Monday, 30 April 2012

I wonder

I wonder about Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclus, Alexander and Hephaestion - haughty half-godly heroes and their noble companions. Why such quick deaths for the companions, vanishing like raindrops beneath the scorching suns? Even more I wonder at the heroes, at last human in their grief, broken by their love. What kind of mystery, what strange law, would make a raindrop extinguish a sun?

Monday, 23 April 2012

How it Came to Me by Jonathan Gottschall

The initial idea for The Storytelling Animal came to me not from research but from a song. A few years ago, I was driving down the road on a beautiful day, cheerfully spinning the FM dial. A country music song filled the cab: Chuck Wick’s “Stealing Cinderella.” My usual response to this kind of catastrophe is to flail at the radio until the noise stops. But there was something heartfelt in the singer’s voice, so I leaned back and listened to Wicks sing a story about a little girl growing up to leave her father behind. Before I knew it I was blind from tears, and veering off the road to mourn the time—still more than a decade off—when my own little girls would fly the nest. I sat there for a long time feeling sheepish and wondering, “What just happened?”

Who hasn’t had a similar experience? When we submit to fiction--whether in novels, songs, or films—we allow ourselves to be invaded by the teller. Chuck Wicks was in my head, squatting there in the dark, milking glands and kindling neurons.

I wrote The Storytelling Animal in an effort to understand how fiction—the fake struggles of fake people—can have such tremendous power over us. The book is about the way explorers from the sciences and humanities are using new tools, new ways of thinking, to open up the vast terra incognita of the storytelling mind. It’s about the way that stories--from TV commercials to daydreams to religious myths—saturate our lives. It’s about deep patterns in the happy mayhem of children’s make-believe, and what they tell us about story’s prehistoric origins. It’s about the hidden ways that fiction shapes our beliefs, behaviors, ethics—how it powerfully modifies culture and history. It’s about the ancient riddle of the psychotically creative night stories we call dreams. It’s about a set of brain circuits--usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish—that force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. It’s also about fiction’s uncertain present and hopeful future. Above all, it’s about the deep mysteriousness of story. Why are humans addicted to stories? How did we become the storytelling animal?

Jonathan Gottschall (2012) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Monday, 16 April 2012

David Deutsch on Objective Beauty

It occurred to me, after having listened to k.d. lang’s 2004 album Hymns of the 49th Parallel a number of times, that if I were a songwriter, I would never, but never, let k.d. lang sing a song I had written if I ever again wanted to perform it myself. Apparently, lang picked some of her favourite songs of Canadian songwriters for that album, including those of some of the best singer/songwriters of the past fifty years. To my ear, lang’s covers are better (in some cases way, way better) than many of the original recordings. And I’m not the only artist who would have felt daunted and envious of a creative peer, based on an aesthetic judgment. 
Leonard Bernstein is said to have been preparing for a recording of Mahler’s Symphony Number One when Bruno Walter’s preliminary recording of the same work crossed his desk. After listening to the tapes, Bernstein was said to have immediately abandoned his plan to record, noting something to the effect that he simply could not do it any better. (He nevertheless did eventually record his own version.) Another example comes from Alain de Botton’s (1997) book How Proust Can Change Your Life. He quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which, upon reading Proust, she exclaims, “Oh, if I could write like that!” and later, “How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped -- and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp." De Botton claims, “Reading Proust nearly silenced Virginia Woolf.” These anecdotes suggest that some consumers of art have staked a lot on their judgment of beauty. Indeed, Bernstein and Woolf in their astonishment at the accomplishment of another in their fields were willing to stifle their own creative aspirations, at least for a time. 
But, if there is no such thing as objective beauty, these choices make no sense. For anyone doubting that something can be objectively beautiful, David Deutsch’s short chapter on the subject (from his latest book, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World) is an eye-opener. Deutsch is a quantum physicist and one of the founders of quantum computation, and as is richly evident in this book, a great admirer of Karl Popper’s ideas concerning how knowledge grows. Deutsch’s chapter, entitled “Why are Flowers Beautiful?”, addresses the question of why flowers are quite reliably found to be beautiful by humans. It makes evolutionary sense that flowers should be attractive to bees, whose job it is to pollinate particular flowers, but there’s no common knowledge between insect species and homo sapiens that could account for this reliable finding. Nor, he argues, is it due to inborn preferences for particular types of colors, contrasts, or shapes. In fact, there are two kinds of beauty: the one that explains the bees’ attraction to the flower and humans’ attraction to certain kinds of art: parochial beauty which is “local to a species, to a culture, or to an individual” (p. 364) , and the other, that is “universal, and as objective as the laws of physics.” The parochial kind of beauty is primarily for signaling information, while the universal kind seeks, like good science, to create “good explanations” (p. 365). “Elegance” is the goal in both science and aesthetic deep inquiry. As throughout the book, we see here Deutsch’s philosophy of knowledge-seeking as the Popperian process of conjecture (a product of the “creative imagination” [p.26]), followed by criticism, followed by new conjecture. He singles fiction out as being most obviously capable of seeking such good explanations, since “a good story has a good explanation of the fictional events that it portrays” (p. 365). Art that seeks objective truth is expected to progress infinitely, as is the Popperian type of scientific inquiry, while parochial art is expected to progress toward a finite state. “Deep truth” in both science and art “is often beautiful” (p. 355). 
Deutsch argues that it is easy to be misled by the empiricist view that there can be no objective philosophical or artistic knowledge. Empiricism is wrong in that it purports that we somehow derive knowledge from observation, when in fact all observation is theory-laden. Deutsch concedes that we never deduce moral maxims or aesthetic values from scientific theories, precisely because we don’t really deduce something from something else in building good explanations of anything. In reality, we conjecture and must seek to criticize our own conjecture, and seek out the criticism of others, thereby creating a new and better conjecture. This is the only route to good explanations that are “hard to vary,” (in which “changing the details would ruin the explanation” [p.32]), and therefore approximate reality better than explanations in which elements can be tweaked with little detriment to its elegance or reach. Indeed, the main reason that humans were able to escape from the dictates of biological evolution, parochialism, and the “static” societies these entail, Deutsch argues, is that the process of conjecture does not require our having first systematically refuted all of the intermediate theories that might logically thrive between the emergence of any two conjectures (p. 114). On the contrary, organisms that are evolving must be viable in all intermediate stages to survive to the next generation. Humans can freely go wherever the imagination takes them.
And yet, Deutsch emphasizes, “…we should really understand all our predictions as implicitly including the proviso ‘unless the creation of new knowledge intervenes’ ” (p. 457). What this means for the notion of the objectivity of beauty is that the ultimate in beauty recognized today by the best in aesthetic fields not only may, but will, be superseded in future by better artistic conjectures, better criticism, better subsequent conjectures. In this larger context, perhaps Bernstein, Woolf, and my counterfactual chanteuse self should never have been quite so concerned by the successes of contemporaries in their respective fields.

De Botton, Alain. (1998). How Proust can change your life. New York: Vintage.
Deutsch, David. (2011). The beginning of infinity: Explanations that transform the world. London: Penguin Books. 
lang, k. d. (2004). Hymns of the 49th parallel. Nonesuch Records Inc. Warner Music Canada.

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Monday, 9 April 2012

Toronto Comic Arts Festival paean: the Fantastic

For those readers in Toronto, or able to get there, I will simultaneously express my envy and draw your attention to the upcoming quite-salient-to-fiction-and-psychology Toronto Comic Arts Festival kick-off event (May 4th at 7pm at the Toronto Reference Library -- free but ticketed): a three way conversation between Jeff Smith, Gabriel Bá, and Fábio Moon on Noir and the Fantastic in Comics and Graphic Novels.

I am a long-time appreciator of the storytelling potential of both graphic novels and the fantastic and, coincidentally, have just finished Daytripper, Bá and Moon's fantastic exploration of (minor spoiler warning: skip to the next paragraph if you wish to leave the narrative structure of Daytripper intact) an obituary writer's multiple possible deaths. Daytripper presents a focused meditation on, in the authors' words, "a story about quiet moments ... about what you can tell from somebody's eyes," via both a story and images that epitomize the fantastic.

Similarly, Jeff Smith's graphic epid Bone tells a story that is so overtly fantastical that it often satirizes fantasy -- and yet is, at the same time, filled with feeling and characters the reader cannot help animating. All three of these authors play with forms of storytelling that toy with our expectations about the way a story is told, almost picking those expectations up while we are reading and turning them over so that we can see them more clearly in the story -- a rare art, especially while we are held entranced, wondering what is happening with the characters, with the plot, with the setting. As I have written about comics before, the comics form can enable surplus space for narrative metacognition: room to see the relationship between these components of our experience of fiction in a way that we usually look past as we read through stories.

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Monday, 2 April 2012


In a paper published in the second issue of Scientific Study of Literature, Maria Kotovych, Peter Dixon, Marisa Bortolussi, and Mark Holden have taken a big step in understanding identification in literature. They build on Bortolussi's and Dixon's (2003) idea of conversation between narrator and reader, and on some of their previous studies. Their idea is that just as when in conversation we make inferences about what the other person is thinking and feeling, so we do in coming to understand a character in a book. When we need to make such inferences we come to understand the character better, and can identify with that character more strongly. 

Bortolussi and Dixon's theory is that that in conversation we make a mental model of the other person as we come to understand that person. I am not sure whether this might be pushing their theory further than they would like, but it seems to me that we construct models of others rather gradually, over a number of meetings, during which we come to understand what they really mean when they talk, come to experience whether they do what they say they will do, and so on. In the very process of making the inferences that go into our mental models of others, then, we also gradually construct our relationships with them, and critical aspects of these models are our degree of affection for these people, and the extent to which we can trust them. It seems we may be doing something of the same when we make mental models of characters in short stories and novels: by inference and gradual understanding we form warm or cool relationships with them, we come to trust them or distrust them.

Kotovych, Dixon, Bortolussi, and Holden report three experiments in their paper. In the first they used the short story "The office," by Alice Munro. It's a first-person story about a woman who wants to be a writer, who has little support from her family and friends. She rents an office in which she can do her writing. Alice Munro's story has what Kotovych et al. call an implicit preamble which includes this. 
But here comes the disclosure which is not easy for me. I am a writer. That does not sound right. Too presumptuous, phony, or at least unconvincing. Try again …
It's as if the narrator were talking to the reader and the reader has to make inferences about the narrator. The ingenious idea of the experiment was, for some participants, to substitute for this implicit preamble what the authors call an explicit preamble which starts like this: 
I'm embarrassed telling people that I am a writer …
No inferences are necessary; in the explicit preamble the conclusion that the narrator is embarrassed is already drawn. Kotovych and her colleagues argue that the literary idea of identification is not well defined, and they concentrate on just one aspect of it, which they call "transparency:" the extent to which readers understand a character. In this first experiment the researchers found that the transparency of the narrator was greater for readers who read the story with the implicit preamble than for those who read the story with the explicit preamble.

In a second experiment the researchers replicated their finding with Alice Munro's story, and at the same time ruled out the idea that the effect might have been due to the explicit preamble being written in a somewhat different style than the rest of the story. In a third experiment the authors used stories by different writers, and compared versions that used free-indirect speech and directly quoted speech. Free-indirect speech requires more inferences than directly quoted speech. Again they found more transparency of characters was achieved in the versions that required more inference.

It's an important new trend in the research literature, I think, to use sound experimental designs with real literary stories and plausible manipulations of the text. The idea that in coming to know a literary character we need to make inferences as we would with a real person, not just be told about the character, is a critical insight.

Bortolussi, M., & Dixon, P. (2003). Psychonarratology: Foundations for the empirical study of literary response. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kotovych, M., Dixon, P., Bortolussi, M., & Holden, M. (2011). Textual determinants of a component of literary identification. Scientific Study of Literature, 1, 260-291.

Image: Alice Munro. Addendum: I felt privileged a few years ago to have been in the same room as Alice Munro, whom I regard as one of the world's all-time great short-story writers. She was making a very rare public appearance and during it she announced her retirement from writing. I'm delighted that she hasn't taken her announcement seriously.

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