Monday, 10 February 2020

Harari: Sapiens

On Sunday, 9 February 2020, the New York Times reported that Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, had been on its nonfiction best-seller list for 91 weeks. At the centre of this book is an idea. It is that, sometime between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, we humans who had previously discovered how to make stone tools and fires, invented … stories.  

Harari tends to call these stories, myths: about how we came to be, about how we are influenced by gods and spirits. More recently, he says, we invented the myth of commercial companies with limited liability, so their owners cannot be sued. 

For a commercial company, Harari presents Peugeot, founded in 1896 by Armand Peugeot who turned the metal-working shop he had inherited from his parents into a limited company to make motor vehicles. Harari argues that it is by means of a myth that such a company can exist at all, and that huge numbers of people have been able to work for it. The company does not depend on Armand Peugeot. He died in 1915. Nor does it depend on any other individual. It’s an entity that is imagined. In 2008, Harari says, it produced 1.5 million automobiles, with revenues of 55 billion Euros. Two other prevalent myths, says Harari, are nation states such as USA, and religious groups such as the Catholic Church.

To explain the agricultural revolution, some 10,000 years ago, Harari writes about wheat. It used to be a kind of grass that grew in the Middle East. Then, within two millennia, it had convinced Homo Sapiens to cultivate it. “Wheat didn’t like rocks,” Harari writes on p.80, “so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields.” And he goes on: “We did not domesticate wheat, it domesticated us” (p. 81). Harari suggests that the life of members of the Sapiens species as nomadic hunter-gatherers was rather good. So then he asks, “How did wheat convince Homo Sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable life?” (p. 81). 

The agricultural revolution, Harari writes, was accomplished by wheat. He says it was “History’s Biggest Fraud” (p. 77); capital letters at the beginning of each word. Yes, a joke, and Harari can be witty. But what’s behind the joke? 

Might one say that Harari is a genetic determinist? He is unusual among historians in that he centres on DNA. He says our ancestors started by being a small and obscure group, who lived in Africa. Now we have taken over the planet. He explains this in terms of genetic variations that separated us from our chimpanzee cousins. Then, he says, came three revolutions: first cognitive, then agricultural and, more recently, scientific. It was, he says, with the cognitive revolution that we became able to construct stories, myths. Then, because of these, we humans became able to cooperate not just in gangs of eight or ten, like patrolling chimpanzees, but in groups that can number thousands, as in the Peugeot company, or millions as in USA or the Catholic Church.

By 2014, when the English translation of Sapiens came out, Harari seemed not to have read Keith Stanovich’s book, which came out ten years earlier, The Robot’s Rebellion. As Stanovich explains, many people, with Harari seemingly among them, think that members of a species have genes, which they then pass on to their offspring. But Stanovich points out that they have this the wrong way round. Genes have us as their vehicles. Genes direct these vehicles toward reproduction, so they can replicate. That’s what genes do: self-replicate. They use the bodies of plants like wheat, and of animals like humans, as vehicles to evade dangers, to survive long enough to reproduce, so that the genes can replicate. In this way, the information they contain, in their patterns of DNA, go forward in time. Genes program the vehicles that are plants and animals. 

Our next step, as humans, Stanovich suggests, is not just a revolution but a rebellion. We humans have become the first genetically engineered vehicles that do not need simply to be controlled by genes. By thinking, by imagining possible futures, by making plans, by cooperation with others, in some aspects of life we can choose for ourselves what to do. Although we are robots of our genes, to think and to choose for ourselves has become our collective rebellion. We have started to direct ourselves, and not just in such matters as birth control.

And how do we do that? It may be helped by writing and engaging in fictional stories, about possible states of our human world. So in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke asks Tertius Lydgate: “What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” (Ch. 72, p. 789).

George Eliot (1871-1872). Middlemarch: A study of provincial life. London: Penguin (current edition 1965).
Yuval Harari (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Toronto: Penguin Random House.
Keith Stanovich (2004). The robot's rebellion: Finding meaning in the age of Darwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Will and Testament

In 2016, when it was published in Norway, Vigdis Hjorth’s novel, Will and Testament, became a best-seller. Last year it came out in English, translated by Charlotte Barsland. 

The story’s protagonist is Bergljot. Other characters include her elder brother, Bård, and her two younger sisters Astrid and Åsa, along with their mother and father. At the beginning of the novel, Astrid phones Bergljot, to say that their mother is in hospital, but is “all right.” She had taken an overdose, not for the first time. Astrid goes on to say that Bård had discovered that their father had transferred ownership of the family’s two seaside cabins to the two younger sisters, so there’s a “row” (the fifth word in this novel). In his will the father had specified that, at his death, instead of a cabin, Bård and Bergljot would each get a financial equivalent—a compensation, except that it isn’t.

Bergljot is a theatre critic and magazine editor, who is also working on a thesis on modern German drama. Twenty-three years earlier she’d abandoned her family of origin, and had as little to do with them as possible; all except Astrid, with whom she has been in touch during the six months that precede the events with which the novel starts. Bergljot married a “nice, decent man,” with whom she had three children. 

This is a novel of inwardness, told by the first-person narrator, Bergljot. In its thoughts and language, this novel is as good as anything since Virginia Woolf, but in addition—and this makes it special—the inwardness is connected and interconnected with Bergljot’s relationships: what a person can talk about and what a person can not. And to whom, and when. Vigdis Hjorth invites us readers into Bergljot’s mind. We take on her concerns and mentally engage with members of her family of origin, with her children, with her lovers, with her friend Klara. 

At the centre is a family secret. Among the siblings, Bård is on Bergljot’s side. He, too, has abandoned the family some twenty years previously. 

So what is the secret? If you don’t like spoilers, you had better not read on; you could just read the book. (Some people are perfectly happy with spoilers; see OnFiction 3 April 2017, because they can help us to decide whether to read or watch, and if we do so, we can perhaps engage in the story more deeply.) 

So here’s the spoiler, the secret. Bergljot comes out with it. This happens two thirds of the way through the novel (p. 184). Bergljot, her siblings, and their mother, meet with an accountant, to discuss the business interests and the will of the father, who had died three weeks before this meeting. Bergljot has written out, very carefully, what she wants to say at the meeting, on two pieces of paper. She starts to read. 

Astrid knows what’s coming. “Now is not the time or the place,” she says (p. 187). But Bergljot continues.
I’ve been scared of Dad my whole life, I continued, I didn’t realize how much until 17 December last year when he died. I experienced a physical sense of relief. When I was between five and seven years old and repeatedly sexually assaulted by Dad, he told me that if I ever told anyone then he would go to prison or Mum would die.
You’re lying, Mum shouted.
I didn’t say anything, I said, I repressed it. I was silent but my life became increasingly self-destructive and chaotic as everything that I had repressed began to surface. I realised that I needed help and I got it, after several tests I eventually qualified for free psychoanalysis … I told Mum what had happened, she refused to believe me. As did my sisters … (p. 188).

In these days of the #MeToo movement, recognition of this issue has increased. But rather than a focus, which has now become common in news-stories, on who remembered what, along with accusations, excuses, and denials, this novel invites us to consider what kinds of implications might occur for a woman who has been abused as a child, for her relationships with her parents, her siblings, her friends, her lovers, her children. Vigdis Hjorth visits all these issues, enabling us to think about ramifications, and interconnections. 

The centrepiece of this novel is that it’s when she is an adult that Bergljot comes to remember that her father had sex with her when she was five or six years old. But this novel is not really about the plot. Instead it’s about the inner dynamics of Bergljot’s mind, about how events and relationships affect and permeate her inner thoughts and emotions. Vigdis Hjorth is brilliant at letting us see how things go in the opposite direction as well: how Bergljot’s inner thoughts and emotions, affect her relationships—with everyone. 

Bergljot feels that her life has been undermined. Her mother denies everything, and responds to Bergljot with hostility. Two other people believe her: Bergljot’s brother Bård, and her friend Klara. Her youngest sister, Åsa doesn’t believe her. Her closest sister, Astrid, the novel’s second main character, is a human rights lawyer. She doesn’t know whether to believe Bergljot and Bård, or their mother, father, and younger sister. She tries her very, very best to consider everyone, in the most utterly fair-minded, totally irritating, way. 

And the reader? As we go along, we take in Bergljot’s thoughts, receive her phone calls and text messages, enter the circumstances depicted, and make them our own. They take on the kind of urgency that is important when we read a novel. We think about them, reflect upon them …

Vigdis Hjorth, Will and Testament (2019) translated by Charlotte Barslund. London: Verso.
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Monday, 20 January 2020

Shakespeare and Love

In Stratford on Avon, in 1582, William Shakespeare, at the age of 18, married Anne Hathaway, who was 26, probably because she was pregnant. They had three children: Susanna, born in 1583, then twins Judith and Hamnet, in 1585. Soon after this, William left Stratford. He moved to London, where he lived for more than 20 years, first joining a theatre company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in which he became an actor and their principal playwright. In 1609, William’s 154 sonnets were publishedThe first 17 of these seem to have been commissioned; they are addressed to someone known as “the young man.” They were written to try and persuade him to marry, so that he could pass on to children his beauty which otherwise, would be lost when “forty winters” would “besiege” his brow. The next 109 sonnets are about William’s relationship, probably an affair, with the young man, which seems to have started when William was maybe 28, and the young man perhaps 18. 

The group of 109 sonnets (18 to 126), as Helen Vendler explains in her brilliant book of 1997, draws on conversations and interactions between William and the young man. Then, beginning with Sonnet 127, come 27 sonnets about William’s affair with a woman called the Dark Lady, perhaps, Emilia Lanier, England’s first published woman poet, (see Michael Wood, 2003).

In his plays, William Shakespeare depicts memorable characters such as Hamlet, in the play of that name, and Rosalind in As You Like It. But these characters are out there, on the stage, whereas the Sonnets seem more interior, more personal. One may infer that when the young man had sex with others, William was devastated, so then he went and had sex with others as well, which seems to have increased his own anguish … 

So, here is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27:
Weary with toil I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind when body’s work’s expired;
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which like a jewel hung in ghastly night
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo, thus by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quietness find.

The sonnet is a verse form designed to express the emotion of love. Its general structure is eight lines, four lines, two lines (as shown above). Between each group are potential turning points. The first of these, in Sonnet 27, is between the first eight lines, about William’s inability to sleep, and the next four lines about his “imaginary sight” of the young man. The second occurs with the change from lines 9 to 12, to the final couplet in which, when William thinks of the young man, the experience is of anxiety.

In her discussion of this sonnet, Vendler points out parallels: day—limbs, night—mind, day of travel—night of pilgrimage, no quietness for the young man—no quietness for William. Then, she says, glimmering behind some of the words are others: behind “zealous” may be ”jealous.” And, as she explains, William’s night is arduous: “But then begins a journey,” “To work my mind,” “Intend a … pilgrimage,” “keep my … eyelids open,” “Looking on darkness,” “Save that my soul’s … sight,” “Presents thy shadow,” “Lo thus … no quiet.” As when any of us is unable to sleep, each insomniac phase is followed inexorably by another, without respite of “dear repose.”

William, here, seems to have been anxious because he had to leave London for work, and wondered what the young man may have been up to. Although, in the first eight lines he makes a mental pilgrimage to an image of the young man, with the first turning point what William meets, mentally, is a “shadow:” a word which at that time could mean “actor” on a stage, and also “outward behaviour” which Shakespeare tended to contrast with “substance,” meaning inward truth. So the night is “ghastly” because, with the second turning point, although though the poet is awake, alone in bed, perhaps the young man is also awake, in bed with someone else.

Helen Vendler (1997). The art of Shakespeare's sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Michael Wood (2003). Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books.

Image: Shakespeare from the First Folio of 1623
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Monday, 6 January 2020

Short Story: "By Numbers"

Rosalind was inordinately beautiful. She was a high-school teacher of mathematics where, although there were geometry and algebra, in her classes, calculations came top. When shopping, she sought out bargains. Back home, she would take the receipts and, in a notebook, write in a 5-column list, which for her was of 1st importance: “Date,” “Item,” “Normal Price,” “Reduced Price,” “Saved.” The “Date” column had no verbal abbreviations such as “Sept.” It amounted only to numbers like “09.”
In additional transactions, Rosalind did equally: she based every problem she could on numbers.
A man across the street from where Rosalind lived had resided there since 1999. Like her, he had lost a spouse. He had the singular name, “Algernon.” They had met when Rosalind and her erstwhile husband moved in. The man told her that he preferred the designation, “Al.”
“Down from 3 syllables,” said Rosalind. “’Al-ger-non,’ to 2, ‘Al-gy,’ now 1, ‘Al.’”
The man looked at her. Was she joking? Negative. “Correct,” he said.
That was 3 years, 2 months and 23 days ago, now here they were at 11 o’clock on 29/01/2019 and Al was helping her 1 more time.
“Ceiling light inoperative,” she said. “Can’t solve it. Can’t change even 1 odd light bulb. Can’t do a fraction of what I should.”
“I’ll check it out,” said Al.
At 12 noon, that day, Al purchased 3 bulbs, returned, inserted 1, left 2 in the packet, which he deposited into 1 of Rosalind’s closets.
In a 2nd list, Rosalind had inscribed occasions on which Al had acted on her behalf, since her bereavement. They had increased exponentially because, except for arithmetic, her practical skills were approximately zero: 0. 
The night after the incident of the light bulb, the ambient temperature reduced to minus 18 degrees Celsius, and Rosalind’s garbage container which, every 3rd day of the week, had to be deposited near the road, was frozen to the slab on which it stood. So Rosalind called Al on his private number, which won’t be displayed here because it’s private. 
Rosalind inspected her list of what Al had done. If he put out the garbage container then, in the last 10 weeks, the count of things he’d completed would reach the integer 10.
Oh, she thought. That’s my number; I’m positive.
Al released the container, removed it to the verge. Rosalind stood with her door ajar, in her dressing gown. 
Then she said: “Can you come up here for 1 moment?”
What can I bestow? she thought. Show how infinitely grateful I am.
Al ascended Rosalind’s 3 front steps.
“Thank you,” she said. “So very much, 10 times more than I could ever say.”
She inclined towards him and kissed him, not on the cheek, not on the mouth, but on that little bit between the mouth and cheek, 1 time, 2 times. No, she thought, that’s not the equation. She vouchsafed a 3rd kiss.
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Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Research Bulletin: Reading Slows Signs of Cognitive Decline in Dementia Patients

With an aging population, many have looked into ways to prevent or slow the process of cognitive decline. Researchers at the University of Perugia were interested in whether reading and engaging with fiction could serve as an intervention for those living with dementia, based on the idea that narrative fiction engages a wide range of brain areas. 

Bartolucci and Batini (2019) conducted a longitudinal study examining the effects of listening to, and discussing, texts. Their outcomes included various cognitive abilities, including memory, attention, language, and visuospatial abilities. Participants, suffering from dementia, were assigned to either the experimental group or a control group. The participants first completed a set of neuropsychological tests. Then, the experimental group was read aloud to for 20 minutes, 5 days per week, for 14 weeks. In contrast, the control group followed their usual schedule for each day and time.

Initially, participants in the experimental group were read very simple texts, short in length and only consisting of short sentences. As time went on, texts were included that contained longer and longer semantic units. The duration of the texts also became longer, so that the stories could not be completed in one session, requiring participants to remember what occurred during the previous sitting. After 40 sessions, both groups completed the same set of neuropsychological tests. After one month had passed, the experimental group participated in an additional 30 sessions. After which, both groups again completed the same set of neuropsychological tests. 

These researchers found that scores for the experimental group increased for measures of immediate and delayed memory, visuospatial skills, and attention. The experimental group also performed better on some subtests of their language measure, including prose memory and word learning. These results demonstrate the power that reading and engaging with stories have with respect to our cognitive abilities. Story activities require us to use our own memories and personal experiences to understand and experience text, a useful and effective exercise for those living with dementia. 

Reference:  Bartolucci, M., & Batini, F. (2019). Long term narrative training can enhance cognitive performances in patients living with cognitive decline. Educational Gerontology, 45(7), 469–475. doi: 10.1080/03601277.2019.1658384

Post by Laura Bandi

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

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Thursday, 22 August 2019

Research Bulletin: Fostering Wisdom through Narratives

While most would agree that it is a good thing to be wise, how might we actually go about cultivating wisdom? Michel Ferrari and colleagues (2013) propose a way in which personal wisdom might be developed: engaging with narrative. Doing so might rely on two capacities: (1) autobiographical reasoning and (2) narrative simulation.

These authors argue that autobiographical reasoning—self-reflective thought that constructs a coherent narrative identity and self-world relationship—plays a key part in developing one’s personal wisdom. In simpler cases, this kind of reasoning can lead to extracting life lessons from one’s experience, whereas deeper reasoning yields deeper insights, such as generating a novel worldview. Ferrari and colleagues propose that if one’s reasoning (1) is sufficiently sophisticated, (2) involves fundamental life matters, (3) is oriented to personal growth, and (4) conforms to a culturally appropriate wisdom ideology, it is the optimal kind of autobiographical reasoning to promote wisdom.

As for narrative simulation, simulative experience-taking might allow us to understand and experiment with solutions to emotional/social situations (Mar & Oatley, 2008). Two main types of simulations might be relevant for developing personal wisdom: (i) simulating narratives of wise figures to emulate, and (ii) simulating hypothetical narratives about future events, 'testing the waters' by casting ourselves as protagonists in some future situation.

Lastly, the authors consider the role of ‘cultural master narratives’, which they define as "sense-making structures… that effectively [guide] and [shape] the stories they tell to others and themselves.” When these cultural resources contain prototypical or exemplary instances of wisdom, they allow development of personal wisdom via simulation and reflective reasoning. 

In conclusion, by simulating and reflecting upon our own and others' life narratives, individuals can cultivate personal wisdom, as the wisest among us seem to do.


Ferrari, M., Weststrate, N. M., & Petro, A. (2013). Stories of wisdom to live by: Developing wisdom in a narrative mode. In The scientific study of personal wisdom (pp. 137-164). Springer, Dordrecht.

Post by Isabel Bowman

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

Photo by Jean van der Meulen from Pexels

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Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Research Bulletin: Fostering a Love for Reading through Student Book Clubs

Do book clubs help students develop an interest in reading? Would they help them to become better readers? What about better people, better able to listen and understand others’ perspectives? These were the questions that Jurgen Tijims (University of Amsterdam) and his colleagues were interested in investigating. More specifically, they wondered if book clubs would help high-school students from poor areas in Amsterdam. Poor students struggle with reading and navigating social conflicts (Elias & Haynes, 2008), performing poorly in school compared to their peers (McBride Murray, Berkel, Gaylord-Harden, Copeland-Linder, & Nation, 2011), making them an important population to target for an intervention. The researchers gathered 90 grade 9 students from 2 different schools in poor communities in Amsterdam. The students were then randomly assigned to either participate in a book club (n = 50) or standard language classes (n = 40) for 8-10 sessions. In the end, books club participants did better on measures of reading comprehension, had more positive attitudes toward leisure, and improved their social-emotional skills compared to the control group. However, the researchers did not observe an improvement in attitude towards school-related readings for the book club participants, and these students were also not motivated to read more. This study is important because it is the first to experimentally test the effects of a book club on students from under-privileged communities. In the future, it would be interesting to see whether there are any long-term effects of this kind of intervention. But based on this research, there could be benefits to incorporating book clubs into the school curriculum to improve reading and socioemotional competencies, for disadvantaged communities. 


Tijms, J., Stoop, M. A., & Polleck, J. N. (2018). Bibliotherapeutic book club intervention to promote reading skills and social–emotional competencies in low SES community‐based high schools: A randomised controlled trial. Journal of Research in Reading41, 525-545.

Elias, M.J. & Haynes, N.M. (2008). Social competence, social support, and academic achievement in minority, low-income, urban elementary school children. School Psychology Quarterly, 23, 474–495.

McBride Murry, V., Berkel, C., Gaylord-Harden, K., Copeland-Linder, N. & Nation, M. (2011). Neighborhood poverty and adolescent development. Journal of Research in Adolescence, 21, 114–128.

Post by Sarah Skelding.

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

Photo by Wilson Vitorino from Pexels

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Friday, 15 February 2019

People who read books live longer

Avni Bavishi, Martin Slade, and Becca Levy write in the abstract of their paper of 2016: “This study examined whether those who read books have a survival advantage over those who do not read books and over those who read other types of materials.” The authors conducted a 12-year follow-up in a Health and Retirement Study; 3635 people reported on habits of reading books, magazines, and newspapers. Information was also gathered about participants' age, sex, race, education, health care, wealth, marital status and depression.As compared with people those who did not do so, people who read books lived 23 months longer. 
The difference remained substantial even when factors such as education, wealth, and so on, had been subtracted out. The researchers had not been able to include a measure of cognitive ability, such as IQ.
In a series of studies, Stanovich and colleagues (e.g. Stanovich et al., 1995) have found that the amount people read predicts cognitive outcomes such as vocabulary, skills of reasoning, and general knowledge, even when such factors as IQ and level of education have been subtracted out. In a follow-up study, Mar and Rain (2015) found that by far the largest effect on such outcomes came from the reading of fiction. A study by the National Endowment for the Arts indicated that 87% of book readers read fiction. Putting these studies together one may infer that it is likely that it was the reading of books of fiction that had the largest effect on longevity for the people in the study by Bavishi et al.
Bavishi, A., Slade, M. D., & Levy, B. R. (2016). A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity. Social Science and Medicine, 164, 44-48. 
Mar, R. A., & Rain, M. (2015). Narrative fiction and expository nonfiction differentially predict verbal ability. Scientific Studies of Reading, 19, 419-433.
National Endowment for the Arts. (2009). Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.
Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Harrison, M. R. (1995). Knowledge growth and maintenance across the life span: The role of print exposure. Developmental Psychology, 31, 811-826.
Image: Postcard from Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, in Paris, illustration by Miles Hyman.

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Thursday, 7 February 2019

Marguerite Duras The Lover

Marguerite Duras’s novel, The Lover, is able to reach, in a paragraph, to the heart of who we are, in ourselves and with other people. How can a book reach us, in this kind of way? Here are four ideas.

A first idea was suggested by John Ruskin and Marcel Proust. It is that books are friends. But when we take up with a book rather than with a person, we don’t have to worry: “What did she or he think of me?” Whereas, in ordinary life, the people we meet depend on circumstance, with books we are not restricted. We can choose from across time, and from all over the world. The idea of book-as-friend is a metaphor. But it’s more than that. A novel or short story offers a kind of invitation, in the way that a person might. So a book might say: “Please engage with me, maybe just for a short time.“ And, in the same way as some people affront us with something like: “Look at me, I’m far better than you,” so a book may issue a challenge. Other books, like some people, affect indifference.

A second idea is that we human beings construct mental understandings of each other. Without doing so, we could not interact, could not make arrangements with each other. We can often understand fictional characters better than many people we know. Sometimes, too, we can apply that understanding to our own selves. Then we can carry this kind of improved understanding into our day-to-day lives. 

A third idea is that novels and short stories have to do with consciousness. Human consciousness is imagination, of words and images in which one aspect is what we know from our past, episodes of experience, skills, and knowledge. The second aspect is our understanding of the current social situation. The third aspect is of ongoing plans for ourselves and with others. Narrative has this very same structure: evocations of what’s remembered, circumstances and the emotions that are elicited in them, plans about what to do. A novel or short story, then, is a piece of consciousness that the author has constructed to exist on its own out there, with the possibility of it being taken up, and taken in, to become a reader’s own. With some books, though, an individual reader may not want to take in the piece of consciousness.

A fourth idea concerns resonance: whether a story evokes aspects of one’s idiosyncratic past, or of one’s culture, or both. When this happens, there can be a sense of recognition; we can also understand hints and nuances. But that doesn’t mean we can only successfully read about our own culture. If one could only take in books from one’s own culture, men could never enjoy writers who are women nor women enjoy writers who are men.

Marguerite Duras was born in 1914 and grew up near Saigon, in Vietnam, third child and only daughter of a married couple from France who took jobs in this French colony. Her father was a professor of mathematics in a school there, but Marguerite scarcely knew him because, soon after she was born, he became ill, moved back to France, and died there when she was five. She had two brothers: the elder four years older than her, and the younger, who was a bit developmentally delayed, two years older than her. She remembers her elder brother as cruel. He would beat up the younger brother, and terrorize his sister. He was the only one of her three children who was loved by their mother, who was also a teacher. Marguerite remembers her mother as proud that her daughter was clever, but says that her mother was hard on her, and sometimes beat her. Marguerite and the younger brother did love each other and this occurs, too, with the narrator and the younger brother of the novel. Also, as in the novel, Marguerite began an affair with a Chinese lover, who was aged 27 when she was fifteen-and-a-half. When she was 17, she went to Paris to go to the Sorbonne, starting in mathematics. Then she moved to political science, then law. In the War she was in the Resistance and became a member of the Communist Party.

The Lover, written by Duras when she was 70, is a book about a lover and a family. It’s both an autobiography and a novel in which, at a young age, the narrator finds that she can be loved. The first evocations of this are tender and moving. But in the middle of the book comes a paragraph that is shocking. It starts like this, on page 46: “I tell him to come over to me, tell him he must possess me again. He comes over.” Then we read this: “He … says he knew right away, when we were crossing the river, that I’d love love, he says he knows now that I’ll deceive him and deceive all the men I’m ever with …” Then this: “He calls me a whore, a slut, he says I’m his only love … nothing’s wasted, the waste’s covered over in the torrent, in the force of desire.” In English, the words “whore,” and “slut” have no male equivalents (perhaps it’s the same in French). What do we make of that? This calling of names is followed, on page 97, by what the narrator’s mother says, when she finds out about the affair. She accuses her daughter of “blatant prostitution,” and calls her a “little white tart.” 

The paragraph that starts on page 46 is an indication, I think, of how the narrator feels, when she is loved by her lover … so that, at the same time, she also despises herself in a way that, during her childhood, her mother has made her feel despised. What do we make of how we can carry forward feelings of our earliest relationships into our later love-relationships?

Among reasons for the derogatory words used by the lover, and later by the mother, are that, although the narrator is French and a white person, her lover is Chinese. So, for her mother and for French society at that place and time, what the narrator does must absolutely not be done. It’s far worse than having an affair while still at school.

The book is written in the first person, and ranges from the time in the 1930s when the narrator lived near Saigon, when she crossed the Mekong River and first met her lover, to later times, in Paris, when she has a child and when she is in the middle of World War II. Part of what makes Duras’s writing so engaging, I suggest, is that she writes in paragraphs and short sections, in the kind of way that consciousness works, thinking this, then that, sometimes coming to wonder, sometimes feeling delight, sometimes reaching no conclusion.

The family dynamics in The Lover are dreadful. When a child grows up knowing that a sibling is cared about far more than they are, this tends to have a life-long negative effect. For both Marguerite herself, and for the narrator of the novel, this combines with the absence of a father, and with the experience of being hated by her elder brother. Perhaps the fact of being left alone by her husband was a factor in the mother loving her older son. This boy grows up to be repellant, a layabout, never interacting with others except to say or do something malicious, stealing from his mother to buy drugs and to gamble, so that even though the mother and the family live in poverty, he further impoverishes them. Later on, in the novel, during the war, the narrator says: “I see war time and the reign of my elder brother as one … I see the war as like him, spreading everywhere, breaking in everywhere, stealing, imprisoning ... (p.67).”

In terms of the four ideas, this novel came to me with an invitation, as a friend. I became able to understand the character of the narrator, her lover, and to some extent her mother and her elder brother. It seemed also, to me, an engaging piece of consciousness that I wanted to take in and make my own. And, quite strongly, I experienced several kinds of resonance. 

Marguerite Duras (1986) The Lover (translated by Barbara Bray) London: Flamingo (original publication of L’Amant, in France, 1984).

Marcel Proust &  John Ruskin (2011). On reading, Sesame and lilies 1: Of kings' treasuries (translated by Damion Searls). London: Hesperus.
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Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Toni Morrison's Jazz

The 1992 novel, Jazz, by Toni Morrison, is original and engaging. In Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925, Virginia Woolf accomplished a novel of inwardness. In Jazz, Toni Morrison accomplished a further step: a novel of relationship. She did this by basing her book on a form of music—jazz—in which a theme is introduced and then, as in some pieces of classical music for instance by Bach, variations are offered. In this novel, the variations suggest ways in which different people experience a certain event (which one may think of as a theme) and, with this, their relationships change. 

Jazz is a kind of love story, a mode that’s virtually a human universal. But this one is different, because it is not just a love story but a story of other kinds of relating as well. Following this novel, books in which relationship has come to the centre seem to be more frequent. So, for instance, in 2007, Katy Roiphe published Uncommon Arrangements, a biography not of a person but of relationships in marriage. Then came the novels of Elena Ferrante. The first, My Brilliant Friend, published in English in 2012, is not really about the friend as such, but about the narrator’s relationship with the friend when they were young. Then, in subsequent novels, Ferrante has written about how the relationship developed into adulthood.

Morrison states the theme of her novel at the book’s beginning. The fifty-year-old Joe is in love with an eighteen-year-old, Dorcas. At a party, he shoots her. As Morrison writes in the fourth and fifth line of the novel, he did this “just to keep the feeling going.”  No-one sees the shooting, and Joe is not arrested. He is married to Violet, but they’re not much in touch with each other. At Dorcas’s funeral, Violet stabs the dead girl with a knife, and wonders how she might take on some of the characteristics of Dorcas, so that Joe will love her.

Morrison’s suggestion in her novel is that being black in America gives one not just the legacy of slavery, but continuing oppression, so that achievement becomes difficult, and for many people almost impossible. But the human spirit is not suppressed. In the kind of society that has resulted, the focus has come to be on relationship. Jazz is a form of music that arose in this society, a form based on the relationships among the players, that depicts sadness (as in the blues), suffering, sometimes violence but, at the same time, progress.

By starting with a theme, and progressing through a sequence of chord structures, the musical form of jazz is based on improvisation in which the players of different instruments, and sometimes a singer, improvise in relation to each other. This is the kind of structure that Morrison uses in her novel. 

The events with which the novel starts occur at the beginning of 1926. As the narrator says, after World War I: “Armistice was seven years old when Violet disrupted the funeral” (p. 9). Both Violet and Joe had been married for many years and had come from the rural South, to live in Harlem which, in the novel, is called “The City.” They had been getting along with each other, in a way, but not so well. They had no children together and this too, becomes a theme. Both realize that they did not really choose each other. Thinking back to when they met Violet says: “from the very beginning I was a substitute. And so was he” (p. 97). It’s many years later that Joe does make a choice: he come to love Dorcas. On page 135 he says, as if he were speaking to her: “I chose you. Nobody gave you to me. Nobody said that’s the one for you. I picked you out … I didn’t fall in love. I rose in it.”

Part of the performance of jazz music involves solos by players of particular instruments. In the book this is mirrored by stories told by Violet and Joe about their early lives in the South. Later in the book other characters enter as well. They include Malvonne Edwards, from whom Joe rents a room for a few hours a week, in the building in which he lives, so that he and Dorcas can meet there to have sex. Then there is Alice Manfred, who took Dorcas on when her mother (Alice’s sister) was killed in the anti-black race riots of St Louis in 1917, in which many people died.

There’s some wonderfully lyrical writing in this novel. Here’s an example.
A colored man floats down out of the sky blowing a saxophone, and below him, in the space between two buildings, a girl talks earnestly to a man in a straw hat. He touches her lip to remove a bit of something there. Suddenly she is quiet. He tilts her chin up. They stand there. Her grip on her purse slackens and her neck makes a nice curve … Do what you please in the City. It is there to back and frame you no matter what you do… Hospitality is gold in this City. You have to be clever to figure out how to be welcoming and defensive at the same time. When to love something and when to quit (pp. 8-9). 

After Dorcas’s death, Violet comes to know and relate to both Alice Manfred and Malvonne Edwards. Then, later as well, Dorcas’s best friend Felice enters the story, as does a young man called Acton, whom all the young women want to be with. Dorcas manages to catch him, and starts to have sex with him. Joe realizes this. And that is the reason—well, one of the reasons—he shoots Dorcas. What happens, then, in the relationship between Violet and Joe? To find out, you need to read the novel.  

At the end of her book, Morrison adds the loveliest coda, in which the novel’s narrator speaks to the author. By means of what she says, in a Proustian way, she speaks to us, the readers, engaging us also in relationship with the novel’s characters and events, as well as with the narrator … and the author.

Elena Ferrante (2012). My brilliant friend (A. Goldstein, Trans.). New York: Europa Editions.

Toni Morrison (1992). Jazz. New York: Knopf. Page numbers are from the 2004 paperback edition, with a new Foreword by the author, published by Vintage International.

Katy Roiphe (2007). Uncommon arrangements: Seven portraits of married life in London literary circles, 1910-1939. New York: Virago.

Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.
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Friday, 11 January 2019

Research Bulletin: Do Stories Satisfy Core Human Motives?

Stories, and transmission of information through stories, is one of the most universal aspects of human communication. But what role does it play in our lives and how does it relate to our core motivations? In this brief theoretical article, Costabile, Shedlosky-Shoemaker, and Austin (2018) set out to demonstrate how stories promote social and psychological wellbeing by satisfying core motivations. As a starting point, the authors adopt Susan Fiske’s (2010) five core social motivations: belonging, understanding, control, self-enhancement, and trust. These are essential social needs that each person desires in order to feel complete. Costabile and her colleagues argue that stories, both autobiographical stories and entertainment narratives, satisfy all five core motivations. The article is broken up into sections for each of the core motives, and in each section empirical evidence is presented to support the relationship between stories and the core motive in question.  
In conclusion, the authors propose that this article helps bring together research on narrative with more traditional social psychological research. Moreover, they believe that narrative approaches can be of use in other areas of social psychological research, such as intergroup relationships and overcoming resistance to persuasion. 


Costabile, K. A., Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., & Austin, A. B. (2018). Universal stories: How narratives satisfy core motives. Self and Identity, 17(4), 418-431.

Fiske, S. T. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in Social Psychology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.

Post by Connor LaForge.

* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

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Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Leïla Slimani Chanson Douce

With Chanson Douce, Leïla Slimani won the Prix Goncourt in 2016. The novel has been translated into English by Sam Taylor; published in England as Lullaby in 2018, and in North America as The Perfect Nanny. At the end of last year, the New York Times said it was one of the ten best books of 2018. Here’s a quote, from what was said, there: “Slimani writes devastating character studies, and also raises painful themes: the forbidden desires parents project onto their nannies, racial and class tensions” (New York Times, Book Review Section, 5 December 2018, p. 10).

Slimani was born into a Muslim family in 1981, and grew up in Rabat, Morocco. At the age of 17 she moved to Paris, where she lives now with her husband of ten years, who is a banker. Six years ago she got the idea for this, her second novel, from reading in Paris Match about a nanny in New York who killed two children who were in her care. At that time Slimani was herself starting to look for a nanny for her six-month-old son because she wanted to get back to work.

Throughout Slimani's childhood she was looked after by a live-in nanny, whom she remembers as strict but very affectionate. Her father was an economist and had been successful. Before she was born, for two years, he had been a Minister of the Economy in Morocco. Then, when Slimani was twelve years old, he was fired from his position as CEO of a bank, and sent to prison on charges of corruption. The family fell apart, and the nanny was let go. Slimani’s mother supported her and her two sisters by working as an otolaryngologist. A bit more than ten years later her father died, supposedly of lung-cancer. Slimani thinks he died of grief. Posthumously, he was acquitted.

Lullaby starts with a horrible jolt. Its first two-and-a-half pages are about the death of two young children whom their nanny kills. This makes it impossible for some people to read on; if you think you may be one of these, please read no further here. 

In a fundamental way, however, this killing is not what this novel is about. What it’s really about is how and why a person who is employed in an intimate position in a family as a nanny, and does absolutely everything for this family, first feels useful and very worthwhile, but then starts to experience the parents’ disdain and distrust of her and, in utmost despair, behaves in such a destructive way.  

In the novel, Myriam Charfa is the mother of the two young children: Mila, a toddler, and Adam, a baby. She is married to Paul Massé. They live in Paris, in the Tenth Arrondissement (at the center of which is the Gare du Nord). In her training as a lawyer Myriam has been brilliant. Then, after being very absorbed with her babies, she starts to feel trapped, and becomes very bitter towards Paul. Then, Pascal, who had been a student whom she knew in law school, encourages Myriam to come and work with him in a firm he has just started. She is excited at the prospect. So she and her husband look for a nanny. They find Louise, who has an excellent reference from a former employer. 

Louise comes to work for the  family. She does everything for the children. She loves them. She looks after them in the warmest way, cares for them, plays with them affectionately. She also does everything for Myriam and Paul: tidies up, mends clothes, cooks meals, stays overnight when necessary. She could not be better. She becomes indispensable. 

On page 89 of Lullaby, we read that one afternoon Louise has been playing with Mila, and has put lipstick and make-up on her, painted her finger nails and toe-nails with nail varnish. The little girl loves it. When her father comes home early from work, she says  “Look, Papa … Look what Louise did!”

Then we read this:
He had been so pleased to get home early, so happy to see his children, but now he feels sick. He has the feeling that he has walked in on something sordid or abnormal. His daughter, his little girl, looks like a transvestite, like a ruined old drag queen. He can’t believe it. He is furious, out of control. He hates Louise for having done this. Mila, his angel, his little blue dragonfly, is as ugly as a circus freak, as ridiculous as a dog dressed up for a walk by its hysterical old lady owner.

In an interview with Lauren Collins (in the New Yorker on 1 January 2018), Slimani said “I wanted to take an interest in the home, which we always see as a space of softness, of protection, where we go to take shelter … It’s supposed to be a space where questions of power and domination are nonexistent. But that’s completely false!” 

Slimani is fascinated by how people can devote themselves fully to a particular activity. Whereas Louise devotes herself to her job as a nanny, the protagonist of Slimani’s first novel, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre (In the Garden of the Ogre) to be published in English this year with the title Adèle, is a woman who devotes herself to sex. She wants to be wanted. Slimani said to Collins: “There are people who give themselves over to their sexuality, there are people who lose themselves in it, but, for me, sex is something very painful, very melancholy, because one sees oneself.”

Among themes to reflect on in Lullaby (The Perfect Nanny) are these.

The first is that Slimani enables us to know her protagonist, Louise, and the circumstances of her life. Of course, you might say, that’s the novelist’s job. But here it’s significant in more than the usual way. We read how Louise’s husband had abused her, then died, leaving her in the most terrible financial mess. She is no longer in touch with her grown-up daughter. Now she lives in a sleazy one-room apartment, and her landlord terrorizes her. She makes her job as a nanny into her whole life. So, then, we may ask ourselves: “Who are we?” “To what do we devote our selves?” And, in this life, whom do we come to know? We can sometimes come to understand a literary character, such as Louise, better than most actual people in our day-to-day lives. Slimani is astute at letting us readers know that Myriam and Paul have no idea who Louise is. The extent of their care for her is zero. At the same time they have her look after their children, in one of the most intimate and important relationships one can ever have. 

A second theme is that Louise’s care for the children of Myriam and Paul enables both of them to thrive in their careers. They both earn good incomes, but the amount they pay Louise is so little that she can scarcely afford to live. They come to think they are entitled to what she does for them, and they exploit her. In an article (on p. 69 of the New Yorker of 20 August 2018) Adam Gopnik wrote, “of the truth that we always resent most those to whom we owe most.” On page 130 of Lullaby, we read that because of the hopeless financial situation in which Louise’s former husband left her, Paul received a letter from the Income Tax people, who were trying to trace her. The letter says that Louise owes back taxes. Paul speaks to Louise in a malicious way. He says: “we are very upset by what we learned. There are certain things that cannot be tolerated.” Myriam and Paul become fed up with Louise, and think about how to fire her. In turn, Louise becomes despairing. She comes to think that she will no longer be able to love. 

A third theme is based on how Myriam Charfa is an immigrant. In contrast, Louise is not an immigrant, and she is white. Slimani said to Lauren Collins, that Louise is “a white woman doing an immigrant’s job, which is extremely demeaning.” Myriam is a non-white woman, from North Africa, as Slimani is herself. By means of these contrasts, Slimani invites us to think, perhaps in some new ways, of our relationships with people we employ. Among the issues are both social class and ethnicity. How far do we know people we employ who are from different social strata than ourselves? How far do we know people we meet who are different from us, in the work-place, or anywhere? How far do we want to?

Leïla Slimani (2018). Lullaby (Sam Taylor, Trans.). London: Faber & Faber. (In North America the title of the translation is The Perfect Nanny, Penguin Random House).

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