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Blog for August 2023: Arabic Poetics and Japanese Theatre

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.

See also “Reason and Aesthetic Pleasure

Works Cited

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.

Blog for April 2024: The Double: A Literary Universal?

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 recently re-watched Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique. It is the story of two women—one Polish, one French—who have (different versions of) the same name (Weronika and Veronique), are identical in appearance, have the same medical condition, and share some sense of connectedness. Though they never meet, Weronika catches a glimpse of Veronique when the latter happens to be visiting Poland. Veronique much later discovers Weronika’s image when she is looking at her photos from that trip. They never meet or have any other contact. When the film is over, we understand that, somehow, Weronika’s death from an (undiagnosed) heart condition served as a warning to Veronique, who avoids that fate. In this way, Veronique has a “double” life, not only because she has an alter ego in Weronika, but because she receives a second chance at life through what is in effect a sacrifice—Weronika dies and, as a result, Veronique lives. The idea is clearly suggested at the end of the film through the story told by a puppeteer with whom Veronique has fallen in love. In that story, entitled The Double Life of . . . (the puppeteer has not yet chosen the character’s name), there are two identical girls, born in different countries. One of the girls burns her hand on a hot stove. A few days later, the other almost does the same thing, but withdraws her hand before it is burned.

The life-giving death of Weronika is a version of a key motif from the sacrificial story structure, which recurs cross-culturally. This connection is reinforced by the link between Saint Veronica and the paradigmatic sacrificial story in Christendom, that of Jesus. Indeed, the name “Veronica” is particularly well-chosen here, for Veronica is also associated with a sort of doubling. The legend is that, as Jesus struggled to bear his cross along the via dolorosa to Golgotha, she gave him her veil to wipe his face. When he returned the veil to her, the cloth was imbued with his image. Moreover, “By some accounts, the name Veronica is itself a fanciful derivation from the words vera icon . . . meaning ‘true image’” (Britannica).

The integration of the doubling motif with the sacrificial story structure is, I believe, significant and consequential. Indeed, the first hypothesis I wish to put forward here is that one cross-cultural function of doubling involves just such integration into the universal genres. Consider a famous, early case, found in Euripides’ Helen. According to this work, the Helen who was living with Menelaus and who apparently absconded to Troy along with Paris was not a person at all, but a phantom (εἴδωλον [line 34]), a mirror image (see the entry for εἴδωλον in Eulexis-web [accessed 7 April 2024]), fashioned by Hera. The real Helen was, therefore, never unfaithful to her husband, never violated the ideals that governed wifely virtue at the time. Moving outside of Europe, we find a very similar case in Tulasīdāsa’s “reflection” (“pratibiṃba,” प्रतिबिंब) of Sītā (557)—alternatively, the “shadow” (“chāyā,” छाया) Sītā in Prasad’s Hindi rendition (558). This doubling allows Tulasīdāsa to deal more readily with the difficult issue of Sītā’s chastity when she was held captive by Rāvaṇa in Lanka. Put simply, she couldn’t have betrayed Rāma as she wasn’t even physically there. Interestingly, some other, early cases of the motif treat seduction rather than chastity. Thus, Zeus famously appears in the guise of Amphitryon in order to seduce Alcmena (see Powell 432-436). Indra, a roughly parallel figure in early Indian mythology, undertakes a related deception in order to seduce Ahalyā (see Doniger, selection number 28, and Daniélou 108).

There are many things that these stories tell us. But here I wish to stress that the stories of Sītā, Alcmena, and Ahalyā are all instances of the seduction/sexual-assault genre. The story of the phantom Helen arguably changes the original love triangle to a seduction/sexual-assault genre as well. Thus, we see the doubling motif in two of the prototypical, cross-cultural genres—sacrificial and seduction/sexual-assault. More precisely, in each of these cases, the motif contributes to making the basic story structure into a full-fledged, particular story. In the terminology of How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, in these cases, the motif is one of the techniques available to an author that may be integrated into the set of development principles, itself comprising alteration and specification principles. This is unsurprising, as serving in development principles is a common function of motifs.

Before going on to give instances of doubling from other cross-cultural genres, however, I should say how I have been implicitly defining the doubling motif. Doubles are persons/characters who are identical in some ways, but who also in stand in stark contradiction in other ways. Most often, the identity-features are highly salient (e.g., appearance), while the contradiction-features are highly functional, but not salient—for example, being good versus being evil, or being alive versus being dead (i.e., being a ghost). However, in some cases we find the reverse—salient differences with functional, unrecognized identity-features (this could be the case for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, insofar as we take them to be contrasting images of the same underlying person). In both cases, we would not predict the functional features from the salient features.

I should note that the existence of such a doubling motif is just what one would expect, given general, human cognitive tendencies. For any two items (e.g., persons) that we compare, we can in principle allow for an almost infinite range of differences and similarities. Two of these are particularly important and thus particular targets of attention—the extremes of identity and contradiction. Our deeper concern in these cases is functional; however, we tend to rely on the salience of features in order to judge function. For example, a stranger’s benevolent or malevolent intent is likely to be our true (functional) concern, but we cannot readily ascertain this. Group identity markers, distinguishing in-group members from out-group members (e.g., skin color, language, religious paraphernalia, and so on) tend to be more salient and thereby to serve as proxies for good or ill will, as in the case of hostility attribution bias, which leads us to assume hostile intent more readily for out-group members (see Lukianoff and Haidt, 158).

Of course, this heuristic often misleads us, leaving us vulnerable to hostile intent from in-group members, and at times actually provoking hostile intent from unfairly distrusted out-group members. Given this, it is unsurprising that storytellers across cultures would find saliency-function conflicts cognitively intriguing and emotionally forceful. In addition, as Nigel Fabb points out, we don’t expect any two targets to be distinct and yet indistinguishable. Thus, the indiscernibility of two persons is already likely to provoke keen interest. Such interest will only be intensified by functional contradiction. Moreover, doubling may be applied and developed in such a way as to create increasingly complex cases. For example, for the viewer, the differences between Weronika and Veronique—most obviously, citizenship and language—are reduced in saliency, while the continuities between the two (physical appearance, health, musicality) are highlighted. Note that the former are common markers of group identity, while we generally consider the latter to be markers of individuality. Note also that, for the viewer, both Veronicas are individuals and are linked by that distinctive individuality. However, for anyone who imagines some (generic) Polish and some (generic) French person, these two imagined people would merely be instances of their (salient) national category, with little in the way of individuating characteristics. In this regard, Kieślowski’s treatment of doubling may suggest some of the problems surrounding social identity categorization, particularly in relation to individuation.

As to the other genres, the most common are heroic and romantic. In heroic works, doubling occurs in fairly straightforward ways across battlelines. The most obvious cases treat a good hero and an evil enemy who are so evenly matched that the audience cannot be certain of the outcome when they come into conflict. But some of the most interesting cases put the doubles on the same side. An excellent example of both may be found in Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Beck explains that Enkidu is connected with wild nature (112), while Gilgamesh is associated with the city. As Keppler discusses, the two begin as enemies, and as virtually equal in power. The result of their initial conflict is that the “fury” of Gilgamesh dissipates (Keppler 24), while Enkidu accepts a subordinate position, but one of unique bonding with Gilgamesh. In the end, Enkidu sacrifices his life to save Gilgamesh (though most obviously a sacrificial motif, this type of act is common in heroic stories as well). Enkidu’s death then becomes the key difference between them; it inspires Gilgamesh’s grief, the retrospective remorse that is so common at the end of heroic narratives and that, in this case, motivates Gilgamesh’s (failed) quest for immortality.

Obvious examples of doubling in the romantic genre may be found in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, where it serves primarily to show the irrational, almost hallucinatory quality of romantic love. There are more psychologically subtle suggestions of doubled characters among the women who fascinate the hero of The Tale of Genji.

Among the “minor” genres, we have already seen instances from the seduction plot. Plautus’s Menaechmi provides an exemplary case of doubling in a family reunion story. Keppler recounts an excellent example of the spiritual realization genre—the Jaina legend of Parsvanatha. Parsva is trapped in the cycle of rebirth “by his own fear and desire” (19). In each incarnation, his hateful twin brother, Kamatha, cruelly harms Parsva. Unbeknownst to Parsva or Kamatha, however, these repeated cruelties actually lead Parsva to detachment and ultimately to self-realization (Keppler 194). At that point, Kamatha–witnessing his brother’s imperturbable peace—is freed from his own attachments as well.

(I am leaving aside the revenge and criminal investigation genres in the hope that readers will have some suggestions for relevant works—in those or, for that matter, any of the other genres. You may submit suggestions as well as more elaborate comments via the website, under “Submit,” or by email to

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The preceding cases indicate that the doubling motif yields a common technique for the development (specification or alteration) of story structures. As such, it can serve a variety of narrative, emotive, or thematic purposes. For example, the use of doubling in The Double Life of Veronique arguably intensifies the pathos of Weronika’s death, whereas that in Plautus’s play creates mirth, and that in Tulasīdāsa’s poem enables the devotee’s feeling of unqualified bhakti (devotion). But it seems clear that the motif of the double is not confined to an ancillary role, however capacious that role may be. It serves as a central concern in some narratives (whether or not those narratives also express one of the cross-cultural story prototypes). Moreover, this is the way the motif has commonly been treated in earlier critical studies, which in addition tend to focus on interpretation. This interpretive approach—commonly Freudian or Jungian–appears to be the sort of thing a wide range of people think of when I mention literary universals. Indeed, this is what first led me to consider doubling in the film as an appropriate topic for a blog at the Literary Universals Project. There are many motifs, such as doubling, that earlier writers treated as universal, but that I have hardly, if ever, touched upon. That does not seem right. After all, if there are genuinely cross-cultural motifs treated in the Freudian or Jungian traditions, thus outside of cognitive and affective science, they should appear in a cognitive-affective treatment of literary universals (e.g., in this website) as well, albeit with some plausible, cognitive and/or affective hypotheses about their recurrence. But that does not often seem to be the case. Why might such motifs be absent? And why has there been relatively little interest in interpreting those or other universals in a cognitive-affective framework?

As to the former question, I suspect that in some cases, the “archetypes” do not appear with the frequency a Jungian or Freudian analysis might suggest. For example, I am not sure I have ever come across a snake biting its own tail (the “ouroboros”) outside the pages of a book on archetypes. It may still be a significant, cross-cultural presence, but it is hardly one that I find myself pressed to explain.

However, we cannot always dismiss the putative universals of pre-cognitive psychology so readily. As we have seen, doubling does recur cross-culturally—at least enough to merit further study. Moreover, its explication by writers such as Otto Rank seems much less fanciful and much more insightful than some other writings in these pre-cognitive psychological approaches. Specifically, Rank sees the motif of the double as manifesting a fundamental conflict in humans’ relations to themselves. We are all faced with a dilemma. We know that we are destined to die. Our ancestors died; our contemporaries are in the process of dying. There is no exception. Yet, we still think that it couldn’t possibly happen to us. In the double, Rank tells us, we face the unbelievable, yet also undeniable fact of our own nothingness. This seems plausible and universal because this is a dilemma faced by all humans, at least all humans over a certain age. On the other hand, it still seems clear that even Rank overstates the scope of his interpretation. Certainly not every instance of a double treats the conflict surrounding the possibility of “being-toward-death,” as Heidegger would put it. Moreover, Rank’s fully developed examples are all relatively late, European works. In connection with folklore, he does touch on non-European cases, but it is often difficult to say what these mean. It may clarify things if we keep with established literary works, where the doubling motif seems more readily interpretable.

Here, I would like to return briefly to Zeus, Indra, Helen, and Sītā. These four cases are hardly adequate to undergird an interpretation of the motif as a whole. They are nonetheless suggestive. They do not have much, if anything to do with being-toward-death (though that is not true for The Double Life of Veronique). They are, rather, fabrications undertaken to deceive others—either to prevent or to facilitate immoral sexual conduct. In fact, they recall a pattern that Rank’s analyses point to, but never acknowledge—a conflict not between death and life, but between shame and acceptance. (I take shame to be produced by a sense of other people’s disgust at one’s self [see Sapolsky, 502, and Tangney and Tracy, 447–448].) Both the phantom Helen and the shadow Sītā serve to prevent the home society from feeling moral disgust for an important woman in the story. The bed-tricks of Zeus and Indra could be viewed similarly (if we take the focal characters to be the [inadvertently unfaithful] wives). In any case, the doubling in the first two cases (Helen and Sītā) is between an immoral, illusory character and her moral, non-illusory counterpart. In the other two cases, both the illusory and the real husband are moral (or at least not immoral). The moral contrast appears not between the real character and his double, but between, on the one hand, the two illusory characters and, on the other hand, the real characters who make deceitful use of those illusory characters. Thus, shaming seems to be suggested in all these stories. It enters particularly clearly in the case of Indra, who is punished for his misbehavior by having his body covered with female genitalia (see Doniger, selection number 28, and Daniélou 108).

Other cases of the double preserve the moral contrast and the sense of shame, but do so in a way that complicates or challenges standard moral views. A fine example of this may be found in Cao Xueqin and Gao E’s 18th-Century novel, Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber or Story of the Stone). The main character is Jia Bao-yu. He is a complex character; for example, in sexual preference, he is bisexual; in gender, he might be viewed a transgendered or as what we might today call “gender queer.” You probably won’t be surprised to learn that he does not get along well with his father, who is in fact cruel to the boy. At one point in this multi-volume novel, Jia Bao-yu learns that he has a double, a boy who looks like him in every way. The double’s name is Zhen Bao-yu. Critics invariably point out that the name, “Bao-yu,” means “precious jade” (see Schonebaum 21), while “zhen” means “true” and “jia” means “false” (see Lu 280). This reverses the reader’s experience. It indicates that Jia Bao-yu—the one we know and probably like (since we have continued reading hundreds of pages about him)–is false when compared to the truly “precious” individual, Zhen Bao-yu. Why would Cao and Gao indicate this? I believe it is because our Bao-yu would be socially viewed as false when compared with his counterpart. This contrast is particularly brought out by the fact that Zhen Bao-yu gets along very well with Jia Bao-yu’s father. Indeed, when conversing with Zhen Bao-yu, the father sends for his son (Jia Bao-yu), in order to “exhibit” to his son “this paragon of virtue, as both stimulus and admonition” (Cao and Gao 272). This is likely to remind readers of the ways in which the senior Jia shames his son, even though the reader is likely to take Jia Bao-yu as the superior character.

At first, Jia Bao-yu is enthusiastic about encountering a potentially like-minded youth. But he is soon disappointed, finding his “true” twin insincere and sycophantic, a mere “career worm” (Cao and Gao 274), sententiously invoking “loyalty” and “filial piety” (Cao and Gao 277).  As Ferrara explains, this is connected with larger tendencies and conflicts in Chinese society, for Zhen Bao-yu appears to the reader as an arguably rather shallow Confucian, while Jia Bao-yu aligns himself with the more antinomian teachings of Buddhism and Daoism. Indeed, his difference from his alter ego (the career worm) is, in the end, largely explicable by this difference in philosophical orientation. Jia Bao-yu is, in fact, seeking “a more spiritual plane” (Cao and Gao 275) when he finds himself disappointed with Zhen Bao-yu. Moreover, his “falsity” takes on further significance when we read about his dream of encountering Zhen Bao-yu, who had just dreamt about Jia Bao-yu, dreaming . . . . As Ferrara points out, this sequence—like the “Meng” or “Dream” of the book’s title—alludes to Zhuāngzǐ’s famous question (after apparently waking from a dream of being a butterfly) whether he was, in fact, Zhuāngzǐ dreaming he was a butterfly or was rather a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuāngzǐ. This sense of paradox is clearly favored by the authors, pointing again to the social and moral complexity of this presentation of the double, even as it criticizes common social norms and leads us to recall the feelings of shame associated with those norms.

Another instance of this sort, with a further twist, may be found in Rabindranath Tagore’s 1892 short story, “The Living and the Dead.” (Tagore was clearly familiar with European literature and probably had encountered doubles in that literature. Given the colonial context in which he was writing, then, I would not count his use of the double motif as evidence of the universality of the motif. It is, nonetheless, a valuable story to analyze in this context.) The story concerns Kadambini, a young widow who passes out and is assumed by her in-laws to be dead. She wakes up on the cremation ground (before the incineration begins), but finds that she no longer has a place in the world. She spends some time wandering about, not quite dead, but also “exiled from the land of the living” (34). In the end, she commits suicide. Though superficially strange, the story is actually an almost literal criticism of widowhood strictures as practiced in Bengal at the time. Specifically, the widow was forbidden to remarry, to wear clothing that had been dyed, to wear jewelry, to be present on occasions where her presence would be viewed as inauspicious; she was subjected to stringent restrictions on what she could eat, and so on (see, for example, Lamb on continuing practices). In short, when it came to interactions with the living, she was treated as if she were dead. But her spirit remained tethered to the world of the living. By making Kadambini neither truly dead nor truly alive, Tagore fashioned a striking metaphor for the condition of widows in Bengal at the time.

But, of course, all this time she is just Kadambini; so, where is the double, you might ask. This is what makes Tagore’s use of the motif so striking and creative. The double is in the minds of the people around Kadambini, the members of the society that abandons her at the moment of her misfortune, that turns her into “an empty shadow” (36), as if she were a mere chāyā Kadambini, no more real than the chāyā Sītā. Both persons of the double are Kadambini–one as she is, the other as she is seen by society. As she puts it herself, “I am my own ghost” (34), haunted by social shame–over not having children, and over not having been able to keep her husband alive, (a recurring accusation made against widows at the time; see, for example, Tagore 85).

This story suggests that the ultimate grounding of the double motif may be less in the issue of mortality than in the more fundamental division between the first-person point-of-view that we have on ourselves and the third-person point of view that we have on others. Indeed, this distinction is precisely what makes our understanding of death contradictory. We witness deaths only of those toward whom we have a third-person point-of-view. But we understand that all those persons had a (seemingly eternal) first-person point-of-view on themselves, and that we ourselves are the (mortal) objects of a third-person point-of-view for everyone else. This division is also what allows the possibility of self-conscious emotions such as shame, for these emotions make us the object of third-person attributions and assessments. (For a fuller treatment of these points-of-view, see Personal Identity and Literature.)

One further variant may be found in Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure (2001). In this novel, an African-American fiction writer—named Thelonious Ellison (after the jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk, and the black novelist, Ralph Ellison)–finds it difficult to achieve real success, despite widespread acknowledgment of his talent. The main problem appears to be that he does not write Black English Vernacular and treat impoverished communities living in a Hobbesian world of “state of nature” violence. In response to this situation, he writes a parody of pseudo-authentic, “black” fiction. He submits it to his agent with the pseudonym, Stagg R. Leigh. To his dismay, the book is a runaway success, which makes him fabulously wealthy. Unsurprisingly, this is all rather seductive, all the more so because he does not use the money self-indulgently, but makes generous gifts to people in need and pays for his mother’s nursing care.

At the end of the novel, as he prepares to announce that Stagg R. Leigh is a pseudonym and that his book, entitled Fuck, is a parody, Ellison at first seems to experience some sort of hallucinatory episode. We soon realize it is a dream, as he walks “through dream sand” (264). But it also appears to be provoked by and representative of an identity crisis: He comes to “a small boy, perhaps me as boy, and he held up a mirror so that I could see my face and it was the face of Stagg Leigh” (264). Leigh quotes a passage from Ralph Ellison: “’Now you’re free of illusion,’ Stagg said. ‘How does it feel to be free of one’s illusions?’” (264-266). The passage occurs at the end of Invisible Man, and there too it is in a dream. Subsequently (in Erasure), Thelonious looks again at the mirror, but the surface is no longer visible to him. He comments, “I could only imagine the image the glass held” (266). Three lines later, Everett’s  novel ends with a  quotation from Isaac Newton: “hypotheses non fingo.” There are different ways of translating “fingo.” The usual choice seems to be “feign.” I would opt for “imagine”—thus, “I do not imagine hypotheses.” This translation connects the quotation with Thelonious’s effort to “imagine” the “image” in the mirror. He does not know what is there.

I take this ending to suggest the loss of a sense of identity. Thelonious adopts a version of the Zeus/Indra doubling. He fashions a self-image that is false, a disguise. However, he does not do this in order to deceive others for selfish, unethical purposes. Moreover, though he subsequently cooperates in deception (acting the part of Stagg R. Leigh), he never does so for immoral or objectionably egoistic reasons. Rather, he does so to criticize the social preference for his double. If it seems odd to say that Leigh is a double of Thelonious, I should point out that Thelonious’s cooperation means that the few people who meet with Leigh see someone who is physically identical with Thelonious (since they are actually meeting Thelonious). This is also why he sees Stagg R. Leigh in the mirror: Stagg R. Leigh’s face just is the face of Thelonious. Nonetheless, there is a difference between seeing this face as Stagg R. Leigh and seeing it as Thelonious Ellison. Thelonious’s apparent loss of personal identity at the end is not entirely dissimilar to Kadambini’s situation, when she cannot conceive of herself as alive or dead. In both cases, the insistent pressures of socially imposed identity category (such as “widow” or “black man”) disrupt ordinary processes of self-identification.

[Here, too, my analysis is incomplete. I hope that readers will suggest other works of this second, autonomous sort, as well as interpretive analyses of those works.]

In sum, the motif of the double might reasonably be claimed as a universal in two modes. The first is as a technique for the alteration and specification of other story structures, prominently including the cross-cultural story genres. The second is as a minimal structure for the generation of stories that are more distinctive, and that often raise thematic (thus, real-world) concerns bearing on the relation between our status as objects in the world (first of all, for others) and our status as subjects defining the limits of the world (first of all, for ourselves). These concerns prominently include our experience of such self-conscious emotions as shame, as well as our attitude toward and understanding of death.

(I am grateful to Nigel Fabb and Joanna Madloch for comments on an earlier draft of this blog.)

See also “The Double” (Addendum).


Works Cited

Beck, Brenda. Hidden Paradigms: Comparing Epic Themes, Characters, and Plot Structures. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2023.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “St. Veronica”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Feb. 2022, Accessed 11 April 2024.

Cao Xueqin and Gao E. The Story of the Stone, vol. 5. Trans., John Minford. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Daniélou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1985.

Doniger, Wendy, ed. Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook Translated from the Sanskrit. New York: Penguin, 1975.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1952.

Euripides. Helen. Phoenician Women. Orestes. Trans., David Kovacs. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002.

Everett, Percival. Erasure. Minneapolis, MN: Greywolf P, 2001.

Fabb, Nigel. A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature. London: Anthem P, 2022.

Ferrara, Mark. “Bao-yu and the Second Self: Pairing, Mirroring, and Utopia in Honglou meng.Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 17.3 (2015): 371-395.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Personal Identity and Literature. New York: Routledge, 2019.

Keppler, C. F. The Literature of the Second Self. Tucson, AZ: U of Arizona P, 1972.

Kieślowski, Krzysztof, dir. The Double Life of Veronique. Screenplay by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Paris: Canal+, 1991.

Lamb, Sarah. “Aging, Gender and Widowhood: Perspectives from Rural West Bengal.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 33 (1999): 541–570.

Lu, Tina. “Dreams, Subjectivity and Identity in Stone.” In Schonebaum and Lu, 274-282.

Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind. New York: Penguin, 2018.

Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Rank, Otto. The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study. Trans. Harry Tucker. New York: New American Library, 1971.

Sapolsky, Robert. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin, 2017.

Schonebaum, Andrew. “Materials.” In Schonebaum and Lu, 5-58.

Schonebaum, Andrew and Tina Lu. Approaches to Teaching The Story of the Stone (Dream of the Red Chamber). New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2012.

Tangney, June, and Jessica Tracy. “Self-Conscious Emotions.” In Handbook of Self and Identity. 2nd ed. Ed. Mark Leary and June Tangney. New York: Guilford Press, 2012, 446–478.

Tulasīdāsa. श्रीरामचरितमानस (Shriramacharitamanasa, The Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama. Ed. and trans., R. C. Prasad. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Selected Short Stories. Ed. and trans., William Radice. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi. Trans., James Legge. Carmel, CA: Lionshare Media, 2015.

Blog for December 2023: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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


Invasion of the Body Snatchers:

Cultural Stories and Their Universal Constituents


Some stories appear to be deeply bound to the historical and cultural moment in which they were composed. An account of literary universals does not presuppose that such binding is impossible. On the other hand, it is not clear how such a work could be understood outside the historical moment and cultural milieu in which it was created or why we would care about such an alien piece of work. My own view is that, in such cases, we are simply mistaken; we over-attribute historical and cultural particularity to the work. In this month’s blog, I set out to consider what we might make of such cases in relation to literary universals. To clarify and illustrate the analysis, I will focus on a renowned horror film.



In How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I argue that a common process in the creation of a literary work is devising new permutations on pre-existing genres. The most prominent among these pre-existing genres are probably the cross-culturally dominant ones. In the case of story genres, these would be heroic, romantic, and so on (see “Story”). While these story genres usually operate as full story sequences, they may also be analyzed into constituents. Indeed, these constituents often have striking similarities across genres and in any case commonly fall into related categories. For example, in all prototypical story genres, the hero or heroine is likely to fail in his or her goal pursuit initially. In romantic narratives, this regularly results in the lover being exiled from his or her beloved or imprisoned away from that beloved. In the heroic genre, it routinely leads to the exile or imprisonment of the legitimate leader. In both cases, then, there is a category of something like enforced isolation of the protagonist. This component recurs in part because it enhances the emotions of the story (e.g., the protagonist’s feeling of helplessness).

Structural parallels of this kind are relevant to “the mind making stories” because these parallels enable a simple form of creative narrative production. Specifically, they facilitate the synthesis of different genres. For example, one can readily integrate romantic and heroic stories at the point where the hero or heroine in the former is separated from his or her beloved and, simultaneously, from the homeland that he or she is struggling to defend in the heroic story.

Of course, the more specific a story component is, the more narrowly genre-bound it is likely to be. While all genre prototypes begin with the protagonist establishing some goal, the goal of countering a foreign invasion is heroic, while that of being united with a beloved is romantic. Even so, synthesis may occur through more specific levels of genre also. Indeed, synthesis in these cases, as perhaps less expected, may be more effective in engaging a reader or producing other desirable consequences. For example, this sort of synthesis may involve an unobtrusive recruitment of metaphor domains from a genre in which they figure prominently to a genre in which they do not usually appear.

Consider two cases. In romantic stories, seasonal imagery appears frequently, most often in the background of the story proper (as when the protagonists fall in love during springtime); as such, it helps to establish the emotional tone of the piece. In heroic stories, the characterization of the invading soldiers commonly relies on one or another of a few models for members of the relevant (enemy) out-group, models such as animals or demons. Such models serve to foster or intensify the reader’s antipathy toward such invaders. These genre-related techniques are different, but not necessarily incompatible. The imagery or model that is commonplace in one genre may be, so to speak, smuggled into the other genre due in part to its unobtrusive location in the background of the story or due to its metaphorical quality.

Of the preceding examples, the modeling of out-groups is the more consequential and is worth a little further elaboration. Models of out-groups commonly function to facilitate violence against other human beings in times of conflict. Admittedly, human beings commit plenty of violence without any apparent need for such facilitation. However, almost all of this is “hot” violence—violence undertaken when one is in the grip of anger–or at least derived from some (real or imagined) personal grievance that, when called to mind, can rekindle the hot anger that one felt initially. Without the blinding arousal of rage—as in the sorts of cases just mentioned–most people will feel some sort of spontaneous empathy with other people. This feeling may not be so strong as to produce genuine altruism. But it seems at least likely to give one qualms about killing or maiming the other person. For this reason, if a society or a dominant stratum within a society wishes to maintain a military force ready to harm some enemy, they may need to devote some effort to inhibiting spontaneous empathy with regard to that enemy.

One way of inhibiting empathy is to establish models for understanding and emotionally responding to the out-groups in question. Common models are derived from a small number of domains and include animals, demons, and the contagiously ill (see 107-110 of my What is Colonialism?). These models draw on and intensify in-group feelings that tend to enable violence, most often fear and disgust. (Unlike fear and disgust, anger appears to be based solely on acts, not on dispositional traits, which are crucial in the present context; thus, the promotion of anger is largely a function of events in particular stories, not of general models.) As Martha Nussbaum has argued, disgust appears to be a particularly potent emotion when one’s aim is to completely disregard the humanity of the target individual or group, as in the case of genocide (347-349). I would add two points to that argument. First, disgust for out-groups is particularly facilitated by models drawn from the health/illness domain (especially contagious illness). Second, in terms of the heroic and sacrificial genres, such disgust is most often directed more toward the disloyal part of the in-group (e.g., those who betray the nation to the invaders) than to members of the out-group (e.g., enemy soldiers) as such.

One suggestion of these claims is that literary works, films, and so on, may be culturally specific in their precise thematic concerns or in the details of their emotional appeals. But this does not mean that they are composed of culturally specific parts. Indeed, it seems rather to be the case that they are to a great extent guided by the usual, cross-cultural and trans-historical models, genres, and associated emotions. We see this particularly when we look at the constituents of such stories and the categories of those constituents.



I recently had occasion to watch the 1978 horror classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The basic plot of the film is that some sort of pod creatures have come to earth to kill and duplicate the bodies of humans, then to live in or through the duplicated bodies. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) first finds that her husband is a different person. Despite looking the same as always, he has become emotionless. She communicates this to Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who begins to hear of many similar cases. Bennell and Driscoll investigate the problem, working with a small group of friends. The odds, however, are stacked against them as key governmental agencies from the local police to the federal Justice Department have been taken over by the pod-creature duplicates. Bennell and Driscoll eventually succumb also, though not before Bennell makes an astonishingly ill-timed declaration of his love to Driscoll.

This is the sort of film that many viewers might be inclined to take as highly culturally specific. For one thing, as a story, it does not fit obviously into one universal genre. In addition, its concern with the phenomenon of loved ones apparently being replaced by duplicates suggests the Capgras syndrome in which someone comes to believe that a relative or spouse has been replaced by an imposter. Though presumably a long-existing phenomenon, it was isolated and named as a syndrome only in the 20th Century. The film changes the etiology of the syndrome. As generally understood today, this delusion is not marked by a change in the target’s emotions. Rather, one no longer feels the same way about that target oneself, and therefore judges him or her to be an imposter (see Buonomano 91). Even in this change, however, the film expresses a culturally specific idea–the standard Romantic view that a loss of emotion is a loss of humanity, the replacement of what is vital in us by something cold and merely mechanical. This is to some extent elaborated elsewhere in the story. Parts of the film seem to implicate the rise of a sort of “feelgood” psychiatry, where our (human) problems are overcome by a pharmaceutically induced numbing of all emotion. Striking a rather different note, comments by the director appear to relate the film instead to the rise of fascism (see Insdorf 133); indeed, the obvious interpretation of the pod people is as fascists or communists who have rejected personal identity for a collective identity. Despite some differences among them, all these interpretive possibilities would seem to indicate that the film is narrowly defined by itsculture and social history.

But that conclusion is too hasty. Even based on the properties already noted, the work is not culturally insular. Stories with some spirit taking over someone else’s body (see, for example, “Sunset” in Pu Songling) or, more broadly, the appearance of a Doppelgänger (see, for example, Ferrara on the renowned Chinese novel, The Story of the Stone) are not unknown in other literary traditions. Moreover, the very possibility of such a story derives from the evidently universal distinction between an inner essence and an outer appearance (see chapter one of Bloom).

More significantly, the film not only draws on, but seems to be composed almost entirely from the constituents of universal genres. First, it has the broad structure of a heroic story. That structure has two parts—foreign invasion and internal usurpation of the (legitimate) in-group social hierarchy. Lacking battlefields, armies, assassinations, and so forth, the film does not look like a heroic story. But it is structured around the two key story events of the genre. This is more obvious in the case of the invasion sequence; indeed, the title tells us that this is the story of an invasion. However, the usurpation is just as clear, given that the police and the Justice Department come under the control of duplicates, who replace their legitimate, human originals.

The differences between the usual invasion or usurpation sequence and the parallel events in this film are, of course, significant. But they are largely a matter of intensification, and that intensification results from the implementation of cross-cultural techniques. This is particularly true of the usurpation. The pod creatures not only take over the government, they in effect take over the bodies and minds of all individual citizens. In other words, they usurp not only social hierarchy, but psychological hierarchy as well. Moreover, this intensification fits well with the emotional goals of heroic plots and the emotional character of horror movies. Some critics have noted that horror films particularly cultivate fear and disgust (see Carroll 38-4). These are, again, the key emotions underwriting the facilitation of violence against out-groups, which is often a central aim of heroic stories.

In terms of the story emotions, the main difference here is that, in standard heroic plots, fear and anger tend to be the central emotional concerns, not disgust. But the threat of the invading out-group is only intensified by their disgust-provoking nature, by the fact that they kill humans from inside, through a mechanism that is as subtle and covert as those by which one contracts a virus. The pod creatures are not literally contagiously ill humans, but it seems clear that their invasion is modeled on contagion or pollution, rather than on the more expected physical combat.

Additionally, as already noted, in the usual versions of the heroic structure, disgust occurs most clearly in relation to in-group betrayal. (This is moral disgust, rather than the physical or pathogen-related disgust that characterizes our response to sickness and decay; however, the two types of disgust appear to be closely connected [see Rozin, Haidt, and McCauley].) Though it does not fit the events logically, the sense of betrayal from the in-group is in effect generalized by putting the invaders into the duplicated bodies of humans. When Driscoll is attacked by the duplicate of her boyfriend and Bennell is attacked by the duplicate of his close friend, Jack (Jeff Goldblum), these feel like betrayals, though we know that the seeming traitors are actually dead; they only appear to be involved as they are externally indistinguishable from the duplicates.

The ending of the film is particularly noteworthy in this regard. It faces us with the Bennell duplicate signaling to the other pod creatures that his friend’s wife remains alive—or at least that is the more obvious interpretation. Bennell had learned earlier that one could save oneself by acting like an emotionless pod creature. Perhaps, then, this really is Bennell and he is just saving himself. I do not mean that this is a likely interpretation. It is, in fact, highly unlikely. But it is just plausible enough to facilitate our sense that the ending involves betrayal (of Jack’s girlfriend by Bennell) and thus is an appropriate target of our (moral) disgust. This final cuing of disgust fits with the general violence-facilitating function of the heroic genre.

Once this modified, heroic structure is set out with some degree of particularization, however, a difficulty arises. Late in the film it becomes possible to have some violent confrontations, parallel with battle scenes in the more common version of heroic conflict. But the very concealment of the “enemy” in the duplicated bodies of in-group members would appear to make violent clashes difficult to justify, at least early on. Put differently, the unaffected characters need to figure out exactly what is happening, to whom it is happening, and why. Otherwise, they risk harming loved ones and befriending enemy invaders. To resolve this dilemma, the film draws on the criminal investigation genre. In effect, the broad structure of the narrative is heroic, but the event-by-event development constitutes a type of criminal investigation. Finally, this is all further integrated with a (rather poorly developed) love story.

In short, Invasion of the Body Snatchers initially appears to be a clear case of a story rooted firmly in the culturally and historically local soil of the United States in the 1970s. It is, of course, true that many of its individuating features are “local” in this way, as is probably the case for any literary work. However, even the most cursory consideration of Invasion’s generic structure and constituents shows that it is not solely local. At an only slightly more abstract level, the film derives from the filmmakers’ synthesis of heroic, criminal investigation, and romantic genres. It does alter the prototypical forms of these genres. But, in doing so, it draws on cross-cultural domains for developing metaphors and imagery to orient our response to out-groups. Moreover, these alterations in the prototypical forms fit well with the—again, cross-cultural—function that the structure-defining, heroic genre commonly serves (here, facilitating violence against out-groups).


Works Cited

Bloom, Paul. How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. New York: Norton, 2010.

Buonomano, Dean. Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives. New York: Norton, 2011.

Carroll, Noël. “Film, Emotion, and Genre.” In Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg Smith. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999, 21-47.

Ferrara, Mark. “Bao-yu and the Second Self: Pairing, Mirroring, and Utopia in Honglou meng.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 17.3 (2015): 371-395.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. What is Colonialism? New York: Routledge, 2024.

Insdorf, Annette. Philip Kaufman. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 2012.

Kaufman, Philip, dir. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Los Angeles, CA: United Artists, 1978.

Nussbaum, Martha. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Trans. John Minford. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Rozin, Paul, Jonathan Haidt, and Clark McCauley. “Disgust.” In Handbook of Emotions. Ed Lisa Feldman Barrett, Michael Lewis, and Jeannette Haviland-Jones. 4th ed. New York: Guilford P, 2016, 815-834.

Blog for February 2024: Reason and Aesthetic Pleasure

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

Back in October, I wrote about Lara Harb’s valuable book (see “Arabic Poetics and Japanese Theatre”). I asked Professor Harb if she wished to respond to anything in the blog. First, she told me about her forthcoming article on wonder, which is certainly relevant to the concerns of the Literary Universals project. (I will have more to say about that article below.) In addition, she had some concerns about the blog, specifically about my comments on the connection between the Arabic Aristotelians and Aristotle. She worried that I was assuming that the Arabic philosophers could not claim the Greek philosophers as part of their tradition. In fact, I completely agree that Plato and Aristotle are part of the Arabic tradition as well as part of the European tradition. The question I am addressing at that point in the blog is not about who inherits the past. It is rather about how a study such as Harb’s might contribute to a research program on literary universals. Specifically, there are multiple, areal links between (what became known as) the European and (what became known as) the Arabic tradition. The issue is whether or not these European-Middle Eastern areal links are so extensive as to make any parallels between the traditions irrelevant to the study of universals. I point to this problem, then explain that the interpretive divergence between the traditions seems great enough that neither the Middle Eastern nor the European theories is rendered redundant within a research program on literary universals.

To give some idea of my estimation of the Arabic tradition, consider the following passage from an article I published in 2004 (“Stories and Morals” 30):

[T]he Arabic theorists . . . engag[ed] in an early and still exemplary form of cross-cultural literary and theoretical synthesis. It was in this context that they formulated their theories of takhyil or “imaginative representation” and of the “poetic syllogism.” The Arabic theorists – al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and so on – came to Aristotle’s Poetics with a specific set of concerns in mind. They read Aristotle in light of those concerns. But this prior orientation did not inhibit the generalizability of their work, as they shaped Aristotle’s ideas into a new theory of literature and ethics. Despite some obvious interpretive errors [e.g., interpreting Aristotle’s tragedy as panegyric], this theory is, on the whole, no less faithful to Aristotle than were the various European writings of the Middle Ages. More importantly, it is, I believe, a more sophisticated, more illuminating, and more accurate theory of literary ethics – or, rather, of one part of literary ethics – than theories promulgated in Europe at the same time and later.

(Similar appreciation can be found in Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Literature in the section on Arabic theory, which directly follows the section on Plato and Aristotle.)

Harb had related concerns about my comments on the “querelle des anciens et des modernes.” My point there was not that the querelle somehow influenced the Arabic theorists (which, among other things, would have been anachronistic). My point, rather, was that Harb’s analysis was entirely plausible and that a possible argument against her—that she was imposing a Western model (derived from the querelle) onto the Arabic theorists—was without merit. In other words, I was supporting her claims.

Finally, Harb did not care for the translation of “takhyīl” as “imagination.” She is right that I should have noted that she translates it as “make-believe,” though I am not convinced that the change in translation makes much difference. For example, given Kendall Walton’s prominent use of the phrase “make-believe,” I am inclined to see it as no less misleading that the admittedly protean “imagination.”

I have gone through a few of Harb’s qualms about the earlier blog because I suspect that some readers will misunderstand my points similarly. The issue of areal distinction appears to be particularly vexing to non-linguists. As I explain in the introduction to the Literary Universals Project (see here), in order to be part of the data for a study of universals, a feature needs to be found in a greater number of traditions than would occur randomly. The key point is that “traditions” in this context refers to lineages that are genetically and areally distinct—thus traditions that are not descendants of the same proto-tradition nor were they subsequently in sufficient contact with one another to produce the shared property. If we find that the word for, say, “fruit” is closely related in several Romance languages, that does not mean that several unrelated languages use a similar word. It does not suggest a statistical universal. It shows only that these Romance languages derived their word for “fruit” from Latin. As such, it does not count as a datum bearing on language universals. In this case, the parallel across languages is, so to speak, disqualified due to genetic derivation. Similarly, if everybody uses the word “quark” for a quark, that does not mean that anything about the word is universal. It means only that the terminology of physics is largely produced by areal contact (in this case by way of a profession that enables cross-linguistic interaction).

The situation is a bit less straightforward in literary study than in linguistics, thus requiring some qualification (see “Areal Distinctness”). But the basic principle still holds: parallels should generally not be readily explicable by areal contact. My references to the different interpretations of Aristotle constituted an argument that this is one of those less straightforward cases that complicate the assessment of areal influence in the study of literary universals. Even though there was a shared source in the Greek philosophers, the prominent interpretations of those philosophers were different enough to allow the consideration of both traditions, that is, to see them as constituting two traditions and to see both as bearing on the topic of literary universals.

My only significant divergence from Harb, from my point of view, is that she does not draw on recent research on emotion and cognition. I do not mean this as a criticism. Harb has more than enough to do in reading the Arabic literary theorists and their commentators, critics, influences, and so on. However, since well before writing “Stories and Morals,” I have felt that there was a close connection or convergence between the work of the major Islamic Golden Age philosophers and the findings of cognitive science. Systematic study of this connection would, I believe, benefit both groups, enriching our general understanding of the mind as developed in the cognitive and affective sciences while also advancing the specifically literary accounts articulated by the Arabic theorists.

In this context, I would like to consider Harb’s forthcoming essay, which treats aesthetics and wonder. Before going on to that, however, I should pause for a moment to make a few comments on another work. I had initially planned to devote this month’s blog to Dacher Keltner’s Awe. In part, this was because the book promised to treat the same topic as Harb’s essay, but in greater depth and with greater rigor. Having now read the book, I certainly do respect Keltner as an author, a cognitive scientist, and a human being. But I feel his notion of awe is too amorphous to serve as a “fundamental” (xvii) concept in a branch of affective science. He defines “awe” as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world” (7). But that seems clearly too general. Almost everything transcends my current understanding of the world (for example, virtually everything electronic, almost all people, even my own body).

Moreover, I find some of Keltner’s arguments for the explanatory and therapeutic value of awe to be unconvincing. For example, sometimes the data he presents appear to be open to simpler explanations. In one case of this sort, he reports a study in which some test subjects look at a large valley and others look at a tourist area. When the former draw pictures of themselves, those pictures are smaller than when the latter draw pictures of themselves. Keltner interprets this metaphorically as representing a reduction in ego-centrism consequent upon feeling awe. But it seems simpler to interpret it as a response to the literal size of what they have just been looking at. The test subjects are literally much smaller than the valley, but about the same size as other tourists. In addition, he seems to simply set aside apparent counter-examples—such as people’s evident awe before Hitler. On the other hand, Keltner’s book is, in a sense, half affective science and half self-help. Even if his claims for the effects of a walk in the woods are not as well supported or as algorithmically explained as one might like, the chances seem very good that following his advice would yield some benefits, and would be very unlikely to result in any harm.

Now we may turn to Harb’s article. (She has kindly sent me a pre-publication copy. However, as it has not yet been copy-edited, she has asked me not to quote from the piece. I have therefore relied on paraphrase.) Having read her astute and learned analyses, I feel all the more strongly that her explication of the Arabic texts would both benefit and be benefited by integration with cognitive and affective science. This is not because Harb is less scientific (though of course she is not running a lab and undertaking controlled experiments). Rather, it is because her intellectual orientation is in some ways more scientific (e.g., more attentive to precision and logical development) than that of many scientists who write on literature. This is related to her stress on the rationality of the Arabic philosophers themselves. Many writers have discussed, for example, the use of syllogistic logic by these theorists. But Harb is one of the few who has seen the real value of these authors, not in the particulars of syllogisms, but in the larger commitment to reason, of which syllogistic logic is simply one part.

Harb begins by explaining that dictionaries of Classical Arabic define “taʿajjub” or wonder as resulting from experiences that have one or more of the following characteristics: being unexpected, unusual, mysterious, obscure, having an unknown cause, being magnificent. This is a rather broad definition, apparently suffering from the same problems as Keltner’s definition. But in naming this range of possibilities it tells us quite a bit. The first two properties in the list—being unexpected or unusual–come down to much the same thing, to which we will return. Being mysterious, obscure, and having an unknown cause are also virtually equivalent. I take the idea of magnificence simply to mark a strongly positive valence. Dictionaries basically tell us, then, that the elicitor of an experience of wonder is a strongly hedonically valenced target (e.g., an object, or an event) that we did not anticipate and that strikes us as mysterious in the sense that we do not understand how it has come about.

This is still insufficient. But Harb addresses that insufficiency immediately, explaining that wonder, in leading us to recognize our incomprehension, at once provokes us to seek cognitive understanding in the form of an explanation. Developing insights from al-Jurjānī, Harb maintains that aesthetic pleasure derives from wonder, not at the initial moment of mystery, but at the transition from incomprehension to understanding. This too is not quite right. For example, we may come to understand that someone’s unusual appearance is the result of a degenerative disease, but hardly experience aesthetic pleasure at that fact. Even so, it is, I believe, very close.

Harb goes on to enumerate a set of ancillary conditions set out by al-Jurjānī. The first is that our aesthetic pleasure is enhanced by a transition from something abstract to something sensory. Second, it is enhanced by the use of metaphor as this requires the recipient to engage in further effort to gain (pleasurable) understanding. Harb goes on to ask—what about metaphors that have become routine, so that they do not provoke further effort? Here, al-Jurjānī suggests varying the metaphor. He also recommends making use of sharply contrasting ideas. These various points lead Harb to takhyīl—“make believe” (as she translates it), where we in effect take it that the situation named in the metaphor is real (e.g., that a cloud is embarrassed, as in one of the metaphors treated by Harb).

I don’t believe that al-Jurjānī has provided us with a complete account of beauty. However, writing as he did well before the development of cognitive and affective science, he advanced remarkably toward that goal. As already indicated, moving from ignorance to knowledge is far too broad. Moreover, making recipients do cognitive work is not pleasing as such. Indeed, most of the time it is an onerous burden to have to do extra cognitive work to ascertain what could have been communicated to us directly and simply. Even so, I believe that the various points made by al-Jurjānī and Harb are on the right track.

Specifically, in Beauty and Sublimity, I have argued that aesthetic pleasure results from a combination of information-processing (“cognitive”) and motivation-eliciting (“affective”) components. The former are largely a function of nonhabitual categorization. As to the nonhabitual part, there is a great deal of evidence that we gradually stop responding to repeated stimuli (see, for example, LeDoux 138)—at least positive stimuli; as experience tells us, it is much harder, often even impossible, to get used to pain, while pleasures readily come to viewed as routine (on this “hedonic asymmetry,” see Frijda 323). This is why novelty is required for aesthetic pleasure, as in the rareness or unfamiliarity of a metaphorical, rather than literal, statement. Habituation is also why once delightful metaphors become banal. But even frozen metaphors can be thawed out, as Al-Jurjānī recognized. In their brilliant, More Than Cool Reason, George Lakoff and Mark Turner systematize the ways in which boring metaphors can be made delightful again, thereby unknowingly extending a basic insight from al-Jurjānī.

But that is only the “nonhabitual” part of the cognitive criteria. The more crucial part is categorization, for this is the sort of knowledge acquisition that, I argue, contributes positively to aesthetic enjoyment. There are three sorts of categorization, 1) that based on rule-extraction, 2) that based on prototypes or (roughly) average cases, and 3) that based on exemplars or instances (see Murphy and Hoffman 166 and Beauty and Sublimity 130-142). There is strong evidence that aesthetic pleasure in music comes when we tacitly isolate rules governing, for example, themes and variations. There is considerable evidence that natural objects, such as human faces, are more beautiful for us to the degree that they approximate an average instance of the category. Finally, there is at least some reason to believe that we experience aesthetic pleasure through exemplar-based categorization in mimesis. (On the evidence for these various claims, see chapter one of Beauty and Sublimity. Note again that each form of categorization has aesthetic effects only when nonhabitual.)

This covers a good deal of Harb’s and al-Jurjānī ’s insights, connecting them with and extending them through cognitive science. I also mentioned an affective component. Though Harb is not explicitly treating emotion, there are three aspects of her interpretation of al-Jurjānī that bear on emotion. First, his emphasis on sensory concreteness fits well with accounts of emotion that stress perception and embodiment in emotion elicitation (see, for example, chapter two of my What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion.) Second, there is his emphasis on effort. Again, it is not the work itself that is pleasurable but the disburdening of the “cognitive load” (at it is called) once we reach understanding. As Ortony, Clore, and Collins observe, in keeping with al-Jurjānī’s claims, “increases in effort tend to increase the degree to which goals are positively valued” (73)—and the greater the positive evaluation of the goal (here, understanding the source of wonder), the greater the pleasure we feel in successfully achieving that goal. Finally, there is al-Jurjānī’s advice on choosing representations that involve contrast or even opposition. In part, opposition intensifies unexpectedness. In addition, the gradient of change from one emotional state to another, especially one of an contrastive valence, tends to intensify the outcome emotion (e.g., expecting sorrow makes a final joy greater).

It is also important that Harb stresses imagination or “make-believe.” What is difficult in dealing with takhyīl is understanding how we could have emotions regarding persons or situations that we know to be fictional. This is referred to as “the paradox of tragedy.” As I have argued in several publications, our cognitive processes of simulation necessarily have this seemingly paradoxical property, for otherwise their evolutionary function would not be fulfilled. Specifically, that function includes, for example, dissuading us from actions that are likely to prove dangerous. This dissuasion operates by leading us to feel aversion when simulating the ways a particular (imprudent) course of action might unfold. (On simulation, see How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. On the paradox of fiction, see “Paradoxes.”)

All of this does leave out what I consider to be the most important element of aesthetic response—the activation of the attachment system (see Beauty and Sublimity 30-33). Among other connections, there is evidence that, at least for some targets, our feeling of aesthetic pleasure varies with our level of oxytocin (Heinrichs and colleagues 524), a key neurochemical in attachment (see Panksepp and Biven 37, 39). Interestingly, Keltner frequently links oxytocin with awe, possibly suggesting that many cases of what he is calling awe and perhaps what al-Jurjānī (through Harb) calls wonder, are cases of attachment system activation. In any case, I take such activation—thus the involvement of attachment-related feelings–to be a particularly important elicitor of aesthetic response, the feeling that a target is beautiful.

In sum, Laura Harb’s explication of al-Jurjānī shows us once more how much we are missing out on by ignoring non-European traditions of literary theory and aesthetics. Again, I do not believe that al-Jurjānī arrives at a complete account of the experience of the beautiful. But he articulates an extremely insightful theory. Moreover, that theory converges with the insights of cognitive science in many ways. That points us to another unfortunate gap in literary study today, though not as complete a gap—I am referring to the relative absence of cognitive and affective science from literary theory and criticism. Both non-Western theories and cognitive and affective science are clearly relevant to the Literary Universals Project, and their convergence lends support to the cross-cultural scope of both sets of aesthetic

Works Cited

Frijda, Nico. The Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Harb, Lara. Arabic Poetics: Aesthetic Experience in Classical Arabic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2020.

Harb, Lara. “Ta‘ajjub (Wonder): A Rationalist Aesthetic.” PMLA forthcoming.

Heinrichs, Markus, Frances Chen, Gregor Domes, and Robert Kumsta. “Social Stress and Social Approach.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Human Affective Neuroscience. Ed. Jorge Armony and Patrik Vuilleumier. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 509–532.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Beauty and Sublimity: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Literature and the Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013,

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. Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Literature.  Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2000.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Stories and Morals: Emotion, Cognitive Exempla, and the Arabic Aristotelians.” In The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity. Ed. Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004, 31-50.

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

Keltner, Dacher. Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. New York: Penguin, 2023.

Lakoff, George and Mark Turner. More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

LeDoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Murphy, Gregory and Aaron Hoffman. “Concepts.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Science. Ed. Keith Frankish and William Ramsey, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012, 151-170.

Ortony, Andrew, Gerald Clore, and Allan Collins.The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Panksepp, Jaak and Lucy Biven. The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion. New York: Norton, 2012.

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.



24 May 2019

This workshop is made possible by a generous grant from the University of Connecticut Office of the Vice President for Research, as well as funding from the Department of English and the Department of Literatures, Cultures and Languages at the University of Connecticut, and the Emil Aaltonen Foundation. The organizers (Patrick Colm Hogan, Severi Luoto, and Arnab Dutta Roy) would also like to thank Robert Hasenfratz, Melanie Hepburn, Juliet Kapsis, Gustavo Nanclares, Lauren Schaller, and Chris Vials for their help.



(All events will take place in room 112 of Oak Hall, University of Connecticut, Storrs, except dinner, which will take place in room 236 of Oak Hall.)

8:30-9:00         Refreshments, collect registration materials, check computer.

9:00-9:05         Welcome.

                                    Arnab Dutta Roy, University of Connecticut

9:05-9:30         “On the Very Idea of a Research Program Treating Literary Universals”

                                    Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

9:40-10:35      “A Universalist Account of Prominence Distinctions among Unstressed Syllables

                                    Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

                        Chair, Robert Hasenfratz, University of Connecticut


                        “Literary Spatial Patterning”

                                    Liz Finnigan, Southern Regional College, N. Ireland ,

                        “Literary Canons as Universals:

                                                Or, Essential Criteria for a New Philosophy of Literature”

                                    Christopher Kuipers, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

                        “Literary Universals, the Spanish Atlantic, and the Question of Modernity:

                                                From Cabeza de Vaca to Castro

                                    Soren Triff, Bristol Community College and University of Connecticut.

                        Chair, Yohei Igarashi, University of Connecticut

12:00-1:00    Lunch                                                                                                                                                                  

    12:30   Video: “Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal”

                                    Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon

1:00-1:55      “Universals of Literary Meaning”

                                    Joseph Carroll, University of Missouri-St. Louis

                        Chair, Severi Luoto, University of Auckland


                        “Metaphors of Sexuality across the Atlantic: La Celestina and the Popol Vuh

                                    Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, Yale University

                        “Psycholinguistic Sex Differences in Literary Fiction:

                                                A Computerised Text Analysis of 300 Novels”

                                    Severi Luoto, University of Auckland

                        “Politics of ‘Primal Androgyny’:

                                                Some Specific Cultural Implications of this Statistical Universal”

                                    Arnab Dutta Roy, University of Connecticut

                        Chair, Rosa Helena Chinchilla, University of Connecticut


                        “Narrative Empathy Is Everywhere:

                                                The Ability to Empathize with Literature is a Literary Universal”

                                    Kelly Mahaffy, University of Connecticut

                        “Traveling Through Theatre: Cultural Universals: Some Journeys

                                    Sonjoy Dutta-Roy, University of Allahabad

                        “‘Imaginal’ Shapes: Waking, Dreaming, Sleeping in Cross-Cultural Storytelling”

                                    Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, Nassau Community College

                        Chair, Evelyn Tribble, University of Connecticut


                        “Counterintuitive Imagery as a Literary Universal”

                                    Tom Dolack, Wheaton College

                        “Ministering to Power:

                                                Fiction in Court Settings, from Halicarnassus to Heian Japan”

                                    Sara R. Johnson, University of Connecticut

                        Chair, Shailen Mishra, University of Delaware 


                         General Discussion:

                                    Questions for any panelists,

                                    ideas for fostering research on cross-cultural literary patterns,

                                    and anything else anyone would like to bring up.

                        Chair, Lalita Pandit Hogan, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse


   Buffet dinner in Oak 236 for workshop registrants.




“On the Very Idea of a Research Program Treating Literary Universals”

Patrick Colm Hogan, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, University of Connecticut

Modeled on the research program in linguistic universals, the Literary Universals Project seeks to establish a platform for the study of cross-cultural patterns in literature and orature. This opening workshop presentation sets out a basic definition of literary universals, responding to some common misconceptions about universals. It goes on to sketch what it involved in describing and explaining literary universals. It considers some common problems encountered in interdisciplinary research programs, and distinguishes the methodological orientation of the Literary Universals Project from that of non-cognitive approaches, such as Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots. In conclusion, it sets out what intellectual goals might be pursued through the study of literary universals.

Patrick Colm Hoganis a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in the English Department, the Program in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies, and the Program in Cognitive Science. He is the author of over twenty books, including The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and the forthcoming Personal Identity and Literature (Routledge, 2019). He is a co-editor and co-founder of The Literary Universals Project.



“Universals of Literary Meaning”

Joseph Carroll, Curators’ Distinguished Professor of English, University of Missouri-St. Louis

Literature consists in aesthetically modeled verbal constructs that depict or evoke subjective experience. “Meaning” in literature consists in the communication of imaginative effects. I identify four levels for the organization of meaning in literary texts: the pan-human level, the culturally specific level, the level of individual persons (authors and readers), and the level of individual literary works. The term “Pan-human” is synonymous with the term “universal.” When applied to literary texts, those terms signify universal subjects, themes, emotions, and forms of organization. The forms of organization range from large-scale structural features of narrative, drama, and verse to micro-structures of style. By definition, universal features of literary texts appear in all texts, including texts distinguished by differences of culture, by differences of individual authorial identity, and by particularities of subject, theme, tone, and form in any given literary work, each of which is unique in some respect. Literary meaning varies by culture, authorial identity, and individual text, but those categories are themselves literary universals. That is, all texts are embedded in some particular culture, are imbued with characteristics that derive from the minds of the authors who create them, and display unique individual ways of combining subjects, themes, emotions, and formal structures. Universal elements of human experience combine differently in different texts to produce the specific forms of meaning in those texts. I’ll illustrate these propositions with examples from world literature.

JosephCarroll is Curators’ Distinguished Professor in the English department at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Since the early 1990s, he has been working to integrate evolutionary research and literary study. He has developed an evolutionary theory of literature, produced interpretive essays on literary works ranging from plays of Shakespeare to modern novels, written essays in intellectual history, and conducted empirical research on protagonists and antagonists in Victorian fiction.


“A Universalist Account of Prominence Distinctions among Unstressed Syllables” 

Geoffrey Russom, Emeritus Professor of English, Brown University; Nicholas Brown 

Professor of Oratory and Belles Lettres (Emeritus).

In a recent paper (Swedish Academy, 2018), Paul Kiparsky has identified differences in metrical prominence among unstressed constituents. Inflectional endings, for example, are less prominent than independent unstressed words and can be added more freely to a verse as extrametrical syllables. In this respect as in others, Germanic alliterative meters provide evidence not easily obtained from the meters most thoroughly studied by Western scholars. This paper identifies gradations of prominence within Old English verse patterns, as analyzed in Russom (2017), and isolates prominence differences among unstressed syllables due to differences in frequency, syllable count, and syntactic constituency. For practical reasons, metrists have attended primarily to metrical rules that apply without exception. This was understandable in 19th century, when linguists interested in poetic form used index cards and had to put just one feature of interest at the top for indexing. Today, however, relational databases like Excel provide a much more efficient research tool. When the metrical features of each verse are notated in an electronic entry, a researcher can instantly obtain a list of all and only those verses in the same poem that have any of the notated features –– or any desired combination of the notated features. There is no longer any excuse for overemphasizing the ‘always / never’ contrast and neglecting the ‘often / seldom’ contrast, which may sometimes provide better insight into universal principles of verse construction. The presentation will conclude with a demonstration of Excel scansions that provide the evidence for claims made in the paper.

Geoffrey Russomis Emeritus Professor of English at Brown University and Nicholas Brown Professor of Oratory and Belles Lettres (Emeritus). Hiss research interests include Old English, Middle English, Old Norse, and Old Irish literary cultures; linguistic theory; and theory of poetic meter. He is best known for arguments showing that rules of poetic meter are abstracted from rules of ordinary language and, once abstracted, operate like new linguistic rules, interacting with other rules of the linguistic system to yield a varied yet well-defined array of acceptable verse patterns. Russom is author of three books published by Cambridge University Press: Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory (1987), Beowulf and Old Germanic Metre (1998), and The Evolution of Verse Structure in Old and Middle English Poetry: From the Earliest Alliterative Poems to Iambic Pentameter (2017). His 2017 book traces poetic use of English and some cognate languages from about 300 BCE to the present, presenting a theory of evolutionary metrics within Chomsky’s universalist framework. The theory relating linguistic systems to metrical systems is further developed in “Optimality Theory, Language Typology, and Universalist Metrics,” Studia Metrica et Poetica 5.1 (2018), 7–27. In addition to work on poetic form, Russom has published articles on the linguistic history of English, the multicultural backgrounds of Beowulf, and the artistic excellence of preliterate verse traditions.



“Counterintuitive Imagery as a Literary Universal”

            Tom Dolack, Wheaton College

A productive strain of research in the cognitive study of religion has focused on the prevalence of “counterintuitive imagery,” or images that violate our expectations of ontological categories (animals that talk, people without bodies). I propose that such a religious universal is better viewed as a literary universal, and can be regarded as a fundamental element of narrative, not just religion. Making this connection would allow us to apply a wealth of research on the origins of religion to the origins of narrative and literature, enabling at least the formulation of hypotheses about the beginnings of the narrative arts.  

But first some quantitative work is necessary. Is counterintuitive imagery as universal in literary texts as in religious? Is there a difference in rates between written and oral traditions? Has it decreased over time? As an attempt to begin answering these questions, a team of undergraduates and I began to quantify rates of counterintuitive imagery in the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter novels. Ultimately, far more texts will need to be analyzed in as many genres as possible, but these texts served as a proof of concept.

What we found was that the Potter novels in fact had higher levels of counterintuitive imagery than the Bible, even more than the older books that were initially composed orally. Based on informal counts of other works, this does not appear to be an exception, either. Counterintuitive imagery clearly permeates literary texts, not just oral or religious works. In other words, it can be viewed as a universal. Assuming the findings hold up after additional research, this would indicate a need to rethink the purpose of counterintuitive imagery, and the possibility of uniting research on the origins of religion and literature.


“Traveling Through Theatre: Cultural Universals: Some Journeys”

            Sonjoy Dutta-Roy, University of Allahabad

In this presentation, I will explore the deep moorings of fertility myths and rituals in a range of literary and performative works including Eliot’s The Wasteland, Chandrashekhar Kambar’s Jokumaraswamy, and Arun Mukherjee’s Mareech: The Legend.  Among the various sources that feed the cultural universal of fertility rites in Eliot’s poem is the Brihadaranyika Upanishad. I will pick up the encrypted narrative in the Upanishad story and explore the psychological dimensions of sexuality in the gender relationships that trouble Eliot’s poem. I will connect this to the fertility rites in rural Karnataka and Bengal that give birth to Kambar’s and Mukherjee’s plays. All these works encase certain propagandistic political elements that I will try to highlight.  It is at this level that universalisms are often constructed and mobilized for creating power hierarchies in their particular social contexts. But even in such projects, the stories by themselves have bristling indicators that might constantly run against the manipulation of ideas. This often happens as subtext and a much more emancipatory universalism might challenge the canon-creating or political motivated agendas that might be there. I will show this through a reading and sharing of performative experiences from these sources. Through this study, I place the importance of some cultural universals (in this case fertility rites) and their corresponding universalizations in different story-telling and performative traditions for Humanities and its pedagogy.


“Literary Spatial Patterning”

            Liz Finnigan, Southern Regional College, N. Ireland 

In this paper I propose a statistical universal (Hogan 2016) about visual spatial pattering within verbal narrative. The universal states that unique patterns of representation can be found in the literary descriptions for three categories of space: Setting, Place and Person. These patterns are found in particular spatial frames, which I term topological frames, and are a set of schemas for describing setting, places or people. I call these frames topological because they describe the location of objects within a space and their inter-related arrangements. In literary texts, we should expect individual writers to produce spatial representations that are based on stylistic choices which create difference and this also includes the possibility of randomness. Yet, in topological frames the same patterns of spatial relations occur consistently demonstrating a statistical probability in their favour.


“Ministering to Power: Fiction in Court Settings, from Halicarnassus to Heian Japan” 

            Sara R. Johnson, University of Connecticut

It was once a common perception that the novel was a creation of Renaissance and early modern Europe (Cervantes in Spain, Rabelais in France, Richardson or Defoe in England), but today there is growing understanding that novels have emerged more widely in both geographical space and time, from the Greek and Latin novels of the second century CE in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean, to the eleventh-century Tale of Genji in Japan, to the classic form of the novel that began to emerge in fourteenth-century China. In each of these cultural settings, long-form prose was also used to narrate “true” stories of the nation’s past. It is not surprising, then, that one commonly finds alongside “novel” and “history” many narrative texts that mingle perceived “truth” and “fiction” in surprising ways.

In “Embodiment and Universals,” Vittorio Gallese remarks: “It is fair to say that virtually all human beings share the same impulse to narrate – and listen to – stories.” As students of narratology understand, the genres of history and novel both tell “stories” in their own way, and historical and fictional narrative shares many common features. Yet the emergence of both long-form prose fiction and prose narrative history, while widespread, has not been entirely universal. Rather, each has tended to appear in specific cultural and historical contexts, often being associated with one or more “founders” (e.g. Herodotus for Greek history, Cervantes for the Spanish novel, Lady Murasaki for the Genji Monogatari). Likewise, narratives that mingle fiction and fact do not appear universally but along particular fault lines in time and space.

My talk will reflect upon the emergence of narrative texts of an ambivalent nature (those which are difficult to classify neatly as either “history” or “fiction,” “true” or “false”) at two specific points: in eleventh century Japan, shortly after the appearance of the Tale of Genji, and in fourth century BCE Asia Minor, along the boundary between Greek and Persian imperial spheres.


“Literary Canons as Universals; Or, Essential Criteria for a New Philosophy of Literature”

            Christopher Kuipers, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

This presentation will explore two things: first, how literary canons are formed universally, as essential expressions of valuation across all literate cultures; and, second, what this universality of canonization implies for reviving the philosophy of literature.

Despite the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s, “the canon” (as a demarcated set of selections) is still alive and well, as university courses, dissertations, and monographs throughout today’s literary profession blithely attest. But is canonicity truly universal, particularly given the global influence of this avowedly Western concept? There are at least five reasons why canons do seem to be universals in the strict sense. Selection, or valuation of certain things, is unavoidable in culture. Secondly, the other interlinked literary ideas we associate with “canons” (rules, corpuses, lists) likewise form a coherent conceptual-metaphorical complex across cultures, despite varying terminologies. Third, there were a wide variety of such terms in Greco-Roman culture, where “canon” eventually emerged as the, ahem, canonical term. Fourth, in ideological situations where canonicity is specifically declined, all the conceptual usages of “canon” remain fully in play. Fifth, perhaps most interestingly, the selective concept of “canon” exerts profound influence even where there is no positive corresponding keyword, as in the case of the Hebrew Bible (there are only terms to designate works “excluded,” etc. from the canonized Tanakh).

This disruptively anti-ideological, rigorously terministic analysis of canonicity directs us to reconsider the philosophy of literature, which has emerged from scholarly dormancy in the last decade. A philosophy of literature worth the name will entail the following canonical criteria: 1) Literature must be considered as a human instinct, like language and consciousness itself. Anthropologically, literature is likely a human exaptation of music, and certainly a coded expression of ancient patterns of human wisdom. 2) There must be formulated a philosophically satisfactory definition of literature, one free from the pervasive mythology of modern print culture, a definition embracing drama, orality, and visual forms we intuitively recognize as literature, such as film and comics. 3) There must be delineated the values, plural, of literature. The values to be articulated must range well beyond the contingency paradigm of critique, and encompass the full range of literary pleasure and utility, recognition and discovery, that continually engage creators and audiences in any language. 4) There must be acknowledged, so it can be counteracted, the modernizing conceptual impulse to de-mythologize and de-pluralize literature, as epitomized by the singularizing “the” of “the canon” and “the Bible” (< ta biblia “books”). 5) Criticism must be recognized to have a fourth, moral dimension as ethos, in addition to its other three dynamic spheres: grammatica (genitive interpretation alongside generative textuality); mythos (truth-telling alongside fictivity); and logos (gray theory alongside green networks). Increasingly neglected among the canons of criticism since the Enlightenment, ethos is critically keyed to educative value: interest and practice, andragogy and axiology.


“Psycholinguistic Sex Differences in Literary Fiction: A Computerised Text Analysis of 300 Novels”

            Severi Luoto, University of Auckland

Sex is a fundamental biological variable that influences almost all traits in humans. The study of psychological sex differences has been an intensely researched area for decades, if not centuries. Although psychological sex differences have been reported in a variety of domains, linguists still debate about the magnitude of such differences in language use. Using machine learning to find contrasting features of male and female writing, Argamon and colleagues (2009) found significant sexual dimorphism in French texts from the 12th–20th centuries. Female authors used more personal pronouns and negative polarity items than males, while male-authored texts had a higher frequency of determiners and numerical quantifiers. Studying Dutch novels published in the 21st century, Koolen (2018) found large to very large sex differences in the frequencies of pronouns, articles, numbers, and positive emotions, among other categories. I present findings from a corpus linguistic study on 150 male-authored and 150 female-authored British, Irish, and American novels. Sex differences were examined in contemporary prizewinning novels as well as canonical works published between 1800–2017. The novels were analysed with the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program. Very large (Cohen’s d > 1) sex differences were found for personal pronoun use, positive emotion words, social words—all more frequent in female-authored novels—as well as article use and words reflecting analytical thinking, both more frequent in male-authored novels. Other psycholinguistic categories showed sex differences ranging from negligible to large (0 < d < 1). The findings are consistent with existing psychological and linguistic research on sex differences, preliminarily suggesting that literary texts may contain universal sexual dimorphism that arises from fundamental sex differences in psychological traits. These findings on 300 novels provide further challenges to the gender similarities hypothesis while supporting the sex differences hypothesis arising from and supported by evolutionary science.


“Narrative Empathy Is Everywhere: The Ability to Empathize with Literature is a Literary Universal” 

            Kelly Mahaffy, University of Connecticut

Empathy has been one of the most frequently studied concepts of the last decade, yet literary scholars are still unsettled over whether empathy can be considered truly universal or not. If empathy is considered a literary universals, it would mean proving that more often than chance readers can empathize with stories, a feat that has proven difficult. In this presentation, I will consider Suzanne Keen’s “Narrative Empathy: A Universal Response to Literature?” in which she argues against considering empathy as a literary universal and extend the position of Patrick Colm Hogan’s “Comments on Keen: Universal Principles versus Uniformity” to argue that, not only is narrative empathy a literary universal, but that we can universally predict which characters, scenes, and moments of a work of literature will provoke the most empathic responses from readers.

Empathy is no longer a strange pseudo-science constructed solely of self-reported feelings and emotional responses. Now, empathy is often viewed through changes in neuronal activation via neuroimaging, a technique that not only allows for a confirmation of empathizing but also allows comparative analysis of empathic responses across many social strata. Relying on this work on empathy from cognitive science, focusing on the work of Anezka  Kuzmičová, I will prove that it is more likely than chance for readers to empathize with speaking characters featuring ingroup characteristics in emotionally salient situations within literature. This distinction is important, for predicting the times that a reader will empathize while reading a literary text can help to suggest what characters or scenes will be most memorable, why literature is important, and some of the ways evolution makes humans predisposed to enjoying art.


“Metaphors of Sexuality across the Atlantic: La Celestina and the Popol Vuh

            Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, Yale University 

Students of the Popol Vuh and other sixteenth-century indigenous texts from Guatemala and Mexico have long noted the presence of motifs and passages that parallel European texts. The parallels are commonly explained as the result of Spanish religious teachings and other forms of influence on native authors, and the possibilities of parallel but independent origins are rarely considered. In this talk, I explore sexual metaphors involving toothache, which are present in two major literary works produced within decades of each other across the Atlantic: the late fifteenth-century Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea, and the mid-sixteenth century Popol Vuh. While there are good probabilities that the authors of the Popol Vuh incorporated elements of Christianity in their work, I argue that their treatment of toothache as a sexual metaphor did not derive from Spanish teachings. In support of this argument, I explore the meanings associated with toothache in European literature and oral literature from indigenous communities in Guatemala and Mexico.


“Politics of ‘Primal Androgyny’: Some Specific Cultural Implications of this Statistical Universal”

            Arnab Dutta Roy, University of Connecticut

Motifs of “primal androgyny” appear across many mythic and folk traditions around the world dating back thousands of years. Such motifs broadly reveal two interconnected myths (that are evoked either individually or collectively). One, the first humans incorporated both male and female sexual attributes (spiritual, physical, or both). Two, the divinity that created humans was a primal androgyny (mainly on account of its ability to self-procreate). Variations of these myths can be found in a range of pre-colonial traditions from Africa or African diasporic regions (Dogon, Kemetic, Santeria, Haitian), Americas (Navaho, Zuni, Crow, Aztec), Australian tribes, Europe (Greek and Roman), Middle East (Babylonian, Abrahamic), Asia (Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist), and others. A comprehensive study on the topic has not been done so far. As such, this project, in the first part, offers a systematic research program that relates primal androgyny as a prime candidate for statistical universals specific to oral and written mythic traditions.

Building on this comparative frame, the second half of the presentation will examine questions of sexuality and tradition through a reading of androgyny in certain South Asian scriptural and folk traditions (for instance, the mythical Hindu figure of ‘Ardhanarishvara’ or the myths of androgyny in the Tibetan folklore: Uncle Tompa). These readings will explore questions such as how the universal tropes of androgyny have appeared in these traditions, how have they been culturally codified, and what are the broader moral underpinnings of the stories which encase such myths. Thus, my basic aim will be to evaluate the extent to which such readings can complicate and become subversive of existing dogmatic prescriptions of religious patriarchy and unreflective heteronormativity.


“‘Imaginal’ Shapes: Waking, Dreaming, Sleeping in Cross-Cultural Storytelling”

            Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, Nassau Community College

Human experience of wakefulness, dream and sleep have something remarkably common across all cultural borders although how we make sense of them depends upon a culture’s theories of self-perception.  Haruki Murakami’s narrator in his story “Sleep” communicates her experience of one fateful night: “I remember with perfect clarity that first night I lost the ability to sleep. I was having a repulsive dream—a dark, slimy dream….I woke at the climactic moment–came fully awake with a start, as if something had dragged me back at the last moment from a fatal turning point.”  She is transformed as a result of that night and at the end of the story, we are not quite sure about her reality, sanity or our own.

Irving’s celebrated story “Rip Van Winkle”, whose roots go back to a Greek tale of Epimenides who slept for 57 years, presents a perplexed character who finds freedom through his prolonged sleep. In a Pancharatrastory from India a Brahmin’s dream is apparently told as a cautionary tale against castles in the air.  In Robert Sawyer’s trilogy WWW: Wake, Watch, Wonder, we encounter the spontaneous “waking” of Webmind, an emergent AI in a computer. All these stories bring us face to face with the nature of consciousness and human creative imagination’s ability to give “airy nothing, a local habitation and a name.”

Utilizing the articulations of Andalusian Sufi master Ibn al Arabi whose word KhayalHenry Corbin translates as “imaginal” and Indic understanding of the word Kalpana, this paper will observe some of these tales to assert what Thomas Cheetham states in an essay on Corbin and Hillman: “To live a life in tune with imaginal realities requires abandoning the desire for what postmodernists call master narratives.”


“Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal”

            Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon

Hunting demands extensive knowledge of animal behavior, characteristics, and habitat, raising the question of how foragers acquire this knowledge. One potential source is etiological animal tales (EAT), which are pervasive in forager oral tradition and explain the origin of a species’ distinctive physical and/or behavioral traits. If these stories serve as a repository for traditional zoological knowledge, we would expect them to contain information about traits that are useful for identifying, predicting availability of, locating, killing, processing, and/or avoiding dangerous encounters with the animal. These predictions were tested in an earlier study that used story collections from 64 diverse hunter-gatherer societies (Scalise Sugiyama 2017). For each collection, one EAT was chosen at random for content analysis; all 64 stories evinced the predicted information, showing a strong cross-cultural trend. Here I present the results of a follow-up study that examines whether this pattern holds across all EAT within a given culture. For this analysis, ten cultures were selected from the original sample (two from each of five world geographic regions). All EAT from each culture were analyzed for the presence of information about the animal’s availability, behavior, diet, habitat, interspecies relationships, physical traits, sign, techniques used to hunt/process the animal, and hazards associated with the animal. Results suggest that EAT are an important vector of zoological knowledge transmission across forager groups.


“Literary Universals, the Spanish Atlantic, and the Question of Modernity: From Cabeza de Vaca to Castro 

            Soren Triff, Bristol Community College and University of Connecticut 

Literary universals, like story prototypes, can be useful to make “visible” ideologies and discourses that otherwise would remain difficult or impossible to observe in Spanish Atlantic texts. The purpose of my presentation is not to demonstrate the validity of literary universals, that has been already demonstrated, nor their presence in the texts selected, they were chosen because of their presence, but to investigate underlying ideologies and discourses and see what they can tell us about modernity in the Spanish Atlantic. 

In order to put literary universals to the test, I have chosen one narrative structure that Patrick Hogan calls heroic tragicomedy (The Mind and Its Stories [2003] and Affective Narratology [2011]) and apply it to two non-fiction prose pieces. One document is a foundational text of U.S. literature, that happens to be written in Spanish—La relación or Naufragios [Shipwreck], by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and the other is a foundational text of castroism, Palabras a los intelectuales [Words to the Intellectuals], by Fidel Castro. 

In the first part of the presentation, I establish the theoretical foundation, mentioning the relationship between systems of emotion and narratives, and the latter with ideology. Ideology is presented as a connector between universal narratives and particular historically grounded discourses. The theoretical frame for literary discourses is based on Michel Foucault’s “race war” which he sees as the “genealogy” of revolutionary discourse, particularly as he presented it in ‘Society Must Be Defended’ (2003). I rely on Ulf Hannerz’s Cultural Complexity (1992) for a final look at the modernity of the texts. 

In the second part of the presentation, I briefly mention in each case the theme, initial social conflict of the narrative, analyze the body of the narrative including the usurpation sequence and the threat-defense sequence, and the end of the story in which a happiness goal is reached and a new idealized normality is achieved. The heroic tragicomedy contributes to identifying not only explicit and implicit ideologies, but also discursive regularities in very dissimilar non-fiction prose texts like a sixteenth century exploration account by a Spanish author and a twentieth century speech by a Caribbean political leader. The presentation concludes with a reflection on the contribution of the heroic tragicomedy to interrogating texts deeper ideologically, and evaluating to what extent they support or hinder modern worldviews in the Spanish Atlantic.


Reuven Tsur (1932-2021)

I was deeply saddened to learn that the brilliant and warm-hearted Reuven Tsur passed away earlier today. His contributions to the linguistics of poetry–including the study of literary universals–were invaluable. The Literary Universals Project was honored to publish his and Chen Gafni’s “Phonetic Symbolism: Double-Edgedness and Aspect-Switching” just two years ago. This is a great intellectual and human loss.

Talking Stories: Encyclopedia of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Earlier this year (2021), Michelle Scalise Sugiyama (Anthropology, University of Oregon) launched Talking Stories: Encyclopedia of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, an open educational resource that situates the prehistory of literature and science in the oral traditions of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Based on the premise that oral narrative is one of humanity’s earliest information technologies, the Encyclopedia aggregates stories from diverse hunter-gatherer cultures and explicates the ecological knowledge they encode, with links to articles, books, films, and other pedagogical resources. The site is designed for use by educators seeking to integrate traditional Indigenous literature, philosophy, and science into their courses, and by students and researchers interested in the origins of natural history, symbolic behavior, and cultural transmission.


“The Double” (Addendum): Doubling, Shame, and Body Dysmorphia

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

As a member of a movie discussion group, I often see films that I would ordinarily be entirely unaware of. The week after posting my blog on “The Double,” I saw Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki). The film concerns a young woman, Sofie, who does not have any real social life, but rather devotes herself to work. The reason for this appears to be given in her offhand remark early in the film that she is not beautiful. Beauty is a recurring theme in the film. For example, the titular character, Howl, at one point claims that he doesn’t want to live if he can’t be beautiful. Sophie is transformed into a severely overweight, old woman. She gazes at her mirror image in dismay at this transformation. The change is caused by a curse from Howl’s former love interest—the Witch of the Waste–who has lost her beauty, growing morbidly obese (her name in English clearly involves a pun on “waist”).

The film includes various sorts of doubling. At one point, Howl takes on the appearance of a particular king as a disguise. This is reminiscent of the Zeus and Indra cases, except that Howl does it to protect a woman rather than to seduce her. This is, obviously, a doubling in which two different persons appear in identical bodies. There is also a prince who appears as an unspeaking scarecrow, which may suggest the dead version of the self stressed by Rank—though, appropriately for the film’s younger audience, the death motif is very much underplayed, and the prince is restored at the end anyway. Though it stretches the use of the term somewhat, the change in the Witch of the Waste could be viewed as a sort of doubling also, one in which the bodily self alters so much that we might be tempted to say that the person is no longer recognizable.

The doublings all involve the relation between one’s first-person sense of oneself and one’s third-person sense of others. In addition, they bring into play one’s idea of other people’s third-person sense of oneself. This is clearest in reference to beauty. To say one is or is not beautiful is usually to say, in part, that one’s bodily appearance to others is or is not beautiful for them. Again, it is the sense of other people’s disgust at oneself that triggers shame. Shame can be moral, intellectual, related to personality, and so on. It can also bear on one’s physical presence and appearance. In this last case, it commonly manifests itself as body dysmorphia (see chapter three of Giles)—a distortion of one’s bodily self-image, a distortion that highlights or even imagines (what one takes to be) aversive features and downplays or even occludes (what one takes to be) attractive features. This is just what happens with Sofie, as she is “cursed” with being an overweight, old woman. The curse is in effect a metaphor for her own dysmorphia, and both last until she and her borderline dysmorphic beloved, Howl, are united at the end of the movie.

One difficulty with treating body dysmorphia and age is that it could lead to ageism. Fortunately, the film avoids this problem. As my fellow film-group members stressed in discussion, the old Sofie is quite a strong, self-confident agent. Indeed, she is far more active than the young Sofie, Perhaps this is precisely because she is no longer focused on her appearance. As Rorty and Wong explain, “Someone with a low sense of somatic self-confidence”—as appears to be the case with young Sofie—“can feel alienated or unimpowered, act in a tentative and anxious way, limit her desires, avoid confrontational situations, expect failure, and so on” (21). This is exactly what we see with the young Sofie at the start of the film.

In short, this film reinforces some points of my earlier post. What is more important, it leads us to see some aspects of literary doubling—and of shame—that are consistent with those earlier points, but I had not even begun to articulate.


Works Cited

Flanagan, Owen and Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, eds. Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Giles, David. Psychology of the Media. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Miyazaki, Hayao, dir. Howl’s Moving Castle. Tokyo: Studio Ghibli, 2005.

Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg and David Wong. “Aspects of Identity and Agency.” In Flanagan and Rorty, 19–36.