Friday, January 30, 2009

Research Bulletin: The Canon and Interpretation

The Western Canon is the set of works of great literary art that have contributed to Western culture. The idea is that an educated person should have read a fair number of them.

The Canon gained impetus, I think, with the proposal that not only are there great works of poetry and prose literature but that for each one there is a correct interpretation. A principal in making this proposal was I. A. Richards (1929; for a micro-review, see our Books on the Psychology of Fiction, by clicking here). Richards did the psychological experiment of giving undergraduates in his English classes "at Cambridge and elsewhere" 13 poems (from the Canon, e.g. by John Donne, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, et al.) without attribution, and asking them to "comment freely in writing about them." He was shocked to find an "astonishing variety of human responses:" most people made wrong interpretations. Education in English literature, for several decades under the influence of Richards and the New Critics, then became teaching people not only what to read but how to read. The watchword was "close reading." Then, of course, came post-modernism, with its scepticism about the Canon and interpretation.

This month, in the journal Poetics, Marc Verboord and Kees van Rees have taken an empirical approach, and asked about influences on what gets taught in literature classes in high-schools in Holland. They analyzed the content of textbooks on literature, and teachers' choices among these textbooks. What they found was that, over the last decades of the 20th Century, the way in which literary authors and their works were presented in textbooks increasingly came to be based on students’ reading preferences rather than a Canon specified by literary experts. Over this period, too, teachers seem to have chosen textbooks that were most responsive to students' preferences.

If this trend is a general one, does it represent a diminution in the value of literary expertise, or the kind of democratization called for by some post-modern critics?

What we (members of this research group) would hope is that among future influences on appreciation of literature would be findings of the psychological effects of reading fiction, for instance on understanding others and ourselves. We might hope, too, for a growing sense of what aspects of literature have such effects (see our micro-reviews of Psychologically Significant Fiction, by clicking here).

I. A. Richards (1929). Practical criticism: A study of literary judgement. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Marc Verboord & Kees van Rees (2009). Literary education curriculum and institutional contexts: Textbook content and teachers’ textbook usage in Dutch literary education, 1968–2000. Poetics, 37, 74-97.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Interpretation and Identification, by David Miall

I don't have a problem with Keith’s observations, in his post of January 26. If the historical or cultural issue is intrinsic to the text then interest in that seems a legitimate way of enriching one's experience of the text. What troubles me is the translation of some aspect of the text's meaning to an alien discourse, in which the text is often found wanting for failing to measure up to the exigent ideological tenets of the critic. In romantic studies, for instance, it is notorious that Wordsworth has been subjected to this treatment: see, for instance, Marjorie Levinson’s treatment of “Tintern Abbey” in Wordworth's Great Period Poems: Four Essays (1986).

That's why I find the term Abstract Displacement helpful. In the alternative, what is offered is extension of a cultural perspective intrinsic to the text, not displacement. Similarly, I agree that “every piece of fiction prompts us to understand allegiances and motivations”: these again seem to me intrinsic to the text, but they can be considered (or should I say experienced?) in the literary context, where we generally empathize with the main character, and usually feel in attunement with the character’s feelings and motives. This can sometimes take us further than we might wish to go.

Keith suggested that it would be difficult to identify with the character of Stauffenberg if he endorsed Hitler’s war aims while rejecting Hitler himself:
to enjoy this film one must identify with the Stauffenberg character, and one can only do this by making an interpretation that he felt as people generally feel today about Hitler as wicked. This is a large part of how the film "works in the mind and brain."
I suspect this may not always be the case. I used to teach a short story class in which one of the first stories we read was Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Cask of Amontillado." In this story Montresor, who seeks revenge on Fortunato, tricks him into his extensive cellars supposedly to assess some amontillado he has bought, plying him with drink as they go. At the far end of the cellar Montresor chains the now confused Fortunato to the wall then proceeds to brick him up, in effect burying him alive. This murder remains undiscovered after 50 years. Poe’s protagonist thus presents a problem for the reader: he is engaging, witty, and clever, while his victim Fortunato is clearly a fool. Typically, on discussion, I would find that about half the students identified with Montresor, although he is manifestly wicked and cold-hearted. I suspect that readers tend to identify with a protagonist with little prompting, and despite what may be thought damning evidence against them. Didn’t some of the romantic poets identify with Satan, at least in the opening couple of books of Paradise Lost? – and would this be because Milton portrays events primarily through Satan’s perspective?

Monday, January 26, 2009

On Interpretation

In comments to a post on 28 October 2008, a very interesting discussion developed between Bill Benzon and David Miall. David endorsed Bill's position, that what we should pursue is "how texts work in the mind and brain" rather than "what they mean." David went on to say:
My problem with interpretation is that in literary scholarship it typically takes us away from the text itself to using the text as a specimen of some historical or cultural issue. Peter Rabinowitz has characterized this very effectively as the "Rule of Abstract Displacement." There are two steps to it. "The first step involves an act of substitution: according to this rule, good literature is always treated as if it were about something else." Its "real" meaning, that is, lies in something other than its ostensible, surface meaning. The second step is "an act of generalization," towards some proposition that is supposed to have universal value ... I don’t believe that most ordinary readers (outside the classroom) are engaged in interpretation, in this sense. Of course, there are other meanings to interpretation, and I wouldn’t want to suggest they are without interest. It’s the bypassing of the text itself that I want to point out.
I have been continuing to ponder these very thought-provoking comments, with which I largely agree, but aspects of the principle of abstract displacement continue to puzzle me. I completely see how this can distract from understanding readers' experience, but consider the recent film which is presented as a "specimen of some historical or cultural issue," Valkyrie, a passable (though not especially good) film about Claus von Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Although the film has a historical basis, it is constructed, quite properly for the commercial cinema, as a piece of fiction. The interpretation invited is that Stauffenberg's motives were of a kind that modern audiences, knowing in retrospect how wicked Hitler was, would be able to identify with today. It would make a difference to the film (or to any comparable piece of fiction), if Stauffenberg were portrayed as someone who had thought it was a fine idea (and there is evidence for this) to colonize Poland to obtain prison labour for German agriculture, but who thought that Hitler was a disaster because of his military incompetence.

My point is that to enjoy this film one must identify with the Stauffenberg character, and one can only do this by making an interpretation that he felt as people generally feel today about Hitler as wicked. This is a large part of how the film "works in the mind and brain."

Of course, one may say, this film was (as Hollywood puts it) based on a true story. But does not every piece of fiction prompt us to understand allegiances and motivations in the contexts it offers us? Is this necessarily a distraction?

Peter J. Rabinowitz (1996). Reader Response, Reader Responsibility: Heart of Darkness and the Politics of Displacement, in R. C. Murfin (Ed.), Case studies in contemporary criticism: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (pp. 131-147). Boston: Bedford Books.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Right Kind of Quill

This week, I got a present. A friend came across an old-fashioned typewriter in a yard sale, and $10 later, walked away hauling a banged up box with what she thought would be a wonderful present for me. She was right. It didn’t matter to me that not all keys worked, nor that they were actually in Cyrillic alphabet. I was delighted at the opportunity to bang away nonsensical sentence fragments at the machine, making as much noise as possible. It reminded me of the irrationality of my own and other writers’ preoccupation (read: obsession) with writing implements.

It make sense that musicians attach great importance to how finely made or tuned their instruments are; that painters obsess about softness of their brushes. These preoccupations appear rational, even necessary, since their artistic output depends directly on the quality of their artistic tools. But writers? Really?

It is hard to deny that Mrs. Dalloway or A Hundred Years of Solitude would be identical if they were put down on paper by pencil, pen, quill, typewriter, or were dictated to a secretary who wrote it down in shorthand. Yet the fascination remains, often translated to romanticization of writing implements of prior eras. Today some writers still write longhand, or use typewriters, despite the omnipresent word-processors. This seemingly time-consuming regression is telling. The appeal could be of a physical kind. The further back in history one gets, the more embodied the activity of writing becomes. It grounds, physically, the metaphysical output. It embodies, anchors, the weight of the words. But that weight comes at a price.

While the idea of etching words into clay tablets appears romantic, revising the text on the tablets would be quite annoying. Nostalgia for the embodied physical labour of writing might be quickly cured with the convenience of the ‘delete’ button. And so we can afford to romanticize the gritty, messy, physical act of writing of the past eras, before returning to the tidy comfort of our labor-light word-processors.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Reading and the Brain: Symmetry and the Emulation of Good Writing

In reading scientific literature having to do with reading and writing, I have recently come upon a contrast that brilliantly demonstrates a wide chasm in scientific approaches that I would dearly like to see bridged. On one hand, I have been reading Robert Boice, an emeritus professor of psychology and director of the faculty teaching center at SUNY-Stony Brook, who has spent many years empirically studying what makes people successful at endeavors such as teaching and writing. Like Alice Flaherty (whose ideas I have been exploring over the previous weeks: Dec 24, Dec 31, Jan 6), Boice presents a basic two part prescription. First, he describes a set of rules, such as beginning early, before feeling ready, working in brief, regular sessions, and stopping before negative returns set in (Boice, 2000). These rules in many ways describe a particular character profile — however, Boice is adamant in his argument that this does not exclude those who do not fit this character profile from writing success; rather, he lays out a number of ways that those who find themselves less likely to adhere to these rules can emulate what he calls exemplars. It is in this second principle — practicing the rules — that he most echoes Flaherty's assertions about the value of writing a lot: he uses a number of models and approaches for enticing writers of all skill levels and character flaws past sensations of blocks and into modes that use writing's most exploratory features to their best advantage.

I describe his approach because his use of careful observation of working habits and intervention studies so contrasts the alternate approach to struggles with reading and writing I found in an overview of neurobiological bases of learning disabilities by Christina Fiedorowicz, a neuropsychologist and member of the Professional Advisory Committee of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. Although I am fascinated by Fiedorowicz's descriptions of neurobiological underpinnings of the mechanisms that carry out reading and writing, I find the approach she takes to findings that people who struggle with reading have more symmetrical brains than "normal" to be highly evocative in the context of Flaherty's exploration of the role of the temporal lobe in writing and the social demonization of the personality characteristics that appear to accompany writerliness.
"Important research efforts have focused on reading disabilities, since they represent the most common and frequently identified type of LD [learning disability]. Studies have shown that brains of subjects with reading disabilities have no asymmetry in brain structures where there should be asymmetry, that is, there is an absence of ordinary asymmetry. For example, the temporal lobe (planum temporale area) in the left hemisphere has been found to be typically larger than the temporal lobe (planum temporale area) in the right hemisphere in subjects without LD (asymmetrical), whereas, this area in the left hemisphere has been found to be the same size as in the right hemisphere in subjects with LD."
In other words, in an area of the brain that shows the most asymmetry (presumably because of human language ability) a symmetry marks reading disability, while persons "without learning disability" are normally asymmetrical. Recognizing that this kind of research is valuable, particularly to people who struggle with tasks that others define as naturally part of social existence, this phrasing still rankles, perhaps because of the way it reifies learning disability, and with it, the expectation that reading easily is normal — and perhaps even more because of the way that it does not leave open the question of what the asymmetry means — particularly to a presumed audience of concerned and curious parents. In the abnormally symmetrical cases, what is the other half doing? Might this aberration translate into some other skills? I do not wish to romanticize the creative genius of people struggling with mental disabilities. But I do find salutary Flaherty's strong reminders that most mental disabilities exist on a continuum — one that bears exploration and care, not to accept at face value, for example, that difficulty reading or a psychotic-seeming compulsion to write are merely problems to be solved.

Boice, R. (1994). How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency. Westport: Praeger.

Boice, R. (2000). Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Fiedorowicz, C. (1999). Neurobiological Basis of Learning Disabilities: An Overview. Originally published in Linking Research to Practice: Second Canadian Forum Proceedings Report. Canadian Child Care Federation.

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

Monday, January 19, 2009

Synopsis of our Results

At the start of the year, we thought we might give a brief synopsis of our findings on effects of fiction, accompanied by putting into the archives three articles that present summaries and discussions of this work in different formats: a magazine article "The science of fiction," in New Scientist, (Oatley, 2008a, which you can access by clicking here), an article addressed to psychologists, "The Mind's Flight Simulator" in The Psychologist (Oatley 2008b, which you can access by clicking here), and a longer discussion in an edited volume (Mar, Djikic & Oatley, 2008, which you can access by clicking here).

Our empirical results on effects of fiction are of two kinds. One kind is correlational. We have used a measure of lifetime reading that tells us whether people read predominantly fiction or predominantly non-fiction. The finding by Mar et al. (2006, which you can access by clicking here) was that as compared with those who predominantly read non-fiction, people who predominantly read fiction are better at empathy, or theory-of-mind. We also found a smaller association between reading fiction and being able to tell what went on in video clips of social interactions. These results were not due to the preferences for fiction in people who were more socially skilled. Our explanation is that fiction is a set of simulations of goings on in the social world, so that people who spend time with fiction become more socially skilled just as people who spend time in a flight simulator become better pilots that those who do not.

The second kind of result is experimental. In one study, by Mar (see e.g. the magazine article in New Scientist above) people read either a fiction or a non-fiction piece from the New Yorker. Immediately after reading, as compared with those who read the non-fiction piece, those who read the fiction piece were better at social reasoning but not at analytical reasoning. We think that fiction primes readers to think about people and what they are up to in their interactions. In a different kind of experiment, Djikic et al. (2009a) asked people to read either a Chekhov short story, or a version of the story in a non-fiction format, which was the same length, the same reading difficulty, and just as interesting. Readers of Chekhov's story (as compared with the version in non-fiction format) experienced changes in personality. These changes were small, and in different directions, particular to each reader. In a companion study, Djikic et al. (2009b) found that people who routinely avoid emotions in ordinary life experienced larger emotion changes as a result of reading the Chekhov story than those who did not usually avoid their emotions. We interpret these studies as indicating that fiction can be an occasion for transforming the self, albeit in small ways, and can also be a way of reaching those who tend to cut themselves off from their emotions.

Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman & Jordan Peterson (2009a). On being moved by art: How reading fiction transforms the self. Creativity Research Journal, 21 (in press).

Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman & Jordan Peterson (2009b). Defenceless against art? Impact of reading fiction emotion in avoidantly attached individuals. Journal of Research in Personality, 43 (in press).

Raymond Mar, Maja Djikic & Keith Oatley (2008). Effects of reading on knowledge, social abilities, and selfhood. In S. Zyngier, M. Bortolussi, A. Chesnokova & J. Auracher (Eds.), Directions in empirical literary studies: In honor of Willie van Peer (pp. 127-137). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Raymond Mar, Keith Oatley, Jacob Hirsh, Jennifer dela Paz & Jordan Peterson (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.

Keith Oatley (2008a). The science of fiction. New Scientist, 25 June, 42-43.

Keith Oatley (2008b). The mind's flight simulator. The Psychologist, 21, 1030-1032.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Staring at an Empty Wall

On August 11, 1911, a young house painter, Vincenzo Peruggia, left the Louvre by a side-entrance, carrying Leonardo’s Mona Lisa under his overcoat. He hid it in the false bottom of a specially made trunk, in his poorly furnished room, for two and a half years. In the mean time, crowds thronged to view the space where the painting originally hung. Thousands of people, many of whom never visited the Louvre before, would gaze, not at other paintings in the museum, but at the blank space where the Mona Lisa once hung. It is this rather puzzling fascination with an absence that is the embarking point of Darian Leader’s Stealing Mona Lisa: What art stops us from seeing.

Leader uses a psychoanalytic lens to examine often paradoxical motivations that underlie human gaze and production and consummation of art. He claims that “If humans and animals are captivated by images, it is humans who can use the image as a sort of defence. It can become a shield or, more precisely, a lure or bait to distract the gaze” (p. 31). What does this work of art defend us against? Leader answers: “It is less the relaxed passtime of the aesthete than a furious defensive manoeuvre to ward off a malevolent Other.” It is meant to keep gaze away from the artist.

This is an interesting idea - that surfaces are manipulated as masks, and that humans are the only species who feel uncomfortable inhabiting their social environments without a social mask. Artists create yet another mask, a piece of art, to deflect the gaze of the Other from himself. We can perhaps add to this observation. Otherness of oneself could be more unsettling than otherness of others. It could be this very familiar, therefore uncanny, otherness, that can be managed, controlled, through a piece of art. One can create a novel that is not autobiographical and yet is a truth about oneself, and through this intermediary object explore and comprehend it without the threat of facing oneself raw.

And what does this all, in the end, have to do with throngs of people that lined up at the Louvre to stare at an empty wall? Leader invokes Lacan: in order “to evoke the empty place of the Thing, the gap between the artwork and the place it occupies.” The place of the Thing stands for the place for everything that is inconceivable, incomprehensible, beyond the human language, beyond human gaze. Yearning for the apparent absence hints at the presence of the inconceivable object of yearning. But this inconceivable absence seems infinitely abundant within our very selves. So perhaps we should not demean the masks, including art, as defence, but as a means of exploring this very abundance.

Darian Leader (2002). Stealing the Mona Lisa: What art stops us from seeing. New York: Counterpoint.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Realism and Interiority

From the Renaissance onwards, there has been a movement in the West towards realism in many of the arts. Its intent is to depict life without embellishment or commentary. In the Twentieth Century realism was carried forward by photography, and in fiction the cinema has been a strong influence, with its idea that what you see on the screen is what you would have seen with your own eyes had you been there. Realism has been distinguished from Romanticism, and from the Abstract, but really, I wonder, might it not be better to contrast it with interiority? Realism as what one might see out there in the world can be compared with the thoughts, desires, and always-partial understandings of the interior mind: what goes on in the world compared with what we project onto it. We can think, perhaps, of art as balanced on this border between the exterior and the interior.

In the literary fiction of the West, new impetus was given to interiority with modernism, in Marcel Proust's close identification of the reader with the narrator, in Virginia Woolf's depictions of inner life and its streams of consciousness, in Hermann Hesse's themes derived from Jungian psychoanalysis. In Japan, a different kind of movement towards the interior took place in the theatre. It occurred by making the exterior deliberately non-realistic in the drama forms of Noh, Bunraku and Kabuki. In Noh the principal actor wears a mask. In Bunraku characters are played by puppets that are two-thirds life-size, each activated by three pupetteers who wear black cloaks—a strangely effective way to depict the imperfectly known forces that act upon us—while a man on one side of the stage reads the script, and on the other side of the stage musicians accompany the piece. In Kabuki, characters are played by actors who move infrequently and scarcely change their facial expressions. The effect of these drama forms, so far as I can see, is to invite a kind of reflection from the events on the stage into the interior of the minds of the audience.

What of novels? A famous Japanese novel, The Makioka sisters, concentrates on relationships and how to conduct them. Here a sense of inwardness is achieved from a metaphorical connection between the outer forms of nature and inner feelings. Sachiko (the second-oldest of four sisters, who is married, with a child, and who has living in her house her two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko) makes her annual pilgrimage to Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms at the Heian Shrine. She sees with relief that this year the cherries are in full bloom, but she sees them also as passing with the end of spring, and has "the thought that even if she herself stood here next year, Yukiko might be married and far away" (p. 89). The outward sense of the blossoms, soon to fall from the trees, prompts an inward sadness that perhaps next year Yukiko may be not be with her, but by this point in the novel we readers know she is deeply anxious that the time for the thirty-year-old Yukiko to make a successful marriage may be past.

Junichiro Tanizaki (1943-1948). The Makioka sisters (E. Seidensticker, Trans.). New York: Vintage (currrent edition 1957).

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ingmar Bergman's Saraband

Ingmar Bergman was born in 1918, in Uppsala, Sweden, and he died on 30 July 2007, at his home on the small island of Fårö. He was a distinguished theatre director, known internationally for films that he both wrote and directed which were—above all things—psychological. He concentrated on existential problems, on the many aspects of sexual love, and on the ways in which aggression affects our lives. He was able to invite audiences of his films towards the kind of thoughtful reflectiveness that is more typical of reading the best kind of written fiction.

Saraband—the word is the name of an erotic dance for two people—was the last film Bergman made before his death. It is also the name Bach used for some of the movements in his suites for solo cello, parts of which are heard in the film. Bergman made this film for television. It has ten movements, each one a duet, in a sequence preceded by a prologue and succeeded by an epilogue in which Marianne (played by Liv Ullmann) speaks directly to the audience. In the prologue, prompted by a photograph of herself and Johan (played by Erland Josephson) to whom she was once married, she decides to visit him, although they have not seen each other for many years. She is now 63 and he is 86. He lives in isolation in a summer-house on an estate in a remote place overlooking a lake. Living in a cottage by the same lake is Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), a cellist, and his 19-year-old daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Henrik is Johan’s son from a former marriage, who is despised by his father. Henrik grieves for his wife Anna, who died of cancer two years previously, and he has taken to coaching Karin, also a cellist, whom he wants to audition at the conservatory and to remain living with him. The story follows Henrik’s and Johan’s plans to control Karin and her musical career, and pivots on the question of Karin’s guilt should she assert her autonomy.

Each scene, each movement, of the film is engaging in itself, especially as one starts to wonder if there is more going on between Henrik and his daughter than there ought to be. The film is about the ways in which we come to know others, and among the many matters of psychological interest is the question of how far our character remains stable in the way that personality theorists say it does, and how far we are different with different people onto whom we project particular desires that they call forth in us. In psychological research, David Kenny and his colleagues (2001) have found that although there is consistency in the individual, there is also unique responding to particular others.

This is a great film, with great cast, which acheives an unusual intensity. You can read a longer review by clicking here.

David A. Kenny, Cynthia D. Mohr, & Maurice J. Levesque (2001). A social relations variance partitioning of dyadic behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 128-141.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

We can certainly be taught the rules of language, proper syntax, perhaps even what constitutes a tasteful distribution of commas and semicolons in a paragraph. We can be taught how to write up a vertiginous argument in stylish and spare prose. But can we be taught to write a short story, a novel? And if so, how?

Creative writers have emerged prior to formal education in creative writing. Unlike in sculpture and painting, where apprenticeship with a more experienced artists was often possible, writing literature seems to have been a lonely task. Writers read and writers wrote.

Classes in creative writing often focus on encouraging students to generate a piece of their own and then provide generous feedback on the work of others. Teachers, often writers themselves, give suggestions, sometimes even rules, for brainstorming, drafting, editing. There are rules for everything but the thing itself. It is an interesting model that would not do well for other subjects – a biology teacher would not leave students to figure our how to dissect a frog on their own, and provide them with a feedback of their success or failure afterwards. The model works because, as teachers of creative writing classes know, there are no production rules for a magnificent piece of literature. And while it is the case that writing will not necessarily make you a writer, there is no other way to become a writer but to write.

So, creative writing class or no, the only thing for an aspiring writer to do is what aspiring writers have done for millennia. Read. Write. And hope for the best.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Interrogating Meaning in Metaphor

On the past two Wednesdays, I have considered some fascinating ideas about the experience of meaning raised by Alice Flaherty in her book about the experience and neuroscience of the compulsion to write, The Midnight Disease. As a writer, I am obviously fascinated by Flaherty’s analyses for the insights they provide into the extraordinarily varied experience of writing; her hypotheses make it more comprehensible why I might be able to write a complete chapter in one evening, then struggle for six months to write another. But as a social scientist interested in ways that people interpret the motivation expressed by others and themselves in various ways, I find her exploration of the problems associated with the "limbic, primitive, tortured desire to communicate" (p. 234) compelling in an entirely different way.

Although the book is expressly about the way that experience becomes imbued with meaning through the experience of writing, Flaherty’s exploration of phenomena such as metaphor clearly extend beyond the experience of written text to many of the acts of interpretation that make everyday life comprehensible. Understanding of the processes involved in metaphor seems crucial to any analysis of motivation and interpretation. Flaherty’s interrogation of "excessive metaphor" as "one of the processes that goes wrong in delusions" on page 233, for example, seems to provide a useful handle on understanding the politics of interpersonal or intergroup relations – or the myriad acts of translation that lie in the way of clear understanding of our own or others’ motives:
Metaphor lies on a continuum between fact and delusion, and exactly where it lies is critical. Simile becomes metaphor, the "as if" disappears; "I suffer like Jesus" becomes "I am Jesus." Other slides into the delusional are less obvious: "I shall behave, for my own gain, toward that person over there as if she were less human, less real, than I am" is rapidly shortened to "That person is like an object," and again to "That person is an object."
In my work as an ethnographer, trying to interpret the creative impulses and aspirations embedded in the mundane practices of everyday life, I often wonder if it might be useful (or even possible) to consider different ways that people experience meaning and metaphor in particular moods and situations. Like many of the tasks and skills involved in writing fiction, the ethnographic work of eliciting and interpreting narratives of everyday life is often relegated to the category of work that must be learned through experience (or brilliance) and can not be taught. But if the muses of inspiration are more likely to find us at our writing if we are seated comfortably at our desks, fingers on the page already, glass of water nearby, and a long evening ahead, surely there must be generative settings and moods that could act as aids in eliciting the meaningfulness of the metaphors that imbue our everyday locations with significance – the "limbic, primitive, tortured desire to communicate" embedded in the arrangement of the back garden or the parlor trinkets, even if that significance may handily evaporate under the stress of tasks to be done or the dry scrutiny of a social scientist’s interrogation.

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

Monday, January 5, 2009

Short Story, Novella, Novel

We can distinguish short stories, novellas, and novels, by their length. But that distinction doesn't tell us anything psychologically. For an answer, I think we go to Frank O'Connor (1963, see our Books on the Psychology of Fiction by clicking here) who argued that the modern short story is a recent invention, which is most typically characterized by something happening to a person who exists on the edge of ordinary society. It may be about a moment around which the person's life turns. For the reader it is a glimpse seen somewhat from that edge, a piece of insight into an issue that is critical to the character, and by extension to human beings. In the novel, by contrast, one enters a world with many and varied characteristics, in which we come to know in some depth, perhaps by identification, one or more characters who become, if not companions, people in whom we are interested as their plans and actions unfold. Whereas often a short story is about being on an edge, a novel usually allows us to become immersed in a world so that it becomes normal to us. The novella is distinct from these forms in that, although it allows the same kind of immersion as the novel, it is not about a variegated world, but a world in which a psychological issue is singled out, with other aspects pared away.

Often listed among famous novellas in chronological order are Aphra Behn's (1688) Oroonoko, Charles Dickens's (1843) A Christmas Carol, Robert Louis Stevenson's (1886) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kate Chopin's (1899) The Awakening, Anton Chekhov's (1900) In the ravine, Joseph Conrad's (1902) Heart of darkness, Thomas Mann's (1913) Death in Venice, Franz Kafka's (1915) Metamorphosis, Ernest Hemingway's (1952) The old man and the sea, George Orwell's (1945) Animal Farm, Muriel Spark's (1962) The prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

As to theme, we can state it easily in Kate Chopin's The awakening: What would it be for a woman to realize she is not cut out to be a wife and mother? The theme in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is: What would it be if we were each divided into a socially responsible part and a socially irresponsible part? In Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness, the theme is: Are civilized manners and behaviour merely a thin veneer?

Conrad did much to develop the novella. Although not as well known as Heart of darkness, even better in many respects is The shadow line. Its psychological theme is: What is it to cross the line from youthful confidence and self-absorption to adulthood? I have added a mini-review in our archive of Psychologically Significant Fiction, which you can access by clicking here, and a longer review in our Book Reviews archive, which you can access by clicking here.

Joseph Conrad's The shadow line is an exploration of that moment of the development of character when one knows one is no longer just alive for oneself, no longer just one of the crowd, but must take responsibility for other people. It is a line one crosses when one enters a serious relationship and starts living with someone, when one has one's first child, when at one's work one is put in charge of others. The psychological poignancy of the transition is that one often has no idea what the implications will be, because there are aspects for which one's youth has not prepared one. This is a transition that can enable one to grow, or that can damage one. The shadow line, based on Conrad's own youth, seen from a somewhat ironical perspective of his maturity, is about a young ship's officer who achieves his first command: a sailing ship that becomes becalmed, and in which almost all the crew become so sick with a fever that has been taken on board at a tropical port that it becomes impossible to work the ship. Was the young man too hasty wanting to put to sea? Why did he not inspect the medical supplies properly? Will the ship be wrecked? Will he and those for whom he is responsible be able to reach port safely?

Joseph Conrad (1917). The shadow line. London: Penguin (current edition 1986).

Frank O'Connor (1963). The lonely voice. New York: World Publishing Co (reprinted 2004, Melville House).

Friday, January 2, 2009

Karen Armstrong on Myth

The Greek word mythos means story, so it is close to the idea of fiction. Myth is a kind of societal distillate of human struggles with life. It stands in contrast with logos, meaning rationality.

In A short history of myth (see micro-review in our Books on the Psychology of Fiction, by clicking here) Armstrong argues that myth always reflects the precariousness of human existence, and has followed the great movements of prehistory and history. The earliest myths, she argues, derive from hunter-gatherer societies in which men would go out and face danger to hunt wild animals, which they would bring back as food to the society in which they lived. Their myths are those of the hero. The agrarian revolution, in which people started to farm, was accompanied by new myths: of how the world was created. The coming of cities produced further myths in which, for the first time, struggles arose between gods and humans: the Mesopotamian and Biblical story of the Flood is an example. Then, argues Armstrong, we entered what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age in which new myths were created of human interdependence, with the principle that was first enunciated by Confucius: "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." Although the mythical systems of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, were enormously influential, from this time forward, mythos was starting to fade, to be displaced by logos, the ordering of society according to rational systems, and increasingly dependent on technologies not just of food production (agriculture) and housing (cities), but of transport, communication, and warfare. In the West, from the Renaissance and Enlightenment onwards, the fading of mythos and the rise of logos became almost complete.

Armstrong's own life has a somewhat mythological structure. Her autobiography is The spiral staircase: My climb out of darkness, and in it she describes how at the age of 17 she became a novitiate Roman Catholic nun in a teaching order that followed the rules of the Jesuits. Having passed through the stages to become a nun, she was sent by her order to Oxford to do a degree in English. Seven years after she joined the order she left it while she was still an undergraduate, realizing that she had never been able to pray. Later she embarked on a DPhil on the poet Tennyson. She was devastated by having her thesis rejected by an external examiner who was known from the beginning to be hostile to both her thesis topic and the methods she employed. She felt the failure as a reiteration of her failure as a nun. From adolescence onwards she suffered losses of consciousness and of memory that she and others assumed were hysterical or panic attacks. Only in her 30s were they diagnosed as symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy. Although she now had a diagnosis and drugs to control her seizures, her periods of illness worsened and, because of them, she was fired from the school in which she taught. These are among the darknesses out of which she climbed.

Armstrong has become a writer recognized throughout the world for her books on religion in which, almost uniquely, she enables the reader to enter into the deeper ideas of the world's religions but without the guff. She says that religion is not about believing things. "It’s about doing things that change you ... an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way you will be transformed ... myths of the hero [such as those of Buddha or Jesus] are not meant to give us historical information ... Their purpose is to compel us to act in such a way as to bring out our own heroic potential” (2004, p. 270). Religion, at its root, says Armstrong, is about achieving compassion for others, entering mentally into their situation.

All myth, says Armstrong, is about a plane of being which is different from the quotidian world, but which interpenetrates it and gives it meaning. To understand it, one must enter this parallel plane. If one stands outside it, it seems incomprehensible, even absurd. A short history of myth includes a discussion of fiction, which Armstrong sees as having properties similar to those of myth. One can enter a fictional world by identification. Here is what Armstrong says:
... the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from that of their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional world is not "real" and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling (p. 147).
Karen Armstrong (2004). The spiral staircase: My climb out of darkness. New York: Knopf.

Karen Armstrong (2005). A short history of myth. Edinburgh: Canongate, reissued by Vintage Canada.
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