Saturday, June 25, 2011

Literature and Emotion

A correspondent recently brought up the topic of emotional response to literature. It’s an important topic, one I’ve thought about from time to time, but I don’t have any particular insight into it. Still, I’ve put together a few thoughts.

First, an excerpt my review of William Flesch, Comeupance (Harvard UP 2007). Flesch introduces the notion of vicarious experience, which is the most interesting idea on emotion in literature that I’ve read since Susanne Langer’s more general idea of virtual experience. Then I consider a childhood practice by way of looking at a section from Tom Sawyer, where Tom deals with negative feelings by running away to become a pirate. Finally, I have abstracts about and links to two old posts at The Valve.

Vicarious Experience: William Flesch

Excerpted from Altrusim, Gossip, and the Vicarious Apprehension of Human Living, Twentieth-Century Literature 55.4, Winter 2009, 629-633.

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[Flesch’s] point is that, when we experience fiction, we monitor the lives of fictional characters using the same bio-behavioral “equipment” we use in monitoring our fellows as we keep “score” of their “credits” and “debits” in the “group account.” The need to monitor our fellows gives us a vicarious interest in their actions, and that vicarious interest is emotionally charged.

Flesch develops this notion of vicarious experience through reference to David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in particular, and Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The anger we feel upon witnessing transgression comes not through some identification with the victim or victims of the transgression, but belongs to the affective component of our social monitoring system. This anger is, in effect, a sentiment on behalf of the group, not on behalf of any particular individuals. The pleasure we feel in just punishment or just reward, Flesh argues, is similarly vicarious and on behalf of the group, not some particular individual or individuals.

How do we monitor our fellows? There is direct observation, a behavioral mode we share with other animals. But we can also exchange tales about them, we can gossip. Flesch thus argues that fiction is, in effect, gossip about imaginary people.

To my mind, the most important consequence of this position has to do with our emotional engagement in the lives of literary characters. As Flesch remarks in a footnote criticizing “orthodox” literary Darwinists: “they treat literary characters as motivated by the same things that motivate real humans, rather than as representations to whom real humans react. It’s our reactions that psychology can analyze, not the actions of literary characters” (p. 231). Flesch thus does away with the nasty problems inherent in the vague notion of “identification” that he regards as being grounded in a mistaken conception of imitation. Given that vicarious interest “is an irreducible and primary attitude that we take toward others” (p. 15) Flesh goes on to argue that identification, such as it is, must in fact depend on our vicarious experience of a character.

Affective Technology: Mark Twain

Excerpted from my essay, Talking with Nature in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”, PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 2004, downloadable from SSRN. I'd be like to hear from anyone who employed this strategy at one time or who knows children who've done so.

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When I was young my parents would punish me by sending me to my room. Not only was I thus unable to continue doing whatever it was that I had been doing, but I was also separated from the world in general and, of course, separated from my parents in particular. While confined to my room I would feel aggrieved and brood for a bit and sooner or later imagine a scenario in which I had died somehow. I would continue the story by imagining my parents grieving for me, and saying how they had wronged me, but it's too late now because I'm dead. By then I would start feeling better.

This, of course, is a form of play, though it is not the sort of thing that typically comes to mind when we think of childhood play. But play it is, for it required me to imagine myself in a role quite different from my actual situation. It also required that I imagine a situation in which my parents were as bereft as I felt, thereby making me superior to them.

I have no idea how common this particular mood-altering play scenario is, but something like it seems to have informed Chapters 13 through 15 of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. While the incidents in those chapters may have been based on Twain's childhood experience, those chapters are themselves works of fiction. We can read them in an hour or so, but they depict fictional events that transpired over a course of days.

As Chapter 13 opens, Tom is feeling aggrieved. His aunt had recently punished him for a prank he had played on the family cat and Becky Thatcher was ignoring his romantic overtures.
Tom's mind was made up now. He was gloomy and desperate. He was a forsaken, friendless boy, he said; nobody loved him; when they found out what they had driven him to, perhaps they would be sorry; he had tried to do right and get along, but they would not let him; since nothing would do them but to be rid of him, let it be so; and let them blame him for the consequences -- why shouldn't they? What right had the friendless to complain? Yes, they had forced him to it at last: he would lead a life of crime.
Tom encounters his friend Joe Harper, who is of a similar mind, and they join up with Huck Finn and run away to Jackson's Island, where they intend to live a fine life as pirates.

Late in their second day they hear canon shot over the water. Tom concludes that the townsfolk suspected the boys had drowned and so were trying to bring their bodies to the surface. That night—we are now in Chapter 15—Tom slips back to town and sneaks into his house. There he listens to his Aunt Polly and to Joe's mother commiserating over their loss, affirming that, though a bit devilish, their boys were good at heart. These words had a powerful effect on Tom:
Tom was snuffling, now, himself — and more in pity of himself than anybody else. He could hear Mary crying, and putting in a kindly word for him from time to time. He began to have a nobler opinion of himself than ever before. Still, he was sufficiently touched by his aunt's grief to long to rush out from under the bed and overwhelm her with joy — and the theatrical gorgeousness of the thing appealed strongly to his nature, too, but he resisted and lay still.
Tom then returned to the island in time for breakfast and "recounted (and adorned) his adventures. They were a vain and boastful company of heroes when the tale was done."

Though I do not recall the details of any of the childhood fantasies I employed to restore my sense of well-being, I rather suspect that Twain's three chapters are more richly realized than anything I managed to conjure up. The most interesting aspect of Twain's story is that the boys ran away to become pirates. That is, within the means available to them, they did their best to become free and autonomous actors rather than being bound to adults in the role of a child. It was from within that bit of adventuresome pretense that Tom overheard the heart-warming conversation. Though sorely tempted, he did not immediately break from his pretended autonomy. Rather he returned to the island and thus afforded Twain the pleasure of extending this theme through four more chapters worth of variations.

Steven Pinker has been a severe critic of literary studies. I open the letter by showing that arguments he makes in the final two chapters of The Stuff of Thought can be fashioned into an account of why literature is so important to us. I go on to give a brief and sympathetic account of what’s happened in literary studies since the 1950s. Pinker gives a brief reply. Think of this as a companion piece to my note on emotion recollected in tranquility.

This is another take on why literature is so important. It gives a neural interpretation of Wordsworth’s famous characterization of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility and argues that emotionally charged literature facilitates the creation of an emotionally neutral mental “space” in which memories of all kinds can be evoked. Think of this is a companion piece to my open letter to Pinker.

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