Freytag Staircases in Nashville

One of the key concepts in Tempo is something I call a “Freytag staircase” (the term is derived from “Freytag triangle,” a well-known model of simple narrative structures). I am working on putting a glossary for the book online, but I am mentioning it now because the Freytag staircase is a way to visualize birth-to-death life narratives and use the visualization to frame your decision-making. And the reason I am bringing it up is that I never really thought about how it might work for people with different religious beliefs. In Nashville, where I bunked with musician Micah Redding of the Redding Brothers and his wife Emily,  I dropped in on a very interesting local meetup (Micah and Emily are part of it) devoted loosely to debating religious themes from a wide variety of perspectives.


I am afraid I don’t remember all the names, but the picture below includes everything from fairly conservative Christianity to Taoism to agnosticism and atheism. There was even something characterized as “Southern Baptist Buddhist.” I have no idea how that could work. The resident atheists of the group were MIA for this particular meeting, so I took their place. We decided I was a Calvinist Atheist.

As an atheist, I felt no particular need to add an afterlife model into the visualization, but the meetup got me thinking about whether the Freytag Staircase model works to represent beliefs like “you get your reward in heaven.” The topic of the day was exactly that: what’s your purpose in life and what are the consequences within whatever frame of reference you use. It was fascinating to see the varied narrative logics that people used to address the topic.

After the meetup, I ended up talking late into the night with Micah, and his brother-in-law Ryan (a “hipster philosopher-comedian in search of a story” is the only way I can describe him; I am running into some rather unique characters on this trip).  We talked about absurdity, Nietzsche, chingodu, sound installations, strange forms of performance art and the various other topics.

The following morning, on the drive down to Atlanta, where I am right now, I spent some time thinking through whether the Freytag Staircase might work for (say) Christians, Buddhists, Pascal-style agnostics etc. I concluded that it is consistent with any of them so long as you accept the basic information theoretic/entropy based premise of the Freytag visualizations (there are 3 in the book). But that isn’t the same as saying that people of all religious persuasions will necessarily like the model. Thermodynamic theology is probably too depressing a frame of analysis for a lot of people.

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  1. Steve Wheeley says

    It was fun and intellectually stimulating to have you visit with us Venkat, I hope you can get back to Nashville and sit in again. I have a lot of trouble with names also, so I will point out that I am the one in the white hat, which in American cowboy film mythology signals that I am the “good guy”, who always wins in the end, as well as wins the heart of the female lead. LOL. BTW, we have never had a group photo before, I did not realize what a scruffy lot we look like. Best wishes in Vegas.