Monday, February 28, 2011

The Inner World

As Ingmar Bergman's film Fanny and Alexander opens, it’s 1907, and a theater company holds its Christmas party. The actor-manager, Oscar Ekdahl (Allan Edwall), makes a speech to the inhabitants of the little world inside the playhouse walls. “Outside,” he says, “is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we can see it better.” This is the best statement I know of the purpose of fiction.

Within each of us, too, there is a little world—an inner world—and the purpose of that, too, is to reflect the big world. Sometimes a director comes along whose films, by a double reflection, help us understand how our inner world reflects the big world. Such a one was Ingmar Bergman, born in 1918, in Uppsala, Sweden, where Fanny and Alexander was filmed. I have never been able to understand why more films don't invite the reflectiveness of great plays, novels, and short stories. Bergman shows it can be done, and in this film, here he is doing it again.

The film is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In the film, Oscar Ekdahl (who gave the Christmas speech) is the father of the film's 11-year-old protagonist, Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). Oscar dies onstage as he plays the part of the ghost of Hamlet's father. From time to time, in the film, Oscar's ghost appears to Alexander, and looks on in sorrow and affection.

The second act of the film starts with the intrusion of the outer world into Fanny and Alexander's affectionate family in the form of the handsome Bishop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö), who seeks to comfort the grieving Emilie (Ewa Fröling), Oscar's widow and mother of Fanny and Alexander. Emilie mistakes the attentions of the bishop for solicitude and, in undue haste, she agrees to marry him, and move with her children to his prison-like bishop's palace

Psychologically the film is about the developmental idea that at some point in childhood one has to leave the containment of the family and confront the big world of potentially damaging conflict. For Alexander and Fanny, this world impinges in the form of the bishop. In the big world beyond the family—usually the world of school and then work—affection tends to becomes scarcer and power assertion to become more salient. In the film, this outside element is represented by the stepfather–bishop's sadistic bullying as he strives to control Alexander—for his own good, of course.

In the end, the bishop dies, and the affectionate family starts to rebuild. But the bishop's ghost appears to Alexander and trips him up as he walks along a corridor. Alexander's terrible discovery is that the bishop has become part of him. With the appearance of the bishop's ghost, we know that something has entered Alexander. Bergman's accomplishment is that we know it has entered us, too, and is there as a reality because, as does Alexander, we recognize in ourselves the emotions of destructive revenge against an oppressor such as the bishop. We can even be moralistic about them. As William Faulkner (1951, p. 92) put it: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

A longer review is in our archive of Film Reviews, click here.

Ingmar Bergman (Director). (1982). Fanny and Alexander. Sweden: Svensk Filmindustri.
William Faulkner (1951). Requiem for a nun. New York: Random House.
William Shakespeare (1981). Hamlet. London: Methuen. (Original work performed 1600).
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Monday, February 21, 2011

Burke's Oceanic Wave

In his new book, Literary reading, cognition and emotion, Michael Burke presents a model of reading that he calls "oceanic." As I understand it, he means that reading a piece of literary fiction is like making oneself part of a wave. To begin with, as we prepare to read, we must be in the right mood, get into the right kind of place, and arrange ourselves properly. As our own resources of mood and memory start up they mingle, like the waters of a growing wave, with the book we start to read and, as the story progresses, the wave rises with a gathering tension until at last it breaks and the tension is released. This final phase can be what James Joyce and Burke call an epiphany. In it, however, the principal purpose of fiction is not yet achieved. As Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Ernest Hemingway: this purpose "is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader's mind" (Burke, p. 1). This is a lovely model, and Burke explores it in his wide-ranging discussion of psychology, stylistics, and literary theory, as well as in the surveys of readers that he has conducted.

Near the beginning of his Chapter 3, Burke gives a quotation from The ebb tide, written by Robert Louis Stevenson and based on a draft by his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, about an Englishman who has changed his name so as not to disgrace his family by his life-habit of failure. He is on the island of Tahiti, "on the beach," meaning washed up. His only possession is a copy of Virgil's Aeneid, into which he dips from time to time. Prompted by its pages there arise in his mind not images of the Roman world of nearly two millennia previously but memories of the England of his childhood: "the busy school room, the green playing fields, holidays at home, and the perennial roar of London" (Stevenson, p. 174).

I read Stevenson's novella some time ago, and liked it. But I did not remember this thought-provoking image of what the reader brings to a piece of fiction. Burke uses it as the starting point for his surveys in which students were asked about their literary reading. His questions start with "Are you an avid reader?" and "When you read literature do you experience mental imagery?" Subsequent questions pursue the issue of imagery in more detail. Burke concludes that his hypothesis is "highly plausible," that readers do experience "Literary Reading Imagery" which includes movements and dynamic scenes in which the reader is actively involved. (Some of these effects have been found, previously, by other researchers.) Burke says, though, that his hypothesis that the imagery often comes from childhood memories remained unconfirmed.

In the last part of his book, Burke moves towards the conclusion of the reading experience. He gave readers the last few paragraphs of Scott Fitzgerald's The great Gatsby. Of 16 subjects who had read the entire novel, six said that the last part did prompt an epiphany in them. Of 20 who read just the closing section, only one experienced such an effect. One of the readers who experienced an epiphany wrote about the lingering after-effects: "somehow I am still reading in my mind" (p. 230).

Burke concludes that "reading does not begin or end when eyes apprehend the words on the page, but long before that and indeed long after it" (p. 255). Perhaps, too, as he remarks, the influence of the empirical tester, and the short passages such testers typically offer, are not as conducive as they might be to the kinds of questions we want to ask. Burke's book offers ideas that are refreshing, and evidence that is suggestive. Its waves continue to rise and break on the mind's beach, where its waters then rattle back again over the pebbles and seashells of thought.

Michael Burke (2011). Literary reading, cognition and emotion: An exploration of the oceanic mind. London: Routledge.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926). The great Gatsby. Harmondsworth: Penguin (current edition 1950).

Robert Louis Stevenson (1893). The ebb tide, in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and other stories (pp. 171-301). London: Penguin (current edition 1979).   
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Monday, February 14, 2011

The Actor and the Observed, Man and Woman

In a story, circumstances tend to take precedence over other influences in how a writer imagines a protagonist. In psychology there is a principle that helps to explain this effect. It was proposed by Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett (1971), and it's called the actor-observer bias. The bias is that we tend to experience our own reasons and other people's reasons for doing anything in rather different ways. Imagine I am a student and I work hard for weeks studying for an exam. I am the actor here, and as such I might experience myself as studying hard because I know the exam will be difficult and I know the result will be important for my future plans. If I were to see another student working hard for weeks studying for an exam, I would be the observer. I would tend to say this student was working hard because he or she was conscientious or ambitious. When we act, we tend to see ourselves as being responsive to circumstances, doing what is necessary to pursue a plan. When we observe others doing exactly the same thing, we tend to attribute their action to some persisting aspect of their personality. It’s rather like when one is driving and has to brake suddenly to avoid hitting that careless person in front.

Writers tend to arrange stories so that the protagonist acts in a way that is responsive to circumstances, that is to say, in the way we experience ourselves in everyday life. As writers and as readers, then, we feel the kinds of emotions the character would feel as an actor in following a plan and responding to circumstances that result from it.

A recent study by Marisa Bortolussi, Peter Dixon, and Paul Sopčák (2010) was about the effects of gender on reading fiction in Canada and Germany, but the results are best explained in terms of actor-observer differences.
The influence of gender on reading is a perennial question because it’s invariably found that more women than men read literary fiction. In the most recent large US survey by the National Endowment for the Arts (2009), which had 18,000 respondents, it was found that 58% of women had read a play, poetry, short-story or novel during the previous year, as compared 42% of men.

Bortolussi et al. selected four passages, each of about 1000 words, from contemporary novels, two with male protagonists, and two with female protagonists. For each passage with a male protagonist, they wrote a version of the same passage with a female protagonist, and for each passage with a female protagonist, they wrote a version with a male protagonist. They prepared versions in English (for the Canadian readers) and in German (for the German readers). Previous research has tended to find that males tended to prefer male protagonists and females to prefer female protagonists. With their clever manipulation of assigning people to the same stories but with different-sexed protagonists, Bortolussi and her colleagues found both male and female readers—in Canada and Germany—preferred male protagonists. That is to say: both males and female readers agreed more strongly with an item that stated, "I feel I can understand and appreciate the main character and situation of he story," and one that stated, "I would like to continue reading to find out what happens next in the story," when the protagonist was male as compared with being female.

The researchers explain this effect in terms of the actor-observer bias. In general, say Bortolussi and her colleagues, men in Western societies tend to be seen as acting in response to circumstances ("he did what he had to") whereas women tend more often to be seen in terms of their personality ("she behaved emotionally"). Thus, for both men and women, our social stereotypes make it easier in stories to understand and to identify with a male protagonist, the kind of character who acts in response to the situation he is in, than with a female protagonist, the kind of character who acts because of her personality.

Marisa Bortolussi,  Peter Dixon & Paul Sopčák (2010). Gender and reading. Poetics, 38, 299-318.

Edward Jones & Richard Nisbett (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. New York: General Learning Press.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2009). Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy (No. 46). Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.


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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Quick Hits

Just two Quick Hits.

An interesting podcast on the relationship between Freud, psychoanalysis, and literature.

And a list of the top 25 novels for psychology buffs.


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Monday, February 7, 2011

The Search for Meaning

My vote for best book of 2010 on the psychology of fiction goes to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk's The naive and the sentimental novelist. The title is derived from Pamuk's readings and re-readings of Friedrich Schiller's (1795-1796) "On naive and sentimental poetry." The naive writer, say both Schiller and Pamuk, writes about what he or she knows and sees, almost without thinking. By contrast, the sentimental writer is troubled, thoughtful, imaginative, exceedingly aware of what he or she is writing, but unsure whether the written words will encompass what he or she wants them to.

In this fascinating book on both novel writing in general and the writing of his own novels in particular, Pamuk devotes his second chapter entirely to how fiction can be both real and imaginary. From the reader's point of view, Pamuk takes the idea of the naive to stand for what has been been perceived, in an autobiographical way. And so, says Pamuk, people sometimes ask him: "Mr Pamuk, did all this actually happen to you?" (p. 33). If there were such a thing as a wholly naive reader, this person would assume any novel is really an autobiography. If there were such a thing as wholly sentimental reader, this person would think that even an autobiography was wholly constructed. But really, says, Pamuk, the idea of the novel is to hold both these ideas in tension with each other. Talking about his recent novel The museum of innocence, he says:
I intended my novel to be perceived as a work of the imagination—yet I also wanted readers to assume that the main characters and the story were true … I have learned that the art of writing is to feel these contradictory desires deeply (p. 34).
Pamuk describes how essential it is for the writer of fiction to hold onto both of these ideas at once.
At every detail, the writer thinks that the reader will think that this detail was experienced. And the reader thinks that the writer wrote with the thought that the reader will think it has been experienced. The writer, in turn, thinks that he wrote that detail thinking that the reader will have thought of this, too. This play of mirrors is valid for the writer’s imagination as well (p. 53).
Although the counterpoint between the naive and the sentimental is Pamuk's starting point, the motivating idea of his book is to head towards what he calls the novel's "secret center" (p. 24) for which, when we are reading, we search with utmost attention. It's a view of the world, an insight, a place at which the naive reality of our lives and of our sentimental imagination meet. As Pamuk started to read novels in his youth, he realized that the center for which he was searching was "knowledge about what kind of place the world was, and about the nature of life" (p. 28). Towards the end of his book he says that a novel's center is: "A profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined" (p. 153). The coherence of a novel is that each image, object, and event in it has been placed there to point to this secret center.
The experienced novelist goes along knowing that the center will gradually emerge as he writes, and that the most challenging and rewarding aspect of his work will be the finding of this center (p. 157).
At the same time:
The power of a novel's center ultimately resides not in what it is, but in our search for it as readers. Reading a novel of fine balance and detail, we never discover a center in any definite sense—yet we never abandon the hope of finding it. Both the center and the meaning of the novel change from one reader to the next (p. 176).
Orhan Pamuk. (2010). The naive and the sentimental novelist. Trans. Nazim Dikbas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Friedrich Schiller. (1795-1796). On naive and sentimental poetry. In D. Simpson (Ed.), The origins of modern critical thought: German aesthetic and literary criticism from Lessing to Hegel (pp. 148-173). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (current edition 1988).

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