Blog for October 2023: Love Stories and Historical Universals

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

Nicolas Baumard (Centre nationale de la recherche scientifique, Paris) and his collaborators designed and followed out a series of rigorous empirical studies treating “The cultural evolution of love in literary history.” The questions addressed in this study are, first, has romantic love varied in its social importance and, second, if so, what explains this fluctuation. A year and a half ago, they published their findings in an illuminating article, which I have just had the great pleasure of reading.

From the preceding summary, this research may appear irrelevant to a website on literary universals, as it does not initially seem to treat either literature or universals. However, the research focuses on the presence and importance of romantic love in literary fiction. This serves as a gauge for estimating the importance of romantic love in the societies where the literary works were written. Moreover, in treating literary romantic love, Baumard et al. in effect consider romantic tragi-comedy, though they do not generally phrase their findings in narratological terms.

As to universals, it might seem that a treatment of a history of changes would be the opposite of a study of universals. But, first, one presumption of the research is that romantic narratives are to be found in a range of genetically distinct traditions. Specifically, the focus of the study is on the fact that the prominence of the romantic genre varies, not only in Europe, but in China, Japan, India, and the Middle East. To vary, it must of course be present, part of the storytelling repertoire in all those traditions. In addition, their explanation for this variation is that romantic love increases in literary prominence as a given society makes advances in economic development. In The Mind and Its Stories (28-29), I drew on the linguistic study of universals to isolate different types of universal. These include historical universals. Historical universals are implicational or typological universals whose outcomes vary in systematic, predictable ways, depending on some features of their historical conditions (such as the prominence of mercantile capitalism). The research program of Baumard and colleagues is an exemplary instance of isolating and explaining an historical universal. That is particularly important as, among humanists, historical universals are hardly even acknowledged as a possible category.

Baumard et al.’s research shows us what could be gained by systematic, interdisciplinary work on literary universals, undertaken collectively. Conversely, it indicates some of what is lost when that cooperative work is absent (as it is, due primarily to the strange prejudices against seeking cross-cultural patterns, prejudices that pervade literary study today). In some cases, I believe Baumard and colleagues would have benefited from this interaction. For example, in characterizing romantic works, Baumard et al. contrast romantic love with sexual desire. In a sense, this is obvious. But it is also somewhat misleading. Sexual desire is one of the emotion systems that is recruited in the development of romantic love (see What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion, 33-37) and is, as such, part of romantic stories. The other component emotion systems are attachment (rightly emphasized by Baumard and colleagues) and what might be called “reward dependency” (a key factor in, for example, the suicidal despair of some separated lovers, a motif stressed by Baumard and colleagues). It is also significant that there is a separate, less frequent genre—the seduction story—which focuses on sexual desire without attachment. More generally, it seems that Baumard et al.’s research program might have benefited from the affective narratological analysis of how emotion systems generate cross-cultural story patterns.

Narratological work would have benefited equally from such interaction. For example, Baumard and his colleagues point to idealization of the beloved and the “long-term commitment” of the lovers. I analyzed these features solely in terms of intensifying the emotional effect of romantic works. When the lovers live “happily ever after,” their happy ending is particularly happy. This is true not only for the lovers, but for any reader who has a parallel interpersonal stance—which is to say, an empathic attitude–toward them. (This parallel stance is usually the result of categorizing the lovers as part of a one’s in-group.) Baumard and colleagues add to this the observation that evolutionary purposes are served by long-term parenting commitments. More remarkably, they find that “a higher importance of love in literary narratives is always associated with more positive attitudes towards children in the society” (514), a connection that would probably never even have occurred to most narratologists.

Areal distinctness is another topic which has not so far benefited from the collaboration of research scientists and humanists studying literary universals. In linguistics, there are two standard criteria for identifying a shared property as evidence of a universal. Specifically, the traditions across which the property recurs must be distinct in origin (genetic distinctness) and not have influenced one another due to interaction (areal distinctness). However, the issue is complicated by the fact that it is so easy for one literary tradition to influence another. I have therefore argued that one should of course seek genuinely areally distinct traditions, but that only works from culturally hegemonic and culturally subordinated traditions should be excluded due to areal contamination. This applies most clearly to modern colonial relations (e.g., postcolonial African novels). There are also some differences in how readily specific literary techniques may be transmitted (see “Areal Distinctness”). Baumard and colleagues take a different, but complementary approach. They adopt a method for empirically estimating the effects of influence across traditions. This provides them with data to argue that, for example, “while Eurasian societies were in contact with each other, cultural diffusion played a minor role in explaining the concomitant rise of love” (507).

The two approaches also complement one another on the issue of just what they count as data. Baumard et al. exclude all work that is not fictional narrative. This seems to be overly restrictive. Following Hayden White and others, we might expect to find considerable value in incorporating work on historical and other types of narrative. In addition, lyric poetry often concerns key moments in stories, such as the separation of lovers (see The Mind and Its Stories), making it potentially relevant as well. At the same time, Baumard et al. usefully broaden the scope of research by noting that patterns may appear in retellings of a story. In connection with this, they find that “The study of literary transmission chains shows that the same story line becomes more romantic when economic development increases” (507).

It seems clear that, in the study of literary universals, we in the humanities have a great deal to gain from the empirical orientation of researchers such as Baumard and colleagues. I believe that they have something to gain from our literary expertise and philosophical reflections and hypotheses as well. I will conclude this short discussion by noting one further way in which greater interaction might serve both groups. It concerns the possible political analysis of cross-cultural genres, including romantic stories, and how such analysis might contribute to understanding both the enduring and variable appearance of specific story genres, such as stories of romantic love.

Literary critics these days are insistently political. Often, I believe, this is a problem, especially when literary critics extend their righteous indignation to politically and ethically neutral topics or even get things backwards. (Cases of the second sort occur when they denounce the study of universals as racist and celebrate difference, despite the fact that racist claims are never based on claims that, say, blacks and whites share the same capacities, needs, etc., but always presuppose precisely difference.) Even so, the concern with politics does sometimes lead humanists to potentially worthwhile observations. Specifically, they may be more sensitive, in any given case, to the possible relevance of socio-economic class, exploitation, dominant ideology, and related topics (drawn largely from Marxist analysis).

Again, Baumard and colleagues link the predominance of romantic love stories with economic growth, and they make a compelling case for seeing the former as developing out of the latter. But that connection does not yet explain the change in narrative frequency. We still need some way of getting from economic growth to the predominance of romantic stories. One possibility is that economic growth leads to a change in readership, which in turn leads to the increase in love stories. But why might that be? Baumard et al. consider two possible readership-based accounts. The first is that a market for love stories is created by an increase in female readers. They do not find evidence for this explanation, though they do not believe the connection to be impossible either. The second readership-based possibility is that the market is transformed by male readers who are “less sophisticated” (517), and therefor opt to read love stories. Baumard and colleagues (rightly) argue that love stories are not in fact less sophisticated than other story genres. Beyond these two possibilities, the most obvious ways of explaining a change in audience would include, for example, the increased availability of stories in the vernacular, a broadening of education in learned languages, or the greater affordability of books. I do not know if any of these factors fit the periods that saw an increase in love stories. But, even if they do fit, they do not in themselves explain the change in proportions of different story genres. We still require some feature of the new readers that turns them toward tales of romance.

Here, we might briefly consider a different sort of possible explanation. (I am not actually supporting this explanation, but articulating a way of thinking that may suggest fruitful lines of inquiry.) The research summarized in The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology indicates that there are three predominant types of story-structure that recur with particular frequency across traditions. These are romantic, heroic, and sacrificial. (I will leave aside the sacrificial genre here, as well as the less commonly occurring genres.) These genres are, of course, defined by story elements (in prototypical configurations, rather than having necessary and sufficient conditions). But they tend to imply certain values as well, some of which could reasonably be seen as part of an ideology supporting one or another socio-economic class or class fraction. I do not mean that they are class-based in a strict, Marxist sense. The ideological implications of all the story genres are more context-sensitive and malleable than that might imply. But the ideological resonances are of the same general sort. One way of considering changes in the frequency and centrality of any story genre, then, might appeal to some combination of two factors—first, changes in the enduring dominance of one or another class (or at least changes in class domination of the production and dissemination of stories) and, second, changes in circumstances that impact the ways in which a dominant class or class fraction exercises that domination.

More exactly, the heroic genre tends to support a strict ruling hierarchy within a society and a sharp division between the in-group society and an enemy out-group (most intensively represented in war). Ethically, it stresses such virtues as physical bravery and loyalty to leaders and comrades. It should be clear this configuration of values greatly benefits the dominant social classes. Perhaps this ideology initially benefits a feudal aristocracy, but the feelings of group pride, depersonalization (seeing oneself primarily as part of a group), etc., are not confined to feudalism; they are readily transferred to a variety of economic and political systems. Despite this bias toward a dominant class, this genre–with its formation of in- and out-groups, its celebration of in-group achievements, and so on–is well-suited to human psychology, including the psychology of those who are not in the elite class.

The romantic genre, in contrast, commonly favors individual choice against social authority, sometimes generally and sometimes by carving out an area of privacy that is exempted from the usual social rules. In keeping with our cognitive tendency to displace category-based generalizations with individuating judgments, it largely repudiates identity categories, favoring individual, affiliative bonds instead. A traditional Marxist interpretation would link these points with a bourgeois ideology, serving the interests of a mercantile or, later, industrial capitalist class. However, I am inclined to see the genre differently. I believe the heroic plot serves “ruling class” interests, whether feudal or capitalist, but romantic narratives do not typically embody any particular class ideology. Rather than requiring some sort of commitment to a market system for marriage, sympathizing with a person’s individual preference in attachment relations seems likely to arise spontaneously. When faced with individual attachment bonds, it is, rather, indifference or antipathy that has to be created, if the work is to have some sort of ideological bias.

More exactly, both heroic narratives and romantic narratives appeal to a wide range of people, for they fit our psychology (as Baumard and colleagues put it [515]). However, they do not do so equally. Our engagement with a literary work seems likely to vary with the intensity of our emotional response to the goals involved. Moreover, it seems likely that the majority of people would have a strong, spontaneous emotional commitment to union with an attachment figure. In contrast, I would imagine that, among those without relevant experiences, emotional engagement with battle would not be as strong. Finally, one’s degree of engagement with a work seems likely to vary with one’s sense that the implied norms of the work serve or contradict one’s self-interest; this would almost certainly be more likely to occur with heroic than with romantic stories. Given these factors, one would expect romantic storytelling to increase with almost any expansion of readership. In that way, it is a sort of default, a result that may need less further interpretation than we initially expected.

Again, I am not necessarily committed to the as an explanation of Baumard et al.’s findings. Though I certainly do believe that there is some truth to this argument, I sketch it here to suggest some possible paths toward such an explanation, and as a further illustration of how a more broadly integrated research program in literary universals may benefit all those involved, in this case by first of all challenging standard ways of thinking about the topic. In any event, the great value of Baumard et al.’s research findings and explanation of those findings is clear. My hope is that humanists will recognize this value, and that Baumard and colleagues will continue with their illuminating program of research.


Baumard, Nicolas, Elise Huillery, Alexandre Hyafil, and Lou Safra. “The cultural evolution of love in literary history.” Nature Human Behaviour 6 (April 2022): 506-522.

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.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.