight. I have argued that there is another side to hunter-gatherer childlikeness. According to life-history theory hunter-gatherer types might grow more slowly and have puberty later in life than most other people. Last, but not least it is their childlike way of seeing the world that makes them so creative and innovative. Little wonder that so many of us suffer from the Peter-Pan-Syndrome.

The Neverending Story and Momo by Michael Ende (INFP)

These are two of my own childhood favourites. The Neverending Story is about a boy who gets bullied (Bastian, a not infrequent hunter-gatherer experience) and a fantasy world that is dying because people have become too practical and have no more imagination. Momo (not the global social media phenomenon) is a girl, who saves the world from grey men who try to instigate people to chase after money rather than spending time with each other. Both books are about topics that are alien to hunter-gatherer minds: power (non-egalitarian relationships) and materialistic mentality (hunter-gatherers do not accumulate wealth). Maladaptive Daydreaming is what this syndrome is called nowadays.

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse (INFP)

Few books reflect the reality of hunter-gatherer minds living in a farmer world better than this one. It’s about former entrepreneur Harry Haller who becomes completely disillusioned with the world and a lone wolf. The book illustrates the feeling of hopelessness of hunter-gatherer minds to change the world for the better and never being able to belong. In one word: alienation.

These are only a few examples of how literature reflects the experiences of hunter-gatherer minds. Most hunter-gatherer types love reading, as this is one way of connecting to other hunter-gatherer minds, who are rather rare in real life (about 20% of the population). It’s also a way to connect to ourselves, not just running away from a reality we aren’t programmed for. A lot of literature is about finding one’s true self, in the end.

Originally published at on October 30, 2020.