By: Donald Wehrs, Auburn University
Contemporary affective science and emotion studies provide crucial context and orientation for literary universals research. They do so, however, against the background of fuzzy and contested notions within the humanities of what “affect” and “emotion” denote and how each bears on the other. Reflecting the philosophical legacy of mind/body dualism, “affect,” associated with physiology, predominated in natural scientific discourse, as did “emotion,” affiliated with subjectivity, in the social sciences and humanities. As late twentieth, early twenty-first century science came increasingly to highlight the interpenetration of the material and the mental, the interfusion of what had previously been disciplinarily segregated (psychologies of cognition, emotion, morality, and perception), both terms, however, came to be used, when not interchangeably, at least in ways suggestive of mutual entwinement. The humanities, by contrast, were subject to several intellectual legacies that implicitly reinforced residual dualism, and did so in ways that undermined the legitimacy of any notion of universals, and so of literary ones.
Behaviorism taught that emotions reflected conditioning whose manipulation could produce a desired sort of human and Marxism that subjectivity reflected material conditions and so could be radically reconfigured by altering those conditions. These seemingly antithetical discourses both maintained that human “material” was so malleable that talk of universals could only be sentimental or politically retrograde. Although Neo-Kantian developmental psychology (Piaget, Kohlberg) posited the universality of cognitive stages, it viewed transformation of abstract thought as the basis and guide of emotional maturation. Freudian psychology similarly formulated a universalism by viewing both affect and emotion as effects of biological drive (the pleasure principle), but also suggested that mental action (recognition, acceptance) may give emotional life such non-delusive, non-phantasy-based direction as it can have. Poststructuralist theory inherited from these and other sources the general notion that one’s emotions reflect a way of thinking, and that ways of thinking are culturally variable and so subject to radical reshaping. Its epistemological critique of all universals implicitly separated bodily affect, often associated with meta-psychological drives for desire, power, or liberation, from idea-engendered, idea-implicated, linguistically mediated emotions. Construing the separation of “affect” and “emotion” along these lines became foundational for the poststructuralist Affect Theory (frequently capitalized) that was initiated in the mid-1990s by Brian Massumi and since developed by Patricia Clough, Lauren Berlant, Sara Ahmed, among others. For such theory, affectivity’s bodily immediacy transcends and unravels linguistically inscribed distinctions. In doing so, it constitutes an avenue for liberation from the coercive conceptualities into which all talk of universals is, on this account, necessarily complicit and co-opted (Massumi).
By contrast, there also developed around the same time, the mid-1990s, some interest within the humanities about contemporary trends in natural and social science, which were moving in an opposite direction. This interest stimulated pioneering efforts to probe how work originating outside the humanities might fruitfully inform literary criticism, moral philosophy, and aesthetics. Particularly striking was research whose findings seemed to demand theoretical frameworks capable of separating the notion of universals from dependence on metaphysical thinking and thus complicity with essentialism. Notably, rethinking relations between affect and emotion proved crucial to pulling universals down from the realm of Platonic idealism and placing them firmly in the world of embodied, material, historical life and experience, thereby offering alternatives to programmatic poststructuralist binaries (relativism or essentialism, co-option or anomie, totalization or deconstruction) that seemed, to some at least, to unduly limit and predetermine what theory and analysis in the humanities could say and acknowledge.
Beginning in the 1960s, in a series of then little-read writings, Sylvan Tomkins, desirous of contesting both Behaviorism and Freudian meta-psychology, argued that affects, rather than being products of drive, functioned separately. He maintained that there were nine pairs of primary affects, which might be experienced in greater or lesser degrees of intensity, but nonetheless were innate to all humans (111-12). Though he distinguished between “basic” affects and more culturally variable “complex” ones, he insisted that for people everywhere the face was affect’s “primary seat” (205). To test Tomkins’ claims, his one-time student Paul Ekman presented depictions of a range of facial expressions to people from diverse cultures and asked what emotions they attributed to the represented faces (“Universals and Cultural Differences in Facial Expressions of Emotion,” The Faces of Man, Emotions Revealed). The results indicated a degree of cross-cultural convergence sufficient to challenge notions that cultures can impose, through language or otherwise, upon “blank slate” minds whatever sort of subjectivity desire or guile might design. Though subsequent research suggests that interplay between species-wide (universal) constraints, strongly recurrent but not invariable patterns, and what is culturally particular may take diverse forms, findings in comparative linguistics and categorization studies support the general thrust of Ekman’s work (Rosch and Lloyd, Berlin, Gumperz and Levinson).
Indeed, since the 1970s an enormous body of scholarship in diverse disciplines has presented compelling evidence that species-wide cognitive processes and affective tendencies are so rooted in the embodiment peculiar to humans, itself the product of a complex and distinctive evolutionary history, that while heterogeneous cultures certainly engage and weigh upon such processes and tendencies, they cannot simply deactivate them. Remarkable recurrences of similar patterns among geographically and chronologically separated peoples in the archeological, anthropological, and historical record attest to the actuality and importance of non-essentialist universals (see, for example, Trigger, Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, Bellah 2011, Flannery and Marcus). Comparative studies are supported by groundbreaking research on infant-caregiver interactions, which collectively stress how intensely embedded sociality is in the emotional lives of small children, and how much imitative responsiveness to facial expressions, body language, and nonverbal sound patterns (tone, rhythm, etc.) underlies communicating affect and sustaining shared intentional worlds (Meltzoff and Moore, Gopnik and Meltzoff, Dissanayake, Bloom, Descartes’ Baby, Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, 69-84, 192-204, Sterelny).
Such work builds on a linking of the psychology of perception to evolutionary biology pioneered in the 1970s by James J. Gibson, who argued that vision is oriented toward discerning within environments such features as constitute “affordances” for physical and social human flourishing—potential rock shelters and forage-rich riverine valleys, for example (Gibson). By presenting attention, significance-attribution, emotional valence, and intentionality as necessarily bound up with one another, Gibson provided an analytical framework consistent with Magda Arnold’s argument, later influentially developed by Keith Oatley, that appraisal of circumstances in relation to aims elicits emotion (Arnold, Oatley, Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts). Along similar lines, Humberto R. Manturana and Francisco G. Varela, noting how organisms’ pursuit of survival and flourishing prompts them to adjust to shifting environments, argued that processes of creative “self-making” or “autopoesis” are integral to biological—and by extension cultural—evolution. Concurrent empirical research in comparative social psychology sought to refine Tomkins’ enumeration of basic affects or core emotions, and their relation to complex, mixed affects or social emotions. This research often suggested that powerful mutually reinforcing feedback loops lay behind significant correlations of certain kinds of culture and conceptualization with intensifications and/or combinations of certain kinds of emotions (Rozin et al., “The Cultural Evolution of Disgust,” Rozin et al., “The CAD Triad Hypothesis,” Graham et al., Haidt).
Growing appreciation that evolved attributes of human embodiment impress constraints and patterns upon cognition, emotion, and evaluation, as well as focus attention on affordances and prompt autopoetic activity, came, in time, to stimulate a rethinking of the value of a concept of universals (in the natural and social science sense) in relation to traditional subjects of humanities research. Crucial to this effort was the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Their 1980 study of the reliance of metaphors upon logic drawn from human bodily and social experience, and of metaphorical thinking’s embedding in both everyday and conceptual language, was followed in 1987 by Johnson’s analysis of embodiment’s influence on abstract and imaginative thought and Lakoff’s account of categorization, which argued human bodily scale and needs generated systems of organization and demarcation that appeared “fuzzy” or irrational, but actually were regulated by reference to prototypes of exemplary or typical instances, and did so in ways that gave rise to universal cognitive patterns (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Johnson, Lakoff). The bringing together of theorizing of the embodied mind with affective science, and evolutionary research was further advanced by the appearance in 1991 of Varela, Thompson, and Rosch’s account of embodied cognition in terms of autopoetic biological evolution and of Merlin Donald’s groundbreaking argument that bio-cultural evolution was the precondition for, rather than the consequence of, distinctively human cognition and affectivity (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind). Directly challenging poststructuralist epistemological assumptions, Lakoff and Johnson in 1999 argued that bodily experience, by shaping what humans can visualize as possible or desirable, both gives rise to and limits what they are apt to take as coherent, plausible, appealing, and good (Philosophy in the Flesh). Valuing symmetry and balance, for example, are not arbitrary, but reflect the bearing of bodily experience (the unpleasantness and threat to wellbeing of persistent dizziness) upon language and conceptuality (as in the association of being “upright” with moral health shared by vastly divergent cultures). In addition, interactions within and between groups, as well as negotiations with similar environment, may prompt convergent development in different places and times—as much scholarship on sociality’s evolutionary agency and human prehistory notes (Dunbar, Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Thinking, Why We Cooperate, Mithen, After the Ice). It follows that the recurrence among people and societies geographically, culturally unrelated of patterns similar and persistent enough to be viewed as universal ought not be unexpected, and that identification of such patterns need not deny cultural variability or historical change. Such identification could rather enable exploration of variability’s significance and the motivations, stakes, and consequences of particular changes.
Indeed, the idea that cognition and emotion could operate independently of one another, so that either might “determine” the other and thus impose its own (fictive) universals unilaterally, received something of a deathblow in 1994 with the publication of Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error. Beginning with an account of Phineas Gage, a nineteenth-century railroad worker who lost part of his brain in an accident, and continuing with case studies of patients who were victims of strokes and other neurological disorders, Damasio documents compellingly how brain damage that dampens emotions also impairs practical reasoning. He hypothesizes that the mental images through which we deliberate are “somatically marked,” that is, give rise spontaneously to bodily-articulated emotions, thereby eliciting in advance the feelings that experiencing those emotions would induce. We are thus affected, bodily, before we engage in self-conscious, formal deliberation, in ways that push us toward or away from certain choices (127-222). Noting William James’ late nineteenth-century theory that bodily affective responses underlie emotions, Damasio presents cognition, emotion, reasoning, and evaluation as inextricably woven together, as engaging in forms of mental processing putting in reciprocal mutual modification evolutionarily earlier and evolutionarily later anatomical-neurophysiological structures and systems. Work along similar lines quickly followed (LeDoux, Griffiths, Panksepp), and in a 1999 study of consciousness (The Feeling of What Happens) and a 2003 tracing of emotions’ origins back to single-celled organisms’ adjustments to maintain homeostasis (Looking for Spinoza), Damasio built a case for cognitive-affective co-evolution broadly convergent with Donald’s 2001 elaboration of his 1991 bio-cultural account of sociality’s role in enabling cognitive evolution (Donald, A Mind so Rare).
Damasio’s work signaled a transformative convergence of affective neuroscience with empirical social science, the consequences of which for the humanities were dramatically underscored by the discovery, in the mid-1990s, that primates’ brains exhibited attributes described as “neural mirroring.” In observing another’s action, or simply in anticipating or imagining such action, neural activity “mirroring” what would be involved in performing or undergoing the action is apparently activated. As a result, it was argued, cognitive registering of what another is doing or undergoing and affective resonance with the bodily sensations involved in that action or experience cannot but be spontaneously, involuntarily melded (Gallese et al.). As evidence suggestive of the intensity and breadth of human neural mirroring accumulated, in contrast to the limited mirroring discernible in monkeys and great apes, it appeared increasingly likely that radically enhanced neural mirroring both prompted and resulted from the bio-culturally mediated, deeply nuanced affective sociality distinctive to humans. Empathy, attachment, and the ability to understand other minds’ difference from our own seemed to be intricately implicated in a bio-culturally engendered mirroring affectivity interfusing cognition and emotion, leaving self/other boundaries strikingly permeable without being annulled or stripped of emotional weight (Gallese and Goldman, Iacobini, Rizzolatti and Singaglia). Notably, research arguing that human neural mirroring occurs in response to mimed actions and to actions merely suggesting an intention (Bucciano et al., Maeda et al., Catmur et al., van der Gang et al.) is broadly consistent with Donald’s claim that nonverbal mimetic culture developed and refined cognitive-emotional fellowship long before the advent of symbolic language. While neural mirroring’s scope and permutations has been debated, with a parsimonious view urged by some (Hickok, Pinker), a rare opportunity to implant wires in the brains of human subjects during an epilepsy investigation led to identifying eleven individual neurons that discharge during both the observation and execution of an action (Keysers and Gazzola). These results strongly support human neural mirroring’s actuality, though they do not establish its extent or the range of its agency).
As I have argued elsewhere, our ability to enter effortlessly into others’ bodily experiences and intentional worlds without losing sight of our own generates an affective dissonance, a contrariety of emotions, that cultural discourse repeatedly addresses and whose exploration in incisive and innovative ways characterizes many of the most enduring works of literature (Wehrs, “Introduction: Affects and Texts,” “Narrative and Affect in Epic, Romance, and the Novel,” “Affective Dissonances and Literary Mediation,” “Placing Human Constants Within Literary History”). Put most simply, one is conscious simultaneously of elicited egoistic desires and appropriative impulses, on the one hand, and, on the other, of being moved by the felt authority of, and one’s own affective commitment to, values or perspectives that would curb or override such desires and impulses. Thus, Jane Austen’s describes the conflict in Elizabeth’s emotions at the moment she realizes her sister Lydia’s conduct has almost certainly ruined her chances of happiness with Darcy in a way at once readily comprehensible and enduringly interesting to readers: upon recognizing that “never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him,” “self, though it would intrude, could not engross her. Lydia—the humiliation, the misery, she was bringing on them all, soon swallowed up every private care . . .” (Pride and Prejudice 190).
“Self,” self-interested and self-centered affectivity, is felt to be an exterior force that nonetheless presses itself within: it “intrudes.” But though it impinges itself upon one, it does not take control of, occupy, or master one. It “could not engross” because its totalizing thrust is blunted by the interior resistance of something—which Austen variously calls “sense,” “right thinking,” and “proper feeling”—that will not be encompassed by it or reduced to it. Notably, the force of this resistance is not experienced as an abstract or disembodied need to obey rules or conform to a code. Instead, it is no less visceral, immediate, and inexorable. “Every private care” is “swallowed up,” swallowing being as bodily basic, and as confronting of exterior/interior boundaries, an action as can be felt by consciousness. In terms of literary history, Austen distinguishes Elizabeth from the implausibly and ideologically dubious self-effacing heroines of contemporary courtship novels, on the one hand (see Waldron), and from reductive psychologies, whether rooted in notions of conservative religion or secular materialism, that would trace all motivation and affectivity back to desire for one’s own personal happiness.
Of course, Austen understands that not everyone experiences such affective contrarieties, and that their experience is intermittent and of varying intensity for all of us (otherwise its recurrences would not fix our attention or prompt our reflection). Her characters Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine, Wickham, and Lydia have no problem being continually engrossed by self, but such an emotional-cognitive life is for Austen not “proper” in a dual sense: it is neither ethical nor fitting for humans. The very ability of readers to recognize what Austen is describing in relation to Elizabeth, to follow in imagination the sense of her prose, brings home what is blameworthy and self-impoverishing in characters such as Collins and Lydia, and in real people who resemble them. Moreover, readers’ simulations of Elizabeth’s affective contrarieties bring their dynamics and implications into the forefront of consciousness even as their vicariously enactment in reading makes habitual receptivity to entwinements of thought and feelings which both deepen self-understanding and are permanently transformative.
Interior tension between egocentric and non-egocentric valuation and emotion-processing, born of entering into the inner affective-cognitive life of others while not losing a sense of the separateness of our own, may well reflect an evolutionary past in which imagining, anticipating, and identifying with communally shared emotions and neutral third-person perspectives acquired natural selection advantage by helping curb freeloading, bullying, or otherwise uncooperative behavior likely to alienate one from the group upon whose regard one’s wellbeing and survival depended (Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Morality). Indeed, consciousness of such contrariety, of its continual recurrence and intractability and thus desire to transcend or ameliorate it, may be foundational to the motivation for art. The absence of pre-homo sapiens cave paintings and other evidence of symbolic culture (Mithen, After the Ice, 242-43), however, suggests that art’s possibility also required a capacity to channel mimetic impulses into simulations that by recombining experiences of and material from heterogeneous domains (connecting images of horses with cave walls, blending attributes of lions and men, for example) projected imagined worlds in which affective dissonance could be assuaged, explained, or made the subject of depiction and reflection. Certainly one may argue that the inherence of such contrarieties in human embodiment is reflected in the variety and history of literary universals.
If emotion is understood as a means by which organisms with complex brains are prompted to act in ways likely to enhance survival, it follows that what is associated with “biological value” for us is naturally viewed by us to be in itself good (Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, 31-60). Positive emotion may be elicited by direct neurotransmitter “rewards” (Farari and Delgado) or indirectly from favorable appraisals of circumstances in relation to aims (Arnold, Oatley). To the extent that kin and in-group wellbeing is experienced as being inseparable from one’s own flourishing, selective sociality may follow from egocentric emotion processing (Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, 108-29, Rolls 172-99, Churchland 27-94). But involuntary affective resonance with another’s bodily experience will recurrently disrupt, and so be experienced on a phenomenological level as putting in question, egocentric and consequently ethnocentric measures of relevance and value (Singer, Singer et al., Klimecki and Singer).
If registering another’s physical pain is immediate, being neurologically direct (as Avenanti et al., “Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Highlights the Sensorimotor Side of Empathy for Pain,” “Stimulus Driven Modulation of Motor-Evoked Potentials During Observation of Others’ Pain” suggest), then involuntary somatic resonance is likely to be felt on a phenomenological level as imbued with attributes of force, authority, and priority. Empathy with another’s psychological or social feeling, however, involves significantly more indirect neurophysiological processes (Klimicki and Singer). Consequently, much recent work in affective neuroscience is at pains to emphasize that automatically mirroring “emotion-sharing” need not ensure “higher-order” (psychological or moral) empathy (Decety and Meltzoff 63). On the contrary, reduction of activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in perceiving others as fully human when subjects are in competitive or adversarial contexts suggests that in such circumstances pre-conscious mechanisms for selectively dampening empathy come into play (Klimecki and Singer 542-43, Zaki and Ochsner). Moreover, empathy in itself is no guarantee of ethical feeling or ethically rational thought and action (Bloom, Against Empathy). That said, neural mirroring appears normatively to correlate with stimulation of prefrontal cortical areas associated with mental state inference and social cognition (Rameson et al., Zaki and Oschner 29, Klimecki and Singer 539-40). If the latter is indeed the case, then neural mirroring would seem to facilitate a degree of direct, involuntary perception of aspects of another’s mental life (Goldman, Krueger), albeit, a perception of general sensations rather than of precise memories or ideas.
The general thrust of research in affective science and emotion studies over the past fifteen years provides enriched context for understanding the value of the concept of literary universals to literary theory and criticism. When Patrick Colm Hogan introduced the term in the mid-1990s, he argued that storytelling evocative of core emotions and affective ambivalences intrinsic to human embodiment give rise to prototypical plots that in turn established generic paradigms common to many different cultural traditions (“Beauty, Politics, and Cultural Otherness”). Following the example of categorization theory, Hogan noted that prototypes are not static, but create the opportunity for permutations, admixtures, and spinoffs responsive to different contexts and aims. Thus, “prototype effects” that function as cognitive-affective interventions, that engage core and complex emotions variously in different cultural, historical situations, play a central role in shaping literary history, the transformation of genres and modes, and even the development of individual authors’ work (Hogan, The Mind and Its Stories, Affective Narratology, How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, Beauty and Sublimity). At the same time, the universality of both prototypical plots and repertoires of prototype effects, which may be validated empirically by statistical analysis of the recurrence of particular features among narratives from different times and places, suggests how much literatures seemingly radically disconnected from one another actually speak to one anther by speaking to species-wide aspects of human cognition and emotional life.
Explorations of literary universals’ relation to cultural variety and historical change encourages appreciation of the complementarity of universality and particularity that is one of literature’s most striking features (Joyce wrote about turn-of-the-twentieth-century Dublin but nonetheless captured a worldwide readership because what he wrote seemed be speak directly to and illuminate their individual experiences, sensations, and intuitions). How literary universals engage affect and bring cognition and emotion into particular kinds of dialogue may be brought into even sharper focus through research addressing the interplay of enculturation and neural plasticity (Lende and Downey, Tucker and Luu) and the role of narrative and performance in shaping affective sociality during homo sapiens’ long bio-cultural prehistory (Boyd, Colombetti, McConachie, Dunbar). The turn to considerations of how texts, genres, and forms elicit affect and seek to influence the interplay between different forms and levels of emotion processing has come to mark much recent criticism (Plantinga, Vermeule, Armstrong, Faflak and Sha). The more such work undoes the remaining vestiges of cognition/emotion segregation, “blank slate” relativism, and abstraction of human subjectivity from affective sociality, the more the relevance and inescapability of literary universals for criticism and theory will become.
Investigations of literary universals quite properly involve empirical, statistical calculations of certain patterns, tropes, and generic features, such as the prevalence in talking animals in folklore and of heroines who are donors of “wisdom” (often configured in terms of nuanced social cognition or appreciation of reciprocities among natural, social, and cosmic/divine realms). One may also see endemic affective dissonance motivating the articulation of certain kinds of literary universals. One may also explore how efforts to negotiate cognitive-affective tensions that can never fully be resolved in either individuals or societies shape the recurrence of genre patterns and genre history among culturally, geographically diverse peoples. Indeed, without ever using the term “literary universals,” the eminent scholar of oral literatures Harold Scheub has, in effect, done both in his 2012 book Trickster and Hero. There he identifies trickster figures, emblematic of exorbitant self-will and masters of a cunning at once disruptive, irresponsible, antisocial and yet creative, productive of new orders, and generative of human community, as a recurrent feature of the narrative traditions of cultures worldwide. He then argues that as the attributes of trickster figures gravitate toward those of heroes, characters who serve as bridges between an old order and a new one by making the world safe for sociable existence by clearing it of monsters, oral tales move toward epic—as in the Winnebago Hare cycle or Homer’s Odyssey.
One might further argue that the egoistic, devouring, and antisocially animalistic qualities of trickster figures become the basis for monsters such as the Minotaur or the demons (râksasas) of Sanskrit epic. In their monsters, different cultures imagine the possibility and effects of a competitive sociality entirely unrestrained by cooperative sociality or empathic affectivity. As there are trickster elements in heroes, their defeating monsters subdues or moderates self-aggrandizing, predatory aspects of themselves and thus of the world. Such narratives, prevalent worldwide, speak to affective-cognitive legacies of an arduous evolutionary prehistory. The appeal of trickster figures to audiences, and the way that their cunning is often presented as a necessary part of creation, speaks to the persistence in humans, and value for them, of modes of cognition and affectivity keyed to competitive sociality. But the unease such figures induce prompts narratives enquiry into whether and how the qualities they exemplify may yield or co-exist with cooperative, kindly forms of sociality. Contemporary novels describing the ethical and emotional anguish caused by the prospect of emigration from failing or deeply troubles nation-states, where personal flourishing appears to demand withdrawal from communities to whom identity and affects are bound, articulate generic features sufficiently widespread and recurrent to be called universal which ultimately are rooted in conundrums of emotional and affective life not unlike those which structure Mantis folktales among the San of southern Africa.
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Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde
The possibility of literary universals comes from the possibility that the forms and other aspects of literary texts are shaped by external factors such as psychology and the sociocultural functions of literature. Psychological factors include limitations on memory and processing, along with psycholinguistic factors (which might allow linguistic universals to have an influence on literary universals).
However, any text can have forms imposed on it which are not determined by psychological or general sociocultural factors (Fabb). Consider for example the new assigned forms of Oulipo literature (Mathews and Brotchie), including for example the writing of lipogrammatic texts in which a letter of the alphabet is excluded throughout, such as George Perec’s La Disparition which never uses the letter “e.” As an example of a more common type of imposed form consider the Hiberno-Latin poem “Altus prosator” in which every stanza begins on a new letter of the Latin alphabet. The alphabet is not itself related to a literary universal, but is an independent system. Would we expect the imposition of these arbitrary forms to have any relation to literary universals? The question is difficult. A relevant consideration is whether the forms are widespread. For example, are poems which follow the forward sequence of the alphabet significantly more common than poems which follow the equally arbitrary backwards sequence of the alphabet (e.g., starting with Z), and if they are, does this reflect the operation of a literary universal (or some other factor)? The same kind of question might be asked about any imposed form. For example, pattern poems (Higgins) involve the imposition of an external form – the shape of an image – which can influence the composition of the written poem (such as the length of lines); but are some patterns more common than others, and if so, is this because psychological or functional factors are playing a role, and might these be part of literary universals?
A key consideration is whether the form is used more than once, or by more than one author, and whether it constitutes a “tradition.” Consider for example the case of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s invented meter called “sprung rhythm,” which adapts an older folk tradition of “loose iambic” meter but extends the number of unstressed syllables allowed between a fixed number of stressed syllables. This meter has occasionally been imitated; for example, Dylan Thomas’s poem “In Country Sleep” is in sprung rhythm (and includes other explicit echoes of Hopkins). Why was Hopkins’s meter not used more widely? There might be literary-historical reasons; perhaps the posthumous publication of his poems came at a time when his innovations already seemed out of fashion. In other words, sprung rhythm may conform to literary universals but failed to be adopted for other reasons. It it also may be that sprung rhythm is not well suited to literary (here metrical) universals. Promoting this argument, Fabb and Halle argue that Hopkins draws on two previously separated ways of adding syllables to the line: the additional syllables of folk verse and the uncounted syllables (synaloepha etc.) of iambic pentameter. This ambiguity of origin for extra syllables makes it difficult to establish the underlying metrical form of sprung rhythm poems, which in turn might militate against its survival as a metrical tradition. Hopkins’s sprung rhythm shows that it is not straightforward to use take-up into a tradition as a way of judging whether a literary innovation conforms to literary universals.
It is worth comparing innovations in literature with invented languages. Like literary innovations, languages are invented by specific people at specific times; in a few cases, those languages are learned by children as native speakers; they include Esperanto and some sign languages. Invented languages need not conform to any linguistic universals, but it is a general assumption (with supporting evidence) that when these languages are learned, they are changed such that they come to conform to universals. These are like the changes that a pidgin undergoes on its route to becoming a creole. Here we see the loose analogy with literary invention, when a particular invention becomes a tradition, such that not only the original author uses it, but it is used by other authors (and is read by readers). But, as we have seen, this criterion is difficult to use consistently; innovations can be unadopted for a variety of reasons, and artificial systems might furthermore be used for a long time. As an underlying problem, there is no equivalent of the “native speaker” when it comes to literature; in principle one could learn an (adapted) invented language as one’s only language, but there is no equivalent to this for literature.
We are left with the problem that we cannot be sure whether a characteristic of a literary text, particularly when it is fairly unique, should be expected to conform to literary universals. We know that innovations can in principle be arbitrary relative to literary universals, but there are no watertight tests for establishing whether any particular characteristic should be counted as arbitrary.
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Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: A New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
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Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut
Nigel Fabb’s essay on “Arbitrary Innovations and Literary Universals” treats the degree to which individual authors are able to defy literary practices, including practices that appear to be universal. This issue has a wide range of implications for the study of literary universals, all of which cannot be treated in a single essay. The present article is complementary to Fabb’s and should be read in conjunction with it. Specifically, the following paragraphs consider two issues related to arbitrary innovations. The first issue is the social adoption of innovations. It is addressed explicitly by Fabb, but with a different focus. The second issue is which innovations might or might not violate universals, and potentially falsify them. This is more general and only implicit in Fabb’s essay.
As to the first issue, Fabb points to the difference between innovations that are generally adopted within a tradition and those that are not. For example, we might ask why Gerard Manley Hopkins’s metrical innovations appear to have had very little influence on subsequent versification. As Fabb points out, one answer is that their introduction did not flourish due to historical contingency. (Fabb mentions literary history in particular, but it seems clear that non-literary contingency—such as racist or sexist prejudice against the innovator—may enter as well.) Another answer is that they are somehow in tension with universal patterns (e.g., they are not consistent with linguistic processing tendencies). Similar points might be made about innovations that do have wide social impact. For example, some techniques of Hollywood cinema (e.g., the practices of “continuity editing”) might have caught on because they conformed to universal perceptual propensities (see Bordwell), while others might have succeeded due simply to the accidental success of certain films or the dominant position of particular studios. Moreover, as the example of Hollywood suggests, the point applies not only within, but also across cultural traditions.
The cross-traditional problem is highly significant. As I have discussed elsewhere (“Areal”), it is much more difficult to quarantine literary traditions than languages. Thus, it is often difficult to ensure that one’s research has the appropriate degree of genetic and areal diversity. This is important because claims of universality require specific sorts of support. One has evidence that a feature is universal only if three criteria apply. First, the feature must recur across traditions with significantly greater frequency than would be expected by chance. Second, those traditions must not have descended from a common source with that feature. Third, those traditions must not have influenced one another with regard to that feature. The problem is that it may be very easy for one literary tradition to be influenced by another even with limited contact, and it is not easy to find literary traditions that have had no contact whatsoever. Thus, we may face a fundamental problem with evidence regarding literary universals.
In response to this problem, I have proposed several measures. Of course, we should try to find genuinely genetically and areally distinct traditions. Nonetheless, in some cases, evidence for a universal may be gleaned from traditions that have had contact. That contact, however, should not involve hegemonic relations such that the literary practices of one tradition would be likely to displace the literary practices of another tradition for non-literary reasons (e.g., because one society colonized the other and imposed its literary tradition through the education system). Thus, one should in general not draw on modern, post-colonial literatures for evidence of universals. Moreover, one should take into account the extent of the contact and the salience of the features. For example, as to the latter, the mere fact of dramatic performance is highly salient, thus easily transmittable even with minimal contact. In contrast, certain sorts of background imagery or the use of techniques such as foreshadowing are not likely to be highly salient unless people are already sensitive to them for some reason. Thus, they should not be transmitted so readily. If there is minimal contact and a feature has low salience, then the recurrence of the feature is less likely to have been the result of contact.
Finally, even if we have reason to believe that some feature has been transmitted by contact, we may still wish to incorporate it into a theory of universals. This is because not everything transfers across traditions, especially not everything that has a low degree of salience. We may learn something about universal processes of literary creation or reception or universal functions of literature from the fact that one practice transfers and another does not. Consider, for example, some feature that recurs across different traditions, but that has evidently passed from one tradition to another. If that feature has high salience and the contact has been extensive, then the recurrence has little if any value for the study of universals. If it has moderate salience and the contact has been intermediate, then the recurrence may have some value. If it has low salience and the contact has been limited, we may decide that the recurrence has considerable value. (There are, of course, other possibilities as well.)
The second issue raised by arbitrary innovation concerns, again, what contradicts or falsifies a posited literary universal. Here we need to note that universals differ in their scope and in their conceptual kind. As to scope, some universals may apply to all literary works. I suspect that these are mostly trivial and in general derive from our definition of literature. Arbitrary innovations might seem to falsify a universal that applies to all literary works. However, they are more likely to challenge our definition of literature. To take a simplistic example, suppose we define literature by reference to fictionality. Do autobiographical poems show that literature is not universal? That does not seem to be a reasonable conclusion. Rather, autobiographical poems suggest that we should probably not define literature as fictional. We may of course wish to investigate cross-cultural properties of fictional works. But we simply isolate those as works of fiction, not as the entire body of literature.
More importantly, the scope of universal claims is more often a matter of common practices within a tradition or simply some works in a tradition. As to the former, most claims about poetic line length, for example, do not appear to concern the limits of line length for all poems; they rather concern the normal or default line lengths for a given tradition (such as iambic pentameter in English; see, for example, my The Mind 37-44). Arbitrary innovations would have to displace common practices in order to falsify such universals.
Probably the most frequent claims for universality bear on some works in the tradition. For example, heroic narratives appear in a wide range of traditions. However, not every work is heroic. Indeed, not every work is heroic or romantic or sacrificial or one of the other cross-cultural genres (on these genres, see my “Story”). The universal is that this genre recurs cross-culturally, not that it exhausts the possibilities for story formulation. It is difficult to see arbitrary innovations as violating universals of this sort.
Finally, we may distinguish two conceptual varieties of universal—prototypes, on the one hand, and rules or necessary and sufficient conditions, on the other. Some universals are formulated in terms of prototypes. For example, heroic plots do not have strictly necessary and sufficient conditions, but rather involve greater or lesser approximation to a standard case. It is difficult to see how arbitrary innovations could violate prototype-based claims of universality, though of course authors may arbitrarily innovate highly non-prototypical stories. Other universals are formulated as rules. For example, Kiparsky argues that alliteration “seems to be found as an obligatory formal element only in languages where the stress regularly falls on the same syllable in the word, which then must be the alliterating syllable” (9). This rule could in principle be violated by arbitrary innovations, though the innovation would have to become a standard practice in this case.
Future research in this area should continue to examine the kinds and degrees of areal contact and the nature of salience, both theoretically and through specific case studies. It should also consider whether or not there are other factors that might affect the ease with which literary features may be transmitted. Researchers might also address the parallel issue regarding historical development from a common source, taking up for example the degree to which particular features are or are not stable in historical development. It may be that there are specific cases in which a feature persists despite clear pressures for it to change. These may then be cases where genetic continuity could play a role in the isolation of universals.
Bordwell, David. “Convention, Construction, and Cinematic Vision.” In Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Ed. David Bordwell and Noël Carroll. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996, 87-107.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Areal Distinctness and Literature.” In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences. Ed. Patrick Colm Hogan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 105-106.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Kiparsky, Paul. “The Role of Linguistics in a Theory of Poetry.” In Essays in Modern Stylistics. Ed. Donald C. Freeman. New York: Methuen, 1981, 9-23.
 In addition, some claims about lines may rely on a technical definition, such that the apparent “line” in a poem may not be the line as set out in the technical definition (for a discussion of issues in the segmentation of poetry, including lineation, see Fabb’s discussion of poetic sections). For example, writing conventions may leave lines unmarked, split them in two, or combine them (so that one “line” of writing is actually two lines by the technical definition). In these cases, innovations would have to affect line length in the technical sense of “line.”
By: Todd Oakley, Case Western Reserve University
Conceptual integration (also known as Conceptual Blending) is a general cognitive operation underlying virtually all acts of human creativity. First explored by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner and subsequently by a range of scholars (see blending.stanford.edu for a list of works), we can posit conceptual integration as a “cognitive” universal underlying linguistic and literary phenomena. More specifically, Fauconnier and Turner identify Double-Scope Conceptual Integration (see below) as a panhuman singularity, which is not shared by even our closest living primates; at least there is little to no evidence double-scope blending among non-human primates or cetaceans, either in captivity or in the wild.
That double-scope conceptual integration is a cognitive universal is fairly uncontroversial and ultimately not very interesting as a claim in itself. What is of more interest are the kinds of generalizations to be made about the literary typologies that conceptual integration theory (CIT) can develop based on the general principles developed therein. The fact that human beings “blend” is a universal, and that some outcomes of this blending process, such as primary metaphors (e.g., AFFECTION IS WARMTH, IMPORTANCE IS SIZE, and SIMILARITY IS SPATIAL PROXIMITY; see “Metaphor Universals in Literature”) and other forms of “simplex” blending may be universal or near-universal, it is most likely the case that specific products of conceptual integration are culture-specific, for blending is first and foremost a process for solving local conceptual problems. Floating in the sea of variation, however, is one candidate for a universal blend: fictive interaction. Put succinctly, fictive interaction is the idea that speech can be a construed as a property of non-actual human actors as well as non-human actors, be they animate or inanimate, natural or artificial.
In this article, I will describe the model of conceptual integration and link details thereof to the question of literary universals. I propose the blending phenomenon of fictive interaction (Pascual; Pascual & Sanders) as an implicational universal and propose future research on the various manifestations of narrator types.
Conceptual Integration Theory begins with the basic assumption that human beings think in scenes and scenarios. Gilles Fauconnier calls these scenes as scenarios mental spaces, making CIT an outgrowth of mental spaces theory, the term for a model of natural language that solves several puzzling referential and related phenomena that are difficult for model-theoretic and truth-conditional semantics, such as referential opacity, presupposition, and analogical counterfactuals. CIT adds the observation that human beings not only integrate information within mental spaces but that many if not all conceptualizations involve the networking of multiple mental spaces. In a canonical form of the model, a CI network involves at least two “input” spaces that, in addition to creating cross-space mappings between input elements, selectively project information from each input into a third, “blended” space. This space, in turn, develops its own emergent structure as well as develops according to its own unique logic. Examples abound (see Fauconnier and Turner, Oakley and Pascual, for extensive overviews and examples), but perhaps we can illustrate it with this little quip from the narrator when describing the thoughts of Little Chandler in “A Little Cloud”: “He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul” (83-4).
Here we have a network of two input spaces, one for SOUL (broadly construed) and one for WEIGHTS & MEASURES. The dominant element of the SOUL space is “disposition” or “personality” (which is quickly identified as “melancholy”). The WEIGHTS & MEASURES space remains unspecified, as no attempt is made to specify “ounces,” “pounds,” “tons” or whether such units are imperial or metric. The blended conceit that emerges is the expectation that one’s soul has a measurable “weight” that can be “converted” into some vocational ratio of creativity, none of which is forthcoming. In this instance, the emergent structure of the WEIGHING of SOULS blended space, not available in either input space, is the conceit that creative dispositions are measurable and can be “objectively” assessed, just as one can objectively assess the goods according to standardized units.
However vainglorious and whimsical Little Chandler’s conceit may be, it illustrates a universal feature of human conceptualization: the propensity to create scenes that variously “compress” or “decompress” relationships of time, space, cause-effect, change, identity, analogy/disanalogy, part-whole, representation, category, intentionality, and uniqueness to a human scale (Fauconnier and Turner; Oakley and Pascual, 427-8). Human beings live at a scale where it takes considerable ingenuity to conceptualize that which is diffuse and that which is condensed over time and space: we prefer to think about these topics in ways that comport with our human scale experiences. It is therefore tempting to emotionally manage the vague ambition of becoming a great poet by integrating it with a familiar scenario of anyone experienced with industrial, metropolitan life. Little Chandler hopes that a sufficient “quantity” of melancholy provides sufficient weightiness to constitute a poetic sensibility, just as a sufficient quantity of gold constitutes wealth.
Little Chandler’s soul comprises what CIT calls a double-scope blending network, for the two organizing frames governing each input space issue from incommensurate and potentially clashing conceptual domains. The fact that the blended conceit lasts only for a single sentence means that it is abandoned immediately after its composition so as not to be completed or elaborated, such that the narrator would then have to manage the inevitable clashes between the two input spaces. In other words, this is a conceptual blend that colors the narrative without playing a significant role in advancing the story. In the parlance of CIT, it exemplifies the process of composition without the subsequent processes of completion and elaboration (Fauconnier and Turner, 89-113; Oakley and Pascual, 428-9).
Perhaps most important for the empirical testing of CIT is the fact that the model posits six optimality constraints to underscore the context-dependent nature of conceptual integration. That is to say that conceptual blends like the WEIGHING OF SOULS develop and succeed or fail through processes of “satisfying” or “relaxing” principles or constraints. Conceptualization is, therefore, best seen as a process whereby concepts develop by an uneven, ad hoc adherence to specific constraints.
The Integration constraint stipulates that a blend should form a coherent scene. Little Chandler’s mental machination of weighing properties of his soul, however fantastic, forms a coherent scene, as the experience of mental assessment is habitually construed in these terms.
The Topology constraint stipulates that it is optimal to preserve elements in the input spaces in the blend. That is, the blend should share as much information with the input spaces as possible. If we are Cartesians, the substance of souls has no discernable terrestrial properties. It is fairly easy to see the task of weighing souls as fanciful, since the two domains are often construed as quite distinct, despite it being a deeply entrenched cultural gestalt. In this instance, the topology constraint is relaxed, except that we are invited to construe “melancholy” as a measurable substance, and, in the next sentence, are entrained to regard “resignation” as a countervailing substance.
The Web constraint hypothesizes that the cross-space mappings between inputs should be maintained in the blend. The only cross-space mapping in this blend is the relationship between “melancholy” and “measured substance,” as there is no development of any other properties of the soul and their corresponding units of measure elaborated in the narrative.
The Unpacking constraint states that it should be relatively easy to infer the structure of the input spaces from the blend itself. (This constraint works at cross purposes with topology and integration.) Because the two input spaces share little to no conceptual structure, it is relatively easy for readers to unpack the two spaces without difficulty. Perhaps Joyce wishes readers to see this conceit as fanciful and unrealistic.
The Metonymy constraint stipulates that elements in the network that are related through contiguity or relations of similarity collapse to identity in the blend. There is no evidence of what we call “metonymic tightening” in this version of WEIGHING OF SOULS other than the possibility that “melancholy” comes to stand for the poetic sensibility. That said, metonymic tightening is a pervasive process of compression to human scale, and it is especially important in cases of pictorial blending (see Oakley and Pascual, 436-7).
The Good Reason constraint holds that any element that happens to emerge in the blend will be given significance, no matter how incidental or tangential. The fact that melancholy is the only significant personality trait mentioned after the weighing of soul quip creates pressure to regard it as a measurable substance.
Fictive Interaction as a Universal Form of Conceptual Integration
The staggering variety of blends human beings construct, both ephemeral and perduring, makes it difficult to identify a typology that is not culture-specific. One such candidate of blend type that seems has achieved maximal generality is the phenomenon known as Fictive Interaction (hereafter, FI). Developed most extensively by Esther Pascual, FI names the process of using the entrenched frame of a conversation to structure all manner of states of affairs that are not, in themselves, conversations. For example, in Catalan the phrase, El cos diu prou, is commonly used to express “exhaustion,” by literally saying, “The/my/your body says stop” (Pascual and Oakley, 349). Notice that exhaustion is not ipso facto a conversational state of affairs; rather the speaker structures the description of a physical state in terms of a performative speech act, where the body becomes a speaker issuing a command. What is more, native speakers of Catalan often substitute cos [body] with other body parts, such as cor [heart], ulls [eyes], and peus [feet] to express slightly different or emotional states. 
The construal is fictive in the sense of being non-actual. The tired muscles in the body are not literally addressing the person controlling muscle movement, but it is not fictional in a strong sense; the states of affairs being referenced are real. One is simply using a frame of conversation to represent a real state of affairs that is not objectively a conversation. Pascual has provided significant evidence that FI patterns are found in all languages she has investigated, and at all levels of analysis, from discourse all the way down to morphology (29-58; 83-112; Van der Voort). Interestingly, FI seems to play a greater role in the structuring of oral languages than chirographic ones, and since there are far more examples of purely oral languages in existence than written ones, it is reasonable to conclude that FI is a form of linguistic universal based on the cognitive universality of the conversation frame.
With respect to CIT, FI as a general phenomenon forms a simplex network (Fauconnier & Turner, 39-59) in which a single mental space is organized by facets of the conversation frame. In the example above, it is organized around a fictive addresser, but there are versions involving fictive addressees, as well, as in My legs are not listening to me right now. Of course, many actual instances of FI can be readily completed and elaborated into fuller mirror, single-scope, and double-double scope integrations, as when the Cross speaks to a Thane in Dream of the Rood.
FI as a Narrative Universal
Two studies are worth presenting in some detail, as they show how the conversational frame is used as a discourse structuring device in distal cultural and historical formations. The first is Mingjian Xiang’s study, “Real, Imaginary, or Fictive?: Philosophical Dialogues in an Early Daoist text and its Pictorial Version,” offers extended treatment of Zhuangzi, the foundational Daoist text originating in the fourth-century B.C.E.; the second is Christopher Flint’s article “Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteenth-Century Prose,” which investigates the trend of using objects as narrators in fiction.
As with Platonic dialogues, Zhuangzi exhibits a series of dialogues that are meant to be read allegorically in order to illustrate Daoist principles. Unlike Platonic dialogues, however, the discussants extend not only to animals and deities but to inanimate entities, such as the wind, and abstract concepts (Xiang, 73). According to Xiang (who provides a detailed CIT analysis of these FI constructs of greater depth and precision than presented here), these FI structures are instances of yu yan (“imputed words”). One instance of yu yan appears when the author of the text has Confucius and his devotee, Yan Hui, engage in a dialogue wherein Confucius proceeds to espouse several Daoist propositions, which are, as Xiang reminds us, more often than not in opposition to Confucianism. Thus, we are confronted with a historically real personage, Confucius, having a non-genuine conversation. These forms of “adulterated speech” are commonplace across literary traditions.
More conspicuous are instances of FI between fantastical entities, my favorite being the exchange between shadow and penumbra:
Penumbra said to Shadow, “A little while ago you were walking, and now you’re standing still; a little while ago you were sitting, and now you’re standing up. Why this lack of independent action?” Shadow said, “Do I have to wait for something before I can be like this? Does what I wait for also have to wait for something before I can be like this? Am I waiting for the scales of a snake or the wings of a cicada? How do I know why it is so? How do I know why it isn’t so?” (quoted in Xiang: 73)
The fictional dialogue between these two personified entities is fictional in structure but serves a fictive purpose of illustrating a Daoist response to such philosophical questions as the nature of volition. It is an indirect means of expressing the writer’s position by means of “showing” rather than “telling.”
The Zhuangzi text is a tour de force of FI conceits involving both realistic but non-actual (disingenuous) speakers as well as fantastical, non-actual but genuine natural objects and entities. It is worth noting, however, that none of the speakers comes from the world of artifice.
Christopher Flint’s article offers up a concise and penetrating account of the underlying motives for a literary trend that began with the publication of Charles Gildon’s, The Golden Spy in 1709. A picaresque narrative told by a few “quarrelsome coins” who boast about their national origins and then relate their “transmigrations” across borders, these coins transform into first-hand witnesses of the exchanges of men, all the while highlighting the thoroughly itinerate and extemporaneous nature of their existences.
Flint, who does not couch his analysis in terms of CIT, claims that “A remarkably persistent feature in eighteenth-century fiction, the narrating object appears in a surprising number of satires published between 1709 and 1824, manifesting a particular cultural obsession with stories as things” (214). One could go so far as to suggest that this trend makes good on the saying “If these walls could talk,” as all the manufactured objects in question float easily and inconspicuously between machinations public and private. Examples of object narrators in his study include a goose-quill, a post-chaise (carriage), a pin, and a kite. Once again, such narrative integration networks optimize the metonymy constraint, insofar as they are information bearing artifacts. A goose-quill tells intimate tales; a post-chaise not only witnesses the happenings of its passengers but presumably has access to the contents of its mail; a pin finds itself fastened to all manner of intimate apparel, and a kite functions as an eighteenth-century equivalent of a surveillance drone. As proverbial “flies on walls,” these speaking objects satisfy the good reason constraint. In the situations of human exchange, each is typically regarded as incidental or a mere means by which something is done. Coins are a means of exchange; quills make writing and correspondence possible; pins hold fast that which is the object of attraction to eligible suitors, and kites amuse their terrestrial handlers. By shifting the perspective or vantage point to the objects themselves, their significance as bearers of sensitive information becomes apparent. We are forced then to see the mental spaces from their perspective.
Flint’s meta-literary argument is worth emphasizing here. The trend of using manufactured artifacts as narrators coincides the rise of print culture and the legal-institutional conditions of the author as producer of goods and services and its attendant alienating effects. Just as the coins have no control over their transmigrations and exchanges; just as the goose quill becomes complicit in correspondences not of its choosing; just as a post-chaise cannot choose its passengers or parcel; just as a pin does not choose that to which it fastens; and just as a kite is at the mercy of wind direction and speed, so are authors at the mercy of other agents, agencies and readerships in this age of mechanical reproduction. The author becomes a commodity. As Flint takes care to emphasize, the speaking object’s status as a commodity is likewise emphasized throughout these narratives. In The Adventures of a Cork-screw, the narrator often interrupts the story with descriptions of its users and the uses to which it is employed, and at other times, key moments in the narrative are interrupted by the fact that their owners, in order to satisfy some debt, reach in their pockets and hand over said cork-screw; as the conditions of ownership change, so does the story. One can see the attraction of using manufactured objects as such picaresque genres.
We are now in a position to make some speculations about nature of FI blends across oral and literary traditions. FI appears to be an organizing scheme at work at various levels of linguistic analysis, which includes that of discourse and narrative structure. The impulse to endow non-human entities, such as deities, animals, and the natural world–especially boundary and orientation landmarks like mountains, rivers, streams, lakes, and seas–appears to be part of a cultural universal of myth-making. Animism as the dominant metaphysical stance of ancient and traditional societies, wherein practices of daily survival involve the interaction and worship of these objects and beings, leads us to conclude that FI with these types of entities is a mythic universal, one still available as a special trope for denizens of modern, industrial civilizations. The River Liffey, for instance, speaks in Finnegan’s Wake. It is reasonable to speculate that “wind” is a preeminently common candidate to be a fictive speaker or narrator.
Flint’s investigation into the role of manufactured objects as narrators suggests that in industrial societies where strangers regularly interact through information bearing artifacts, there will be a noticeable shift in range of inanimate narrators to the world of the artificial, all the while maintaining a link to its traditional, animist past. Thus, we have an implicational universal, such that all known human societies and cultural formations engage in fictive interaction with nature, so that if a society has FI scenarios involving artifacts, then it can draw on FI scenarios involving nature; however, there should not be any societies in which their oral and literary traditions exhibit robust FI scenarios involving artifacts without at least having vestiges of FI scenarios with nature. Why might this be so?
While all human cultures produce artifacts, not all societies produce a critical mass of symbolic, information-bearing artifacts of the type that can “speak louder” or more authoritatively than those natural entities on which life, love, and worship depend.
Within societies exhibiting artifact-based FI scenarios, there should be a hierarchy of more or less likely narrator functions. Information-bearing artifacts, such as texts, coins, forms of identification, cards, and other means of exchange are particularly powerful, as it is natural to regard them as “speaking” through the process of metonymic compression. Articles of clothing and intimate apparel, as well as toys and other ludic gadgets, appear to be strong candidates. Expressive artifacts, such as musical instruments, are another likely candidate for widespread adoption. Add weaponry to the list of candidates.
In contrast to many natural FI entities that get their prominence from their status as stationary, immovable landmarks that can enable or frustrate human agents, artifact-based ones tend to gain prominence from their transmigratory dispositions. This is especially important in advanced, industrial and postindustrial societies that have elaborate configurations of public and private spaces. The fact that these entities can migrate seamlessly and inconspicuously between the domains of public performance and intimate interaction makes them fodder for all manner of narrative mischief.
At the same time, it is possible to regard some artifacts as less likely (but not impossible) candidates. Such artifacts would include meat and other perishable foodstuffs, and items that are not countable or easily individuated, such as sawdust, straw, and other raw material, in part because they are not easily integrated into coherent scenes and scenarios.
For the most part, the future research suggested by the preceding hypotheses is straightforward. There are many cases of FI in other traditions. The first task for research in this area is to identify further instances, exploring the nature, varieties, and functions of FI through multiple instances. The second is to examine the necessity of natural FI entities as a step leading to the adoption of artificial FI entities. The third is to determine the frequency of classes of natural or artificial FI entities. There are also further research questions that arise in this context. For example, one set of questions concerns the diachronic study of cultural and language contact. Do we see a shift in oral and literary storytelling among erstwhile traditional societies that come into subsequent and sustained contact with industrialized and postindustrial societies? I have in mind aboriginal cultures of the Australian outback or Native American tribes, most of which live hybrid lives. What does that change over look like? Are money and other tokens of exchange a likely candidate for early adoption of artifact-based FI scenarios?
Fauconnier, Gilles. Mental Spaces: Meaning Construction in Natural Language. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Flint, Christopher. “Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteen-Century Fiction.” PMLA 113.2 (1998): 212-226.
Joyce, James. “A Little Cloud.” In The Portable James Joyce. Ed. H. Levin. New York: Penguin Books, 1977: 80-96.
Oakley, Todd and Esther Pascual. “Conceptual Integration.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Ed. B. Dancygier. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017, 423-448.
Pascual, Esther. Imaginary Trialoques. Utrecht: LOT Publications, 2002.
Pascual, Esther. Fictive Interaction: The Conversation Frame in Thought, Language, and Discourse. Amsterdam & Philadelphia. John Benjamins Publishing, 2014.
Pascual, Esther and Todd Oakley. ‘Fictive Interaction.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Ed. B. Dancygier. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017, 347-360.
Pascual, Esther and Sergeiy Sandler, Ed. The Conversation Frame: Forms and Functions of Fictive Interaction. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2016.
Voort, Hein van der. Recursive inflection and grammaticalized fictive interaction in the southwestern Amazon. In The Conversation Frame. Ed. E. Pascual and S. Sandler. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2016, 277-299.
Xiang, Mingjian. “Real, Imaginary, or Fictive?: Philosophical Dialogues in an Early Daoist Text and its Pictorial Version.” In The Conversation Frame: Forms and Functions of Fictive Interaction. Ed. E. Pascual and S. Sandler. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2016, 63-86.
 They are variously referred to as “principles” or “constraints” throughout the CIT literature. I prefer “constraint” and will use it throughout.
 I thank Esther Pascual for bringing this example and its variations to my attention.
 I thank Patrick Hogan for calling this example to my attention.
Tom Dolack, Wheaton College
It has been postulated that religious beliefs “minimally violate ordinary intuitions about how the world is” (Atran, In Gods We Trust 83). This is not to say that religion need be defined by counterintuitive imagery. There is a constellation of behaviors that has been proposed as underlying religion including a “hyperactive agency detection device” (Guthrie), overpromiscuous Theory of Mind, and ritual practices. Nonetheless, counterintuitive imagery appears to be a religious universal. Some research on this topic has noted that counterintuitive imagery is not a priori religious. Specifically, Kelly and Keil have looked at Ovid and the Brothers Grimm; Burdett, Barrett, and Porter have looked at folktales; and Swan and Halberstadt have more recently examined what differentiates religious from fictional counterintuitive agents. Even so, work in the field has mostly focused on the religious domain. What I propose is a research program that explicitly applies insights into religious counterintuitive imagery to narrative more broadly, including modern literature. This is in keeping with the idea that cognitive “templates” for religious concepts, discussed by Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained 78), have application in a wide variety of cultural artifacts.
Art was once thought to be the sole province of Homo sapiens, a cultural Rubicon that only we crossed. But, as has often been the case in recent years, the archaeological record shows that we are not so special. Intentional markings have been found on mussel shells dating back a half million years, which would make the suspected artiste Homo erectus (Joordens et al.). Whether we wish to term these engravings “art” is open to debate, but they seem to be intentional, serve no apparent utilitarian function, and are not random. If not art, then what? Doodle, perhaps, but that would probably be distinction without difference in this context. Our cousins the Neanderthals clearly also “doodled,” as evidenced by cave art in Spain predating the arrival of Homo sapiens (Hoffmann et al.; Hawks). Examples from our own direct ancestors are widespread and found all over the world (Henshilwood et al.; Aubert et al.). But much of the art we find in the record can be described as decorative or mimetic. The type of symbolism or figurativeness we associate with the term “art” in modern times, not to mention with human behavior more generally, is clearly a more recent addition.
Along these lines, the Löwenmensch or Lion-Man, found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, stands out. Not only is it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, statuette on record; it is also conspicuously not abstract, mimetic, or purely decorative. About a foot in height and carved from a mammoth tusk, the largest piece of the figurine was unearthed in 1939 (smaller pieces were dug up later and the pieces painstakingly reassembled). The Löwenmensch has a human body, with the head of what appears to be a lion. It is unclear if the figurine was meant to be symbolic or religious (theories abound), but it is clearly figurative. Nobody ever saw such a creature. It is all too easy to lose sight of how revolutionary this would have been. It would be unexceptional today in our world of CGI; it would have been unexceptional even thousands of years ago when mythology and tales around the campfire were commonplace. But there was a time when such a hybrid creation was entirely new, and it changed human culture forever.
We don’t know when or where this capacity for imagining hybrids originated, and can only hypothesize about how it came to be (changes to our mental architecture along the lines of Mithen’s “cognitive fluidity”? A tipping point in cumulative cultural evolution?), but however this change occurred, it signals a new ability to envision what did not and could not exist; previously we could either reproduce what we had seen or heard about or make abstract shapes that we found pleasing.
I suspect it is no coincidence that this oldest of all figurative art is a hybrid. Such hybrids are a stock element of religions, mythologies, and folklores the world over. The technical term for them is counterintuitive imagery. What makes these images special is that they violate our natural intuitions. We have innate ontological categories (Atran,“Basic Conceptual Domains”) in our minds such as animal, person, inanimate thing, tool and plant. Each of these categories involves specific expectations regarding our innate knowledge domains of physics, biology, and psychology. A natural object such as a rock does not move on its own, does not grow or reproduce, and does not think. An animal does move on its own, grow, eat, and reproduce, has some mental workings, but does not speak. Humans are like animals biologically, plus have additional psychology faculties, but are restrained by certain physical laws (we can’t fly or walk through walls). Counterintuitive images violate these ontological expectations in one way or another—an animal that talks, a person who doesn’t die, a stick that heals. A table from Justin Barrett covers all of the bases (see Figure 1).
This table covers the panoply of figures in religions, mythologies, folklores, but also science fiction movies and fantasy novels. A zombie is a person lacking human consciousness (a violation of expectations regarding psychology); a ghost is a person without a body (a violation regarding biology); a talisman is an artifact with magic properties (physics violation); Ents are plants that behave like people (biology and psychology violations); monotheistic gods are often people lacking bodies and with reality-defying powers (psychology, biology, and physics violations). And so on.
A primary postulate for why counterintuitive imagery is so common in the religious imagination is because it is better remembered. But we need not restrict ourselves just to the religious imagination in this regard (Barrett, “Utility” 250). Atran and Norenzayan did experiments where stories with counterintuitive imagery were better remembered after one week (see also Barrett and Nyhof). Perhaps most interesting, they found an ideal ratio of counterintuitive to intuitive imagery (mostly intuitive with some counterintuitive), which accounts for why all or even most religious imagery is not counterintuitive. This is an explanation for its universality – in a tradition lacking writing, imagery that was better remembered would have a Darwinian advantage. And, indeed, such imagery does seem to be universal. Donald Brown lists belief in the supernatural, anthropomorphism, magic (which involves category violations of some sort), and myths all as human universals (139).
This may explain the abundance of spirits, and giants, and witches, and gods and the like – all the mythic figures that populate the religions, folklores and stories the world over, all of which have their roots, if you go back far enough, in the letterless past. But can we say the same about wizards and aliens and all the creations of modern fantasy and science fiction that are solidly within modern times? Clearly memory is no hurdle to the retention of something located conveniently in paperback or blue-ray. Indeed, if we extend our view to incorporate our metaphors (your eyes are like diamonds, a mountain of a man, fast as a cheetah), counterintuitivity pervades all of our narrative, even the most realistic.
This points to a possible need to expand what we mean by the term “supernatural.” Rather than being the domain of magic, mysticism, or the occult, an understanding of our innate folk physics and folk biology lets us understand why exactly we draw a line between natural and supernatural, and that there is nothing inherently religious or magical about things on the other side of that line. As Konika Banerjee notes (Banerjee et al.), in actuality, we likely get the directionality wrong: counterintuitive imagery isn’t religious, there’s just something about it that leads to its overrepresentation in allforms of narrative. The “supernatural” (read: counterintuitive) surrounds us, we just tend to notice only the more extreme examples found in mythology and religion. This meshes quite well with the work of Kelly and Keil that found similar rates of cross-domain transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
But if counterintuitive imagery is so ubiquitous, even (especially?) into the modern day where memory is no longer a restricting factor, what can account for its prevalence? Why would Hinduism, Ovid, and comic books all contain similar imagery? Banerjee uses the phrase “inferentially rich,” which may be on to something. If a novel counterintuitive idea breeds new ideas and images, this may make them more attractive. There is perhaps something more creative about them. This fits with one approach to creativity at the cognitive level that assumes creativity to involve the combination of two previously separate ideas in working memory (Vandervert et al.; Fink et al.). Thus, counterintuitive imagery may force us to be creative in reverse by separating the components of a hybrid that we had not encountered. But much more research is required on this specific question.
An Attempt to Test Some Hypotheses
Based on the standard formulations of the role of counterintuitive imagery in religions, I formulated two hypotheses that could be empirically tested. First of all, if memory is truly the main reason for increased counterintuitive imagery, we should find more of it in oral traditions than written traditions. Second, if there is something religious about counterintuitive imagery, we should find more of it in religious texts than non-religious texts. Obviously, counterintuitive imagery exists in both written and secular texts, but there should be some difference in the rates. With these hypotheses in mind, I and a group of undergraduate students began to tabulate rates of counterintuitive imagery. The project is highly labor intensive and so progress is both slow going and narrowly focused. Consequently, conclusions are so far highly tentative and really only serve as means of directing future research. But the data has been interesting, nonetheless (Dolack). To date we have gotten through the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter series, which is only a starting point. Obviously, this choice alone is a delimiting factor in the results, but we believe that at the very least we have established that a fuller empirical study along these lines promises to contribute to worthwhile research programs on counterintuitive imagery and narrative.
What we have done is tabulate all of the characters in both works (over 3,500 total) and, using the rubric established by Boyer and Barrett (“Natural Foundations”), marked which ones had counterintuitive elements. Specifically, we tracked whether each character had some additional, unanticipated domain capacity in psychology, biology, or physics, or whether it lacked such a capacity (marked as +psychology, or –physics, for instance). Some simplification was necessary, especially at this stage. Future work could involve the subtlety built into Justin Barrett’s coding system, particularly his distinction between “counterintuitive” and “counterschematic” (Barrett, “Coding”).
Some of our basic results showed that only 8% of characters in the Old Testament had some form of domain violation. However, if we counted not just characters, but how many times the characters were mentioned, it turns out that 33% of character mentions involve a character with a domain violation. This means that counterintuitive figures were much more likely to be mentioned multiple times than “normal” figures. This fits with the predictions of the theory – there is obviously selection pressure for counterintuitiveness in the Bible.
To test another prediction, we tabulated the percentage of character mentions involving a counterintuitive character per book of the Bible. We did percentage and not raw numbers because otherwise larger books such as Genesis would have an unfair advantage. The results look like Figure 2.
Some books have very high numbers because they only have a handful of people, all of whom are prophets, or fall into some other counterintuitive category. The test here was to see if the earlier books of the Bible (the ones more likely to date back to a purely oral tradition) had higher or lower rates of counterintuitive figures. Dating books of the Hebrew Bible is tricky as there are no exact dates to begin with, but things are further complicated by when texts were written down or edited. But using a rough ordering, my team came up with Figure 3, which shows a general decrease from older to newer texts.
The overall decrease in the percentage of domain violations fits with the model’s predictions as well. But what happens when we look at a work of contemporary fantasy? Our prediction based on theory was that rates of counterintuitive imagery would be lower, but our instincts said it would be about the same. It turns out that 45% of the characters in the Harry Potter novels are counterintuitive. That’s far higher than the 8% in the Hebrew Bible. If we look at character mentions, the disparity is much less: 49% compared with The Bible’s 33%. The percentage of mentions jumps much less than with The Bible; a counterintuitive character in Harry Potter is only slightly more likely to be seen more often than a non-counterintuitive character. We suggest this difference is because the initial rate in Harry Potter is so high and because The Bible was winnowed down and changed over centuries.
What conclusions can we draw from this admittedly narrow selection of texts? Based solely on this one example we can say that individual, modern, written works can have as much or even more counterintuitive imagery than religious or oral texts. Indeed, this is another sign of the universality of counterintuitive imagery. It also supplies support for the hypothesis that memorability may not be the only reason for the prevalence of such imagery. Harry Potter is not dependent on long-term memory for its propagation, only its appeal to readers. So perhaps counterintuitive imagery is more engaging (or exciting, or rich), and not merely more unforgettable. These results point more to what work needs to be done than to answers to our original questions.
This line of research clearly needs more data from as many different sources as possible. There is no way for two works to give an accurate view of the problem; what we have been able to do is more akin to a pilot study that prepares the way for more systematic work. For starters, we should compare rates of counterintuitive imagery in cross-cultural folklore and mythology to see if there are geographical variations in rates or preferences. (Work already appears to show that counterintuitive imagery is cross-cultural. See Boyer and Ramble, and Barrett et al.) Second, we need more work on counterintuitive imagery in literary texts. What are the factors that affect counterintuitivity – genre? tradition? audience? Do counterintuitive elements appear in our metaphors at the same rate as counterintuitive images appear in folklore? Finding counterintuitive imagery in a broad range of works and types of work would suggest that it is fundamental to our imagination. Lastly, these data can be used to investigate why this type of imagery is so pervasive since it seems that memorability alone cannot be the answer. This could be a consequential undertaking, because any line of investigation that gets to a possible common root of religion and the narrative arts could also shed light on the evolutionary origins of both behaviors. Common ancestors are not just valuable in anthropology and paleontology.
Atran, Scott. “Basic Conceptual Domains.” Mind and Language 4.1–2 (1989): 7–16.
Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Atran, Scott, and Ara Norenzayan. “Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape: Counterintuition, Commitment, Compassion, Communion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27.06 (2004): 713–730.
Aubert, M., et al. “Palaeolithic Cave Art in Borneo.” Nature 564.773 (Dec. 2018): 254-257.
Banerjee, Konika, O. S. Haque, and E. S. Spelke. “Melting Lizards and Crying Mailboxes: Children’s Preferential Recall of Minimally Counterintuitive Concepts.” Cognitive Science 37.7 (Sept. 2013): 1251-89.
Barrett, Justin L. “Coding and Quantifying Counterintuitiveness in Religious Concepts: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 20.4 (2008): 308–338.
Barrett, Justin L.“Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4.1 (Jan. 2000): 29–34.
Barrett, Justin L.“The (Modest) Utility of MCI Theory.” Religion, Brain & Behavior6.3 (July 2016): 249–251.
Barrett, Justin, and Melanie Nyhof. “Spreading Non-Natural Concepts: The Role of Intuitive Conceptual Structures in Memory and Transmission of Cultural Materials.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 1 (Feb. 2001): 69-100.
Boyer, Pascal. “Evolution of the Modern Mind and the Origins of Culture: Religious Concepts as a Limiting Case.” Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language and Meta-Cognition. Ed. Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 93–112.
Boyer, Pascal.Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Boyer, Pascal, and Charles Ramble. “Cognitive Templates for Religious Concepts: Cross-Cultural Evidence for Recall of Counter-Intuitive Representations.” Cognitive Science 25.4 (July 2001): 535–64.
Brown, Donald E. Human Universals. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.
Burdett, Emily, Justin L. Barrett, and Tenelle Porter. “Counterintuitiveness in Folktales: Finding the Cognitive Optimum.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 9.3 (Oct. 2009): 271–87.
Dolack, Tom. “A Quantitative Approach to Counterintuitive Imagery in the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter Novels.” Evolution and Popular Narrative. Ed., Dirk Vanderbeke and Brett Cooke. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Brill Rodopi, 2019, 264-291.
Fink, Andreas, et al. “Stimulating Creativity via the Exposure to Other People’s Ideas.” Human Brain Mapping 33.11 (2012): 2603–2610.
Guthrie, Stewart. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Hawks, John. “Neanderthal Humanities.” Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and Sciences. Ed. Joseph Carroll, Dan McAdams, and Edward O. Wilson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, 89–100.
Henshilwood, Christopher S., Francisco d’Errico, and Ian Watts. “Engraved Ochres from the Middle Stone Age Levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa.” Journal of Human Evolution 57.1 (July 2009): 27–47.
Hoffmann, D. L., et al. “U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art.” Science 359.6378, 23 (2018): 912–915.
Joordens, Josephine C. A., et al. “Homo Erectus at Trinil on Java Used Shells for Tool Production and Engraving.” Nature 518.7538 (2015): 228–31.
Kelly, Michael H., and Frank C. Keil. “The More Things Change…: Metamorphoses and Conceptual Structure.” Cognitive Science 9.4 (1985): 403–416.
Mithen, Steven J. The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Swan, Thomas, and Jamin Halberstadt. “The Mickey Mouse Problem: Distinguishing Religious and Fictional Counterintuitive Agents.”PLOS ONE 14.8 (Aug. 2019).
Vandervert, Larry R., Paul Schimpf, and Hesheng Liu. “How Working Memory and the Cerebellum Collaborate to Produce Creativity and Innovation.” Creativity Research Journal 19.1 (2007): 1–18.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon
Abstract. 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.
This video lecture was prepared for the Literary Universals Workshop at the University of Connecticut, which took place on 24 May 2019. It is housed off-site and is available through the following link: Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal.
Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut
Recently, I read a number of Seventeenth-Century Chinese stories as well as some classical Roman works that reminded me of one another and that led me to recall some South Asian and Native American stories that I had read earlier. They were all versions of the cross-culturally recurring romantic story, but they were not prototypical. The interesting thing was that their deviations from the prototype were closely related to one another, clustering into a sub-genre. As I reflected more on this sub-genre, I realized that the pattern extended quite widely. The present essay is an attempt to define that sub-genre, to sketch some of its constituent varieties, and to suggest some possible explanations for both. More precisely, I refer to the sub-genre as “intensified romance.” It is intensified in the sense that it makes the lovers’ union appear to be not only socially problematic, but in principle impossible. That impossibility may be either ontological or moral, yielding two types of the sub-genre.
As some readers of this essay were concerned about how I might explain the cross-cultural recurrence of love stories more broadly, I should note that the present essay is not aiming to explain the genre in general. I have discussed that topic in The Mind and Its Stories, Affective Narratology, and elsewhere (for a summary of the account, see “Story”). The present essay explores one specific variant of the romantic story and seeks to give a preliminary account of that variant alone.
A Note on Simulation
Simulation is a cognitive process by which we imagine trajectories of actions or events (for an introduction to simulation and its relation to literature, see Hogan How; see also Oatley, “Meetings”). That process may be a matter of interpolating causal links between real events that we experience, projecting future outcomes of current conditions, envisioning counterfactual alternatives to what has occurred, or creating purely hypothetical scenarios. A key evolutionary function of simulation is to allow us to consider alternative courses of action “offline,” thus without the consequences of real activity. For example, if I simulate a dangerous course of action—say, swimming at a beach closed due to shark sightings—I incur no risk and may decide to avoid real swimming on the basis of the simulation (including its frightful image of the malevolent leviathan crushing my thighbones like toothpicks between its teeth). If I could learn only from actual experience, I might end up eaten by a shark the first time I am faced with such a situation.
For simulation to fulfill its evolutionary function, we must be able to make adjustments to our simulations at various levels. For example, suppose an office worker wants a raise in her salary. She has to be able to consider the various, broad strategies for pursuing this—applying for other jobs, arguing for particular salary evaluation procedures, engaging in a class action suit, approaching her supervisor to discuss an individual increment, and so on. In each case, she must be able to imagine more specific strategies as well—what would be the best evaluation procedures or just what points she should make to the supervisor in support of an individual increment. In connection with this, we may draw a relative distinction between two sorts of variables—first, parameters, which define classes of alternatives; second, local variables, which specify instances of those alternatives.
Stories are the product of simulation. Authors create stories by imagining trajectories of actions and events, commonly through synthesizing genre prototypes with memories of actual experiences, hearsay, trajectories from other stories, and other sources. Part of this simulation involves making both larger and smaller changes, thus altering parameters to produce types of story and altering local variables to produce particular stories.
In The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology, I have argued that perhaps the most common cross-cultural genre or story universal is romantic tragi-comedy. In its most prototypical form, this genre involves two people who fall in love, but are prevented from uniting, often by their parents and commonly due to some social conflict (such as the opposition between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet). They are separated, frequently with suggestions or imagery of death. A rival may enter, producing a love triangle, before the lovers are finally united (or, in the tragic version, prevented forever from uniting).
The preceding comments on the nature of simulation would lead us to expect that there will be versions of any given genre that are produced by parametric variation. These are presumably most likely—as most consequential—at story “junctures,” the points at which significant causal changes occur in the trajectory of actions and events (on junctures, see my The Mind 91-93). One such juncture is governed by the nature of the restriction that separates the lovers. In most of the cases I considered in earlier publications, that restriction is contingent and social. Again, the Montague-Capulet feud comes to mind. There is no necessary reason why these two families must be enemies or why their children could not be united. However, there are other possible types of restriction. Specifically, some restrictions may be felt to be necessary, either necessary in the ethical sense or necessary in the ontological sense. In other words, the lovers’ union may be experienced as in some way unthinkable or impossible, either morally or practically.
The clearest case of moral intensification concerns incest. Ontological intensification bears most often on the union of humans and spirits of some sort—either superhuman spirits (such as gods, angels, or ghosts) or (usually subhuman) animal spirits. I will refer to the superhuman/human/subhuman order as ontological or, drawing on usage in linguistics, as manifesting an animacy hierarchy. Of course, it is not strictly correct to say that these are literally unthinkable or impossible. The moral violations occur in the real world, though they are paradigmatic of sexual taboo. The ontological violations are possible in the storyworlds of some fictions, though (presumably) not in the real world, unless the ontological difference is interpreted metaphorically. The point is that, in each case, there is something about the nature of the lovers that, in certain circumstances, makes it appear impossible for them to be united (in the sense that, on hearing of such a union in real life, one might exclaim, “That can’t be!,” as in “A mother marrying her own son? That can’t be!”). We may refer to the broad varieties of romance—where the restrictions on the lovers are contingent and social, on the one hand, versus necessary, on the other hand—as basic and intensified respectively. We may further subdivide the intensified varieties into moral and ontological.
We will consider some cases of each sort of intensified romance in the following sections. Before going on to that, however, it is useful to note that another variable or set of variables enters here. This concerns just who knows about the problematic identity of the lovers and just when they know. Readers of Romeo and Juliet may recall that the titular lovers become enamored of one another before learning that they are from the opposed families. Sometimes, the ethical and ontological versions of the romantic plot involve the lovers knowing about their difference early on; sometimes, both lovers learn only later; sometimes, one knows while the other does not.
Finally, I should note that two motifs recur with some frequency in intensified romances. As I am using the term, motifs are sequences that can be adapted to different genres and integrated into a range of stories. (The key point is that they cross genres.) Here, the motifs in question are the concealment of identity, where a character hides some important aspect of who he or she is, and mistaken identity, where a character misattributes a category to another person. In the ethical and ontological romantic plots, the concealment and mistake most often concern one or both of the lovers.
Romantic Stories and Animacy Hierarchies (I): Humans and Animal Spirits
A story told by the Arawak (see Lévi-Strauss 256-257 and Roth 203-204) concerns a hunter and a jaguar (or tiger). The jaguar has taken the form of a human woman and joins the hunter as his wife. However, they conceal her identity. The two live together happily; she is a good wife and hunting partner. At a certain point, they visit the man’s mother. Though the jaguar woman stresses that he should never reveal her identity, the man ends up informing his mother, who conveys the information to the society at large. The jaguar woman suffers from shame and leaves her husband. Despite great effort, he is never able to find her.
This is, to my mind, an intriguing and affecting story. It also manifests a structure that recurs with variations in different traditions. A forbidden—putatively impossible—union occurs. Since it is forbidden, the lovers conceal their identities. Despite being warned not to do so, one spouse engages in some action—constituting a tragic error or failure—that leads to the exposure of the identities. This in turn forces the separation of the lovers in a tragic ending. (It may be that tragic outcomes are more common in these intensified variations on the romantic genre than in the basic form.) Note that “tragedy” and “comedy” here are what we might refer to as “modes of resolution” for the genres defined by happiness goals. For example, romantic stories may be resolved by the lovers’ achievement of enduring union (comedy) or by a sequence of events (e.g., one lover’s death) that renders such achievement impossible (tragedy). Like genres, tragedy and comedy may themselves have recurring properties (such as the commission of a tragic error).
One striking feature of the Arawak story is that the inter-species union is, in fact, not impossible. Its putative impossibility is a function of knowledge. It is only when some people know the identities of the lovers—when society learns that they are not man and woman, but man and jaguar (or tiger)—that the impossibility appears. In other words, it is not an impossibility of the lovers or categories themselves, but of social opinion about those categories. This suggests that the restriction is ultimately a social restriction, though it is represented as ontological. In keeping with this, Alexandra Aikhenvald’s research indicates that “jaguar” might suggest a low status group (12), a point consistent with the woman’s feeling of shame. Alternatively, Roth’s work may point to a link between tigers and antagonistic out-groups (367). Thus, we have the usual sorts of social taboo—due either to social hierarchy within the society or conflict with an enemy group. The ontological romance intensifies this ordinary social problem through the animacy hierarchy (hence my name for this variant, “intensified” romance).
Pu Songling’s Strange Tales, an important, late Seventeenth-Century, Chinese work, includes several stories of this sort. In “The Girl in Green,” a woman arrives at the male protagonist’s lodgings unexpectedly. Though she conceals her background from him, they have sexual relations. The man asks her to sing. She refuses, warning that it may be dangerous. Eventually, she gives in to his pleas. When she departs, she is attacked, and he has to rescue her. At this time, he learns that she is not a woman, but a hornet. She thanks him for rescuing her, but leaves forever.
Here we have the same general structure. There is an inter-species union, though one in which the man is ignorant that the woman is not really a woman, but an insect. She warns him that they should behave in a particular way; he insists otherwise. The result is the disclosure of their species difference and their consequent separation. (As is undoubtedly clear, here and below I engage in the sort of structural mapping of story sequences that Lévi-Strauss developed so powerfully in his four-volume Introduction to the Science of Mythology. As is probably no less clear, however, the conclusions of my analysis and the psychological principles it involves are quite different from those of Lévi-Strauss.)
Another story along these lines is Pu’s “Princess Lotus.” In a dream, the protagonist meets a king, who introduces him to a young, beautiful woman. The protagonist falls in love and marries the woman. Everything seems to be proceeding with remarkable calmness. But suddenly the protagonist’s in-laws are threatened with destruction. He eventually learns that they are, in fact, not people but bees. This varies the structure, since the revelation is not the result of a violated taboo. It rather involves a danger to the family of one of the lovers. But there is still inter-species union connected with identity concealment, followed by disclosure.
Staying within the Chinese tradition, we find a further instance of this story structure in the often-retold “Legend of the White Snake” (for a summary of one version, see “Legend”). A magically powerful white snake transforms herself into a woman and marries a human. When the human discovers her identity, he dies. Through supernatural means, she manages to revive him; however, further tribulations follow. In some versions, she overcomes subsequent obstacles and the lovers are reunited enduringly; in other versions, she is unsuccessful.
Romantic Stories and Animacy Hierarchies (II): Humans and Immortal Spirits
The human-immortal romances are, on the whole, more insightful and engaging than the human-animal romances. They are also more abundant, though admittedly a number of stories could be put into either category. Another story from Pu follows the pattern of “The Girl in Green” and the Arawak tale. In “Sunset,” an unknown woman arrives at the protagonist’s home. Despite the intimate relationship that develops between them, she conceals her background and prohibits questions about it. He nevertheless tries to ascertain her identity, then continues this investigation despite further warnings. The man’s family has a crisis when his niece is possessed by a spirit. The mysterious woman helps through magical intervention. In consequence, her father learns about her affair with the human and forces their separation. Thus, we have the usual separation of lovers by the parent, but in this case due to an ontological discrepancy in the identities of the lovers. The woman, it turns out, is daughter to the Golden Dragon King. They are never reunited.
This story is particularly well developed. It takes up the motif of the threat to the family of one lover, which we saw in “Princess Lotus.” It also includes concealed identity, one lover’s attempt to prevent the disclosure of that identity, and the other lover’s violation of a warning.
A comic version of human-immortal romance may be found in Li Hao-ku’s early Thirteenth-Century, Chinese drama, Chang Boils the Sea. In that play, a scholar falls in love with the daughter of a dragon king. Through the use of magic, the scholar is able to join his beloved—although she is “thirty thousand fathoms beneath the blue sea” (170; the physical inaccessibility concretizes the ontological discrepancy between human and spirit). He is also able to secure the consent of the dragon king. Of course, this is not a concealment-revelation-loss sequence. Rather, this story indicates that the human-immortal romance may follow the more routine or basic form, with parental disapproval and the lovers’ work to overcome that disapproval.
The intensified romance is not confined to Chinese and Arawak traditions. In the Indian (South Asian) tradition, there are several versions of the romance between the mortal Purūravas and the celestial nymph Urvaśī. Consider, for example, the important early collection of stories from Hindu tradition, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa (see Wilson iv-viii). In that work, Urvaśī is condemned to a period of earthly existence, where she falls in love with Purūravas. They marry on the condition that Purūravas never violate a particular taboo. He is tricked into doing so and the lovers are separated, though they are ultimately reunited when Purūravas is elevated to the status of an immortal. In Vikramōrvaśīyam, the version by the most renowned Sanskrit playwright, Kālidāsa (fifth century C.E.), the human king Purūravas and Urvaśī fall in love. They are separated, as Urvaśī lives in heaven. However, due to her preoccupation with Purūravas, she commits a serious breach of etiquette and is condemned to become mortal for a certain time. The change of Urvaśī from spirit to human allows her union with Purūravas. But the temporary nature of her incarnation limits the duration of that union. In the end, she is allowed to remain human as long as Purūravas is alive.
In these cases too we see a variation on the intensified romance. In neither version is it a matter of concealment and exposure. However, the ontological contradiction of love between a mortal and a spirit is clear. Moreover, in theViṣṇu Purāṇaversion, there is a taboo on one of the lovers and the violation of that taboo leads to their separation. Interestingly, the human-spirit union is enabled by the change of status—the fall ofUrvaśī in bothversions and the elevation of Purūravas in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. It is also worth noting that, the play seems particularly to recall death and grief. It thereby suggests a connection between separation in the ontological romance and the more mundane issue of bereavement, where the (still living) human lover is separated from (his or her deceased) beloved, who is now a spirit.
A particularly extended and complex version of the structure may be found in the Roman story of Amor and Psyche, as developed by Apuleius in the late second century. Due to a curse and subsequent abandonment by her family, the beautiful (human) Psyche ends up married to (immortal) Amor. However, Amor conceals his identity, and even prevents Psyche from seeing him. In keeping with the pattern we have considered, he warns Psyche that she should not seek to discover who he is. Convinced by her (jealous) sisters, Psyche tries to uncover her spouse’s identity, planning in fact to kill him. Instead of the dangerous monster she anticipates, Psyche sees Amor and falls in love with him. They are separated, and the separation is maintained by Amor’s mother, Venus, thus presenting the standard “familialization” of the pivotal conflict (in which the blocking characters are family members, thus giving their antagonism greater emotional force). Psyche now seeks reunion with Amor. Unlike the Arawak tale, this story develops the quest by the abandoned, human lover. Specifically, Psyche tries to win the approval of Venus by performing various tasks dictated by Venus—a scenario that we might expect for the male lover, rather than the female. (In Chang Boils the Sea, we see a sort of parallel for this, with the male lover undertaking the work of convincing the beloved’s father—in this case antagonistically, rather than deferentially.) In the interim, Amor recovers from an injury caused by Psyche’s misguided attempt to identify and kill him. He manages to procure immortalizing ambrosia. Drinking the ambrosia, Psyche becomes immortal, thus making possible her enduring union with Amor.
Thus, in Apuleius’s story, we have the concealment of identity, the taboo on seeking or revealing that identity, the violation of the taboo, and the separation. This is then followed by the usual familial conflict and a version of the lover’s attempt to convert the recalcitrant parent. However, the resolution does not come from a conversion of the parent. It comes, rather, from a transformation in the status of the lover, a change from mortal to immortal. This change erases the ontological difference that made the union impossible to begin with. There are two points to make in connection with this. First, there are two obvious ways in which the ontological difference may be overcome. One is the elevation of the human lover, as we see here. The other is the degradation of the spirit lover, as in the case of Urvaśī when she is initially joined with Purūravas in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. The second point is that this is parallel with the more ordinary or basic romantic structure, in which the conflict is social, as when the lovers derive from different classes or castes. The elevation of one lover is, in this respect, parallel with the discovery that, for example, the slave girl is actually a patrician who was kidnapped as a child. The degradation of one lover is parallel to the discovery that the apparently higher class or caste beloved is in fact not inaccessible to the lover—as when Duṣyanta (in Kālidāsa’s Abhijñānaśākuntalam) discovers that Śakuntalā is not from the higher, Brahmin caste, but has only been raised by a Brahmin.
Thus, we find Native American, Chinese, Indian (South Asian), and European instances of the intensified romantic plot in which the lovers violate an ontological constraint defined by an animacy hierarchy. These stories also occur across a range of time periods. Further examples may be found in more recent works, both western and eastern. For example, Wings of Desire (directed by Wim Wenders), presents us with the story of an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman. He loses his angelic status, becoming mortal, and is united with the woman. Here, the sort of concealment we found in the Amor and Psyche story occurs before the union of the lovers, as the angel can observe his human beloved, while the latter has only vague intimations of the angel’s presence. In this case, there is no restriction, restriction-violating revelation of identity, and consequent separation of the lovers; it is, then, a reduced or simplified version of the structure.
Another film with this sort of plot is Postman to Heaven, a 2009 work from South Korea (directed by Hyung-min Lee). In this film, a young woman and a ghost fall in love. The ghost has been assigned the task of helping bereaved men and women work through their grief. The young woman had recently lost a lover, which leads to her connection with the ghost. The twist in this story is that the ghost is visible only to people who are in mourning. Thus, the young woman will no longer be able to see or interact with the ghost from the moment she overcomes her grief. But she overcomes her grief in proportion to the degree to which she falls in love with the ghost. Thus, she loses her new beloved precisely to the degree that she loves him; thus, she suffers a new grief precisely to the degree that she overcomes her old grief. The problem is resolved by divine intervention. Due to the ghost’s success in consoling the bereaved, particularly this young woman, Heaven returns him to his mortal life. As a human, he is now able to be united with his beloved, who is thereby freed from both the old and the new grief.
Neither film has the concealment-taboo-violation structure. But both still alter the more usual, basic genre trajectory, by having the lovers violate an ontological restriction and allowing their union by a change in status, from spirit to human. Further cases present other variations. For example, complex instances may be found in other stories by Pu Songling, such as “Grace and Pine,” “Butterfly,” and “The Laughing Girl.”
Romantic Stories and Same-Sex Love: An Intermediate Case
We will turn to the ethical form of the intensified romantic structure in the next section. Before going on to that, however, we might briefly remark on Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe and the Śikhaṇḍinī story in the Mahābhārata. In both stories—one European, the other Indian—two women are married to each other due to concealed identity, though the concealed identity in this case is one of anatomical sex, not of ontological level (human, animal, or spirit). As with the cases considered thus far, the revelation of the concealed identity causes problems for the union, and in each case the misrepresented lover (Iphis and Śikhaṇḍinī) goes through a magical sex change, comparable to the transformation of a human lover into a spirit or vice-versa.
These cases are interesting in part because they show how the romantic structure may, through parametric variation, be applied to significant social issues, in this case same-sex love. This is not to say that either provides any solution to the social conflicts surrounding such love, any more than the animacy-based versions provide a solution to the love between people of extreme out-groups (as in the Arawak case). The transformation of one lover functions most obviously as a fantasy, perhaps giving some people imaginary satisfaction. In any case, its social function is complex and equivocal. For example, in the case of Iphis and Ianthe, it may be taken to validate lesbian love, indicating that the lovers should be joined. But it might also be taken to stress the necessity of heterosexuality, since they can be joined only when they are differently sexed. On the other hand, romantic stories tend to cultivate a very strong preference for the lovers’ union. Thus, my inclination is to see stories such as Iphis and Ianthe as functioning primarily to cultivate sympathy with the same-sex lovers, even as the ending gives the author and reader an out, enabling the plausible denial of such homoerotic sympathies.
I refer to this as intermediate because it is not clear how authors and readers conceive of the restriction in this case. I suspect that it varies with authors, readers, and cultures. Some would think of the restriction as ethical. I suspect that such readers would not, in general, be sympathetic with the same-sex lovers. Other readers would think of the restriction as simply social, comparable to the forbidding of intermarriage between Montagues and Capulets (this is presumably the view of most academic readers today). Finally, some would think of the restriction as part of the order of being, so to speak—in this case, related not to animacy as such, but to the issue of mating. Different species cannot interbreed; neither can spirits and humans. For some writers and readers, the relation of same-sex lovers is probably of this sort. Clearly, this is a topic that requires further research, with many more examples from a much wider range of traditions.
Romantic Stories and Ethical Restrictions: Incest and Adultery
In considering the ontological version of intensified romance, I could not help but be aware of the similarity to one of the most famous and influential stories in European literature, the story of Oedipus. Though not a romantic plot per se, the story does involve two people being united despite the fact that their union is rigorously forbidden. This is possible because the (familial) identity of one person, Oedipus, has been concealed. Thus no one recognizes that the union is incestuous. When that identity is revealed, the couple is separated. In this case, the results are tragic, with the woman hanging herself and the man blinding himself. Interestingly, as developed by Sophocles (in the fifth century before the common era), the story is not only principally romantic (despite the union of Oedipus and Jocasta), but sacrificial. Specifically, there is a plague in Thebes; it has resulted from Oedipus’s crime of (unknowingly) killing his father, which led to his further crime of (unknowingly) marrying his mother. In other words, in this story, a sin perpetrated by the primary representative of the society (the king) has led to social devastation. The result is the sacrifice of the guilty parties (Jocasta’s death and Oedipus’s blinding). In Oedipus the King, then, a sacrificial structure is integrated with a much more limited romantic structure.
As just noted, the form of identity at issue for Oedipus is familial. Some readers have been confused by this, because the identity issue is not one of humans and animals or spirits. That is right. Indeed, that is the difference between two sorts of intensified romance—the ontological and the ethical. Ontological problems keep people and insects from marrying; ethical restrictions bear rather on incest. Of course, the ontological stories may metaphorically represent moral conflicts—or mere social conflicts. The point here concerns the literal representations.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses (early first century of the common era) presents us with other incestuous romantic narratives. One is the simple story of Byblis, who tries to unite with her brother, but is rejected; weeping, she is transformed into a spring. Another, more interesting story concerns Myrrha and her father. Myrrha falls in love with her father and contrives a way of sleeping with him while concealing her identity. When he learns of her identity, he not only rejects her, but tries to kill her. She flees and is transformed into a tree. The Byblis story is a simple tale of rejected love. The story of Myrrha, however, includes union with concealed identity, followed by revelation and tragic separation.
One might expect other moral restrictions to enter here as well. An obvious case is adultery. In European literature, works such as Anna Karenina come to mind. In Tolstoy’s novel, for example, we have love between Anna and Vronsky, leading to a partial union, which is concealed from society. Once revealed, inadvertently, by Anna, problems arise. On the other hand, this is not a concealment of identity; Anna does not misrepresent herself as unmarried—either to Vronsky or to the larger world. Rather, it is simply the (illicit) sexual relations that are concealed. Moreover, the revealing of the secret does not lead to the separation of the lovers. There are problems with the cross-cultural manifestation of this structure as well, since possibilities for polygamy or divorce limit the degree to which prior marriage serves as a restriction on the lovers. On the other hand, there are some similarities between the structure we have been examining and such adultery stories as Anna Karenina.
Implications of this Analysis
Clearly, the preceding examples of an ethical romance plot are taken from a single tradition. That may suggest that this specific form of the structure is parochial. However, the Oedipus and Myrrha stories remain cases of a larger sequence that does recur cross-culturally.
Again, the intensified romance is defined by a restriction on the lovers that is not simply a matter of social convention or other social contingency, but of identity bearing on animacy or ethics. In its most prototypical form, the intensified romance proceeds as follows:
- The lovers are united.
- However, there is some (intentional or unintentional) concealment of the ontologically or ethically relevant identities.
- In connection with this concealment, there is often a warning about the behavior of one or both lovers.
- A violation of the warning results in the problematic identity being revealed.
- As a result of this revelation, the lovers are separated.
- In comic instances of the ontological version, that separation may be overcome when the identity of one lovers is changed.
- However, the ethical version of this structure does not in general allow for such a comic transformation (e.g., Psyche can be made immortal, but Oedipus cannot be made into the son of someone other than Jocasta).
Faced with the preceding examples, we might wonder why there is such a recurring pattern. “Why” here might refer to the generation of the sequence, just what gives rise to it; this could equally be referred to as “how” the structure is produced. “Why” might also refer to the function of the resulting sequence; this is “why” in the sense of “what for.” Note again that the pattern here is a pattern in stories. It is not a pattern in real life (where people do not marry insects either with or without concealed identity). It is, rather, a pattern in simulation.
The “how” question is relatively easy to answer. Again, we may think of simulation as involving principles with parameters and local variables. The simulation of romantic stories involves some restriction that separates the lovers. Obvious possibilities for such separation would include conventional versus necessary, with the latter category including ontological and ethical cases. Within each category, any given character might or might not know about the restrictions or the identities that trigger such restrictions at any given time. (For example, Oedipus and Jocasta do not know their restriction-triggering identities—son and mother—when they get married.) The stories we have been considering begin with an extreme restriction and vary the timing and extent of relevant knowledge. Typically, the knowledge comes to have social consequences only when it is socially available (as when the man’s society learns about the Jaguar woman’s identity). Usually, the lovers are able to maintain their union when they have the relevant knowledge but society does not, though the story of Myrrha suggests that this may be less true in the ethical cases.
The functional significance of this structure is perhaps less clear. However, there are some obvious possibilities. Specifically, we would expect the function to be either emotional or thematic. Emotionally, this sub-genre of romance provides some degree of novelty relative to the basic (and more realistic) form. In connection with this, it often organizes the trajectory of feeling somewhat differently. Specifically, the basic structure commonly begins with the main characters falling in love and recognizing their reciprocal feelings, but then being separated very quickly. The intensified version often involves the lovers joining together in a regularized union, such as marriage, and maintaining that state for some time before being separated due to the discovery of the concealed identity. Both versions treat love, loss, and (in the full, comic version) reunion. But in the basic version, the love is the feverish love of early romance and the loss is a loss of imagined possibilities. In the intensified version, the love is more likely to include a strong “companionate” element, a sense of bonding that may be less intense but may be more clearly enduring, and the loss is a loss not only of imagined possibilities, but of the ordinariness of regular life and ongoing expectation experienced for, in some cases, years of family life.
For the reasons just mentioned, the loss of the beloved in the intensified version may be more similar to the loss of a spouse in death. This too has emotional consequences. Specifically, in its ontological variant, the structure may suggest bereavement, while allegorizing that bereavement in the (perhaps less distressing) form of the human-spirit romance. I have already noted that there are suggestions of this in Vikramōrvaśīyam. The connection seems clear in other works as well. For example, in Postman to Heaven, the young woman falls in love with a ghost. Her former lover has died and her new beloved is actually a boy in a coma in a hospital. The lovers are separated as human and ghost, until his spirit returns to his body and he is revived from the coma, at which point they meet as mortals. The film repeatedly points toward the loss of a long-term partner by death. But it presents the main lovers’ separation as a matter of an ontological incompatibility which is resolved by the spirit leaving heaven to become a mortal.
These points are related to the thematic purposes of the ontological romance. In the comic version, the thematic operation of the structure involves a suggestion that the losses of death may be overcome—a point with obvious emotional consequences as well. In other words, it suggests that apparently irrecuperable losses might in fact be recuperable, and it does this without drawing our attention to death and separation too directly. Indeed, in some cases, it even serves to reconnect our companionate love with earlier, more romantic feelings. I say “our” here because the reader’s relation to the emotions of the protagonists is often intertwined with his or her own emotional memories (see, for example, Oatley, Passionate, 36, 179, 180). In that way, our empathic response to the lovers is in some degree connected with our own romantic histories.
On the other hand, the intensified romantic story is not always related to long-term attachment and bereavement. For example, the Arawak story has suggestions of death and grief. But it also suggests social divisions that have been rendered more extreme by being assimilated to species differences. There are two obvious thematic purposes of this sort of intensification of difference between the lovers. The first is to present an a fortiori case of romantic love in opposition to social divisions. If the Arawak hunter can live an ideal marriage with an actual jaguar or tiger woman, how much more readily could an Arawak live in marital union with another person who is from a class or other society associated with jaguars or tigers? As I have argued elsewhere (see chapter seven of Understanding Nationalism), romantic stories tend to challenge in-group/out-group divisions, preferring the union of the lovers to the maintenance of social oppositions. The ontological romance may simply extend this inclination.
This critical function of the ontological romance is clearest when the lovers’ initial union is untroubled. In the Arawak story, there is no real problem with the lovers’ life together. In other stories, however, there are difficulties, sometimes intrinsic to the lovers’ identities, as in the difference between mortals and immortals. For example, in Wings of Desire, the lovers can be joined only when the difference between them is overcome, when the angel becomes human. This too suggests that ordinary, social divisions are not absolute. If the difference between humans and spirits may be effaced, if immortal spirits can become humans and humans can become immortal spirits, then surely members of one society can become members of another society. This may simply be a matter of one lover being accepted into the other’s society, or it may involve some more elaborate assimilation into the culture of the latter.
Again, the obvious exception here is ethical, as in the case of incest. Incestuous unions are typically not open to this sort of resolution. Oedipus and Jocasta seem perfectly happy together. Everything appears to be going along well, with the family flourishing, including the children. But the union remains wrong for most readers. Thus, the ethical version does not fit with the most obvious thematic purposes of the ontological version of the intensified romantic structure. That may account for its apparent infrequency, relative to the ontological version, both within European tradition and across cultures. On the other hand, the success of the Oedipus story indicates that this version may be emotionally successful.
Before concluding, it is worth noting that concealed identity operates as a motif that may be used in various narrative contexts. Moreover, it may be taken up in complex and surprising ways in relation to romantic narrative. Particularly striking cases of this sort may be found in Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Specifically, in both cases, one main character sets out to engage in adultery, deceptively seducing a young woman, thus initiating a train of events that is commonly developed in the seduction plot (on the seduction plot, see chapter four of my Affective). However, the lovers meet in circumstances where the identity of the woman is concealed (reminiscent of the meeting between Myrrha and her father). However, in these cases, the concealed identity of one of the lovers does not mean that an apparently legitimate union is illegitimate. It means, rather, that an apparently illegitimate union is legitimate, for in both cases the man’s wife takes the place of the woman he was aiming to seduce. The resulting stories are highly interesting, due to this reversal. But they are problematic because the final union is not based on mutual love and it is therefore difficult for the reader (or audience member) to be entirely pleased by the putatively comic conclusion.
In connection with these final examples, one referee of this essay worried that concealed identity may be a motif produced by the romantic genre, not occurring elsewhere. I should therefore mention that in heroic plots we encounter spies who conceal their identities and heirs to the throne who are unknown to be heirs to the throne; in revenge narratives, we find revengers disguising themselves and killing people whose identity they misconstrue; in criminal investigation narratives, detectives take on disguises and innocent people are sometime mistaken for criminals—and so on, for all genres. Perhaps the most relevant case here is the (already mentioned) seduction story, which is often more appropriately termed a rape story. In this structure, the seducer or rapist often conceals his identity. This is significant to the present study because there are some famous cases in which the rapist is a god and the false identity is that of an animal—as in Zeus’s rape of Leda. This is related to the cases we are considering as the union is “impossible,” in the sense we have been considering. It therefore suggests a similar concern with the violation of putatively necessary social divisions, though in another genre.
An obvious topic for research in this area concerns ethical restrictions on lovers and the degree to which the topics of incest and adultery, or other possibly morally objectionable unions, do or do not develop a version of this structure. A parallel point applies to same sex unions and the degree to which the relevant restrictions are presented as ethical, ontological, or merely social and conventional. Instances of these relationships and restrictions are clearly under-represented in the preceding discussions.
On the other hand, research on the incidence and varieties of more unequivocal cases of ontological romance is important as well. Again, we find a range of stories in different traditions in which lovers face a restriction that is not merely conventional or contingent, but in some sense viewed as necessary, either ontologically (in relation to animacy) or morally. Prototypically, the lovers in such stories are united, due to some intentional or inadvertent concealment of identity. But that concealment often renders the union unstable. In connection with this, one of the lovers may be warned not to engage in behavior that will reveal the concealed identity. In a tragic error, however, he or she may do just the wrong thing, precipitating the lovers’ separation. In a comic version, one of the lovers’ status may change, allowing the union, but this is generally restricted to the ontological version. We have evidence that the ontological version of this intensified structure occurs in a range of genetically and areally unrelated traditions. But it is not clear how frequent (or infrequent) the appearance of this structure may be. Further research is also important for assessing the preceding conjectures on the generation of the sub-genre and, even more, its function. The generation of the structure—deriving from the operation of variables in principles governing simulation—seems fairly clear in general. However, the specifics of the variables and the resulting variations on the sub-genre could be further developed and clarified. Moreover, the functions of the intensified romance appear more debatable.
Especially in connection with the last point, the relation of this variant to changes in cultural ideology and historical conditions may be worth investigating. For example, one might wonder if the ontological romance occurs more frequently in periods of extensive inter-cultural contact, where the contact has not become routinized; in other words, one might wonder if a particular degree of interaction with alien societies may not promote stories treating the romantic relations of extremely distant partners. For example, we might ask if the Pu Songling stories owe something to the early Qing dynasty experience of Manchu-Chinese cultural conflict (see Roberts 142), the divisive contact with the West and associated anti-Christian reaction of the time (see Rowe 138-139), and related matters. Similarly, we might consider if Apuleius was affected by the cultural interactions of 2ndCentury Rome, with its extensive empire. Along the same lines, we might inquire into the possible relation between the Arawak tale and European contact. A correlation in this respect might constitute a statistical, implicational universal.
I should note here that I am referring specifically to the ontological version of the intensified romantic structure. Such issues as same-sex desire recur in a range of time periods and cultures presumably because same-sex desire recurs in all time periods and cultures. As one reader of this essay commented, stories of same-sex union (as well as adultery and other sexual behaviors) occur because social rules often relate to categorial identities and these are often in conflict with what I have called “practical identity” (see, for example, Understanding Nationalism 25-37), one’s actual capabilities and propensities. That practical identity may include, for example, same-sex desire. However, the case of ontological romance—and even, for the most part, that of the most extreme cases of ethical romance, such as those involving incest—are different. There is no social issue of people marrying insect spirits or even sons marrying their mothers. These stories are, then, fundamentally a product of simulation. Of course, in the end, our narrative simulations, here and elsewhere, are inseparable from real-world issues of categorial and practical identity, as suggested by the Arawak story’s possible allegorization of social identity conflict—just as our experiences of categorial and practical identity are inseparable from simulation. In this way, the two forms of analysis should ultimately be joined with one another.
Finally, one might wonder about the implications of these observations for other genres. The sacrificial operation of the ethical romance in Oedipus the King might lead us to inquire after the relation of this romantic structure to other genres with which it might be integrated. We might also ask if there are junctural points in those other genres—sacrificial, heroic, family separation and reunion, revenge, seduction, and criminal investigation—that define significant sub-genres, such as we have been considering in the case of romantic stories. More exactly, simulation is not confined to romance, but produces the other genres equally. As such, we would expect to find such complex, sub-generic patterns in those other genres as well. In some cases, such sub-genres will be related to the intensified romance, with its ontological and moral impossibilities. Stories such as the rape of Leda suggest that this may be found in seduction/rape structures. Alternatively, such a violation may serve as a recurring motif. For example, there is an element of this in the story of Mary’s conception of Jesus—part of a sacrificial narrative—with its divine/human union and its image of the paraclete as a dove.
[See also Nigel Fabb, “Comments on Hogan, ‘Impossible Love and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones’” and Geoffrey Russom, “Comments on Hogan, ‘Impossible Love’.”]
Aikhenvald, Alexandra. A Grammar of Tariana. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Identity, and Cognitive Science. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2009.
Kālidāsa. Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kdlidasa. Ed. Barbara Stoler Miller. Trans. Edwin Gerow, David Gitomer, and Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Lee, Hyung-min, dir. Postman to Heaven. Written by Eriko Kitagawa. Seoul, South Korea: CJ Entertainment, 2009.
“Legend of the White Snake.” Shanghai Daily(26 March 2017). Available at https://www.shine.cn/archive/sunday/now-and-then/Legend-of-the-White-Snake/shdaily.shtml (accessed 21 June 2018).
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. From Honey to Ashes (Introduction to a Science of Mythology: 2). Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Li Hao-ku. Chang Boils the Sea. In Six Yüan Plays. Trans. Liu Jung-en. New York: Penguin, 1972, 159-187.
Oatley, Keith. “Meetings of Minds: Dialogue, Sympathy, and Identification, in Reading Fiction.” Poetics26.5 (1999): 439-454.
Oatley, Keith. The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Trans. John Minford. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Roth, Walter. An Inquiry into the Animism and Folk-Lore of the Guiana Indians. Thirtieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution: 1908-1909. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915, 103-453.
Rowe, William. China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009.
Wenders, Wim, dir. Wings of Desire. Written by Wim Wenders, Peter Handke, and Richard Reitinger. Berlin, West Germany: Road Movies Filmproduktion, 1987.
Wilson, H. H. “Introduction.” In Vikrama and Urvashi, or The Hero and the Nymph. Trans. H. H. Wilson. Calcutta, India: Society for the Resuscitation of Indian Literature, 1901, i-xii.
Four Meta-Universals of Literary Meaning
In a persuasive formulation, Meyer Abrams reduces all literary activity to four components: the author, the reader, the world to which a literary work refers, and the work itself (Abrams “Types”). Since the poststructuralist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, much literary theory has consisted in eliminating or de-emphasizing one or another of these components—announcing the death of the author, declaring the impossibility of reference to a world outside the text, dissolving individual texts into circulating streams of cultural energies, or reducing the reader to an uncritical participant within a “community” that passively echoes this or that dominant episteme. Humanist and Darwinist critics have frequently criticized these efforts to develop a theory of literature by discarding some of its parts (Abrams, “Transformation”; Carroll, Evolution; Crews, Postmodern Pooh; Crews, Skeptical Engagements; Storey; Carroll et al., Graphing 1-8; Cain; Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall; Patai). There is no need to go over all that ground again. Instead, in this current essay, I use Abrams’s categories as a starting point for developing evolutionary ideas on universals of literary meaning.
Abrams’s four categories are literary meta-universals: conditions without which no other literary universals could exist. Authors speak to readers; literary works refer to a world shared by authors and readers; and a literary work is the medium through which authors communicate with readers. Those four propositions imply four further aspects of the universal literary situation: (1) intentional meaning (what authors intend to communicate); (2) interpretation (the activity of readers seeking to understand what authors mean); (3) meaning itself (what authors say and how readers respond to what authors say); and (4) the organization of meaning in language (linguistic and literary structure).
Abrams’s meta-universals are couched in the ordinary language of humanist common sense. Correlating these concepts with concepts from evolutionary biology situates them within an established scientific paradigm and confirms their robust validity. Authors and readers are human organisms. The world to which literary works refer is the environment in which those organisms live. Literary works are communicative signals, a form of social interaction that is displayed also by many species that do not have the capacity for articulate language. Abrams’s humanist concepts are not, then, superficial descriptors. They cut nature at its joints.
Abrams’s four categories identify appropriate units of analysis for literary research, but they do not offer causal explanation. The theory of adaptation by means of natural selection is a causal explanation that encompasses a vast network of subsidiary causal explanations. Ethology, the zoological discipline that deals most broadly with behavior, distinguishes four main categories of explanation: phylogeny, ontogeny, mechanism, and adaptive function (Tinbergen). Phylogeny concerns the evolutionary origins of any given behavior. Ontogeny concerns development within a single lifespan. Mechanism refers to the anatomical, physiological, and neurochemical structures that are the proximate causes of behavior. Adaptive function concerns the way any given mechanism has contributed to survival or reproduction, hence to the propagation of genes.
Evolutionary literary study assimilates information and explanatory hypotheses from a wide range of disciplines: primatology and comparative psychology (Chapais, “Social Universals”), cognitive and affective neuroscience (Panksepp and Biven; Decety and Cacioppo), developmental psychology (Konner), evolutionary social psychology (Carroll, “Social Theory”; Graham, Haidt and Nosek), evolutionary anthropology (Low), evolutionary psychology (Buss), and biocultural theory (Henrich; Carroll et al., “Biocultural Theory”). Evolutionary hypotheses about universals of literary meaning should integrate ideas from all these disciplines with ideas from empirically grounded disciplines more closely associated with literary study, for instance, from narrative psychology, affective narratology, the psychology of fiction, and evolutionary literary study (McAdams, “Actor”; Johnson-Laird and Oatley; Oatley, Psychology of Fiction; Tamir et al.; Oatley, Passionate Muse; Hogan, “Story“; Hogan, Authors’ Minds; Hogan, Affective Narratology; Carroll, “Minds”; Boyd; Gottschall Storytelling; Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall; Saunders; Clasen; Jacobs and Willems).
Four Levels of Organization for the Analysis of Literary Meaning
Meaning consists in mental experiences in the minds of authors and readers: perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. From an evolutionary perspective, meaning in literary texts can be analyzed at four distinct levels of organization: (1) universal, pan-human forms of experience; (2) specific cultural configurations that are prompted and constrained by pan-human forms of experience; (3) individual identities of authors, readers, and characters; and (4) structures and qualities that distinguish individual literary works from one another. Each of these levels is itself a universal feature of literary works. All works reflect pan-human forms of behavior and experience; all works are lodged within one or more particular cultural traditions; all works are produced by individual minds and interpreted by other individual minds; and all works display unique, distinctive characteristics. Each level of analysis can yield valuable information. A comprehensive evolutionary critique of meaning in any given literary text would integrate all four levels of analysis.
The Pan-Human Level of Organization
An ongoing effort in evolutionary social science aims at identifying the species-typical characteristics of human nature. Donald Brown’s classic portrait of “The Universal People” in Human Universals (1991) suggests the rich complexity of concepts required to describe a fictional “tribe” that exhibits features of behavior, qualities of experience, and forms of thought that appear in every known culture. Later research has pursued many different aspects of that universal picture, for instance, language, cognition, emotions, mating psychology, parenting, kinship, social dynamics, morality, religion, and the arts. (See Brown, “HUMAN UNIVERSALS.”)
Every species has a distinct, species-typical organization of birth, growth, ways of reproduction, and (if the species is social) social life. In every species, the overarching structure of life consists in a reproductive cycle. The field of biology that analyzes species-typical reproductive cycles is known as “life history theory” (Flatt and Heyland). Research on human life history theory has produced detailed accounts of how human reproductive and social behavior has evolved in adaptive interactions with ecological factors to produce the specifically human organization of the life cycle: altricial birth, extended infant dependency, extended childhood, pair-bonded dual parenting combined with cooperative male coalitions, cooperative child care, bilateral multi-generational kin networks, post-reproductive longevity, and death (Muehlenbein and Flinn; Kaplan, Gurven and Winking; Chapais, “Monogamy”). Life history theory reveals the underlying structure and the adaptive logic behind the rich complexity of behavior exhibited by “The Universal People” (Carroll, “Imaginary Lives”).
The Cultural Level of Organization
In the past three decades or so, evolutionary cultural theory has gradually gained a firmer purchase on the peculiarly “biocultural” character of the human species (Carroll et al., “Biocultural Theory”). The theory of “gene-culture coevolution” describes the causal interaction of biological characteristics and cultural inventions over the course of human evolutionary history. Major landmarks in gene-culture coevolution include upright walking (freeing the hands), the use of tools, the control of fire (enabling cooked food, a reduced gut, and an expanded brain), the development of cooperative foraging centered on a campsite, the organization of families, the expansion of groups into clans and tribes, the evolution of language, the advent of agriculture and pastoralism, the invention of writing, and the massing of populations in cities. Each of these events has involved reciprocal alterations in the human genome and in the transmission of heritable cultural practices (Lumsden and Wilson; Richerson and Boyd; Henrich; Cochran and Harpending).
Because humans have evolved to be highly cultural, every culture develops distinct beliefs and practices, but all beliefs and practices, no matter how diverse, are informed by universal human motives, passions, and imaginative proclivities. Hence the fact that love poems, family dramas, heroic quests, or stories of revenge are easily intelligible across diverse cultures. Hence also the existence of a recognizable body of “world literature”—a common world heritage produced by translations of works from diverse cultures.
Organization at the Level of Individual Persons
Differences in individual identity include the three categories most often invoked in the cultural theory pervasive in the academic literary establishment: gender, race, and class. Major differences less often registered include distinctions of age and family role, degrees of social connectedness, differences of vocation, differences of religious and political belief, differences in temperament such as exuberance or moodiness, aggressive anger or affectional warmth, and differences in intellectual or imaginative characteristics such as learning, humor, imaginative vigor, aesthetic sensitivity, eloquence, creativity, or talent in some particular art or science (McAdams, Personality Development).
All individual differences are platformed on common, shared features of human experience. Races and classes interbreed. Genders are interdependent. Family members form parts of interdependent social organizations. Specialized vocations are functional units in complex economic systems. Personality differences are grounded in neurophysiological characteristics essential to all normal human functioning. All normally developing people have minds and recognize mental life—beliefs, values, feelings, thoughts—in other individuals.
Meaning can only take place in individual minds, but individual minds are always in interactive relationship with other individual minds. The production of meaning in literature is itself an inherently social activity—an activity of transmission, reception, and response.
Organization at the Level of Individual Literary Works
Human nature—the species-typical organization of human life—offers a wide range of subjects for literary depiction. Authors can choose, for instance, to write about any of the phases of life, from childhood and adolescence to maturity and old age; about any motives or concerns—survival, ambition, self-realization, gender or relations between the sexes, family life, kin relations, or social interactions; or about intellectual, artistic, or spiritual aspirations. Every culture has complex traditions that organize all these features of life, and they also have forms of imaginative culture that contain mythic figures, folk tales, and religious and artistic traditions that present such themes in multifaceted ways. Each culture contains an array of poetic, narrative, dramatic, and rhetorical techniques that can be used to construct literary works. Every individual human being has a unique identity that involves some particular configuration of personality traits, mental aptitudes, networks of family and social relationships, personal experiences, and ideas, beliefs, tastes, and attitudes. When some individual author sits down to compose a literary work, he or she has a virtually unlimited range of variables from which to select, and an unlimited range of possible ways in which to organize those variables.
A Formal Definition of Literature
To give more substance to the concept of literary meaning, we have to have a usable working definition of literature. To produce a definition, we need not suppose that literature is a Platonic absolute and that the purpose of definition is to identify the secret essence of literature. We need only locate literature in a class of human behaviors and distinguish it from other members of that class. (That procedure is the definition of a “formal definition.”) The definition proposed here is that literature is an aesthetically modeled verbal construct that evokes or depicts the subjective quality of human experience. In evoking subjective quality, literature is like the other arts but different from science and from much humanist scholarship. In using words as its specific medium, literature differs from the plastic arts and overlaps with science, philosophy, and history. Like the other arts, and unlike these other disciplines, literature typically concerns itself with the aesthetic aspects of its medium: the formal organization of sensory properties.
This definition implies no necessary boundary between high and low art. The definition is broad enough to take in doggerel verse, stand-up comedy, impromptu dramatic enactments, lyric poems, theatrical works, and narrative fictions of every sort. The definition allows for overlaps with other media—film or opera, for instance, or graphic narratives with verbal captions. It does not stipulate fiction as a necessary or exclusive feature of literature, and it draws no sharp boundary between literary works and the more highly colored forms of rhetoric, philosophical disquisition, biography, or historical narrative. The two limiting features in the definition are the aesthetic modeling of the verbal medium and the evocation or depiction of subjective experience. Presuming that readers provisionally accept the definition here offered, we can say that these limiting features—aesthetic modeling and qualitative subjectivity—are themselves universals of literary meaning. They are integral to the kinds of meaning conveyed in literature, and to the way literature conveys those meanings.
Imaginative Virtual Worlds
Literary authors often give direct expression to their own subjective sensations. Most lyric poets are overtly expressive, and many novelists and short story writers comment explicitly on their feelings about the fictional events they depict. Characters in drama and fiction often express emotions and describe their inner states, and authors of fiction routinely describe and analyze the inmost qualities of sensation and thought in their characters.
All these forms of subjectivity are encompassed within a broader, universal category of subjective sensation in literature: the imaginative virtual world. Every literary work creates an imaginative space shared by the author and reader. The subjective sensation within that shared imaginative space is modulated by universal features of human experience, by beliefs and forms of feeling peculiar to the cultures in which it is created and in which it is read, by the personalities of the author who creates it and the reader who reads it, and by the semantic, affective, and aesthetic properties of the words that are the medium of its existence.
Every individual literary work is imbued with the whole array of attitudes, beliefs, and tastes that make up an author’s world view. Attitudes, beliefs, and tastes within a single mind can of course conflict with one another. When they do, those internal conflicts—tensions, ambiguities, confusions, the feeling of disunion—are themselves distinctive features of the author’s world view. Each individual work is a manifestation of that world view, a fragment of the whole. Each fragment is indelibly stamped by the mind of the person who creates it. In entering imaginatively into a literary work, a reader is entering also into the author’s world view.
The very act of using artistic verbal constructs to create a shared space of imaginative experience is a universal aspect of literary meaning. In entering a shared imaginative space created by intentional verbal constructs, readers implicitly enter into the common human fellowship of imaginative virtual experience. So far as we know, that kind of experience is uniquely human. Independently of any specific quality in any given literary work, that uniquely human fellowship has inherent qualities all its own. It is verbal, imaginative, creative. It points to the world outside itself but organizes itself internally through concepts, images, rhetorical constructions, and tonal patterns. It contains denotative statements but deploys forms of meaning that are fully realized only through the interactions among its conceptual, emotional, and sensory elements. It is a simulacrum but also runs parallel with the real inner world of memories, dreams, and reveries that make up much of our active mental life (Raichle; Kaufman and Gregoire; Buckner, Andrews-Hanna and Schacter; Carroll, “Minds”; Andrews‐Hanna, Smallwood and Spreng).
Authors have a primary determinative force in using words to create an imaginative virtual world. They choose and arrange the words, and they imbue their artifice with their own mental character. Even so, readers are not merely passive recipients of authorial intentions. Every reader has his or her own world view. Each is animated by basic human motives and emotions—for instance, by hunger, thirst, love, and fear. Each reader’s culture endows him or her with beliefs, values, attitudes, and forms of imagination that have descended through generations and are shared by multitudes. Despite these shared aspects of mental life, each reader has a personal identity shaped by a unique combination of genetic endowments and environmental influences.
Readers willingly enter into the imaginative virtual worlds created by authors, but each reader also makes something of his or her own out of what the author gives. However explicit, definite, and unequivocal an author might be, intended meanings necessarily interact with the whole structure of values, beliefs, tastes, and attitudes that make up the reader’s own world view. As Auden says in his elegy for Yeats, “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” Readers do not only assimilate. They respond and judge.
We have empirical evidence that readers respond in broadly similar ways to literary texts. They identify similar meanings in an author’s work, and even their emotional responses display broad similarities (Carroll et al., Graphing). Those similarities are grounded in common, shared aspects of human nature. Humans are broadly similar—anatomically, physiologically, neurologically—but no one person (not even an identical twin) is precisely the same as any other person. The uniqueness of individual identity is itself a human universal. In parallel, the uniqueness of individual response is a universal of literary meaning. It seems safe to say that no reader ever experiences the same work in precisely the same way as any other reader. And indeed, it seems likely that no reader ever reads the same work, or the same line, in quite the same way twice.
Universals of literary meaning include both these contrasting tendencies: broad similarity of recognition and response, and the unique subjective particularity of transient moments of literary experience.
A Framework for Analyzing Meaning in Literature: Theme, Tone, and Form
The broad similarity of humans—the kind of similarity described in Brown’s “Universal People”—makes it possible to construct a set of categories for the impersonal, objective analysis of literary meaning. A common framework of comparison is necessary both for describing the similarities of literary experience and for distinguishing experiences among cultures and individual persons. Some set of common terms is indispensable to any research program that aspires to joining a collective effort in producing cumulative, empirical knowledge (Gottschall, New Humanities; Carroll et al. Graphing).
If a work of literature is an aesthetically modeled verbal construct that evokes or depicts subjective qualities of human experience, a neutral analytic framework for analyzing literary experience would need to take in the constituents of subjective experience and the specifically aesthetic, literary characteristics that evoke or depict that experience. Subjective experience does not take place in a vacuum. In literature, it is invariably set in relation to events and circumstances. Events and circumstances might seem infinitely diverse, but the analysis of human actions can be reasonably delimited by analyzing the species-typical patterns of human life. Specifically human forms of mating, parenting, family organization, social interaction, and imaginative culture can be precisely described (Brown, Human Universals; Muehlenbein and Flinn; Chapais, “Social Universals”; Henrich). Every phase and kind of relationship identified in human life history theory displays its own characteristic motives and concerns. Those motives and concerns can be used as taxonomy of basic themes for literary analysis (Carroll, “Imaginary Lives”; Carroll, “Minds”).
Adopting one common meaning of the term “themes,” I here designate subject areas as “themes.” (Other theorists use the term “themes” with a different signification.) Major themes include childhood and the struggles of growing up, life in a social group, intergroup conflict, mating, parenting, relations among siblings and other relatives, and the life of the mind (religion, ideology, and the arts).
Every subject bears within itself a range of affective potentialities, from joy and fulfillment to rage and despair. Characters depicted in literature experience emotions; authors have emotional responses to depicted events; and readers respond both to depicted events and to authors. This whole range of subjective sensation is traditionally characterized as “tone.”
The subjective quality of experience is best captured in the study of emotions. From an evolutionary perspective, two particular kinds of emotional study seem most useful for the purposes of generating a neutral analytic framework closely allied with evolved motives, phases of life, and species-typical kinds of social relationships: the cross-cultural study of emotional facial expressions, and affective neuroscience. On the basis of cross-cultural research on facial expressions, Paul Ekman identifies seven basic emotions: anger, fear, contempt, disgust, joy, sadness, and surprise. On the basis of neurological research, Jaak Panksepp identifies seven emotional systems that partially overlap with Ekman’s seven basic emotions: seeking, fear, rage, lust, maternal care, grief, and play. Basic emotions and emotion systems like those identified by Ekman and Panksepp are complicated and extended in self-conscious and social emotions such as embarrassment, pride, shame, guilt, remorse, and jealousy (Hogan, Affective Narratology; Oatley, Passionate Muse; Carroll et al., Graphing).
Form in fictional narrative begins with the choice of words and the combinations of words in sentences and larger structures such as stanzas, paragraphs, and scenes. Purely physical properties include sound patterns and rhetorical rhythms, but the purely physical elements of language are always intertwined with semantic content and emotional tone. Images and figures of speech are indirect forms of sensory perception and thus also part of the aesthetic quality of literature. The aesthetic medium that begins in sensory experience in literature extends in imagination up through levels of formal organization that can be “perceived” only indirectly, through decoding time schemes and analyzing perspectival interactions among characters, narrators, implied authors, and implied readers (Carroll, “Minds”).
Since its inception, literary theory has aimed at identifying universal structural features in literary texts. Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end offers a classic example of a purely structural hypothesis. Efforts at creating a universal and universally accepted system of genres have so far met with limited success (Fowler), but there is wide general agreement on the characteristics of a few basic genres such as tragedy, comedy, satire, and heroic quest (Frye; Hogan, “Story”; Carroll, “Literary Meaning”). The forms of narration can be delineated with reference to relations among an implied author, a narrator, characters, and an implied reader (Booth; Carroll, “Minds”). Classifications based on the form of representation—verse, drama, and narrative—are well understood. Most literary critics, regardless of theoretical affiliations, recognize the central role of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism in literary structure (Hogan, “Imagery“).
Attributes of “The Universal People” described by Donald Brown include forms of oral, proto-literary expression: narrative, metaphor, metonomy, onomatopoeia, and poetic meter. The existence of these proto-literary forms in all known cultures points toward underlying pan-human forms of neurological development. Empirical research on the psychology of reading now has techniques and tools, including neuroimaging, that are likely to produce rapid advances, in the near future, on understanding the neurological mechanisms that regulate these processes (Jacobs). Pan-human neurological mechanisms are “natural kinds.” Classifications based on natural kinds offer good prospects for empirical development and for integration with thematic and tonal analysis focused on basic motives and emotions.
Established terms in prosody and narratology can be tested against techniques that allow empirical investigation into the psychology of reading (Jacobs). The ideal, ultimately, would be to ground all purely formal categories in cognitive science and to integrate them with an understanding of themes and emotional tone.
Living in the Imagination
Literature or its oral antecedents are human universals. People in all known cultures tell stories, act out scenes, play imaginatively with language, and use it for evocative, expressive, and aesthetic purposes. The idea of imaginative virtual worlds suggests why humans might have evolved this peculiar, uniquely human form of behavior. The imagination seems to be part of the universal repertory of human adaptive capacities (Abraham; Carroll, “Adaptive Function”; Kaufman and Gregoire; Mithen). Compared to humans, animals of other species are more tightly locked into the sensory present, reacting to stimuli from the environment and deploying a relatively narrow range of species-typical behaviors. All normally developing human beings connect the present with the past and with anticipations of the future, entertain cosmological ideas, evaluate behavior through reference to abstract moral codes, construct autobiographical narratives, and interpret events by comparing them, consciously or not, with stories, myths, and images drawn from their culture. In this sense, all human beings live in the imagination. They occupy a virtual imaginative world. Words are crucially important in constructing those worlds. When the words are organized in aesthetically modeled ways to evoke or depict subjective human experience, we call that literature.
The evolutionary social sciences have been gradually moving toward the formation of a true paradigm: a model of the human mind that is comprehensive in scope, grounded in empirically validated causal explanations, and capable of cumulative empirical and theoretical development. Biocultural theory has become widely accepted in principle (Carroll et al., “Survey”), but in much evolutionary thinking, theories of “culture” still focus chiefly on technology, social customs, and markers of tribal identity. From the perspective adopted in this essay, understanding that humans live in the imagination is the last major component needed to construct an adequate basic model of the adapted mind. Several streams of research are now converging on that last major component: neuroimaging research on the brain’s default mode network (also known as “the imagination network”; Kaufman and Gregoire), narrative psychology (McAdams, Personality Development), the psychology of fiction (Oatley, Psychology of Fiction), cognitive and affective literary theory (Boyd; Hogan, Affective Narratology), and evolutionary literary theory (Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall).
The sciences characteristically seek explanations that reduce complex phenomena to basic causal principles, preferably principles that can be quantified. Literary critics characteristically seek to evoke complex imaginative structures in literary works. From the perspective adopted in this essay, a comprehensive research program in literary meaning would extend across a methodological spectrum that is occupied, at one pole, by empirical, quantitative research, and at the other pole, by imaginatively responsive interpretive work. Empirical research on the psychology and neurology of literary experience would be constrained by the need to approximate to the complex imaginative structures evoked in interpretive criticism. Interpretive criticism would be constrained by established scientific knowledge, an ethos of respect for empirical validity, and the logic of causal explanatory reduction. Research at both poles would be lodged within a comprehensive, unified conception of the human mind. That conception would synthesize convergent findings from the whole range of disciplines that take Homo sapiens as their subject matter.
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Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde
Theory of Surprise
In this article, I look at ways in which literary texts can cause surprise. I suggest that there are specific devices which can produce surprise, and also that there are general aspects of literary texts which are continuously mildly surprising. Surprise can in some cases result in various kinds of arousal, and can have epistemic effects, including the feeling of coming to know something not just new but also profound and perhaps ineffable. The psychology of surprise is probably a human universal. The characteristics of literary texts which can produce surprise are also found in many different literatures.
Surprise is a person’s response to a perception which deviates significantly from their expectations, where the perception can be of something external or internal (e.g., a new thought in this sense is counted as a ‘perception’). There are different psychological theories of surprise, and here I use the approach particularly associated with Reisenzein, Meyer and Schützwohl, who say that ‘surprise is elicited by events that deviate from a schema’. In this approach, much of what we know is in the form of generalized knowledge, formulated as schemata, which we bring to our perceptions in order to shape them, and to which we match the actual objects, events, and sequences of events which we perceive. Schemata can also be thought of as types, to which we match these perceived tokens. There has to be some built-in tolerance for variation, such that the tokens do not exactly match the types, and tokenings of the same types are not identical. No cat is the perfect instantiation of a cat and no two cats are identical (in principle, but I return to this). So, surprise is elicited by events (and sequences of events, and objects) which significantly deviate from a schema.
The Consequences of Surprise and Their Relevance to Aesthetic Experience
Surprise is a response to something unexpected, and what is unexpected can be dangerous, and so surprise can potentially trigger one of the fight, flight or freeze responses. David Huron in his study of responses to music in Sweet Anticipationhas explored how these responses, which we share with other animals, are adapted in humans, such that the initial arousal response is managed cortically to moderate its effect, in aesthetic experience. Wassiliwizky and colleagues have also explored similar thrill-generating processes in poetry, as in Housman’s account of how he knows poetry by the arousals in his body, including the hair standing up on his chin, so that poetry can hinder shaving. Thus, surprise in front of an artwork or work of literature can produce arousals such as chills (goosebumps, frisson etc.), and (based on the work of Efran and Spangler) we can say that tears – another arousal response to aesthetic objects – can be understood in terms of surprise. (Note that these arousals can arise in other ways, and many surprises do not produce the arousals at all.) This all suggests that chills and tears in response to literature might be a response to something surprising in the text. There are other contributing factors, for example empathy can also produce an arousal response which might be combined with a surprise to enhance the response.
Surprise can also produce an epistemic experience. This is because surprise is a response to something we perceive but that we do not already know. So, a surprise can always lead to learning, when we change what we know, to fit the new perceptions. Perhaps in some special cases, the learning-from-surprise can feel as though we have learned something very profound. This could be what happens in the experience of the sublime, or of the various types of epiphany: they are basically surprises where the epistemic feeling, the feeling of coming to know something new, is enlarged. In some cases, something profoundly new has in fact been learned; in other cases, it may feel as though this has happened, but it is difficult to verify. Verification may fail if what is known cannot be put into words; that is, it is ineffable. Here, we may be experiencing an effect of profound knowledge without there being any actual knowledge, in a kind of epistemic illusion. Ineffability might arise from various sources, as Diana Raffman has shown in her analysis of ineffable experiences of music; but ineffability is also an expected correlate of any surprise. This is because words for the most part represent schemata (types) rather than particulars (tokens), and surprise arises exactly when we cannot fit a token into an existing type; so, where there is no type there should be no word. The epistemic effects of surprise can arise from our reading of literary texts, where there may be an experience of knowing something profoundly new, but we may not be able to say what it is.
The epistemic effects of surprise are, I suggest, at the root of various types of ‘strong experience’ including the sublime, the epiphany, and the uncanny. In my book A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature, I group these various types of experience under the rather noncommital term ‘strong experience’, a term borrowed from Gabrielsson’s account of ‘strong experiences in music’. These strong experiences have been extensively discussed in the critical and philosophical literature, particularly under the categories of ‘sublime’ and ‘literary epiphany’ (Beja, Nichols, Tigges). They have also been described in the psychological literature, notably by William James who was interested both in the epistemic (noetic) aspects and in the arousal aspects, and by Freud in his discussion of the uncanny. But, as I discuss in the next section, many more ordinary types of experience can also arise from surprise, triggered by characteristics of literary texts.
Discrepancy in Literary Texts as Triggers of Surprise
If a literary text has some element which deviates significantly from the schema we bring to it, then there may be surprise, and this in turn can bring with it the epistemic and arousal consequences of surprise, producing a powerful experience from the literary text. The deviation can be in the content: the literary text may represent something, somebody, some place, etc. which is very discrepant relative to the schemata which the reader brings to them. Literary characters can surprise us by behaving in ways which contradict the knowledge which we formulate about them, and our surprise may be enhanced into a more profoundly felt experience if we also empathize with the characters (with empathy enhanced by literary devices).
Surprise can be triggered in narratives, and other texts which have a predictable sequential structure. Here, the predictability allows us to be surprised when the sequence does not follow the expected pattern, for example when an event fails to occur, or unexpectedly occurs, or occurs before or after it is anticipated. This type of surprise has been extensively studied in the psychology of music, and is a major theme in Huron’s work on how music surprises us and produces the type of strong experience which is a thrill. Any kind of sequential organization can allow for formal changes, and change is one of the possible sources of surprise. Smith, in her book on the strong experience of poetic closure suggested that “any terminal modification of form will strengthen closure”. Formal changes can change processing effort, and sudden changes in processing effort might perhaps be a trigger of strong experience because they are surprising.
Narratives have a sequential structure but also have a hierarchical structure, which to some extent mimics the hierarchical structure of events as we understand them, where that hierarchical structuring of events is a psychological universal (Radvansky and Zacks, Zwaan et al). This allows for another kind of discrepancy, when the hierarchical structures of narrative are violated. Such a violation can involve liminal or transitional parts of a narrative, for example, when the ending of one event overlaps with the beginning of another. And hierarchies can also be violated by failing to fully contain events, if the large-scale events of the whole narrative interrupt the lower-level events which make it up, rather than fully containing them. An example of this can be seen in the penultimate chapter of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Mr Ramsay is “forever suspended in this moment” (Speidel) as he steps from the boat to the land near the end of To the Lighthouse, a moment which Beja identifies as epiphanic. For our purposes the important point is that here the large-scale episode ends when they arrive at the lighthouse, but the component small-scale event of stepping onto the land is interrupted and so never completed in the text. Thus, the hierarchical structure of events are violated and perhaps this violation of event schemata is the trigger of the epiphanic strong experience. Disruptions to hierarchical structure of this kind may be interpreted as discrepant relative to general schemata for events, and so surprising.
Literary texts are often characterized by ‘defamiliarization’ where familiar things are presented in an unfamiliar way: the resemblance is deliberately made odd, such that our perceptions cannot properly be matched to the schemata we bring to the text. Some specific moment of defamiliarization in a text might be a trigger of sudden surprise which can lead to strong experience. This defamiliarization can come from a gap between the literary representation and what is being represented; of course, all representation involves a gap, but in literary texts our attention is often drawn to this gap, and so to the possibility of perceptions which are schematically discrepant. Metaphor is a good example of this, where what is said has a ‘discrepant’ relation to what is meant, and where what is literally said may be strange or untrue. Kuiken and colleagues, following Ricoeur, say of metaphors that “sublime feeling is embodied in the crossed ontological categories of the text”.
Literary texts can also trigger strong experiences ‘infectiously’ just by describing strong experiences. There is anecdotal evidence that remembering one’s own strong experience, or reading about someone else’s, can trigger a strong experience, and can be a source of ‘infectious chills’, as Gabrielsson notes. This is perhaps what happens at the end of Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils’ poem, in which Wordsworth stimulates a strong experience in himself by remembering a strong experience – and perhaps further stimulates one in the reader. I suggest that this is an example of metacognitive surprise: we are surprised at the very fact of strong experience, and particularly at strong experiences of ordinary things. Such experiences should not be able to happen; our perception of them may again violate a deeply embedded schema about the nature of experience itself. (I return to other types of metacognitive surprise in the next section.) Relative to our schemata for experience, strong experiences are metacognitively perceived as deviant, and hence potentially a trigger for strong experience.
Surprise at the Lack of Variation
I began this article by noting that when we match perceptions to schematic knowledge, we must allow for some variation. Two tokens of the same type will vary both from each other and from the type itself, and this holds true of objects as well as events and sequences of events. It is particularly notable that when this is not true, we are surprised. So, for example, twins are surprising to many (non-twin) people when they see them; they violate an expectation that two tokenings of the same type (e.g., two people) will differ from one another. And the experience of déjà vu is surprising in part because we do not expect identity between two separate sequences of events. Dan Sperber, in his discussion of symbolic animals notes that animals can be symbolic when they are very discrepant relative to a classificatory system (as in the animals forbidden as food in Jewish law), but that animals are also symbolic when they are perfect tokenings of their type. Sperber points out that this identity is itself anomalous, and this is the basis of my suggestion here that a lack of variation is itself surprising. This is a meta-surprise, about experience itself and specifically the relation between perception and schema, and not a surprised triggered just by the object of the perception.
This (meta-)surprise is possible because, in addition to schemata about objects and events in the world, we also have schemata about our own experience, including schemata about the relation between tokenings in the world and the types (schemata) to which they belong. I suggest that this is the source of our being surprised by ordinary things when those things are too close to their underlying schemata (or to one another). I suggest that we have a deeply embedded schema which is a knowledge that things in the world, as tokens, vary both from other tokenings of the same type and from the ideal type of which they are tokens (the underlying schema). This knowledge of the fact of variation is a basic schema, which has evolved with us as a species. Other basic schemata include those which underpin our knowledge of the distinction between animate and inanimate things, our knowledge of basic physics such as the knowledge that things fall when we drop them. Basic schemata are impossible to unlearn, even though they may be wrong in some contexts (or always wrong). For example, a basic schema tells us that objects fall downwards, and even though we know that in gravity-free environments objects can float, this knowledge does not prevent us being surprised by seeing objects floating in gravity-free environments. This is because failure to fall violates a basic schema which cannot be modified even if we consciously know that it is wrong. These basic schemata are part of what Boyer calls our ‘intuitive ontology’: he argues that religious beliefs involve limited violations of basic schemata, and this gives them their power, presumably by permanently surprising us.
So, I propose that when we – or characters in Modernist fiction – are surprised by ordinary things, the surprise comes from an inwardly directed perception: that the basic schema which predicts variation is violated by perceived nonvariation. This might arise if an ordinary object is perceived as unique, and thus it is the only instantiation of a schema. In this case, it is identical to its schema, and the basic schema which expresses fundamental principle of variation is violated, producing surprise. A person is a unique entity in this sense: as a token, they are identical to their schema. The epiphany (or moment of vision) at the end of Mrs Dalloway is triggered by Clarissa Dalloway, and as Zhang notes, the language of the text directly points to the world (with a proper noun, and a pronoun), thus expressing the nonschematic and unique nature of the individual. Kenneth Clark cites the painter Graham Sutherland who on his walks finds that “objects which he has passed a hundred times – a root, a thorn bush, a dead tree – will suddenly detach themselves and demand a separate existence”: here it is the uniqueness of the object which triggers the experience. Detachment of the object may involve its perception as lacking (Gibsonian) affordances, such that it is seen as having an existence only in and for itself; this fits with James’s view of mystical experience (a type of strong experience) where “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance”. Another way in which an object can be seen as unique is if it is perceived with a high degree of granularity; this incidentally should also produce a type of ‘nuance ineffability’, Raffman’s term for when our perceptions are more granular than the schemata and so words which we can match them to. Another possibility is that the object is perceived as a perfect instantiation of its schema: Sperber argues that perfect animals are odd in precisely this way, which makes them suitable for sacrifice in the temple.
The basic schema which predicts variation is also violated by the perception of doubles or multiples, since these are entities in the world which are perceived as identical to one another. Doubles and multiples should trigger metacognitive surprise at this violation of a basic schema, and this surprise might turn into the experience of the sublime as a response to multiples (Mendelssohn), or to the uncanny as a response to doubles (Freud).
If a lack of variation is surprising, then literary texts, in many cultures, should be surprising. In their content, literary texts tend to regularize and simplify what they represent, relative to the real-world equivalents. Narratives are simpler than real-world sequences of events, more bounded, more sparse, and with causation more simply expressed. Fictional characters are sparser in their characteristics and interconnections than real people, thus giving them greater regularity relative to types. It is particularly worth noting that the greater regularity in the language of literary texts, relative to ordinary language, means that the language of literary texts can fall below the degree of variation which we expect from language in general: this points towards a violation of the basic schema of variation. This consistent violation, at a low level, might also produce a continuous mild surprise.
Parallelism, which Jakobson thought was the basis of the poetic function, is a greater regularity imposed on language, as are the other types of regular form: metre, alliteration and rhyme. In fact, one way of thinking about what is distinctively ‘literary’ about literary language is that relative to ordinary language it is more regulated, the syntax can be different (particularly in poetry), and its vocabulary can be different. Literary language can be thought of as resembling ordinary language but with a reduced degree of variation, and I have previously argued (in ‘Why is verse poetry?’) that literary language might sometimes be a copy of language rather than an instance of language. Literary language might thus be perceived as schematically discrepant when matched to schemata for language itself. It is worth asking at this point whether we can become habituated to literary language, such that we no longer perceive it as discrepant, but I think not: no amount of habituation to literary language will ever make us forget about ordinary language, or reduce the distance between literary and ordinary language.
Similar points might be made about other aesthetic practices, which include forms which resemble but are not quite the same as practices in the real world. All representative forms only partially resemble what they represent, and in principle can be perceived as discrepant relative to what they represent. Music is a more regular kind of sound; singing is not quite like speaking; theatrical performance is not quite like real behaviour; dancing resembles but is not the same as running and jumping, and so on. In these ways all the aesthetic practices, as well as literature, demonstrate a constant but low-level schematic discrepancy. This might stimulate a constant but low level of surprise, which in turn might be part of our general aesthetic experience, characterised by the effects of surprise, both epistemic and arousal.
Is ’Surprise’ Too Simple a Way to Approach These Problems?
The approach I take to this range of problems is to treat all of them as starting from the same psychological event, the event of surprise. Surprise is here treated as the response to perceptions (including thoughts) of objects, events, sequences of events which significantly differ from what we expect, where our expectations are based on our general, schematic knowledge. Thus, surprise is responsible for: the effects of various literary devices, the aesthetic experience of general aspects of literary form, profound experiences such as the sublime and epiphany, and physical responses such as chills and tears. In some cases there are other general psychological processes at play, including emotions and empathy, all of which may contribute to and modulate the experience of the event. All of these are ordinary human psychological events, with experiential and epistemic components, but none of them are treated a distinctive category of psychological event. The different names and categorizations of these events come primarily from culture, not from psychology. In other words, there is no special theory here; this is a minimalist approach which starts from common and ordinary psychological events and states, and suggests that in the right arrangement of circumstances, the event has particular manifestations and feels special. The term which I use for experiences such as the sublime, epiphany and the uncanny, along with thrills is ‘strong experience’, and this is a term of convenience which is both deliberately neutral and not understood as a separate type of experience: it is just ordinary experience, in a ‘strong’ form, where the strength manifests as the powerful epistemic experience, or as a bodily arousal. This is a strength in the approach, in that it seeks to explain a wide range of experience, including aesthetic experience, using only what is already in the ordinary psychological toolbox.
The weakness in this approach is that it leaves many aspects of any individual experience unexplained: why does it happen now to this person and with this degree of strength of epistemic effect and this arousal? Why should ordinary surprise be inflated into something rarer and more profound in certain circumstances? But this is a weakness in explanation which may be unresolvable. Even for well-studied issues such as the triggering of chills in experimental subjects by musical or textual features, we know that there is a great deal of variation in response, which tells us that there will always be contextual or circumstantial factors which shape why certain experiences arise.
One direction of research would be to extend the experimental work on the triggering of thrills by specific aspects of texts, and to test whether these can be understood in terms of surprise. This has been done extensively for music, and to some extent also on poetry, and it could be productively extended to literature more generally. Experimental work on how thrill responses are caused is relatively straightforward, and is a proxy for the almost impossible task of doing experimental work on the more epistemically oriented and very rare experiences of the sublime, epiphanies or uncanny. However, even these rare and epistemically significant kinds of experience might be the subject of experimental work along the lines of research on religious and mystical experience as described for example by McNamara.
This project assumes some basic aspects of human psychology, involving the psychology of surprise and why it happens, the schematic organization of knowledge, and the universality of basic schemata—these should be true of all humans. In the previous section I suggested that the experiences of the sublime and of epiphany might be manifestations of this experience of surprise; these are strongly evidenced in post-18th century Western literature. But are they universally found? An indication of what is possible comes from Dalton’s account of the sublime in Rawa culture of Papua New Guinea, or from Morphy’s account of the aesthetic power of brilliance in Yolngu culture in Northern Australia.
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Zoltán Kövecses, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary
In the paper, I will be concerned with the issue of metaphor universals in poetry only – leaving aside the genre of the novel, for example (but see Hogan, The Mind). This decision is the result of practical considerations, rather than any theoretical reasons. Within the framework of conceptual metaphor theory, a lot more work has been done on poetry than on the novel, probably mostly because a pioneering study on metaphor by Lakoff and Turner (More than Cool Reason) also focused on poetry.
By metaphor I mean conceptual metaphor, which consists of a set of systematic mappings between two domains of experience (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). One domain, which is typically more abstract, is called the target domain, and the other, which is typically more concrete or physical, is called the source domain. The more concrete domain is used to understand the more abstract one. A conceptual metaphor can have a variety of different manifestations in various modalities, including, most importantly for the present purposes, linguistic manifestations. In other words, a distinction is made between metaphor as a conceptual pattern (given structure by the mappings) and the linguistic manifestations (or examples) of this conceptual pattern (for overviews, see, e.g., Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory”; Kövecses, Metaphor).
Metaphor Universals and Universal Metaphors
We should make a distinction between metaphor universals and universal metaphors. The notion of metaphor universals is more general than that of universal metaphors. Metaphor universals can be conceived of as any metaphor-related phenomenon, including universal metaphors. For example, one metaphor universal is the use of metaphors by poets. Probably, there is no poetry without the use of metaphors in some form. It is an interesting question why this should be the case. The answer favored by cognitive linguists would most probably be that typical topics of poetry, such as love, freedom, beauty, history, time, life, honor, nature, suffering, and so on, all invite metaphoric conceptualization, as they are highly abstract concepts that make excellent target domains in conceptual metaphors.
Universal metaphors, on the other hand, are the conceptual metaphors that are used universally, near-universally or potentially universally. Conceptual metaphors such as love is fire, time is motion, or life is a journey are potential universal conceptual metaphors in everyday linguistic usage, but also in literature, as poetry in many unrelated languages around the world shows.
The Cognitive-Linguistic Study of Conceptual Metaphors in Poetry
The study of conceptual metaphors in cognitive linguistics began with Lakoff and Turner’s book, More than Cool Reason. Lakoff and Turner made two very important claims concerning conceptual metaphors in poetry. First, they showed that poets share with everyday people most of the conceptual metaphors they use in poetry. The reason for this is that the conceptual metaphors such as the ones mentioned above are based on shared bodily experiences – for non-poets and poets alike. (More about this later.) Second, Lakoff and Turner suggested that metaphorical creativity in poetry is the result of four common conceptual devices that poets use in manipulating otherwise shared conceptual metaphors. These include the devices of elaboration, extension, questioning, and combining. In other words, according to Lakoff and Turner, the conceptual metaphors will be (nearly) the same, but the linguistic manifestations reflecting the effects of these devices will (or can) be (somewhat) different in everyday and poetic forms of language.
However, others have shown that these four cognitive devices, or strategies, exist not only in poetic language but also in more ordinary forms of language use, such as journalism (see, e.g., Jackendoff and Aaron, Review Article; Semino, Metaphor in Discourse). Thus, on this basis alone, it is not possible to distinguish poetic from non-poetic metaphor. Moreover, in accounting for poetic metaphors, Turner proposed that in many cases poetry (and literature in general) makes use of what he and Fauconnier call “blends,” in which various elements from two or more domains, or frames, can be conceptually fused, or integrated (see, e.g., Turner, The Literary Mind; Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think).
Although many conceptual metaphors are shared by poets and non-poets, many are clearly not. These are metaphors that are not based on universal bodily experiences but on certain creative analogies between a source and a target domain set up either by lay people or poets. In these cases, we have certain resemblances between a source and a target. While the dominant trend in the cognitive linguistic study of metaphor is to deal with metaphors where the source and target are related by some correlation in experience, analogical relations between a source and a target build on similarities, or resemblances, of various sorts (real, physical similarities, generic-level similarities, imagined similarities, etc.). They range from simple to complex. Below is a simple one that comes from William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills…
A more complex example is from Shakespeare’s King John. The king says the following to a messenger whose face reveals that he has some bad news to tell him:
So foul a sky clears not without a storm.
Pour down thy weather.
We can spell out the similarities in this example as a set of mappings between the scene of an imminent rainstorm and the scene of a messenger just about to deliver a message to the king:
the appearance of the sky ⇒ the appearance of the messenger’s face
the imminent storm ⇒ the bad message likely to be delivered
the rain ⇒ the act of telling the bad news
We can take similarity-based metaphors (i.e., analogies or similes) as a special case of conceptual metaphors (besides correlation-based ones). Needless to say, such potential similarities can be used to create a huge number of cases in metaphorical expression that are anything but universal.
Metaphorical Universality and Non-Universality in Poetry
Given the rough sketch of conceptual metaphors above, it seems that certain poetic metaphors (those that are correlation-based) are (potentially) universal at the conceptual level but non-universal at the linguistic one. According to the “standard” account of conceptual metaphors (see, e.g., Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By; Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory”), conceptual metaphors are based on fundamental bodily experiences (i.e., correlations in experience). It is this basic bodily experience that may potentially lead to universal conceptual metaphors in poetry.
A more refined version of this idea in cognitive linguistics can be found in the theory of “primary metaphors” (see Grady; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh). On this view, there are correlations between certain sensorimotor and subjective, abstract experiences, such as between destinations and purposes, body heat and emotion, verticality and amount, and so on. The repeated experience of such correlations results in primary metaphors that are, at least potentially, universal, including purposes are destinations, intimacy is closeness, emotion is heat, more is up. The primary metaphors constitute the basis for complex or compound conceptual metaphors such as life is a journey and love is a unity. For example, purposes are destinations is one primary metaphor that, in part, conceptually constitutes life is a journey, intimacy is closeness is one that, in part, constitutes love is a unity, and emotion is heat is one that, in part, constitutes anger is a hot fluid in a container. As a result, these pairs of primary and compound metaphors are potentially universal. Indeed, the anger is a hot fluid and the anger is heat conceptual metaphors are found in dozens of genetically unrelated and spatially and culturally independent languages, such as English, Chinese, and Hungarian (see, e.g., Yu, A Perspective from Chinese; Kövecses, Metaphor and Emotion, Metaphor in Culture, Metaphor). It would not be surprising to find linguistic metaphors based on these and other similar body-based conceptual metaphors in the poetry of these and other languages. As an example, let us take a poem by Anne Bradstreet, a 17th-century American poet, who in her poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband” wrote:
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If man were loved by wife, then thee
The first line is a straightforward linguistic illustration of the conceptual metaphor love is a unity (of two complementary parts) (see Kövecses, The Language of Love). It is very likely that the unity metaphor for love can be found in the poetry of many languages and cultures around the world.
While the view briefly described above provides an elegant and coherent account of universality in everyday and poetic metaphors, it does not pay sufficient attention to the many cases of non-universality. Non-universality in metaphor is complementary to universality; one assumes the other. Since we already provided an answer to the question of what makes some conceptual metaphors universal, we can take this as our point of departure in attempting to answer the next question: What makes some other conceptual metaphors non-universal? Or putting the question differently: Where does non-universality in everyday and poetic metaphorical thought come from?
In recent years, I suggested that it is necessary to make certain adjustments to the standard theory of conceptual metaphors in order to be able to answer this question (see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture, for some initial ideas). The adjustments concern the role of context in the creation of novel metaphors (both conceptual and linguistic), on the one hand (see Kövecses, Where Metaphors Come From), and the various degrees of schematicity of conceptual metaphors (and their linguistic expressions), on the other (see Kövecses, “Levels of Metaphor”). We can term the resulting conception a contextualist and multi-level view of conceptual metaphors.
Both adjustments concern, in part, the issue of why conceptual and linguistic metaphors diverge from the universal patterns suggested above. They point to two major forms of deviation from universality. First, the insistence on the role of context helps us account for the kind of metaphor variation that derives from individual and group differences in human experience. And second, the multi-level view can explain the divergences in the use of metaphor resulting from individual and group differences in how higher-level conceptual metaphors are elaborated by lower-level ones. Actually, the two processes are related: various contextual factors can trigger particular elaborations of higher-level conceptual metaphors. This interaction will be demonstrated below.
Since deviations from universality occur on a large scale, we should not consider the issue of universality to be the main focus of metaphor research, as is often the case by cognitive linguists. As was noted above, universality and variation complement and assume each other. In conceptual metaphor theory, we should pay just as much attention to variation as to universality (see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture), since variation is pervasive in the use of metaphor. This, I suggest, is due, to a large extent, to the role that context plays in metaphorical conceptualization – both in everyday usage and poetry.
How Context Shapes Metaphorical Conceptualization
Based on my findings (Kövecses, Where Metaphors Come From), I suggest that there are a variety of contextual factors (to be discussed below) that prime speakers when they use metaphors in communicative situations. The contextual factors belong to several context types: situational context, discourse context, conceptual-cognitive context, and bodily context. These types of context each come in two forms: local context and global context, as shown in Figure 1 below. The local context involves the specific knowledge conceptualizers have about some aspect of the immediate communicative situation. By contrast, the global context consists of the conceptualizers’ general knowledge concerning their community. It involves knowledge shared by an entire community of speakers / conceptualizers. The distinction is mostly of theoretical nature. In many actual communicative situations, there is no sharp dividing line between the local and the global context. The Figure below presents the four major context types as four sections of a circle and their division into local context (as the inner circle) and global context (as the outer circle). The box in the middle represents a particular act of metaphorical conceptualization in context. The contextual factors subsumed under the context types are not given in the Figure. They are discussed in the text following Figure 1.
Figure 1: Summary of Types of Context (Concentric circles represent global and local context; quadrants represent situational, discourse, bodily, and conceptual-cognitive contexts for a given metaphor.)
The four types of context can be briefly described in the following way.
The situational context comprises a variety of different contextual factors. Most commonly this type of context can be thought of as including the physical environment and the social-cultural situation. The physical environment includes the flora, the fauna, the landscape, the temperature, the weather, perceptual properties of the situation, and so on. For example, it is a common observation that American English metaphors relating to the physical environment are characteristically different from those of other English-speaking countries (see, e.g., Kövecses, American English). The small-scale, local environment, such as the visible events in or the perceptual properties of a situation, can also make its influence felt in shaping metaphors. The social-cultural situation consists of social aspects of life that typically center around notions such as gender, class, politeness, work, education, social organizations, social structure, art and entertainment, and others. All of these can play a role in metaphorical conceptualization. For example, Kolodny (The Lay of the Land, The Land Before Her) shows that American men and women developed very different metaphorical images for what they conceived of as the frontier in America. While the women commonly thought of the American frontier as a “garden to be cultivated,” men conceptualized it as “virgin land to be taken.” (For several other examples, see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture.)
As an example of how the immediate physical situation as part of the physical context can prompt, or prime, a poet to use a particular conceptual metaphor, consider the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. In the first stanza, we get a glimpse of what the physical context consists of:
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits,- on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
The speaker (poet) is looking out to the sea from inside a house and can see a variety of things. One of them is that “The tide is full.” In the last stanza, however, he can see the tide “retreating” with a “withdrawing roar,” exposing the bottom of the sea:
The sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
At this point Arnold introduces the conceptual metaphor (christian) faith is the sea (“The sea of Faith”) in a special way. As the sea retreats, it leaves the bottom of sea exposed, and, in the same way, human beings become unprotected by Christian faith that once protected them. It is fairly safe to assume that what induced, or primed, the poet to use this conceptual metaphor in this particular way was the sight before him: the physical event of the ebb and flow of the sea, that is, a contextual factor belonging to what was called the situational context.
The discourse context involves the immediate linguistic context (i.e., cotext), the previous discourses on the same topic, and the dominant forms of discourse related to a particular subject matter. We’ll look at an example for the linguistic context below. The metaphors in one discourse can also derive from previous discourses on the same topic. This can take a variety of forms ranging from elaborating, extending, questioning, negating, reflecting on, ridiculing, to otherwise taking advantage of a metaphor previously introduced. For example, an MP in the British Parliament responded to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair who said he does not have a reverse gear (i.e., he can only go forward – basing the statement on the progress is motion forward metaphor) with the reply: “but when you’re on the edge of a cliff it is good to have a reverse gear” (example taken from Semino). This was a humorous twist induced by the prior discourse on the progress is motion forward conceptual metaphor. The dominant forms of discourse and intertextuality can also influence the production of metaphors. Since certain forms of discourse can acquire dominant status in a community, the metaphors used in or based on this discourse can become widespread both temporally (historically) and spatially (cross-culturally). For example, the discourse of Christianity commonly gives rise to the use of metaphors in the Christian world.
To see how the immediate linguistic context can produce metaphors in poetic discourse, let us turn to Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Medusa.” Here are some relevant lines:
Off that landspit of stony mouth-plugs,
Eyes rolled by white sticks,
Ears cupping the sea’s incoherences,
You house your unnerving head—God-ball,
Lens of mercies,
Plying their wild cells in my keel’s shadow,
Pushing by like hearts,
Red stigmata at the very center,
Riding the rip tide to the nearest point of
Dragging their Jesus hair.
Did I escape, I wonder?
In the world of the poem, Sylvia Plath addresses her mother as Medusa. In Greek mythology, Medusa is a gorgon with snakes for her hair, who turns people who look at her to stone. As the lines quoted above suggest, the poet is trying to escape from the harmful influence of the mother. (This can be seen most clearly in the line “Did I escape, I wonder?”). What is remarkable here is that, to convey this, the poet makes use of the other sense of medusa: the “jellyfish” sense (“Your stooges / Plying their wild cells in my keel’s shadow”). She’s trying to get away from an overbearing mother, and the mother is portrayed analogically as jellyfish. Schools of jellyfish move about in the sea, and jellyfish stings can inflict pain and even death in humans. Thus, it can be suggested that the “jellyfish” meaning of medusa is used by the poet because the mythological Medusa was introduced early on in the poem (in the title) to begin with. This is one kind of linguistic context – the close relationship between two senses of a word, that is, their polysemy. The word form medusa evokes all the knowledge structures associated with it (given as the two senses of the word), and the poet is taking advantage of them, as they analogically fit the nature of the relationship with her mother.
A particular state or condition of the body can produce particular metaphorical conceptualizations in specific cases, such as a poet’s or writer’s illness. I call this the bodily context. People’s bodily specificities can influence which metaphors they use. Casasanto (“Embodiment of abstract concepts”) found that left-handers prefer to use the moral is left, as opposed to the moral is right conceptual metaphor. Such metaphors contrast with the metaphors that evolve on the basis of the general properties of the human body (i.e., the correlation-based primary metaphors). Given the capacity of body specificities to prime metaphorical conceptualization, we can take the body as a further type of context. Thus, the body is not only responsible for the production of hundreds of conceptual metaphors through the many correlations in subjective and sensorimotor experience (cf. Grady; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh), but it can also prime the use of particular metaphors in more immediate, local contexts (see, e.g, Gibbs; Gibbs and Colston; Boroditsky; Boroditsky and Ramscar).
The idea that the general physical, biological, mental, emotional, etc. condition, or situation, of a poet can influence the way a poet writes poetry is well known and is often taken into account in the appreciation of poetry. Dickinson is a well-studied case, as discussed by several authors, among them, James Guthrie. Guthrie has this to say on the issue:
… I propose to concentrate on the fact of illness itself as a governing factor in Dickinson’s development as a poet. We are already accustomed to thinking about ways in which illness or deformity modulate the registers of expression we hear while reading Milton, Keats, Emily Bronte, Lord Byron. For Dickinson, illness was a formative experience as well, one which shaped her entire poetic methodology from perception to inscription and which very likely shook the foundations of her faith. Reading Dickinson’s poems in the full knowledge and belief that, while writing them, she was suffering acutely from a seemingly irremediable illness renders many of them recuperable as almost diaristic records of a rather ordinary person’s courageous struggle against profound adversity. (Guthrie, Emily Dickinson: 4-5)
Elsewhere, I showed how Dickinson’s (unconscious) choice of metaphors may have been influenced by her optical illness (see Kövecses, “A New View”, Where Metaphors Come From).
The conceptual-cognitive context includes the metaphorical conceptual system at large, knowledge about the elements of discourse, ideology, knowledge about past events, interests and concerns. In the metaphorical conceptual system, many concepts (sources and targets) stand in a metaphorical relationship with one another (e.g., life is a journey, argument is war) in long-term memory. Given such metaphorical relationships between concepts (such as between, say, life and journey), their presence or absence in the metaphorical conceptual system may function as a precondition for the production and comprehension of particular metaphors. A metaphorical conceptual system can function as context in this sense. Furthermore, conceptualizers often rely on their knowledge concerning the main elements of a discourse: the speaker, hearer, and the topic. Ideology can also be a formative factor in how metaphors are used in discourse. One’s ideology concerning major social and political issues may govern the choice of metaphors (as work by, for instance, Goatly, Washing the Brain, shows). A good example of this is George Lakoff’s (Moral Politics) study of American politics, where conservatives tend to use the nation is a strict father family metaphor, while liberals prefer the nation is a nurturant parent family version of the generic metaphor the nation is a family. Knowledge about past events (i.e., items in short-term and long-term memory) shared by the conceptualizers may also lead to the emergence of specific metaphors in discourse. For instance, it has often been observed that the memory of historical events can lead to the production (and comprehension) of some metaphors (see, e.g., Deignan, “Metaphorical expressions”; Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture).
Consider the life is a journey metaphor. It can be found in the poetry of many authors, epochs, and traditions. One of these many outstanding poets is Dante, who uses it in his “Divine Comedy”:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
(In the middle of life’s road
I found myself in a dark wood,)
Another is Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken”:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The two uses of the life is a journey metaphor are of course not the same. Employing Lakoff and Turner’s terminology, we can say that although the two poets share the same conceptual metaphor, the metaphor is extended differently by Dante and Frost. And the extensions result in different manifestations of the conceptual metaphor: loss of goals in life by the former and making choices in life by the latter.
Elaborations of Higher Level Conceptual Metaphors
Lakoff and Turner (More than Cool) had in mind the kind of elaboration in the previous two examples where the concept of journey is realized lexically in two ways: in one, there is journey through a dark wood and one, where the road of the journey includes a fork that requires a choice. But there is another way of thinking about elaboration. In it, conceptual metaphors may be related to one another at a variety of different levels of schematicity (see Kövecses, “Levels of metaphor”). I suggested that we need to distinguish at least four levels of schematicity in conceptual metaphors: the level of image schemas, that of domains, that of frames, and that of mental spaces.
An example is provided by the American poet Karl Sandburg. Consider the first stanza of the poem called “Skyscraper”:
BY day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and
has a soul.
Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into
it and they mingle among its twenty floors and are
poured out again back to the streets, prairies and
It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and
out all day that give the building a soul of dreams
and thoughts and memories.
(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care
for the building or speak its name or ask a policeman
the way to it?)
The metaphoric-metonymic use of the skyscraper is clearly prompted by the situational (more precisely, physical-cultural) context. The poem was written in 1916 in Chicago, and it was at the turn of the 20th century that skyscrapers began to be built on a large scale in major American cities, including Chicago.
But what is more important in the present connection is that the conceptual metaphor on which the image of the skyscraper is based is that of society is a building and that this conceptual metaphor is part of a schematicity hierarchy. At the level of image schemas, we conceptualize complex abstract systems (such as societies) as complex physical objects. At the domain level, societies are conceptualized as buildings and the creation of a society as the physical creation of a building. The latter is the main focus of the metaphor in the poem. At the frame level, the idea of creation is elaborated as construction, which results in the conceptualization of the construction of a society as the construction (i.e., building) of a building (with tools and ingredients). Finally, at the mental spaces level, the building of a new American society is conceptualized as building a skyscraper (with hammers and crowbars and spikes and girders).
Clearly, this is a progression from the most schematic to the least schematic (or most specific) level of conceptualization (or, the other way around, from the most specific to the most schematic level). Thus, we get a set of conceptual metaphors in a schematicity hierarchy of conceptual metaphors:
Level of Image schema:
Complex abstract systems are complex physical objects
Level of Domain:
Society is a building; the creation of a society is the physical creation of a building
Level of Frame:
The construction of a society is the building of a building (with tools and ingredients)
Level of Mental spaces:
Building a new American society is building a skyscraper (with hammers and crowbars and spikes and girders)
This is a schematicity hierarchy that, moving downward, ends in the concept of building a skyscraper. The two highest levels, those of image schemas and domains, may be universal (or at least widespread) in cultures when it comes to the metaphorical conceptualization of societies. But the frame level, and especially the lowest mental spaces level are fairly culture- and even individual-specific. Sandburg captures the idea of building a new American society through the idea of building a skyscraper. At this level of conceptual metaphor, other poets may diverge widely (though using the same conceptual metaphors at the higher levels), depending on a large number of contextual factors (such as the physical environment). In other words, we can conclude on the basis of this example that elaborations of high-level conceptual metaphors may contribute to metaphor variation in poetry as well. Metaphors that may be universal or widespread at higher levels of schematicity may turn into something that is specific to particular poetic traditions or to individual poets.
Are there any metaphor universals in literature? I could not answer this question in the paper because I focused attention on poetry alone. As regards poetry, we can conclude from the foregoing that metaphor is a near-universal feature of poetry (in that most poetry operates with metaphor), or, as Hogan puts it in “What Are Literary Universals?,” a “statistical universal.”
A second metaphor universal in poetry (but possibly also in much of literature in general) is that the metaphors are conceptual metaphors expressed by certain linguistic manifestations. The conceptual metaphors emerge either from universal bodily experiences (correlation metaphors) or from resemblances of various sorts (analogies).
Third, the (unconscious) selection of the metaphors used by poets can be influenced by the various types of context: situational, discourse, bodily, and conceptual-cognitive.
Fourth, the metaphors occur on various levels of schematicity. Four such levels have been distinguished: the level of image schemas, domains, frames, and mental spaces. While this may be a universal feature of poetry, the actual elaboration of higher level metaphors at the most specific level of schematicity (i.e., mental spaces) may produce metaphor variation.
Fifth, the conceptual metaphors that are based on universal correlations in experience are potentially universal; they are present in the poetry of certain unrelated languages/cultures, but not in that of all languages/cultures (i.e., they are not absolute universals). At the same time, the conceptual metaphors based on resemblance tend to be highly variable cross-linguistically.
The issue of metaphor universals goes hand in hand with the issue of metaphor variation. The former often assumes the latter and the latter often assumes the former; they complement each other.
First, metaphor variation is produced essentially by three forces: divergences in the resemblances observed, contextual influence, and different elaborations of higher level metaphors.
Second, even universal metaphors can vary from culture to culture or individual to individual. This is because the universal metaphors may undergo differential contextual influence and because the universal metaphors may be elaborated in different ways. How they are elaborated may also be the result of contextual influence.
Third, metaphor universality is often a matter of the level of schematicity. Higher levels tend to be more universal than lower ones.
Fourth, differences in the kinds of analogies drawn (i.e., divergences in similarities observed) is probably the most obvious and most common source and form of variation.
Finally, it appears that the discussion of metaphor universals and variation in the paper does not allow us to distinguish the use of metaphor in poetry from its use in everyday language. All the metaphor-related processes mentioned above apply to both poetry and everyday language. It seems that the basis for any distinction should be sought elsewhere. It may well be that the proper basis for such a distinction can only be the degree of creativity (novelty), complexity, and density of metaphor (Kövecses, “A New View”). Metaphorical universality and variation are general properties of the human mind, regardless of the domain (everyday vs. poetic) in which metaphors are used.
As regards future work in the study of metaphor universals in literature, several things can and should be done. First, researchers should propose accounts of metaphor universality and variation in other genres of literature, including the novel. We should find out whether the view of metaphorical universality and variation as presented in this paper is a viable option for the other genres. Second, a huge amount of work awaits us to collect, analyze, and compare data concerning metaphor universality and variation in diverse languages and cultures around the world. We can propose reasonable hypotheses in this regard on the basis of the CMT approach. Third, and probably most relevantly to literary scholars, we need to figure out whether the findings about metaphor universality and variation as discussed here can contribute useful ideas to literary scholarship in the interpretation of poetry (and other genres). My hope is that the study of metaphor universality and variation along the lines suggested in the paper can enrich accounts of interpretation. At the very least, I hope that the approach I described is not incompatible with certain ways of accounting for poetic meaning, as the comment on the present paper seems to indicate.
[See also Kathleen Hart, “Comment on ‘Zoltán Kövecses, ‘Metaphor Universals in Literature.'”]
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 At a meta-level of analysis, it can of course be suggested that assigning different values to left and right is a universal. But the analysis I conduct here is not at the meta-level. At the same time, I recognize the possibility of legitimately identifying universals in this particular case, as well as in other cases mentioned in the paper.
This article proposes a structuralist-cognitive approach to phonetic symbolism that conceives of it as of a flexible process of feature abstraction, combination, and comparison. It is opposed to an approach that treats phonetic symbolism as “fixed relationships” between sound and meaning. We conceive of speech sounds as of bundles of acoustic, articulatory and phonological features that may generate a wide range of, sometimes conflicting, perceptual qualities. Different relevant qualities of a given speech sound are selected by the meaning across lexical items and poetic contexts. Importantly, speech sounds can suggest only elementary percepts, not complex meanings or emotions. Associations of speech sounds with specific meanings are achieved by extraction of abstract features from the speech sounds. These features, in turn, can be combined and contrasted with abstract features extracted from other sensory and mental objects (e.g. images, emotions). The potential of speech sounds to generate multiple perceptual qualities is termed double-edgedness, and we assume that the cognitive mechanism allowing us to attend to various aspects of the same speech sound is Wittgenstein’s aspect-switching.
We discuss examples of phonetic symbolism in poetry, lexical items across languages, and laboratory experiments, and show how they can be accounted for in a unified way by our cognitive theory. Moreover, our theory can accommodate conflicting findings reported in the literature, e.g. regarding the emotional qualities associated with plosive and nasal consonants. Crucially, the theory is scalable and can account for general trends in poetry and lexical semantics, as well as more local poetic effects. Thus, the proposed theory can generate predictions that are testable both in laboratory experiments and in formal literary analysis.
Many current studies in phonetic symbolism begin with a list of recent works on phonetic iconicity, that allegedly challenge de Saussure’s arbitrariness conception of the linguistic sign, followed by a series of experiments that establish a statistical relationship between phonemes (or groups of phonemes) and meanings or emotional qualities. In these works iconicity is assumed to be somehow given; very few of them go systematically into the structural relationship between the phonemes and the meaning or emotional qualities. In this practice, we strongly disagree with them on three issues.
First, we argue that literary phonetic symbolism does not challenge the arbitrariness hypothesis, but rather confirms it: sound-symbolic effects are attributed to verbal constructs after the event. Second, we believe that research based on stimulus–response questionnaires is, in itself, unsatisfactory. A cognitive approach should include a hypothesis, based on cognitive and linguistic research, to account for the structures in our mind that mediate between stimulus and response. Third, many of those stimulus–response studies take it for granted that rigorous quantitative analysis is the only valid way to evaluate empirical data. Furthermore, many such studies are interested only in global, gross effects (e.g. whether the frequencies of certain phoneme groups alone can account for the perception of poems as ‘happy’ or ‘sad’). We have pointed out a welter of incongruent statistical results in phonetic symbolism (Tsur & Gafni, forthcoming). The confusion in this domain originates in the neglect of a systematic theoretical framework. This neglect may manifest, among other things, in failure to treat sound–meaning relationships at a sufficiently fine-grained level, insufficient awareness of the complexity of the subject matter, as well as confusion whether sound-symbolic effects are motivated by acoustic, articulatory or phonological aspects of speech sounds.
The aim of this article is to present a comprehensive theoretical and analytic approach to sound–emotion relationships in poetry. At the basis of our investigation are earlier works by Benjamin Hrushovski (“interaction view”; 1980) and Iván Fónagy (“Communication in Poetry”; 1961), followed by Tsur’s work in the nineteen-eighties. Both Hrushovski and Fónagy revealed, by different methods, important relationships between speech sounds and their perceived effects.
In a structuralist theoretical discussion of sound–meaning relationships in poetry, Hrushovski explored the complexity of the subject, pointing out sources of complexity, of which we shall discuss here only one: what we call the “double-edgedness” of sibilants: that in some contexts they may express noise of varying intensity, in some — a hushing quality. Alternatively, they may be “neutral”, not related to “meaning” or attitudes at all. Consider the following excerpts:
- When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste
(Shakespeare, “Sonnet 30”)
- And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —
This it is and nothing more.”
(E.A. Poe, “The Raven”)
- [ . . ] the deep sea swell
[ .. .] A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers,
(T. S. Eliot, “The Wasteland,” IV)
- And swell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
(T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”)
In Excerpt 1, the sibilants have a hushing quality; in Excerpt 2, they imitate the rustling of the curtains. In Excerpt 3 “there is a transition from the powerful noise of a sea swell to the sound of whispers”. In Excerpt 4, in the “patterning of sibilants hardly a trace of either sound or silence remains” (Hrushovski, 1980: 41). Hrushovski (following Kreuzer, 1955) takes it for granted that in Excerpt 1 the sibilants have a hushing effect. Intuitively this seems right. He also argues that this hushing quality focuses the sound pattern on the meaning of the words “sweet silent”. But he does not explain what it is in the sibilants that invests them with this hushing quality. We shall explore, on a more fine-grained level, how they can express such opposite qualities.
In his “Communication in Poetry”, Fónagy examined the relative frequency of phonemes in six especially tender poems and six especially aggressive poems by four poets in three languages (Hungarian, German and French). Most phonemes occur with the same frequency as in general; but the nasals and liquid [m, n, l] occur more frequently in the tender poems in all three languages, whereas the voiceless plosives [k, t] occur more frequently in the aggressive poems. [r] is aggressive in Hungarian and to some extent in German, but not in French. His method is used today frequently in research, but Fónagy’s use differs from the more recent uses in several respects. Most importantly, he did not assume some rigid iconic relationships between specific speech sounds and emotions where one may predict the emotional quality of the poem from the recurring speech sounds, as some present-day researchers do (e.g. Auracher, Albers, Zhai, Gareeva, & Stavniychuk, 2011). Rather, he probed into the possibility that there may be some significant correlation between pairs of opposite emotional qualities and pairs of opposite phonemes (or groups of phonemes). This was a ground-breaking idea at his time. He did not regard his findings as the “inmost, natural similarity association between sound and meaning” (Jakobson & Waugh, 2002: 182), but as possible examples for a principle.
Tsur, in his earlier works (e.g. Tsur, 1992), went one step further beyond Hrushovski’s and Fónagy’s works. For instance, Hrushovski defines expressive sound patternsas follows: “a certain tone or expressive quality abstracted from the sounds or sound combinations is perceived to represent a certain mood or tone abstracted from the domain of meaning”. Tsur asked the question, how can “a certain tone or expressive quality [be] abstracted from sounds or sound combinations”. In his answers, he relied on distinctive features, and on speech research done mainly at the Haskins Laboratories. The present article provides the answers to such questions as part of a comprehensive theory.
Structural Model of Speech Sounds
In this article, we shall point out the complexity of phonetic symbolism at several levels, and propose a cognitive mechanism that may handle it. The basis for our theoretical account is a structural model of speech sounds: we assume that speech sounds are bundles of features, on the acoustic, articulatory and phonological levels, and that the various features may have different expressive potentials. Thus, we claim that the various phenomena related to phonetic symbolism result from the way speech sounds are coded and organized in our mental database. Here, we focus on the features of consonants.
Consonants can be abrupt: plosives (p, t, k, b, d, g) or affricates (as ts [in tsar), dž [in John or George], or pf [in German pfuj]); or, they may be continuous, as nasals (m, n), liquids (l, r), glides (w [as in wield], or y [as in yield]); or fricatives (f, v, s, š [as in shield]). Continuous sounds may be periodic (nasals, liquids, glides) or aperiodic (fricatives). In periodic sounds, the same wave form is repeated indefinitely, while aperiodic sounds consist of streams of irregular sound stimuli. Consonants can be unvoiced or voiced. All nasals, liquids and glides are voiced by default. Voiced plosives, fricatives and affricates (e.g. b, v, ž, and dž) consist, acoustically, of their unvoiced counterpart plus a stream of periodic voicing. These are objective descriptions of the consonants; all language-users have strong intuitions about them, but frequently they cannot put their finger on precisely what is the object of their intuition.
The structural model described above organises consonants in our mental database in terms of acoustic features. We believe that it is the acoustic level that best accounts for the emotional and imitative aspects of sound-symbolic effects (see also: Aryani, Conrad, Schmidtke, & Jacobs, 2018; Knoeferle, Li, Maggioni, & Spence, 2017; Marks, 1975; Ohtake & Haryu, 2013; Ultan, 1978). Accordingly, we will use this organisation to account for evidence in the study of phonetic symbolism. Note that the proposed model relies on categorical acoustics features (e.g. abrupt/continuous). However, some studies explain phonetic symbolism in terms of continuous acoustic features, such as pitch and intensity (Aryani et al., 2018; Knoeferle et al., 2017). Here we assume a categorical acoustic theory of phonetic symbolism, but keep in mind that a continuous theory of phonetic symbolism can be perfectly consistent with ours.
We should note that there are additional theories of phonetic symbolism (see review in Dingemanse, Blasi, Lupyan, Christiansen, & Monaghan, 2015). Like the above-mentioned acoustic theories, articulatory theories of phonetic symbolism assume that there is an iconic relation between sound and meaning. However, while acoustic theories assume a direct mapping of acoustic features, articulatory theories assume that iconicity stems from articulatory sensations, such as the size of the oral cavity (A. Fischer, 1999). Finally, phonological-distributional theories attribute phonetic symbolism to systematicity. According to such theories, phonological regularities in the lexicon cue non-arbitrary mappings between sound and meaning, e.g. different distributions of consonants in nouns and verbs (Monaghan, Christiansen, & Chater, 2007). Importantly, symbolic relations resulting from statistical regularities in the lexicon are language-specific (and, in a sense, arbitrary), although some of them can be grounded in perception or articulation. According to our conception, phonetic symbolism is triggered by acoustic features, articulatory features, and phonological regularities, in descending order of importance.
The Expressive Potential of Speech Sounds: Double-Edgedness and Aspect-Switching
The structure of speech sounds determines their expressive potentials. Just a few hints: Periodic consonants are more like music, aperiodic consonants more like inarticulate noise; this difference affects their expressive potentials, smooth or rough to some extent or other. This can explain why some studies found that “tender emotions” or their hyponyms are best expressed by periodic consonants. In gestaltist terms, plosives have sharply-defined boundaries, and are perceived as less penetrable and “harder” than continuants. At the same time, they consist of energy transmitted outward as a shockwave, and so forth. Thus, they have various perceptual potentials: in changing contexts, listeners may switch between passive hardness and active shockwaves. Voiced stops are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosive plus voicing, that is periodic. In the perceived quality of voiced plosives, the voicing stream may add resonance to the plosive element, or a more massive presence. Thus, in empirical tests, participants may give at least two systematically different responses to plosives in general, and additional two systematically different responses to voiced plosives.
One of the main questions in the study of phonetic symbolism is how the same speech sounds give rise to fundamentally different effects. We attribute this flexible affective potential of speech sounds to what we call double-edgedness: speech sounds have multiple features, each having its own expressive potential. In any given context, the expressive potential of one feature can be emphasized at the expense of the potentials associated with the other features. The cognitive mechanism to handle changing sound effects and relationships, we claim, is Wittgenstein’s (1976) aspect-switching. According to Wittgenstein, aspect-switching is the capability of understanding the request “pronounce the word ‘till’ and mean it as a verb or a preposition, or the word ‘March’ and mean it as a month name or an imperative verb” (1976: 214e). In the present context, aspect-switching is the capability of attending to different features of the same phones. Here we will demonstrate the notions of double-edgedness and aspect-switching in relation to two classes of speech sounds: voiced plosives and voiceless fricatives ([f] and the sibilants ([s] and [š]).
We have argued that voiced plosives are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosion plus voicing, that is continuous and periodic; consequently, they are double-edged. In the perceived quality of voiced plosives, the voicing stream may add resonance to the plosive element or a more massive presence. In physical terms, we define ‘resonant’ as ‘tending to reinforce or prolong sounds, especially by synchronous vibration; full-bodied, vibrant’; in phonetic terms, as ‘where intense precategorical auditory information lingers in short-term memory’. In the ‘tender’ context, the voiced stops [d] and [g] seem to have a fuller, richer, more resonant, more rounded body. The ‘tender’ context seems to increase the share of the periodic ‘voiced’ feature in them. By contrast, in the ‘angry’ context, they are perceived as more compact and abrupt unitary speech sound.
Hrushovski points out that sibilants may both induce a hushing psychological atmosphere, or may imitate noises of varying intensity. How can sibilants express hushing or noise? We claim that the double-edgedness of sibilants is related to different aspects of the same noises. Sibilants are continuous but not periodic, a stream of irregular noises. We propose to point out three different perceptual potentials in this structure: it is perceived as fluid, as fricative (rough) or as unpredictable (and as such, threatening). The tender or hushing quality of [s, š] may have to do with their fluidity aspect. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines ‘fluid’ as “having particles that easily move and change their relative position without a separation of the mass; capable of flowing; subject to change or movement; characterized by a smooth easy style”. This physical description of liquid substances (e.g. hot pitch) draws attention to two apparently contradicting aspects: their smoothly-moving overall mass and their particles that are easily moving and relatively changing their position. This is a convenient metaphor for the contradictory effects of the voiceless sibilants (and of [f]). Language users switch between these two aspects, according to the context. When a mother hushes her baby by sounding a prolonged [š], they both attend to the smoothly-moving mass of the fluid ššššš.
The “noisy” quality of voiceless sibilants and [f] is likely related to their fricative (or aperiodic) aspect. “Fricative” denotes a type of consonant made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow. In “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”, listeners attend to the randomly changing particles of the fricatives, imitating noise. Thus, different meanings may foreground a smooth or a turbulent aspect of fricatives.
Encodedness of Speech Sounds and Modes of Speech Perception
So far, we seemed to have taken for granted that speech sounds have expressive potential and that listeners are able to switch between different potentials. Yet, we have not explained how these expressive potentials are perceived and how they are related to the primary use of speech sounds – conveying lexical meaning. In short, we claim that the two functions of speech sounds are related to different modes of auditory perception. Liberman and his colleagues (e.g. Liberman & Mattingly, 1985) distinguish between the speech mode and the non-speech mode. In the auditory, or non-speech mode, we hear, as in the sonar, the sound shape as shown by the machine. In the phonetic, or speech mode, listeners hear speech sounds categorically, i.e. as unitary phonemes. In this mode, speech sounds are typically encoded: the precategorical acoustic information that transmits the speech sounds is restructured into an abstract phonetic category and excluded from consciousness. Tsur (1992) assumes that there is a third, poetic mode of speech perception. In the “poetic” mode, some of the precategorical sound information reaches awareness from behind the unitary linguistic category. We claim that attending to this precategorical auditory information is what enables listeners to attribute emotional effects to speech sounds independently of semantic effects. Moreover, we claim that whether precategorical auditory information can reach awareness depends on the degree of encodedness of speech sounds.
Consonants are encoded to varying degrees, that is to say, in some consonants one may consciously perceive only a hard and fast category, not the precategorical auditory information that transmitted it. Voiceless plosives are “thoroughly encoded”, that is, no precategorical acoustic information reaches awareness (hence compact, tight, and solid in perception). Voiced plosives are also highly encoded. For example, if you ask “which one is acoustically higher, [ba], [da], or [ga]”, most people will answer that they don’t know what you are talking about.
However, in some consonants, some of the precategorical auditory information does reach awareness. If you ask which one is higher [s] or [š] most people will easily answer that [s] is higher. This is because some of the precategorical sound information does reach awareness from behind the unitary speech category. In other words, voiceless sibilants are less encoded than plosives. In sibilant continuants, more of the rich precategorical information is available than in most of the consonants, and is more apt to draw attention than in nasals or glides, for instance. This may explain how very different perceptual qualities can be associated with voiceless sibilants.
The foregoing discussion on encodedness can benefit from an interesting analogy from personality psychology. Psychologists of perception-and-personality put forward a series of personality dichotomies, such as levelers and sharpeners, or rigid and flexible: one pole tends to be more rigid, the other more flexible. Persons at the rigid pole tend to be intolerant of meaningless sense perceptions, as the following paragraph by Richard Ohmann may indicate:
The leveler is more anxious to categorize sensations and less willing to give up a category once he has established it. Red is red, and there’s an end on’t. He levels (suppresses) differences and emphasizes similarities in the interest of perceptual stability. For him the unique, unclassifiable sensation is particularly offensive, while the sharpener at least tolerates such anomalies, and may actually seek out ambiguity and variability of classification. (Ohmann, 1970: 231)
Briefly, categories afford greater perceptual stability; readiness to abandon oneself to unique, unclassifiable sensations suggests greater emotional receptiveness. Tender attitudes are characterized by openness to rich sensory information; rigid attitudes tend to cling to abstract categories. Going back to the double-edgedness of sibilants: as opposed to the rigid linguistic category, the stream of rich precategorical auditory information available in [š] has a flexible, soothing effect, and babies seem to be sensitive to it. Thus, the tender or hushing quality of [s, š] may have to do with their fluidity aspect, treated as unique, unclassifiable sensations in the stream of rich precategorical auditory information. The “noisy” quality of these sibilants springs from the aperiodic nature of the very same sensory information, a stream of irregular noises; we are switching from one aspect to another of the auditory stream.
Phonetic Symbolism in the Lexicon and in Poetry
In this section, we will demonstrate how our cognitive model can account for cases of phonetic symbolism found in the lexicons of various languages and in literary pieces.
Phonetic Symbolism in the Lexicon
The claim Tsur has elaborated in his 1992 book (Tsur, 1992) is that in different contexts, different potentials of the various features of the same sounds may be realized. Thus, for instance, the sibilants [s] and [š] may have at some level of description features with noisy potentials, as well as features with hushing potentials. Evidence for these opposite potentials can be found cross-linguistically in lexical items related to both silence and noise. In such lexical items, the meaning picks out the appropriate meaning potential from a number of meaning potentials of its speech sounds. For example, in English, ‘silence’, ‘hush’, ‘still’, but also ‘rustle’, ‘shout’ and ‘scream’ contain sibilants; the German words for silence are Stille and Schweigen; in Hebrew, two words for silence contain sibilants, šɛkɛt, has; in Japanese, Shizukesa means something like ‘calmness’, ‘tranquillity’ or ‘stillness’; in Chinese, sùjìng means ‘silence, solemnly silent, peaceful’, while shāshā and shēng mean ‘rustle’. In Hungarian, the word for silence is csend, beginning with the affricate [tš], csitt! means ‘whisht!’, kuss! means ‘shut up!’, ‘zaj’, ‘nesz’ mean noise, the verbs suhog, susog, zörg mean ‘rustle’, and pisszen in negative sentences suggests ‘slightest noise’ (‘does not make even the slightest noise’).
Literary Phonetic Symbolism
As we said in the introduction, many scholars take phonetic symbolism as counter evidence for the arbitrariness of the relation between sound and meaning. Our approach to the question of arbitrariness can be exemplified by the first line of Excerpt 2, repeated here.
- And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —
This it is and nothing more.”
(E.A. Poe, “The Raven”)
The word “rustling” involves onomatopoeia proper. In the string “silken, sad, uncertain”, the alliterating speech sounds are arbitrary; only after the event they become non-arbitrary icons of the noise. It is only the unforeseeable combinations of symbolic language that afford the generation of this sound effect. It does not challenge de Saussure’s “arbitrariness” conception, but rather, supports it. Yet, even in literary phonetic symbolism, it is not the case that “anything goes”. In the next paragraph, we will apply the proposed cognitive theory to account for what may seem like arbitrary use of phonetic symbolism in poetry.
The double-edgedness of voiced plosives can explain one of Fónagy’s most intriguing findings regarding the relative frequency of /g/ and /d/ in Victor Hugo’s and Paul Verlaine’s poems. /g/ occurs over one and a half times more frequently in Verlaine’s tender poems than in his angry ones (1.63:1.07), whereas we find almost the reverse proportion in Hugo’s poems: 0.96% in his tender poems, and 1.35% in his angry ones. As to /d/, again, the same sound has opposite emotional tendencies for the two poets, but with reverse effects. For Verlaine it has a basically aggressive quality (7.93:10.11), whereas for Hugo it has a basically tender quality (7.09:5.76) – again, in almost the same reverse proportion.
There are two ways to account for this discrepancy between Hugo’s and Verlaine’s handling of the emotional quality of [d] and [g]. One possibility is that it is sheer arbitrary, idiosyncratic attribution of emotional qualities to the phonemes that has nothing to do with systematic phonetic symbolism: that anything goes, provided that it is statistically significant. Another possibility is that Hugo and Verlaine make use of the afore-said universal ambiguous structure of voiced plosives combined with aspect-switching. In Wittgenstein’s terminology, we may rephrase the request “pronounce the phoneme /d/” as “pronounce the phoneme /d/, and attend to the massive presence bestowed on it by voicing, or to the resonance of voicing”. In all instances the pronunciation is the same; there is a mental shift. If you attend to the massive-presence aspect of /g/ or /d/, they may have a strong aggressive potential; if you attend to their resonant aspect, they may contribute to a tender quality. Obviously, Hugo and Verlaine applied the same cognitive mechanism to these voiced stops, but with a reverse focus. This finding supports our claim that sound symbolism relies on sometimes conflicting latent qualities, and the poet has freedom which one to realize. Obviously, the voiced plosives [d] and [g] have two conflicting potentials each, and the two poets realized them in opposing ways. Thus, the poets’ preferences are idiosyncratic, but rely on an objectively describable ambiguity.
Phonetic Symbolism in the Laboratory
In this section, we describe results of laboratory experiments related to the issue of phonetic symbolism. We discuss studies demonstrating the cognitive mechanisms assumed to underlie phonetic symbolism, as well as studies directly related to phonetic symbolism. The results of these experiments will be discussed in relation to the cognitive model proposed in this article
Experimental Evidence for the Cognitive Model Underlying Phonetic Symbolism
There is rich experimental evidence for aspect-switching in speech perception, namely that speakers are capable of switching between hearing a speech sound as a unitary phoneme or a phoneme plus precategorical information. Repp (1981) found that subjects could be trained to perceive some of the precategorical sensory information behind a s–š continuum. In this study, subjects listened to pairs of SV stimuli, where S was a synthesised fricative along the s–š continuum (7 artificial categories with different spectral properties), and V was a vowel ([a] or [u]) isolated from natural speech. The task was to decide whether the fricatives in a pair were identical or different, disregarding the vocalic context. It was found that most participants performed poorly at this task and their responses relied mostly on whether the vocalic contexts were similar or different across the stimuli in the pair. Such performance pattern was referred to as categorical perception, and it was attributed to the lack of ability to segregate the fricative noise from the vocalic context. However, after some training that included listening to the isolated fricatives, most participants improved significantly in the discrimination task in a vocalic context; that is, they were able to focus on the acoustic properties of the fricative noise. This pattern of performance was referred to as noncategorical perception. Thus, there is evidence that listeners are able to switch between modes (or aspects) of speech perception.
There is also compelling experimental evidence that listeners have subliminal access to precategorical auditory information in identifying voiced (but not voiceless) plosives. In a series of meticulously controlled experiments, Louis C. W. Pols (1986) presented subjects with spoken Dutch sentences or with vowel-plosive-vowel segments isolated from the spoken sentences. The recorded stimuli were modified in several ways, including deletion of the plosive burst and deletion of the transition between the plosive and one or both of the surrounding vowels (deletion means replacing the modified section with a silent interval of the same duration). The task was to identify the plosive out of several candidates. It was found that in natural sentences (as opposed to isolated VCV segments) the burst is less important than the vocalic formant transitions for the identification of voiced plosives (but not of voiceless plosives) (p. 149–150). Thus, the perception of the formant structure is not merely possible, but necessary for the identification of plosives.
We further investigated the idea that people have access to pre-categorical features of speech sounds in a pre-aesthetic experiment (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming). We asked participants to read out loud pairs of consonant-vowel sequences (e.g. ma–ba) and compare the consonants on various bipolar perceptual scales (e.g. whether m sounds smoother and b sounds jerkier, or vice versa). Our experiment was designed specifically to test the hypothesis that voiced plosives are double-edged by contrasting them with voiceless plosives, on the one hand, and with nasals, on the other hand. Our hypothesis was largely supported. On the smoothness scale, we obtained a three-way contrast that was statistically significant: nasals were perceived smoother than voiced plosives that, in turn, were perceived as smoother than voiceless plosives. On other scales, we obtained only partial contrasts (possibly due to lack of statistical power): nasals were perceived as having fuzzier boundaries than voiced plosives that, in turn, were perceived as having fuzzier boundaries than voiceless plosives. However, the latter contrast was only ‘near significant’. In addition, we received two one-sided contrasts: first, voiced plosives were perceived as harder than nasals, but voiceless plosives were not perceived as harder than voiced plosives. Second, voiced plosives were perceived as thicker than voiceless plosives, but nasals were not perceived as thicker than voiced plosives. Whether these imperfect results reflect the true state-of-affairs or not, they clearly demonstrate that voiced plosives are perceptually ambiguous: in certain contexts, they contrast with nasals and, in others, with voiceless plosives.
Our experiment also yielded a puzzling finding. Voiced plosives were perceived as having more resonance than voiceless plosives, though the result was only near significant. This was well expected. However, contrary to expectation, voiced plosives were also perceived as having more resonance than nasals (the result fell short of statistical significance after correction for multiple comparisons). A simple explanation for this unexpected result is that the task was not clear to the participants. As a matter of fact, two participants commented that they had trouble evaluating resonance, and, in general, it became clear to us that many people don’t know what resonance means. However, there is also a possibility that the results are genuine, namely that voicing couples with plosion and endows voiced plosives with a resonating quality, which can be perceived, at least in controlled experiments, out of context. This hypothesis is supported by experimental evidence that voiced plosives are perceived as larger than voiceless plosives cross-linguistically (Shinohara & Kawahara, 2016).
To conclude, there is experimental evidence supporting the cognitive mechanisms we claim to underlie phonetic symbolism, including both double-edgedness and aspect-switching. To be sure, these experiments do not prove that these mechanisms are directly involved in phonetic symbolism. However, they do demonstrate that participants have access to information underlying phonemic categories. We argue that having access to such precategorical information is the basis of phonetic symbolism.
Experimental Evidence for Sound Symbolism
One of the most discussed examples of phonetic symbolism is that of sound-shape symbolism. Back in the nineteen twenties, Köhler (1929) took two nonsense words, takete and baluma, and asked people to match them with two nonsense figures, one with angular edges and one with rounded edges (see Figure 1). An overwhelming majority of respondents matched takete with the angular shape, baluma with the rounded shape. Since Köhler’s study, there were many replications of this effect, including a study by Ramachandran & Hubbard (2001), which used the nonsense words bouba and kiki. So, this effect came to be called the ‘bouba/kiki’ effect.
Recent studies have used more systematic manipulations in attempt to account for the ‘bouba/kiki’ effect. For example, participants in a study by Knoeferle et al. (2017) heard non-word sequences of consonant + vowel (e.g. /ba/, /ni/) and were asked to rate each sequence on a scale. One end of the scale indicated greater association with an angular shape and the other end indicated greater association with a rounded shape. It was found that when the stimulus contained a glide (w, y) or a liquid (l, r), participants tended to associate the stimulus with a rounded shape. This tendency was reduced for stimuli containing a voiceless fricative (f, s) or a nasal (m, n), followed by stimuli containing a voiced fricative (v, z) or a voiced plosive (b, d), followed by stimuli containing a voiceless plosive (p, t). The results are summarised in Figure 2.
We can use the structural theory of speech sounds to account for these results. The left end of this figure is marked by [+abrupt], that is, [–continuous,–periodic]. This acoustic characteristic of voiceless plosives is analogous to the contour of angular shapes, which involves abrupt changes of direction. By contrast, the right end of Figure 2 is marked by [+continuous, +periodic]. This acoustic characteristic of glides and liquids is analogous to the smooth, gradually changing contour of rounded shapes. Thus, we can account for the tendency to associate voiceless plosives with an angular shape and glides and liquids with a rounded shape.
Let us now turn from the edges of the scale in Figure 2 towards the middle, ignoring fricatives for a moment. Nasals, like glides and liquids are continuous, periodic and voiced by default. Accordingly, they are associated more with a rounded shape than with an angular shape. It is not entirely clear why nasals would be rated lower on the scale than glides and liquids. One possibility is that another feature is at play here. For example, in articulatory terms, liquids are [+continuant], while nasals are [-continuant], since air flows continuously through the oral cavity in liquids but not in nasals. Thus, nasals might be considered more abrupt than glides and liquids, presumably since the nasal cavity is narrower and more disruptive for airflow than the oral cavity.
Moving further left on the scale, we see that voiced plosives are associated more with an angular shape than with a rounded shape. Like with voiceless plosives this can be attributed to their abrupt nature. But voiced plosives are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosion and voicing, which is continuous and periodic. Thus, they are relatively abrupt, but not quite as voiceless plosives, and this difference is reflected in their rating on the shape scale.
We have replicated the results reported by Knoeferle et al.in an experiment that was designed specifically to test the contrast between voiceless plosives, voiced plosives, and nasals (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming). In addition to establishing the effects of abruptness and voicing, we also found an effect of place-of-articulation. Labels containing labial consonants (b, p) were judged as more appropriate names for the rounded shape, compared to labels containing alveolar (d, t) or velar consonants (g, k). The results are illustrated in Figure 3. The source of this effect could be either acoustic or articulatory (Knoeferle et al., 2017). An articulatory account builds on analogy between lip rounding and a rounded shape. An acoustic account might be based on spectral differences among different places of articulation. A support for this view can be found in previous studies, e.g. “In /k, g/ spectral energy is concentrated, whereas in /t, d/, and /p, b/ is spread, with an emphasis on lower frequencies in /p, b/ and on higher frequencies in /t, d/… [velar stops] display a stronger concentration of explosion [than labials and dentals]” (Jakobson & Waugh, 2002).
It is interesting to note that the basic demonstration of the bouba/kiki effect (Hung, Styles, & Hsieh, 2017; Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos, 2013; Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001) contrasts a voiceless velar plosive (k) with a voiced bilabial plosive (b). The on-going discussion over the effect of place-of-articulation can explain why /b/ was preferred over other voiced plosives in these demonstrations (but note that this choice inadvertently introduces a confounding factor to the experiment). In addition, the effect of place-of-articulation might help explaining the difference between liquids and nasals found by Knoeferle et al. (if it was, indeed, significant). Both experiments included bilabial (m) and alveolar (n) nasal consonants that were analysed as one group. In our experiment, m was rated higher (i.e. closer to the rounded shape) than n (mean ratings: 4.07 and 3.93, respectively, on a scale of 1-5), and l was rated slightly higher than m (mean rating: 4.09). Although the differences were not significant, it is possible that lip rounding (or its acoustic correlates) should be included in the structural model of phonetic symbolism.
At this point, let us reintroduce fricatives to our discussion. As can be seen in Figure 2, voiceless fricatives tended to be associated with a rounded shape more than with an angular shape. One possible explanation for this finding is that shape judgments are somehow affected by relative encodedness. As mentioned earlier, glides, liquids, nasals, but also voiceless sibilants are unencoded relative to plosives. In other words, rich precategorical auditory information is more accessible in the voiceless fricatives, liquids, nasals and glides than in plosives. Perception of this information seems to blur the sharp outlines of the categories, rendering these phonemes more appropriate to designate rounded than angular shapes (that is also one reason why they are perceived as ‘softer’).
However, if shape judgments depend on encodedness, one might ask, why voiced fricatives do not group with their voiceless counterparts. In the voiced fricatives, there are two parallel continuous streams, one periodic (voicing), and one aperiodic (friction); one might cautiously speculate that the two kinds of parallel streams blur each other and their perceived shape is less pronounced. This would suggest that the perceived roundness of speech sounds might be correlated with the relatively clear perception of the precategorical auditory information lingering in short-term memory.
Resonance, Co-Articulation, and Precategorical Perception
As we have said, resonating phones promote the perception of precategorical auditory information. Yet, there is evidence that the effect of resonance is modulated by context. For example, it was found that vowels in consonantal context are perceived more linguistically than isolated vowels (Rakerd, 1984); that is, precategorical sensory information can be better perceived in isolated vowels than in consonantal context. In other words, co-articulation seems to prevent access to precategorical auditory information. Some symbolist poets exploited this property of isolated speech sounds, to amplify the resonance of their poems. The French symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud, wrote in his sonnet “Voyelles”:
- A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles
(A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue, vowels)
The Hungarian symbolist poet, Dezső Kosztolányi, wrote in a poem on his wife’s name, “Ilona”:
- Csupa l, It’s all l
csupa i, all i,
csupa o, all o,
csupa a. all a.
Thus, the examples above demonstrate that access to precategorical information, both in vowels and voiceless sibilants (and, probably, in liquids and nasals too), depends on isolating the vowels from the consonants, generating a resonating effect. Such a strategy would not work, however, with voiced plosives, because they cannot be pronounced without any vocalic context; in fact, formant transitions — that give information about plosives — give, by the same token, information about the adjacent vowels (speech researchers call this “dual transmission”). Nevertheless, the results of our experiment (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming), demonstrated that, in minimal contexts (consonant-vowel sequences), voiced plosives can be perceived at least as resonant as nasals (though these results should be regarded with caution). We then thought to test whether voiced plosives are perceived differently in a reverberating or non-reverberating context, using an implicit task that does not require participants to have an explicit concept of resonance (see descriptions of such tasks in the next section). Consider Tennyson’s line and John Crowe Ransom’s rewriting of it:
- And murmuring of innumerable bees
- And murdering of innumerable beeves
There is general consensus that in the sound structure of Excerpt 7 the repeated nasals and liquids are perceived differently from Excerpt 8. In 8 “the euphony is destroyed […] we lose the echoic effect” (Abrams & Harpham, 2009). This is not only because in 7 there is one nasal more than in 8, but also because in 7 the meaning foregrounds the resonant quality of voicing, so that the nasals and the liquids have a fuller, richer, more resonant body. There is an intuition that even [b] is perceived as more resonant in Excerpt 7 than in Excerpt 8. To put it bluntly, in Excerpt 8 it sounds hard and compact as plosives are supposed to sound; in Excerpt 7 it drifts slightly toward the more resonant quality of [m]. This intuition is supported by our experiment. However, testing it explicitly is more difficult because the effect of the phonological context (reverberating/non-reverberating) is confounded with the meaning of the line. Thus, if [b] is perceived as less resonant in 8, it could be due to the change of phonological context or the change of meaning.
Phonetic Symbolism, Innateness, and the Brain
The Bouba/kiki effect (see earlier) has been demonstrated cross-culturally, even with Himba participants of Northern Namibia who had little exposure to Western cultural and environmental influences, and who do not use a written language (Bremner et al., 2013). Thus, the tendency to associate certain shapes with certain speech sounds is a cross-cultural phenomenon. Moreover, the effect has been demonstrated not only in forced-choice matching tasks, but also with implicit interference tasks. In a study by Westbury (2005), participants performed a lexical decision task on words and nonwords presented within curvy and spiky frames. Within each lexical category (word and nonword), some stimuli contained only stop consonants (e.g. toad and kide), some stimuli contained only continuous (e.g. moon and lole), and some stimuli that contained both stops and continuous sounds (e.g. flag and nuck). It was found that responses were faster for congruent shape-string pairs (continuous sounds in curvy shapes, plosives in spiky shapes) than for incongruent pairs. Using a masking technique, Hung, Styles, & Hsieh (2017) showed that the mapping for the bouba/kiki effect occurs prior to conscious awareness of the visual stimuli. Under continuous flash suppression, congruent stimuli (e.g. “kiki” inside a spiky shape) broke through to conscious awareness faster than incongruent stimuli. This was true even for participants who were trained to pair unfamiliar letters with auditory word forms. These results show that the effect was driven by the phonology, not the visual features, of the letters.
In another study, Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos (2013) presented 4-month-old infants with pairs of shapes and auditory stimuli. They found that the infants looked longer at the screen during trials with incongruent pairs (i.e. ‘bubu’ with an angular shape or ‘kiki’ with a curvy shape) than during trials with congruent pairs (i.e. ‘bubu’ with a curvy shape or ‘kiki’ with an angular shape). This finding, together with cross-cultural evidence, suggests that at least some aspect of sound-shape symbolism is pre-linguistic, perhaps even innate. But which aspect exactly? We claim that what is innate is not the symbolic relation per se, but rather the propensity to extract, abstract and compare abstract features from sensory stimuli. In what follows, we discuss other manifestations of this principle.
Roman Jakobson (1968) has shown that children’s acquisition of the phonological system of their mother tongue, the universal structure of phonological systems, as well as aphasic breakdowns are governed by the same principles based on abstracting and contrasting distinctive features. Assuming that we have similar capabilities with semantic and visual features, this would suggest that, whatever the brain processes involved, there is a universally available cognitive mechanism of abstracting, comparing and contrasting features that may be responsible for generating an indefinite number of unforeseeable sound-symbolic combinations.
One of the most striking pieces of evidence for our innate ability to contrast and combine abstract features in different domains can be seen in Synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is intersense perception, in which a person experiences sensations in one modality when a second modality is stimulated (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). For example, a person may experience a specific colour whenever seeing a specific numeral (Galton, 1880). This trait seems to run in families, suggesting that it has a genetic and, thus, innate basis (Ward & Simner, 2005). In addition, neuroimaging studies have confirmed that synaesthesia is genuine, namely that the sensory experiences reported by synaesthetes are accompanied by activation in the related sensory cortical areas. Moreover, there is evidence that synaesthesia is related to an increase in structural connectivity among cortical areas involved in the synaesthetic experience (Rouw & Scholte, 2007).
Mature consciousness is based on the dissociation of the senses, but certain cognitive tasks, e.g. the bouba/kiki experiment still rely on synaesthetic mechanisms. Thus, although many adults do not experience synaesthesia on a regular basis, the cognitive mechanisms underlying synaesthesia seem to be present universally. Moreover, many languages have metaphors derived from the field of two senses, as in soft colour and warm sound— these are fossilized synaesthetic metaphors. The existence of such metaphors depend on, and attest to, the ability of individuals to extract and combine abstract features from different sensory and conceptual domains.
The use of such synaesthetic metaphors can be further extended in literary works via literary synaesthesia. Literary synaesthesia combines terms derived from different senses in unpredictable phrases, as in Keats’s “And taste the music of this vision pale”, where terms derived from three different senses are combined to suggest some elusive, nameless experience. Phonetic symbolism in poetry is a special case of literary synaesthesia, where the imitative sound patterns are generated by unpredictable combinations of words. In Tennyson’s “And murmuring of innumerable bees” sound imitation is generated by repeating the speech sounds of murmur in innumerable— a word that has nothing to do with sounds.
Thus, it seems that writers have access to cognitive mechanisms, similar or identical to those involved in synaesthesia. Note, however, that despite the common surface similarity between “real-life” synaesthesia and literary synaesthesia, there is an important difference between the two phenomena. “Real-life” synaesthesia is automatic and involuntary, and involves stable and fixed cross-modal associations. By contrast, literary synaesthesia is a conscious, productive process that can give rise to an indefinite number of associations.
Objections to the Foregoing Conception
Auracher et al. (2011) criticized our conception that sound-symbolic effects are generated by an interaction between phonetic and semantic features as follows:
One plausible solution to cope with the contradictions between single studies is to follow Tsur’s (2006) and Miall’s (2001) hypothesis. Both authors conceive “speech sounds as of bundles of acoustic and articulatory features each of which may have certain (sometimes conflicting) combinational potentials, which may be activated, after the event, by certain meaning components” (Tsur, 2006, p. 905). However, this would not explain the high significance of the results within most studies. Why, as an example, would randomly chosen poems from different language families apply the same sound structure, expressing the same emotions, if the sound–meaning relation is content-dependent? (p. 22)
Part of our answer to this objection runs as follows: first, this question has a false presupposition, namely that poems that apply the same sound structure express the same emotions. It is false even with reference to the state of the art in our Western tradition. Auracher et al. found that sadness (and negative emotions in general) are best expressed by nasals, joy (and positive emotions in general) by plosives, whereas Fónagy (1961) found that tender emotions (that can be positive or negative) are typically associated with nasals, aggression (which is a negative emotion) with plosives.
Second, the “content-dependent” argument seems to us particularly invalid. Auracher et al. seem to assume that sounds express emotions irrespective of meaning (indeed, they hope to predict the emotion of a poem from the sound patterns). Furthermore, they seem to take Tsur’s (2006) claim as suggesting that sound-meaning relations in phonetic symbolism are arbitrary. Accordingly, they claim that if one takes the position that “sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”, one should not expect sound effects to be translated from one language to another or from one culture to another. In their view, the fact that different studies on phonetic symbolism obtain significant results supports a notion of pre-defined sound-meaning relations. However, this is a misinterpreation of Tsur’s claim.
We don’t expect that “all aspects of [the word’s] meaning be deduced from its sounds”. We assume, rather, that phonetic symbolism can generate, at best, some vague psychological atmosphere, which the referent can individuate into a specific emotion by feature transfer from the meaning. This is part of our linguistic creativity. The results of such creativity may, indeed, fossilize into convention, e.g. a lexical entry; but in the bouba/kiki experiment, for instance, no convention is involved, both the words and their referents are unfamiliar, but participants do it spontaneously, and agree cross-culturally.
For example, let us consider the Japanese word ‘kirakira’. This word contains two elements that have iconic meaning crosslinguistically, reduplication and the vowel [i]. Crosslinguistic lexical surveys and laboratory experiments have demonstrated that reduplication can be associated with concepts such as ‘repetition’, ‘distribution’, and ‘intensification’ (O. Fischer, 2011; Imai & Kita, 2014), and the vowel [i] can be associated with concepts such as ‘smallness’, ‘brightness’, and ‘sharpness’ (Blasi, Wichmann, Hammarström, Stadler, & Christiansen, 2016; Lowrey & Shrum, 2007; Newman, 1933). Indeed, ‘kirakira’, which means “glittering”, “shows sensory sound-symbolism in that reduplication in the word is associated with a continuous meaning and the vowel [i] is associated with brightness” (Lockwood & Dingemanse, 2015: 3). We propose that the above-mentioned meanings, associated with the reduplication pattern and with the vowel [i], are all present in the sound pattern of ‘kirakira’, and that the semantics picks out two of them (i.e. ‘repetition’ and ‘brigthness’) and eliminates the others (e.g. ‘smallness’, ‘sharpness’). Lockwood and Dingemanse suggest that “the vowel [i] is associated with brightness, but it also has conventionalized aspects in that not all aspects of its meaning can be deduced from its sounds”. We propose to handle the issue slightly differently. “Glittering” does not merely tilt the meaning in favour of brightness and repeated events (e.g. shimmering); it individuates the referent within the semantic field of light.
The stem “kiru”, in contrast to “kirakira”, means “to cut”. Here the meaning of /i/ is tilted toward sharpness and individuated as a specific, non-repeated action. Briefly, in phonetic symbolism, the sound structure of a nonsense word may pick out the appropriate unfamiliar referent in a forced choice; in a familiar lexical word, the meaning may pick out the appropriate meaning potential from a number of meaning potentials of its speech sounds. In a cross-cultural perspective, too, “the sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”. In Japanese, the principle works exactly as in English. Only in Japanese and Vietnamese there are formalized linguistic categories based on reduplication, whereas reduplications like “murmur” in English, or “rišruš” (rustling) in Hebrew, or “froufrou” in French, “ityeg-fityeg” (dangle repeatedly) in Hungarian are sporadic.
“The sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”, then, because the meaning components available in the semantic dimension of the text activate a subset of potentials derived from the universally available phonetic and acoustic features of the sound dimension. Characteristically, Auracher et al. rely on circumstantial evidence in the Stimulus–Response mode, “different cultures”, rather than cognitive evidence: whether semantic and phonetic information processing is similar or different in various cultures. This argument of Auracher et al.’s seems perfectly logical when treated on a wholesale, statistical level. But breaks down when treated at a more fine-grained, structural level.
A referee for this article made the following comment on our argument: “I don’t see how this claim [that the relation between sound and meaning is arbitrary] is consistent with the authors’ finding that ‘The structure of speech sounds determines their expressive potentials.’” However, we don’t agree with this objection. The following observation by the same person is a clear support for our argument.
Neologisms and relatively recent creations like English “splat,” which have no etymologies of the usual kind, are of very minor interest in the study of literature, but they pose severe problems for the claim that meaning has nothing to do with linguistic sound. According to Fidler (2014: 229), this is expected, since OpEs (onomatopoetic expressions) provide “the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort.”
How do we produce and understand neologisms? How does “the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort” work? We argue that speech sounds are part of a phonological system, and are bundles of phonological, acoustic and articulatory features. According to Jakobson (1968), the child’s language has two stages: first a babbling period, in which the child experiments with the articulation and the acoustic qualities of the speech sounds, which are emotionally charged; then the arbitrary referential use of the same speech sounds, governed by the will. Mastering the arbitrary referential use is perceptually governed, by maximum contrast. The first syllable children in all languages master for referential use is Pa, which consists in maximum opening and maximum closure of the lips; from this they derive “papa”. The reduplication indicates here that this time the articulation of speech sounds is no mere pleasurable experimentation with speech sounds, but used for arbitrary reference.
Then they master the contrast between labial and dental consonants, obtaining “tata”. Then they master the contrast between oral and nasal consonants, obtaining “mama” and “nana”, and so forth. The process is not iconic, but perceptual and articulatory; meaning is attached in an arbitrary manner. There is no iconic relationship between “papa” and the male parent, or “mama” and the female parent, the terms and references are derived from the system. But then, perhaps, children have an intuition that mothers are contrasted to fathers in being softer, assigning nasals to mothers and plosives to fathers rather than vice versa.
We argue that in adult language, speech sounds, as part of the phonological system, serve for arbitrary reference. The acoustic and articulatory features have a wide range of incongruent, dormant expressive potentials. When a label consisting of a sequence of speech sounds is arbitrarily attached to a meaning, it may (or may not) activate, after the event, some of the dormant expressive potentials. In the word “splat” and “splash” meaning activates certain expressive potentials of the speech sounds; in “split” or “plush” it does not. All language users have access to those dormant acoustic and articulatory features, so that they may activate them creatively and differentially. Sibilants have both hushing and noisy features; that is why they may abound, universally, both in words meaning noises of varying amplitude, or silence. That is why “Onomatopoetic expressions provide ‘the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort.’” The alleged protolanguage is said to have been entirely onomatopoetic; symbolic language is typically arbitrary. Computer simulations show that iconicity is favoured in small systems, but arbitrariness has greater advantages as the system expands (Gasser, 2004). There is experimental evidence that iconicity facilitates for children the acquisition of a small, elementary vocabulary, but it obstructs the acquisition of a large and versatile vocabulary (Imai & Kita, 2014). Onomatopoetic words have two characteristics. First, their referents are sounds, so that the speech sounds may directly imitate them; second, in onomatopoetic words the fluid creative process described above has fossilized into a dictionary entry.
Some of our experimental results were indecisive, owing to insufficient number of participants, or participants’ difficulty to understand such tasks as resonance judgment. We intend to repeat some of our experiments with a greater number of participants, and using interference tasks, where participants need not understand such elusive notions.
We assume that sound-symbolic and metaphoric productivity are driven by a homogeneous set of principles. Both are based on unpredictable feature interaction — one of phonetic and semantic features, the other of conflicting semantic features. We intend to explore this similarity.
Another future research plan aims to improve experimental methodology for literary studies, by exploiting new technologies. In recent years there has been an increase of literary studies employing experimental methods from social sciences, such as stimulus—response questionnaires. Such studies typically ask participants to evaluate entities on various pre-defined scales (e.g., rate how sad a poem is). Pre-defined evaluation scales are useful for answering specific research questions. However, such scales might be less suitable for evaluating the effects of aesthetic objects, since they can capture only a limited portion of the subjective experience and thus may predetermine the evaluated scales, missing important aspects of the aesthetic effect. Fortunately, recent advances in methods of natural language processing allow for sophisticated automatic analysis of texts. Such methods can be incorporated in experimental studies using, open-ended questions to evaluate aesthetic objects. Thus, instead of asking participants to rate poems according to pre-defined evaluative terms, the researcher can ask participants to provide their impression of the poem. Subsequently, using automatic text analysis methods, one can obtain a detailed, unbiased profile of the subjective experience. We plan to investigate the utility of such methods for analyzing responses to poetic text.
In this article, we reviewed three types of evidence for phonetic symbolism. First, certain types of phones tend to correlate with certain meanings cross-linguistically (e.g. the frequent occurrence of sibilants in word related to silence and to noise). Second, laboratory experiments demonstrate that participants tend to form consistent associations between speech sounds and concepts from various domains (e.g. made-up names assigned to rounded shapes tend to contain nasal and liquid consonants, while names assigned to angular shapes tend to contain voiceless plosives). Third, various literary devices (e.g. sound repetition) use sound patterns, detached from semantics, to induce a general psychological atmosphere in poems.
We claim that the various cases of phonetic symbolism can be accounted for in a unified manner via a structuralist-cognitive theory. Central to this theory is the innate, general-purpose human capacity to extract abstract features from sensory objects (e.g. sounds, shapes). This capacity, together with our ability to combine and compare abstract features, allows us to attribute meaning potentials to speech sounds based on structural similarities to various objects. Importantly, the cognitive model does not determine sound-meaning associations, but rather constrain them. A given phone can have multiple, sometimes conflicting, meaning potentials, such that different aspects of the same phone are highlighted across lexical items and semantic contexts.
We referred to the multiple meaning potentials of speech sounds as double-edgedness, and proposed that people can shift their attention from one potential meaning to another via the cognitive mechanism of aspect-switching. We described some empirical results supporting the ideas of double-edgedness and aspect-switching. Moreover, we claim that these mechanisms can account for conflicting, or seemingly arbitrary, findings in the literature, such as the conflicting associations of nasals and plosives reported by Fónagy (1961) and Auracher et al. (2011).
The double-edgedness of voiced plosives was of special interest to us. Previous studies, as well as our own experiments, demonstrate that voiced plosives can behave like their voiceless counterparts in certain contexts, while in other contexts they behave more like sonorous consonants. Our structural analysis and experiments suggested that voiced plosives are double-edged. Some of these experimental results, however, may be due to participants’ misunderstanding of the task. More reliable is the fact that voiced plosives yielded significant results in experiments in which they were opposed to continuous phonemes, but also in experiments in which they were opposed to voiceless plosives. Likewise, a structural analysis showed, how [d] and [g] in poems by Verlaine and Hugo could be used to opposite effects. All this suggests that double-edgedness and aspect-switching may have psychological reality. However, more research is needed to investigate the cognitive mechanisms of double-edgedness and aspect-switching.
Appendix A: Double-Edgedness of the “Rolled” [r]
Across languages, rolled [r] is frequently associated with noise. Many linguists believe that in some time in the past r was rolled in English, French, and Hebrew. English, French and some German dialects have lost their rolled [r] but, as the following examples witness, their lexicons still retain them as onomatopoeia (usually in combination with voiceless fricatives) for noise: In English, “rustling” and “whisper” contain /s/ and /r/. In French, bruit, froufrou, crissement, and susurrermean “noise”, “rustle”, “screech”, “to rustle, whisper”, respectively. In German, knistern and raschelnd mean “rustle, rustling”. In Hebrew, raʕaš and rišruš (in phonetic transcription) mean “noise” and “rustle”, respectively. sarasara in Japanese means “murmuring, rustling” (in both cases, reduplication indicates sound symbolism). Iván Fónagy writes to this effect:
Selon une tradition qui remonte à l’antiquité, le r est associé […] au combat. […] La distribution de fréquence des phonèmes dans les poèmes appartenant à deux populations sémantiques différentes, dans les poèmes belliqueux d’une part, dans les poèmes idylliques d’autre part, reflète en effet une forte tendance à associer les r à la violence […]. Le r français déjà «affaibli» à l’époque de Victor Hugo, n’est plus associé à la violence […]. Cette dureté de r apical semble qualitativement différente de la dureté des occlusives sourdes […]. Les R «sont les vrayes lettres Héroïques», écrit Ronsard dans la préface de la Franciade (1587, Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1914, VII, p. 93). (Fónagy, 1983: 96)
According to a tradition that goes back to antiquity, the r is associated […] with combat. […] The distribution of the frequency of phonemes in the poems belong to two semantic populations the bellicose poems on the one hand, and the idyllic poems on the other, reflects, as a matter of fact, a strong tendency to associate the rs with violence […] French r, already “weakened” by Victor Hugo’s time, is no longer associated with violence […]. This hardness of the apical r seems to be qualitatively different from the hardness of voiceless stops […] The Rs “are the true Heroic letters” wrote Ronsard in the preface to la Franciade (1587, Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1914, VII, p. 93). (Fónagy, 1983: 96)
Thus, [r] serves as onomatopoeia for noise as in roar, rustle. Yet, in the same languages, [r] may have a soothing effect as in Lili Marleen. Our cognitive theory of phonetic symbolism can account for this affective duality of [r]. The rolled [r] is periodic and multiply interrupted, thus, it is double-edged. Its abrupt nature makes it suitable for denoting noisy and hard qualities, but, in other contexts, its periodicity can induce a tender effect.
Appendix B: Articulatory Aspect-Switching
In this article, we discussed the mechanism of aspect-switching in the perception of voiced plosives. There is another theoretical possibility, namely that the pronunciation itself changes with context, emphasising either the plosion or the voicing. Alternatively, one may speculate that perhaps different acoustic cues for phonological voicing are at work here. There are several acoustic cues for a voiced stop, usually used in conjunction:
“In distinguishing between voiced and voiceless plosives, the exact moment at which periodicity begins is among the cues used by the listener. [… and] the distinction between post-vocalic voiced and voiceless sounds is carried very largely by the relative duration of the vocalic and the consonantal parts of the syllable; in /bi:t/ (beat) the vocalic part is relatively short and the interruption caused by the consonant is long, while in /bi:d/ (bead) the reverse is the case” (Fry, 1970: 36).
Assuming that both kinds of cues work in conjunction, speakers might, involuntarily, emphasize one or the other cue, voice onset time or vowel length. As a rule, there is trade-off between competing acoustic cues for phonemes.
With that said, note that although it is possible that the switch between alternative qualities of voiced stops is done by modifying their pronunciation, there is no evidence that the poets intended their poems to be read with such an overt articulatory aspect-switching, and there is no empirical evidence that readers actually do read the poems this way.
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This article is derived from our book in progress on “Sound–Emotion Interaction in Poetry”, based on a group of chapters on phonetic symbolism.
The term ‘continuous’ refers to airflow in general. This should not be confused with the phonological feature [Continuant], which refers only to airflow in the oral cavity. Nasal consonants are continuous but not continuant.
 We have borrowed the term “double-edgedness” from Ernst Kris, who speaks of the “double-edgedness” of the comic: a comedy about a cuckold may be very funny; but a husband in the audience, who suspects his wife is unfaithful, may find it offensive rather than funny. In poetry, double-edgedness is generated by changing contexts.
The following anecdote can illustrate our ability to switch between alternative perceptions of the same speech sound (in this case, liquid). When Tsur was on a sabbatical in Yale, he was robbed at gunpoint on the parking lot of the foreign scholars’ lodgings. When his wife told their Japanese neighbour the story, he was shocked and exclaimed: “Vat, viz a livorvel?!” Later, Tsur told this story to Professor Yehoshua Blau, president of the Academy of Hebrew Language, and added: If he can say consistently the wrong phoneme, it means that he doesdistinguish between them. He answered “It is, rather, your ear that made the distinction. He probably pronounced each time the same speech sound, somewhere between [l] and [r]. When you expected a [r], it sounded too much like a [l]; when you expected a [l] it sounded too much like a [r]”.
In Appendix A, we will also discuss double-edgedness of the trilled (“rolled”) [r].
In the Rorschach test, for instance, responses based on colours and shadings (as opposed to shape responses) indicate emotional responsiveness.
First published in 1987.
There is another theoretical possibility, namely that the pronunciation itself changes with context. We elaborate more on this possibility in Appendix B.
Although experimental studies have yet to demonstrate aspect-switching in plosives, evidence from other phoneme classes suggests that plosives are likely to show aspect-switching, as well.
Formants are concentrations of overtones that uniquely identify vowels. Formant transitions are the rapid change in frequency of a formant for a vowel immediately before or after a consonant, and give information about the vowel and the consonant simultaneously.
A priori, nasals are expected to be judged as more resonant than their oral counterparts since, in the nasals, the nasal cavity vibrates, in addition to the sound articulated by the oral stop.
In the second edition of his book, Köhler (1947) changed baluma, for by now obvious reasons, to maluma.
To be precise, all the effects of phonemic contrasts reported by Knoeferle et al.were calculated with glides as a baseline group. Thus, we only know for certain that liquids were NOT significantly different from glides while all the other classes WERE significantly different from glides. The distribution depicted in Figure 2 reflects our own interpretation of the results.
We did not test glides and fricatives in our experiment. In addition, in our experiment the non-word labels were presented in a written form rather than in a spoken form. Also, the labels we used were disyllabic rather than monosyllabic, and each label contained two identical consonants but two different vowels (e.g. mamu, pupa).
Note that stimuli in this study mixed voiceless and voiced plosives, affectively treating them as one group. As we have mentioned in several places, there is evidence that voiced plosives, and specifically /b/, are ambiguous. They can be grouped with voiceless plosives in certain contexts, and with sonorants, in other contexts. The Westbury study seems to force voiced plosives to be grouped with voiceless plosives.
But also with completely opposite concepts such as diminutive and attenuative meanings.
Note that Westbury (2005) puts voiced plosives in one bin with voiceless plosives, contrasting them to continuants, whereas Hung et al. (2017) and Ozturk et al. (2013) contrast the voiced plosive [b] with the voiceless plosive [k]. Köhler too puts [b] in one bin with [l] and [m] in “baluma”, contrasting them with the voiceless plosives in “takete”
An alveolar trill, in more technical terms.
It is unknown when exactly the quality of [r] had changed in these languages. Therefore, the ongoing discussion is somewhat speculative. For that reason, we decided to bring the analysis in an appendix.
“While a listener typically perceives only a single change—viz., one of phonetic category—the physical changes that led to this unitary percept can only be described in form of a list with multiple entries. […] If one cue in such an ensemble is changed to favor category B, another cue can be modified to favor category A, so that the phonetic percept remains unchanged.” (Repp, 1983: 342)