Monday 7 September 2009

In the Grip of a Story

It might not seem immediately obvious why Patrick Colm Hogan's (2009) book Understanding nationalism would be relevant to the psychology of fiction, despite its subtitle: On narrative, cognitive science, and identity. This brilliant and courageous book is relevant for many reasons. One is that it extends the arguments and analyses of Hogan's influential The mind and its stories (click here for Books on the Psychology of Fiction, which has micro-reviews of that book and this one), in which he showed, from reading stories that had been composed all round the world before the era of European expansion and colonialism, that just three story themes were so common as to amount to human universals. In the present book he re-describes these universal stories in their most prototypical forms and points out that we humans can respond to them with an eager readiness. One prototypical story theme Hogan calls the heroic. In it, there is an external threat to the community, for instance a nation, and a hero arises to defeat the enemy. A second prototypical story is the sacrificial. A community has committed some sin, and as a consequence devastating punishments occur. A person then comes to recognize and name the sin and, by self-sacrifice, atones for it. A third prototypical story, Hogan calls the romantic. It is of two lovers who long to be united, but because of a conflict with society, for instance with an authority who may be a rival, one of the lovers is exiled. When the exiled one returns a happy ending occurs if the rival is defeated, but a sad ending if the lovers die. In this book Hogan shows that these three stories are not just something to read or to think about. Any of them is powerful enough to shape individual identity. The important proposal of this book is that two of them—the heroic and the sacrificial—are powerful enough to bind people together and shape whole social movements, even nations: hence the main subject of the book, nationalism.

Hogan's opening chapters are about cognitive processes that are important in national identity, for instance people's identification with in-groups and the accompanying antagonism against out-groups. He then moves towards literary analyses of each of his three prototypical stories as they have affected nation formation and national identity. The heroic prototype, as he points out, lends itself most readily to this process. Hogan treats the Biblical story of David and Goliath, the popular film Independence day, and the speech made by President George W. Bush on the National day of Prayer and Remembrance that followed the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. For the sacrificial prototype Hogan analyzes Hitler's Mein Kampf, (Hitler stressed the suffering of the German people after World War I, the need for sacrifice of the individual to the cause of the Greater Germany, and the need to purge the country from polluting elements) and Gandhi's commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. For the romantic prototype Hogan analyzes Walt Whitman's Song of myself, and Emma Goldman's "What I believe."

The heroic prototype lends itself most readily to the process of mobilization of national identity, and Hogan's analysis of George Bush's speech is striking. The speech was put together by Bush's speech-writers very quickly to be delivered just three days after the events of 9/11. It seems to have been very effective Although it did not itself take a story form, Hogan shows that it drew on the heroic prototype. Thus writes Hogan:
President Bush's speech already shows clear heroic emplotment of the bombings. The speech begins by stating that "we" are in "the middle hour of our grief." The phrasing is interesting from a narrative perspective. It is almost Aristotelian in suggesting a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of the narrative and thus the beginning of "our" grief was of course the bombings. The end will be the resolution of our grief. Though not clear yet, that end will come in the defeat of the enemy (p. 241).
Hogan goes on to show how the speech assimilates the events to a heroic narrative. in the second paragraph the speech says; 'On Tuesday, our country was attacked with deliberate and massive cruelty." Hogan points out what this means. Tuesday was an ordinary day. We were just going about our business. Then—the beginning of the story—there was an unprovoked attack. It was not an attack that was in any way a response to anything "we" had done. And it was not the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon that were attacked, not New York, but "our country." Among the many attributes of Hogan's analyses is how powerful identity formation can be when this kind of prototype is invoked. Alhough the events of 9/11 could have interpreted as criminal and the speech could have been about bringing the criminals to justice, although issues could have been raised about how the loved ones of those who died must be supported, or how the events needed urgent debate in Congress as to the best course of action, such possibilities were not offered. What the speech offered was the plot prototype of an attack against the whole country with the implication that from that moment, the nation had come, involuntarily, to be at war. And, as we know, a response of war did indeed follow, despite the lack of evidence that the state of Iraq had anything to do with the events of 9/11.

A second attribute of Hogan's book is also fundamental. In their work on understanding the mind, psychologists have tended to concentrate on process, so we have accounts of the process of perception, the process of memory, the process of reasoning, and so on. By contrast, literary scholars have been good at concentrating on content: for instance, the actual texts of plays, novels, and films. What Hogan has accomplished here is—remarkably—a bringing together of the cognitive processes of story with the contents of publicly influential stories that have affected us, and that continue to affect us.

The central idea of Hogan's book is that in identity formation, the emplotment of universal stories can occur unconsciously. Because of this unconsciousness we tend not to think about how identity and inclination are formed. It is not that the movements associated with the heroic and sacrifical prototypes are necessarily bad. Gandhi's role in the freeing of India from colonial rule by the British is an important event in recent world history, and is (in my view) rightly admired. Rather, Hogan offers this book to enable us to think about the process of assimilation to stories, which can be powerfully influential in thought and action. About the content of the stories that affect us, Hogan says: "I do think that being aware of our prejudices can help limit them" (p. 229). And when this occurs we can perhaps be better at thinking about causes before we decide whether to join them.

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

Patrick Colm Hogan (2009). Understanding nationalism: On narrative, cognitive science, and identity. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

1 comment:

scheftj said...

Hogan's book clearly points to the cognitive force that stories have as a step toward action, such as nationalist aggression.

It seems to me, however, that stories must also arouse an emotional force that leads to aggression or other action.

In Mein Kampf and his speeches, Hitler promised the German people that he would remove the stain to their honor. That is, that he could put an end to their feelings of shame and humiliation, and return their feelings of pride. It was this language, I think that made his story of heroism and sacrifice infinitely powerful. Without this emotional force, such stories are a dime a dozen.

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