Origin of Stories

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

The cousins Salamanca by Martin Woutisseth
            Season 3 of Breaking Bad opens with two expressionless Mexican men in expensive suits stepping out of a Mercedes, taking a look around the peasant village they’ve just arrived in, and then dropping to the ground to crawl on their knees and elbows to a candlelit shrine where they leave an offering to Santa Muerte, along with a crude drawing of the meth cook known as Heisenberg, marking him for execution. We later learn that the two men, Leonel and Marco, who look almost identical, are in fact twins (played by Daniel and Luis Moncada), and that they are the cousins of Tuco Salamanca, a meth dealer and cartel affiliate they believe Heisenberg betrayed and killed. We also learn that they kill people themselves as a matter of course, without registering the slightest emotion and without uttering a word to each other to mark the occasion. An episode later in the season, after we’ve been made amply aware of how coldblooded these men are, begins with a flashback to a time when they were just boys fighting over an action figure as their uncle talks cartel business on the phone nearby. After Marco gets tired of playing keep-away, he tries to provoke Leonel further by pulling off the doll’s head, at which point Leonel runs to his Uncle Hector, crying, “He broke my toy!”
“He’s just having fun,” Hector says, trying to calm him. “You’ll get over it.”

“No! I hate him!” Leonel replies. “I wish he was dead!”

Hector’s expression turns grave. After a moment, he calls Marco over and tells him to reach into the tub of melting ice beside his chair to get him a beer. When the boy leans over the tub, Hector shoves his head into the water and holds it there. “This is what you wanted,” he says to Leonel. “Your brother dead, right?” As the boy frantically pulls on his uncle’s arm trying to free his brother, Hector taunts him: “How much longer do you think he has down there? One minute? Maybe more? Maybe less? You’re going to have to try harder than that if you want to save him.” Leonel starts punching his uncle’s arm but to no avail. Finally, he rears back and punches Hector in the face, prompting him to release Marco and rise from his chair to stand over the two boys, who are now kneeling beside each other. Looking down at them, he says, “Family is all.”

The scene serves several dramatic functions. By showing the ruthless and violent nature of the boys’ upbringing, it intensifies our fear on behalf of Heisenberg, who we know is actually Walter White, a former chemistry teacher and family man from a New Mexico suburb who only turned to crime to make some money for his family before his lung cancer kills him. It also goes some distance toward humanizing the brothers by giving us insight into how they became the mute, mechanical murderers they are when we’re first introduced to them. The bond between the two men and their uncle will be important in upcoming episodes as well. But the most interesting thing about the scene is that it represents in microcosm the single most important moral dilemma of the whole series.

Marco and Leonel are taught to do violence if need be to protect their family. Walter, the show’s central character, gets involved in the meth business for the sake of his own family, and as he continues getting more deeply enmeshed in the world of crime he justifies his decisions at each juncture by saying he’s providing for his wife and kids. But how much violence can really be justified, we’re forced to wonder, with the claim that you’re simply protecting or providing for your family? The entire show we know as Breaking Bad can actually be conceived of as a type of moral exercise like the one Hector puts his nephews through, designed to impart or reinforce a lesson, though the lesson of the show is much more complicated. It may even be the case that our fondness for fictional narratives more generally, like the ones we encounter in novels and movies and TV shows, originated in our need as a species to develop and hone complex social skills involving powerful emotions and difficult cognitive calculations.

Jean Briggs
            Most of us watching Breaking Bad probably feel Hector went way too far with his little lesson, and indeed I’d like to think not too many parents or aunts and uncles would be willing to risk drowning a kid to reinforce the bond between him and his brother. But presenting children with frightening and stressful moral dilemmas to guide them through major lifecycle transitions—weaning, the birth of siblings, adoptions—which tend to arouse severe ambivalence can be an effective way to encourage moral development and instill traditional values. The ethnographer Jean Briggs has found that among the Inuit peoples whose cultures she studies adults frequently engage children in what she calls “playful dramas” (173), which entail hypothetical moral dilemmas that put the children on the hot seat as they struggle to come up with a solution. She writes about these lessons, which strike many outsiders as a cruel form of teasing by the adults, in “‘Why Don’t You Kill Your Baby Brother?’ The Dynamics of Peace in Canadian Inuit Camps,” a chapter she contributed to a 1994 anthology of anthropological essays on peace and conflict. In one example Briggs recounts,
A mother put a strange baby to her breast and said to her own nursling: “Shall I nurse him instead of you?” The mother of the other baby offered her breast to the rejected child and said: “Do you want to nurse from me? Shall I be your mother?” The child shrieked a protest shriek. Both mothers laughed. (176)
This may seem like sadism on the part of the mothers, but it probably functioned to soothe the bitterness arising from the child’s jealousy of a younger nursling. It would also help to settle some of the ambivalence toward the child’s mother, which comes about inevitably as a response to disciplining and other unavoidable frustrations. 
Another example Briggs describes seems even more pointlessly sadistic at first glance. A little girl’s aunt takes her hand and puts it on a little boy’s head, saying, “Pull his hair.” The girl doesn’t respond, so her aunt yanks on the boy’s hair herself, making him think the girl had done it. They quickly become embroiled in a “battle royal,” urged on by several adults who find it uproarious. These adults do, however, end up stopping the fight before any serious harm can be done. As horrible as this trick may seem, Briggs believes it serves to instill in the children a strong distaste for fighting because the experience is so unpleasant for them. They also learn “that it is better not to be noticed than to be playfully made the center of attention and laughed at” (177). What became clear to Briggs over time was that the teasing she kept witnessing wasn’t just designed to teach specific lessons but that it was also tailored to the child’s specific stage of development. She writes,
Indeed, since the games were consciously conceived of partly as tests of a child’s ability to cope with his or her situation, the tendency was to focus on a child’s known or expected difficulties. If a child had just acquired a sibling, the game might revolve around the question: “Do you love your new baby sibling? Why don’t you kill him or her?” If it was a new piece of clothing that the child had acquired, the question might be: “Why don’t you die so I can have it?” And if the child had been recently adopted, the question might be: “Who’s your daddy?” (172)
As unpleasant as these tests can be for the children, they never entail any actual danger—Inuit adults would probably agree Hector Salamanca went a bit too far—and they always take place in circumstances and settings where the only threats and anxieties come from the hypothetical, playful dilemmas and conflicts. Briggs explains,
A central idea of Inuit socialization is to “cause thought”: isumaqsayuq. According to [Arlene] Stairs, isumaqsayuq, in North Baffin, characterizes Inuit-style education as opposed to the Western variety. Warm and tender interactions with children help create an atmosphere in which thought can be safely caused, and the questions and dramas are well designed to elicit it. More than that, and as an integral part of thought, the dramas stimulate emotion. (173)
Part of the exercise then seems to be to introduce the children to their own feelings. Prior to having their sibling’s life threatened, the children may not have any idea how they’d feel in the event of that sibling’s death. After the test, however, it becomes much more difficult for them to entertain thoughts of harming their brother or sister—the thought alone will probably be unpleasant.
            Briggs also points out that the games send the implicit message to the children that they can be trusted to arrive at the moral solution. Hector knows Leonel won’t let his brother drown—and Leonel learns that his uncle knows this about him. The Inuit adults who tease and tempt children are letting them know they have faith in the children’s ability to resist their selfish or aggressive impulses. Discussing Briggs’s work in his book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, anthropologist Christopher Boehm suggests that evolution has endowed children with the social and moral emotions we refer to collectively as consciences, but these inborn moral sentiments need to be activated and shaped through socialization. He writes,
On the one side there will always be our usefully egoistic selfish tendencies, and on the other there will be our altruistic or generous impulses, which also can advance our fitness because altruism and sympathy are valued by our peers. The conscience helps us to resolve such dilemmas in ways that are socially acceptable, and these Inuit parents seem to be deliberately “exercising” the consciences of their children to make morally socialized adults out of them. (226)
The Inuit-style moral dilemma games seem strange, even shocking, to people from industrialized societies, and so it’s clear they’re not a normal part of children’s upbringing in every culture. They don’t even seem to be all that common among hunter-gatherers outside the region of the Arctic. Boehm writes, however,
Deliberately and stressfully subjecting children to nasty hypothetical dilemmas is not universal among foraging nomads, but as we’ll see with Nisa, everyday life also creates real moral dilemmas that can involve Kalahari children similarly. (226)
Boehm goes on to recount an episode from anthropologist Marjorie Shostak’s famous biography Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman to show that parents all the way on the opposite side of the world from where Briggs did her fieldwork sometimes light on similar methods for stimulating their children’s moral development.
Nisa seems to have been a greedy and impulsive child. When her pregnant mother tried to wean her, she would have none of it. At one point, she even went so far as to sneak into the hut while her mother was asleep and try to suckle without waking her up. Throughout the pregnancy, Nisa continually expressed ambivalence toward the upcoming birth of her sibling, so much so that her parents anticipated there might be some problems. The !Kung resort to infanticide in certain dire circumstances, and Nisa’s parents probably reasoned she was at least somewhat familiar with the coping mechanism many other parents used when killing a newborn was necessary. What they’d do is treat the baby as an object, not naming it or in any other way recognizing its identity as a family member. Nisa explained to Shostak how her parents used this knowledge to impart a lesson about her baby brother.
After he was born, he lay there, crying. I greeted him, “Ho, ho, my baby brother! Ho, ho, I have a little brother! Some day we’ll play together.” But my mother said, “What do you think this thing is? Why are you talking to it like that? Now, get up and go back to the village and bring me my digging stick.” I said, “What are you going to dig?” She said, “A hole. I’m going to dig a hole so I can bury the baby. Then you, Nisa, will be able to nurse again.” I refused. “My baby brother? My little brother? Mommy, he’s my brother! Pick him up and carry him back to the village. I don’t want to nurse!” Then I said, “I’ll tell Daddy when he comes home!” She said, “You won’t tell him. Now, run back and bring me my digging stick. I’ll bury him so you can nurse again. You’re much too thin.” I didn’t want to go and started to cry. I sat there, my tears falling, crying and crying. But she told me to go, saying she wanted my bones to be strong. So, I left and went back to the village, crying as I walked. (The weaning episode occurs on pgs. 46-57)
Again, this may strike us as cruel, but by threatening her brother’s life, Nisa’s mother succeeded in triggering her natural affection for him, thus tipping the scales of her ambivalence to ensure the protective and loving feelings won out over the bitter and jealous ones. This example was extreme enough that Nisa remembered it well into adulthood, but Boehm sees it as evidence that real life reliably offers up dilemmas parents all over the world can use to instill morals in their children. He writes, 
I believe that all hunter-gatherer societies offer such learning experiences, not only in the real-life situations children are involved with, but also in those they merely observe. What the Inuit whom Briggs studied in Cumberland Sound have done is to not leave this up to chance. And the practice would appear to be widespread in the Arctic. Children are systematically exposed to life’s typical stressful moral dilemmas, and often hypothetically, as a training ground that helps to turn them into adults who have internalized the values of their groups. (234)
One of the reasons such dilemmas, whether real or hypothetical or merely observed, are effective as teaching tools is that they bypass the threat to personal autonomy that tends to accompany direct instruction. Imagine Tío Salamanca simply scolding Leonel for wishing his brother dead—it would have only aggravated his resentment and sparked defiance. Leonel would probably also harbor some bitterness toward his uncle for unjustly defending Marco. In any case, he would have been stubbornly resistant to the lesson. Winston Churchill nailed the sentiment when he said, “Personally, I am always ready to learn, although I don’t always like being taught.” The Inuit-style moral dilemmas force the children to come up with the right answer on their own, a task that requires the integration and balancing of short and long term desires, individual and group interests, and powerful albeit contradictory emotions. The skills that go into solving such dilemmas are indistinguishable from the qualities we recognize as maturity, self-knowledge, generosity, poise, and wisdom. 
For the children Briggs witnessed being subjected to these moral tests, the understanding that the dilemmas were in fact only hypothetical developed gradually as they matured. For the youngest ones, the stakes were real and the solutions were never clear at the onset. Briggs explains that
while the interaction between small children and adults was consistently good-humored, benign, and playful on the part of the adults, it taxed the children to—or beyond—the limits of their ability to understand, pushing them to expand their horizons, and testing them to see how much they had grown since the last encounter. (173)
What this suggests is that there isn’t always a simple declarative lesson—a moral to the story, as it were—imparted in these games. Instead, the solutions to the dilemmas can often be open-ended, and the skills the children practice can thus be more general and abstract than some basic law or principle. Briggs goes on,
Adult players did not make it easy for children to thread their way through the labyrinth of tricky proposals, questions, and actions, and they did not give answers to the children or directly confirm the conclusions the children came to. On the contrary, questioning a child’s first facile answers, they turned situations round and round, presenting first one aspect then another, to view. They made children realize their emotional investment in all possible outcomes, and then allowed them to find their own way out of the dilemmas that had been created—or perhaps, to find ways of living with unresolved dilemmas. Since children were unaware that the adults were “only playing,” they could believe that their own decisions would determine their fate. And since the emotions aroused in them might be highly conflicted and contradictory—love as well as jealousy, attraction as well as fear—they did not always know what they wanted to decide. (174-5)
As the children mature, they become more adept at distinguishing between real and hypothetical problems. Indeed, Briggs suggests one of the ways adults recognize children’s budding maturity is that they begin to treat the dilemmas as a game, ceasing to take them seriously, and ceasing to take themselves as seriously as they did when they were younger.
Brian Boyd
            In his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, literary scholar Brian Boyd theorizes that the fictional narratives that humans engage one another with in every culture all over the world, be they in the form of religious myths, folklore, or plays and novels, can be thought of as a type of cognitive play—similar to the hypothetical moral dilemmas of the Inuit. He sees storytelling as an adaption that encourages us to train the mental faculties we need to function in complex societies. The idea is that evolution ensures that adaptive behaviors tend to be pleasurable, and thus many animals playfully and joyously engage in activities in low-stakes, relatively safe circumstances that will prepare them to engage in similar activities that have much higher stakes and are much more dangerous. Boyd explains,
The more pleasure that creatures have in play in safe contexts, the more they will happily expend energy in mastering skills needed in urgent or volatile situations, in attack, defense, and social competition and cooperation. This explains why in the human case we particularly enjoy play that develops skills needed in flight (chase, tag, running) and fight (rough-and-tumble, throwing as a form of attack at a distance), in recovery of balance (skiing, surfing, skateboarding), and individual and team games. (92)
The skills most necessary to survive and thrive in human societies are the same ones Inuit adults help children develop with the hypothetical dilemma’s Briggs describes. We should expect fiction then to feature similar types of moral dilemmas. Some stories may be designed to convey simple messages—“Don’t hurt your brother,” “Don’t stray from the path”—but others might be much more complicated; they may not even have any viable solutions at all. “Art prepares minds for open-ended learning and creativity,” Boyd writes; “fiction specifically improves our social cognition and our thinking beyond the here and now” (209). 
One of the ways the cognitive play we call novels or TV shows differs from Inuit dilemma games is that the fictional characters take over center stage from the individual audience members. Instead of being forced to decide on a course of action ourselves, we watch characters we’ve become emotionally invested in try to come up with solutions to the dilemmas. When these characters are first introduced to us, our feelings toward them will be based on the same criteria we’d apply to real people who could potentially become a part of our social circles. Boyd explains,
Even more than other social species, we depend on information about others’ capacities, dispositions, intentions, actions, and reactions. Such “strategic information” catches our attention so forcefully that fiction can hold our interest, unlike almost anything else, for hours at a stretch. (130)
We favor characters who are good team players—who communicate honestly, who show concern for others, and who direct aggression toward enemies and cheats—for obvious reasons, but we also assess them in terms of what they might contribute to the group. Characters with exceptional strength, beauty, intelligence, or artistic ability are always especially attention-worthy. Of course, characters with qualities that make them sometimes an asset and sometimes a liability represent a moral dilemma all on their own—it’s no wonder such characters tend to be so compelling.
            The most common fictional dilemma pits a character we like against one or more characters we hate—the good team player versus the power- or money-hungry egoist. We can think of the most straightforward plot as an encroachment of chaos on the providential moral order we might otherwise take for granted. When the bad guy is finally defeated, it’s like a toy that was snatched away from us has just been returned. We embrace the moral order all the more vigorously. But of course our stories aren’t limited to this one basic formula. Around the turn of the last century, the French writer Georges Polti, following up on the work of Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi, tried to write a comprehensive list of all the basic plots in plays and novels, and flipping through his book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, you find that with few exceptions (“Daring Enterprise,” “The Enigma,” “Recovery of a Lost One”) the situations aren’t simply encounters between characters with conflicting goals, or characters who run into obstacles in chasing after their desires. The conflicts are nearly all moral, either between a virtuous character and a less virtuous one or between selfish or greedy impulses and more altruistic ones. Polti’s book could be called The Thirty-Odd Moral Dilemmas in Fiction. Hector Salamanca would be happy (not really) to see the thirteenth situation: “Enmity of Kinsmen,” the first example of which is “Hatred of Brothers” (49).
Sherlock Holmes - from "The Sign of Four"
One type of fictional dilemma that seems to be particularly salient in American society today pits our impulse to punish wrongdoers against our admiration for people with exceptional abilities. Characters like Walter White in Breaking Bad win us over with qualities like altruism, resourcefulness, and ingenuity—but then they go on to behave in strikingly, though somehow not obviously, immoral ways. Variations on Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes abound; he’s the supergenius who’s also a dick (get the double-entendre?): the BBC’s Sherlock (by far the best), the movies starring Robert Downey Jr., the upcoming series featuring an Asian female Watson (Lucy Liu)—plus all the minor variations like The Mentalist and House 
Though the idea that fiction is a type of low-stakes training simulation to prepare people cognitively and emotionally to take on difficult social problems in real life may not seem all that earthshattering, conceiving of stories as analogous to Inuit moral dilemmas designed to exercise children’s moral reasoning faculties can nonetheless help us understand why worries about the examples set by fictional characters are so often misguided. Many parents and teachers noisily complain about sex or violence or drug use in media. Academic literary critics condemn the way this or that author portrays women or minorities. Underlying these concerns is the crude assumption that stories simply encourage audiences to imitate the characters, that those audiences are passive receptacles for the messages—implicit or explicit—conveyed through the narrative. To be fair, these worries may be well placed when it comes to children so young they lack the cognitive sophistication necessary for separating their thoughts and feelings about protagonists from those they have about themselves, and are thus prone to take the hero for a simple model of emulation-worthy behavior. But, while Inuit adults communicate to children that they can be trusted to arrive at a right or moral solution, the moralizers in our culture betray their utter lack of faith in the intelligence and conscience of the people they try to protect from the corrupting influence of stories with imperfect or unsavory characters. 

           This type of self-righteous and overbearing attitude toward readers and viewers strikes me as more likely by orders of magnitude to provoke defiant resistance to moral lessons than the North Baffin’s isumaqsayuq approach. In other words, a good story is worth a thousand sermons. But if the moral dilemma at the core of the plot has an easy solution—if you can say precisely what the moral of the story is—it’s probably not a very good story.

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.

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


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?


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.


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?


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?

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?

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.

Bad Men

Though I had mixed feelings about the first season of Mad Men, which I picked up at Half Price Books for a steal, I still found enormous appeal in the more drawn out experience of the series unfolding. Movies lately have been leaving me tragically unmoved, with those in the action category being far too noisy and preposterous and those in the drama one too brief to establish any significant emotional investment in the characters. In a series, though, especially those in the new style pioneered by The Sopranos which eschew efforts to wrap up their plots by the end of each episode, viewers get a chance to follow characters as they develop, and the resultant investment in them makes even the most underplayed and realistic violence among them excruciatingly riveting. So, even though I found Pete Campbell, an account executive at the ad agency Sterling Cooper, the main setting for Mad Men, annoying instead of despicable, and the treatment of what we would today call sexual harassment in the office crude, self-congratulatory, and overdone, by the time I had finished watching the first season I was eager to get my hands on the second. I’ve now seen the first four seasons.

Reading up on the show on Wikipedia, I came across a few quotes from Daniel Mendelsohn’s screed against the series, “The Mad Men Account” in the New York Review of Books, and since Mendelsohn is always fascinating even when you disagree with him I made a point of reading his review after I’d finished the fourth season. His response was similar to mine in that he found himself engrossed in the show despite himself. There’s so much hoopla. But there’s so much wrong with the show. Allow me a longish quote:

“The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.
Worst of all—in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical ‘issues’—the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.”

I have to say Mendelsohn is right on the mark here—though I will take issue with his categorical claims about the acting—leaving us with the question of why so many of us, me and Mendelsohn included, find the show so fascinating. Reading the review I found myself wanting to applaud at several points as it captures so precisely, and even artistically, the show’s failings. And yet these failings seem to me mild annoyances marring the otherwise profound gratification I get from watching. Mendelsohn lights on an answer for how it can be good while being so bad, one that squares the circle by turning the shortcomings into strengths.

If the characters are bland, stereotypical sixties people instead of individuals, if the issues are advertised rather than dramatized, if everyone depicted is hopelessly venal while evincing a smug, smiling commitment to decorum, well it’s because the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, was born in 1965, and he’s trying to recreate the world of his parents. Mendelsohn quotes Weiner:

“part of the show is trying to figure out—this sounds really ineloquent—trying to figure out what is the deal with my parents. Am I them? Because you know you are…. The truth is it’s such a trope to sit around and bash your parents. I don’t want it to be like that. They are my inspiration, let’s not pretend.”

Mendelsohn’s clever solution to the Mad Men puzzle is that its appeal derives from its child’s-eye view of the period during which its enthusiasts’ parents were in their ascendancy. The characters aren’t deep because children wouldn’t have the wherewithal to appreciate their depth. The issues aren’t explored in all their complexity because children are only ever vaguely aware of them. For Mendelsohn, the most important characters are the Drapers’ daughter, Sally, and the neighbor kid, Glen, who first has a crush on Don’s wife, Betty, and then falls for Sally herself. And it turns out Glen is played by Weiner’s own son.

I admit the episodes that portrayed the Draper’s divorce struck me as poignant to the point of being slightly painful, resonating as they did with my memories of my own parents’ divorce. But that was in the ‘80’s not the 60’s. And Glen is, at least for me, one of the show’s annoyances, not by any means its main appeal. His long, unblinking stares at Betty, which Mendelsohn sees as so fraught with meaning, I can’t help finding creepy. The kid makes my skin crawl, much the way Pete Campbell does. I’m forced to consider that Mendelsohn, as astute as he is about a lot of the scenes and characters, is missing something, or getting something really wrong.

In trying to account for the show’s overwhelming appeal, I think Mendelsohn is a bit too clever. I haven’t done a survey but I’d wager the results would be pretty simple: it’s Don Draper stupid. While I agree that much of the characterization and background of the central character is overwrought and unsubtle (“meretricious,” “literally,” the reviewer jokes, assuming we all know the etymology of the word), I would suggest this only makes the question of his overwhelming attractiveness all the more fascinating. Mendelsohn finds him flat. But, at least in his review, he overlooks all the crucial scenes and instead, understandably, focuses on the lame flashbacks that supposedly explain his bad behavior.

All the characters are racist, Mendelsohn charges. But in the first scene of the first episode Don notices that the black busser clearing his table is smoking a rival brand of cigarettes—that he’s a potential new customer for his clients—and casually asks him what it would take for him to switch brands. When the manager arrives at the table to chide the busser for being so talkative, Don is as shocked as we are. I can’t recall a single scene in which Don is overtly racist.

Then there’s the relationship between Don and Peggy, which, as difficult as it is to believe for all the other characters, is never sexual. Everyone is sexist, yet in the first scene bringing together Don, Peggy, and Pete, our protagonist ends up chiding the younger man, who has been giving Peggy a fashion lesson, for being disrespectful. In season two, we see Don in an elevator with two men, one of whom is giving the raunchy details of his previous night’s conquest and doesn’t bother to pause the recounting when a woman enters. Her face registers something like terror, Don’s unmistakable disgust. “Take your hat off,” he says to the offender, and for a brief moment you wonder if the two men are going to tear into him. Then Don reaches over, unchecked, removes the man’s hat, and shoves it into his chest, rendering both men silent for the duration of the elevator ride. I hate to be one of those critics who reflexively resort to their pet theory, but my enjoyment of the scene long preceded my realization that it entailed an act of altruistic punishment.

The opening credits say it all, as we see a silhouetted man, obviously Don, walking into an office which begins to collapse, and cuts to him falling through the sky against the backdrop of skyscrapers with billboards and snappy slogans. How far will Don fall? For that matter, how far will Peggy? Their experiences oddly mirror each other, and it becomes clear that while Don barks denunciations at the other members of his creative team, he often goes out of his way to mentor Peggy. He’s the one, in fact, who recognizes her potential and promotes her from a secretary to a copywriter, a move which so confounds all the other men that they conclude he must have knocked her up.

Mendelsohn is especially disappointed in Mad Men’s portrayal, or rather its failure to portray, the plight of closeted gays. He complains that when Don witnesses Sal Romano kissing a male bellhop in a hotel on a business trip, the revelation “weirdly” “has no repercussions.” But it’s not weird at all because we experience some of Sal’s anxiety about how Don will react. On the plain home, Sal is terrified, but Don rather subtly lets him know he has nothing to worry about. Don can sympathize about having secrets. We can just imagine if one of the characters other than Don had been the one to discover Sal’s homosexuality—actually we don’t have to imagine it because it happens later.

Unlike the other characters, Don’s vices, chief among them his philandering, are timeless (except his chain-smoking) and universal. And though we can’t forgive him for what he does to Betty (another annoying character, who, like some women I’ve dated, uses the strategy of being constantly aggrieved to trick you into being nice to her, which backfires because the suggestion that your proclivities aren’t nice actually provokes you), we can’t help hoping that he’ll find a way to redeem himself. As cheesy as they are, the scenes that have Don furrowing his brow and extemporizing on what people want and how he can turn it into a marketing strategy, along with the similar ones in which he feels the weight of his crimes against others, are my favorites. His voice has the amazing quality of being authoritative and yet at the same time signaling vulnerability. This guy should be able to get it. But he’s surrounded by vipers. His job is to lie. His identity is a lie he can’t escape. How will he preserve his humanity, his soul? Or will he? These questions, and similar ones about Peggy, are what keep me watching.

Don Draper, then, is a character from a long tradition of bad boys who give contradictory signals of their moral worth. Milton inadvertently discovered how powerful these characters are when Satan turned out to be by far the most compelling character in Paradise Lost. (Byron understood why immediately.) George Lucas made a similar discovery when Han Solo stole the show from Luke Skywalker. From Tom Sawyer to Jack Sparrow and Tony Soprano (Weiner was also a writer on that show), the fascination with these guys savvy enough to get away with being bad but sensitive and compassionate enough to feel bad about it has been taking a firm grip on audiences sympathies since long before Don Draper put on his hat.

A couple final notes on the show's personal appeal for me: given my interests and education, marketing and advertising would be a natural fit for me, absent my moral compunctions about deceiving people to their detriment to enrich myself. Still, it's nice to see a show focusing on the processes behind creativity. Then there's the scene in season four in which Don realizes he's in love with his secretary because she doesn't freak out when his daughter spills her milkshake. Having spent too much of my adult life around women with short fuses, and so much of my time watching Mad Men being annoyed with Betty, I laughed until I teared up.

The Inverted Pyramid: Our Millennia-Long Project of Keeping Alpha Males in their Place

Imagine this familiar hypothetical scenario: you’re a prehistoric hunter, relying on cleverness, athleticism, and well-honed skills to track and kill a gazelle on the savannah. After carting the meat home, your wife is grateful—or your wives rather. As the top hunter in the small tribe with which your family lives and travels, you are accorded great power over all the other men, just as you enjoy great power over your family. You are the leader, the decision-maker, the final arbiter of disputes and the one everyone looks to for direction in times of distress. The payoff for all this responsibility is that you and your family enjoy larger shares of whatever meat is brought in by your subordinates. And you have sexual access to almost any woman you choose. Someday, though, you know your prowess will be on the wane, and you’ll be subjected to more and more challenges from younger men, until eventually you will be divested of all your authority. This is the harsh reality of man the hunter.

It’s easy to read about “chimpanzee politics” (I’ll never forget reading Frans de Waal’s book by that title) or watch nature shows in which the stentorian, accented narrator assigns names and ranks to chimps or gorillas and then, looking around at the rigid hierarchies of the institutions where we learn or where we work, as well as those in the realm of actual human politics, and conclude that there must have been a pretty linear development from the ancestors we share with the apes to the eras of pharaohs and kings to the Don Draperish ‘60’s till today, at least in terms of our natural tendency to form rank and follow leaders.

What to make, then, of these words spoken to anthropologist Richard Lee by a hunter-gatherer teaching him of the ways of the !Kung San?

“Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, ‘I have killed a big one in the bush!’ He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, ‘What did you see today?’ He replies quietly, ‘Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all…maybe just a tiny one.’ Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.” (Quoted in Boehm 45)

Even more puzzling from a selfish gene perspective is that the successful hunter gets no more meat for himself or his family than any of the other hunters. They divide it equally. Lee asked his informants why they criticized the hunters who made big kills.

“When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this.”

So what determines who gets to be the Alpha, if not hunting prowess? According to Christopher Boehm, the answer is simple. No one gets to be the Alpha. “A distinctly egalitarian political style is highly predictable wherever people live in small, locally autonomous social and economic groups” (36). These are exactly the types of groups humans have lived in for the vast majority of their existence on Earth. This means that, uniquely among the great apes, humans evolved mechanisms to ensure egalitarianism alongside those for seeking and submitting to power.

Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior is a miniature course in anthropology, as dominance and submission—as well as coalition building and defiance—are examined not merely in the ethnographic record, but in the ethological descriptions of our closest ape relatives. Building on Bruce Knauft’s observations of the difference between apes and hunter-gatherers, Boehm argues that “with respect to political hierarchy human evolution followed a U-shaped trajectory” (65). But human egalitarianism is not based on a simple of absence of hierarchy; rather, Boehm theorizes that the primary political actors (who with a few notable exceptions tend to be men) decide on an individual basis that, while power may be desirable, the chances of any individual achieving it are small, and the time span during which he would be able to sustain it would be limited. Therefore, they all submit to the collective will that no man should have authority over any other, thus all of them maintain their own personal autonomy. Boehm explains

“In despotic social dominance hierarchies the pyramid of power is pointed upward, with one or a few individuals (usually male) at the top exerting authority over a submissive rank and file. In egalitarian hierarchies the pyramid of power is turned upside down, with a politically united rank and file decisively dominating the alpha-male types” (66).

This isn’t to say that there aren’t individuals who by dint of their prowess and intelligence enjoy more influence over the band than others, but such individuals are thought of as “primus inter pares” (33), a first among equals. “Foragers,” Boehm writes, “are not intent on true and absolute equality, but on a kind of mutual respect that leaves individual autonomy intact” (68). It’s as though the life of the nomadic hunter and forager is especially conducive to thinking in terms of John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance.”

The mechanisms whereby egalitarianism is enforced will be familiar to anyone who’s gone to grade school or who works with a group of adult peers. Arrogant and bullying individuals are the butt of jokes, gossip, and ostracism. For a hunter-gatherer these can be deadly. Reputations are of paramount importance. If all else fails and a despot manages to secure some level authority, instigating a “dominance episode,” his reign will be short-lived. Even the biggest and strongest men are vulnerable to sizable coalitions of upstarts—especially in species who excel at making weapons for felling big game.

Boehm address several further questions, like what conditions bring about the reinstitution of pyramidal hierarchies, and how have consensus decision-making and social pressure against domineering affected human evolution? But what I find most interesting are his thoughts about the role of narrative in the promulgation and maintenance of the egalitarian ethos:

“As practical political philosophers, foragers perceive quite correctly that self-aggrandizement and individual authority are threats to personal autonomy. When upstarts try to make inroads against an egalitarian social order, they will be quickly recognized and, in many cases, quickly curbed on a preemptive basis. One reason for this sensitivity is that the oral tradition of a band (which includes knowledge from adjacent bands) will preserve stories about serious domination episodes. There is little doubt that many of the ethnographic reports of executions in my survey were based on such traditions, as opposed to direct ethnographic observation” (87).

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.

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

Getting Gabriel Wrong: Part 1 of 3

Soon after arriving with his wife at his aunts’ annual celebration of Christmas, Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” has an awkward encounter. Lily, “the caretaker’s daughter” (175), has gone with Gabriel into a pantry near the entrance to help him off with his coat. They exchange a few polite words before Gabriel broaches the topic of whether Lily might be engaged, eliciting from her a bitter remark about the nature of men, which in turn causes him to blush. After nervously adjusting his attire, Gabriel gives her a coin and rushes away to join the party. How readers interpret this initial scene, how they assess Gabriel’s handling of it, has much bearing on how they will experience the entire story. Many psychoanalytic critics, particularly followers of Jacques Lacan, read the encounter as evidence of Gabriel’s need to control others, especially women. According to this approach, the rest of the story consists of Gabriel’s further frustrations at the hands of women until he ultimately succumbs and adopts a more realistic understanding of himself. But the Lacanian reading is cast into severe doubt by an emerging field of narrative studies based on a more scientific view of human psychology. The theories put forth by these evolutionary critics, particularly the Social Monitoring and Volunteered Affect Theory formulated by William Flesch, highlight textual evidence that undermines readings by prominent Lacanians—evidence which has likely led generations of readers to a much more favorable view of Joyce’s protagonist.

At a glance, two disparate assessments of Gabriel seem equally plausible. Is he solicitous or overbearing? Fastidious or overweening? Self-conscious or narcissistic? While chatting with Lily, he smiles “at the three syllables she had given his surname” (177). He subsequently realizes that he “had known her when she was a child and used to sit on the lowest step nursing a rag doll” (177). Lacanian critic James Kelley asserts that these lines describe Gabriel “reveling in his position of superiority” (202). When Gabriel goes on to inquire about Lily’s schooling and, upon learning that she is no longer a student, whether he can expect to be attending her wedding sometime soon, she “glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: / —The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you” (177). Joyce leaves unanswered two questions in this scene: why does Lily respond “with great bitterness”? And why does Gabriel lose his composure over it? Kelley suggests that Lily is responding to Gabriel’s “attitude of superiority” (202). Gary Leonard, another Lacanian, sees the encounter similarly, charging Gabriel with the offense of “asking a real woman a question better asked of a little girl in a fairy tale (of course she is that unreal to him)” (458). But Leonard is holding Gabriel to a feminist standard that had not come into existence yet. And Gabriel’s smiling and reminiscing are just as likely reflective of a fatherly as they are of a patriarchal attitude.

One of the appeals of Flesch’s Social Monitoring and Volunteered Affect (SMVA) theory, which views the experience of fiction as a process of tracking characters for signals of altruism and favoring those who emit them, is that it relies on no notional story between the lines of the actual story. When encountering the scene in which Lily responds bitterly to Gabriel’s small talk, readers need not, for instance, be looking at a symbol of class conflict (Marxism) or gender oppression (Feminism) or one consciousness trying to wrest psychic unity from another (Lacanianism). Evidence can be culled from the scene to support the importance of these symbols and dynamics, along with countless others. But their importance rests solely in the mind of the critic serving as advocate for this or that theory. As Flesch’s fellow evolutionary critic Brian Boyd explains in his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, “Such critics assume that if they can ‘apply’ the theory, if they can read a work in its light, they thereby somehow ‘prove’ it, even if the criteria of application and evidence are loose” (387).Unfortunately, those trained in the application of one of these theories can become so preoccupied with the task of sifting between the lines that their experience—to say nothing of their enjoyment—of the lines themselves gets short shrift. And, as Boyd points out, “We learn more when evidence against a reading surfaces, since it forces us to account for a richer stock of information” (387, emphasis in original).

The distorting effect of theory can be seen in the Lacanian critics’ obliviousness toward several aspects of “The Dead” Joyce is trying to draw their attention to. Why, for instance, would Gabriel be embarrassed by Lily’s bitter response when there are no witnesses? She is just a lowly caretaker’s daughter; that he would be at all concerned with what she says or how she says it tells readers something about him. Joyce makes a point of suggesting that Gabriel’s blush is not borne of embarrassment, but rather of his shame at offending Lily, accidental though the offence may have been. He “coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake” (178), and that mistake was supposing Lily would be getting married soon. That Lily’s bitterness at this supposition has anything to do with Gabriel as opposed to the one or more men who have frustrated her in love is unlikely (unless she has a crush on him). Concerning her “three mistresses,” she knows, for instance, that “the only thing they would not stand was back answers” (176), implying that she has ventured some in the past and been chastised for them. Aunt Kate even complains later about Lily’s recent behavior: “I’m sure I don’t know what has come over her lately. She’s not the girl she was at all” (181). This may or may not be enough evidence to support the idea that Lily’s recent transformation resulted from a courtship with one of those men who is all palaver, but it certainly goes a long way toward undermining readings like Kelley’s and Leonard’s.

When Gabriel thrusts a coin into Lily’s hand, his purpose may be “to reestablish his superiority” (202), as Kelley argues, but that assumes both that he has a sense of his own superiority and that he is eager to maintain it. If Gabriel feels so superior, though, why would he respond charitably rather than getting angry? Why, when Aunt Kate references Lily’s recent change, does he make ready “to ask his aunt some questions on this point” (181) instead of making a complaint or insisting on a punishment? A simpler and much more obvious motivation for the thrusting of the coin is to make amends for the accidental offence. But, astonishingly, Leonard concludes solely from Joyce’s use of the word “thrusting” that Lily and Gabriel’s “social intercourse is terminated in a manner that mimics sexual intercourse” (458). Yet another Lacanian, Ivan Trujillo, takes this idea a step further: having equated Gabriel’s blush with an orgasm, he sees the coin as the culmination of an act of prostitution, as paying her back “for his orgasmic feeling of shame” (3).

From the perspective of SMVA theory, laid out in Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, Gabriel’s blushing, which recurs later in the story in his encounter with Molly Ivors, suggests something quite distantly removed from sexual arousal. “Blushing is an honest signal of how one feels,” Flesch writes. “It is honest because we would suppress it if we could” (103). But what feeling might Gabriel be signaling? Flesch offers a clue when he explains

"Being known through hard-to-fake or costly or honest signaling to have the emotional propensity to act against our own rational interests helps those who receive our signals to solve the problem of whether they can trust us. Blushing, weeping, flushing with rage, going livid with shock: all these are reliable signals, not only of how we feel in a certain situation but of the fact that we generally emit reliable signals. It pays to be fathomable. People tend to trust those who blush" (106, emphasis in original).

The most obvious information readers of “The Dead” can glean from Gabriel’s blushing at Lily’s response to his questions is that he is genuinely concerned that he may have offended her. Lacanians might counter that his real concern is with the authentication of his own sense of superiority, but again if he really felt so superior why would he care about offending the lowly caretaker’s daughter in an exchange with no witnesses? In fact, Lily’s back is turned, so even she misses the blush. It can be read as a signal from Joyce to readers to let them know a little about what kind of character Gabriel is.