T.J. Eckleburg Sees Everything: The Great God-Gap in Gatsby part 2 of 2

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         Though The Great Gatsby does indeed tell a story of punishment, readers are left with severe doubts as to whether those who receive punishment actually deserve it. Gatsby is involved in criminal activities, and he has an affair with a married woman. Myrtle likewise is guilty of adultery. But does either deserve to die? What about George Wilson? His is the only attempt in the novel at altruistic punishment. So natural is his impulse toward revenge, however, and so given are readers to take that impulse for granted, that its function in preserving a broader norm of cooperation requires explanation. Flesch describes a series of experiments in the field of game theory centering on an exchange called the ultimatum game. One participant is given a sum of money and told he or she must propose a split with a second participant, with the proviso that if the second person rejects the cut neither will get to keep anything. Flesch points out, however, 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. They are giving up a sure gain in order to punish the
selfishness of the proposer. (31)

To understand why George’s attempt at revenge is altruistic, consider that he had nothing to gain, from a purely selfish and rational perspective, and much to lose by killing the man he believed killed his wife. He was risking physical harm if a fight ensued. He was risking arrest for murder. Yet if he failed to seek revenge readers would likely see him as somehow less than human. His quest for justice, as futile and misguided as it is, would likely endear him to readers—if the discovery of how futile and misguided it was didn’t precede their knowledge of it taking place. Readers, in fact, would probably respond more favorably toward George than any other character in the story, including the narrator. But the author deliberately prevents this outcome from occurring.

The simple explanation for Fitzgerald’s decision not to gratify his readers but rather to disappoint and disturb them is that he wanted his novel to serve as an indictment of the types of behavior that are encouraged by the social conditions he describes in the story, conditions which would have been easily recognizable to many readers of his day and which persist into the Twenty-First Century. Though the narrator plays the role of second-order free-rider, the author clearly signals his own readiness to punish by publishing his narrative about such bad behavior perpetrated by characters belonging to a particular group of people, a group corresponding to one readers might encounter outside the realm of fiction.

            Fitzgerald makes it obvious in the novel that beyond Tom’s simple contempt for George there exist several more severe impediments to what biologists would call group cohesion but that most readers would simply refer to as a sense of community. The idea of a community as a unified entity whose interests supersede those of the individuals who make it up is something biological anthropologists theorize religion evolved to encourage. In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, in which he attempts to explain religion in terms of group selection theory, David Sloan Wilson writes:

A group of people who abandon self-will and work tirelessly for a greater good will
fare very well as a group, much better than if they all pursue their private utilities, as long
as the greater good corresponds to the welfare of the group. And religions almost
invariably do link the greater good to the welfare of the community of believers, whether
an organized modern church or an ethnic group for whom religion is thoroughly
intermixed with the rest of their culture. Since religion is such an ancient feature of our
species, I have no problem whatsoever imagining the capacity for selflessness and
longing to be part of something larger than ourselves as part of our genetic and cultural
heritage. (175)

One of the main tasks religious beliefs evolved to handle would have been addressing the same “free-rider problem” William Flesch discovers at the heart of narrative. What religion offers beyond the social monitoring of group members is the presence of invisible beings whose concerns are tied to the collective concerns of the group.

Obviously, Tom Buchanan’s sense of community has clear demarcations. “Civilization is going to pieces,” he warns Nick as prelude to his recommendation of a book titled “The Rise of the Coloured Empires.” “The idea,” Tom explains, “is that if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged” (17). “We’ve got to beat them down,” Daisy helpfully, mockingly chimes in (18). While this animosity toward members of other races seems immoral at first glance, in the social context the Buchanans inhabit it actually represents a concern for the broader group, “the white race.” But Tom’s animosity isn’t limited to other races. What prompts Catherine to tell Nick how her sister “can’t stand” her husband during the gathering in Tom and Myrtle’s apartment is in fact Tom’s ridiculing of George. In response to another character’s suggestion that he’d like to take some photographs of people in Long Island “if I could get the entry,” Tom jokingly insists to Myrtle that she should introduce the man to her husband. Laughing at his own joke, Tom imagines a title for one of the photographs: “‘George B. Wilson at the Gasoline Pump,’ or something like that” (37). Disturbingly, Tom’s contempt for George based on his lowly social status has contaminated Myrtle as well. Asked by her sister why she married George in the first place, she responds, “I married him because I thought he was a gentleman…I thought he knew something about breeding but he wasn’t fit to lick my shoe” (39). Her sense of superiority, however, is based on the artificial plan for her and Tom to get married.

That Tom’s idea of who belongs to his own superior community is determined more by “breeding” than by economic success—i.e. by birth and not accomplishment—is evidenced by his attitude toward Gatsby. In a scene that has Tom stopping with two friends, a husband and wife, at Gatsby’s mansion while riding horses, he is shocked when Gatsby shows an inclination to accept an invitation to supper extended by the woman, who is quite drunk. Both the husband and Tom show their disapproval. “My God,” Tom says to Nick, “I believe the man’s coming…Doesn’t he know she doesn’t want him?” (109). When Nick points out that woman just said she did want him, Tom answers, “he won’t know a soul there.” Gatsby’s statement in the same scene that he knows Tom’s wife provokes him, as soon as Gatsby has left the room, to say, “By God, I may be old-fashioned in my ideas but women run around too much these days to suit me. They meet all kinds of crazy fish” (110). In a later scene that has Tom accompanying Daisy, with Nick in tow, to one of Gatsby’s parties, he asks, “Who is this Gatsby anyhow?... Some big bootlegger?” When Nick says he’s not, Tom says, “Well, he certainly must have strained himself to get this menagerie together” (114). Even when Tom discovers that Gatsby and Daisy are having an affair, he still doesn’t take Gatsby seriously. He calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (137), and says, “I’ll be damned if I see how you got within a mile of her unless you brought the groceries to the back door” (138). Once he’s succeeded in scaring Daisy with suggestions of Gatsby’s criminal endeavors, Tom insists the two drive home together, saying, “I think he realizes that his presumptuous little flirtation is over” (142).

When George Wilson looks to the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg in supplication after that very car ride leads to Myrtle’s death, the fact that this “God” is an advertisement, a supplication in its own right to viewers on behalf of the optometrist to boost his business, symbolically implicates the substitution of markets for religion—or a sense of common interest—as the main factor behind Tom’s superciliously careless sense of privilege. The eyes seem such a natural stand-in for an absent God that it’s easy to take the symbolic logic for granted without wondering why George might mistake them as belonging to some sentient agent. Evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering takes on that very question in The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, where he cites research suggesting that “attributing moral responsibility to God is a sort of residual spillover from our everyday social psychology dealing with other people” (138). Bering theorizes that humans’ tendency to assume agency behind even random physical events evolved as a by-product of our profound need to understand the motives and intentions of our fellow humans: “When the emotional climate is just right, there’s hardly a shape or form that ‘evidence’ cannot assume. Our minds make meaning by disambiguating the meaningless” (99). In place of meaningless events, humans see intentional signs.

According to Bering’s theory, George Wilson’s intense suffering would have made him desperate for some type of answer to the question of why such tragedy has befallen him. After discussing research showing that suffering, as defined by societal ills like infant mortality and violent crime, and “belief in God were highly correlated,” Bering suggests that thinking of hardship as purposeful, rather than random, helps people cope because it allows them to place what they’re going through in the context of some larger design (139). What he calls “the universal common denominator” to all the permutations of religious signs, omens, and symbols, is the same cognitive mechanism, “theory of mind,” that allows humans to understand each other and communicate so effectively as groups. “In analyzing things this way,” Bering writes,

we’re trying to get into God’s head—or the head of whichever culturally constructed
supernatural agent we have on offer… This is to say, just like other people’s surface
behaviors, natural events can be perceived by us human beings as being about
something other than their surface characteristics only because our brains are equipped
with the specialized cognitive software, theory of mind, that enables us to think about
underlying psychological causes. (79)

So George, in his bereaved and enraged state, looks at a billboard of a pair of eyes and can’t help imagining a mind operating behind them, one whose identity he’s learned to associate with a figure whose main preoccupation is the judgment of individual humans’ moral standings. According to both David Sloan Wilson and Jesse Bering, though, the deity’s obsession with moral behavior is no coincidence.

            Covering some of the same game theory territory as Flesch, Bering points out that the most immediate purpose to which we put our theory of mind capabilities is to figure out how altruistic or selfish the people around us are. He explains that

in general, morality is a matter of putting the group’s needs ahead of one’s own selfish
interests. So when we hear about someone who has done the opposite, especially when
it comes at another person’s obvious expense, this individual becomes marred by our
social judgment and grist for the gossip mills. (183)

Having arisen as a by-product of our need to monitor and understand the motives of other humans, religion would have been quickly co-opted in the service of solving the same free-rider problem Flesch finds at the heart of narratives. Alongside our concern for the reputations of others is a close guarding of our own reputations. Since humans are given to assuming agency is involved even in random events like shifts in weather, group cohesion could easily have been optimized with the subtlest suggestion that hidden agents engage in the same type of monitoring as other, fully human members of the group. Bering writes:

            For many, God represents that ineradicable sense of being watched that so often
flares up in moments of temptation—He who knows what’s in our hearts, that private
audience that wants us to act in certain ways at critical decision-making points and that
will be disappointed in us otherwise. (191)

Bering describes some of his own research that demonstrates this point. Coincident with the average age at which children begin to develop a theory of mind (around 4), they began responding to suggestions that they’re being watched by an invisible agent—named Princess Alice in honor of Bering’s mother—by more frequently resisting the temptation to avail themselves of opportunities to cheat that were built into the experimental design of a game they were asked to play (Piazza et al. 311-20). An experiment with adult participants, this time told that the ghost of a dead graduate student had been seen in the lab, showed the same results; when competing in a game for fifty dollars, they were much less likely to cheat than others who weren’t told the ghost story (Bering 193).

            Bering also cites a study that has even more immediate relevance to George Wilson’s odd behavior vis-à-vis Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes. In “Cues of Being Watched Enhance Cooperation in a Real-World Setting,” the authors describe an experiment in which they tested the effects of various pictures placed near an “honesty box,” where people were supposed to be contributing money in exchange for milk and tea. What they found is that when the pictures featured human eyes more people contributed more money than when they featured abstract patterns of flowers. They theorize that

            images of eyes motivate cooperative behavior because they induce a perception in
participants of being watched. Although participants were not actually observed in either
of our experimental conditions, the human perceptual system contains neurons that
respond selectively to stimuli involving faces and eyes…, and it is therefore possible that
the images exerted an automatic and unconscious effect on the participants’ perception
that they were being watched. Our results therefore support the hypothesis that
reputational concerns may be extremely powerful in motivating cooperative behavior. (2)

This study also suggests that, while Fitzgerald may have meant the Dr. Eckleburg sign as a nod toward religion being supplanted by commerce, there is an alternate reading of the scene that focuses on the sign’s more direct impact on George Wilson. In several scenes throughout the novel, Wilson shows his willingness to acquiesce in the face of Tom’s bullying. Nick describes him as “spiritless” and “anemic” (29). It could be that when he says “God sees everything” he’s in fact addressing himself because he is tempted not to pursue justice—to let the crime go unpunished and thus be guilty himself of being a second-order free-rider. He doesn’t, after all, exert any great effort to find and kill Gatsby, and he kills himself immediately thereafter anyway.

            Religion in Gatsby does, of course, go beyond some suggestive references to an empty placeholder. Nick ends the story with a reflection on how “Gatsby believed in the green light,” the light across the bay which he knew signaled Daisy’s presence in the mansion she lived in there. But for Gatsby it was also “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—” (189). Earlier Nick had explained how Gatsby “talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy.” What that idea was becomes apparent in the scene describing Gatsby and Daisy’s first kiss, which occurred years prior to the events of the plot. “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God… At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete” (117). In place of some mind in the sky, the design Americans are encouraged to live by is one they have created for themselves. Unfortunately, just as there is no mind behind the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, the designs many people come up with for themselves are based on tragically faulty premises.

            The replacement of religiously inspired moral principles with selfish economic and hierarchical calculations, which Dr. Eckleburg so perfectly represents, is what ultimately leads to all the disgraceful behavior Nick describes. He writes, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and people and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess” (188). Game theorist and behavioral economist Robert Frank, whose earlier work greatly influenced William Flesch’s theories of narrative, has recently written about how the same social dynamics Fitzgerald lamented are in place again today. In The Darwin Economy, he describes what he calls an “expenditure cascade”:

The explosive growth of CEO pay in recent decades, for example, has led many
executives to build larger and larger mansions. But those mansions have long since
passed the point at which greater absolute size yields additional utility… Top earners
build bigger mansions simply because they have more money. The middle class shows
little evidence of being offended by that. On the contrary, many seem drawn to photo
essays and TV programs about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But the larger
mansions of the rich shift the frame of reference that defines acceptable housing for
the near-rich, who travel in many of the same social circles… So the near-rich build
bigger, too, and that shifts the relevant framework for others just below them, and so
on, all the way down the income scale. By 2007, the median new single-family house
built in the United States had an area of more than 2,300 square feet, some 50 percent
more than its counterpart from 1970. (61-2)

How exactly people are straining themselves to afford these houses would be a fascinating topic for Fitzgerald’s successors. But one thing is already abundantly clear: it’s not the CEOs who are cleaning up the mess.

T.J. Eckleburg Sees Everything: The Great God-Gap in Gatsby part 1 of 2

            When George Wilson, in one of the most disturbing scenes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby, tells his neighbor that “God sees everything” while staring disconsolately at the weathered advertisement of some long-ago optometrist named T.J. Eckleburg, his longing for a transcendent authority who will mete out justice on his behalf pulls at the hearts of readers who realize his plea will go unheard. Anthropologists and psychologists studying the human capacity for cooperation and altruism are coming to view religion as an important factor in our evolution. Since the cooperative are always at risk of being exploited by the selfish, mechanisms to enforce altruism had to be in place for any tendency to behave for the benefit of others to evolve. The most basic of these mechanisms is a constant awareness of our own and our neighbors’ reputations. Humans, research has shown, are far more tempted to behave selfishly when they believe it won’t harm their reputations—i.e. when they believe no witnesses are present.

So profound is humans’ concern for their reputations that they can even be nudged toward altruistic behaviors by the mere suggestion of invisible witnesses or the simplest representation of watching eyes. The billboard featuring Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes, however, holds no sway over George’s wife Myrtle, or the man she has an affair with. That this man, Tom Buchanan, has such little concern for his reputation—or that he simply feels entitled to exploit Myrtle—serves as an indictment of the social and economic inequality in the America of Fitzgerald’s day, which carved society into hierarchically arranged echelons and exposed the have-nots to the careless depredations of the haves. 

Nick Carraway, the narrator, begins the story by recounting a lesson he learned from his father as part of his Midwestern upbringing. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” Nick’s father had told him, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had”(5). This piece of wisdom serves at least two purposes: it explains Nick’s self-proclaimed inclination to “reserve all judgments,” highlighting the severity of the wrongdoings which have prompted him to write the story; and it provides an ironic moral lens through which readers view the events of the plot. What is to be made, in light of Nick’s father’s reminder about unevenly parceled out advantages, of the crimes committed by wealthy characters like Tom and Daisy Buchanan?

The focus on morality notwithstanding, religion plays a scant, but surprising, role in The Great Gatsby. It first appears in a conversation between Nick and Catherine, the sister of Myrtle Wilson. Catherine explains to Nick that neither Tom nor Myrtle “can stand the person they’re married to” (37). To the obvious question of why they don’t simply leave their spouses, Catherine responds that it’s Daisy, Tom’s wife, who represents the sole obstacle to the lovers’ happiness. “She’s a Catholic,” Catherine says, “and they don’t believe in divorce” (38). However, Nick explains that “Daisy was not a Catholic,” and he goes on to admit, “I was a little shocked by the elaborateness of the lie.” The conversation takes place at a small gathering hosted by Tom and Myrtle in an apartment rented, it seems, for the sole purpose of giving the two a place to meet. Before Nick leaves the party, he witnesses an argument between the hosts over whether Myrtle has any right to utter Daisy’s name which culminates in Tom striking her and breaking her nose. Obviously, Tom doesn’t despise his wife as much as Myrtle does her husband. And the lie about Daisy’s religious compunctions serves simply to justify Tom’s refusal to leave her and facilitate his continued exploitation of Myrtle.

The only other scene in which a religious belief is asserted explicitly is the one featuring the conversation between George and his neighbor. It comes after Myrtle, whose dalliance had finally aroused her husband’s suspicion, has been struck by a car and killed. George, upon discovering that something had been going on behind his back, locked Myrtle in his garage, and it was when she escaped and ran out into the road to stop the car she thought Tom was driving that she got hit. As the dust from the accident settles—literally, since the garage and the stretch of road are situated in a “valley of ashes” created by the remnants of the coal powering the nearby city being dumped alongside the adjacent rail tracks—George is left alone with a fellow inhabitant of the valley, a man named Michaelis, who asks if he belongs to a church where there might a be a priest he can call to come comfort him. “Don’t belong to one,” George answers (165). He does, however, describe a religious belief of sorts to Michaelis. Having explained why he’d begun to suspect Myrtle was having an affair, George goes on to say, “I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window.” He walks to the window again as he’s telling the story to his neighbor. “I said, ‘God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me but you can’t fool God!’” (167). Michaelis, who is by now fearing for George’s sanity, notices something disturbing as he stands listening to this rant: “Standing behind him Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg which had just emerged pale and enormous from the dissolving night” (167). When George speaks again, repeating, “God sees everything,” Michaelis feels compelled to assure him, “That’s an advertisement” (167). Though when George first expresses the sentiment, part declaration, part plea, he was clearly thinking of Myrtle’s crime against him, when he repeats it he seems to be thinking of the driver’s crime against Myrtle. God may have seen it, but George takes it upon himself to deliver the punishment.

George Wilson’s turning to God for some moral accounting, despite his general lack of religious devotion, mirrors Nick Carraway’s efforts to settle the question of culpability, despite his own professed reluctance to judge, through the telling of this tragic story. Nick learns from Gatsby that it was in fact Daisy, with whom Gatsby has been carrying on an affair, who was behind the wheel of the car that killed Myrtle. But Gatsby, who was in the passenger seat, assures him it was an accident, not revenge for the affair Myrtle was carrying on with Daisy’s husband. Yet when George finally leaves his garage and turns to Tom to find out who owns the car that killed his wife, assuming it is the same man his wife was cheating on him with, Tom informs him the car belongs to Gatsby, leaving out the crucial fact that Gatsby never met Myrtle. George goes to Gatsby’s mansion, finds him in his pool, shoots and kills him, and then turns the gun on himself. Three people end up dead, Myrtle, George, and Gatsby. Despite their clear complicity, though, Tom and Daisy experience nary a repercussion beyond the natural grief of losing their lovers. Insofar as Nick believes the Buchanans’ perfect getaway is an intolerable injustice, he must realize he holds the power to implicate them, to damage their reputations, by writing and publishing his account of the incidents leading up to the deaths.

Evolutionary critic William Flesch sees our human passion for narrative as a manifestation of our obsession with our own and our fellow humans’ reputations, which evolved at least in part to keep track of each other’s propensities for moral behavior. In Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, Flesch lays out his attempt at solving what he calls “the puzzle of narrative interest,” by which he means the question of why people feel “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). He finds the key to solving this puzzle in a concept called “strong reciprocity,” whereby “the strong reciprocator punishes and rewards others for their behavior toward any member of the social group, and not just or primarily for their individual interactions with the reciprocator” (22). An example of this phenomenon takes place in the novel when the guests at Gatsby’s parties gossip and ardently debate about which of the rumors circling their host are true—particularly of interest is the one saying that “he killed a man” (48). Flesch cites reports from experiments demonstrating that in uneven exchanges, participants with no stake in the outcome are actually willing to incur some cost to themselves in an effort to enforce fairness (31-5). He then goes on to give a compelling account of how this tendency goes a long way toward an explanation of our human fascination with storytelling.

Flesch’s theory of narrative interest begins with models of the evolution of cooperation. For the first groups of human ancestors to evolve cooperative or altruistic traits, they would have had to solve what biologists and game theorists call “the free-rider problem.” Flesch explains:

Darwin himself had proposed a way for altruism to evolve through a mechanism of
group selection. Groups with altruists do better as a group than groups without. But it
was shown in the 1960s that, in fact, such groups would be too easily infiltrated or
invaded by nonaltruists—that is, that group boundaries were too porous—to make
group selection strong enough to overcome competition at the level of the individual
or the gene. (5)

Strong, or indirect reciprocity, coupled with a selfish concern for one’s own reputation, may have evolved as mechanisms to address this threat of exploitative non-cooperators. For instance, in order for Tom Buchanan to behave selfishly by sleeping with George Wilson’s wife, he had to calculate his chances of being discovered in the act and punished. Interestingly, after “exchanging a frown with Doctor Eckleburg” while speaking to Nick in an early scene in Wilson’s garage, Tom suggests his motives for stealing away with Myrtle are at least somewhat noble. “Terrible place,” he says of the garage and the valley of ashes. “It does her good to get away” (30). Nick, clearly uncomfortable with the position Tom has put him in, where he has to choose whether to object to Tom’s behavior or play the role of second-order free-rider himself, poses the obvious question: “Doesn’t her husband object?” To which Tom replies, “He’s so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive” (30). Nick, inclined to reserve judgment, keeps Tom and Myrtle’s secret. Later in the novel, though, he keeps the same secret for Daisy and Gatsby.

            What makes Flesch’s theory so compelling is that it sheds light on the roles played by everyone from the author, in this case Fitzgerald, to the readers, to the characters, whose nonexistence beyond the pages of the novel is little obstacle to their ability to arouse sympathy or ire. Just as humans are keen to ascertain the relative altruism of their neighbors, so too are they given to broadcasting signals of their own altruism. Flesch explains, “we track not only the original actor whose actions we wish to see reciprocated, whether through reward or more likely punishment; we track as well those who are in a position to track that actor, and we track as well those in a position to track those tracking the actor” (50). What this means is that even if the original “actor” is fictional, readers can signal their own altruism by becoming emotionally engaged in the outcome of the story, specifically by wanting to see altruistic characters rewarded and selfish characters punished.

Nick Carraway is tracking Tom Buchanan’s actions, for instance. Reading the novel, we have little doubt what Nick’s attitude toward Tom is, especially as the story progresses. Though we may favor Nick over Tom, Nick’s failure to sufficiently punish Tom when the degree of his selfishness first becomes apparent tempers any positive feelings we may have toward him. As Flesch points out, “altruism could not sustain an evolutionarily stable system without the contribution of altruistic punishers to punish the free-riders who would flourish in a population of purely benevolent altruists” (66).  On the other hand, through the very act of telling the story, the narrator may be attempting to rectify his earlier moral complacence. According to Flesch’s model of the dynamics of fiction, “The story tells a story of punishment; the story punishes as story; the storyteller represents him- or herself as an altruistic punisher by telling it” (83). However, many readers of Gatsby probably find Nick’s belated punishment insufficient, and if they fail to see the novel as a comment on the real injustice Fitzgerald saw going on around him they would be both confused and disappointed by the way the story ends.
Read part 2

Art as Altruism: Lily Briscoe and the Ghost of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse Part 2 of 2

The question remains, though, of why Virginia Woolf felt it necessary to recall scenes from her childhood in order to lay to rest her inner conflict over her chosen way of life—if that is indeed what To the Lighthouse did for her. She did not, in fact, spend her entire life single but married her husband Leonard in 1912 at the age of thirty and stayed with him until her death in 1941. The Woolfs had been married fifteen years by the time Lighthouse was published (Lee 314). But Virginia’s marriage was quite different from her mother Julia’s. For one, as is made abundantly clear in her diaries, Leonard Woolf was much more supportive and much less demanding than her father Leslie Stephens. More important, though, Julia had seven children of her own and cared for one of Leslie’s from a previous marriage (Lee xx), whereas Virginia remained childless all her life. But, even if she felt her lifestyle represented such a cataclysmic break from her mother’s cultural tradition, it is remarkable that the pain of this partition persisted from the time of Julia’s death when Virginia was thirteen, until the writing of Lighthouse when she was forty-four—the same age as Lily in the last section of the novel. Lily returns to the Ramsays’ summer house ten years after the visit described in the first section, Mrs. Ramsay having died rather mysteriously in the interim, and sets to painting the same image she struggled to capture before. “She had never finished that picture. She would paint that picture now. It had been knocking about in her mind all these years” (147). But why should Lily experience such difficulty handling a conflict of views with a woman who has been dead for years?

Wilson sees the universal propensity among humans to carry on relationships with supernatural beings—like the minds and personalities of the dead, but also including disembodied characters like deities—as one of a host of mechanisms, partly cultural, partly biological, devoted to ensuring group cohesion. In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, in which he attempts to explain religion in terms of his group selection theory, he writes

"A group of people who abandon self-will and work tirelessly for a greater good will fare very well as a group, much better than if they all pursue their private utilities, as long as the greater good corresponds to the welfare of the group. And religions almost invariably do link the greater good to the welfare of the community of believers, whether an organized modern church or an ethnic group for whom religion is thoroughly intermixed with the rest of their culture. Since religion is such an ancient feature of our species, I have no problem whatsoever imagining the capacity for selflessness and longing to be part of something larger than ourselves as part of our genetic and cultural heritage." (175)

One of the main tasks religious beliefs must handle is the same “free-rider problem” William Flesch discovers at the heart of narrative. What religion offers beyond the social monitoring of group members is the presence of invisible beings whose concerns are tied in to the collective concerns of the group. Jesse Bering contributes to this perspective by positing a specific cognitive mechanism which paved the way for the evolution of beliefs about invisible agents, and his theory provides a crucial backdrop for any discussion of the role the dead play for the living, in life or in literature. Of course, Mrs. Ramsay is not a deity, and though Lily feels as she paints “a sense of some one there, of Mrs. Ramsay, relieved for a moment of the weight that the world had put on her” (181), which she earlier describes as, “Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus” (179), she does not believe Mrs. Ramsay is still around in any literal sense. Bering suggests this “nothingness” with the power to wring the heart derives from the same capacity humans depend on to know, roughly, what other humans are thinking. Though there is much disagreement about whether apes understand differences in each other’s knowledge and intentions, it is undeniably the case that humans far outshine any other creature in their capacity to reason about the inner, invisible workings of the minds of their conspecifics. We are so predisposed to this type of reasoning that, according to Bering, we apply it to natural phenomena in which no minds are involved. He writes,

"just like other people’s surface behaviors, natural events can be perceived by us human beings as being about something other than their surface characteristics only because our brains are equipped with the specialized cognitive software, theory of mind, that enables us to think about underlying psychological causes." (79)

As Lily reflects, “this making up scenes about them, is what we call ‘knowing’ people” (173). And we must make up these scenes because, like the bees hovering about the hive she compares herself to in the first section, we have no direct access to the minds of others. Yet if we are to coordinate our actions adaptively—even competitively when other groups are involved—we have no choice but to rely on working assumptions, our theories of others’ knowledge and intentions, updating them when necessary.

The reading of natural evens as signs of some mysterious mind, as well as the continued importance of minds no longer attached to bodies capable of emitting signs, might have arisen as a mere byproduct of humans’ need to understand one another, but at some point in the course our evolution our theories of disembodied minds was co-opted in the service of helping to solve the free-rider problem. In his book The God Instinct, Bering describes a series of experiments known as “The Princess Alice studies,” which have young children perform various tasks after being primed to believe an invisible agent (named Alice in honor of Bering’s mother) is in the room with them. What he and his colleagues found was that Princess Alice’s influence only emerged as the children’s theory of mind developed, suggesting “the ability to be superstitious actually demands some mental sophistication” (96). But once a theory of mind is operating the suggestion of an invisible presence has a curious effect. First in a study of college students casually told about the ghost of a graduate student before taking a math test, and then in a study of children told Princess Alice was watching them as they performed a difficult task involving Velcro darts, participants primed to consider the mind of a supernatural agent were much less likely to take opportunities to cheat which were built into the experimental designs (193-4).

Because evolution took advantage of our concern for our reputations and our ability to reason about the thoughts and feelings of others to ensure cooperation, Lily’s predicament, her argument with the ghost of Mrs. Ramsay over the proper way for a woman to live, could only be resolved through proof that she was not really free-riding or cheating, but was in fact altruistic in her own way. Considering the fate of a couple Mrs. Ramsay had encouraged to marry, Lily imagines, “She would feel a little triumphant, telling Mrs. Ramsay that the marriage had not been a success.” But, she would go on, “They’re happy like that; I’m happy like this. Life has changed completely.” Thus Lily manages to “over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas” (174-5). Lily’s ultimate redemption, though, can only come through acknowledgement that the life she has chosen is not actually selfish. The difficulty in this task stems from the fact that “one could not imagine Mrs. Ramsay standing painting, lying reading, a whole morning on the lawn” (196). Mrs. Ramsay has no appreciation for art or literature, but for Lily it is art—and for Woolf it is literature—that is both the product of all that time alone and her contribution to society as a whole. Lily is redeemed when she finishes her painting, and that is where the novel ends. At the same time, Virginia Woolf, having completed this great work of literature, bequeathed it to society, to us, and in so doing proved her own altruism, thus laying to rest the ghost of Julia Stephens.

Art as Altruism: Lily Briscoe and the Ghost of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse Part 1 of 2

Virginia Woolf underwent a transformation in the process of writing To the Lighthouse the nature of which has been the subject of much scholarly inquiry. At the center of the novel is the relationship between the beautiful, self-sacrificing, and yet officious Mrs. Ramsay, and the retiring, introverted artist Lily Briscoe. “I wrote the book very quickly,” Woolf recalls in “Sketch of the Past,” “and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.” Quoting these lines, biographer Hermione Lee suggests the novel is all about Woolf’s parents, “a way of pacifying their ghosts” (476). But how exactly did writing the novel function to end Woolf’s obsession with her mother? And, for that matter, why would she, at forty-four, still be obsessed with a woman who had died when she was only thirteen? Evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering suggests that while humans are uniquely capable of imagining the inner workings of each other’s minds, the cognitive mechanisms underlying this capacity, which psychologists call “theory of mind,” simply fail to comprehend the utter extinction of those other minds. However, the lingering presence of the dead is not merely a byproduct of humans’ need to understand and communicate with other living humans. Bering argues that the watchful gaze of disembodied minds—real or imagined—serves a type of police function, ensuring that otherwise selfish and sneaky individuals cooperate and play by the rules of society. From this perspective, Woolf’s struggle with her mother, and its manifestation as Lily’s struggle with Mrs. Ramsay, represents a sort of trial in which the younger living woman defends herself against a charge of selfishness leveled by her deceased elder. And since Woolf’s obsession with her mother ceased upon completion of the novel, she must have been satisfied that she had successfully exonerated herself.

Woolf made no secret of the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay were fictionalized versions of her own parents, and most critics see Lily as a stand-in for the author—even though she is merely a friend of the Ramsay family. These complex relationships between author and character, and between daughter and parents, lie at the heart of a dynamic which readily lends itself to psychoanalytic explorations. Jane Lilienfeld, for instance, suggests Woolf created Lily as a proxy to help her accept her parents, both long dead by the time she began writing, “as monumental but flawed human beings,” whom she both adored and detested. Having reduced the grand, archetypal Mrs. Ramsay to her proper human dimensions, Lily is free to acknowledge her own “validity as a single woman, as an artist whose power comes not from manipulating others’ lives in order to fulfill herself, but one whose mature vision encapsulates and transcends reality” (372). But for all the elaborate dealings with mythical and mysterious psychic forces, the theories of Freud and Jung explain very little about why writers write and why readers read. And they explain very little about how people relate to the dead, or about what role the dead play in narrative. Freud may have been right about humans’ intense ambivalence toward their parents, but why should this tension persist long after those parents have ceased to exist? And Jung may have been correct in his detection of mythic resonances in his patients’ dreams, but what accounts for such universal narrative patterns? What do they explain?

Looking at narrative from the perspective of modern evolutionary biology offers several important insights into why people devote so much time and energy to, and get so much gratification from immersing themselves in the plights and dealings of fictional characters. Anthropologists believe the primary concern for our species at the time of its origin was the threat of rival tribes vying for control of limited resources. The legacy of this threat is the persistent proclivity for tribal—us versus them—thinking among modern humans. But alongside our penchant for dehumanizing members of out-groups arose a set of mechanisms designed to encourage—and when necessary to enforce—in-group cooperation for the sake of out-competing less cohesive tribes. Evolutionary literary theorist William Flesch sees in narrative a play of these cooperation-enhancing mechanisms. He writes, “our capacity for narrative developed as a way for us to keep track of cooperators” (67), and he goes on to suggest we tend to align ourselves with those we perceive as especially cooperative or altruistic while feeling an intense desire to see those who demonstrate selfishness get their comeuppance. This is because “altruism could not sustain an evolutionarily stable system without the contribution of altruistic punishers to punish the free-riders who would flourish in a population of purely benevolent altruists” (66). Flesch cites the findings of numerous experiments which demonstrate people’s willingness to punish those they see as exploiting unspoken social compacts and implicit rules of fair dealing, even when meting out that punishment involves costs or risks to the punisher (31-34). Child psychologist Karen Wynn has found that even infants too young to speak prefer to play with puppets or blocks with crude plastic eyes that have in some way demonstrated their altruism over the ones they have seen behaving selfishly or aggressively (557-560). Such experiments lead Flesch to posit a social monitoring and volunteered affect theory of narrative interest, whereby humans track the behavior of others, even fictional others, in order to assess their propensity for altruism or selfishness and are anxious to see that the altruistic are vindicated while the selfish are punished. In responding thus to other people’s behavior, whether they are fictional or real, the individual signals his or her own propensity for second- or third-order altruism.

The plot of To the Lighthouse is unlike anything else in literature, and yet a great deal of information is provided regarding the relative cooperativeness of each of the characters. Foremost among them in her compassion for others is Mrs. Ramsay. While it is true from the perspective of her own genetic interests that her heroic devotion to her husband and their eight children can be considered selfish, she nonetheless extends her care beyond the sphere of her family. She even concerns herself with the tribulations of complete strangers, something readers discover early in the novel, as

"she ruminated the other problem, of rich and poor, and the things she saw with her own eyes… when she visited this widow, or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a note- book and pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment, in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem." (9)

No sooner does she finish reflecting on this social problem than she catches sight of her husband’s friend Charles Tansley, who is feeling bored and “out of things,” because no one staying at the Ramsays’ summer house likes him. Regardless of the topic Tansley discusses with them, “until he had turned the whole thing around and made it somehow reflect himself and disparage them—he was not satisfied” (8). And yet Mrs. Ramsay feels compelled to invite him along on an errand so that he does not have to be alone. Before leaving the premises, though, she has to ask yet another houseguest, Augustus Carmichael, “if he wanted anything” (10). She shows this type of exquisite sensitivity to others’ feelings and states of mind throughout the first section of the novel.

Mrs. Ramsay’s feelings about Lily, another houseguest, are at once dismissive and solicitous. Readers are introduced to Lily only through Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden realization, after prolonged absentmindedness, that she is supposed to be holding still so Lily can paint her. Mrs. Ramsay’s son James, who is sitting with her as he cuts pictures out of a catalogue, makes a strange noise she worries might embarrass him. She turns to see if anyone has heard: “Only Lily Briscoe, she was glad to find; and that did not matter.” Mrs. Ramsay is doing Lily the favor of posing, but the gesture goes no further than mere politeness. Still, there is a quality the younger woman possesses that she admires. “With her little Chinese eyes,” Mrs. Ramsay thinks, “and her puckered-up face, she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; she was an independent little creature, and Mrs. Ramsay liked her for it” (17). Lily’s feelings toward her hostess, on the other hand, though based on a similar recognition that the other enjoys aspects of life utterly foreign to her, are much more intense. At one point early in the novel, Lily wonders, “what could one say to her?” The answer she hazards is “I’m in love with you?” But she decides that is not true and settles on, “‘I’m in love with this all,’ waving her hand at the hedge, at the house, at the children” (19). What Lily loves, and what she tries to capture in her painting, is the essence of the family life Mrs. Ramsay represents, the life Lily herself has rejected in pursuit of her art. It must be noted too that, though Mrs. Ramsay is not related to Lily, Lily has only an elderly father, and so some of the appeal of the large, intact Ramsay family to Lily is the fact that she has been sometime without a mother.

Apart from admiring in the other what each lacks herself, the two women share little in common. The tension between them derives from Lily’s having resigned herself to life without a husband, life in the service of her art and caring for her father, while Mrs. Ramsay simply cannot imagine how any woman could be content without a family. Underlying this conviction is Mrs. Ramsay’s unique view of men and her relationship to them:

"Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl—pray Heaven it was none of her daughters!—who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones!" (6)

In other words, woe betide Lily Briscoe. Anthropologists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, whose work on the evolution of cooperation in humans provides the foundation for Flesch’s theory of narrative, put forth the idea that culture functions to simultaneously maintain group cohesion and to help the group adapt to whatever environment it inhabits. “Human cultures,” they point out, “can change even more quickly than the most rapid examples of genetic evolution by natural selection” (43). What underlies the divergence of views about women’s roles between the two women in Woolf’s novel is that their culture is undergoing major transformations owing to political and economic upheaval in the lead-up to The First World War.

Lily has no long-established tradition of women artists in which to find solace and guidance; rather, the most salient model of womanhood is the family-minded, self-sacrificing Mrs. Ramsay. It is therefore to Mrs. Ramsay that Lily must justify her attempt at establishing a new tradition. She reads the older woman as making the implicit claim that “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” In response, Lily imagines how

"gathering a desperate courage she would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that; and so have to meet a serious stare from eyes of unparalleled depth, and confront Mrs. Ramsay’s simple certainty… that her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool." (50)

Living alone, being herself, and refusing to give up her time or her being to any husband or children strikes even Lily herself as both selfish and illegitimate, lacking cultural sanction and therefore doubly selfish. Trying to figure out the basis of her attraction to Mrs. Ramsay, beyond her obvious beauty, Lily asks herself, “did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all? Every one could not be as helter skelter, hand to mouth as she was” (50). Lily’s dilemma is that she can either be herself, or she can be a member of a family, because being a member of a family means she cannot be wholly herself; like Mrs. Ramsay, she would have to make compromises, and her art would cease to have any more significance than the older woman’s note-book with all its writing devoted to social problems. But she must justify devoting her life only to herself. Meanwhile, she’s desperate for some form of human connection beyond the casual greetings and formal exchanges that take place under the Ramsays’ roof.

Lily expresses a desire not just for knowledge from Mrs. Ramsay but for actual unity with her because what she needs is “nothing that could be written in any language known to men.” She wants to be intimate with the “knowledge and wisdom… stored up in Mrs. Ramsay’s heart,” not any factual information that could be channeled through print. The metaphor Lily uses for her struggle is particularly striking for anyone who studies human evolution.

"How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people." (51)

According to evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, bees are one of only about fifteen species of social insect that have crossed the “Cooperation Divide,” beyond which natural selection at the level of the group supercedes selection at the level of the individual. “Social insect colonies qualify as organisms,” Wilson writes, “not because they are physically bounded but because their members coordinate their activities in organ-like fashion to perpetuate the whole” (144). The main element that separates humans from their ancestors and other primates, he argues, “is that we are evolution’s newest transition from groups of organisms to groups as organisms. Our social groups are the primate equivalent of bodies and beehives” (154). The secret locked away from Lily in Mrs. Ramsay’s heart, the essence of the Ramsay family that she loves so intensely and feels compelled to capture in her painting, is that human individuals are adapted to life in groups of other humans who together represent a type of unitary body. In trying to live by herself and for herself, Lily is going not only against the cultural traditions of the previous generation but even against her own nature.
Part 2.