Friday 6 February 2009

Emulating Fictional Habits

Ever since reading Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, I find myself at odd moments absently flicking the blade of my pocketknife open and closed, open and closed. This seems a slightly dangerous and unfortunately attention-drawing habit, so as soon as I notice I'm doing this, I usually re-pocket the knife (and hope no one's noticed). But the habit is always the same: holding the knife in one hand, and opening the blade with the other just enough to be able to let it snap back into place — just, I realize, as I image Peter Walsh playing with his knife in Mrs. Dalloway, a very characteristic and somewhat loaded habit.

What are we doing when we adopt such fictional habits? I catch myself (and others) at this mimicry after movies, too: a particular way of holding the mouth, or of turning the head becomes habitual for an hour or a day, and I can often tell when friends are reading favorite authors by habits of speech or turns of phrase. Business coaches suggest that emulation of speech and habits can smooth communication by making us seem more familiar to the people we emulate — and psychologists suggest such emulation may reveal who's taking cues about how to behave from whom. Emulation clearly has some social functions.

But the way that fiction inspires emulation suggests that this kind of imitation is not only relational or about persuasion — and (in case this was in question) is not necessarily under conscious control. Instead, I suspect that mimicking the set Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle's mouth takes when he is figuring out a case somehow helps put me in a mood that enables me to approximate Foyle's abductive genius. Fiddling with my pocketknife just so perhaps signals that I'm feeling a bit lost for words. (Tipping my head to the side like Kidman's Woolf in The Hours might just signal my affection for Virgina Woolf — but it might also represent an aspiration to the kind of stark one liners her character usually delivers with head tilted, or a search for the subtle perspective her character appears to possess.)

Paying attention to these little ways we draw the experience of fiction into our non-reading experience of everyday life may tell us more about how what we read provides us new models for thinking about things — and even new things to do with our hands.

Benedict Carey (2008). You Remind Me of Me. Feb 12, The New York Times.

Stephen Daldry, Michael Cunningham, & David Hare (1998/2003). The Hours. Paramount Pictures.

Virginia Woolf (1927). Mrs. Dalloway. Hogarth Press.


Anonymous said...

I wonder too if reading fiction doesn't give us the vocabulary for describing certain actions we emulate. For example, I know I cam across the term "scrunching up" one's face in some book from my youth. And I equated it with the face one makes after drinking lemon juice. This concept would have never entered my lexicon had it not been for that book--James and the Giant Peach maybe?

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

And then there's the fascinating relationship between the words and the embodied feeling -- here I'm thinking of the research about how making certain faces (of disgust or happiness, for example) elicit those feelings, even cross-culturally. So "smile," as a word, has impact that cannot be described only as semantic. It's interesting to consider how these somewhat basic and unconditioned responses relate to more learned associations (as in my example of tipping my head like Kidman-as-Woolf to focus a particular kind of thought) -- so if you'd never actually tried a lemon, how much would imagining scrunching up your face simulate what one was like?

Paul Lamb said...

I think Peter De Vries wrote a novel about an aspiring novelist who decided his key to success was to emulate all of the bad qualities of all of the famous authors.

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