Monday 20 April 2009

Research Bulletin: Universal Stories

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg ninety-five theses in which he argued against a prevailing orthodoxy. His method of publication now seems quaint, but Patrick Colm Hogan has taken up the idea of 95 theses to challenge the orthodoxy that in human culture there are only differences and distinctiveness. Hogan has read stories from all round the world, stories created before the age of European expansion and colonialism, and he has found universals in world-wide recurrences of three story themes. The main research is described in his excellent 2003 book, The mind and its stories, and his 95 theses have been nailed to the pages of Philosophy and Literature (2008).

Across the world, the most common story is the love story. Hogan describes it in his Thesis 28 which starts like this.
Romantic tragi-comedy is the story of lovers separated by social divisions, then reunited. It involves the sustaining goals of attachment and lust (thus, in combination, romantic love).
He describes all his story themes as tragi-comedies, because their outcomes come in two versions: tragic and comic. In love stories, the tragic kind of ending occurs with the lovers' deaths, perhaps with a union on another plane as in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, first published in in 1597. In comedy, the ending is the steady state of happy-ever-after.

Hogan's second most common universal story he calls heroic. He describes it in Thesis 29, which is as follows.
Heroic tragi-comedy treats an external threat to the autonomy of a society (e.g. by an invading army) and/or an internal threat to the legitimate political hierarchy of the society. It focuses on concerns of status or power and its empathic force is often a matter of in-group/out-group divisions, particularly national or proto-national divisions. It commonly recruits anger (and, to a lesser extent, fear) toward its emotional and thematic goals.
Hogan's third story universal is of sacrifice, Here is his Thesis 30.
Sacrificial tragi-comedy presents us with a communal sin, punished by famine or devastating disease, which is ended only by sacrifice. It begins with the desire to eat. It too is involved with in-group/out-group divisions, sometimes ethnic or national, perhaps more often religious (when these are distinct). It commonly recruits fear toward its emotional and thematic goals.
Hogan sees these three types of story as thematic prototypes. The themes are perhaps universal because they articulate a large proportion of human emotional concern with other people in society: affectionate relating, angry conflict, and fear of societal disintegration. Of course there are other stories but they are less common, and Hogan believes, I think, that they fit into the interstices between these three principal themes.

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

Patrick Colm Hogan (2008). Of literary universals: Ninety-five theses. Philosophy and Literature, 32, 145-160.

William Shakespeare (1597). Romeo and Juliet. London: John Danter.


christopher said...

Interesting. Sounds a bit like Northrop Frye's archetypal criticism, except that Frye liked things to come in fours, like seasons or cardinal directions. The orthodoxy he imagined he was opposing consisted, I guess, on the one side, of biographical criticism, which focused too much on the particularity and historicity of the text and not at all on its applicability to the present, and, on the other side, of what he called "ethical criticism," which attended insufficiently to the particularity of the work and neglected historical context in order to transform the work into something like the moral of the story.


Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Christopher, for these thoughts. It had not occurred to me to compare what Hogan is doing with Frye's approach, but I think you are right. Hogan's prototypical stories can be thought of as somewhat like Frye's archetypes. What is different principally, I think, is that Hogan derives his prototypical stories empirically, from having read and sifted a great deal of literature from all round the world, something that not many of us have, for various reasons, managed to do. Also, Hogan focuses on the emotional schemas of stories.

Bill Benzon said...
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Bill Benzon said...

Hi Keith,

Yes, Hogan’s book is interesting, and I’ve been happy to cite it. However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder. One of the things I’ve wondered about is: Just what universe did Hogan sample?

My questioning began when I started thinking about the Winnebago Trickster stories as collected by Paul Radin (The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology). The Winnebago are a Siouan-speaking people that lived in the central plains of North American. Radin collected these tales early in the 20th century. They concern Trickster, a cultural hero, and there are 49 tales in the cycle that Radin collected.

Though it’s been awhile since I read the whole cycle, I don’t recall any romantic stories among them, though there is one where Trickster extends his penis underwater across his lake and manages to copulate with women on the other side. And I’ve got my doubts about heroic and sacrifice types as well, though perhaps the story where Trickster’s extraordinarily long penis gets gnawed down by a squirrel is sacrificial. Further, a number of these tales seem to be origin stories; thus pieces of Trickster’s penis became various food plants.

On the whole, this particular body of tales seems to be of kind not represented in Hogan’s argument. Of course, these do not constitute the entirety of the Winnebago story corpus; so it’s quite possible that we’ll find Hogan’s prototypes in other parts of the corpus. But these particular stories are extraordinarily important among the Winnebago; they are sacred to them. In view of Hogan’s goal of revealing something fundamental and universal about the human mind, I find the apparent absence of such tales from his discussion a bit bothersome. At the very least, there would seem to be something about the Winnebago mind and stories that Hogan has missed.

One might, of course, suppose that the Winnebago are just anomalous; that such stories are important only among the Winnebago. However, the commentary supplementing the tales indicates that such tales are common throughout North America (Radin), ancient Greece (Karl Kerenyi), and the world (Carl Jung). Of course, none of this argumentation is statistically supported, but then neither is Hogan’s. So we’ve just got two piles of anecdotal evidence. But the Trickster pile suggests there are limitations to the universalist conclusions that Hogan has drawn from analyzing his pile.

Perhaps he’s missed something.

So, that’s one line of thought. Then I started thinking about the 180 or so South American myths Levi-Strauss examined in The Raw and the Cooked. Again, it’s been awhile since I’ve read them, but, what I recall is a fair number of origin stories, but nothing about romantic, heroic, or sacrificial stories. Of course, it’s quite possible that some (or even all) of the origin stories were also romantic, heroic, or sacrificial, and so this corpus does conform to Hogan’s analysis. But in that case I’d still be bothered by his failure to mention origin stories as a type, as they are important and wide-spread (universal?).

Something's missing?

And then I got to thinking about Judeo-Christian scriptures, the Old Testament. Hogan mentions some of the psalms in a chapter arguing that lyric poetry is often narrative in character; but he doesn’t mention the rest of the stories. There are certainly heroic and sacrificial stories, but romances? Yes, there are some; but the don't dominate the corpus. And then we have the opening origin stories.

On the whole, it appears to me that Hogan has been inadvertently biased toward secular stories, and that muddies his argument. It would be one thing to explicitly say he’s going to examine only secular stories, and to provide a rationale for doing so. But Hogan doesn’t do that. He simply sets out to look at stories in the premodern world.

To be sure, my remarks do not constitute a well-structured argument. They are just an expressioin of doubt, no more. But I can’t help but think that he’s missed the mark in some way. I can easily believe that his three prototypes are, in fact, near universal. But, as I understand it, he’s arguing for universality as an indicator of something fundamental about the human mind. That’s where I think he’s missed the boat; his bias has caused him to miss something as fundamental as what he’s uncovered.

Patrick Hogan said...

Dear Keith,

First, a note to Christopher: Frye was one of my teachers at the University of Toronto. (I was there for just one semester.) I admired him intellectually and personally. His ideas were inspiring—but he had no real explanatory structure, and even his descriptive structure was sometimes difficult to puzzle out (see Todorov’s discussion of Frye in The Fantastic).

Now to the main part of the comment: I am always happy to hear new variations on Professor Benzon's criticisms of my work. He has been doggedly expressing these criticisms, often in extensive private e-mails, for years. I am glad you pointed out his comment and suggested that I might reply.

The center of Benzon's objection here is that most functional/explanatory stories developed in myths do not seem to fit the categories I set out. That is probably true--just as it is true of functional/explanatory stories elsewhere (e.g., in medicine). I set aside those sorts of stories at the start. I was concerned with stories told or widely taken up for their emotional impact, not for what they putatively explained about the world. Emotionally oriented stories are, after all, the sorts of story that are of primary interest in the study of emotion—the area where I make my general claims about the human mind. Put differently, I was concerned with widely appreciated and highly esteemed works of verbal art, which is cross-culturally viewed as bound up with emotional response; I was not concerned with religion (though obviously the two sometimes overlap, as in the psalms). Far from "muddying" my argument, I take this as an important and clarifying, indeed necessary distinction.

Does that mean that I have not "missed something as fundamental as what [I have] uncovered"? Since I have not offered a Theory of Everything, I have no doubt that I have missed many things as fundamental as what I have uncovered. For example, Benzon is right that there are many origin stories cross-culturally. I suspect that systematic study of such origin stories in a cognitive context would be highly productive. However, I do not see any reason to categorize these stories together with stories told or taken up for emotional purposes. The sorts of stories Benzon mentions would fit more fully into the program of cognitive study of religion, such as that undertaken by P. Boyer.

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. Crucially, however, they also have to do with how oral stories are collected. Collections of oral stories are often a sort of anthropological compendium of narratives circulating in a society at any given moment. We tend to get the ephemera along with works that are enduringly emotionally effective. Indeed, sometimes we do not even get stories of the second sort at all. Perhaps someone might believe that individual stories about the origin of honey taken from small communities have the same social importance as the Quetzalcoatl story (a clear sacrificial plot) or that a folktale collected in a small village in Senegal has the same significance as the Son-Jara epic (a highly prototypical heroic narrative). I would disagree. Treating them as parallel is, in my view, like treating individual TV episodes (usually not very prototypical, in my sense) as parallel to plays by Shakespeare (which are highly prototypical). One might admire a TV program and dislike Shakespeare, but it seems clear that the latter has had enormously broader and deeper emotional impact. Alternatively, it is like taking stories that are currently being told and re-told on a university campus and treating them as if they are parallel with stories that are taught in literature classrooms.



Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much Bill and Patrick for these comments on the subject of universal stories. The distinction that emerges from your discussion about the difference between what might be called the recurring emotional themes of stories (love, anger, fear-plus-gratitude) and stories of origins is one that I have not thought about properly. Could it be that there is another distinction here? The emotion-based stories that Patrick has found to occur universally are about our sociality: about self in relation to others. That is where most of our important emotions arise, and where most of the conundrums about our lives occur. By contrast, could it be that stories of origins come from a different thread? This thread could be called religious (as compared with secular), but in terms of this new distinction that I am suggesting, could it be that these stories exhibit primarily a concern with identity?

Bill Benzon said...
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Bill Benzon said...

I’m a bit troubled, Patrick and Keith, by the notion that we’ve got emotive stories on the one hand, and origin stories on the other. Does that imply that origin stories do not elicit and are not intended to elicit emotional responses in listeners, or that the tellers recite them in a listless monotone?

As for your proposed distinction, Keith, I have no problem with some general idea that we tell different kinds of stories to serve different ends. But I’m not sure how to parse your specific proposal. To take Levi-Strauss’s discussion, his general argument is that these South America myths encode both social and, if you will, cosmic relations in one and the same story. One of the consistent threads in his analysis relates events in myths to the social structure (moieties, clans, kin relations) of the society that tells the myth. One of his more elegant arguments, for example, considers a pair of similar myths from two different tribes and suggests that the differences between the myths is correlated with differences in the kinship systems of the respective tribes.

In the case of the Winnebago, in his commentary Radin indicates that the Winnebago recognize two types of narrative, waiken, “what-is-sacred” and worak, “what-is-recounted.” The heroes of waiken are always divine or semi-divine beings, such as Trickster. Waiken could only be told in summer (“when the snakes were above ground”) and always had to have happy endings. In contrast, Worak could be told anytime, had to end tragically and the heroes were generally human. Beyond this, Radin says nothing about worak so it’s hard to figure out the underlying distinctions between the two types.

As for your remarks, Patrick, I’ve got some reservations about your final paragraph. You state: “Collections of oral stories are often a sort of anthropological compendium of narratives circulating in a society at any given moment. We tend to get the ephemera along with works that are enduringly emotionally effective.” How do you know this? You go on: “Indeed, sometimes we do not even get stories of the second sort at all.” Perhaps they don’t exist in a given repertoire.

I assume that ethnographers want to collect stories that are important to a people and that they take pains to collect them. In the case of the Winnebago Trickster stories, and in many other cases as well, only a few individuals in the group are authorized to tell certain stories, and they tell them only under appropriate conditions. These are not stories the ethnographer just happened to hear while hanging around.

You go on: “Perhaps someone might believe that individual stories about the origin of honey taken from small communities have the same social importance as the Quetzalcoatl story (a clear sacrificial plot) or that a folktale collected in a small village in Senegal has the same significance as the Son-Jara epic (a highly prototypical heroic narrative). I would disagree.”

It seems to me that the critical point has to do with the nature of the larger society in which a given small community exists. Some small communities belong to large empires having several levels of organization between the village and the empire. Others may belong to chiefdoms which may have only one level of organization above the village level. These types of society are likely to have different kinds of story repertoires.

If a given small community was part of the Aztec empire, then the people would probably know the Quetzalcoatl story along with the honey story. But that would not be a reason to dismiss the honey story. It’s still a part of the local repertoire.

However, if we’re dealing with a small community that’s simply one of, say, a dozen villages in a chiefdom of 2000 or so individuals, then they may not have a Quetzalcoatl or comparable epic. Maybe they’ve just got a Trickster (or similar) cycle. And if honey is important in their diet, then they’re going to have a story about it, and they’re going to be very careful about how that story is handed down from one generation to the next. The fact that the Quetzalcoatl story is told in villages in some other society is simply irrelevant.

Similar considerations apply to your Senegalese village. What kind of society does it belong to? What's the repertoire of that society?

As for your final comments, surely what matters for claims about universality is what’s in a given cultural repertoire. You’ve got two different things going on here. On the one hand, televisions and universities: they exist in large-scale societies consisting of many over-lapping subpopulations each with its own repertoire. I don’t have any comment about these repertoires and their bearing on arguments about universality.

On the other hand, we’ve got judgments about quality. Are the good stories (Shakespeare) in the same repertoire of the same group as mediocre ones (TV episodes)? Even if so, I’m not sure you can simply dismiss the mediocre ones out of hand. But if we’re dealing with two repertoires of two different groups, then I don’t see that the existence of Shakespeare in one repertoire has any bearing on the other repertoire. You have to deal with repertoires as they exist, not as your model would have them.

Bill Benzon said...

Let me take another crack at your distinction, Keith. There are stories intended to account for the order of the world. These stories can have various subjects, why we eat what we eat, why certain constellations are in the sky, why animals have certain body morphologies, and so forth. But stories of this type may also explain a whole range of customs and practices concerning interpersonal relations. That is to say, these stories may well have a social theme, as is the case with many of Levi-Strauss's examples, and some of the Trickster tales as well. Perhaps it makes sense to characterize these stories as being about identity broadly conceived.

There are other stories that assume the order of the world and tell about human interactions in that assumed world. Perhaps the Winnebago worak stories are of this type, but Radin doesn't say enough about them for me to know this. All he says is that the protagonists are human and the stories come to a tragic end.

More generally, I have nothing to say about the relative distributions of these two kinds of stories – if this is, in fact, the proper distinction to made – in the repertoires of the world's societies.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Bill and Patrick for you comments. In my idea that origin stories are in some way separate from the emotion stories that Patrick proposes to be universals, I was offering a somewhat ad hoc idea. In your most recent comment (Bill) you flesh out some of this idea. Thank you. I agree: stories of this kind, as you say, seem often to be about such things as why we eat what we eat and so on. Can they be thought of as mythologies? Are they kinds of received wisdom and explanations often in the form of fables, local to a society? So when I said "identity," I was wondering about whether they are about (or include concerns with) what it is to be a member of a certain society. I have not read the Winnebago stories, but it's interesting that they can have interpersonal themes. In my reading, at least some of this kind of mythological material seems to be both accepted but also argued about a good deal, much as we (in North America) might both accept and argue about stress and the best way to deal with it, or whether Warren Buffet is a folk hero. The distinction with Patrick's universals that I was reaching after was that his stories seem to come from a separate set of concerns, namely the problematics of our relationships of love and conflict, with each other. I am not sure about the distinction, and if one were to work it through on an agreed corpus it might not work out. But it seemed worth thinking about.

Bill Benzon said...

Yes, Keith, mythology, though the Trickster tales are only one component of Winnebago mythology. Here's an open letter I addressed to Steven Pinker in which I discuss the Trickster tales (by way of heading to a speculation about why we humans tell such stories). That should give you a better idea of what they're like. Basically, at the begnning of the cycle Trickster separates from society and becomes a quasi-human demiurge. He then learns how to be human and, at the very end, retires to the other world.

In the course of his journeys Trickster interacts with many animals and humans - at one point he disguises himself as a woman and marries a chief's son so he can get food. The tales are satirical and humorous, and much of the humor is sexual and scatalogical. I rather imagine that, when the tales are well told, the audience is often howling with laughter.

I want to emphasize one thing that I say early in the Pinker letter, that the telling of these tales is a public event. The teller interacts with the audience and audience members interact with one another and with the teller. The mind that revels in these tales is a public mind, not a Cartesian consciousness that wonders whether or not anyone is out there.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Bill, for this latest comment, and for the link to your piece in The Valve in which you post an open letter on this subject to Steven Pinker. I am rather struck, in that letter, by your idea—which again relates to emotions—that the stories such as those of the Trickster that you discuss, are devoted to dealing with various anxieties, for instance about human embodiment. The thought that this prompts in me is that the idea of writing as a means of expressing anxiety in order to grapple with it seems to have come to the fore, in the West, during the Romantic era. It is possible that this is something that occurs widely.

Patrick Hogan has written a piece that we will post next week on his views on the occurrences and significance of religious narratives.

Bill Benzon said...

"Emotion recollected in tranquillity," Keith? I have no cross-cultural studies to cite – though I'm sure there has been cross-cultural research on anxiety, e.g. Naroll cites cross-cultural work on anxiety and alcoholism in The Moral Order – but I would think that anxiety about embodiement in one form or another is universal. In my book on music – Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture – I argue that music reduces anxiety and that may be the source of music's adaptive value. A group with low anxiety is better able to deal with real stresses and dangers that face it.

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