Embodiment and Universals

Vittorio Gallese, University of Parma, Italy, and University of London, UK,

and Hannah Chapelle Wojciehowski, University of Texas at Austin, USA,

with Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut, USA

PCH: It’s a great honor to be able to speak about literary universals with one of the most important neuroscientists working today and with an innovative, cognitive literary critic who seeks to integrate neuroscience and literary study. Professor Gallese, I realize that literature is not your area of research. However, I believe your insights will be very valuable to students of literature who are trying to determine just what might be universal in literature—absolutely, statistically, typologically, and so on. (On the varieties of universals, see my “What Are Literary Universals?”) Of course, Professor Wojciehowski, your expertise in literary study complements Professor Gallese’s orientation ideally.

I would like to take up your work on the arts and embodied simulation, with its relation to mirroring, while touching also on some other relevant ideas, such as Professor Gallese’s account of spatial experience. As to the former, Professor Gallese and David Freedberg “propose that a crucial element of esthetic response consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions and corporeal sensation, and that these mechanisms are universal.” In connection with works of representational art, “beholders might find themselves automatically simulating the emotional expression, the movement or even the implied movement within the representation” (Freedberg and Gallese 197). They further explain that “Our capacity to pre-rationally make sense of the actions, emotions and sensations of others depends on embodied simulation, a functional mechanism through which the actions, emotions or sensations we see activate our own internal representations of the body states that are associated with these social stimuli, as if we were engaged in a similar action or experiencing a similar emotion or sensation” (198).

It seems that this should extend, with only minor changes, to literature, which requires simulation as well, though the simulation is based on language, rather than perceived images. Indeed, the two of you stress embodied simulation in literary response in your article on “How Stories Make Us Feel.”

First, could you comment on what sorts of commonality you might expect to find in literature? What sorts of patterns would you look for in connection with mirroring and embodied simulation? I realize that, as a scientist and a humanist committed to scientific enquiry, you may be—quite rightly—hesitant to make claims without empirical support. But, as Karl Popper stressed, “bold conjectures” are important for science, because “only with the help of such bold conjectures can we hope to discover interesting and relevant truth” (312).


VG: Thank you for this stimulating opening question. It will also help me to clarify why a cognitive neuroscientist would be willing to address such a question and the ensuing ones. As Hannah and I recently stressed when writing about the so-called “biocultural turn,” more and more scholars are questioning the rigid dichotomy severing culture from nature (Wojciehowski and Gallese, “Narrative”). Hannah and I agree upon the necessity to overcome this dichotomy, on the basis of the assumption that culture can be considered as an extension or outgrowth of the natural. To paraphrase Helmuth Plessner, as human beings we are artificially natural and naturally artificial.

In this vein, culture can be described as a naturally evolved type of human cognitive technology. According to the evolutionary framework, human cultural evolution can be conceived as a perpetually dynamic process of cognitive technological development, where the first prehistoric lithic tools and the iPhone 7 used to shoot a feature movie (Unsane, Steven Soderberg, 2018) represent two different and temporally distinct outcomes of the same technological dimension. What we currently designate as “literature” constitutes no exception to this perspective. The biocultural paradigm posits that any human technology is at the same time the expression of the human mind and of humans’ bodily nature, as the latter scaffolds the former.

To put it in more radical terms, we are always dealing with two sides of the same coin. Nevertheless, the human mind and humans’ bodily nature should be kept separate at the operational level, as they are best approached and studied from multiple perspectives, according to multiple methodologies, leading to correspondingly different levels and languages of description. The real challenge for the biocultural approach is to define bridge concepts and/or empirically test how to deconstruct, revise or even dissolve many of the conceptual tools we currently employ to discuss art, literature, and their reception.

But what is the bearing of neuroscience? I think that cognitive neuroscience can provide those bridge concepts, as it is well equipped to address the conceptualization of human culture, art and literature by investigating the underpinning brain-body mechanisms. By studying the brain-body in relation to artistic expressions and their reception we can better understand the constitutive elements of aesthetic experience and the genesis of aesthetic concepts.

Let me now address more specifically your question about literary universals. First of all, do they exist? I think that the biocultural approach is best suited to address this question, as it allows to overcome the often-supposed equivalence between universality and natural determinism. Indeed, if one considers human culture and nature as mutually interacting domains, any biological description of human cognitive/cultural traits is neither forced to surrender to deterministic innatism, nor to neglect historical and ethnological cultural diversity. This still allows one to look for universals.

Even before asking whether literary universals do exist, I think we should answer an even more fundamental question: what is literature for? Cognitive literary theorist Michele Cometa recently argued that stories help us to live because they help us to compensate for our finitude and related inadequacy at coping with the world’s challenges. It is fair to say that virtually all human beings share the same impulse to narrate – and listen to – stories. Thus, the first universal seems to be fiction-proclivity. I see it as a particular case of the wider human propensity to create parallel worlds, likely first imagining them, then turning those fantasies into images, signs and words. In that respect, solid empirical evidence shows that the neurobiological mechanisms interfacing us with the “real world,” largely overlap with those acting when we imagine fictional worlds both through images and words. Indeed, experiencing an emotion and imagining it are both underpinned by the activation of partly identical brain circuits, although differently connected, when engaged in these different cognitive and phenomenal situations. Similarly, to see something and to imagine it, to act and to imagine one is acting, share the activation of partly common brain circuits.Hence, embodied simulation theory can be used both to account for how we perceive the world and how we imagine it, or build a world of fiction. Basically, my hypothesis is that the world of literature is “felt” not too differently from how we feel the more prosaic world of our daily life. We feel for and empathize with fictional characters in ways that are similar to how we feel for our real social partners, although with qualifying differences (see below).


HCW:  I will add one thing here that is important to establish at the outset of our discussion: when we speak of literary universals, we need to leave open the possibility of exceptions.  In many areas of literary studies today, and for the past several decades, the idea of universals has been heavily challenged. That is because abstract notions of the human or of human experience have often functioned as de factomeans of validating the tastes, values, and authority of dominant groups over those of everyone else within some larger polity.  Literary critics tend to be skeptical of claims to universality—and rightly so. There are persistent and ongoing concerns that any claims to universality will be ensconced as social or cultural norms that delegitimize or stigmatize persons or groups whose experiences do not conform to those norms.

All three of us understand the potential for misuse and/or the denial or suppression of differences in human experiences of all kinds.  Nevertheless, I would argue that we should not be afraid to investigate and to theorize aesthetic experience in light of new scientific discoveries of the underlying mechanisms of human and animal perception, or human-as-animal perception, with the caveat that there are risks involved in claiming universality.  There is new empirical data coming out every day that is highly relevant to what we do as literary critics, and it would be a mistake to ignore it.  Is there still room to talk about universals, relatively speaking, or common experiences? Yes, absolutely.  Moreover, it is necessary and helpful to do so, because it may have the effect of creating conversations across perceived barriers between groups, however we might define them.  Exploring universals may help us gain a better understanding of the categories of experience that we may share with the animal world.


PCH: Before turning to verbal literature, I thought it might be worthwhile to take up the case of picture-based narrative. Relative to paintings, on the one hand, and verbal literature, on the other, picture-based narrative presents an intermediate case, where images are embedded in text. The obvious instance of the last is contemporary graphic fiction, but the practice of intertwining words and drawings in storytelling extends back centuries in a range of traditions (see, for example, Mair). One motif that seems to recur in a number of traditions is the descent into Hell or, more broadly, the depiction of extreme suffering. Here are four examples of what I have in mind, one from Bengal, one from Thailand, one from the United States, and one from Iran (via France). I would like to ask two questions here. First, do you have any thoughts on this as a recurring motif across traditions? (We will turn to some purely literary examples later.) Second, what would you say about the embodied responses that these works seek to elicit, how they do so, and what that might say about cross-cultural patterns in literary or aesthetic production and reception? (I have included the reproductions to make it possible to comment on specific points in the works, if you like.) I am obviously concerned here with “the relationship between embodied empathetic feelings in the observer and the representational content of the works in terms of the actions, intentions, objects, emotions and sensations depicted in a given painting or sculpture” (Freedberg and Gallese 199)—or, in this case, image plus text.


Figure 1. Bengali scroll illustration of “the tortures of hell,” depicting, “among other things, how a liar’s tongue is pulled out with hot tongs and how a miser’s head is smashed with a husking pedal” (Hauser 117).


Figure 2. Thai scroll depiction of the Buddhist monk, Phra Malai, visiting Hell (Lefferts 158). Lefferts explains that the souls in Hell are “in a boiling cauldron” (157). Phra Malai clarifies how they can be released from suffering. I [PCH] might add to Lefferts’s observations that the souls in Hell appear to have adopted the same prayerful posture as the seemingly peaceful beings who accompany the monks—not what one might expect from the cross-culturally common motif of burning in Hell. They are also linked with those beings by the purple color motif (as the monks are linked by their ochre robes).


Figure 3. From Spiegelman’s Maus II (72): One of the methods of mass execution in Auschwitz.


Figure 4. From Satrapi’s Persepolis (15): An atrocity—a crowd locked in a burning theater—that contributes to revolutionary anger in Iran.


HCW: Great question.  In each image, Hell (1-2) or a hellish place or situation (3-4) entails physical pain. Why is hell so often associated with burning?  Is it because being consumed by fire is one of the most excruciating forms of pain that the human body can experience?  The text accompanying the Maus image (3) suggests the prolongation and intensification of that physical pain; those words provide a context that the image does not do on its own.  The Bengali scroll (1) features women getting their tongues torn out by demons–once again, an extreme image of physical pain caused by bodily dismemberment.  The bowl of tongues could function to terrorize the viewer of the scroll, or perhaps it provides comic relief, implying that there are a lot of liars out there.  The liars in this image are female; is the artist taking a dig at women?  It would seem so.  Meanwhile the Thai scroll (2) depicts souls in a cauldron of boiling water. This is more of a purgatorial image, since these souls are performing penance that will enable their rebirth.

Every human body feels pain, with rare exceptions. There are a tiny number of people who lack the pain-sensing mechanisms that we generally rely on in order to avoid damaging our bodies, but most people are capable of feeling pain.  The ability to experience physical pain is something we share with virtually everyone who has ever lived, and many or most animal species, as well.  Religion frequently capitalizes on that fact in order to elicit certain behaviors from human communities—do what we say, or bad things will happen to you.  Religious imagery of hell elicits embodied simulation on the part of the viewer.  We simulate in our minds the affective components of pain, but not the physical ones, as Tania Singer et al. demonstrated in an important study of how we mirror the pain of others.  When we see images such as these, we imagine what that suffering feels like—indeed, we cannot not imagine it, or only with considerable difficulty.

Each of the four images above features not only pain, but also vulnerable bodies.  This vulnerability is depicted via a range of motifs, such as nudity (1-2), sexual defenselessness (1), mouths open in pain (3-4), bodily contortions (1, 3-4), and captivity (1-4).  Physical pain or discomfort is the primary motif of hell, whether that hell has been created by supernatural forces or by humans.  Each image is a prompt to moral reflection that arises from the perception and co-experience of pain.


VG: These four images wouldn’t need any explanatory word, as they are self-evident. Such self-evidence also stems from the beholders’ embodied simulation of the bodily postures, facial expressions and affective correlates of the depicted situations leading the portrayed human bodies to suffer. What is depicted evokes a bodily simulated response; words most likely provide a context, which in turn can modulate those same responses.


PCH: Each of the preceding selections involves moral and/or political concerns. For instance, the Bengali example clearly represents a kind of tit-for-tat punishment for moral failings. On the other hand, readers today are likely to notice immediately that the sinners or victims are all women and the punishers or demons are all male. Similarly, the image from Satrapi is complicated. The complicity of the police with the killing suggests government involvement, but the participation of secular progressives in the revolution might have contributed to the eventual victory of religious reaction in Iran. Where do you see the place of mirroring and embodied empathy in the ethical and political programs of literature (in these cases or elsewhere)?


HCW:  Your question cuts to the chase.  Implicitly you are asking about the stakes of cognitive literary studies, not just for its current practitioners but potentially for literary theorists and cultural studies practitioners who might not see its relevance to more politically and socially driven forms of critique.  These would include feminisms and queer theories, critical race studies, and disability studies, among others.  In fact, the wide-ranging set of discourses that is sometimes called cognitive theory or cognitive cultural studies is highly useful when blended with identity-focused ethical critiques such as those just mentioned, even though that combination may seem counter-intuitive to critics who have been trained to eschew essentialisms of all varieties.  But understanding the mechanisms of shared human experience, or human-animal experience, is not essentialist in itself.  It depends what you do with it.

For example, understanding the near-universality of human pain experiences, together with the variability of the mirroring mechanism (it is innate but not always a given) could be put to the service of a feminist reading of the Bengali scroll.  Are viewers supposed to empathize with the women being tortured and punished?  Why or why not?  How might viewer/reader acts of empathy or of disengagement vary from culture to culture, or from time period to time period? How else might we account for the variety of possible reactions on the part of viewers?  Does the artist’s vision or intention matter?  Why or why not?  These and similar questions are highly salient to our understanding of how works of art make us feel, and whatthey make us feel.

Artists and writers understand that humans live and move in the world via pain-sensing mechanisms, among other things, and they put that understanding to work in their representations of experience. Pain doesn’t have to be present in every painting or story, but it often is, and it can be used deliberately and innovatively in order to have the viewer or reader feel moved in some way. In these images from Maus and Persepolis, we understand that it is humans, rather than God or demons, who have inflicted these sadistic punishments on the innocent bodies of their victims, and we contemplate that injustice.  We empathize with those in pain.  We may desire to understand the social and political contexts of the violence that we are witnessing.

The experience of a powerful work of art may produce a surfeit of feeling—here, distress–that impels us to put emotion and sensation into words.  We may seek to share that experience with others as ethical and/or aesthetic reflections that can be threaded through the rest of our reality.


VG: Mirroring and embodied empathy are not stereotyped and undifferentiated responses. They are both context-dependent and idiosyncratically linked to beholders’ and/or readers’ personal historical, social and biological identity. The political and ethical impact of literature – and of art in general—clearly depend upon how these individual modulating factors affect the bodily responses they trigger. In other words, I think that in our response to literature there always be a projective quality, related to how our personal life history has determined the development of our embodied cognition, as the latter is the outcome of our bodily habits and implicit memories. Each of us, to a certain degree simulates a given fictional content in a very specific way. Indeed, the more we factor in inter-individual diversity, the more we understand how differently people relate to fiction. Contemporary political discourse exemplifies that pretty neatly: some contents that were considered taboo just few years ago, are now openly addressed.


PCH: In connection with this, I might remark on the apparently very different orientation of the Bengali and Thai depictions (though Lefferts does indicate that some other Thai representations are more graphic about the sufferings of those in Hell [157]). I would suggest that this is due to a general, Buddhist tendency to move away from moral judgment to prudence and the associated stress on compassion. (This is related to the Buddhist allowance of many chances across many lives.) Buddhist detachment is beneficial because it is prudent; not following it is a painful mistake, not an offense against God. The same points would hold for some versions of Hinduism, but the influences of Christian and Muslim monotheism and moralism have been strong in Bengal. In any case, do you have any thoughts on the different sorts of embodied and mirroring responses that might bear on these sorts of differences in ethics and politics? Neither the more compassionate view of the Buddhists nor the righteous condemnation of sinners is uniform across societies. I take this to be relevant to universals because neither is uniform within a society either. What might be universal is the different ways one might conceive of ethics, politics, and empathic or compassionate response.


HCW:  Yet another great question.  One of the most influential books of the 1980s among literary critics was Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.  This was an incredibly ambitious book written from a psychoanalytic and anthropological perspective; Kristeva’s topic, abjection, refers to what she argued is a universal human revulsion toward whatever in real life or in fantasy threatens the boundaries between self and other.  One portion of her book explored the ways that each different religion formalizes its own set of relations to the abject in order to provide mastery over it.

So what I am thinking is that someone needs to write a new theory of world religion with embodied cognition and neuroscience in mind.  To what extent would such a project be compatible with Kristeva’s psychoanalytic theory of abjection in religion and art, or with any other analysis?  Likely it would break new ground.


VG: I agree. As I tried to say in my previous answer, the biocultural search for universals does not imply, let alone posit cultural homogeneity. The same neurobiological mechanisms are at stake in every culture. However, we speak of different cultures or of different responses within the same culture, precisely because these mechanisms are plastic and bear the mark of each individual’s personal identity, thus leading to personalized forms of embodiment.


PCH: Here, we might turn to verbal literature. There are many cases of the descent into hell in different literary traditions. The obvious example is, of course, Dante. (I’ve given a selection below, but you should feel free to take up any part you like.) Other examples would include the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata. At the end of that massive work, one of the main characters, Yudhiṣṭhira goes to Heaven. He finds “prosperity,” “effulgence like the sun,” and the dissolution of enmity (1). But he feels enmity for those in Heaven and longing for those who are not, and therefore descends into Hell, led by a Virgil-like guide. Hell is “enveloped in thick darkness” and “Polluted with . . . stench,” filled with harassing insects, surrounded by fire, and fed with a river of boiling water (3). He witnesses tortures all around. Dispirited by what he experiences, Yudhiṣṭhira decides to turn back. However, he hears the laments of his family, who find his presence consoling and in some degree relieving.

In these passages, we see that the descent into Hell has a long and diverse history. What do you make of the recurrence of this idea in these complex, verbal texts? Where do you see embodied simulation functioning in cross-culturally consequential ways?

From the final canto of Inferno (XXXIV):

Quando noi fummo fatti tanto avante,

ch’al mio maestro piacque di mostrarmi

la creatura ch’ebbe il bel sembiante,


d’innanzi mi si tolse e fé restarmi,

«Ecco Dite», dicendo, «ed ecco il loco

ove convien che di fortezza t’armi».


Com’ io divenni allor gelato e fioco,

nol dimandar, lettor, ch’i’ non lo scrivo,

però ch’ogne parlar sarebbe poco.


Io non mori’ e non rimasi vivo;

pensa oggimai per te, s’hai fior d’ingegno,

qual io divenni, d’uno e d’altro privo.


Lo ‘mperador del doloroso regno

da mezzo ‘l petto uscia fuor de la ghiaccia;

e più con un gigante io mi convegno,


che i giganti non fan con le sue braccia:

vedi oggimai quant’ esser dee quel tutto

ch’a così fatta parte si confaccia.


S’el fu sì bel com’ elli è ora brutto,

e contra ‘l suo fattore alzò le ciglia,

ben dee da lui procedere ogne lutto.


Oh quanto parve a me gran maraviglia

quand’ io vidi tre facce a la sua testa!

L’una dinanzi, e quella era vermiglia;


l’altr’ eran due, che s’aggiugnieno a questa

sovresso ‘l mezzo di ciascuna spalla,

e sé giugnieno al loco de la cresta:


e la destra parea tra bianca e gialla;

la sinistra a vedere era tal, quali

vegnon di là onde ‘l Nilo s’avvalla.


Sotto ciascuna uscivan due grand’ ali,

quanto si convenia a tanto uccello:

vele di mar non vid’ io mai cotali.


Non avean penne, ma di vispistrello

era lor modo; e quelle svolazzava,

sì che tre venti si movean da ello:


quindi Cocito tutto s’aggelava.

Con sei occhi piangëa, e per tre menti

gocciava ‘l pianto e sanguinosa bava.


Da ogne bocca dirompea co’ denti

un peccatore, a guisa di maciulla,

sì che tre ne facea così dolenti.


A quel dinanzi il mordere era nulla

verso ‘l graffiar, che talvolta la schiena

rimanea de la pelle tutta brulla.


(“The emperor of the woeful realm from his midbreast issued forth from the ice; and I match better with a giant, than the giants do with his arms. See now how great must be that whole which corresponds to such parts. If he was as fair as he now is foul, and against his Maker lifted up his brow, surely may all tribulation proceed from him. Oh how great a marvel it seemed to me, when I saw three faces on his head! one in front, and that was red; the others were two that were joined to this above the very middle of each shoulder, and they were joined together at the place of the crest; and the right seemed between white and yellow, the left was such to sight as those who come from where the Nile flows valleyward. Beneath each came forth two great wings, of size befitting so huge a bird. Sails of the sea never saw I such. They had no feathers, but their fashion was of a bat; and he was flapping them so that three winds went forth from him, whereby Cocytus was all congealed. With six eyes he was weeping, and over three chins trickled the tears and bloody drivel. With each mouth he was crushing a sinner with his teeth, in manner of a brake, so that he thus was making three of them woeful. To the one in front the biting was nothing to the clawing, so that sometimes his spine remained all stripped of skin.”)


HCW:   We might also ask why heaven is “up there” in Dante, in the Mahābhārata, and in general.  I am struck by the useless wings of Satan, who cannot fly out of hell because he is entrapped in the ice of the frozen Cocytus, which his own wing-flapping keeps frozen.  We don’t have wings, and we cannot fly by our own power, and yet we can co-feel with Satan, insofar as we know what it feels like to be trapped, to be cold, and perhaps sometimes to be miserable.  We do not empathize with Satan, most of us, because the narrative guides us to identify with Dante and Virgil, who are horrified by him (speaking of abjection). In order to escape, they must grab onto the immense hairy body of the demon and climb down through a space between his body and the ice.  When Virgil reaches the hip, positioned at the center of the earth, he pivots.  In order to come out on the other side, he must turn upside-down, which is really right-side up.

The last four lines of the Inferno knock my socks off.  Dante writes:

salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle
che porta ’l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle. (136-139)

(“We mounted up again, he first and I second, till through a round opening I saw of those beauteous things which heaven bears, and thence we came forth to see again the stars.”)

After imagining and co-feeling the impotence of the three damnedest of the damned—Brutus, Judas and Cassius—as they are cannibalized by Satan, and of Satan himself, a flightless demon-bat hybrid stuck in the pit of hell, we imagine the feeling of inverting, of literally and figuratively coming out on the other side.  We feel with the two of them a renewed sense of agency, of upward movement, which for Dante is a completely unexpected reversal, and perhaps even a rebirth through the pertugio tondo (see my forthcoming essay “Metaphors They Lived By”).  We co-feel with the two voyagers a sense of exhilaration as they begin their climb toward heaven, which only one of them—Dante–will enter.


VG: The cross-cultural pervasiveness of the trope “descent to hell” is likely the outcome of a vastly shared negative connotation of the downward polarity of space. If one thinks about body physiology, for example nutrients, oxygen, as well as the teleoceptive senses enabling us to be in touch with the world, like sight and audition, enter the body in its upper part, while dejections come out from its lower one. Following Lakoff and Johnson original insight (1981), human cognition in general, and ethics and politics in particular, are mapped by the body through metaphorical mapping. This is one of the most important element justifying the notion that the human mind is physically- and thus bodily-situated. By the way, embodiment also provides the key explanation for the verses describing Lucifer’s bodily actions being so compelling and disturbing: indeed, Lucifer’s restless wing flapping associated with his perpetual forced stillness, because of the grip of the frozen soil, increases our feeling of uneasiness, as it brings along a sense of useless effort and the accompanying feeling of frustration.


PCH: I have mentioned to you before that it might make sense to try to isolate different “profiles of embodied response,” as we might call them, outlines of the degree and kind of (simulative) mirror neuron or similar activation that may be provoked in a subject while reading a literary work. For example, romantic and heroic stories are perhaps the most common genres cross-culturally. These clearly involve simulation—gentle and intimate in the former case, energetic and combative in the second. I wonder about the degree to which embodied simulation may figure in the apparent prominence of these genres. Put differently, would embodied simulation operate with the same intensity in sacrificial, family reunion, or revenge and criminal investigation stories? (For an outline of the cross-cultural narrative genres, see “Story.”)


HCW:  Well, there is some historical variability in the popularity of genres.  Why that would be I’m not sure, but it’s something to think about.  For example, criminal investigation stories are in ascendance in our own time. Romances were very popular in the Renaissance (I am describing a genre that is somewhat different from what most people mean by “romance” today).  I was going to say that epics abound in antiquity, though the omnipresent superhero films of the current moment are certainly epic.   It makes me wonder why certain affective scenarios / fantasy clusters are valued more at certain times more than others.


VG: One way to answer this question would be to posit that literary genres can be equated to different mindsets, each of which presupposes specific rules, mappings and their related bodily images and behaviors. However, each of this supposedly different mind sets share a great deal of underpinning neurobiological mechanisms. For example, according to René Girard comedy and tragedy show, at bottom, a common mimetic scheme: laughter and tears share the same propensity to put the body into play to expel from it, and cathartically remove the mimetic conflict pattern, which is at the center of both the comic theater and the tragic one. It is no coincidence, Girard says, that laughter is most evoked by tickling, a bodily practice that simulates an attack on the other’s body. Comedy thus becomes an “intellectual tickle” that puts us in a position to witness the eternal conflictual reciprocity of our species, ritualized in the mimetic scheme intrinsic to the comic genre.


PCH: I also wonder if you have any thoughts on the ways embodiment or mirroring operate in fiction and non-fiction? I have claimed for some time that our minds are set up in order to respond to fiction and non-fiction similarly (see chapter one of How Authors’ Minds Make Stories). The adaptive function of simulation relies on our having an emotional-motivational response to imagined scenarios, pursuing those that appear to be opportunities and shunning those that seem to pose threats, thus those that inspire desire in the former case and fear in the latter case. Nonetheless, it is clear that we do in some respects respond differently to imagined and real scenarios—including in empathic response. For example, it at least seems that we are much more willing to have compassion for “sinners” in novels than in news stories. Do embodied cognition and mirroring processes tell us something about this?


VG: Indeed, it is true that we respond differently to imagined and real scenarios: no one rushes out of the movie theatre in panic after watching a house on fire on the movie screen. The same applies to literature. So far we emphasized, clearly, the similarity between our responses to fiction and non-fiction. This similarity transpires even at the level of single neurons. A recent study by Caggiano et al. showed that macaques’ mirror neurons respond to both the observation of real actions performed by the experimenter physically present in front of them, and to their filmed footage displayed on a computer screen. However, needless to say, there is something distinctive of our response to fiction. What might that be?

A possible solution to this conundrum is offered by the hypothesis of “liberated embodied simulation.” That is to say, embodied simulation can be relevant to our experience of fictional worlds because of the potentiation of the mirroring mechanisms that they activate (Gallese “Aby” and “Embodied”; Wojciehowski and Gallese “How” and “Narrative”). In this way, embodied simulation generates the specific attitude informing our aesthetic experience. Such potentiation supposedly boosts the bodily memories and imaginative associations that fictional content awakes in our minds, and thus provides the specific character of its reception. How is such potentiation achieved? One important context-dependent aspect characterizing our relationship to fictional worlds deals with our distancing from the unrelated external world, which remains at the periphery of our attentional focus. Such distancing, this temporary suspension of the active grip on our daily occupations, liberates new simulative energies. When reading a novel, we distance ourselves from the “everyday” context. By adopting such an attitude, our embodied simulation becomes “liberated”—that is, it is freed from the burden of modeling our actual psychophysical presence in daily life; hence, new simulative energies are liberated. The specific and particularly moving experience generated when relating to the world of fiction is enhanced by the sense of safe intimacy with a world we not only imagine, but also literally embody with augmented intensity. Furthermore, when engaged with fictional narratives, the contextual bodily framing—our being still—additionally boosts our embodied simulation. Being forced to inaction, we are more open to feelings and emotions. When relating to fictional worlds, our attitude toward their content can be characterized as a sort of “neotenic look” (Gallese “Neoteny”). This is similar to the way we look at the world during the early period of our development, in which, because of our poor motor autonomy, our interactions with the world are mainly mediated by the embodied simulation of events, actions, and emotions animating our social landscape. We probably learn to calibrate gestures and expressions and to match them with experiences of pleasure/displeasure, while observing them in others, thanks to embodied simulation and its plasticity.

When we relate to fictional worlds, our relative immobility is the outcome of a deliberate decision on our part. However, immobility, that is, a greater degree of motor inhibition, likely allows us to allocate more neural resources to the task at hand, intensifying the activation of embodied simulation and, in so doing, making us adhere more intensely to what we are simulating. This, in turn, helps strengthen our empathic engagement. Curiously enough, some of the most vivid fictional experiences we entertain, such as those occurring within dreams, are paralleled by the massive inhibition of the muscle tone in our body.


HCW:   Hmm.  I would distinguish not only between fiction and non-fiction, but also between third- and first-person narratives.  The latter, whether true or false, are usually easier to follow and imagine from the protagonist’s perspective.  The first-person narrative that has the feel of truth—that is, of being non-fiction—tends to draw us in.  Artful third-person or the much rarer second-person narratives can also pull us in.   So I’m not sure about this question.  There are a lot of variables to take into account.


PCH: As I mentioned before, I would like to turn briefly toward the issue of space. You recently published an essay of mine on “Affective Space and Emotional Time,” where I considered emotional aspects of space in poems by the great Chinese writers, Lǐ Bái (李白) and Lǐ Qīngzhào (李清照). Though I was not focusing on literary universals in that essay, it seems clear that the various aspects of space treated by those poets—for example, its organization in terms of attachment relations—carry over to a wide range of writers from other traditions and other time periods. Indeed, I have maintained in The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology that the emotional organization of space is crucial to recurring features of the cross-cultural genres, as in the common exile of the legitimate leader in heroic usurpation stories or that of the lover in romantic stories.

I suspect that there are many aspects of spatial experience that have cross-cultural literary functions, including aspects of bodily, peripersonal, and extrapersonal space (see Rizzolatti and colleagues), the experience of spatial boundaries and body ownership, and other topics. For example, Professor Gallese and David Freedberg explain that “When we see the body part of someone else being touched or caressed, or when we see two objects touching each other, our somatosensory cortices are activated as if our body were subject to tactile stimulation” (201). This phenomenon seems likely to figure in the development of, for example, erotic literature—a familiar genre in the West, but one that flourished in, for example, India and China as well. I also imagine that it has a place in familial attachment and separation narratives. Do you have comments or observations on the implications of Professor Gallese’s work for thinking about (perhaps at this point merely conjecturing about) the various types of spatial experience and their possible relation to literary universals?


HCW:   There’s plenty of room for comment here—pun intended.  Erotic literature and romance, as well as pornography, play with the sensations of pleasure that are generated in the reader or viewer when distances are crossed, and contact—the bridging of physical or psychic space–occurs.  Patrick, you relate these sensations to familial narratives, which is an intriguing and non-intuitive connection to make.  I am reminded of the parable of the prodigal son, which concludes with the highly satisfying contraction of the heartbreaking physical and emotional distance that separates parents and child for most of the story.

These sensations can work in the other direction, as you suggest of separation narratives.  Estrangement within narratives, tales of separation and isolation, may turn on the absence or loss of physical contact, an opening up of physical or temporal space and distance, that we co-feel as we read or watch.  The genre of a work determines how the usual push-pull of contact and separation will play out according to an established formula.  But if the story should play out differently, then we might be surprised to find ourselves in another genre–distanced, as it were, from our prior horizon of expectations, not in Kansas anymore.


PCH: As to family separation and reunion narratives and tactility, what I had in mind was that not only sexual desire, but non-sexual attachment is commonly expressed and communicated through bodily contact. Caresses and embraces do not need to be erotic. Indeed, they are often important in family reunion, as their impossibility is a painful consequence of separation.

A final question: What other aspects of your work do you feel might be particularly relevant to the study of literary universals?


VG:  I guess we badly need to investigate different cultures and different literary traditions. We all know too well how in the past universality claims were used to support and consolidate a Western-centric view of culture.


HCW:  I am a literary historian by training—one who has specialized in late medieval and Renaissance literature.  Students tend to steer clear of premodern literature because it seems incredibly foreign to them.  Indeed, there are many hurdles to understanding, and as a teacher and scholar of the period, I can avail myself of two approaches:  1) highlighting cultural differences, ruptures, and other impasses to understanding; and 2) highlighting continuities of and within the human experience, which, like Dante and Virgil flipping over as they pass through to the other side, suddenly enable us to make sense of what we otherwise see and experience as forbiddingly or perhaps delightfully alien.  Either way works, and these approaches work even better in tandem.


PCH:    Thank you both very much for your generosity in participating in this interview. I know you are both very busy and it is not a small thing for you to take this amount of time. The result, however, will undoubtedly be beneficial to readers of the website, both humanists and scientists.

In conclusion, I might remark briefly on the important political issues you both rightly mention. As you know, the explicit program of the Literary Universals Project to foster the empirical study, including both description and explanation, of literary universals, as defined on the website in the following terms: “For any given domain of literature (e.g., narrative), universals are features of works in that domain that recur across genetically and areally unrelated traditions with greater frequency than would be predicted by chance” (“What Are Literary Universals?”). It is important to stress that this is a search for universals in the sense of what distinct traditions share. The politically offensive sense of “universal” is almost the exact opposite. It is an assertion of difference across cultures, combined with a claim that one culture should be forced on all the others, since that culture is supposedly “universal,” while the others are not. For example, in literary history, this objectionable sense of “universal” is found in the view that European literary works (e.g., Hamlet) are “universal,” while the literary works of other traditions (e.g., Abhijñānaśākuntalam) are merely of local interest.

In short, the politically objectionable use of “universal” is actually anti-universalist in that it is founded on assumptions of differences across cultures. This is in keeping with general patterns. No fascist ever justified killing Jews by claiming that Jews and Aryans share universal, human features. Nazis rationalized murder by claiming that Jews, Roma, the disabled, and others were fundamentally different. No racist ever justified slavery by saying that Africans and Europeans were fundamentally the same. Racists rationalized slavery by claiming that Africans and Europeans were radically different.

Thus, it is certainly important to discern how someone is using the word, “universal.” But a prima facie political skepticism seems warranted only when the term is being used in one, apparently anti-universalist sense. Specifically, claims of universality might reasonably provoke something like “strict scrutiny” (to borrow a phrase from constitutional law) when those claims in fact assert cultural difference—or, more precisely, when they assert cultural difference in fundamental psychological or other principles. There are, of course, distinct ways of instantiating cross-culturally shared principles. Indeed, one must recognize the variables even to formulate the shared principles. For example, there is reason to believe that all or most traditions–in certain, specifiable respects–shape standard poetic line length through the constraints of working memory (on the complexities of such a principle, see Nigel Fabb’s “Poetic Line Length”). But the precise details of standard poetic line length—thus, the way the shared principle is particularized–are not identical across traditions, periods, movements, or individual poets. The point is that empirically isolating the shared principle of constraint should not be considered a politically suspect undertaking.

Of course, someone might mistakenly assert that a certain feature is shared across genetically and areally distinct literary traditions. A research program in literary universals needs to evaluate all claims on the basis of evidence in such a way as to reject or revise as many such mistaken claims as possible. But that is simply part of ordinary, empirical science and applies as much to biology or physics as to literary study.



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