To be held at The University of Connecticut, Storrs, on 24 May 2019
Announcement and Call for Papers
Literary universals include properties and structures ranging, for example, from genre patterns through metaphor and imagery, and from ethical or political themes through formal features of prosody. Technically, literary universals are features of literary works that recur across unrelated literary traditions with greater frequency than would be predicted by chance. Traditions are unrelated if they are distinct in their sources and have not influenced each other through interaction, at least not with respect to the feature under consideration. Thus, early Chinese and early European poetry count as unrelated by this definition, but Latin New Comedy and English Renaissance comedy would not count as unrelated. (For further discussion, see “What Are Literary Universals?“)
Though the study of literary universals was dormant for some time, developments in cognitive and affective science have revived the study of cross-cultural literary patterns, enabling new insights into their nature and origins. Moreover, the study of such patterns holds promise for contributing to our understanding of human cognition and emotion, thus cognitive and affective science themselves.
This one-day workshop will explore topics in the study of literary universals. Confirmed speakers include Joseph Carroll, Patrick Colm Hogan, and Geoffrey Russom.
There will be a limited number of panels, with presentations of fifteen to twenty minutes on specific topics in literary universals. Researchers interested in speaking at the workshop should submit 300-word abstracts to the organizers, Severi Luoto (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Arnab Roy (email@example.com), by 15 March 2019. In keeping with the principles of the study of universals in literature, linguistics, and elsewhere, papers should make reference to at least two unrelated traditions (e.g., early Chinese and early European) or to prior research on universals that has itself treated at least two unrelated traditions.
There is no fee to register for the conference. However, since lunch will be provided, we are asking that participants complete the brief registration form before 1 May 2019.
Please note: Since the on-campus hotel will be closed at the time of the workshop, participants who plan to stay overnight will have to take a hotel room at some distance from the university and should plan on having their own transportation between the hotel and campus, since public transportation and taxi service are both very limited in the area. Accommodations in the area of UConn include Spring Hill Inn (Storrs), Best Western (Storrs), Rodeway Inn (Willington), and The Tolland Inn. Information on visitor parking at the University of Connecticut-Storrs may be found at the university’s Parking Services website.
Vittorio Gallese, University of Parma, Italy, and University of London, UK,
and Hannah Chapelle Wojciehowski, University of Texas at Austin, USA,
with Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut, USA
PCH: It’s a great honor to be able to speak about literary universals with one of the most important neuroscientists working today and with an innovative, cognitive literary critic who seeks to integrate neuroscience and literary study. Professor Gallese, I realize that literature is not your area of research. However, I believe your insights will be very valuable to students of literature who are trying to determine just what might be universal in literature—absolutely, statistically, typologically, and so on. (On the varieties of universals, see my “What Are Literary Universals?”) Of course, Professor Wojciehowski, your expertise in literary study complements Professor Gallese’s orientation ideally.
I would like to take up your work on the arts and embodied simulation, with its relation to mirroring, while touching also on some other relevant ideas, such as Professor Gallese’s account of spatial experience. As to the former, Professor Gallese and David Freedberg “propose that a crucial element of esthetic response consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions and corporeal sensation, and that these mechanisms are universal.” In connection with works of representational art, “beholders might find themselves automatically simulating the emotional expression, the movement or even the implied movement within the representation” (Freedberg and Gallese 197). They further explain that “Our capacity to pre-rationally make sense of the actions, emotions and sensations of others depends on embodied simulation, a functional mechanism through which the actions, emotions or sensations we see activate our own internal representations of the body states that are associated with these social stimuli, as if we were engaged in a similar action or experiencing a similar emotion or sensation” (198).
It seems that this should extend, with only minor changes, to literature, which requires simulation as well, though the simulation is based on language, rather than perceived images. Indeed, the two of you stress embodied simulation in literary response in your article on “How Stories Make Us Feel.”
First, could you comment on what sorts of commonality you might expect to find in literature? What sorts of patterns would you look for in connection with mirroring and embodied simulation? I realize that, as a scientist and a humanist committed to scientific enquiry, you may be—quite rightly—hesitant to make claims without empirical support. But, as Karl Popper stressed, “bold conjectures” are important for science, because “only with the help of such bold conjectures can we hope to discover interesting and relevant truth” (312).
VG: Thank you for this stimulating opening question. It will also help me to clarify why a cognitive neuroscientist would be willing to address such a question and the ensuing ones. As Hannah and I recently stressed when writing about the so-called “biocultural turn,” more and more scholars are questioning the rigid dichotomy severing culture from nature (Wojciehowski and Gallese, “Narrative”). Hannah and I agree upon the necessity to overcome this dichotomy, on the basis of the assumption that culture can be considered as an extension or outgrowth of the natural. To paraphrase Helmuth Plessner, as human beings we are artificially natural and naturally artificial.
In this vein, culture can be described as a naturally evolved type of human cognitive technology. According to the evolutionary framework, human cultural evolution can be conceived as a perpetually dynamic process of cognitive technological development, where the first prehistoric lithic tools and the iPhone 7 used to shoot a feature movie (Unsane, Steven Soderberg, 2018) represent two different and temporally distinct outcomes of the same technological dimension. What we currently designate as “literature” constitutes no exception to this perspective. The biocultural paradigm posits that any human technology is at the same time the expression of the human mind and of humans’ bodily nature, as the latter scaffolds the former.
To put it in more radical terms, we are always dealing with two sides of the same coin. Nevertheless, the human mind and humans’ bodily nature should be kept separate at the operational level, as they are best approached and studied from multiple perspectives, according to multiple methodologies, leading to correspondingly different levels and languages of description. The real challenge for the biocultural approach is to define bridge concepts and/or empirically test how to deconstruct, revise or even dissolve many of the conceptual tools we currently employ to discuss art, literature, and their reception.
But what is the bearing of neuroscience? I think that cognitive neuroscience can provide those bridge concepts, as it is well equipped to address the conceptualization of human culture, art and literature by investigating the underpinning brain-body mechanisms. By studying the brain-body in relation to artistic expressions and their reception we can better understand the constitutive elements of aesthetic experience and the genesis of aesthetic concepts.
Let me now address more specifically your question about literary universals. First of all, do they exist? I think that the biocultural approach is best suited to address this question, as it allows to overcome the often-supposed equivalence between universality and natural determinism. Indeed, if one considers human culture and nature as mutually interacting domains, any biological description of human cognitive/cultural traits is neither forced to surrender to deterministic innatism, nor to neglect historical and ethnological cultural diversity. This still allows one to look for universals.
Even before asking whether literary universals do exist, I think we should answer an even more fundamental question: what is literature for? Cognitive literary theorist Michele Cometa recently argued that stories help us to live because they help us to compensate for our finitude and related inadequacy at coping with the world’s challenges. It is fair to say that virtually all human beings share the same impulse to narrate – and listen to – stories. Thus, the first universal seems to be fiction-proclivity. I see it as a particular case of the wider human propensity to create parallel worlds, likely first imagining them, then turning those fantasies into images, signs and words. In that respect, solid empirical evidence shows that the neurobiological mechanisms interfacing us with the “real world,” largely overlap with those acting when we imagine fictional worlds both through images and words. Indeed, experiencing an emotion and imagining it are both underpinned by the activation of partly identical brain circuits, although differently connected, when engaged in these different cognitive and phenomenal situations. Similarly, to see something and to imagine it, to act and to imagine one is acting, share the activation of partly common brain circuits.Hence, embodied simulation theory can be used both to account for how we perceive the world and how we imagine it, or build a world of fiction. Basically, my hypothesis is that the world of literature is “felt” not too differently from how we feel the more prosaic world of our daily life. We feel for and empathize with fictional characters in ways that are similar to how we feel for our real social partners, although with qualifying differences (see below).
HCW: I will add one thing here that is important to establish at the outset of our discussion: when we speak of literary universals, we need to leave open the possibility of exceptions. In many areas of literary studies today, and for the past several decades, the idea of universals has been heavily challenged. That is because abstract notions of the human or of human experience have often functioned as de factomeans of validating the tastes, values, and authority of dominant groups over those of everyone else within some larger polity. Literary critics tend to be skeptical of claims to universality—and rightly so. There are persistent and ongoing concerns that any claims to universality will be ensconced as social or cultural norms that delegitimize or stigmatize persons or groups whose experiences do not conform to those norms.
All three of us understand the potential for misuse and/or the denial or suppression of differences in human experiences of all kinds. Nevertheless, I would argue that we should not be afraid to investigate and to theorize aesthetic experience in light of new scientific discoveries of the underlying mechanisms of human and animal perception, or human-as-animal perception, with the caveat that there are risks involved in claiming universality. There is new empirical data coming out every day that is highly relevant to what we do as literary critics, and it would be a mistake to ignore it. Is there still room to talk about universals, relatively speaking, or common experiences? Yes, absolutely. Moreover, it is necessary and helpful to do so, because it may have the effect of creating conversations across perceived barriers between groups, however we might define them. Exploring universals may help us gain a better understanding of the categories of experience that we may share with the animal world.
PCH: Before turning to verbal literature, I thought it might be worthwhile to take up the case of picture-based narrative. Relative to paintings, on the one hand, and verbal literature, on the other, picture-based narrative presents an intermediate case, where images are embedded in text. The obvious instance of the last is contemporary graphic fiction, but the practice of intertwining words and drawings in storytelling extends back centuries in a range of traditions (see, for example, Mair). One motif that seems to recur in a number of traditions is the descent into Hell or, more broadly, the depiction of extreme suffering. Here are four examples of what I have in mind, one from Bengal, one from Thailand, one from the United States, and one from Iran (via France). I would like to ask two questions here. First, do you have any thoughts on this as a recurring motif across traditions? (We will turn to some purely literary examples later.) Second, what would you say about the embodied responses that these works seek to elicit, how they do so, and what that might say about cross-cultural patterns in literary or aesthetic production and reception? (I have included the reproductions to make it possible to comment on specific points in the works, if you like.) I am obviously concerned here with “the relationship between embodied empathetic feelings in the observer and the representational content of the works in terms of the actions, intentions, objects, emotions and sensations depicted in a given painting or sculpture” (Freedberg and Gallese 199)—or, in this case, image plus text.
Figure 1. Bengali scroll illustration of “the tortures of hell,” depicting, “among other things, how a liar’s tongue is pulled out with hot tongs and how a miser’s head is smashed with a husking pedal” (Hauser 117).
Figure 2. Thai scroll depiction of the Buddhist monk, Phra Malai, visiting Hell (Lefferts 158). Lefferts explains that the souls in Hell are “in a boiling cauldron” (157). Phra Malai clarifies how they can be released from suffering. I [PCH] might add to Lefferts’s observations that the souls in Hell appear to have adopted the same prayerful posture as the seemingly peaceful beings who accompany the monks—not what one might expect from the cross-culturally common motif of burning in Hell. They are also linked with those beings by the purple color motif (as the monks are linked by their ochre robes).
Figure 3. From Spiegelman’s Maus II (72): One of the methods of mass execution in Auschwitz.
Figure 4. From Satrapi’s Persepolis (15): An atrocity—a crowd locked in a burning theater—that contributes to revolutionary anger in Iran.
HCW: Great question. In each image, Hell (1-2) or a hellish place or situation (3-4) entails physical pain. Why is hell so often associated with burning? Is it because being consumed by fire is one of the most excruciating forms of pain that the human body can experience? The text accompanying the Maus image (3) suggests the prolongation and intensification of that physical pain; those words provide a context that the image does not do on its own. The Bengali scroll (1) features women getting their tongues torn out by demons–once again, an extreme image of physical pain caused by bodily dismemberment. The bowl of tongues could function to terrorize the viewer of the scroll, or perhaps it provides comic relief, implying that there are a lot of liars out there. The liars in this image are female; is the artist taking a dig at women? It would seem so. Meanwhile the Thai scroll (2) depicts souls in a cauldron of boiling water. This is more of a purgatorial image, since these souls are performing penance that will enable their rebirth.
Every human body feels pain, with rare exceptions. There are a tiny number of people who lack the pain-sensing mechanisms that we generally rely on in order to avoid damaging our bodies, but most people are capable of feeling pain. The ability to experience physical pain is something we share with virtually everyone who has ever lived, and many or most animal species, as well. Religion frequently capitalizes on that fact in order to elicit certain behaviors from human communities—do what we say, or bad things will happen to you. Religious imagery of hell elicits embodied simulation on the part of the viewer. We simulate in our minds the affective components of pain, but not the physical ones, as Tania Singer et al. demonstrated in an important study of how we mirror the pain of others. When we see images such as these, we imagine what that suffering feels like—indeed, we cannot not imagine it, or only with considerable difficulty.
Each of the four images above features not only pain, but also vulnerable bodies. This vulnerability is depicted via a range of motifs, such as nudity (1-2), sexual defenselessness (1), mouths open in pain (3-4), bodily contortions (1, 3-4), and captivity (1-4). Physical pain or discomfort is the primary motif of hell, whether that hell has been created by supernatural forces or by humans. Each image is a prompt to moral reflection that arises from the perception and co-experience of pain.
VG: These four images wouldn’t need any explanatory word, as they are self-evident. Such self-evidence also stems from the beholders’ embodied simulation of the bodily postures, facial expressions and affective correlates of the depicted situations leading the portrayed human bodies to suffer. What is depicted evokes a bodily simulated response; words most likely provide a context, which in turn can modulate those same responses.
PCH: Each of the preceding selections involves moral and/or political concerns. For instance, the Bengali example clearly represents a kind of tit-for-tat punishment for moral failings. On the other hand, readers today are likely to notice immediately that the sinners or victims are all women and the punishers or demons are all male. Similarly, the image from Satrapi is complicated. The complicity of the police with the killing suggests government involvement, but the participation of secular progressives in the revolution might have contributed to the eventual victory of religious reaction in Iran. Where do you see the place of mirroring and embodied empathy in the ethical and political programs of literature (in these cases or elsewhere)?
HCW: Your question cuts to the chase. Implicitly you are asking about the stakes of cognitive literary studies, not just for its current practitioners but potentially for literary theorists and cultural studies practitioners who might not see its relevance to more politically and socially driven forms of critique. These would include feminisms and queer theories, critical race studies, and disability studies, among others. In fact, the wide-ranging set of discourses that is sometimes called cognitive theory or cognitive cultural studies is highly useful when blended with identity-focused ethical critiques such as those just mentioned, even though that combination may seem counter-intuitive to critics who have been trained to eschew essentialisms of all varieties. But understanding the mechanisms of shared human experience, or human-animal experience, is not essentialist in itself. It depends what you do with it.
For example, understanding the near-universality of human pain experiences, together with the variability of the mirroring mechanism (it is innate but not always a given) could be put to the service of a feminist reading of the Bengali scroll. Are viewers supposed to empathize with the women being tortured and punished? Why or why not? How might viewer/reader acts of empathy or of disengagement vary from culture to culture, or from time period to time period? How else might we account for the variety of possible reactions on the part of viewers? Does the artist’s vision or intention matter? Why or why not? These and similar questions are highly salient to our understanding of how works of art make us feel, and whatthey make us feel.
Artists and writers understand that humans live and move in the world via pain-sensing mechanisms, among other things, and they put that understanding to work in their representations of experience. Pain doesn’t have to be present in every painting or story, but it often is, and it can be used deliberately and innovatively in order to have the viewer or reader feel moved in some way. In these images from Maus and Persepolis, we understand that it is humans, rather than God or demons, who have inflicted these sadistic punishments on the innocent bodies of their victims, and we contemplate that injustice. We empathize with those in pain. We may desire to understand the social and political contexts of the violence that we are witnessing.
The experience of a powerful work of art may produce a surfeit of feeling—here, distress–that impels us to put emotion and sensation into words. We may seek to share that experience with others as ethical and/or aesthetic reflections that can be threaded through the rest of our reality.
VG: Mirroring and embodied empathy are not stereotyped and undifferentiated responses. They are both context-dependent and idiosyncratically linked to beholders’ and/or readers’ personal historical, social and biological identity. The political and ethical impact of literature – and of art in general—clearly depend upon how these individual modulating factors affect the bodily responses they trigger. In other words, I think that in our response to literature there always be a projective quality, related to how our personal life history has determined the development of our embodied cognition, as the latter is the outcome of our bodily habits and implicit memories. Each of us, to a certain degree simulates a given fictional content in a very specific way. Indeed, the more we factor in inter-individual diversity, the more we understand how differently people relate to fiction. Contemporary political discourse exemplifies that pretty neatly: some contents that were considered taboo just few years ago, are now openly addressed.
PCH: In connection with this, I might remark on the apparently very different orientation of the Bengali and Thai depictions (though Lefferts does indicate that some other Thai representations are more graphic about the sufferings of those in Hell ). I would suggest that this is due to a general, Buddhist tendency to move away from moral judgment to prudence and the associated stress on compassion. (This is related to the Buddhist allowance of many chances across many lives.) Buddhist detachment is beneficial because it is prudent; not following it is a painful mistake, not an offense against God. The same points would hold for some versions of Hinduism, but the influences of Christian and Muslim monotheism and moralism have been strong in Bengal. In any case, do you have any thoughts on the different sorts of embodied and mirroring responses that might bear on these sorts of differences in ethics and politics? Neither the more compassionate view of the Buddhists nor the righteous condemnation of sinners is uniform across societies. I take this to be relevant to universals because neither is uniform within a society either. What might be universal is the different ways one might conceive of ethics, politics, and empathic or compassionate response.
HCW: Yet another great question. One of the most influential books of the 1980s among literary critics was Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. This was an incredibly ambitious book written from a psychoanalytic and anthropological perspective; Kristeva’s topic, abjection, refers to what she argued is a universal human revulsion toward whatever in real life or in fantasy threatens the boundaries between self and other. One portion of her book explored the ways that each different religion formalizes its own set of relations to the abject in order to provide mastery over it.
So what I am thinking is that someone needs to write a new theory of world religion with embodied cognition and neuroscience in mind. To what extent would such a project be compatible with Kristeva’s psychoanalytic theory of abjection in religion and art, or with any other analysis? Likely it would break new ground.
VG: I agree. As I tried to say in my previous answer, the biocultural search for universals does not imply, let alone posit cultural homogeneity. The same neurobiological mechanisms are at stake in every culture. However, we speak of different cultures or of different responses within the same culture, precisely because these mechanisms are plastic and bear the mark of each individual’s personal identity, thus leading to personalized forms of embodiment.
PCH: Here, we might turn to verbal literature. There are many cases of the descent into hell in different literary traditions. The obvious example is, of course, Dante. (I’ve given a selection below, but you should feel free to take up any part you like.) Other examples would include the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata. At the end of that massive work, one of the main characters, Yudhiṣṭhira goes to Heaven. He finds “prosperity,” “effulgence like the sun,” and the dissolution of enmity (1). But he feels enmity for those in Heaven and longing for those who are not, and therefore descends into Hell, led by a Virgil-like guide. Hell is “enveloped in thick darkness” and “Polluted with . . . stench,” filled with harassing insects, surrounded by fire, and fed with a river of boiling water (3). He witnesses tortures all around. Dispirited by what he experiences, Yudhiṣṭhira decides to turn back. However, he hears the laments of his family, who find his presence consoling and in some degree relieving.
In these passages, we see that the descent into Hell has a long and diverse history. What do you make of the recurrence of this idea in these complex, verbal texts? Where do you see embodied simulation functioning in cross-culturally consequential ways?
From the final canto of Inferno (XXXIV):
Quando noi fummo fatti tanto avante,
ch’al mio maestro piacque di mostrarmi
la creatura ch’ebbe il bel sembiante,
d’innanzi mi si tolse e fé restarmi,
«Ecco Dite», dicendo, «ed ecco il loco
ove convien che di fortezza t’armi».
Com’ io divenni allor gelato e fioco,
nol dimandar, lettor, ch’i’ non lo scrivo,
però ch’ogne parlar sarebbe poco.
Io non mori’ e non rimasi vivo;
pensa oggimai per te, s’hai fior d’ingegno,
qual io divenni, d’uno e d’altro privo.
Lo ‘mperador del doloroso regno
da mezzo ‘l petto uscia fuor de la ghiaccia;
e più con un gigante io mi convegno,
che i giganti non fan con le sue braccia:
vedi oggimai quant’ esser dee quel tutto
ch’a così fatta parte si confaccia.
S’el fu sì bel com’ elli è ora brutto,
e contra ‘l suo fattore alzò le ciglia,
ben dee da lui procedere ogne lutto.
Oh quanto parve a me gran maraviglia
quand’ io vidi tre facce a la sua testa!
L’una dinanzi, e quella era vermiglia;
l’altr’ eran due, che s’aggiugnieno a questa
sovresso ‘l mezzo di ciascuna spalla,
e sé giugnieno al loco de la cresta:
e la destra parea tra bianca e gialla;
la sinistra a vedere era tal, quali
vegnon di là onde ‘l Nilo s’avvalla.
Sotto ciascuna uscivan due grand’ ali,
quanto si convenia a tanto uccello:
vele di mar non vid’ io mai cotali.
Non avean penne, ma di vispistrello
era lor modo; e quelle svolazzava,
sì che tre venti si movean da ello:
quindi Cocito tutto s’aggelava.
Con sei occhi piangëa, e per tre menti
gocciava ‘l pianto e sanguinosa bava.
Da ogne bocca dirompea co’ denti
un peccatore, a guisa di maciulla,
sì che tre ne facea così dolenti.
A quel dinanzi il mordere era nulla
verso ‘l graffiar, che talvolta la schiena
rimanea de la pelle tutta brulla.
(“The emperor of the woeful realm from his midbreast issued forth from the ice; and I match better with a giant, than the giants do with his arms. See now how great must be that whole which corresponds to such parts. If he was as fair as he now is foul, and against his Maker lifted up his brow, surely may all tribulation proceed from him. Oh how great a marvel it seemed to me, when I saw three faces on his head! one in front, and that was red; the others were two that were joined to this above the very middle of each shoulder, and they were joined together at the place of the crest; and the right seemed between white and yellow, the left was such to sight as those who come from where the Nile flows valleyward. Beneath each came forth two great wings, of size befitting so huge a bird. Sails of the sea never saw I such. They had no feathers, but their fashion was of a bat; and he was flapping them so that three winds went forth from him, whereby Cocytus was all congealed. With six eyes he was weeping, and over three chins trickled the tears and bloody drivel. With each mouth he was crushing a sinner with his teeth, in manner of a brake, so that he thus was making three of them woeful. To the one in front the biting was nothing to the clawing, so that sometimes his spine remained all stripped of skin.”)
HCW: We might also ask why heaven is “up there” in Dante, in the Mahābhārata, and in general. I am struck by the useless wings of Satan, who cannot fly out of hell because he is entrapped in the ice of the frozen Cocytus, which his own wing-flapping keeps frozen. We don’t have wings, and we cannot fly by our own power, and yet we can co-feel with Satan, insofar as we know what it feels like to be trapped, to be cold, and perhaps sometimes to be miserable. We do not empathize with Satan, most of us, because the narrative guides us to identify with Dante and Virgil, who are horrified by him (speaking of abjection). In order to escape, they must grab onto the immense hairy body of the demon and climb down through a space between his body and the ice. When Virgil reaches the hip, positioned at the center of the earth, he pivots. In order to come out on the other side, he must turn upside-down, which is really right-side up.
The last four lines of the Inferno knock my socks off. Dante writes:
salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle
che porta ’l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle. (136-139)
(“We mounted up again, he first and I second, till through a round opening I saw of those beauteous things which heaven bears, and thence we came forth to see again the stars.”)
After imagining and co-feeling the impotence of the three damnedest of the damned—Brutus, Judas and Cassius—as they are cannibalized by Satan, and of Satan himself, a flightless demon-bat hybrid stuck in the pit of hell, we imagine the feeling of inverting, of literally and figuratively coming out on the other side. We feel with the two of them a renewed sense of agency, of upward movement, which for Dante is a completely unexpected reversal, and perhaps even a rebirth through the pertugio tondo (see my forthcoming essay “Metaphors They Lived By”). We co-feel with the two voyagers a sense of exhilaration as they begin their climb toward heaven, which only one of them—Dante–will enter.
VG: The cross-cultural pervasiveness of the trope “descent to hell” is likely the outcome of a vastly shared negative connotation of the downward polarity of space. If one thinks about body physiology, for example nutrients, oxygen, as well as the teleoceptive senses enabling us to be in touch with the world, like sight and audition, enter the body in its upper part, while dejections come out from its lower one. Following Lakoff and Johnson original insight (1981), human cognition in general, and ethics and politics in particular, are mapped by the body through metaphorical mapping. This is one of the most important element justifying the notion that the human mind is physically- and thus bodily-situated. By the way, embodiment also provides the key explanation for the verses describing Lucifer’s bodily actions being so compelling and disturbing: indeed, Lucifer’s restless wing flapping associated with his perpetual forced stillness, because of the grip of the frozen soil, increases our feeling of uneasiness, as it brings along a sense of useless effort and the accompanying feeling of frustration.
PCH: I have mentioned to you before that it might make sense to try to isolate different “profiles of embodied response,” as we might call them, outlines of the degree and kind of (simulative) mirror neuron or similar activation that may be provoked in a subject while reading a literary work. For example, romantic and heroic stories are perhaps the most common genres cross-culturally. These clearly involve simulation—gentle and intimate in the former case, energetic and combative in the second. I wonder about the degree to which embodied simulation may figure in the apparent prominence of these genres. Put differently, would embodied simulation operate with the same intensity in sacrificial, family reunion, or revenge and criminal investigation stories? (For an outline of the cross-cultural narrative genres, see “Story.”)
HCW: Well, there is some historical variability in the popularity of genres. Why that would be I’m not sure, but it’s something to think about. For example, criminal investigation stories are in ascendance in our own time. Romances were very popular in the Renaissance (I am describing a genre that is somewhat different from what most people mean by “romance” today). I was going to say that epics abound in antiquity, though the omnipresent superhero films of the current moment are certainly epic. It makes me wonder why certain affective scenarios / fantasy clusters are valued more at certain times more than others.
VG: One way to answer this question would be to posit that literary genres can be equated to different mindsets, each of which presupposes specific rules, mappings and their related bodily images and behaviors. However, each of this supposedly different mind sets share a great deal of underpinning neurobiological mechanisms. For example, according to René Girard comedy and tragedy show, at bottom, a common mimetic scheme: laughter and tears share the same propensity to put the body into play to expel from it, and cathartically remove the mimetic conflict pattern, which is at the center of both the comic theater and the tragic one. It is no coincidence, Girard says, that laughter is most evoked by tickling, a bodily practice that simulates an attack on the other’s body. Comedy thus becomes an “intellectual tickle” that puts us in a position to witness the eternal conflictual reciprocity of our species, ritualized in the mimetic scheme intrinsic to the comic genre.
PCH: I also wonder if you have any thoughts on the ways embodiment or mirroring operate in fiction and non-fiction? I have claimed for some time that our minds are set up in order to respond to fiction and non-fiction similarly (see chapter one of How Authors’ Minds Make Stories). The adaptive function of simulation relies on our having an emotional-motivational response to imagined scenarios, pursuing those that appear to be opportunities and shunning those that seem to pose threats, thus those that inspire desire in the former case and fear in the latter case. Nonetheless, it is clear that we do in some respects respond differently to imagined and real scenarios—including in empathic response. For example, it at least seems that we are much more willing to have compassion for “sinners” in novels than in news stories. Do embodied cognition and mirroring processes tell us something about this?
VG: Indeed, it is true that we respond differently to imagined and real scenarios: no one rushes out of the movie theatre in panic after watching a house on fire on the movie screen. The same applies to literature. So far we emphasized, clearly, the similarity between our responses to fiction and non-fiction. This similarity transpires even at the level of single neurons. A recent study by Caggiano et al. showed that macaques’ mirror neurons respond to both the observation of real actions performed by the experimenter physically present in front of them, and to their filmed footage displayed on a computer screen. However, needless to say, there is something distinctive of our response to fiction. What might that be?
A possible solution to this conundrum is offered by the hypothesis of “liberated embodied simulation.” That is to say, embodied simulation can be relevant to our experience of fictional worlds because of the potentiation of the mirroring mechanisms that they activate (Gallese “Aby” and “Embodied”; Wojciehowski and Gallese “How” and “Narrative”). In this way, embodied simulation generates the specific attitude informing our aesthetic experience. Such potentiation supposedly boosts the bodily memories and imaginative associations that fictional content awakes in our minds, and thus provides the specific character of its reception. How is such potentiation achieved? One important context-dependent aspect characterizing our relationship to fictional worlds deals with our distancing from the unrelated external world, which remains at the periphery of our attentional focus. Such distancing, this temporary suspension of the active grip on our daily occupations, liberates new simulative energies. When reading a novel, we distance ourselves from the “everyday” context. By adopting such an attitude, our embodied simulation becomes “liberated”—that is, it is freed from the burden of modeling our actual psychophysical presence in daily life; hence, new simulative energies are liberated. The specific and particularly moving experience generated when relating to the world of fiction is enhanced by the sense of safe intimacy with a world we not only imagine, but also literally embody with augmented intensity. Furthermore, when engaged with fictional narratives, the contextual bodily framing—our being still—additionally boosts our embodied simulation. Being forced to inaction, we are more open to feelings and emotions. When relating to fictional worlds, our attitude toward their content can be characterized as a sort of “neotenic look” (Gallese “Neoteny”). This is similar to the way we look at the world during the early period of our development, in which, because of our poor motor autonomy, our interactions with the world are mainly mediated by the embodied simulation of events, actions, and emotions animating our social landscape. We probably learn to calibrate gestures and expressions and to match them with experiences of pleasure/displeasure, while observing them in others, thanks to embodied simulation and its plasticity.
When we relate to fictional worlds, our relative immobility is the outcome of a deliberate decision on our part. However, immobility, that is, a greater degree of motor inhibition, likely allows us to allocate more neural resources to the task at hand, intensifying the activation of embodied simulation and, in so doing, making us adhere more intensely to what we are simulating. This, in turn, helps strengthen our empathic engagement. Curiously enough, some of the most vivid fictional experiences we entertain, such as those occurring within dreams, are paralleled by the massive inhibition of the muscle tone in our body.
HCW: Hmm. I would distinguish not only between fiction and non-fiction, but also between third- and first-person narratives. The latter, whether true or false, are usually easier to follow and imagine from the protagonist’s perspective. The first-person narrative that has the feel of truth—that is, of being non-fiction—tends to draw us in. Artful third-person or the much rarer second-person narratives can also pull us in. So I’m not sure about this question. There are a lot of variables to take into account.
PCH: As I mentioned before, I would like to turn briefly toward the issue of space. You recently published an essay of mine on “Affective Space and Emotional Time,” where I considered emotional aspects of space in poems by the great Chinese writers, Lǐ Bái (李白) and Lǐ Qīngzhào (李清照). Though I was not focusing on literary universals in that essay, it seems clear that the various aspects of space treated by those poets—for example, its organization in terms of attachment relations—carry over to a wide range of writers from other traditions and other time periods. Indeed, I have maintained in The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology that the emotional organization of space is crucial to recurring features of the cross-cultural genres, as in the common exile of the legitimate leader in heroic usurpation stories or that of the lover in romantic stories.
I suspect that there are many aspects of spatial experience that have cross-cultural literary functions, including aspects of bodily, peripersonal, and extrapersonal space (see Rizzolatti and colleagues), the experience of spatial boundaries and body ownership, and other topics. For example, Professor Gallese and David Freedberg explain that “When we see the body part of someone else being touched or caressed, or when we see two objects touching each other, our somatosensory cortices are activated as if our body were subject to tactile stimulation” (201). This phenomenon seems likely to figure in the development of, for example, erotic literature—a familiar genre in the West, but one that flourished in, for example, India and China as well. I also imagine that it has a place in familial attachment and separation narratives. Do you have comments or observations on the implications of Professor Gallese’s work for thinking about (perhaps at this point merely conjecturing about) the various types of spatial experience and their possible relation to literary universals?
HCW: There’s plenty of room for comment here—pun intended. Erotic literature and romance, as well as pornography, play with the sensations of pleasure that are generated in the reader or viewer when distances are crossed, and contact—the bridging of physical or psychic space–occurs. Patrick, you relate these sensations to familial narratives, which is an intriguing and non-intuitive connection to make. I am reminded of the parable of the prodigal son, which concludes with the highly satisfying contraction of the heartbreaking physical and emotional distance that separates parents and child for most of the story.
These sensations can work in the other direction, as you suggest of separation narratives. Estrangement within narratives, tales of separation and isolation, may turn on the absence or loss of physical contact, an opening up of physical or temporal space and distance, that we co-feel as we read or watch. The genre of a work determines how the usual push-pull of contact and separation will play out according to an established formula. But if the story should play out differently, then we might be surprised to find ourselves in another genre–distanced, as it were, from our prior horizon of expectations, not in Kansas anymore.
PCH: As to family separation and reunion narratives and tactility, what I had in mind was that not only sexual desire, but non-sexual attachment is commonly expressed and communicated through bodily contact. Caresses and embraces do not need to be erotic. Indeed, they are often important in family reunion, as their impossibility is a painful consequence of separation.
A final question: What other aspects of your work do you feel might be particularly relevant to the study of literary universals?
VG: I guess we badly need to investigate different cultures and different literary traditions. We all know too well how in the past universality claims were used to support and consolidate a Western-centric view of culture.
HCW: I am a literary historian by training—one who has specialized in late medieval and Renaissance literature. Students tend to steer clear of premodern literature because it seems incredibly foreign to them. Indeed, there are many hurdles to understanding, and as a teacher and scholar of the period, I can avail myself of two approaches: 1) highlighting cultural differences, ruptures, and other impasses to understanding; and 2) highlighting continuities of and within the human experience, which, like Dante and Virgil flipping over as they pass through to the other side, suddenly enable us to make sense of what we otherwise see and experience as forbiddingly or perhaps delightfully alien. Either way works, and these approaches work even better in tandem.
PCH: Thank you both very much for your generosity in participating in this interview. I know you are both very busy and it is not a small thing for you to take this amount of time. The result, however, will undoubtedly be beneficial to readers of the website, both humanists and scientists.
In conclusion, I might remark briefly on the important political issues you both rightly mention. As you know, the explicit program of the Literary Universals Project to foster the empirical study, including both description and explanation, of literary universals, as defined on the website in the following terms: “For any given domain of literature (e.g., narrative), universals are features of works in that domain that recur across genetically and areally unrelated traditions with greater frequency than would be predicted by chance” (“What Are Literary Universals?”). It is important to stress that this is a search for universals in the sense of what distinct traditions share. The politically offensive sense of “universal” is almost the exact opposite. It is an assertion of difference across cultures, combined with a claim that one culture should be forced on all the others, since that culture is supposedly “universal,” while the others are not. For example, in literary history, this objectionable sense of “universal” is found in the view that European literary works (e.g., Hamlet) are “universal,” while the literary works of other traditions (e.g., Abhijñānaśākuntalam) are merely of local interest.
In short, the politically objectionable use of “universal” is actually anti-universalist in that it is founded on assumptions of differences across cultures. This is in keeping with general patterns. No fascist ever justified killing Jews by claiming that Jews and Aryans share universal, human features. Nazis rationalized murder by claiming that Jews, Roma, the disabled, and others were fundamentally different. No racist ever justified slavery by saying that Africans and Europeans were fundamentally the same. Racists rationalized slavery by claiming that Africans and Europeans were radically different.
Thus, it is certainly important to discern how someone is using the word, “universal.” But a prima facie political skepticism seems warranted only when the term is being used in one, apparently anti-universalist sense. Specifically, claims of universality might reasonably provoke something like “strict scrutiny” (to borrow a phrase from constitutional law) when those claims in fact assert cultural difference—or, more precisely, when they assert cultural difference in fundamental psychological or other principles. There are, of course, distinct ways of instantiating cross-culturally shared principles. Indeed, one must recognize the variables even to formulate the shared principles. For example, there is reason to believe that all or most traditions–in certain, specifiable respects–shape standard poetic line length through the constraints of working memory (on the complexities of such a principle, see Nigel Fabb’s “Poetic Line Length”). But the precise details of standard poetic line length—thus, the way the shared principle is particularized–are not identical across traditions, periods, movements, or individual poets. The point is that empirically isolating the shared principle of constraint should not be considered a politically suspect undertaking.
Of course, someone might mistakenly assert that a certain feature is shared across genetically and areally distinct literary traditions. A research program in literary universals needs to evaluate all claims on the basis of evidence in such a way as to reject or revise as many such mistaken claims as possible. But that is simply part of ordinary, empirical science and applies as much to biology or physics as to literary study.
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Geoffrey Russom, Brown University
Some pretty clear examples of the mortal-immortal romance sub-genre (discussed in Patrick Hogan’s “Impossible Love: A Sub-Genre of Romantic Stories”) originate in Old Irish tradition and enter English tradition through Marie de France, the mother of the English romance and the grandmother of the novel.
The immortals involved are the Celtic fairies, in early tales called Tuatha Dé Danann ‘people of the Goddess Danu.’ Like other Celtic goddesses, Danu was a manifestation of a great river, the Danube. Fairies are said to live in island paradises like Tír ‘na n-Óg, “the land of the young,” and in fortresses connected to the underworld. Many of them bear the names of Celtic gods mentioned by Caesar.
“The Debility of the Ulstermen,” an important Old Irish instance of the sub-genre, explains why the Ulstermen were helpless when attacked by Queen Medb of Connaught in Táin Bó Cúalnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the great Irish epic in Prosimetrum form.
Plot: Crunnchu mac Agnoman isolates himself after the death of his wife. One day a distinguished-looking woman appears in his house and takes charge of the household. His handsome appearance is delightful to her and she sleeps with him. They live together in prosperity for a long while. One day Crunnchu says he will attend a great festival at the court of the Ulster king. She says he should not go because they cannot not be together if he speaks of her in the assembly, as she strongly suspects he will. He goes anyway. The royal chariot wins all the races at the festival and everyone praises the king’s horses. Crunnchu foolishly remarks that his wife can run faster than those horses. He is seized and his wife is summoned to race against the horses despite her protest that she is about to give birth. She declares that her name is Macha (the name of one aspect of the triple goddess Morrígan, a.k.a. Morgan the Fairy). She wins the race and gives birth to a son and a daughter before the king’s chariots finish. She then declares that everyone who has heard her cry out while giving birth will become as helpless as a woman in childbirth when attacked by an enemy, unto the ninth generation. It is worth adding that the Celtic pantheon includes widely-known horse goddesses like Epona.
A later example of the sub-genre is Marie’s Lanval.
Plot: Lanval is one of King Arthur’s knights. His virtues are many but are not appreciated. Wandering in the forest, he encounters a fairy princess in a beautiful pavilion. They become lovers. The princess warns Lanval that they can no longer be together if he tells anyone about her. With the fairy’s supernatural assistance, Lanval becomes wealthy and earns fame for his generosity. One day Arthur’s queen meets Lanval and attempts to seduce him. He refuses. She says he must be more interested in pageboys. Lanval scornfully tells her about his lover and declares that the princess’s servant girls are more beautiful than the queen. The furious queen lies to Arthur that Lanval has tried to seduce her. Lanval is seized. The barons decide that Lanval can be forgiven if he produces his lover and her servant girls to prove that what he has said is true. The fairy princess decides to rescue Lanval despite her earlier statement that they can no longer be together. Her servant girls arrive at the court, strikingly beautiful and splendidly attired. Last comes the fairy princess, who testifies for Lanval. He is forgiven and freed. He stands on a mounting block, and when the princess passes by on her horse, he jumps up behind her. They leave for the island paradise of Avalon.
“The Debility of the Ulstermen.” In Ancient Irish Tales. Ed., Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969, 208–10. (Old Irish text, ed. and trans. Ernst Windisch, Königliche Sächsische Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Berichte (Philologisch-Historische Klasse), XXXVI (1884): 336–47.)
Marie de France. Lanval. Trans., Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. In The Lais of Marie de France. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1978, 105–23. (Old French text in Lais de Marie de France. Ed. Karl Warnke. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer, 1900, 86-112; available at Lais de Marie de France.)
Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.
When we read Tom Jones for the first time, we may worry that Tom might engage in an impossible love—incest—because we do not know who Tom’s father is, but we seem to know who his mother is (see Hogan, “Impossible Love“). The two young women he sleeps with, Molly and Sophia, might either be the daughter of whoever his father is, and the theme of incest becomes overt when he inadvertently sleeps with the woman who is thought to be his mother, Jenny. We are misdirected into suspecting a narrative of impossible love which is stopped in its tracks when we learn not only that his real mother is Bridget but also that his father is the previously unmentioned man Summer. This revelation changes our understanding of the narrative so that it becomes a narrative of seasonal regeneration. Tom takes on his father’s role as Summer; Squire Western is interpreted as his primary antagonist and takes on the role of the season he alliterates with, Winter, and young summer must win a girl (Sophia) from old winter. Instead of the impossible romance of incest, we have a completely different impossible immortal-human romance where the personified seasons interact with humans.
How plausible a reading is this? Tom and Western are paired in opposition by their different ways of travelling in the natural world—Tom on foot, Western on horse. Tom is associated with birds, not only narratively via Sophia’s bird, but also in the characters of Nightingale and Partridge, perhaps also Jenny (Jenny Wren). Moreover, his own name is a bird name (Tom Tit). Though most of the birds can be associated with any season, we might associate life with summer, and indeed a nightingale is a summer visitor to Britain. Tom Jones thus manifests a pattern found in folklore and mediaeval romances: “Summer is often personified by a young hero who defeats an older, feebler opponent: Culhwch taking Olwen from her father Ysbaddaden…” (Gantz).
Murray has given us an alternative reading of seasonality in the novel: Tom’s father is Summer who has engaged in an “unnatural mating'” (another impossible love) with winter, now personified as Bridget, “no improper emblem” of “a winter’s morning.” Tom is Spring, the result of the mating, and Sophia is also Spring (“the goddess Flora”), which allows them to be matched without further impossibility, while the anti-Sophia Lady Bellaston is in “the autumn of life.”
Though we are offered two incompatible readings, the multiplicity of impossible loves which thus emerge—along with the incest theme—reinforce our sense that Tom Jones exemplifies this type of Impossible Love romance.
Gantz, Jeffrey, trans. The Mabinogion. London: Penguin, 1976.
Murray, Peter B. “Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn in Tom Jones.” Modern Language Notes 76.4 (1 April 1961): 324-326.
Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut
Recently, I read a number of Seventeenth-Century Chinese stories as well as some classical Roman works that reminded me of one another and that led me to recall some South Asian and Native American stories that I had read earlier. They were all versions of the cross-culturally recurring romantic story, but they were not prototypical. The interesting thing was that their deviations from the prototype were closely related to one another, clustering into a sub-genre. As I reflected more on this sub-genre, I realized that the pattern extended quite widely. The present essay is an attempt to define that sub-genre, to sketch some of its constituent varieties, and to suggest some possible explanations for both. More precisely, I refer to the sub-genre as “intensified romance.” It is intensified in the sense that it makes the lovers’ union appear to be not only socially problematic, but in principle impossible. That impossibility may be either ontological or moral, yielding two types of the sub-genre.
As some readers of this essay were concerned about how I might explain the cross-cultural recurrence of love stories more broadly, I should note that the present essay is not aiming to explain the genre in general. I have discussed that topic in The Mind and Its Stories, Affective Narratology, and elsewhere (for a summary of the account, see “Story”). The present essay explores one specific variant of the romantic story and seeks to give a preliminary account of that variant alone.
A Note on Simulation
Simulation is a cognitive process by which we imagine trajectories of actions or events (for an introduction to simulation and its relation to literature, see Hogan How; see also Oatley, “Meetings”). That process may be a matter of interpolating causal links between real events that we experience, projecting future outcomes of current conditions, envisioning counterfactual alternatives to what has occurred, or creating purely hypothetical scenarios. A key evolutionary function of simulation is to allow us to consider alternative courses of action “offline,” thus without the consequences of real activity. For example, if I simulate a dangerous course of action—say, swimming at a beach closed due to shark sightings—I incur no risk and may decide to avoid real swimming on the basis of the simulation (including its frightful image of the malevolent leviathan crushing my thighbones like toothpicks between its teeth). If I could learn only from actual experience, I might end up eaten by a shark the first time I am faced with such a situation.
For simulation to fulfill its evolutionary function, we must be able to make adjustments to our simulations at various levels. For example, suppose an office worker wants a raise in her salary. She has to be able to consider the various, broad strategies for pursuing this—applying for other jobs, arguing for particular salary evaluation procedures, engaging in a class action suit, approaching her supervisor to discuss an individual increment, and so on. In each case, she must be able to imagine more specific strategies as well—what would be the best evaluation procedures or just what points she should make to the supervisor in support of an individual increment. In connection with this, we may draw a relative distinction between two sorts of variables—first, parameters, which define classes of alternatives; second, local variables, which specify instances of those alternatives.
Stories are the product of simulation. Authors create stories by imagining trajectories of actions and events, commonly through synthesizing genre prototypes with memories of actual experiences, hearsay, trajectories from other stories, and other sources. Part of this simulation involves making both larger and smaller changes, thus altering parameters to produce types of story and altering local variables to produce particular stories.
In The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology, I have argued that perhaps the most common cross-cultural genre or story universal is romantic tragi-comedy. In its most prototypical form, this genre involves two people who fall in love, but are prevented from uniting, often by their parents and commonly due to some social conflict (such as the opposition between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet). They are separated, frequently with suggestions or imagery of death. A rival may enter, producing a love triangle, before the lovers are finally united (or, in the tragic version, prevented forever from uniting).
The preceding comments on the nature of simulation would lead us to expect that there will be versions of any given genre that are produced by parametric variation. These are presumably most likely—as most consequential—at story “junctures,” the points at which significant causal changes occur in the trajectory of actions and events (on junctures, see my The Mind 91-93). One such juncture is governed by the nature of the restriction that separates the lovers. In most of the cases I considered in earlier publications, that restriction is contingent and social. Again, the Montague-Capulet feud comes to mind. There is no necessary reason why these two families must be enemies or why their children could not be united. However, there are other possible types of restriction. Specifically, some restrictions may be felt to be necessary, either necessary in the ethical sense or necessary in the ontological sense. In other words, the lovers’ union may be experienced as in some way unthinkable or impossible, either morally or practically.
The clearest case of moral intensification concerns incest. Ontological intensification bears most often on the union of humans and spirits of some sort—either superhuman spirits (such as gods, angels, or ghosts) or (usually subhuman) animal spirits. I will refer to the superhuman/human/subhuman order as ontological or, drawing on usage in linguistics, as manifesting an animacy hierarchy. Of course, it is not strictly correct to say that these are literally unthinkable or impossible. The moral violations occur in the real world, though they are paradigmatic of sexual taboo. The ontological violations are possible in the storyworlds of some fictions, though (presumably) not in the real world, unless the ontological difference is interpreted metaphorically. The point is that, in each case, there is something about the nature of the lovers that, in certain circumstances, makes it appear impossible for them to be united (in the sense that, on hearing of such a union in real life, one might exclaim, “That can’t be!,” as in “A mother marrying her own son? That can’t be!”). We may refer to the broad varieties of romance—where the restrictions on the lovers are contingent and social, on the one hand, versus necessary, on the other hand—as basic and intensified respectively. We may further subdivide the intensified varieties into moral and ontological.
We will consider some cases of each sort of intensified romance in the following sections. Before going on to that, however, it is useful to note that another variable or set of variables enters here. This concerns just who knows about the problematic identity of the lovers and just when they know. Readers of Romeo and Juliet may recall that the titular lovers become enamored of one another before learning that they are from the opposed families. Sometimes, the ethical and ontological versions of the romantic plot involve the lovers knowing about their difference early on; sometimes, both lovers learn only later; sometimes, one knows while the other does not.
Finally, I should note that two motifs recur with some frequency in intensified romances. As I am using the term, motifs are sequences that can be adapted to different genres and integrated into a range of stories. (The key point is that they cross genres.) Here, the motifs in question are the concealment of identity, where a character hides some important aspect of who he or she is, and mistaken identity, where a character misattributes a category to another person. In the ethical and ontological romantic plots, the concealment and mistake most often concern one or both of the lovers.
Romantic Stories and Animacy Hierarchies (I): Humans and Animal Spirits
A story told by the Arawak (see Lévi-Strauss 256-257 and Roth 203-204) concerns a hunter and a jaguar (or tiger). The jaguar has taken the form of a human woman and joins the hunter as his wife. However, they conceal her identity. The two live together happily; she is a good wife and hunting partner. At a certain point, they visit the man’s mother. Though the jaguar woman stresses that he should never reveal her identity, the man ends up informing his mother, who conveys the information to the society at large. The jaguar woman suffers from shame and leaves her husband. Despite great effort, he is never able to find her.
This is, to my mind, an intriguing and affecting story. It also manifests a structure that recurs with variations in different traditions. A forbidden—putatively impossible—union occurs. Since it is forbidden, the lovers conceal their identities. Despite being warned not to do so, one spouse engages in some action—constituting a tragic error or failure—that leads to the exposure of the identities. This in turn forces the separation of the lovers in a tragic ending. (It may be that tragic outcomes are more common in these intensified variations on the romantic genre than in the basic form.) Note that “tragedy” and “comedy” here are what we might refer to as “modes of resolution” for the genres defined by happiness goals. For example, romantic stories may be resolved by the lovers’ achievement of enduring union (comedy) or by a sequence of events (e.g., one lover’s death) that renders such achievement impossible (tragedy). Like genres, tragedy and comedy may themselves have recurring properties (such as the commission of a tragic error).
One striking feature of the Arawak story is that the inter-species union is, in fact, not impossible. Its putative impossibility is a function of knowledge. It is only when some people know the identities of the lovers—when society learns that they are not man and woman, but man and jaguar (or tiger)—that the impossibility appears. In other words, it is not an impossibility of the lovers or categories themselves, but of social opinion about those categories. This suggests that the restriction is ultimately a social restriction, though it is represented as ontological. In keeping with this, Alexandra Aikhenvald’s research indicates that “jaguar” might suggest a low status group (12), a point consistent with the woman’s feeling of shame. Alternatively, Roth’s work may point to a link between tigers and antagonistic out-groups (367). Thus, we have the usual sorts of social taboo—due either to social hierarchy within the society or conflict with an enemy group. The ontological romance intensifies this ordinary social problem through the animacy hierarchy (hence my name for this variant, “intensified” romance).
Pu Songling’s Strange Tales, an important, late Seventeenth-Century, Chinese work, includes several stories of this sort. In “The Girl in Green,” a woman arrives at the male protagonist’s lodgings unexpectedly. Though she conceals her background from him, they have sexual relations. The man asks her to sing. She refuses, warning that it may be dangerous. Eventually, she gives in to his pleas. When she departs, she is attacked, and he has to rescue her. At this time, he learns that she is not a woman, but a hornet. She thanks him for rescuing her, but leaves forever.
Here we have the same general structure. There is an inter-species union, though one in which the man is ignorant that the woman is not really a woman, but an insect. She warns him that they should behave in a particular way; he insists otherwise. The result is the disclosure of their species difference and their consequent separation. (As is undoubtedly clear, here and below I engage in the sort of structural mapping of story sequences that Lévi-Strauss developed so powerfully in his four-volume Introduction to the Science of Mythology. As is probably no less clear, however, the conclusions of my analysis and the psychological principles it involves are quite different from those of Lévi-Strauss.)
Another story along these lines is Pu’s “Princess Lotus.” In a dream, the protagonist meets a king, who introduces him to a young, beautiful woman. The protagonist falls in love and marries the woman. Everything seems to be proceeding with remarkable calmness. But suddenly the protagonist’s in-laws are threatened with destruction. He eventually learns that they are, in fact, not people but bees. This varies the structure, since the revelation is not the result of a violated taboo. It rather involves a danger to the family of one of the lovers. But there is still inter-species union connected with identity concealment, followed by disclosure.
Staying within the Chinese tradition, we find a further instance of this story structure in the often-retold “Legend of the White Snake” (for a summary of one version, see “Legend”). A magically powerful white snake transforms herself into a woman and marries a human. When the human discovers her identity, he dies. Through supernatural means, she manages to revive him; however, further tribulations follow. In some versions, she overcomes subsequent obstacles and the lovers are reunited enduringly; in other versions, she is unsuccessful.
Romantic Stories and Animacy Hierarchies (II): Humans and Immortal Spirits
The human-immortal romances are, on the whole, more insightful and engaging than the human-animal romances. They are also more abundant, though admittedly a number of stories could be put into either category. Another story from Pu follows the pattern of “The Girl in Green” and the Arawak tale. In “Sunset,” an unknown woman arrives at the protagonist’s home. Despite the intimate relationship that develops between them, she conceals her background and prohibits questions about it. He nevertheless tries to ascertain her identity, then continues this investigation despite further warnings. The man’s family has a crisis when his niece is possessed by a spirit. The mysterious woman helps through magical intervention. In consequence, her father learns about her affair with the human and forces their separation. Thus, we have the usual separation of lovers by the parent, but in this case due to an ontological discrepancy in the identities of the lovers. The woman, it turns out, is daughter to the Golden Dragon King. They are never reunited.
This story is particularly well developed. It takes up the motif of the threat to the family of one lover, which we saw in “Princess Lotus.” It also includes concealed identity, one lover’s attempt to prevent the disclosure of that identity, and the other lover’s violation of a warning.
A comic version of human-immortal romance may be found in Li Hao-ku’s early Thirteenth-Century, Chinese drama, Chang Boils the Sea. In that play, a scholar falls in love with the daughter of a dragon king. Through the use of magic, the scholar is able to join his beloved—although she is “thirty thousand fathoms beneath the blue sea” (170; the physical inaccessibility concretizes the ontological discrepancy between human and spirit). He is also able to secure the consent of the dragon king. Of course, this is not a concealment-revelation-loss sequence. Rather, this story indicates that the human-immortal romance may follow the more routine or basic form, with parental disapproval and the lovers’ work to overcome that disapproval.
The intensified romance is not confined to Chinese and Arawak traditions. In the Indian (South Asian) tradition, there are several versions of the romance between the mortal Purūravas and the celestial nymph Urvaśī. Consider, for example, the important early collection of stories from Hindu tradition, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa (see Wilson iv-viii). In that work, Urvaśī is condemned to a period of earthly existence, where she falls in love with Purūravas. They marry on the condition that Purūravas never violate a particular taboo. He is tricked into doing so and the lovers are separated, though they are ultimately reunited when Purūravas is elevated to the status of an immortal. In Vikramōrvaśīyam, the version by the most renowned Sanskrit playwright, Kālidāsa (fifth century C.E.), the human king Purūravas and Urvaśī fall in love. They are separated, as Urvaśī lives in heaven. However, due to her preoccupation with Purūravas, she commits a serious breach of etiquette and is condemned to become mortal for a certain time. The change of Urvaśī from spirit to human allows her union with Purūravas. But the temporary nature of her incarnation limits the duration of that union. In the end, she is allowed to remain human as long as Purūravas is alive.
In these cases too we see a variation on the intensified romance. In neither version is it a matter of concealment and exposure. However, the ontological contradiction of love between a mortal and a spirit is clear. Moreover, in theViṣṇu Purāṇaversion, there is a taboo on one of the lovers and the violation of that taboo leads to their separation. Interestingly, the human-spirit union is enabled by the change of status—the fall ofUrvaśī in bothversions and the elevation of Purūravas in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. It is also worth noting that, the play seems particularly to recall death and grief. It thereby suggests a connection between separation in the ontological romance and the more mundane issue of bereavement, where the (still living) human lover is separated from (his or her deceased) beloved, who is now a spirit.
A particularly extended and complex version of the structure may be found in the Roman story of Amor and Psyche, as developed by Apuleius in the late second century. Due to a curse and subsequent abandonment by her family, the beautiful (human) Psyche ends up married to (immortal) Amor. However, Amor conceals his identity, and even prevents Psyche from seeing him. In keeping with the pattern we have considered, he warns Psyche that she should not seek to discover who he is. Convinced by her (jealous) sisters, Psyche tries to uncover her spouse’s identity, planning in fact to kill him. Instead of the dangerous monster she anticipates, Psyche sees Amor and falls in love with him. They are separated, and the separation is maintained by Amor’s mother, Venus, thus presenting the standard “familialization” of the pivotal conflict (in which the blocking characters are family members, thus giving their antagonism greater emotional force). Psyche now seeks reunion with Amor. Unlike the Arawak tale, this story develops the quest by the abandoned, human lover. Specifically, Psyche tries to win the approval of Venus by performing various tasks dictated by Venus—a scenario that we might expect for the male lover, rather than the female. (In Chang Boils the Sea, we see a sort of parallel for this, with the male lover undertaking the work of convincing the beloved’s father—in this case antagonistically, rather than deferentially.) In the interim, Amor recovers from an injury caused by Psyche’s misguided attempt to identify and kill him. He manages to procure immortalizing ambrosia. Drinking the ambrosia, Psyche becomes immortal, thus making possible her enduring union with Amor.
Thus, in Apuleius’s story, we have the concealment of identity, the taboo on seeking or revealing that identity, the violation of the taboo, and the separation. This is then followed by the usual familial conflict and a version of the lover’s attempt to convert the recalcitrant parent. However, the resolution does not come from a conversion of the parent. It comes, rather, from a transformation in the status of the lover, a change from mortal to immortal. This change erases the ontological difference that made the union impossible to begin with. There are two points to make in connection with this. First, there are two obvious ways in which the ontological difference may be overcome. One is the elevation of the human lover, as we see here. The other is the degradation of the spirit lover, as in the case of Urvaśī when she is initially joined with Purūravas in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. The second point is that this is parallel with the more ordinary or basic romantic structure, in which the conflict is social, as when the lovers derive from different classes or castes. The elevation of one lover is, in this respect, parallel with the discovery that, for example, the slave girl is actually a patrician who was kidnapped as a child. The degradation of one lover is parallel to the discovery that the apparently higher class or caste beloved is in fact not inaccessible to the lover—as when Duṣyanta (in Kālidāsa’s Abhijñānaśākuntalam) discovers that Śakuntalā is not from the higher, Brahmin caste, but has only been raised by a Brahmin.
Thus, we find Native American, Chinese, Indian (South Asian), and European instances of the intensified romantic plot in which the lovers violate an ontological constraint defined by an animacy hierarchy. These stories also occur across a range of time periods. Further examples may be found in more recent works, both western and eastern. For example, Wings of Desire (directed by Wim Wenders), presents us with the story of an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman. He loses his angelic status, becoming mortal, and is united with the woman. Here, the sort of concealment we found in the Amor and Psyche story occurs before the union of the lovers, as the angel can observe his human beloved, while the latter has only vague intimations of the angel’s presence. In this case, there is no restriction, restriction-violating revelation of identity, and consequent separation of the lovers; it is, then, a reduced or simplified version of the structure.
Another film with this sort of plot is Postman to Heaven, a 2009 work from South Korea (directed by Hyung-min Lee). In this film, a young woman and a ghost fall in love. The ghost has been assigned the task of helping bereaved men and women work through their grief. The young woman had recently lost a lover, which leads to her connection with the ghost. The twist in this story is that the ghost is visible only to people who are in mourning. Thus, the young woman will no longer be able to see or interact with the ghost from the moment she overcomes her grief. But she overcomes her grief in proportion to the degree to which she falls in love with the ghost. Thus, she loses her new beloved precisely to the degree that she loves him; thus, she suffers a new grief precisely to the degree that she overcomes her old grief. The problem is resolved by divine intervention. Due to the ghost’s success in consoling the bereaved, particularly this young woman, Heaven returns him to his mortal life. As a human, he is now able to be united with his beloved, who is thereby freed from both the old and the new grief.
Neither film has the concealment-taboo-violation structure. But both still alter the more usual, basic genre trajectory, by having the lovers violate an ontological restriction and allowing their union by a change in status, from spirit to human. Further cases present other variations. For example, complex instances may be found in other stories by Pu Songling, such as “Grace and Pine,” “Butterfly,” and “The Laughing Girl.”
Romantic Stories and Same-Sex Love: An Intermediate Case
We will turn to the ethical form of the intensified romantic structure in the next section. Before going on to that, however, we might briefly remark on Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe and the Śikhaṇḍinī story in the Mahābhārata. In both stories—one European, the other Indian—two women are married to each other due to concealed identity, though the concealed identity in this case is one of anatomical sex, not of ontological level (human, animal, or spirit). As with the cases considered thus far, the revelation of the concealed identity causes problems for the union, and in each case the misrepresented lover (Iphis and Śikhaṇḍinī) goes through a magical sex change, comparable to the transformation of a human lover into a spirit or vice-versa.
These cases are interesting in part because they show how the romantic structure may, through parametric variation, be applied to significant social issues, in this case same-sex love. This is not to say that either provides any solution to the social conflicts surrounding such love, any more than the animacy-based versions provide a solution to the love between people of extreme out-groups (as in the Arawak case). The transformation of one lover functions most obviously as a fantasy, perhaps giving some people imaginary satisfaction. In any case, its social function is complex and equivocal. For example, in the case of Iphis and Ianthe, it may be taken to validate lesbian love, indicating that the lovers should be joined. But it might also be taken to stress the necessity of heterosexuality, since they can be joined only when they are differently sexed. On the other hand, romantic stories tend to cultivate a very strong preference for the lovers’ union. Thus, my inclination is to see stories such as Iphis and Ianthe as functioning primarily to cultivate sympathy with the same-sex lovers, even as the ending gives the author and reader an out, enabling the plausible denial of such homoerotic sympathies.
I refer to this as intermediate because it is not clear how authors and readers conceive of the restriction in this case. I suspect that it varies with authors, readers, and cultures. Some would think of the restriction as ethical. I suspect that such readers would not, in general, be sympathetic with the same-sex lovers. Other readers would think of the restriction as simply social, comparable to the forbidding of intermarriage between Montagues and Capulets (this is presumably the view of most academic readers today). Finally, some would think of the restriction as part of the order of being, so to speak—in this case, related not to animacy as such, but to the issue of mating. Different species cannot interbreed; neither can spirits and humans. For some writers and readers, the relation of same-sex lovers is probably of this sort. Clearly, this is a topic that requires further research, with many more examples from a much wider range of traditions.
Romantic Stories and Ethical Restrictions: Incest and Adultery
In considering the ontological version of intensified romance, I could not help but be aware of the similarity to one of the most famous and influential stories in European literature, the story of Oedipus. Though not a romantic plot per se, the story does involve two people being united despite the fact that their union is rigorously forbidden. This is possible because the (familial) identity of one person, Oedipus, has been concealed. Thus no one recognizes that the union is incestuous. When that identity is revealed, the couple is separated. In this case, the results are tragic, with the woman hanging herself and the man blinding himself. Interestingly, as developed by Sophocles (in the fifth century before the common era), the story is not only principally romantic (despite the union of Oedipus and Jocasta), but sacrificial. Specifically, there is a plague in Thebes; it has resulted from Oedipus’s crime of (unknowingly) killing his father, which led to his further crime of (unknowingly) marrying his mother. In other words, in this story, a sin perpetrated by the primary representative of the society (the king) has led to social devastation. The result is the sacrifice of the guilty parties (Jocasta’s death and Oedipus’s blinding). In Oedipus the King, then, a sacrificial structure is integrated with a much more limited romantic structure.
As just noted, the form of identity at issue for Oedipus is familial. Some readers have been confused by this, because the identity issue is not one of humans and animals or spirits. That is right. Indeed, that is the difference between two sorts of intensified romance—the ontological and the ethical. Ontological problems keep people and insects from marrying; ethical restrictions bear rather on incest. Of course, the ontological stories may metaphorically represent moral conflicts—or mere social conflicts. The point here concerns the literal representations.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses (early first century of the common era) presents us with other incestuous romantic narratives. One is the simple story of Byblis, who tries to unite with her brother, but is rejected; weeping, she is transformed into a spring. Another, more interesting story concerns Myrrha and her father. Myrrha falls in love with her father and contrives a way of sleeping with him while concealing her identity. When he learns of her identity, he not only rejects her, but tries to kill her. She flees and is transformed into a tree. The Byblis story is a simple tale of rejected love. The story of Myrrha, however, includes union with concealed identity, followed by revelation and tragic separation.
One might expect other moral restrictions to enter here as well. An obvious case is adultery. In European literature, works such as Anna Karenina come to mind. In Tolstoy’s novel, for example, we have love between Anna and Vronsky, leading to a partial union, which is concealed from society. Once revealed, inadvertently, by Anna, problems arise. On the other hand, this is not a concealment of identity; Anna does not misrepresent herself as unmarried—either to Vronsky or to the larger world. Rather, it is simply the (illicit) sexual relations that are concealed. Moreover, the revealing of the secret does not lead to the separation of the lovers. There are problems with the cross-cultural manifestation of this structure as well, since possibilities for polygamy or divorce limit the degree to which prior marriage serves as a restriction on the lovers. On the other hand, there are some similarities between the structure we have been examining and such adultery stories as Anna Karenina.
Implications of this Analysis
Clearly, the preceding examples of an ethical romance plot are taken from a single tradition. That may suggest that this specific form of the structure is parochial. However, the Oedipus and Myrrha stories remain cases of a larger sequence that does recur cross-culturally.
Again, the intensified romance is defined by a restriction on the lovers that is not simply a matter of social convention or other social contingency, but of identity bearing on animacy or ethics. In its most prototypical form, the intensified romance proceeds as follows:
- The lovers are united.
- However, there is some (intentional or unintentional) concealment of the ontologically or ethically relevant identities.
- In connection with this concealment, there is often a warning about the behavior of one or both lovers.
- A violation of the warning results in the problematic identity being revealed.
- As a result of this revelation, the lovers are separated.
- In comic instances of the ontological version, that separation may be overcome when the identity of one lovers is changed.
- However, the ethical version of this structure does not in general allow for such a comic transformation (e.g., Psyche can be made immortal, but Oedipus cannot be made into the son of someone other than Jocasta).
Faced with the preceding examples, we might wonder why there is such a recurring pattern. “Why” here might refer to the generation of the sequence, just what gives rise to it; this could equally be referred to as “how” the structure is produced. “Why” might also refer to the function of the resulting sequence; this is “why” in the sense of “what for.” Note again that the pattern here is a pattern in stories. It is not a pattern in real life (where people do not marry insects either with or without concealed identity). It is, rather, a pattern in simulation.
The “how” question is relatively easy to answer. Again, we may think of simulation as involving principles with parameters and local variables. The simulation of romantic stories involves some restriction that separates the lovers. Obvious possibilities for such separation would include conventional versus necessary, with the latter category including ontological and ethical cases. Within each category, any given character might or might not know about the restrictions or the identities that trigger such restrictions at any given time. (For example, Oedipus and Jocasta do not know their restriction-triggering identities—son and mother—when they get married.) The stories we have been considering begin with an extreme restriction and vary the timing and extent of relevant knowledge. Typically, the knowledge comes to have social consequences only when it is socially available (as when the man’s society learns about the Jaguar woman’s identity). Usually, the lovers are able to maintain their union when they have the relevant knowledge but society does not, though the story of Myrrha suggests that this may be less true in the ethical cases.
The functional significance of this structure is perhaps less clear. However, there are some obvious possibilities. Specifically, we would expect the function to be either emotional or thematic. Emotionally, this sub-genre of romance provides some degree of novelty relative to the basic (and more realistic) form. In connection with this, it often organizes the trajectory of feeling somewhat differently. Specifically, the basic structure commonly begins with the main characters falling in love and recognizing their reciprocal feelings, but then being separated very quickly. The intensified version often involves the lovers joining together in a regularized union, such as marriage, and maintaining that state for some time before being separated due to the discovery of the concealed identity. Both versions treat love, loss, and (in the full, comic version) reunion. But in the basic version, the love is the feverish love of early romance and the loss is a loss of imagined possibilities. In the intensified version, the love is more likely to include a strong “companionate” element, a sense of bonding that may be less intense but may be more clearly enduring, and the loss is a loss not only of imagined possibilities, but of the ordinariness of regular life and ongoing expectation experienced for, in some cases, years of family life.
For the reasons just mentioned, the loss of the beloved in the intensified version may be more similar to the loss of a spouse in death. This too has emotional consequences. Specifically, in its ontological variant, the structure may suggest bereavement, while allegorizing that bereavement in the (perhaps less distressing) form of the human-spirit romance. I have already noted that there are suggestions of this in Vikramōrvaśīyam. The connection seems clear in other works as well. For example, in Postman to Heaven, the young woman falls in love with a ghost. Her former lover has died and her new beloved is actually a boy in a coma in a hospital. The lovers are separated as human and ghost, until his spirit returns to his body and he is revived from the coma, at which point they meet as mortals. The film repeatedly points toward the loss of a long-term partner by death. But it presents the main lovers’ separation as a matter of an ontological incompatibility which is resolved by the spirit leaving heaven to become a mortal.
These points are related to the thematic purposes of the ontological romance. In the comic version, the thematic operation of the structure involves a suggestion that the losses of death may be overcome—a point with obvious emotional consequences as well. In other words, it suggests that apparently irrecuperable losses might in fact be recuperable, and it does this without drawing our attention to death and separation too directly. Indeed, in some cases, it even serves to reconnect our companionate love with earlier, more romantic feelings. I say “our” here because the reader’s relation to the emotions of the protagonists is often intertwined with his or her own emotional memories (see, for example, Oatley, Passionate, 36, 179, 180). In that way, our empathic response to the lovers is in some degree connected with our own romantic histories.
On the other hand, the intensified romantic story is not always related to long-term attachment and bereavement. For example, the Arawak story has suggestions of death and grief. But it also suggests social divisions that have been rendered more extreme by being assimilated to species differences. There are two obvious thematic purposes of this sort of intensification of difference between the lovers. The first is to present an a fortiori case of romantic love in opposition to social divisions. If the Arawak hunter can live an ideal marriage with an actual jaguar or tiger woman, how much more readily could an Arawak live in marital union with another person who is from a class or other society associated with jaguars or tigers? As I have argued elsewhere (see chapter seven of Understanding Nationalism), romantic stories tend to challenge in-group/out-group divisions, preferring the union of the lovers to the maintenance of social oppositions. The ontological romance may simply extend this inclination.
This critical function of the ontological romance is clearest when the lovers’ initial union is untroubled. In the Arawak story, there is no real problem with the lovers’ life together. In other stories, however, there are difficulties, sometimes intrinsic to the lovers’ identities, as in the difference between mortals and immortals. For example, in Wings of Desire, the lovers can be joined only when the difference between them is overcome, when the angel becomes human. This too suggests that ordinary, social divisions are not absolute. If the difference between humans and spirits may be effaced, if immortal spirits can become humans and humans can become immortal spirits, then surely members of one society can become members of another society. This may simply be a matter of one lover being accepted into the other’s society, or it may involve some more elaborate assimilation into the culture of the latter.
Again, the obvious exception here is ethical, as in the case of incest. Incestuous unions are typically not open to this sort of resolution. Oedipus and Jocasta seem perfectly happy together. Everything appears to be going along well, with the family flourishing, including the children. But the union remains wrong for most readers. Thus, the ethical version does not fit with the most obvious thematic purposes of the ontological version of the intensified romantic structure. That may account for its apparent infrequency, relative to the ontological version, both within European tradition and across cultures. On the other hand, the success of the Oedipus story indicates that this version may be emotionally successful.
Before concluding, it is worth noting that concealed identity operates as a motif that may be used in various narrative contexts. Moreover, it may be taken up in complex and surprising ways in relation to romantic narrative. Particularly striking cases of this sort may be found in Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Specifically, in both cases, one main character sets out to engage in adultery, deceptively seducing a young woman, thus initiating a train of events that is commonly developed in the seduction plot (on the seduction plot, see chapter four of my Affective). However, the lovers meet in circumstances where the identity of the woman is concealed (reminiscent of the meeting between Myrrha and her father). However, in these cases, the concealed identity of one of the lovers does not mean that an apparently legitimate union is illegitimate. It means, rather, that an apparently illegitimate union is legitimate, for in both cases the man’s wife takes the place of the woman he was aiming to seduce. The resulting stories are highly interesting, due to this reversal. But they are problematic because the final union is not based on mutual love and it is therefore difficult for the reader (or audience member) to be entirely pleased by the putatively comic conclusion.
In connection with these final examples, one referee of this essay worried that concealed identity may be a motif produced by the romantic genre, not occurring elsewhere. I should therefore mention that in heroic plots we encounter spies who conceal their identities and heirs to the throne who are unknown to be heirs to the throne; in revenge narratives, we find revengers disguising themselves and killing people whose identity they misconstrue; in criminal investigation narratives, detectives take on disguises and innocent people are sometime mistaken for criminals—and so on, for all genres. Perhaps the most relevant case here is the (already mentioned) seduction story, which is often more appropriately termed a rape story. In this structure, the seducer or rapist often conceals his identity. This is significant to the present study because there are some famous cases in which the rapist is a god and the false identity is that of an animal—as in Zeus’s rape of Leda. This is related to the cases we are considering as the union is “impossible,” in the sense we have been considering. It therefore suggests a similar concern with the violation of putatively necessary social divisions, though in another genre.
An obvious topic for research in this area concerns ethical restrictions on lovers and the degree to which the topics of incest and adultery, or other possibly morally objectionable unions, do or do not develop a version of this structure. A parallel point applies to same sex unions and the degree to which the relevant restrictions are presented as ethical, ontological, or merely social and conventional. Instances of these relationships and restrictions are clearly under-represented in the preceding discussions.
On the other hand, research on the incidence and varieties of more unequivocal cases of ontological romance is important as well. Again, we find a range of stories in different traditions in which lovers face a restriction that is not merely conventional or contingent, but in some sense viewed as necessary, either ontologically (in relation to animacy) or morally. Prototypically, the lovers in such stories are united, due to some intentional or inadvertent concealment of identity. But that concealment often renders the union unstable. In connection with this, one of the lovers may be warned not to engage in behavior that will reveal the concealed identity. In a tragic error, however, he or she may do just the wrong thing, precipitating the lovers’ separation. In a comic version, one of the lovers’ status may change, allowing the union, but this is generally restricted to the ontological version. We have evidence that the ontological version of this intensified structure occurs in a range of genetically and areally unrelated traditions. But it is not clear how frequent (or infrequent) the appearance of this structure may be. Further research is also important for assessing the preceding conjectures on the generation of the sub-genre and, even more, its function. The generation of the structure—deriving from the operation of variables in principles governing simulation—seems fairly clear in general. However, the specifics of the variables and the resulting variations on the sub-genre could be further developed and clarified. Moreover, the functions of the intensified romance appear more debatable.
Especially in connection with the last point, the relation of this variant to changes in cultural ideology and historical conditions may be worth investigating. For example, one might wonder if the ontological romance occurs more frequently in periods of extensive inter-cultural contact, where the contact has not become routinized; in other words, one might wonder if a particular degree of interaction with alien societies may not promote stories treating the romantic relations of extremely distant partners. For example, we might ask if the Pu Songling stories owe something to the early Qing dynasty experience of Manchu-Chinese cultural conflict (see Roberts 142), the divisive contact with the West and associated anti-Christian reaction of the time (see Rowe 138-139), and related matters. Similarly, we might consider if Apuleius was affected by the cultural interactions of 2ndCentury Rome, with its extensive empire. Along the same lines, we might inquire into the possible relation between the Arawak tale and European contact. A correlation in this respect might constitute a statistical, implicational universal.
I should note here that I am referring specifically to the ontological version of the intensified romantic structure. Such issues as same-sex desire recur in a range of time periods and cultures presumably because same-sex desire recurs in all time periods and cultures. As one reader of this essay commented, stories of same-sex union (as well as adultery and other sexual behaviors) occur because social rules often relate to categorial identities and these are often in conflict with what I have called “practical identity” (see, for example, Understanding Nationalism 25-37), one’s actual capabilities and propensities. That practical identity may include, for example, same-sex desire. However, the case of ontological romance—and even, for the most part, that of the most extreme cases of ethical romance, such as those involving incest—are different. There is no social issue of people marrying insect spirits or even sons marrying their mothers. These stories are, then, fundamentally a product of simulation. Of course, in the end, our narrative simulations, here and elsewhere, are inseparable from real-world issues of categorial and practical identity, as suggested by the Arawak story’s possible allegorization of social identity conflict—just as our experiences of categorial and practical identity are inseparable from simulation. In this way, the two forms of analysis should ultimately be joined with one another.
Finally, one might wonder about the implications of these observations for other genres. The sacrificial operation of the ethical romance in Oedipus the King might lead us to inquire after the relation of this romantic structure to other genres with which it might be integrated. We might also ask if there are junctural points in those other genres—sacrificial, heroic, family separation and reunion, revenge, seduction, and criminal investigation—that define significant sub-genres, such as we have been considering in the case of romantic stories. More exactly, simulation is not confined to romance, but produces the other genres equally. As such, we would expect to find such complex, sub-generic patterns in those other genres as well. In some cases, such sub-genres will be related to the intensified romance, with its ontological and moral impossibilities. Stories such as the rape of Leda suggest that this may be found in seduction/rape structures. Alternatively, such a violation may serve as a recurring motif. For example, there is an element of this in the story of Mary’s conception of Jesus—part of a sacrificial narrative—with its divine/human union and its image of the paraclete as a dove.
[See also Nigel Fabb, “Comments on Hogan, ‘Impossible Love and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones’” and Geoffrey Russom, “Comments on Hogan, ‘Impossible Love’.”]
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BY: Liz Finnigan, Southern Regional College, Northern Ireland
In this entry I propose a statistical universal (see Hogan “What are Literary Universals?”) about visual spatial patterning within verbal narrative. The universal states that unique sequential patterns of representation can be found in in the literary descriptions for three categories of space: Setting, Place and Person. For example, in the following quotation from Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), the spatial description in the passage is formatted in a particular way; the narrator describes the space closest to her first and progresses to the space further away from her position: “I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were the two wings of the BUILDING; there was the GARDEN; there were the SKIRTS OF LOWOOD; there was the hilly HORIZON” (Brontë 72; capitalisation, where necessary, will distinguish patterning throughout).
This pattern emerges when we identify the first noun (building) and track its spatial relationship to all subsequent nouns (garden, skirts of Lowood, horizon). Descriptions of Place deliver a trend that describes the centre of the place then its edge, such as a dining table then a wall. Descriptions of characters, Persons, describe the outline of the person first and then the head/facial area and finally features of the body. They can also stop at the head/facial area.
These patterns are found in particular spatial frames, which I term “topological frames” because they describe the location of objects within a space and their inter-related arrangements relevant to the viewpoint of the narrator/character. Typically atemporal and absent of action, topological frames generally pause the story in order to render the detail of what is being viewed by a character or narrator. In literary texts, we might, all things being equal, expect individual writers to produce spatial representations that are based on stylistic choices which create difference and this also includes the possibility of randomness. Yet, in topological frames the same patterns of spatial relations occur consistently, demonstrating a statistical probability in their favour.
The universal can be stated as follows:
Verbal narrative contains topological frames of description which produce a systematic pattern of spatial representation which is, in turn, determined by their category: Setting, Place or Person.
I further propose that the patterning does not differ between writers, cultural influence and historical trends. In this study, one hundred narrative English language prose texts were examined ranging between the literary periods of Victorianism, Modernism, and Postmodernism. A transparent account of data selection would best describe it as purposive sampling. The corpus of texts was manually scanned to isolate any topological frames and then each of these frames was grouped into one of the three categories which were then further investigated for evidence of patterning. The sample includes non-western prose such as Nigerian, Aboriginal Australian, Chinese, and Japanese texts which, with the exception of one text which was a translation, were all written in English. The identification of these patterns in non-western texts suggests that cultural or stylistic factors may not influence the formation of the patterns. The translated text may also suggest that the patterns are conforming to English language conventions.
Before the patterns were identified, Jane Eyre was purposively sampled due to prior knowledge of the text’s frequent references to landscapes in the hope of understanding the more componential aspects of spatial representation for narrative setting. However, Brontë’s landscapes were soon found to produce a systematic pattern, what I term the progressive pattern because of the proximal to distal trend in its descriptions, and further categories were introduced to test for other patterns – Persons and Place. These two latter categories were determined because of the frequency with which descriptions of characters and rooms appeared within the corpus’s topological frames. Persons and Places are also given the same descriptive treatment as that of Setting. For example, Jane Eyre’s description of St. John Rivers seems to be describing a sculptured space rather than a living, moving organism. He is awarded the same spatial consideration by his narrator as a landscape. But new literary periods were also needed to test against cultural practices, hence the introduction of Modernist texts, all of which were sampled for their canonical standing and focus on one or more spatial categories. For example, the assumption for Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925) was that it would deliver a heavy focus on cities (Setting) and rooms (Place). Canonical postmodernist texts were added for the same purposeful reasons to determine whether they conformed to the patterns despite their frequent dispensing with narrative coherency, for example, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939).
Therefore, the nature of this study’s methodology is more characteristic of narrative itself, in that it begins with a discovery in a single novel from a particular period and the scope of the analysis was broadened to test for cultural influence, or lack thereof. The initial exploration of Jane Eyre can be treated as a pilot study and this informed the subsequent data collection and the process was repeated using other texts. Thus, although there is no rigorous methodology adopted here, and in the strictest sense there cannot be, this study sets out to chart topological frames within a collection of texts in order to test the hypothesis against cultural trends. This is perhaps a first step for a potentially much larger study and my hypothesis could be tested by different methods in the future.
If we examine various examples from the corpus in further detail, we can track the following pattern for the category of Setting:
Consider the following description of a landscape from Jane Eyre:
Leaning over the battlements and looking far down, I surveyed the grounds laid out like a map: the bright and velvet LAWN closely girdling the grey base of the mansion; the FIELD, wide as a park, dotted with its ancient timber; the WOOD, dun and sere, divided by a path, visibly overgrown, greener with moss than the trees were with foliage, the CHURCH at the gates, the ROAD, the tranquil HILLS, all reposing in the autumn day’s SUN. (Brontë 90)
The descriptions of the Setting category are typical of outdoor spaces, frequently landscape views. In the example above from Jane Eyre, the contents of the space are sequenced relative to Jane from proximal to distal, resulting in a progressive pattern. This pattern emerges when we identify the first landmark and track its position to the next: Lawn, Field, Wood, Church, Road, Hills and Sun. The landmarks noted here by Jane’s viewpoint do not, however, represent a fixed typology of spatial objects as any kind of landmark/spatial object can be listed within the frames.
Other texts from the same period also conform to this pattern such as the example below from Austen. Here, there are two separate examples of the same Setting pattern in the same passage which emerge with a change in narrative view:
Sense and Sensibility(1811):
The situation of the HOUSE was good. High HILLS rose immediately behind, and at no great distance on each side; some of which were open downs, the others cultivated and woody. The VILLAGE of Barton was chiefly on these hills, and it formed a pleasant view from the cottage windows. The prospect in front was more extensive; it commanded the whole of the VALLEY, and reached into the COUNTRY beyond. (Austen 23)
Thus, we initially are met with: HOUSE – HILLS BEHIND HOUSE – VILLAGE ON TOP OF HILL. And this is followed by: VALLEY – COUNTRY BEYOND.
Even a text with the complex narrative structure of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) demonstrates the same patterning for Setting:
Who blocksmitt her saft anvil or yelled lep to her PAIL? Was her BANNS never loosened in Adam and Eve’s or were him and her captain-spliced? I heard he dug good tin with his doll, delvan first and duvlin after, when he raped her home, Sabrine Astore, in a parakeet’s cage…[There are 8 other rivers mentioned in the intervening text here]Who sold you that jackalantern’s tale? Pemmican’s pasty pie! Not a grasshoop to ring her, not an ants grain of ore. In a gabbard he barqued it, the boat of life, from the harbourless IVERNIKAN OKEAN till he spied the loom of his landfall and he loosed two croakers from under his tilt, by the smell of her KELP they made the PIGEON HOUSE. (197)
This sample requires some deciphering in order to see the pattern: this passage describes the moment HCE, the male protagonist, first meets ALP, his female counterpart. Throughout the text, each word is generally a pun on another, although not necessarily from the English language lexicon. The first point of space here “pail” could refer to both a pail of water or The Pale, an Anglo-Norman term for Dublin and its hinterlands. Bann – a river in Northern Ireland is also a marriage band (captain-spliced). However, what is evident is that all the points of space can be said to refer to a body of water – PAIL – RIVER – OCEAN. And, like the other examples, there is this movement from proximal to distal. The pail is swollen to a river and the river washes to the ocean. The pattern is reversed when HCE spots ALP (“till he spied the loom of his landfall”) and the water volume dissipates: IVERNIKAN OCEAN – KELP (only grows in shallow oceans and seas) – PIGEON HOUSE (South Wall entrance to the River Liffey in Dublin).
The patterning also appears for people (here thought of as descriptive spaces) and other types of location such as rooms. Notably, for each of these spaces, the systematicity does not alter but what does change is the type of pattern produced by what I term the spatial set. This term denotes the spatial groupings of objects and locations from the beginning to end of a description, and their relationship to each other. The type of pattern produced in the spatial set is determined by how quickly the description delivers the space from origin to boundary and in which direction it moves. With the category of Place, such as the indoor space of a room, the description often contains multiple spatial sets because the pattern “alternates” between the centre and the edge of a room, as illustrated below:
It was a large, stately apartment, with PURPLE CHAIRS (CENTRE) and CURTAINS (EDGE), a TURKEY CARPET (CENTRE), WALNUT-PANELLED WALLS, one VAST WINDOW RICH IN STAINED GLASS (EDGE), and a LOFT CEILING (CENTRE) nobly moulded. Mrs. Fairfax was dusting some vases of fine purple spar, which stood on SIDEBOARD (EDGE). (Bronte 88)
In this example we see three spatial sets, each involving a movement from centre to edge:
PURPLE CHAIRS TO CURTAINS = CENTRE TO EDGE
TURKEY CARPET TO PANELLED WALLS AND VAST WINDOW (same area view) = CENTRE TO EDGE
LOFT CEILING TO SIDEBOARD = CENTRE TO EDGE
Place patterning for Victorian texts, as with Jane Eyre above, generally appears in descriptions of rooms. However, in Modernist texts particularly, patterns do occur for outdoor spaces – where the pattern of Setting is expected – but as the characteristically indoor pattern of Place. The city, despite architectural embellishment or functional purpose, is pared down to its skeletal frame – it becomes an indoor space and within it we find the patterning for Place instead of the outdoor patterning for Setting. The city literally oppresses its inhabitants and this physical state of suffocation is often accompanied by a mental counterpart. It seems that despite the social, visual, technological and architectural developments that have occurred from Dickens’ 1860’s to the 1920’s of the Modernist writers, our cognition of these changes remains the same. With Hemingway’s Fiesta, buildings, monuments, narrow streets, etc. occlude, and even obstruct, the natural line of sight, forcing the narrator to move upwards constantly for an organic escape. The enclosure of the city renders the narrators’ perception of this space as proxemically limiting and hence, patterns which we would expect to follow the outdoor progressive trend are forced into the alternating patterns of Place due to the demands on the peri-personal space of each protagonist.
Fiesta (The Sun also Rises):
The taxi went up the hill (CENTRE), passed the lighted square (EDGE), then on into the dark, still climbing (CENTRE), and leveling out onto a dark street behind St Etienne du Mont (EDGE), went smoothly down the asphalt (CENTRE), passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe (EDGE), then turned on to the cobbles (CENTRE) of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street (EDGE). (Hemingway 22)
Descriptions of people form a different pattern; they begin with an outline of the shape, for example, “a large, heavy-set man,” and then move to the facial and head area. However, they do not form the closed alternating pattern that we see with the centre-edge combination in rooms, because what follows once the outline/head is delivered is a third component with two possibilities: the description can either remain with the facial/head area or move to a body part. Thus, it is not random because it never returns to outlining the shape. Instead, the descriptions form an open-ended sub-set of two. This is evidenced in the two differing sample sets below:
Set 1: Outline-Face/Head-Body
Jane Eyre: “I looked at my pupil, who did not at first appear to notice me: she was quite a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, SLIGHTLY BUILT, with a small featured FACE, and a redundancy of hair falling in curls to her WAIST” (Bronte 85).
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea : “They were true Papuans, men of fine stock, athletic in BUILD, FOREHEAD high and broad, NOSE large but not flat, TEETH white. Their woolly, red–tinted HAIR was in sharp contrast to their BODIES, which were black and glistening like those of Nubians” (Verne 80).
Set 2: Outline-Face/Head only
Crime and Punishment: “Sonya was of small STATURE, about eighteen years old, a THIN but GOOD-LOOKING blonde, with wonderful EYES” (Dostoevsky 221).
And, in Pride and Prejudice: “Lydia was a STOUT, well grown-girl of fifteen, with a fine COMPLEXION and good humoured COUNTENANCE” (Austen 40).
To conclude, this study demonstrates that a claim can be made for a statistical universal within certain spatial descriptions in verbal narrative which is determined by the spatial categories of Settings, Places and Persons. Traditionally, descriptive terms in verbal narrative have been associated with cultural and theoretical assumptions and for good reason. For example, the word landscape (a nineteenth century invention [see Hirsch and O’Hanlon]) alludes to all sorts of cultural agency–cultivation, environment, or the picturesque, to name a few. Similarly, the term place can denote either inside or outside, private or public, and each of these also comes with its own set of cultural and historical values. For example, the change in historical attitudes towards domesticity and its relationship to place not only impacts societal and cultural discourse but can also inform new architectural modes of thinking (see Rice). Therefore, conceptions of space, it would appear, are neither a cultural nor a historical constant. Despite this, the epistemological difficulty, and perhaps paradox, posed by this study is that the patterns doprovide evidence of a constant.
The most important and immediate area for further research is the testing of a much larger, diverse non-purposive sample randomly selected by a concordancer from a substantial sample of non-English texts. A rigorous retesting of this sample multiple times would be necessary to check for data verification/falsification which may enable the claims made here to go beyond the bounds of theory. This would be a large undertaking but it could be performed in stages, and if corroborated, could potentially inform each literary genre/culture as it proceeds. Alternatively, smaller projects could review non-English language texts, professionally translated, to test for textual interference, research data could be collected from writing experiments, the relationship to sign language could be examined in order to test for differential outcomes. Further work could found within the literary texts, for example, a larger variance of period data could be introduced to test the overall claims made here or different perceptual systems. For example, Austen’s proclivity for matchmaking within her texts and the ubiquitous gossip that follows could test for auditory pattern invariance. It is also hoped that the manual search approach adopted here could influence corpora methodological design towards a more efficient search engine to speed up the process of analysis.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: Norton, 2002.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Plant Three, 2003.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Norton, 2001.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. London: Penguin, 2003.
Finnigan, Liz. “A Cognitive Approach to Spatial Patterning in Literary Narrative.” Doctoral Thesis, Strathclyde University, Glasgow, 2013.
Hemingway, Ernest. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. London: Arrow, 2004.
Hirsch, Eric and O’ Hanlon, Michael ‘Introduction’ in The Anthropology of Landscape. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake.London: Penguin, 1976.
Rice, Charles. Emergence of the Interior. London: Routledge, 2007
Verne, Jules. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Many Books, 2017. eBook collection
This description continues for a further five lines but remains with the bodies of the islanders. Notably, it switches from the male to female islanders but does not begin a new pattern with the women instead it moves from the bodies of the men to those of the women: “Beneath their pierced, distended earlobes there dangled strings of beads made from bone. Generally these savages were naked. I noted some women among them, dressed from hip to knee in grass skirts held up by belts made of vegetation. Some of the chieftains adorned their necks with crescents and with necklaces made from beads of red and white glass. Armed with bows, arrows, and shields, nearly all of them carried from their shoulders a sort of net, which held those polished stones their slings hurl with such dexterity” (Verne 80).
“To suggest that there are no universals—that they are flatus vocis—is to endanger our uniqueness.” —Richard Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature 43)
The term “literary universals,” when not properly understood, can sound pejorative and theoretically dubious: whatever could be universal about literature, one of the most—if not the most—broad, varied, and historically contingent artistic modes of expression? And for that matter, whatever could be “universal” about anything, let alone a literary work? Philosophers such as Wilfrid Sellars—and more recently, neuroscientists, such as Lisa Feldman Barrett (“Are Emotions Natural Kinds?”)—routinely contest the very idea of universality, the idea that there could be an all-encompassing category of properties with common features (see Pap). Against the grain of such anti-universalist sentiments, I should like to address in this essay, first, contentions over the status of literary universals and universals in general and, second, in broad-brush fashion, propose possible candidates for universals themselves. For the first part of this essay, I shall entertain serious-minded theorists’ rejection of “universality,” with the aim of preserving the term’s rightful place in literary criticism and theory; for the second, I shall consider what literary universals—correctly understood—amount to, pragmatically, for literary theorists and critics; last, I shall tersely review possible problems posed by topics covered in previous sections, with an eye to future research.
How one considers “universality,” philosophically, hinges on the nature of properties, namely, attributes (be they physical, mental, aesthetic, non-aesthetic, or some admixture) that assume some reliable, substantive form. According to J. P. Moreland, analytic philosophers usually fall within three major schools of thought regarding the nature of properties: extreme nominalism (properties in general do not exist), nominalism (properties exist but can only be particulars, not universals), and realism (mind-independent properties exist in the world and are universals) (325). Nominalists of various stripes have led the most cogent charge against universality; on their view, universal denotata for terms such as “red” or “sex” (for example) do not exist in the world, only family resemblances for redness and sex; terms such as “red” and “sex” only serve to delude us into believing that redness and sex, as universal kinds of properties, exist; but they do not, from a nominalist standpoint; only particular types of sense-data exist, in perceptual form, and percepts vary across species and cultures (326). Many literary theorists, most notably Derrida, have taken up the extreme nominalist position. Rather than merely contest the relationship between language and what we might believe exists in the world, for Derrida language is all-encompassing: there is nothing even resembling mind-independent universals in the world; there is only language and various collective points of view conditioned by linguistic frameworks (Rorty “The Higher Nominalism”).
Consistent with the Literary Universals project, I shall adopt a realist stance; in particular, I shall adopt a stance known as “indirect realism,” that is, the belief that objective, universal properties exist in the world but that some such properties—aesthetic ones in particular—are mind-dependentuniversals(Levinson “Being Realistic”).
Evaluating a literary work depends, first, on mind-independentdescriptions of the work’s properties; we assess a critic’s (putatively “objective”) grasp on what happened, how it happened, and the language used to evoke a sense of what happened; second, evaluating literature involves some mind-dependentpsychological appraisal (such as viewing a work as “unrealistic,” “silly,” or “sublime”). According to Rorty, Derrida, and others, however, evaluative claims about literary works lack “unities of structure” (and, one would presume, a universal substrate upon which to base such a claim) (Rorty “The Higher Nominalism” 464); on this view, a critic’s aesthetic judgement is relative to her assessment within a particular time, historical context, and interpretive community; if values are relative in this way, then aesthetic judgements cannot possibly be universal, given the raw, individual nature of reader-response; as I shall argue, however, evaluative judgements do have a universal basis (they not only do but must, if any work of art can be said to be more valuable than another; the whole enterprise of literary evaluation, in fact, may hinge on universal categories of valuation).
Realists, for their part, have responded to the nominalist critique of universals by showing how actual, measurable, mind-independent properties do exist, properties that warrant classification as universals or “natural kinds,” that is, objective attributes that persist in some substantive form, no matter how we might think about or respond to them (Richard Boyd and Moreland). Neuroscientists and philosophers have also taken pains to show how natural kind categories are not dogmatically universal, in some strong objectivist sense but, rather, “homeostatic property clusters,” or HPCs (Richard Boyd; Eickers et al.; Panksepp; Scarantino “Core Affect”). An HPC is not an inflexible, Platonic ideal demarcating some essential substance; rather, an HPC designates a set of properties that persist in the world, over time, that have reliable, measurable, behavioral effects (Scarantino “Core Affect” 950). An obvious example of an HPC would be the human heart, whose structure and function are clearly persistent over time, even if (in evolutionary time) the heart has been modified by natural, selective pressures as well as a host of man-made pressures, such as high-cholesterol diets. A less obvious example of an HPC would be the amygdala, whose structure and function has persisted over evolutionary time for millions of years: “Even non-mammalian species such as reptiles, birds, and fish have an amygdala-like brain region with similar circuits and functions to the amygdala in mammals” (Janak and Tye 284); the amygdala—despite its inter-species variability—can be seen as a “natural kind” of persistent structure, with reliable, measurable effects on human behavior. This is not to say that the amygdala is a “modular” structure whose functionality is cut-off from other neurological systems; on the contrary, the amygdala functions in concert with several other systems in the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and sensory association areas (284); what matters, in this case, is that the amygdala is a structure whose functional specialization persists, cross-culturally; the amygdala is a cluster of neurological properties (types of neurons and neuropeptides) with a predictable and measurable impact on reader-response. An HPC, then, can designate anything, from a discrete biological system, non-aesthetic properties underlying aesthetic concepts (e.g., a kind of controlled, delicate movement that distinguishes, say, “graceful” from “jarring”), or something as ubiquitous and persistent as carbon, gravity, and other non-biological kinds of properties.
So although human nature may best be described as an “ensemble of social relations,” to echo Marx, it remains the case that underpinning those relations are biologically preorganized structures in the mind-brain, most notably (for literary works) structures governing social cognition and emotion. Neuroscientists stress, moreover, that if there were no cross-cultural, functionally specialized neural architectures subsuming social cognition and emotion—if there were no neuropsychological HPCs, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex—then cultural diversity would not be possible (Colombetti “The Feeling Body”; de Waal and Ferrari; Hamann; Panksepp; Scarantino and Griffiths). To clarify with an analogy: just as the game of chess is played using a variety of culturally circumscribed openings and defenses—the English opening, Budapest gambit, Dutch defense, and so forth—yet the rules of chess (and functionality of each piece) remain persistent, across cultures, it is also true that without preorganized, neurobiological structures in the mind-brain, without memory and emotional circuitry able to represent, encode, and respond characteristically to a variety of sensory impressions, there would be no means (no substrate within which) to store and express a cultural norm in the first place. The same has been said about universality in the arts. Literary theorists have long championed the centrality of universals, most notably E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (Hirsch “Literary Evaluation”; “Objective Interpretation”). And more recently, philosophers of art, such as Dennis Dutton and Noël Carroll, have written persuasively about how artistic value, while certainly modulated by cultural and linguistic norms, is nevertheless constrained by evolutionary universals (Noël Carroll; Dutton). The “vast realm of cultural constructions,” writes Dutton, “is created by a mind whose underlying interests, preferences, and capacities are products of human prehistory” (206). Even so, “literary universals,” as a theoretical term, appears suspect to many theorists who might otherwise agree that something like an HPC exists; most would demur to the idea that “we all respond the same way” to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, yet less problematic (even to a nominalist) would be the claim that preorganized structures in the mind-brain (such as the amygdala) constrain whatever anyone anywhere would find valuable in Hamlet.
Misconception one: naïve uniformity
This brings me to common misconceptions of “universality.” Literary universals imply, to some, that there is a kind of collectively shared response to a particular work (such as Hamlet)over time; this assumption is misguided, however. Barbara Herrnstein Smith rightly challenges naïve universalism of this sort in her classic essay, Fixed Marks and Variable Contingencies; she argues that readers’ values, such as for Shakespeare’s sonnets, change over time depending on their life circumstances. Nevertheless, Smith would not claim that a sonnet on love is ever read as a sonnet on hate, or that the words “love is not love / Which alters when alteration finds” are scanned as “we no longer love someone after having an affair” or, for that matter, that “love is something that changes after undergoing some personal change.” On the contrary, we read and value the sonnets with generally consistent understanding, which suggests that something universal—about the sonnets and ourselves in relation to them—organizes our reception of and values for Shakespeare’s sonnets over time (see Easterlin). Alas, literary movements—and academic careers, for that matter—routinely revolve around denying universalism altogether, going so far as to claim that there is no shared response to anything, only culturally contingent interpretations (Bohannan; Stanley Fish Is There; Smith Contingencies of Value).
Even a few neuroscientists seem to have taken up the anti-universalist banner. Lisa Feldman Barrett, informed by her having taught a course on the eugenics movement and its “scientific justification for racism,” early in her career, rightfully finds any kind of essentialist theory of emotion dubious (“When Is Speech Violence?”). Barrett has made anti-universalism a staple in her social constructivist theory of emotion, perhaps from the same moral skepticism that compelled her to reject eugenics (“Are Emotions Natural Kinds?”). She argues, in nominalist fashion, that “not all mental states belonging to a particular category named by an emotion word such as ‘fear’ look alike, feel alike, or have the same neurophysiological signature from one instance to another,” listing in support of this argument many documented differences in fear-expression (“Variety Is the Spice of Life” 2). The argument is nominalist in spirit insofar as she believes that there is no universal property for “fear” in the brain, only perceived family resemblances for a type of response, such as fear-like behavior that we categorize, misleadingly, with universal terms. Barrett argues that our semantic sense for terms such as “fear” and “love” deceive us into believing that there is some fixed, corresponding referential domain for each category of experience; however, as she contends, emotion terms “do not name mechanisms” in the brain—“fear” is a loose, ambiguous term whose corresponding affective states can vary and involve a whole host of different brain circuitries; words for emotions such as “fear” and “love,” on this view, only designate brain states that recur enough to warrant naming them (8). When anyone reads “love is not love / Which alters when alteration finds,” what is meant by “love,” for each reader, is not anchored in neurological systems dedicated to “love,” in itself, for “love” on Barrett’s view is not a neurological mechanism but an ensemble of complex social relations, sensory impressions, thoughts, moments—“love” is a social construct, not a brain state.
Many have critiqued Barrett’s theory of emotion, in depth (most promisingly, in my mind, Giovanna Colombetti, Andrea Scarantino, and Jaak Panksepp), and while aspects of Barrett’s theory certainly hold merit, I believe her stronger claims—consistent with most nominalist critiques of universalism—rest on a simple, informal logical mistake, namely, a category error. In her critique of emotional natural kinds, Barrett confuses the wholephenomenology of emotion—all its complex expressive variations—withpartsof the brain whose properties reputedly evolved to express emotions, such as the amygdaloid complex. Emotion categories such as fear are “social artifacts,” according to Barrett, that can refer to an infinite number of possible triggering stimuli—there is fear of spiders, fear of clowns, fear of disorderly conduct, fear of getting wet, and so forth; and since the object of an emotional response is constitutive of one’s phenomenological sense of feeling an emotion (spider-fear is surely different from wetness-fear), there cannot be anything “biologically basic” about an emotional category that underpins every instance of its application (Barrett “Variety is the Spice of Life” 4). However, just as it would be a confusion to claim that “water” has no universal properties, because (as we readily observe) there are “watery basements,” “rainy days,” “recreational swimming pools,” and “igloos,” it would be a mistake to say that discrete neural networks (dedicated to processing and expressing “fear”) do not exist in the brain, simply because (as we also readily observe) there are “fearful movies,” “agoraphobic episodes,” “fear of ghosts,” and so forth.
Against category errors of this nature, a far more parsimonious claim would be, simply, that underlying universal properties—“water-properties” and “fear-properties”—structure particular instances of water and fear expressions, constraining whatever meanings we may attribute to types of water and fear. Social constructive elements certainly modulate emotions: I cannot fear a ghost unless I have been indoctrinated with a belief in ghosts, first. However, what binds all emotional semantic categories together, across-cultures, are neurobiological substrata in our mind-brains that facilitate emotional expressions, generally. Even if, say, a particular area in the amygdala dedicated to processing fearful stimuli (let us call it area X) did not activate across all instances of fear, there would be no reason to claim that X is no longer a natural kind of property cluster, namely, a set of functionally specialized neural mechanisms that process types of fearful stimuli (see Scarantino “Functional”).
Put another way, if a universal psychological system—such as one dedicated to processing disgust—is also involved in processing other kinds of affective responses, such as moral repugnance, then that system cannot be said to lack functional specialization fora particular, natural kind of emotion. And most recent neuroscientific reviews on kinds of emotion bear this argument out: while there certainly are complex, overlapping mechanisms for processing different types of fear—some reflexive, some deliberative—there are, nevertheless, doubly-differentiated and genetically differentiated systems dedicated to fear in the brain (Adolphs, Gross and Canteras, Herry and Johansen, Tovote et al.). (Such differentiation is a neuroscience method where functional specialization is determined by showing that independent variables, such as fearful stimuli, trigger discrete anatomical activation but not confounding variables, such as joyful stimuli.) The same could be said for other kinds of emotions, such as disgust, and, yes, even love.
One lesson that could be had from neuroscientific research on emotion, for the Literary Universals Project, is that whatever we might call a “universal” in “literary universals”—such as a universal kind of emotional response—is not undone by the varying ways we emote to literary works, moment by moment; rather, what is “universal” in a literary universal ought to be located in the shared kinds of ways we appreciate particular works of art, at the level of human nature (Brian Boyd On the Origin of Stories; Joseph Carroll “Poststructuralism, Cultural Constructivism and Evolutionary Biology”; Noël Carroll “Art and Human Nature”; Dutton “The Art Instinct”). Patrick Colm Hogan elaborates on this lesson in one of his recent books, Beauty and Sublimity. On his view, “aesthetic universals” (literary depictions of prototypical experiences, such as romantic attachment) “are not only compatible with” differences in taste “but actually entail them” (48). We might say, by analogy, that because all humans share a visual system allowing us to perceive and represent the world, variously, “vision” remains a universalkind of perceptual category; visual systems in the brain form physiological substrata intrinsic to humankind (even blind individuals use a visual system to represent objects and events, non-visually); yet we would not say that because visual systems represent an infinite variety of stimuli, that this fact is at odds with vision’s dependency on evolved HPCs. On the contrary, that we all share a visual system in kinddoes not entail uniformity in representational function, in particular. It is not then a stretch to claim, by extension, that whatever is particular about literary experience is also contingent on universally shared aesthetic sensibilities, what Hume once called “standards of taste” that we have all more or less inherited from human nature.
Misconception two: naïve objectivism
A second challenge to the Literary Universals Project runs thus: even if there were universal kinds of HPC underlying specific types of reading experience, where exactly would they reside? Would they be textual, psychological, biological, perceptual? If there is no invariant substrate in the mind (or in literary works) that, say, is shown to be active for all of us when responding to the death of Romeo and Juliet, then there is nothing foundational upon which to warrant claims of literary universality.
To be sure, the act of reading and comprehending a text, as Stanley Fish has argued, is not about what texts “do” to us, as mind-independent objective artifacts, but what we “do” to texts, as subjectively engrossed readers (“Literature in the Reader”). Language comprehension is a process of decoding objective properties on the page (textual symbols) into subjective responses (mental representations and affective sensations); insofar as readers must construct meaning from symbols, and insofar as that meaning is conceptual and affective (something that occurs within our minds and bodies), it would seem (as Fish contends) that all reading comprehension is interpretive and radically subjectivist, making any kind of “objectivism” (which literary universals entail) impossible (Stanley Fish Is There a Text in This Class?; “Literature in the Reader”; The Trouble with Principle). Even the most straightforward sentence, such as “the dog barked,” is not meaningful as text, in itself; the meaning of “the dog barked” is a byproduct of translating symbols into encoded sense impressions (memory engrams) for dogs and barking (Barsalou “Grounded Cognition”; Caramazza et al.; Zwaan and Madden). We thus interpret“the dog barked,” in a technical neurocognitive sense, that is, the meaning of “the dog barked” resides not on the page but in our heads, and for the simple reason that each of us has acquired different memories for dogs and barking, our representational sense of “the dog barked” will vary between readers. Reading comprehension, in this respect, is both embodied and, to some considerable extent, subjective (Barsalou “Grounded Cognition”).
As Lawrence Barsalou’s research has shown, however, we all (more or less) share prototypicalrepresentational engrams (for dogs and barking and whatever else), engrams that share properties across individuals (“Grounding Conceptual Knowledge in Modality Specific Systems”); if this were not so, it would be impossible to understand, reliably, anything written (see Easterlin “Making Knowledge”). Fish’s definition of “interpretation,” by contrast, requires all meaning to be radically group-minded, for he believes that individuals cannot share meaning across readership communities; rather, each “interpretive community” dictates how readers respond to and value texts (Is There a Text in This Class?). Fish’s community-oriented theory of reader-response is empirically underdetermined, however. Community affiliation structures some reception to literary works, to be sure, yet Barsalou’s theory of knowledge puts paid to Fish’s theory, for if all knowledge is acquired from experience (even abstract knowledge, on Barsalou’s theory, is contingent on a concrete perceptual bedrock of memory impressions), then meaning is always constrained by shared, prototypical knowledge of objects and events in the world (Barsalou “Perceptual Symbol Systems”; “Grounding Conceptual Knowledge”; Goldstone et al.). Literary universals must, on this view, rest on epistemological substrates that are stable enough, across individuals, to warrant claims of universality. Epistemological substrata organize around universal systems in the mind-brain. Literary universals, thus, can be better understood as mind-dependently objective, that is, as classifiable kinds of interactions between real (observable, measurable) physical structures in our minds, textual forms, and how we respond to them.
If the above view (what Barsalou calls “grounded cognition”) is correct, literary universals are emergent aesthetic properties, a position developed most extensively by Jerrold Levinson (what he calls “emergentism”) and, more broadly, a philosophically rigorous position known as “indirect realism” (Levinson “Aesthetic Supervienience”; Ward “Direct and Indirect Realism”). For those who find the term “literary universals” suspect on the grounds that universality necessitates stable, mind-independentobjects of comprehension, emergentism offers a strong theoretical (and from the standpoint of neuropsychology, empirical) justification for universal—not uniformly received—kinds of responses and narrative structures. Literary universals are demarcated not by the moment-by-moment state-space of reception but by homeostatic property clusters (HPCs) of various kinds, such as recurring emotional responses (fear, love, jealousy); cognitive universals, such as the limitations of short-term memory, theory-of-mind, the influence of attention on memory; as well as narrative universals (recurring literary motifs, tropes, themes, and the like). There is no single place a literary universal resides; rather, literary universals (like most kinds of universality) emergefrom particular minds, texts, and social norms.
Emotion and literary universals
So far, I have argued that literary universals are contingent, first, on shared cognitive and perceptual systems that allow us to detect and respond to works containing rewarding or punishing aesthetic experiences; both rewarding and punishing kinds of reading experience form a solid bedrock upon which claims of universal value can rest. What you find rewarding or punishing may differ, significantly, from what I find rewarding or punishing, as Hogan details in his works (Beauty and Sublimity; The Mind and Its Stories; What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion); however, interpretive variance does not militate against our ability to classify and make use of literary universals. Nor does a plurality of interpretations serve as evidence for the impossibility for reliable standards of judgment for works of art, as Stephen Davies, Brian Boyd, David Bordwell, Denis Dutton, and many others have argued (Brian Boyd Why Lyrics Last; Davies The Philosophy of Art; “Relativism in Interpretation”; Dutton). Cross-cultural criticism, for that matter, would not be possible without identifying shared domains of representation. Hogan’s work on universal narrative types follows in this tradition, his comparative analysis of Sappho, Li Qingzhao, and Shakespeare’s treatment of romantic love being the most illustrative, in this context (What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion). Absent of stifling reductionism in his treatment of romantic love, Hogan offers a nuanced account of divergent reception, between readers, as well as how cultural norms inflect universal kinds of emotional content.
Second, I have argued that literary universals (of any kind, be they cognitive or non-cognitive) are emergentfrom objective yet mind-dependent properties. Emergentism conjoins textual, psychological, and social properties, together, in the making of an aesthetic impression and value; an interactionist approach to reader-response, on my account, is compatible with universal kinds of substrate in the mind-brain and likely also at the level of textual forms (again, without any recourse to strong objectivist or essentialist claims about human nature). Both positions, taken together—grounded cognition and emergentism—dissolve charges of naïve realism, absolutism, reductionism, and scientism when appealing to literary universals.
Now I should like to offer three examples of literary universals themselves, within the context of common misconceptions about what “literary universals” entail, as a term: emotional, empathetic, and evaluative kinds of universals.
First, perhaps the strongest candidate for a literary universal (neurobiological substrate) is emotional kinds of response. There has been extensive debate in neuroscience literature on whether emotions can be seen as natural kinds of evolved structures or as socially relative phenomena (Barrett et al.; LeDoux “Rethinking the Emotional Brain”; Panksepp). As I have suggested, anti-universalists in this debate draw on nominalist arguments against the possibility of properties with shared structures in the world (or mind-body); either this, or it is thought that interactions between minds, texts, and cultural norms are so complex and varied over time that it makes no sense to appeal to anything universal about the reading experience (Smith Contingencies of Value). Emotions, on my argument, are founded on homeostatic property clusters (HPCs) in the mind-brain, such as preorganized neural architecture dedicated to processing fear, pain, love, desire, injustice, and so forth.
Evidence for “natural kinds” of emotions, or psychological HPCs in the mind-brain, is overwhelming. One need only venture into Nature Reviews Neuroscience search database—the most prominent journal that publishes work on emotion—to discover the many recent review articles on topics as diverse as non-conscious emotional circuitry, negative affect (such as pain), empathy, music-evoked emotions, social emotions, and so forth. Each review article details empirical findings over the past ten or more years (often decades) on the target subject, and in all such reviews, emotional expression is shown to depend on functionally specialized neural architectures in the brain (Damasio and Carvalho; Janak and Tye; Ruff and Fehr; Tovote et al.). New measurement technology—such as optogenetic stimulation of neural networks, where engineered neurochemicals activated by light are injected into discrete regions of the brain, then turned on (with inhibitory or excitatory results) by light-inducing implants—has been used to map discrete neuronal circuitry dedicated to processing emotional stimuli in structures such as the amygdala (Tovote et al.). Additional research shows how emotional systems can be activated non-consciously, by mere exposure to fearful facial expressions (Tamietto and de Gelder; Yuan et al.); if some emotional kind of stimulus triggers a response, non-consciously, then deliberative, cognitive input when exposed to an emotional kind of stimulus (a disinterested “aesthetic attitude,” for example) may be less formative than previously imagined when evaluating works of art (Dickie “The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude”). Whatever the case may be, if evolution did not select for dedicated, discreteemotional circuitry in the brain—the basis upon which I am resting my claims for HPCs of an emotional kind—then optogenetic mapping techniques would show no signs of discrete functional specialization; but they surely do (Hess).
Barrett, for her part, appeals to electrical stimulation research conducted at the dawn of neuroscience to support her constructivist thesis of emotion (in particular, Elliot Valenstein’s studies in 1973) (Barrett “Variety Is the Spice of Life” 3). However, these data have been shown to be flawed in both method and experimental design, for they relied on patients’ verbal feedback during a resting state rather than direct, localized measurements of neural function while performing a task, under controlled experimental conditions (Poldrack and Farah). That Barrett appeals to outmoded research to support her claims ought to cast a pall over her psychological construction theory of emotion. Indeed, the evidence is not on Barrett’s side: pick up any neuroscience textbook (such as Principles of Neural Science) and you cannot turn a page without finding research differentiating discrete neural functions, each of which can be seen as a natural kind of universal substrate in the mind-brain. The whole neuroscientific enterprise, for that matter, would lack directive if specialized systems in the brain were not reliably identified. Neuroscience has become so proficient at mapping discrete neuronal functioning, in fact, that it can enable auditory and visual perception in blind and deaf subjects (Hajioff; Nazari et al.); give monkeys the ability to move an electronic arm with mind-control (Velliste et al.); allow rats with computer aided movement implants to solve mazes faster than rats without implants (Yu et al.); and so forth. These feats are predicated on the reliable manipulation of discrete, functionally specialized systems in the brain, and emotional systems are no less reliably manipulable in this respect than other kinds of systems. Emotional kinds of representational content in literary works, and the predictable ways we respond to this content, is therefore governed by universal psychological systems.
Empathy and literary universals
Another candidate for a literary universal, overlapping with recurring kinds of emotional experience, is empathy. Extensive research has shown that empathy is an evolved psychological mechanism triggered by perceiving conspecific distress (see Preston and de Waal). However, insofar as literary theory is concerned, empathy ought to be viewed through a broader lens, within the scope of recognizing shared kinds of experience, knowledge, and finding literary value in empathic reward or distress. Empathy is not only sharing emotions with others and adopting their points of view; more technically, empathy activates “observers’ own distributed representations for the target and their state and situation—including related feelings, memories and associations—in a connectionist manner” (6). From an early age forward, we encode memories into coherent representations for objects and events in the world, memories that form the bedrock of our knowledge about ourselves and others (Barsalou “Grounded Cognition”). These memories underpin our conceptual representations for even the most abstract theories, and they extend into the domain of whatever we might call the “cognitive” input of reception (Yeh and Barsalou “The Situated Nature of Concepts”). Shared, basic architecture for social emotions works in conjunction with our knowledge, forming various clusters of empathic understanding, from general awareness of shared values for love, friendship, family, and so forth, to idiosyncratic preferences for, say, cosplay, Star Trek, polyamory, and other particular categories of shared identity.
Further, as I have already suggested (and argued extensively, elsewhere), literary works able to represent universal kinds of emotional experience—such as sexual jealousy or oppression—confer an intrinsic kind of value (Norwood). By “intrinsic,” I mean a kind of potentiated value within the work itself: words require translation into representational imagery, and imagery must evoke emotional response, before it can be said that “a value” has been conferred. What is notmeant by “intrinsic” is a universally shared interpretation or isomorphic impression. We cannot possibly all share the same kinds of empathic responses to literary works. Moreover, an intrinsic value, potentiated by a (more or less) shared understanding of episodic action, often evokes divergent emotional valences (such as “liking” or “disliking” a character) or interpretations (judging a work to be “good” or “bad”). Perspectivism reigns in literary interpretation, to be sure, yet underlying all divergent responses to a work, on my view, is a substrate of universal HPCs in the mind-brain. Divergent emotional valences are commonplace in literary criticism, precisely because works are written with built-in ambivalences about the moral implications of characters’ actions, as Norman Rabkin argues with reference to Shakespeare’s political plays. That literary works so often depict characters with ambivalent qualities—the treachery and sophistication of Iago, for example—likely reflects an author’s wish to represent (with fidelity) the messy domain of universal human nature in social psychology. As Christopher Boehm argues in his study of social hierarchies, “structural contradictions in our nature tend to produce profound ambivalences in humans, psychological tugs of war that are reasonably predictable because they are anchored in human nature” (231). Divergent reactions to characters likely also reflect changes in our own personal development, as readers. Interpersonal upheavals—loss or gain of a loved one, rejection or acceptance—may at times dramatically alter our perception of a work’s merits, such as finding a novel profound at a young age and mawkish at an older one. It nevertheless remains requisite for a work to represent some emotional kind of experience that readers can readily identity or sympathize with, if that work can be said to offer an intrinsically rewarding kind of experience (see Budd “Artistic Value”).
There are numerous ways in which readers can empathize (or not) with recurring kinds of universal themes, making universalist criticism expansive rather than reductive. Hogan has stipulated two types of empathic response: “categorial empathy” and “situational empathy” (The Mind and Its Stories). Categorial empathy occurs when readers share a group-identity with a work’s representations, such as sharing a sense of class or cultural identity, such as Jewishness, being a white-collar worker, and the like. “Situational empathy,” on the other hand, requires shared memories of basic or particular kinds, such as having experienced the intoxicating effects of power, romantic love, or recalling how it feels to thwart an oppressive force. Situational empathy, thus, may best account for our capacity to empathize with basic kinds of everyday experience, even when situated in fictional narratives, such as empathizing with a superhero’s desire to conquer an evil antagonist, simply by dint of having experienced some type of social oppression, ourselves. The range of empathic identity can be complex, with some works—Shakespeare’s in particular—capturing not only situational kinds of empathy, such as romantic love in Romeo and Juliet, but layering into basic empathic domains additional types of categorial and situational empathies. An example would be understanding why two lovers desire one another—a kind of basic situational empathy—while also understanding why desiring someone in an out-group poses unique challenges (assuming, qua categorial empathy, that we can identify with being perceived as an outsider, or can relate to ingroup versus outgroup antagonisms). Both Romeo and Juliet are born into competing principalities; most of us cannot categorically identify with this type of circumstance; yet we nevertheless empathize, situationally, with the lovers’ unique distress as they struggle to maintain their bonds in the face of familial opposition. Many works exploit our capacity to readily identify with basic kinds of empathic value, such as using children actors in a horror film to appeal to an audience’s empathy for children’s welfare, or the use of dramatic music to enhance an otherwise banal series of events. Critics may judge a work to be weak that relies solely on exploiting domains of intrinsic emotional value, yet such a judgment would not amount to a disinterested aesthetic attitude; on the contrary, if a work reliably provokes emotion, predicated on its own representational content, then it can be said to hold intrinsic value, even if the quality or impact of that value is limited. The degree to which a work provokes emotion depends on the richness of its emotional representational landscape, whether an emotion felt is weak or strong, simplistic or nuanced.
When viewed through the broader lens of shared representational experience—our capacity to emotionally engage with others’ plights and pleasures—empathy thus becomes central to whatever could be said to be universally appealing (or repugnant) about a work of art. Yet again, however, whatever could be identified as “a” universal, intrinsic value in a work does not necessitate some kind of uniform response to that value-conferring content: a universal psychological substrate does not determine shared response-profiles across readers, only predictable patterns of response.
Evaluation and literary universals
Both emotional and empathic domains of universality conjoin in our pursuit for critical agreement over a work’s literary merits. As Malcolm Budd has argued, a work’s value is intrinsic to “the experience the work offers” as a work of art, if we respond, emotionally, to a work with understanding (269). That is to say, we not only must find emotional rewards in a work, if it is to be deemed intrinsically valuable, but also understand (more or less fully comprehend) the work’s content. If we emote to a work from a space of misunderstanding, our value is not of the work—it is not intrinsic to the experience the work offers—but our own subjective appraisal. Many view science-fiction and fantasy genres as unrealistic and fanciful, for example; they cannot tolerate watching aliens and dragons, since these entities (clearly) do not exist. However, such viewers would not understand the narrative utility of representing universal kinds of experiences—and imagined, better alternatives—in science-fictional or fantasy settings. Works able to capture, with fidelity, universal kinds of emotional circumstances (or unique idiosyncratic preference) ought to be seen as “better than” works that try yet fail to represent content with fidelity, whether the nature of the content is realistic or fantastical. If a work tries but fails to represent universal kinds of experience (even within altogether unrealistic narrative backdrops, such as time-travel), readers cannot empathetically engage with the work’s content; such a failure may be on the part of the work, not the author or reader, and so it is commonplace to find critics in disagreement about the extent a work realistically portrays some subject (again, even if what is “realistic” is embedded in some non-realistic narrative context). Disagreement over a work’s handling of a subject, however, merely reflects divergent background exposure to the same, basic kind of experience, such as feeling morbidly threatened by a sexual rival rather than mildly amused, when what is common between both experiences is sexual rivalry. That we can disagree about a work’s representation of a subject strongly suggests that we share universal emotional and empathic kinds of responses to that subject. Universality is thus necessary for judging particular (and idiosyncratic) literary representations of natural kind of emotional experience.
Consider an example. Barbara Herrnstein Smith has argued, using Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 as her reference point, that our values for a literary work are radically contingent on circumstances external to the work’s representational content. When we read “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove,” some readers—on Smith’s account—may respond with identity or repugnance, depending on their life’s circumstance. Having gone through a divorce, Smith found herself responding to Sonnet 116 with an opposing emotional valance compared to how she used to feel, when reading the same sonnet while happily married (13). Would we then say that Sonnet 116 lacks a stable kind of intrinsic value? The short answer is no. The longer answer would be this: there is a complex kind of emotional phenomenology at play in Sonnet 116 that we can all readily appreciate, whether we agree with Shakespeare’s thesis that love ought to remain steadfast over time or not, or whether we can share an understanding for what “true minds” means or not. Having a falling out with a loved one may temporarily shift the valence of our response to love poems, but not our basic understanding of those poems’ intrinsic values. Any kind of emotional theme, for that matter—revenge, injustice, desire—is grounded in psychological systems capable of representing and responding characteristically to the type of emotional scenario in question (Tooby and Cosmides).
Consider another example. Even if we have not experienced intense sexual jealousy, is not Othello’s sexual paranoia readily understood? We find Othello’s situation emotionally sympathetic without any need to have already experienced his particular type of situation. I should think that it is precisely because Shakespeare preoccupies himself with recurring, natural kinds of emotional situations that most readers find his works timelessly rewarding (van Peer).
Works that do not represent emotional kinds of experience, for that matter, cannot then possess intrinsic value, even those works whose emotional contents are not readily apparent in the work itself, as perceived, but found instead in an understanding of the work’s conceptual irony (a commonplace example being Duchamp’s Fountain). That we find Duchamp’s Fountain amusing depends on a shared understanding (grounded in perceptual engagement with works of art over time) of the normative function of urinals and art museums; the value of Fountain may not be intrinsic to the work itself, as perceived in isolation; yet its ironic (amusing) value is readily grasped, all the same, given the obvious contextual mismatch between bathroom and art-display norms, and this mismatch cannot be understood without shared, embodied memories for each normative type of experience that the work calls upon. Many philosophers and neuroscientists have already formulated theories that agree with my thesis, moreover; it has long been held that emotional response is the primary mover of value-attribution (Budd “Artistic Value”; Damasio “The Neurobiological Grounding of Human Values”; Ruff and Fehr; Tappolet). I cannot, for my part, imagine an alternative to the natural emotional kinds thesis as the basis of valuation, since there is no empirical evidence suggesting that psychological, cognitive, or cultural values exist in vacuo, free from underlying emotional bases.
None of the above suggests that cognitive or cultural dimensions of appreciating a work’s value take a back seat to raw emotionality; on the contrary, following Budd’s theory of value, it is often the case that significant deliberation over time is required to fully understand a work prior to correctly gauging its merits (“The Intersubjective Validity of Aesthetic Judgments”). Indeed, neuroscientists, such as Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux, and philosophers, such as Robert Solomon, no longer view the binary “emotion-cognition” as relevant, given the vast amount of empirical data showing how these components of thought exercise bidirectional influence on one another (Damasio Descartes’ Error; LeDoux The Emotional Brain; Solomon). Whatever a cognitivist would wish to offer literary criticism ought to be covered, on my view, by a close examination of categorical and situational empathies, how unique experiences lead to divergent evaluations, and the role of careful deliberation in forming final judgments; underlying any such mode of criticism, however, are neurobiological HPCs of an emotional kind. There is simply no other mechanism by which a work can be said to impart value, other than by affective indexing of an aesthetic impression.
Not only is a work’s capacity to reliably elicit an emotional response—or tap into some bit of wisdom not commonly shared across readers—central to the Literary Universal project, but literary evaluation, of any sort, depends on recognizing what a work accomplishes within various domains of universality, at the level of representation. Literary critics routinely elucidate some universally valuable implication that a work offers, even when audiences rarely understand that work’s implications or fail to see them altogether.
In sum: literary universals are not monolithic, abstract laws; they are not naively objectivist; they are contingent on mind-dependent emergence of aesthetic impressions; and they expansively account for and explain pluralities of reception—cognitive and non-cognitive—rather than reduce literary works to some utilitarian rubric of value.
Last, there is a great deal of work left to be done exploring the nature of literary universals. To what extent, for example, can we disentangle situational from categorical empathy? Empathy seems most intuitively understood, first, not as identifying with memoriesacquired from experience—for memories, in themselves, seem too rationalistic and dry—but with emotionally salientmemories. No longer (as mentioned above) do philosophers and neuroscientists see any empirical warrant in making clear-cut distinctions between memory and emotion systems, as if these domains were somehow in opposition, since both systems coevolved to the extent that they share robust, bidirectional projections, a finding noted, early on, by Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error). Affective and epistemological dimensions of reader response, thus, require new, empirically informed theoretical models that accommodate literary critical nuances.
One promising area of research that may bridge the gap between cognitivism and emotivism is social neuroscience. There is a great deal of research on memory-emotion interactions that could shed light on how underlying emotional systems modulate memory, and how emotionally inflected memories, in turn, facilitate situational empathy in literary works (Kensinger et al.; Phelps and Sharot; Roozendaal and McGaugh). Future directions in literary theory ought to take heed of the many neuroscience review articles developed over the past decade, especially those pertaining to emotion-memory interactions and social cognition.
Moreover, extant literary theoretical frameworks—feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and reader response theories, to name a few—could take stock of recent research that pins down homeostatic property clusters (HPCs) of emotional and cognitive kinds. Marxist critics, for example, might gain immensely from research on epigenetics (Fraga et al.; Levenson and Sweatt). If class struggles create environmental differences (between the haves and have-nots, the bourgeoisie and proletariat, or whatever subclasses one might stipulate), these differences likely impact intragroup phenotypical expressions, from child development onward, such as resource-scarce environments leading to increased dispositional stress in offspring (Weaver et al.). Epigenetic research, thus, may offer new, empirical support for erstwhile (seemingly otiose) Marxist critiques of the literary canon, such as those found in the work of Georg Lukács and others. Postcolonialism, also—dovetailing with the work of Frantz Fanon, perhaps—may find a great deal of empirical support for how in-group versus out-group dynamics induce racial and political biases that affect literary appraisal (Hewstone et al.; Zamboni et al.). And already, neuroscience has given new currency to tripartite psychoanalytic models of mind (id, ego, superego) that may inspire new directions in literary criticism (Solms “Freud Returns”).
Another area where much research is needed is on the intersect between top-down cognition (such as deliberative, after-the-fact appraisals of literary value) and bottom-up affective and cognitive input on evaluation. Can it rightly be said that a work whose content moves us to feel fear or desire—from watching a horror or pornography film, for example—possesses intrinsic value, by default of bottom-up encoding of salient kinds of stimuli? From a neurophysiological standpoint, it seems the answer is yes, but from a literary critical standpoint, we ought to be able to distinguish between qualitatively “superior” kinds of saliency and mere exposure to exploitative emotional content. To be sure, some may argue that “exploitation” of emotional saliency is the driving force of all good works of art, high or low, and so it is the duty of the trained critic, not the empirical researcher, to adjudicate between what counts as “good” and “bad” art of all stripes. Demarcating “good” from “bad” art is a complex problem space, and I should think that writers and critics alike would be informed by empirical research in the areas of aesthetics, value theory, appraisal, and social neuroscience; if so, literary universals that can be shown to affect evaluation, bias, and the like, could help draw lines of demarcation between “good” and “bad” art.
Research in digital humanities may gain from the Literary Universals project, also. If, say, some adaptive neural network was “taught” to identify emotional kinds of content, merely by some means of computerized assessment, then literature deemed “timelessly valuable” could be fed into these programs and subsequently mapped for content that induces emotional memory. There may also be a kind of “emotional syntax” some works employ, independent of basic kinds of emotional, representational content. Turns of phrase and surprising metaphors may drive saliency in Shakespeare’s works, for example, independent of whatever content induces situational empathy. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” contains not only an evocative idea, but the phraseology of the line would seem to enhance its aesthetic impact.
There are so many promising areas of future research that I cannot possibly trace them all, here. I have only scratched the surface. What the future holds in store for the Literary Universals project is unclear; what is clear is that empirical research on emotion, memory, perception, bias, and so forth, can all deeply inform the subtlest modes of literary criticism and theory.
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Kathleen Hart, Vassar College
“Metaphor Universals in Literature” succinctly synthesizes important conceptual metaphor scholarship (to which Kövecses has made substantial contributions) that offers valuable tools for analyzing metaphor in poetry and other literary forms. In what follows, I propose a theoretical justification for Kövecses’s decision to focus on poetry: more than other genres, poetry approximates the experience of ritual. I then explore the implications of this theory for the content Kövecses proposes for the schematicity levels of the skyscraper metaphor in Carl Sandburg’s poem “Skyscraper.”
Kövecses’ “schematicity hierarchy” can serve to illuminate the interpretive choices available to readers (including literary translators) by bringing to conscious awareness the different levels of abstraction associated with a metaphorical expression. Readers generally access the compound conceptual metaphor “Life is a journey” to interpret Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” But since a journey, like a walk in the woods, can be voluntarily undertaken, and to a known destination (for which the complex metaphor “A purposeful life is a journey” is more apt), the “Life is a journey” metaphor can lead readers to overlook the poem’s emphasis on what is involuntary and unknown. Applying Kövecses’ method, one can articulate an even more schematic (less specific) metaphorical level above “Life is a journey” that removes volition from the proposition: “A life from beginning to end is movement from a start point to an end-point” (the event-structure metaphor “Change of state is change of location” would not be specific enough). Now it becomes clear that life is from the outset a “journey” we are involuntarily thrust upon, under conditions not of our choosing, even if we exercise some choice with respect to paths taken. Likewise, identifying “path” (the route along which something travels) as a less specific source term than “road” (a wide, specially prepared surface) throws into relief the poem’s allusion to civilization as another factor narrowing our life choices:
Image schema: A life from beginning to end is movement from a starting point to an end-point.
Domain: Life is a journey
Frame: Making a life choice is embarking on one path instead of another
Mental spaces: I made a significant life choice (“that has made all the difference”) when I took the road less travelled by
Establishing such distinctions to create what Kövecses calls a “multi-level view” better enables readers to identify both choice and lack of choice as thematic preoccupations of the poem.
Probing relationships between different levels of abstraction can also call attention to the specific sensory-motor or perceptual representations activated by the source domain at the “mental spaces” level, enhancing our appreciation of the esthetic as well as symbolic value of a poet’s linguistic choices. The question of value, however, raises a theoretical consideration beyond the practical ones Kövecses cites for focusing primarily on poetry. If poetic choices have both esthetic and symbolic value, then we may need to take a text’s generic status into account when attempting to articulate its levels of metaphor. In the case of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Skyscraper,” for instance, the traditionally ritualistic character and functions of pro-labor poetry, with its emphasis on the neglected humanity of low-wage workers, participate in Sandburg’s questioning of the “Society is a building” metaphor.
As Kövecses observes, the “typical topics of poetry, such as love, freedom, beauty, history, time, life, honor, nature, suffering, and so on, all invite metaphoric conceptualization, as they are highly abstract concepts.” This raises the question as to why poetry treats such topics, or why we read poems metaphorically for those topics in the first place. Never does Frost’s poem explicitly map the metaphor “Life is a journey,” though literary works often do offer explicit metaphorical mappings (e.g. “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players”). It’s the text’s recognizable status as a poem that invites us to give abstract meaning to a walk in the woods. If we were to take the news report of a fatal accident that occurred when a driver swerved into an oncoming car to avoid hitting an animal, and rearrange the same “ordinary” language on a page to resemble poetry, then it would automatically have metaphorical import. Now the driver becomes every human being who has tried to avoid a wrong path in life, only to embark on a worse one. Higher-level construal involves a certain discounting of the precise details that separate us. Not all of us drive cars or walk in a yellow wood, but we all share human vulnerability; we’re all on this journey together.
The very use of the adjective “higher” to refer to abstract processing is relevant to at least one significant theoretical rationale for focusing on poetry to explore metaphor: poetry comes closer than other genres to approximating the ritual affiliative symbolic practices of our pre-industrial ancestors. In ritual, humans experience a dissolution of boundaries between the self and other. Group ritual allowed members of a village or tribe to undergo self-transcendent experiences that had an “‘All for one, one for all’ subjective quality” (Yaden, et. Al, 153). Our capacity for self-transcendent experience likely conferred evolutionary advantages by promoting pro-social behavior. Experiencing the group as a single entity, one could forget the individual concerns of “the small self” and feel implicated in a “higher” purpose, with the word “higher” expressing the possibly embodied metaphor “Good is up.” One could then more easily reconceptualize “getting killed in battle” as “making a noble sacrifice” (see Dissanayake).
Poetry harkens back to ritual, as Ellen Dissanayake argues, in that it typically relies on “paralinguistic aesthetic devices” (56), including rhythm, repetitions, silences, and ways of bringing out words’ acoustic qualities; such devices are also characteristic of “motherese”: the style of speech adults universally use when bonding with infants. The poetic extension, elaboration, and questioning of metaphor is “covered by aesthetic devices” (67) that produce “bodily-emotional affective effects” (74). “Both baby talk and ritual ceremony structure (or pattern) and produce changes in feelings” (71), which influence our ways of thinking about something.
Ritual often takes place when something important is at stake. If we read “Skyscraper” as a ritualistic act that can change our ways of thinking about something, then the metaphorical expression involving a skyscraper at the beginning of the poem potentially means something different by the end of the poem. Citing cultural context – around the time the poem was written in1916, skyscrapers began to proliferate in major American cities — Kövecses asserts that the skyscraper can be construed as a metaphor whose four levels of schematicity he identifies as follows:
Image schema: Complex abstract systems are complex physical structures.
Domain: Society is a building.
Frame: The construction of a society is the building of a building.
Mental spaces: Building a new American society is building a skyscraper.
Never does the poem offer the explicit metaphorical mapping “Society is a building.” The poem’s own metaphorical expressions, on the other hand, point to a tension between the skyscraper as an awe-inspiring symbol of collective achievement, and the skyscraper as a money-making machine commissioned and controlled by “the master-men who rule the building.” Understood in historical context, that tension corresponds to two competing future visions of “the new American society”: it could potentially honor every “soul,” or be completely dominated by unregulated industrial capitalism.
At stake was the future of American workers. Would they ever enjoy an eight-hour workday, decent wages, compensation for job-related injury? Would child labor be outlawed? Or would workers continue to be the victims of employers’ unchecked power, while labor union organizers got beaten by the police, framed by the courts and executed? Would the rights to freedom of speech and assembly continue to be violated in the name of public safety? Sandburg cared deeply about those questions. And nowhere in the United States was the battle for labor fought more furiously than in the city of Chicago, where Sandburg had gone to write for a pro-labor newspaper amidst ongoing strikes.
Challenges to unregulated capitalism were associated in the public mind with anarchist violence, though violence often began when the police, at the behest of big business, fired into crowds of peaceful strikers. This may be why Sandburg’s publisher pressured him to soften the more radical tone of The Chicago Poems. “Skyscraper” leaves open the question of what more specific target domain, other than “new American society,” corresponds to the specificity of the source domain “skyscraper” at the level of mental spaces. That more specific target domain, I suggest, involves the “complex abstract system” of industrial capitalism.
The poem’s very first metaphorical expression hints at something ominous: “BY day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.” The skyscraper is a huge inanimate object that has a “soul,” as if endowed with intelligence and agency: a thing is a being. Subsequent lines depict people being “poured” into the skyscraper, or identified as “broom” and “mop”: human beings are things. The personification of the skyscraper-as-instrument thus corresponds to the instrumentalization of the people who work in or on it, like the construction worker who becomes part of the building when he falls from a girder and breaks his neck.
As a product of unregulated industrial capitalism, the skyscraper was not a mere physical structure; it was an instrument for generating capital (Parker). Construction workers had no more say in its architectural design than in their own wages or working conditions; workers were treated as mindless and dispensable objects to be purchased cheap with the building materials: “Hour by hour the hand of the mason and the stuff of the mortar clinch the pieces and parts to the shape an architect voted.” The rise of unregulated industrial capitalism is the degradation of work, defined as “the separation of conception from execution” (Braverman 78).
Any working definition of a “society” includes “people.” It is the dehumanization of workers that the poet strives to oppose, by insisting that every person, regardless of social status, has “a soul.” Though reduced to machine-like status on the job, human beings deserve consideration with respect to wages, physical safety and daily hours. Offering a corrective to the representation of low-wage workers as mere things, the poet points out that “men and women, boys and girls,” are the ones “that give the building a soul of dreams and thoughts and memories.” The skyscraper minus human beings, on the other hand, is just a pile of concrete: “Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care for the building . . . ?”
Society, then, is not a building (which is not to contradict Kövecses: to question a metaphor is to develop it). At the same time, however, humans are capable of feeling connected to a group as if it were a single entity; a building is a single entity. The poem’s final line echoes the first, while taking on a potentially new meaning: “By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and stars and has a soul.” By the end of this poem that has repeatedly invoked every person’s “soul,” the skyscraper’s “soul” now potentially designates a society by and for “souls” who are united as a single entity, to uphold a lofty group purpose. Experienced as an oppressive force that pits “the master-men” against powerless workers reduced to things, society can be conceptualized as a soul-destroying skyscraper. Experienced as a single entity that makes us feel “we are all in it together,” with worker’s hours reduced and income increased, a society can be conceptualized as an awe-inspiring symbol of collaborative endeavor: a skyscraper.
Image schema: Complex abstract systems are entities that limit our agency
Domain: Societies are buildings
Frame: The perpetuation of unregulated industrial capitalism is the erection of a building-machine that contains people by reducing them to things
Mental Spaces: The concretization of an American society based on unregulated capitalism is the erection of a soul-destroying skyscraper that looms over the dehumanized masses.
Image Schema: Complex abstract systems are entities that limit our agency
Domain: Societies are buildings
Frame: The establishment of regulated industrial capitalism is the erection of a building-machine that contains people while preserving (relatively speaking) their “souls”
Mental Spaces: The concretization of an American society based on regulated capitalism is the erection of an awe-inspiring soul-preserving skyscraper pointing to the stars.
Reading and writing pro-labor poetry was a ritualistic bonding practice of early twentieth-century Americans who fought for more regulatory policies and protections. Good or bad, their poetry and songs sustained them through terror and crushing defeat. Poetry helped them feel morally elevated above the proponents of unregulated capitalism who sought to keep them down.
To Carl Sandburg, poetry was a way of calling upon the soul’s power to transcend the “small self” and celebrate “people,” not profits, as the very highest purpose of humanity. Accordingly, “Skyscraper” uses the verticality metaphor in two ways: through the conceptual metaphor “Power is up” and the conceptual metaphor “Good (virtue) is up.” There are men in the skyscraper who aspire to a “million-dollar business,” to “live a lobster’s ease of life.” The “People are animals” metaphor – not just any animal here, but a lobster, quite low on the Great Chain of Being — indicates that only a low life aspires to “stacks of money” while disregarding the “souls” on whom fortune is made. Virtue, in the form of poetic contemplation and higher-level construal, belongs to the low-level watchman who gazes over the city from the building’s highest floor.
Kövecses’ term “conceptualizer” is appropriate, since the reader, and not just the poet, actively constructs metaphorical meaning; the reader’s background, and not just the writer’s, can account for the metaphors identified and articulated at different levels. My own background informs my reading: my great-grandfather, George Carey, was a Wobbly who met his Belarusian anarchist wife Ykaterina (“Kate”) at a rally for the labor activist Joe Hill (see Kornbluh and Gross 156-157). I have inherited their pro-worker pamphlets full of poetry.
Early twentieth-century America was at a crossroads. After laissez-faire economics failed to prevent the Great Depression, President Roosevelt took the view that “we” were all in this together, and had new regulatory policies and reforms adopted such as the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. By 1960 President Johnson called Sandburg “more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.”
Unlike a building, a society is ever at a crossroads, consisting of people who make crucial decisions. Sandburg’s skyscraper could indeed be a metaphor for a “new American society” committed to civil liberties and protection for workers. Without the guarantee of those rights and protections, however, the skyscraper would revert to the status of an inhumanly immense instrument of oppression. Which road gets taken is what makes the difference.
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Dissanayake, Ellen. “Prelinguistic and Preliterate Substrates of Poetic Narrative.” Poetics Today 32.1 (2011): 55-79.
Kornbluh, Joyce L. and Daniel Gross. Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011.
Parker, Martin. “Vertical Capitalism: Skyscrapers and Organization.” Culture and Organization 21.3 (2015): 217-234.
Yaden, David Bryce, Jonathan Haidt, Ralph W. Hood, Jr, David R. Vago, and Andrew B. Newberg. “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience.” Review of General Psychology 21.2 (2017): 143-160.
Zoltán Kövecses, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary
In the paper, I will be concerned with the issue of metaphor universals in poetry only – leaving aside the genre of the novel, for example (but see Hogan, The Mind). This decision is the result of practical considerations, rather than any theoretical reasons. Within the framework of conceptual metaphor theory, a lot more work has been done on poetry than on the novel, probably mostly because a pioneering study on metaphor by Lakoff and Turner (More than Cool Reason) also focused on poetry.
By metaphor I mean conceptual metaphor, which consists of a set of systematic mappings between two domains of experience (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). One domain, which is typically more abstract, is called the target domain, and the other, which is typically more concrete or physical, is called the source domain. The more concrete domain is used to understand the more abstract one. A conceptual metaphor can have a variety of different manifestations in various modalities, including, most importantly for the present purposes, linguistic manifestations. In other words, a distinction is made between metaphor as a conceptual pattern (given structure by the mappings) and the linguistic manifestations (or examples) of this conceptual pattern (for overviews, see, e.g., Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory”; Kövecses, Metaphor).
Metaphor Universals and Universal Metaphors
We should make a distinction between metaphor universals and universal metaphors. The notion of metaphor universals is more general than that of universal metaphors. Metaphor universals can be conceived of as any metaphor-related phenomenon, including universal metaphors. For example, one metaphor universal is the use of metaphors by poets. Probably, there is no poetry without the use of metaphors in some form. It is an interesting question why this should be the case. The answer favored by cognitive linguists would most probably be that typical topics of poetry, such as love, freedom, beauty, history, time, life, honor, nature, suffering, and so on, all invite metaphoric conceptualization, as they are highly abstract concepts that make excellent target domains in conceptual metaphors.
Universal metaphors, on the other hand, are the conceptual metaphors that are used universally, near-universally or potentially universally. Conceptual metaphors such as love is fire, time is motion, or life is a journey are potential universal conceptual metaphors in everyday linguistic usage, but also in literature, as poetry in many unrelated languages around the world shows.
The Cognitive-Linguistic Study of Conceptual Metaphors in Poetry
The study of conceptual metaphors in cognitive linguistics began with Lakoff and Turner’s book, More than Cool Reason. Lakoff and Turner made two very important claims concerning conceptual metaphors in poetry. First, they showed that poets share with everyday people most of the conceptual metaphors they use in poetry. The reason for this is that the conceptual metaphors such as the ones mentioned above are based on shared bodily experiences – for non-poets and poets alike. (More about this later.) Second, Lakoff and Turner suggested that metaphorical creativity in poetry is the result of four common conceptual devices that poets use in manipulating otherwise shared conceptual metaphors. These include the devices of elaboration, extension, questioning, and combining. In other words, according to Lakoff and Turner, the conceptual metaphors will be (nearly) the same, but the linguistic manifestations reflecting the effects of these devices will (or can) be (somewhat) different in everyday and poetic forms of language.
However, others have shown that these four cognitive devices, or strategies, exist not only in poetic language but also in more ordinary forms of language use, such as journalism (see, e.g., Jackendoff and Aaron, Review Article; Semino, Metaphor in Discourse). Thus, on this basis alone, it is not possible to distinguish poetic from non-poetic metaphor. Moreover, in accounting for poetic metaphors, Turner proposed that in many cases poetry (and literature in general) makes use of what he and Fauconnier call “blends,” in which various elements from two or more domains, or frames, can be conceptually fused, or integrated (see, e.g., Turner, The Literary Mind; Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think).
Although many conceptual metaphors are shared by poets and non-poets, many are clearly not. These are metaphors that are not based on universal bodily experiences but on certain creative analogies between a source and a target domain set up either by lay people or poets. In these cases, we have certain resemblances between a source and a target. While the dominant trend in the cognitive linguistic study of metaphor is to deal with metaphors where the source and target are related by some correlation in experience, analogical relations between a source and a target build on similarities, or resemblances, of various sorts (real, physical similarities, generic-level similarities, imagined similarities, etc.). They range from simple to complex. Below is a simple one that comes from William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills…
A more complex example is from Shakespeare’s King John. The king says the following to a messenger whose face reveals that he has some bad news to tell him:
So foul a sky clears not without a storm.
Pour down thy weather.
We can spell out the similarities in this example as a set of mappings between the scene of an imminent rainstorm and the scene of a messenger just about to deliver a message to the king:
the appearance of the sky ⇒ the appearance of the messenger’s face
the imminent storm ⇒ the bad message likely to be delivered
the rain ⇒ the act of telling the bad news
We can take similarity-based metaphors (i.e., analogies or similes) as a special case of conceptual metaphors (besides correlation-based ones). Needless to say, such potential similarities can be used to create a huge number of cases in metaphorical expression that are anything but universal.
Metaphorical Universality and Non-Universality in Poetry
Given the rough sketch of conceptual metaphors above, it seems that certain poetic metaphors (those that are correlation-based) are (potentially) universal at the conceptual level but non-universal at the linguistic one. According to the “standard” account of conceptual metaphors (see, e.g., Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By; Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory”), conceptual metaphors are based on fundamental bodily experiences (i.e., correlations in experience). It is this basic bodily experience that may potentially lead to universal conceptual metaphors in poetry.
A more refined version of this idea in cognitive linguistics can be found in the theory of “primary metaphors” (see Grady; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh). On this view, there are correlations between certain sensorimotor and subjective, abstract experiences, such as between destinations and purposes, body heat and emotion, verticality and amount, and so on. The repeated experience of such correlations results in primary metaphors that are, at least potentially, universal, including purposes are destinations, intimacy is closeness, emotion is heat, more is up. The primary metaphors constitute the basis for complex or compound conceptual metaphors such as life is a journey and love is a unity. For example, purposes are destinations is one primary metaphor that, in part, conceptually constitutes life is a journey, intimacy is closeness is one that, in part, constitutes love is a unity, and emotion is heat is one that, in part, constitutes anger is a hot fluid in a container. As a result, these pairs of primary and compound metaphors are potentially universal. Indeed, the anger is a hot fluid and the anger is heat conceptual metaphors are found in dozens of genetically unrelated and spatially and culturally independent languages, such as English, Chinese, and Hungarian (see, e.g., Yu, A Perspective from Chinese; Kövecses, Metaphor and Emotion, Metaphor in Culture, Metaphor). It would not be surprising to find linguistic metaphors based on these and other similar body-based conceptual metaphors in the poetry of these and other languages. As an example, let us take a poem by Anne Bradstreet, a 17th-century American poet, who in her poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband” wrote:
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If man were loved by wife, then thee
The first line is a straightforward linguistic illustration of the conceptual metaphor love is a unity (of two complementary parts) (see Kövecses, The Language of Love). It is very likely that the unity metaphor for love can be found in the poetry of many languages and cultures around the world.
While the view briefly described above provides an elegant and coherent account of universality in everyday and poetic metaphors, it does not pay sufficient attention to the many cases of non-universality. Non-universality in metaphor is complementary to universality; one assumes the other. Since we already provided an answer to the question of what makes some conceptual metaphors universal, we can take this as our point of departure in attempting to answer the next question: What makes some other conceptual metaphors non-universal? Or putting the question differently: Where does non-universality in everyday and poetic metaphorical thought come from?
In recent years, I suggested that it is necessary to make certain adjustments to the standard theory of conceptual metaphors in order to be able to answer this question (see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture, for some initial ideas). The adjustments concern the role of context in the creation of novel metaphors (both conceptual and linguistic), on the one hand (see Kövecses, Where Metaphors Come From), and the various degrees of schematicity of conceptual metaphors (and their linguistic expressions), on the other (see Kövecses, “Levels of Metaphor”). We can term the resulting conception a contextualist and multi-level view of conceptual metaphors.
Both adjustments concern, in part, the issue of why conceptual and linguistic metaphors diverge from the universal patterns suggested above. They point to two major forms of deviation from universality. First, the insistence on the role of context helps us account for the kind of metaphor variation that derives from individual and group differences in human experience. And second, the multi-level view can explain the divergences in the use of metaphor resulting from individual and group differences in how higher-level conceptual metaphors are elaborated by lower-level ones. Actually, the two processes are related: various contextual factors can trigger particular elaborations of higher-level conceptual metaphors. This interaction will be demonstrated below.
Since deviations from universality occur on a large scale, we should not consider the issue of universality to be the main focus of metaphor research, as is often the case by cognitive linguists. As was noted above, universality and variation complement and assume each other. In conceptual metaphor theory, we should pay just as much attention to variation as to universality (see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture), since variation is pervasive in the use of metaphor. This, I suggest, is due, to a large extent, to the role that context plays in metaphorical conceptualization – both in everyday usage and poetry.
How Context Shapes Metaphorical Conceptualization
Based on my findings (Kövecses, Where Metaphors Come From), I suggest that there are a variety of contextual factors (to be discussed below) that prime speakers when they use metaphors in communicative situations. The contextual factors belong to several context types: situational context, discourse context, conceptual-cognitive context, and bodily context. These types of context each come in two forms: local context and global context, as shown in Figure 1 below. The local context involves the specific knowledge conceptualizers have about some aspect of the immediate communicative situation. By contrast, the global context consists of the conceptualizers’ general knowledge concerning their community. It involves knowledge shared by an entire community of speakers / conceptualizers. The distinction is mostly of theoretical nature. In many actual communicative situations, there is no sharp dividing line between the local and the global context. The Figure below presents the four major context types as four sections of a circle and their division into local context (as the inner circle) and global context (as the outer circle). The box in the middle represents a particular act of metaphorical conceptualization in context. The contextual factors subsumed under the context types are not given in the Figure. They are discussed in the text following Figure 1.
Figure 1: Summary of Types of Context (Concentric circles represent global and local context; quadrants represent situational, discourse, bodily, and conceptual-cognitive contexts for a given metaphor.)
The four types of context can be briefly described in the following way.
The situational context comprises a variety of different contextual factors. Most commonly this type of context can be thought of as including the physical environment and the social-cultural situation. The physical environment includes the flora, the fauna, the landscape, the temperature, the weather, perceptual properties of the situation, and so on. For example, it is a common observation that American English metaphors relating to the physical environment are characteristically different from those of other English-speaking countries (see, e.g., Kövecses, American English). The small-scale, local environment, such as the visible events in or the perceptual properties of a situation, can also make its influence felt in shaping metaphors. The social-cultural situation consists of social aspects of life that typically center around notions such as gender, class, politeness, work, education, social organizations, social structure, art and entertainment, and others. All of these can play a role in metaphorical conceptualization. For example, Kolodny (The Lay of the Land, The Land Before Her) shows that American men and women developed very different metaphorical images for what they conceived of as the frontier in America. While the women commonly thought of the American frontier as a “garden to be cultivated,” men conceptualized it as “virgin land to be taken.” (For several other examples, see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture.)
As an example of how the immediate physical situation as part of the physical context can prompt, or prime, a poet to use a particular conceptual metaphor, consider the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. In the first stanza, we get a glimpse of what the physical context consists of:
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits,- on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
The speaker (poet) is looking out to the sea from inside a house and can see a variety of things. One of them is that “The tide is full.” In the last stanza, however, he can see the tide “retreating” with a “withdrawing roar,” exposing the bottom of the sea:
The sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
At this point Arnold introduces the conceptual metaphor (christian) faith is the sea (“The sea of Faith”) in a special way. As the sea retreats, it leaves the bottom of sea exposed, and, in the same way, human beings become unprotected by Christian faith that once protected them. It is fairly safe to assume that what induced, or primed, the poet to use this conceptual metaphor in this particular way was the sight before him: the physical event of the ebb and flow of the sea, that is, a contextual factor belonging to what was called the situational context.
The discourse context involves the immediate linguistic context (i.e., cotext), the previous discourses on the same topic, and the dominant forms of discourse related to a particular subject matter. We’ll look at an example for the linguistic context below. The metaphors in one discourse can also derive from previous discourses on the same topic. This can take a variety of forms ranging from elaborating, extending, questioning, negating, reflecting on, ridiculing, to otherwise taking advantage of a metaphor previously introduced. For example, an MP in the British Parliament responded to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair who said he does not have a reverse gear (i.e., he can only go forward – basing the statement on the progress is motion forward metaphor) with the reply: “but when you’re on the edge of a cliff it is good to have a reverse gear” (example taken from Semino). This was a humorous twist induced by the prior discourse on the progress is motion forward conceptual metaphor. The dominant forms of discourse and intertextuality can also influence the production of metaphors. Since certain forms of discourse can acquire dominant status in a community, the metaphors used in or based on this discourse can become widespread both temporally (historically) and spatially (cross-culturally). For example, the discourse of Christianity commonly gives rise to the use of metaphors in the Christian world.
To see how the immediate linguistic context can produce metaphors in poetic discourse, let us turn to Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Medusa.” Here are some relevant lines:
Off that landspit of stony mouth-plugs,
Eyes rolled by white sticks,
Ears cupping the sea’s incoherences,
You house your unnerving head—God-ball,
Lens of mercies,
Plying their wild cells in my keel’s shadow,
Pushing by like hearts,
Red stigmata at the very center,
Riding the rip tide to the nearest point of
Dragging their Jesus hair.
Did I escape, I wonder?
In the world of the poem, Sylvia Plath addresses her mother as Medusa. In Greek mythology, Medusa is a gorgon with snakes for her hair, who turns people who look at her to stone. As the lines quoted above suggest, the poet is trying to escape from the harmful influence of the mother. (This can be seen most clearly in the line “Did I escape, I wonder?”). What is remarkable here is that, to convey this, the poet makes use of the other sense of medusa: the “jellyfish” sense (“Your stooges / Plying their wild cells in my keel’s shadow”). She’s trying to get away from an overbearing mother, and the mother is portrayed analogically as jellyfish. Schools of jellyfish move about in the sea, and jellyfish stings can inflict pain and even death in humans. Thus, it can be suggested that the “jellyfish” meaning of medusa is used by the poet because the mythological Medusa was introduced early on in the poem (in the title) to begin with. This is one kind of linguistic context – the close relationship between two senses of a word, that is, their polysemy. The word form medusa evokes all the knowledge structures associated with it (given as the two senses of the word), and the poet is taking advantage of them, as they analogically fit the nature of the relationship with her mother.
A particular state or condition of the body can produce particular metaphorical conceptualizations in specific cases, such as a poet’s or writer’s illness. I call this the bodily context. People’s bodily specificities can influence which metaphors they use. Casasanto (“Embodiment of abstract concepts”) found that left-handers prefer to use the moral is left, as opposed to the moral is right conceptual metaphor. Such metaphors contrast with the metaphors that evolve on the basis of the general properties of the human body (i.e., the correlation-based primary metaphors). Given the capacity of body specificities to prime metaphorical conceptualization, we can take the body as a further type of context. Thus, the body is not only responsible for the production of hundreds of conceptual metaphors through the many correlations in subjective and sensorimotor experience (cf. Grady; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh), but it can also prime the use of particular metaphors in more immediate, local contexts (see, e.g, Gibbs; Gibbs and Colston; Boroditsky; Boroditsky and Ramscar).
The idea that the general physical, biological, mental, emotional, etc. condition, or situation, of a poet can influence the way a poet writes poetry is well known and is often taken into account in the appreciation of poetry. Dickinson is a well-studied case, as discussed by several authors, among them, James Guthrie. Guthrie has this to say on the issue:
… I propose to concentrate on the fact of illness itself as a governing factor in Dickinson’s development as a poet. We are already accustomed to thinking about ways in which illness or deformity modulate the registers of expression we hear while reading Milton, Keats, Emily Bronte, Lord Byron. For Dickinson, illness was a formative experience as well, one which shaped her entire poetic methodology from perception to inscription and which very likely shook the foundations of her faith. Reading Dickinson’s poems in the full knowledge and belief that, while writing them, she was suffering acutely from a seemingly irremediable illness renders many of them recuperable as almost diaristic records of a rather ordinary person’s courageous struggle against profound adversity. (Guthrie, Emily Dickinson: 4-5)
Elsewhere, I showed how Dickinson’s (unconscious) choice of metaphors may have been influenced by her optical illness (see Kövecses, “A New View”, Where Metaphors Come From).
The conceptual-cognitive context includes the metaphorical conceptual system at large, knowledge about the elements of discourse, ideology, knowledge about past events, interests and concerns. In the metaphorical conceptual system, many concepts (sources and targets) stand in a metaphorical relationship with one another (e.g., life is a journey, argument is war) in long-term memory. Given such metaphorical relationships between concepts (such as between, say, life and journey), their presence or absence in the metaphorical conceptual system may function as a precondition for the production and comprehension of particular metaphors. A metaphorical conceptual system can function as context in this sense. Furthermore, conceptualizers often rely on their knowledge concerning the main elements of a discourse: the speaker, hearer, and the topic. Ideology can also be a formative factor in how metaphors are used in discourse. One’s ideology concerning major social and political issues may govern the choice of metaphors (as work by, for instance, Goatly, Washing the Brain, shows). A good example of this is George Lakoff’s (Moral Politics) study of American politics, where conservatives tend to use the nation is a strict father family metaphor, while liberals prefer the nation is a nurturant parent family version of the generic metaphor the nation is a family. Knowledge about past events (i.e., items in short-term and long-term memory) shared by the conceptualizers may also lead to the emergence of specific metaphors in discourse. For instance, it has often been observed that the memory of historical events can lead to the production (and comprehension) of some metaphors (see, e.g., Deignan, “Metaphorical expressions”; Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture).
Consider the life is a journey metaphor. It can be found in the poetry of many authors, epochs, and traditions. One of these many outstanding poets is Dante, who uses it in his “Divine Comedy”:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
(In the middle of life’s road
I found myself in a dark wood,)
Another is Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken”:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The two uses of the life is a journey metaphor are of course not the same. Employing Lakoff and Turner’s terminology, we can say that although the two poets share the same conceptual metaphor, the metaphor is extended differently by Dante and Frost. And the extensions result in different manifestations of the conceptual metaphor: loss of goals in life by the former and making choices in life by the latter.
Elaborations of Higher Level Conceptual Metaphors
Lakoff and Turner (More than Cool) had in mind the kind of elaboration in the previous two examples where the concept of journey is realized lexically in two ways: in one, there is journey through a dark wood and one, where the road of the journey includes a fork that requires a choice. But there is another way of thinking about elaboration. In it, conceptual metaphors may be related to one another at a variety of different levels of schematicity (see Kövecses, “Levels of metaphor”). I suggested that we need to distinguish at least four levels of schematicity in conceptual metaphors: the level of image schemas, that of domains, that of frames, and that of mental spaces.
An example is provided by the American poet Karl Sandburg. Consider the first stanza of the poem called “Skyscraper”:
BY day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and
has a soul.
Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into
it and they mingle among its twenty floors and are
poured out again back to the streets, prairies and
It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and
out all day that give the building a soul of dreams
and thoughts and memories.
(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care
for the building or speak its name or ask a policeman
the way to it?)
The metaphoric-metonymic use of the skyscraper is clearly prompted by the situational (more precisely, physical-cultural) context. The poem was written in 1916 in Chicago, and it was at the turn of the 20th century that skyscrapers began to be built on a large scale in major American cities, including Chicago.
But what is more important in the present connection is that the conceptual metaphor on which the image of the skyscraper is based is that of society is a building and that this conceptual metaphor is part of a schematicity hierarchy. At the level of image schemas, we conceptualize complex abstract systems (such as societies) as complex physical objects. At the domain level, societies are conceptualized as buildings and the creation of a society as the physical creation of a building. The latter is the main focus of the metaphor in the poem. At the frame level, the idea of creation is elaborated as construction, which results in the conceptualization of the construction of a society as the construction (i.e., building) of a building (with tools and ingredients). Finally, at the mental spaces level, the building of a new American society is conceptualized as building a skyscraper (with hammers and crowbars and spikes and girders).
Clearly, this is a progression from the most schematic to the least schematic (or most specific) level of conceptualization (or, the other way around, from the most specific to the most schematic level). Thus, we get a set of conceptual metaphors in a schematicity hierarchy of conceptual metaphors:
Level of Image schema:
Complex abstract systems are complex physical objects
Level of Domain:
Society is a building; the creation of a society is the physical creation of a building
Level of Frame:
The construction of a society is the building of a building (with tools and ingredients)
Level of Mental spaces:
Building a new American society is building a skyscraper (with hammers and crowbars and spikes and girders)
This is a schematicity hierarchy that, moving downward, ends in the concept of building a skyscraper. The two highest levels, those of image schemas and domains, may be universal (or at least widespread) in cultures when it comes to the metaphorical conceptualization of societies. But the frame level, and especially the lowest mental spaces level are fairly culture- and even individual-specific. Sandburg captures the idea of building a new American society through the idea of building a skyscraper. At this level of conceptual metaphor, other poets may diverge widely (though using the same conceptual metaphors at the higher levels), depending on a large number of contextual factors (such as the physical environment). In other words, we can conclude on the basis of this example that elaborations of high-level conceptual metaphors may contribute to metaphor variation in poetry as well. Metaphors that may be universal or widespread at higher levels of schematicity may turn into something that is specific to particular poetic traditions or to individual poets.
Are there any metaphor universals in literature? I could not answer this question in the paper because I focused attention on poetry alone. As regards poetry, we can conclude from the foregoing that metaphor is a near-universal feature of poetry (in that most poetry operates with metaphor), or, as Hogan puts it in “What Are Literary Universals?,” a “statistical universal.”
A second metaphor universal in poetry (but possibly also in much of literature in general) is that the metaphors are conceptual metaphors expressed by certain linguistic manifestations. The conceptual metaphors emerge either from universal bodily experiences (correlation metaphors) or from resemblances of various sorts (analogies).
Third, the (unconscious) selection of the metaphors used by poets can be influenced by the various types of context: situational, discourse, bodily, and conceptual-cognitive.
Fourth, the metaphors occur on various levels of schematicity. Four such levels have been distinguished: the level of image schemas, domains, frames, and mental spaces. While this may be a universal feature of poetry, the actual elaboration of higher level metaphors at the most specific level of schematicity (i.e., mental spaces) may produce metaphor variation.
Fifth, the conceptual metaphors that are based on universal correlations in experience are potentially universal; they are present in the poetry of certain unrelated languages/cultures, but not in that of all languages/cultures (i.e., they are not absolute universals). At the same time, the conceptual metaphors based on resemblance tend to be highly variable cross-linguistically.
The issue of metaphor universals goes hand in hand with the issue of metaphor variation. The former often assumes the latter and the latter often assumes the former; they complement each other.
First, metaphor variation is produced essentially by three forces: divergences in the resemblances observed, contextual influence, and different elaborations of higher level metaphors.
Second, even universal metaphors can vary from culture to culture or individual to individual. This is because the universal metaphors may undergo differential contextual influence and because the universal metaphors may be elaborated in different ways. How they are elaborated may also be the result of contextual influence.
Third, metaphor universality is often a matter of the level of schematicity. Higher levels tend to be more universal than lower ones.
Fourth, differences in the kinds of analogies drawn (i.e., divergences in similarities observed) is probably the most obvious and most common source and form of variation.
Finally, it appears that the discussion of metaphor universals and variation in the paper does not allow us to distinguish the use of metaphor in poetry from its use in everyday language. All the metaphor-related processes mentioned above apply to both poetry and everyday language. It seems that the basis for any distinction should be sought elsewhere. It may well be that the proper basis for such a distinction can only be the degree of creativity (novelty), complexity, and density of metaphor (Kövecses, “A New View”). Metaphorical universality and variation are general properties of the human mind, regardless of the domain (everyday vs. poetic) in which metaphors are used.
As regards future work in the study of metaphor universals in literature, several things can and should be done. First, researchers should propose accounts of metaphor universality and variation in other genres of literature, including the novel. We should find out whether the view of metaphorical universality and variation as presented in this paper is a viable option for the other genres. Second, a huge amount of work awaits us to collect, analyze, and compare data concerning metaphor universality and variation in diverse languages and cultures around the world. We can propose reasonable hypotheses in this regard on the basis of the CMT approach. Third, and probably most relevantly to literary scholars, we need to figure out whether the findings about metaphor universality and variation as discussed here can contribute useful ideas to literary scholarship in the interpretation of poetry (and other genres). My hope is that the study of metaphor universality and variation along the lines suggested in the paper can enrich accounts of interpretation. At the very least, I hope that the approach I described is not incompatible with certain ways of accounting for poetic meaning, as the comment on the present paper seems to indicate.
[See also Kathleen Hart, “Comment on ‘Zoltán Kövecses, ‘Metaphor Universals in Literature.'”]
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 At a meta-level of analysis, it can of course be suggested that assigning different values to left and right is a universal. But the analysis I conduct here is not at the meta-level. At the same time, I recognize the possibility of legitimately identifying universals in this particular case, as well as in other cases mentioned in the paper.