Thursday, April 30, 2009

Emotions, Narrative Universals, and Religion, by Patrick Colm Hogan

In response to comments by William Benzon on a post by Keith Oatley, I distinguished the study of narrative in (emotionally oriented) verbal art from the study of narrative in religion. I noted that there are overlaps. Nonetheless, given subsequent discussion on that thread, it is clear that I made the division sound too profound and absolute. My point at the time was simply that, in The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion (TMAIS), I was not aiming to explain religion. Therefore my hypotheses—about narrative universals and human emotion--could not be faulted for not covering all of religion. (In TMAIS, I argue that there are at least three universal narrative prototypes—romantic, heroic, and sacrificial. Moreover, these prototypes are predominant among widely appreciated and highly esteemed works of narrative art and are widespread in popular narrative art as well. I further argue that these narrative prototypes derive from cross-cultural prototypes for happiness.) In distinguishing verbal art from religion, I did not mean to imply that only a small, peripheral set of religious stories are relevant to the study of emotion and universal narrative prototypes. In fact, I drew extensively on certain sorts of religious narratives in TMAIS. Here, I would like to set out a clearer account of the distinction.

Religious narratives may have different purposes in production and may be taken up for different purposes in reception. The case stressed by Professor Benzon was creation stories. To characterize something as a “creation story” is to suggest that its function is explanatory—specifically, that it serves to explain why something exists. I suggested that such stories probably do have universal patterns. However, those patterns are probably, first of all, a matter of how the human mind engages in causal inference (e.g., our tendency to over-attribute agency), rather than a matter of emotion systems as such. Thus they are more in the province of writers such as Boyer.

On the other hand, many—perhaps most—religious narratives have emotional purposes, sometimes along with explanatory ones. In these cases, the aim of producers or recipients is to foster an emotional response. Religious stories of this sort fall under the purview of my research and, indeed, I have talked about them in TMAIS and elsewhere. One recurring emotional purpose of religious storytelling is to foster fear of God or reverence for religious prescriptions. A large number of such stories involve a sacrificial narrative. The paradigmatic story of this sort in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is that of Adam and Eve, which of course figures significantly in TMAIS—despite Professor Benzon’s worries that I ignore the Bible.

Benzon also mentions Native American works, including the myths collected in Claude Levi-Strauss’s Introduction to a Science of Mythology. Opening the first volume at random, I come upon the following story from the Bororo (“M20” in Levi-Strauss’s scheme). A group of men want honey. But the honey they receive from their brother-in-law is spoiled by the fact that he had sexual relations when collecting it. They leave to make ornaments. On completing the ornaments, they make a ritual vocalization. Hearing this, their sister spies on them. This violates a taboo. The men kill themselves in a fire. The sister gathers plants from the place where they killed themselves.

Admittedly, this is not highly prototypical, at least not at first glance. That is not surprising, given the nature of oral stories, the limited circulation of these tales (circulation tends to push stories toward prototypicality), the limited community in which they circulated, and so on. Nonetheless, it is recognizably sacrificial. Sacrificial plots prototypically involve a loss of food due to sin, commonly sexual sin. This is precisely how the story begins. There is the unusual feature of the intervening episode with the ornaments. But this too involves a violation, specifically one bearing on gender taboos. This leads to a sacrifice, which in turn produces the growth of agricultural products, including food—thus the standard reversal and resolution in the sacrificial prototype. Someone might object that the story does not involve the usual causal rigor of a sacrificial plot. But that actually supports the prototype-based analysis. The story does not unfold due to an inexorable internal logic. That apparent absence of internal necessity suggests that the story is, indeed, developing out of a prototype.

On the other hand, I suspect that the part about the ornaments would make more sense if we knew the relevant details about Bororo culture. (They are not provided by Levi-Strauss.) In a forthcoming article for The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences, I make an argument along these lines about the romantic prototype in another South American myth drawn from Levi-Strauss. There I suggest that certain peculiar features of the story (e.g., the main female character being a jaguar) become more comprehensible—and more clearly connected with the prototype—as we learn more about the culture.

The mention of the romantic prototype brings us to another common emotional aim of religious narratives—the fostering of devotion (something quite different from fear). This is what we find centrally in mystical and related writings, ranging from Sufism to the Song of Songs to Hindu bhakti literature. Devotion is routinely emplotted in the romantic structure. I have treated that in TMAIS, and touched on it elsewhere (e.g., in a recent book on Indian film).

Finally, a large number of religious narratives concern emotions surrounding the relation between the religious in-group and out-groups. These are almost invariably versions of the heroic narrative. In TMAIS and elsewhere, I point to highly prototypical instances from, for instance, the Muslim and Hindu traditions (e.g., the Ramayana). Despite Benzon’s worries, such stories figure significantly in the Bible as well. For example, in Understanding Nationalism (forthcoming this summer), I discuss the stories of Saul, David, and Solomon in these terms.

Beyond this, I am currently completing a manuscript in which I expand this analysis. In this manuscript, I argue, first, that my account predicts the existence of several other cross-cultural genres and, second, that we do in fact find these genres across cultures, though they are not as prominent as the heroic, romantic, and sacrificial prototypes. (The theory in fact leads us to expect this reduced frequency as well.) For example, I analyzed the romantic prototype in terms of a fusing of sexual and attachment goals. This suggests that there should also be stories with either sexual or attachment goals separately. These do in fact occur, with some surprising patterns. Needless to say, there are religious stories of these sorts as well, covering still further cases.

Obviously, I have not dealt with all the complex issues involved in the study of narrative, emotion, and religion—far from it. However, I hope the preceding reflections help to clarify some of the issues involved.

Patrick Colm Hogan (2003). The mind and its stories: Narrative universals and human emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Travelogue Review: Shock of the New

The 1920s and 1930s were a time of modernism not just in literature but in architecture. By the 1920s, modernism in architecture was established on the Continent of Europe. It came to London, and in Lawn Road, just around the corner from South End Green (where we are living) is the Isokon, one of London's earliest and most remarkable modernist buildings. Influenced by the Bauhaus, it was designed by the Canadian architect Wells Coates, and it opened in 1934. It is a block of flats (an apartment building) with four storeys of smooth white outline, with staircases at each end connected by balcony-like walk-ways. The flats did not at first have kitchens. instead, a dumb waiter (a little rope-operated elevator) communicated with the large kichen downstairs, from which flat-dwellers could order meals from the cook who worked there. Walter Gropius, head of the Bauhaus, came to live in the building when he was expelled from Germany by the Nazis. With the Blitz the attraction of living in a reinforced concrete building increased and the flats became hard to get. it was at this time that Agatha Christie lived here.

Further down Haverstock Hill, in Ferdinand Street, you can see what may be London's first Le Corbusier-style flats, designed by Cornell, Ward & Lucas and opened in 1935: the five-storey Kent House, with rather protruding balconies.

“The house is a machine for living in,” announced Le Corbusier (1923, p. 4). He founded the International Style of architecture. He was a persuasive writer, excited by cars and the functional lines of mass constructed skyscrapers. Here is what he wrote about his vision.
Suppose we are entering the city by way of the Great Park. Our fast car takes the special elevated motor track between the majestic skyscrapers: as we approach nearer, there is seen the repetition against the sky of the twenty-four skyscrapers; to our left and right on the outskirts of each particular area are the municipal and administrative public buildings; and enclosing the space are the museums and university buildings. (Le Corbusier, cit. Jacobs, 1961, p. 31).
Le Corbusier is the subject of an exhibition at London's Barbican Centre, which runs until 24 May. It's a fascinating display of his designs, paintings, sculptures, furniture, architectural models, photographs of buildings, and writings. He was full of ideas. His principal vision was for what he called Radiant City, in which people would live happily in bright apartments in tower blocks with easy access to open spaces. One can be very taken with these ideas. Some of Le Corbusier's early buildings were strikingly beautiful, and the impressive Barbican Centre itself clearly shows his influence.

In the Post-War period, Le Corbusier's Radiant City came into a certain kind of existence in Britain and America. In London, it was part of a compelling symbiosis with the rebuilding of bomb damage and slums, with the use of steel and concrete, and with the need to build cheaply and minimize ground-space. But as certain people, including Jane Jacobs (1961) and Alice Coleman (1985), began to realize, something went wrong. Art, in its architectural embodiment, here lost its individuality—high-rise blocks all looked the same—and it lost, too, its voluntariness because, as people were rehoused, although for the first time they had indoor plumbing, they had no alternative to the tower blocks.

Coleman (1985) studied Post-War public housing in and around London: 4099 blocks of council flats and 4172 council houses and converted houses. Coleman’s team used six unobtrusive measures of how well each building was working: (i) litter, including decaying and uncollected garbage, (ii) urine, (iii) faeces, (iv) graffiti, (v) damage by vandalism, (vi) the number of children who had been taken into care, i.e. removed from their families by social services because of parents’ inability to look after them. Coleman’s team correlated these measures of social disintegration with features of building design. They found that in London's public housing, Radiant City had been little short of a disaster. Houses were consistently better than blocks of flats on all measures of socio-emotional well-being. In houses: “Litter is less common, graffiti extremely rare, and excrement virtually unheard of. Vandal damage may occur where houses are adjacent to flats, but children are taken into care much less often” (pp. 170-171). The large size of blocks, anonymity, inability to look out onto the street from one's front door, dependence on vertical access routes, and other such features were correlated with signs of social breakdown. It is as if Le Corbusier were too successful, too influential. Coleman concluded that no more high rise apartment blocks should be built as public housing.

Some of the buildings of early modernism, such as the Isokon, grew from the Arts and Crafts movement. This movement was not based on the idea of people as cogs in machines for living, but on questions that included how to develop new kinds of furniture in coordination with new kinds of exterior. It was influenced by Art Nouveau, and in Glasgow was pioneered by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. As Mackintosh showed with the houses he designed (click here).there is nothing wrong with the functional lines of modernism. Smooth functionality arrived with the evolution of style. In the modern world, moreover, there seems to have been no escape from reinforced concrete. But it turned out that the house as an intimate space for people to live in is still quite a good idea.

Alice Coleman (1985). Utopia on trial: Vision and reality in planned housing. London: Hilary Shipman.

Jane Jacobs (1961). The death and life of great American cities: The failure of town planning. New York: Random House.

Le Corbusier (1923). Towards a new architecture (English translation by F. Etchells of Vers une architecture). New York: Dover 1986.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Literature for Life

As academics, it is often easy to lapse into our own narrow worlds of abstract concepts, empirical research, university teaching, and the practical concerns of scientific publishing. Being jarred from this world can be humbling, enlightening, and extremely meaningful. I recently had such an experience after being contacted by Jo Altilia. Ms. Altilia is the founder and executive director of Literature for Life, a charity that promotes family literacy in teen mothers from very disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Toronto. For the past 8 years Literature for Life has provided a number of services to this population, most prominent of which is a series of reading circles based out of shelters and youth centres. For many new members of these groups, participation marks the very first time they have ever read a book. Simply completing a novel is immensely transformative for these young women, allowing them to see themselves as readers. Moreover, the first book read reflects the issues (of domestic violence, gang violence, poverty, etc.) facing these individuals, allowing such problems to be explored and addressed in a safe environment. The reading circles recently finished Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, and Mr. Hill volunteered his time to give a reading. The room was packed with engaged young women who asked thoughtful and intelligent questions. Reading also brings with it the awareness that writing can become a powerful tool for expression and exploration, empowering these women to become active agents of their future as opposed to reactive victims of situation and circumstance. According to Ms. Altilia, many of these women experience an increase in perspective-taking, empathy, and problem-solving as a result of their participation in these reading circles, reflecting many ideas that we have discussed on this site.

It is not only the young women who benefit from these circles, but also their children. A culture of literacy is bred within the family to better prepare that child for education and schooling. This is an important step toward avoiding future gang involvement and incarceration. In this way, the reading circle influences two generations at once, as well as the friends, boyfriends, and extended family of the young women involved.

Remarkably, Literature for Life also manages to provide a number of other important services to this community. They publish two magazines, Yo’ Mama and Solace, both written for young mothers by young mothers, and also delivers a lullaby program. The latter is a music therapy workshop designed to foster language acquisition as well as important bonding between mother and child.

The impact that this organization has had on young disadvantaged families is impressive. Over 1,400 young mothers have participated in the reading circles, 2,200 children have received age-appropriate books to help build a family library, and over 14,000 books have been distributed in total.

Literature for Life is charity that relies on government support (an often inconsistent source), businesses willing to act as a sponsor, as well as those who volunteer their time. I have been discussing with Ms. Alitilia how I can contribute to the important work she is achieving. If you would also like to help out, or would like to learn more about this organization, please visit their website. Contributions to the charity can also be made online. We at OnFiction believe quite strongly in the power of narrative fiction to transform and enlighten; this is a wonderful demonstration of this power exercised to the benefit of some of the most deserving among us.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Research Bulletin: Making the Cut

The first fiction films were made by standing the camera in front of some actors and taking one continuous shot. From about 1900, films were made with multiple shots, thus enabling the camera to be in different locations. To start with, difficulties in continuity occurred. To help with this, screens of text were sometimes used to maintain a narrative thread. As time went on, the pieces of continuity text disappeared, and the length of shots decreased. In an interesting 2009 paper in the Indiana Undergraduate Journal of Cognitive Science, Christine Nothelfer, Jordan DeLong and James Cutting describe an automatic method of detecting cuts, using which they were able to measure the lengths of shots in digitized Hollywood films over 80 years. Their sample was of one film from each of three genres—drama, comedy, and action—from each of the years 1945, 1965, 1985, and 2005. There were two principal findings. The first was that over the 60-year period the length of shots decreased in all genres from a mean of 13 seconds in the 1945 films, to 6.8 seconds in the 1965 films, to about 4 seconds in the 1985 and 2005 films.

The second finding concerned correlations between adjacent shot lengths. Nothelfer et al. found that adjacent shot-lengths were correlated, that is to say they tended to be of similar lengths. Erik Schills and Pieter de Haan (1993) have found comparable correlations between lengths of adjacent sentences in printed fiction.

Just as there has been historical development in written fiction, with writers inventing new methods to create new effects, the study of Nothelfer et al. is a pointer to parallel developments in film. The authors propose that sequences of short shots may be good for suggesting sequences of quick action. But perhaps other issues are involved as well.

One might use both quantitative measures like shot length and analysis of the content of the shots. Here, for instance, is my analysis of five shots from the 1925 film The battleship Potemkin, by the Russian director Sergei Eistenstein. The film's story is of a mutiny in 1905—a kind of prototype of revolution—of the sailors of the battleship against the ship's oppressive officers. Near the beginning of the film, sailors complain that a side of meat, which they will be given to eat, is rotten. An officer summons the ship’s doctor to inspect the meat. There follows a 12-second sequence of five shots (with the longest being Shot 2, which lasts 4 seconds).
  1. Close-up: Sailor’s face looking, partly shadowed by the side of meat, and partly obscuring a row of three other sailors’ faces also looking.
  2. Group shot: The side of meat in the middle of the frame with ship’s doctor to the left, another officer at the back of the frame, and a sailor to the right; doctor takes off his glasses.
  3. Close-up: The doctor’s hands fold his glasses so the lenses overlap to make a magnifying glass.
  4. Ultra-close-up: Glasses that have been folded into a magnifying glass (occupies one third of screen)
  5. Close-up: Folded glasses held over the meat by doctor’s hand, alongside which, needing no magnification, dozens of large maggots are seen to crawl on the meat.
Already in 1925 Eisenstein was editing together shots of an average length shorter than that of recent Hollywood movies, and with the shot-lengths correlated. What he had in mind here, I think, was to prompt a flow of thoughts and feeling in the audience. The thoughts from the sequence with the meat are something like the following. Several people look at the meat / now comes an official attempt to obfuscate / expertise and science are brought in / even so, it is clear to all that large maggots are crawling on the meat—>disgust (felt by the audience). Eisenstein had the idea of montage, laying images one on top of another. He also used one of the fundamental ideas of modernism in narrative: not just what is seen in the outside world, where actions can take a while, but what can be experienced in the mind, a matter perhaps of more rapid happenings.

Sergei Eisenstein (Director) (1925). The Battleship Potemkin. Russia.

Christine Nothelfer, Jordan DeLong & James Cutting (2009). Shot structure in Hollywood film. Indiana Undergraduate Journal of Cognitive Science, 4, 103-113.

Erik Schills & Pieter de Haan (1993). Characteristics of sentence length in running text. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 8, 20-26.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Research Bulletin: Universal Stories

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg ninety-five theses in which he argued against a prevailing orthodoxy. His method of publication now seems quaint, but Patrick Colm Hogan has taken up the idea of 95 theses to challenge the orthodoxy that in human culture there are only differences and distinctiveness. Hogan has read stories from all round the world, stories created before the age of European expansion and colonialism, and he has found universals in world-wide recurrences of three story themes. The main research is described in his excellent 2003 book, The mind and its stories, and his 95 theses have been nailed to the pages of Philosophy and Literature (2008).

Across the world, the most common story is the love story. Hogan describes it in his Thesis 28 which starts like this.
Romantic tragi-comedy is the story of lovers separated by social divisions, then reunited. It involves the sustaining goals of attachment and lust (thus, in combination, romantic love).
He describes all his story themes as tragi-comedies, because their outcomes come in two versions: tragic and comic. In love stories, the tragic kind of ending occurs with the lovers' deaths, perhaps with a union on another plane as in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, first published in in 1597. In comedy, the ending is the steady state of happy-ever-after.

Hogan's second most common universal story he calls heroic. He describes it in Thesis 29, which is as follows.
Heroic tragi-comedy treats an external threat to the autonomy of a society (e.g. by an invading army) and/or an internal threat to the legitimate political hierarchy of the society. It focuses on concerns of status or power and its empathic force is often a matter of in-group/out-group divisions, particularly national or proto-national divisions. It commonly recruits anger (and, to a lesser extent, fear) toward its emotional and thematic goals.
Hogan's third story universal is of sacrifice, Here is his Thesis 30.
Sacrificial tragi-comedy presents us with a communal sin, punished by famine or devastating disease, which is ended only by sacrifice. It begins with the desire to eat. It too is involved with in-group/out-group divisions, sometimes ethnic or national, perhaps more often religious (when these are distinct). It commonly recruits fear toward its emotional and thematic goals.
Hogan sees these three types of story as thematic prototypes. The themes are perhaps universal because they articulate a large proportion of human emotional concern with other people in society: affectionate relating, angry conflict, and fear of societal disintegration. Of course there are other stories but they are less common, and Hogan believes, I think, that they fit into the interstices between these three principal themes.

Patrick Colm Hogan (2003). The mind and its stories: Narrative universals and human emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Patrick Colm Hogan (2008). Of literary universals: Ninety-five theses. Philosophy and Literature, 32, 145-160.

William Shakespeare (1597). Romeo and Juliet. London: John Danter.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Travelogue Review: Under a Cloud

One can grumble about a lot of things in London—about the cloudy skies or about how expensive the Underground is—but something one cannot grumble about is the theatre. There are, of course, jokes: Decline the verb "to be interested in drama:" "I'm interested in drama, you are involved with the theatre, he's in show-business." Nonetheless, theatre is something the Brits do superbly well.

On London's South Bank there stands not only the Royal Festival Hall, opened in 1951, the first new large public building in London after the destructions of the War, but also the National Theatre, and the new Globe. Do not fret that the National Theatre building is a grey concrete thing of slabs and boxes. We don't have to compare it with Sydney Opera House or the Bilbao Guggenheim. It's what goes on inside that counts.

And it does count. It is hard to go to anything at the National Theatre that isn't good. Recently we saw Burnt by the Sun, a brilliant play, superbly acted, adapted by Peter Flannery from the screenplay by Nikita Mikhalov and Rustam Ibragimbekov of the excellent 1995 Russian film of the same name. It's about Sergei Kotov, a celebrated general in the Red Army, who has become a popular figure. (He is played in the National Theatre production by Ciarán Hinds.) The play takes place on a day in the summer of 1936, in the General's dacha (country house) by a lake a few miles outside Moscow. The General comes from a peasant family. He fought in the Russian Civil War after the Revolution, and he has a bluff and reassuring faith in the new society. He lives now with his wife Maroussia (played by Michelle Dockery) and his ten-year-old daughter Nadia (Skye Bennett/Holly Gibbs). Some of Maroussia's relatives are there too at the dacha. Do they live there, or are they just hanging around the spacious house? In any event, they dispose themselves in a beautifully Chekhovian way. One gathers that Maroussia's family were the previous owners of the dacha, and they talk about Pre-Revolutionary times.

The setting for the story is the beginning of Stalin's purges of senior officers from the Red Army. The action proper starts with the return, after many years, of Mitia (played by Rory Kinnear) who had grown up close to Maroussia's family. Kotof and Maroussia both recognize him immediately when they see him. There is a sudden tension. Why has he come?

It is very unusual to make a play out of a film. This adaptation for the stage involves a deeper exploration of the characters Kotov and Mitia, and one wonders how far it is theatre that has allowed this effect. At the same time there has been a change in atmosphere. The film is very Russian, but this very moving play—and perhaps this is part of how they can keep packing 900 people, night after night, into this theatre—seems, in its preoccupations, rather British. It is about the trustfulness of family life, despite its tensions, compared with a distrust of politics and the outside world. It is about the desire for society to be better for everyone while yearning nostalgically for privilege and the past (nostalgia being that sentiment in which things are not what they used to be, and never have been). These are ambivalences I feel myself, for a Britain from which I have emigrated and from which, when I return, I notice that hold myself emotionally at a certain distance.

Nikita Mikhalof and Rustam Ibragimbekov (1995). Burnt by the sun. (Film). Russia.

Peter Flannery (2009). Burnt by the sun. London, National Theatre, Lyttelton, until 21 May.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Psychogeography Series

The topic of “psychogeography” has been raised in recent discussion of the April 6th "Beneath the Surface" post. As a geographer interested in narrative, exploration, invention, space, and place, I find that the concept of psychogeography seems both fascinating and quite normal as a category. When I hear other people use the term, I note that they are most always laughing as they say it. Whilst the situationist popularizers of the idea of psychogeography would no doubt appreciate the jollity and appreciation expressed in such laughing (the appreciative deconstruction of situationism is perhaps today most well known through “culturejamming” venues such as Adbusters), the recent psychogeography conversation on OnFiction has inspired me to begin another short exploratory series on psychology, fiction, and place.

The situationists who popularized psychogeography as a pastime were associated with a cluster of French intellectuals, identified most commonly around the figures of Guy Debord, author of the aphoristic classic Society of the Spectacle, and Henri LeFebvre, prolific author whose most salient work to psychogeography that’s been translated into English may be The Production of Space.

Part of what makes the situationists’ psychogeography so appropriate for the contemplation of psychology and fiction in the context of place, space, and setting is their emphasis on what we might think of as an inventive and activist phenomenology. Situationists encouraged people to notice the situations in which they found themselves, and to exert their agency in these situations, reinventing them – both critically and playfully. Psychogeography field trips are still regularly organized in many places, such as Toronto, and the purpose of these events is mainly to make a noticed, examined, and inventive situation out of the fabric of everyday life that would otherwise be recognized (or go unnoticed) as mundane. As LeFebvre explained in this fascinating interview by Kristin Ross (to which I will return), the goal of noticing and critiquing everyday life was an inventive "transformation of daily reality," or instigation of "the creation of new situations."

As I follow this line of thought on psychogeography in biweekly installments across the rest of the season, I would like to emphasize the way that this turning of attention to setting may parallel the attention to character that has been a recurring theme of OnFiction. If authors develop fictional characters by attending carefully to the inchoate characters who populate the environs of our imagination and who speak with our inner voice, is there a parallel process by which authors develop rich settings through the kinds of processes favored by the situationists, in their psychogeographic romps around the city?

Guy Debord. 1967/1994. The Society of the Spectacle. (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith) New York: Zone Books.

Henri LeFebvre. 1974/1991. The Production of Space. (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith) Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.

Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen. 1996. House Ball. Bethlehemkirchplatz, Berlin.

Kristin Ross and Henri LeFebvre. 1997. Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International; Interview conducted and translated 1983 by Kristin Ross. October 79, Winter.

Comment by Keith Oatley, 16 April
Thank you so much, Valentine ... this is wonderfully thought-prompting. Your idea that, in fiction, setting is not just where something happens, but a complement to character, is lovely. So, although, when I have been writing my travelogue pieces, I have had in mind your expertise as a geographer (which has made me wonder what you might think of my attempts to conjure up pieces of the geographical space around here), the idea that character and geography might be, all the time, in counterpoint with each other in fiction had not occurred to me. I think you are absolutely right.

Of course, in books on how to write fiction there is the idea of setting, but it is more-or-less a preliminary, so I think your idea puts its significance more properly. And, moreover, although people do remember pieces of geography from novels they have liked, the notion is not stressed in the same way as character. I suppose that one might think of three elements that can create a strong triangular structure for narrative fiction: character, setting, and incident. And really, perhaps, they are all of comparable significance.

Here in London there are reminders of writers, for instance with London's little blue plaques on the fronts of houses that say who lived in them and when. I am rather too much drawn to that kind of thing. I love, for instance, walking past John Keats's house, about 400 metres from where our flat is, and thinking of Keats there in 1819 ... I am struggling to write something to connect his nightingale in the trees in front of his house to the current trees and houses, but I have not been able to make anything gel properly so far. I love, too, the idea that George Orwell worked in a bookshop on South End Green. This shop (now a French bakery) is also about 400 metres away.

What about the confluence of character, geography, and incident, in Orwell's 1931 essay in which he describes attending a hanging during the time he was in Burma?
And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he [the man about to be hanged] stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.
Here, I think, is a perfect conjunction: the man's character (with his disposition to push his captors slightly aside), the geography (the puddle), the action (avoiding the puddle): all visible but with the three together reaching towards something invisible (the mystery of life).

George Orwell (2004). "A hanging." In Why I write (pp. 95-101). London: Penguin (Essay first published 1931; one can read it by clicking here).

Monday, April 13, 2009

Travelogue: Culture and Nature

In the Victorian era, Hampstead Heath was thought of as a place where shop-girls could go to have fun. Now, in more straitened times, it is thought of as a place of general recreation, the city being unpromising if one wants to recreate oneself. The Heath is not really a heath. Rather, it's a hilly, tree-ish expanse, criss-crossed by paths, with many ponds and occasional views across London from some of its big grassy areas. It's about two and a half miles from east to west, and maybe a mile and a half from where we are living at South End Green (in the south) to Kenwood House on the Heath's northern edge. Many people find the exterior of Kenwood House, set amid luxuriant trees, to be magnificent. Pevsner (1952) describes it as "a plain house of seven bays." He concedes, however, that the additions by Robert Adam around 1770, of an orangery and a library on either side of the main house, did much to improve it. He particularly likes the interior of the library: "a large apartment with a segmental tunnel vault and apses at both ends, screened off in the typical Adam manner by giant columns supporting a beam-like entablature" (p. 365).

The counterpoint between culture and nature here has taken many forms. Around 1844, it is said, Sir Thomas Marion Wilson, Lord of the Manor of Hampstead, planned to build 28 villas, slap bang in the middle of the Heath (click here for more details). To give access to them he did build over a swampy valley a viaduct in red brick with five rounded stone arches. The roadway it carries is easily wide enough to accommodate pedestrian pavements flanked by iron railings, while leaving plenty of room for carriages to pass each other. The housing development was prevented by Parliament, but the viaduct remains, and the valley was drained to make a pond, which flows into a little stream. With its reflection on the surface of the pond, the view of the viaduct is probably the most painted, most photographed, scene in the whole of the Heath: a perfect synthesis of culture and nature.

And as you stroll on the Heath you see others strolling, many in the company of a dog, another perfect synthesis of culture and nature. Last week this was heard between a woman in a navy-blue overcoat and her Labrador:

"Come here, William. Immediately ... William, you're embarrassing me. Are you trying to show me up? Do you want people to think I'm not a good mummy?"

Nikolaus Pevsner (1952) The buildings of England: London except the Cities of London and Westminster. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

“Characters for Life”: Why Carolyn See’s Advice for Developing Fictional Characters May Just Work

In the past decade or so, empirical research in the psychology of creative writing is finding that it is often the case that writers do not go searching for characters to populate their fictional worlds; the characters come to them. As discussed in an earlier piece on this blog (August 12, 2008), the psychologist Marjorie Taylor and colleagues have found evidence that adult fiction writers experience what she calls the “illusion of independent agency,” in which writers experience their characters as “having their own thoughts, feelings, and actions” (Taylor, Hodges, & Kohányi, 2002/2003, p. 366). A whopping 92% of her sample of 50 experienced this phenomenon. Another study conducted in-depth interviews with five fiction writers and found that writers often describe the writing experience in “passive terms, as if the fictionworld were acting on them, even possessing them” (Doyle, 1998, p. 32).

But how is a pedagogy of fiction writing possible if this model of writing accurately represents the writing process? In one of the most interesting chapters on the development of characters that I have read, Carolyn See, author of six novels and professor at UCLA, tacks smartly between the Scylla of the 20-questions character development exercise and the Charybdis of the prolonged wait for characters to drop by to say hello. In Making a literary life: Advice for writers and other dreamers (2002), See proposes a third option which entails creating two sorts of lists. The first is a “list of the ten most ‘important’ people in your life... Whom do you love? Who betrayed you? Whom did you betray? Who drives you nuts? Who’s out of your reach? Who’s your role model? Who’s your benchmark for insanity? Quick! Write the list" See, p. 118). Then make another list of “the other kind of important people you know ... the ones who gave you the willies. Who creep you out and you don’t know why" (p. 120). Together, she claims, these “are your ‘characters for life'" (p. 121). After this exercise, one is to cast the person before one’s eyes and focus on what one is seeing.

See’s proposal may seem obvious as a character development strategy, but I would just like to explore briefly why, from a psychological point of view, this strategy would stand a very good chance of bringing the writer to that moment of experiencing the “illusion of independent agency” in her characters. First, the writer’s emotions elicited by focusing on these people would have a breadth and depth that the writer might not feel toward characters who have originated from more analytical methods (e.g., pondering: What color is his hair? What is her favorite hobby? What makes him tick?). Research has shown that we are more likely to remember details concerning new acquaintances who are like a significant other and to make judgments concerning them similar to those made about significant others (Andersen & Glassman, 1996). In addition, the value that a significant other places on attaining a goal affects our own perception of value in, and performance and persistence in, attaining it (Shah, 2003). Further, the writer’s awareness of the breadth and depth of emotional range in her characters may be precisely what is needed to sustain the “illusion of independent agency” in the writer and the sense of verisimilitude for the reader. The characters as they eventually develop away from the writer’s memories of the “important” people on the list have to be capable of surprising the writer, and perhaps only characters of whose multi-faceted emotional lives the writer is aware can do that.

Second, See insists that the list should be written “without thinking about it, or trying to make a good impression on anyone, or a bad impression either” (See, p. 118). Once people give themselves the extra three seconds to think about their “important people” and their “willies” people, any help the “adaptive unconscious” (Wilson, 2002) would have lent to developing verisimilar characters is out the window. Characters do not have to make sense to the writer as they are arriving on the scene, even in their inchoate form of important people in our lives. See says of herself that the “important” people “illumine my character, shine lights into the dark cavern of my ‘self’” (p. 124); but they can only do that if they are not already selected out (during those extra three seconds) to illumine one’s character with a conscious goal in mind.

The third reason See’s advice seems to me particularly likely to work lies in the number of “important” people she proposes. See gives examples of her own important people and comes up with ten “important” people and six “willies” people, and then on occasion refers to the writer’s 10-16 people on “the list.” Evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar notes that when people are asked to write down the names of people whose death tomorrow would devastate them (called their “sympathy group”), the average lies between 11 and 12; similarly, when people must name persons whom they contact at least once a month, the number lies between 10 and 15 (Dunbar, 1996/2004, p. 76). He notes further, “It is striking that groups of this size are common in situations where very close co-ordination of behaviour is required: juries, the inner cabinets of many governments, the number of apostles, the size of most sports teams” (ibid), and “these groups are limited by the way in which you relate emotionally to people” (p. 77). Very close co-ordination of behavior of characters would seem also to be required for the writer creating and concatenating a series of discrete emotional episodes that will move the reader. Those 10-16 people on “the list” are likely the most, in their guise as characters, with whom the writer could maintain an intimate imaginary emotional life for a sustained period of time. Of course, not all characters would have to show up in every fictional narrative, but their presence in the imagination of the writer is likely limited by this range. Indeed, See does not qualify her statement with any caveat that one need expand the list as the number of stories one writes grows, or that one need tailor the list for particular purposes. Instead, one visits and revisits the same folks again and again, discovering more about them, the characters they scaffold, and about oneself, as one goes along.

Andersen, S. M., & Glassman, N. S. (1996). Responding to significant others when they are not there: Effects on interpersonal inference, motivation, and affect. In R. M. Sorrentino & E. T. Higgins (Eds.) Handbook of motivation and cognition, Vol. 3 (pp. 262-321). New York: Guilford.

Doyle, C. L. (1998). The writer tells: The creative process in the writing of literary fiction. Creativity Research Journal, 11, 29-37.

Dunbar, R. (1996/2004). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. London: Faber and Faber.

See, C. (2002). Making a literary life: Advice for writers and other dreamers. New York: Random House.

Shah, J. (2003). The motivational looking glass: How significant others implicitly affect goal appraisals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 424-439.

Taylor, M., Hodges, S. D., & Kohányi, A. (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 (4), 361-380.

Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Makioka Sisters

Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka sisters is set in the years 1938 to 1942 in Japan, mainly in Osaka. It is about four sisters, whose parents have died and whose family fortunes are in decline. It is a novel of the fading of traditional values, with World War II in the backgound.

This book is said by many to be the most important Japanese novel of the 20th Century. What makes it especially interesting for the psychology of fiction is that whereas the modernist movement in the West, led by such people as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, focused on inwardness, on what is going on beneath the surface, in this novel the focus is almost entirely on relationships. It's not without interiority, but most of the action is about events and concerns of everyday life, what to eat, what one should wear, whether or not to say this to that person. These matters are presented by the narrator and discussed among the characters in terms of how each would think about them in relation to the others. We might contrast the book with Virginia Woolf's To the lighthouse which, similarly, is about events of ordinary life. But in Woolf's book, the focus is on the interior world of Mrs Ramsay.

The Makioka sisters has three main themes. One is the depiction of the second sister, Sachiko. She is competent, thoughtful, and deeply concerned about her sisters. She is married to a decent man with literary interests, and she is modelled, evidently, on the author's third wife. The second theme is the search for a husband for Yukiko, the somewhat passive third sister. Here the Western reader is introduced to a series of customs that are unfamiliar, but which can find near and more distant translations into Western counterparts. The third theme is the behaviour of the youngest sister Taeko. She is the most Westernized of the sisters, and this theme includes her having affairs that cause great dismay to the rest of the family.

Tanizaki is especially good at immersing us in family life. In this, rather than cultural distinctiveness, he seems to have achieved a remarkable universality: just exactly the mixture of commitment and critical commentary, just precisely the ambivalence of concern and knowing better than others what those others should do, with which we are all familiar. Part of the skill of the novel is that the entry into the Makioka family that Tanizaki offers is very gradual. It is as if you, the reader, had been adopted. You join the family and get to know its members little by little through their actions, deliberate and inadvertent, through how they talk, through their ways of relating.

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

Virginia Woolf (1927). To the lighthouse. London: Hogarth.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Travelogue: Beneath the Surface

One of the deep ideas of fiction and of psychoanalysis is that however people may seem in the flesh, or indeed in photographs (such as the one of Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi shown in Maja's post of 27 March), the face is not quite the place. The visible is too ambiguous; everything important goes on beneath the surface.

When I am in London, l like to walk around the streets as Virginia Woolf used to, and sometimes I do another of Virginia Woolf's exercises: I try to imagine what people are up to. Here in the area of South End Green, Belsize Park, and Swiss Cottage, in London's land of psychoanalysis, I imagine that the bald-headed chap over there is an analyst wondering whether he missed making an interpretation that would have been truly mutative. Coming towards me is a woman with hair like a lampshade; her intent look must mean that she is practicing evenly hovering attention. How does one recognize the analysts and therapists? It's difficult to say explicitly: a slight sense of other-worldliness, a certain ascetic quality.

Not only is the place populated by psychoanlysists present, but there are ghosts of psychoanalysts past. In Maresfield Gardens is the house where Sigmund Freud spent his final 15 months, and his daughter Anna lived for much of her life. (Anna Freud is the only person to have been analyzed by both the father of psychoanalysis and her own father.) In Wedderburn Road is the house where Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham opened their nursery to care for children whose parents had been killed in the Blitz. On the corner of Belsize Lane and Fitzjohn's Avenue, is the Tavistock Clinic (now the Tavistock Centre) where John Bowlby once had his office. His work on attachment took off from that of Anna Freud with orphaned children, and although sniffed at in orthodox psychoanalytic circles, it enabled the formation of important empirical bases for certain psychoanalytic ideas. In front of the Tavistock Centre there is a statue of Sigmund Freud, seated and staring balefully through a gap in the hedge at the Porshes, taxis, and white delivery vans, as they queue impatiently to get onto the Swiss Cottage one-way system. Round the corner, not far away, in Eton Avenue, is the house where Ronnie Laing lived. When I was in training to join the august company of therapists, I would go there for supervision and evening seminars.

The red-brick faces of the buildings of the psychoanalytic past look much the same as those of other Victorian houses in the area. But the spirit of psychoanalysis is pervasive. Because of it, I occasionally feel nervous with the idea that as an observer I might be observed, ashamed at having dealt insufficiently with my Oedipal conflict, guilty at unresolved transferences, anxious lest, in front of Marks and Spencer's, I might suddenly find myself acting out.

As I waited, unobtrusively, for a Number 46 bus, a friend came along. He is a well known therapist who works at the Tavistock Centre. We had barely greeted each other, when a red-headed woman came past and said "Hello" to my friend. "Do you know who that is?" said my friend, and mentioned the name of an eminent analyst. My errands were not pressing, so I went with my friend to the Hampstead Tea Rooms for an espresso macinato. We sat at a table outside, and my friend leaned over and said: "Do you see who's in there?" He flicked his eyes towards the interior of the tea shop. "No," I said. He told me the name, another very well known analyst. "Goodness," I said. "I didn't recognize him. He's put on an awful lot of weight."

Friday, April 3, 2009

Dark Side of Austen?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is perhaps one of the most famous first sentences, and it resides in one of the most loved English novels: Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s tone in it has been described as satirical, light, ironic, cheerful. Austin herself called it "light and bright, and sparkling.” Yet as I re-read the first chapter of this much loved classic, it struck me that all this bubbling and sparkling masked the psychological flavor of characters, the flavor surprisingly disturbing and dark.

The family presented in the first chapter comprises Mr. Bennet, married beneath his education and intelligence to Mrs. Bennet (who we are told was once a beauty), and five daughters of various ages and talents, none but one of whom is smart enough to deserve her father’s affection—the book’s heroine, Elizabeth. Mr. Bennet scoffs at the frivolity of his wife and her preoccupations, the main one of which is to marry her daughters well. There is little question, even after reading just one chapter, where Austen’s sympathies lie—with the father and the father's favorite, who are bearing the inanity of the rest of the family contingent with humor and grace.

Let us rewind, for a moment. Mr. Bennet despises his wife, yet has begotten five daughters on her beauty. He feigns disinterest in the business of marrying, yet the second question he asks about the young man recently moved to the neighborhood is "Is he married or single?" In the second chapter he proceeds to visit him rather hastily, thus making possible a dinner invitation to his home. Most interestingly, he proceeds to torment his literal-minded wife with insinuations of the visit, like a cat playing with a mouse it is about to kill. Mr. Bennet despises his wife, yet has become the very thing he despises. His festering resentment bubbles up as an endless sea of jibes at his wife and daughters. He is trapped in the world he finds trivial and yet enacts its values.

Let me catch a breath, though, before I start suggesting marital therapy, divorce, or suicide for Mr. Bennet. Could it be that Keith is right, and that North Americans can’t even talk about the weather without taking it (and themselves) too seriously (please see Travelogue: Weather or Not)? Sure, Austen could have written a tragedy, but she did not. And we should be grateful—writing about hopelessness shouldn’t be a serious business.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Folk Psychology and Narrative

Daniel Hutto has written Folk psychological narratives (2008) to argue against the idea that we each use a theory-of-mind to understand other people. (I have written a micro-review of it in Books on the Psychology of Fiction, which you can reach by clicking here.) There are two going theories of theory-of-mind. One, called the theory theory, is that each of us develops a theory of other people whom we know, and when we want to understand what some particular person is thinking and feeling, we crank the handle of this theory to make inferences. The other, which the members of this research group tend to prefer, is the simulation theory: that we create a simulation of the other person based on imagining ourselves to be in the situation that the other is in.

Hutto's book is of interest for the psychology of fiction for two reasons. One derives from the idea proposed by Lisa Zunshine (2006; click here for microreview) that what we are doing when we read fiction is to apply our theory-of-mind processes. We enjoy fiction because we are good at these processes. The other reason is that Hutto argues that understanding others, which previously has been treated as requiring a theory of mind in the form of theory theory or simulation, really needs no such thing. Rather, what is involved is an understanding of folk psychology, about why people do things. Both everyday explanations of action, and the explanations that occur in fiction, are expressed as what Hutto calls "folk psychological narratives." The defining feature of such narratives, he says, is that in them people act for reasons.

So as not to disappoint us, Hutto gives us a little narrative. He recounts how he was going abroad for a while and asked his wife to arrange for his car to be serviced and kept in his local garage while he was away. He gave her the phone number of the garage and, as he says, "she kindly made the booking for me" (p. 18). Then, he says: "On the morning of my flight, she agreed to drive me to Heathrow after I had first dropped off my car at the garage. So, we set off in our separate cars and she took the lead, her trunk laden with my luggage" (p. 18). What happened next was that, instead of taking the turning to the garage as Hutto had expected, Mrs Hutto (may we call her that?) drove straight on. He was amazed. "Time was against us" he says. What can she have been doing? Now he became alarmed, and flashed his lights. "I was at an utter loss to make any sense of her actions," he says, "even though I had a detailed knowledge of the circumstances as well as her history and character" (p. 19).

It turns out that although Mrs Hutto had made the appointment for the car, she thought that the phone number that Hutto had given her was "the number of our old garage, in the next village" (p. 20). That is where she was going when she failed to turn towards the garage that Hutto had in mind.

"The point is," says Hutto, "that neither core theory theory nor simulation theory, nor the two in concert, could have reliably generated this explanation" (p. 20). Hutto's conclusion is that his wife was acting for a reason, although he did not guess what it was. "Children are repeatedly exposed to stories detailing the reasons why characters act, as related by caregivers and others ..." he says (p. 28). In the folk story, "Little Red Riding Hood," for instance, the protagonist acts for reasons: she goes to visit her grandmother because the grandmother is sick. The wolf has disguised himself as her grandmother because he wants to gobble up Little Red Riding Hood, and so on. And so, says Hutto (p. 35):
My claim is that our ability to make sense of intentional action in practice ... rests on our knowing in general, which details might be relevant and knowing how and when to make the appropriate adjustments in particular cases. Folk psychological narratives are uniquely well suited to fostering this kind of understanding, because they provide examples of people acting for reasons in appropriately rich settings.
According to this idea, rather than theory-of mind-being the key to understanding why we read fiction, narrative (including fiction) is the key to being able understand others in ways that had previously been thought to require theory-of-mind.

Daniel Hutto (2008). Folk psychological narratives: The sociocultural basis of understanding reasons. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lisa Zunshine (2006). Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
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