Literary Darwinism and Death in Venice Part 2

Read from the beginning
At one point, Tadzio smiles at Aschenbach, and the famous author is “so deeply shaken that he was forced to flee” (67). The poor man nearly collapses hyperventilating.

Whether the character is wrestling with a temptation to molest the boy or not, however, it may seem as though Mann has gone far afield of the domain accessible to evolutionary biology, especially in light of the Achenbach’s ultimate fate in the story. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson map this domain in their introduction to the essay collection The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. The authors whose work they’ve included in the book focus on three main questions: “First, what is literature about?” (xxv), in other words, what can an evolutionary approach tell us about the contents of literary work? Gottschall and Wilson preview the answer, suggesting that “survival and reproduction are ‘on the minds’ of all species that have minds and should dominate the stories of the one speaks and writes.” Joseph Carroll’s contribution to the collection, “Human Nature and Literary Meaning,” exemplifies this approach. Carroll goes so far as to schematize seven of what he terms “behavioral systems” into a diagram of human interests we can expect to find in successful stories (89).

The elements of Death in Venice critics like Carroll would probably emphasize are Aschenbach’s concern for his status, his awareness of his parents’ legacy, and his own “paternal fondness” (51) for Tadzio. However, Tadzio is not in fact Aschenbach’s son, meaning the older man has no genetic interest in the boy. And, though “Mating” is on Carroll’s diagram, pederasty really doesn’t have any place on it. A case could be made that Tadzio somehow hijacks Aschenbach’s parenting system, and that his mating system, though misdirected, is still functioning. But the explanatory power of the model is further diminished by each of these exceptions—as well as the one represented by the “Survival” system. And the second question addressed by the authors of Literary Animal, “what is literary for?” (xxv), the question of function, poses its own problems for readings of Mann’s novella. In her essay, “Reverse-Engineering Narrative,” Michelle Scalise Sugiyama argues that our proclivity to tell and attend to stories evolved as “a low-cost, readily available means of amplifying social experiences” (189). This didactic function may also overlap with one akin to play or exercise, leading to “a feedback loop between storytelling and theory of mind: storytelling may help build or strengthen theory of mind, which in turn enriches storytelling, with further enriches theory of mind, and so on” (189). As intriguing as this idea is, it can only account for stories about people in general, and say much about why any specific story is more compelling than any other. The third question posed in The Literary Animal is what would an application of a scientific epistemology to literature look like? But to my knowledge no research that even approaches the rigor of science has been conducted on Death in Venice.

William Flesch makes a significant advance for evolutionary theories of literature by not focusing on either content or function; instead his interest lies in what he calls “narrative interest,” which he defines as “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). In concentrating on why we experience anxiety and other emotions—what he calls “volunteered affect”—Flesch is moving into the realm of phenomenology (but he fortunately steers clear of the absurd obscurantism of past theorists in that realm). Merely by attempting to explain this experience of what he, along with several of the authors in The Literary Animal, recognizes as a “cultural universal,” he is effectively countering Eagleton’s argument about the necessity of theory. Indeed, Donald Brown reports in his book Human Universals, everywhere we know there are people, we have good evidence that they routinely immerse themselves in stories, even if many of them take much more rudimentary forms than the most sophisticated world literature. There are several other research programs that have demonstrated the immediacy of our experience with narratives. One study that was conducted after Flesch’s book was published found that “Different neural systems track changes in the situation of a story” (Speer et al. 989). The interesting thing about these different neural systems is that they aren’t all associated with language. “Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities” (989). What this study and others like it suggest is that, contra Poststructuralism, we take meaning from language by referencing it against our experiences—experience and meaning may be inseparable, but experience takes precedence.

But why should our brains be so engaged with the activities of fictional characters? Why, for that matter, should so much of our minds be devoted to following what even real people do? Flesch takes another important step toward a viable theory of narrative engagement when he eschews what is known as “The Selfish Gene” approach to ethology, named for the 1976 book by Richard Dawkins. According to this view, all behavior is the end result of a chain of causation ending with the genotype of the individual performing the behavior. The corollary to this assumption is that all behavior must somehow serve the genes that are its ultimate cause. So, for instance, any behavior which appears to benefit another individual can usually be shown to favor the genes of the one performing it. The two main examples or this genetic selfishness resulting in apparent altruism are inclusive fitness, whereby individuals favor relatives because they are likely to carry many of the same genes, including the ones causing the behavior, and reciprocal altruism, whereby individuals engage in tit-for-tat or quid pro quo exchanges with non-related others. Recent theorists, however, most notably Elliot Sober, David Sloan Wilson (the co-editor of The Literary Animal), and Robert Axelrod, have developed models in which cooperation rather than selfishness, genetic or otherwise, is the norm. And these models have held up against, partly because they were informed by, tests of real human behavior.

The problem with cooperation within a group is that as soon as it is established individuals can benefit themselves (and their genes) by treating the cooperators selfishly—i.e. by cheating. From the selfish gene perspective, selection at the level of the group is all but impossible because “group boundaries,” in Flesch’s words, “are too porous” (5). Any population in which acting for the benefit of the group is the norm will almost certainly be infiltrated by individuals acting for their own benefit. To conceptualize and test the various models of cooperation, many biologists use a scenario borrowed from the economic field of “Game Theory” known as “The Prisoner’s Dilemma.” The prisoner is arrested with one of his accomplices, from whom he is immediately separated so that they have no chance to communicate. Each prisoner then has the option either to confess or to keep quiet. If neither prisoner confesses—i.e. if they cooperate—they will each serve a meager one-year sentence. But if the first prisoner keeps quiet while the second confesses, then the first gets twenty years and the second goes free. This scenario simulates the conditions under which small benefits accrue to cooperators, but there is much more to be gained by cheating. If they both confess, they each get five years. Cooperation can still take hold over multiple iterations if the prisoners simply remember how their accomplices responded to the dilemma in the past. Reciprocal altruism is what develops in the scenarios when reputations for cooperating or cheating come into play. But something still more interesting happens when you put humans, who can be counted on to have not only reputations but also myriad social ties, through scenarios like the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Flesch finds an important clue to the mystery of human engagement with fictional narrative in the outcomes of experiments based on a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma called “The Ultimatum Game.” In this simple set-up, one participant is given a sum of money which he must then propose to split with another participant with the only proviso being that the receiver must accept the cut being offered. If the receiver thinks the cut is unfair, say if the proposer offers a measly ten percent, he or she can veto the offer and neither participant gets any money. The key here, as Flesch points out, is that

"It is irrational for the responder not to accept any proposed split from the proposer. The responder will always come out better by accepting than by vetoing. And yet people generally veto offers of less than 25 percent of the original sum. This means they are paying to punish" (31).

People experience this costly indignation even when they aren’t themselves the potential beneficiaries of the proposed cut. In another variation of the game called the “3-Player Dictator Game,” the first player, the dictator, receives the sum of cash and then offers the second player a cut, this time without any threat of veto. The catch is that the third player can reward or punish the other two, but to do so he or she has pay. For every dollar the third player contributes, he or she can add four dollars to the receiver or deduct four dollars from the dictator. “It is highly irrational,” Flesch observes, “for this player to pay to reward or punish, but again considerations of fairness trump rational self-interest. People do pay” (33). And it seems they actually enjoy paying. Flesch goes on to cite research showing that pleasure centers in the brain become active when people are witnessing these types of interaction and anticipating this type of punishment, which because of its cost to the punisher is called “altruistic punishment.” It has a real-world corollary in the Italian Mafia’s strictly enforced code of silence known as “omerta,” under which anyone who informs against his colleagues can expect to be killed.

Groups in which the type of behavior demonstrated by third players in dictator games, known as “strong reciprocity,” which Flesch defines as occurring when a group member “punishes and rewards others for their behavior toward any member of the social group, and not just or primarily for their individual interactions with reciprocator” (21-22), can sustain a norm of cooperation. On a basic level, a taxonomy can be created of different types of individual within a cooperative population: there are the cooperators, the defectors, who act solely for their own (or their genes’) interest, and punishers. Adding strong reciprocity to the equation, though, gives us what are called “second-order” players. If, for instance, an individual defects, or free-rides on the cooperation of the other group members, anyone who witnesses this behavior and fails to punish it becomes a second-order free-rider. By extrapolation, someone who fails to punish a second-order free-rider becomes a third-order one, and so on ad infinitum. So we now have a model in which individuals track each other’s behavior to see whether they are altruistic or selfish, and in which individuals are emotionally inclined to favor the altruistic and desire punishment, from first or second or however many order punishers, for the selfish, but there is one more piece of the puzzle of human cooperation, one which is integral to an evolutionary account of our interest in a character like Gustav von Aschenbach.

Death in Venice is the story of a man who has devoted himself so completely to his writing that any part of him concerned with all the other aspects of his life, and in particular his social life, has atrophied to the point of paralysis. His writing has been his grand, altruistic gesture to society, a gesture made at a great personal cost.

"Hidden away among Aschenbach’s writings was a passage directly asserting that nearly all the great things that exist owe their existence to a defiant despite: it is despite grief and anguish, despite poverty, loneliness, bodily weakness, vice and passion and a thousand inhibitions, that they have come into being at all. But this was more than an observation, it was an experience, it was positively the formula of his life and his fame" (30).
Read part 3