Thursday 30 April 2009

Emotions, Narrative Universals, and Religion, by Patrick Colm Hogan

In response to comments by William Benzon on a post by Keith Oatley, I distinguished the study of narrative in (emotionally oriented) verbal art from the study of narrative in religion. I noted that there are overlaps. Nonetheless, given subsequent discussion on that thread, it is clear that I made the division sound too profound and absolute. My point at the time was simply that, in The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion (TMAIS), I was not aiming to explain religion. Therefore my hypotheses—about narrative universals and human emotion--could not be faulted for not covering all of religion. (In TMAIS, I argue that there are at least three universal narrative prototypes—romantic, heroic, and sacrificial. Moreover, these prototypes are predominant among widely appreciated and highly esteemed works of narrative art and are widespread in popular narrative art as well. I further argue that these narrative prototypes derive from cross-cultural prototypes for happiness.) In distinguishing verbal art from religion, I did not mean to imply that only a small, peripheral set of religious stories are relevant to the study of emotion and universal narrative prototypes. In fact, I drew extensively on certain sorts of religious narratives in TMAIS. Here, I would like to set out a clearer account of the distinction.

Religious narratives may have different purposes in production and may be taken up for different purposes in reception. The case stressed by Professor Benzon was creation stories. To characterize something as a “creation story” is to suggest that its function is explanatory—specifically, that it serves to explain why something exists. I suggested that such stories probably do have universal patterns. However, those patterns are probably, first of all, a matter of how the human mind engages in causal inference (e.g., our tendency to over-attribute agency), rather than a matter of emotion systems as such. Thus they are more in the province of writers such as Boyer.

On the other hand, many—perhaps most—religious narratives have emotional purposes, sometimes along with explanatory ones. In these cases, the aim of producers or recipients is to foster an emotional response. Religious stories of this sort fall under the purview of my research and, indeed, I have talked about them in TMAIS and elsewhere. One recurring emotional purpose of religious storytelling is to foster fear of God or reverence for religious prescriptions. A large number of such stories involve a sacrificial narrative. The paradigmatic story of this sort in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is that of Adam and Eve, which of course figures significantly in TMAIS—despite Professor Benzon’s worries that I ignore the Bible.

Benzon also mentions Native American works, including the myths collected in Claude Levi-Strauss’s Introduction to a Science of Mythology. Opening the first volume at random, I come upon the following story from the Bororo (“M20” in Levi-Strauss’s scheme). A group of men want honey. But the honey they receive from their brother-in-law is spoiled by the fact that he had sexual relations when collecting it. They leave to make ornaments. On completing the ornaments, they make a ritual vocalization. Hearing this, their sister spies on them. This violates a taboo. The men kill themselves in a fire. The sister gathers plants from the place where they killed themselves.

Admittedly, this is not highly prototypical, at least not at first glance. That is not surprising, given the nature of oral stories, the limited circulation of these tales (circulation tends to push stories toward prototypicality), the limited community in which they circulated, and so on. Nonetheless, it is recognizably sacrificial. Sacrificial plots prototypically involve a loss of food due to sin, commonly sexual sin. This is precisely how the story begins. There is the unusual feature of the intervening episode with the ornaments. But this too involves a violation, specifically one bearing on gender taboos. This leads to a sacrifice, which in turn produces the growth of agricultural products, including food—thus the standard reversal and resolution in the sacrificial prototype. Someone might object that the story does not involve the usual causal rigor of a sacrificial plot. But that actually supports the prototype-based analysis. The story does not unfold due to an inexorable internal logic. That apparent absence of internal necessity suggests that the story is, indeed, developing out of a prototype.

On the other hand, I suspect that the part about the ornaments would make more sense if we knew the relevant details about Bororo culture. (They are not provided by Levi-Strauss.) In a forthcoming article for The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences, I make an argument along these lines about the romantic prototype in another South American myth drawn from Levi-Strauss. There I suggest that certain peculiar features of the story (e.g., the main female character being a jaguar) become more comprehensible—and more clearly connected with the prototype—as we learn more about the culture.

The mention of the romantic prototype brings us to another common emotional aim of religious narratives—the fostering of devotion (something quite different from fear). This is what we find centrally in mystical and related writings, ranging from Sufism to the Song of Songs to Hindu bhakti literature. Devotion is routinely emplotted in the romantic structure. I have treated that in TMAIS, and touched on it elsewhere (e.g., in a recent book on Indian film).

Finally, a large number of religious narratives concern emotions surrounding the relation between the religious in-group and out-groups. These are almost invariably versions of the heroic narrative. In TMAIS and elsewhere, I point to highly prototypical instances from, for instance, the Muslim and Hindu traditions (e.g., the Ramayana). Despite Benzon’s worries, such stories figure significantly in the Bible as well. For example, in Understanding Nationalism (forthcoming this summer), I discuss the stories of Saul, David, and Solomon in these terms.

Beyond this, I am currently completing a manuscript in which I expand this analysis. In this manuscript, I argue, first, that my account predicts the existence of several other cross-cultural genres and, second, that we do in fact find these genres across cultures, though they are not as prominent as the heroic, romantic, and sacrificial prototypes. (The theory in fact leads us to expect this reduced frequency as well.) For example, I analyzed the romantic prototype in terms of a fusing of sexual and attachment goals. This suggests that there should also be stories with either sexual or attachment goals separately. These do in fact occur, with some surprising patterns. Needless to say, there are religious stories of these sorts as well, covering still further cases.

Obviously, I have not dealt with all the complex issues involved in the study of narrative, emotion, and religion—far from it. However, I hope the preceding reflections help to clarify some of the issues involved.

Patrick Colm Hogan (2003). The mind and its stories: Narrative universals and human emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Bill Benzon said...

I’d like to make some comments about your treatment of Levi-Strauss’s M20,* Patrick. You observe that there’s a curious bit about ornament construction that might be more intelligible if Lévi-Strauss had provided more ethnographic details. In his discussion of the myth L-S makes a relevant remark, though it won’t make sense unless I supply some details from the myth that your summary omits.

The story opens by observing that “the men of the Bokodori clan . . . were supernatural spirits who lived happily in huts made of down and feathers, which were called ‘macaw’s nests.’” At the end we’re told that after the fire they were changed into birds, “red and yellow macaws, falcons, hawks, egrets . . .” There is thus a certain symmetry to the story; the heroes start out living in feathered huts and end up being transformed into birds. Now, L-S observes that the victims are transformed, “first of all into culture heroes who invent ornaments and the technique of producing them; then, through an auto-da-fé, into birds of brighter and more beautiful colors (and therefore more suitable as raw material for ornaments).” (The Raw and the Cooked, pp. 92-94). These spirits/men are thus givers of ornaments and themselves become ornament material.

Before your remark about the ornaments you observe: "Someone might object that the story does not involve the usual causal rigor of a sacrificial plot. But that actually supports the prototype-based analysis. The story does not unfold due to an inexorable internal logic. That apparent absence of internal necessity suggests that the story is, indeed, developing out of a prototype."

And some might wonder whether or not “the usual causal rigor of a sacrificial plot” is the appropriate standard. In his own analysis of the myth L-S finds a logic, one about kinship and exchange obligations. That might not look like “an inexorable internal logic,” but it is a logic.

Beyond this, I’m having trouble seeing how this matter of internal logic bears on the prototype issue. If the lack of internal logic counts in favor of this story being prototype based, does the presence of internal logic in a Shakespeare play thus count against it being prototype based or at least reduce its degree of typicality? Why does internal logic have any bearing on prototypicality at all?

Now, let’s take a look at how you began your discussion of M20: "Admittedly, this is not highly prototypical, at least not at first glance. That is not surprising, given the nature of oral stories, the limited circulation of these tales (circulation tends to push stories toward prototypicality), the limited community in which they circulated, and so on." You made a similar set of observations during last week’s discussion on the three prototypes: "Admittedly, heroic, romantic, and sacrificial prototypes do sometimes seem to become more predominant in written traditions. There are several reasons for this. Some have to do with issues of group size, the greater importance of prototypes when one leaves face-to-face communities, the ways in which stories are preserved, and other factors."

What’s the difference between a highly and a not so highly prototypical story? Inexorable internal logic? What does circulation have to do with prototypically. In the case of oral cultures the stories have to be held in memory in order to circulate at all; that suggests that they have features suited to the nature of verbal memory (David Rubin has written a book on the subject which you reference in TMAIS, no?). Are those memory-friendly features consonant with or do they work against prototypicality? Correlatively, how does the wider circulation of stories in literate cultures “push” them toward prototypicality? Other than copying errors, why should the stories change at all through circulation? Are the written texts edited and amended to make them more prototypical? Why?

In these two passages you seem to be asserting that, for various reasons, certain story universals are more clearly exhibited in literate cultures than non-literate. Since you’re arguing only for statistical universals, that’s certainly a possibility. Still, I’m bothered by the style of argumentation you seemed to have adopted in which your model is the presumed standard and non-literate tales are assimilated to your model by introducing factors that weren't there originally.

* For those not familiar with L-S’s practice, the designation “M20” simply indicates that this is the 20th myth that is discussed in the book.

Patrick Hogan said...

Dear Bill Benzon,

Thanks for your comments. Saying that the myth lacks the usual causal rigor of the sacrificial plot is not to say it lacks logic, rigor, causality. Nor is it to hold it to a literate standard. It is simply to say that the sacrificial prototype posits a particular cause/effect relation: sin causes divine displeasure causes scarcity motivates sacrifice causes divine forgiveness causes abundance (roughly). My point was simply that the two parts of the myth (the sexual sin/loss of food and the taboo violation/sacrifice/production of food) do not seem to have the usual sort of causal link found in prototypical stories. Then the question is--does that mean there is no prototype there? I don't believe so. If my account is correct, then one would expect some stories to have the various elements drawn from the prototype even when the causal logic of the story does not demand that. This is simply because prototypes prime all their elements even when causally irrelevant. It's just a basic cognitive process.

You also ask what the difference is between highly and less prototypical plots--well, the highly prototypical ones share a larger number of weighted properties or relations that constitute the prototype. It's the same sort of thing as with the difference between highly prototypical birds and less prototypical birds.

Finally, you ask about circulation and prototypicality. You are right that I haven't developed this. Indeed, I've only touched on it in publications. It needs further working out. Nonetheless, it does appear to be the case that as a story is revised, it tends to become more prototypical. Yes, this does have something to do with memory. When we misremember, we tend to misremember toward more rather than less prototypical cases. (There are disturbing examples of this from racial bias and eye witness testimony in trials, for example.) In addition, I'm conjecturing that the same sort of thing occurs for reasons of audience orientation and emotion intensification as well. For example, the sources for such paradigmatic works as ROMANCE OF THE WESTERN CHAMBER and ABHIJNANASAKUNTALAM are much less prototypical. This is not, presumably, the result of memory.

Bill Benzon said...

In reviewing parts of TMAIS, Patrick, I see that you have set your model up so that any story is likely to be an example of some prototype ¬– except, perhaps, a completely unique story. In this case, the analytical question becomes: given some story, which prototype does it exemplify? Maybe M20 exemplifies some prototype you’ve not considered.

If M20 is in fact governed by some logic but is only a weak example of the sacrifice prototype, then maybe we should consider the possibility that it is not constructed according to the sacrifice prototype, though M20 seems to share some elements that exist in the sacrifice prototype. Maybe that other logic, whatever it is, is what is responsible for the story and thus this story derives from a prototype expressing that other logic, whatever it is.

Note that, when considered as a sacrifice story M20 is even stranger than you’ve indicated. That the two parts of the myth fail to have the appropriate causal link, that is one thing. Beyond that, the protagonists are not humans, they’re supernatural beings. And they don’t commit any sins. Rather, they’re sinned against, twice (corrupted honey, nosy sister). And the sacrifice is not something done to placate the gods. If there are any gods here, they’re our supernatural protagonists; no one does anything to placate them. Rather, after the second sin against them they distribute ornaments to others and then transform themselves into birds and plants (via self-immolation). This seems rather an act of extraordinary generosity.

So, I’m skeptical about calling this an ill-formed sacrifice story. In order to bring it into any reasonable conformity with the sacrifice prototype you have to ignore too many features that seem central to the story. But it certainly is an origins story, one with a sacrifice-like motif. Perhaps you need one or more prototypes for origins stories. And perhaps they’ll contain slots for sacrificial or quasi-sacrificial acts. But that’s subordinate to the overall logic of origin stories, whatever that might turn out to be.

Now let’s take another look at M20. What about that apparently odd connection between the corrupted honey episode and the ornaments episode? Before the brothers actually make any ornaments they search the river bed for a special stone they can use to pierce holes in palm-nut shells or shellfish shells. So we’ve got a pointed stone pushing into and through some other substance. Is this hole-piercing a sexual metaphor? The question arises, not on general Freudian principle, but because of the story context. It comes right after an episode where a man was copulating when he shouldn’t – while gathering honey. That episode introduces sexuality into the story and the search for (and use of) stone bores or drills then follows. The hole-piercing episode has thus been primed by the inappropriate copulation episode.

So perhaps there is a continuity between the honey episode and the ornament episode, though not an obvious one. There is also a contrast. Honey is a natural product (of bees) as semen is a natural product of copulation. Ornaments, however, are cultural products made of natural materials. And those plants that grow in the ashes of the heroes, they too are natural products.

And so we’ve arrived at L-S’s big theme, nature and culture. If that’s what’s driving this story, then it is fundamentally ontological in character. It is about ontology. It works out, plays on, the relationships between objects at different positions in the ontology.

And perhaps that’s another way of saying that this story is fundamentally religious. Which brings us back where we were last week, that your main interest is with secular stories as (not entirely) distinct from religious stories. When I look at your three prototypes, the sacrificial story is the only one of the three that seems to require two orders of being, human and divine. The romantic and heroic stories may often involve humans from different social classes but that’s not the same as conflict between human and divine imperatives, which we have in sacrifice stories.

As I recall, you started your investigations with only two prototypes, romantic and heroic. You uncovered the sacrificial prototype when you looked at Ainu oral epic. What I’m now wondering about is the relationship between the M20 type of story, or the Trickster tales, and your sacrificial prototype.

One possibility goes like this. In L-S’s M20 Bororo myth, and in the Trickster tales, we have supernatural beings bringing fundamentally new things into being. We’re dealing with creation. In the sacrificial stories the lack of some existing type (food, water, whatever) is remedied through appropriate sacrifice. But nothing of a fundamentally new kind is introduced into the world.

Now, do the origin stories come from a fundamentally older substrate of human story-telling than secular sacrificial stories?

Bill Benzon said...

I want to make some comments on fire, from two points of view: 1) ontology, 2) practical agriculture.

In this context I mean “ontology” as the term is understood in cognitive science, not as it is understood in philosophy (though there is a relationship between the two). The cognitive scientist is not trying to figure out what is ultimately real; that’s the province of philosophy. Rather, the cognitive scientist is interested in the basic categories people use to think about the world: animal, vegetable, or mineral, etc.? In those terms what is fire? It’s most peculiar. It’s not a thing, except in the most general sense, where any and everything is a thing. It’s not like a rock or a plant. It doesn’t have a definite form. Rather, it’s formless; you can look into a fire an see what you will, but it changes from moment to moment. It’s not a solid object, but you stick your hand in it at your peril. It’s formless, not-tangible, hot, and brightly colored.

It’s hard to place in an ontology. And that makes it a useful symbol of transformation. Note that, in saying this, I’m not analyzing a corpus of Bororo assertions about fire; I’m simply making some general observation which I suspect may obtain in the Bororo case, but I don’t actually know that. So, if you want to transform some X, such as a supernatural humanoid, into a rather different Y, and Z, such as birds and plants, you might do it by passing that X into a fire from which Y and Z then emerge. That is one thing, and, if valid, has an obvious application in the case of L-S’s M20.

Now agriculture. Here’s a paragraph on Bororo subsistence: "Traditionally the Bororo lived, and to some extent still do, by hunting, fishing, collecting, and horticulture. The men hunted with bows and arrows, and the principal animals sought were peccaries, jaguars, tapir, rabbits, caimans, and various species of monkeys and birds. Fishing, too, was mainly a male activity, and several methods were employed, including shooting with bows and arrows, using weirs and nets, and poisoning. Both sexes collected wild plant materials, but the women did the bulk of the collecting and were responsible for gathering firewood as well. Slash-and-burn, shifting horticulture was the domain of the women, and crops included maize, manioc, tobacco, rice, cotton, and gourds."I call your attention to the fact that women were responsible for slash-and-burn horticulture. That’s a practice in which land is cleared by burning the trees away and allowing them to lie in place where their ash become fertilizer. Agricultural crops are then planted in the patch. This too has an obvious application to M20, in which a woman harvests crops from the ashes of the immolated culture heroes.

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