Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Metaphor, the Inner Voice, and the Muse

In “Metaphor, the Inner Voice, and the Muse,” the final chapter of her 2004 book The Midnight Disease, Alice Flaherty discusses the experience of inspiration. Quoting T.S. Eliot and Octavio Paz, Flaherty argues that understanding inspiration involves recognizing not only the way we reach beyond the known but also the continuum of alienation we may experience in relation to our own inner voices (p. 240):
T. S. Eliot argued that "if the word 'inspiration' is to have any meaning, it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something which he does not wholly understand – or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him." Inspiration is a submission to "the voice of language," wrote the poet Octavio Paz, "the voice of no one and of all. Whatever name we give this voice – inspiration, the unconscious, chance, accident, revelation – it is always the voice of otherness."
The first idea is a relatively common one, that inspiration may involve reaching beyond the known to a point where one may no longer be able to adequately interpret one’s own words. Flaherty takes this idea further in an interesting way, however, using literary examples as well as clinical anecdotes from her own experience as a neurologist and as a patient to go from the idea of the muse as a personification of the unconscious to a fascinating exploration of the way in which the unfamiliarity of creative inspiration is not only “ego-alien” (she does an excellent job of translating the lingo of the various fields of research upon which she draws – and adds clever unobtrusive references at the book’s end) but in fact exists along a continuum of volition and agency, sometimes recognizable as our own strokes of insight, while at other times seeming distinctly to have arrived from some external source: the muse, the divine, the alien.

Returning to the book’s persistent theme of the role of the temporal lobe, Flaherty notes the parallels between an external seeming inner voice and out-of-body experiences induced by temporal lobe electrical stimulation. And she considers the role of the sensation of free will – or of compulsion – in the experience of creative inspiration. Acquiescing to the compulsion provides a certain satisfaction – especially when the compulsion provides an excuse, perhaps, to engage in a kind of creative exploration that might not fulfill social or personal expectations of propriety. Flaherty reports that “experiences of being forced by the muse to write, for instance, seem by most reports to be intensely pleasant, perhaps even because they are involuntary” (p. 248). On the other hand, the inner voice can be intensely unpleasant if it no longer seems like a voluntary narrative of experience, but rather seems disorganized, commanding, or unfamiliar, as in schizophrenic auditory hallucinations (which Flaherty notes may be drastically reduced by inhibiting subvocalization, pointing to the literal nature of the inner voice).

Hypothesizing about the role of dopamine in the neurochemistry of the inner voice, Flaherty does not suggest that a happy level of relationship with the muse might be attained. But by prompting us to better understand the “spectrum ranging from the normal inner voice to the completely ego-alien voices in auditory hallucinations and, perhaps, religious experience” (p. 240), she provides a framework that helps contextualize much of the phenomenology of struggle with the inchoate meaningfulness that suffuses the experience of creative production.

Alice Flaherty (2004). The midnight disease: The drive to write, writer's block, and the creative brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Comment by Keith Oatley
Thank you very much, Valentine, for this post on Alice Flaherty. She has taken ideas about inspiration much further than I had previously read or thought about: really interesting.
When I read up on the psychology of creativity the story was, and still is, that although the muse is an ancient notion, it was brought into modern psychology by the mathematician Poincaré who wrote about having a profound idea about a substantial problem he had been working on. He had been unable to solve the problem, but the solution come to him unbidden when he was on a journey, about to step onto a bus, and not thinking about the problem at all. His conclusion about his experience was that the solution to the problem involved trying out huge numbers of combinations, too intricate or boring for the conscious mind. These combinations were, he thought, tried out unconsciously until one worked, and his unconscious mind then let him know. The notion was formulated by Wallis (1926) into a psychological principle of creativity involving stages: preparation (consciously active work), incubation (when you don't think about the problem consciously), inspiration (the solution), and verification (to see if it works). But the idea of the really important stuff being done unconsciously, and the essential coming in a flash of inspiration, was pretty energetically demolished by people like Perkins (1981). It has been replaced by the principle of expertise in which one needs to spend 10,000 hours or so actively solving problems in the domain of interest. I was convinced by the argument and evidence, and following this, I have felt that the idea of inspiration was altogether too passive a concept.
Flaherty's idea, as you recount it, is fascinating because it comes at the issue from a completely different direction, and it is making me rethink things. I think the idea of fiction being about otherness and its understanding, along with this idea of Flaherty's that one can get in touch with otherness in oneself by writing are both tremendously interesting.

D. N. Perkins (1981). The mind's best work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Henri Poincaré (1908). Mathematical creation (translation by G.B. Halstead, of Le Raisonnement mathematique, in Science et methode, Paris: Flammarion). In B. Ghiselin (Ed.), The creative process. Berkeley: University of California Press (1952).

Graham Wallas (1926). The art of thought. London: Cape.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Novel as Friend

How is it that one person can like a literary novel while another, equally sensitive, does not? I have been a founding member of two book clubs (in Edinburgh and Toronto) that between them have lasted more than 20 years. In each we have read novels at a rate of about one a month, with a bit of an intermission in the summer. One of the delights of these groups is of engaging with books and then hearing quite different takes on them by the other group-members. Sometimes, fairly rarely, something less good happens. One or more people, despite trying, cannot get into a book. In our current group of nine people who are close friends, the last-but-one book we read was William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and the most recent book was a modern Canadian novel, Steven Galloway's The cellist of Sarajevo. Most people in the group liked Vanity Fair, but three of us did not, and I was was one of those three. For The cellist of Sarajevo, I was one of three (a different three) who liked the book. I thought it was a brave and moving novel that invited us to imagine what it would be like if most of the ordinary things in life were suddenly abolished, as they are in war (the setting for this book is the Siege of Sarajevo when the city and its civilian inhabitants were surrounded and shelled every day for four years in the 1990s). How could one retain, or perhaps rebuild a sense of purpose in life? Four members of the group did not like it, thought it amateurish, and lacking in insight.

Why one takes to a book remains mysterious to me. The best I can make of it is that, as Wayne Booth proposes in The company we keep, reading a novel is like meeting someone and becoming a friend, having a companion over a certain kind of journey. In a friendship, two minds can meet, and one's thoughts and feelings are taken up, and extended by the other. In a piece of fiction, the idea of friendship is enlarged: one allows oneself not just to be with other people but to become them. One enacts the work in one's own mind, articulating thoughts and ideas, and feeling emotions that one would not otherwise have had, but which one finds it enlightening to have, which extend the self.

Not liking a book seems to me like meeting someone with whose mind I cannot connect, not necessarily because I don't like the person, though sometimes that is the case. There is a mental space, into which I do not manage to extend myself, so I can't join that person. When this happens with an actual person, I can usually get along with him or her well enough if necessary, for instance if he or she is a colleague with whom I must work. I am polite, but the relationship proceeds without much affection, and I can accumulate grumbles about that person. When this happens with a book, the sense I have is of boredom—and there is again the accumulation of grumbles.

With a book one has to make a commitment of several days. It may be a bit calculating, but it seems to me that I ask: Will such a commitment be worth it? It is a matter of trust. In the reading group, I sometimes commit myself to a book to which I would not commit myself if I were reading on my own. Quite often, in that case, I am pleased I did make the commitment, and I enjoy hearing what others thought and felt.

But I still don't know how close friends manage to make some of the mental leaps that I cannot make into books that are the worlds of other minds?

Wayne Booth (1988). The company we keep: An ethics of fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Steven Galloway (2008). The cellist of Sarajevo. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1848) Vanity Fair. London: Penguin (current edition 1985).

Waltz with Bashir

Waltz with Bashir, a film that we reviewed when it appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival has now been released in theatres in select locations, including Toronto and New York. You can read our review of this film, and view the film's trailer, here. You can also see the review in our archive of film reviews (click here) which now has eight reviews of films that combine artistic merit with psychological significance, each with a rating on a ψ to ψψψψψ scale.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Indebted to a Gift?

In the November 17th post “Art as Gift” Keith Oatley drew attention to Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Imagination and erotic life of property. Hyde writes: “The labor of gratitude is the middle term in the passage of the gift” (p. 50). This is one answer, of course, to the question of what it is artists owe to their gifts. But to be indebted to a gift – what strange imprisonment is that?

When it comes to material gifts, the middle term, labor of gratitude, seems to be a fair bargain. That is because one chooses to receive a gift, aware of the cultural expectations of reciprocation that bind the community together. If one can choose to receive a gift, it follows that one can choose not to. We have all experienced that awkward moment of having to refuse a gift, knowing the intricate network of meanings it implies. However, when it comes to the other kind of a gift, the immaterial kind, it cannot be refused, at least not before it is received. It comes unsummoned, unchosen. And then we are supposed to be its prisoners, giving life’s most precious currency, time, to repaying a debt for a gift we never wanted?

What if we refuse? After all, the giver of the gift, Nature, would be fully satisfied with our bodies fertilizing some plot of pasture. Do we owe it to society, because we belong to it, and because it is the society that benefits the most? Not quite, given that most people pay societies’ dues with pocket change of their life’s work. So why, then, must we labor? What happens if we leave our gifts aside, and proceed as if they never existed?

My guess is that undeveloped gifts of artists, unlike discarded material gifts, remain alive, and deprived of air, start festering. Like infection they start spreading further and further into the healthy tissue. Who knows, perhaps we are both the giver and the debtor in this equation of art, and we owe it to ourselves to neatly repay our debts. Perhaps we are both the malevolent and benevolent hostage-taker, punishing ourselves for the undeveloped gifts, or releasing ourselves if our own unreasonable demands are satisfied. Not a fair bargain, but certainly quite a good deal.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Long Nights for the Midnight Disease

While we celebrate the shortest days of the year, it seems like an appropriate time to consider the writing that whiles away long nights. For the next four Wednesdays, I’ll be writing about narrative and creative production in a short series of posts partially inspired by Alice Flaherty’s 2004 book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain.

A central theme of Flaherty’s book is the exploration of hypergraphia – the compulsion to write a lot. Flaherty is a neurologist who experienced a psychotic postpartum break characterized by compulsive writing and metaphors that were compelling almost to the point of being delusional. Her book is an eloquent treatise on hypergraphia as a way to explore temporal lobe influence, and of mood more generally, on the experience of creating narrative.

One of the most prosaic – although not insignificant – implications of Flaherty’s exploration of writing a lot is the conclusion that more creative production may be a very useful precondition for brilliant creative production. Claiming that many famously successful writers have had close relations affected by temporal lobe epilepsy or mood disorders, she raises questions about how much quality depends on prolific quantity, in addition to discernment. She suggests that perhaps more important than the practice represented by quantity is the crucial step of getting quality production out there, actually transforming ideas into a form outside of thinking.

In this series of posts, I will be considering creative production – particularly in light of the kinds of hypergraphic conditions like the urgent, emphatic need to communicate that Flaherty calls “pressured speech.” Especially following from recent posts about engaging in reading or creative production, it seems interesting to consider how much people are motivated (pressured) to produce (or to creatively explore) because of their moods – or their personalities.

Alice Flaherty (2004). The midnight disease: The drive to write, writer's block, and the creative brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Better Person?

"There is no doubt that after Auschwitz the idea that culture will make you better has become a bankrupt idea." This is how Antanas Sileika starts his brief video entitled "What art does not do," put out by TV Ontario, under the direction of Wodek Szemberg, producer of TVO's Big Ideas (click here). Antanas is artistic director of the Humber School for Writers, and author of three books of fiction, most recently Woman in bronze. You can watch his two-minute video by clicking here.

Antanas says: "To ask culture to make you a better human being is to ask the wrong question." It doesn't make us better, he says, but it can enrich us.

Partly I agree with Antanas, art and culture don't make you better, but I don't think we should give up on the idea of betterment through art. I think the problem is with the verb "to make," which puts the human being in too passive a position. Could one be made a better person in the same sort of way that bread is made into toast? Psychotherapy does not make one a better person. Rather, it is an activity that one may include in a project of trying to become a better person: more understanding of self, less selfish in relation to others. Similarly, reading literature or engaging in other kinds of art are activities one can do for various reasons, including increasing understanding of oneself and others.

In the West, at least since the time of Classical Greece, there has been a tradition of reading as part of the project of improving ourselves. It starts with the recognition that existed in Classical times, which Antanas also mentions, that we humans are flawed beings. So the question arises of how might we become better. In her 1994 book, Martha Nussbaum discusses this issue as seen by Greek philosophical schools that started with Plato and Aristotle. Their descendants were the Epicureans and Stoics who believed that philosophy, in which reading was central, was not principally about conceptual understanding. It was about how to become better. As Nussbaum says, it was about medicine for the soul.

In the West, from the time of the Epicureans and Stoics, as Brian Stock has shown in his 2007 book, Ethics through literature, reading has been seen as important to self improvement, and this reading has included narrative. (I have written a micro-review of this book for our list of books on the Psychology of Fiction, which you can access by clicking here.) Until after about 1450, when print was invented, reading was an activity of a tiny minority. Stock points out, however, that from antiquity, throughout medieval and Renaissance times, and up to the present, there were always two aspects to it. He calls these the ascetic and the aesthetic. In Stock's usage, the ascetic does not primarily indicate self denial. It indicates the concern with how to become ethically a better person, that is to say in one's relationships with others. By contrast, the aesthetic indicates reading for pleasure, although this kind of reading can also have ascetic qualities.

Stock shows that the tradition that developed with such readers and writers as Augustine, Petrarch, and Montaigne, was of ascetic reading in a way that one would enter a state of calmness with one's book, exclude the outside world and take in the words, and then a second phase of contemplation and reflection, to incorporate the meanings as parts of oneself. He points out, too, that this account parallels in many ways the practices of meditation in the East, which of course, also aim at self-improvement.

In our research group, we have offered an account that has a continuity with the ancient Western traditions. Our findings (see most recently our post of Wednesday 3 December entitled "Broccoli of the Mind") suggest that reading fiction can enable us to become more understanding of others and to undertake small incremental transformations of ourselves.

Martha Nussbaum (1994). The therapy of desire: Theory and practice in Hellenistic ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Antanas Sileika (2004). Woman in bronze. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Brian Stock (2007). Ethics through literature: Ascetic and aesthetic reading in Western culture. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Publishing Emily V.

This is the last post I shall make on writing The Case of Emily V. Lots of people want to write a novel, and lots of people do so, but by no means all the novels that are written get published. So, I feel very fortunate, and very grateful to those who have helped me get a novel into print and into the bookshops. Here, to the left, is a picture of the original cover of my novel, with a detail, which I chose rather carefully, of a painting by Gustav Klimt in the style of the Viennese succession of the turn of the Century. You can read the final chapters (11 to 13) of Book I of the novel (Confession), by clicking here.

I wrote The case of Emily V., and passed it to my wife Jenny, to her mother Kathy, and to a very small group of friends. They said they enjoyed it, so that was very nice. I tried to get it published, but without success. The manuscript sat in my drawer for two years. What activated me again was that Kathy started writing on my behalf to literary agents in California. I felt acutely embarrassed, as I imagined Kathy's letters: "Dear X, I am writing to recommend a novel by my son-in-law, and I wonder if you would take him as a client." I thought that I really ought to do something. I happened to write at that time to the agent of Penelope Lively, Murray Pollinger, to ask permission to quote something of hers in one of my academic books. The agency gave permission and then—silly as it sounds—when I wrote back to thank them I said: "By the way, I have a novel. I wonder if you would mind having a look at it." The person with whom I corresponded was Celia Catchpole, to whom I am tremendously grateful. She said: "Send it along." She liked it, and showed it to Sara Menguc in the agency, who also liked it. Within a week they had sold it to Dan Franklin of Secker and Warburg. What could be better? What better publishing house could there be? And, as well, I had been taken on by one of Britain's best agents. To top it all, Dan Franklin entered the book for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, in which it won Best First Novel.

Now the less good luck: before the book was published, Dan Franklin left Secker and Warburg for Random House, and the editor who replaced him did not like the novel so it got very little publicity. It got good reviews, but even with the prize, it did not do well in Britain. That is what frequently happens. Each season, publishers bring out a number of books, but promote only a few, and don't put much energy into the others. Many novels that are published don't even get reviewed. Much depends on the amount of buzz a publisher generates.

By that time I was living in Canada, but Emily V. was not available here. I wanted my friends to see that there really was a book, and to enable those who had not read it to do so. The managers of my local bookshop, Book City, were John Schneider and Kim Dawson. I asked Kim if she would take ten books on consignment, and put them in the store. She said: "Fine." The consignment arrived from England, I took the books round to the bookshop, and they went on sale. There they were, in a nice stack on the front table. My friends were sent to buy them. There were only two left when Oliver Salzmann, whom I did not know, who was a publisher at Reed Canada, saw them there. He liked the cover (see the head of this post). He picked one of them up, saw that the publisher was Secker and Warburg, and thought: "This is a publisher we represent in Canada. Why don't I know about this?" He bought the book, read it, liked it, and got in touch with me. He went into rapid motion to publish it in Canada. Oliver could not have better: wonderfully energetic, wonderfully supportive. He got me onto Peter Gzowski's radio show (which in Canada was better than Oprah). He sent me on a book tour to Ottawa, to Calgary, to Vancouver. Talk about buzz. The book took off, made it onto the Canadian best seller lists, and was reprinted several times: all extremely flattering.

So, it IS about luck, but I still don't understand how it works. The book got translated into three languages, but until last year it could not find a publisher in USA. That happened by way of a friend of a friend, who knew someone—Jack Estes—who had started a small literary press in New York, Pleasure Boat Studio. To read the final two parts of the novel (Book II, Investigation, and Book III, Obsession) you can buy it direct from this publisher by clicking here, or you can buy it from Amazon by clicking here.

I don't know what to say in summary. Maybe this: if you write a book, some people may like it but some won't. What a lame conclusion. Alright, here's a better conclusion: if you are going to write fiction, you had better do it for some reason that will sustain you in itself, rather than only in the hope that you will be published. My most recent novel has not been able to find a publisher. But perhaps it isn't good enough yet.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Research Bulletin: Pronouns & Perspective-taking

We have often discussed the idea of engagement of narrative as a cognitive and emotional simulation, arguing that readers take the perspective of a story’s protagonist. But what do we mean by this, exactly? There has been some debate in the field regarding whether readers really see through a character’s eyes, or assume an omniscient third-person perspective. A recent article to be published in Psychological Science by Tad Brunyé, Tali Ditman and colleagues (in press) provides an interesting examination of this question. These researchers had participants read sentences that varied in their pronoun use (i.e. “I,” “He,” or “You”) and then asked them to indicate whether a subsequent picture depicted the action they had just read. These pictures were taken from either a first-person/internal perspective (with the camera looking out through a person’s eyes) or a third-person/external perspective (with the camera pointed at the person). Reaction times were recorded, with the assumption that if reading an action sentence with a certain pronoun naturally entails taking a certain perspective, people would be quicker to identify the depicted action when the perspective of the photograph matched their own mental perspective. In Study 1, Brunyé, Ditman and colleagues found that people tend to take a protagonist’s perspective when the pronoun “You” or “I” is used, but take a more third-person/external perspective when “He” is employed. In Study 2, however, adding a bit of narrative context before the target sentence led to a shift in the results. The pronoun “I” now resulted in a third-person perspective. This means that in more realistic circumstances, when reading a novel for example, use of the pronoun “I” does not necessarily mean that readers are looking out through that character’s eyes. Instead, it appears that adding a narrative context allows readers to see that character as a person “in the world.” This does not mean, of course, that we don’t still empathize and take the perspective of characters. Just that this perspective-taking is likely to be more complicated than simply assuming their visual-spatial position in the fictive world.

This article is a great example of how solid empirical research can inform our understanding of the reader experience. Moreover, these two studies illustrate quite nicely how research in this area must begin to incorporate more realistic narratives as stimuli. The results of Study 1 and Study 2 differ quite dramatically, with the only difference being the inclusion of a richer narrative context preceding the target sentence. If the researchers had stopped at Study 1, assuming that research on sentence comprehension would generalize to discourse comprehension, we would be left with a mistaken idea of how pronoun use influences perspective-taking during reading.

Brunyé, T. T., Ditman, T., Mahoney, C. R., Augustyn, J. S., & Taylor, H. A. (in press). When you and I share perspectives: Pronouns modulate perspective taking during narrative comprehension. Psychological Science.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Life and Literature II, by Jens Brockmeier and Maria Medved

Literary texts are not created in everyday situations. But they may start and develop out of them. One can argue that modern literature starts in the thirteenth century with Dante. For Dante it was the love of his life, Beatrice, that prompted him to write the book of this love, Vita Nuova (The New Life), as Keith Oatley (2007) has reminded us (see also his post on September 9, 2008). The book consists of poems joined by autobiographical pieces and critical comments, mostly revolving around Dante’s love for Beatrice. For the first time in European literature there is not only divine love but also human love. For the first time human passions are considered a worthy subject of literary—and psychological—reflection and articulation. They appear as human not only because they are pronounced in words of everyday Italian, instead of Latin, but also because they are grounded in human life, in a real-life autobiographical fabric, as fragmentary and coarsely meshed it may have been. Oatley refers to Auerbach’s (1929) study on Dante’s anti-Platonic turn, a turn from the world of ideals to the world of earthly human concerns, concerns that can be named, described, and communicated in language and, what’s more, examined and reflected upon as elements of joint “intentional systems.” In Dante, as Auerbach maintained, we encounter the first real characters in European literature. We might think of figures in frescos by Giotto: concrete human individuals, with particular lives and experiences, stories and memories.

The invention of the human is the title of a book by Harold Bloom (1998) on Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets in which he sets forth a similar argument for the English language. The scenarios of human lives and experiences unfolded by Shakespeare—who already drew, besides his own experiences, on a variety of historical and literary sources—essentially defined Western ideas of character and passion. They shaped the imagination of many generations of readers and audiences of theater, opera, and film, including countless writers, artists, philosophers, and psychologists. Fusing these traditions of imagining human life with their own experiences set free a continuous discursive interplay that created what Richard Rorty would call the autobiographical vocabularies of the eighteenth and nineteenth century and finally of modernity. In other words, what we see emerging here is the cultural repertoire of contemporary autobiographical self-understanding in the West.

This repertoire, like language in general, is used and modified in the exchange of a great variety of cultural discourses in which our lives and their meanings are constantly re-described and re-defined. If we look at this cultural continuum of autobiographical self-practices, literary or not, from an historical point of view —comparing, for example, the ideas of memory and self in Dante’s world with those in Shakespeare’s and in Proust’s world —we see that the difference between life and literature dwindles even more. When those writers, psychologists, and clinicians meet, they should be able to quickly figure out what they mean by autobiographical narrative, and indeed, usually they do.

Erich Auerbach, E. (1961). Dante, poet of the secular world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (German 1929).

Harold Bloom (1998). Shakespeare: The invention of the human. New York: Riverhead.

Keith Oatley (2007). Dante’s love and the creation of a new poetry. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1, 140 –147.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Writing Emily V: The Meeting of Freud and Holmes

Freud is exciting to read because one finds in him an ingenious and imaginative mind in full activity, engaging in the question: How do minds work? In writing The case of Emily V., it was interesting to get inside Freud's mind and think about whether neurosis was caused by being abused in childhood, or whether it derived from inner conflicts between those matters with which we can come to terms and those with which we cannot. Since Freud wrote in German, and since the story is set mainly in Austria, it was welcome to have the book published in German, helped by Steffen Huck (to whom I am very grateful), in a translation by Frieda Ellman. To the left is the cover of the German edition.

Among the questions Freud considered in 1904, when the main part of the novel was set, was that of homosexuality. He thought that whereas the neurotic was someone whose inner conflicts had turned into symptoms, people who were homosexual didn't have enough inner conflict. Instead they acted out forbidden desires. These are the kinds of thoughts with which Freud is engaged in his treatment of Emily, while at the same time she kept from him the crime she thought she had committed by pushing her seducing guardian off a crag in the Austrian Alps. By clicking here, you can access Chapters 9 and 10 of the novel, in which Emily's and Sara's relationship develops and Freud thinks about it.

In the second part of the novel (Book 2, Investigation), Holmes and Watson try to discover the cause of death of Mr S, Emily's guardian, a diplomat who was engaged in secret discussions with the German govenerment. Following the investigation by Freud and by Emily herself (in Book 1, Confession) of Emily's inner world, this second part moves to the outer world and the kind of evidence that is the stuff of forensic investigation. This part was enjoyable to write because without giving up the idea of following clues, it allowed me to imagine the transmutation of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective genre into something closer to a spy story.

Most of all, of course, the second part of the novel provided the opportunity for a meeting between Freud and Holmes, which was the idea that prompted the book in the first place. Watson engineers the meeting because he has been worried about his friend's fits of depression, which medical science was unable to comprehend, let alone treat. He thinks Freud's new form of treatment, psychoanalysis, might do some good. So Holmes himself becomes the subject of an investigation—a psychological investigation—the result of which is a certain insight into that steely mind, and a glimpse of some cracks that appear in it. At the same time Holmes wants from Freud a clue for his case, that only an inner invesigation can provide.

My interest in writing about both Freud and Holmes was to imagine the interaction of two systems of thought: the pursuit of inner truths by means of psychotherapy and the drawing of conclusions about the outer world by what C.S. Peirce called abduction (see Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 2002), generally now described as reasoning from evidence to the best explanation of it, but which Peirce also described as reasoning backwards from results to causes. This is a type of reasoning that, as one may argue, Holmes contributed. As a fiction writer, moreover, the challenge was to do this not just in terms of an academic article, but by means of concretely imaginable events.

In Book 3, Obsession, the consequences emerge of the two kinds of investigation, inner and outer, consequences that change the lives of Emily and Sara considerably, and perhaps change Holmes to some degree. Whether Freud—that advocate of psychological change—is changed by the events recounted in the novel, is more questionable.

Keith Oatley & Philip Johnson-Laird (2002). Emotion and reasoning to consistency: The case of abductive inference. In S. Moore & M. Oaksford (Eds). Emotional cognition: From brain to behaviour (pp. 157-182). Amsterdam: Benjamin.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Notable Books of 2008

The New York Times has released its list of the 100 notable books for 2008, which follows on its earlier list of the 10 best books of 2008 (both fiction and nonfiction). Perhaps a useful resource for those currently burdened with holiday shopping.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Space for the Naked Self

The BBC has a very interesting audio slideshow that presents the work of Eamonn McCabe. McCabe is a photographer who travelled around visiting the writing spaces of various well-known authors. The photographs are a fascinating exercise in contrasts, typically with respect to order and chaos, simplicity and complexity. It is tantalizing to speculate on how these spaces relate to the reading process. As an academic author, I’d always felt that my workspace was a (somewhat muddied) reflection of my mind, and at some points it was more worthwhile to spend an hour or so tidying up my desk rather than continue to write. It used to be the case that while writing a paper I would have reams of relevant notes and articles, scattered around my desk, because I needed them at hand. More recently, however, all of my notes lie on my laptop, and all the papers that populate my desk tend to be of the irrelevant and distracting variety. I imagine that things might be slightly different for writers of fiction (I do not count myself among their company). I also imagine that there are likely some interesting variations in process and the impact that the environment has on this process. A cluttered space, then, might not mean a cluttered mind, necessarily. When looking at these photographs, however, there is a feeling that persists throughout. And this is a feeling of peering into someone’s most intimate space. More intimate than the bathroom medicine cabinet. More intimate than the bedroom. But, like a bedroom, a space for the self stripped naked.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Life and Literature, by Jens Brockmeier and Maria Medved

The idea that personal identities are to a large extent made from the fabric of narrative has become widespread. In fields as different as literature, history, philosophy, psychology, medicine, and law we find strong interests in the interplay among autobiographical memory, identity, and narrative. Usually the investigative agendas of these fields do not interfere with each other. But sometimes they do. Then questions arise such as: does a literary autobiography and an everyday life story really represent the same kind of autobiographical narrative? Do writers or scholars of literature and narrative psychologists or clinical researchers studying illness narratives mean the same thing when they talk about autobiographical stories?

Of course not. What makes a literary text distinct is its literariness, the more or less successful attempt to use narrative as an art form. It’s not difficult to agree that Nabokov’s autobiography Memory, speak is a successful attempt, whereas autobiographical parts of an illness narrative a cancer patient tells a doctor have no aesthetic claim. However, the aesthetic dimension, as central it may be for literature, is only one aspect of narrative. It is not even exclusively a feature of literature. There are several literary forms, genres, and styles that intentionally downplay their literariness, whereas everyday discourse often displays strong aesthetic qualities. Writers therefore have always—in European literature, say, since Dante—drawn on the resources of ordinary language, absorbing everyday discourse and practices of remembering into their autobiographical writings (and we include here memories, diaries, and other forms of life-writing). At the same time, everyday discourse has constantly soaked up literary and artistic models and forms of self-fashioning. Nowhere is it less clear what imitates what in the relationship between art and life than when we talk about ourselves and our past.

There is a continuum of narrative forms that encompass everyday life and literature; and this is especially true for autobiographical narrative. Yet the idea of such a continuum goes beyond narrative and stylistic terms. It also applies to the autobiographical process itself, the complex narrative mix of remembering, interpretation, and self-construction carried out both in literary and non-literary contexts. Why would the literariness of autobiographical texts by Proust, Nabokov, and García Márquez prevent us from considering them as individuals who were giving shape to real autobiographical remembering? Shouldn’t we assume they were putting all narrative means at their disposal to the effort of exploring themselves and, in doing so, probing the goings-on of the autobiographical process?

We believe that there is a connection between the literariness of their autobiographical writing and the sophisticated way they narratively both unfolded and analyzed the autobiographical process in their prose. Although their analysis has no doubt a literary and aesthetic component, it should not be reduced to that. If it’s good literature it’s almost never just fiction nor just an individual account; it also offers insights into the very nature of the autobiographical process as it also occurs in people who may not dedicate much time, energy, and sensitivity to scrutinize their experiences. If we investigate them in detail, we find that both everyday and literary autobiographical processes are, in principle, carried out along the same lines, within the same narrative and psychological continuum of human past and present experience. That’s why autobiographical prose by Proust, Nabokov, and García Márquez is read (and imitated) by countless readers, writers and non-writers alike. We try to understand it in the same fashion in which we make sense of ourselves and others, employing the same “narrative ways or worldmaking,” as cognitive narratologist David Herman (2008) argues. This implies localizing the narrative text (written or oral), its narrator/author, and ourselves, the readers/listeners, within one intersubjective context that Herman calls an “intentional system.”

Again, there are significant differences in sophistication, particularly, if we consider writers like those we mentioned. But we wouldn’t say to the neuroscientist: well, you have only been able to study memory because you have used all this sophisticated laboratory equipment. So why should we say that Proust has only been able to study the complex narrative nature of the autobiographical process because he developed a complex narrative style to explore it?

By the way, most of the memories Proust dealt with are amazingly unspectacular. What is special about recalling having had a cup of tea and a cake? What distinguishes them from your and my memories is the literary genius that dedicated itself for many years to the investigation and articulation of such (semi-)autobiographical experiences.

David Herman (2008). Narrative theory and the intentional stance. Partial Answers, 6, 233-60.

Vladimir Nabokov (1960). Speak, memory: A memoir. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Writing Emily V: The Emergence of Sara

Part of my experience in writing The case of Emily V. was the emergence of a character whom I had not thought of to start with. The character is Sara: Emily's friend, the person in whom she confides. The confiding happens in Chapter 7, which you can read as part of this week's serialized episode (Chapters 7 and 8), by clicking here. (To the left is the cover of the French edition of the book, translated by Paul Gagné and Lori Saint-Martin. It has a picture of a woman who could be Emily, but then I wonder if it could be Sara.)

On 12 August I wrote a Research Bulletin on the work of Marjorie Taylor and her colleagues (2002-2003) on how writers often experience their characters as having minds of their own—autonomous agency. On 25 September, Valentine Cadieux wrote a follow-up post on the same subject entitled "Intractable Characters as Personality Extensions."

My experience of Sara in my novel was indeed of this kind: a character having a mind of her own; but it was more than that. Sara suddenly appeared. I had not suspected her existence. Looking back I can see the novel certainly needed her. She was someone for Emily to talk to, someone for her to love, someone who would love her, someone who would complete a rather satisfying set of three dyads: Freud and Emily: male and female, heterosexual but (as the psychoanalysts say) aim-inhibited, Holmes and Watson: males whose homosexual dependency on each other is repressed in a rather English way, Emily and Sara: females who discover each other. Although their homosexuality seemed to start by being repressed, it becomes no longer aim-inhibited, something for Freud to think about. So the emergence of Sara occurred, at least in part, to satisfy a set of constraints that only became clear as the story developed, but Valentine's post suggests something deeper. Valentine wrote:
What seems particularly interesting about this phenomenon is not just that the characters have agency, per se, but that their actions open up whole lines of narrative and perspectives on the world to which the author might very well not have access without the particular agency afforded by the character's traits, experiences, and activities.
Then, continues Valentine, as an author:
I may not be able to buck socially desirable response patterns in particular situations, etc., while my character may. This suggests that while we preserve our habitual identities, our characters make us new personalities, or personality extensions. And these may help us get to all those pesky thoughts that hover beyond the edges of what we might otherwise consciously be able to write about.
I know that writing fiction is thought to be rather revealing of the author, but does it have to be so revealing? Does it reveal that part of me is a Viennese-Jewish woman with Lesbian inclinations? Well, of course, I don't mind this revelation ... in many respects I find it rather appealing. But I hadn't suspected it. I don't think the matter stops there. My experience with fiction, not just in writing but in reading, is that as I read novels in which I can fully engage, I become characters in them, too. Does this mean that I am Anna Karenina—all that passion, all that selfishness, followed by all that ennui—or Jacques Austerlitz, seeking his identity among bizarre and deserted buildings, or David Lurie, lingering in South Africa after the country's post-colonial return to majority rule, a white man in disgrace?

J.M. Coetzee (1999). Disgrace. London: Secker and Warburg.

W.G. Sebald (2001). Austerlitz (translated by Anthea Bell). Toronto: Knopf Canada.

Marjorie Taylor, Sara Hodges, & Adèle Kohányi (2002-2003). The illusion of independent agency: Do adult fiction writers experience their characters as having minds of their own? Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 22, 361-380.

Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna Karenina (translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokonsky published in 2000). London: Penguin.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Broccoli of the Mind

A few weeks ago Liam Durcan, the neurologist author of Garcia's Heart (2008, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart) and I were interviewed by Shelagh Rogers on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's The Next Chapter. It is in a free CBC podcast, the 18 October edition. You can listen to our discussion by clicking on the play button at the end of this post.

Shelagh Rogers started off her interview with us by asking whether reading does for the mind what bran flakes and broccoli do for the body? I answered by describing the research led by Raymond Mar which showed that, as compared with people who read predominantly non-fiction, people who read fiction have better empathy and theory of mind and the research led by Maja Djikic which showed that, as compared with the same information in a non-fictional format, people who read a short story by Chekhov undertook some change in their personalities.

Liam Durcan then raised the issue of unreliable narrators. I think this is an interesting question, not so much because people in ordinary life are necessarily unreliable, but because everyone we meet can be a bit of a challenge to get to know at all well. It's not even that easy to know ourselves. Thus, working out what an unreliable narrator is up to, and what he or she is really thinking and feeling, may give us good practice at understanding others and ourselves.

We then discussed differences between fiction and non-fiction. To read non-fiction is to read about something: world politics, for instance, or the history of steamships. But fiction goes further. It enables us to enter a particular world, to take part in imagined situations.

Shelagh Rogers asked whether there was a difference between reading books and watching television or films. Liam Durcan thought there probably was, because reading encourages reflection and reassessment. I agree in part, but I am less sure. We have not yet done a direct empirical comparison. It seems to me that a good film relies on the imagination almost as much as does a novel or short story. As one imagines oneself into a situation in a movie, although the whole thing may whizz past more quickly than when we are reading, in a good film there is the same invitation to understand the characters, the same opportunity to reflect on their actions.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Was Van Gogh an Artist?

I was recently invited to Amsterdam to take part in a conference on Reading versus Watching, organized by the Dutch Reading Foundation. It was a wonderful experience, and I met many interesting colleagues working on the topic of reading and fiction from various different perspectives. While in Amsterdam I visited the Van Gogh museum, and this sparked a number of thoughts regarding the definition of an artist. Seeing Van Gogh’s work in person was humbling, and I discovered a number of great paintings of which I was unaware. However, I found myself most perturbed by the narrative presented by the museum with regards to his life and career, which in my mind appeared strategic, contrived, and not recognizable as residing comfortably within our familiar definition of an “artist.” An artist is typically seen as someone who is compelled by the muses to explore truth through beauty. The story of Van Gogh, however, shows little evidence of this. This is not to say that Van Gogh was not a great painter; he clearly was. I think, however, that there is some room for debate as to whether he should be considered an artist. Or, perhaps, some debate on our definition of artists.

Van Gogh was unemployed, and at a loss of what to do with his life, when his brother Theo (then working as an art dealer) suggested he become an artist. Vincent agreed, having at this point never engaged in any drawing or painting. He quickly set out to learn these skills, although he eschewed the traditional method of attending a school, opting instead to teach himself. His early works are recognizable by a very dark palette, often employing backlit compositions of hardworking peasants and related rural scenes. At this time, he was intent on depicting the noble life of peasant labourers, and it is these paintings that I happen to feel are his best. Theo soon encouraged his brother to paint with brighter colours, however, more in line with what he was observing in the contemporary French art scene of which he was a part. Theo even went so far as to suggest that Vincent refrain from using any black pigment at all. Vincent complied, turning to a brighter palette. He also began to paint portraits (of prostitutes, primarily, the only women who would sit for him) and townscapes, knowing that these pieces would be more likely to sell compared to his paintings of the poor. In 1886, when Vincent first arrived in Paris, his reaction to the modern art being painted there was unequivocally negative, and he criticized it in the harshest terms in his writings of the time. However, before the year had ended, he had befriended a couple of young Parisian painters and begun to adopt their impressionistic techniques. He also began to paint with even brighter colours, and explicitly believed that this would be his lasting contribution to modern art. “Soon we will be selling,” he wrote Theo. His self-portraits at this time, perhaps some of his most famous works, were not meant to be explorations of his own identity but an attempt to improve his portrait technique while experimenting with his newly adopted palette and impressionistic brush strokes. Around this time, he expressed a desire to create an artistic collective with Gauguin and others, located on a farm. This was intended to not only foster collaboration, but also to create greater financial stability for himself and his artist friends, and also to increase the likelihood that the group would dominate and shape modern art.

A number of Vincent’s paintings are undeniably derivative. He created pieces replicating the Japanese wood-cuts that he and his brother so admired, but these “copies” lack all of the subtlety and beauty of the originals, appearing as garish pop-art knock-offs. Similarly, during a period of his first hospitalization, he painted copies of famous pieces based on black-and-white reproductions of them, injecting his own (now) electric palette and impressionistic brush strokes. Looking at the originals and the copies side by side, one cannot help but get the feeling that nothing new or interesting has resulted from the modern exercise. As Vincent’s illness worsened, and he moved to a new hospital, he began to focus less on the bright colours and more on graphic line work, and also returned more fully to those topics that interested him initially such as plants and nature.

In this brief survey of his life, I believe there is some compelling evidence that Vincent Van Gogh had goals of finance and fame that superceded any goal to approach truth through beauty. If anything, Vincent appears to have been willing to let popular trends determine both the style and content of his paintings, in great contradiction to our impression of artists as uncompromising individuals who are driven to create in response to the muses. Vincent, it seems, was creating in response to Theo and the modern art scene in Paris at the time, at least during his most productive period during which most of his familiar paintings were created. Now, I will readily confess that I am not an expert on the life of Van Gogh, and perhaps a reader more knowledgeable with regards to this topic may correct me. This was, however, the impression I gained from the summary of his life provided by the organization most invested in portraying him as an artist: the Van Gogh museum.

Does this mean that Vincent Van Gogh should not be considered a great artist, although he was clearly a great painter? Was Van Gogh more of an artist when he began painting as opposed to when he was popular? When he focused on a topic that fascinated him (i.e., the hard life of rural peasants) with no concern for whether these paintings would sell and afford him a living? Or perhaps it is our conception of what constitutes an artist that should change. Have we romanticized the idea of an artist willfully, elevating this role to a transcendental plane where the everyday concerns of humanity (e.g., fame, fortune, admiration) cannot touch them? To what degree does a flourishing art market destroy the potential for artists? Perhaps it is better that there be little to no reward for art, so that we can be assured that those who toil in creating art are motivated by something nobler than financial reward. Lastly, to what degree is intent the primary factor to consider? If Van Gogh paints a painting with the aim of creating something he knows will be popular and will sell, but this same painting is capable of creating a profound experience in the viewer, should we view it as less a piece of art? All of these questions, I think, can also be applied to fiction and the debate that commonly arises about whether there is low or high literature, and might these have different influences on a reader.
Raymond
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Keith's Comment:
What you say, Raymond, about van Gogh, is very interesting. You mention two salient issues. One is the idea of the muse. It's an idea that still has much to be said for it: that an artist must be open to what comes, in the way that Lewis Hyde writes about it, as a kind of gift (see my post of 17 November). The second issue is that of craft versus art. The book that has influenced me on this is R. G. Collingwood's The principles of art, in which he argues that there is a set of activities, let us call them crafts, in which an end point is envisaged, such as the van Gogh brothers' idea of what would sell, and worked towards by well-understood methods. Art, says Collingwood, is different. There is no aim towards a particular outcome. Instead, art is exploratory of things we don't understand, principally having to do with the emotions, which we come to understand better as they are expressed and explored in the various languages of art such as the novel, architecture, music, and so on. I think Collingwood is onto something. The implications for the person who reads Madame Bovary, or walks through the Alhambra, or listens to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing Schlummert ein from Bach's Cantata 82, are both structured and open. That person too can explore. He or she is not being directed by a craft of having, for instance, certain emotions induced, as anxiety is induced in a thriller. So, was van Gogh seeking to induce certain emotions in us?

Lewis Hyde (1983). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage.

R.G. Collingwood (1938). The principles of art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Dear Keith,
This is a very interesting point that you make, on the distinction between art and craft. I must confess, this theory aligns very closely with my own beliefs. However, I think it also begs some troubling questions regarding intent, and its necessity and sufficiency. If someone creates something with no particular intent to explore and idea or an emotion, yet the result is thought or emotion-provoking, is this still not a piece of art? Similarly, if an artist has the intent to explore an emotion or an idea not well understood, but the product fails to provoke a similar response in any viewer, is that person not an artist and the piece created not art? Should we assume the most demanding criteria, that both intent and some success with regards to an audience are necessary? Stated another way, if an artists creates but no-one is around to view it, is it still art? I don't know enough about Van Gogh to speak of his own intentions, but I think that my impression of his life did serve to raise some troubling and broader issues with regard to the definition of art and artists.
Best,
Raymond.
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