Author: Kelly Cosgrove

Contingent Universals

By: Ted Nannicelli, University of Queensland

In the context of scholarship on the arts, the term “contingent universals” derives from a 1996 essay by the preeminent film historian and theorist, David Bordwell. [1] The essay, entitled “Convention, Construction, and Cinematic Vision,” was reprinted in an expanded form in 2008, and it is this version I shall reference in the present entry.

First, some context: In his essay, Bordwell investigates a specific research question as part of his exploration of a broader issue. The broad topic has to do with the nature and function of artistic conventions in cinema. The specific research question Bordwell tries to answer in order to make headway on the broader issue is: “What makes the shot/reverse-shot comprehensible?” (58). Shot/ reverse-shot, as Bordwell explains, is a film editing technique that alternates shots of two characters conversing. Sometimes individual shots will show just one of the two characters (a “single” [see Figure 1]), and sometimes they will feature one character in the frame with a small part of the other character’s body slightly visible in the foreground as if the camera is shooting from behind it (an “over-the-shoulder” [see Figure 2]).


Figure 1. A standard shot/ reverse-shot from Personal Shopper  (2016).


Figure 2. An over-the-shoulder shot/reverse-shot from Raw (2016).


Bordwell argues it is plausible that the shot/reverse-shot is a specifically cinematic technique. It was invented in American cinema during the 1910s, spread worldwide soon thereafter, and is now one of the most commonly used techniques in all of cinema (and other moving image media like television). The wide cross-cultural adoption of shot/reverse-shot demands an explanation: Just how is it that the technique is comprehensible across cultures and cinematic traditions? The challenge, Bordwell convincingly argues, is to develop an account that moves beyond the naturalist/conventionalist binary opposition, according to which the technique’s widespread comprehensibility is either wholly a matter of “nature” or is a purely arbitrary “convention.” According to Bordwell, the nature/culture opposition overlooks the plausible idea that “many aspects of film style [including shot/reverse-shot] are transformations of a variety of cross-cultural skills and practices, both biological and cultural” (76, emphasis in original).

This is where the notion of “contingent universals” comes into play. Bordwell’s contention is that particular cinematic techniques like shot/reverse-shot have developed and spread cross-culturally because they “amplify and streamline” certain “contingent universal” human practices “for easy uptake” (76). On this account, “contingent universals” just are human skills, practices, and the like that are near (if not absolute) universals “insofar as we can find them to be widely present in human societies,” yet “did not, for any metaphysical reasons, have to be the way they are” (Bordwell 61). In the case of the shot/reverse-shot technique, the relevant underlying contingent universals are plausibly face-to-face interaction and conversational turn-taking because these provide a compelling explanation of “why the situation portrayed in shot/reverse-shot is instantly recognizable across cultures and time periods” (Bordwell 64). More broadly, Bordwell argues, “Neither wholly ‘natural’ nor wholly ‘cultural,’ these sorts of contingent universals are good candidates for being at least partly responsible for the ‘naturalness’ of artistic conventions” (61).

Like a number of other leading scholars who have studied and described human universals (e.g. Brown), Bordwell emphasizes that merely asserting the existence of contingent universals does not commit him to a particular account of how or why they exist (62; 76). That is, pace his critics (e.g. Hansen), Bordwell is not claiming that contingent universals are necessarily or essentially products of human nature alone. His more modest view is that they likely arise from the interaction of biological and environmental (broadly construed to include cultural) factors. That said, different contingent universals are likely to depend upon different combinations of nature and environment, such that at least some will owe more to human biological traits and some will owe more to the way certain practices develop within specific environments.

This point leads to the broader question of whether there are any contingent universals in cinema or other art forms, or whether contingent universals are better thought of as merely underpinning, to a greater or lesser extent, certain widespread, cross-culturally intelligible conventions whose realization is nevertheless variable. Although Bordwell doesn’t put things quite in these terms, it would seem that especially good candidates for contingent universals in cinema are indeed techniques or features that are underpinned by factors on the biological end of the spectrum. What he does say is that “among the best candidates we have for wired-in responses” are “sensory triggers [which] are cues that automatically stimulate spectators” (Bordwell 63). In the context of cinema, Bordwell notes, an obvious sensory trigger and plausible contingent universal is apparent motion. That is, our engagement with cinema in any tradition necessarily depends upon our biologically innate ability to perceive motion in certain contexts (like cinema) where in fact there is none. So, apparent motion is at least one plausible example of a contingent universal that underpins our experience of cinema and is a contingent universal in cinema.

One might worry that this is an uninformative claim: Of course, whatever specific characteristics of our biological endowment are necessary to our engagement with a particular art form will underpin a number of contingent universal features of that art form – namely, whatever features depend upon our biological endowment in order to be perceived, cognized, and so forth. But while the claim may seem obvious to some, it is far from uncontroversial. For in some cases, it is precisely those features that depend upon our biological endowment that are contested. According to some traditions in visual culture, art theory, film and media studies, for example, pictures represent content in a way that has little, if anything to do with our natural perceptual capacities because pictorial representation is entirely conventional (e.g. Heath; Nichols; Mitchell). On such views, features of pictures that might strike some theorists as contingent universals – say, the use of lighting to create contour – could well strike others as the “arbitrary” conventions of a particular tradition (Mitchell 86). In other words, anyone who is sceptical that biological factors have any role to play in our engagement with art is likely to be sceptical of some of the best candidates for contingent universals in those arts.

Here is one reason for standing fast against the strong conventionalist position (beyond its intrinsic difficulties [2]) and emphasising the biological grounding of some contingent universals, at least in the context of cinema. Cinema is a “sensual medium” (Plantinga 112). The basis of the sensory triggers Bordwell identifies is the fact that cinema directly engages a number of our sense modalities in ways that are unavailable to an art form like literature (see, e.g., Carroll; Coplan and Matravers 118-126). For this reason, it seems plausible that, if there are indeed contingent universals in cinema, which elicit congruent physical responses across culturally diverse audiences– for example, the “jump scare,” caused by the startle response – they would probably be biologically grounded. According to prominent neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, such precognitive “affective appraisals” occur via a “quick and dirty processing system” (163). It seems likely that those emotions fundamental to our survival — fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness and sadness – are grounded in such automatic “affective appraisals,” which bypass higher-order cognitive processing and, thus, the influence of culture, broadly speaking. This suggests that, in fact, a number of familiar, cinematically elicited emotions might be biologically grounded contingent universals (also see Plantinga and Smith; Smith).

Notwithstanding what has been said so far, it is worth pointing out one reason why the study of contingent universals in relatively newer art forms like cinema may prove particularly challenging. Unlike literature, cinema does not have a range of traditions that are “genetically and areally” (Hogan 17) distinct. That is, thanks to the nature of cinematic technology and its rapid global spread in the 20th century, it seems unlikely that there are any cinematic traditions that have not been mutually influenced to some extent, and thus difficult to identify a feature that has appeared spontaneously across genetically and areally distinct traditions. This is not to downplay the existence or importance of narrative and stylistic commonalities across different cinematic traditions; it is just to acknowledge that such commonalities may not meet the sort of formal criteria Hogan discusses for counting as universals properly so-called. That said, Bordwell’s shot/reverse-shot case study shows that the identification of contingent universals that underwrite widespread (if not technically universal) cinematic techniques is informative in its own right. So, too, we might note that the notion of a contingent universal may prove useful in understanding commonalities of a broader sort – namely, across art and the domain of the aesthetic more generally (see, e.g., Davies; Dutton).

Future Research

Needless to say, there is significant scope for further study of contingent universals. To some extent, this research has been proceeding apace under the guise of different terms such as “cultural universals,” “near universals,” and so forth (see Antweiler 40-45 on differing terminology). One of the merits of the term “contingent universals,” however, is that it signals to potential skeptics its status as a moderate position between nativist and culturalist extremes. At the same time, developing our understanding of how contingent universals underpin and operate within the arts may require scholars to specify a narrower category or class for the purpose of answering particular research questions. In philosophical aesthetics, a live research question is whether there are contingent aesthetic universals. But literary or film theorists are likely to pursue rather narrower research questions, which might involve focusing on a putative class of, say, contingent universals of emotion, contingent universals of language, contingent universals of visual perception, and so forth.

[See also Patrick Colm Hogan, “Comments on Nannicelli.”]


Works Cited

Antweiler, Christoph. Our Common Denominator: Human Universals Revisited. Translated by Diane Kerns. New York: Berghahn, 2016.

Bordwell, David. “Convention, Construction, and Cinematic Vision.” In Poetics of Cinema, 57-82. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Brown, Donald E. Human Universals. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.

Buller, David. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.

Carroll, Noël. “The Power of Movies.” In Theorizing the Moving Image, 78-93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Coplan, Amy, and Derek Matravers. “Film, Literature, and Non-Cognitive Affect.” In New Takes in Film-Philosophy, 117-134. Edited by Havi Carel and Greg Tuck. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Davies, Stephen. The Artful Species. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Dutton, Dennis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Hansen, Miriam Bratu. “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism.” In Reinventing Film Studies, 332-350. Edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams. London: Arnold, 2000.

Heath, Stephen. Questions of Cinema. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Mellor, D.H. “Properties and Predicates.” In Ontology, Causality, and Mind: Essays in Honor of D.M. Armstrong, 101-120. Edited by John Bacon, Keith Campbell, and Lloyd Reinhardt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Nichols, Bill. Ideology and the Image. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.

Plantinga, Carl, and Greg M. Smith. Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Smith, Murray. Film, Art, and the Third Culture: A Naturalized Aesthetics of Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017



[1] As Bordwell notes, there is a helpful, broader discussion of a similar concept – “cultural universals” – in Buller, especially 462-471. It should be noted that there is also a philosophical sense in which the term “contingent universals” is sometimes used (e.g. Mellor). As I discuss below, Bordwell makes clear that his use of the term is not to be understood in this sense, which involves metaphysical claims.

[2] For a good introductory discussion of these difficulties, as well as number of references to key positions in the literature, see David Bordwell, “You and Me and Every Frog We Know,” Observations on Film Art blog (September 20, 2015; accessed August 9, 2017).

HUMAN UNIVERSALS (1991): Reflections on its Whence and Whither

Donald Brown, University of California at Santa Barbara

Human universals have been a part of anthropological thought from the field’s academic beginning, yet to my knowledge no book devoted to the topic had been published for many decades before mine of 1991, Human Universals. I here recount how that book came about, along with notes on what followed. (For brevity I will refer to the book as HU; “human universals” will be simply “universals.”)

Much of the attention universals received in anthropology in the twentieth century, notably in the U.S., consisted of denial or minimization of their existence and significance (notably, see Geertz 1965). Some of anthropology’s best-known and influential research publications specifically purported to refute the existence of one or another alleged universal. In the early 1980s, however, some of those refutations in turn were refuted on the basis of competent field research: Deborah Gewertz (1981) refuted Margaret Mead’s (1935) claim of female dominance among the Tchambuli (of New Guinea). Ekkehart Malotki (1983) refuted the claim by Benjamin Lee Whorf (published posthumously in Carroll [1956]) that the Hopi lacked a sense of time. Derek Freeman (1983) refuted Mead’s claim (1928) that adolescent stress was absent among Samoans.[1]

Those refutations of refutations, and other research publications with similar implications, called for a rethinking of anthropological ideas about universals, their scope, causes, and consequences. I decided to undertake that task, spurred in part by losing a bet that I, in a typical relativist anthropologist mode, placed against my colleague Donald Symons’ (1979) claims for universal sex differences in human sexual behavior, as I noted in the preface of HU. Typing “human universals” (without the quotation marks) into the Google Books Ngram Viewer will show a steepened rise in the occurrence of the term in the 1980s.

So much was then beginning to be published on universals that before long I changed my mind about the need for the book I had envisaged. Only when it occurred to me that packaging a list of the many apparent universals in the form of an imaginary ethnography of the “Universal People” (HU’s chapter 6) would be particularly catching, did I change my mind again.

The most effective part of HU was probably that chapter. While the list included many features that are strictly cultural (such as cooking with fire) a large number were strongly suggestive of a rich human nature, in opposition to the predominant view in anthropology and other social sciences that culture (or society) is the supreme determinant of human behavior, and that culture’s (or society’s) features cannot be “reduced” to biology. By happy coincidence, in the same year that HU appeared the historian Carl Degler’s In Search of Human Nature (1991) more thoroughly examined the history of what led to that predominant view. A year later John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (1992) critiqued that view as the “Standard Social Science Model,” which the then emerging field of Evolutionary Psychology aimed to supplant. Later, Steven Pinker’s best-selling The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) appended a (very slightly modified) list of human universals that I supplied, which then introduced them to a much wider reading audience (supplemented by variants of the list posted on the internet). Later yet, it was Steven Pinker’s suggestion that Pangea Day—an event held simultaneously on all continents except Antarctica in 2008—take universals as a theme for its TED-related event promoting film as a means to bring the peoples of the world together (find Pangea Day on Wikipedia).

The totality of academic interest in human universals has almost certainly been greater outside of anthropology than in it, where specifically cultural anthropologists are most numerous and less persuaded by the thinking entailed by the existence and importance of universals. Nonetheless, particular anthropologists have been highly influential in the development of studies centrally concerned with identifying and illuminating those universals that comprise human nature. “Evolutionary Psychology” has come to label much of that endeavor. As the label indicates, many psychologists collaborate in it. Psychology may well be the discipline most influenced by the ferment of the 1980s that challenged the Standard Social Science Model. 

Primatologists, often themselves in anthropology departments, have contributed to the study of universals in distinctive ways, given that our relatives in the animal world allow comparisons that throw a distinctive light on the human psyche and behavior. One of the particularly revealing works of this kind is Bernard Chapais’ Primate Kinship: How Pair-Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society (2008). It shows that features of human society long considered to be cultural, with origins irretrievably lost in the mists of time, were actually parts of our primate heritage.  Chapais’ development and application of a logico-deductive theory in relation to universals, employed to trace the evolution of human society from its primate ancestors, is a promising development in method and theory (see, e. g., Chapais 2014 and in press).

Primatologists have taken the idea of universals in a yet different direction, by identifying 100-plus “chimpanzee universals”: behaviors common to all the distinct chimpanzee populations that have been carefully studied. Those observed behaviors common to one or more chimpanzee populations but not to all are then candidate cultural behaviors. William McGrew’s The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology (2004) pursues this line of thought.

Outside of the social sciences, one of the fields in which thinking about universals has been most stimulated is literary analysis. This will of course be addressed far more competently by others in this forum.[2] But a particularly pleasant surprise to me was the direct influence on novelists, notably Ian McEwan in his essay “Literature, Science, and Human Nature” (2005). Amusingly, in her novel The Family Tree, Carole Cadwalladr (2005) used reference to a short list of human universals to set up a later wry comment on male proclivities.

Universals in the graphic and plastic arts have, very justifiably, not been ignored. Ellen Dissanayake’s What is Art For? (1988) and Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why (1992), for example, were thoroughly anchored in considerations of human universals, human nature, and the evolution-minded critiques of the arch relativism of anthropology at that time.

Given that the histories and historically relevant textual materials accumulated over time surely constitute the largest body of “data” on human thought and behavior (until the digital age!), it is no surprise that social scientists regularly call on those materials in attempts to formulate, bolster, or refute claims of universality. But my impression is that few who are professional historians have made it a major focus of their work (recall however the mention of Carl Degler above). The historian-sociologist Keith Hopkins (1980) entered the debate over the Westermarck effect (incest avoidance as an adaptation) but to my knowledge did not further address the study of universals or human nature. One who does, and hopes to encourage it among other historians, is Gregory Hanlon in his forthcoming paper “Historians and the Evolutionary Approach to Human Behavior” (in press).

Two criticisms of HU that I considered valid were presented to me personally. One referred to the credence I gave to the universality of the Oedipus Complex. The critique was toward the underlying tripartite model of the mind that the Complex entails (for a different and comprehensive critique see Sugiyama 2001). The other criticism was that I should get on with a second edition of HU. If I were to do that I would rethink counting the Oedipus Complex as universal. I do not have a second edition on my agenda,[3] but am happy to report there are now other book-length treatments of universals. Moreover, I have had the opportunity to repackage my arguments or expand on particular points in various short essays.

Turning to those essays first, encyclopedia entries allowed brief (Brown 1996) and even briefer (1999b) summaries of the argument and evidence presented in HU.  My “Human Nature and History” (1999a) argued for the inevitable and pervasive links between human nature and history and the links between universals and human nature.  Brown (2000) goes well beyond HU via a wider discussion of the implications of universals, particularly in understanding what it is to be human. Brown (2004b) addresses a wider audience, summarizing key parts of HU but focusing particularly on the linkages between universals and human nature and then on human nature’s causal role in the production of human culture. Brown (2013) addresses the theoretical relevance of universals in anthropology, summarizing what suppressed the study of them in much of the twentieth century, and the variety of recent conditions—particularly in the sciences—that have now antiquated key features of that century’s sociocultural theory.

What those essays have not addressed, and would definitely be in any re-write of HU, would be updates to its roster of universals. The universals in color nomenclature that HU summarized, for example, have undergone considerable debate and revision. Claims, arguments, and data to support universals not listed in HU have been numerous. Psychologists, perhaps even more than anthropologists, have been particularly active in both finding universals and offering explanations for them—proximate and ultimate. The former explanations refer primarily to such psycho-physical conditions or entities as the mind, hormones, and sex/age differences. The latter refers to why the particular universals evolved as features of human nature, a key part of the subject matter of Evolutionary Psychology (see e. g. Buss 2005).

While I have not kept an expanding list of newly claimed or demonstrated universals, they surely are numerous. Many, coming out of Evolutionary Psychology or related research orientations, are invariant features of human nature that in themselves are neither readily observable nor commonly named entities. Analogous to the edge-detecting or movement-detecting neurological features of vision, they are revealed through one or another form of research experimentation. Each discharging its specific function, such features operate in combination with other features of human nature—and inputs from the senses—to produce behavioral outputs of potentially infinite gradation (Pietraszewski [2016] gives a concise description).

Important book-length, theoretical treatments of human universals have been produced by the German anthropologist, Christoph Antweiler (2007, 2012, 2016). The first two appeared in German; the third, in English, is a condensed and up-dated version of the former two, with an extensive bibliography that includes more than a few citations that were missed in HU.

Antweiler’s English version (reviewed at greater length in Brown 2017) is a wide-ranging consideration of the concept of universality, touching, for example, on the use of that term in philosophy, where its meaning for millennia has been generally distinct from the meaning of the empirically identified human universals in anthropology. One of Antweiler’s principal arguments is to classify “biotic” universals as a distinct set. Typically or at least often “absolute” universals, they are appropriately studied by evolutionary psychologists. Other universals, which in Antweiler’s terms need only occur in the ethnographic record of unrelated peoples at rates above chance, are more the subject matter of sociocultural anthropology’s comparative studies. And also of Literary Studies: Antweiler specifically cites key papers in this field (e. g. Hogan 1997).

My view is that whether a trait or complex is biotic or not—that is, a feature of human nature or not—widely comparative ethnographic studies, or proxies for them, are the ultimate method for verifying human universals. How to explain or ascertain their kind of universality is the point at which the determination of biotic or not comes into play. Given that the research costs of ethnographic studies in the field are high, and that the extant studies of many peoples commonly omit the relevant details to identify particular universals, a variety of less-than-perfect methods are regularly employed. They may employ cross-cultural samples from existing studies, comparisons of textual materials produced in times and places widely separated, pencil-and-paper experiments conducted in classrooms, comparisons of two or more very distantly related peoples, [4] and so on. Imperfections in the methods for identifying universals are widely discussed (e. g., Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan 2010). That claims of universality are ethnocentrically biased is a very common charge, and surely is to be guarded against.

Also book-length and wide-ranging, but with different aims, is William Gairdner’s The Book of Absolutes: A critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals (2008).  The critique of relativism is the clear aim of the book, but the extensive marshalling of evidence for absolutes stretches from physics to literature and myth. The Literary Universals Project is cited.

One of, if not the most prolific writer on universals, is the linguist Anna Wierzbicka. The study of linguistic universals was already mature and academically “acceptable” before interest in universals began to rise in anthropology in the 1980s. Thus a suitable classification of the formal types of linguistic universals was readily adapted in HU for human universals, e.g., absolute-, near-, and conditional universals. Wierzbicka’s principal concern has been semantic universals—not merely their existence and enumeration but the cross-cultural utility of employing the “65 universal semantic primes” to illuminate a wide range of anthropological issues (2016: 408). The paper just cited provides references to some of her many volumes on semantic universals, which are, of course, an important part of human universals.

 Let me close with the principal regret that I have about HU: that I did not specifically criticize the philosopher Michel Foucault’s denial of the existence of universals, as in his debate with the linguist Noam Chomsky (Chomsky and Foucault 1974). Although associated with human nature in that debate, “universals” were otherwise left wholly undefined. Foucault’s view found an all too ready acceptance in the social sciences and humanities, where it supports suspicions or notions not only that human universals do not exist but, furthermore, that objectivity and truth are to be enclosed in quotation marks as unsupportable and potentially pernicious tools for the post-Enlightenment West’s exploitation of other humans. The thought now that for more than two decades persons searching online for “Foucault” and “universals” might have been able to hit on HU and its argument and evidence—with the educational effect that might have come from that—is a sad thought indeed.



Antweiler, Christoph. 2007. Was ist den Menschen gemeinsam? Über Kultur und Kulturen. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. (2nd rev. ed. 2012).

Antweiler, Christoph. 2016. Our Common Denominator: Human Universals Revisited. Trans. Diane Kerns. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

Brown, Donald. 1991. Human Universals.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Brown, Donald. 1996. “Human Universals.” In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 2. New York: Henry Holt, 607-12.

Brown, Donald. 1999a. “Human Nature and History.” History and Theory 38: 138-57.  (Reprinted in The Return of Science: Evolution, History, and Theory. Ed. Philip Pomper and David Shaw. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002, 73-95.)

Brown, Donald. “Human Universals.” 199b. The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. Ed. Robert Wilson and Frank Keil. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 382-4.

Brown, Donald. 2004a.  “Human Universals and Their Implications”. In Being Humans: Anthropological Universality and Particularity in Transdisciplinary Perspectives.  Ed. Neil Roughley.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 156-74.

Brown, Donald. 2004b. “Human Universals, Human Nature & Human Culture.” Daedalus 133.4: 47-54.

Brown, Donald.2012. “Ethnicity and Ethnocentrism: Are They Natural?” (revised). In Race and Ethnicity: The United States and the World, 2nd Edition. Ed. Raymond Scupin. Boston, MA: Pearson, 81-94.

Brown, Donald. 2013. “Human Universals.” In Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia. Eds. R. McGee and Richard Warms. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 410-13.

Brown, Donald. 2017. Review of Christoph Antweiler, “Our Common Denominator: Human Universals Revisited.” Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture 1: 213-15.

Buss, David. 2005. The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Cadwalladr, Carole. 2005. The Family Tree.  New York: Plume.

Carroll, John, ed. 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Boston, MA: Technology P of MIT.

Carroll, Joseph. 2004. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. New York: Routledge.

Chapais, Bernard. 2008. Primeval Kinship: How Pair-Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Chapais, Bernard. 2014. “Complex Kinship Patterns as Evolutionary Constructions, and the Origins of Sociocultural Universals.” Current Anthropology 55.6: 751-83.

Chapais, Bernard. (In Press) “The Nature and Psychological Foundation of Social Universals”. In Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior. Eds. L. Workman, W. Reader, and J. Barkow. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Chomsky, Noam and Michel Foucault. 1974.“Human Nature: Justice versus Power.” In Reflexive Water: The Basic Concerns of Mankind. Ed. Fons Elders. London: Souvenir P, 135-97.

Degler, Carl N. 1991. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York: Oxford UP.

Dissanayake, Ellen. 1988. What is Art For? Seattle, WA: U of Washington P.

Dissanayake, Ellen. 1992. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why? Seattle, WA: U of Washington P.

Freeman, Derek. 1983. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Freeman, Derek. 1999. The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research. Boulder, CO: Westview P.

Gairdner, William D. 2008. The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals. Montreal & Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen’s UP.

Geertz, Clifford. 1965. “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man.” In New Views of the Nature of Man. Ed. John Platt.  Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 93-118.

Gurven, Michael, Christopher von Rueden, Maxim Massenkoff, Hillard Kaplan, and Mariono Lero Vie.  2013. “How Universal Is the Big Five? Testing the Five-Factor Model of Personality Variation among Forager–Farmers in the Bolivian Amazon”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104.2: 354-70.

Hanlon, Gregory. (In press.) “Historians and the Evolutionary Approach to Human Behavior.” In Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Studies on Human Behavior. Eds. Jerome Barkow, Will Reader, Lance Workman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33.2: 61-83.

Hogan, Patrick. 1997. “Literary Universals.” Poetics Today 18.2: 223-29.

Hopkins, Keith. 1980. “Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt.” Comparative Studies in Society and History.  22: 303-54.

Le Vine, Robert and Donald Campbell. 1971. Ethnocentrism: Theories of Conflict, Ethnic Attitudes, and Group Behavior. New York: Wiley.

McEwan, Ian. 2005. “Literature, science, and human nature.” In The literary animal: Evolution and the nature of narrative. Eds. Jonathan Gottschall and David Wilson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 5-19.

Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Morrow.

Mead, Margaret. 1935. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: Morrow.

Pietraszewski, David. 2016. “How the Mind Sees Coalitional and Group Conflict: The Evolutionary Invariances of N-Person Conflict Dynamics.” Evolution and Human Behavior 37: 470-80.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Scalise Sugiyama, Michelle. 2001. “New Science, Old Myth: An Evolutionary Critique of the Oedipal Paradigm.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 34.1: 121-36.

Shankman, Paul. 2009. The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. Madison: U of Wisconsin P.

Symons, Donald. 1979. The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York: Oxford UP.

Tooby, John and Leda Cosmides. 1992. “The Psychological Foundations of Culture.” In The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Ed. Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby. New York: Oxford UP, 19-136.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 2016. “Back to ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’: Overcoming the Eurocentrism of Kinship Studies through Eight Lexical Universals.” Current Anthropology 57.4:  408-29.



[1] Freeman’s refutation, along with his other sharp criticisms of Mead’s work on Samoa, set off a firestorm in anthropology, to which he added in a later volume (1999) by arguing that Mead’s Samoan informants had hoaxed her. Paul Shankman (2009) effectively refuted this hoaxing claim. But note that although Freeman appears to have gone off the rails with the hoaxing claim, Shankman’s book did not argue that Freeman’s conclusions in his first book on Mead were wrong.

[2] But see, e. g., Hogan’s (1997) presentation of the formal or generic kinds of universals tailored to the needs of literary analysis and Carroll’s more general essay “Universals in Literary Study” in Carroll (2004).

[3] Rather, I hope soon to finish a book that examines in depth a single universal—ethnocentrism/ingroup bias. A step toward it is Brown (2012).

[4] This method is regularly employed in the “Integrative Anthropological Sciences” program in the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Department of Anthropology ( Its faculty and students produce a wide spectrum of dozens of ongoing field studies among the Tsimane of Bolivia’s Amazonian lowlands. Forager farmers, the Tsimane provide a very different perspective on the humanity so commonly the subjects of psychological research in Western or Westernized classroom settings (for a single example among many studies see Gurven et al. [2013]).

Poetic Line Length

Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University

Absolute universal:  Some types of regular poetic form – meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism – regulate linguistic form relative to a sequence of words which must be short enough to fit into working memory.  For example, a meter is regulated over a line which can fit as a whole into working memory.

It has been claimed by various authors that a line of metrical poetry is limited in its upper length by working memory capacity.  This claim requires a distinction between two aspects of metricality.  Consider Paradise Lost, which is in iambic pentameter for all of its length.  The meter is a set of constraints on a sequence of words which add up to about ten syllables (with a rhythm holding over that sequence); any constraint on line length must relate to this aspect of metricality, where the meter holds of a textual sequence of a certain length (often within a range of variations, but never limitless, and never very long).   The other aspect of the meter is that the whole poem is in iambic pentameter, and in this aspect of metricality there is no upper limit on length.  It is thus necessary to distinguish the aspect of metricality which holds within a section (e.g., the metrical line) and the aspect of metricality which holds over a whole text, which can be isometric or heterometric, where distinct sections are in different meters (in some cases, radically heterometric as in Greek lyric poetry).  There is usually no relation between these two aspects of a meter: iambic pentameter always controls the line in the same way but can combine with other meters in all kinds of ways to form patterns across a longer text.

Once we focus on the aspect of metricality which holds within a section (usually called a line), we can specify that the sections are always fairly short.  In many metrical traditions, the meter holds over a section which we might call a line.  (In some traditions, there is a longer and a shorter section, each of which might be called the line, depending on what aspect of form we focus on – as in Beowulf for example or the Arabic beyt); even if the meter holds of the larger section it is still always fairly short.  Various authors have argued that the metrical section can be no longer than the sequence of words which can fit into working memory capacity (Tsur, Hogan, Willett etc).  They tend to assume Miller’s characterization of working memory capacity as “seven plus or minus two” units (e.g., words, or sometimes syllables).  This however would not offer enough capacity for lines in many metrical traditions; it is also incorrect as a characterization of working memory capacity.  Working memory capacity is now considered by psychologists to contain about four ‘chunks’ of information (Cowan), and Baddeley suggests that in the episodic buffer of working memory a sequence of about fifteen lexical/grammatical words can fit into working memory.  Some such word-based measure is a larger estimate of capacity which is likely to be enough to fit any metrically-governed sequence of words in any poetic tradition.  (I illustrate this claim from a range of traditions in Fabb What is Poetry.)  This raises the possibility that the metrical line may be subject to an upper limit on length: it must fit into working memory capacity.

Note that this limit on length is based on information (e.g., number of words) and not on duration.  There is no specifically durational limit on the upper length of the line;  Turner and Pöppel claim a three second upper limit, but this is disproved by Fabb’s (“There is No Psychological Limit”) survey of recorded poetry.  Baddeley has a multi-component theory of working memory, and suggests that one part of working memory, the phonological loop is indeed limited by duration (two seconds of material); but it is not this part of working memory which is involved in this generalization (instead it is the episodic buffer which is limited by information, not time).

Adapting an existing tradition, my suggestion is that a kind of regular poetic form – meter – is constrained to operate over sequences which are no longer than can be held in working memory.  In Fabb What is Poetry I suggest that three other kinds of regular poetic form are similarly constrained: rhyme, alliteration and parallelism.  This requires a similar separation between two aspects of a form: (i) the constraints it places relative to a sequence of words, where the sequence is limited in length, and (ii) the overall pattern it forms over a text, where there is no upper limit.   Consider for example rhyme.  The constraint relative to a sequence can be stated for an English sonnet as ‘the final word in a line must rhyme’ (note that again this refers to the line as the relevant section, a section of limited length).  Rhyme can then be distributed in various kinds of pattern, which can hold over couplets, quatrains, octave/sestet or the whole poem, where there are no upper limits on the size of unit over which the pattern is defined.  Similar claims can be made for alliteration, where the rule requires e.g., one word in every half-line to alliterate, or one word in every line.  The same alliteration pattern can then be sustained throughout a whole poem (e.g., in the Somali gabay genre).  Parallelism is a looser structural notion, and can be found intermittently in prose (unlineated text) as well as poetry; when it is found in poetry, however, each part of a parallel pair is relatively short in length (Fabb “Poetic Parallelism”).  In conclusion, it appears that the four most widespread kinds of regular form found in poetry all hold of relatively short textual sequences, short enough to fit into working memory capacity.

Though Fabb What is Poetry shows that these claims appear to hold true for many different poetic traditions, the claims suffer from a lack of relevant psychological evidence.  First, we know rather little about the capacity of working memory as regards how many words will fit into it, and how different languages with different kinds of word place different demands on working memory (Cohen-Mimran et al).  Second, the measures offered, e.g., Baddeley’s fifteen words, depend on the words being syntactically connected in a coherent way (enabling chunking), but this is not always true of poetry where nonsyntactic concatenation is more common (Fabb “Why is Verse” suggests that poetic lines actually have no syntax).  Third, as far as I know there are no experimental results telling us how many words within a poem can fit as a sequence into working memory.

The generalization is that certain regular poetic forms must hold over a sequence of words which can fit into working memory.  This rules out two possibilities.  First, it means that regular poetic forms such as meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism cannot hold of prose. This is because the difference between prose and poetry is that only the latter has sections (e.g., lines) which are not isomorphic with syntactic or linguistic prosodic constituents; it is these sections over which the poetic forms hold, and which are limited in upper length.  Second, it means that in poetry, regular poetic forms cannot depend on long sequences; to give a specific example, there should be no poetry in which the only constraint on rhyming words is that they must fall at the end of quatrains (because they would be too long).

Note that the generalization does not apply to poetic lines as such.  Whitman’s lines can be longer than likely to fit into working memory.  But these lines also have no regular poetic form; the poetic forms emerge temporarily in Whitman’s poetry, just as they can do in prose.  The generalization applies only to poetic lines which have certain kinds of regular form. However, other kinds of poetic form may not be constrained in the same way; for example, in the Hiberno-Latin poem Altus Prosator (attr. St Columba) the first word in each of the six-line stanzas is alphabetically constrained: A in the first stanza, B in the second, etc.  Though the pattern is unconstrained (as it always is), there is nevertheless a rule, “put an alphabetically constrained word at the beginning of each stanza,” which because of the size of unit referred to would be impossible for rhyme, alliteration, metre, or parallelism. It is worth noting that this type of form depends on writing (which may allow for the larger units relative to which it is defined).

If the generalization is correct, then it might suggest that working memory has a role in the processing of regular poetic forms such as meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism; long-term memory is also important, for the overall patterns (including the very complex patterns formed by rhyme schemes or by responsion in Greek odes).   Does it have any consequence for the aesthetics of poetry: e.g., arising from the need to hold a metrical line as a whole unit in working memory.  Hogan suggests that the relation to working memory has a function of fostering aesthetic experience by enabling what Abhinavagupta calls “savoring” and that such savoring is in part a matter of fuller or richer encoding of verbal properties, relative to our (usually non-aesthetic) encoding of ordinary language

Future Research

(i)     It would be useful to know a lot more about working memory capacity and how it relates to linguistic form.  For example, psychologists claims about working memory capacity tend to refer to lexical/syntactic words, but it is clear that prosodic words (and prosodic constituency) are relevant in metre and other aspects of poetry.

(ii)    I know of no relevant experimental work to test working memory capacity and poetry.  In comparison, there is a big body of work on long term memory and poetry (particularly oral poetry).  The relation between the two kinds of memory would also be interesting to explore, as regards poetic form and the line.

(Thanks to an anonymous reviewer who forced a complete rewrite and resubmission.)

Works Cited

Baddeley, Alan. “Working Memory: Theories, Models, and Controversies.” Annu. Rev. Psychol.  63 (2012): 1–29.

Cohen-Mimran, Ravit, Jasmeen Adwan-Mansour and Shimon Sapir. “The Effect of Morphological Complexity on Verbal Working Memory: Results from Arabic Speaking Children.”  Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 42 (2013): 239–253.

Cowan, Nelson. “The Magical Number 4 in Short-term Memory: A Reconsideration of Mental Storage Capacity.”  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24 (2000): 87–185.

Fabb, Nigel “Why is Verse Poetry?” PN Review 189. 36 (2009): 52–57.

Fabb, Nigel “There is no Psychological Limit on the Duration of Metrical Lines in Performance: Against Turner and Pöppel.” International Journal of Literary Linguistics 2 (2013): 1-29

Fabb, Nigel. What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Fabb, Nigel. “Poetic Parallelism and Working Memory.”  Oral Tradition 31/2 (2017). Special issue on Parallelism in Verbal Art and Performance, ed. Frog & Lotte Tarkka.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Literary Universals.” Poetics Today 18 (1997): 223–249.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Miller, George A. “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.”  Psychological Review 101 (1956):  343-352.

Tsur, Reuven. Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance. An Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics. Berne: Peter Lang,1998.

Turner, Frederick and Ernst Pöppel. “Metered Poetry, the Brain, and Time.”  In Beauty and the Brain. Biological Aspects of Aesthetics. Eds. Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger and David Epstein.  Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1988, 71–90.

Willett, Steven J.  “Working Memory and its Vonstraints on Colometry.” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica. New Series 71 (2002): 7-19.

Chinese and Western Drama: Tragi-Comedy and Tragedy

Zheng Ying, Zhejiang University

The structural difference between traditional Chinese and western drama has long been studied by generations of comparative literary scholars. However, with the universal structure of human narratives — tragi-comedy, as promoted by Patrick Colm Hogan in The Mind and Its Stories–the issue of similarities and dissimilarities could find some answers. Professor Hogan defines “tragi-comedy” as a structure with a sorrow-eliciting middle part and a happiness-eliciting ending simultaneously, and hence the traditional genre of tragedy is merely a variation of it, a shortened form in which the plot comes to end in the middle part (see Hogan, The Mind and Its Stories), the model of which can be outlined by the following graph.


Structure of Tragedy and Tragi-Comedy (Hogan)

A: Beginning                           B: Sorrowful Middle                           C: Happy Ending






In this paper, with comparison under the model of “tragi-comedy” and tragedy respectively, and with evidence drawn from Chinese and western literary theories and classical works, I would try to argue that both Chinese and western drama have “tragi-comedy” and the shortened tragedy as one of their important narrative universals, but only that Chinese and western tragedy are shortened differently. For the convenience of narration, I would use “A-B-C” structure to refer to “tragi-comedy” and a shortened “A-B” structure to refer to tragedy.

Tragi-Comedy in Chinese and Western Drama

After examination, it can be found that both Chinese and western drama have the structure of “tragi-comedy” as one of their narrative prototypes, which is not only suggested in their literary theories but also manifested in many of their representative classical works.

Comparison from Literary Theories

Though it is widely believed by western literary theorists that tragedy and comedy are two distinguished dramatic genres, the genre of “tragicomedy” has been separated from genres of tragedy and comedy since very early times, and become one of the independent literary genres. Though traditional critics such as Hegel did not give high reputation to this mixed literary genre, many modern critics advocate tragicomedy to be a quite important genre since the mix of tragedy and comedy is exactly “the basic pattern of human life”, informing “human being’s perception of their environment and their most central religious beliefs” (Foster 9).

In Chinese dramatic theory, however, though there is no similar independent concept as “tragi-comedy,” this A-B-C structure was indeed widely approved and considered legal and valuable. In On Lyrics(曲品), Lu Tiancheng of the Ming Dynasty, spoke highly of the plays which mixed the tragic emotions and happy ones, and remarked on The Story of Lute(琵琶记, a tragi-comedy, as the best example of “work of great excellence”, for it “alternates so properly, setting sadness and pleasure in turn”[1] (Lu 224). In Principles of Lyrics (曲律), Wang Jide compared the plot of a drama to “a snake in the mountain, whose head is in good link with its tail”[2] (Wang132). The description, “whose head is in good link with its tail,” is in fact another way of saying that the seed of happiness-pursuing sown at the beginning of a play must have its harvest in its denouement, though the middle could be somewhat different.

Comparison from Literary Works

Along the history of western drama, a lot of great examples of tragi-comedy, or “tragicomedy” as it is traditionally defined, could be found. In works of ancient Greek, Euripides’ Alcestis is a good example. The goal there is somewhat the romantic reunion of lovers from the heroine’s position. In the “middle” part, the goal is tragically unobtained, for even though the heroine Alcestis has prepared to donate her own life to save her husband’s and only asks her husband never to marry again in return, her husband eats his words soon after her death. But in the end, her life is saved by her husband’s friend, who sends her to her husband’s hand and unites her with him again. In the Renaissance period, many Shakespearean plays fit this model in the same way. His famous work, The Winter’s Tale, even encompasses two stories of romantic tragi-comedies. One is around the royal family: In the middle, queen Hermione’s faintness (which is due to her husband king Leontes’ accusation) becomes the rumor of death and is believed by the king deeply. Hermione comes back to life from the unconsciousness statue and gets united with her family in the final part. The other is around the heirs of the two countries: Their engagement is strongly rejected by the prince’s parent Polixenes. They must escape to Sicilia, and their marriage gets his approval only later in the play. Besides, as Hogan has put forward, some classical series of tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus plays, or the two parts of Faust of modern works, can also be integrated into tragic-comedy of a larger cycle.

In traditional Chinese drama, we find Zheng Guangzu’s The Soul of Qiannu Leaves Her Body(倩女离魂)as mentioned by Hogan. In Act II of this play, Qiannu’s soul departs from her body and joins her fiancé who is forced to spend three years away from hometown. This is the sorrowful middle, as Qiannu’s body seems destined to die at home. In Act IV, however, she gets married with her fiancé after her soul joins into her body again. This is the happiness-eliciting ending. Many other classical plays are of the same general type–The Story of Lute(琵琶记),The Tale of Rabbit (白兔记), The Romance of the West Chamber(西厢记), Night Rain in the Xiaoxiang Court (潇湘夜雨), The Peony Pavilion(牡丹亭)etc.

Tragedy in Chinese and Western Drama

In both western and Chinese drama, we can, similarly, find the shortened version of “tragi-comedy”—tragedy. However, we would also find that they are shortened to a different extent and in slightly different ways, the relation of which may be seen more clearly in the graph below. As it is shown, suppose Point C in tragi-comedy includes several happiness-eliciting elements. Though both Chinese and western tragedy give Point C as a cut off, Chinese tragedy tends to cut off only part of C, while western tragedy cuts off C more thoroughly. In other words, more elements of Point C get preserved in a Chinese tragedy, very often in a partial “joyous reunion” following the sorrowful middle part). (The term “joyous reunion” is conventially used in Chinese dramatic studies to refer to the phenomenon that Chinese dramas often end with some kind of pleasure: those who begin with sadness end with happiness, those who begin with separation end with reunion, and those with poverty and with richness, and so forth [see Wang Guowei, A History of The Dramas of the Song and Yuan Dynasties (宋元戏曲史]). It is modified as “partial” here because, compared with the “joyous reunion” in other dramas, in tragedy, it is neither a complete restoration of the statement appearing in Point A nor a goal finally realized, but a partial restitution of the original order, a half-achieved statement of the goal, or a satisfying compensation to the sorrowful middle when the goal is impossible to gain as expected. In contrast, the story will cease strictly in Point B in a western tragedy.


Structure of Tragedy (Revised)

A: Beginning                           B: Sorrowful Middle                           C: Happy Ending


Western Tragedy


Chinese Tragedy                                                   Partial Joyous Reunion


Comparison from Literary Theories

For Chinese tragedy, we can not only understand this “joyous reunion” from the ancient literary theories mentioned above, but also from several modern scholar’s observations. The goal in the beginning must have some echo in the end, and if it is not obtained, it must have some compensation. For instance, Qian Zhongshu has once asserted that in Chinese drama, “the curtain does not fall on the main tragic event, but on the aftermath of that event. The tragic moment with passion at its highest and pain at its deepest seems to ebb out in a long falling close” (Qian 53-65), in which the involvement of both Point B and C is highlighted. Wang Guowei (Wang 12) and Cai Yuanpei (Cai 66-67) have maintained that for Chinese drama, “those who begin with separation end with reunion.” Wang Jisi’s research, in which western drama is described as “happiness—sorrow—deeper sorrow”, and Chinese drama as “happiness—sorrow—happiness—deeper sorrow—lighter happiness” (Wang 75-79) also outlines this relation.

Similarly, we can find the requirement for the precise A-B structure of western tragedy from western dramatic theories, from ancient Aristotle’s to the previous dramatic critics. Aristotle described the magnitude of tragedy (30-31, 36-37), writing that

as great as a magnitude as it takes for a change to happen into good from bad fortune, or from good to bad fortune, when it comes about by a likely or necessary sequence, there is a sufficient limit of magnitude…it is therefore necessary for the story that is in beautiful shape to be single–not double as some people claim–changing not into good fortune from bad but the opposite way, from good fortune to bad.

This is to say that, as long as there is a complete change “from good to bad fortune”, the change from Point A to Point B, the “sufficient limit of magnitude” is so well finished that no more excessive joyous sequence, thus Point C, is needed. In Hegel’s opinion, in tragedy, each of the two parties of the conflict stands for their own reason. Now that either of them could defeat the other and get the final success, the ruin of both is the necessary ending of the whole play. In “The Psychology of Tragic Pleasure”, Roy Morrell pointed out that tragedy should firmly exclude Point C, which is the period of “the gratification of a wish” in his word, “In short, tragic pleasure does not arise through the gratification of a wish, but in a wish’s frustration…Tragedy does not ‘please’ in this sense; it does not please our palate, nor awaken pleasurable anticipation. On the contrary, we resist Tragedy, and try to avert it” (22-37). And in V.G. Belinsky’s idea, the hero “could not be ‘hero’ without this sacrifice or death” (Belinsky, 370).

Comparison from Literary Works

Many canonical works from each tradition provide evidence for this distinction as well. Tragic plays since the Yuan Dynasty, such as The Gross Injustice to Maid Dou(窦娥冤)by Guan Hanqing and The Orphan of Zhao (赵氏孤儿)by Ji Junxiang, have been recognized as models of Chinese tragedy, and they are composed in this structure. In The Gross Injustice to Maid Dou, for example, a young woman named Dou Duan-yun is going after the goal of social justice, for she is unjustly charged with murder by villain Zhang Lu’er who poisons his own father but accuses her of the murder. In Act III, when Dou Duan-yun is sentenced to death by the governor and appeals to heaven to have pity, the sorrow-eliciting Point B comes to its climax for the justice she pursues has not yet been obtained before her death. But in the end Dou Duan-yun’s spirit asks her father, a government official, to retry the case and he manages to give the criminals the punishments they deserve. Thus a compensation of justice qualifies Dou’s tragedy.

As comparison, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear’s distribution of the land can be viewed as Point A in which his goal is to give his daughters their deserved share of his land. But after his distribution plan proves to be totally wrong, the disastrous failure becomes inescapable even though he has once regretted and tried to rectify it. In the end of the play, he and his three daughters all die, and this is exactly the sorrow-eliciting Point B. In another play of Shakespeare, Othello, the story ends with Point B likewise. The goal herein is the loving union of Othello and Desdemona, but this happiness goal is not finally achieved. Though he has managed to marry her, he smothers her to death under the deceit of Iago, and commits suicide after the truth is revealed.

It is true that in some western dramas, when the goal could not be attained, the decent man and the evil one will meet their doom at the same time. To some extent, the death of the evil group is another way of the triumph of the good, and hence analogous to the “joyous reunion.” Nonetheless, it is far less “happy” than the latter, since a usual Chinese literary practice would not only give the sinner his deserved punishment but also give the hero or his group some restitution after their sorrowful experience. So, if the most ideal form of happy ending in tragi-comedy is to give a happy life to the good and bitter penalization for the evil, the ending in Chinese tragedy preserves more of it.

Let us take Hogan’s heroic tragi-comedy as example, and divide the full version of it into three stages, (A) the possession of power, (B) the lost of power during which the hero makes great effort to regain that power, and (C) the ultimate regaining of the power. In relation to this, we may consider two tragedies of this same theme, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ji Junxiang’s The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao (赵氏孤儿大报仇). They are extraordinarily alike in the first two stages, but differ in the ending stage.

1) Similar Beginning, the Order Destroyed

In the beginning of The Orphan of Zhao, in the name of the king, Tu’an Gu slaughters over three hundred people who constitute the family of his political rival, Zhao. When Zhao’s wife, the princess, Lady Zhuang is briefly spared, and prisoned in their house, she gives birth to her son. That heir, the orphan of Zhao, is not only threatened to death, but also deprived of his aristocratic life and political power.

The order is similarly seriously destroyed in Hamlet. The old king is murdered by his own brother, the usurper Claudius, and Hamlet’s mother is married by the latter. As Hamlet has said that he “hath killed my king and whored my mother” and “Thrown out his angle for my proper life” (V.ii.65, 67). Hamlet himself is at the risk of being deprived of his proper position, and the royal family is destroyed.

2) Similar Middle Part, the Order Lost in Pursuit

In The Orphan of Zhao, the newborn orphan is entrusted to the doctor Cheng Ying and carried out of his home in the medicine chest, after which he is endowed with the great task of revenge. As Cheng Ying explains in Act II, “all of the Zhao family rest their hope on this little boy, wishing him to take revenge.”[3] In Hamlet, after Prince Hamlet gets to know the truth of his father’s death from his father’s ghost. Thus he too is endowed with the task of revenge, as his father has asked him “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”(I,v.25) and he himself announces that “The time is out of joint:O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right !”(I,v.189-190) .

And in both plays, situations in this part are sorrowful as many people lose their lives. In the former, they are the kind general Han Jue, Cheng Ying’s own son, minister Gongsun, and so on; in the latter, they are Hamlet’s fiancée Ophelia and her brother, as well as his own mother.

3) Varied endings

According to Hogan, the final stage of tragi-comedy will very often include at least two elements , one is the punishment of the destroyer of the order, that “He/she then battles the usurper” in Hogan’s words, and the other is the order’s going back to normal, the hero “is restored to his/her proper place as leader of his/her society” (110). While both plays have the first element, the second element is completely cut off in Hamlet but embodied in a compensatory form in the Ji’s play.

As for the first element, both plays have it. In The Orphan of Zhao, it is manifested as the grown-up orphan arrests the killer Tu’an, who has been his adoptive father for twenty years, and gives him a torturous death, to “stick him to the wooden donkey (a instruments of torture), cut off the flesh from his bones, and when all of his flesh is taken off, chop off his head and give him disembowelment, in case he dies too quickly.”[4] In Hamlet, it is embodied as Hamlet kills the usurper Claudius by the poisoned foil.

As for the second element, it gets half-embodied in The Orphan of Zhao, and in a form of compensation. While the orphan wins his deserved position back and his major saver, Cheng Ying gets a considerable reward, many other decent people who have passed away during the previous stage, such as Han Jue and Gongsun, who have no chance to come back to life, but only get some compensation from the emperor’s citation which declares, “To let Han Jue’s descendant be the general still, and to give Cheng Ying farms ten hectares. To build memorial for old Gongsun, to give all decent people praise”[5](VI). In contrast, not only does Hamlet die soon after the death of Claudius due to his wound (a standard way in which a heroic tragi-comedy is shortened into a tragedy), his rightful dominion is seized by the outside invader, prince Fortinbras of Norway.

With the examination of Chinese drama and its western counterpart under the framework of Hogan’s universal narrative structure of tragi-comedy, it might be concluded that (1) both of the two literary conventions have the prototype of “tragi-comedy” similarly; (2) though both of them have the shortened form of “tragi-comedy,” tragedy as well, they have it shortened differently, with an additional “joyous reunion” in the typical Chinese dramatic ending.

Furthermore, with this finding, a possible cognitive answer might be suggested to the classical question “whether China has tragedy” in comparative literary study of 20th century. If we define the “tragedy” here as “tragedy of the western version”: the answer may be “no”, for a Chinese tragic play may differ from a western tragedy in how it gets the ending of tragi-comedy cut off; but if we define the “tragedy” as a shortened form of tragi-comedy, the answer could be “yes,” for Chinese tragic play resembles its western counterpart in its “tragi-comedy minus” shape.

[See also Patrick Colm Hogan, “Comments on Zheng“]


Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Newburyport: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company, 2006.

Foster, Verna A. The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy. Ashgate Publishing, 2004.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Morrell, Roy. “The Psychology of Tragic Pleasure.” Essays in Criticism VI (1956).

Qian Zhongshu. “Tragedy in Old Chinese Drama”. A Collection of Qian Zhonshu’s English Essays. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Researching Press, 2005.


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陈季同(著),李华川, 凌敏(译),《中国人的戏剧》. 桂林:广西师范大学出版社,2006.

纪君祥,《赵氏孤儿》. 上海:上海古籍出版社, 2010.


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王国维,宋元戏曲史,载《王国维文学论著三种》.北京: 商务印书馆, 2001.

王季思,悲喜相乘.《戏曲艺术》, 1990 (1).

王骥德,曲律,载《中国古典戏曲论著集成(第四册)》, 北京: 中国戏剧出版社,1982.

朱光潜,《悲剧心理学(中英文)》.北京:中华书局, 2012.



[1] “串插甚合局段,苦乐相错。”

[2] “务如常山之蛇,首尾相应。”

[3] “赵氏一家全靠着这小舍人,要他报仇哩。”

[4] “与我将这贼钉上木驴,细细的剐上三千刀,皮肉都尽,方才断首开膛,休着他死的早了。”

[5] “韩厥后仍为上将,给程婴十顷田庄。老公孙立碑造墓,弥明辈概与扬。”

Ethical Universals and Postcolonialism

Arnab Dutta Roy, University of Connecticut

Ethical universals broadly refer to systems of ethical principles, patterns, codes, or moral deliberations that are presumed to have a cross-cultural relevance. The study of ethical universals is of two general types: descriptive and normative. This entry considers the latter, as it applied to the study of literature.

Normative or prescriptive ethics mainly concerns the intrinsic value of human conduct, seeking to establish what is morally valuable or politically admirable. While, there are many aspects to the study of normative ethics in disciplines of philosophy and various social sciences, in literary studies, such study is primarily applied to determine the quality of a literary creation, based on its ethical, aesthetic, or political worth.

Evaluations of ethical universals are commonly based on the presumption that humans share certain descriptive properties of emotions, cognition, experience, and reasoning (see Donald Brown for relevant descriptive human universals). While this presumption informs normative conceptions of universalism as broad ethical principles invoked by people cross-culturally (in a variety of situations and circumstances, socially or politically), this entry concerns universalism as it is invoked specifically as a response to oppression. More exactly, this essay concerns the invocation of normative ethical universals in cross-cultural activisms against colonialism as expressed in literary works.

Literary scholars such as Mukti Mangharam, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, Patrick Hogan, Lalita Pandit, Ashis Nandy, and Judith Butler centrally relate the study of universalism to literature. Some scholars such as Mangharam and Ngũgĩ consider literature to endorse a particularistic universalism that places individual differences and social practices in a broader human universalism. Mangharam, for instance, defines universals as a sum of lived particulars. She observes that in the universal scheme “every person is a particular, unique addition to a universal horizon of humanity” (Mangharam 82). More precisely, she emphasizes that this idea of liberal humanism is expressed in the social writings of many Africanist poets such as William Kgositsile, Amiri Baraka, and Aime Cesaire, in responding to the oppression of black communities around the world. Ngũgĩ declares himself as “unrepentant universalist,” advancing the view that “true humanism, with its universal outreach, can flower amongst the people of the earth” (xvii). This view centrally guides his vision for African literatures, in the context of decolonization.

Others develop universalism as an opposition to colonialism. Hogan and Pandit, for instance, find universalism as a pro-social cultural response to practices of absolutisms around the world, examined in postcolonial texts from India, the West Indies, China, Trinidad, and elsewhere (for a more detailed view on empathic universalism, see Pandit’s entry on empathic and hegemonic universalism). Similarly, Nandy distinguishes between the conceptions of homogenized universalism and distinctive civilizational universalism. He defines the former as a product of uprootedness and de-culturation brought forth by colonialism (Nandy x). He finds the latter “embedded in the tolerance encoded in various traditional ways of life in a highly diverse plural society” (Nandy xi). His justification of the latter as a preferred model of social interaction emerges from his readings of Tagore’s novels, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) and Char Adhyaya (Four Chapters). Butler invokes a distinction between conceptions of wretched binationalism and diasporic binationalism in the poetry of the Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish. She finds that the former expresses colonial occupation, a social formation defined through strict boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized. She articulates the latter in the poetic conception of universal co-existence based on “a set of principles that would defend…the rights of all minorities and refugees… the opposition to coercive containment and expulsion, the necessity of dismantling colonial and military control over borders, natural resources, and human freedom” (41). As such, the conception of diasporic binationalism becomes central to Butler’s political reflections on the history of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict, as evoked in Darwish’s poetry.

Political thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Amartya Sen also find literary analysis valuable in considering universal ethical issues of cultural identity, politics, and human rights. Both Appiah and Nussbaum approach universalism through political conceptions of cosmopolitanism. Appiah, for instance, finds cosmopolitan ethics developing from two interconnected moral views. First, human beings have obligations to others, “obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship” (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism xv). Second, humans have obligations to take seriously the values of not just of human lives in general, “but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the specific practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism xv). His views on cosmopolitanism are drawn in part from his readings of Arabic poetry by poets such as Haji Abdu El- Yezdi, who wrote in the poetic tradition of Qasida that advances a humanism by infusing “an Eastern version of humanitarianism blended with the skeptical or, as we now say, the scientific habit of mind” (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism 260).

Nussbaum defines cosmopolitanism as emerging from two distinct but interconnected spheres of human communities, the community of birth and the community of human argument and aspiration (Nussbaum 7). In the community of birth, she situates an individual within specific socio-political and historical contexts. In the community of human argument and aspiration, she articulates the individual’s place within a larger community of humanity. Nussbaum’s model of “cosmopolitan education” and, more generally, her cautions against narrow patriotisms, bear centrally on Tagore’s critique of the Hindu patriotic ideology of “Bande Mataram,” developed in his novel Ghare Baire. Such normative reflections allow both Appiah and Nussbaum to articulate cosmopolitanism as a model of global politics, that is simultaneously sensitive to particulars of culture and human universalities based on cross-cultural similarities of aspirations, moral beliefs, and so on.

Sen is another noted social scientist who heavily relies on universalism to reflect on issues of global politics and economics. A prime example is his articulation of globalization as a system of ethical universalism that should ensure that “our global civilization is a world heritage—and not just a collection of disparate local cultures” (Sen 85). While this view is developed primarily as a response to the rise ethnocentric nationalisms in India, particularly sectarian politics of the Hindutva movement, it is also the basis of his conceptions of rationality and freedom informing his economic theory of social choice. Sen’s attention to literatures is widely reflected in his social writings. A clear case is his critique of globalization in relation to postcolonial Indian history, developed through a range of literary writings on India from ancient to modern times (including postcolonial readings of Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, travel writings by foreigners on India, modern works by writers such as Tagore, Bankim Chandra, and others).

There are several notable influences on these recent studies on universalism. Tagore’s universal ethics, as reflected in his literary and political writings, is foremost in guiding many theoretical approaches to universalism, including works by Nussbaum, Sen, and Nandy. His influence is also clear in Hogan and Pandit, as their positions on the topic are often informed by critical readings of empathy and universal ethics in Tagore’s novels such as Gora and Ghare Baire. Scholars of universalism are also indebted to writings of western philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. Nussbaum, Appiah, and Sen, in this regard, consistently evoke Kantian theories of cosmopolitan laws, world citizenship, and the categorical imperative (among other things) to formulate their views of the topic in politics and social justice. Similarly, contemporary theories on cosmopolitanisms are often developed in dialogue with certain Rawlsian conceptions of justice and social cooperation (either in agreement or disagreement). For instance, Nussbaum’s responses to systems of patriotisms are informed by implicit references to Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” in social contract (Nussbaum 134). Appiah, on the other hand, finds Rawl’s conceptions of justice overly reliant on systems of nation-state, thus posing a potential challenge to cosmopolitan conceptions at a more international scale (see Appiah’s “Cosmopolitan Patriots”).

Another major influence is Edward Said, particularly his later works on cultures and colonialism. In his preface to Orientalism in 2003, Said distinguishes two different forms of knowledge systems. One relates to ethnocentric knowledges informing “an overall campaign of self-affirmation, belligerency, and outright war” (xv). The other concerns knowledges reflective of the diverse voices of people, formulated through “understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sake.” (xv). Through such clarifications, Said establishes a clear separation between epistemologies that reveal culturally inclusive humanisms, and colonial practices of orientalism. This Saidian view centrally informs Butler’s positions on universalism, particularly her views on wretched and diasporic binationalism. It is also invoked by Hogan in his discussions on social universalism.

Historically, universalism has often been cited in anti-universal ways. To this end, cross-cultural claims of ethics are often the basis for discrimination against marginalized groups and populations around the world. However, recent studies have clarified that such coercive practices never really express universalism, rather, they demonstrate how in many ways cross-cultural practices of ethnocentrism are projected to have universal significance, ethical and otherwise. This is clearly revealed in the scholarships noted in this entry, scholarship that in different ways distinguishes between non-coercive universalisms or cosmopolitanisms and ideologies of colonialism.

Future Research

Research on ethical universals in literary studies is far from conclusive. A potential task in the field of prescriptive ethics is the organization and development of the emerging scholarship on universalism. There is a need for a research program that highlights universalism as a prominent feature of many ethically sensitive postcolonial literatures aiming to address issues of marginalization in the broader context of colonial histories. In this sense, there is a possibility for future research projects to develop a more detailed understanding of how universalisms are differently expressed in particular literary productions across the world, and how such studies can be valuable to enquiries concerning ethics and politics that go well beyond the scope of specific literary texts.

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Cosmopolitan Patriots.” In For Love of Country? Ed. Joshua Cohen. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996, 21-29.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2010.

Brown, Donald E. Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.

Butler, Judith. “‘What Shall We Do Without Exile?’: Said and Darwish Address the Future.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 32 (2012): 30-56.

Dasgupta, Uma. Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Dutta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson, eds. Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Dutta Roy, Arnab. “Ethical Universals in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies: A Posthumanist Critique of Universal Human Rights.” Humanities 5, no. 3 (2016): 64.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Colonialism and Cultural Identity: Crises of Tradition in the Anglophone Literatures of India, Africa, and the Caribbean. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 2000.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP and Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2003.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Mangharam, Mukti Lakhi. “‘The Universal is the Entire Collection of Particulars’: Grounding Identity in a Shared Horizon of Humanity.” College Literature 40 (2013): 81-98.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom. London: James Currey, 1993.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Patriotism and Cosmpolitanism.” In For Love of Country? Ed. Joshua Cohen. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996, 3-17.

Pandit, Lalita. “Caste, Race, and Nation: History and Dialectic in Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora.” In Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995, 207-33.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Sabyasachi, Bhattacharya. The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore. New Delhi: National Book Trust (1997).

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Sen, Amartya. Rationality and Freedom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Four Chapters. Trans. Rimli Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Srishti Publishers, 2002.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Gora. Trans. Sujit Mukherjee. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2003.

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Home and the World. Trans. Surendranath Tagore. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2005.


Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

We may look for storyworld universals in the sequence of events that comprise the story proper, in the characters that enact those events, or in the settings in which the characters or events are embedded. (For the first and second, see “Story.”) One aspect of setting where we find cross-cultural patterns is imagery. We may define imagery as features of setting that are not simply a function of the causal trajectory of the events, but serve other purposes as well. For example, insofar as seasons operate in a story to guide the characters’ planting and harvesting, they are not operating as imagery. In contrast, they are operating as imagery insofar as they have a function outside that causal sequence (e.g., to suggest thematic concerns, such as the association of sin with death, by way of winter). Note that this broad definition of imagery does not exclude metaphor; imagery may be metaphorical. In addition, by this definition, imagery is not particularly visual; indeed, it is sensory-mediated only to the extent that setting is sensory-mediated. Note also that lyric poems have events, characters, and/or settings, and thus are encompassed in this definition. (On the relation of lyric poems and story sequences, see chapter five of Hogan, The Mind.) Indeed, the relatively limited presence of causal (story) sequences in lyric poems suggests that imagery is likely to play a particularly important role in lyric poetry. Finally, setting includes persons and events; it is merely differentiated from persons and events considered as part of the causal sequence of a given story.

General Principles

Perhaps the most striking universal in this area is the most basic or general one–the existence of imagery. Some storytellers and poets in perhaps all traditions, and certainly in large written traditions, develop apparently incidental features of the setting in such a way as to make those features relevant to the reader’s experience of the work. The relevance may be a matter of non-causal story functions, as when an image suggests future events in the story through foreshadowing. Otherwise, the relevance of imagery commonly bears on the emotional impact of the work (e.g., by enhancing mood) or the thematic implications of the work. By “thematic implications,” I refer to the work’s consequences for the recipient’s relation to the real world in which he or she lives. These implications are most often ethical or political.

Here, as in most cases, there is no need to posit a specific, innate propensity in order to explain this cross-cultural tendency. General cognitive and social structures along with convergent development appear sufficient to explain the recurrence of imagery in general, and even the recurrence of particular image forms and categories. Storytellers only had to notice that imagery could be recruited to make a sad story sadder, a suspenseful story more suspenseful (e.g., through foreshadowing), a theme more effective or evident. Once one storyteller noticed this—which would presumably happen fairly quickly—his or her use of the technique could spread within that tradition, through its self-conscious or implicit imitation by other storytellers.

Another broad, cross-cultural pattern is the tendency of traditions to develop standardized sets of shared images. In the West, an obvious example of this sort is to be found in the Petrarchan lineage of love poetry. But the use of standardized images is a feature of many written and oral traditions (see Hogan “Literary Universals and Their Cultural Traditions”; note that the present essay outlines some of the main conclusions of research in the area, but cannot enter into all the details covered in the various works cited). This occurs in part due to the simple formation of associative connections and processes of “priming,” which make some associations more likely to be activated than others. (Since some readers have been confused by this, I should explain that the formation of associative connections enables activation to spread through networks via priming; association is of course not priming itself, just as highways are not traffic.) Once one poet associates lovers with birds, other poets familiar with this initial work will be more likely to associate lovers with birds also. In addition, the set of associations of lovers with birds will tend to make the image more emotionally effective, and in some cases more thematically consequential too.

There are other broad, recurring tendencies as well. For example, traditions of verbal art tend to select species for animal imagery, rather than relying on higher level categories. For example, in individual cases and in standardized imagery, writers appear likely to refer to nightingales in a particular context, rather the mere birds—though the latter is more likely than some still more general classification, such as vertebrates (an apparently rare choice, despite its comic possibilities; both points obviously bear further empirical investigation, as do all hypotheses about literary universals, here and elsewhere). Authors and traditions select particular species for reasons bearing on the species themselves, often due to their mating or other behaviors, the musicality of their calls, their appearance, and related matters, as well as their cultural resonances (e.g., their place in ritual). A less frequent, but perhaps more striking recurrent practice is the literalization of imagistic associations and related metaphors and similes. We find cases of this ranging from allegory to the motif of metamorphosis (in for example Ovid, Kafka, or the Chinese tale of the “butterfly lovers,” Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo [see “Newly Compiled”]).

Of course, universals of imagery are not confined to these points. Imagery may be universal in manifesting the same formal relations or in sharing some concrete, perceptual features. Formal relations are types of connection that give imagery significance in a work. Concrete, perceptual features may be directly experiential, as in performing arts, or a matter of guided simulation, as in purely verbal art. (Guided simulation is the imagination of particulars in line with instructions, such as those given implicitly by literary descriptions [on verbal art as a set of instructions for imagination, see Scarry].) Universals of imagery, then, may be formal (in that they follow the same principles, though their particular features may differ) or substantive (in that their particular features are the same or similar). The division is not absolute and rigid, since shared features may be very general, and even apparently idiosyncratic (formally defined) images often share some category with more commonly recurring concrete images. Moreover, recurring concrete features must enter into the usual formal relations if they are to count as imagery at all. But it is a practically useful division for examining universals of imagery. We may consider such universals in connection with each category. (For more elaborate discussion of imagery universals, as well as cross-cultural evidence, see Hogan “Literary Universals and Their Cultural Traditions,” “Beauty,” and “Shakespeare.”)

Formal Relations

Imagery may enter into at least two formal relations (there may be others as well). First, there is parallelism. Since readers have greatly misunderstood my point here, I should explain that imagery and parallelism are not the same; there are many forms of parallelism (e.g., in syntax) that have no bearing on the concerns of this essay. Moreover, imagery does not serve to establish parallelism. Rather, the point is that a range of genetically and areally unrelated traditions appear to make use of parallelism to give images thematic, emotional, anticipatory, or other import outside causal (story) sequences. That universality holds even when the precise images differ.

Parallelism itself takes two forms, internal and external. Internal parallelism involves congruity between two or more storyworld structures within a work. (This point has confused readers, so I should perhaps re-emphasize that imagery can be part of a story sequence. It is distinguished by having a non-story operation–emotional, thematic, and so on.) Internal parallelism is prominent among the cross-culturally recurring strata of what we might call “existential embedment,” the different levels of social and biological constituency: the individual body and mind or person, the family, society, and nature. In other words, two complexes of events and/or conditions may be causally unrelated, but still bear on one another—again, emotionally, thematically, or whatever. Thus chaos in society may be parallel to a storm in nature; the separation of a family may be parallel to the division of the land (e.g., by a river). The social chaos does not cause the storm, and the river does not cause the separation of the family (or vice-versa); however, the two networks of events and conditions are not simply irrelevant to one another.

Internal parallelism may also operate within a single stratum. Circularity, beginning and ending a work in the same place or type of place, the same situation or type of situation, and so on, is a cross-cultural feature of this sort. So too is foreshadowing (as already noted), a temporally directed form of parallelism in which images operate to suggest subsequent events (e.g., in a Sanskrit work, the appearance of separating cakravāka birds may parallel and foreshadow the separation of lovers).

External parallelism involves mapping a structure in the work at hand onto a structure in a precursor work or real situation. Examples would include a modern story about a political figure whose life and death may be linked with the Biblical story of Jesus or the narrative of a contemporary couple that recalls the story of Rāma and Sītā. A minimal case of external parallelism is found in allusion. Again, parallelism need not be a matter of imagery; in other words, not all parallelism is imagery-based. However, in many cases, parallelism is imagery-based. In those cases, parallelism defines the non-causal function of the image (i.e., makes an element of setting into an image). A simple example is the conflagration at the end of Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire. This alludes to the fire ordeal of Sītā and contributes to the work’s thematic development in that way. Here, as in other cases, parallels may be direct, or they may involve inversion or some other systematic alteration.

A second formal relation commonly bearing on imagery is that between foreground and background (or, alternatively, source and target). Literary works tend to involve the development of at least two of the standard levels of human existence (mind, family, society, and nature). Nonetheless, one of these levels is typically the object of primary attentional focus (the target), thus the foreground, while the other is the background, which is to say, it is perceived and understood, but it is not the object of attentional focus, except perhaps intermittently. The background (or source) may provide imagery for internal parallelism, as when the storm provides a background for the social chaos in Lear’s kingdom and the emotional chaos in Lear’s mind. The point holds, in a slightly altered form, for external parallelism as well. In that case, the precursor work is most often the background (source) work in that it is not the object of attentional focus (target). At least it is not the initial object of such focus. In some cases, the thematic point of a later work may be to comment on the earlier work, as when an Indian film or drama revises the Rāmāyana in order to provoke the viewer to reconsider some ethical norms presupposed by that revered poem. (This is in part the case with Mehta’s film.) But this too involves a background/foreground or source/target distinction.

With internal parallelism, the foreground figures tend to be those most deeply embedded in the list of standard strata—thus those that are constituent elements–and the background figures tend to be those that are more encompassing. For example, nature (e.g., the weather) is more likely to serve as background for society than the reverse. It is not clear whether this is true in the case of external parallelism, since the two works tend to focus attention on the same stratum (e.g., family relations). However, in external parallelism there is a further pattern as the background text tends to be one with equal or greater social or spiritual authority. In this case, the most relevant categorization seems to bear on types of text, rather than types of existence. Specifically, a distinction among, say, individual, communal, and divine texts—or perhaps a simpler division between individual and socially authoritative texts–appears to recur cross-culturally. In external parallelism, foreground or target texts tend to come earlier in this list. Put simply, understanding individual or personal texts (such as a particular novel or drama) may rely on external parallelism with divine texts (e.g., the Gospels), but understanding divine texts is less likely to rely on parallelism with individual or personal texts texts (with the qualifications already noted).

Concrete Particulars

Again, image patterns may recur in particular forms (for cases, see Hogan “Literary”). Many recurrent concrete particulars derive directly from the parallelism of mind, etc., as in the examples cited above. Some further, instances may be divided into those bearing on character and those bearing on events. Regarding character, heroes tend to be paralleled with creatures from the natural world. For example, military heroes may be paralleled with predatory land animals. Lovers tend to be paralleled with birds or similar creatures, though they too may be paralleled with predators if their sexual appetites are emphasized. Regarding events, sunset tends to be associated with death, separation, etc. (again, sunset does not cause death, etc., in these cases). Sunrise is more likely to be linked with renewal, birth or rebirth, reunion, and so forth. The season of natural rebirth (e.g., spring) tends to be associated with renewal, birth, and the reunion of lovers. The season of barrenness (e.g., winter) appears to be more commonly associated with despair, death, the separation of lovers, military loss, and so on. Water is often connected with new life. In keeping with these points, Pandit has argued that urban societies often establish a contrast between a partially degraded or corrupt place of civilization and a semi-idyllic green world (103).

Future Research

The most obvious tasks for future work in this area are the isolation of additional universals of imagery and their systematic organization. The former task includes the isolation of further types of formal relation as well as further sorts of concrete particulars. As to systematic organization, it would be valuable to see what patterns there may be across concrete particulars, beyond the division into character-related and event-related. It would also be valuable to know more about which images recur with the greatest frequency, which are limited in their appearance, and what cultural or other variables may govern such differences. Another potentially consequential task is elaborating on the consequences of internal and external parallelism (e.g., the ways in which they produce emotional effects in a reader or just what consequences they have for the communication of themes). Finally, it is important to integrate research on imagery with research on narrative and metaphor, and to consider the relation of foreground-background relations to non-directional integration (e.g., in conceptual blending theory).

(An earlier version of this article was published on the website of the original Literary Universals Project in 2002. That earlier version appeared in a Turkish translation, “Imgenin Evrenselleri,” trans. Özgen Felek, Bizim Külliye: Üç Aylik Kültür Sanat Dergisi 21 [September 2004]: 11-12. I have limited revisions of the article in order to preserve continuity with that earlier version.)

Works Cited

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Beauty, Politics and Cultural Otherness: India in the Study of Comparative Literature.” In Hogan and Pandit 3-43.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Literary Universals and their Cultural Traditions: The Case of Poetic Imagery.” Consciousness, Literature, and the Arts 6.2 (August 2005).

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Shakespeare, Eastern Theatre, and Literary Universals: Drama in the Context of Cognitive Science.”  In Shakespeare East and West. Ed. Minoru Fujita and Leonard Pronko. Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, 1996, 164-80, 189-90.

Hogan, Patrick Colm and Lalita Pandit, eds. Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Mehta, Deepa, dir. Fire. Screenplay by Deepa Mehta. New Delhi, India: Kaleidoscope Entertainment, 1996.

“The Newly Compiled Tale of the Golden Butterflies,” trans. Wilt Idema, in The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, ed. Victor Mair and Mark Bender (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 505-551.

Pandit, Lalita. “Patriarchy and Paranoia: Imaginary Indfidelity in Uttararāmacarita and The Winter’s Tale.” In Hogan and Pandit, 103-133

Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming by the Book (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999).


By: Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut


Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

There are numerous story universals. These may be divided first into event universals and character universals. (On universals of setting, see “Imagery.”) Event universals may be further divided into motifs, on the one hand, and broad story arcs or story genres, on the other.

Character and Motif

The basic character universals are unsurprising as they derive from the common structure of stories as sequences of events in which a main character pursues a goal. That main character, which is to say the primary agent in pursuit of the goal (e.g., the lover in a romantic story or the central warrior in military conflict), is the hero. Other universal characters divide primarily into those who help the hero and those who block the hero’s achievement of the goal. On the other hand, some universal character types are more particular. The older confidant to the female lover, the friend who acts as go-between, the domineering father, the inept ruler, are all candidates for universality. Perhaps more interestingly, different literary traditions have a character who manipulates the other characters and the events of the story to produce the particular result he or she desires. The character is hardly plausible realistically and is therefore particularly striking. Presumably, the origin of this character is in the author’s own manipulation of characters and events. At some point, it occurs to authors to put a character with their own authorial powers into the story. (On this final type, see Hogan “Shakespeare.”)

Motifs are limited narrative sequences that may be embedded in different story arcs or genres. Several important motifs have been isolated by pre-cognitive researchers. A prominent example of a motif is the quest, the long and dangerous journey to acquire some particularly valuable object. (Campbell’s treatment of the quest is probably the most famous.) The birth of the hero  is also a cross-cultural motif (see Rank). Lalita Pandit has suggested that the inclusion of staging–in effect, a play within a play—may be a universal of theater (“Patriarchy” 103). This is an inclusion of the same general type as found in the manipulator character mentioned above, a projection of the author’s relation to the story into the story itself. It is also an instance of a discourse universal–the embedding on one narrative within another, as in flashbacks or prophecies. Pandit has suggested further that the false imagination of a wife’s infidelity is a cross-cultural motif in patriarchal societies (“Patriarchy”). Raducanu has taken up and extended Pandit’s argument, indicating that a test or trial of a woman’s chastity—in connection with imagined infidelity–is a consequential cross-cultural motif (see Trials of Women’s Chastity).

Prototypical Stories

As to the larger sequences of events or genres, I have argued that there are several cross-cultural story arcs, three or four of which are particularly prominent (see The Mind and Its Stories). Fundamental to my argument is the idea that the generation and reception of stories are guided primarily by prototypes, which is to say standard or average cases, rather than more abstract, necessary and sufficient conditions. In each case, the prototype is a matter of categorization processes. When authors begin to imagine a love story or a heroic story—whether they self-consciously apply a particular label to the topic or not—they necessarily link some structure with that topic; the structure is, after all, what makes it a love story or a heroic story, rather than something else. My contention is that, in keeping with ordinary semantic processes (see Rosch), that structure is provided by prototypes.

More precisely, when creating a narrative, authors may choose any topic they like and they may develop that topic in any way they wish. But they will most often begin with a standard genre category (again, this need not be a matter of self-conscious labeling). They will then follow the prototypical story structure and deviate from it only insofar as deviation is required by their specification of the prototype (e.g., in the personality traits they simulate for the main characters) or their sense of what will best fulfill the emotional and thematic (e.g., political or ethical) purposes of the story. Similarly, when interpreting and responding to a narrative, readers will begin by tacitly presupposing the prototypical structure and deviate from it only when that is necessary.

As is usual with cognitive explanations of literary patterns, this merely extends ordinary processes to the case of literature. When setting up a restaurant, an entrepreneur will begin with a genre prototype (e.g., fast food restaurant or family style restaurant), following the prototype (customers ordering at the counter for a fast food restaurant, customers being seated by a host or hostess at a family style restaurant) and deviating from that prototype only insofar as this seems to enhance the success of the restaurant or is a function of prototype specification (e.g., bringing tortilla chips with salsa in a Mexican family style restaurant). Narrative production operates similarly, though with perhaps more emphasis on innovative prototype deviations in the service of the main aims of the literary production. As usual, those main aims are producing an emotional effect and conveying thematic—usually political or ethical—concerns; in other words, authors seek to produce works that are both sweet and useful, as Horace famously put it (75).

Almost all stories involve general, story prototypical elements. A prototypical story, no matter what the genre, begins by establishing a particular goal for a hero or heroes. The unfolding of the story involves a hero or heroes seeking that goal. This hero is frustrated in his or her goal pursuit, usually due to the actions of a blocking character. That blocking character is typically a villain, thus a malicious and intentional opponent, and may be a family member. Moreover, the internal norms of the story indicate that the villain’s actions are not simply disagreeable, but more objectively wrong. The hero and the villain are often in conflict for reasons having to do with identity categories, the social in-group versus out-group divisions that organize their societies. The hero passes through a series of experiences that are non-ordinary and emotionally engaging. Ordinariness is of course defined relative to social expectations of the target audience; in other words, it is an indexical universal. For example, flying in an airplane is extraordinary for some audiences (e.g., those in the early days of aviation), but not for others. The hero’s experiences are frequently drawn from motifs, such as the quest motif. Moreover, these experiences often involve exile or some related removal from home. The hero may receive the aid of some helper, sometimes a figure with unusual social authority (e.g., a highly respected figure from the enemy side in a heroic plot). The hero’s exile is regularly part of a “tragic” middle, in which the protagonist seems furthest away from achieving his or her goal.

The story finally resolves when there is no longer any possibility of goal pursuit. In the majority of cases, there is a comic resolution, making the entire work into a tragi-comedy. In this case, the hero achieves the goal, often in an idealized way that assures it cannot be lost (as in the formulaic ending of a romantic story, “they lived happily ever after”). This idealization commonly involves social reconciliation, at least among those who are crucial to the wellbeing of the hero, such as his or her family. This may require that the blocking characters form two sets, those who are corrigible and those who are incorrigible. The former may undergo a sort of conversion, which allows their incorporation into the comic society, whereas the latter may be excluded from that society. In tragic cases, the conclusion still involves the necessary end of goal pursuit. However, in the tragic case that end results from the achievement of the goal being rendered impossible—for example, by the death of the hero. Sometimes that tragic resolution is preceded by a moment of (comic) hope, making these into what might be called “comi-tragedies.”

It is important to emphasize here that this is a prototype, not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. There are plenty of sequences of events that we would count as stories, but that do not conform very closely to this outline. For example, if I recount my day to my wife, that is a sort of story, but it may have few of these features. That is what makes this a prototype-based account. On the other hand, it does indicate that some stories should feel like better cases of the category “story,” precisely because they are more prototypical. Thus Romeo and Juliet is a better case of a story than my rambling tale of the day’s events—or, for that matter, a work such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Of course, I might shape the events of my day by for example elevating minor frustrations into conflicts with the covert machinations of villains in my department. But that would make my tale a better case of being a story precisely by making it more prototypical. Similarly, I may interpret a work by Beckett in a way that makes it more story-like, thus more prototypical. (Note that this does not in any way suggest that a story is better because it is more prototypical. For example, a banal Hollywood romance may be highly prototypical; that does not mean that it is better than Waiting for Godot.)

Here, as with most literary universals, the prototypical story structure may be explained by reference to common cognitive processes along with—probably rather quick—convergent development across traditions. Emotion is particularly important here, as it is in the definition of particular genres. Specifically, we all understand trajectories of human action by way of our intuitive psychology, the set of psychological principles for which we are innately prepared (see, for example, Boyer 100). This intuitive psychology includes dispositions, circumstances, beliefs, and goals. We first of all understand the hero’s initiation of actions as a matter of emotionally engaged goal pursuit. That goal pursuit is directed by beliefs—for example, beliefs about enemy nations in heroic plots. The trajectory itself is qualified and specified by the hero’s dispositions and circumstances—thus character and setting in the simulation of a fiction. In this way, the basic elements of a prototypical story are provided by intuitive psychology.

The “outcome emotion” of a story is the emotion provoked by the conclusion of the story. Goal pursuit aims at happiness. In the usual or default (prototypical) case, recipients identify with the protagonist. Thus they generally experience emotions parallel with those of the protagonist—for example, empathic love in relation to the protagonists in a romantic story. That parallel emotion is a form of happiness when the protagonist achieves his or her goal at the end of the work (in comedy). It is a form of sadness when that goal becomes unachievable (in tragedy). Thus the outcome emotion of a work is most often happiness (as comedies are more frequent cross-culturally), but may also be a form of sadness. (There are rarer cases where it is something else, such as anger.)

Emotional response, including outcome emotions, may be intensified in a number of ways. One obvious way in which an outcome emotion may be altered is by changes in the preceding emotions. Consider a simple example. If I go to the doctor expecting to be told that I have a chronic, degenerative disease (e.g., Parkinson’s disease), I will be relieved to be told that I have Lyme disease. However, if I go to the doctor expecting to be told that I’ve just been working too hard and need some rest and relaxation, I will be distressed to be told that I have Lyme disease. The outcome state (having Lyme disease) is the same in both cases. However, the outcome emotion differs radically. In each case, this is due to the contrast with the prior emotion, as I experienced it in anticipation of the outcome. This contingency of the outcome emotion on prior emotions gives rise to the tragic middle of tragi-comedies. Authors quickly recognize that it is perfectly nice to hear of two people falling in love, then getting married. However, listeners and readers are much happier at the outcome when the lovers are united after being separated, exiled, and nearly killed. The same process accounts for cases of comi-tragedy when this occurs.

The “familialization” of conflict—making the blocking characters into family members—is a matter of intensification as well. We expect or at least hope for more thorough loyalty and support from family members than from strangers. The attachment bonds one feels with family make conflict more painful—directly for the (simulated) hero, empathically for the (simulating) reader. This pain is relieved by the social reconciliation that often accompanies the hero’s achievement of his or her goal.

The motif of exile fits here as well. Our emotional organization of space divides the world fundamentally into home and not home. Home is cognitively familiar, but more importantly it is “where the heart is”—where we feel “place attachment.” Place attachment is related to person attachment (see Panksepp 407n.93) and our separation from home can be painful in precisely the way separation from a loved one is painful (and of course the two are often interrelated). Thus, for reasons of emotion intensification, we would expect different literary traditions to organize space into home and exile and to separate the hero from home in the tragic middle.

The tragic middle of course includes events other than exile. It generally involves the hero facing obstacles to achieving his or her goal. The nature of that goal is determined in part by the social quality of human cognition and emotion. Even our most basic, physical needs are inseparable from social interaction, cooperative and competitive. For example, even our acquisition of food is bound up with coordinated practices of hunting, gathering, or farming, as well as competition for resources. It is certainly possible for us to face purely physical obstacles in goal pursuit, and some stories treat such obstacles. But our social nature tends to make the goals themselves highly social (e.g., romantic union) and the main forms of help and hindrance social as well. This would lead us to expect to find blocking and helping characters. The principle of emotional intensification enhances this expectation in that our emotional response to people is more vigorous and sustained than our emotional response to things. I may be temporarily irritated with a door that flies open and hits me, but my anger is far greater in strength and duration if a person hits me. Moreover, my response to a person hitting me is commonly stronger to the extent that the act was intentional and malicious. If someone trips and smacks me accidentally, that is different from punching me—as is intending a playful jab that happens to be a tad too battering for my wispy frame. Thus we would anticipate the elaboration of blocking figures into plotting, malicious villains.

The implications for helping characters are parallel, but generally less consequential. This is true in part for the simple reason that it is more difficult to give inadvertent help than to do inadvertent harm. But it is also due to the fact that generally our emotional response to hedonic experiences is much less analytic and demanding than to aversive experiences. It appears that we are willing to accept benefits produced by chance, but we feel the need to understand the reasons for harm—presumably so that we can avoid similar harms in the future. Thus we may be perfectly willing to accept a hero succeeding by dumb luck. However, as Aristotle pointed out, we tend to recoil from stories in which a hero fails through no fault of his or her own (XIII.2; 1452b). This is one aspect of “hedonic asymmetry,” the non-parallelism of negative and positive emotions (on the general idea of hedonic asymmetry, see Frijda 323).

It is important to dwell for a moment on our different attitudes toward intentional and unintentional harms, as they tell us something important about emotional response. We may initially respond with anger in both intentional and unintentional cases. However, we quickly modulate our response to unintentional harms. One of the most important forms of modulation is ethical. We might inhibit or enhance our emotional response to a given action depending on whether we view it as ethical or unethical. Thus it generally becomes important that our preferences in a literary work broadly align with our ethical evaluations. If we consider the blocking character morally justified and the hero unjustified, that will constrain our emotional response. Of course, stories of this sort occur—and many of us may even prefer them, in part for their intellectual stimulation, in part for their non-habitual quality. However, we would not expect this to be the default or prototypical case.

The evaluative concerns of a story—and thus its thematic point–are often bound up with social identity categories. These categories are a fundamental means of organizing intra- and inter-societal relations in real life. They have profound psychological consequences, affecting one’s understanding of and emotional response to other people (on some of these consequences, see chapter one of Hogan Understanding Nationalism). For example, it appears to be the case that we tend to respond to in-group members with parallel emotion (e.g., sharing their mirth), but often respond to out-group members with a complementary or opposed emotion (e.g., resenting their mirth). (On parallel and complementary emotions in identity categorization, see Gazzaniga 164 and Hain and colleagues 155.) It is thus unsurprising that identity categories figure prominently in prototypical stories.

The preceding observations perhaps suggest one reason why ethical and political themes are of such importance in literature, and why that importance is found across traditions. That importance is, to some extent, a by-product of the emotional function of literature. Ethical and political concerns engage our modulatory processes and thus become consequential for our emotional response. Of course, other factors enter as well, such as who is paying for the production or preservation of stories and what ethical or political concerns he or she might have. Moreover, once present, ethical and political concerns may be developed systematically and autonomously.

Before going on to specific genres, it is important to remark on two points raised but not answered by the preceding reflections. The first concerns tragedy. Again, it appears that tragedy occurs less frequently than comedy across cultures. Why might that be? In part, this is a topic requiring further research. On the other hand, some points seem clear enough given what we know presently. First, sadness is an aversive emotion, while happiness is hedonic. Thus we would expect people in general to prefer comedies to tragedies, leading to the predominance of the former. Indeed, the problem is not so much why there are fewer tragedies than comedies. It is why there are tragedies at all.

One possible explanation for the existence of tragedy derives from the fact that compassion activates the reward system (see Kim and colleagues; the reward system is the system that governs “wanting” and “liking” [see Chatterjee 309]). Our experience of compassion is therefore not wholly aversive, but ambivalent, with a hedonic component. Understanding the operation of tragedy, then, should require a good understanding of ambivalence and the ways in which simulation may shape or direct ambivalence. It seems likely that the structure of prototypical tragedy will be explained most fully by such an understanding of ambivalence. For example, it may be the case that comi-tragic enhancement occurs principally in works that we consider melodramatic or that we criticize as emotionally manipulative, and that this is a matter of just how ambivalence is developed. An ambivalence-based account of tragedy would include reference not only to sorrow and compassionate reward response, but also modulatory processes, particularly bearing on the former, where ethical and thus thematic issues are likely to enter again. For example, Aristotle’s idea of a tragic error is a way of considering modulatory ambivalence (see Aristotle XIII.3; 1453a). We feel sorrow for the hero’s fate, but we also recognize that he or she is in some degree responsible for that fate, which modulates our response. Unfortunately, the nature of empirical research, with its necessary concern for isolating variables, has given us much less knowledge about ambivalence than more unequivocal emotion states—despite the fact that most of our real emotional experience is probably ambivalent to some degree.

The second issue worth commenting on is the case of non-identification with the hero. The default or prototypical case appears to be one in which the recipient of the work empathically hopes that the hero will achieve his or her goal. However, it does happen that we disagree with the hero’s goals and hope that he or she changes those goals in the course of the story. This is not necessarily a problem as the point of a cross-cultural pattern is that it recurs across traditions, not that it characterizes every work. Moreover, one point of tying genres to prototypes (not necessary and sufficient conditions) is that individual narratives will converge only approximately and in varying degrees, not wholly. However, it is still worth remarking that the non-identification story is commonly of two sorts. In the simpler version, we hope for the happiness of the protagonist. However, we think that the protagonist is mistaken about what will make him or her happy. In the more complex case, there are two or more protagonists and we hope for a reconciliation of the happiness achievements of these different protagonists. The two types of non-identification may occur together, as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night where audience members are likely to feel that Orsino should give up on Olivia and that his happiness goal should be reconciled with that of Viola. The same point applies to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park with respect to Edmund, Mary, and Fanny. Thus we are usually dealing with a complication of identification in these cases, not a repudiation of it.

Story Genres: Romantic Tragi-Comedy

But, again, the full prototypical forms of stories are not confined to this general structure. They divide into more specific genres as well. In isolating these genres, I began by more or less accidentally noticing the recurrence of certain story types across literary traditions, suggesting genre prototypes. From here, I saw that the story types themselves had certain features in common, suggesting the story prototype just discussed. I then sought to explain these features by reference to emotion. I found that I could explain the story prototype by general features of emotion operation, with the differentiating characteristics of the genres explained principally by reference to differentiating features of specific emotion systems.

Romantic stories start with some prefatory material that introduces the protagonists. The main action begins when the protagonists fall in love. This establishes their goal of romantic union. The lovers face obstacles. Often, these obstacles involve identity categories such that the lovers fall into non-intermarrying groups. There is usually opposition to the union coming from some social authority, typically parents. The parents often prefer another spouse for one of the lovers. This links the socially separated lovers sequence with a love triangle sequence involving a rival. That love triangle may be the main story sequence or subsidiary to the story of the lovers’ social separation. (Both the romantic and heroic prototypes have two partially separable sequences, though the reasons are different in the two cases.) The lovers are separated, with one often exiled. Sometimes the separation is associated with imagery of death or rumors of death. The lovers are often helped in their union, sometimes by a character with some sort of authority (either through social position or some merit, such as intellect, as with the wily slave of Roman New Comedy). The efforts of the helper and the lovers alter the situation so that the lovers are able to be reunited. This may involve the discovery that the identity opposition was mistaken (e.g., the beloved is not actually a slave, but a patrician kidnapped in infancy), the hero’s achievement of social prestige, the disgrace of the rival (sometimes involving defeat by the hero), or something else. The lovers are united and reconciled with society, including their parents; however, the rival may be excluded from the reconciliation.

Once again, it is important to stress that this is prototypical, not necessary. Individual stories will approximate the prototype to a greater or lesser degree. Specific elements of the prototypical sequence may be missing or altered. The point is simply that there appear to be tendencies of this general sort.

As should be clear, many features of the romantic plot are explained by the principles governing the general story prototype. The meeting and falling in love are simply versions of establishing the goal. The centrality of identity categories is part of the story prototype and explicable in the same way. The obstacles are a matter of intensifying the outcome happiness. We see familialization in the establishment of parents as blocking figures, and the emotion-intensifying organization of space in exile. The imagery of death is a straightforward instance of creating a tragic middle. The existence of a helper character—enabled by status or skill–fits the general social nature of goal pursuit. The comic achievement of romantic union is typically idealized in the usual manner, with social reconciliation completing the intensification of the outcome happiness. The common incorporation of the family into the comic society obviously functions as part of this idealization. The place of the rival is complicated by the fact that his or her presence in the society may pose a lingering threat to the happiness of the lovers. It seems to be the case that the rival is most likely to be incorporated into the comic society when events have excluded the possibility of such a threat—for example, if it is discovered that the rival is a close relative of the beloved (as in The Marriage of Figaro), thus precluding their romantic union.

Only a few elements of the romantic prototype are not explained by the story prototype. Some of these are a straightforward result of other developments in the story. For example, social authorities (e.g., the beloved’s parents) may object to the lover on the basis of his or her identity category. In tragic versions of the story, this objection may never be overcome. In comic versions without social reconciliation, it may also not be overcome. However, in intensified, comic versions, the conflict should be overcome. There are two obvious ways that this may occur. First, the identity opposition may itself be overcome. This may involve a broad change in society and may run contrary to dominant beliefs in the real society in which the story occurs. This version of reconciliation may be more common in modern works that set out to criticize social taboos (e.g., on interracial, gay, or lesbian romance). On the other hand, these may also be more frequently tragic, pursuing their thematic point through the cultivation of compassion. In any case, the other obvious way in which identity conflict may be reconciled is through the discovery that one of the lovers has been mis-categorized. Alternatively, the objection of parents or the social limitations on the lovers may be a matter of achievement, rather than identity. A simple case of this occurs in stories where a lover simply does not have the financial means to establish a household. In this case, there is one obvious solution—the lover achieves the sort of success that was previously lacking. One or the other form of social inhibition—that bearing on identity categorization or that bearing on achievement—seems likely to predominate in one or another social milieu (e.g., feudal society may foster the former, while capitalist society is more consistent with the latter). This introduces a typological element into romantic prototyping. Finally, the blocking characters may not object to the lover himself or herself, but may merely consider the rival superior. In that case, the obvious means of reconciliation is to alter the relative status of the hero and rival, either through the achievement of the former or the disgrace of the latter. Thus the most prototypical versions of the romantic story seem clearly explicable regarding the means of goal attainment.

The existence of a rival, and thus the love triangle plot, is not predicted by the general story prototype. However, it is hardly anomalous. To some extent, it derives from social factors that recur cross-culturally. The main factor is the assumption of that men and women will marry.  In other words, the main cultural alternative to marrying one person is not remaining single, but marrying another person. Given general cultural imperatives to marry, one would expect that social opposition to a character’s marital choice would involve an alternative.

On the other hand, the love triangle plot may develop independently of any social disapproval of the main lovers. In other words, the rival may not be a socially approved alternative. Indeed, it may even be unclear whether there are or are not primary lovers, thus whether or not the beloved does or does not reciprocate the feelings of the hero or heroine. As the phrasing of this point suggests, in cases of this sort, we commonly have a single rather than a dual protagonist. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, for example, the lovers are Anne Elliot and Wentworth. However, the protagonist in the novel is clearly Anne; she does not share this role with Wentworth. It is also not clear until the end of the novel that Wentworth actually loves Anne. Moreover, the development of Wentworth’s relationship with Louisa—the rival—is not socially preferred. (There is a love triangle of the socially preferred sort as well. Lady Russell has disapproved of Wentworth and favors William Elliot as a spouse for Anne.) Cases of this sort seem best explained as part of the intensified emotional development of the focal lover’s goal pursuit.

The most obvious unexplained feature of the romantic plot is of course that it concerns romance, with the specific goal of union of the lovers. The general prototype says nothing about the definition of goals. Differentiation of goals is precisely what distinguishes narrative genres in this sense. The goals of all these genres involve the pursuit of happiness. However, that happiness is of a different sort in each case. Again, a fundamental claim of this account of story genre is that particular happiness goals are defined by emotion systems, individually or in interaction. The happiness goal of the romantic genre is defined by romantic love. Romantic love does not seem to be a single human emotion system. It is, rather, the result of several emotion systems interacting, with cumulative effects resulting from their mutual enhancement. These emotion systems are attachment (the bonding that occurs most obviously between parents and small children), sexual desire, and reward (for discussion of this analysis of romantic love, see chapter three of Hogan What). Again, the reward system is the system that governs wanting and liking. It is also the system involved in addiction. What occurs in drug addiction may be understood as a specific form of what we might call “reward dependency.” Reward dependency is the narrowing of wanting and liking such that any enjoyment becomes reduced to or at least contingent on one sort of enjoyment–the drug in addiction or the beloved in romantic love. The romance-specific features of the romantic prototype are, first of all, a matter of the protagonists’ goals being defined by the particular complex of emotion systems involved in romantic love.

Attachment in romantic love, enhanced by reward dependency, tends to make happiness fragile. There are two primary sources of that fragility. The first is the world, especially the social world, outside of the couple. That is the source of the socially separated lovers sequence. But there is another source of insecurity in such relationships. That is the inscrutability of the beloved. However much we may think that we understand and sympathize with another person, we do not know their thoughts and feelings directly and with certainty. There is always a possibility of doubt. The contingency of our happiness on someone else—not only his or her presence and behavior, but his or her love as well—makes that doubt consequential, sometimes deeply so. This is the reason that jealousy may become so important in romantic love. When not the result of social preference, the love triangle plot may be understood as a development from this aspect of insecurity in the emotional profile of romantic love. Moreover, the possibility of doubt helps to explain why the final resolution of the romantic plot is apparently more likely to incorporate socially disapproving figures (such as parents) than rivals—except in cases where the rival has been rendered innocuous (e.g., by the discovery that he is the long lost sibling of the beloved).

Thus we see that the cross-cultural recurrence of the romantic prototype can be readily explained, largely by reference to emotional factors. The point extends to other cross-culturally recurring genres. Those too are explicable by reference to happiness goals defined by emotion systems or combinations of emotion systems. Conversely, this account suggests that we should find cross-cultural genres that derive from other systems or combinations of systems. We cannot consider all these genres and their explanations in detail. However, it is worth sketching their outlines.

Story Genres: Heroic and Sacrificial

Romantic tragi-comedy may be the most common genre in written traditions. The heroic genre is very frequent as well. It too involves two separable, but usually interrelated sequences. These are the usurpation story and the invasion story. The usurpation story concerns a legitimate leader of some social identity group, such as a nation. His or her legitimacy is usually connected with both moral right and competence. Sometimes complications occur and there are problems with his or her rectitude or capacity. Indeed, there are cases in which even the political legitimacy of the leader is not entirely straightforward. In other words, heroic plots often involve some degree of ambiguity and ambivalence. When a heroic story has social authority, however, both the ambiguity and ambivalence may be widely denied—or, rather, excluded without comment. A good example of this is the Mahābhārata in India. The superiority of the Pāṇḍavas over the Kauravas usually goes unquestioned. But the text itself is much more equivocal—a point recognized in literary reworkings of the poem (e.g., in the representations of the character Karṇa, from Bhāsa to Tagore). Another complication of the heroic plot is that the story may not concern the leader himself or herself, but a loyal soldier or advisor. (This might result in part from an attempt to avoid offending rulers in the real world—for example, the monarch of a nation in which a play is enacted.)

The main action of the usurpation story begins when the legitimate leader (or related authority, such as a particularly loyal and brave soldier or a wise and benevolent advisor) is dislodged from his or her position and replaced by a rival. That rival is typically villainous (it is difficult to usurp a kingship by accident). Moreover, he or she is often a family member and the displacement commonly entails exile, as we would expect. During this period, the legitimate leader may be linked with imagery or rumors of death; indeed, he or she may literally die, being replaced in the remainder of the story by a son or daughter. In exile, the leader (or his or her son or daughter) gains the support of helpers and often manages to accomplish some remarkable feat that leads to his or her restoration. The restoration is partially idealized in that the peace and stability of the society appear to be established even into the distant future.

The remarkable accomplishment of the leader is often connected with the invasion (alternatively, threat and defense) sequence. The invasion sequence begins with a peaceful, autonomous society defined by some social identity category (e.g., a nation). That society is overrun by an antagonistic out-group, which ends the in-group autonomy. That invasion is often facilitated by an in-group collaborator, who may in turn serve as the usurper in the usurpation sequence. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antonio joins with Alonso to enable the latter’s invasion of Milan, which in turn allows Antonio to usurp his brother’s position as Duke of Milan. When the usurper does not collaborate with the enemy, he or she may prove to be incompetent or cowardly in the defense of the home society. Despite the failings of the usurper, the home society struggles against the invaders, with much death and destruction in the tragic middle. It may recruit a helper, specifically a collaborator, from the enemy camp. This is often a character with moral authority who rejects the practices of his or her own group, condemning them as immoral, thus further legitimating the in-group of the main hero or heroes. More importantly, the usurped, legitimate ruler may return and successfully oppose the enemy. In the full, comic version, the home society eventually expels the invader, establishing a sort of utopia.

Here, as with the romantic genre, most points follow from the general story prototype, along with some common social phenomena bearing on social authority. The specificity of the genre derives principally from the emotion systems defining the hero’s goals. The main emotion involved in the heroic story is pride, both a sense of accomplishment (a matter of satisfying standards) and a sense of social status (a matter of inspiring esteem). The usurpation sequence concerns individual pride. The threat and defense sequence concerns in-group pride for some social identity category (such as a nation). Indeed, the psychological importance of both individual and social pride makes the duality of the heroic story, if not predictable, then at least unsurprising in retrospect. Like the romantic genre, the heroic plot commonly involves not only an affirmation of positive goals, but also a response to the emotional pains associated with those goals. Again, romantic love may be disturbed by insecurity, including jealousy. Pride is undermined most fully by (private) shame or (public) humiliation. Indeed, these are related disturbances as jealousy is often associated with shame, and public knowledge of a lover’s infidelity is probably the prototypical case of romantic humiliation. In heroic narratives, the shame and humiliation come in the tragic middle with the deposing of the leader and the defeat of the home society. They are overcome in the idealized conclusion.

Two things are particularly worth noting about the heroic genre. First, it is the predominant genre defining and organizing group identity, particularly national identity. As such, it is widely and deeply consequential for politics (a point I have discussed at length in Understanding Nationalism). At the same time, it is a highly ambivalent and ambiguous genre, as already indicated. Romantic plots are almost always straightforward. We want the lovers to be united, full stop. But things are messy in heroic stories. People are killed, mutilated, deprived of loved ones. Even when the suffering is experienced by the out-group, authors and readers typically do not feel good about this, or they do not only feel good about it.

One striking result of the ambiguity and ambivalence of heroic plots is the recurrence of what may be called an epilogue of suffering. We would expect a heroic story to stop with the restoration of the legitimate leader and the decisive defeat of the enemy. But often this is not the case. Rather, something frequently happens after the expected ending. This epilogue may take one of two forms. In its simple form, it is merely a lament, a sort of threnody for the dead. Surprisingly, the lament may focus on the defeated enemy, exposing us to the pain of the out-group and evoking sympathy for people that the entire work seemed designed to oppose. The more complex form is even more surprising. This is a mini-narrative of guilt and reparation, often involving a second degradation of the hero, where he or she goes through a sort of punishment for the cruelties of the war. The punishment may be divine, but it may also be self-inflicted, an expression of piercing remorse. The reparation implied by this epilogue serves in principle to make the idealized community possible, freeing it from the sins that are inevitable in warfare. But it is not that simple and there is often something disturbing about the conclusion of heroic stories. Again, this is surprising in that it runs counter to the in-group jingoism that is so often a central part of heroic narrative. But, considered from another angle, it becomes less surprising, indeed perfectly explicable. The very nature of literary simulation encourages us to imagine the subjectivity of other people in detail. That makes it difficult to accept their suffering, even when they are enemies. This operation of simulation is perhaps the main reason that literature is thought to have humanizing effects.

The introduction of guilt brings us to our third “major” genre—sacrificial tragi-comedy. The goal in sacrificial tragi-comedy is physical well-being generally, but most prototypically the acquisition of food. This goal is defined by the hunger system. In an age of supermarkets and widespread obesity, it may seem that acquiring food does not constitute much of a goal. But, for most of human history, satisfying hunger was a pressing task virtually every day. Such satisfaction was continually threatened by environmental dangers, prominently drought and ensuing famine. (Parallel points hold for general health and ravaging diseases, such as smallpox.) When famine came, it was not easy to explain. When an enemy invades one’s territory, the cause of one’s suffering is clear—the greed of the invaders. When society prevents the union of lovers, the source of pain is straightforward—commonly, the identity categories of the lovers. But famine seemed explicable only by reference to divine displeasure at social violation. It was thus a matter of guilt. The sacrificial story begins with some violation of divine precepts. That violation may be widespread within the society or it may have been committed by one or more members of the society who may be seen as representing the society as a whole—for example, the ruler. In either case, the violation is commonly understood as resulting not from spontaneous faults of the in-group, but from the seductive manipulations of some internal enemy, some out-group member within the society. The violation leads to divine punishment of the group—the tragic middle in which we find the opposite of the goal (thus here famine rather than the satiation of hunger).

The devastation found in the tragic middle can be reversed by placating the offended deity. That can be done only by reparation, some reversal of the original sin. Since sin involves self-indulgence, reparation is often understood as a matter of self-sacrifice. (I do not find the cognitive and emotional reasons for this to be entirely transparent. It is a topic for further study.) In this case, the sacrifice is social rather than individual. There are two ways in which such sacrifice commonly proceeds. In the “purgative” version of the story, it is the guilty parties who are punished—often purged from society through exile or death. In contrast, the “penitential” version commonly presents the sacrifice of an innocent scapegoat, someone who is pointedly not guilty of this or any other sin. The suggestion in this case seems to be that this is a pure self-sacrifice, since it is not required as reparation for any individual sins. The sacrifice leads to the restoration of natural well-being, usually in an idealized form of abundance.

Many elements of the sacrificial plot are well explained by the story prototype—for example, the contrast between devastation in the tragic middle and plenty in the idealized conclusion. Others, including the specification of the devastation as famine, are a function of the motivation system of hunger. Still others are a matter of overcoming the aversive emotion of guilt. Finally, there are contributions from cognitive processes of causal inference. On the other hand, there appear to be more features of the sacrificial plot that call out for further study, such as the precise relation between the sacrifice of innocents and the overcoming of collective guilt—or for that matter the relation between the emotion of remorseful guilt and other emotions connected with being “guilty” (i.e., being responsible for a moral violation), but not necessarily feeling guilt.

Minor Genres: Familial, Seduction, Revenge, and Criminal Investigation

In The Mind and Its Stories, I identified only these three genres—romantic, heroic, and sacrificial. In connection with this, I argued that prototypes are context sensitive and that there are three important contexts for happiness goals: physical, personal (or inter-personal), and social. Drawing on empirical research, as well as the literary data, I argued that the prototype for physical happiness is plenty, abundance of food; the prototype for personal or inter-personal happiness is romantic union; and the prototype for social happiness is domination or authority within the in-group and domination of out-groups by the in-group. This helped to account for the place of these genres in distinct literary traditions.

However, this did not imply that there would be no other cross-cultural genres. Indeed, the explanations for these genres seemed to suggest that there would be further patterns, though perhaps with less frequency. For example, the fact that romantic stories combine attachment goals with sexual goals might lead us to expect that there would be stories with attachment goals or sexual goals alone. Similarly, we might expect stories of individual pride, shame, and humiliation to occur, dissociated from national government or warfare.

In Affective Narratology, I took up these theoretical issues and also expanded my study of literary traditions, considering further story patterns. I argued that there are other cross-cultural genres. However, they do not appear to recur with the same frequency or prominence in different traditions. By frequency, I mean the number of occurrences of a given genre within the larger body of literature. By prominence, I mean the social importance of instances of the genre. The sacrificial genre, for example, has enormous prominence in the Judeo-Christian tradition due to the story of Jesus; it also has great frequency, in part due to retellings of that story. The minor genres also appear to be less autonomous. In other words, when they do appear, they are more likely to form subplots, dependent on heroic, romantic, or sacrificial main stories. The minor genres also seem to be more diffuse, with greater variability in elements, and fewer standard characteristics. A possible exception to these limitations is the family separation and reunion genre, which may belong in the major genre category. It appears to occur frequently, though it does not seem to have the prominence of the other genres, and its autonomy seems less clear. (This is a point for future research.)

The family separation and reunion genre involves just what the name suggests. A family is together. Parents and children or siblings are separated in the tragic middle. This may be due to the actions of one or the other party (e.g., the parents may abandon the children, sometimes in the belief that this will benefit the children). Alternatively, this may be the result of some villainous behavior, such as kidnapping, by a blocking figure. The separation may be quite enduring, extending over the children’s growth to adulthood. It may be associated with imagery of death or rumors of death. It clearly involves the displacement of some characters from home, even if we would not necessarily refer to this as “exile.” Commonly, one party seeks the other and, often with the aid of some helping figure, the family is reunited. An interesting twist in this story occurs when the final reunion is preceded by misidentification of the parent or child (e.g., when the child takes someone unrelated to be his or her long-lost father).

Most features of this genre are explained by the story prototype plus the specific features of the attachment system—its relation to family bonds, its goal of proximity to and accessibility of the attachment object, and so on. The negative emotion treated by the genre is simple and straightforward—attachment insecurity. Again, such insecurity has two sources, the attachment object and the world. This difference accounts for the division of familial narratives into those where one of the parties (e.g., a parent) is responsible for the separation and those where some third party (or a force of nature, such as a shipwreck) is responsible. Moreover, the resolution of the aversive emotion is achieved not only by the final reunion, but also by sometimes making parental love and self-sacrifice the motivation for the initial separation.

The motif of mistaken identification may be related to a developmental fact. Specifically, it may derive from our propensity to find substitutes for our parents in other people—for example, teachers or political leaders—whom we idealize. On the other hand, “misrecognition” occurs in many cases of the minor genres. This suggests some more general explanation. The obvious candidate is emotion intensification. Misrecognition may make it seem that the final goal of the hero is less likely to be achieved. But if this is the case, one might wonder why misrecognition does not appear to be an important motif in the major genres. But that might simply be a matter of how misrecognition would work its way into the narrative. Shakespeare uses misrecognition in partially romantic sequences in All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure, as well as The Comedy of Errors. It may simply be that some sequences make such misrecognition plausible while others do not. Even so, it seems that the motif is less common in the major genres than one might expect. It is yet another topic for further research.

A final point to make about family separation and reunion stories is that the idealization of their conclusions is often limited or absent. This is in part a matter of the family genre itself. Parents and children are, obviously, not the same age. Especially after years of separation, they cannot necessarily anticipate many years together. The attachment insecurity imposed by the span of human life is not readily erased. On the other hand, there is a degree of ambivalence in most genres. In this way, it seems that most goal achievement involves ambivalence—due either to the nature of the achievement itself (e.g., the late reunion with parents in familial narratives) or the way in which the goal is achieved (e.g., through violence in heroic narratives). In this way, the question is rather why the romantic genre especially seems so rarely affected by ambivalence and why the sacrificial genre may involve less than the usual ambivalence as well.

As noted above, along with an attachment-based genre, we might expect a genre based on sexual motivations. We find this in seduction narratives. Seduction narratives prototypically involve a man deceitfully seducing a woman, often misidentifying himself in the process. The woman may agree for reasons of sexual pleasure. However, it seems more common that she agrees in order to have a child (sometimes as a means of achieving power or status in a patriarchal society). In other words, the genre based on the sexual desire system involves both hedonistic and fertility concerns. The seducer abandons the woman, who pursues him. One or both may die, or they may be united in a marriage that is likely to leave readers troubled—though pregnancy tends to make the marriage resolution less disturbing, if hardly unambivalent. One unusual aspect of the seduction genre is that the sexual goal is achieved relatively early in the story and what follows treats only the associated aversive emotions. Specifically, death often punishes one or both parties for their guilt, while marriage resolves the woman’s social humiliation and sexual shame. This development is hardly surprising, given the nature of sexual desire, its resolution, and its consequences. Again, it seems that the main features of the genre are explained by the interaction of the specific emotion systems (especially sexual desire, in this case) along with the common features of the story prototype.

The reference to shame or humiliation and guilt reminds us that stories treating these concerns are hardly confined to large social problems such as mutinies and famines. They occur at a more personal level all the time. As such, we would expect them to encourage the creation of other genres—and they do. Revenge narratives occur in different times and places, though again not with the frequency or prominence of the major genres. There are two common versions of the revenge story. One involves sexual violation; the other, murder. Both are highly ambivalent and commonly suggest that the actions of the revenger are, at best, only slightly less heinous than those he or she is revenging. This ambivalence is enhanced by the fact that the revenge often leads to the deaths of innocent bystanders as well, sometimes through misrecognition. In the sexual betrayal version, one spouse’s infidelity humiliates the other spouse, who takes revenge often by murdering the offending parties. In the murder version, someone has murdered an attachment figure of the hero (e.g., his or her spouse or father). The revenge is then a reciprocation of the murder—often following the killing of others due to confusion or accident. The outcome in both cases is typically far from idealized. Even in the best case, the protagonist finds himself or herself alone, still deprived of the attachment figure (e.g., the adulterous wife or murdered parent). He or she has not restored his or her own wellbeing, but merely extended the pain of grief to others in the society (e.g., the families of his or her victims, whether guilty or innocent). Here, again, we see elements of the story prototype integrated with particular emotion systems. The revenge plot is related to the heroic plot, but it is not underwritten by social ideology supporting the in-group’s hierarchy of authority or its autonomy (e.g., national integrity). Indeed, revenge is more appropriately set against the social necessity of law—a point made particularly clear in Aeschylus’s Eumenides. In this way, one would expect that revenge narratives would often be highly ambivalent, or even tragic.

A further, minor genre is that of criminal investigation. In some ways, this could be seen as a version of the revenge narrative, except that the offense and revenge are both understood as public or collective. The crime is against society, not an individual, and the punishment is enacted by society. This entails other differences. Emotionally, the action is not linked with attachment loss or betrayal, or with shame or humiliation. One problem with both the heroic and revenge narratives is that they involve action sustained by anger or rage, a standard response to shame or humiliation, and rage may lead to precipitate violence, thus the harming of innocents (see Walker and Knauer 725 on shame and violence; see also Scheff, and Scheff and Retzinger). This tendency is reduced in criminal investigation narratives, which may involve more deliberate and painstaking attempts to establish guilt. The principle emotion in these cases is something along the lines of indignation at antisocial behavior. This is not to say that there is no ambivalence in the criminal investigation narrative, though there is usually less ambivalence than in the other minor genres. One source of ambivalence comes with the possibility of corruption on the part of investigators—a recurring concern in this genre. This problem is compounded when the wrong person is punished for the crime, in this genre’s version of the mistaken identity motif. Another source of ambivalence is found in the recurring distinction between the hired henchmen, who are caught and punished, and the criminal masterminds, who often remain beyond the reach of the law. My inclination is to explain these recurring patterns simply by reference to things that happen cross-culturally in the real world when legal systems develop. Corruption occurs; false convictions take place; criminal bosses live in luxury while their hirelings languish in prison or die on the scaffold.

Future Research

Story genre is probably the most thoroughly investigated area in the study of literary universals. We have detailed and extensive hypotheses regarding a range of genres and the relation of these genres to one another. We also have considerable evidence for their cross-cultural recurrence. Finally, we have plausible explanations of these universals, based on—and at the same time partially extending—work in affective science, cognitive science, social psychology, and related fields. (For further discussion, see Hogan The Mind and Affective.) But this hardly means there is nothing more to be done.

First, the preceding analyses are undoubtedly mistaken in at least some respects. Even insofar as they are correct, all the preceding descriptions and explanations may be developed and extended by further research. Moreover, many of the specific claims are vague and should be made more precise. For example, what exactly is the relative frequency of the different genres, and their relative prominence? What is a good way of defining these concepts? A published work with few readers should presumably not weigh equally—even in frequency counts–with a work that is widely and repeatedly read. In connection with this, the distinction between major and minor genres should be made more precise and systematic. The study of both major and minor genres would also benefit from greater precision in determining what traditions do and do not have which genres and which versions of genres—and which do and do not have tragedy. We also need to consider what should constitute a tradition. In addition, we have treated some cross-cultural narrative motifs—types of narrative sequence that may be embedded in different genres. But clearly there are others. What are they? The same point holds for character types. Perhaps more significantly, we need to consider whether there are other cross-culturally recurring genres.

As indicated in the foregoing discussion, there are many specific questions that have arisen in relation to analyses that we have already undertaken. For example, we need to look more carefully at the relation of helping characters to social authority, to ascertain the strength of that relation, reasons for it, any variance it may have with genre, and so on. We need a better understanding of the psychology of sacrifice and reparation, both within and outside literature. Our current understanding of the motif of misrecognition seems too limited, and our explanations appear to fall short in accounting for its relation to genre. The list could be greatly extended.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. In Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. Ed. Sh. H. Butcher. 4th ed. New York: Dover, 1951, 6-111.

Bhasa. Karna’s Burden. In The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays. Trans. A. Haksar. Gurgaon, India: Penguin, 2013.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972.

Chatterjee, Anjan. “Neuroaesthetics: Growing Pains of a New Discipline.” In Shimamura and Palmer, 299–317.

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

Gazzaniga, Michael. Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Ecco, 2011.

Hain, G., G. Silani, K. Preuschoff, C. D. Batson, and T. Singer. “Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members’ Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping.” Neuron 68 (2010): 149-160.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm, ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP and Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Shakespeare, Eastern Theatre, and Literary Universals: Drama in the Context of Cognitive Science.”  In Shakespeare East and West. Ed. Minoru Fujita and Leonard Pronko. Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, 1996, 164-80, 189-90.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Identity, and Cognitive Science. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2009.

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

Hogan, Patrick Colm and Lalita Pandit, eds. Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1995.

Horace. “The Art of Poetry.” Trans., Burton Raffel. In Richter, 68-77.

Kim, Ji-Woong, S.-E. Kim, J.-J. Kim, B. Jeong, C.-H. Park, A. Son, J. Song, and S. Ki. “Compassionate Attitude toward Others’ Suffering Activates the Mesolimbic Neural System.” Neuropsychologia 47 (2009): 2073– 2081.

Pandit, Lalita. “Patriarchy and Paranoia: Imaginary Indfidelity in Uttararāmacarita and The Winter’s Tale.” In Hogan and Pandit 103-133.

Panksepp, Jaak. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Raducanu, Adriana. “The Earth, the Pillar and the Stone: Does Testing the Female Mean Empowering the Female in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and the Turkish Tale Sitti Nusret?” Gender Studies (Romania) 11 (2012): 35-54.

Rank, Otto. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology. New York: Grove P, 2015.

Richter, David, ed. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Boston, MA: Bedford Books, 1989.

Rosch, Eleanor. “Prototypes.” In Hogan, Cambridge, 680– 682.

Scheff, Thomas. “Social-Emotional Origins of Violence: A Theory of Multiple Killing.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 16 (2011): 453-460.

Scheff, Thomas and Suzanne Retzinger. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1991.

Shimamura, Arthur and Stephen Palmer, eds. Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “Dialogue Between Karna and Kunti.” Trans. Ketaki Kushari Dyson. Available online at .

Walker, Julian and Victoria Knauer. “Humiliation, Self-Esteem, and Violence.” The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology 22 (2011): 724–741.


By: Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Response to Russom, ‘Comments on Fabb’

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

These very interesting comments raise some difficult issues, to which I offer partial responses as follows.

  1. The definition of “poem” is taken from Fabb (What is Poetry?). It covers metrical poetry, nonmetrical but parallelistic poetry, and free verse. Its goal is to differentiate most poetry from most prose, but it has some blurred boundaries: for example it does not fit prose poems, and it holds at a small scale – ordinary prose can be divided into paragraphs, chapters etc. which are larger sections not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure.  So it is intended as a useful but not strict (or universal) definition; its purpose is to draw attention to the fact that where poetry has regular added forms such as metre, rhyme, alliteration or parallelism, these added forms are dependent on poetic sections.  Because prose lacks these kinds of section it also lacks the poetic forms.  (Furthermore, as I argue in another entry, the poetic sections on which the forms depend are short enough to fit into working memory.)   Poetic sections – such as metrical lines – can have boundaries which coincide with linguistic constituent boundaries; in some traditions, this is strictly enforced, while in others it is not.  That is, there is definitely the possibility of a regular (perhaps statistically predictable) relation between poetic sections and linguistic constituents.  The point of the definition is that the reverse is not true; that is, there is no generalization that a specific type of linguistic (syntactic or prosodic) constituent is always coincident with a poetic section; if that was the case, then people would be talking poetry whenever they spoke and there would be no prose.
  1. As noted in the comment, there are apparently meters which enumerate words. Hebrew (Carmi 60-62) offers examples, and Rumsey argues that the PNG language Ku Waru has word-counting meters. If words, rather than some prosodic element inside words, are being counted in these meters then they fit the Fabb and Halle approach, which is not committed to phonology determining meter, better than the Kiparsky approach.  But also if these are just counting meters and there is no control of rhythm, then these ‘word counting’ meters are like syllable counting meters, or mora-counting meters, or Korean sijo in which accentual phrases are counted.  As such, these purely counting meters fall outside the scope of the universal, which look not at counting as such, but at the relation between counting and rhythm (in the sense of a pattern of prosodically differentiated units).
  1. Lerdahl and Jackendoff showed that music has various kinds of hierarchical structure, of which (musical) metrical structure is closest to the rhythmic organization of metrical verse. However musical metrical structures are not subject to an upper bounding in length; for example, if the music is in 3/4 time, we do not in general find a kind of requirement relating to the metrical structure itself that every four bars form a distinct section.  The organization of the musical sequence into sections is Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s ‘grouping structure’, a hierarchical organization into motives, phrases and sections which is distinct from but can be systematically related to the metrical structure: they are ‘independent but interactive’. Grouping structure is one of a range of kinds of hierarchical grouping structure in cognition (as Lerdahl and Jackendoff point out, and an area in which they were pioneers; for general discussion see Cohen).   Other kinds of grouping include event segmentation (Radvansky and Zacks).  One of the characteristics of all these kinds of grouping is that there is no inherent limit on their maximal size; they are not measured or counted out.  (Though Lerdahl and Jackendoff do have a rule against very small groups.)  But metrical structures in poetry are made from a controlled number of elements with a lower and upper bound; in this, they are unique.   Note that nothing prevents musical grouping being organized numerically, or prose being organized numerically (and Hymes argued that some folk tales were organised into counted groups); but this is optional not obligatory. Grouping structure in music is a bit like division into paragraphs and chapters in a novel; it is a kind of hierarchical grouping with no inherent limit on maximal size. It is unlike lineation in metrical verse.
  1. Finally, a comment on the Fabb and Halle theory of meter. This shares with all theories of meter the view that a metrical line is attached to a hierarchical metrical representation (whether tree or grid, close variants of one another), with rules which relate the prosodic phonology of the line to the metrical representation.  Theories differ in the extent to which the metrical representation is determined by the phonology of the line, or is autonomous of the phonology; the Fabb-Halle theory tends more (but not completely) to the latter.  We focus more than other theories on how the representation is built (and in our theory, also transformed). Our specific contribution is to note that the metrical representation is controlled in its size by non-linguistic principles; a meter such as iambic pentameter counts ten syllables (or five times two syllables) – but no linguistic rule can count higher then two or perhaps three.  This is the basis of the universal which I propose, which means that there are upper limits on the size of metrical sequences.  This is not inherent to the Kiparsky theories which focus on local relations between small metrical constituents such as feet and short sequences of syllables, though the setting of a limit is derived (in a different way) by Golston and Riad.

Works Cited

Carmi, T., ed. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

Cohen, G. “Hierarchical Models in Cognition: Do They Have Psychological Reality?” European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 12 (2000): 1-36.

Fabb, Nigel. What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: a New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Golston, Chris and Riad, Tomas. “The Phonology of Classical Greek Meter,”  Linguistics  38 (2000): 99–167.

Radvansky, Gabriel A. and Jeffrey M. Zacks, eds. Event Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Rumsey, Alan. “Tom Yaya Kange: A metrical narrative genre from the New Guinea Highlands.”   Journal of Linguistic Anthropology  11.2 (2001):193-239.


By: Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.

Comments on Fabb, “Rhythm”

Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

I think that the proposed universal is very much worth pursuing but I disagree with two of the related claims and would appreciate a response to my reservations by Fabb. The two claims are:

(1) A poem is a text made of language, divided into sections which are not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure. Such sections are called ‘poetic sections’.

(2) In music, regular rhythms can be sustained indefinitely over musical sequences which are not divided into sections; in other words, music can be a kind of ‘metrical prose’ (Fabb and Halle “Grouping”).

Claim #1 comes from Fabb and Halle (Meter). This publication does not confront the evidence for the reality of the metrical foot presented by Paul Kiparsky, and in more recent work based on the hypothesis “that literary language is a development of ordinary language, using the resources already available to it” (Fabb and Halle, Meter, 10). I was surprised that Fabb and Halle simply ignored this research after noting that it existed. I think excellent evidence and argumentation have been provided for the claim that metrical feet exist, that foot boundaries are aligned with word boundaries in the unmarked case, and that line boundaries are aligned in the unmarked case with the boundaries of natural syntactic constituents (sentences, clauses, and phrases, short phrases of course when a form employs short lines). An important universal proposed by Gilbert Youmans is that “higher-level metrical boundaries are progressively more significant than lower-level ones” (376). This explains, for example, why coincidence of foot boundaries with word boundaries is less strictly regulated than coincidence of line boundaries with phrase boundaries. I think the most challenging poetic material for Fabb would be Irish alliterative meters in which the enumerated constituent of the line is the word. (For a summary and references, see Russom.)

Fabb’s claim #2 is stated as if it were an unremarkable one but it seems very remarkable to me. Music in 4/4 time, as generally understood, is divided into measures, and the unmarked realization of the measure is as a group of four quarter notes with the prominence contour 1/3/2/4 (“1” being highest). The leftward boundary of the measure coincides with a prominently accented note in the unmarked case. I have not read Fabb and Halle (“Grouping”) but it is important to clarify what it meant by claim #2 for the benefit of music theorists and musicians. Fabb might want to consider the universals for musical groups in Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s Generative Theory of Tonal Music (the list of universals is on pp. 345–52).

[See also Nigel Fabb, “Response to Russom.”]


Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. “Grouping in the Stressing of Words, in Metrical Verse, and in Music.” In Language and Music as Cognitive Systems. Ed. Patrick Rebuschat, Martin Rohrmeier, John A. Hawkins, and Ian Cross. Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2012, 4–21.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: a New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Kiparsky, Paul. “The Rhythmic Structure of English Verse.” Linguistic Inquiry 8 (1977): 189-247.

Lerdahl, Fred and Ray Jackendoff. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1983.

Russom, Geoffrey. “Word Patterns and Phrase Patterns in Universalist Metrics.” In Frontiers in Comparative Prosody. Ed. Mihhail Lotman and Maria-Kristiina Lotman. Bern: Peter Lang, 2011, 337–71.

Youmans, Gilbert. “Milton’s Meter.” In Phonetics and Phonology: Rhythm and Meter, Volume 1. Ed. Paul Kiparsky and Gilbert Youmans. San Diego, CA: Academic P, 1989), 341-379.



By: Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

Rhythm Requires Poetic Sections

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

This is a proposed as an absolute (implicational) universal, and comes from Fabb and Halle (Meter): Where a text has a sustained regular rhythm, it is also divided into sections of determinate length.

Texts with a regular rhythm (sustained over a long stretch of the text) are called metrical.  The rhythm need not be periodic, and can vary; it is regular in the sense that it includes a range of variations which are overall subject to a set of rules.  In other words, metres are found in poems, defined as texts which are divided into poetic sections.  The following definition is from Fabb.

A poem is a text made of language, divided into sections which are not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure.   Such sections are called “poetic sections.”

The universal means that there is no metrical prose.  Meter depends on the division of a text into poetic sections – that is, meter depends on the text being poetry.  The fact that meter depends on sectioning can be seen also in the fact that metricality is locally sensitive to the edges of sections; the beginnings of lines tend to be metrically looser, the ends of lines metrically stricter.  Note that this is unconnected with how the text is written on the page. If we wrote out Paradise Lost as prose, the division into sections would still exist (it would still be a poem as defined above), as demonstrated by the fact that a generalization holds that every tenth syllable is word-final.

The universal also distinguishes regular rhythms in language from regular rhythms in music.  In music, regular rhythms can be sustained indefinitely over musical sequences which are not divided into sections; in other words, music can be a kind of “metrical prose” (Fabb and Halle “Grouping”).

The explanation of the universal is provided in the Fabb and Halle theory of meter, and is basically that regular rhythms are derived from counting.  In this theory, a regular rhythm is produced by rules which control the prosodic structure of the text relative to an abstract representation which is a periodic multi-level grid.  The grid is constructed by rules which build the grid from one end of a sequence of syllables (or morae) to the other end of the sequence; each meter is governed by rules which will build a well-formed grid only if the number of metrical syllables or morae fits within a specified range (e.g., for iambic pentameter, the grid can be built for a line of 9, 10 or 11 metrical syllables).  Thus in order to produce a regular rhythm, the text must be divided into sections which are of the right length to have a grid constructed from them, i.e., the text must be divided into sections (such as lines) of a determinate length, hence must be poetry and cannot be prose.

This universal combines with the universal controlling the length of the poetic line (Fabb), to produce a derived combined universal: Where a text has a regular rhythm, it is also divided into sections of determinate length which are short enough to fit into working memory capacity.

Future Research

There are some cases of what appear to be prose but have forms such as rhyme (e.g., Arabic rhymed prose or saj’).  The organization of these types of prose is underexplored; it is worth looking for examples of ‘metrical’ prose in which a regular rhythm is sustained over a long sequence where there is no evidence that the sequence is divided into subsections.

[See also Geoffrey Russom, “Comments on Fabb, ‘Rhythm,’” and Nigel Fabb, “Response to Russom.”]


Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel. What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. “Grouping in the Stressing of Words, in Metrical Verse, and in Music.” In Language and Music as Cognitive Systems. Ed. Patrick Rebuschat, Martin Rohrmeier, John A. Hawkins, and Ian Cross. Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2012, 4–21.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: a New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.



By: Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.