Author: Patrick C. Hogan

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

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

LITERARY UNIVERSALS WEBLOG: A series of informal observations and conjectures aimed at fostering more reflection on and discussion about cross-cultural patterns in literature.

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also “The Double” (Addendum).


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog for February 2024: Reason and Aesthetic Pleasure

LITERARY UNIVERSALS WEBLOG: A series of informal observations and conjectures aimed at fostering more reflection on and discussion about cross-cultural patterns in literature.

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Paradoxes of Literary Emotion: Simulation and The Zhào Orphan.” In The Routledge Companion to Literature and Emotion. Ed., Patrick Colm Hogan, Bradley J. Irish, and Lalita Pandit Hogan. New York: Routledge, 2022, 134-143.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog for December 2023: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

LITERARY UNIVERSALS WEBLOG: A series of informal observations and conjectures aimed at fostering more reflection on and discussion about cross-cultural patterns in literature.

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut


Invasion of the Body Snatchers:

Cultural Stories and Their Universal Constituents


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog for October 2023: Love Stories and Historical Universals

LITERARY UNIVERSALS WEBLOG: A series of informal observations and conjectures aimed at fostering more reflection on and discussion about cross-cultural patterns in literature.

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Nicolas Baumard (Centre nationale de la recherche scientifique, Paris) and his collaborators designed and followed out a series of rigorous empirical studies treating “The cultural evolution of love in literary history.” The questions addressed in this study are, first, has romantic love varied in its social importance and, second, if so, what explains this fluctuation. A year and a half ago, they published their findings in an illuminating article, which I have just had the great pleasure of reading.

From the preceding summary, this research may appear irrelevant to a website on literary universals, as it does not initially seem to treat either literature or universals. However, the research focuses on the presence and importance of romantic love in literary fiction. This serves as a gauge for estimating the importance of romantic love in the societies where the literary works were written. Moreover, in treating literary romantic love, Baumard et al. in effect consider romantic tragi-comedy, though they do not generally phrase their findings in narratological terms.

As to universals, it might seem that a treatment of a history of changes would be the opposite of a study of universals. But, first, one presumption of the research is that romantic narratives are to be found in a range of genetically distinct traditions. Specifically, the focus of the study is on the fact that the prominence of the romantic genre varies, not only in Europe, but in China, Japan, India, and the Middle East. To vary, it must of course be present, part of the storytelling repertoire in all those traditions. In addition, their explanation for this variation is that romantic love increases in literary prominence as a given society makes advances in economic development. In The Mind and Its Stories (28-29), I drew on the linguistic study of universals to isolate different types of universal. These include historical universals. Historical universals are implicational or typological universals whose outcomes vary in systematic, predictable ways, depending on some features of their historical conditions (such as the prominence of mercantile capitalism). The research program of Baumard and colleagues is an exemplary instance of isolating and explaining an historical universal. That is particularly important as, among humanists, historical universals are hardly even acknowledged as a possible category.

Baumard et al.’s research shows us what could be gained by systematic, interdisciplinary work on literary universals, undertaken collectively. Conversely, it indicates some of what is lost when that cooperative work is absent (as it is, due primarily to the strange prejudices against seeking cross-cultural patterns, prejudices that pervade literary study today). In some cases, I believe Baumard and colleagues would have benefited from this interaction. For example, in characterizing romantic works, Baumard et al. contrast romantic love with sexual desire. In a sense, this is obvious. But it is also somewhat misleading. Sexual desire is one of the emotion systems that is recruited in the development of romantic love (see What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion, 33-37) and is, as such, part of romantic stories. The other component emotion systems are attachment (rightly emphasized by Baumard and colleagues) and what might be called “reward dependency” (a key factor in, for example, the suicidal despair of some separated lovers, a motif stressed by Baumard and colleagues). It is also significant that there is a separate, less frequent genre—the seduction story—which focuses on sexual desire without attachment. More generally, it seems that Baumard et al.’s research program might have benefited from the affective narratological analysis of how emotion systems generate cross-cultural story patterns.

Narratological work would have benefited equally from such interaction. For example, Baumard and his colleagues point to idealization of the beloved and the “long-term commitment” of the lovers. I analyzed these features solely in terms of intensifying the emotional effect of romantic works. When the lovers live “happily ever after,” their happy ending is particularly happy. This is true not only for the lovers, but for any reader who has a parallel interpersonal stance—which is to say, an empathic attitude–toward them. (This parallel stance is usually the result of categorizing the lovers as part of a one’s in-group.) Baumard and colleagues add to this the observation that evolutionary purposes are served by long-term parenting commitments. More remarkably, they find that “a higher importance of love in literary narratives is always associated with more positive attitudes towards children in the society” (514), a connection that would probably never even have occurred to most narratologists.

Areal distinctness is another topic which has not so far benefited from the collaboration of research scientists and humanists studying literary universals. In linguistics, there are two standard criteria for identifying a shared property as evidence of a universal. Specifically, the traditions across which the property recurs must be distinct in origin (genetic distinctness) and not have influenced one another due to interaction (areal distinctness). However, the issue is complicated by the fact that it is so easy for one literary tradition to influence another. I have therefore argued that one should of course seek genuinely areally distinct traditions, but that only works from culturally hegemonic and culturally subordinated traditions should be excluded due to areal contamination. This applies most clearly to modern colonial relations (e.g., postcolonial African novels). There are also some differences in how readily specific literary techniques may be transmitted (see “Areal Distinctness”). Baumard and colleagues take a different, but complementary approach. They adopt a method for empirically estimating the effects of influence across traditions. This provides them with data to argue that, for example, “while Eurasian societies were in contact with each other, cultural diffusion played a minor role in explaining the concomitant rise of love” (507).

The two approaches also complement one another on the issue of just what they count as data. Baumard et al. exclude all work that is not fictional narrative. This seems to be overly restrictive. Following Hayden White and others, we might expect to find considerable value in incorporating work on historical and other types of narrative. In addition, lyric poetry often concerns key moments in stories, such as the separation of lovers (see The Mind and Its Stories), making it potentially relevant as well. At the same time, Baumard et al. usefully broaden the scope of research by noting that patterns may appear in retellings of a story. In connection with this, they find that “The study of literary transmission chains shows that the same story line becomes more romantic when economic development increases” (507).

It seems clear that, in the study of literary universals, we in the humanities have a great deal to gain from the empirical orientation of researchers such as Baumard and colleagues. I believe that they have something to gain from our literary expertise and philosophical reflections and hypotheses as well. I will conclude this short discussion by noting one further way in which greater interaction might serve both groups. It concerns the possible political analysis of cross-cultural genres, including romantic stories, and how such analysis might contribute to understanding both the enduring and variable appearance of specific story genres, such as stories of romantic love.

Literary critics these days are insistently political. Often, I believe, this is a problem, especially when literary critics extend their righteous indignation to politically and ethically neutral topics or even get things backwards. (Cases of the second sort occur when they denounce the study of universals as racist and celebrate difference, despite the fact that racist claims are never based on claims that, say, blacks and whites share the same capacities, needs, etc., but always presuppose precisely difference.) Even so, the concern with politics does sometimes lead humanists to potentially worthwhile observations. Specifically, they may be more sensitive, in any given case, to the possible relevance of socio-economic class, exploitation, dominant ideology, and related topics (drawn largely from Marxist analysis).

Again, Baumard and colleagues link the predominance of romantic love stories with economic growth, and they make a compelling case for seeing the former as developing out of the latter. But that connection does not yet explain the change in narrative frequency. We still need some way of getting from economic growth to the predominance of romantic stories. One possibility is that economic growth leads to a change in readership, which in turn leads to the increase in love stories. But why might that be? Baumard et al. consider two possible readership-based accounts. The first is that a market for love stories is created by an increase in female readers. They do not find evidence for this explanation, though they do not believe the connection to be impossible either. The second readership-based possibility is that the market is transformed by male readers who are “less sophisticated” (517), and therefor opt to read love stories. Baumard and colleagues (rightly) argue that love stories are not in fact less sophisticated than other story genres. Beyond these two possibilities, the most obvious ways of explaining a change in audience would include, for example, the increased availability of stories in the vernacular, a broadening of education in learned languages, or the greater affordability of books. I do not know if any of these factors fit the periods that saw an increase in love stories. But, even if they do fit, they do not in themselves explain the change in proportions of different story genres. We still require some feature of the new readers that turns them toward tales of romance.

Here, we might briefly consider a different sort of possible explanation. (I am not actually supporting this explanation, but articulating a way of thinking that may suggest fruitful lines of inquiry.) The research summarized in The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology indicates that there are three predominant types of story-structure that recur with particular frequency across traditions. These are romantic, heroic, and sacrificial. (I will leave aside the sacrificial genre here, as well as the less commonly occurring genres.) These genres are, of course, defined by story elements (in prototypical configurations, rather than having necessary and sufficient conditions). But they tend to imply certain values as well, some of which could reasonably be seen as part of an ideology supporting one or another socio-economic class or class fraction. I do not mean that they are class-based in a strict, Marxist sense. The ideological implications of all the story genres are more context-sensitive and malleable than that might imply. But the ideological resonances are of the same general sort. One way of considering changes in the frequency and centrality of any story genre, then, might appeal to some combination of two factors—first, changes in the enduring dominance of one or another class (or at least changes in class domination of the production and dissemination of stories) and, second, changes in circumstances that impact the ways in which a dominant class or class fraction exercises that domination.

More exactly, the heroic genre tends to support a strict ruling hierarchy within a society and a sharp division between the in-group society and an enemy out-group (most intensively represented in war). Ethically, it stresses such virtues as physical bravery and loyalty to leaders and comrades. It should be clear this configuration of values greatly benefits the dominant social classes. Perhaps this ideology initially benefits a feudal aristocracy, but the feelings of group pride, depersonalization (seeing oneself primarily as part of a group), etc., are not confined to feudalism; they are readily transferred to a variety of economic and political systems. Despite this bias toward a dominant class, this genre–with its formation of in- and out-groups, its celebration of in-group achievements, and so on–is well-suited to human psychology, including the psychology of those who are not in the elite class.

The romantic genre, in contrast, commonly favors individual choice against social authority, sometimes generally and sometimes by carving out an area of privacy that is exempted from the usual social rules. In keeping with our cognitive tendency to displace category-based generalizations with individuating judgments, it largely repudiates identity categories, favoring individual, affiliative bonds instead. A traditional Marxist interpretation would link these points with a bourgeois ideology, serving the interests of a mercantile or, later, industrial capitalist class. However, I am inclined to see the genre differently. I believe the heroic plot serves “ruling class” interests, whether feudal or capitalist, but romantic narratives do not typically embody any particular class ideology. Rather than requiring some sort of commitment to a market system for marriage, sympathizing with a person’s individual preference in attachment relations seems likely to arise spontaneously. When faced with individual attachment bonds, it is, rather, indifference or antipathy that has to be created, if the work is to have some sort of ideological bias.

More exactly, both heroic narratives and romantic narratives appeal to a wide range of people, for they fit our psychology (as Baumard and colleagues put it [515]). However, they do not do so equally. Our engagement with a literary work seems likely to vary with the intensity of our emotional response to the goals involved. Moreover, it seems likely that the majority of people would have a strong, spontaneous emotional commitment to union with an attachment figure. In contrast, I would imagine that, among those without relevant experiences, emotional engagement with battle would not be as strong. Finally, one’s degree of engagement with a work seems likely to vary with one’s sense that the implied norms of the work serve or contradict one’s self-interest; this would almost certainly be more likely to occur with heroic than with romantic stories. Given these factors, one would expect romantic storytelling to increase with almost any expansion of readership. In that way, it is a sort of default, a result that may need less further interpretation than we initially expected.

Again, I am not necessarily committed to the as an explanation of Baumard et al.’s findings. Though I certainly do believe that there is some truth to this argument, I sketch it here to suggest some possible paths toward such an explanation, and as a further illustration of how a more broadly integrated research program in literary universals may benefit all those involved, in this case by first of all challenging standard ways of thinking about the topic. In any event, the great value of Baumard et al.’s research findings and explanation of those findings is clear. My hope is that humanists will recognize this value, and that Baumard and colleagues will continue with their illuminating program of research.


Baumard, Nicolas, Elise Huillery, Alexandre Hyafil, and Lou Safra. “The cultural evolution of love in literary history.” Nature Human Behaviour 6 (April 2022): 506-522.

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

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

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

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Blog for August 2023: Arabic Poetics and Japanese Theatre

LITERARY UNIVERSALS WEBLOG: A series of informal observations and conjectures aimed at fostering more reflection on and discussion about cross-cultural patterns in literature.

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

I began thinking about the possibility of a weblog for the Literary Universals Project as I was reading two excellent books in the past couple of weeks. The first is Lara Harb’s Arabic Poetics, a painstaking, scholarly examination of what the most important Medieval Arabic theorists viewed as producing aesthetic pleasure in response to a literary work. There are at least two ways in which one could relate a study of this sort to universals. The first does not consider the validity of the theories, but simply considers the degree to which closely comparable theories have arisen across (relatively) independent traditions. A difficulty arises here with regard to the requirement for areal distinctness in the study of universals. Specifically, the Arabic theorists were greatly influenced by Aristotle, and thus were not fully independent of—which is to say, not strictly areally distinct from—the European tradition. On the other hand, this influence is limited by the fact that their interpretation of Aristotle was often so different from that found in the west (or, as Vito Evola understandably prefers, as the west’s interpretation of Aristotle was often so different from that found among Arabic commentators). For example, the Medieval Arabic theorists lacked familiarity with tragedy, in some cases assimilating it to panegyric (see Harb 79-80). In any case, the second way that the Arabic theories may be connected with universals does address truth value. Specifically, it considers the degree to which we might reasonably judge these theories to be true, not only of the Arabic tradition, but of a range of traditions.

Harb herself comments briefly on the former. Specifically, she asserts early on that the Arabic theorists’ isolation of (what she calls) “wonder” gives “an aesthetic that is altogether different from the European conceptions of beauty and the sublime” (4). But at the end she modifies this claim, asserting connections with “the eighteenth-century Swiss thinker Johann Jakob Breitinger” (263), as well as the Russian Formalists, and the “French . . . semiotic approach” of Michael Riffaterre (264). She does not address the question of the broader validity of the theories.

Harb begins her book with a discussion of “old” vs. “new” styles in poetry. She relates this in part to “a shift from a tribal to a patron-based society” (25), the spread of literacy, and—what is “perhaps most important” (25)–the accumulation of “an established literary heritage within (and against) which . . . [new] poets composed their own poetry”(26). Admittedly, her construal of this situation has probably been influenced by ideas about the “querelle des anciens et des modernes.” Even so, it is very likely that the development of canons does in fact saddle new poets with “the burden of the past,” as Walter Jackson Bate has discussed. The experience of and response to such a burden, along with the related division between a set of established principles and a set of innovations, constitute likely candidates for at least typological universals (perhaps occurring only in literate cultures with a mercantile economy). On the other hand, the pattern here could be more general as well (e.g., the accumulation of oral poetry may be sufficient to produce a “burden of the past”). Moreover, it is unsurprising—but nonetheless significant—that this ancient-versus-modern opposition would involve such stylistic characterizations as “straightforward and natural” versus “obscure” and “contrived” or “affected” (27). These represent different levels of putative stylization that we find in a range of traditions. One end of the spectrum may be criticized as prosaic or praised as “natural”; the other may be dismissed as mannered or celebrated as “experimental.” (On the degrees of stylization, see my Style in Narrative, 39-41.)

Harb goes on to discuss the theories that developed out of the new poetry. These included a number of important concepts with resonances in theories found in other traditions (though in some cases this is probably due to influence). For example, a number of the Arabic theorists emphasize the crucial role played by takhyīl(roughly, imagination). Though a somewhat vague notion, this does bring to mind the concept of simulation in cognitive science, a concept that is crucial for cognitive accounts of creativity. The connection is strengthened by the close link between takhyīl and emotion (see 89; on the relation between simulation and emotion, see Hogan, Literature and Emotion, 43-44). On the other hand, the connection remains rather general, and at such a general level a link between imagination and literature may be uninformative.

More significant is the specific account of just how wonder, thus (by Harb’s account) aesthetic pleasure, is produced. Wonder is, she tells us, “a cognitive experience” through which “an emotional reaction [is] triggered by the strange and inexplicable” or “unexpected” (8). As it happens, this is very close to one aspect of the account of beauty developed in Beauty and Sublimity. In that book, I argue that, along with several other contributing factors, a recurrent element in aesthetic experience is the recognition of an unanticipated pattern. (A number of researchers have noted something along these lines; see, for example, Vuust and Kringelback on music. See also Fabb on the place of surprise in aesthetic response going beyond the experience of beauty.) The Arabic theorists’ view may seem to diverge from this account insofar as the literary work is “inexplicable,” whereas in my account the isolation of a new (explanatory) pattern is crucial. But Harb changes “inexplicable” on next page, writing “While ignorance might be the impetus for wonder initially, it is the eventual discovery of the meaning and its clarification” that is crucial; again, “that is highly cognitive in nature” (9). If correct (as I of course believe it is), this account should be widely applicable across unrelated traditions.

The second book that provoked this blog is the very different, but also outstanding–A History of Japanese Theatre, edited by Jonah Salz. In the past, I have drawn on Japanese dramatic works in isolating cross-cultural story prototypes, so I will set that topic aside. However, there are other points of connection that suggest possible universals. For example, when reading Terauchi Naoko’s “Ancient and Early Medieval Performing Arts,” I was reminded of the jo-ha-kyū (slow, moderate, quick) division (7; see also Laurence Kominz, “Premodern Playwriting Practices,” 367). That division serves to organize the story at several levels. For one thing, it points toward possible, cross-cultural patterns in the pacing of events. It seems likely that many traditions will tend to cluster rapidly changing, emotionally significant events at the conclusion of a story. This is not surprising, especially if there is a change in the valence of the predominant emotions, most obviously a decline into tragedy or a rise into comedy. The different resolving emotions of the tragic or comic conclusion would be intensified by rapid clustering.

More generally, the jo-ha-kyū division suggests that, in different cultures, people view event structure as fundamentally a matter of a beginning, middle, and end. This is, I suspect, a structure derived from goal pursuit, where the beginning is the establishment of the goal; the end is its achievement or definitive loss; and the middle is the pursuit proper. The causal sequences of, say, physics do not operate in this way, with this tripartite division. If they appear to do so, that is because we have imposed that structure on them.

Salz’s collection points us not only toward possible, cross-cultural patterns in events, but also in characters: Kyogen (the long-standing form of comic theater in Japan) has the following character types: “friendly gods, arrogant but stupid lords, lazy but clever servants, shrewish wives, browbeaten husbands, awkward bridegrooms, greedy priests, [and] fake . . . wizards” (Jonah Salz, “Kyogen: Classical Comedy,” 69). A monotheistic culture typically won’t have friendly gods, and I’m not sure how widespread the category is in polytheistic traditions. Though I have no doubt that all societies have their share of awkward bridegrooms in reality, such characters do not seem to be particularly salient, at least not in the European tradition. Greedy priests are quite visible in South Asian drama, specifically in the form of the vidūṣaka, a clownish Brahmin (member of the priestly caste), and in some modern, progressive, Indian literature. These two instances of traditions with greedy priests (Japan and India) would need to be supplemented if we were to consider this as a possible universal (even of the statistical variety). It does seem likely that characters of this sort appear in a range of traditions. One difficulty, however, lies in the ambiguity of “greedy.” The vidūṣaka is greedy in the sense that he wishes to be supported by a patron, who will treat him to good meals, but not in the sense that he tries to swindle people out of their money. Thus, the vidūṣaka may also be classed as a parasite character, of the sort discussed by Frye (166, 168, 175). On the other hand, this character is also often honest and loyal, thus sympathetic. Other cases of the greedy priest are not so innocuous and likeable. These other cases would include, for example, Brahmins in a modern work who demand that peasants pay substantial fees to have the priests perform socially necessary rituals. Moreover, charlatans who deceive people with their supposed supernatural powers (“fake . . . wizards”) may be greedy priests as well. Thus, the list of types here is not entirely transparent. There is overlap between categories and inconsistency within categories. This makes it somewhat difficult to estimate their recurrence across traditions or, sometimes, even to think of compelling examples.

The remaining types, however, are more straightforward, and clearly present in at least some unrelated traditions. The “arrogant but stupid lords” are a variant of the New Comedy senex iratus, the irascible old man, with some element of the miles gloriosus or braggart soldier as well. Combining these two is not a problem, because both New Comedy types are instances of Frye’s alazon, the character who overestimates himself or herself (39, 172). Alazon characters tend to be paired with eiron characters, who represent themselves as less than they are and, in part as a result of this misleading self-presentation, win out over the alazons. A standard case of the eiron from New Comedy is the wily servant (see Frye 73), thus the “clever servant” of Japanese tradition. Both alazon and eiron character types extend far beyond Greek and Roman New Comedy and Japanese Kyogen.

But this leaves us with the question of why these character types recur. It presumably has something to do with the way human social structures develop. Specifically, complex social relations seem to produce social hierarchies when there is durable, excess wealth (i.e., wealth that is not consumed to satisfy communal needs and that does not rot or otherwise lose its value). In this context, social hierarchies might develop through, for example, accidental events giving some people small advantages, which may then accumulate, eventually producing relatively stable social classes. Such a class hierarchy is not the result of some intellectual or other superiority of the dominant individuals. Moreover, dominated individuals are likely to recognize this and to resent it, even as dominant ideologies are likely to present the hierarchy as (in some sense) meritocratic or as established by God. In this social context, the foolish master and the wily servant are obvious character possibilities, appealing primarily to individuals from dominated groups. Moreover, the subordinated and demeaned groups often included playwrights and other theater people (see Salz 73 on the social status of actors; similar points could be made about other nations).

These points have consequences for recurring themes in literature as well. Thus, Salz points out that Kyogen plays “mocked traditionally revered figures” (77). Of course, that mockery was likely to please some viewers while displeasing others. Indeed, while plays often develop a sort of counter-ideology (mocking those who are commonly treated with reverence), dominant social groups frequently seek to recruit theatre to support standard hierarchies. For example, Julie Iezzi explains in “Kabuki: Superheroes and Femmes Fatales” that, in 1872, the “Ministry of Religious Affairs” “charged the theatre with educating . . . the populace” so as to “honor the Confucian ideal” (128). There are of course many cases of governments seeking to censor or otherwise suppress literary developments of anti-hierarchical themes. This sort of conflict is probably at the root of another cross-cultural literary practice—indirect representation. In “Bunraku Puppet Theatre,” Gotō Shisuo points out that many plays “set in the past” actually “comment covertly on contemporary political developments” (157, trans. Alan Cummings) or, as Andrew Gerstle states, many “history plays” serves “as a vehicle to comment on or criticize contemporary society” (“Chikamatsu Monzaemon: Puppet Playwright,”166-167). It should be obvious why more direct criticisms of dominant hierarchies might be imprudent.

The “shrewish wives” and “browbeaten husbands” of the Kyogen list also recur in some unrelated traditions. This is in part because there are such figures in life. But there are also unkind husbands and intimidated wives. The question then arises as to why we find the former types recurring in comedies, but not (it seems) the latter. The most obvious response is that, in this regard, (male-dominated) literature is simply guided by patriarchal ideology or even misogyny. This is certainly often the case. But it is important to stress that the typology here is for comedy. It seems likely that part of reason for the male/female asymmetry here derives from many people taking male unkindness to have more serious consequences than female unkindness. In other words, we may find a hectoring wife and a hen-pecked husband funny, but be more worried than amused by a bullying husband and intimidated wife.

There are several other points in A History of Japanese Theatre that recall features found in other traditions, ranging from the mere existence of puppet theater, to the organization of Japanese musical theater (“essentially the same structure employed by modern American musical plays” [Kominz 372]), to the association of “felicitous laughter” with “childish antics” (Salz 77; cf. chapter five of Hogan, What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion). But I cannot go through every relevant point in this sizable (592-page) book. I will conclude by remarking briefly on three features that recur in at least Japanese and American contexts and that I found particularly surprising. The first is the “star system” (Kominz 369, referring to Kabuki). It may at first seem counterintuitive that American film in the 20th Century and Japanese Kabuki in the 17th Century should both stress the appeal of particular actors. But, on reflection, it may actually be what one should have expected. There is reason to believe that we in effect respond emotionally to fiction as if it were real, though not (usually) urgent or proximate (see my “Paradoxes of Literary Emotion”). Actors are the part of this emotive “reality” that we see and hear. Although we know that the actors are not the characters, there is still some degree to which we are likely to connect the face we see and the voice we hear with our emotional response to the characters. This is consistent with the two other points that I also found initially surprising. First, popular Kabuki plays generated a market in textual “adaptations” (Kominz 371). In effect a version of “novelizations,” these texts presupposed the existence of a storyworld underwriting the play, a storyworld that could, in turn, be represented in an adaptation. This presupposition is not undermined by the fact that, unlike the case of non-fiction, there is no such underlying reality, and we even know that. Finally, the sale of adaptations was itself related to a range of “commercial publications for fan readership” beginning in the 17th Century (William Lee, “Premodern Practitioner Principles: Zeami to Chikamatsu,” 451). Personally, I have tended to think of fandom largely in relation to social media. But the psychological sources of fandom are clearly much more general.

The practices outlined in the preceding paragraphs call out for further study, prominently the isolation of related developments in other literary traditions. For the most part, the patterns I have been commenting on do not constitute absolute or near-absolute universals. If valid, they are, for the most part, implicational or typological, dependent on a particular type of socio-economic or other development. But that does not make them any less important or informative. Indeed, while literary universals are understudied in general, implicational and typological universals seem to be particularly ignored—especially those limited by socio-economic conditions. Perhaps this is due to the unfortunate tendency of humanists to see historical change and cross-cultural recurrence as mutually exclusive. However, understanding historical particulars—like understanding cultural particulars—not only uncovers differences, but reveals recurring patterns as well. It is just that we will fail to notice the latter (recurring patterns) when we have made up our minds beforehand that only the former (differences) are possible.

See also “Reason and Aesthetic Pleasure

Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991.

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

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

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

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Literature and Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Paradoxes of Literary Emotion: Simulation and The Zhào Orphan.” In The Routledge Companion to Literature and Emotion. Ed., Patrick Colm Hogan, Bradley J. Irish, and Lalita Pandit Hogan. New York: Routledge, 2022, 134-143.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Style in Narrative: Aspects of an Affective-Cognitive Stylistics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2021.

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

Salz, Jonah, ed. A History of Japanese Theatre. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2016.

Vuust, Peter and Morten Kringelbach. “The Pleasure of Music.” In Pleasures of the Brain. Ed. Morten Kringelbach and Kent Berridge. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010, 255–269.

Literature and Surprise

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

Theory of Surprise

In this article, I look at ways in which literary texts can cause surprise.  I suggest that there are specific devices which can produce surprise, and also that there are general aspects of literary texts which are continuously mildly surprising.  Surprise can in some cases result in various kinds of arousal, and can have epistemic effects, including the feeling of coming to know something not just new but also profound and perhaps ineffable.  The psychology of surprise is probably a human universal.  The characteristics of literary texts which can produce surprise are also found in many different literatures.

Surprise is a person’s response to a perception which deviates significantly from their expectations, where the perception can be of something external or internal (e.g., a new thought in this sense is counted as a ‘perception’).  There are different psychological theories of surprise, and here I use the approach particularly associated with Reisenzein, Meyer and Schützwohl, who say that ‘surprise is elicited by events that deviate from a schema’.  In this approach, much of what we know is in the form of generalized knowledge, formulated as schemata, which we bring to our perceptions in order to shape them, and to which we match the actual objects, events, and sequences of events which we perceive.  Schemata can also be thought of as types, to which we match these perceived tokens. There has to be some built-in tolerance for variation, such that the tokens do not exactly match the types, and tokenings of the same types are not identical. No cat is the perfect instantiation of a cat and no two cats are identical (in principle, but I return to this).  So, surprise is elicited by events (and sequences of events, and objects) which significantly deviate from a schema. 


The Consequences of Surprise and Their Relevance to Aesthetic Experience

Surprise is a response to something unexpected, and what is unexpected can be dangerous, and so surprise can potentially trigger one of the fight, flight or freeze responses.  David Huron in his study of responses to music in Sweet Anticipationhas explored how these responses, which we share with other animals, are adapted in humans, such that the initial arousal response is managed cortically to moderate its effect, in aesthetic experience. Wassiliwizky and colleagues have also explored similar thrill-generating processes in poetry, as in Housman’s account of how he knows poetry by the arousals in his body, including the hair standing up on his chin, so that poetry can hinder shaving.  Thus, surprise in front of an artwork or work of literature can produce arousals such as chills (goosebumps, frisson etc.), and (based on the work of Efran and Spangler) we can say that tears – another arousal response to aesthetic objects – can be understood in terms of surprise.  (Note that these arousals can arise in other ways, and many surprises do not produce the arousals at all.)  This all suggests that chills and tears in response to literature might be a response to something surprising in the text.  There are other contributing factors, for example empathy can also produce an arousal response which might be combined with a surprise to enhance the response.

Surprise can also produce an epistemic experience.  This is because surprise is a response to something we perceive but that we do not already know.  So, a surprise can always lead to learning, when we change what we know, to fit the new perceptions.  Perhaps in some special cases, the learning-from-surprise can feel as though we have learned something very profound.  This could be what happens in the experience of the sublime, or of the various types of epiphany: they are basically surprises where the epistemic feeling, the feeling of coming to know something new, is enlarged.  In some cases, something profoundly new has in fact been learned; in other cases, it may feel as though this has happened, but it is difficult to verify. Verification may fail if what is known cannot be put into words; that is, it is ineffable.  Here, we may be experiencing an effect of profound knowledge without there being any actual knowledge, in a kind of epistemic illusion.  Ineffability might arise from various sources, as Diana Raffman has shown in her analysis of ineffable experiences of music; but ineffability is also an expected correlate of any surprise.  This is because words for the most part represent schemata (types) rather than particulars (tokens), and surprise arises exactly when we cannot fit a token into an existing type; so, where there is no type there should be no word.  The epistemic effects of surprise can arise from our reading of literary texts, where there may be an experience of knowing something profoundly new, but we may not be able to say what it is.

The epistemic effects of surprise are, I suggest, at the root of various types of ‘strong experience’ including the sublime, the epiphany, and the uncanny.  In my book A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature, I group these various types of experience under the rather noncommital term ‘strong experience’, a term borrowed from Gabrielsson’s account of ‘strong experiences in music’.  These strong experiences have been extensively discussed in the critical and philosophical literature, particularly under the categories of ‘sublime’ and ‘literary epiphany’ (Beja, Nichols, Tigges).  They have also been described in the psychological literature, notably by William James who was interested both in the epistemic (noetic) aspects and in the arousal aspects, and by Freud in his discussion of the uncanny. But, as I discuss in the next section, many more ordinary types of experience can also arise from surprise, triggered by characteristics of literary texts.


Discrepancy in Literary Texts as Triggers of Surprise

If a literary text has some element which deviates significantly from the schema we bring to it, then there may be surprise, and this in turn can bring with it the epistemic and arousal consequences of surprise, producing a powerful experience from the literary text.  The deviation can be in the content: the literary text may represent something, somebody, some place, etc. which is very discrepant relative to the schemata which the reader brings to them. Literary characters can surprise us by behaving in ways which contradict the knowledge which we formulate about them, and our surprise may be enhanced into a more profoundly felt experience if we also empathize with the characters (with empathy enhanced by literary devices).

Surprise can be triggered in narratives, and other texts which have a predictable sequential structure. Here, the predictability allows us to be surprised when the sequence does not follow the expected pattern, for example when an event fails to occur, or unexpectedly occurs, or occurs before or after it is anticipated.  This type of surprise has been extensively studied in the psychology of music, and is a major theme in Huron’s work on how music surprises us and produces the type of strong experience which is a thrill.  Any kind of sequential organization can allow for formal changes, and change is one of the possible sources of surprise.  Smith, in her book on the strong experience of poetic closure suggested that “any terminal modification of form will strengthen closure”.  Formal changes can change processing effort, and sudden changes in processing effort might perhaps be a trigger of strong experience because they are surprising. 

Narratives have a sequential structure but also have a hierarchical structure, which to some extent mimics the hierarchical structure of events as we understand them, where that hierarchical structuring of events is a psychological universal (Radvansky and Zacks, Zwaan et al).  This allows for another kind of discrepancy, when the hierarchical structures of narrative are violated.  Such a violation can involve liminal or transitional parts of a narrative, for example, when the ending of one event overlaps with the beginning of another.  And hierarchies can also be violated by failing to fully contain events, if the large-scale events of the whole narrative interrupt the lower-level events which make it up, rather than fully containing them.  An example of this can be seen in the penultimate chapter of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  Mr Ramsay is “forever suspended in this moment” (Speidel) as he steps from the boat to the land near the end of To the Lighthouse, a moment which Beja identifies as epiphanic. For our purposes the important point is that here the large-scale episode ends when they arrive at the lighthouse, but the component small-scale event of stepping onto the land is interrupted and so never completed in the text. Thus, the hierarchical structure of events are violated and perhaps this violation of event schemata is the trigger of the epiphanic strong experience. Disruptions to hierarchical structure of this kind may be interpreted as discrepant relative to general schemata for events, and so surprising.

Literary texts are often characterized by ‘defamiliarization’ where familiar things are presented in an unfamiliar way: the resemblance is deliberately made odd, such that our perceptions cannot properly be matched to the schemata we bring to the text.  Some specific moment of defamiliarization in a text might be a trigger of sudden surprise which can lead to strong experience. This defamiliarization can come from a gap between the literary representation and what is being represented; of course, all representation involves a gap, but in literary texts our attention is often drawn to this gap, and so to the possibility of perceptions which are schematically discrepant. Metaphor is a good example of this, where what is said has a ‘discrepant’ relation to what is meant, and where what is literally said may be strange or untrue. Kuiken and colleagues, following Ricoeur, say of metaphors that “sublime feeling is embodied in the crossed ontological categories of the text”.

Literary texts can also trigger strong experiences ‘infectiously’ just by describing strong experiences.  There is anecdotal evidence that remembering one’s own strong experience, or reading about someone else’s, can trigger a strong experience, and can be a source of ‘infectious chills’, as Gabrielsson notes.  This is perhaps what happens at the end of Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils’ poem, in which Wordsworth stimulates a strong experience in himself by remembering a strong experience – and perhaps further stimulates one in the reader.  I suggest that this is an example of metacognitive surprise: we are surprised at the very fact of strong experience, and particularly at strong experiences of ordinary things.  Such experiences should not be able to happen; our perception of them may again violate a deeply embedded schema about the nature of experience itself.  (I return to other types of metacognitive surprise in the next section.)  Relative to our schemata for experience, strong experiences are metacognitively perceived as deviant, and hence potentially a trigger for strong experience.


Surprise at the Lack of Variation

I began this article by noting that when we match perceptions to schematic knowledge, we must allow for some variation.  Two tokens of the same type will vary both from each other and from the type itself, and this holds true of objects as well as events and sequences of events.  It is particularly notable that when this is not true, we are surprised.  So, for example, twins are surprising to many (non-twin) people when they see them; they violate an expectation that two tokenings of the same type (e.g., two people) will differ from one another.  And the experience of déjà vu is surprising in part because we do not expect identity between two separate sequences of events.  Dan Sperber, in his discussion of symbolic animals notes that animals can be symbolic when they are very discrepant relative to a classificatory system (as in the animals forbidden as food in Jewish law), but that animals are also symbolic when they are perfect tokenings of their type. Sperber points out that this identity is itself anomalous, and this is the basis of my suggestion here that a lack of variation is itself surprising.  This is a meta-surprise, about experience itself and specifically the relation between perception and schema, and not a surprised triggered just by the object of the perception. 

This (meta-)surprise is possible because, in addition to schemata about objects and events in the world, we also have schemata about our own experience, including schemata about the relation between tokenings in the world and the types (schemata) to which they belong.  I suggest that this is the source of our being surprised by ordinary things when those things are too close to their underlying schemata (or to one another).  I suggest that we have a deeply embedded schema which is a knowledge that things in the world, as tokens, vary both from other tokenings of the same type and from the ideal type of which they are tokens (the underlying schema).  This knowledge of the fact of variation is a basic schema, which has evolved with us as a species.  Other basic schemata include those which underpin our knowledge of the distinction between animate and inanimate things, our knowledge of basic physics such as the knowledge that things fall when we drop them.  Basic schemata are impossible to unlearn, even though they may be wrong in some contexts (or always wrong). For example, a basic schema tells us that objects fall downwards, and even though we know that in gravity-free environments objects can float, this knowledge does not prevent us being surprised by seeing objects floating in gravity-free environments. This is because failure to fall violates a basic schema which cannot be modified even if we consciously know that it is wrong.  These basic schemata are part of what Boyer calls our ‘intuitive ontology’: he argues that religious beliefs involve limited violations of basic schemata, and this gives them their power, presumably by permanently surprising us. 

So, I propose that when we – or characters in Modernist fiction – are surprised by ordinary things, the surprise comes from an inwardly directed perception: that the basic schema which predicts variation is violated by perceived nonvariation. This might arise if an ordinary object is perceived as unique, and thus it is the only instantiation of a schema. In this case, it is identical to its schema, and the basic schema which expresses fundamental principle of variation is violated, producing surprise. A person is a unique entity in this sense: as a token, they are identical to their schema.  The epiphany (or moment of vision) at the end of Mrs Dalloway is triggered by Clarissa Dalloway, and as Zhang notes, the language of the text directly points to the world (with a proper noun, and a pronoun), thus expressing the nonschematic and unique nature of the individual.   Kenneth Clark cites the painter Graham Sutherland who on his walks finds that “objects which he has passed a hundred times – a root, a thorn bush, a dead tree – will suddenly detach themselves and demand a separate existence”: here it is the uniqueness of the object which triggers the experience.  Detachment of the object may involve its perception as lacking (Gibsonian) affordances, such that it is seen as having an existence only in and for itself; this fits with James’s view of mystical experience (a type of strong experience) where “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance”.  Another way in which an object can be seen as unique is if it is perceived with a high degree of granularity; this incidentally should also produce a type of ‘nuance ineffability’, Raffman’s term for when our perceptions are more granular than the schemata and so words which we can match them to.  Another possibility is that the object is perceived as a perfect instantiation of its schema: Sperber argues that perfect animals are odd in precisely this way, which makes them suitable for sacrifice in the temple.

The basic schema which predicts variation is also violated by the perception of doubles or multiples, since these are entities in the world which are perceived as identical to one another.  Doubles and multiples should trigger metacognitive surprise at this violation of a basic schema, and this surprise might turn into the experience of the sublime as a response to multiples (Mendelssohn), or to the uncanny as a response to doubles (Freud). 

If a lack of variation is surprising, then literary texts, in many cultures, should be surprising.  In their content, literary texts tend to regularize and simplify what they represent, relative to the real-world equivalents.  Narratives are simpler than real-world sequences of events, more bounded, more sparse, and with causation more simply expressed. Fictional characters are sparser in their characteristics and interconnections than real people, thus giving them greater regularity relative to types.  It is particularly worth noting that the greater regularity in the language of literary texts, relative to ordinary language, means that the language of literary texts can fall below the degree of variation which we expect from language in general: this points towards a violation of the basic schema of variation.  This consistent violation, at a low level, might also produce a continuous mild surprise.

Parallelism, which Jakobson thought was the basis of the poetic function, is a greater regularity imposed on language, as are the other types of regular form: metre, alliteration and rhyme.  In fact, one way of thinking about what is distinctively ‘literary’ about literary language is that relative to ordinary language it is more regulated, the syntax can be different (particularly in poetry), and its vocabulary can be different.  Literary language can be thought of as resembling ordinary language but with a reduced degree of variation, and I have previously argued (in ‘Why is verse poetry?’) that literary language might sometimes be a copy of language rather than an instance of language.  Literary language might thus be perceived as schematically discrepant when matched to schemata for language itself.  It is worth asking at this point whether we can become habituated to literary language, such that we no longer perceive it as discrepant, but I think not: no amount of habituation to literary language will ever make us forget about ordinary language, or reduce the distance between literary and ordinary language.

Similar points might be made about other aesthetic practices, which include forms which resemble but are not quite the same as practices in the real world.  All representative forms only partially resemble what they represent, and in principle can be perceived as discrepant relative to what they represent. Music is a more regular kind of sound; singing is not quite like speaking; theatrical performance is not quite like real behaviour; dancing resembles but is not the same as running and jumping, and so on.  In these ways all the aesthetic practices, as well as literature, demonstrate a constant but low-level schematic discrepancy.  This might stimulate a constant but low level of surprise, which in turn might be part of our general aesthetic experience, characterised by the effects of surprise, both epistemic and arousal.   


Is ’Surprise’ Too Simple a Way to Approach These Problems?

The approach I take to this range of problems is to treat all of them as starting from the same psychological event, the event of surprise.   Surprise is here treated as the response to perceptions (including thoughts) of objects, events, sequences of events which significantly differ from what we expect, where our expectations are based on our general, schematic knowledge.  Thus, surprise is responsible for: the effects of various literary devices, the aesthetic experience of general aspects of literary form, profound experiences such as the sublime and epiphany, and physical responses such as chills and tears.  In some cases there are other general psychological processes at play, including emotions and empathy, all of which may contribute to and modulate the experience of the event.  All of these are ordinary human psychological events, with experiential and epistemic components, but none of them are treated a distinctive category of psychological event.  The different names and categorizations of these events come primarily from culture, not from psychology.  In other words, there is no special theory here; this is a minimalist approach which starts from common and ordinary psychological events and states, and suggests that in the right arrangement of circumstances, the event has particular manifestations and feels special.  The term which I use for experiences such as the sublime, epiphany and the uncanny, along with thrills is ‘strong experience’, and this is a term of convenience which is both deliberately neutral and not understood as a separate type of experience: it is just ordinary experience, in a ‘strong’ form, where the strength manifests as the powerful epistemic experience, or as a bodily arousal.   This is a strength in the approach, in that it seeks to explain a wide range of experience, including aesthetic experience, using only what is already in the ordinary psychological toolbox.

The weakness in this approach is that it leaves many aspects of any individual experience unexplained: why does it happen now to this person and with this degree of strength of epistemic effect and this arousal?  Why should ordinary surprise be inflated into something rarer and more profound in certain circumstances?  But this is a weakness in explanation which may be unresolvable. Even for well-studied issues such as the triggering of chills in experimental subjects by musical or textual features, we know that there is a great deal of variation in response, which tells us that there will always be contextual or circumstantial factors which shape why certain experiences arise. 


Future Research

One direction of research would be to extend the experimental work on the triggering of thrills by specific aspects of texts, and to test whether these can be understood in terms of surprise.  This has been done extensively for music, and to some extent also on poetry, and it could be productively extended to literature more generally.  Experimental work on how thrill responses are caused is relatively straightforward, and is a proxy for the almost impossible task of doing experimental work on the more epistemically oriented and very rare experiences of the sublime, epiphanies or uncanny. However, even these rare and epistemically significant kinds of experience might be the subject of experimental work along the lines of research on religious and mystical experience as described for example by McNamara.

This project assumes some basic aspects of human psychology, involving the psychology of surprise and why it happens, the schematic organization of knowledge, and the universality of basic schemata—these should be true of all humans.  In the previous section I suggested that the experiences of the sublime and of epiphany might be manifestations of this experience of surprise; these are strongly evidenced in post-18th century Western literature.  But are they universally found?   An indication of what is possible comes from Dalton’s account of the sublime in Rawa culture of Papua New Guinea, or from Morphy’s account of the aesthetic power of brilliance in Yolngu culture in Northern Australia.


Works Cited

Beja, Morris. Epiphany in The Modern Novel. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1971.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Clark, Kenneth. “Moments of Vision.” In Kenneth Clark, Moments of Vision. London: John Murray, 1981, 1-17.

Dalton, Douglas M. “The Aesthetic of the Sublime: An Interpretation of Rawa Shell Valuable Symbolism.”  American Ethnologist 23. 2 (1996): 393–415.  

Efran, Jay S. and Timothy J. Spangler. “Why Grown-Ups Cry: A Two-Factor Theory and Evidence from the Miracle Worker.” Motivation and Emotion 3 (1979): 63–72.

Huron, David. Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2006.

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

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

Foster, Meadhbh I. and Mark T. Keane. “Why Some Surprises are more Surprising than Others: Surprise as a Metacognitive Sense of Explanatory Difficulty.” Cognitive Psychology 81 (2015): 74-116.

Freud, Sigmund. The “Uncanny.” Translated by Alix Strachey. First Published in Imago, Bd. V. 1919; Reprinted in Sammlung, Fünfte Folge.

Gabrielsson, Alf. Strong Experiences with Music: Music Is Much More Than Just Music. Translated by Rod Bradbury. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

James, William. “What Is an Emotion?” Mind 9.34 (1884): 188-205.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Edited with an Introduction by Martin E. Marty. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Housman, Alfred E. The Name and Nature of Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933.

Huron, David. Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Jakobson, Roman. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics”. In Style in Language. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1960, 350-377.

Kuiken, Don, Paul Campbell, and Paul Sopčák. “The Experiencing Questionnaire: Locating Exceptional Reading Moments.” Scientific Study of Literature 2.2 (2012): 243-272.

McNamara, Patrick. The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2009.

Mendelssohn, Moses. Philosophical Writings. Ed. Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Meyer, Wulf-Uwe, Rainer Reisenzein, and Achim Schützwohl. “Toward a Process Analysis of Emotions: The Case of Surprise.” Motivation and Emotion. 21:3 (1997): 251-274.

Morphy, Howard.  “From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power Among the Yolngu.” Man New Series, 24.1 (1989): 21-40.

Nichols, Ashton. Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Moment. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987.

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

Raffman, Diana. Language, Music and Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: The Creation of Meaning in Language. London: Routledge, 1977.

Sperber, Dan. “Why Are Perfect Animals, Hybrids, and Monsters Food for Symbolic Thought?” Method and Theory in The Study of Religion. 8.2 (1996): 143-169.

Tigges, Wim, ed. Moments of Moment: Aspects of the Literary Epiphany. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.

Wassiliwizky, Eugen, Thomas Jacobsen, Jan Heinrich, Manuel Schneiderbauer, and Winfried Menninghaus. “Tears Falling on Goosebumps: Co-Occurrence of Emotional Lacrimation and Emotional Piloerection Indicates a Psychophysiological Climax in Emotional Arousal.” Frontiers in Psychology 8.41 (2017): 1-15.

Woolf, Virginia. “Moments of Vision.” In The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. 1987. Volume II. 1912-1918. London: The Hogarth Press, 250-252.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway London: Penguin. 1969.

Woolf, Virginia.  To the Lighthouse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006.

Zhang, Dora. “Naming the Indescribable: Woolf, Russell, James and the Limits of Description.” New Literary History, 45.1 (2014): 51-70.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Zwaan, Rolf A., Mark C. Langston, and Arthur C. Graesser. “The Construction of Situation Models in Narrative Comprehension: An Event-Indexing Model.” Psychological Science 6.5 (1995): 292-297.







Obstruction in Romantic Love Narratives as Postcolonial Universal: The Case of Thomas Mofolo’s CHAKA

F. Fiona Moolla, University of the Western Cape (Republic of South Africa)

Love stories would appear to be one of the most universal genres of literary tale-telling. In fact, Patrick Hogan wrily observes that attention to literary representations of romantic love might have obviated “extended” ethnological debates on the cross-cultural and transhistorical prevalence of love (98). Hogan suggests further that the sub-genre of romantic tragi-comedy is a universal narrative structure since “it appears that every tradition tells tales of conflict in two areas – love and political power” (23), and may be found in the drama “from Greece, Rome India, China, and Japan, and in stories from other regions as well” (23). This essay will consider one such tale of conflict between love and political power in Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, an “epic” novel about the formation of the Zulu nation in southern Africa, arguably one of the earliest African political expressions of modern state formation.

The focus on Chaka occurs in the context of a broader survey of African cultural expressions of romantic love[1]. Africa possesses a vast range of cultures, languages and traditions, but, for the purposes of this essay, only sub-Saharan cultures have been considered through their symbolic representation in oral narratives. The study thus has excluded the oral and written traditions of Arabophone North Africa, as well as that of Ethiopia. The impediment this survey faces at the outset is that published sources of sub-Saharan oral culture, given the multiple mediations of their production involving transcription in artificial settings and translation into European languages, become artefacts, in part, of the modernity which seeks to preserve them. The second obstruction faced by this study is the newly-confirmed recognition that hardly any sub-Saharan oral traditions about love have been recorded and archived. Where love is referred to at all in the folk tales of various cultural groups, it often occurs in an interspecies context signaling cosmogonic myths of primal origin times where the lines between human and animal were still fluid. Yet oral love narratives would appear to have abounded and continue to flourish in contemporary popular forms and media. The now-canonical Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo, whose work is dominated by considerations of love in transforming contexts, in the introduction to African Love Stories, suggests that: “… Africa, like all the other regions of this earth, has been and is, full of great love stories” (viii). She speculates that, by contrast, in twentieth-century African literature, the love theme has not been foregrounded since this literature was preoccupied by other social and political questions which appeared more pressing. This does not, however, explain why love stories were not recorded by early anthropologists whose archives for the most part include proverbs, folk tales and epics. Given the dearth of love narratives in folk tales, this study turns its attention to African epics.

The African epic, in the context of the study of world epics, for a long time was a neglected form (Kesteloot 203). Depending on how one defines the epic, the list of African epics may be quite long, running into hundreds, or could be reduced to a limited number divided into “feudal” and “clan” epics (Kesteloot 205), or divided linguistically into epics of Mande-speaking and Bantu-speaking groups (Biebuyck 6). With the increased prominence of African epics in the frame of world literature, probably the most well-known of these, for varying reasons, are the Sunjata epic of west Africa, the Mwindo epic of central Africa, and the Chaka epic of southern Africa. While love may be a prominent theme in many epics, as the example of the romantic interludes in Homer’s Odyssey underscores, love is not foregrounded in the well-known African epics, except for a single complex and interesting case occurring in one of the narratives of the legend of Chaka, king of the Zulu nation.

The context of the emergence of the Chaka epic is not unlike the emergence of text forms of the oral expression of many other world cultures. The historical Chaka, born in 1795, founder of the Zulu kingdom which swallowed up the territories of many surrounding groups, became the stuff of legend, perpetuated especially in izibongo or Zulu praise poetry. The oral tradition which developed around the historical Chaka, augmented by research of other sources, shaped the first script narrative of Chaka’s life and achievements in Thomas Mofolo’s fictionalized biography, Chaka. Chaka which straddles the line between life narrative and novel was written in Mofolo’s first language, Sesotho, in the first decade of the twentieth century, but published only in 1931. This prose narrative was followed by Mazisi Kunene’s 1979 Zulu verse narrative, Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic, which, no doubt, was influenced by Mofolo’s novel, but which adheres to the historical record more faithfully than Mofolo’s text. This study considers, specifically, the tragic love story that Mofolo invents in the heroic tale about the founder of the Zulu nation in relation to the concept of obstruction, the sine qua non of the romantic plot. Denis de Rougemont, author of Love in the Western World, a seminal study of romance, identifies the intensification of obstruction as unique to European romance. This essay looks at obstruction in the broader context of the idea of the “postcolonial universal”, deeply explored by Senegalese philosopher, Souleymane Bachir Diagne. This idea occurs, however, in the analyses of many comparativists, including Lalita Pandit’s study of Indian author Rabindranath Tagore, whose “nonimperialist, abstractly utopian idea of universalism … based on the principle of empathy” might be seen similarly to test notions non-hierarchically, assuming a background of commonality which makes lateral testing culturally comprehensible. This essay turns now to obstruction in the romance presented in Mofolo’s Chaka, testing it against De Rougemont’s assertion of the dynamism created by the centrality of obstruction in European romance, imparting a dynamism to the culture of European modernity.

Love in the Western World, De Rougemont’s landmark 1940 study of eros in Europe and, by extension, Europe’s settler colonies around the globe, proposes that obstruction to romantic union is the paradoxical desire of true lovers. The desire for that which thwarts satisfaction in love, so perpetuating desire, generates a drive, which De Rougemont describes as the “demon” (37) of love. The demon of love for De Rougemont is expressed also in the boundary-breaking restlessness of the novel, for many, the cultural form par excellence of European modernity. Shifting to an economic paradigm, the restless dynamism found in love and in the novel, has been regarded also as the unique momentum which drives capitalism (Berman). Obstruction which keeps desire in play thus is presented by De Rougemont as a continental and civilizational particular which through imperialism, colonization and in its current manifestation, globalization, has spread to the rest of the world. The question asked in the context of African orature and literature is whether obstruction in the love narrative is an absolute universal? If it is not absolute, then is it a statistical universal? Or is obstruction not universal at all; in other words, is it wholly particular to the socio-cultural development only of Europe? De Rougemont makes the claim about obstruction based on an interpretation of the archetypal medieval European myth of romantic love, namely, the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The pattern of mediation and remediation of the Chaka legend and Tristan and Isolde  is similar: stories of the historical lives become the material of folklore through fluid oral circulation, which then get fixed in the text narratives of individual authors, which then, in turn, spark a plethora of intertexts. Béroul’s and Bédier’s medieval Tristan is the inspiration of Wagner’s operatic Tristan and many other literary and cultural forms, as Mofolo’s and Kunene’s Chaka is the inspiration for Léopold Senghor’s lyrico-dramatic text, “Chaka”, and the inspiration in the production of many other artists, writers and intellectuals (Gérard).

This study focuses on the love stories in the Chaka narratives. The one love story, which is common across historical and literary narratives, is the story of Shaka’s parents, Nandi, his mother, and Senzangakhona, his father. Both Mofolo’s and Kunene’s texts present Chaka’s parents as being smitten by each other at their first meeting. In both cases, however, the focus falls not so much on the love affair and obstacles that may have existed in the lovers’ path to union. Rather, narrative concentration falls on the couple’s premarital intimacy which results in Nandi’s pregnancy. The issue at stake here is Chaka’s legitimacy, for which various opinions exist on the social acceptance of premarital sexual relationships in the culture at the time, and whether the rules for royalty were different from the rules for commoners. This love story will not be considered here since attention in both “founding” text narratives, namely that of Mofolo and Kunene, falls on the question of Chaka’s legitimacy, rather than the intimate relationship of Nandi and Senzangakhona.

Instead, this essay will consider the second love story, which occurs only in Mofolo’s “factional” representation of Chaka’s life. Mofolo’s novel is remarkable for its complete invention of Chaka’s love affair with the fictionally created heroine, Noliwa. Chaka is born to Nandi, whom Chaka’s father, Senzangakhona, marries, but, nonetheless, is spurned by Senzangakhona’s other wives, forcing Nandi to flee to live with relations. But even in her new home, in Mofolo’s representation of history, malicious rumors about Chaka’s illegitimacy pursue him, making him a despised pariah in the community where he is raised. His strength and bravery, however, result in the admiration of the young women of the village, make him the enemy of the young men whose cowardliness he indirectly shows up. His predestination for greatness is foreshadowed by his encounter with a diviner, Isanusi, another of Mofolo’s fictional creations outside of the historical record. Isanusi allows Chaka to see his persecution as part of a test for the acquisition of hitherto unknown power, giving him the strength to resist his abuse by the village. Because of subsequent threats to Chaka’s life, he is forced to flee, this time to the realm of a neighbouring potentate, Dingiswayo, who immediately is impressed by Chaka’s martial prowess. Mofolo invents a sister for Dingiswayo, namely, Noliwa, who is the one true love of Chaka’s life, aside from whom he generally is dismissive of women.

Noliwa is the favorite sister of Dingiswayo, the king who has taken Chaka under his wing, recognizing his exceptional military prowess. Noliwa is infatuated with Chaka and is disappointed that he never joins the lovers’ games which allow young people to declare their affection. Noliwa employs the “fool” Ndlebe also known as “Mr Ears” (71), one of Chaka’s allies, who deploys the techniques of surveillance suited to an oral community to spy for Chaka. Ndlebe gets Noliwa to declare her love for Chaka, whereupon he gets Chaka to declare his love for Noliwa, unarticulated by Chaka since he assumed that Dingiswayo would never allow him to marry his sister because Chaka is an outsider.  As the “goddess” and “god” of the group who stand out for their nobility, their physical perfection as woman and man, and their embodiment of the gender ideals of the community of feminine grace and masculine valor, Noliwa and Chaka are made for each other and appear to be destined for each other. Ndlebe expresses their mutual enamorment by saying to Chaka that Noliwa loves Chaka “with a love that surpasses your love for her” (74 emphasis in original). Noliwa makes the depths of her feelings known to her brother, Dingiswayo, by hinting that her passion for Chaka is inevitable and inalterable, like death: “I die utterly! I am unable to give you any idea, to find words to make you understand, the manner of my death!” (73). Dingiswayo’s approval of the union is implied, and the couple exchange necklaces, making their affection public, after which they are formally betrothed. Upon the death of Chaka’s father, Senzangakhona, Chaka, by far exceeding the legitimate princes in bravery, is installed on the throne. He also avenges the death of Dingiswayo by a pretender to Dingiswayo’s throne, and rises to the ultimate seat of power of Dingiswayo’s territory also, with the promise that he would marry Noliwa. Isanusi, the diviner, visits Chaka to test his commitment to acquiring power and renown without precedent:


Isanusi: “I understand that you are betrothed to Noliwa. Tell me, do you want to marry her?”

“I love her with all my heart, and I will marry her. But also I am bound to marry her, even if I did not wish to, because I have promised Dingiswayo’s armies that I would.”

“But if they had not bound you with that promise, what were you going to do?”

“I would still have wished to marry her because I love her, and, after all, they spoke to me in that manner after I had already become betrothed to her.”

“If I were you, I would not marry. Marriage splits kingdoms apart, because it always leads to quarrels in one’s house . . . .

Isanusi spoke these words like one who was merely jesting, yet they became a seed which began to grow in Chaka’s heart, especially since he had never really been very fond of women. (98-99)


Isanusi inflames Chaka’s ambition further by suggesting that he could have power greater than the power he had, which already was greater than the greatest kingdom known among their people. To obtain such power would require “medicine” for which Chaka would have to make a sacrifice:


. . . if you want such a kingship, every time you go to meet the enemy, your warriors must eat food mixed with medicines containing the blood of someone you love most dearly, one who is constantly in your thoughts, who is in your heart day and night, whom you love more than all the people in this entire world. It is by means of the blood of such a person that you can obtain the kind of kingship I have just described: I know no other way beside that one. (100-101)


Since Noliwa is his soulmate and the one closest to his heart, Chaka agrees to sacrifice her: “To tell you the truth, in this world there isn’t anything I love other than kingship, war and commanding armies. Therefore I will give you [Isanusi] Noliwa in order to remove any stumbling block from the path leading to my kingship. I have considered this matter and concluded: the medicines will be mixed with Noliwa’s blood” (102).

Paradoxically, the love story is the invented centerpiece around which Mofolo constructs Chaka’s actualization, but it is the crucial heart of the narrative which must be abjured as romance gives way to the epic. While the Tristan myth holds fast to the conventions of romance, Chaka embeds in the narrative (ultimately obstructed) romance as testament to the ruthless ambition of its finally, morally ambivalent epic hero. De Rougemont suggests that European culture, and its imperial-colonial offshoots, are distinct for inventing “passionate love” through the emergence of courtly love in the twelfth century. The heart of passionate love is obstruction, typified in the archetypal myth of Tristan, who invents obstacles where none exist. Obstruction gives love its existential drive.

The love story dimension of Chaka presents a romance with numerous obstructions, leading to the ultimate obstruction in death. Before it becomes patently clear that Chaka is going to sacrifice Noliwa, Chaka has intimate relations with Noliwa, resulting in her pregnancy. (The novel leaves Chaka’s knowledge of the pregnancy in productive indeterminacy.) But true union, as in the Tristan myth, is represented by marriage. What are the obstacles to the love between Chaka and Noliwa? First, it is Noliwa’s uncertainty whether Chaka is attracted to her, and then Chaka’s uncertainty whether Ndlebe’s intimations of Noliwa’s attraction are true. Thereafter, Dingiswayo’s potential rejection of the liaison, since Chaka is an outsider, is presented as an obstruction – but one which again is quite easily overcome. Significant obstacles which delay the union then come into play. Chaka’s father dies leaving him to negotiate the intricacies of succession. Dingiswayo is assassinated, requiring Chaka to avenge his death and ascend to his throne. These obstacles, which delay the union of the lovers ironically also kindle Chaka’s parallel love for power, manifesting in the ultimate obstruction, namely, Chaka’s overarching ambition. Chaka’s ambition leads to his sacrifice of Noliwa. Death of Isolde in the Tristan myth and death of Noliwa in Chaka is the obstruction which apotheosizes love as passion, thriving as it does on barriers, rather than apotheosizing the lovers themselves. However, while it is love of love which is the catalyst of love as passion in the European myth, it is the love of power which generates love as passion in the southern African heroic romance. Thus in both the European and the African narratives we see the emergence of love as passion.

The centrality of love as passion in Mofolo’s novel is underscored by Chaka’s emotions when he kills Noliwa and Noliwa’s response when she recognizes she is being sacrificed to consolidate the power of her lover. Before the killing, the narrative dwells on Noliwa’s infatuation with Chaka, heightened by her pregnancy, and Chaka’s love for her:


Chaka, too, loved Noliwa very much. If Chaka ever loved a woman with true love, we believe that Nandi (sic) was the woman upon whom that love was lavished. All beautiful and worthy things which a true wife might do for her husband, and which Chaka ever experienced, he received from Noliwa. And even as he betrayed her like that and planned her murder, his conscience ate him up and gave him no rest; it told him he had strayed from the straight path of human compassion. Yet, because of his desire for kingship, he suppressed it and pushed ahead, and walked about carrying death on his shoulders. (121)


The significance of love as passion in Mofolo’s narrative is made manifest again when it presents the diviner, Isanusi, giving Chaka one last chance to opt out of the course that will strip him of satisfaction in love and make him suffer emotionally, even as he climbs the ladder of power. Isanusi asks explicitly: “What do you choose for yourself, Noliwa or the kingship? to which Chaka again confirms, “The kingship!” (123). The significance of passionate love is foregrounded also by the fact that it is Chaka himself who kills Noliwa, rather than any of his henchmen, whose obedience to their leader is absolute. Chaka is struck again by Noliwa’s ethereal beauty when the time comes for the murder, and he is struck above all by her eyes: “They were eyes which revealed a message which said: ‘I am yours with all my being, Chaka; I am yours in life and in death” (125-126). Chaka kills Noliwa surreptitiously, using a thatching needle pierced into her underarm, to disguise her murder as illness. Noliwa, however, dies knowing that it is Chaka who has killed her, and, nevertheless, with her dying breath refers to Chaka as her “beloved” (26). Noliwa’s death thus preserves love as passion in the epic narrative about the founding of the Zulu nation.

The status of Mofolo’s Chaka as, in many respects, a liminal text makes its offsetting of passionate love problematic as an assertion of the universality of the principle of obstruction as central to love as passion. For De Rougemont, the contention that passionate love is an invention of European culture, of course, is a claim for much more than merely the “technology” of the romance narrative. It is an assertion of the fundamental dynamism of European culture, which, by implication, is absent in other world cultures. (Even though De Rougemont acknowledges the influence of Andalusian court poetry and sufi mysticism on European medieval culture, nonetheless, the breakthroughs of courtly love are deemed the origins of European exceptionalism in the sphere of the personal relationship which, more than any other personal relationship, embodies European socio-cultural transformations. It is hard to hold Mofolo’s Chaka up as a challenge to De Rougemont since Mofolo as a Christian mission-school-educated writer may have invented and incorporated the Chaka-Noliwa love story as a consequence of cultural influence, or an orientation to European culture acquired at the Morija mission. However, it is salutary to recall that Mofolo was writing about a Zulu legend in Sesotho for a Sesotho audience in the first decade of the twentieth century. His novel would have had to have been persuasive to his Sesotho audience, an audience less culturally influenced by mission Christianity and European culture than he had been. The conclusion one might draw from this is that it is precisely the existence of some form of universal which makes this form of intercultural communication possible.

Diagne extends the idea further: Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Diagne suggests that “[t]he postcolonial universal, the non imperial universal is … lateral” (16). The lateral universal is “no longer the overarching universal of a strictly objective method, but a sort of lateral universal which we acquire through ethnological experience and its incessant testing of the self through the other person and the other person through the self” (16). What we see in Mofolo’s African articulation of love as passion, where obstruction is central, may thus more productively be viewed as a lateral universal testing the concept of love as passion across languages, cultures and the epistemologies they intimate.


Works Cited

Aidoo, Ama Ata. African Love Stories: An Anthology. Ayebia, 2006.

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. Verso, 1983.

De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. (1940) Translated by Montgomery Belgion. Princeton UP, 1983.

Diagne, Souleymane Bachir. “On the Postcolonial and the Universal?” Collège international de Philosophie, vol. 2, no. 78, pp.7-18. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Gerard, Albert. “Rereading ‘Chaka’. English in Africa, vol. 13, no. 1, 1986, pp. 1-12. Accessed 10 June 2022.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge UP, 2009.

Kunene, Mazisi. Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic. Translated by Mazisi Kunene. Heinemann, 1979.

Mofolo, Thomas. Chaka. (1931) Translated by Daniel P. Kunene. Heinemann, 1981.

Moolla, F. Fiona. “Foundational Fictions: Variations of the Marriage Plot in Flora Nwapa’s Early Anglophone-Igbo Novels.” Routledge Handbook of African Literature, edited by Carli Coetzee and Moradewun Adejunmobi, Routledge, 2019, pp. 290-304.

—. “In the Heart of the Country: The Auto/biographies of Ayesha Dawood and Fatima Meer.” Social Dynamics, vol. 46, no. 1, 2020, pp. 150-163.

—. “Love in a State of Fear: Reflections on Intimate Relations in Nuruddin Farah’s Dictatorship Novels.” Journal of the African Literature Association, vol. 10., no. 1, 2016, pp. 118-130.

—. “The Polygynous Household in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: A Haven in a Heartless World.” ARIEL – A Review of International English Literature, vol. 48, no. 1, 2017, pp. 71-96.

Pandit, Lalita. “Caste, Race, and Nation: History and Dialectic in Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora.” In Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism and Culture. Ed. Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit. State U of New York P, 1995, pp. 207-233.



[1] Until recently, the cultural, literary and philosophical significance of romantic love has not been a focus of attention of African scholarship. It has, however, been my interest for a number of years where I have considered African oratures, popular cultures, and literatures across the genres of poetry, novel and drama. Some areas of concentration include a focus on love in representations of monogamous and polygynous marriage, the role of love under oppressive regimes, and romance as national allegory. These studies have been published as journal articles and book chapters, such as: “The Polygynous Household in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: A Haven in a Heartless World”, “Foundational Fictions: Variations of the Marriage Plot in Flora Nwapa’s early Anglophone-Igbo Novels”, “Love in a State of Fear: Reflections on Intimate Relations in Nuruddin Farah’s Dictatorship Novels”, and “In the heart of the country: the auto/biographies of Ayesha Dawood and Fatima Meer.” Lynda Spencer and Martina Vitackova have directed their attention to African popular romance, in particular, and are currently co-editing a special African popular romance issue of the Journal of Popular Romance.

Talking Stories: Encyclopedia of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

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


Reuven Tsur (1932-2021)

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