Site Update

Hello All,
We will be updating our site over the next couple of weeks and one of the changes will be the removal of our archives (Academic Papers, Magazine Articles, Original Writing, Book Reviews, Film Reviews). So please download anything you'd like to keep from here before it's gone.
All best,
OnFiction

Monday, August 31, 2009

Film as an Art Form, by Thomas Scheff

The film Groundhog day, written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, and directed by Harold Ramis, is about Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray), a meteorologist for the weather program of a television station. Every year he has go with his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), to a small town in Pennsylvania called Punxsutawney to report on Groundhog Day, February 2. On this day, in this place, each year, a groundhog much beloved of the local population emerges from his home. If (according to Wikipedia), the groundhog "sees his shadow and returns to his hole, the whole of the United States will have six more weeks of winter. If [the groundhog] does not see his shadow, spring will arrive early."

Phil Connors hates the assignment, and thinks it ludicrous, but one year after reporting on the groundhog's emergence, there is a blizzard that forces him and the TV crew to stay another night in Punxsutawney. Next day Phil wakes up and finds himself living February 2 all over again: the same events, the same people, the same everything. It happens again the next day, and the next ... It looks as if Phil will keep reliving this day for ever. Although everyone he meets is experiencing the day for the first time, Phil knows he has been through it before. What would it be like if every day were the same? And what would it be like to be able to change some of the things one has done in one's life?

Each new viewing I stumble on new layers of meaning unnoticed earlier. My first impression was merely romantic comedy: boy gets girl. Next time I noticed that there was another layer on top of that one: a sly lesson in the meaning of romance. Most of the scenes were about wrong moves, but toward the end, Phil begins to wake up. A longer review, in which I discuss more layers, is in the Archives of Film Reviews (click here). This is an excellent film that gets four stars on a five-star rating.

Friday, August 28, 2009

On Tuesday













It happened on Tuesday. I was mid-sentence, on Tuesday, when it happened. I stopped speaking. My colleagues thought I was unwell. They were very solicitous. They phoned my husband after leaving me in the faculty lounge with a paper-cup of cold water leaking in my hands. My husband left his business associates and drove to my work. He ran to the faculty lounge. He thought I was unwell. He kept asking questions. I wasn’t speaking. After two long days of questions he took me to the hospital. The doctor kept asking questions. I wasn’t speaking. The doctor thought I was unwell. The doctor thought I should stay in the hospital for observation. They gave me a room and a nurse. The nurse didn’t ask any questions. I wasn’t speaking. She fluffed my pillows. She brought me my meals. She turned off the light when I’d fall asleep. She wasn’t speaking. She knew I was well. I was just not speaking.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Research Bulletin: Neuroaesthetics

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In discussing the psychology of fiction, one inevitably wanders into the realm of aesthetics. Books, as art, are appreciated by their readers and understanding this appreciation can be an enlightening undertaking. Recently, a volume has been published surveying the exciting new area of neuroaesthetics, or neuroscience approaches to understanding aesthetics. Edited by Dr. Oshin Vartanian and Dr. Martin Skov, and published by Baywood, this collection provides a fascinating and broad survey of the field, from many of its experts. The chapter perhaps most of interest to our readers, on the neuroaesthetics of literary reading, was written by David Miall, a contributor to this site.

My own thoughts on this book appear on the back cover (let me assure readers that I do not receive any royalties from sales, so there is no conflict of interest!), but I will repeat them here:

"Skov and Vartanian have assembled an impressive volume on the rapidly burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics. The contributions cover a broad range of topics—from visual art to music, patient studies to neuroimaging approaches—while providing an exhaustive and deeply considered treatment of each. Being a relatively young field, neuroaesthetic research consists of a manageable body of knowledge surrounded by a vast and compelling array of questions. This book provides readers with a detailed map of the available research findings and sketches out the promising unknown territories in a way that is certain to fascinate and excite."

You can read the first chapter of this interesting volume here, and read Dr. Skov’s musing on the topic and the book here. Copies can be purchased here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Research Bulletin: Moved by the Imagination

The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his group (1996) in Parma, Italy, has been perhaps the most discussed event in basic neurophysiology in recent years, and it is of great significance for understanding fiction. The original discovery was of neurons in monkeys that fired when the monkey saw a particular intended action—picking up a raisin—and also when the monkey itself performed the same action. Recent findings from this group of researchers have implications for reading and listening to stories.

One cannot directly record the activity of mirror neurons in human participants; it would be totally inappropriate to implant electrodes in people's brains. So, to study the mirroring system in humans one has to find what computer people call a work-around. In one ingenious work-around, Giovanni Buccino and his colleagues (2005) used a method called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to stimulate briefly and gently (from outside the skull) the parts of the brain known to be directly responsible for initiating actions. For instance they could stimulate the part of the brain responsible for making hand movements and record the electrical activity of the muscles of the hand that resulted. The could do the same for foot movements. What would happen now, the researchers asked, if the human participants were stimulated in this way and at the same time were asked to listen to three-word sentences that concerned making either a movement of the hand such as "Suonava il piano" (He played the piano) or of the foot such as "Calciava la palla" (He kicked the ball). What they found was that when the participants listened to sentences concerning hand movements, the electrical activity recorded in the hand muscles in response to the transcranial stimulation was reduced. This reduction did not occur when participants listened to sentences about foot movements or sentences that did not indicate movement. Similarly, when listening to sentences about foot movements, the stimulation-elicited electrical activity in the foot muscles was reduced as compared to the activity that occurred when listening to sentences about the hand or to sentences that were not about movement. The reduction of electrical activity in the hand or foot muscles in response the stimulation occurred because the parts of the brain concerned with initiating hand or foot movements were already occupied with the understanding the sentences that concerned those particular movements.

When we understand a sentence there is activation of the areas of the brain concerned with hearing and language. The finding of Buccino and his colleagues showed that, in addition, when sentences were about actions, there were also measurable effects in the areas concerned with making the same actions. Extending the idea, members of the same research group (Glenberg et al., 2008) found comparable effects while people read sentences that were about either physical transfer of something away from the person (e.g. "You give the papers to Marco"), or abstract transfer for instance (e.g. "You delegate the responsibilities to Anna"), but not when the transfers were in the opposite direction (towards the subject).

The researchers interpret their findings in terms of mirror neurons. Recognition of an action, even in the imagination when we hear or read about it, and even when a sentence is about transfer of something non-material, involves brain systems responsible for initiating that action. The researchers also link the effects of non-material transfer to theories of metaphors as based on embodiment (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).

For the psychology of fiction, the implication is that when we read, or go to the theatre or cinema, and identify with a character, and when we put ourselves in his or her shoes (almost not a metaphor), we partly enact what that character is doing. It is in that way, perhaps, that we come to understand within ourselves (at least partly) the actions about which we read. I wonder whether, as Elaine Scarry (1999) has proposed, that the particular way in which a writer portrays an action makes a difference to the vividness with which we imagine it and embody it in ourselves.

G. Buccino, L. Riggio, G. Mellia, F. Binkofski, V. Gallese, & G. Rizzolatti (2005). Listening to action-related sentences modulates the activity of the motor system: A combined TMS and behavioral study. Cognitive Brain Research, 24, 355-363.

A. Glenberg, M. Satao, L. Cattaneo, L. Riggio, D. Palumbo, & G. Buccino (2008). Processing abstract language modulates motor system activity. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61, 905-919.

G. Lakoff & M. Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

G. Rizzolatti, L. Fadiga, V. Gallese & L. Fogassi, L. (1996). Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor action. Cognitive Brain Research, 3, 131-141.

E. Scarry (1999). Dreaming by the book. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Travelogue: Diamonds Are?

Antwerp is the diamond centre of the world and, indeed, in Antwerp Station, there are—a sign announces—40 jeweller's shops. At about 11.30 on a Tuesday morning earlier this month, I walked past these shops. Two or three looked as if they had closed for good, but the rest were open, their windows brightly over-lit. Each displayed tray upon tray of rings, bracelets, pendants, and other diamond encrusted objects. Many had signs saying that they had 50%-off sales. Each had a solitary person sitting behind the counter or in a couple of cases lounging about outside. And customers? I saw not a one.

I estimated five hundred or more items on display in each of the shop windows. Most had little tags bearing inscrutable codes, but some shops had prices: items marked as 299 Euros, 395 Euros, 545 Euros. I made calculations of the value of the stock. Within the station, near the diamond shops, was a police office. It looked deserted.

I know there's a recession. But how do the diamond businesses survive without customers? I asked this of a tough-looking man in black shirt and black trousers who was leaning against the door-jamb of one of the shops. "They do all right," he said. "Don't worry about it." My guidebook said that this was not even the centre of the diamond district. That was a street a few minutes away. I walked there. On the way I passed more diamond shops, dozens more, still no customers. At the entrance to the street to which I was headed were twin rows of stainless steel pillars which could be lowered flush with the street or raised 70 cm above street level, a serious impediment to a truck, perhaps even to a tank. In this sequestered precinct, there were no vulgar shops, but multi-storey office buildings, forbidding, anonymous. And there was another police station, this one more formidable, with actual policemen. But still not many people about.

I was staying over in Antwerp after a conference in the Netherlands at which (among other interesting meetings) I was thrilled to meet someone who had been a friend and colleague of the late W.G. Sebald who (to my mind and to the extent of my reading) is the greatest writer of the post-World War II years. It was only when I got home, and found out more about Antwerp, that I realized that the opening of Sebald's novel Austerlitz is set in Antwerp Station. I had remembered from the novel the opening scene in a station waiting room, but had not remembered where it was. It is in this station that the narrator first meets Jacques Austerlitz, whom he sees making notes and sketches of the station's architecture. The station was completed in 1905, a building of arresting extravagance with a huge entrance hall under a huge dome, and railway tracks that run out beneath a roof of roundish-gothic shape of iron girders and glass, towards which the smoke of steam-engines past could rise. The building is an eclectic combination of the Pantheon at Rome and a cathedral to modern travel. If only I had had the novel with me when I was there, I would have been able to notice more, because as Austerlitz explains to the narrator, the building was a logical approach to the new epoch, and:
... said Austerlitz, it was also appropriate ... that in Antwerp Station the elevated level from which the gods looked down on visitors to the Roman Pantheon should display, in hierarchical order, the deities of the nineteenth century—mining, industry, transport, trade, and capital. For halfway up the walls of the entrance hall, as I must have noticed, there were stone escutcheons bearing symbolic sheaves of corn, crossed hammers, winged wheels, and so on, with the heraldic motif of the beehive standing not, as one might at first think, for nature made serviceable to mankind, or even industrious labour as a social good, but symbolizing the principle of capital accumulation (pp. 11-12).
But what about the diamond shops—which I did notice—now at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Do merchants come by night, after clandestine journeys from Caracas or Dubai? Or is it that in the late afternoon, after work, couples come shyly to choose engagement rings? It's not that capital accumulation seems to have been flagging generally in Antwerp. The city has been prosperous since the Renaissance; its centre is magnificent and alive. My guide book says Antwerp is now the world's third largest port. From the window of my hotel near the station, looking south, I counted 14 cranes, a decent indication of economic activity. But what about those deserted diamond shops? It is one of those matters that someone who spends too much time thinking about books, and who is therefore insufficiently versed in matters commercial, cannot comprehend.

W.G. Sebald (2001). Austerlitz. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

The picture at the head of this piece is from page 11 of Sebald's Austerlitz in which, as with his other books, Sebald has placed, every few pages within the text, diagrams and photographs of undisclosed provenance. I take this photograph to be a view upwards into the dome of Antwerp Station.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Research Bulletin: The Developing Storyteller

Previously, we reported on a study by Marjorie Taylor and colleagues that found, in part, that published writers were more likely to have had imaginary companions as children. A study from a different research group has recently found corroborating evidence in a sample of 48 children who were 5 ½ years old (Trionfi & Reese, 2009). About half of the children in this sample were identified as having an imaginary friend, who ranged from “Batman” (described as being both a boy and a girl) to “Giant Strongman” (a 1 million-year-old wrestler who had no toenails). Those who had an imaginary friend tended to provide a richer narrative when asked to retell a story compared to those who did not. Specifically, their stories tended to include more descriptors, dialogue, character names, temporal-locative-causal details, and more verbatim recall. Interestingly enough, these two groups did not differ in their vocabulary ability, nor did they differ in their ability to comprehend stories. What seems to be the case is that highly imaginative children, the kind who are likely to conjure up imaginary friends with detailed and original characters, are also better storytellers despite equivalent language abilities to their peers who lack such imagination. It is this capacity for rich fantasy, then, that might make a child a good storyteller; the kind of child who might later grow up to become a successful fiction author. This has a certain resonance with a recent essay by Tim O’Brien, in The Atlantic’s 2009 Fiction issue. In Telling Tails, O’Brien, argues that writers are encouraged to increase verisimilitude in order to avoid writing a bad story, but the real harbinger of a bad (read: boring) story is a lack of imagination.
Image by Nikki McClure.
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Trionfi, G., & Reese, E. (2009). A good story: Children with imaginary companions create richer narratives. Child Development, 80, 1301-1313.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Reading Groups

At the recent conference of the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA-2009, click here for website), I heard someone say: "The whole activity of interpretation has moved from departments of literature to reading groups." (I am sorry I don't remember who said it, but if it was you, or if you know who it was, I would be grateful if you would let me know.) In any event I think this is a very interesting idea, and perhaps correct. It would represent, I think, three kinds of movement. One is a democratization of interpretation, that moves its locus from a small number of people, such as certain university teachers of literature who—equipped with the correct interpretations of canonical works—would instruct others on these interpretations (see a previous post on interpretation by clicking here). A second is an implication of the Reader Response movement, in which the variety of responses to works of literature has become no longer problem but a feature. A third is the way in which interpretation is made no longer as a pronouncement but as a contribution to a conversation which is itself part of a relationship.

I have been a founding member of two reading groups, one in Edinburgh that ran for about three years, and one in Toronto that has run for 18 years. In both groups we read only novels—well pretty much only novels, although we've had a few lapses into memoir and biography. Both of these groups were of friends, and we met, and continue to meet, as a reading group about once a month. Our current group has nine members (five women and four men) which for us is about the right size. I think for me there are two distinctively lovely features of these groups. First is the wonderful variety of experience of works of fiction, so that things that I completely did not see in what we have read, or did not realize, or did not understand, were seen, realized, understood and thought about by other people in the group, and so in the group discussion they are added to my own experience of the book. It's quite common in the group for someone to say: "Well, I didn't like the novel all that much, but the discussion was better than the book." The second is that by relating what we read to our personal experience, the relationships among the members of the group, and our understandings of each other, are deepened and extended.

Reading groups have become widespread. Although there are, I believe, a number of books about how to start and how to run a reading group, the best book of information on reading groups that I know is by Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey (2001; I see the book was reissued as a 2002-2003 edition with a foreword by Margaret Forster). Hartley and Turvey conducted a survey of reading groups, mostly in UK, but also world-wide. In 2000 they estimated that there might be as many as 50,000 reading groups in Britain and 500,000 in America. In their main survey, of 350 groups in UK, they were able to find both a range of types of group, and to depict what the typical group was like. About two thirds of reading groups were women only, most of the rest were mixed, and just a few were men only. A typical reading group—it turns out—is rather like the one I am in. It tends to meet about once a month, and is more likely to read fiction than non-fiction. Amongst other results of their survey Hartley and Turvey came up with the three favourite reading group books which are as follows (with the number of groups in the 350-group sample that have read each in parentheses): Louis de Bernières Captain Corelli's mandolin (81), Frank McCourt Angela's ashes (71), and Arundhati Roy The god of small things (58). As an indication of how typical is the group I am in, we have read all three of these.

Perhaps most interestingly, Hartley and Turvey give a general sense of great enthusiasm with many people looking forward eagerly to the next meeting of the group. Here are two quotes: "We enjoy feeling totally free to express our own opinions," and "Discussions can be anything from profound to hilarious, but are always lively."

In a more recent study, Zazie Todd (2008) has sought to characterize the kind of discussions that take place in reading groups. In her abstract she says:
Analysis of the transcripts from 21 discussions of contemporary novels showed that participants used the plot as a way of anchoring their discussions. Participants often expressed sympathy and empathy for the characters, and described it as a problem when this did not occur. The group discussions also seem to show some evidence of what Miall and Kuiken (2002) call self-modifying feeling. They also revealed a search for a meaning within the book, and participants sometimes found quite different meanings, linking the text to their own emotional and autobiographical responses.
Jenny Hartley & Sarah Turvey. (2001). Reading groups. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

David Miall & Don Kuiken (2002). A feeling for fiction: Becoming what we behold. Poetics, 30, 221-241.

Zazie Todd (2008) Talking about books: A reading group study. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2, 256-63.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Forum Theatre, by Frank Hakemulder

Imagining oneself into being someone else is often considered an effective way of learning. Through imagination, it is assumed, one can explore the possibilities and risks of unfamiliar circumstances. Furthermore, putting oneself in the shoes of another person is considered to be fundamental for empathy and moral reasoning. Such thought processes may be enhanced in several ways, in particular, it may be suggested, through responses to narrative and role-play. It may even be that these are very much alike.

A practical application of this idea can be found in Forum Theatre, a kind of interactive drama developed by Augusto Boal. Originally, the purpose of Forum Theatre was to make audiences aware of relations between oppressors and the oppressed (click here) as well as the possibilities of avoiding their unsavoury consequences. The scenario of a play in this kind of theatre typically brings the victims to an unhappy ending caused by the oppressors. The play is performed twice in one session: once in the usual way, and then, during the second performance, spectators are invited by a facilitator, called the Joker, to participate. When someone feels that he or she could turn the sequence of events in a positive direction, they are encouraged by the Joker to come to the stage and play the role of one of the characters. It is through the active involvement of improvising in an imaginary situation that the participants may be able to change their attitudes and beliefs. Their practicing of alternative courses of action that would resolve the problem of oppression may add to the effect of Forum Theatre. In addition to the active mental effort of placing oneself in the position of someone else, participants have the bodily experience of actually being in situations unfamiliar to them. This is assumed to boost the effects of Forum Theatre considerably.

To evaluate the effectiveness of Forum Theatre I conducted a field experiment in Sri Lanka (an abstract of this field experiment, Hakemulder, 2009, was presented at a recent conference, PALA-2009, click here for abstracts). In the study, I examined which aspects of audiences’ reactions to such interactive improvisational theatre may be responsible for its influence on both participants and onlookers. Studies concerning the impact of narratives on real-world beliefs, as well as the results of role-play experiments suggest that participants’ and spectators’ feeling of being transported (Green & Brock, 2002) into the as if situation of the play may cause belief changes. This hypothesis was put to the test in the context of Enter-Growth’s Palama, a project of the International Labor Organisation (Click here to see a brief YouTube documentary on Palama). The project aimed at changing the predominantly negative beliefs about business in rural Sri Lanka. I found that some of the intended effects did occur. The degree to which the audiences felt transported explained, in part, effects on beliefs about the possibilities and benefits of starting a business.

Melanie Green & Timothy Brock (2002). In the mind's eye: Transportation-imagery model of narrative persuasion. In M. C. Green, J. J. Strange & T. C. Brock (Eds.) Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations (pp. 315-341). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Frank Hakemulder (2009). Imagination in the leading role: The effects of feeling transported into a fictional world on real-world beliefs. Paper presented at the Poetics and Linguistics Association Conference (PALA-2009), Middelburg, the Netherlands.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Poetry as Meditation

Does poetry prompt us to read in a way that differs from the way in which we read prose? Joan Peskin (2007) has shown that when the same words were displayed as poetry or as prose, high school students read these words differently in each case. She found that:
The identification of a text as a poem triggered significantly more references to the conventional expectations as well as greater appreciation of aesthetic elements that add a layer of meaning. Students also spent longer thinking about the poem-shaped texts and rated the poems as more enjoyable, challenging, emotionally engaging, and as eliciting more imagery.
Coming from a different direction, Reuven Tsur (1987) has proposed that Coleridge's Kubla Khan has features that include rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and rhythm, that give it a hypnotic quality, which he compares with some kinds of music.

At the recent conference of the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA) Sarah Jackson of the University of Cumbria, UK, presented a paper in which she described a pilot study of four readers reading T.S. Eliot's poem Ash Wednesday. Here are the first four lines of Section V of the poem, (for which Jackson offered analyses).
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
Jackson had her readers think aloud as they read 19 lines of this part of the poem, and she presented summaries of their responses. For instance, Reader 3 offered: Lines 1-4: "confusion with no composition of place." Lines 5 to 6: "understanding starts after later processing." Line 7: "understanding starts on initial processing." Lines 8 to 10: "calm and stillness." Following Tsur, and offering analyses based on the kinds of stylistic devices he describes, Walker proposed that what readers were perhaps doing when they read Ash Wednesday was to take the apparently discrepant, and disorienting, parts of Eliot's text to form what she calls "a gestalt that characterized the whole as a meditative poem." My sense from the protocols she presents is of readers moving through confusion to moments of understanding, and of feeling moved.

I was reminded of Brian Stock's (2007) proposal, which I discussed previously on this site (click here) that some readers from medieval times up to the Renaissance followed an explicit practice of reading that Stock calls "ascetic," that is to say, designed to promote self improvement. Stock likens this Western practice of reading to Eastern practices of meditation. The Western—book-based—practice has two phases: first taking one's book, detaching oneself from the world, and reading the words to oneself, then second a reflection to make the meanings of what one has been reading parts of oneself. Before I heard Jackson's paper, I don't think I had heard the idea put directly that reading poetry is a form of meditation. Although the explicit practice that Stock describes may now be confined to people who each day read a devotional religious text, perhaps implicitly we adopt this kind of practice when we read poetry.

T. S. Eliot (1930). Ash Wednesday, in The Waste Land and other poems (pp. 55-64). London: Faber (current edition 1940).

Sarah Jackson (2009). Does Ash Wednesday enable a reader to perceive an altered state of concsiousness. Paper presented at the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA-2009). Middelburg, the Netherlands.

Joan Peskin (2007). The genre of poetry: Secondary school students' conventional expectations and interpretive operations. English in Education, 41, 20-36.

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

Reuven Tsur (2006). Khubla Khan: Poetic structure, hypnotic quality and cognitive style: A study in mental, vocal, and critical performance. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Drawing of TS Eliot by Simon Fieldhouse.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Imagination in Life and Art

I have just returned from a very interesting conference at the University of Leuven, Belgium, of the International Society for Research on Emotions (click here). The conference included a joint session on "Language and Emotions," organized by Willie van Peer, with the International Society for Empirical Research on Literature (click here for advance information about their 2011 conference in Utrecht). I gave the keynote talk for this joint session, which was entitled "From Moral Sentiments to fMRI: Empathetic emotions of social relating and of engaging with fiction." A number of people have kindly asked if I would make my Powerpoint presentation of the talk available, so I have now placed it in our archives of Academic Papers (click here).

The central idea in the talk was that empathy is essential for understanding emotions in ordinary life and in reading or watching fiction so that, although there are occasions in ordinary life when we recognize the emotions of others in ways that do not occur in fiction, and although in fiction we can experience emotions in ways that do not occur in ordinary life, there is a large area of overlap. In this area, the psychological processes of understanding our own and others' emotions are the same for the domain of ordinary life and the domain of fiction, and they are based on constructive imagination. That is why understandings of self and others transfer readily between the two domains.

Narrative fiction (in prose, poetry, plays, and films) is, I argued, a language which, among its functions, offers to us readers and audiences possibilities of experiencing emotions in ways that enable us to understand them sometimes more clearly than we can in ordinary life.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Fiction of 2000 Years Ago: 3/3

This week, we’ve been interviewing classics scholar Alexandra Garcia-Mata about psychology and fiction in Roman literature. On Monday and Wednesday, she talked about Virgil’s Georgics; today, we hear about explorations of psychology in the Aeneid. (Spoiler warning: this interview will give away crucial information about the plot of the Aeneid - but it also makes a great case for joining a two thousand year old tradition of reading it, so go ahead!)


V: So tell us about psychology and fiction.

A: There was a recent Times editorial by someone who said, just for the hell of it, he was going to read the whole Aeneid; he saw great value in seeing the perspective of people 2000 years ago, and having just read the Aeneid in the original myself, I agree. The psychology of the whole culture is so different in some ways, and that’s what makes ancient literature so interesting – reading in any foreign language, I suppose – there’s just a whole different way of looking at things.

And in the Aeneid, they don’t look at psychology as such; it comes out in motivation, the reason people do things, more than anything else. And, of course, the big deal with Aeneas is his attempt to do what he feels is his duty, what he is told by the gods he must do. And out of his sense of piety – it’s known as pietas, which is more than just piety; it’s a very broad term which generally meant fidelity to duty and being responsible and being respectful of one’s elders, it was all that wrapped into it. He was torn, most famously, between his affair with Dido and his knowledge that his destiny – and they believed in destiny, the fates – was to continue on, and found Rome, a new homeland that was ultimately going to result in the Roman empire.

There’s character and emotion and depth in the Aeneidnot in the Georgics. Certainly the suffering of Dido is very real and psychologically true. I was really struck by the kind of self-delusion she went through trying to persuade herself that this was something other than it was. She had her vision of what she wanted their relationship to be, so she interpreted it based on that, and Aeneas is interpreting the relationship based on his destiny, so it’s something entirely different. It’s a typical thing that happens in god knows how many relationships between men and women; they discover they’re in completely different places!

There’s this famous scene in the Aeneid where they go out hunting and there’s a sudden storm and the party has to take shelter, and they’re separated from the rest of the group. And they’re in love and so what happens in the cave, naturally, is that they have sex. And the way it’s told is that you don’t know if she thinks this is something the gods have arranged, to create a marriage. And did the gods really do this – because the gods are real in the Aeneid – or is this just the way she’s justifying it to herself? And they spent the winter together, and for her, it was a real kind of marriage, and he was going to be her consort in Carthage happily ever after. But for him, it’s just a stopover, and eventually Jupiter has to send his messenger Mercury to Aeneas and say, it’s time to move along and get going. And he kind of wakes up from his dream, this little winter affair. For him, it’s just kind of time to move on, but for her, she's devastated. So I think those kinds of psychological interactions are very real.

R: And do the two discuss the others’ reactions?
A: Yes! It’s more like, 'how could you do this to me?!' And he says, 'well, I’m sorry, but it has to be like this.' And then she commits suicide… It’s very dramatic, for sure – but for her, she just despairs. She realizes that this great future she thought would make so much sense is not going to work for reasons she hasn't understood.

R: So what would you say to someone that maybe this is just kind of melodramatic and not a real human response?
A: Well there are people who do this; maybe it’s extreme. But the story has persisted for two thousand years; I assume it wouldn’t have persisted if it didn't still have applicability. The theme may not be universal, but it’s close to it.

V: I think it’s interesting how this represents a kind of theory of mind moment, where Aeneas and Dido realize that their representations of the future had been different, and that they've been operating on false or misunderstood premises based on extrapolations from the same situation.
A: Dido didn’t realize the more specific requirements that the gods had laid on Aeneas, and that it had to be Italy. This was written for Romans, all about the way that their nation had become great. This was all written with an eye toward buttering people up.
R: So do you think the lesson was about relationships, or politics?
A: I think it was both.
V: And aren’t those the same?
A: I think underlying it all is a slightly different psychology from our own, involving the understanding that there really is destiny, there really is fate, and things have been decided.

V: Some people argue that motive and emotion are represented in an only two dimensional way in this very old literature, and that the gods function kind of as a way to outsource emotion, because they weren't representing people experiencing emotions. And for all we know, people themselves may have thought about the gods as the experience of emotion; it might not only have been a literary metaphor.

A: I think for sophisticated writers like Virgil, that was just a way of expressing it. Did people really lay on the gods emotions they were experiencing? I’ve read things that suggest that people did, and that people weren’t aware, because they fully believed in the gods, that they were projecting on the gods. So in some ways, this might be right. How else could these religions have persisted?

And even though it took a dream, Mercury appearing in a dream and saying to Aeneas, 'hey, it’s time to move on,' we all have dreams, bringing to our attention things to which we have not been attending. We don’t have dreams about Mercury bringing messages from Jupiter, but nonetheless we do have dreams about things that have been on our minds that we don’t want to think about, and bring our attention to them.

R: Did Virgil talk about what these people were thinking and feeling?
A: You have to know by their actions. Sometimes there are dreams. The second half of the Aeneid is all about the battle when the Trojans have arrived and they have to fight to establish their right to be there. And Aeneas is engaged to a princess who was unfortunately engaged to someone else who takes this amiss, understandably. There is a time where he appears to be kind of scared, and he runs away, and it’s not clear whether he runs away because he's afraid or for some other reason -- and he has a sister who tries to protect him and tries to lead him away from the battle and she talks about how she can’t bear to have him killed in battle. And he feels he’s been too cowardly, and allowed her to let him indulge his fear -- so this is definitely talking about his emotions. (Even emotions about emotions.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fiction of 2000 Years Ago: 2/3

This week, we’ve been interviewing classics scholar Alexandra Garcia-Mata about psychology and fiction in Roman literature. On Monday, she talked about Virgil’s Georgics, and particularly about the way that celebrations of rural virtue and past glory reflected expectations about social interactions, experiences, and psychological states. Her descriptions of the way that elites’ condescending understandings of rustic psychology was represented evoked theory of mind narratives, in which some characters reveal particular understandings of what other characters think and experience. Below, we relate how she also describes the way that these understandings were used to differentiate elites from rustics in terms of their psychological needs.


V: Is it possible to say how much the connection to the soil that you described as a common trope in the Georgics might have replaced the Roman gods or stood in them with similar functions?

A: The Georgics is looking at the agricultural world from the perspective of the elite: the romantic view that we’re connected to the land. But if any of them had been themselves behind the plough, I’d be surprised. And the earliest Roman deities were very abstract agricultural deities like wind and weather. They did not have a native tradition of anthropomorphized deities like the Greeks. Theirs were rather abstract. The word numen was a Roman concept and only later was Saturn – when intellectuals had connections with the Greeks – joined with Chronos and made personified. And in the later writers, it doesn’t work all that well; they try to force the Roman and the Greek together somewhat unsuccessfully.

For the elite Romans, with all these references to gods, you get the sense that this was just ornamental, for the sake of poetry and art. The interesting thing when you’re reading Roman literature, if you change from Virgil to the letters of Cicero, you’re just reading about the ordinary life of people, and their concerns are just as earthbound. You get a rich sense of how much they were just ordinary hard-bitten human beings, competing with each other with all the fears and concerns of ordinary people – and they don’t talk about the gods at all; these people are areligious, completely. They’re just completely immersed in everyday life: politics and friendships and money. They were just really worldly people. It’s perfectly possible that rural people were more religious. But these people that we have records of were the upper crust.

Now that doesn’t mean there weren’t certain cults that drew a lot of followers. The worship of Isis was very popular – this promised everlasting life in the afterworld. And soldiers were known to be very devoted to Mithros. But soldiers were free poor folk and who had joined the army because it could be a decent living of sorts, if you survived. 

[Returning to Virgil, one of the interesting things about the way we experience these stories is that] you’ve got two thousands of years of people responding to Virgil and writing operas and retelling the story and translating it and writing the sequel. People used to – there’s a fancy word for it – take individual lines of Virgil and put them together into a new poem. Just as people will open the Bible and put their fingers on a line, and take it as what they should do, people would do that with Virgil: Virgil was taken as some kind of oracle. 

Part of the whole Renaissance was people rediscovering the Latin of the classical period and realizing that the Latin of the middle ages was kind of degraded, and they made a conscious effort to go back

V: Is there an idea that in the past, experience itself was different?

A: There does seem to be a feeling that the ancients got it better, that this is when the greatest literature was written.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fiction of 2000 Years Ago

This week, we’ve been interviewing classics scholar Alexandra Garcia-Mata about psychology and fiction in Roman literature.


A: Right now, I’m reading Virgil’s Georgics, which is all about what farmers do. And while it was directed at an elite audience who probably owned farms but were not themselves behind the plow, the fiction that was maintained in the actual poem and for the poet's audience – because all poetry was read aloud – was that if you were a farmer, this is what you would do. It’s not clear to me why Virgil wrote this in the first place, but he did. And he talks about how much of life as a farmer relies on being attuned to nature, and he often warns about how you have to be aware of the right times in the year to do things, and watch the constellations, because the stars would tell you about the turning of the seasons. And so their psychology was very involved in the natural forces that ruled them. Of course, it’s idealized, but he does talk about how difficult it is and all the things that can go wrong: we were just reading today about the horrible storms that can take down your crops after you’ve put so much effort into sowing them, so maybe it’s not so idealized; he recognizes how precarious agricultural life is and how you’re at the mercy of natural forces that can be hostile.


R: Is it compelling because this is a foreign lifestyle for urban Romans?

A: It’s not so foreign, because for a Roman, even if you lived in the city, nonetheless you were supposed to identify with being a farmer, for example, to identify with the idea of Cincinnatus, who came to serve Rome but then returned to his farm.

V: It’s so hard not to see this through today’s romantic environmental ideas.

A: And why wouldn’t we?

V: How much are they talking about these ideals more as they become aware that they're not practicing them?

A: It was one of these ideas: that you were a simple country man at heart, that the good Roman went back to his farm. Mostly it was: none of this high-falutin’ baloney in the city: you worked hard, you lived a good simple life,' it was very Puritanical, family values. We don’t know what the relation was between how they talked about this and how they lived, because by the time you have the literature that we have extant, these values were more praised in the breach: Cato would say, 'oh, you degenerate Romans'; already, at about 100 BC or so, it was already in the romanticized past. In a sense they didn’t really do this, live this life of virtue and simplicity, but in a sense they all knew they were supposed to (even as they weren’t). It was a funny dualistic world they lived in.

V: Not unlike ours.

A: Exactly.

R: So was this meant to remind them of this other side of their life?

A: And maybe to make them feel like yes, we really are good Italians, and we know our roots as good Italian farmers. And they would pretend they didn’t have farms that were entirely staffed by slaves. Because by then – this was in the empire of Augustus – there weren’t a lot of Roman farmers. They were all living the life of Reilly and their farms were being taken care of by slaves. There were still peasant free farmers, but these large farmers were what we would think of as industrial farmers. So this was really basically a romantic view of farming – there still were these farmers, but these elites were not them. This was very sophisticated poetry, directed at a small, elite, percentage of the population, and the actual farmers, who were very busy, wouldn’t have time for this stuff. In terms of the psychology of the country people, there’s a lot of discussion of the religious rites in the cycle of the agricultural year. In the springtime, people dancing – the rustic youth. This discussion of how people viewed the country life reminded me of some of the commentary on the Georgics about how the elites admired the religious impulses of the country people, but in a condescending way. They would kind of say, 'of course, we don’t believe in this, we don't have to carry on in this manner any longer, but it’s important that the country people have this.' This commentary is talking about a line that’s describing a springtime festival at which things have been planted and are growing: (I’m translating from the Latin) But as Servius says, 'it means a kind of dancing or leaping suitable to religion' – this is the action of country dancing at the festival 'not coming from any art or skill, but spontaneous leaping about without any choreography, which as evidence of rustic piety is a matter for praise rather than blame.'


This kind of summarizes what they’re feeling as they interpret: 'oh, isn’t it cute how the rustics act; we understand, but of course we’ve gone beyond that now; we’re too sophisticated for all that now.' They don’t explicitly talk about a different relationship with the gods for elites and rustics; it’s more what we have to infer. There’s a kind of phony 'we all do this, and we all join in, but of course, we’re not rustic ourselves, we just like to pretend or imagine that we are.'

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