Sunday, March 1, 2020

Does Literature Restructure the Mind?

At the least, it’s intriguing. Prof. Julie Sedivy, of Calgary, suggests that whereas ancient literature has been almost entirely oriented toward action, more modern texts emphasize the inner workings of heart, soul and mind.

This immediately brings to mind a book by an old teacher of mine, a man named Erich Heller, who wrote The Artist’s Journey into the Interior. I first heard the chapters in lecture form in a graduate literature course. Heller was presenting an argument deriving from Hegel’s aesthetics, whereby the history of art and literature saw mind or spirit gradually disengage from sensuous form. 

Ancient Egyptian art emphasizes sensuous form. The characters function within stories. Their being and their actions merely serve the requirements of storytelling. Their inner mental states are not just irrelevant. They are non-existent.

According to Hegel, Attic Greece sees the perfect balance of form and spirit. The rest of the history of Western art shows mind, soul and spirit gradually freeing themselves from form, representing characters more as unique individuals with a rich mental life and less as social actors.

Without belaboring these points-- Sedivy ignores them-- I would mention that we should be skeptical about such theories, however plausible they are.

After all, the genre of detective fiction, defined by characters like Dupin, Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Morse and Dalgleish differs markedly from Romantic poetry and the fictions of Henry James, James Joyce and Virginia Wolff. We might consider the latter to be more literary, but who is their audience: the general public or the academic establishment?

Dare we add that Charles Dickens was not exactly an explorer of inner mental space.

Sedivy begins with a thirteenth century Icelandic saga, one whose existence would obviously undermine the Hegelian position. One also notes that such works were not read from a written text, but were recited in public. In that they resemble Homer’s epics more than Jane Austen.

She explains:

... we read about King Harold doing battle in one of the Sagas of the Icelanders, written in about 1230. The first sentence bristles with purposeful action: “King Harold proclaimed a general levy, and gathered a fleet, summoning his forces far and wide through the land.” By the end of the third paragraph, the king has launched his fleet against a rebel army, fought numerous battles involving “much slaughter in either host,” bound up the wounds of his men, dispensed rewards to the loyal, and “was supreme over all Norway.” What the saga doesn’t tell us is how Harold felt about any of this, whether his drive to conquer was fueled by a tyrannical father’s barely concealed contempt, or whether his legacy ultimately surpassed or fell short of his deepest hopes.

Fair enough, this text tells us nothing about anyone’s feelings. It involves an historical epic and action on a battlefield. If the king or his lieutenants had gotten involved with their feelings they would probably have lost the battle. The author was correct to ignore our own decadent preoccupations with inner spirituality.

Anyway, Sedivy jumps ahead to the work of David Foster Wallace. We recall the prodigiously talented Wallace, not only for his fine writing, but also for the fact that he suffered from extreme depression. Ultimately, he committed suicide. As did, for instance, Virginia Wolff.

Sedivy does not ask whether or not the approach to fiction has something to do with the author's mental predisposition. When she argues, later in her text, that these writings change our emotional or social intelligence, one would have liked her to ask whether that is a good or a bad thing.

Anyway, she describes Wallace thusly:

Jump ahead about 770 years in time, to the fiction of David Foster Wallace. In his short story “Forever Overhead,” the 13-year-old protagonist takes 12 pages to walk across the deck of a public swimming pool, wait in line at the high diving board, climb the ladder, and prepare to jump. But over these 12 pages, we are taken into the burgeoning, buzzing mind of a boy just erupting into puberty—our attention is riveted to his newly focused attention on female bodies in swimsuits, we register his awareness that others are watching him as he hesitates on the diving board, we follow his undulating thoughts about whether it’s best to do something scary without thinking about it or whether it’s foolishly dangerous not to think about it.

She concludes:

These examples illustrate Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities. I’d often wondered, when reading older texts: Weren’t people back then interested in what characters thought and felt?

But, did anyone in ancient times care about thoughts and feelings? And also, we should ask whether there are important modern writers who do not care about thoughts and feelings. 

Icelandic sagas notwithstanding, medieval Christian mysticism, whether by Bernard of Clairvaux or Bonaventure was deeply involved with inner spiritual states. See Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs and Bonaventure’s famed guide to mystical voyages: Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. The Mind’s Journey unto God. These were not peripheral works. They were central to the civilization. They did not fall in the genre of action adventure.

In more modern times, we might mention Ernest Hemingway, a man whose novels were not exactly journeys into the depths of any character’s soul.

Anyway, Sedivy offers an explanation for her somewhat correct and somewhat distorted thesis:

When people’s choices were constrained and their actions could be predicted based on their social roles, there was less reason to be attuned to the mental states of others (or one’s own, for that matter). The emergence of mind-focused literature may reflect the growing relevance of such attunement, as societies increasingly shed the rigid rules and roles that had imposed order on social interactions.

Effectively, in a world where people have a place in society and where their roles define their actions and their expectation, they have less interest in reading the minds of other people. If actions are predictable, you do not need to read minds. But, if actions are correct you also do not need to try to rationalize them. If actions are incorrect, you do better to correct them than to try to explain them away.

One might suggest that Sedivy is describing a civilization that is becoming increasingly decadent, a civilization where people seem less apt to do the right thing and more apt to try to find excuses for doing the wrong thing. 

This implies that fiction is teaching us how to function within decadent societies. In places where we cannot rely on others we are more likely to need to compensate for their errors:

Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.

Of course, this assumes that fiction is a function of the current state of society. It might also be a function of a segment of society. After all, we still have wars and we still have corporations. Those who work within them do not very often write literary fiction about their work.

Since the people who write fiction tend to specialize in creating alternative worlds, perhaps they are not at all writing about things as they occur. Perhaps they are merely selling their book, as the stock market mavens call it, promoting their own importance in a world that has marginalized them.

The shift occurred with the arrival of the printing press, and the production of books that could be read by the general public. Sedivy remarks that people then could read in private. They did not need to rely on sermons or dramatic representations:

This changed dramatically between 1500 and 1700, when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy—as is familiar to anyone who’s studied the psychologically rich soliloquies of Shakespeare’s plays. Hart suggests that these innovations were spurred by the advent of print, and with it, an explosion in literacy across classes and genders. People could now read in private and at their own pace, re-reading and thinking about reading, deepening a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.

Of course, all new cognitive skills are not acquired for the better. Sedivy offers some modern examples from Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker. She does not mention Hemingway or Agatha Christie or even John Le Carre.

Perhaps the journey into the interior makes more sense to women who are not participating directly in the worlds of military and corporate actions. If the audience for fiction is largely women, because women are more likely to have more time to read, then it makes sense that authors would appeal to them, because they are the market.

In her literary manifesto “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

This clarion call was taken up by Dorothy Parker, as in the following passage of “Sentiment,” where she shapes sentences into obsessive, rhythmic loops of thought: “But I knew. I knew. I knew because he had been far away from me long before he went. He’s gone away and he won’t come back. He’s gone away and he won’t come back, he’s gone away and he’ll never come back. Listen to the wheels saying it, on and on and on.”

If literature improves social intelligence, we should also ask: to what end? If it increases our capacity for empathy, is this useful in the home, useful in the workplace, in neither or in both?

If mentalizing skills can be burnished by language that draws attention to mental states, has literature’s increasing use of such language improved readers’ social intelligence over the centuries?

These studies don’t prove that a particular literary diet nourishes social intelligence; it’s hard to rule out the possibility that people who are more attuned to other minds are simply more interested in reading about them in the first place, in which case, reading habits would be one result of social intelligence. The ideal experiment would randomly assign people to different reading regimens over a sustained period and then compare the effects.

In the home and in domains controlled by women, people are usually more attuned to other minds and less attuned to action and adventure.


Sam L. said...

What's going on in lesser characters' minds? Ask Polly! Or don't. Personally, I don't care. Keep the story moving! Action! Adventure!

Anonymous said...

People of all levels of intelligence may or may not read. It has nothing to do with intelligence. People read very crappy books and like them because they were told the book is great. They don't have the patience to read things that aren't current and are written in more flowery language. They do have the intelligence but not the patience or desire. This may have nothing to do with social intelligence--I don't know what that is.

Sam L. said...

Dang it! I forgot fun/laughs/entertainment! (My bad.)