Inky Characters & Their Home in Deep Structure

We are drawn into narrative because of plot – our mind wonders what will happen – and because of character – our heart feels empathy, sympathy. In The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion Patrick Colm Hogan uses the Sanskrit “rasa” as feeling evoked by “ink” people (Jonathan Gottschall’s term). Sanskrit “bhava” approximates emotions – ones evoked in our world. But, Hogan contrasts the love he feels for a character in a play with the love for his wife. “Rasa”, here, is a form of love – not sadness or pride. But that “inky” world lives: “the characters experience the bhavas, such as love and sorrow, while the readers/spectators experience the rasas, such as the erotic and the pathetic.” Of course, the definition works for us because we had the concept – our tenses hint at this universal experience: Shakespeare wrote Hamlet but Hamlet feels angst, we feel him feeling angst.

This elegant distinction comes from Hogan’s immersion in comparative literature. He is interested in archetypal, cross-cultural narrative forms – and the universal emotions evoked. He looks at a number and range of works; concentrating on Indian epics and aiming at an Anglo audience, he tests his thesis. Hogan discusses the “romantic tragic-comedy,” with its subject the great cross-cultural theme of love, and often the second, political power. Works are not identical across a culture nor across cultures, but he finds a mappable deep structure (Chomsky’s term for maps of the linguistic innate may apply). For instance, conclusions in marriage and the joining of two within the community that embraces them is one version; he notes that more often in Arabic and Persian versions, reunions follow death (a resolution not absent but rarer – think West Side Story – in ours). His audience is scholarly, his publisher Cambridge Press; he has no Amazon reviews but this is seminal in literary criticism.

Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human takes a different approach. He looks at the seductive nature of narrative in the mundane, examining the familiar but often homely world. Hogan’s book, with its emphasis upon Eastern patterns, is difficult but rewarding; Gottschall’s work sparks connections, noting the ubiquity of narrative – in dreams, pop culture, serious culture, the way we approach experience. Our apparent need, once oral, dominates what we read, see, hear. Narratives generally (our dreams are a clue) concern a trouble; these stories aren’t of our lives but of possibilities – and few are good. Perhaps, battling those demons helps prepare us to meet them in our lives. Perhaps that’s not the answer. Gottschall argues such a universal and passionate drive must have purpose.

Gottschall’s book is aimed at a broader audience; he has an agent, 47 reviews on Amazon. He has much to say and he says it well. Their emphases differ (Gottschall is interested in how the mind works and Hogan in how narrative does). But they complement one another. Both use cognitive science, both assume a certain innate drive that characterizes the human. And, as Gottschall’s confidence in purpose implies, these critics define an embryonic critical approach – sometimes called Darwinist, sometimes evolutionary. The Consilience Conference drew together practitioners; indeed, Gottschall’s lecture was engaging. Both are interested in the forest rather than the trees, what works across cultures have in common rather than what makes them differ. But as literary critics they look closely at supporting specifics. They offer connections – and important ones.

In a correction to critical (like political) trends that pull us apart, they emphasize the universality of the human. And, they demonstrate we better understand the particulars by defining the general: How can we appreciate the resonance of the “I” that remains, unrhymed, in Donne’s “Batter My Heart” or the stresses in “break, blow, burn, and make,” if we don’t understand in how many ways that sonnet obeys the genre of sonnet? Understanding “rehearsal memory” helps us understand line length. And aren’t we curious about why and how that great sonnet resonates with us – how much we have in common with the 17th century poet, the 17th century audience, the British audience, the Anglican audience? How much is it the expression of human nature, as well as poet and audience and place?

7 thoughts on “Inky Characters & Their Home in Deep Structure”

  1. Hi Ginny:

    What a terrific post.

    You might be interested by Keith Oatley’s papers: “Simulation of Substance and Shadow: Inner Emotions and Outer Behavior in Shakespeare’s Psychology of Character”, and “Shakespeare’s invention of theatre assimulation that runs on minds”. Oatley is one of the series editors for the series The Mind and its Stories is in.

    I’ve also been very impressed with Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities.

    And I’ve been interested in bhavas and rasas for quite a while now. I wrote a piece a while back suggesting that “blues” and “duende” and “mutabilitie” are among the western rasas — but I really need to dig deeper into the scholarly literature to make sure I’m getting this right, and Hogan in particular sounds like a fine place to start!


  2. Obviously I need to keep up with Chicagoboyz more. Charles, your post is wonderful and covers huge ground; it will take a while to digest. I don’t know anything about these terms other than from Hogan. Your discussion seems to use the word rasa in a much more transcendent way than it seemed to me he did. Of course, the more I think of it, the more rarified an emotion it is if prompted by mimetic art rather than actual experience. That may just be my perspective – I’d seen it as less “real” and therefore less intense, but of course it is both more abstract and felt by an audience – so it has another kind of reality.

    David, your post is interesting. Gottschall talks about empathy – that is one of Gopnik’s chief complaints. I was going to write about that review (one that I think misses Gottschall’s point) but thought it might be too off topic and I’d do another one later. It is something Gottschall talks about. Gopnik wrote on The New Yorker on-line site. It is kind of a straw man to argue that English department’s, for instance, don’t have empathic people.

  3. Ginny:

    This is terrible: I meant to come back here and say thank you, and then you posted “Empathy – A Belated Response to Foster” and I read that and David’s post, and hoped to return to them, and then I meant to read “Theoretically, We Separate Church and State” and “Barry Puts Williams in Context” and see if I could comment (a topic area I’m not familiar with, but should try to inform myself about)… sigh.

    And meanwhile I’ve been on deadline, and trying to keep up with twitter and my RSS feed, and writing for Zenpundit and my new game blog, Sembl…

    So here I am with an apology and thanks and not much else I’m afraid, no real comments. Just that it’s terrific to know your students are moved by Donne.

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