Saturday, January 08, 2005

Literary Darwinism

I found this essay days ago, and at that time I seriously believed that by this point in the week the bulk of my workload would be behind me and I would've had sufficient sleep and coffee to grapple intelligently with The Pleasures of Fiction (as presented by Dennis Dutton).

But that's not happening for me.

Instead I'm posting the link and making just a few brief notes, filing it away to be read the next time I find myself asking "Why read?"

By "fiction" Dennis Dutton means "fictional story-telling," which includes plays, cinema, and television drama in addition to books and magazines.

"A love of fiction is as universal as governance, marriage, jokes, religion, and the incest taboo."

Dutton (a man, by the way, who panned The Lord of the Rings movies as absurdly overrated, but that's neither here nor there) digs himself in to review Joseph Carroll's Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature.

Story-telling falls under the Cognition behaviour system, one of the coexisiting basic systems that make up the fabric of life, the foundation of human social constructions.

But why fiction, and not simple factual narrative? Two issues:
1) The adaptive usefulness of fiction.
2) The pleasure of the experience.

And then it all gets very complicated.

In reference to Steven Pinker's view that pleasure is a mere by-product of the usefulness, Carroll says he is misguided.

But art goes further: "It helps us to regulate our complex psychological organization, and it helps us cultivate our socially adaptive capacity for entering mentally into the experience of other people." This is not quite the same thing as imaginatively encountering a dangerous elephant in a story. It is rather a matter of entering empathically into the minds of our fellows. It may come to us as entertainment, but fiction has profound effects on making us what we are.


Then there's something about the ephemeral and subjective experience of music, hypothetical drugs to mimic the experience, and Dickens.

Carroll writes about David Copperfield's relationship with books:
What he gets is lively and powerful images of human life suffused with the feeling and understanding of the astonishingly capable and complete human beings who wrote them. It is through this kind of contact with a sense of human possibility that he is enabled to escape from the degrading limitations of his own local environment. He is not escaping from reality; he is escaping from an impoverished reality into the larger world of healthy human possibility. By nurturing and cultivating his own individual identity through his literary imagination, he enables himself to adapt successfully to this world. He directly enhances his own fitness as a human being, and in doing so he demonstrates the kind of adaptive advantage that can be conferred by literature.


"Fiction provides us with templates for a normal emotional life."

"The meaning of a literary work, Carroll says, is not in the events it recounts. It is how events are interpreted that makes meaning."

Books do not define us. They help us define ourselves.
Post a Comment