Comments on Scalise Sugiyama: Less Abstract Universals

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

In “Cultural Variation Does Not Preclude Cognitive Universality,” Michelle Scalise Sugiyama has forcefully argued that the Tiv responses to Hamlet, though commonly invoked as exemplary of cultural difference, manifest important universals. In doing so, she stresses a fairly general or abstract cognitive level of universality. For example, she explains that “the Tiv object to the ghost’s choice of Hamlet as his avenger” because “according to their custom, important matters such as revenge and punishment are the purview of chiefs and elders.” She sees this, quite rightly, as manifesting a cross-cultural commitment to “social contract.” The main point I wish to make in this comment is that, here and elsewhere, the universality does not operate solely at this general level.

Consider the particular case just mentioned. The conflict between social authority and personal impulses of revenge is not special to the Tiv; it is, in fact, a recurring thematic concern in western revenge stories. One of the most important and foundational works of western literature, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, treats the topic explicitly. In focusing on the issue of personal revenge and social authority, the Tiv villagers have isolated a central thematic concern in Hamlet and in revenge narratives generally. Indeed, I would argue that one of the most discussed topics in Hamlet criticism—why does Hamlet delay?—is best understood in light of this conflict. Hamlet delays because he is taking on two roles from two related, but distinct genres. He is not only a revenger, but an (ideally, impartial) criminal investigator as well. In other words, he is trying to address part of the problem isolated by the Tiv villagers.

This is not an isolated point. Scalise Sugiyama goes on to explain that “the Tiv condemn Hamlet for his desire to kill Claudius: ‘For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father—that is a terrible thing’” (quoting Bohannan 51). She relates this to “Tiv rules,” which is of course correct. But the special status of kinship and attachment bonds in this context is not unique to the Tiv. Indeed, “familialization” of conflict is one of the key techniques of emotion intensification in literature across cultures (see my The Mind 227). As such, it is crucial to the development of story universals. To take a non-European and non-African example, we see this sort of intensification in different versions of the important, Chinese revenge story concerning the orphan of Zhao (赵氏孤儿; Zhàoshì gū’ér), where the orphan takes revenge for his biological father against a man who is in effect his adoptive father.

Along the same lines, Scalise Sugiyama discusses Polonius’s concerns about Ophelia’s chastity. She explains that “in Tiv terms . . . Polonius is worried that Hamlet’s romantic interest in Ophelia might compromise her honor, thereby lowering her bride price.” True, Polonius is not going to receive a bride price, so there is a cultural difference there. But this is more than a general matter of sharing “social exchange reasoning.” In terms of story universals, Polonius is here envisioning a fairly prototypical seduction story (see chapter four of my Affective). The seduction story involves a woman’s loss of marriage and life opportunities—and typically her family’s disgrace—due to non-marital sexual relations. This bears on the social and familial control of female sexuality, patterns in the development of ethical systems related to sexuality, and other cross-cultural practices and ideas that are more specific than social exchange reasoning.

As the preceding points suggest, the specificity of these cross-cultural patterns is connected with the surprising specificity of some cross-cultural patterns in genre (see “Story Universals”). There is certainly “diversity of themes, styles, and genres in world literature,” as Scalise Sugiyama points out. But there is also a great deal of continuity in genres (heroic, romantic, sacrificial, familial separation, revenge, seduction, criminal investigation) and themes (celebrating the in-group in heroic stories, criticizing individual revenge in opposition to standard social procedures in revenge stories), perhaps even styles (as may be suggested by points in Dan Shen’s “Commonalities behind/beside Differences between Chinese and English Narratives”).

In connection with this, it is worth noting that universals are not confined to innate patterns. It seems very unlikely that we are born with specific story templates. The common story structures are, rather, the result of storytellers realizing that some patterns are particularly effective. For example, outcome emotions are more intense when there is a change from a preceding emotion. Thus, happy endings are generally happier when they are preceded by seemingly tragic middles. The story structure that proceeds through loss to success need not be imprinted in our genes to arise in different traditions. Social development–of genre or anything else–can be convergent as well as divergent.

In sum, Scalise Sugiyama has written a cogent and insightful essay on the universals that underlie cultural differences. Indeed, Scalise Sugiyama’s argument can be pushed farther. The universals are not confined to a very abstract level, but extend down to the more specific level of genre and theme–though of course they do not go so far as to render genre and theme cross-culturally uniform.

Works Cited

Bohannan, Laura. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Originally published in Natural History 75 (1966): 28-33. Reprinted in The Informed Reader: Contemporary Issues in the Disciplines. Ed. C. Bazerman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989, 43-53.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.