Monday, 29 March 2010

Reverse Sublimation: 2nd of 2

What does reflection about reverse sublimation say about our comportment toward muses? This line of thought raises key questions about the "socially useful" qualifications for creative production, particularly as they may be considered in the realms of artistic critical practice, education and research, and socially-networked new media like this magazine (and, probably also usefully, in terms of the relation of all of these modes of production to mechanisms that attempt to capture value from such realms -- one of the four tabs in my text entry window, I cannot help but note, is "monetize"). For one thing, thinking about reverse sublimation compels me to acknowledge more than usual the agency of muses -- they're not just figments or reflections of ours -- and to think about the relationship between the things we co-create with muses and the way we appropriate these things in a muse relationship.

, for example, muse relationships are part of the reward structure of intensive exploratory conversation (a reward structure I'm suggesting we don't understand very well: psychologists like Matthias Mehl at the University of Arizona suggest that people who engage in such 'deep talk' are happier, but we don't know whether that's because of the satisfaction of the exploration or of the bonding with the 'interactive partner' -- or because people who are more likely to engage in substantive creative exploration are better equipped to navigate their way to engaging activities satisfying to them), there are questions to be addressed about the relationship between our and our muses' ideas of satisfaction and utility.

Another question arises: Is the attribution of muse status partly a way we defensively navigate co-authorship? We experience intensive conversation in parallel tracks: the things that interactive partners are thinking about in tandem, and then our own reactions to our conversations and interactions. Much of the sexualization of muse relationships appears to arise as we try to figure out these relationships in the charged and unusually intimate process of probing the shape of the space between one person's thoughts and being and another's.

If sublimation is celebrated (as it so often is) for its capacity to transform 'base,' 'animal' desires into refined productivity, reverse sublimation seems dangerous (from some perspectives) not only because it encourages us to look more squarely in the face of inspiration, but also because of the way it releases the bounds that determine social utility, and particularly the social utility of productive individuals. Moral tales of muses seem often to emphasize the destruction of the artist by means of exploration of the muse, particularly by non-conformity to rules imposed as part of benediction (the inset illustration, for example, is
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky's ~1910 photograph of Ahmad Sanjar's 1157 mausoleum built to lure his fairy wife back after alienating her by breaking such rules) -- or they emphasize the destruction of the muse itself, and thereby the inspiring relationship, often through the process of being destructively consumed or subsumed in the relationship itself. Not enough individuated appropriation, perhaps.

Prosaic as this seems as a tentative resolution, then -- and prosaicness may be a significant issue when broaching the role that the heightened arousal of muses provides by way of what is required for the satisfaction of artistic production -- I cannot help wondering about the relative silence in the mythology of muses on reverse sublimation. Do we not hear about comfortable arrangements worked out with those who inspire us because these arrangements are never comfortable? Is there a machine function supporting otherwise unsupportable proximity to the productive unknown in the uncertainty of what we desire, and of not knowing whether it will fling us gracefully into the next paragraph or awkwardly into the relationship we thought (or felt) was simply the way into that next thought?

Ever a champion of the explicit, even I have a faint sense of the ways in which this particular defense mechanism protects itself from direct inquiry. Particularly when one's interest in the ideas at hand is strong, who wants to risk good conversation by pointing out that it's not actually about sex?
Editing conversation
Our conversation
fills my absent thoughts,
tracing shapes of potential
dispositions: hours, elbows, keystrokes,
material bases of production.

Lenten in the almost early spring,
conversion and I cling together,
focused through magic
lenses of conversation, prosaic
enough to be not just sublime.

I resist myself when you talk,
unpry myself joint by joint
at each thought’s rush,
wish not to hold this talk so tight,
but cannot stop my desire for knowing something else.

My blank window gazing peoples with your dropped
words, and as I reword myself,
loosen my grip, I can revise the argument that
what we want is not each other
but this conversation.
Grateful acknowledgments are due to Azad Mashari for many years of correspondence regarding his muse manual project.

Mehl, M. R., Vazire, S., Holleran, S. E., & Clark, C. S. (in press). Eavesdropping on happiness: Well-being is related to having less small talk and more substantive conversations. Psychological Science.

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Thursday, 25 March 2010

Reverse Sublimation: I

Much as I've always been suspicious of Freudian categories, I can't help but wonder about Freud's relevant constructs in the context of what I'm now thinking of as reverse sublimation.

If Nietzschean / Freudian sublimation is the process of transforming libido into "socially useful" achievements (often via encounter with the mystical, the muse, and the meditative), then reverse sublimation would be not "desublimation," undoing sublimation, but rather the process of experiencing potentially "socially useful" aspirations as sexual ones.

In this way that reward-oriented signals appear to generalize across categories, interest in doing something potentially entirely non-sexual with someone can end up feeling like an appetitive sexual attraction. Dipping into Freudian terminology again (this may seem quite basic for those steeped in psychoanalysis), this may reflect, particularly in the bookish, a regression to -- or sticking in -- the latency stage, in which appetitive drives are organized around the gratification derived from friendly and educational activities, the locus of thinking. Since many bookish people in fact make their livelihoods through the activities of thinking, it's somewhat amusing to note the ways in which sexualized appetites might be, in some lights, more culturally acceptable (more sexy, surely) than admitting to the pleasures derived from thinking with someone.

But it is not merely a matter of social acceptability and appearances; it's the experience of this reverse sublimation that seems fascinating: sexual tension is often the bond that holds much more prosaic associations together, and that simultaneously appears to provide some of the motivating sparkle and also to fluster people (according, no doubt -- if we continue to follow the Freudian line of thought -- to how honestly they're acknowledging and managing to work through defense mechanisms).

We creative bookish types appear to seek sensitization to these affordances to out our implicit desires: this is our habitual sublimating relationship with muses. What is more motivating toward an afternoon of creative production in the face of all other demands, than the challenges raised by unexpected desire? Non-compulsory challenges that fall outside the obligation of established relationships -- that we are nominally free to ignore, and yet that promise unpredictable consequences -- can be utterly galvanizing, particularly when these challenges entice us to consider goals that have been articulated perhaps not quite explicitly enough, or towards which one doesn't quite know how to progress or act adequately.

Many of us appear to cultivate a discerning eye for opportunities to be drawn in lustily by consuming desire -- for what often turns out to be not someone else, and often not even someone else's ideas (although it seems we often think of our infatuations as being with someone else or their ideas), but perhaps, more accurately, with the ideas they make us think -- or, more fairly, perhaps, think with us. We engage, in other words, with a (to-some-degree) limited (and potentially only partly intentional) heartsickness in order to think through thoughts that need -- not an audience for itself, but the emotional and cognitive stimulation a compelling (even if imagined, in the relational details) audience affords.

For the description of sublimation as process of transforming libido into "socially useful" achievements, see Carole Wade and Carol Tavris, 1996. Psychology. HarperCollins.

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Monday, 22 March 2010

Travelogue: Transformative Art

New York is seen as an intense centre of the arts and, having spent four days there last week, OnFiction's correspondent-at-large is able to report that this is still the case, outdoors as well as in.

Outdoors, with some friends and starting at the corner of 20th Street and 10th Avenue, I visited the High Line, which was once an elevated railway and which recently has been artistically transformed into a walk-way park. The time of year wasn't ideal for the flowers, but everything else was perfect, from the ironwork stairs up from street level, to the reiterated motif of something like concrete sleepers laid lengthways along the path, to the pieces of railway track (still there), to the sight (off to one side) of the new IAC building by Frank Gehry, looking luminous even on an already-bright day, and views towards the Hudson River with its sadly-now-deserted piers.

Indoors the arts were seen at their exuberant best in a smallish side-room at St Marks Church over on the Lower East Side, where a theatre company called the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator does its thing, uniting, as it says in its handouts, "elements of the performing arts, visual art, music composition, psychoanalysis, and literature." The play we saw was Three Pianos. The only thing wrong with it was the title, because although three pianos are characters in the play, being pushed energetically around the stage—sometimes while being played—this title does nothing to hint at the what the play is really about. The play is a transformation of Franz Schubert's twenty-four-part song-cycle, Winterreise.

I realize that one could not call a play: Schubert and German Romanticism … Ehem. But that would be a closer title than the one it now has. The play was written, and is performed, by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy. All act brilliantly, each in several parts, to represent Schubertian goings-on at the beginnings of both the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries. All play the piano(s), exquisitely. All sing, beautifully. And, although for the most part they speak in English, all of them occasionally also make a bit of a hash of German. For a couple of the songs, for which they didn't like the music Schubert provided, the writers have composed some of their own. The play includes a professor giving a lecture on the history of commercial pressures on Western classical music in which Church authorities, seemingly stuck with monastic chanting, were delighted at the invention of the idea that two notes could be sung by different people at the same time. It includes, too, a biography of Schubert, and an enactment of one of his parties in which plastic glasses and opened bottles of wine are passed out among the audience.

The Winterreise—winter journey—is a series of poems by Wilhelm Müller that Schubert set to piano and voice. At the beginning of the first song comes this: " I remember a perfect day in May / How bright the flowers, how cool the breeze / The maiden had a friendly smile." As one of the actors explains, the poems are about a wanderer who seems to have lost, or at least mislaid, his loved one. So he goes on a journey, in winter-time. The plot is that nothing happens. As the play-recital started, it reminded me of a formal dinner of about 20 people in honour of a distinguished classical singer who was visiting our university. I remember asking her what she thought of the relation of music to emotion. "Music is all about emotion," she said. "The greater the singer or instrumentalist, the more profound the emotion expressed." That was interesting enough, but then—even better—with the volume of her finely-trained voice turned up slightly too loud for the room we were in, she started to discourse on the difference between German and French romanticism. "In a song, they both start off in the same way," she said. "The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and over there on the other side of the valley, is my beloved. But then," she said, "they diverge. In the German version the singer asks 'Why, oh why, can my loved one and I never be united?' The French version is quite different; in it the singer says: 'And I'm going over to the other side of the valley, right now, so we can have a really nice fuck.'"

Three Pianos evidently grows out of a profound love for Schubert, expressing the emotions of his Lieder in beautiful piano and voice performances, whilst at the same time making hilarious fun of German romanticism. Onto something like a blackboard, in mixtures of German and English, are projected the titles of the songs: Die Wetterfahne (The weathervane), Erstarrung (Benumbed), Die Post (The post), Die Krähe (The crow), Täuschung (Illusion), and so on, as well as some of their words. In the way that often happens in poetry, the poems in Winterreise are metaphors: metaphors of how the outer world of winter reflects an inner world of desolation. One encounters such passages as this: "The wind is turning the weather vane on the roof of my sweetheart's house." Well, yes …

I like some of Schubert's Lieder, quite a bit, but Winterreise was one of my least favourite of his works, perhaps (as depicted in this play), because Müller's text goes on, rather, and then goes on some more, without anything happening. Half way through the play, one of the actors explains: Schubert's music brought meaning to pieces of poetry that previously had been incomprehensible. Well, yes ...

Ontological-hysteric: I should say so. When I returned home to Toronto, completely incubated, I listened to some of the songs of Winterreise again, and really enjoyed them.

Photo, New York Times, March 18: Rick Burkhardt, in his role as Schubert, holds aloft his heart.

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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Reading Fiction is like ... Translunar Flight. Part II

If there are similarities between reading fiction and the astronaut’s experience of translunar flight, as I discussed in Monday's post, then, if we extend the analogy, there ought to be similarities between writing fiction and the aeronautical engineers that planned and monitored the mission, many of whom were in “mission control”. Both writers of fiction and these engineers are responsible for the cognitive and emotional experiences, and indeed for the physical effects that accompany such experiences, of other human beings for an extended period of time. But there are differences between the two to be discussed as well.

Some of the engineers originally involved in the American space program felt that it was not cost-effective to try to put a person onto the moon. Extra weight would be added in the form of human consumables and waste, and a great redundancy of systems would be needed to insure the safety of the crew, systems which added weight to the rocket stack (Mindell, 2008). In the end, of course, the human-pilot model won out in the Apollo program, but this piloting would involve computer assistance to such a degree that it could be asked, “how could you teach someone to use a machine that required nothing of him when working, and everything of him when broken?” (Mindell, 2008, p. 160).

On Apollo 8, in which the goal was to fly to the moon, orbit ten times, and return to earth to test all systems at this great distance before the landing missions (Woods, 2009, p. 33), astronaut Jim Lovell was lauded for his outstanding ability to operate the necessary optical instruments to navigate by locating celestial objects (Woods, 2009, p. 139). He probably beamed; his fellow astronauts must have congratulated him; mission control was extremely pleased and then ... promptly uploaded to the onboard computer the “state vector” [the vessel’s current position and velocities] as it had been determined by mission control’s readings from space stations around the world and their own readings and interpretations of the onboard computer’s inertial navigation system, obviating Lovell’s efforts (Woods, 2009). Indeed, mission control “overwrote the onboard numbers before each maneuver” (Mindell, 2008, p. 178). Further, “Apollo crewmen,” Mindell notes, “followed carefully written ‘programs,’ in the form of their timelines, check-lists, abort criteria, and mission rules. These programs governing people’s behavior were as important as the programs controlling the computer, and similarly embodied assumptions and links between organizations... In the human-machine system of Apollo, it often was not possible to distinguish between instructions for machines and instructions for people” (p. 233). Apollo 14’s Alan Shepard railed against the idea that the astronaut would not be able to carry out maneuvers that might go against the advice produced by the computer, declaring to the engineers, “Take out all those inhibitions... if we want to kill ourselves, let us. It may involve saving ourselves” (Mindell, 2008, p. 160).

It is not a far stretch to imagine an editor reminding a tentative fiction writer who has a great story to tell, but who still doesn’t trust the reader, to show and not tell, that if readers want to “kill themselves” that it may involve “saving themselves,” too. But if the imagining required by fiction entails imagining such that the self is the grounding point (Walton, 1990), whether consciously or subconsciously, then how does one submit oneself to the writer’s plan and intentions toward the reader’s intentions? Indeed, we must do this to some extent or we could not speak to one another coherently about a particular novel we had read. One response presents itself immediately in the context of the fiction reading/translunar spaceflight analogy. The astronaut comes to think like the engineer, and similarly, the reader of fiction comes to think like the writer (Barthes, 1975). Mindell (2008) describes a notable difference between the astronauts of the pre-Apollo era who on occasion had balked at the human/software interface and those of Apollo who generally accepted that much of spaceflight involved interacting with the computer: their education. Of the twelve people who landed on the moon, four had PhDs and seven had post-graduate degrees (p. 256) in such areas as interplanetary guidance, navigation, and orbital rendezvous (p. 168). Thus, these astronauts were coming to think more like mission control.

By analogy, I am not suggesting that one needs a post-graduate degree to interact competently with fiction, but rather, in keeping with research findings over the past 35 years, that guided exposure to the reading of fiction in the early years makes us better at understanding the social, cognitive, and emotional processes in stories (Hynds, 1985; 1989) and may enhance our social abilities (Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, de la Paz, & Peterson, 2006). That is, when we rely on our own interpersonal capacities to maximize our fiction-reading experience, we are relying, in part, on knowledge that we have acquired concerning these processes through the reading of fiction early in life with people we care about and who care about us, be they parents, guardians, teachers, siblings, or friends.

During the Apollo years, and indeed even earlier in the American space program, it was a less-publicized fact that astronauts who were believed to have changed parts of the flight plan without good reason or not to have followed mission control’s advice at a particular juncture, even on a single flight, never flew again (Woods, 2009). I find it interesting how seldom writers of fiction criticize readers for making incorrect inferences in the reading of their work. I am not aware of empirical work on this question, but my impression is that most usually fiction writers do not assert their vision of the work, nor even insist on the accurate interpretation of details in the work, but suggest time and time again that the fictional work is there to serve the reader. Perhaps this is a tactic intended to not scare us off their work, but I think it may be because, even when they are writing the work, they are already anticipating what other creative minds can do with it.

Barthes, R. (1975). S/Z. (R. Miller, trans.) London: Cape.

Hynds, S. D. (1985). Interpersonal cognitive complexity and the literary response processes of adolescent readers. Research in the Teaching of English, 19, 386-402.

Hynds, S. D. (1989). Bringing life to literature and literature to life: Social constructs and contexts of four adolescent readers. Research in the Teaching of English, 23, 30-61.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694–712.

Mindell, D. A. (2008). Digital Apollo: Human and machine in spaceflight. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Walton, K. L. (1990). Mimesis as make-believe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Woods, W. D. (2009). How Apollo flew to the moon. Chichester, UK: Springer.

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Monday, 15 March 2010

Reading Fiction is Like ... Translunar Flight. Part I

The fortieth anniversary of the landing of the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the moon occasioned a number of book publications, including astronaut biographies and detailed depictions of the aeronautical engineering, hardware, software, systems engineering, and training that went into the feat. Reading a number of these offerings convinces me that it’s worthwhile to add yet another analogy to the list of activities that reading a novel is like, e.g., looking through a lens at oneself (Proust, 1913-1927/1987-1989), running software on one’s mind (Oatley, 1999), being in a trance (Nell, 1980), mindreading (Zunshine, 2006), among others. Reading a novel is, I believe, like riding a Saturn rocket to the moon and back. I know, it sounds a little strange, perhaps a little too specific to assume a place among the elegant analogies others have offered. But reading a novel isn’t like an ordinary flight from New York to Sydney, nor is it like coasting along in Earth orbit, even in a rather high one of 500 or 600 kilometers, which is what we have achieved since the last translunar Apollo flight in 1972 (Woods, 2009). No. Reading a novel is like riding a rocket to the moon and back, and I’ll share some thoughts on why I think this is so in this post and in Thursday’s post.

Humans cannot fly rockets. Our reflexes are not fast enough to guide a spacecraft at 25,000 miles per hour without significant help from a computer (Mindell, 2008). Astronauts and readers of novels (Oatley, 1999) must rely on the “program” on which their trajectory depends. So, the phrase from the one-time ubiquitous Sinatra tune “fly me to the moon” turns out to be rather accurate – one does not fly oneself to the moon, one is flown to the moon by someone or something else. And unlike other modes of travel, only a very small percentage of the time in a translunar rocket is spent accelerating; the vast majority of the trip is coasting, but that coasting must be properly aimed (Woods, 2009). Similarly, readers imaginatively participate in the world created by the writer. If readers were to begin to override what the text says the characters are doing, for example, they are no longer reading a novel, but daydreaming, which is okay, as long as it’s clear which is which.

We can choose to read a novel or not, as astronauts could choose whether to sign on to the moon program. We can choose to continue reading the novel or not, as astronauts could choose whether to abort at any moment (Woods, 2009). Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin experienced five master alarms going off during the lunar landing sequence of Apollo 11 in 1969, which distracted them from the task at hand. Armstrong later explained his hesitance to abort, “In simulations we have a large number of failures and we are usually spring-loaded to the abort position. And in this case in the real flight, we are spring-loaded to the land position” (Mindell, 2008, p. 3). Readers are, perhaps, “spring-loaded” to continue reading long past the vivacity of their interest or their emotional tolerance, but they may lay the book down at any moment, never to pick it up again, if they so choose (see an earlier post on this idea). We can even skip parts of the novel, much as flight commander Frank Borman called off several scheduled tasks for his extremely sleep-deprived crew on the first-ever orbit of the moon in 1968 to insure that they would be well-rested for a human error-free return home (Woods, 2009, p. 217). What readers and astronauts cannot do, however, is change the trajectory as it has been laid out by another source – the writer of the story in one case and engineers and mission control in the other.

The trajectory to the moon and back is like that of the structure of a novel: the relatively quick exit from Earth’s atmosphere (like the quick exit from one’s own daily concerns into the story environment); an Earth orbit to prepare for the journey (the first few pages of a story in which one gets one’s bearings); “injection” away from the gravitational influence of Earth toward the moon (the pulling away from the self and toward the otherness of characters and their concerns); a slowing of speed to enter moon orbit (a reflective moment that begins to wear away at one’s current beliefs); the descent of the lunar lander (think of Hagar’s physical descent toward the old cannery in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, and indeed of other figurative descents into otherness to rediscover the self); exploration (of self, the meaning of life), ascent from the lunar surface, rendezvous with the orbiting command module (the individual reuniting with society after a life-changing event or realization), and “injection” back toward the Earth, fiery re-entry (a coming to terms with this new insight) and splashdown into the ocean (dénouement). If one were to read any of the Apollo mission transcripts (available on two excellent websites: Apollo Flight Journal and Apollo Lunar Surface Journal) of dialogue among the astronauts and down to mission control in Houston, and then to map the concatenation of emotions (what Tan [1994, p. 179] has called the “affect structure”) from the space trajectory described above to those in one’s favorite novel, the match would, I suspect, be intriguing. Mode of displacement between these emotion episodes also maps convincingly between the two experiences. In the vacuum of space, a small engine ignition (“burn”) increases or decreases speed exponentially, depending on which way the thruster is pointing, for there is no atmosphere against which to accelerate. Thus small accelerations have large effects over time. In the novel, too, a small incident or a barely-perceived ongoing state of affairs, can have great effects.

All stages of the Saturn rocket ascent, and all major maneuvers in space were counted down by a digital display for the astronauts (Woods, 2009). Thus the crew knew exactly when these events would occur, building and dissipating suspense on occasion after occasion. Arguably the most suspenseful moment of the Apollo 11 mission occurred when the two crew members aboard the lunar module, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, fired their ascent engine to leave the moon’s surface and return to the command and service module orbiting the moon (Woods, 2009). If the ascent engine had failed, Michael Collins, the command module pilot, would have had to leave his colleagues to perish. Collins explained, “...I have never sweated out any flight like I am sweating out the LM [lunar module] now. My secret terror for the last 6 months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter. If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it” (cited in Woods, 2009, p. 287). Collins’ words expressing his post-LM-ascent relief are poignant: “Now my rendezvous worries can forever be laid to rest. I can throw away the book of emergency rendezvous plans clipped to the front of my pressure suit. God knows we are still a long way from home, but for the first time I feel we are going to carry this whole thing off. I can see it all out my window now, our beautiful home planet and my two compatriots, successfully returned to me. From here on it should be all downhill – for there they are!” (Collins, 1988, p. 10).

How can emotions experienced while reading a novel possibly be compared to such a sentiment? The real-life consequences, of course, are not comparable. When one reads the wonderfully rich literature on the Apollo program, and begins to fathom the number and extremity of risks that the Apollo astronauts were subject to, one might laugh at the comparison. It is true that we are physically safe within the cocoon of the story, but the kinds of emotions experienced, and their intensities, are very real (Oatley, 1999). The reality of these emotions may originate, in part, in our intuitive sense of the structure of the story (which kinds of events might follow others, which kind of emotions would likely follow others -- i.e., genre) which induces a whole range of forward-looking and backward-looking emotions. If Collins had been unaware of the risk associated with the lunar module ascent, his terror, but also his joy, would have been mitigated. I remember enjoying the first half of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance very much, reading it every moment I had the opportunity. Then at a certain point, I had the feeling that something bad was going to happen to the characters whose fates I cared about. That particular novel comes to mind because it is a lengthy one, and the suspense was drawn out over hundreds of pages. The longer the ominous feeling was drawn out, the worse the bad thing had to be, I suspected. I continued to enjoy scenes of the characters’ domestic contentment and small moments of joy, but it was always pressed upon by my belief that a moment of heartbreak was coming. The translunar flight analogy to reading fiction is apt because every detail of the trip is planned in advance, and such foreknowledge can lend itself to heightened emotion.

The multi-stage Saturn rocket left Earth a 3,000 ton behemoth, 110 meters tall and 10 meters wide, initially accelerating up to 8,500 kilometers per hour (Woods, 2009, p. 56). The crew returned to Earth in a 4-meter wide by 3-meter high capsule that weighed one fifth of one percent of the starting rocket’s weight. At re-entry, the capsule coasted at 13 times the speed of a rifle bullet, burning off the “two-inch-thick honeycomb of carbon fiber and ablation compound ... taking the heat with it” (Nelson, 2009, p. 300). Similarly, it could be said that we go into a novel with a sprawling mass of personal baggage, things that we never perceived or understood about ourselves and others, things that have for some time required an extraordinary amount of psychic energy to transport from one place to another, and, if we are lucky, experiencing the novel allows us to walk away significantly lighter than before, burnished, even cleansed. A nurse who worked with astronauts returning from space saw something similar in their faces: “They have something, a sort of wild look, I would say, as if they had fallen in love with a mystery up there, sort of as if they haven’t got their feet back on the ground, as if they regret having come back to us . . . As if up there they’re not only freed from weight, from the force of gravity, but from desires, affections, passions, ambitions, from the body” (quoted in Nelson, 2009, p. 308). On the return leg of Apollo 14’s journey, Edgar Mitchell experienced what he later called an “ecstasy of unity.... the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos” (Mitchell, 2008, p. 75) and expressed his belief that “humankind was going into space primarily to discover itself” (p. 48.) Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, later mused, “Perhaps going to the Moon and back in itself isn’t all that important. But it is a big enough step to give people a new dimension in their thinking – a sort of enlightenment” (quoted in Nelson, 2009, p. 327). Isn’t this just the sort of thing that reading a good novel can do for us?

Collins, M. (1988). Liftoff: The story of America’s adventure in space. New York: Grove Press.

Laurence, M. (1968). The stone angel. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Mindell, D. A. (2008). Digital Apollo: Human and machine in spaceflight. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Mistry, R. (1995). A fine balance. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Mitchell, E. (2008). The way of the explorer: An Apollo astronaut’s journey through the material and mystical worlds. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books.

Nell, V. (1980). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nelson, C. (2009). Rocket men: The epic story of the first men on the moon. New York: Viking.

Oatley, K. (1999). Why fiction may be twice as true as fact: Fiction as cognitive and emotional simulation. Review of General Psychology, 3, 101-117.

Proust, M. (1913-1927/1987-1989). À la recherche du temps perdu: Le temps retrouvé (Vol. IV). [In search of lost time: Time regained]. Paris: Gallimard.

Tan, E. S. (1994). Story processing as an emotion episode. In H. van Oostendorp & R. A. Zwaan (Eds.), Naturalistic text comprehension, Volume LIII in the series Advances in Discourse Processes. (pp. 165-188). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Woods, W. D. (2009). How Apollo flew to the moon. Chichester, UK: Springer.

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

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Thursday, 11 March 2010

From Pride to Persuasion

Jane Austen could certainly not be accused of drawing portraits of mothers in her work with gentle, loving strokes. Austen’s mothers are tolerated, rather than loved, and with a good reason. Take, for example, Mrs. Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice. How could a woman of “mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper,“ be anything but a drag on the cultured, vivacious life of her husband and children? We are told Mrs. Bennet is entirely unconscious of her own emotional life, while being hyperaware of her daughters’ marital status. Disliking Mrs. Bennet’s morally flimsy character and archaic concerns is easy.

Is it perhaps a bit too easy. Austen reduced Mrs. Bennet to a caricature within the first three pages of Pride and Prejudice. And it worked, too, because no matter how much we, as readers, claim to love ‘complex’ characters, it appeals to our carnivorous nature to have an ignorant character for whom we can feel guilt-free contempt and who will be morally ripped apart for our reading pleasure. Austen dutifully, and one feels – with pleasure – offered us up her ignorant mothers.

It was this history of gentle, encouraging fathers and ignorant, dismissible mothers that made me start within the first few pages of Persuasion. Gone is a fine father – now we have a vain, arrogant, and financially irresponsible Sir Elliot, while a dead mother’s place is filled in by a sensible Lady Russell who is looking out for our heroine’s interests. That, of course, means only one thing – Lady Russell is looking out for Elizabeth marital prospects. No longer is the necessity of marriage mocked. We are made aware of uncertain and humiliating position of an unmarried woman, of ceaselessly belittling subjugation to various family members and their individual fortunes. No longer is the mother (or in this case a mother stand-in) offered up to us for easy consumption.

Why the change? One can’t help but wonder whether the change in Austen’s personal circumstances – her family’s plunge into relative poverty, followed by a death of her father, and then an uneasy series of moves that finally landed her, with her mother and sister, onto a cottage estate of one of her brothers - made her feel that the necessity of marriage, and a mother’s role in it, is not a trivial concern.

It is hard for us, born so late, and living in this century, to imagine a time when a woman of social standing couldn’t just “get a job.” It is hard to think that women’s marriages were their livelihoods, just as we now think of careers in medicine or law. It feels ugly to think about, and hard to make light of. And while Austen never abandoned the idea of a happy marriage as an obligatory happy ending of her works, she might have been finally stung by a reality - mothers may have been ignorant procurers of their daughters to respectable marriages, but they have at least tried to protect them against darker alternatives.

It breaks one’s heart to think of Austen, at 40 and without prospects of marriage, still bringing her heroines and heroes to marital bliss. It must have started to taste bitter in her mouth. But at least she gave mothers a break.

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Monday, 8 March 2010


A recent paper by Simone Schnall and her colleagues (2010) shows that watching certain kinds of scenes on television increased people's inclination to act altruistically. In two experiments Schnall et al. found that watching a seven-minute film clip from an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show in which a musician paid tribute to his mentor and former music teacher, who had saved him from a life of gang activity and violence, increased altruism. The effect is referred to as elevation. The experimenters found it both in self-reports—people felt uplifted, optimistic about humanity, and wanting to become a better person—as well as in increased actual helping of someone else. The film clip from the Oprah Winfrey Show was autobiographical rather than fictional in the ordinary sense, but occasions in which characters act altruistically are not unusual in fiction. This kind of effect may be thought, perhaps, to counteract effects that many fear of violence on television.

It has been known for a long time, since the famous experiments of Alice Isen (e.g. Isen & Levin, 1972), that feeling happy facilitates the helping of others. In the second experiment of the current study, Schnall et al. included a control group in which participants became happy at watching a television episode that was funny. The results were that participants who watched the elevation clip had more subjective feelings of elevation and also did substantially and significantly more actual helping than those who watched the funny clip. As compared with those who watched the funny clip, those who watched the elevating clip spend approximately twice as long helping the experimenter in a tedious task.

Schnall and her colleagues discuss their result in terms of empathy. A way of thinking about their result is that it arises from identification (known to be important in fiction) which is now thought to be based on empathy. Perhaps empathy prompts recognition of, and aspiration to, what Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius (1986) have called a "possible self." If, on the one hand, media-based news and fiction let us know that life is often harsh and unjust, and is sometimes tragic then, on the other hand, it can show that kindness and altruism are possible for us human beings.

Alice Isen & P. F. Levin (1972). The effect of feeling good on helping: Cookies and kindness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 384-388.

Hazel Markus & Paula Nurius (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954-969.

Simone Schnall. Jean Roper & Daniel Fessler (2010). Elevation leads to altruistic behavior. Psychological Science, 21, published online 29 January.

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Thursday, 4 March 2010

P. D. James and Detective Fiction

After a long spell of concentrating on writing, it's been a joy to spend four hours reading a book. The book is by P. D. James (2009) Talking about detective fiction. P.D. James, it seems to me, is in the forefront of writers of detective fiction, not just in recent times, but in all time. Intelligent, concerned with human issues rather than merely intellectual puzzles, a writer of beautiful sentences and of engaging thoughts.

James is now 90 years old. Talking about detective fiction has all the qualities one expects of her. Although the book is brief, although it includes a familiar procession of writers in the history of detective fiction—from Wilkie Collins, to Arthur Conan Doyle, to Dorothy Sayers, to Agatha Christie, to Raymond Chandler—what she writes is always thoughtful. The concerns of her book extend to whether detective fiction is quite serious. Her answer is that that both is and is not. In both cases it manages to be worthwhile. James is full of respect for her forbears and contemporaries. She has a lovely chapter on the women who wrote detective fiction in the years between World War I and World War II, arguing that they enable us to see society at that time rather acutely, and to see the changing conditions for women. And James is not shy of making literary comparisons. She has interesting ideas about Jane Austen and E.M. Forster. This, for instance, she cites from Forster, from "The raison d'être of criticism in the arts," a work I did not know:
What about the creative state? In it a man is taken out of himself. He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious, and draws up something which which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experiences, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art … And when the process is over, when the picture or symphony or lyric or novel (or whatever it is) is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did do it on earth (James, p. 158).
When I wrote my second novel A natural history, I had the idea of writing about a chain of inference in the mind of a scientist of the kind that people like to read in detective stories. It would be just as intricate, I thought, just as dependent on picking up clues. But rather than being focused on one measly murder, it would be focused on how a disease—cholera—killed thousands of people. Wouldn't that be thousands of times better? And wouldn't the reader be able at the same time to understand how scientists think: a bonus? The reader would come to know, too, about what is still the most important discovery in medicine, that germs cause infectious disease.

I was wrong. Not just a bit wrong, but comprehensively wrong. It isn't that my novel didn't work. It worked more-or-less all right, and I am happy with how it turned out. It's just that it did not achieve that resonance with the detective-story-reading public about which I had fantasized. I learned the reason by going to a talk by P. D. James.

The detective story has its appeal, she said in her talk, not because of a death, but because of a murder. Murder is the most horrific of crimes. It damages the fabric of our everyday world. The role of the detective is not to be clever, it's to heal the wound in society. To bring justice, to make the world whole again.

In her current book James says this again: "The detective story proper" she says, "is concerned with the bringing of order out of disorder and the restoration of peace after the destructive eruption of murder" (p. 13). This is the inner movement, the archetypal machinery of the detective story. I hadn't properly understood that. I had thought that the dying of people from disease, and the train of inference to understand how it happened might be equivalent. It isn't. Disease is damaging, but it has no moral dimension. It's human agency that makes murder so destructive to society. That's what makes us want to understand it in such a way that the world can be put right again.

E. M. Forster (1951). The raison d'être of criticism in the arts, in Two cheers for democracy (pp. 107-122). Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace.

P. D. James (2009). Talking about detective fiction. New York: Knopf.

Keith Oatley (1998). A natural history. Toronto: Viking Penguin.

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Monday, 1 March 2010

George Steiner and Auschwitz

In a TVO "Flying Solo" clip, the University of Toronto literary theorist Nick Mount was asked to talk on what art can and cannot do (click here). He says that although art might inspire, the Holocaust contradicts the idea that literary art can make us better, and he cites George Steiner's assertion: “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” The quote is from the preface of Steiner's (1967) essays (p. 15). The editors of OnFiction are concerned with the possibility that literature might enable self-improvement, so this assertion seems devastating.

In an e-mail correspondence, Willie van Peer pointed out to me that although the idea circulates that people who worked in Auschwitz were educated and read literature, Steiner's assertion was made without evidence. Van Peer thinks it highly unlikely that camp workers at Auschwitz read Goethe and Rilke.

Following this correspondence, and to think more deeply on this issue, I re-read Christopher Browning's (1992) Ordinary men, on Battalion 101 of the German Order Police, who formed killing squads in Poland, and of whom more is known than of Auschwitz workers. Most of Browning’s research was based on judicial interrogations of 125 of the 486 men in the battalion. At least some of the battalion’s 11 officers achieved high school education. The rank and file were recruited mostly from the working-class in Hamburg. Their average age was 39, and almost none of them had—apart from vocational training—any education beyond age 15. In 1942, two and a half years after recruitment, it became their job to massacre Jews in Polish towns and villages. Browning compares these men with those of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (now described in a 2007 book), in which men were recruited from an advertisement in a local newspaper and randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners in a simulated prison. There were 70 male volunteers. Men with psychiatric disorders and histories of crime or drugs were excluded, and 24—all college students—were selected as the most stable and psychologically healthy, to be included. Zimbardo was unable to predict from personality testing which of these would behave in particular ways.

Among both the Order Police and the guards in the prison simulation, some 80% acted as their roles required, and a substantial proportion became brutal and enjoyed their newfound power. (In the prison simulation about a third of the guards constantly invented new forms of cruel harassment.) In the Order Police, some 10% to 20% refused to take part in shootings and, comparably, in the prison experiment two of the eleven guards behaved with consideration to the prisoners.

Epidemiological evidence indicates that some 5.8% of men have the psychiatric disorder of anti-social personality, victims generally of genetic vulnerability and abusive parenting, disposed towards life-long interpersonal violence (see e.g. Oatley, Keltner & Jenkins, 2006). But among ordinary men, it remains unclear why some become brutal when put in positions of power. And, although George Steiner said "we know," we are actually entirely lacking in empirical evidence on whether experience of literature affects people who enter societal roles such as the police that require coercion by force.

There are now well-informed historical accounts of how Germany adopted Nazism (e.g. Evans, 2004). Before 1939, the journalist Sebastian Haffner (1940) had perceived that core Nazis were not so much proponents of a political program, but more men of a certain personality type (which today we would call anti-social personality disorder). In one of the world's first well-orchestrated campaigns to use the new media of radio and film, Nazi propaganda persuaded many to see Hitler not as a criminal but as a good person who would lead their country to greatness. Apart from propensity to violence, nationalism, and anti-Semitism, Nazism was marked by hostility to humanitarian values in education. From 1933 onwards, the Nazis replaced the idea of self-betterment through education and reading by practices designed to induce as many as possible into willing conformity, and to coerce the unwilling remainder by justified fear.

Christopher Browning (1992). Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins.

Richard Evans (2004). The coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin.

Sebastian Haffner (1940). Germany Jekyll and Hyde: A contemporary account of Nazi Germany. London: Secker & Warburg (reissued, 2008, Abacus).

Keith Oatley, Dacher Keltner & Jennifer Jenkins (2006). Understanding emotions, second edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

George Steiner (1967). Language and silence: Essays 1958-1966. London: Faber.

Philip Zimbardo (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.

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