Monday, 28 March 2011

The World's Oldest Novel: The Education of Cyrus

In her biography of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), Mary Renault (1975) says that the book that more than any other inspired the Macedonian conqueror of most of the ancient Greeks’ known world was The Education of Cyrus, by Xenophon (c. 430-355 BCE). The book has been called the world’s oldest novel, appearing 400 years before Petronius’ Satyricon and more than 1300 years before Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. It was published around the time of Alexander’s birth. Most works on the conqueror emphasize his pronounced admiration for Homer's heroes. He visited the traditional gravesite of Achilles after crossing into Asia, and he and his best friend Hephaistion ran a reverential lap around it in honor of the Greek hero. He was also said to have slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. But a number of Alexander’s decisions could be read as informed by those of Cyrus, such as Alexander’s respectful treatment of the captured wife and children of Darius III, the king of Persia whose lands he was methodically capturing, and his choices when it came to the day-to-day administration of conquered lands. The world’s oldest novel had at least one very early and admiring close reader.

But what is this novel like? Commentators often call it didactic, and so it is. Xenophon had found himself in the unexpected situation of having been elected by a force of 10,000 Greeks to lead them after their Persian commander had been killed in the heart of Mesopotamia. His job was to get them back to Greece alive, which apparently he did. Perhaps the novel presents the kind of knowledge he would have liked to have been privy to and had had time to practice on the field before finding himself responsible for the lives of so many. His novel is an homage to the family of Cyrus the Younger in the form of a fictional embodiment of what he considers to be the ideal warrior and ruler. So there is a lot of advice on military matters: how to finance a war, how to properly feed and manage the sleep schedules of soldiers; the pacing of the march to the mean speed of all; how to administer conquered lands. But there is a lot of psychological insight, too. Much of it is somewhat specific to the military: the general must really be wise, not just pretend to be wise to gain the confidence of the troops; leaders at each rank must trust their soldiers; there are times when troops need to hear an inspirational speech and times when they don’t; managing status-seeking among soldiers; how it feels when the second-in-command slowly and unwittingly steals away the affections of the troops; strategy and tactics. There’s also developmental psychology: the best age at which to learn particular lessons, when to indulge children and when to refrain; basic emotions: “so cruelly can fear, the prince of horrors, bind and subjugate the souls of men” (Xenophon, 1992, p. 78); complex emotions: bearing success with modesty and not insolence. Characters converse on the circumstances under which one may attain wisdom, on the relationship between wealth and contentment, and on the power of kindness and courtesy. A rich specimen we find at the breakthrough moment of the genre.

Renault, Mary. (1975). The nature of Alexander. London: Allen Lane.

Xenophon. (1992). The education of Cyrus. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Limited. H. G. Dakyns, trans.

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Monday, 21 March 2011

River of No Return

Moments of environmental disaster make me turn to the school of landscape photographers who are compelled to document the awful beauty of those environments with which we have fraught relationships: those pieces of nature whose material sustains us on a daily basis, but in the face of which we are struck dumb.

I owe significant intellectual debts in this vein to Frank Gohlke (although it is Laura McPhee's photograph I show here, from the series River of No Return). Gohlke's fascination with the sublime mirrors a trope we are accustomed to reading through in fiction and in literary nonfiction. Despite this familiarity (consider how often Thoreauvian imagery is invoked in North American nature-inspired writing), explicit representations of the sublime still remains remarkable when we come face to face with them.

It has become more fashionable to bring discomfiting images to the public: Edward Burtynsky's images of industrial ruin, waste, and wreckage have wide public followings and have won accolades via the popularizing TED platform. And it may be almost fictive qualities of the unfathomable environments he represents that make them so palateable: uranium and nickel tailings turn the landscape bright fairytale colors.

It is the creative exploration that happens at the edge of conceivable possibility that intrigues me in the experience of being compelled by these images. After a week of watching the world turn away from terrible suffering brought by natural disasters in Japan to contemplate the possible (but yet fictive) suffering brought by the following industrial disasters, I cannot help but being struck by the fact that the New York Times review of Gohlke's last major retrospective at MOMA begins by likening the amount of energy released by the 1980 Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption to "the detonation of one Hiroshima-size atomic bomb every second for nine hours." Our compulsion toward domains for which our explanatory stories remain only fuzzily drawn is striking and seems matched (and illustrated, as in the news this week) by how little we have to say in the face of the terrible sublime. The review continues,
"showing the effects of a destructive force of unimaginable proportions calls to mind the 18th-century idea of the sublime: the frightening and exhilarating confrontation with an unfathomably vast and powerful universe in which human life seems but a minor and fragile accident."

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Saturday, 19 March 2011

Quick Hit: Best Lit Crit

OnFiction was featured recently by a site that specializes in giving people advice on Masters Degrees (click here). Every now and again this site gives lists of the 50 best blog sites for a certain subject, the 50 best books written by women, and so on. Our site was in the 25 best literary criticism blogs. They didn't have us quite right, since they said we take a psychoanalytic approach, whereas our approach is psychological. We are nonetheless grateful to be selected.

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Monday, 14 March 2011

Mad Men Madness

In a recent New York Review of Books (Vol. LVIII, No.3), Daniel Mendelsohn gives Mad Men a run for their money.

The [show’s] writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the character-izations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish (p. 4).

Mendelsohn then attempts to examine what it is about this show that, despite its poor quality, propels such outrageous popularity and enormous thirst for more. His answer is thoughtful - the craze is driven by offspring of Mad Men generation in their tender, yet misplaced, attempt to better understand their still obscure parents (even if that means watching a bad TV series).

Unfortunately for Mendelsohn, many of his readers disagree vehemently, and their responses are, according to him (Vol. LVIII, No.5., p. 41) marked by “the hysterical tone, intellectual sputter, and ad hominem vituperation.” It made me wish I could peek into his e-mail inbox to see what it contained (reconstructive psychoanalysis?). In any case, this was certainly not a response of tender introspective children, letting others nostalgically, and badly, reconstruct their parents’ generation.

A clue to Mad Men popularity is something that comes up in every discussion of the show, yet the very thing that Mendelsohn glosses over in his article – style. Of course, style is easy to dismiss when it evokes fads in hair-cuts or vests. But when one creates an outer arrangement that symbolically represents an inner truth, then we call it an art. The creators of Mad Men managed to capture, stylistically, something that we yearn for in modern life; something as simple and as necessary as embodiment. The protagonist’s face, tie, shoes, telephone, desk, glass and the ice in the glass, even his wife, mistress, and secretary (some of whom overlap), all have stylistic weight and precision that viewers can read existentially.

In the modern era of plastic desks, paper cups, and electronic everything, the Mad Men style is solid, grounded, hefty. It fulfills the same function as silence does in some French movies – removes the frills and offers presence, which viewers see as essence. The obsession with style, then, is not incidental, but central, to the show’s popularity. Actually, you can even try watching it on ‘mute’. You won’t miss much, yet oddly, you may still like it.

Of course, this is just my guess for Mad Men madness. I hope I have better luck than Mendelsohn.

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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Research Bulletin: Liking, and Becoming Like, Characters

When watching a fiction film we can become deeply immersed in the world of the narrative. In research circles, this is referred to as transportation, to communicate the idea that we have become transported into the narrative. However, we may also become particularly engaged with a single character, reacting to events in the narrative as if were in that character’s shoes. This is known as identification among researchers. Marc Sestir and Melanie Green (2010) wondered whether identification and transportation were related to whether movie watchers came to see themselves as more like a particular character or not. That is, when watching a movie we often like a certain character, but do we become more like that character in some ways as well? They hypothesized that identification would be more likely to generate this phenomenon than transportation, since only identification refers to engagement with a particular character. Transportation is seen as a more general phenomenon, related to engagement or immersion in the entire story world. In their study, participants were experimentally manipulated to have either high or low identification, and high or low transportation, based on different instructions (e.g., watch this “as if you were the main character in the clip”). They then watched video clips and after rated whether certain traits related to themselves. What the researchers found was largely in concordance with their hypotheses. Traits related to both the character and the participant were found to be more mentally accessible among those put into the high identification condition compared to the low identification condition. There was also some evidence that traits not previously associated with the self, but present in a character identified with, later were seen as part of the self. This study is an exciting demonstration that fiction can influence our self-perceptions, implying that our identification with characters can change the way we see ourselves.

Sestir, M. & Green, M. C. (2010). You are who you watch: Identification and transportation effects on temporary self-concept. Social Influence, 5, 272-288.

* As always, I am happy to send this article to those interested in reading it. My e-mail is available in my profile. In what is becoming a familiar refrain, I apologize for the lateness of this post.

Photo: Tyler Durden from Fight Club, one of the films used in this study.
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