In Book of the Fourth World, Gordon Brotherston explores some deep, rich themes including the nature of truth, the realities of language, the function of stories, and cultural respect. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Truth, according to Brotherston, is complex and intricate, and people must approach it in various ways. He distinguishes, for instance, between factual truth and logical truth. Factual truths can be easily verified, for they refer to actual events. We can say, for instance, that it is sunny outside, and someone can simply look out the window and verify that statement. Logical truth, on the other hand, involves reaching conclusions through the process of reasoning and requires connecting symbols, events, and objects. We can say, for example, that all cats are mammals, that this creature is a cat, and that, therefore, this creature is a mammal. We have drawn out a logical truth.
Brotherston also explores the nature of language. In Western culture, we are used to phonetic language, but other cultures use nonphonetic languages that are much more holistic and use objects as symbols as well as letters and words. This kind of language expresses concepts quite differently than what we’re used to, and it can therefore be difficult for Westerners to access, yet it is language all the same, and rich language at that.
The book also looks at the function of stories. Stories embody cultural values, ideas, and customs. The story of the Turkey Girl, for instance, encodes deep spiritual content that reveals important aspects of Zuni culture, rituals, and beliefs. People reconnect with their heritage and traditions through stories.
This is why Westerners who study the stories and customs of other cultures must show cultural respect. They should strive to enter into the story and the culture it reveals and examine it for what it is rather than imposing their own cultural views upon it. They should not, for example, see the Turkey Girl story as just another version of Cinderella. Rather, they should focus on the unique aspects of the story itself and appreciate it for what it truly relates.