LITERARY UNIVERSALS WEBLOG: A series of informal observations and conjectures aimed at fostering more reflection on and discussion about cross-cultural patterns in literature.
Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut
I began thinking about the possibility of a weblog for the Literary Universals Project as I was reading two excellent books in the past couple of weeks. The first is Lara Harb’s Arabic Poetics, a painstaking, scholarly examination of what the most important Medieval Arabic theorists viewed as producing aesthetic pleasure in response to a literary work. There are at least two ways in which one could relate a study of this sort to universals. The first does not consider the validity of the theories, but simply considers the degree to which closely comparable theories have arisen across (relatively) independent traditions. A difficulty arises here with regard to the requirement for areal distinctness in the study of universals. Specifically, the Arabic theorists were greatly influenced by Aristotle, and thus were not fully independent of—which is to say, not strictly areally distinct from—the European tradition. On the other hand, this influence is limited by the fact that their interpretation of Aristotle was often so different from that found in the west (or, as Vito Evola understandably prefers, as the west’s interpretation of Aristotle was often so different from that found among Arabic commentators). For example, the Medieval Arabic theorists lacked familiarity with tragedy, in some cases assimilating it to panegyric (see Harb 79-80). In any case, the second way that the Arabic theories may be connected with universals does address truth value. Specifically, it considers the degree to which we might reasonably judge these theories to be true, not only of the Arabic tradition, but of a range of traditions.
Harb herself comments briefly on the former. Specifically, she asserts early on that the Arabic theorists’ isolation of (what she calls) “wonder” gives “an aesthetic that is altogether different from the European conceptions of beauty and the sublime” (4). But at the end she modifies this claim, asserting connections with “the eighteenth-century Swiss thinker Johann Jakob Breitinger” (263), as well as the Russian Formalists, and the “French . . . semiotic approach” of Michael Riffaterre (264). She does not address the question of the broader validity of the theories.
Harb begins her book with a discussion of “old” vs. “new” styles in poetry. She relates this in part to “a shift from a tribal to a patron-based society” (25), the spread of literacy, and—what is “perhaps most important” (25)–the accumulation of “an established literary heritage within (and against) which . . . [new] poets composed their own poetry”(26). Admittedly, her construal of this situation has probably been influenced by ideas about the “querelle des anciens et des modernes.” Even so, it is very likely that the development of canons does in fact saddle new poets with “the burden of the past,” as Walter Jackson Bate has discussed. The experience of and response to such a burden, along with the related division between a set of established principles and a set of innovations, constitute likely candidates for at least typological universals (perhaps occurring only in literate cultures with a mercantile economy). On the other hand, the pattern here could be more general as well (e.g., the accumulation of oral poetry may be sufficient to produce a “burden of the past”). Moreover, it is unsurprising—but nonetheless significant—that this ancient-versus-modern opposition would involve such stylistic characterizations as “straightforward and natural” versus “obscure” and “contrived” or “affected” (27). These represent different levels of putative stylization that we find in a range of traditions. One end of the spectrum may be criticized as prosaic or praised as “natural”; the other may be dismissed as mannered or celebrated as “experimental.” (On the degrees of stylization, see my Style in Narrative, 39-41.)
Harb goes on to discuss the theories that developed out of the new poetry. These included a number of important concepts with resonances in theories found in other traditions (though in some cases this is probably due to influence). For example, a number of the Arabic theorists emphasize the crucial role played by takhyīl(roughly, imagination). Though a somewhat vague notion, this does bring to mind the concept of simulation in cognitive science, a concept that is crucial for cognitive accounts of creativity. The connection is strengthened by the close link between takhyīl and emotion (see 89; on the relation between simulation and emotion, see Hogan, Literature and Emotion, 43-44). On the other hand, the connection remains rather general, and at such a general level a link between imagination and literature may be uninformative.
More significant is the specific account of just how wonder, thus (by Harb’s account) aesthetic pleasure, is produced. Wonder is, she tells us, “a cognitive experience” through which “an emotional reaction [is] triggered by the strange and inexplicable” or “unexpected” (8). As it happens, this is very close to one aspect of the account of beauty developed in Beauty and Sublimity. In that book, I argue that, along with several other contributing factors, a recurrent element in aesthetic experience is the recognition of an unanticipated pattern. (A number of researchers have noted something along these lines; see, for example, Vuust and Kringelback on music. See also Fabb on the place of surprise in aesthetic response going beyond the experience of beauty.) The Arabic theorists’ view may seem to diverge from this account insofar as the literary work is “inexplicable,” whereas in my account the isolation of a new (explanatory) pattern is crucial. But Harb changes “inexplicable” on next page, writing “While ignorance might be the impetus for wonder initially, it is the eventual discovery of the meaning and its clarification” that is crucial; again, “that is highly cognitive in nature” (9). If correct (as I of course believe it is), this account should be widely applicable across unrelated traditions.
The second book that provoked this blog is the very different, but also outstanding–A History of Japanese Theatre, edited by Jonah Salz. In the past, I have drawn on Japanese dramatic works in isolating cross-cultural story prototypes, so I will set that topic aside. However, there are other points of connection that suggest possible universals. For example, when reading Terauchi Naoko’s “Ancient and Early Medieval Performing Arts,” I was reminded of the jo-ha-kyū (slow, moderate, quick) division (7; see also Laurence Kominz, “Premodern Playwriting Practices,” 367). That division serves to organize the story at several levels. For one thing, it points toward possible, cross-cultural patterns in the pacing of events. It seems likely that many traditions will tend to cluster rapidly changing, emotionally significant events at the conclusion of a story. This is not surprising, especially if there is a change in the valence of the predominant emotions, most obviously a decline into tragedy or a rise into comedy. The different resolving emotions of the tragic or comic conclusion would be intensified by rapid clustering.
More generally, the jo-ha-kyū division suggests that, in different cultures, people view event structure as fundamentally a matter of a beginning, middle, and end. This is, I suspect, a structure derived from goal pursuit, where the beginning is the establishment of the goal; the end is its achievement or definitive loss; and the middle is the pursuit proper. The causal sequences of, say, physics do not operate in this way, with this tripartite division. If they appear to do so, that is because we have imposed that structure on them.
Salz’s collection points us not only toward possible, cross-cultural patterns in events, but also in characters: Kyogen (the long-standing form of comic theater in Japan) has the following character types: “friendly gods, arrogant but stupid lords, lazy but clever servants, shrewish wives, browbeaten husbands, awkward bridegrooms, greedy priests, [and] fake . . . wizards” (Jonah Salz, “Kyogen: Classical Comedy,” 69). A monotheistic culture typically won’t have friendly gods, and I’m not sure how widespread the category is in polytheistic traditions. Though I have no doubt that all societies have their share of awkward bridegrooms in reality, such characters do not seem to be particularly salient, at least not in the European tradition. Greedy priests are quite visible in South Asian drama, specifically in the form of the vidūṣaka, a clownish Brahmin (member of the priestly caste), and in some modern, progressive, Indian literature. These two instances of traditions with greedy priests (Japan and India) would need to be supplemented if we were to consider this as a possible universal (even of the statistical variety). It does seem likely that characters of this sort appear in a range of traditions. One difficulty, however, lies in the ambiguity of “greedy.” The vidūṣaka is greedy in the sense that he wishes to be supported by a patron, who will treat him to good meals, but not in the sense that he tries to swindle people out of their money. Thus, the vidūṣaka may also be classed as a parasite character, of the sort discussed by Frye (166, 168, 175). On the other hand, this character is also often honest and loyal, thus sympathetic. Other cases of the greedy priest are not so innocuous and likeable. These other cases would include, for example, Brahmins in a modern work who demand that peasants pay substantial fees to have the priests perform socially necessary rituals. Moreover, charlatans who deceive people with their supposed supernatural powers (“fake . . . wizards”) may be greedy priests as well. Thus, the list of types here is not entirely transparent. There is overlap between categories and inconsistency within categories. This makes it somewhat difficult to estimate their recurrence across traditions or, sometimes, even to think of compelling examples.
The remaining types, however, are more straightforward, and clearly present in at least some unrelated traditions. The “arrogant but stupid lords” are a variant of the New Comedy senex iratus, the irascible old man, with some element of the miles gloriosus or braggart soldier as well. Combining these two is not a problem, because both New Comedy types are instances of Frye’s alazon, the character who overestimates himself or herself (39, 172). Alazon characters tend to be paired with eiron characters, who represent themselves as less than they are and, in part as a result of this misleading self-presentation, win out over the alazons. A standard case of the eiron from New Comedy is the wily servant (see Frye 73), thus the “clever servant” of Japanese tradition. Both alazon and eiron character types extend far beyond Greek and Roman New Comedy and Japanese Kyogen.
But this leaves us with the question of why these character types recur. It presumably has something to do with the way human social structures develop. Specifically, complex social relations seem to produce social hierarchies when there is durable, excess wealth (i.e., wealth that is not consumed to satisfy communal needs and that does not rot or otherwise lose its value). In this context, social hierarchies might develop through, for example, accidental events giving some people small advantages, which may then accumulate, eventually producing relatively stable social classes. Such a class hierarchy is not the result of some intellectual or other superiority of the dominant individuals. Moreover, dominated individuals are likely to recognize this and to resent it, even as dominant ideologies are likely to present the hierarchy as (in some sense) meritocratic or as established by God. In this social context, the foolish master and the wily servant are obvious character possibilities, appealing primarily to individuals from dominated groups. Moreover, the subordinated and demeaned groups often included playwrights and other theater people (see Salz 73 on the social status of actors; similar points could be made about other nations).
These points have consequences for recurring themes in literature as well. Thus, Salz points out that Kyogen plays “mocked traditionally revered figures” (77). Of course, that mockery was likely to please some viewers while displeasing others. Indeed, while plays often develop a sort of counter-ideology (mocking those who are commonly treated with reverence), dominant social groups frequently seek to recruit theatre to support standard hierarchies. For example, Julie Iezzi explains in “Kabuki: Superheroes and Femmes Fatales” that, in 1872, the “Ministry of Religious Affairs” “charged the theatre with educating . . . the populace” so as to “honor the Confucian ideal” (128). There are of course many cases of governments seeking to censor or otherwise suppress literary developments of anti-hierarchical themes. This sort of conflict is probably at the root of another cross-cultural literary practice—indirect representation. In “Bunraku Puppet Theatre,” Gotō Shisuo points out that many plays “set in the past” actually “comment covertly on contemporary political developments” (157, trans. Alan Cummings) or, as Andrew Gerstle states, many “history plays” serves “as a vehicle to comment on or criticize contemporary society” (“Chikamatsu Monzaemon: Puppet Playwright,”166-167). It should be obvious why more direct criticisms of dominant hierarchies might be imprudent.
The “shrewish wives” and “browbeaten husbands” of the Kyogen list also recur in some unrelated traditions. This is in part because there are such figures in life. But there are also unkind husbands and intimidated wives. The question then arises as to why we find the former types recurring in comedies, but not (it seems) the latter. The most obvious response is that, in this regard, (male-dominated) literature is simply guided by patriarchal ideology or even misogyny. This is certainly often the case. But it is important to stress that the typology here is for comedy. It seems likely that part of reason for the male/female asymmetry here derives from many people taking male unkindness to have more serious consequences than female unkindness. In other words, we may find a hectoring wife and a hen-pecked husband funny, but be more worried than amused by a bullying husband and intimidated wife.
There are several other points in A History of Japanese Theatre that recall features found in other traditions, ranging from the mere existence of puppet theater, to the organization of Japanese musical theater (“essentially the same structure employed by modern American musical plays” [Kominz 372]), to the association of “felicitous laughter” with “childish antics” (Salz 77; cf. chapter five of Hogan, What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion). But I cannot go through every relevant point in this sizable (592-page) book. I will conclude by remarking briefly on three features that recur in at least Japanese and American contexts and that I found particularly surprising. The first is the “star system” (Kominz 369, referring to Kabuki). It may at first seem counterintuitive that American film in the 20th Century and Japanese Kabuki in the 17th Century should both stress the appeal of particular actors. But, on reflection, it may actually be what one should have expected. There is reason to believe that we in effect respond emotionally to fiction as if it were real, though not (usually) urgent or proximate (see my “Paradoxes of Literary Emotion”). Actors are the part of this emotive “reality” that we see and hear. Although we know that the actors are not the characters, there is still some degree to which we are likely to connect the face we see and the voice we hear with our emotional response to the characters. This is consistent with the two other points that I also found initially surprising. First, popular Kabuki plays generated a market in textual “adaptations” (Kominz 371). In effect a version of “novelizations,” these texts presupposed the existence of a storyworld underwriting the play, a storyworld that could, in turn, be represented in an adaptation. This presupposition is not undermined by the fact that, unlike the case of non-fiction, there is no such underlying reality, and we even know that. Finally, the sale of adaptations was itself related to a range of “commercial publications for fan readership” beginning in the 17th Century (William Lee, “Premodern Practitioner Principles: Zeami to Chikamatsu,” 451). Personally, I have tended to think of fandom largely in relation to social media. But the psychological sources of fandom are clearly much more general.
The practices outlined in the preceding paragraphs call out for further study, prominently the isolation of related developments in other literary traditions. For the most part, the patterns I have been commenting on do not constitute absolute or near-absolute universals. If valid, they are, for the most part, implicational or typological, dependent on a particular type of socio-economic or other development. But that does not make them any less important or informative. Indeed, while literary universals are understudied in general, implicational and typological universals seem to be particularly ignored—especially those limited by socio-economic conditions. Perhaps this is due to the unfortunate tendency of humanists to see historical change and cross-cultural recurrence as mutually exclusive. However, understanding historical particulars—like understanding cultural particulars—not only uncovers differences, but reveals recurring patterns as well. It is just that we will fail to notice the latter (recurring patterns) when we have made up our minds beforehand that only the former (differences) are possible.
Bate, Walter Jackson. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991.
Fabb, Nigel. A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature. London: Anthem P, 2022.
Harb, Lara. Arabic Poetics: Aesthetic Experience in Classical Arabic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2020.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. Beauty and Sublimity: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Literature and the Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. Literature and Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2018.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Paradoxes of Literary Emotion: Simulation and The Zhào Orphan.” In The Routledge Companion to Literature and Emotion. Ed., Patrick Colm Hogan, Bradley J. Irish, and Lalita Pandit Hogan. New York: Routledge, 2022, 134-143.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. Style in Narrative: Aspects of an Affective-Cognitive Stylistics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2021.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.
Salz, Jonah, ed. A History of Japanese Theatre. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2016.
Vuust, Peter and Morten Kringelbach. “The Pleasure of Music.” In Pleasures of the Brain. Ed. Morten Kringelbach and Kent Berridge. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010, 255–269.