Flesch

Sympathizing with Psychos: Why We Want to See Alex Escape His Fate as A Clockwork Orange

            Phil Connors, the narcissistic weatherman played by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, is, in the words of Larry, the cameraman played by Chris Elliott, a “prima donna,” at least at the beginning of the movie. He’s selfish, uncharitable, and condescending. As the plot progresses, however, Phil undergoes what is probably the most plausible transformation in all of cinema—having witnessed what he’s gone through over the course of the movie, we’re more than willing to grant the possibility that even the most narcissistic of people might be redeemed through such an ordeal. The odd thing, though, is that when you watch Groundhog Day you don’t exactly hate Phil at the beginning of the movie. Somehow, even as we take note of his most off-putting characteristics, we’re never completely put off. As horrible as he is, he’s not really even unpleasant. The pleasure of watching the movie must to some degree stem from our desire to see Phil redeemed. We want him to learn his lesson so we don’t have to condemn him or write him off. 

            In a recent article for the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen explores what he calls “the problem of sympathy” by considering his own responses to the novels of Edith Wharton, who herself strikes him as difficult to sympathize with. Lily Bart, the protagonist of The House of Mirth, is similar to Wharton in many respects, the main difference being that Lily is beautiful (and of course Franzen was immediately accused of misogyny for pointing this out). Of Lily, Franzen writes,
She is, basically, the worst sort of party girl, and Wharton, in much the same way that she didn’t even try to be soft or charming in her personal life, eschews the standard novelistic tricks for warming or softening Lily’s image—the book is devoid of pet-the-dog moments. So why is it so hard to stop reading Lily’s story? (63)
Franzen weighs several hypotheses: her beauty, her freedom to act on impulses we would never act on, her financial woes, her aging. But ultimately he settles on the conclusion that all of these factors are incidental.
What determines whether we sympathize with a fictional character, according to Franzen, is the strength and immediacy of his or her desire. What propels us through the story then is our curiosity about whether or not the character will succeed in satisfying that desire. He explains,
One of the great perplexities of fiction—and the quality that makes the novel the quintessentially liberal art form—is that we experience sympathy so readily for characters we wouldn’t like in real life. Becky Sharp may be a soulless social climber, Tom Ripley may be a sociopath, the Jackal may want to assassinate the French President, Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat, and Raskolnikov may want to get away with murder, but I find myself rooting for each of them. This is sometimes, no doubt, a function of the lure of the forbidden, the guilty pleasure of imagining what it would be like to be unburdened by scruples. In every case, though, the alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of “bad” people into sympathy is desire. Apparently, all a novelist has to do is give a character a powerful desire (to rise socially, to get away with murder) and I, as a reader, become helpless not to make that desire my own. (63)
While I think Franzen here highlights a crucial point about the intersection between character and plot, namely that it is easier to assess how well characters fare at the story’s end if we know precisely what they want—and also what they dread—it’s clear nonetheless that he’s being flip in his dismissal of possible redeeming qualities. Emily Gould, writing for The Awl, expostulates in a parenthetical to her statement that her response to Lily was quite different from Franzen’s that “she was so trapped! There were no right choices! How could anyone find watching that ‘delicious!’ I cry every time!”
            Focusing on any single character in a story the way Franzen does leaves out important contextual cues about personality. In a story peopled with horrible characters, protagonists need only send out the most modest of cues signaling their altruism or redeemability for readers to begin to want to see them prevail. For Milton’s Satan to be sympathetic, readers have to see God as significantly less so. In Groundhog Day, you have creepy and annoying characters like Larry and Ned Ryerson to make Phil look slightly better. And here is Franzen on the denouement of House of Mirth, describing his response to Lily reflecting on the timestamp placed on her youthful beauty:
But only at the book’s very end, when Lily finds herself holding another woman’s baby and experiencing a host of unfamiliar emotions, does a more powerful sort of urgency crash into view. The financial potential of her looks is revealed to have been an artificial value, in contrast to their authentic value in the natural scheme of human reproduction. What has been simply a series of private misfortunes for Lily suddenly becomes something larger: the tragedy of a New York City social world whose priorities are so divorced from nature that they kill the emblematically attractive female who ought, by natural right, to thrive. The reader is driven to search for an explanation of the tragedy in Lily’s appallingly deforming social upbringing—the kind of upbringing that Wharton herself felt deformed by—and to pity her for it, as, per Aristotle, a tragic protagonist must be pitied. (63)
As Gould points out, though, Franzen is really late in coming to an appreciation of the tragedy, even though his absorption with Lily’s predicament suggests he feels sympathy for her all along. Launching into a list of all the qualities that supposedly make the character unsympathetic, he writes, “The social height that she’s bent on securing is one that she herself acknowledges is dull and sterile” (62), a signal of ambivalence that readers like Gould take as a hopeful sign that she might eventually be redeemed. In any case, few of the other characters seem willing to acknowledge anything of the sort.
            Perhaps the most extreme instance in which a bad character wins the sympathy of readers and viewers by being cast with a character or two who are even worse is that of Alex in Anthony Burgess’s novella A Clockwork Orange and the Stanley Kubrick film based on it. (Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley is another clear contender.) How could we possibly like Alex? He’s a true sadist who matter-of-factly describes the joyous thrill he gets from committing acts of “ultraviolence” against his victims, and he’s a definite candidate for a clinical diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. He’s also probably the best evidence for Franzen’s theory that sympathy is reducible to desire. It should be noted, however, that, in keeping with William Flesch’s theory of narrative interest, A Clockwork Orange is nothing if not a story of punishment. In his book Comeuppance, Flesch suggests that when we become emotionally enmeshed with stories we’re monitoring the characters for evidence of either altruism or selfishness and henceforth attending to the plot, anxious to see the altruists rewarded and the selfish get their comeuppance. Alex seems to strain the theory, though, because all he seems to want to do is hurt people, and yet audiences tend to be more disturbed than gratified by his drawn-out, torturous punishment. For many, there’s even some relief at the end of the movie and the original American version of the book when Alex makes it through all of his ordeals with his taste for ultraviolence restored.  
Anthony Burgess

            Many obvious factors mitigate the case against Alex, perhaps foremost among them the whimsical tone of his narration, along with the fictional dialect which lends to the story a dream-like quality, which is also brilliantly conveyed in the film. There’s something cartoonish about all the characters who suffer at the hands of Alex and his droogs, and almost all of them return to the story later to exact their revenge. You might even say there’s a Groundhogesque element of repetition in the plot. The audience quickly learns too that all the characters who should be looking out for Alex—he’s only fifteen, we find out after almost eighty pages—are either feckless zombies like his parents, who have been sapped of all vitality by their clockwork occupations, or only see him as a means to furthering their own ambitions. “If you have no consideration for your own horrible self you at least might have some for me, who have sweated over you,” his Post-Corrective Advisor P.R. Deltoid says to him. “A big black mark, I tell you in confidence, for every one we don’t reclaim, a confession of failure for every one of you that ends up in the stripy hole” (42). Even the prison charlie (he’s a chaplain, get it?) who serves as a mouthpiece to deliver Burgess’s message treats him as a means to an end. Alex explains,
The idea was, I knew, that this charlie was after becoming a very great holy chelloveck in the world of Prison Religion, and he wanted a real horrorshow testimonial from the Governor, so he would go and govoreet quietly to the Governor now and then about what dark plots were brewing among the plennies, and he would get a lot of this cal from me. (91)
Alex ends up receiving his worst punishment at the hands of the man against whom he’s committed his worst crime. F. Alexander is the author of the metafictionally titled A Clockwork Orange, a treatise against the repressive government, and in the first part of the story Alex and his droogs, wearing masks, beat him mercilessly before forcing him to watch them gang rape his wife, who ends up dying from wounds she sustains in the attack. Later, when Alex gets beaten up himself and inadvertently stumbles back to the house that was the scene of the crime, F. Alexander recognizes him only as the guinea pig for a government experiment in brainwashing criminals he’s read about in newspapers. He takes Alex in and helps him, saying, “I think you can be used, poor boy. I think you can help dislodge this overbearing Government” (175). After he recognizes Alex from his nadsat dialect as the ringleader of the gang who killed his wife, he decides the boy will serve as a better propaganda tool if he commits suicide. Locking him in a room and blasting the Beethoven music he once loved but was conditioned in prison to find nauseating to the point of wishing for death, F. Alexander leaves Alex no escape but to jump out of a high window.
The desire for revenge is understandable, but before realizing who it is he’s dealing with F. Alexander reveals himself to be conniving and manipulative, like almost every other adult Alex knows. When he wakes up in the hospital after his suicide attempt, he discovers that the Minister of the Inferior, as he calls him, has had the conditioning procedure he originally ordered be carried out on Alex reversed and is now eager for Alex to tell everyone how F. Alexander and his fellow conspirators tried to kill him. Alex is nothing but a pawn to any of them. That’s why it’s possible to be relieved when his capacity for violent behavior has been restored.
Of course, the real villain of A Clockwork Orange is the Ludovico Technique, the treatment used to cure Alex of his violent impulses. Strapped into a chair with his head locked in place and his glazzies braced open, Alex is forced to watch recorded scenes of torture, murder, violence, and rape, the types of things he used to enjoy. Only now he’s been given a shot that makes him feel so horrible he wants to snuff it (kill himself), and over the course of the treatment sessions he becomes conditioned to associate his precious ultraviolence with this dreadful feeling. Next to the desecration of a man’s soul—the mechanistic control obviating his free will—the antisocial depredations of a young delinquent are somewhat less horrifying. As the charlie says to Alex, addressing him by his prison ID number,
It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321. (107)
Shirt Woot!
At the same time, though, one of the consequences of the treatment is that Alex becomes not just incapable of preying on others but also of defending himself. Immediately upon his release from prison, he finds himself at the mercy of everyone he’s wronged and everyone who feels justified in abusing or exploiting him owing to his past crimes. Before realizing who Alex is, F. Alexander says to him,
You’ve sinned, I suppose, but your punishment has been out of all proportion. They have turned you into something other than a human being. You have no power of choice any longer. You’re committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable only of good. (175)
            To tally the mitigating factors: Alex is young (though the actor in the movie was twenty-eight), he’s surrounded by other bizarre and unlikable characters, and he undergoes dehumanizing torture. But does this really make up for his participating in gang rape and murder? Personally, as strange and unsavory as F. Alexander seems, I have to say I can’t fault him in the least for taking revenge on Alex. As someone who believes all behaviors are ultimately determined by countless factors outside the  individual’s control, from genes to education to social norms, I don’t have that much of a problem with the Ludovico Technique either. Psychopathy is a primarily genetic condition that makes people incapable of experiencing moral emotions such as would prevent them from harming others. If aversion therapy worked to endow psychopaths with negative emotions similar to those the rest of us feel in response to Alex’s brand of ultraviolence, then it doesn’t seem like any more of a desecration than, say, a brain operation to remove a tumor with deleterious effects on moral reasoning. True, the prospect of a corrupt government administering the treatment is unsettling, but this kid was going around beating, raping, and killing people.

            And yet, I also have to admit (confess?), my own response to Alex, even at the height of his delinquency, before his capture and punishment, was to like him and root for him—this despite the fact that, contra Franzen, I couldn’t really point to any one thing he desires more than anything else.
            For those of us who sympathize with Alex, every instance in which he does something unconscionable induces real discomfort, like when he takes two young ptitsas back to his room after revealing they “couldn’t have been more than ten” (47) (but he earlier says the girl Billyboy's gang is "getting ready to perform on" is "not more than ten" [18] - is he serious?). We don’t like him, in other words, because he does bad things but in spite of it. At some point near the beginning of the story, Alex must give some convincing indications that by the end he will have learned the error of his ways. He must provide readers with some evidence that he is at least capable of learning to empathize with other people’s suffering and willing to behave in such a way as to avoid it, so when we see him doing something horrible we view it as an anxiety-inducing setback rather than a deal-breaking harbinger of his true life trajectory. But what is it exactly that makes us believe this psychopath is redeemable?
            Phil Connors in Groundhog Day has one obvious saving grace. When viewers are first introduced to him, he’s doing his weather report—and he has a uniquely funny way of doing it. “Uh-oh, look out. It’s one of these big blue things!” he jokes when the graphic of a storm front appears on the screen. “Out in California they're going to have some warm weather tomorrow, gang wars, and some very overpriced real estate,” he says drolly. You could argue he’s only being funny in an attempt to further his career, but he continues trying to make people laugh, usually at the expense of weird or annoying characters, even when the cameras are off (not those cameras). Successful humor requires some degree of social acuity, and the effort that goes into it suggests at least a modicum of generosity. You could say, in effect, Phil goes out of his way to give the other characters, and us, a few laughs. Alex, likewise, offers us a laugh before the end of the first page, as he describes how the Korova Milkbar, where he and his droogs hang out, doesn’t have a liquor license but can sell moloko with drugs added to it “which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg” (3-4). Even as he’s assaulting people, Alex keeps up his witty banter and dazzling repartee. He’s being cruel, but he’s having fun. Moreover, he seems to be inviting us to have fun with him.
Henri Tajfel
            Probably the single most important factor behind our desire (and I understand “our” here doesn’t include everyone in the audience) to see Alex redeemed is the fact that he’s being kind enough to tell us his story, to invite us into his life, as it were. This is the magic of first person narration. And like most magic it’s based on a psychological principle describing a mental process most of us go about our lives completely oblivious to. The Jewish psychologist Henri Tajfel was living in France at the beginning of World War II, and he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp for most of its duration. Afterward, he went to college in England, where in the 1960s and 70s he would conduct a series of experiments that are today considered classics in social psychology. Many other scientists at the time were trying to understand how an atrocity like the Holocaust could have happened. One theory was that the worst barbarism was committed by a certain type of individual who had what was called an authoritarian personality. Others, like Muzafer Sherif, pointed to a universal human tendency to form groups and discriminate on their behalf.
            Tajfel knew about Sherif’s Robber’s Cave Experiment in which groups of young boys were made to compete with each other in sports and over territory. Under those conditions, the groups of boys quickly became antagonistic toward one another, so much so that the experiment had to be moved into its reconciliation phase earlier than planned to prevent violence. But Tajfel suspected that group rivalries could be sparked even without such an elaborate setup. To test his theory, he developed what is known as the minimal group paradigm, in which test subjects engage in some task or test of their preferences and are subsequently arranged into groups based on the outcome. In the original experiments, none of the participants knew anything about their groupmates aside from the fact that they’d been assigned to the same group. And yet, even when the group assignments were based on nothing but a coin toss, subjects asked how much money other people in the experiment deserved as a reward for their participation suggested much lower dollar amounts for people in rival groups. “Apparently,” Tajfel writes in a 1970 Scientific American article about his experiments, “the mere fact of division into groups is enough to trigger discriminatory behavior” (96).
            Once divisions into us and them have been established, considerations of fairness are reserved for members of the ingroup. While the subjects in Tajfel’s tests aren’t displaying fully developed tribal animosity, they do demonstrate that the seeds of tribalism are disturbingly easily to sow. As he explains,
Unfortunately it is only too easy to think of examples in real life where fairness would go out the window, since groupness is often based on criteria much more weighty than either preferring a painter one has never heard of before or resembling someone else in one's way of counting dots. (102)
I’m unaware of any studies on the effects of various styles of narration on perceptions of group membership, but I hypothesize that we can extrapolate the minimal group paradigm into the realm of first-person narrative accounts of violence. The reason some of us like Alex despite his horrendous behavior is that he somehow manages to make us think of him as a member of our tribe—or rather as ourselves as a member of his—while everyone he wrongs belongs to a rival group. Even as he’s telling us about all the horrible things he’s done to other people, he takes time out to to introduce us to his friends, describe places like the Korova Milkbar and the Duke of York, even the flat at Municipal Flatblock 18A where he and his parents live. He tells us jokes. He shares with us his enthusiasm for classical music. Oh yeah, he also addresses us, “Oh my brothers,” beginning seven lines down on the first page and again at intervals throughout the book, making us what anthropologists call his fictive kin.
            There’s something altruistic, or at least generous, about telling jokes or stories. Alex really is our humble narrator, as he frequently refers to himself. Beyond that, though, most stories turn on some moral point, so when we encounter a narrator who immediately begins recounting his crimes we can’t help but anticipate the juncture in the story at which he experiences some moral enlightenment. In the twenty-first and last chapter of A Clockwork Orange, Alex does indeed undergo just this sort of transformation. But American publishers, along with Stanley Kubrick, cut this part of the book because it struck them as a somewhat cowardly turning away from the reality of human evil. Burgess defends the original version in an introduction to the 1986 edition,
The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change. There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. (xii)
Indeed, it’s probably this sense of the story being somehow unfinished or cut off in the middle that makes the film so disturbing and so nightmarishly memorable. With regard to the novel, readers could be forgiven for wondering what the hell Alex’s motivation was in telling his story in the first place if there was no lesson or no intuitive understanding he thought he could convey with it.
            But is the twenty-first chapter believable? Would it have been possible for Alex to transform into a good man? The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slowshares with his own readers an important lesson from his student days that bears on Alex’s case:
As a graduate student I attended some courses on the art and science of psychotherapy. During one of these lectures our teacher imparted a morsel of clinical wisdom. This is what he told us: “You will from time to time meet a patient who shares a disturbing tale of multiple mistakes in his previous treatment. He has been seen by several clinicians, and all failed him. The patient can lucidly describe how his therapists misunderstood him, but he has quickly perceived that you are different. You share the same feeling, are convinced that you understand him, and will be able to help.” At this point my teacher raised his voice as he said, “Do not even think of taking on this patient! Throw him out of the office! He is most likely a psychopath and you will not be able to help him.” (27-28)


Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

And Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game

Why Shakespeare Nauseated Darwin: A Review of Keith Oatley's "Such Stuff as Dreams"

Review of Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction by Keith Oatley
            Late in his life, Charles Darwin lost his taste for music and poetry. “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” he laments in his autobiography, and for many of us the temptation to place all men and women of science into a category of individuals whose minds resemble machines more than living and emotionally attuned organs of feeling and perceiving is overwhelming. In the 21st century, we even have a convenient psychiatric diagnosis for people of this sort. Don’t we just assume Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory has autism, or at least the milder version of it known as Asperger’s? It’s probably even safe to assume the show’s writers had the diagnostic criteria for the disorder in mind when they first developed his character. Likewise, Dr. Watson in the BBC’s new and obscenely entertaining Sherlock series can’t resist a reference to the quintessential evidence-crunching genius’s own supposed Asperger’s. In Darwin’s case, however, the move away from the arts couldn’t have been due to any congenital deficiency in his finer human sentiments because it occurred only in adulthood. He writes,

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure.

We could interpret Darwin here as suggesting that casting his mind too doggedly into his scientific work somehow ruined his capacity to appreciate Shakespeare. But, like all thinkers and writers of great nuance and sophistication, his ideas are easy to mischaracterize through selective quotation (or, if you’re Ben Stein or any of the other unscrupulous writers behind creationist propaganda like the pseudo-documentary Expelled, you can just lie about what he actually wrote). One of the most charming things about Darwin is that his writing is often more exploratory than merely informative. He writes in search of answers he has yet to discover. In a wider context, the quote about his mind becoming a machine, for instance, reads,

This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

His concern for his lost aestheticism notwithstanding, Darwin’s humanism, his humanity, radiates in his writing with a warmth that belies any claim about thinking like a machine, just as the intelligence that shows through it gainsays his humble deprecations about the organization of his mind.

           In this excerpt, Darwin, perhaps inadvertently, even manages to put forth a theory of the function of art. Somehow, poetry and music not only give us pleasure and make us happy—enjoying them actually constitutes a type of mental exercise that strengthens our intellect, our emotional awareness, and even our moral character. Novelist and cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley explores this idea of human betterment through aesthetic experience in his book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. This subtitle is notably underwhelming given the long history of psychoanalytic theorizing about the meaning and role of literature. However, whereas psychoanalysis has fallen into disrepute among scientists because of its multiple empirical failures and a general methodological hubris common among its practitioners, the work of Oatley and his team at the University of Toronto relies on much more modest, and at the same time much more sophisticated, scientific protocols. One of the tools these researchers use, The Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, was in fact first developed to research our new category of people with machine-like minds. What the researchers find bolsters Darwin’s impression that art, at least literary art, functions as a kind of exercise for our faculty of understanding and relating to others.
Keith Oatley

           Reasoning that “fiction is a kind of simulation of selves and their vicissitudes in the social world” (159), Oatley and his colleague Raymond Mar hypothesized that people who spent more time trying to understand fictional characters would be better at recognizing and reasoning about other, real-world people’s states of mind. So they devised a test to assess how much fiction participants in their study read based on how well they could categorize a long list of names according to which ones belonged to authors of fiction, which to authors of nonfiction, and which to non-authors. They then had participants take the Mind-in-the-Eyes Test, which consists of matching close-up pictures of peoples’ eyes with terms describing their emotional state at the time they were taken. The researchers also had participants take the Interpersonal Perception Test, which has them answer questions about the relationships of people in short video clips featuring social interactions. An example question might be “Which of the two children, or both, or neither, are offspring of the two adults in the clip?”  (Imagine Sherlock Holmes taking this test.) As hypothesized, Oatley writes, “We found that the more fiction people read, the better they were at the Mind-in-the-Eyes Test. A similar relationship held, though less strongly, for reading fiction and the Interpersonal Perception Test” (159).
Raymond Mar

            One major shortcoming of this study is that it fails to establish causality; people who are naturally better at reading emotions and making sound inferences about social interactions may gravitate to fiction for some reason. So Mar set up an experiment in which he had participants read either a nonfiction article from an issue of the New Yorker or a work of short fiction chosen to be the same length and require the same level of reading skills. When the two groups then took a test of social reasoning, the ones who had read the short story outperformed the control group. Both groups also took a test of analytic reasoning as a further control; on this variable there was no difference in performance between the groups. The outcome of this experiment, Oatley stresses, shouldn’t be interpreted as evidence that reading one story will increase your social skills in any meaningful and lasting way. But reading habits established over long periods likely explain the more significant differences between individuals found in the earlier study. As Oatley explains,

Readers of fiction tend to become more expert at making models of others and themselves, and at navigating the social world, and readers of non-fiction are likely to become more expert at genetics, or cookery, or environmental studies, or whatever they spend their time reading. Raymond Mar’s experimental study on reading pieces from the New Yorker is probably best explained by priming. Reading a fictional piece puts people into a frame of mind of thinking about the social world, and this is probably why they did better at the test of social reasoning. (160)

Connecting these findings to real-world outcomes, Oatley and his team also found that “reading fiction was not associated with loneliness,” as the stereotype suggests, “but was associated with what psychologists call high social support, being in a circle of people whom participants saw a lot, and who were available to them practically and emotionally” (160).

            These studies by the University of Toronto team have received wide publicity, but the people who should be the most interested in them have little or no idea how to go about making sense of them. Most people simply either read fiction or they don’t. If you happen to be of the tribe who studies fiction, then you were probably educated in a way that engendered mixed feelings—profound confusion really—about science and how it works. In his review of The Storytelling Animal, a book in which Jonathan Gottschall incorporates the Toronto team’s findings into the theory that narrative serves the adaptive function of making human social groups more cooperative and cohesive, Adam Gopnik sneers,

Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement. It is rare to see a thesis actually falsified as it is being articulated.

Oatley himself is well aware of the strange case of university English departments. He cites a report by Willie van Peer on a small study he did comparing students in the natural sciences to students in the humanities. Oatley explains,

There was considerable scatter, but on average the science students had higher emotional intelligence than the humanities students, the opposite of what was expected; van Peer indicts teaching in the humanities for often turning people away from human understanding towards technical analyses of details. (160)

Oatley suggests in a footnote that an earlier study corroborates van Peer’s indictment. It found that high school students who show more emotional involvement with short stories—the type of connection that would engender greater empathy—did proportionally worse on standard academic assessments of English proficiency. The clear implication of these findings is that the way literature is taught in universities and high schools is long overdue for an in-depth critical analysis.

            The idea that literature has the power to make us better people is not new; indeed, it was the very idea on which the humanities were originally founded. We have to wonder what people like Gopnik believe the point of celebrating literature is if not to foster greater understanding and empathy. If you either enjoy it or you don’t, and it has no beneficial effects on individuals or on society in general, why bother encouraging anyone to read? Why bother writing essays about it in the New Yorker? Tellingly, many scholars in the humanities began doubting the power of art to inspire greater humanity around the same time they began questioning the value and promise of scientific progress. Oatley writes,

Part of the devastation of World War II was the failure of German citizens, one of the world’s most highly educated populations, to prevent their nation’s slide into Nazism. George Steiner has famously asserted: “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” (164)
Willie van Peer

Postwar literary theory and criticism has, perversely, tended toward the view that literature and language in general serve as a vessel for passing on all the evils inherent in our western, patriarchal, racist, imperialist culture. The purpose of literary analysis then becomes to shift out these elements and resist them. Unfortunately, such accusatory theories leave unanswered the question of why, if literature inculcates oppressive ideologies, we should bother reading it at all. As van Peer muses in the report Oatley cites, “The Inhumanity of the Humanities,”

Consider the ills flowing from postmodern approaches, the “posthuman”: this usually involves the hegemony of “race/class/gender” in which literary texts are treated with suspicion. Here is a major source of that loss of emotional connection between student and literature. How can one expect a certain humanity to grow in students if they are continuously instructed to distrust authors and texts? (8)

           Oatley and van Peer point out, moreover, that the evidence for concentration camp workers having any degree of literary or aesthetic sophistication is nonexistent. According to the best available evidence, most of the greatest atrocities were committed by soldiers who never graduated high school. The suggestion that some type of cozy relationship existed between Nazism and an enthusiasm for Goethe runs afoul of recorded history. As Oatley points out,

Apart from propensity to violence, nationalism, and anti-Semitism, Nazism was marked by hostility to humanitarian values in education. From 1933 onwards, the Nazis replaced the idea of self-betterment through education and reading by practices designed to induce as many as possible into willing conformity, and to coerce the unwilling remainder by justified fear. (165)
Lynn Hunt

Oatley also cites the work of historian Lynn Hunt, whose book Inventing Human Rights traces the original social movement for the recognition of universal human rights to the mid-1700s, when what we recognize today as novels were first being written. Other scholars like Steven Pinker have pointed out too that, while it’s hard not to dwell on tragedies like the Holocaust, even atrocities of that magnitude are resoundingly overmatched by the much larger post-Enlightenment trend toward peace, freedom, and the wider recognition of human rights. It’s sad that one of the lasting legacies of all the great catastrophes of the 20th Century is a tradition in humanities scholarship that has the people who are supposed to be the custodians of our literary heritage hell-bent on teaching us all the ways that literature makes us evil.

            Because Oatley is a central figure in what we can only hope is a movement to end the current reign of self-righteous insanity in literary studies, it pains me not to be able to recommend Such Stuff as Dreams to anyone but dedicated specialists. Oatley writes in the preface that he has “imagined the book as having some of the qualities of fiction. That is to say I have designed it to have a narrative flow” (x), and it may simply be that this suggestion set my expectations too high. But the book is poorly edited, the prose is bland and often roles over itself into graceless tangles, and a couple of the chapters seem like little more than haphazardly collated reports of studies and theories, none exactly off-topic, none completely without interest, but all lacking any central progression or theme. The book often reads more like an annotated bibliography than a story. Oatley’s scholarly range is impressive, however, bearing not just on cognitive science and literature through the centuries but extending as well to the work of important literary theorists. The book is never unreadable, never opaque, but it’s not exactly a work of art in its own right.

            Insofar as Such Stuff as Dreams is organized around a central idea, it is that fiction ought be thought of not as “a direct impression of life,” as Henry James suggests in his famous essay “The Art of Fiction,” and as many contemporary critics—notably James Wood—seem to think of it. Rather, Oatley agrees with Robert Louis Stevenson’s response to James’s essay, “A Humble Remonstrance,” in which he writes that

Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art in comparison is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician. (qtd on pg 8)

Oatley theorizes that stories are simulations, much like dreams, that go beyond mere reflections of life to highlight through defamiliarization particular aspects of life, to cast them in a new light so as to deepen our understanding and experience of them. He writes,

Every true artistic expression, I think, is not just about the surface of things. It always has some aspect of the abstract. The issue is whether, by a change of perspective or by a making the familiar strange, by means of an artistically depicted world, we can see our everyday world in a deeper way. (15)

Critics of high-brow literature like Wood appreciate defamiliarization at the level of description; Oatley is suggesting here though that the story as a whole functions as a “metaphor-in-the-large” (17), a way of not just making us experience as strange some object or isolated feeling, but of reconceptualizing entire relationships, careers, encounters, biographies—what we recognize in fiction as plots. This is an important insight, and it topples verisimilitude from its ascendant position atop the hierarchy of literary values while rendering complaints about clichéd plots potentially moot. Didn’t Shakespeare recycle plots after all?

            The theory of fiction as a type of simulation to improve social skills and possibly to facilitate group cooperation is emerging as the frontrunner in attempts to explain narrative interest in the context of human evolution. It is to date, however, impossible to rule out the possibility that our interest in stories is not directly adaptive but instead emerges as a byproduct of other traits that confer more immediate biological advantages. The finding that readers track actions in stories with the same brain regions that activate when they witness similar actions in reality, or when they engage in them themselves, is important support for the simulation theory. But the function of mirror neurons isn’t well enough understood yet for us to determine from this study how much engagement with fictional stories depends on the reader's identifying with the protagonist. Oatley’s theory is more consonant with direct and straightforward identification. He writes,

A very basic emotional process engages the reader with plans and fortunes of a protagonist. This is what often drives the plot and, perhaps, keeps us turning the pages, or keeps us in our seat at the movies or at the theater. It can be enjoyable. In art we experience the emotion, but with it the possibility of something else, too. The way we see the world can change, and we ourselves can change. Art is not simply taking a ride on preoccupations and prejudices, using a schema that runs as usual. Art enables us to experience some emotions in contexts that we would not ordinarily encounter, and to think of ourselves in ways that usually we do not. (118)

Much of this change, Oatley suggests, comes from realizing that we too are capable of behaving in ways that we might not like. “I am capable of this too: selfishness, lack of sympathy” (193), is what he believes we think in response to witnessing good characters behave badly.

            Oatley’s theory has a lot to recommend it, but William Flesch’s theory of narrative interest, which suggests we don’t identify with fictional characters directly but rather track them and anxiously hope for them to get whatever we feel they deserve, seems much more plausible in the context of our response to protagonists behaving in surprisingly selfish or antisocial ways. When I see Ed Norton as Tyler Durden beating Angel Face half to death in Fight Club, for instance, I don’t think, hey, that’s me smashing that poor guy’s face with my fists. Instead, I think, what the hell are you doing? I had you pegged as a good guy. I know you’re trying not to be as much of a pushover as you used to be but this is getting scary. I’m anxious that Angel Face doesn’t get too damaged—partly because I imagine that would be devastating to Tyler. And I’m anxious lest this incident be a harbinger of worse behavior to come.

            The issue of identification is just one of several interesting questions that can lend itself to further research. Oatley and Mar’s studies are not enormous in terms of sample size, and their subjects were mostly young college students. What types of fiction work the best to foster empathy? What types of reading strategies might we encourage students to apply to reading literature—apart from trying to remove obstacles to emotional connections with characters? But, aside from the Big-Bad-Western Empire myth that currently has humanities scholars grooming successive generations of deluded ideologues to be little more than culture vultures presiding over the creation and celebration of Loser Lit, the other main challenge to transporting literary theory onto firmer empirical grounds is the assumption that the arts in general and literature in particular demand a wholly different type of thinking to create and appreciate than the type that goes into the intricate mechanics and intensely disciplined practices of science.
Simon Baron-Cohen

As Oatley and the Toronto team have shown, people who enjoy fiction tend to have the opposite of autism. And people who do science are, well, Sheldon. Interestingly, though, the writers of The Big Bang Theory, for whatever reason, included some contraindications for a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s in Sheldon’s character. Like the other scientists in the show, he’s obsessed with comic books, which require at least some understanding of facial expression and body language to follow. As Simon Baron-Cohen, the autism researcher who designed the Mind-in-the-Eyes test, explains, “Autism is an empathy disorder: those with autism have major difficulties in 'mindreading' or putting themselves into someone else’s shoes, imagining the world through someone else’s feelings” (137). Baron-Cohen has coined the term “mindblindness” to describe the central feature of the disorder, and many have posited that the underlying cause is abnormal development of the brain regions devoted to perspective taking and understanding others, what cognitive psychologists refer to as our Theory of Mind.

            To follow comic book plotlines, Sheldon would have to make ample use of his own Theory of Mind. He’s also given to absorption in various science fiction shows on TV. If he were only interested in futuristic gadgets, as an autistic would be, he could just as easily get more scientifically plausible versions of them in any number of nonfiction venues. By Baron-Cohen’s definition, Sherlock Holmes can’t possibly have Asperger’s either because his ability to get into other people’s heads is vastly superior to pretty much everyone else’s. As he explains in “The Musgrave Ritual,” “You know my methods in such cases, Watson: I put myself in the man’s place, and having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances.”

            What about Darwin, though, that demigod of science who openly professed to being nauseated by Shakespeare? Isn’t he a prime candidate for entry into the surprisingly unpopulated ranks of heartless, data-crunching scientists whose thinking lends itself so conveniently to cooptation by oppressors and committers of wartime atrocities? It turns out that though Darwin held many of the same racist views as nearly all educated men of his time, his ability to empathize across racial and class divides was extraordinary. Darwin was not himself a Social Darwinist, a theory devised by Herbert Spencer to justify inequality (which has currency still today among political conservatives). And Darwin was also a passionate abolitionist, as is clear in the following excerpts from The Voyage of the Beagle:

On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate.

Darwin is responding to cruelty in a way no one around him at the time would have. And note how deeply it pains him, how profound and keenly felt his sympathy is.

I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil.

            The question arises, not whether Darwin had sacrificed his humanity to science, but why he had so much more humanity than many other intellectuals of his day.

It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease.

And finally we come to the matter of Darwin’s Theory of Mind, which was quite clearly in no way deficient.

Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;—what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children—those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty; but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin. (530-31)

            I suspect that Darwin’s distaste for Shakespeare was borne of oversensitivity. He doesn't say music failed to move him; he didn’t like it because it made him think “too energetically.” And as aesthetically pleasing as Shakespeare is, existentially speaking, his plays tend to be pretty harsh, even the comedies. When Prospero says, "We are such stuff / as dreams are made on" in Act 4 of The Tempest, he's actually talking not about characters in stories, but about how ephemeral and insignificant real human lives are. But why, beyond some likely nudge from his inherited temperament, was Darwin so sensitive? Why was he so empathetic even to those so vastly different from him? After admitting he’d lost his taste for Shakespeare, paintings, and music, he goes to say,

On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.
[Check out the Toronto group's blog at onfiction.ca]


The Storytelling Animal: a Light Read with Weighty Implications

A review of Jonathan Gottschall's The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
            Vivian Paley, like many other preschool and kindergarten teachers in the 1970s, was disturbed by how her young charges always separated themselves by gender at playtime. She was further disturbed by how closely the play of each gender group hewed to the old stereotypes about girls and boys. Unlike most other teachers, though, Paley tried to do something about it. Her 1984 book Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner demonstrates in microcosm how quixotic social reforms inspired by the assumption that all behaviors are shaped solely by upbringing and culture can be. Eventually, Paley realized that it wasn’t the children who needed to learn new ways of thinking and behaving, but herself. What happened in her classrooms in the late 70s, developmental psychologists have reliably determined, is the same thing that happens when you put kids together anywhere in the world. As Jonathan Gottschall explains,

Dozens of studies across five decades and a multitude of cultures have found essentially what Paley found in her Midwestern classroom: boys and girls spontaneously segregate themselves by sex; boys engage in more rough-and-tumble play; fantasy play is more frequent in girls, more sophisticated, and more focused on pretend parenting; boys are generally more aggressive and less nurturing than girls, with the differences being present and measurable by the seventeenth month of life. (39)

Jonathan Gottschall
Paley’s study is one of several you probably wouldn’t expect to find discussed in a book about our human fascination with storytelling. But, as Gottschall makes clear in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, there really aren’t many areas of human existence that aren’t relevant to a discussion of the role stories play in our lives. Those rowdy boys in Paley’s classes were playing recognizable characters from current action and sci-fi movies, and the fantasies of the girls were right out of Grimm’s fairy tales (it’s easy to see why people might assume these cultural staples were to blame for the sex differences). And the play itself was structured around one of the key ingredients—really the key ingredient—of any compelling story, trouble, whether in the form of invading pirates or people trying to poison babies.

The Storytelling Animal is the book to start with if you have yet to cut your teeth on any of the other recent efforts to bring the study of narrative into the realm of cognitive and evolutionary psychology. Gottschall covers many of the central themes of this burgeoning field without getting into the weedier territories of game theory or selection at multiple levels. While readers accustomed to more technical works may balk at wading through all the author’s anecdotes about his daughters, Gottschall’s keen sense of measure and the light touch of his prose keep the book from getting bogged down in frivolousness. This applies as well to the sections in which he succumbs to the temptation any writer faces when trying to explain one or another aspect of storytelling by making a few forays into penning abortive, experimental plots of his own. 
None of the central theses of The Storytelling Animal is groundbreaking. But the style and layout of the book contribute something both surprising and important. Gottschall could simply tell his readers that stories almost invariably feature come kind of conflict or trouble and then present evidence to support the assertion, the way most science books do. Instead, he takes us on a tour from children’s highly gendered, highly trouble-laden play scenarios, through an examination of the most common themes enacted in dreams—which contra Freud are seldom centered on wish-fulfillment—through some thought experiments on how intensely boring so-called hyperrealism, or the rendering of real life as it actually occurs, in fiction would be (or actually is, if you’ve read any of D.F.Wallace’s last novel about an IRS clerk). The effect is that instead of simply having a new idea to toss around we actually feel how odd it is to devote so much of our lives to obsessing over anxiety-inducing fantasies fraught with looming catastrophe. And we appreciate just how integral story is to almost everything we do.

This gloss of Gottschall’s approach gives a sense of what is truly original about The Storytelling Animal—it doesn’t seal off narrative as discrete from other features of human existence but rather shows how stories permeate every aspect of our lives, from our dreams to our plans for the future, even our sense of our own identity. In a chapter titled “Life Stories,” Gottschall writes,

This need to see ourselves as the striving heroes of our own  
epics warps our sense of self. After all, it’s not easy to be a
plausible protagonist. Fiction protagonists tend to be young,
attractive, smart, and brave—all of the things that most of us
aren’t. Fiction protagonists usually live interesting lives that
are marked by intense conflict and drama. We don’t. Average
Americans work retail or cubicle jobs and spend their nights
watching protagonists do interesting things on television, while
they eat pork rinds dipped in Miracle Whip. (171)

If you find this observation a tad unsettling, imagine it situated on a page underneath a mug shot of John Wayne Gacy with a caption explaining how he thought of himself “more as a victim than as a perpetrator.” For the most part, though, stories follow an easily identifiable moral logic, which Gottschall demonstrates with a short plot of his own based on the hypothetical situations Jonathan Haidt designed to induce moral dumbfounding. This almost inviolable moral underpinning of narratives suggests to Gottschall that one of the functions of stories is to encourage a sense of shared values and concern for the wider community, a role similar to the one D.S. Wilson sees religion as having played, and continuing to play in human evolution.

            Though Gottschall stays away from the inside baseball stuff for the most part, he does come down firmly on one issue in opposition to at least one of the leading lights of the field. Gottschall imagines a future “exodus” from the real world into virtual story realms that are much closer to the holodecks of Star Trek than to current World of Warcraft interfaces. The assumption here is that people’s emotional involvement with stories results from audience members imagining themselves to be the protagonist. But interactive videogames are probably much closer to actual wish-fulfillment than the more passive approaches to attending to a story—hence the god-like powers and grandiose speechifying.

William Flesch challenges the identification theory in his own (much more technical) book Comeuppance. He points out that films that have experimented with a first-person approach to camera work failed to capture audiences (think of the complicated contraption that filmed Will Smith’s face as he was running from the zombies in I am Legend). Flesch writes, “If I imagined I were a character, I could not see her face; thus seeing her face means I must have a perspective on her that prevents perfect (naïve) identification” (16). One of the ways we sympathize with one another, though, is to mirror them—to feel, at least to some degree, their pain. That makes the issue a complicated one. Flesch believes our emotional involvement comes not from identification but from a desire to see virtuous characters come through the troubles of the plot unharmed, vindicated, maybe even rewarded. Attending to a story therefore entails tracking characters' interactions to see if they are in fact virtuous, then hoping desperately to see their virtue rewarded.

Gottschall does his best to avoid dismissing the typical obsessive Larper (live-action role player) as the “stereotypical Dungeons and Dragons player” who “is a pimply, introverted boy who isn’t cool and can’t play sports or attract girls” (190). And he does his best to end his book on an optimistic note. But the exodus he writes about may be an example of another phenomenon he discusses. First the optimism:

Humans evolved to crave story. This craving has, on the whole, been a good thing for us. Stories give us pleasure and instruction. They simulate worlds so we can live better in this one. They help bind us into communities and define us as cultures. Stories have been a great boon to our species. (197)

But he then makes an analogy with food cravings, which likewise evolved to serve a beneficial function yet in the modern world are wreaking havoc with our health. Just as there is junk food, so there is such a thing as “junk story,” possibly leading to what Brian Boyd, another luminary in evolutionary criticism, calls a “mental diabetes epidemic” (198). In the context of America’s current education woes, and with how easy it is to conjure images of glazy-eyed zombie students, the idea that video games and shows like Jersey Shore are “the story equivalent of deep-fried Twinkies” (197) makes an unnerving amount of sense.
Scene from my student conferences this semester

            Here, as in the section on how our personal histories are more fictionalized rewritings than accurate recordings, Gottschall manages to achieve something the playful tone and off-handed experimentation don't prepare you for. The surprising accomplishment of this unassuming little book (200 pages) is that it never stops being a light read even as it takes on discoveries with extremely weighty implications. The temptation to eat deep-fried Twinkies is only going to get more powerful as story-delivery systems become more technologically advanced. Might we have already begun the zombie apocalypse without anyone noticing—and, if so, are there already heroes working to save us we won’t recognize until long after the struggle has ended and we’ve begun weaving its history into a workable narrative, a legend?  

The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

Image Courtesy of Why We Reason


Excerpt from Hierarchies in Hell and Leaderless Fight ClubsAltruism, Narrative Interest, and the Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

            In a New York Times article published in the spring of 2010, psychologist Paul Bloom tells the story of a one-year-old boy’s remarkable response to a puppet show. The drama the puppets enacted began with a central character’s demonstration of a desire to play with a ball. After revealing that intention, the character roles the ball to a second character who likewise wants to play and so rolls the ball back to the first. When the first character rolls the ball to a third, however, this puppet snatches it up and quickly absconds. The second, nice puppet and the third, mean one are then placed before the boy, who’s been keenly attentive to their doings, and they both have placed before them a few treats. The boy is now instructed by one of the adults in the room to take a treat away from one of the puppets. Most children respond to the instructions by taking the treat away from the mean puppet, and this particular boy is no different. He’s not content with such a meager punishment, though, and after removing the treat he proceeds to reach out and smack the mean puppet on the head.

            Brief stage shows like the one featuring the nice and naughty puppets are part of an ongoing research program lead by Karen Wynn, Bloom’s wife and colleague, and graduate student Kiley Hamlin at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center. An earlier permutation of the study was featured on PBS’s Nova series The Human Spark (jump to chapter 5), which shows host Alan Alda looking on as an infant named Jessica attends to a puppet show with the same script as the one that riled the boy Bloom describes. Jessica is so tiny that her ability to track and interpret the puppets’ behavior on any level is impressive, but when she demonstrates a rudimentary capacity for moral judgment by reaching with unchecked joy for the nice puppet while barely glancing at the mean one, Alda—and Nova viewers along with him—can’t help but demonstrate his own delight. Jessica shows unmistakable signs of positive emotion in response to the nice puppet’s behaviors, and Alda in turn feels positive emotions toward Jessica. Bloom attests that “if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges—they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events” (6). Any adult witnessing the children’s reactions can be counted on to mirror these expressions and to feel delight at the babies’ incredible precocity.

            The setup for these experiments with children is very similar to experiments with adult participants that assess responses to anonymously witnessed exchanges. In their research report, “Third-Party Punishment and Social Norms,” Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher describe a scenario inspired by economic game theory called the Dictator Game. It begins with an experimenter giving a first participant, or player, a sum of money. The experimenter then explains to the first player that he or she is to propose a cut of the money to the second player. In the Dictator Game—as opposed to other similar game theory scenarios—the second player has no choice but to accept the cut from the first player, the dictator. The catch is that the exchange is being witnessed by a third party, the analogue of little Jessica or the head-slapping avenger in the Yale experiments.  This third player is then given the opportunity to reward or punish the dictator. As Fehr and Fischbacher explain, “Punishment is, however, costly for the third party so a selfish third party will never punish” (3).

It turns out, though, that adults, just like the infants in the Yale studies, are not selfish—at least not entirely. Instead, they readily engage in indirect, or strong, reciprocity. Evolutionary literary theorist William Flesch explains that “the strong reciprocator punishes and rewards others for their behavior toward any member of the social group, and not just or primarily for their interactions with the reciprocator” (21-2). According to Flesch, strong reciprocity is the key to solving what he calls “the puzzle of narrative interest,” the mystery of why humans so readily and eagerly feel “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). The human tendency toward strong reciprocity reaches beyond any third party witnessing an exchange between two others; as Alda, viewers of Nova, and even readers of Bloom’s article in the Times watch or read about Wynn and Hamlin’s experiments, they have no choice but to become participants in the experiments themselves, because their own tendency to reward good behavior with positive emotion and to punish bad behavior with negative emotion is automatically engaged. Audiences’ concern, however, is much less with the puppets’ behavior than with the infants’ responses to it.

The studies of social and moral development conducted at the Infant Cognition Center pull at people’s heartstrings because they demonstrate babies’ capacity to behave in a way that is expected of adults. If Jessica had failed to discern between the nice and the mean puppets, viewers probably would have readily forgiven her. When older people fail to make moral distinctions, however, those in a position to witness and appreciate that failure can be counted on to withdraw their favor—and may even engage in some type of sanctioning, beginning with unflattering gossip and becoming more severe if the immorality or moral complacency persists. Strong reciprocity opens the way for endlessly branching nth –order reciprocation, so not only will individuals be considered culpable for offenses they commit but also for offenses they passively witness. Flesch explains,

Among the kinds of behavior that we monitor through tracking or through report, and that we have a tendency to punish or reward, is the way others monitor behavior through tracking or through report, and the way they manifest a tendency to punish and reward. (50)

Failing to signal disapproval makes witnesses complicit. On the other hand, signaling favor toward individuals who behave altruistically simultaneously signals to others the altruism of the signaler. What’s important to note about this sort of indirect signaling is that it does not necessarily require the original offense or benevolent act to have actually occurred. People take a proclivity to favor the altruistic as evidence of altruism—even if the altruistic character is fictional. 

        That infants less than a year old respond to unfair or selfish behavior with negative emotions—and a readiness to punish—suggests that strong reciprocity has deep evolutionary roots in the human lineage. Humans’ profound emotional engagement with fictional characters and fictional exchanges probably derives from a long history of adapting to challenges whose Darwinian ramifications were far more serious than any attempt to while away some idle afternoons. Game theorists and evolutionary anthropologists have a good idea what those challenges might have been: for cooperativeness or altruism to be established and maintained as a norm within a group of conspecifics, some mechanism must be in place to prevent the exploitation of cooperative or altruistic individuals by selfish and devious ones. Flesch explains,

Darwin himself had proposed a way for altruism to evolve through the 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 are too porous—to make group selection strong enough to overcome competition at the level of the individual or the gene. (5)

If, however, individuals given to trying to take advantage of cooperative norms were reliably met with slaps on the head—or with ostracism in the wake of spreading gossip—any benefits they (or their genes) might otherwise count on to redound from their selfish behavior would be much diminished. Flesch’s theory is “that we have explicitly evolved the ability and desire to track others and to learn their stories precisely in order to punish the guilty (and somewhat secondarily to reward the virtuous)” (21). Before strong reciprocity was driving humans to bookstores, amphitheaters, and cinemas, then, it was serving the life-and-death cause of ensuring group cohesion and sealing group boundaries against neighboring exploiters. 

Game theory experiments that have been conducted since the early 1980s have consistently shown that people are willing, even eager to punish others whose behavior strikes them as unfair or exploitative, even when administering that punishment involves incurring some cost for the punisher. Like the Dictator Game, the Ultimatum Game involves two people, one of whom is given a sum of money and told to offer the other participant a cut. The catch in this scenario is that the second player must accept the cut or neither player gets to keep any money. “It is irrational for the responder not to accept any proposed split from the proposer,” Flesch writes. “The responder will always come out better by accepting than vetoing” (31). What the researchers discovered, though, was that a line exists beneath which responders will almost always refuse the cut. “This means they are paying to punish,” Flesch explains. “They are giving up a sure gain in order to punish the selfishness of the proposer” (31). Game theorists call this behavior altruistic punishment because “the punisher’s willingness to pay this cost may be an important part in enforcing norms of fairness” (31). In other words, the punisher is incurring a cost to him or herself in order to ensure that selfish actors don’t have a chance to get a foothold in the larger, cooperative group. 

The economic logic notwithstanding, it seems natural to most people that second players in Ultimatum Game experiments should signal their disapproval—or stand up for themselves, as it were—by refusing to accept insultingly meager proposed cuts. The cost of the punishment, moreover, can be seen as a symbol of various other types of considerations that might prevent a participant or a witness from stepping up or stepping in to protest. Discussing the Three-Player Dictator Game experiments conducted by Fehr and Fischbacher, Flesch points out that strong reciprocity is even more starkly contrary to any selfish accounting:

Note that the third player gets nothing out of paying to reward or punish except the power or agency to do just that. It is highly irrational for this player to pay to reward or punish, but again considerations of fairness trump rational self-interest. People do pay, and pay a substantial amount, when they think that someone has been treated notably unfairly, or when they think someone has evinced marked generosity, to affect what they have observed. (33)

Neuroscientists have even zeroed in on the brain regions that correspond to our suppression of immediate self-interest in the service of altruistic punishment, as well as those responsible for the pleasure we take in anticipating—though not in actually witnessing—free riders meeting with their just deserts (Knoch et al. 829Quevain et al. 1254). Outside of laboratories, though, the cost punishers incur can range from the risks associated with a physical confrontation to time and energy spent convincing skeptical peers a crime has indeed been committed.

Flesch lays out his theory of narrative interest in a book aptly titled Comeuppance:Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. A cursory survey of mainstream fiction, in both blockbuster movies and best-selling novels, reveals the good guys versus bad guys dynamic as preeminent in nearly every plot, and much of the pleasure people get from the most popular narratives can quite plausibly be said to derive from the goodie prevailing—after a long, harrowing series of close calls and setbacks—while the baddie simultaneously gets his or her comeuppance. Audiences love to see characters get their just deserts. When the plot fails to deliver on this score, they walk away severely disturbed. That disturbance can, however, serve the author’s purposes, particularly when the goal is to bring some danger or injustice to readers’ or viewers’ attention, as in the case of novels like Orwell’s 1984. Plots, of course, seldom feature simple exchanges with meager stakes on the scale of game theory experiments, and heroes can by no means count on making it to the final scene both vindicated and rewarded—even in stories designed to give audiences exactly what they want. The ultimate act of altruistic punishment, and hence the most emotionally poignant behavior a character can engage in, is martyrdom. It’s no coincidence that the hero dies in the act of vanquishing the villain in so many of the most memorable books and movies.
Tom Sawyer
            If narrative interest really does emerge out of a propensity to monitor each other’s behaviors for signs of a capacity for cooperation and to volunteer affect on behalf of altruistic individuals and against selfish ones they want to see get their comeuppance, the strong appeal of certain seemingly bad characters emerges as a mystery calling for explanation.  From England’s tradition of Byronic heroes like Rochester to America’s fascination with bad boys like Tom Sawyer, these characters win over audiences and stand out as perennial favorites even though at first blush they seem anything but eager to establish their nice guy bone fides. On the other hand, Rochester was eventually redeemed in Jane Eyre, and Tom Sawyer, though naughty to be sure, shows no sign whatsoever of being malicious. Tellingly, though, these characters, and a long list of others like them, also demonstrate a remarkable degree of cleverness: Rochester passing for a gypsy woman, for instance, or Tom Sawyer making fence painting out to be a privilege. One hypothesis that could account for the appeal of bad boys is that their badness demonstrates undeniably their ability to escape the negative consequences most people expect to result from their own bad behavior.

This type of demonstration likely functions in a way similar to another mechanism that many evolutionary biologists theorize must have been operating for cooperation to have become established in human societies, a process referred to as the handicap principle, or costly signaling. A lone altruist in any group is unlikely to fare well in terms of survival and reproduction. So the question arises as to how the minimum threshold of cooperators in a population was first surmounted. Flesch’s fellow evolutionary critic, Brian Boyd, in his book On the Origin of Stories, traces the process along a path from mutualism, or coincidental mutual benefits, to inclusive fitness, whereby organisms help others who are likely to share their genes—primarily family members—to reciprocal altruism, a quid pro quo arrangement in which one organism will aid another in anticipation of some future repayment (54-57). However, a few individuals in our human ancestry must have benefited from altruism that went beyond familial favoritism and tit-for-tat bartering.

Rochester disguised as a gypsy
In their classic book The Handicap Principal, Amotz and Avishag Zahavi suggest that altruism serves a function in cooperative species similar to the one served by a peacock’s feathers. The principle could also help account for the appeal of human individuals who routinely risk suffering consequences which deter most others. The idea is that conspecifics have much to gain from accurate assessments of each other’s fitness when choosing mates or allies. Many species have thus evolved methods for honestly signaling their fitness, and as the Zahavis explain, “in order to be effective, signals have to be reliable; in order to be reliable, signals have to be costly” (xiv). Peacocks, the iconic examples of the principle in action, signal their fitness with cumbersome plumage because their ability to survive in spite of the handicap serves as a guarantee of their strength and resourcefulness. Flesch and Boyd, inspired by evolutionary anthropologists, find in this theory of costly signaling the solution the mystery of how altruism first became established; human altruism is, if anything, even more elaborate than the peacock’s display. 

Humans display their fitness in many ways. Not everyone can be expected to have the wherewithal to punish free-riders, especially when doing so involves physical conflict. The paradoxical result is that humans compete for the status of best cooperator. Altruism is a costly signal of fitness. Flesch explains how this competition could have emerged in human populations:

If there is a lot of between-group competition, then those groups whose modes of costly signaling take the form of strong reciprocity, especially altruistic punishment, will outcompete those whose modes yield less secondary gain, especially less secondary gain for the group as a whole. (57)

Taken together, the evidence Flesch presents suggests the audiences of narratives volunteer affect on behalf of fictional characters who show themselves to be altruists and against those who show themselves to be selfish actors or exploiters, experiencing both frustration and delight in the unfolding of the plot as they hope to see the altruists prevail and the free-riders get their comeuppance. This capacity for emotional engagement with fiction likely evolved because it serves as a signal to anyone monitoring individuals as they read or view the story, or as they discuss it later, that they are disposed either toward altruistic punishment or toward third-order free-riding themselves—and altruism is a costly signal of fitness.

The hypothesis emerging from this theory of social monitoring and volunteered affect to explain the appeal of bad boy characters is that their bad behavior will tend to redound to the detriment of still worse characters. Bloom describes the results of another series of experiments with eight-month-old participants:

When the target of the action was itself a good guy, babies preferred the puppet who was nice to it. This alone wasn’t very surprising, given that the other studies found an overall preference among babies for those who act nicely. What was more interesting was what happened when they watched the bad guy being rewarded or punished. Here they chose the punisher. Despite their overall preference for good actors over bad, then, babies are drawn to bad actors when those actors are punishing bad behavior. (5)

These characters’ bad behavior will also likely serve an obvious function as costly signaling; they’re bad because they’re good at getting away with it. Evidence that the bad boy characters are somehow truly malicious—for instance, clear signals of a wish harm to innocent characters—or that they’re irredeemable would severely undermine the theory. As the first step toward a preliminary survey, the following sections examine two infamous instances in which literary characters whose creators intended audiences to recognize as bad nonetheless managed to steal the show from the supposed good guys.
(Watch Hamlin discussing the research in an interview from earlier today.)
And check out this video of the experiments.

Campaigning Deities: Justifying the ways of Satan


Milton believed Christianity more than worthy of a poetic canon in the tradition of the classical poets, and Paradise Lost represents his effort at establishing one. What his Christian epic has offered for many readers over the centuries, however, is an invitation to weigh the actions and motivations of immortals in mortal terms. In the story, God becomes a human king, albeit one with superhuman powers, while Satan becomes an upstart subject. As Milton attempts to “justify the ways of God to Man,” he is taking it upon himself simultaneously, and inadvertently, to justify the absolute dominion of a human dictator. One of the consequences of this shift in perspective is the transformation of a philosophical tradition devoted to parsing the logic of biblical teachings into something akin to a political campaign between two rival leaders, each laying out his respective platform alongside a case against his rival. What was hitherto recondite and academic becomes in Milton’s work immediate and visceral.

Keats famously penned the wonderfully self-proving postulate, “Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses,” which leaves open the question of how an axiom might be so proved. Milton’s God responds to Satan’s approach to Earth, and his foreknowledge of Satan’s success in tempting the original pair, with a preemptive defense of his preordained punishment of Man:

…Whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate! He had of Me
All he could have. I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood though free to fall.
Such I created all th’ ethereal pow’rs
And spirits, both them who stood and who failed:
Freely they stood who stood and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere
Of true allegiance, constant faith or love
Where only what they needs must do appeared,
Not what they would? What praise could they receive?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid
When will and reason… had served necessity,
Not me? (3.96-111)

God is defending himself against the charge that his foreknowledge of the fall implies that Man’s decision to disobey was borne of something other than his free will. What choice could there have been if the outcome of Satan’s temptation was predetermined? If it wasn’t predetermined, how could God know what the outcome would be in advance? God’s answer—of course I granted humans free will because otherwise their obedience would mean nothing—only introduces further doubt. Now we must wonder why God cherishes Man’s obedience so fervently. Is God hungry for political power? If we conclude he is—and that conclusion seems eminently warranted—then we find ourselves on the side of Satan. It’s not so much God’s foreknowledge of Man’s fall that undermines human freedom; it’s God’s insistence on our obedience, under threat of God’s terrible punishment.

            Milton faces a still greater challenge in his attempt to justify God’s ways “upon our pulses” when it comes to the fallout of Man’s original act of disobedience. The Son argues on behalf of Man, pointing out that the original sin was brought about through temptation. If God responds by turning against Man, then Satan wins. The Son thus argues that God must do something to thwart Satan: “Or shall the Adversary thus obtain/ His end and frustrate Thine?” (3.156-7). Before laying out his plan for Man’s redemption, God explains why punishment is necessary:

            …Man disobeying
            Disloyal breaks his fealty and sins
            Against the high supremacy of Heav’n,
            Affecting godhead, and so, losing all,
            To expiate his treason hath naught left
            But to destruction sacred and devote
            He with his whole posterity must die. (3. 203-9)

The potential contradiction between foreknowledge and free choice may be abstruse enough for Milton’s character to convincingly discount: “If I foreknew/ Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault/ Which had no less proved certain unforeknown” (3.116-9). There is another contradiction, however, that Milton neglects to take on. If Man is “Sufficient to have stood though free to fall,” then God must justify his decision to punish the “whole posterity” as opposed to the individuals who choose to disobey. The Son agrees to redeem all of humanity for the offense committed by the original pair. His knowledge that every last human will disobey may not be logically incompatible with their freedom to choose; if every last human does disobey, however, the case for that freedom is severely undermined. The axiom of collective guilt precludes the axiom of freedom of choice both logically and upon our pulses.

            In characterizing disobedience as a sin worthy of severe punishment—banishment from paradise, shame, toil, death—an offense he can generously expiate for Man by sacrificing the (his) Son, God seems to be justifying his dominion by pronouncing disobedience to him evil, allowing him to claim that Man’s evil made it necessary for him to suffer a profound loss, the death of his offspring. In place of a justification for his rule, then, God resorts to a simple guilt trip.

            Man shall not quite be lost but saved who will,
            Yet not of will in him but grace in me
            Freely vouchsafed. Once more I will renew
            His lapsed pow’rs though forfeit and enthralled
            By sin to foul exorbitant desires.
            Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand
            On even ground against his mortal foe,
            By me upheld that he may know how frail
            His fall’n condition is and to me owe
            All his deliv’rance, and to none but me. (3.173-83)

Having decided to take on the burden of repairing the damage wrought by Man’s disobedience to him, God explains his plan:

            Die he or justice must, unless for him
            Some other as able and as willing pay
            The rigid satisfaction, death for death. (3.210-3)

He then asks for a volunteer. In an echo of an earlier episode in the poem which has Satan asking for a volunteer to leave hell on a mission of exploration, there is a moment of hesitation before the Son offers himself up to die on Man’s behalf.

            …On Me let thine anger fall.
            Account Me Man. I for his sake will leave
            Thy bosom and this glory next to Thee
            Freely put off and for him lastly die
            Well pleased. On Me let Death wreck all his rage! (3.37-42)

This great sacrifice, which is supposed to be the basis of the Son’s privileged status over the angels, is immediately undermined because he knows he won’t stay dead for long: “Yet that debt paid/ Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave” (246-7). The Son will only die momentarily. This sacrifice doesn’t stack up well against the real risks and sacrifices made by Satan.

            All the poetry about obedience and freedom and debt never takes on the central questionSatan’s rebellion forces readers to ponder: Does God deserve our obedience? Or are the labels of good and evil applied arbitrarily? The original pair was forbidden from eating from the Tree of Knowledge—could they possibly have been right to contravene the interdiction? Since it is God being discussed, however, the assumption that his dominion requires no justification, that it is instead simply in the nature of things, might prevail among some readers, as it does for the angels who refuse to join Satan’s rebellion. The angels, after all, owe their very existence to God, as Abdiel insists to Satan. Who, then, are any of them to question his authority? This argument sets the stage for Satan’s remarkable rebuttal:

                        …Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now,
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power…
Our puissance is our own. Our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds by proof to try
Who is our equal. (5.855-66)

Just as a pharaoh could claim credit for all the monuments and infrastructure he had commissioned the construction of, any king or dictator might try to convince his subjects that his deeds far exceed what he is truly capable of. If there’s no record and no witness—or if the records have been doctored and the witnesses silenced—the subjects have to take the king’s word for it.

            That God’s dominion depends on some natural order, which he himself presumably put in place, makes his tendency to protect knowledge deeply suspicious. Even the angels ultimately have to take God’s claims to have created the universe and them along with it solely on faith. Because that same unquestioning faith is precisely what Satan and the readers of Paradise Lost are seeking a justification for, they could be forgiven for finding the answer tautological and unsatisfying. It is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat fruit from. When Adam, after hearing Raphael’s recounting of the war in heaven, asks the angel how the earth was created, he does receive an answer, but only after a suspicious preamble:

                        …such commission from above
            I have received to answer thy desire
            Of knowledge with bounds. Beyond abstain
            To ask nor let thine own inventions hope
            Things not revealed which the invisible King
            Only omniscient hath suppressed in night,
            To none communicable in Earth or Heaven:
            Enough is left besides to search and know. (7.118-125)

Raphael goes on to compare knowledge to food, suggesting that excessively indulging curiosity is unhealthy. This proscription of knowledge reminded Shelley of the Prometheus myth. It might remind modern readers of The Wizard of Oz—“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”—or to the space monkeys in Fight Club, who repeatedly remind us that “The first rule of Project Mayhem is, you do not ask questions.” It may also resonate with news about dictators in Asia or the Middle East trying to desperately to keep social media outlets from spreading word of their atrocities.

            Like the protesters of the Arab Spring, Satan is putting himself at great risk by challenging God’s authority. If God’s dominion over Man and the angels is evidence not of his benevolence but of his supreme selfishness, then Satan’srebellion becomes an attempt at altruistic punishment. The extrapolation from economic experiments like the ultimatum and dictator games to efforts to topple dictators may seem like a stretch, especially if humans are predisposed to forming and accepting positions in hierarchies, as a casual survey of virtually any modern organization suggests is the case.

Organized institutions, however, are a recent development in terms of human evolution. The English missionary Lucas Bridges wrote about his experiences with the Ona foragers in Tierra del Fuego in his 1948 book Uttermost Part of the Earth, and he expresses his amusement at his fellow outsiders’ befuddlement when they learn about the Ona’s political dynamics:

A certain scientist visited our part of the world and, in answer to his inquiries on this matter, I told him that the Ona had no chieftains, as we understand the word. Seeing that he did not believe me, I summoned Kankoat, who by that time spoke some Spanish. When the visitor repeated his question, Kankoat, too polite to answer in the negative, said: “Yes, senor, we, the Ona, have many chiefs. The men are all captains and all the women are sailors” (quoted in Boehm 62).

At least among Ona men, it seems there was no clear hierarchy. The anthropologist Richard Lee discovered a similar dynamic operating among the !Kung foragers of the Kalahari. In order to ensure that no one in the group can attain an elevated status which would allow him to dominate the others, several leveling mechanisms are in place. Lee quotes one of his informants:

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle. (quoted in Boehm 45)

These examples of egalitarianism among nomadic foragers are part of anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s survey of every known group of hunter-gatherers. His central finding is that “A distinctively egalitarian political style is highly predictable wherever people live in small, locally autonomous social and economic groups” (35-36). This finding bears on any discussion of human evolution and human nature because small groups like these constituted the whole of humanity for all but what amounts to the final instants of geological time.

           

           

Seduced by Satan

            Why do we like the guys who seem not to care whether or not what they’re doing is right, but who often manage to do what’s right anyway? In the Star Wars series, Han Solo is introduced as a mercenary, concerned only with monetary reward. In the first episode of Mad Men, audiences see Don Draper saying to a woman that they should get married, and then in the final scene he arrives home to his actual wife. Tony Soprano, Jack Sparrow, Tom Sawyer, the list of male characters who flout rules and conventions, who lie, cheat and steal, but who nevertheless compel the attention, the favor, even the love of readers and moviegoers would be difficult to exhaust.

            John Milton has been accused of both betraying his own and inspiring others' sympathy and admiration for what should be the most detestable character imaginable. When he has Satan, in Paradise Lost, say, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” many believed he was signaling his support of the king of England’s overthrow. Regicidal politics are well and good—at least from the remove of many generations—but voicing your opinions through such a disreputable mouthpiece? That’s difficult to defend. Imagine using a fictional Hitler to convey your stance on the current president.

            Stanley Fish theorizes that Milton’s game was a much subtler one: he didn’t intend for Satan to be sympathetic so much as seductive, so that in being persuaded and won over to him readers would be falling prey to the same temptation that brought about the fall. As humans, all our hearts are marked with original sin. So if many readers of Milton’s magnum opus come away thinking Satan may have been in the right all along, the failure wasn’t the author’s unconstrained admiration for the rebel angel so much as it was his inability to adequately “justify the ways of God to men.” God’s ways may follow a certain logic, but the appeal of Satan’s ways is deeper, more primal.

            In the “Argument,” or summary, prefacing Book Three, Milton relays some of God’s logic: “Man hath offended the majesty of God by aspiring to godhead and therefore, with all his progeny devoted to death, must die unless someone can be found sufficient to answer for his offence and undergo his punishment.” The Son volunteers. This reasoning has been justly characterized as “barking mad” by Richard Dawkins. But the lines give us an important insight into what Milton saw as the principle failing of the human race, their ambition to be godlike. It is this ambition which allows us to sympathize with Satan, who incited his fellow angels to rebellion against the rule of God.

            In Book Five, we learn that what provoked Satan to rebellion was God’s arbitrary promotion of his own Son to a status higher than the angels: “by Decree/ Another now hath to himself ingross’t/ All Power, and us eclipst under the name/ Of King anointed.” Citing these lines, William Flesch explains, “Satan’s grandeur, even if it is the grandeur of archangel ruined, comes from his iconoclasm, from his desire for liberty.” At the same time, however, Flesch insists that, “Satan’s revolt is not against tyranny. It is against a tyrant whose place he wishes to usurp.” So, it’s not so much freedom from domination he wants, according to Flesch, as the power to dominate.

            Anthropologist Christopher Boehm describes the political dynamics of nomadic peoples in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: TheEvolution of Egalitarian Behavior, and his descriptions suggest that parsing a motive of domination from one of preserving autonomy is much more complicated than Flesch’s analysis assumes. “In my opinion,” Boehm writes, “nomadic foragers are universally—and all but obsessively—concerned with being free from the authority of others” (68). As long as the group they belong to is small enough for each group member to monitor the actions of the others, people can maintain strict egalitarianism, giving up whatever dominance they may desire for the assurance of not being dominated themselves.

            Satan very likely speaks to this natural ambivalence in humans. Benevolent leaders win our love and admiration through their selflessness and charisma. But no one wants to be a slave. Does Satan’s admirable resistance and defiance shade into narcissistic self-aggrandizement and an unchecked will to power? If so, is his tyranny any more savage than that of God? And might there even be something not altogether off-putting about a certain degree self-indulgent badness?

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

Read part 1  
         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

Hierarchies in Hell and Leaderless Fight Clubs: a More Modest Thesis Prospectus

Question:

Do the sciences of human behavior as practiced and understood in the Twenty-First Century have anything of value to contribute to the study of literature? Will the application of theories arising from the fields of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary anthropology to literary works yield anything beyond one more perspective in the seemingly endless succession of momentarily fashionable approaches to literary scholarship? Or is the scientific exploration of human behavior itself hopelessly incapable of transcending the culture in which it is undertaken? And, assuming any ultimate verdict on the value of evolutionary theories of literature is at present impossible to render, might they nonetheless shed some light on issues posing difficulties for other theoretical approaches? For instance, what accounts for centuries of readers’ sympathy toward characters who are on the surface meant to serve as villains? Milton’s Satan is a classic example of this phenomenon, while Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden is a more contemporary one. Are reader’s strong feelings on behalf of these antagonists understandable in terms of evolutionary theories of human behavior? And, if so, what does that suggest about the nature of human interest in fictional narratives like Paradise Lost and Fight Club?

Implications:

William Flesch, in his book Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, theorizes that humans’ passion for fictional narratives emerges from a predilection for monitoring one another for signals of their capacity for cooperative relationships. Humans naturally favor conspecifics who prove themselves capable of setting aside their own rational self-interests to act on behalf of others or on behalf of the larger group to which they belong. And they demonstrate their own altruistic tendencies by favoring other altruists and punishing those who would take advantage of them. Does the character Satan in Milton’s epic poem somehow signal to readers that he is altruistic? And is there some type of underlying message about cooperation in the seemingly senseless violence in Palahniuk’s novel?

Flesch, however, leaves another dimension of evolutionary psychology unexplored, one which could provide much insight into the appeal of both Milton’s and Palahniuk’s stories. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm explores the human propensity toward forming hierarchies in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. It turns out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, humans in foraging bands similar to those they have lived in for the vast majority of their time on earth are strictly egalitarian. Indeed, most contemporary hunter-gatherers would, with little prompting, express support for Satan’s famous line about it being better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. And they would likely recognize many of the group dynamics Tyler Durden manipulates to gain ascendancy among the members of the fight clubs—as well as the ultimate necessity of having someone end his reign.

The theoretical foundation established by Flesch can likely support considerations of male competition for status, since one of the conditions thought necessary for the evolution of cooperation among humans is a relative absence of hierarchical behavior. One common form of selfishness humans are vigilant of in their neighbors is a strong motivation to dominate others. When a person, or a fictional representation of one, acquires influence incommensurate with others in the group, those other group members can be counted on to pay close attention to the way that person yields his (or less often her) power. If it turns out to be for the benefit of the group, the higher status individual will continue to have the support of the group. If it is to further selfish gains, the lower-ranking group members will usually act collectively to bring an end to his dominance. And this dynamic plays out in stories told by hunter-gatherers and writers in more complex societies alike.

Methods:

This project will explore the central characters of Paradise Lost and Fight Club in an attempt to illuminate readers’ feelings toward them. In particular, it will focus on Milton’s Satan and Palahniuk’s Tyler Durder, and will examine the way in which they are portrayed in search of recognizable signals of either selfishness or altruism. Such an exploration might also yield insights into how Boehm’s theories of human hierarchical or egalitarian proclivities can be integrated into the approach to literature set out by Flesch.

1st and Overly Ambitious Prospectus for a Master's Thesis


I'll be paring this down a bit. My advisors felt that the project spelled out here is more appropriate for doctoral disseration or some such longer work.

Grandeur in This View of Literature?

Question:

What, if anything, can evolutionary theory contribute to the study of literature? Is it possible to study literature scientifically, and if so what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so? The trend among literary theorists is to regard science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular as deeply suspect since they have historically functioned as ideological justifications for various types of violence and oppression. Yet, by unmooring literary scholarship from sound epistemology, critics almost inevitably fall victim to what Frederick Crews calls “the fast-talking superstars who have prostituted it to crank theory, political conformism, and cliquishness” (xv). Will E.O. Wilson’s idea of consilience between science and the humanities be just another trendy fashion among literary scholars—if it ever takes hold at all? Will science ever serve any role in the humanities other than that of ideological bastion of European male hegemony? Does an evolutionary approach to literature hold promise in the quest for insights based on sound reasoning that go beyond mere justification for the political status quo?

Implications:
The primary function of a literary theory is to offer insight into works of literature, what they mean, why they appeal or fail to appeal to readers, how they are influenced by and how they in turn influence the cultures in which they emerge and in which they are appreciated. But the insights borne of the application of a theory to a text cannot be taken as evidence of that theory’s validity. Many literary works have been interpreted psychoanalytically, for instance, and the application of Freud’s theory has yielded insights into those works. But, as evidence against psychoanalytic theories mounts, those insights must be called into question. Theories must be validated independently of their application to texts. And the validity of insights produced through the application of theories is contingent on the validity of those theories.

Interpreting a literary work from the perspective of one or another ideology is usually an easy task, regardless of whether that ideology is scientifically grounded. The question then becomes are there empirically validated theories that might be of interest to literary scholars? If so, do they yield insights into literary works beyond simple distillations of the prevailing culture? Once the difficulty of arriving at scientifically sound theories and the threat that such theories somehow encourage the oppression of women and minorities are dealt with, a third potential stumbling block remains. If a scientific theory of narrative is possible, might it reduce literature to a set of mechanistic principles, and thus rob it of some of its mysterious capacity to enchant audiences? Or might such a theory somehow enrich the experience of literature?

Methods:
This project will begin with an exploration of some current approaches to bringing literature into the realm of human biological and cultural evolution. The most promising of these approaches to date sees storytelling as emerging from evolved dispositions toward monitoring other people for signals of their propensity for either selfishness or altruism, and toward signaling one’s own altruism by emotionally favoring altruistic characters. This approach is described by William Flesch in his book, Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. Is Flesch’s theory valid? Does it offer any insight into actual literary works?

The second part of the project will explore possible methods whereby theories of narrative may be tested to establish their validity. Of course, these tests must go beyond seeing whether or not applying the theory generates insights into a literary work, because it’s possible for invalid theories to generate invalid insights. The tests must involve predictions emerging from the theories that can either fail or succeed. One possible way to test Flesch’s social monitoring and volunteered affect theory, for instance, would be to sample a large body of works to see if a strong trend exists for stories to focus on conflicts between selfish characters and altruistic ones. If such conflicts only show up in a minority of literary works, or if they take place only at the periphery of most stories, then the prediction, and the theory along with it, fail.

Since gathering such a large sample would be a daunting endeavor, bringing with it a large risk of confirmation bias, previous attempts by scholars to come up with exhaustive catalogues of plot and character types may be of use. Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and Georges Polti’s The Thirty-six Dramatic Situations suggests themselves as good sources for data.

The third and final part of this project will consist of an application of evolutionary theories of literature to diverse works so that an (unavoidably subjective) assessment of the value of the insights can be made. Works from different historical eras and spanning a wide breadth of geographical space may serve to highlight the complementary roles of universal cognitive mechanisms and cultural traditions. What counts as altruism, for instance, might vary across cultures. Likewise, each culture tends to sanction certain selfish acts more than others. So the basic framework of selfless protagonist and selfish antagonist can take on countless forms and carry with it important information about a culture and what’s expected of individuals living in it. Possible candidates for this type of analysis are Milton’s Paradise Lost—an interesting case because many readers sympathize strongly with Satan, the antagonist—and Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a modern cult classic in which one character teaches the other the importance of self-destruction.

I am Jack’s Raging Insomnia: The Tragically Overlooked Moral Dilemma at the Heart of Fight Club

If you were to ask one of the millions of guys who love the movie Fight Club what the story is about, his answer would most likely emphasize the violence. He might say something like, “It’s about men returning to their primal nature and getting carried away when they find out how good it feels.” Actually, this is an answer I would expect from a guy with exceptional insight. A majority would probably just say it’s about a bunch of guys who get together to beat the crap out of each other and pull a bunch pranks. Some might remember all the talk about IKEA and other consumerist products. Our insightful guy may even connect the dots and explain that consumerism somehow made the characters in the movie feel emasculated, and so they had to resort to fighting and vandalism to reassert their manhood. But, aside from ensuring they would know what a duvet is—“It’s a fucking blanket”—what is it exactly about shopping for household décor and modern conveniences that makes men less manly?

Maybe Fight Club is just supposed to be fun, with all the violence and the weird sex scene with Marla and all the crazy mischief the guys get in, but also with a few interesting monologues and voiceovers to hint at deeper meanings. And of course there’s Tyler Durden—fearless, clever, charismatic, and did you see those shredded abs? Not only does he not take shit from anyone, he gets a whole army to follow his lead, loyal to the death. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of characters like this in movies, and if that’s all men liked about Fight Club they wouldn’t sit through all the plane flights, support groups, and soap-making. It just may be that, despite the rarity of fans who can articulate what they are, the movie actually does have profound and important resonances.

And guys who can’t put their finger on what’s so good about the movie shouldn’t feel too bad. I recommend anyone interested in film or literary criticism go to the Wikipedia site devoted to academic interpretations of Fight Club because it’s a good indication of just how far critics have gotten up the asses of the handful of ascendant naked emperors in the field. This pseudo-scholarship is so stupid and yet so common in humanities departments that it’s past the time when we should’ve started holding these so-called theorists accountable. It takes a certain kind of person, though, to confront people who are behaving improperly or acting to the detriment of others, in this case of trusting undergraduates in departments under the sway of poststructuralism or new historicism. It’s safer and more comfortable just to accept what your teachers say. And why should we care what other people are being taught? It’s none of our business, right? If we think it sounds like hogswoggle then we can simply look the other way.

If you recall, the Edward Norton character, whom I’ll call Jack (following the convention of the script), decides that his story should begin with the advent of his insomnia. He goes to the doctor but is told nothing is wrong with him. His first night’s sleep comes only after he goes to a support group and meets Bob, he of the “bitch tits,” and cries a smiley face onto his t-shirt. But along comes Marla who like Jack is visiting support groups but is not in fact recovering, sick, or dying. She is another tourist. As long as she's around, he can’t cry and so can’t sleep. Soon after Jack and Marla make a deal to divide the group meetings and avoid each other, Tyler Durden shows up and we’re on our way to Fight Clubs and Project Mayhem. Now, why the hell would we accept these bizarre premises and continue watching the movie unless at some level Jack’s difficulties, as well as their solutions, make sense to us?

So why exactly was it that Jack couldn’t sleep at night? The simple answer, the one that Tyler gives later in the movie, is that he’s unhappy with his life. He hates his job. Something about his “filing cabinet” apartment rankles him. And he’s alone. Jack’s job is to fly all over the country to investigate accidents involving his company’s vehicles and to apply “the formula.” I’m going to quote from Chuck Palahniuk’s book so I don’t have to dick around with the DVD player:
“You take the population of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), then multiply the result by the average cost of an out-of-court settlement (C).
"A times B times C equals X. This is what it will cost if we don’t initiate a recall.
“If X is greater than the cost of a recall, we recall the cars and no one gets hurt.
“If X is less than the cost of a recall, then we don’t recall” (30).
Palahniuk's inspiration for Jack's job was an actual case involving the Ford Pinto.
What this means is that Jack goes around trying to protect his company's bottom line to the detriment of people who drive his company's cars. You can imagine the husband or wife or child or parent of one of these accident victims hearing about this job and asking Jack, "How do you sleep at night?"

Going to support groups makes life seem pointless, short, and horrible. Ultimately, we all have little control over our fates, so there's no good reason to take responsibility for anything. When Jack burst into tears as Bob pulls his face into his enlarged breasts, he's relinquishing all accountability; he's, in a sense, becoming a child again. Accordingly, he's able to sleep like a baby. When Marla shows up, not only is he forced to confront the fact that he's healthy and perfectly able to behave responsibly, but he is also provided with an incentive to grow up because, as his fatuous grin informs us, he likes her. And, even though the support groups eventually fail to assuage his guilt, they do inspire him with the idea of hitting bottom, losing all control, losing all hope.

If Jack didn't have to worry about losing his apartment, or losing all his IKEA products, or losing his job, or falling out of favor with his boss, well, then he would be free to confront that same boss and tell him what he really thinks of the operation that has supported and enriched them both. Enter Tyler Durden, who systematically turns all these conditionals into realities. In game theory terms, Jack is both a 1st order and a 2nd order free rider because he both gains at the expense of others and knowingly allows others to gain in the same way. He carries on like this because he's more motivated by comfort and safety than he is by any assurance that he's doing right by other people.

This is where Jack being of "a generation of men raised by women" becomes important (50). Fathers and mothers tend to treat children differently. (It should go without saying--but feminist critics tend to be agenda- as opposed to truth-driven--this research is descriptive and not prescriptive; no one is interested in enforcing these statistical differences.) A study that functions well symbolically in this context examined the ways moms and dads tend to hold their babies in pools. Moms hold them facing themselves. Dads hold them facing away. Think of the way Bob's embrace of Jack changes between the support group and the fight club. When picked up by moms, babies breathing and heart-rates slow. Just the opposite happens when dads pick them up--they get excited. And if you inventory the types of interactions that go on between the two parents it's easy to see why.

Not only do dads engage children in more rough-and-tumble play; they are also far more likely to encourage children to take risks. In one study, fathers told they'd have to observe their child climbing a slope from a distance making any kind of rescue impossible in the event of a fall set the slopes at a much steeper angle than mothers in the same setup. Contrary to theory-addled critics, Fight Club isn't about dominance or triumphalism or white males' reaction to losing control; it's about men learning that they can't really live if they're always playing it safe. Jack actually says at one point that winning or losing doesn't much matter. Indeed, one of homework assignments Tyler gives everyone is to start a fight and lose. The point is to be willing to risk a fight when it's necessary--i.e. when someone attempts to exploit or seduce you based on the assumption that you'll always act according to your rational self-interest.

And the disturbing truth is that we are all lulled into hypocrisy and moral complacency by the allures of consumerism. We may not be "recall campaign coordinators" like Jack. But do we know or care where our food comes from? Do we know or care how our soap is made? Do we bother to ask why Disney movies are so devoid of the gross mechanics of life? We would do just about anything for comfort and safety. And that is precisely how material goods and material security have emasculated us. It's easy to imagine Jack's mother soothing him to sleep some night, saying, "Now, the best thing to do, dear, is to sit down and talk this out with your boss."

There are two scenes in Fight Club that I can't think of any other word to describe but sublime. The first is when Jack finally confronts his boss, threatening to expose the company's practices if he is not allowed to leave with full salary. At first, his boss reasons that Jack's threat is not credible, because bringing his crimes to light would hurt Jack just as much. But the key element to altruistic punishment is that the punisher is willing to incur risks or costs to mete it out. Jack, having been well-fathered, as it were, by Tyler, proceeds to engage in costly signaling of his willingness to harm himself by beating himself up, literally. In game theory terms, he's being rationally irrational, making his threat credible by demonstrating he can't be counted on to pursue his own rational self-interest. The money he gets through this maneuver goes, of course, not into anything for Jack, but into Fight Club and Project Mayhem.

The second sublime scene, and for me the best in the movie, is the one in which Jack is himself punished for his complicity in the crimes of his company. How can a guy with stitches in his face and broken teeth, a guy with a chemical burn on his hand, be punished? Fittingly, he lets Tyler get them both in a car accident. At this point, Jack is in control of his life, he's no longer emasculated. And Tyler flees.

One of the confusing things about the movie is that it has two overlapping plots. The first, which I've been exploring up to this point, centers on Jack's struggle to man up and become an altruistic punisher. The second is about the danger of violent reactions to the murder machine of consumerism. The male ethic of justice through violence can all too easily morph into fascism. And so once Jack has created this father figure and been initiated into manhood by him he then has to reign him in--specifically, he has to keep him from killing Marla. This second plot entails what anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls a "domination episode," in which an otherwise egalitarian group gets taken over by a despot who must then be defeated. Interestingly, only Jack knows for sure how much authority Tyler has, because Tyler seemingly undermines that authority by giving contradictory orders. But by now Jack is well schooled on how to beat Tyler--pretty much the same way he beat his boss.

It's interesting to think about possible parallels between the way Fight Club ends and what happened a couple years later on 9/11. The violent reaction to the criminal excesses of consumerism and capitalism wasn't, as it actually occurred, homegrown. And it wasn't inspired by any primal notion of manhood but by religious fanaticism. Still, in the minds of the terrorists, the attacks were certainly a punishment, and there's no denying the cost to the punishers.

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.

Magic, Fiction, and the Illusion of Free Will part 1 of 2

E.M. Forster famously wrote in his book Aspects of the Novel that what marks a plot resolution as gratifying is that it is both surprising and seemingly inevitable. Many have noted the similarity of this element of storytelling to riddles and magic tricks. “It’s no accident,” William Flesch writes in Comeuppance, “that so many stories revolve around riddles and their solutions” (133). Alfred Hitchcock put it this way: “Tell the audience what you’re going to do and make them wonder how.” In an ever-more competitive fiction market, all the lyrical prose and sympathy-inspiring characterization a brilliant mind can muster will be for naught if the author can’t pose a good riddle or perform some eye-popping magic.


Neuroscientist Stephen L. Macnick and his wife Susana Martinez-Conde turned to magicians as an experiment in thinking outside the box, hoping to glean insights into how the mind works from those following a tradition which takes advantage of its shortcuts and blind spots. The book that came of this collaboration, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about our Everyday Deceptions, is itself both surprising and seemingly inevitable (the website for the book). What a perfect blend of methods and traditions in the service of illuminating the mysteries of human perception and cognition. The book begins somewhat mundanely, with descriptions of magic tricks and how they’re done interspersed with sections on basic neuroscience. Readers of Skeptic Magazine or any of the works in the skeptical tradition will likely find the opening chapters hum-drum. But the sections have a cumulative effect.


The hook point for me was the fifth chapter, “The Gorilla in Your Midst,” which takes its title from the famous experiment conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in which participants are asked to watch a video of a group of people passing a basketball around and count the number of passes. A large portion of the participants are so engrossed in the task of counting that they miss a person walking onto the scene in a gorilla costume, who moves to the center of the screen, pounds on his chest, and then walks off camera. A subsequent study by Daniel Memmert tracked people’s eyes while they were watching the video and found that their failure to notice the gorilla wasn’t attributable to the focus of their gaze. Their eyes were directly on it. The failure to notice was a matter of higher-order brain processes: they weren’t looking for a gorilla, so they didn’t see it, even though their eyes were on it. Macnick and Martinez-Conde like to show the video to their students and ask the ones who do manage to notice the gorilla how many times the ball was passed. They never get the right answer. Of course, magicians exploit this limitation in our attention all the time. But we don’t have to go to a magic show to be exploited—we have marketers, PR specialists, the entertainment industry.


At the very least, I hoped Sleights of Mind would be a useful compendium of neuroscience concepts—a refresher course—along with some basic magic tricks that might help make the abstract theories more intuitive. At best, I hoped to glean some insight into how to arrange a sequence of events to achieve that surprising and inevitable effect in the plots of my stories. Some of the tricks might even inspire a plot twist or two. The lesser hope has been gratified spectacularly. It’s too soon to assess whether the greater one will be satisfied. But the book has impressed me on another front I hadn’t anticipated. Having just finished the ninth of twelve chapters, I’m left both disturbed and exhilarated in a way similar to how you feel reading the best of Oliver Sacks or Steven Pinker. There’s some weird shit going on in your brain behind the scenes of the normal stuff you experience in your mind. It’s nothing new for people with a modicum of familiarity with psychology that there’s an illusory aspect to all our perceptions, but in reality it would be more accurate to say there’s a slight perceptual aspect to all our illusions. And one of those illusions is our sense of ourselves.


I found myself wanting to scan the entire seventh chapter, “The Indian Rope Trick,” so I could send a pdf file to everyone I know. It might be the best summation I’ve read of all the ways we overestimate the power of our memories. So many people you talk to express an unwillingness to accept well established findings in psychology and other fields of science because the data don’t mesh with their experiences. Of course, we only have access to our experiences through memory. What those who put experience before science don’t realize is that memories aren’t anything like direct recordings of events; they’re bricolages of impressions laid down prior to the experience, a scant few actual details, and several impressions received well afterward. Your knowledge doesn’t arise from your experiences; your experiences arise from your knowledge. The authors write:


“As the memory plays out in your mind, you may have the strong impression that it’s a high-fidelity record, but only a few of its contents are truly accurate. The rest of it is a bunch of props, backdrops, casting extras, and stock footage your mind furnishes on the fly in an unconscious process known as confabulation” (119).


The authors go on to explore how confabulation creates the illusion of free will in the ninth chapter, “May the Force be with You.” Petter Johansson and Lars Hall discovered a phenomenon they call “choice blindness” by presenting participants in an experiment with photographs of two women of about equal attractiveness and asking them to choose which one they preferred. In a brilliant mesh of magic with science, the researchers then passed the picture over to the participant and asked him or her to explain their choice—only they used sleight of hand to switch the pictures. Most of them didn’t notice, and they went on to explain why they chose the woman in the picture that they had in fact rejected. The explanations got pretty elaborate too.
Part 2 of this essay.

They Comes a Day: Celebrating Cooperation in A Gathering of Old Men and Horton Hears a Who! Part 3


Read from the beginning.
            The grudging respect all the men on the Marshall plantation feel toward Mathu owing to his readiness to engage in altruistic punishment affords him a status almost equal to the whites. Sheriff Mapes, after letting Lou Dimes, Candy’s white boyfriend, know that he “wasn’t much of a man in his eyesight” because Dimes doesn’t seem capable of standing up to his girlfriend, goes on to say that he admires Mathu. “He’s a better man than most I’ve met, black or white” (74). Later in the novel, a character named Rooster says of Mathu,
"He never thought much of me. Used to call me Little Red Rooster all the time. People even said him and Beulah had fooled around some behind my back. I never asked him, I never asked her—I was too scared. But I wasn’t scared now. He knowed I wasn’t scared now. That’s why he was smiling at me. And that made me feel good" (181).

We may think less of Mathu’s altruism in light of his fooling around with another man’s wife, but it has become clear over the course of the plot that the men who don’t stand up against their oppressors, out of short-sighted fear, are in a sense responsible for their own mistreatment. (And Beulah’s willingness to fool around with Mathu can’t be overlooked as evidence of his increased reproductive potential.) Mathu goes on to admit to the gathered old men that he “hated y’all ‘cause you never tried.” But he says, “I been changed by y’all. Rooster, Clabber, Dirty Red, Coot—you changed this hardhearted old man” (182). This is the men’s vindication; they get to be recognized as men by the single one among them who hitherto enjoyed that distinction. He can be said to be playing the role of second-order altruist, rewarding and punishing those he interacts with, not just on the basis of how they treat him directly, but how they treat others in the group.

 

            This indirect or strong reciprocity has likewise been demonstrated in experiments by game theorists, and Flesch finds in it the final piece of what he calls “the puzzle of narrative interest,” by which he means “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). A variation of the ultimatum game called the dictator game eliminates the condition whereby the receiver of the proposed split has the option to veto it and ensure that neither player gets any money. With this set up, proposed splits become more lop-sided, though they still seldom drop below a certain limit. Outcomes become even more interesting when a third player is introduced who witnesses the exchange and is given the opportunity to pay either to reward or punish either of the players. It is furthermore explained to this third person that whatever contribution he or she makes will be amplified by a factor of four by the experimenter. Flesch writes,

"Note that the third player gets nothing out of paying to reward or punish except the power or agency to do just that. It is highly irrational for this player to pay to reward or punish, but again considerations of fairness trump rational self-interest. People do pay, and pay a substantial amount, when they think that someone has been treated notably unfairly, or when they think someone has evinced marked generosity, to affect what they have observed" (33).

Neuroscientists have even zeroed in on the brain regions that correspond to our suppression of immediate self-interest in the service of altruistic punishment, as well as those responsible for the pleasure we take in anticipating—though not in actually witnessing—free riders meeting with their just deserts (Knoch et al. 829; Quevain et al. 1254). Taken together, the evidence Flesch presents suggests we volunteer affect on behalf of fictional characters who show themselves to be altruists and against those who show themselves to be selfish actors or exploiters, experiencing both frustration and delight in the unfolding of the plot as we hope to see the altruists prevail and the free-riders get their comeuppance. And our capacity for this type of emotional engagement with fiction likely evolved because it serves as a signal to anyone monitoring us as we read or view the story, or as we discuss it later, that we are disposed either toward altruistic punishment or toward third-order free-riding ourselves—and altruism is a costly signal of fitness.

            This dynamic interplay of rational self-interest and altruism is so central to human nature that it lies at the heart of stories as diverse in their themes and social implications as Seuss’s tale of tiny Whos and Gaines’ of elderly black men finally availing themselves of an opportunity to stand up as men. If Horton didn’t go the great lengths he does to save the microscopic persons he hears calling for help, if he’d given up trying to help them once Vlad Vlad-i-koff flew away with them over the mountains, then the young children who experience the story wouldn’t believe the elephant was quite human—and the story would be pretty lame to boot. The most remarkable part of the story, though, is that there’s really no way to determine whether the Whos prove their personhood by surpassing some decibel limit to become audible to the jungle animals or whether they do it by getting every last Who to cooperate. This ambiguity is highlighted by the fact that the final Who to shout is so small: “They’ve proved they ARE persons no matter how small,” Horton declares. “And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!” An interesting counterpoint to Jo-Jo’s smallness is how massive Charlie is in Gathering. Charlie turns out to the one who shot Beau. One might think that owing to his large size he, like Horton, is more capable than the others of fending off exploitation at the hands of free-riders. But he admits, “All my natural-born black life I took the ‘busing and never hit back” (189).

            Charlie, of course, isn’t alone in his failure to punish those who abuse him or those he loves. In a moving chapter narrated by a man named Rufe, several of the men tell stories of horrible treatment at the hands of one or another white person, all of whom were allowed to get away with it without so much as a word of rebuke. After a man named Tucker tells a story which ends with his confession that “I didn’t do nothing but stand there and watch them beat my brother to the ground,” Rufe says, “We had all done the same thing sometime or another; we had all seen our brother, sister, mama, daddy insulted once and didn’t do a thing about it” (97). And so in game theory terms all the gathered men, excepting Mathu, are second-order free-riders, deserving of punishment themselves in the eyes of men like Mapes and Mathu. Tucker expresses this culpability when he calls out for his brother’s forgiveness and goes on to chastise himself, saying, “Out of fear of a little pain to my own body, I beat my own brother with a stalk of cane as much as the white folks did” (98). After hearing this and several other stories, Mapes says in frustration, “So this is payday, huh? And it’s all on Fix, huh? Whether he had anything to do with it or not, Fix must pay for everything ever happened to you, huh?” (107). What the men are really doing, though, is refusing to stand idly by as another man gets abused and murdered out of fear of a little bodily damage. As Mathu explains to Mapes after the sheriff asks him if he wants to see these men get hurt, “A man got to do what he think is right, Sheriff.” He continues, “That’s what part him from a boy” (85).

            Just as the ability to cooperate lies at the heart of the Whos’ personhood in Horton, manhood is defined in Gathering as a willingness to stand up, to risk injury or death in an attempt to prevent others from abusing or exploiting the man himself or those he cares about. Men are altruistic punishers. As Rufe says of Mapes, “he knowed Mathu had never backed down from anybody, either. Maybe that’s why he liked him. To him Mathu was a real man. The rest of us wasn’t” (84). The rest of them weren’t, that is, until the day Beau gets shot. The first one to begin the transition is Charlie, who in telling the story to the sheriff of how Beau was mistreating him says, “You don’t talk to a man like that, Sheriff, not when he reach half a hundred”—or fifty years of age. Charlie’s change surprises no one quite as much as it does Beau. “He knowed I wasn’t going to hit him” (190), Charlie says, describing a standoff between the two of them. But Charlie does hit him. And that’s when Beau gets his gun to go after Charlie, who flees to Mathu’s house. “Parrain told me he had a gun there, too, and he said he rather see me laying there dead than to run from another man when I was fifty years old.” When Charlie hesitates, Mathu shoves his gun into the younger man’s hands, and Charlie says, “I didn’t want to take the gun, but I could tell in Parrain’s face if I didn’t, he was go’n stop Beau himself, and then he was go’n stop me, too” (191). Mathu is here refusing to be a second-order free-rider even for a man he serves as a surrogate father to. Charlie takes the gun. And Beau keeps on coming toward the front of the house. “He knowed I had never done nothing like that, never even thought about doing nothing like that. But they comes a day, Sheriff, they comes a day when a man got to stand” (191). After shooting and killing Beau, though, Charlie runs off to let Mathu take the fall for him. But before the novel’s end he returns, saying, “I’m ready to pay. I done dropped a heavy load. Now I know I’m a man” (193). The sheriff agrees, and even addresses Charlie as “Mr. Briggs.”

            Beau turns out to be only one of several people who get their comeuppance as the plot unfolds. Fix gets his when his own son Gil refuses to join a lynch mob to go after Mathu, thus repudiating his conviction that blacks are inferior and undeserving of due process. Talking to a deputy named Russ who’s trying to convince him to return to his college town and prepare for a football game the next day, Gil asks, “What about my papa? ... I’ve already killed him. Bury him tomorrow?” (151). Luke Will, Fix’s friend who actually does get a group of guys together with guns to seek revenge against Mathu, ends up killing and getting killed in turn by Charlie. Reverend Jameson gets humiliated by Beulah who calls him a “bootlicker” (105) and forces him to back down by taunting him. Even Candy, the white woman who orchestrated the gathering, gets excluded from the men’s meeting inside the house. And when she refuses to leave, “Lou picked her up, under his arm, and came with her down the steps. Candy was cussing him, hitting at him, cussing Mapes, kicking, but Lou didn’t pay her any mind. He took her out to the road, throwed her into her own car, and slammed the door” (177).So Lou Dimes gets to redeem himself and establish his own manhood by altruistically punishing Candy.

            One of the most interesting punishments, though, is the one suffered by Sheriff Mapes. During the trial that ensues in the wake of the gunfight outside Mathu’s house, the DA demands that Mapes explain why he was unable to secure the peace. After being told to make his answer audible to the court, Mapes says, “The whole fight, I was sitting on my ass in the middle of the walk. Luke Will shot me, and I was sitting on my ass in the middle of the walk. Now, is that loud enough?” Lou goes on to describe how Mapes

"got up from the witness chair and returned to the other seat. That’s when everyone in the courtroom started laughing, including Judge Reynolds. The people passing by out on the street must have thought we were showing a Charlie Chaplin movie in there. That happened the morning of the third day, and until that evening when the trial finally ended, people were still laughing. Mapes, with his left arm in a sling, stayed red all day, and would probably stay red for years to come" (213).

Luke Will is only peripherally responsible for this humiliation; Mapes’s real tormenter is none other than Ernest Gaines himself. After relying on this character to serve as a type of foil and sounding board for the others, the author takes the opportunity to show us how he really feels about the sheriff’s attitude toward the Marshall men.

            Gaines’s altruistic punishment of his own character is only one of the ways he invites readers to participate in the celebration of group solidarity in his novel. Whether they realize it or not, each time they flip the page from one chapter to the next and find that the narration has been handed off from one character to another, they’re receiving the suggestion from Gaines that each of these characters wants to be heard not only by Sheriff Mapes, not just by the whites who become privy to the event through the trial and through the reporting of Lou Dimes, and not even just by the youngest generation, represented by Snookum, who, inspired by the older men, tells the sheriff “Wish I was just a little older so I coulda shot him” (109). The characters in Gathering are telling the story about how they stood up and finally punished the whites who were oppressing them to everyone who reads the book. As Flesch explains of narratives, “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). Gaines signals his approval for what his characters are doing by writing about it. We signal ours by reading about it and taking pleasure in the positive outcome for everyone but Charlie, who despite not surviving his dual with Luke Will, nevertheless gets the satisfaction of being addressed as, and treated as a man by both Mapes, who calls him Mr. Briggs, and his surrogate father. The handing off of the narration among the characters—but never among the ones like Mathu or Candy who might steal the show, as it were—could have highlighted differences between the various accounts, and in so doing conveyed a message of conflict. But Gaines seldom has the chapters overlap, obviating any concern for inconsistency, and the effect is a sense of the characters taking turns, trusting one another to tell their story right.

            Boyd does a good job of summing up the wonderful appeal of Horton Hears a Who! in terms which are also uncannily suited to accounting for the charm of A Gathering of Old Men. He writes,

"Dr. Seuss’s comedy and his seriousness are the twin chambers of his story’s huge heart. The fantastic extravagance of Horton’s altruism makes him all the more attractive and makes us all the more readily sympathize with him, ally ourselves with his goals, and rejoice in the positive outcome for him and those he champions" (376).

The main difference between the two works is that Gaines focuses more on punishment than Seuss because parents in the 1950s probably would have preferred not to expose their children to the violence that comeuppance tends to entail. But even violence can serve the goal of ensuring cooperation among self-interested individuals. And in the end it’s not the larger-than-life, self-sacrificing heroes that leave us so enchanted upon our departures from Seuss’s Jungle of Nool and Gaine’s Marshall plantation—and so eager to return. It’s rather the satisfaction we get from witnessing and vicariously participating in the larger spirit of community these heroes inspire. For there are circumstances under which humans have evolved to behave selfishly, just as there are those which nudge us toward selflessness. There is grandeur in the view that one of the aspects of our environments that inspire us to be more mindful of others is the presence in our culture of stories like Gaines’s and Seuss’s.

They Comes a Day: Celebrating Cooperation in A Gathering of Old Men and Horton Hears a Who! Part 2: Punishment


            Punishment, game theorists have found, is crucial to maintaining cooperative cohesion within a group, as it diminishes the benefits purely selfish actors can expect to gain from free-riding. It can also serve as a mechanism to lessen the threat of exploitation at the hands of outsiders who might try to join the group in order to take advantage of any established norm of altruism among its members. Flesch writes, “Darwin himself had proposed a way for altruism to evolve through the 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” (5). Obviously, identity as a group member becomes a serious matter whenever each member relies on the others, so much so that evolutionary biologists all but ruled out even the possibility of group selection for nearly forty years. This difficulty is reflected in both Horton and Gathering by the characters whose interests aren’t in line with those of the group. Jo-Jo must be encouraged to give up his shirking and call out with the rest of the Whos for acknowledgment of their personhood. Reverend Jameson likewise signals his own selfish motives as he tries to coax Mathu into surrendering himself, saying, “I ain’t got no home if they burn this place down” (54).

            Even Candy, the white woman who sends Snookum to call the men together—thus playing a role in Gaines’s novel similar to the one Horton plays in Seuss’s story—turns out to be less motivated by the good of the group than by more personal concerns. Explaining her motives to Mrs. Merle, Candy declares, “I won’t let them touch my people” (17). Of course, Candy is risking less than the men. “Clinton can handle Mapes in court” (16), she says, meaning that with a lawyer she can count on the fair trial Mathu and the other black men can’t. When Mapes shows up, she confesses along with the others, and when he starts beating them one after another, she steps to the front of the line and says, “I’m next” (71)—again, secure in her assumption that she isn’t at risk like the others. Even though she’s never in as much danger, at this point in the novel it still seems she’s behaving altruistically, mixing herself up in trouble she had nothing to do with. However, when the men begin to consider the possibility that they’ve waited long enough, that Fix may not be coming after all, and that it may be time for everyone to put down his gun and let Mathu go with Mapes, Candy refuses to let the men even deliberate the option amongst themselves, revealing that her motives are much more selfish than they originally seemed. “I want you to help me with my own child one day” (176), she says to Mathu. “You’ll die if they put you in that jail. And this place’ll die, too. There’s no reason for this place to be if you’re not here” (177). Since her purpose is merely to save Mathu, it can even be said that she’s free-riding on the cooperation of the other black men; in that sense, she’s almost as exploitative as any other white who treats the blacks like servants. And, like Jameson, she has to be dealt with in order for the collective goals of the group to be achieved.

            Experiments that were being conducted around the same time as Gaines was writing Gathering showed that people are willing, even eager to punish others whose behavior strikes them as unfair or exploitative, even when administering that punishment involves incurring some cost to themselves. Like The Prisoner’s Dilemma, the ultimatum game involves two people, one of whom is often a confederate of the researchers, who have to decide on a strategy for interacting with one another. In this case, one of the participants is given a sum of money and told to offer the other participant a cut of it. The only catch is that the second player must accept the cut or neither player gets to keep the money. “It is irrational for the responder not to accept any proposed split from the proposer,” Flesch writes. “The responder will always come out better by accepting than vetoing” (31). But what the researchers discovered was that a line exists beneath which responders will almost always refuse the cut. “This means they are paying to punish,” Flesch explains. “They are giving up a sure gain in order to punish the selfishness of the proposer” (31). Game theorists call this behavior altruistic punishment because “the punisher’s willingness to pay this cost may be an important part in enforcing norms of fairness” (31). In other words, the punisher is incurring a cost to him or herself in order to ensure that selfish actors don’t have a chance to get a foothold in the larger, cooperative group.

            Before considering the role punishment plays in Gathering and Horton, it is important to understand another mechanism that many evolutionary biologists theorize must have been operating for cooperation to have become established in human societies, a process referred to as the handicap principle, or costly signaling. A lone altruist in any group is unlikely to fare well in terms of survival and reproduction. So the question arises as to how the minimum threshold of cooperators in a population was first surmounted. Boyd traces the process along a path from mutualism, or coincidental mutual benefits, to inclusive fitness, whereby organisms help others who are likely to share their genes—usually family members—to reciprocal altruism, a quid pro quo arrangement in which one organism will aid another in anticipation of some future repayment (54-57). But some individuals in some population of organisms in our human ancestry must have benefited from altruism that went beyond familial duty and tit-for-tat bartering. In their classic book The Handicap Principal, Amotz and Avishag Zahavi suggest that altruism serves a function in cooperative species similar to the one served by a peacock’s feathers. Conspecifics have much to gain from accurate assessments of each other’s fitness when choosing mates or allies. Many species have thus evolved methods for signaling their fitness, and as the Zahavis explain, “in order to be effective, signals have to be reliable; in order to be reliable, signals have to be costly” (xiv). A peacock signals his fitness with cumbersome plumage because his ability to survive in spite of the handicap serves as a guarantee of his strength and resourcefulness. Flesch and others find in this idea the key to solving the mystery of how altruism first became established; human altruism is, if anything, even more elaborate than the peacock’s display.

            One of the reasons Horton is the one to champion the Whos—aside from his keen hearing—is that he would be the only one in the population of jungle creatures capable of holding all the others at bay for any length of time. It takes “dozens” of the monkeys in the Wickersham family to pose a threat to the elephant, who is several times larger than any of them. Of course, the teaming up of the Wickershams with the big kangaroo and the small kangaroo in her pouch is also a show of cooperation. And their motive can even be called altruistic: “For almost two days you’ve run wild and insisted / On chatting with persons who’ve never existed. / Such carryings-on in our peaceable jungle! / We’ve had quite enough of your bellowing bungle.” Apparently, the kangaroo is concerned that Horton’s behavior is disruptive to the rest of the animals in the jungle, so she’s playing the role of altruistic punisher. This concern, along with our knowledge that no one but Horton can be sure of the Whos’ existence, probably goes a long way toward explaining why we’re content with Horton’s vindication in the end and don’t feel any need to see the monkeys or the kangaroos punished. But before being vindicated Horton endures a great deal of suffering on behalf of the Whos. The picture of the exhausted elephant picking through the field of clovers is only the beginning. Later, as the Wickershams are trying to tie him up so they can steal the clover again, “They beat him! They mauled him! They started to haul / Him into his cage!” Even in the midst of the ill-treatment, though, Horton continues exhorting the mayor of Who-ville to keep trying to gather more voices so the other animals can hear them. As Horton suffers more and more, our estimation of his altruism, and thus his fitness, grows commensurately.

            Just as Horton is unique among the jungle animals in his ability to stand up to the others, Mathu is unique among the black men on the Marshall plantation in his willingness to stand up to the whites. Upon first hearing about the gathering and its purpose, one of the men, Chimley, recalls that Mathu had once fought Fix, Beau’s father, the man all the characters fear will be leading a lynch mob after his son’s killer. When Fix once told Mathu to throw away his empty Coke bottle, “Mathu told him he wasn’t nobody’s servant” (30). In not allowing Fix to free-ride on the cooperative habits of his fellow plantation workers, Mathu was sending him the message that he could count on resistance from at least one of the black men. To send that message, Mathu had to be willing to fight, and he had to be willing to suffer the consequences of Fix’s wrath even if he won the fight. Sure enough, when Mathu won, “the white folks wanted to lynch Mathu” (30), and it was only because the sheriff took charge and forbade further reprisals that he escaped hanging. “But that wasn’t the last fight Mathu had on that river with them white people,” Chimley says. The other black men know that Mathu’s fighting back could potentially be to their benefit even more than his. And so when they hear about his latest act of altruistic punishment they’re inspired at last to join his efforts. “If he did it, you know we ought to be there” (30), Chimley’s fishing buddy Mat says to him. “Mathu was the only one we knowed had ever stood up” (31), and now they have a chance to stand up with him.

They Comes a Day: Celebrating Cooperation in A Gathering of Old Men and Horton Hears a Who! Part 1

            Ernest Gaines opens his novel A Gathering of Old Men with a young boy named Snookum being sent on an errand to tell a group of men to come together in defense of an individual named Mathu, a black man who readers are led to believe has shot and killed a white man on a post-civil rights era Louisiana plantation still carrying on the legacy of Jim Crow. But the goal of protecting Mathu from revenge at the hands of the white man’s family gets subsumed by a greater cause, that of ensuring all the gathered men be treated as men and not like slaves. Though it may seem a flippant comparison, there are many parallels between Gaines’s novel and the children’s classic Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss, which likewise features a gathering of threatened people who can only save themselves by collectively calling for recognition of their personhood. Evolutionary critics, who see in narratives a play of evolved psychological mechanisms, would view this resemblance as more than coincidence.

            Brian Boyd examines Horton in his book On the Origin of Stories, juxtaposing it with Homer’s epic The Odyssey to demonstrate that both the children’s story and the ageless classic for adults engage emotional adaptations shared by all humans. Boyd’s theoretical framework incorporates a wide array of findings from both evolutionary and cognitive science. Though much of his thinking overlaps with the ideas William Flesch puts forth in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, Flesch’s theory of narrative is at once more focused and multidimensional. Flesch theorizes that our thoughts and feelings are engaged while reading a story because we’ve evolved to monitor others—even fictional others—for signals of altruism and to emotionally favor those who emit them, while at the same time wanting to see those who behave selfishly get punished. He arrives at this social monitoring and volunteered affect model using research into the evolution of cooperation in humans, research which Boyd likewise refers to in explaining universal narrative themes. Though Flesch’s ideas are more compelling because he focuses more on the experience of reading stories than on their thematic content, both authors would agree that the appeal of stories like Horton and Gathering lies in our strong human desire to see people who are willing to cooperate, even at great cost to themselves, prevail over those who behave only on their own behalves.

            Though her research was published too late to be included in either Flesch’s or Boyd’s book, Karen Wynn, a Yale psychologist who studies the development of social behavior in children, has conducted experiments that highlight how integral the task of separating selfish actors from cooperators is even for children too young to speak. In one setup, infants watch a puppet show that features a small white tiger who wants to play ball and two rabbits, each of whom respond quite differently to the tiger’s overtures. One rabbit, distinguished by a green jacket, rudely steals off with the ball after the tiger has rolled it over. But when the other rabbit, this one in an orange jacket, receives the ball from the tiger, the two end up playfully rolling it back and forth to each other. The young children attend to these exchanges with rapt interest, and when presented with a choice afterward of which rabbit to play with they almost invariably choose the one with the orange jacket, the cooperative one. This preference extends even to wooden blocks with nothing but crude eyes to suggest they’re living beings. When Wynn’s colleagues stage a demonstration in which one block hinders another’s attempt to climb a hill, and then subsequently a third block helps the climber, children afterward overwhelmingly choose the helper to play with. Wynn concludes that “preverbal infants assess individuals on the basis of their behavior toward others” (557). Evolutionary game theorists, who use mathematical models to simulate encounters between individuals relying on varying strategies for dealing with others in an attempt to determine how likely each strategy is to evolve, call the behavior Wynn and her colleagues observed strong reciprocity, which Flesch explains occurs when “the strong reciprocator punishes or 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).
            Children reading Horton—or having it read to them—probably become engaged initially because they appreciate Horton’s efforts to protect the speck of dust on which he hears a voice calling for help. But that’s only the beginning of the elephant’s struggle to keep the microscopic creatures called the Whos safe. At one point, after chasing the eagle Vlad Vlad-i-koff, who has stolen a clover Horton has placed the Who’s speck of dust on, all through the night over absurdly rugged terrain, the elephant has to pick through a field with millions of nearly identical clovers before recovering the one with the Whos on it. The accompanying illustration of the slumped and bedraggled elephant shows beyond doubt the lengths to which Horton is willing to go on behalf of his friends. And, as Boyd points out, “we all love an altruist. As game theory simulations of cooperation show, any participant in a social exchange benefits when the other partner is an altruist. And Horton’s altruism is as colossal as his physique” (375). But Flesch would emphasize that we don’t favor Horton merely because he would be a good exchange partner for each of us to deal with directly; rather, we can signal our own altruism by volunteering affect on behalf of someone who has clearly demonstrated his own. He writes that

"Among the kinds of behavior that we monitor through tracking or through report, and that we have a tendency to punish or reward, is the way others monitor behavior through tracking or through report, and the way they manifest a tendency to punish and reward" (50).

So, even as we’re assessing someone to determine how selfish or altruistic he or she is, others are assessing us to see how we respond to what we discover. Favoring an altruist (or showing disfavor for a selfish actor) is itself a signal of altruism. In game theory terms, witnesses can become second-order altruists, or third-order, or however many order. But how could this propensity toward monitoring and cooperation have evolved in a Darwinian world of intense competition for survival and reproduction?

            The main conceptual tool used by game theorists to see how various strategies for dealing with others fare when pitted against each other is a scenario called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Imagine two criminals are arrested and taken to separate rooms to be interrogated without being given a chance to consult with one another. If both criminals keep their mouths shut and confess to nothing, then they will both serve a prison sentence of one year. So their cooperation results in a negative outcome. However, if both criminals confess, the outcome is a longer, five-year sentence. What makes the scenario useful in understanding how cooperation could have evolved is the condition that if just one criminal confesses—if he or she takes advantage of the fellow prisoner’s cooperation—the confessor goes free without spending any more time in custody. Meanwhile, the criminal who doesn’t confess, but whose partner does, gets a sentence of twenty years. The idea is that small benefits accrue over time to cooperators, but there’s always temptation for individuals to act for their own short-term benefit to their partners’ detriment (Flesch 23; Boyd 56 uses slightly different numbers but to the same effect).
            The Prisoner’s Dilemma has several variations, and it can be scaled up to conceptualize cooperation among groups with more than two members. The single Who not shouting in Horton is an example of how even a lone free-rider, a “shirker,” can undermine group cohesion. And, mild as it is, this character gets some comeuppance when Seuss refers to him as a “twerp.” More severe punishment turns out to be unnecessary because the mayor of Who-ville prevails upon him how important his cooperation is. In Gathering, the men likewise face a prisoner’s dilemma when, having all brought their own shotguns and shown their own willingness to confess to the killing of the white man named Beau, Sheriff Mapes begins separating each of them in turn from the group gathered around Mathu’s porch and beating them when they refuse to name Mathu as the true culprit. Speaking to Mathu, Mapes says, “I know you did it… You’re the only one here man enough. But I have to hear it from one of them. One of them must say he was called here after it happened” (85). If just one man buckles under the sheriff’s abuse, analogous to the one year sentence for cooperators in The Prisoner’s Dilemma, then all their efforts will be for naught and the men will miss out on their opportunity to stand up to their white oppressors. The gathered men face another similar dilemma when the racist Luke Will shows up with his own group to lynch Mathu; as long as the older men cooperate, they maintain an advantage over the whites who can’t imagine them standing up at all, much less standing up together.

Another Damn Great Book: Review of "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet"


I read a couple of reviews of David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” before deciding it was a book I really needed to squeeze onto my slate before the summer’s end. Everything I read was high praise. Even before receiving the Amazon box in the mail, I imagined writing, either in a blog or in a Facebook post, “As a writer, you sometimes come across a work that makes you want to scrap everything you’ve ever written and start all over again.” Did “The Thousand Autumns” make me feel that way? Well, it’s a really good book. I’d even say it’s a great book. That my expectations could have been even greater raises some interesting questions.

One word has to follow another, one way or another. But no sooner was I surprised by the simplicity of Mitchell’s narration than I was engrossed in the plight of Jacob de Zoet, a clerk charged with sifting through the company’s ledgers to uncover the corruption of his fellow Europeans. The scenes, whether aboard a ship, on the artificial island called Dejima built to keep the merchants quarantined from mainland Nagasaki, or in a mountain shrine, are all close and fraught with the tension of trapped humans. We find out early on that Jacob is an honest and intelligent man surrounded by more questionable individuals. And we simultaneously begin pulling for him to make it through his foreign stint back to his fiancée back in The Netherlands. In part two, the narration shifts focus to two other characters, both of whom like our conscientious clerk turn out to be honorable and incorruptible in the midst of unspeakable venality and cruelty.

The pattern of the one good character set upon by numerous bad ones is well in keeping with the theory of narrative explicated in William Flesch’s “Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction.” Each of three main characters performs deeds of self-sacrificial altruism, Jacob by refusing to sign the new chief’s dishonest inventory, the interpreter Ogawa by trying to rescue a midwife from the mountain shrine, and the midwife herself, Aibigawa by returning to that same shrine after successfully escaping so that she can minister to her pregnant fellow prisoners. And then of course there’s the bad guy, the one who’s not simply selfish and unscrupulous but positively evil. Abbot Enomoto is the leader of the shrine which he uses as a farm for newborn infants in an attempt to stave off aging and death. We read on in suspense as to whether the goodies will persevere and the baddies, Enomoto chief among them, will get their comeuppance.

The problem is that once I was through the first part of the book and starting to learn about the shadowy shrine and the circumstances under which midwife Aibagawa found herself trapped there I also stopped finding enjoyment in orienting myself in the foreign setting among all the colorful characters and started to feel like I was reading something closer to genre fiction than anything I’d call literary. For one thing, aside from a hostile doctor, Marinus, none of the characters undergoes much of a change. The goodies stay good, the baddies bad. For another, the separation between the good guys and bad guys is so vast it strains credulity. At points during Ogawa’s rescue mission I found myself being reminded more of “Sin City” than “War and Peace,” especially when the violence and misogyny are so lovingly expressed, as when Ogawa overhears two guards at the redoubt of the shrine:

“Before we was married, she was, ‘No, after we’re married I’m yours but not till
then,’ but since the wedding she’s all, ‘No, I ain’t in the mood, so paws off.’ All I
did was knock sense into her, like any husband would, but since then the demon
in the blacksmith’s wife jumped into mine an’ now she won’t look at me. Can’t
even divorce the she-viper, of fear her uncle’d take back his boat, an’ then
where’d I be?” (308)


By the time I was finished with part two, I was wondering what great truths about life I was being brought face-to-face with, what mundane experiences were being made wondrous, even sacral. There are some human universals worked out in the novel, like the confrontation between venal men and those more conscientious, the predicament of those unfortunate enough to be born to lower orders, the sorry state of women in patriarchal societies. And the story has plenty of poetry in its descriptions and characterizations that seamlessly compliment rather than encumber its momentum. Yet I kept closing the book at the end of the day without any sense of discovery. Learning yes, about The Dutch East India Company, Japan at the turn of the 19th century—which was inconsequential to them as they have their own way of reckoning the days. But discovery is a more complicated matter than mere learning.

At times, Mitchell’s sprinkling of one-line descriptions of a scene into arch and pseudo-poetic dialogue, both inner—denoted by italics—and outer, fraught and ominous, struck me more as an annoying mannerism than a virtuoso melding of form and narrative. He even has a habit of splitting lines of dialogue with dashed explications. “He"—Jacob notices the English captain watching them through his telescope—“believes we Dutch are cowards.” And later on the same page, “Why”—Jacob’s voice is taut and high—“why do the English do that?” (440). At times, this breaking in of the author failed to give a sense of many things happening at once, and read more like one damn thing after another. This is especially true of the scenes in which prayers or psalms are being recited.

“‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…’”
…and Jacob still has the scroll, and I’m sorry, I’m sorry
“‘I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff…’”
Jacob waits for the explosion and the swarm and the tearing. (444)

One’s mind goes back to the climax of the movie "Titanic." And there’s even one of those teasing scenes that have the character waking up from what’s clearly a dream to what just might be reality but turns out to be yet another nested dream (343). Prior to this book, I’d only ever encountered these in movies.

I have to stress though that these complaints are all quibbles, and there are plenty of high points to counterbalance them, such as the various points when the several characters tell their stories and jump from page into life. But as a writer I found myself posing the questions to myself as I read, “Could I have written something like this?” and “If had the aptitude and resources, would I write something like this?” Mitchell clearly researched his setting thoroughly, and working out the plot must have been a painstaking endeavor. And this thoroughness and planning make for some magical storytelling.

But only at a few points did I find the novel to be formidable, in the sense that I simply couldn’t fathom how Mitchell had pulled off his tricks. (I don’t mean this as a boast—I’ve yet to publish a story, while Mitchell has been shortlisted for Booker Prizes.) And after the first part, I struggled with a sense that the book simply wasn’t important. Like other genre fiction, its pleasures were more escapist than topical. I’m not suggesting every book need feature or allegorize current events, just that there has to be some greater compulsion to write, which later becomes a greater compulsion to read. That is the most formidable trick of all. As of yet, I can’t fathom how one pulls it off.

Getting Gabriel Wrong: Part 3 of 3




From a SMVA perspective, then, readers seek out signals of Gabriel’s propensity for altruism and cooperation, and, once they receive them, are compelled to volunteer affect on his behalf. In other words, they are anxious for the plot to unfold in a way that favors and vindicates him. According to Flesch, this dynamic is the basis of “narrative interest,” which he defines as “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). Having detected Gabriel’s “difficult-to-fake” signal of his genuine concern for the caretaker’s daughter, readers can be counted on to sympathize with him. Immediately after he insists that Lily accept a coin and leaves her presence, he begins brooding over whether to include the lines from Browning in his speech. Here readers become privy to the tension underlying his self-consciousness: “he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers” (179). His thoughts continue:

"their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry" (179).


Gabriel’s mother, through whom he is related to the hosts of the party, turns out to have “married T.J. Conroy of the Port and Docks” (179). In other words, “the brains carrier of the Morkan family” (186), as Aunt Kate calls Gabriel’s mother, married into money. Leonard contends that “the Browning quote is there to invite from [Gabriel’s] audience authorization for his viewing of himself as someone with refined tastes and a superior education” (460). But that Gabriel is more educated is not a boast he wants to convince everyone of; it is rather a fact he goes out of his way not to lord over them, as is the higher grade of culture his mother married into. Leonard also charges Gabriel with having “contempt for them as peers” (460), but if that were the case he would not bother himself about appearing “ridiculous” before them. The Lacanian is treating the reality Gabriel is trying to mitigate as a fantasy he is trying to propagate.

The predicament Gabriel faces that readers hope to see him through is that he really differs from the people at the party in important ways. His sense of not belonging is real, and yet he cares about them. To this day, anyone who has left a small town to go to college is faced with a similar dilemma whenever he or she returns home and realizes how vast the gulf is separating the educated from the uneducated. And, far from using his books as props for some delusion of grandeur, Gabriel genuinely loves them, so much so that when one arrives for him to review it is “almost more welcome than the paltry cheque” (188). It turns out that the Browning quote Leonard fails to credit him for not including in his speech came from one of these books he has reviewed. Gabriel originally applies the phrase “thought-tormented” to the “music” (192) of the Browning poem in his review. The phrase turns up again in his speech, but this time, in an act of creativity inspired by his confrontation with Miss Ivors, he has turned it into a charge against “a thought-tormented age… educated or hypereducated as it is,” which he also claims to fear is lacking in “humanity,” “hospitality,” and “kindly humour” (203)—this from the man who was mortified earlier lest the assembled audience “think that he was airing his superior education” (179). Rather than risk that verdict, Gabriel makes a complete concession to the sensibility of Miss Ivors, believing it to be more closely aligned with that of his audience than his own.

He is in this scene inhibiting his impulse to hold forth on the poetry he genuinely loves and the principles in which he genuinely believes because he recognizes that they will not only go unappreciated but will even be offensive to many in his audience. This is intelligence keeping passion in check, something Gabriel alone in the story is capable of. But this is also intelligence in the service of dishonesty; Gabriel is being disingenuous. His thoughts really are tormenting him throughout the story with greater self-consciousness. Lacanian critics may see this as a form of narcissism, but it is remarkable how reliably self-sacrificing Gabriel is. Indeed, the epiphany he experiences is that he is too self-sacrificing, a “pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians” (220). Hearing his wife Gretta tell the story of Michael Furey, the boy who braved the weather for her in a condition of ill-health and who died as a result, he recognizes a quality he himself lacks. What he finds so threatening and at the same time so admirable about Furey is his unchecked impulsivity, his passion untempered by intelligence. “Better pass boldly into that other world,” he thinks, “in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age” (223). Much like the eponymous Eveline in an earlier Dubliners story, Gabriel is at risk of being paralyzed by his duties to his family and to his culture.

That Gabriel is in a sense too altruistic does not imply that his epiphany is a repudiation of altruism; what Gabriel calls into question are the dishonesty his good nature leads him to and the provincialism that necessitates it. It is ironic that his realization is prompted by a former inhabitant of Galway, an Irish territory Miss Ivors had tried to persuade him to acquaint himself with earlier. But it must be noted that for Furey to be true to himself there meant he had to die. And yet there is a nostalgic note in the enigmatic line, written by an expatriate from Ireland now living on the continent: “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward” (223). Gretta is of course also from Galway, and when Gabriel tells her of Miss Ivors suggestion she responds, “I’d love to see Galway again” (191). When Kelley argues that Gabriel’s vision of snow falling all over Ireland symbolizes how “Mutuality replaces mastery” (206) in his consciousness, he is only half-wrong. Gabriel has felt horribly alone all night. He has even felt alone throughout his marriage; when Gretta falls asleep after telling him the story of Michael Furey, “He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife” (222). But he has learned Gretta is just like him in that she keeps her true thoughts and feelings to herself: “He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes” (223). Mutuality is not replacing mastery; it is replacing isolation.

The central premise of Joyce’s story, that Gabriel needs to escape the close-minded nationalism of his Irish culture, or at least find a way to be true to himself within it, simply fails if Gabriel is not a character worth saving. Though Flesch insists one of his goals in Comeuppance “is to assert the reconcilability of a Darwinian perspective, one that accepts evolutionary origins and constraints on human mental processing, with the best of European philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary theory” (207), it is difficult not to see the various Lacanian readings of “The Dead” as bestowing their views on the story rather than discovering them in it. In a bit of irony Lacan himself might have appreciated, it is the Lacanians who are the true narcissists, looking as they do into the story and seeing only their own principles reflected back at them. There is also an element of self-righteousness in their negative characterization of Gabriel, since naturally these critics are claiming to know better than to be so controlling and to put on such superior airs. But in imposing their self-consciously esoteric views they are doing a disservice to readers—and themselves—by making the story far less enjoyable.

Works Cited

Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge: Belknap,

2009. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Anniversary Ed. Minneapolis: U of

Minnesota P, 2008. Print.
Flesch, William. Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological
Components of Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.
Joyce, James. “The Dead.” Dubliners. Eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York:

Penguin, 1996. 175-224. Print.
Kelley, James. “Mirrored Selves and Princely Failings: A Lacanian Approach to James Joyce’s

‘The Dead.’” In-Between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism 12.1-2 (2003):

201-09. Print.
Leonard, Gary. “Joyce and Lacan: ‘The Woman’ as a Symptom of ‘Masculinity’ in ‘The Dead.’”

James Joyce Quarterly 28.2 (1991): 451-72. Print.
Trujillo, Ivan E. “Perversion as the Jouissance of The Woman in ‘The Dead’: Joyce, Lacan and

Fucking the Other.” Other Voices 1.3 (1999): 1-11. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.
Wynn, Karen, J. Kiley Hamlin, and Paul Bloom. “Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants.” Nature
450.22 (2007): 557-560. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.

Getting Gabriel Wrong: Part 2 of 3

Part 1.
It may be argued, however, that Flesch’s is just another theory; that it calls for a reading of Joyce’s story that contradicts the way Lacanians read it hardly justifies dismissing one theory in favor of the other. The Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, in his Literary Theory: an Introduction, answers the protest that theories get in between readers and stories by arguing that “Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion of one’s own” (xii). Far from being oblivious to his own theory, though, Flesch marshals copious evidence to support the idea that people respond to characters in fiction the same way they do to people in real life, and that they therefore require no literary theory to appreciate literature. The evidence he cites comes mainly from experiments based on Game Theory scenarios designed to explore the circumstances under which people act either for their own selfish gain or for the mutual gain of groups to which they belong. But some experimenters have shown that even children too young to speak, certainly too young to be conversant in psychological or literary theories, tend to respond to the very type of signals to which Lacanian readers of “The Dead” are most oblivious.

Yale psychologist Karen Wynn published her research on children’s social cognition around the same time as Comeuppance was released, but even though Flesch’s book has no mention of Wynn’s findings they nonetheless demonstrate both how important the processes of social monitoring and volunteered affect are and how early they develop. Wynn’s team presented children as young as three months with a puppet show featuring a cat who wanted to play ball and two rabbits, one who rudely stole away with the ball when it was rolled to it and another who playfully rolled it back to the cat. The children watched the various exchanges with rapt attention, and when presented afterward with a choice of which rabbit to play with themselves almost invariably chose the more cooperative, demonstrating that “preverbal infants assess individuals on the basis of their behavior toward others” (557). This tendency emerges even when the show features no puppets, but only wooden blocks with crude eyes. Game Theorists call this behavior “strong reciprocity,” which Flesch explains “means the strong reciprocator punishes and rewards others for their behavior toward any member of the group, and not just or primarily for their individual interactions with the reciprocator” (22). So, the question regarding Gabriel Conroy becomes what aspects of his behavior signal to strongly reciprocal readers how prone to cooperation he is?

Joyce deliberately broadcasts a costly signal by exposing his protagonist’s private thoughts, risking the misunderstanding of readers unfamiliar with this style of close narration (and apparently that of Lacanians); he therefore strewed helpful signals throughout the story. In the sentence directly following the first mention of Gabriel—“it was long after ten o’clock and yet there was no sign of Gabriel and his wife”—a character named Freddy Malins is introduced. While the arrival of Gabriel and his wife is eagerly anticipated by his aunts and his cousin, “they were dreadfully afraid that Freddy Malins might turn up screwed” (176). Joyce may as well be Karen Wynn here, presenting one cooperator and one selfish actor to readers, who find out shortly thereafter that “Gabriel’s solicitude was a standing joke” (180) among his wife and his aunts. “It’s such a relief,” Aunt Kate says to Grabriel’s wife after he has gone to check on the state of Freddy, “that Gabriel is here” (182). Her relief can be compared not just to her feelings toward Freddy, but also toward another character, Mr. Browne, who she complains “is everywhere” in an aside to her niece. “He has been laid on here like the gas” (206). Gabriel himself neither participates in nor is in earshot of any of these character assessments. So readers can conclude that, the nature of his inner thoughts notwithstanding, he is thought highly of by his aunts.

There is one character, however, to whom Lacanians can point as having a less than favorable opinion of Gabriel. Molly Ivors, the second woman in the story to make Gabriel blush, provides a key to understanding the central tension of the plot. For Leonard, the story consists of “three attempts by Gabriel Conroy, with three different women, to confirm the fictional unity of his masculine subjectivity” (451). This is an arch and murky way of saying that Gabriel wants the women he encounters to think he is a good man so that he can believe it himself. It is therefore noteworthy to Leonard that Miss Ivors “did not wear a low-cut bodice” (187), which he insists “announces that Miss Ivors does not dress in accordance with what she imagines the male viewer wishes to see” (461). But how Joyce is really trying to characterize her can be seen in the second part of the sentence about what she is wearing: “and the large brooch which was fixed in front of her collar bore on it an Irish device” (187), which Leonard can only fumblingly dismiss as having “a signification for her that is not meant to signify anything to him” (461). But it clearly does signify something to him—that she is a nationalist. As does her dress. Décolletage is, after all, a French style.

What makes Gabriel blush is not Miss Ivors’s refusal to play to his conception of proper female behavior but her revealing to him her knowledge that he has been writing for a newspaper unsympathetic to her political leanings, as well as to the political leanings of the hosts and the guests at the party. Gabriel’s initial impulse in response and his reason for inhibiting it are telling:


"He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years’ standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her" (188).


That she is a peer Leonard chalks up as further upsetting feminine expectations, “a fact as awkward and threatening as the absence of a low-cut bodice” (462). The more significant detail here, though, is that even as she threatens to expose him as an outsider Gabriel is concerned not to offend her. And that he is capable of recognizing her as a peer belies the suggestion that all she is to him is a symptom of his insecure manhood. The blush in this scene signals Gabriel’s genuine anxiety lest his anti-nationalistic political orientation and his cosmopolitan tastes offend everyone at the party.

“The Dead” is replete with moments in which Gabriel inhibits his own plans and checks his own desires out of consideration for others. His thinking better of “a grandiose phrase” with Miss Ivors is one case in point, though she does manage to provoke him to reveal his true feelings (perhaps the only instance of him doing so in the whole story): “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” (189). Two other instances of him reconsidering his plans are when he performs his postprandial speech with nary a mention of Browning, some lines of whose non-Irish poetry he has been vacillating over quoting, and when he restrains himself from initiating a sexual encounter with his wife Gretta in their hotel room after the party because she is in a “strange mood” and “To take her as she was would be brutal” (217)—this despite the fact that he is in “a fever of rage and desire” (217). Kelley cites this line along with one that says, “He longed to be master of her strange mood,” and yet another that says, “He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her” (217), to support his claim that Gabriel has “infantile tendencies toward domination,” which manifest in his “narcissistic desire and aggression” (204). This could hardly be more wrong. If he were narcissistic, Gretta’s thoughts and feelings would go unregistered in his consciousness. If he were aggressive, he would treat her violently—he would certainly not be worried about being brutal just by coming on to her. The Lacanians are mistaking thoughts and impulses for actions when it is precisely the discrepancy between Gabriel’s desires and his behavior that proves his altruism.

Gabriel’s thoughtfulness is placed into stark relief by several other characters who show neither the inclination nor the capacity to filter their speech to protect other people’s feelings. Boyd explains: “The inhibition of automatic responses is essential to higher intelligence. It is also essential to morality, to overcoming instinctive but unwise responses to, for instance, anger” (264). The main function Gabriel’s blushing plays in the story is to let readers know something about his real feelings because they quickly discover that he is uniquely capable of acting against them. In this, he can be compared to Freddy Malins and Mr. Browne, who in one scene seem to be vying for the prize of who can be the most insulting to the singer Bartell D’Arcy. “Those were the days,” Browne says at one point, “when there was something like singing to be heard in Dublin” (199), presumably oblivious to or unconcerned with the fact that there is a singer among his interlocutors. Even Gabriel’s Aunt Kate joins the pile-on, asserting that “there was only one tenor. To please me, I mean” (199). Mr. D’Arcy, readers have been told and amply reminded, happens to be a tenor himself. And both Lily and Miss Ivors, based on their rudeness toward Gabriel, can be added to this list of those who fail to inhibit their automatic responses.
read part 3