Why do people reread novels? Why do they listen over and over to pieces of music they’ve already heard? A worn and dog-eared copy of a repair manual, or a recipe book, or a dictionary, or a dense philosophical text makes sense, but somehow that of a novel less so. Young children will listen to the same favorite story read to them many times in a row, and request the same story at the next opportunity, while a stack of other books stands unread nearby. Why would humans waste their time rereading an account of fictional lives in fictional worlds? Why would they bother listening to music that they know so well they can whistle it?
Two of my favorite thinkers have discussed these phenomena, and I was surprised to find on closer inspection that their arguments are interestingly similar. C. S. Lewis, early twentieth century author of the Chronicles of Narnia series and Christian apologist, said that it is very difficult to know whether a story is affecting another reader’s “deeper imagination or only exciting his emotions”. One way to test which the other reader experiences is to learn whether she “often rereads the same story”. Rereading is a sign of interest and attention to something other than the plot and its sequences of suspense, climax, suspense, climax: “Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as if it were suddenly going to bring us out on the edge of the cliff….It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia” (Lewis, p. 16).
But why should attending to the “surprisingness” (p. 16) be any more valuable than attending to each surprise-event as it occurs in the story? Lewis enlarges the perimeter of the concept, though, and says that it’s not just surprisingness that we value – it’s theme. Themes likes “giantness,” “otherness,” “the desolation of space,” “home-coming,” “reunion with a beloved”, among others, attract us deeply. “All that happens [in a story] may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted?” (p. 18) Rereading is an iterative attempt to find ourselves enveloped within the theme, almost in spite of the plot. Lewis then proposes that that tension between these two story elements is precisely that which makes story and real life so much alike: “We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never embodied” (p. 18). We want to experience something larger and more comprehensive, more coherent than the ostensibly stochastic plot events as they are unfolding. So we go back again and again to the events to attend the birth and development of theme and to feel ourselves a part of it.
In a chapter entitled “Musical Parsing and Musical Affect,” the generative and cognitive linguist Ray Jackendoff (1992) argues against the idea that affect in music is largely determined by the music’s novelty for the listener. He notes, “musical affect is produced not just by hearing (and predicting) the musical surface of a piece, but by the activity of deriving in real time all the details of abstract musical structure. The musical structure has intrinsic points of instability or tension, which require resolution and therefore result in affect” (p. 153). Jackendoff posits a “musical parser” that is “informationally encapsulated from musical memory” and that continues to parse independent of the listener’s conscious knowledge of, in Jackendoff’s example, a “deceptive cadence” that is about to be heard. Despite the fact that the listener is likely not unduly surprised by the cadence, having heard it before, nevertheless the listener can still experience genuine emotions elicited by the piece because of this encapsulation. Jackendoff argues that if we think in terms of the listener’s “conscious expectations” or if we take the view that there is a free exchange between the cognitive faculty that “constructs abstract structures that analyze the musical surface” (p. 155) and musical memory, then neither fresh affect nor heightened affect can occur. In his view, affect originates in part through in the structure of the musical phrase itself and in the parser’s ongoing identification of the “most salient structure” (p. 154) to be pursued in light of the instability inherent in every “analysis of the musical surface”. And this, independent of conscious memory.
Now, one must be careful not to approach the two views reductively. These thinkers occupy different temporal cohorts, different fields of inquiry, and different areas of creative media. Nevertheless, both are analysts of an artistic pursuit that they understand deeply. Lewis wrote dozens of novels and stories, and Jackendoff has worked closely with the composer and music theorist Fred Lerdahl in developing their theory of musical reception and production, based on the Chomskyan paradigm of generative linguistics. I am struck by the similarities in Lewis’ and Jackendoff’s views of how affect, and not uncommonly extraordinary affect, can arise in spite of great familiarity with a piece, whether of fiction or music. Lewis’ plot events would seem to align with Jackendoff’s musical phrases, as they both have accepted ways of building and resolving, and accepted deviances thereon. Both elements are numerous and temporally intertwined. Both have accepted discrete boundaries at which points the soul or parser detects and discards implausible assessments of the elements.
More interesting, though, is both thinkers’ strong insistence on the lack of communication or articulation between the theme/memory entities and the plot experiencer/musical parser. If Lewis had been a cognitive psychologist, he might have said that the plot components are processed in a massively parallel fashion and the theme is fashioned in a heavily constructivist sort of way from the results of that processing. Jackendoff, as an author of children’s fantasy fiction, might have asked can a series of musical phrase analyses “quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted” (Lewis, p. 18). Indeed, this informational encapsulation would seem to be a crucial part of the pleasure-in-rereading conundrum. What we want in reading a cherished, dog-eared book with which we are in some sense in love, is to get back to the way we felt when we were entertaining that book’s big ideas at the most abstract levels of analysis that the soul/ parser can experience. We don’t need to remember what exactly we were thinking or feeling during each analysis. We need, at most, the desire to set the parser to work again, “trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive” (Lewis, p. 18).
Jackendoff, R. (1992). Languages of the mind: Essays on mental representation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Lewis, C. S., (1966). Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. Edited with preface by Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
By Dr. Rebecca Wells-Jopling.