Returning to teaching and trying not to obsess about the tragedies in Russia nor the convention glitz, I’m finding the power and pleasure that narrative has always given me. Narrative and character. We can return to these again and again. But this week, insights come from an increasingly useful source, Steven Pinker. His dialogue with Rebecca Goldstein in Seed discusses the role of character and narrative in terms of literature. My reading is, I am sure, naïve; my training has been in neither philosophy nor science. Still, this interview points to the reasons many of us (in the old days) thought the study of literature was worthwhile. As is often true of Pinker, this interview has the buoyancy we associate with Emerson and Whitman, accepting joyfully the complexity and diversity of experience, always assuming there is an order and significance within the apparently random and hugely various human experiences they embrace. Pinker is certainly not looking backward, but he looks forward with the same optimism and sense of purpose of those old nineteenth century thinkers. The editors choose one of Goldstein’s observations to introduce the essay – one that sounds like Whitman or Emerson: “There’s a sea change throughout the culture. . . We’re allowing ourselves to be stunned by immensity and by our own cognitive incapacities.”
As Pinker works at understanding human nature, he must deal with one of the central traits that make us human, “storytelling.” Our desire for narrative is powerful. Pinker understands, as do all great storytellers, the great paradox – we go to literature to get out of ourselves and we also go to it to understand ourselves. We want plots – that is, we want a structure on which we can hang our experiences (and those of the characters we read) to link them together, to see connections and (sometimes implicitly) purpose. The great stories of the Old Testament (and to a lesser degree of the Greeks and Romans) permeate our experience. This week my students read Bradford and Winthrop and can’t help but note how these early settlers were able to absorb the deaths of so many in those first years in part because they took as model the narratives of Exodus and believed, indeed confidently saw, a pattern in what those without a narrative might find random and frightening experiences. Meanwhile, my daughter, a freshman in high school, is studying her vocabulary, full of references to the great Greek myths as the root of words we use, the echoes of those narratives again helping us make sense, see a pattern, in our own world.
Pinker and Goldstein claim more for human nature (and literature’s role in shaping our understanding of it) than Pinker’s “reciprocity” as ethical baseline. He observes: “If we live in a world in which each of us, in the fullness of time, will be in a position to do the other a favor—or at least refrain from hurting each other—and if we both end up better off it we help each other than if we hurt each other, then certain moral emotions are expected to evolve.” But Goldstein responds: “I’m sympathetic to this account of moral reasoning, up to a point. But I don’t feel that it provides the whole story of what it is to think morally, or the complete answer to why we all more or less naturally think morally. . . I think the rest of the moral story is tied up with a different kind of thinking—narrative thinking.”
Pinker’s optimism arises from a perspective that both rejects the validity of the “noble savage” and honors (if implicitly) the values of Western culture. His arguments, phrased in the vocabulary of the modern scientist and based upon the latest of neurological studies, are those of nineteenth century liberalism. He poses a problem for himself that arises from a relatively breathtaking perspective:
And that brings us back to fiction. One problem for anyone like me who believes in a fixed human nature, including a fixed moral sense, is to explain how human behavior could have changed so radically over a few centuries or millennia. Much of the world has seen an end to slavery, to genocide for convenience, to torture as a routine form of criminal punishment, to rape as the spoils of war, to the ownership of women. We seem to be turning into a nicer species.
(An implicit argument for civilization, indeed, Western civilization; this is not your usual academic fare, circa 2004. And after a week that includes the massacre of Russian children, a bit hard to see. But that is the job of such thinkers – to give us perpective and, therefore, proportionality.)
Sometimes the dialogue seems to reflect a narrow, even didactic view of fiction (not surprisingly turning to Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and seeming to imply that Flaubert saves us from making the bad decisions of Madame Bovary), but as the discussion above indicates, the two aim at the great power of such narratives. We tell stories to “teach” our children, the mind always needing narrative, enjoying it, learning from it. But, mature readers come to understand character as literature widens (and deepens) our sense of the universal. Goldstein argues that “storytelling can also correct that second sort of moral mistake, the one of not recognizing the essential personhood of certain groups outside your chosen sphere.” Of course, her argument rests upon an assumption she shares with Pinker, that of the universality of human nature: despite the diversity of the quite important ways in which we define ourselves, we share this “nature” with all others.
Two years ago and writing as a literary critic, we see David Lodge, in Consciousness and the Novel, hedging his argument, despite the clear fervency with which he feels that tradition’s validity:
One must concede that the Western humanist concept of the autonomous individual self is not universal, eternally given, and valid for all times and places, but is a product of history and culture. This doesn’t, however, necessarily mean that it is not a good idea, or that its time has passed. A great deal of what we value in civilized life depends upon it. (91)
Well, Pinker is less likely to hedge. He’s pretty sure some of this is a good thing.
Lodge is, essentially, on Pinker’s side. His book was also helpful, for he examines how important our understanding of character is to our understanding of literature (and how much we want literature to help us understand character). We feel our search is important. It not only helps us understand character, narrator in art, but we also want to understand ourselves, we want to understand those we love – who is our spouse? Who are our children? How do we help each become the person that they can be?
We like to see ourselves as coherent – our past as prologue to our present, our experiences as part of a narrative with plot and purpose. One of the compelling motives for autobiography is to find out who we are – to read about others is not only to find out who they are but to find ourselves as well. As someone whose past can certainly throw up moments that seem almost impossible to assimilate as part of the self I am today, I, too, sometimes question the “wholeness’ of identity. Certainly, we see the self defined in various ways. Are we finding out, as those with a profoundly religious vision of the self, the “who” whom God made us to be (the self as predestined and solid, to be understood as it acts in this world)? Are we becoming, as a more nineteenth century psychological realist might observe, the “who” we are by the interaction of our early self as it “becomes” its later, quite connected self by its experiences in the world through which it moves (the self as seed)? Or are our experiences and our reactions to them, over time, merely random (unrelated points on a graph of place and time)?
The ethical/psychological novel came into its own in the same milieu that engendered and nurtured the rise of the middle class, the extension of a strong belief in individual rights, the Methodism that Himmelfarb sees as embodying a realistic expression of the British enlightenment. Freud and Darwin contributed their insights; others came from broader communication, easier travel, and international markets. These are also years in which slavery was stigmatized (and its removal believed worth fighting for), women were moving toward the right to vote in the west—in short, when the sense of the rights of man were slowly, painfully (and meeting stubborn resistance, of course) growing in application. These are, of course, the very changes that Pinker describes as important. Most of these arose in America, as Michael Novak notes, from the convergence of the disciples of religion and those of reason; the result was a reasoned belief in the rights of man invigorated by a religious faith that, as Bush so often and so eloquently puts it, these rights were God-given.
An aside: A new discussion by another thinker influenced by both Darwin and a desire to understand human, is Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments. I haven’t read it, (would that I did the work and had the depth and clarity of Lex’s real gifts to us of his book reviews). Without that, I’m lazily passing on Booklist’s summary:
Analyzing the traditional stalwarts of Enlightenment thought in America (Jefferson, Paine), France (Tocqueville, Voltaire, Diderot), and Britain (Locke, Smith, and, somewhat surprisingly, Burke), Himmelfarb presents a cogent case for the chronological priority and philosophical primacy of the British model in shaping the philosophy of reason and liberty on the cusp of modernity. Essentially, she would like to see the Enlightenment wrestled away from the French and away from academics who would deconstruct its intellectual foundations in favor of social and economic explanations for the genesis of modern political thought.
Back, somewhat, on topic:
One of my teachers long ago spoke of his graduate years. (We don’t always remember that Freud and existentialism dominated fifties academic circles while Milton Berle and I Love Lucy took over that new medium, television.) Lee Lemon complained that when he’d been in grad school all of the short stories submitted to the literary magazine for which he worked had unhappy endings. Of course, someone in the class observed, that was because we die (fiction always mimetic, of course). He countered that he did not believe his death would be the most significant thing in his life nor the thing with which he would be most concerned. It was the way that he lived his life, that life, that was of interest to him, gave it whatever meaning it would have. He always (and that was true of those transitional years and why so many of us went into literature) infused that class in critical theory with remarks about human nature, fusing the theory with life.
That remark struck me and has stuck with me. He was right, those generic unhappy endings were trite because they lacked the tragic, the sense of sin and redemption of, say, Shakespeare or Sophocles. Nor were they, I suspect as he noted, all that true to our experience of our own lives, of our loved one’s lives. Their importance is not concluded with death – nor begun with it. In my usual inchoate way and struck by what he said, I murmured an agreement, saying death was not the end. (I think I meant “purpose” but. . .). I actually wasn’t thinking in a religious way, was then even less of a believer than I am now. But I had some of that faith in Providence, that vision of the pattern within that complexity of experience, that made me think of death less as end than as another part of the great pattern. In other words, I wasn’t then and am not sure now exactly what I meant.
But the class was generally shocked, the girl next to me gasping, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” meaning, I suspect, that she thought I believed in some rosy heaven of pearly gates. What the hell, it may be as true as anything else, I figured. But, no, that wasn’t what I meant. What I suspect, from the graduate students my husband shepherds and the ones that join us at our junior college, is that such a classroom almost forty years later would not greet my observation with such shock (though probably it would be more willing to grant me a thoughtfulness I still wouldn’t deserve). We can talk about literature as mimetic, we can talk about it as aesthetic, but as soon as we talk about it as meaningful we are likely to eventually notice that the spiritual is often (not always, not necessarily perhaps, but often and often importantly) a part of the discussion.
Something is going on in this country and Pinker is a product of his milieu as the Victorians were of theirs. He is seeking an understanding of human nature. And in some households, the answer is sought in the religious, in faith. For instance, in our not very religious family, we find our oldest daughter did her honors thesis on an excess of the French revolution’s rationalism that discounted the human and her master’s paper was on speaking in tongues; our second daughter is majoring in religious studies as was her closest friend in grade school and her only contemporary cousin. Our youngest decided to convert to Presbyterianism (an odd choice, I know, given the enthusiasms of adolescents and the staid nature of the church – but one with which she is comfortable). These are not enthusiasts, emotionally acting out. They are seekers with their minds as well as their hearts.
I’m even less of a theologian or believer than a philosopher or scientist, so I may not be the person to make this point. (Blogs exist for comments by people more knowledgeable than the writer.) Still, we might note that by the end of the interview, Pinker is describing with some disdain the fact we “don’t need extra ghostly stuff.” Well, good and fine. All of us, believers and nonbelievers, can test the truth of Pinker’s observations in terms of our own experience and for many of us, I believe, he offers rich insights whatever their relation to our religious beliefs. But, sometimes he seems to protest too much: First, he seems to have a surprisingly simplistic vision of literature:
So what is the extra ingredient that a good novelist supplies? Is it some combination of the two parts of fiction we discussed—the cognitive advantages of seeing how hypothetical scenarios play out, together with the emotional pleasures of empathizing with a character to whom good things happen?”
But, of course, good things often don’t happen. If Elizabeth gets her Darcy, Othello gets to kill himself and Oedipus is exiled. So, Goldstein describes tragic art, which
provides some of the deepest aesthetic pleasure of all. Another factor that might contribute to the deep pleasure of storytelling is that it confers significance. Stories, unlike life, have a point. We’d like to think that our lives have a point, though we often suspect otherwise. But stories are shaped around points, even if the point of the story is the pointlessness of our lives.
She recognizes the sense of purpose that we find narrative gives and the reason we return to it again and again. (As I hope to on post after post.)
This leads Pinker to note why his field has been embraced with so much fervor:
One reason evolutionary psychology has become so popular is not that it invokes evolution but that it deals with the problems that laypeople consider central to their experience but that were long banned from the psychology curriculum. Love. Sex. Family. Status. Dominance. Motherhood. Gossip. Religion. Play. Food. Beauty Jealousy. Disgust. One might think that these would be basic topics in any science of the human mid. But don’t try to find them in the psychology textbooks. Evolutionary psychology is trying to win back a place for them.
And we sense (and this is no criticism for it gives his arguments their joy) that he has indeed fallen in love with an idea because it gives perspective, it helps him see from the long view and from that view he sees pattern, he sees purpose.
We find a similar grouping in Lodge, a similar sense of what is important. Certainly, religion is a set of rituals, customs. But it is striking that Pinker lists neither the words God nor religious beliefs (words more clearly parallel to love – he doesn’t say courtship patterns – or sex – he doesn’t say cultural patterns nor taboos). Pinker keeps brilliantly chatting while ignoring the elephant in the center of the room. And that hesitancy means he isn’t taking into account the importance to human nature and to the dramatic changes that might be influenced by religious beliefs and their institutions. His approach helps us with Donne; but if we need to understand sex (and Pinker helps us there) to interpret Donne’s seduction poems, don’t we need to recognize the profound pull of faith to understand the Holy Sonnets? Can we make sense of Eliot’s poetry (or his life) without understanding his faith? Certainly, we don’t need to see communion as Edward Taylor does, but we do need a sense of why he treated it with awe and beauty if we want to understand his poetry.
When Pinker dismisses this power, he is likely to diminish the usefulness of his arguments to solid interpretations of literature, because it limits (and the joy of Pinker is that he is seldom “about” limits) our understanding of human nature. Still, Pinker opens one of the broadest doors to understanding literature because if he doesn’t recognize the divine, he beautifully and with respect recognizes the universal and the human in human nature.