Sunday, April 30, 2017

Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?

Reading medieval literature, it’s hard not to be impressed with how much the characters get done—as when 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.

Jump ahead about 770 years in time, to the fiction of David Foster Wallace. In his short story [ed.] "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.

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?

Perhaps people living in medieval societies were less preoccupied with the intricacies of other minds, simply because they didn’t have to be. 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.

But current psychological research hints at deeper implications. Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. 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.

We humans owe our intensely social natures to biological evolution. We’re genetically endowed with a social intelligence that extends far beyond the reach of our nearest primate relatives. Even toddlers understand that people’s perspectives can differ from their own or that external actions are propelled by internal goals, and they are resistant to learning from adults whose knowledge appears dubious. But genes are only part of the story. We may come pre-equipped with a standard set of skills (a “start-up kit,” in the words of researchers Cecilia Heyes and Chris Frith), but the ability to accurately grasp the thoughts and emotions of others, or mentalizing ability, varies quite a bit from person to person—and there’s growing evidence that complex mentalizing skills are culturally transmitted through a slow learning process, much like reading or playing chess. For example, while babes-in-arms are sensitive to basic emotions such as happiness or sadness, the ability to recognize socially intricate emotions like embarrassment or guilt only emerges at age 7 or later, and continues to be polished up well into adulthood.

The extent to which parents talk to their children about what others are thinking has been found to have profound effects on children’s ability to discern the contents of other minds. A study by Rosie Ensor and her colleagues showed that the frequency with which mothers used words such as think, forget, wonder, learn, or pretend when their children were just 2 years old predicted their mentalizing skills at ages 3, 6, and even 10. (...)

Elizabeth Hart, a specialist in early literature, writes that in medieval or classical texts, “people are constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing, but they somehow manage to do this without the author drawing attention to these mental states.” 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.

The emergence of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries introduced omniscient narrators who could penetrate their characters’ psyches, at times probing motives that were opaque to the characters themselves. And by the 20th century, many authors labored not just to describe, but to simulate the psychological experience of characters. 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.”

For Parker and many writers since, all facets of language—from sound to imagery to syntax—are tools for conveying mental states.

by Julie Sedivy, Nautilus |  Read more:
Image: Danita Delimont