Explaining Literary Universals

Affective Science and Emotion Studies

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.

Future Research

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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Arbitrary Innovations and Literary Universals

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.

Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel. “Is Literary Language a Development of Ordinary Language?” Lingua 120 (2010): 1219–1232.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: A New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Higgins, Dick. Pattern Poetry. Guide to an Unknown Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Mathews, Harry, and Alastair Brotchie. Oulipo Compendium. Revised and Updated. London: Atlas Press, 2005.

Areal Distinctness, the Scope of Universals, and the Conceptual Type of Universals

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.[1]

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

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.


Works Cited

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.


[1] 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.”

Conceptual Integration and Fictive Interaction

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.

General Principles

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[1] 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. [2]

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.

 Implicational Universals

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.[3] 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.

Future Research

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?

Works Cited

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.


[1] They are variously referred to as “principles” or “constraints” throughout the CIT literature. I prefer “constraint” and will use it throughout.

[2] I thank Esther Pascual for bringing this example and its variations to my attention.

[3] I thank Patrick Hogan for calling this example to my attention.

Impossible Love: A Sub-Genre of Romantic Stories

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.

Future Research

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’.”]

Works Cited

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.

Literary Meaning: An Evolutionary Perspective

Joseph Carroll, University of Missouri, Saint Louis

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).

Emotional Tone

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.

Future Research

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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Metaphor Universals in Literature

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.

Situational Context

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.

Discourse 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,

Your stooges
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.

Bodily Context

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[1]. 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).

Conceptual-Cognitive Context

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.

Future Research

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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[1] 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.