Monday, August 30, 2010

In Defense of Torment

Anguish visited on creative artists has become a stereotype, and for a reason. For centuries, artists have shown themselves to be unusually susceptible to anxiety, pain, and self- destruction. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of remarkably successful Eat, Pray Love, took on this suffering in her February 2009 TED talk. Locating the source of the creative spark within (as was the case since Renaissance), rather than without (in daimons of ancient Greece and geniuses of Rome), proved to be, according to Gilbert, an uncommonly destructive idea for artists. If you think you are the source, then you are to blame all those times when your pen, brush, or body, either refuses to move, or, worse, moves in a way that insults the muses. She suggests that the return to the old idea – that it is all out of our hands, good art and bad – may create a protective construct artists may hold up against the onslaught of creative blocks, anxiety, and self-destruction. The important thing, she says, is to keep showing up for work. If a great work of art is created, you can’t take the praise (which will prevent narcissism), and if you produce something lame, it is not your fault. After all, you have showed up for your part of the deal and it is really your daimon who must have been sleepy that day. She should take the blame.

One can’t but be moved by Gilbert’s tender plea for a shield with which to protect artists against themselves. But chasing the torment away, I think, is even more dangerous than yielding to it. Torment serves a purpose, and the purpose is to remind us that, at this particular time, we are not very good channels for inspiration. And being a rusty channel, I’m afraid, is entirely our fault. If we want to take lessons from the ancients, we should swallow both their sweet and bitter seeds. Socrates’ lesson was not that your daimon shows up some days to fill your page, other days staying away. It is that we all have a daimon, and that our daimon is with us all the time, but that our ears are too full of other things to hear it. Socrates was a slave only to his daimon, and consequently heard it all the time. Modern artists, like ancient ones, and like non-artists too, are slaves to many other things besides - success, fear, productivity – and enough noise will make the gentle music of art inaudible. Torment is the way we are reminded to quiet the noise, and start paying attention. It is a reminder to be slaves to our art. And being slaves to our art does not mean being chained to your desk. It means probing, and sometimes destroying, the inner landscape that has grown insensitive to the elusive caress of art.

So it seems it’s not just about showing up at your writing desk. While inspiration is still a gift, the torment is a warning signal that we are, for now, unfit to receive it. So, no matter how much Gilbert wants to save us from ourselves, we cannot wish away the paradox that seems both unfair and irrational - that in art, while we cannot take the praise, we have to take the blame.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Research Opportunity in Amsterdam

Who wants to join a Dutch psychological research team on literary and cinematic narrative?

A new research project on experiences that are characteristic for engaging with fiction is starting in the Netherlands right now. The aim is to sort out different modes of absorption (e.g. "concentration", "transportation", "presence") in  people's engagement with literary and cinematic narrative, and to find out what properties of stories are responsible for the various experiential states. Another is to disclose the relations of various forms of absorption with aesthetic experiences, such as a sense of beauty or fascination. Frank Hakemulder (Utrecht University) and Ed Tan (Amsterdam University) will supervise two PhD students and a postdoc over the next four years. The researchers intend to keep the readership of OnFiction posted on ground breaking results of the research and look for opportunities to involve the OnFiction community in the studies.

For the moment we report that one of the two PhD positions, the one devoted to studies in absorption in film viewing, is still vacant. We are searching for a graduate in relevant disciplines such as cognitive psychology, emotion psychology, literary and film studies, who is willing to accept the challenge posed by interdisciplinary research in a stimulating academic and cultural environment. Candidates should be able to couple knowledge of theories and cognitive models of narrative in film or literature with experience of real time psychological experimentation. Affinity with manufacturing video would be an advantage. The candidate will work in Amsterdam; a fellowship is offered sufficient for living in Amsterdam and tuition. For details and application procedure please click here to go to the website for the post, and/or contact Ed Tan The deadline for applications is September 12 2010.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Narrative Schemata in Guidebooks

As OnFiction readers will know, we have from time to time demonstrated a certain editorial affection for travelogue. Professional geographers also have a strong travelogue tradition--and a rather parallel tradition of field guides and guidebooks: stories of places visited ahead of time and reported back to travelers who might follow.

Orientation to places through such field guides produces a particular narrative experience. Desiring guidance, travelers turn to guidebooks' accounts to guide their experience of places not only when they face the prospect of travel, but also like they might turn to literary criticism--to enrich the schemata that organize the conceptualization of places and spaces. The usual format of both field and travel guides suggests that they are rather more like encyclopedias than like stories: lists of places or sites one might visit, with glossing about the highlights--much more catalogs of settings than narratives with characters and plot.

One might consider that even if the places or place features of guides take the place of characters in stories, they are still too lacking in plot to be considered as something we might recognize as a story. However, even in the most encyclopedic formats (and certainly in the form of travel guide that hybridizes Frommers and Under the Tuscan Sun), narrative form is suggested by methods that demonstrate some of the ways that readers' emotions are enrolled in producing experiences of stories.

e of the more obvious methods are in the sequencing and narration of travel highlights. Structuring an itinerary around a series of predictable high points helps prime a reader or traveler for particular experiences, not only in terms of appropriate preparation and anticipation for experiences to be had and transitions between them, but also in relation to the unexpected experiences of travel or exploration. The proportion and framing of such unexpecteds in relation to predictable events appear to be, in fact, some of the significant qualities determining guides' price points, with "budget travelers" or adventurous field explorers expected to want a higher proportion of information about setting (think very detailed bird guides here) and less prompting about how they ought to respond to the setting (in contrast, particularly, to the most narrative style of guide, modeled after books such as Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence).

One of the implications of the prefigured adventure format is the grappling with plot and character in which the reader / traveler must engage to form an actual experience. Each reader gets to figure out his or her own plot of activities and emotions, but each factual bit of advice is likely to also come with expectations of reactions and performative schemata. Even field guides, which seem at first much less prefigured, proffer considerable pre-ordering of experience, with normative assessments of the value of and proper response to the domain in question.

The image above is the cover of Dolores Hayden and Jim Wark's 2004 A Field Guide to Sprawl. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sunless and Stillness, by Tessa Overbeek

Last Thursday and the Thursday before we described the competition among people registered at the recent conference in Utrecht of the International Society for Research on Literature (IGEL 2010) for an essay on the concept of stillness. The competition was organized by Frank Hakemulder and Emy Koopman. "Stillness," said the invitation, "signifies the counterweight against our hectic, stressful everyday existence. To give a preliminary definition we would say that it is an emotion of calmness and/or reflection which can be evoked by beauty. But of course, you are free to give your own, diverting, thoughts on the matter. For the contest we would like you to respond to the following question: What particular piece of fiction (novel, short story, movie, play) contributes best to ‘stillness’ according to you and why?"

The essays for the IGEL competition were all rather different, and the organizers awarded three equal first place positions. Each winner read his or her essay to a plenary session at the conference, and an arrangement was made to publish their winning essays on OnFiction. The essay we present this week is by Tessa Overbeek of the University of Groningen.

An extra piece of information, published with the invitation and relevant to Tessa's essay, is that the idea for the competition came from the Yann Martel’s project, What is Stephen Harper Reading? Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister of Canada.

Here is a quote from Martel's website:

"Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.

"But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.

"For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website (click here)"

Sunless and Stillness

“All I have to offer is myself.” Chris Marker 1997

This quote by the famously unfamous Chris Marker seems like the second best way to introduce this reclusive French filmmaker. The best way would be to show you his films. Marker is what could be called media-shy. He does not do interviews or publicity. But what better way to let himself be known than to make art?

His film Sans Soleil (Sunless) inspired me to write this essay, but describing it could not possibly do it justice, even if I had a billion words at my disposal. I can only hope that a reflection on my experience of it will encourage others to go and see it for themselves.

Seeing Marker’s Sunless felt like being inside his head, looking through his eyes, following his train of thought, or trying to. The gaps between ideas may have been small in his mind, but required a giant leap in mine. This made watching it quite challenging, yet at the same time makes this film great. My understanding grew with each viewing, and it felt like that process would never stop.

By now you must be thinking: “That sounds like hard work, wasn’t this essay supposed to be about ‘stillness’?” It is, although I would like to make a few changes to this definition of it: “an emotion of calmness and/or reflection which can be evoked by beauty.” What I would want to challenge most is the last word. There is a lot to be said about beauty, which I think is a very important phenomenon when studying literature and other media (which from here on out, I would like to call “the arts”). But not all great art is necessarily beautiful.

Yann Martel’s inclusion of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in his list of books for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (and his motivation of this choice) shows that he means something more when he uses the concept of stillness. I would also like to erase the “or” from the definition, because I think great art makes calmness and reflection occur together, although not always simultaneously.

What seems very accurate in the introductory text to this contest, is the statement that stillness can be a counterweight against our stressful everyday existence. It is my hypothesis that experiencing art entails roughly the same processes as making art. I would like to propose that it has more to do with creativity than with beauty (which are both not restricted to art).

The Brain Book, a recent and comprehensive guide to the human brain by Rita Carter, states that creativity depends on two things: the first is a certain state of “idleness,” the second is a foundation of knowledge. The bombardment of stimuli we have to endure in our daily lives forces us to ignore a lot of information. In order to function, we only consciously perceive what is relevant to what we are doing at that moment.

Creativity, however, requires a different state of mind, which is more open and relaxed, or calm, if you will. On EEG scans, this state can be recognized by slow alpha waves. In this state we do absorb information that we usually shut out, and are able to let it resonate with our memories (or reflect on it). According to Carter, this results in the generation of new thoughts and ideas that can be novel and useful.

This is a definition of creativity that closely resembles my (slightly altered) definition of “stillness.” There is calm and there is reflection, plus it is a state that is different from the one that is usually dominant in our daily lives. I would like to call it an “open mind.” It goes without saying that when something is open, things can both enter and leave it.

Which brings me back to Chris Marker, Sunless and my experience of it. It truly felt like someone had opened his mind to the world, had mixed what entered with what was already there, and had finally opened up his mind to me. Because he was in this special mental state, he could be more open than he could ever be in an interview.

Opening my own mind in return seemed like the only right thing to do. At first, I could not take it all in, and some things escaped my attention. What I did absorb engaged with my memories and must have been appropriated by that process, as if it was converted into my knowledge. This enabled me to see new themes and motives with every viewing, and this helped my interpretation of the film, which by that time was probably as much my own construction as it was his. I followed his associations as well as I could, but could not help but add my own.

The memory of that experience resulted in this essay. Could creativity lead to more creativity? I would not dare to compare mine to his, but something new was created nonetheless. Creativity does not only occur in art, but in science and leadership as well. New ideas can change the world, so anything that can stimulate their occurrence must be encouraged.

Martel’s plan may make his prime minister a better leader, and it may even lead to more funding for the arts, which seems to be the writer's second objective. If politicians would feel what I felt when experiencing Sunless, would they be more willing to invest in art? Possibly, although perhaps some people are more open to hard facts, presented in a more straightforward manner.

This is where the empirical study of arts comes in. Technologies that allow us to study the brain are becoming more numerous, and with the right methods we can hopefully soon prove what we already feel: that art can stimulate our minds in a way that is not only pleasurable, but also useful.

Rita Carter et al. The Brain Book. An Illustrated Guide to its Structure, Function, and Disorders. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2009.

Chris Marker, director. Sans Soleil (Sunless). Argos Films, 1983.
Tessa Overbeek

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Creative Writing and Psychology, by Elaine Hatfield

Many doctors have become writers of fiction, perhaps most notably Anton Chekhov, also a good number of philosophers, for instance Jean-Paul Sartre, but what about psychologists? Not so many perhaps, and not so famous in the world of fiction, at least not yet. At OnFiction, we know a few, and we are asking some of them to write posts for us about the relationship of their psychology to their writing of fiction. Anyone who is a psychologist who writes fiction, or a knows of such a person who might be good for us to approach, please get in touch with Keith Oatley (e-mail is in my Profile).

The first psychologist-novelist we have asked to write for us is Elaine Hatfield, a noted social psychologist whose best known work is on love and its social implications. Her first novel was Rosie, about a young psychologist, Rosie St Giles, who has a temporary teaching job at the University of Hawaii. She has a prestigious research grant on love which is singled out by a United States Senator as being a waste of tax-payers' money. Rosie is zippy and unusual as a protagonist, and the novel's other characters are interesting and recognizable. The novel is about the fortunes of Rosie and the US Senator who thinks his ridicule of Rosie's research will be a cheap way of winning votes. Hatfield's style is racy. Her mix of politics, the workings of academe, and sexual goings on (of which there are quite a few) works really well. An excellent read.
Creative Writing and Psychology
I’ve always been interested in creative writing. When I was 12, I was poet laureate of the Detroit Police Gazette—the Truborg. It has all been downhill from there. Nevertheless, when I started a serious creative writing career fifteen years ago, I was surprised to discover that creative writing and academic writing aren’t that far apart.

Firstly, psychologists probably have a head start as creative writers since we are intrigued by character and human foibles.

Secondly, in both careers you do best if you explore the topics that interest you. If you try to please the crowds, you are doomed.

Thirdly, therapists, scientists, and budding creative writers have to have realistic expectations as to the praise they will receive. It is easy to believe that if we are just brilliant enough, work hard enough, do everything right, we will reap the adulation of the crowds. That is expecting way too much. There is an old saying: “When we’re 20, we worry about what people think of us; when we’re 30, we don’t care what they think; by the time we’re 40, we realize they’re probably not thinking of us at all.” I would argue that if you can find a very few colleagues and readers who admire your writing, you should count yourself very lucky. As for the other 99%, I’m afraid we just have to take censure in stride.

In the interests of “truth in advertising,” I thought that I’d share a few of my favorite “awful” letters with you to remind us all what anyone who deals with agents, publishers, and the public can expect—on a good day.
1. Thanks, but this is way too good for us. We publish pointedly tasteless stuff.

2. Thank you so very much for your submission “Holy Guacamole.” Your piece is well crafted, but cannot be used in The Blackstone Circular. Some of my subscribers are rich, while others are working class. They would be offended. Can you send me a positive point of view, either about them or about your own class of people?

3. We sorry fo’ say we nevah choose your submission to Hybolics. But dat no means ees junk. Jus cuz we nevah take yo’r stuff dis time, no sked cuz we kinda moody. Shoots den. Write on, brah.
The point? My suspicion is that, in creative writing and psychology as in life, the prerequisites for “success” are not talent but independence, enthusiasm, endurance, and resilience. That—and a large dose of self-mocking humor. A thick skin might also help. The rewards of a successful career must be intrinsic: the pleasure of saying what you can’t help saying and doing what you can’t help doing. If one casts one’s fate to the adulation of colleagues or the crowds, then—good luck.
Elaine Hatfield

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Road Back to Social Engagement, by Howard Sklar

Last Thursday, we described the competition among people registered at the recent conference in Utrecht of the International Society for Research on Literature (IGEL 2010) for an essay on the idea of stillness. The competition was organized by Frank Hakemulder and Emy Koopman. "Stillness," said the invitation, "signifies the counterweight against our hectic, stressful everyday existence. To give a preliminary definition we would say that it is an emotion of calmness and/or reflection which can be evoked by beauty. But of course, you are free to give your own, diverting, thoughts on the matter. For the contest we would like you to respond to the following question: What particular piece of fiction (novel, short story, movie, play) contributes best to ‘stillness’ according to you and why?"

The essays were all rather different, and the organizers awarded three equal first place positions. Each winner read his or her essay to a plenary session at the conference, and an arrangement was made to publish their winning essays on OnFiction. The essay we present this week is by Howard Sklar of the University of Helsinki. It appears below. The other winning essay will appear here in a week's' time.

The Road Back to Social Engagement:
The Effects of Stillness and Solitude in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Betrayals”

Ordinarily, when we think of “stillness” we conjure images of a solitary person, legs crossed, overlooking a placid valley. Or quietly meditating on a mat in a silent room. Or “lost in a book,” securely cloistered from the mad rush of the world around him. Undoubtedly, these activities often promote a sense of quietness, of stillness, a feeling of slowing the world down.

But I’d like to look at what we’re slowing down to: What, in fact, is the point of this stillness-seeking? After all that stillness has been sought and gained, where does it lead us? I’d like to suggest that one of the aims of isolating ourselves from others is to discover, ironically, that we are intimately and inherently interdependent with everyone else on the planet. In stillness comes the recognition that all things are one. In solitude comes communion.

This is the underlying “message” of a work of fiction that has been very meaningful to me: Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella “Betrayals.” In this narrative, we discover that there’s a social consequence to the act of seeking solitude: By isolating ourselves, we are not immediately attending to others. At the same time, there is a personal consequence to that stillness-seeking: By isolating ourselves, others cannot attend to us. This is not to suggest that we do not need “alone time,” but, ultimately, our moments of stillness must lead us back to engagement with the world. Indeed, it is in such moments, perhaps, that we are most able to recognize how interdependent we all are.

“Betrayals” centers on the experience of Yoss, a woman who has come to live in a vacant house in the marshlands after her daughter and granddaughter have decided to move to another planet. From the first paragraphs we discover that she has chosen to live in a form of spiritual isolation on the marshlands, but we gradually realize that she considers herself inadequate to pursue the inner peace that she craves. She tells herself:
[W]hat a fool I was to think I could ever drink water and be silent! I’ll never, never be able to let anything go, anything at all. I’ll never be free, never be worthy of freedom. Even old age can’t make me let go. Even losing [my daughter] Safnan can’t make me let go. (5)
At the heart of Yoss’ sense of loss is the realization—at least, as Yoss sees it—that her daughter has rejected her: “They left me and I am dead” (11). As a result, she has come to live in the marshlands, a setting that seems to reflect her inner state, her intense loneliness. The lands contain “useless people on useless land. The freedom of desolation. And all through the marshes there were lonely houses” (9). This “desolation” reflects a greater sense of “uselessness,” of self-contempt, to the extent that those who go there to live essentially intend to die. As Yoss thinks, “I came here to be dead” (11).

Also living on the marshlands is one Abberkam, the former leader of the World Party. Yoss describes the crimes of which he had been accused and the feeling of betrayal that these acts engendered in his people. Yoss also expresses her own contempt for him. Perhaps due to the shame of this betrayal, Abberkam also appears to have come to the marshlands to die.

Thus, both seekers find in the marshlands a stillness that is bereft of meaning, devoid of love. Yet it is also this stillness that allows them, gradually, to notice each other and thereby attend to each other’s needs. Despite her initial contempt for Abberkam, Yoss realizes that he is suffering from an illness that, if left untreated, will kill him. Her patient tending of his illness penetrates Abberkam’s embittered heart, and draws him out of his own malaise to consider Yoss’s needs and concerns. This becomes evident during a particularly cold period, when Yoss needs to go to the town to buy some supplies, and leaves a fire burning in the hearth to keep her house warm. The fire spreads, and Abberkam, noticing the blaze and thinking that Yoss is inside, hurriedly enters the house. Inside, he finds only Yoss’ cat, which has been trapped there. Abberkam rescues the cat and, upon Yoss’s return, tells her how terribly worried he had been.

These gestures of active sympathy, these attempts to extend the self to the concerns of the other, turn Yoss and Abberkam from seekers of stillness as isolation to practitioners of the healing that can come from the quiet and still awareness that our lives are inevitably and beautifully intertwined with the world and creatures and people that surround us.

Portions of this essay have been adapted from Sklar (2008). Permission to reprint is hereby granted by Paradoxa. For more information write to

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1995) “Betrayals.” In Four Ways to Forgiveness. New York: HarperPrism.

Sklar, Howard (2008) “Sympathy as Self-Discovery: The Implications of Caring for Others in ‘Betrayals.’” Paradoxa: World Literary Genres 21: 184-203 (special issue on Ursula K. Le Guin).
Howard Sklar

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Monday, August 9, 2010


Sonia Zyngier's lovely essay that we posted on Thursday (click here) set me thinking about endings of works of narrative fiction. Sonia quotes the last paragraph of James Joyce's "The Dead," and in my view this is one of the very best literary endings. It reminded me of another ending: the words said by Horatio to Hamlet as he dies in William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Both these endings are based on synecdoche, which comes from the Greek, and means something like "understanding at the same time." It's a figure in which a part stands for a whole. To put it in this way sounds dry and pedantic, but this figure has been the basis for some of literature's most profound endings. Here's the one from Hamlet. As Hamlet dies, Horatio says:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
It's been said that these are the two most beautiful lines in Shakespeare, and I agree. They are based on a succession of synecdoches, a succession of expansions. In the first of these lines, "heart" stands not only for the life of the body but for the very core of being. "Good night" is said at the small leave-taking we can make each evening with anyone who is with us. Here it points to a complete departure. In the next line, "sing" stands for a ceremonial in which we join together to recognize something of the importance of each human life, and "rest" for the final resting state. The figure of synecdoche is suggestive. What we make of the expansion it suggests is up to us. For me the succession of invited expansions in Horatio's lines, perhaps especially the "Good night"—words that have been said to all of us from childhood onwards—prompt a sense of inclusiveness that I find extraordinarily moving. And so, as I put it in a 2004 article (page 328): 
this culmination … is metonymic: it is a synechdoche (part for whole) in which we experience a singular event, the death of Hamlet, as emblematic of the larger fate of humanity … Our emotions expand from Hamlet, an individual character in fiction with whom we feel intimacy, to an inclusive empathetic understanding of the plight of all humankind, caught up as we are in, "accidental judgements, casual slaughters … purposes mistook."
In a comparable way, the ending of James Joyce's "The Dead" is this:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain … His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe, and faintly falling like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Here, again, is an expansion from the particularities of a literary character—Gabriel Conroy's  sexual longing, his disappointment, his jealousy, his feeling of ordinariness in not having fulfilled his own aspirations and in not having been what his wife has most desired—to a generality: the snow as it falls "faintly through the universe" on everyone, "upon all the living and the dead."

James Joyce (1914). The dead. In J. Joyce, Dubliners. London: Penguin (This edition 1976).

Keith Oatley (2004). Scripts, transformations, and suggestiveness, of emotions in Shakespeare and Chekhov. Review of General Psychology, 8, 323-340.

William Shakespeare (1600). Hamlet (Ed. H. Jenkins). London: Methuen (current edition 1981).

Image: Part of a still from John Huston's film of "The Dead."

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Solitary Reader, by Sonia Zyngier

Amongst the events at the recent conference in Utrecht of the International Society for Research on Literature (IGEL 2010) was an invitation to all those who registered to enter a competition for an essay on the concept of stillness. The competition was organized by Frank Hakemulder and Emy Koopman. "Stillness," said the invitation, "signifies the counterweight against our hectic, stressful everyday existence. To give a preliminary definition we would say that it is an emotion of calmness and/or reflection which can be evoked by beauty. But of course, you are free to give your own, diverting, thoughts on the matter. For the contest we would like you to respond to the following question: What particular piece of fiction (novel, short story, movie, play) contributes best to ‘stillness’ according to you and why?"

The organizers of the competition found an extraordinary variety in the essays, and awarded three equal first place positions. Each winner read his or her essay to a plenary session at the conference, and an arrangement was made to publish their winning essays on OnFiction. One of the winners was Sonia Zyngier, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and her essay appears below. The two other winning essays will appear here in one week and two weeks' time.

The Solitary Reader
To start by saying that stillness is a fuzzy and complex concept would be too easy. How can one explain the overwhelming feeling of peace that takes hold of oneself at a certain moment? An “emotion of calmness”? This sounds rather paradoxical as stillness involves progressive alienation from external stimuli. I am referring to that moment induced by a memory, by the silence which hangs in the air, magically, after a musical performance, just before the audience breaks into applause, or by the language which disconnects the reader from the immediate context or circumstance. To an external observer, the experiencer may be immobile. On the contrary, the feeling of rapture which comes into play opens the way to a different frame of mind, one in which contemplation prevails.

But would “stillness” be the best word for this feeling? It does cover part of what is needed: a state of inactivity and absence of physical disturbance. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it implies “freedom from tumult, strife, or agitation”. Indeed, to experience it, the pace must be reduced, the pitches lowered, focus and concentration obtained. In order to listen to Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan”, one must have silence and a sense of removal from the where, the when and the why. One just needs to allow the soft sounds to do their work of transportation into this different sphere. When watching films like the recent release “Mademoiselle Chambon”, for instance, we sit in darkness and silence, and allow the slow narrative and poetic photographic takes to do they work on us and help us achieve the balance necessary for this state of quiescence to be installed.

Turning the focus more specifically to literature, how do authors use language which may result in the reader’s loss of the sense of immediacy and that of time? The mechanisms may vary, such as identification with the character, or “imaginative participation”. But not all art, be it filmic, plastic or literary lead into this state. Dan Brown’s and some of Charles Dickens’s novels, although well-written, never reach the effect that the end of Joyce’s “The Dead” has on the reader:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain … His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe, and faintly falling like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
The snow is a perfect image: silent and silencing, peacefully covering both the quick and the dead. Another illustration is the quiet moment in which Woolf describes how Mrs. Dalloway finds a brief retreat from her ebullience into a dark room from where she has a glimpse of an old lady closing a window next door. Here is how she words this vision:
it was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed alone. She pulled the blind now. The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him. With the clock striking the hour, one two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. There! The old lady had put out her light! The whole house was dark now with this going on, she repeated, and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night!
Woolf’s ability to choose words and place them in such an order activates the move into a space away from chronology and immediacy. By de-familiarizing the reader’s experience, the perception is prolonged and the reader progresses from the words on the page to a state of contemplation. No matter how brief it may be, the experience arrests time and the reader is set against the grain of modern life, with its emphasis on speed productivity and success.

But if we are to search for more illustrations of stillness, nothing compares to the production of the Romantic poets, contemplative bards par excellence. Wordsworth’s insight as he sees and hears a reaper, bending over her sickle, makes the year 1803 and his Scottish tour dissolve in thin air:
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.

No nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travelers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
In springtime from the cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?--
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of today?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?

Whate'er the theme, the maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending;--
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
The vision enriches the observer, as he constructs the poem hearing the song that remained in his heart. To arrive at this state, Wordsworth had to “listen ... motionless and still”. The tempo is largo, the pitch low.

Far from being a divine or special gift -- although religion does resort to it – stillness is a necessary human condition. Our brain has developed in such manner that it enables us to reflect, to appreciate, to feel in many complex ways. Stillness allows us to disengage ourselves from all kinds of constraints of everyday life and let our mental energies be mobilized into suspended states of contemplation, which enables us to re-evaluate our existence. Here, Rodin’s words on art can be extended to stillness: “ It is not only a question of intellectual pleasure … but of much more … Art shows man his raison d’être. It reveals to him the meaning of life, it enlightens him upon his destiny, and consequently points him on his way.” In stillness the mental apparatus refuels itself, gains new energy to proceed and to create again and again, as Wordsworth and many other artists did.
Sonia Zyngier

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Reading in Time

Although there has been a good deal of attention to foregrounding in literary texts (i.e., unusual or arresting stylistic features), little notice has been paid to its temporal aspects. We know, from our own studies of response to literary short stories (Miall & Kuiken, 1994), that readers slow down when they encounter a foregrounded passage (although they may not be aware of this). On average a highly foregrounded passage takes roughly twice as long to read as a passage with little or no foregrounding – but this is a rather simple measure of what may be occurring during the moments of first encounter. So more recently I have been thinking about what neural processes may unfold following our initial encounter with it, in particular, what occurs during the first 400-500 msecs, and whether these processes might be able to tell us anything about the literary qualities of foregrounding.

As I did some reading in this area, another issue that I was reminded of was this: that several authors such as Libet (2000), Wegner (2002), and Damasio (1999), have argued that neuropsychological data show that it takes about half a second for us to become conscious of a neural impulse. As Damasio (1999) puts it, “We are probably late for consciousness by about five hundred milliseconds” (127).

Putting these two perspectives together suggests that a rich and complex response to foregrounding may be occurring at the initial moments of encounter, and that this only becomes consciously available after several hundred milliseconds. A glimpse of the kinds of processes involved is available from the research literature on the orienting response, that is, studies of brainwave patterns, or EEG – in particular, studies of first responses to the various features of language. Although this literature has not, with one or two exceptions, paid attention to specifically literary features of language, it may hold some clues as to which combination or sequence of responses help to characterize literariness.

My attention was drawn to this issue several years ago by some comments of Jenefer Robinson in Deeper than Reason (2005). She develops what she refers to as an affective appraisal theory, a helpful contrast to earlier emotion theories that called for a cognitive evaluation first as a prompt to emotion. In her view, affective appraisal is followed by physiological changes that promote attention to the object in question (42). But she then argues that such activity is “immediately modified by subsequent cognitive monitoring” (59). This seemed to me a mistake: it underestimated the power of affect in promoting further responses and directing thought. This is just what a number of the EEG studies I had examined seemed to indicate: that cognitive processes, considered as conscious modulation of response, played a secondary role to several key affective processes that rapidly follow stimulus onset. In other words, cognitive ability to monitor or modify response only becomes possible in the rear of several affective processes that appear to have priority. These processes need not (and probably do not) initially depend on consciousness. As Posner and DiGiralamo (2000) point out, unattended stimuli can be processed to a high level, but go on to capture attention (p. 882).

In the 2010 IGEL conference papers I presented recently on this topic, I described a number of EEG studies of first responses to language that seem to support this contention. Ashby, et al. (2009) show that early processing of phonetic features occurs at 80 msec.; word length and orthographic features are processed at around 90 msec. But then, at an early stage, potential deviation may be detected: word frequency is assessed at around 110 to 170 msec; semantic coherence at around 160 msec. (Hauk, et al., 2009). If a word is of low frequency or low predictability in its context, this has already been detected prior to 200 msec, as Dambacher, et al. (2006) show. According to Bostanov, et al. (2004) the detection of emotional stimuli, what they call “nonverbal affective vocalizations,” occurs at around 150 to 200 msec compared with semantic incongruity which is identified 100 msec or more later. Hence, they observe, “emotion may be grasped faster than meaning” (266). Scott, et al. (2009) found that the response to emotional words differentiated positive from negative words at around 135 to 180 msec. The priority of emotion processing is suggested by their contention that “a word’s affective semantics is not a consequence of but, rather, a component of its lexical activation” (95). Thus, if foregrounding arises from phonetic features, incongruity, unusual words, affective coloration, and the like, then within the first 200 msecs a defamiliarizing response already appears to be in train.

In addition to the components of foregrounding that the EEG studies suggest, the preconscious components of literary response also appear to include motor activation. Mirror neuron studies, for example, show that motor neurons are activated when participants read words connoting action, such as the names of tools (Grafton et al., 1997; Oliveri, et al., 2004). In addition, as Boulenger, et al. (2006) point out, since the mirror neuron system that simulates experiences of the other can be activated by a word, empathic responses also seem likely to occur early in processing, prior to the window of consciousness. Underlying empathy is our ability to rapidly recognize the motives and intentions of others, to invoke the “intentional stance” central to social cognition (Mar, et al., 2007, 199).

The EEG studies I have cited, showing the early advent of affective and lexical responses, motor activation, or empathy, still leave us at some distance from the issue of literariness. But the studies are suggestive, and point to what is needed next: that is, carefully controlled studies of response to literary and non-literary texts designed to distinguish literary from other types of response. This will also require a better understanding of the role of foregrounding than we currently have. Foregrounding, as Mukarovsky (1964, p. 20) argued, has a structure in literary texts: it is systematic and hierarchical. This structure, if it forms a significant component of what makes a text literary, may be detectable through appropriately designed EEG studies.

Note. For a broader overview of the neuropsychology of literariness, see Miall (2009).

  Ashby, J., Sanders, L. D., & Kingston, J. (2009). Skilled readers begin processing sub-phonemic features by 80ms during visual word recognition: Evidence from ERPs. Biological Psychology, 80, 84-94.
  Bostanov, V., & Kotchoubey, B. (2004). Recognition of affective prosody: Continuous wavelet measures of event-related brain potentials to emotional exclamations. Psychophysiology, 41, 259-268.
  Boulenger, V., Roy, A. C., Paulignan, Y., Deprez, V., Jeannerod, M., & Nazir, T. A. (2006). Cross-talk between language processes and overt motor behavior in the first 200 msec of processing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 1607-1615.
  Damasio, A. R. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt.
  Dambacher, M., Kliegl, R., Hofmann, M., & Jacobs, A. M. (2006). Frequency and predictability effects on event-related potentials during reading. Brain Research, 1084, 89-103.
  Grafton, S. T., Fadiga, L., Arbib, M. A., & Rizzolatti, G. (1997). Premotor cortex activation during observation and naming of familiar tools. Neuroimage, 6, 231–236.
  Hauk, O., Pulvermüller, F., Ford, M., Marslen-Wilson, W.D., Davis, M.H. (2009). Can I have a quick word? Early electrophysiological manifestations of psycholinguistic processes revealed by event-related regression analysis of the EEG. Biological Psychology, 80, 64-74.
  Libet, B. (2002). The timing of mental events: Libet's experimental findings and their implications. Consciousness and Cognition, 11, 291-299.
  Mar, R. A., Kelley, W. M., Heatherton, T. F., & Macrae, C. N. (2007). Detecting agency from the biological motion of veridical versus animated agents. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2, 199–205.
  Miall, D. S. (2009). Neuroaesthetics of literary reading. In M. Skov & O. Vartanian (Eds.), Neuroaesthetics (pp. 233-247). Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing.
  Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. (1994). Foregrounding, defamiliarization, and affect: Response to literary stories. Poetics, 22, 389-407.
  Mukařovský, J. (1964/1932). Standard language and poetic language. In P.L. Garvin (ed.), A Prague School reader on esthetics, literary structure, and style (pp. 17-30). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
  Oliveri, M., Finocchiaro, C., Shapiro, K., Gangitano, M., Caramazza, A., & Pascual-Leone, A. (2004). All talk and no action: A transcranial magnetic stimulation study of motor cortex activation during action word production. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16, 374-381.
  Posner, M. I., and DiGirolamo, G. J. (2000). Cognitive neuroscience: Origins and promise. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 873–889.
  Robinson, J. (2005). Deeper than reason: Emotion and its role in literature, music, and art. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  Scott, G. G., O’Donnell, P. J., Leuthold, H., & Sereno, S. C. (2009). Early emotion word processing: Evidence from event-related potentials. Biological Psychology, 80, 95-104.
  Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Image: from David Miall's website (click here) photo S. Chard.

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