Author: Patrick C. Hogan

Counterintuitive Imagery as a Narrative Universal

Tom Dolack, Wheaton College

It has been postulated that religious beliefs “minimally violate ordinary intuitions about how the world is” (Atran, In Gods We Trust 83). This is not to say that religion need be defined by counterintuitive imagery. There is a constellation of behaviors that has been proposed as underlying religion including a “hyperactive agency detection device” (Guthrie), overpromiscuous Theory of Mind, and ritual practices. Nonetheless, counterintuitive imagery appears to be a religious universal. Some research on this topic has noted that counterintuitive imagery is not a priori religious. Specifically, Kelly and Keil have looked at Ovid and the Brothers Grimm; Burdett, Barrett, and Porter have looked at folktales; and Swan and Halberstadt have more recently examined what differentiates religious from fictional counterintuitive agents. Even so, work in the field has mostly focused on the religious domain. What I propose is a research program that explicitly applies insights into religious counterintuitive imagery to narrative more broadly, including modern literature. This is in keeping with the idea that cognitive “templates” for religious concepts, discussed by Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained 78), have application in a wide variety of cultural artifacts.


Art was once thought to be the sole province of Homo sapiens, a cultural Rubicon that only we crossed. But, as has often been the case in recent years, the archaeological record shows that we are not so special. Intentional markings have been found on mussel shells dating back a half million years, which would make the suspected artiste Homo erectus (Joordens et al.). Whether we wish to term these engravings “art” is open to debate, but they seem to be intentional, serve no apparent utilitarian function, and are not random. If not art, then what? Doodle, perhaps, but that would probably be distinction without difference in this context. Our cousins the Neanderthals clearly also “doodled,” as evidenced by cave art in Spain predating the arrival of Homo sapiens (Hoffmann et al.; Hawks). Examples from our own direct ancestors are widespread and found all over the world (Henshilwood et al.; Aubert et al.). But much of the art we find in the record can be described as decorative or mimetic. The type of symbolism or figurativeness we associate with the term “art” in modern times, not to mention with human behavior more generally, is clearly a more recent addition.

Along these lines, the Löwenmensch or Lion-Man, found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, stands out. Not only is it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, statuette on record; it is also conspicuously not abstract, mimetic, or purely decorative. About a foot in height and carved from a mammoth tusk, the largest piece of the figurine was unearthed in 1939 (smaller pieces were dug up later and the pieces painstakingly reassembled). The Löwenmensch has a human body, with the head of what appears to be a lion. It is unclear if the figurine was meant to be symbolic or religious (theories abound), but it is clearly figurative. Nobody ever saw such a creature. It is all too easy to lose sight of how revolutionary this would have been. It would be unexceptional today in our world of CGI; it would have been unexceptional even thousands of years ago when mythology and tales around the campfire were commonplace. But there was a time when such a hybrid creation was entirely new, and it changed human culture forever.

We don’t know when or where this capacity for imagining hybrids originated, and can only hypothesize about how it came to be (changes to our mental architecture along the lines of Mithen’s “cognitive fluidity”? A tipping point in cumulative cultural evolution?), but however this change occurred, it signals a new ability to envision what did not and could not exist; previously we could either reproduce what we had seen or heard about or make abstract shapes that we found pleasing.

I suspect it is no coincidence that this oldest of all figurative art is a hybrid. Such hybrids are a stock element of religions, mythologies, and folklores the world over. The technical term for them is counterintuitive imagery. What makes these images special is that they violate our natural intuitions. We have innate ontological categories (Atran,“Basic Conceptual Domains”) in our minds such as animal, person, inanimate thing, tool and plant. Each of these categories involves specific expectations regarding our innate knowledge domains of physics, biology, and psychology. A natural object such as a rock does not move on its own, does not grow or reproduce, and does not think. An animal does move on its own, grow, eat, and reproduce, has some mental workings, but does not speak. Humans are like animals biologically, plus have additional psychology faculties, but are restrained by certain physical laws (we can’t fly or walk through walls). Counterintuitive images violate these ontological expectations in one way or another—an animal that talks, a person who doesn’t die, a stick that heals. A table from Justin Barrett covers all of the bases (see Figure 1).

 This table covers the panoply of figures in religions, mythologies, folklores, but also science fiction movies and fantasy novels. A zombie is a person lacking human consciousness (a violation of expectations regarding psychology); a ghost is a person without a body (a violation regarding biology); a talisman is an artifact with magic properties (physics violation); Ents are plants that behave like people (biology and psychology violations); monotheistic gods are often people lacking bodies and with reality-defying powers (psychology, biology, and physics violations). And so on.

A primary postulate for why counterintuitive imagery is so common in the religious imagination is because it is better remembered. But we need not restrict ourselves just to the religious imagination in this regard (Barrett, “Utility” 250). Atran and Norenzayan did experiments where stories with counterintuitive imagery were better remembered after one week (see also Barrett and Nyhof). Perhaps most interesting, they found an ideal ratio of counterintuitive to intuitive imagery (mostly intuitive with some counterintuitive), which accounts for why all or even most religious imagery is not counterintuitive. This is an explanation for its universality – in a tradition lacking writing, imagery that was better remembered would have a Darwinian advantage. And, indeed, such imagery does seem to be universal. Donald Brown lists belief in the supernatural, anthropomorphism, magic (which involves category violations of some sort), and myths all as human universals (139).

This may explain the abundance of spirits, and giants, and witches, and gods and the like – all the mythic figures that populate the religions, folklores and stories the world over, all of which have their roots, if you go back far enough, in the letterless past. But can we say the same about wizards and aliens and all the creations of modern fantasy and science fiction that are solidly within modern times? Clearly memory is no hurdle to the retention of something located conveniently in paperback or blue-ray. Indeed, if we extend our view to incorporate our metaphors (your eyes are like diamonds, a mountain of a man, fast as a cheetah), counterintuitivity pervades all of our narrative, even the most realistic.

This points to a possible need to expand what we mean by the term “supernatural.” Rather than being the domain of magic, mysticism, or the occult, an understanding of our innate folk physics and folk biology lets us understand why exactly we draw a line between natural and supernatural, and that there is nothing inherently religious or magical about things on the other side of that line. As Konika Banerjee notes (Banerjee et al.), in actuality, we likely get the directionality wrong: counterintuitive imagery isn’t religious, there’s just something about it that leads to its overrepresentation in allforms of narrative. The “supernatural” (read: counterintuitive) surrounds us, we just tend to notice only the more extreme examples found in mythology and religion. This meshes quite well with the work of Kelly and Keil that found similar rates of cross-domain transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

But if counterintuitive imagery is so ubiquitous, even (especially?) into the modern day where memory is no longer a restricting factor, what can account for its prevalence? Why would Hinduism, Ovid, and comic books all contain similar imagery? Banerjee uses the phrase “inferentially rich,” which may be on to something. If a novel counterintuitive idea breeds new ideas and images, this may make them more attractive. There is perhaps something more creative about them. This fits with one approach to creativity at the cognitive level that assumes creativity to involve the combination of two previously separate ideas in working memory (Vandervert et al.; Fink et al.). Thus, counterintuitive imagery may force us to be creative in reverse by separating the components of a hybrid that we had not encountered. But much more research is required on this specific question.


An Attempt to Test Some Hypotheses

Based on the standard formulations of the role of counterintuitive imagery in religions, I formulated two hypotheses that could be empirically tested. First of all, if memory is truly the main reason for increased counterintuitive imagery, we should find more of it in oral traditions than written traditions. Second, if there is something religious about counterintuitive imagery, we should find more of it in religious texts than non-religious texts. Obviously, counterintuitive imagery exists in both written and secular texts, but there should be some difference in the rates. With these hypotheses in mind, I and a group of undergraduate students began to tabulate rates of counterintuitive imagery. The project is highly labor intensive and so progress is both slow going and narrowly focused. Consequently, conclusions are so far highly tentative and really only serve as means of directing future research. But the data has been interesting, nonetheless (Dolack). To date we have gotten through the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter series, which is only a starting point. Obviously, this choice alone is a delimiting factor in the results, but we believe that at the very least we have established that a fuller empirical study along these lines promises to contribute to worthwhile research programs on counterintuitive imagery and narrative.

What we have done is tabulate all of the characters in both works (over 3,500 total) and, using the rubric established by Boyer and Barrett (“Natural Foundations”), marked which ones had counterintuitive elements. Specifically, we tracked whether each character had some additional, unanticipated domain capacity in psychology, biology, or physics, or whether it lacked such a capacity (marked as +psychology, or –physics, for instance). Some simplification was necessary, especially at this stage. Future work could involve the subtlety built into Justin Barrett’s coding system, particularly his distinction between “counterintuitive” and “counterschematic” (Barrett, “Coding”).

Some of our basic results showed that only 8% of characters in the Old Testament had some form of domain violation. However, if we counted not just characters, but how many times the characters were mentioned, it turns out that 33% of character mentions involve a character with a domain violation. This means that counterintuitive figures were much more likely to be mentioned multiple times than “normal” figures. This fits with the predictions of the theory – there is obviously selection pressure for counterintuitiveness in the Bible.

To test another prediction, we tabulated the percentage of character mentions involving a counterintuitive character per book of the Bible. We did percentage and not raw numbers because otherwise larger books such as Genesis would have an unfair advantage. The results look like Figure 2.

Some books have very high numbers because they only have a handful of people, all of whom are prophets, or fall into some other counterintuitive category. The test here was to see if the earlier books of the Bible (the ones more likely to date back to a purely oral tradition) had higher or lower rates of counterintuitive figures. Dating books of the Hebrew Bible is tricky as there are no exact dates to begin with, but things are further complicated by when texts were written down or edited. But using a rough ordering, my team came up with Figure 3, which shows a general decrease from older to newer texts.

The overall decrease in the percentage of domain violations fits with the model’s predictions as well. But what happens when we look at a work of contemporary fantasy? Our prediction based on theory was that rates of counterintuitive imagery would be lower, but our instincts said it would be about the same. It turns out that 45% of the characters in the Harry Potter novels are counterintuitive. That’s far higher than the 8% in the Hebrew Bible. If we look at character mentions, the disparity is much less: 49% compared with The Bible’s 33%. The percentage of mentions jumps much less than with The Bible; a counterintuitive character in Harry Potter is only slightly more likely to be seen more often than a non-counterintuitive character. We suggest this difference is because the initial rate in Harry Potter is so high and because The Bible was winnowed down and changed over centuries.

What conclusions can we draw from this admittedly narrow selection of texts? Based solely on this one example we can say that individual, modern, written works can have as much or even more counterintuitive imagery than religious or oral texts. Indeed, this is another sign of the universality of counterintuitive imagery. It also supplies support for the hypothesis that memorability may not be the only reason for the prevalence of such imagery. Harry Potter is not dependent on long-term memory for its propagation, only its appeal to readers. So perhaps counterintuitive imagery is more engaging (or exciting, or rich), and not merely more unforgettable. These results point more to what work needs to be done than to answers to our original questions.


Future Research

This line of research clearly needs more data from as many different sources as possible. There is no way for two works to give an accurate view of the problem; what we have been able to do is more akin to a pilot study that prepares the way for more systematic work. For starters, we should compare rates of counterintuitive imagery in cross-cultural folklore and mythology to see if there are geographical variations in rates or preferences. (Work already appears to show that counterintuitive imagery is cross-cultural. See Boyer and Ramble, and Barrett et al.) Second, we need more work on counterintuitive imagery in literary texts. What are the factors that affect counterintuitivity – genre? tradition? audience? Do counterintuitive elements appear in our metaphors at the same rate as counterintuitive images appear in folklore? Finding counterintuitive imagery in a broad range of works and types of work would suggest that it is fundamental to our imagination. Lastly, these data can be used to investigate why this type of imagery is so pervasive since it seems that memorability alone cannot be the answer. This could be a consequential undertaking, because any line of investigation that gets to a possible common root of religion and the narrative arts could also shed light on the evolutionary origins of both behaviors. Common ancestors are not just valuable in anthropology and paleontology.


Works Cited

Atran, Scott. “Basic Conceptual Domains.” Mind and Language 4.1–2 (1989): 7–16.

Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Atran, Scott, and Ara Norenzayan. “Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape: Counterintuition, Commitment, Compassion, Communion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27.06 (2004): 713–730.

Aubert, M., et al. “Palaeolithic Cave Art in Borneo.” Nature 564.773 (Dec. 2018): 254-257.

Banerjee, Konika, O. S. Haque, and E. S. Spelke. “Melting Lizards and Crying Mailboxes: Children’s Preferential Recall of Minimally Counterintuitive Concepts.” Cognitive Science 37.7 (Sept. 2013): 1251-89.

Barrett, Justin L. “Coding and Quantifying Counterintuitiveness in Religious Concepts: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 20.4 (2008): 308–338.

Barrett, Justin L.“Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4.1 (Jan. 2000): 29–34.

Barrett, Justin L.“The (Modest) Utility of MCI Theory.” Religion, Brain & Behavior6.3 (July 2016): 249–251.

Barrett, Justin, and Melanie Nyhof. “Spreading Non-Natural Concepts: The Role of Intuitive Conceptual Structures in Memory and Transmission of Cultural Materials.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 1 (Feb. 2001): 69-100.

Boyer, Pascal. “Evolution of the Modern Mind and the Origins of Culture: Religious Concepts as a Limiting Case.” Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language and Meta-Cognition. Ed. Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 93–112.

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

Boyer, Pascal, and Charles Ramble. “Cognitive Templates for Religious Concepts: Cross-Cultural Evidence for Recall of Counter-Intuitive Representations.” Cognitive Science 25.4 (July 2001): 535–64.

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

Burdett, Emily, Justin L. Barrett, and Tenelle Porter. “Counterintuitiveness in Folktales: Finding the Cognitive Optimum.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 9.3 (Oct. 2009): 271–87.

Dolack, Tom. “A Quantitative Approach to Counterintuitive Imagery in the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter Novels.” Evolution and Popular Narrative. Ed., Dirk Vanderbeke and Brett Cooke. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Brill Rodopi, 2019, 264-291.

Fink, Andreas, et al. “Stimulating Creativity via the Exposure to Other People’s Ideas.” Human Brain Mapping 33.11 (2012): 2603–2610.

Guthrie, Stewart. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hawks, John. “Neanderthal Humanities.” Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and Sciences. Ed. Joseph Carroll, Dan McAdams, and Edward O. Wilson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, 89–100.

Henshilwood, Christopher S., Francisco d’Errico, and Ian Watts. “Engraved Ochres from the Middle Stone Age Levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa.” Journal of Human Evolution 57.1 (July 2009): 27–47.

Hoffmann, D. L., et al. “U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art.” Science 359.6378, 23 (2018): 912–915.

Joordens, Josephine C. A., et al. “Homo Erectus at Trinil on Java Used Shells for Tool Production and Engraving.” Nature 518.7538 (2015): 228–31.

Kelly, Michael H., and Frank C. Keil. “The More Things Change…: Metamorphoses and Conceptual Structure.” Cognitive Science 9.4 (1985): 403–416.

Mithen, Steven J. The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Swan, Thomas, and Jamin Halberstadt. “The Mickey Mouse Problem: Distinguishing Religious and Fictional Counterintuitive Agents.”PLOS ONE 14.8 (Aug. 2019).

Vandervert, Larry R., Paul Schimpf, and Hesheng Liu. “How Working Memory and the Cerebellum Collaborate to Produce Creativity and Innovation.” Creativity Research Journal 19.1 (2007): 1–18.


Particular Works and Literary Universals: As You Like It

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut 

Particular literary works figure in the study of literary universals principally as data from which researchers may abstract cross-cultural principles. However, the isolation of literary universals may also have consequences for our understanding of individual works. Consider story genre. I have argued that a limited number of such genres recur across a range of unrelated traditions (on the nature of these genres, see “Story”; on the cross-cultural evidence for the genres, see my The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology[1]). These are not the only possible genres. However, their cross-cultural recurrence suggests their cognitive and affective salience and even predominance. For this reason, the cross-cultural genres are often more valuable in categorizing literary works or parts of works than are the historical categories to which works were assigned by their contemporaries. (In a similar way, our diagnostic categories are typically more valuable in categorizing illnesses than are the diagnostic categories to which a person’s illness was assigned by his or her contemporaries.) For example, in How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I have contended that the cross-cultural genres do a better job of organizing Shakespeare’s plays than the traditional, fourfold scheme of comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances.[2]

In the present essay, I set out to consider a single work—Shakespeare’s As You Like It—in relation to cross-cultural story genres. Though his plays are generally open to categorization in one or another dominant genre, it is well known that Shakespeare mixed genres.[3] In the following pages, I will consider the ways in which different story trajectories in the play may be usefully analyzed as instances of different, cross-cultural genres. This analysis allows us, in turn, to isolate some of the play’s stylistic techniques and thematic concerns more clearly and to explore them more fully.[4]

More exactly, one useful method of exploring Shakespeare’s play begins by isolating the various story sequences–the story of Orlando and Oliver, that of Touchstone and Audry, and so on—then identifies their genres and determines how Shakespeare particularized those genres. Such an analysis suggests conclusions about Shakespeare’s story style and about the thematic resonances of the work, both ethico-political and psychological. However, before treating As You Like It, I should outline the main features of the relevant story genres and some of the key principles used by authors in developing particular literary works.

Cross-Cultural Story Genres, Motifs, and Development Principles

It is important to make three general points about literary universals. First, like linguistic universals, literary universals may be absolute (recurring in all traditions), near absolute, statistical (recurring in a significantly greater percentage of traditions than would be expected by chance), or typological/implicational (recurring in traditions of a specified type). Second, “unrelated” means that the traditions have distinct origins and have not influenced one another extensively. Thus, English and Twentieth-Century Chinese literatures are related; evidence for cross-cultural patterns would have to draw on Chinese and European works prior to the period of modern, European colonialism. Third, universals are not exhaustive. One can tell stories about anything. Stories are not confined to the cross-cultural genres. On the other hand, as already noted, the cross-cultural genres tend to be particularly salient and prominent; traditions appear more likely to differ in recurring patterns of particularization than in the main genres themselves.

The mention of particularization leads us to development principles. In How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I have argued that the creation of particular stories may be understood in part as the application of development principlesto cross-cultural genre prototypes. These development principles comprise principles governing specification (where abstract elements in the prototype, such as “lovers,” are given particular features), completion (the filling in of ellipses), extension (the combination of different prototypes or motifs), and alteration (deviation from a prototype). Development principles may bear on the story itself (as just indicated) or on aspects of discourse, thus the narrational point of view, the emplotted order of information (e.g., strictly chronological or partially chronological with flashbacks), and so on.

 In analyzing As You Like It, I will be concerned with three cross-cultural story genres (romantic, heroic-usurpation, and familial) and one cross-cultural motif (remorse and conversion). In The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology, I have argued that cross-cultural genres prototypically involve one or two protagonists pursuing some goal. The goal is defined by an emotion system or some integration of emotion systems. The cross-cultural elaboration of the story trajectory functions to intensify the outcome emotion. In the full, comic form of each genre, this leads to the apparent loss of the goal in the middle of the story.

The romantic genre develops out of the integration of attachment and sexual desire (as well as the reward system) in romantic love. The romantic story prototype forms around two people falling in love, but finding their union prevented by society (commonly intensified by making the blocking figures loved ones, such as parents). This social interference commonly involves a rival and thus a love triangle, and the apparently permanent separation of the lovers (often through rumors of death). However, in the full, comic version, the lovers are ultimately united and social rifts overcome.

The heroic genre is based on the emotions of pride, shame (thus a violation  of pride), and anger (due to shame), bearing on characters and on groups. In its prototypical form, this genre has an individual part and a collective part. The collective part involves a threat to the hero’s in-group (commonly the nation) from some enemy out-group. The individual part prototypically treats the usurpation of a leader’s rightful position, a usurpation often emotionally intensified by making the usurper an attachment object, such as a sibling. In the comic version, the story is commonly resolved through combat in which the usurper is defeated (often killed) and the legitimate authority reinstated.

The familial genre is based on attachment feelings. It concerns the separation and reunion of family members. The separation may be intentional on the part of the parents or children, and the reasons for the separation vary. The reunion is often less joyous than one might anticipate, given that the parents’ age may imply that this reunion will soon be cut short by their death. It may also involve feelings of guilt and remorse for the initial separation.

Finally, in The Mind and Its Stories, I distinguish story genres from story motifs. Story genres are derived from emotion-defined goal pursuit, as just explained. Motifs, in contrast, are types of event sequence that may be incorporated into various genres as they are not linked intrinsically with any genre-defining goal.[5] Like genres, some particular motifs are cross-cultural, while others are not. For example, the quest is often cited as a cross-cultural literary structure.[6] In my account, a quest does not define a genre, but a cross-cultural motif that may be incorporated into any genre. For example, the usurped hero or the struggling lover or the abandoned child—that is, types of character from the universal genres (heroic, romantic, and familial, respectively)–may undertake a quest in the service of regaining his or her kingdom, being joined in marriage with his or her beloved, or being reunited with his or her family. (A motif may, of course, be elaborated into a full story. But that is only because anything may be elaborated into a full story. That does not make everything into a cross-cultural genre.) In As You Like It, the motif I have in mind is, roughly, that of remorse leading to self-reformation or “conversion” in a broad sense. This motif often appears at the conclusion of heroic works in what I have called the “epilogue of suffering” (see chapter four of The Mind); it leads to the hero’s abandonment of the very goals he or she had striven for (and even achieved) in the rest of the story.

The Stories of As You Like It

The first scene of the play introduces us to the story of Orlando and Oliver, a reduced or deflated version of the heroic usurpation story. It is “reduced” in the sense that it concerns family relations rather than a nation. However, it involves the same denial of social position and even a murder (or assassination) plot. This scaling down of the heroic usurpation is facilitated by the fact that the national usurpation story is often intensified by being familial in the sense of involving betrayal of the hero by a family member. For simplicity (and as a sort of homage to Russian formalist practices), I will refer to the narrative trajectories through abbreviations. This first heroic usurpation story is HU1 (“heroic usurpation 1”).

One stylistic feature of Shakespeare’s writing is his tendency to develop parallel story sequences. Sometimes he invents them; sometimes he draws them from his sources (which he presumably found appealing in part due to the parallel stories). He frequently treats these parallel stories in contiguous scenes. In keeping with this, I.ii introduces the backstory to a more standard heroic usurpation story (HU2), also one involving brothers, that of Dukes Frederick and Senior. In addition, it introduces our first family separation story (FS1), that of Rosalind and Duke Senior, which results from HU2. This scene continues HU1 as well, by thwarting Oliver’s plot to have Orlando killed. The combat between Oliver and the wrestler is drawn from the source, with the important difference that the latter is (presumably) not killed.[7] This allows the possibility that no irreversible damage is done by the main characters in the course of the play (a point that bears on Shakespeare’s development of heroic stories, as we will see). This wrestling match is not only part of HU1, but also part of the first romantic story of the play (R1)—that of Rosalind and Orlando. In the love story, it represents the common device of a contest in which the lover impresses the beloved with his manly skills. Shakespeare not only parallels, but also frequently integrates his separate story sequences, as in this crossing of HU1 with R1. We find another case of this sort when Duke Frederick suggests that Orlando’s father sided with Duke Senior in Duke Frederick’s usurpation. This intertwining of HU1 and HU2 will be extended later in the play.

The third scene allows Rosalind and Celia to elaborate on Rosalind’s feelings for Orlando (thus R1). It also introduces the exile of Rosalind. This initially raises the possibility of Rosalind and Celia being separated. But Celia protests that “thou and I am one” and thus should not be “sund’red” (I.iii.95, 96). They therefore determine to go together into exile. Though little developed in what follows, this does introduce a second familial separation sequence (FS2), that between Celia and Duke Frederick.

Having introduced the exile of Rosalind and Celia, Shakespeare turns in II.i to the prior exiles of HU2—Duke Senior and his companions. An interesting element of this scene involves Jaques’s (reported) objection to hunting and his “weeping” over a deer that they have killed (II.i.65). Jaques “swears” that the hunters “do more usurp” than Duke Frederick (II.i.27). Here, Shakespeare draws on the model of the heroic prototype to consider hunting and tacitly analogizes Jaques’s grief (see II.i.26) to the remorse felt by the heroes in the heroic epilogue. This is then the first suggestion of the conversion motif, CM1. The motif will recur in the stories of Oliver and Frederick. It is an instance of Shakespeare’s multiplication of parallel story sequences and is not found in the source. As we will see, unlike the conversions of Oliver and Frederick, that of Jaques appears to concern promiscuity or hedonism, rather than usurpation; however, in this scene, Shakespeare connects Jaques’s conversion with usurpation in a way that appears very much like remorse.

The second scene of act two fundamentally serves to inform us that Rosalind and Celia have followed through on their plans to leave. It thereby establishes the separation of Duke Frederick and Celia, FS2. In his usual, tidy manner, Shakespeare moves in II.iii to the exile of Orlando, when faced with another assassination plot from his usurping brother. Finally, in II.iv, we see Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone in the forest, simply shifting the narrational point of view regarding HU2, FS1, and FS2.

II.v serves to develop Jaques’s melancholy, which is consistent with his motivic role relating to remorse and conversion. and II.vii principally elaborate on the condition of the exiles of HU2. II.vii further integrates the story sequences of HU1 and HU2 by having the exiles—Orlando, Duke Senior, and so on—meet. This scene also includes some slight hints of Jaques’s backstory, that he lived riotously before he became somber and reflective (see II.vii.62-69). This too points toward a (subdued) motif of remorse and conversion (CM1), already hinted at in the report of Jaques’s grief over the deer (II.i.65).

The third act begins with a further integration of the two usurpation sequences, HU1 and HU2, as Frederick threatens Oliver with dispossession if he does not capture or kill Orlando. In terms of emplotment, this revives the suspense of HU1 as it poses a new threat to Orlando, whom we might otherwise have assumed to be out of danger. The second scene involves many elements, principally developing character, provoking mirth, and serving other purposes. For our interests, the second scene most importantly sets up the relation between Oliver and Ganymede. This sequence draws on a motif found in some romantic stories (such as Shakespeare’s own Cymbeline), where one of the lovers determines to test the sincerity and durability of the other’s affection, though it recasts that motif as a sort of open joke.[8] At times, however, the joke seems to shift into a nearly real seduction of the lover being tested.[9] 

By the beginning of the fourth act, the relation between Orlando and Rosalind—in the guise of Ganymede–almost appears to constitute another story of romantic love (R2).  Of course, this is not a different love story for Rosalind, who is continuously enamored of Orlando. The question concerns just what Orlando’s feelings might be for the person he identifies as Ganymede, not Rosalind. This is particularly significant as the relation between these two is developed somewhat differently in the source. At least in my reading, Lodge’s Orlando (there called “Rosader”) is more clearly playacting. Indeed, after their first recitation of poetry in the assumed roles, Rosader asserts the falsity of their pretense. Shakespeare makes their connection—a matter of wooing “every day” in her “cote” (III.ii.417)–more evidently romantic and thus ambiguous on Orlando’s side. For example, Orlando’s phrase, “fair youth” (III.ii.377) suggests an appreciation of Ganymede’s physical beauty, in contrast with Rosader’s “gentle swain” (Lodge). Orlando speaks directly to Rosalind/Ganymede of kissing her/him rather than merely talking (IV.i.68), whereas Rosader’s only reference to kissing occurs in a poem and refers (somewhat confusingly) to “Love” kissing “roses” (Lodge). In connection with this, there seems to be some bawdy ambiguity in Orlando’s plea to “have me” (IV.i.111) following Ganymede’s “more coming-on disposition” (IV.i.106-107), and his subsequent urging of Celia/Aliena, “Pray thee marry us” (IV.i.120). In contrast, when Lodge’s Aliena suggests a mock marriage, Rosader agrees and “laugh[s]”; moreover, the entire business is characterized as a “jesting match,” again stressing the distance between the people (Rosader and Ganymede) and the roles they are playing (Rosader and Rosalynde).

Punctuating the development of R2 (Orlando and Ganymede), Shakespeare indulges his penchant for parallel story sequences. One of these is drawn from the source. In III.v, we find the love triangle of Silvius, Phebe, and Ganymede (R3). Before this, in III.iii, we find the romantic story of Touchstone and Audry (R4), added by Shakespeare. This is a very minimal story in that the obstacles to their union seem to be largely a matter of getting the marriage ceremony set up. Though parallel with the story of Orlando and Rosalind (R1), both these stories are deromanticized. Phebe seems to have no interest in Silvius whatsoever. In the end, she marries him because she lost a bet. As to Touchstone and Audry, the former makes a mockery of the entire process from start to finish. This is not to say that their marriage is doomed. Touchstone is certainly sharp-tongued, but he seems fundamentally benevolent. Mockery is his profession; as he himself says, “we that have good wits have much to answer for. We must be flouting; we cannot hold” (V.i.11-12). The audience should probably not take that mockery too seriously with respect to his marriage. Nonetheless, we might infer from these cases that the romanticization of love may be mistaken—even in the case of Rosalind and Orlando (as well as Celia and Oliver, to which we will turn shortly). The idea is consistent with some suggestions of the larger organization in story trajectories, as we will see.That deromanticization may be suggested also by the odd scene, IV.ii, in which Jaques makes jokes about cuckoldry and horns—a tiresomely repetitive form of humor that Shakespeare incomprehensibly found irresistible.

The third scene of the fourth act resolves HU1. This occurs when Oliver’s life is endangered. Orlando is tempted by “revenge” (IV.iii.129), thus the violent response to usurpation, the usual development of the heroic plot. But he foregoes this response, saving his brother’s life. This leads to Oliver’s “conversion” (IV.iii.137). Thus, we have a second instance of the conversion motif (CM2), in this case operating not as an epilogue for the heroic story, but as the resolution to that story itself, a resolution that substitutes for the violence and destruction that would have given rise to the epilogue’s remorse. In How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, I argued that Shakespeare’s use of the heroic structure may allow a genuinely comic conclusion insofar as no irreversible loss—most obviously, death–has occurred. His ideal outcome appears to be a matter of forgiveness and reconciliation, not violent retribution.  (As Oliver puts it, “kindness” is “ever nobler than revenge” [IV.iii.129].) In this case, the main events and possible motives or outcomes (e.g., Rosader/Orlando taking “revenge”) are largely found in the source for the play. Moreover, in Lodge, Oliver (there called “Saladyne”) does experience remorse and a sort of conversion (cf. his resolution to do “penance” and be a pilgrim to “the Holy Land” [Lodge]). This does not make the point any less Shakespearean, since there must be aspects of a source work that drew Shakespeare to it initially. Moreover, in Shakespeare’s play, the motif recurs not only in HU1, but more importantly in HU2, the other heroic usurpation sequence, as we will see. Here, as elsewhere, the enhanced story symmetry or multiplication of story parallels is characteristic of Shakespeare, no less than the thematic preference.

This scene also introduces us to yet another love story (R5). This one is between Oliver and Celia. Moreover, in the typical, Shakespearean fashion, it is integrated with HU1, as it is allowed by the resolution of the brother conflict in that story.

The first scene of the final act develops the Touchstone-Audry love story (R4) by introducing and summarily dismissing a rival. The second scene elaborates on the Oliver-Celia romance (R5). That scene ends with a sort of cliffhanger bearing on the possible marriages in the stories R1 (Rosalind-Orlando), R3 (Phebe-Silvius), and R5 (Celia-Oliver). The following scene simply extends this cliffhanger to R4 (Touchstone-Audry).

The final scene resolves most of the story sequences in short order. Rosalind reveals her identity, which leads to her official reunion with her father and the resolution of the Silvius-Ganymede competition. This, in turn, enables the marriage of Silvius and Phebe, who are wed at the same time as Orlando and Rosalind, Touchstone and Audry, and Celia and Oliver. This resolves FS1, R3, R1, R4, and R5 simultaneously, leaving only HU2 (Duke Senior’s usurpation), FS2 (the separation of Celia and her father), and perhaps R2 (the [imaginary?] relation between Orlando and Ganymede).

Before going on to these, I should remark briefly on one peculiar aspect of the resolutions we have already treated. In Shakespeare’s play, Rosalind encounters her father well before she reveals herself to him (see III.iv.32-36). It is not at all clear why she did not reveal herself to her father when they first met.[10] The male disguise was supposedly for her and Celia’s protection (I.ii.106-120), though they did have a male companion in the form of Touchstone. But this is clearly unnecessary when her father and his retinue are present. The most obvious explanation has to do with her testing of Orlando. There may, however, be other possibilities, suggested by unresolved parts of the work. (We will return to this point.)

The Frederick-Senior usurpation story (HU2) is resolved in a striking departure from the source text. Specifically, Lodge presents us with a typical heroic resolution in which combat leads to the death of the usurper. But, in Shakespeare, the usurper is “converted” (V.iv.161) to a religious life. He abandons the world and returns the kingdom to the legitimate leader, Duke Senior. This is a third instance of the motif of conversion (CM3). Like the story of Oliver, it recalls the heroic epilogue, but in fact replaces the heroic ending, and thus avoids the violence that entails a remorseful epilogue. Moreover, in keeping with CM1, Jaques leaves the rejoicing society to join the converted Duke Frederick. Thus, two of the three “converts” (Frederick and Jaques) retreat from the world into spiritual pursuits. Indeed, the third convert, Oliver, though now married, has also determined to abandon wealth and worldly things to live a pastoral life with Celia (V.ii.12), aptly-named for Heaven.[11] These points are consistent with the generally critical attitude Shakespeare took toward heroic violence.[12] They suggest a thematic repudiation of revenge (by the usurped heroes) and an advocacy of moral self-examination (by the usurping villains). In terms of emotion, love, compassion, and remorse seem to be prized in these stories (HU1 and HU2), not the usual heroic sentiments of anger and pride. Indeed, in both cases, the resolution is more familial than heroic, as the alienated brothers are directly or indirectly reconciled.[13]

On the other hand, Duke Frederick does not rejoin the group and this reminds us that the second family separation story (FS2)—that of Celia and her father—remains unresolved. This may be merely an oversight on Shakespeare’s part. But I will conclude by considering another possibility which connects this unresolved separation with other peculiarities of these stories—the apparent romance of Orlando and Ganymede (R2), the delay of Rosalind in revealing her identity, and the emotionally unsatisfactory quality of the Silvius-Phebe resolution.

Specifically, Celia chooses to be separated from her father in order not to be “sund’red” from her “sweet girl,” Rosalind (I.iii.96), as “thou and I am one” (I.iii.95).[14] Removed from the identity and situation of the speakers, such an appeal would most obviously be taken to express romantic love. Hyperbole of this sort may of course found in friendship. In consequence, I do not wish to make too much of it on its own. But, in relation to the other unexplained or unresolved story sequence in the play—the hint of homoerotic feelings on the part of Orlando for Ganymede–it would appear reasonable to think of it as involving at least a suggestion of romance.[15] In this case, Rosalind would be the forbidden beloved; the separation of Rosalind and Celia would represent the separation of the lovers, and so on. Construed in this way, the exile of Celia is not most importantly part of a familial story, but of a semi-concealed romantic story (R6)—indeed, a romantic story that is relatively prototypical. Of course, in romantic works, parents and children are often reconciled eventually. The possibility of such a reconciliation remains open in this case, particularly given that both Celia and her father appear to be remaining in the forest. However, such a reunion is not so important to the romantic story as it would be to a family separation story; thus, its explicit articulation is less necessary.

As to the Silvius/Phebe/Ganymede story (R3), I suspect that most recipients of the play—audience members or readers–would agree that it is emotionally unresolved (even though we are given a narrative conclusion). There is, indeed, something almost distressing about Silvius and Phebe marrying for no apparent reason other than Phebe losing a wager. The future is hardly promising for either the husband or the wife, given this start to their union. One way of reading their wedding is not as a comic resolution of a Silvius/Phebe love story (where Ganymede is the rival), but as the tragic conclusion of a Phebe/Ganymede love story (where Silvius is the rival), thus R7. Moreover, it does not take a great deal of hermeneutic subtlety to see homoerotic elements here. Phebe’s radical change from a votary of Diana to one of Venus may have to do with the appeal of Ganymede’s presumably feminine features.[16]

Understood thus, the overall pattern of story resolution and non-resolution in the play might be taken to suggest something along the following lines. Orlando and Celia have both heterosexual and same-sex romantic feelings, represented in the hazy, uncertain R2 and R6. The heterosexual feelings (R1 and R5) are clear and explicit. The same-sex feelings, however, are unclear—suggested, but obscurely. It is precisely these implicit, indirectly acknowledged feelings that are sustained, in their ambiguous state, by the preservation of Rosalind’s disguise, itself made possible by her unexplained delay in revealing her identity to her father. It is also precisely these same-sex trajectories that remain unresolved, perhaps because they were unresolvable—either for social reasons or simply because some of our choices in life preclude the pursuit of other interests, or both.[17] A similar pattern is to be found in R3 and R7, the stories of Silvius, Phebe, and Ganymede/Rosalind. The difference here is that it is never clear Phebe has heterosexual feelings at all; related to this, the heterosexual story sequence (R3), though superficially resolved, is unsatisfying. It is resolved formally–in terms of what happens in the story, including Phebe’s statement about a (very speedy) change in her “fancy” (V.iv.150)[18]—but it is not really resolved emotionally, at least for any audience member who reflects on the marriage.

A Note on Future Research

A great deal of literary study involves the careful analysis or interpretation of individual works. Research on literary universals necessarily considers broad patterns beyond individual works. However, this does not mean that universals are irrelevant to particularistic analysis or interpretation. There is clearly a great deal of scope for future treatment of universal story structures and motifs in individual works. In addition, while focusing on story—thus, the actions and events that constitute “what happens” in As You Like It–I set aside the “discourse” aspects of the work, which is to say, the plot selection (what is presented from the story and when it is presented) and the manner of presentation (e.g., depicted onstage or reported by a character). Research on cross-cultural aspects of discourse too should prove a fruitful area for articulating general principles and for analyzing particular works.


We began with the question of to what extent the study of universals might contribute to our understanding of individual works in their particularity. I focused on story universals—genres and motifs—which allow us to isolate particular story trajectories and to consider the ways in which such trajectories repeat, specify, complete, integrate, or alter universals. Considering As You Like It in these terms, and in relation to Shakespeare’s source for the play, we were able to see some patterns in Shakespeare’s story style as well as some thematic concerns that may have been less clear, or even obscure, otherwise.

The stylistic patterns include the multiplication of parallel story sequences, sometimes with a systematic alteration, such as heavily ironic deromanticization, as in the Touchstone-Audry love story. They also include the causal intersection of distinct story lines. The multiplication may be an instance of a more abstract and universal stylistic technique of symmetry enhancement, which may apply not only to sequences of events, but to scenes, the structure of dramatic acts, the generation of characters, or such verbal practices as parallel phrasing.

The thematic concerns include Shakespeare’s preference for repentance and examination of conscience, or “conversion,” over revenge and violence—or, alternatively, his preference for familial reconciliation rather than heroic victory. Perhaps more significantly, somewhat unexpected patterns in the resolution and non-resolution of story sequences may suggest a subdued, partially denied concern with the place of same-sex romantic love in the lives of individuals and in the practices and possibilities offered by society.[19] In short, the preceding analysis suggests that the study of universals, though by its nature general, can and does have consequences for our understanding of particularity. That particularity includes style and theme. It also includes what some psychoanalytically-influenced critics refer to as “symptomatic” elements, concerns that haunt an author, but that he or she has not been able to work through in a systematic and clarifying manner, either for others or for himself or herself.

But that is not all. This examination of As You Like It suggests more general, theoretical ideas as well. Specifically, I take the general structure of the universal story prototypes to tell us something about the ways in which our emotions systems and our processes of simulation (or imagination) operate.[20] In its complex patterns of resolved and unresolved story sequences, As You Like Itindicates some further points about these systems and processes. Specifically, the preceding analysis suggests that we all are regularly engaged in multiple, simultaneous or alternating forms of simulation or imagination. These forms of simulation partially overlap, but also diverge from one another in some respects. Thus, Orlando has complex and various imaginations of Rosalind (whom he has apparently seen only briefly and in the past); these partially converge with his simulations of the features and behavior of Ganymede, as well as his possible interaction with Ganymede. (The same general points hold for other characters as well.)

These various simulations are necessarily interwoven with emotion, including attachment feelings and sexual desire. That interweaving is inevitable because simulation is motivated and emotion systems provide us with motives for both action and thought. The variability of our simulations is in part cognitive, but in part emotive, suggesting that we think of various people in often contradictory ways and emotionally respond to them in often ambivalent ways. Indeed, in some degree, we may respond to a given person as masculine in one context and as feminine in another context; perhaps there is even a sense in which we may sometimes tacitly respond to someone as alternatively male and female (not just masculine and feminine), even if we would never self-consciously affirm such variability.

Finally, some of these simulated trajectories (or imagined stories) may be resolved, while others are not open to resolution. That irresolvablility is sometimes social, as when same-sex union is not accepted. But it is sometimes personal or psychological, in the sense that one sometimes cannot in practice satisfy all one’s emotion systems and simulations. For example, Orlando cannot be united with both Ganymede and Rosalind; similarly, Phebe cannot have the socially acceptable union with Ganymede along with the socially unacceptable union with Rosalind. In a sense, then, none of these stories is fully resolved. But Orlando seems pretty well satisfied with Rosalind alone, thus giving his story a high degree of resolution. The situation is very different with Phebe.[21]


Works Cited

Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005.

Danson, Lawrence. “The Shakespeare Remix: Romance, Tragicomedy, and Shakespeare’s ‘Distinct Kind.’” In Guneratne, 101-118.

de Grazia, Margreta and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

DiGangi, Mario. “Queering the Shakespearean Family.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47.3 (1996): 269-290.

Gilman, Albert, ed. As You Like It. New York: New American Library, 1986.

Guneratne, Anthony, ed. Shakespeare and Genre: From Early Modern Inheritances to Postmodern Legacies. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

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

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

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

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Story.” The Literary Universals Project(2016),

Hope, Jonathan and Michael Witmore. “The Hundredth Psalm to the Tune of ‘Green Sleeves’: Digital Approaches to Shakespeare’s Language of Genre.” Shakespeare Quarterly 61 (2010): 357-390.

Lodge, Thomas. Rosalynde or, Euphues’ Golden Legacy. Ed. Edward Baldwin. Boston: Ginn, 1910. (Unpaginated Kindle edition.)

Marcus, Leah. “Anti-Conquest and As You Like It.” Shakespeare Studies 42 (2014): 170-195.

McEvoy, Sean.Shakespeare: The Basics. 3rded. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Nardizzi, Vin. “Shakespeare’s Queer Pastoral Ecology: Alienation around Arden.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 23.3 (2016): 564–582.

Neely, Carol Thomas. Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004.

Segal, Janna. “‘And Browner Than Her Brother’: ‘Misprized’ Celia’s Racial Identity and Transversality in As You Like It.” Shakespeare 4.1 (2008): 1-21.

Snyder, Susan. “The Genres of Shakespeare’s Plays.” In de Grazia and Wells, 83-97.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. In Gilman, 35-140.

Traub, Valerie. “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare.” In de Grazia and Wells, 129-146.

Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare, Sex, and Love. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.


[1] The latter book also includes some (admittedly brief) references to other work in narrative theory (Greimas, Propp, Genette, and others) in relation to the study of emotion and story universals.

[2] For a clarifying, historical account of the traditional genre classification, see Snyder.

[3] Danson goes so far as to say that “the mixed mode is the Shakespearean default mode” (102).One referee for this essay suggested that the traditional classification has perhaps been supported by the statistical analyses of Hope and Witmore. Since this essay is not about the classification scheme for Shakespeare’s plays (being an interpretive analysis of one play), I cannot treat the issue at length here. However, it is worth making three points. First, my claim here is about story structures, specifically that the best way to categorize the story structure of the plays is by reference to the cross-cultural genres. There could of course be other patterns to the plays, depending on the period when they were written, the sceneswhere they are located, or other variables. Second, Hope and Witmore do not in fact find that stylistic features perfectly align with traditional genres. For example, they find “the early history plays massing in one part of the diagram” and “the later history plays, along with some of the tragedies, clustering in another” (390). Finally, even Hope and Witmore findapparent anomalies. For example, Othello clusters with comedies. This is, of course,not because it has a happy ending or makes us laugh. It is, however, related to the fact that most of the works traditionally categorized as comedies are at least in part romantic works (in the cross-cultural scheme)—and so is Othello. In this respect, then, the cross-cultural scheme may fit even Hope and Witmore’s analysis better than the traditional categories that Hope and Witmore presuppose.

[4] By “theme,” I mean implications of the play that are designed to systematically affect the audience’s thought about or response to the real world, the world outside the theater—for example, their judgments about political events. However, by “designed,” I do not mean that the author has self-consciously articulated a thematic concern to himself or herself. Rather, I take it that authors have some sense of whether a particular version of the work is “right,” thus whether it seems likely to produce the (implicitly and often vaguely) desired effects. But the author need not be able to articulate those effects, and may even be mistaken if he or she undertakes to do so. Theme is that part of the desired effects that bears systematically on the audience’s thought about or response to the real world.

[5] One referee worried that my “approach” to motifs differs from that in folklore studies and that I should make this clear. In fact, I would not say that I am treating the same category of object as folklorists, but adopting a different theory. Rather, I am simply using the word “motif” in this particular manner. It is true that my usage is related to my theory of narrative universals (e.g., the motif of the quest is bound up with my account of how space is organized in stories). But the fact that I am using the same term as another writer does not mean that we are talking about the same object. Indeed, that is the point of defining how I use the term, “motif.”

[6] See, for example, chapter four of Booker.

[7] For the most part, the similarities and differences between Shakespeare’s play and Lodge’s work are not consequential for the main purpose of the present essay. The study of universals is or not significant for our interpretation and analysis of individual works—either Shakespeare’s or Lodge’s—independent of whether a particular event is or is not shared by the two of those works. After all, a particular event in Shakespeare’s play is there and bears on interpreting the play, whether Shakespeare got the idea for it from Lodge, some biographical experiences, a free associative process, or something else. On the other hand, the relation between Shakespeare’s and Lodge’s works is important for other considerations, such as claims about Shakespeare’s style or about distinctive features of either work.

[8] The relevance of this motif is perhaps more evident in the source, where Ganymede expresses doubt about whether Rosader/Orlando is “deeply enamoured” of Rosalynde (Lodge), and urges him to turn his attention toward Alinda/Celia instead.

[9] The homoerotic quality of this relation has, of course, been developed by directors and analyzed by critics. For an account of a particularly influential staging of the play, see McEvoy (78-82). As to critics, Wells for example summarizes a common view, writing that “Shakespeare shows us Orlando becoming confused between desire for an imaginary Rosalind and for the boy Ganymede whom the real Rosalind impersonates. It is an ambivalence that would have been enhanced when the real Rosalind was played by a boy, and that would have been signaled and emphasized by the use of the name ‘Ganymede,’ a common term for a man’s young male sexual partner” (106-107). However, as far as I am aware, such analysis has not been developed in relation to prototypical story sequences and their associated expectations. Indeed, the theoretical context for such readings has been very different, as suggested by Segal’s brief summary statement that “As You Like It has become a centrepiece in feminist and/or queer discussions concerning early modern English gender and sexual prescriptions and the theatre’s role in contesting or reconsolidating a patriarchal and/or heteronormative social structure” (1). To some extent, the present reading contests such analyses, in that it does not construe the thematic or emotional points at issue in the same terms; however, I take it that the present analysis is more often complementary to such feminist and queer interpretations.

[10] In Lodge, there is a problem also, though it is slightly attenuated. Upon meeting her father, Rosalynde soon reveals herself. But it is not clear why she does not seek to meet him earlier, since she learns of his whereabouts from Rosader/Orlando, who explains that he is living in the company of “the unfortunate Gerismond [Senior]” (Lodge).

[11] Jay Farness pointed out to me that there is some ambiguity as to whether or not Oliver will follow through on this resolution in the changed circumstances of the ending. Jaques does suggest that Oliver will be returning to his lands (V.iv.189). But the counter-argument here is that Jaques has no reason to know about Oliver’s intentions. Moreover, Oliver had said that he was handing over the family estate to Orlando; this indicates that he was opting for the pastoral life even if he could return to the estate (V.ii.10-12), in which case the changed circumstances should not matter.

[12] With the exception of Henry V; see Hogan, How 56-58.

[13] Other critics have noted that there is something un-heroic and un-military about Shakespeare’s play. For example, Marcus interprets the play as involving a critique of colonialism, with Jaques as a sort of repudiated colonial figure. I obviously believe Marcus was onto something. However, by relating the story sequences of the play to cross-cultural prototypes, I have come to a much different interpretation of these un-heroic aspects of the play, and of Jaques’s retreat at the end. I take it that my interpretation is incompatible with Marcus’s view of Jaques, but it is at least potentially compatible with her more significant claims about anti-colonialism.

[14] This echoes Celia’s/Alinda’s even more suggestive assertion in the source that the two share “a secret love” and that they “have two bodies and one soul” (Lodge).

[15] This has been stressed by some recent critics, though (again) in a different theoretical context, which leads to different development of the shared idea (see, for example, Nardizzi).

[16] This is clearer in Lodge, through Phoebe’s stress on Ganymede’s “beauty.”

[17] Again, prior critics have recognized the homoerotic elements in the play; however, they have not analyzed these elements in relation to the genre of particular story sequences. In part for this reason, and in part because their theoretical presuppositions are very different from my own, their conclusions about these elements is often quite different from mine. For example, in a pathbreaking essay, DiGangi maintains that “the marriages succeed to the extent that premarital female homoerotic desire and post-marital male homoerotic desire have been successfully banished” (271). My view is rather that most of the characters in the play have some degree of bisexual desire, manifest in different romantic storylines, more or less following a romantic prototype; however, social constraints and the limitations imposed by life choices prevent the homoerotic storylines from reaching a resolution. This leads to unresolved heteroerotic storylines only in the case of Phebe, for in her case the heteroerotic storyline is not reciprocal; again, she has been married off to the undesired rival, not the beloved. Despite these and other differences, however, I believe that the present reading is more complementary to DiGangi’s than contradictory of it. Certainly, his highly informative treatment of the literary and social history that contextualize Shakespeare’s play adds greatly to our understanding of same-sex desire in the play, and it does so in a way that would not really be possible for an interpretation based solely on literary universals. On the other hand, the point of the present essay is not that interpretation based on literary universals is sufficient or complete, merely that it provides insights not readily available otherwise.

[18] Some critics have seen such swift alterations as part of the play’s “destabilizing” of hegemonic norms of gender and sexuality. Though I am very skeptical of such a conclusion on this particular point, it is clear that the play can serve to challenge some rigid assumptions about gender and sexuality (for a nuanced discussion of this topic, see chapter four of Neely).

[19] Of course, this analysis in terms of particular, same-sex, romantic storylines can be developed only if one first recognizes that “homoerotic desire is evinced in Shakespeare’s plays” (Traub 142). But this initial recognition seems to be more a matter of not suppressing relatively clear indications, rather than one of particular hermeneutic insight.

[20] I have treated these topics at length in The Mindand Howrespectively.

[21] An earlier version of this essay was part of the seminar on As You Like It seminar of the 2019 annual convention of the Shakespeare Association of America. I am grateful to the seminar participants for their comments, questions, and suggestions.

Phonetic Symbolism: Double-Edgedness and Aspect-Switching

Reuven Tsur, Tel Aviv University and Chen Gafni, Bar-Ilan University

This article proposes a structuralist-cognitive approach to phonetic symbolism that conceives of it as of a flexible process of feature abstraction, combination, and comparison.[1] It is opposed to an approach that treats phonetic symbolism as “fixed relationships” between sound and meaning. We conceive of speech sounds as of bundles of acoustic, articulatory and phonological features that may generate a wide range of, sometimes conflicting, perceptual qualities. Different relevant qualities of a given speech sound are selected by the meaning across lexical items and poetic contexts. Importantly, speech sounds can suggest only elementary percepts, not complex meanings or emotions. Associations of speech sounds with specific meanings are achieved by extraction of abstract features from the speech sounds. These features, in turn, can be combined and contrasted with abstract features extracted from other sensory and mental objects (e.g. images, emotions). The potential of speech sounds to generate multiple perceptual qualities is termed double-edgedness, and we assume that the cognitive mechanism allowing us to attend to various aspects of the same speech sound is Wittgenstein’s aspect-switching.

We discuss examples of phonetic symbolism in poetry, lexical items across languages, and laboratory experiments, and show how they can be accounted for in a unified way by our cognitive theory. Moreover, our theory can accommodate conflicting findings reported in the literature, e.g. regarding the emotional qualities associated with plosive and nasal consonants.  Crucially, the theory is scalable and can account for general trends in poetry and lexical semantics, as well as more local poetic effects. Thus, the proposed theory can generate predictions that are testable both in laboratory experiments and in formal literary analysis.



Many current studies in phonetic symbolism begin with a list of recent works on phonetic iconicity, that allegedly challenge de Saussure’s arbitrariness conception of the linguistic sign, followed by a series of experiments that establish a statistical relationship between phonemes (or groups of phonemes) and meanings or emotional qualities. In these works iconicity is assumed to be somehow given; very few of them go systematically into the structural relationship between the phonemes and the meaning or emotional qualities. In this practice, we strongly disagree with them on three issues.

First, we argue that literary phonetic symbolism does not challenge the arbitrariness hypothesis, but rather confirms it: sound-symbolic effects are attributed to verbal constructs after the event. Second, we believe that research based on stimulus–response questionnaires is, in itself, unsatisfactory. A cognitive approach should include a hypothesis, based on cognitive and linguistic research, to account for the structures in our mind that mediate between stimulus and response. Third, many of those stimulus–response studies take it for granted that rigorous quantitative analysis is the only valid way to evaluate empirical data. Furthermore, many such studies are interested only in global, gross effects (e.g. whether the frequencies of certain phoneme groups alone can account for the perception of poems as ‘happy’ or ‘sad’). We have pointed out a welter of incongruent statistical results in phonetic symbolism (Tsur & Gafni, forthcoming). The confusion in this domain originates in the neglect of a systematic theoretical framework. This neglect may manifest, among other things, in failure to treat sound–meaning relationships at a sufficiently fine-grained level, insufficient awareness of the complexity of the subject matter, as well as confusion whether sound-symbolic effects are motivated by acoustic, articulatory or phonological aspects of speech sounds.

The aim of this article is to present a comprehensive theoretical and analytic approach to sound–emotion relationships in poetry. At the basis of our investigation are earlier works by Benjamin Hrushovski (“interaction view”; 1980) and Iván Fónagy (“Communication in Poetry”; 1961), followed by Tsur’s work in the nineteen-eighties. Both Hrushovski and Fónagy revealed, by different methods, important relationships between speech sounds and their perceived effects.

In a structuralist theoretical discussion of sound–meaning relationships in poetry, Hrushovski explored the complexity of the subject, pointing out sources of complexity, of which we shall discuss here only one: what we call the “double-edgedness” of sibilants: that in some contexts they may express noise of varying intensity, in some — a hushing quality. Alternatively, they may be “neutral”, not related to “meaning” or attitudes at all. Consider the following excerpts:


  1. When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

       I summon up remembrance of things past,

       I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought

       And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste

       (Shakespeare, “Sonnet 30”)


  1. And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

       Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

       So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,

       “‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —

       Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —

       This it is and nothing more.”

       (E.A. Poe, “The Raven”)


  1. [ . . ] the deep sea swell

       [ .. .] A current under sea

       Picked his bones in whispers,

       (T. S. Eliot, “The Wasteland,” IV)


  1. And swell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

(T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”)


In Excerpt 1, the sibilants have a hushing quality; in Excerpt 2, they imitate the rustling of the curtains. In Excerpt 3 “there is a transition from the powerful noise of a sea swell to the sound of whispers”. In Excerpt 4, in the “patterning of sibilants hardly a trace of either sound or silence remains” (Hrushovski, 1980: 41). Hrushovski (following Kreuzer, 1955) takes it for granted that in Excerpt 1 the sibilants have a hushing effect. Intuitively this seems right. He also argues that this hushing quality focuses the sound pattern on the meaning of the words “sweet silent”. But he does not explain what it is in the sibilants that invests them with this hushing quality. We shall explore, on a more fine-grained level, how they can express such opposite qualities.

In his “Communication in Poetry”, Fónagy examined the relative frequency of phonemes in six especially tender poems and six especially aggressive poems by four poets in three languages (Hungarian, German and French). Most phonemes occur with the same frequency as in general; but the nasals and liquid [m, n, l] occur more frequently in the tender poems in all three languages, whereas the voiceless plosives [k, t] occur more frequently in the aggressive poems. [r] is aggressive in Hungarian and to some extent in German, but not in French. His method is used today frequently in research, but Fónagy’s use differs from the more recent uses in several respects. Most importantly, he did not assume some rigid iconic relationships between specific speech sounds and emotions where one may predict the emotional quality of the poem from the recurring speech sounds, as some present-day researchers do (e.g. Auracher, Albers, Zhai, Gareeva, & Stavniychuk, 2011). Rather, he probed into the possibility that there may be some significant correlation between pairs of opposite emotional qualities and pairs of opposite phonemes (or groups of phonemes). This was a ground-breaking idea at his time. He did not regard his findings as the “inmost, natural similarity association between sound and meaning” (Jakobson & Waugh, 2002: 182), but as possible examples for a principle.

Tsur, in his earlier works (e.g. Tsur, 1992), went one step further beyond Hrushovski’s and Fónagy’s works. For instance, Hrushovski defines expressive sound patternsas follows: “a certain tone or expressive quality abstracted from the sounds or sound combinations is perceived to represent a certain mood or tone abstracted from the domain of meaning”. Tsur asked the question, how can “a certain tone or expressive quality [be] abstracted from sounds or sound combinations”. In his answers, he relied on distinctive features, and on speech research done mainly at the Haskins Laboratories. The present article provides the answers to such questions as part of a comprehensive theory.


Cognitive Theory

Structural Model of Speech Sounds

In this article, we shall point out the complexity of phonetic symbolism at several levels, and propose a cognitive mechanism that may handle it. The basis for our theoretical account is a structural model of speech sounds: we assume that speech sounds are bundles of features, on the acoustic, articulatory and phonological levels, and that the various features may have different expressive potentials. Thus, we claim that the various phenomena related to phonetic symbolism result from the way speech sounds are coded and organized in our mental database. Here, we focus on the features of consonants.

Consonants can be abrupt: plosives (p, t, k, b, d, g) or affricates (as ts [in tsar), dž [in John or George], or pf [in German pfuj]); or, they may be continuous, as nasals (m, n), liquids (l, r), glides (w [as in wield], or y [as in yield]); or fricatives (f, v, s, š [as in shield]).[2] Continuous sounds may be periodic (nasals, liquids, glides) or aperiodic (fricatives). In periodic sounds, the same wave form is repeated indefinitely, while aperiodic sounds consist of streams of irregular sound stimuli. Consonants can be unvoiced or voiced. All nasals, liquids and glides are voiced by default. Voiced plosives, fricatives and affricates (e.g. b, v, ž, and dž) consist, acoustically, of their unvoiced counterpart plus a stream of periodic voicing. These are objective descriptions of the consonants; all language-users have strong intuitions about them, but frequently they cannot put their finger on precisely what is the object of their intuition.

The structural model described above organises consonants in our mental database in terms of acoustic features. We believe that it is the acoustic level that best accounts for the emotional and imitative aspects of sound-symbolic effects (see also: Aryani, Conrad, Schmidtke, & Jacobs, 2018; Knoeferle, Li, Maggioni, & Spence, 2017; Marks, 1975; Ohtake & Haryu, 2013; Ultan, 1978). Accordingly, we will use this organisation to account for evidence in the study of phonetic symbolism. Note that the proposed model relies on categorical acoustics features (e.g. abrupt/continuous). However, some studies explain phonetic symbolism in terms of continuous acoustic features, such as pitch and intensity (Aryani et al., 2018; Knoeferle et al., 2017). Here we assume a categorical acoustic theory of phonetic symbolism, but keep in mind that a continuous theory of phonetic symbolism can be perfectly consistent with ours.

We should note that there are additional theories of phonetic symbolism (see review in Dingemanse, Blasi, Lupyan, Christiansen, & Monaghan, 2015). Like the above-mentioned acoustic theories, articulatory theories of phonetic symbolism assume that there is an iconic relation between sound and meaning. However, while acoustic theories assume a direct mapping of acoustic features, articulatory theories assume that iconicity stems from articulatory sensations, such as the size of the oral cavity (A. Fischer, 1999). Finally, phonological-distributional theories attribute phonetic symbolism to systematicity. According to such theories, phonological regularities in the lexicon cue non-arbitrary mappings between sound and meaning, e.g. different distributions of consonants in nouns and verbs (Monaghan, Christiansen, & Chater, 2007). Importantly, symbolic relations resulting from statistical regularities in the lexicon are language-specific (and, in a sense, arbitrary), although some of them can be grounded in perception or articulation. According to our conception, phonetic symbolism is triggered by acoustic features, articulatory features, and phonological regularities, in descending order of importance.


The Expressive Potential of Speech Sounds: Double-Edgedness and Aspect-Switching

The structure of speech sounds determines their expressive potentials. Just a few hints: Periodic consonants are more like music, aperiodic consonants more like inarticulate noise; this difference affects their expressive potentials, smooth or rough to some extent or other. This can explain why some studies found that “tender emotions” or their hyponyms are best expressed by periodic consonants. In gestaltist terms, plosives have sharply-defined boundaries, and are perceived as less penetrable and “harder” than continuants. At the same time, they consist of energy transmitted outward as a shockwave, and so forth. Thus, they have various perceptual potentials: in changing contexts, listeners may switch between passive hardness and active shockwaves. Voiced stops are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosive plus voicing, that is periodic. In the perceived quality of voiced plosives, the voicing stream may add resonance to the plosive element, or a more massive presence. Thus, in empirical tests, participants may give at least two systematically different responses to plosives in general, and additional two systematically different responses to voiced plosives.

One of the main questions in the study of phonetic symbolism is how the same speech sounds give rise to fundamentally different effects. We attribute this flexible affective potential of speech sounds to what we call double-edgedness[3]: speech sounds have multiple features, each having its own expressive potential. In any given context, the expressive potential of one feature can be emphasized at the expense of the potentials associated with the other features. The cognitive mechanism to handle changing sound effects and relationships, we claim, is Wittgenstein’s (1976) aspect-switching.[4] According to Wittgenstein, aspect-switching is the capability of understanding the request “pronounce the word ‘till’ and mean it as a verb or a preposition, or the word ‘March’ and mean it as a month name or an imperative verb” (1976: 214e). In the present context, aspect-switching is the capability of attending to different features of the same phones. Here we will demonstrate the notions of double-edgedness and aspect-switching in relation to two classes of speech sounds: voiced plosives and voiceless fricatives ([f] and the sibilants ([s] and [š]).[5]

We have argued that voiced plosives are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosion plus voicing, that is continuous and periodic; consequently, they are double-edged. In the perceived quality of voiced plosives, the voicing stream may add resonance to the plosive element or a more massive presence. In physical terms, we define ‘resonant’ as ‘tending to reinforce or prolong sounds, especially by synchronous vibration; full-bodied, vibrant’; in phonetic terms, as ‘where intense precategorical auditory information lingers in short-term memory’. In the ‘tender’ context, the voiced stops [d] and [g] seem to have a fuller, richer, more resonant, more rounded body. The ‘tender’ context seems to increase the share of the periodic ‘voiced’ feature in them. By contrast, in the ‘angry’ context, they are perceived as more compact and abrupt unitary speech sound.

Hrushovski points out that sibilants may both induce a hushing psychological atmosphere, or may imitate noises of varying intensity. How can sibilants express hushing or noise? We claim that the double-edgedness of sibilants is related to different aspects of the same noises. Sibilants are continuous but not periodic, a stream of irregular noises. We propose to point out three different perceptual potentials in this structure: it is perceived as fluid, as fricative (rough) or as unpredictable (and as such, threatening). The tender or hushing quality of [s, š] may have to do with their fluidity aspect. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines ‘fluid’ as “having particles that easily move and change their relative position without a separation of the mass; capable of flowing; subject to change or movement; characterized by a smooth easy style”. This physical description of liquid substances (e.g. hot pitch) draws attention to two apparently contradicting aspects: their smoothly-moving overall mass and their particles that are easily moving and relatively changing their position. This is a convenient metaphor for the contradictory effects of the voiceless sibilants (and of [f]). Language users switch between these two aspects, according to the context. When a mother hushes her baby by sounding a prolonged [š], they both attend to the smoothly-moving mass of the fluid ššššš.

The “noisy” quality of voiceless sibilants and [f] is likely related to their fricative (or aperiodic) aspect. “Fricative” denotes a type of consonant made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow. In “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”, listeners attend to the randomly changing particles of the fricatives, imitating noise. Thus, different meanings may foreground a smooth or a turbulent aspect of fricatives.


Encodedness of Speech Sounds and Modes of Speech Perception

So far, we seemed to have taken for granted that speech sounds have expressive potential and that listeners are able to switch between different potentials. Yet, we have not explained how these expressive potentials are perceived and how they are related to the primary use of speech sounds – conveying lexical meaning. In short, we claim that the two functions of speech sounds are related to different modes of auditory perception. Liberman and his colleagues (e.g. Liberman & Mattingly, 1985) distinguish between the speech mode and the non-speech mode. In the auditory, or non-speech mode, we hear, as in the sonar, the sound shape as shown by the machine. In the phonetic, or speech mode, listeners hear speech sounds categorically, i.e. as unitary phonemes. In this mode, speech sounds are typically encoded: the precategorical acoustic information that transmits the speech sounds is restructured into an abstract phonetic category and excluded from consciousness. Tsur (1992) assumes that there is a third, poetic mode of speech perception. In the “poetic” mode, some of the precategorical sound information reaches awareness from behind the unitary linguistic category. We claim that attending to this precategorical auditory information is what enables listeners to attribute emotional effects to speech sounds independently of semantic effects. Moreover, we claim that whether precategorical auditory information can reach awareness depends on the degree of encodedness of speech sounds.

Consonants are encoded to varying degrees, that is to say, in some consonants one may consciously perceive only a hard and fast category, not the precategorical auditory information that transmitted it. Voiceless plosives are “thoroughly encoded”, that is, no precategorical acoustic information reaches awareness (hence compact, tight, and solid in perception). Voiced plosives are also highly encoded. For example, if you ask “which one is acoustically higher, [ba], [da], or [ga]”, most people will answer that they don’t know what you are talking about.

However, in some consonants, some of the precategorical auditory information does reach awareness. If you ask which one is higher [s] or [š] most people will easily answer that [s] is higher. This is because some of the precategorical sound information does reach awareness from behind the unitary speech category. In other words, voiceless sibilants are less encoded than plosives. In sibilant continuants, more of the rich precategorical information is available than in most of the consonants, and is more apt to draw attention than in nasals or glides, for instance. This may explain how very different perceptual qualities can be associated with voiceless sibilants.

The foregoing discussion on encodedness can benefit from an interesting analogy from personality psychology. Psychologists of perception-and-personality put forward a series of personality dichotomies, such as levelers and sharpeners, or rigid and flexible: one pole tends to be more rigid, the other more flexible. Persons at the rigid pole tend to be intolerant of meaningless sense perceptions, as the following paragraph by Richard Ohmann may indicate:

The leveler is more anxious to categorize sensations and less willing to give up a category once he has established it. Red is red, and there’s an end on’t. He levels (suppresses) differences and emphasizes similarities in the interest of perceptual stability. For him the unique, unclassifiable sensation is particularly offensive, while the sharpener at least tolerates such anomalies, and may actually seek out ambiguity and variability of classification. (Ohmann, 1970: 231)

Briefly, categories afford greater perceptual stability; readiness to abandon oneself to unique, unclassifiable sensations suggests greater emotional receptiveness. Tender attitudes are characterized by openness to rich sensory information; rigid attitudes tend to cling to abstract categories. Going back to the double-edgedness of sibilants: as opposed to the rigid linguistic category, the stream of rich precategorical auditory information available in [š] has a flexible, soothing effect, and babies seem to be sensitive to it.[6] Thus, the tender or hushing quality of [s, š] may have to do with their fluidity aspect, treated as unique, unclassifiable sensations in the stream of rich precategorical auditory information. The “noisy” quality of these sibilants springs from the aperiodic nature of the very same sensory information, a stream of irregular noises; we are switching from one aspect to another of the auditory stream.


Phonetic Symbolism in the Lexicon and in Poetry

In this section, we will demonstrate how our cognitive model can account for cases of phonetic symbolism found in the lexicons of various languages and in literary pieces.


Phonetic Symbolism in the Lexicon

The claim Tsur has elaborated in his 1992 book (Tsur, 1992)[7] is that in different contexts, different potentials of the various features of the same sounds may be realized. Thus, for instance, the sibilants [s] and [š] may have at some level of description features with noisy potentials, as well as features with hushing potentials. Evidence for these opposite potentials can be found cross-linguistically in lexical items related to both silence and noise. In such lexical items, the meaning picks out the appropriate meaning potential from a number of meaning potentials of its speech sounds. For example, in English, ‘silence’, ‘hush’, ‘still’, but also ‘rustle’, ‘shout’ and ‘scream’ contain sibilants; the German words for silence are Stille and Schweigen; in Hebrew, two words for silence contain sibilants, šɛkɛt, has; in Japanese, Shizukesa means something like ‘calmness’, ‘tranquillity’ or ‘stillness’; in Chinese, sùjìng means ‘silence, solemnly silent, peaceful’, while shāshā and shēng mean ‘rustle’. In Hungarian, the word for silence is csend, beginning with the affricate [tš], csitt! means ‘whisht!’, kuss! means ‘shut up!’, ‘zaj’, ‘nesz’ mean noise, the verbs suhog, susogzörg mean ‘rustle’, and pisszen in negative sentences suggests ‘slightest noise’ (‘does not make even the slightest noise’).


Literary Phonetic Symbolism

As we said in the introduction, many scholars take phonetic symbolism as counter evidence for the arbitrariness of the relation between sound and meaning. Our approach to the question of arbitrariness can be exemplified by the first line of Excerpt 2, repeated here.


  1. And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

       Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

       So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,

       “‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —

       Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —

       This it is and nothing more.”

       (E.A. Poe, “The Raven”)


The word “rustling” involves onomatopoeia proper. In the string “silken, sad, uncertain”, the alliterating speech sounds are arbitrary; only after the event they become non-arbitrary icons of the noise. It is only the unforeseeable combinations of symbolic language that afford the generation of this sound effect. It does not challenge de Saussure’s “arbitrariness” conception, but rather, supports it. Yet, even in literary phonetic symbolism, it is not the case that “anything goes”. In the next paragraph, we will apply the proposed cognitive theory to account for what may seem like arbitrary use of phonetic symbolism in poetry.

The double-edgedness of voiced plosives can explain one of Fónagy’s most intriguing findings regarding the relative frequency of /g/ and /d/ in Victor Hugo’s and Paul Verlaine’s poems. /g/ occurs over one and a half times more frequently in Verlaine’s tender poems than in his angry ones (1.63:1.07), whereas we find almost the reverse proportion in Hugo’s poems: 0.96% in his tender poems, and 1.35% in his angry ones. As to /d/, again, the same sound has opposite emotional tendencies for the two poets, but with reverse effects. For Verlaine it has a basically aggressive quality (7.93:10.11), whereas for Hugo it has a basically tender quality (7.09:5.76) – again, in almost the same reverse proportion.

There are two ways to account for this discrepancy between Hugo’s and Verlaine’s handling of the emotional quality of [d] and [g]. One possibility is that it is sheer arbitrary, idiosyncratic attribution of emotional qualities to the phonemes that has nothing to do with systematic phonetic symbolism: that anything goes, provided that it is statistically significant. Another possibility is that Hugo and Verlaine make use of the afore-said universal ambiguous structure of voiced plosives combined with aspect-switching. In Wittgenstein’s terminology, we may rephrase the request “pronounce the phoneme /d/” as “pronounce the phoneme /d/, and attend to the massive presence bestowed on it by voicing, or to the resonance of voicing”. In all instances the pronunciation is the same; there is a mental shift.[8] If you attend to the massive-presence aspect of /g/ or /d/, they may have a strong aggressive potential; if you attend to their resonant aspect, they may contribute to a tender quality. Obviously, Hugo and Verlaine applied the same cognitive mechanism to these voiced stops, but with a reverse focus. This finding supports our claim that sound symbolism relies on sometimes conflicting latent qualities, and the poet has freedom which one to realize. Obviously, the voiced plosives [d] and [g] have two conflicting potentials each, and the two poets realized them in opposing ways. Thus, the poets’ preferences are idiosyncratic, but rely on an objectively describable ambiguity.


Phonetic Symbolism in the Laboratory

In this section, we describe results of laboratory experiments related to the issue of phonetic symbolism. We discuss studies demonstrating the cognitive mechanisms assumed to underlie phonetic symbolism, as well as studies directly related to phonetic symbolism. The results of these experiments will be discussed in relation to the cognitive model proposed in this article


Experimental Evidence for the Cognitive Model Underlying Phonetic Symbolism

There is rich experimental evidence for aspect-switching in speech perception, namely that speakers are capable of switching between hearing a speech sound as a unitary phoneme or a phoneme plus precategorical information.[9] Repp (1981) found that subjects could be trained to perceive some of the precategorical sensory information behind a s–š continuum. In this study, subjects listened to pairs of SV stimuli, where S was a synthesised fricative along the s–š continuum (7 artificial categories with different spectral properties), and V was a vowel ([a] or [u]) isolated from natural speech. The task was to decide whether the fricatives in a pair were identical or different, disregarding the vocalic context. It was found that most participants performed poorly at this task and their responses relied mostly on whether the vocalic contexts were similar or different across the stimuli in the pair. Such performance pattern was referred to as categorical perception, and it was attributed to the lack of ability to segregate the fricative noise from the vocalic context. However, after some training that included listening to the isolated fricatives, most participants improved significantly in the discrimination task in a vocalic context; that is, they were able to focus on the acoustic properties of the fricative noise. This pattern of performance was referred to as noncategorical perception. Thus, there is evidence that listeners are able to switch between modes (or aspects) of speech perception.

There is also compelling experimental evidence that listeners have subliminal access to precategorical auditory information in identifying voiced (but not voiceless) plosives. In a series of meticulously controlled experiments, Louis C. W. Pols (1986) presented subjects with spoken Dutch sentences or with vowel-plosive-vowel segments isolated from the spoken sentences. The recorded stimuli were modified in several ways, including deletion of the plosive burst and deletion of the transition between the plosive and one or both of the surrounding vowels (deletion means replacing the modified section with a silent interval of the same duration). The task was to identify the plosive out of several candidates. It was found that in natural sentences (as opposed to isolated VCV segments) the burst is less important than the vocalic formant transitions for the identification of voiced plosives (but not of voiceless plosives) (p. 149–150).[10] Thus, the perception of the formant structure is not merely possible, but necessary for the identification of plosives.

We further investigated the idea that people have access to pre-categorical features of speech sounds in a pre-aesthetic experiment (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming). We asked participants to read out loud pairs of consonant-vowel sequences (e.g. maba) and compare the consonants on various bipolar perceptual scales (e.g. whether sounds smoother and sounds jerkier, or vice versa). Our experiment was designed specifically to test the hypothesis that voiced plosives are double-edged by contrasting them with voiceless plosives, on the one hand, and with nasals, on the other hand. Our hypothesis was largely supported. On the smoothness scale, we obtained a three-way contrast that was statistically significant: nasals were perceived smoother than voiced plosives that, in turn, were perceived as smoother than voiceless plosives. On other scales, we obtained only partial contrasts (possibly due to lack of statistical power): nasals were perceived as having fuzzier boundaries than voiced plosives that, in turn, were perceived as having fuzzier boundaries than voiceless plosives. However, the latter contrast was only ‘near significant’. In addition, we received two one-sided contrasts: first, voiced plosives were perceived as harder than nasals, but voiceless plosives were not perceived as harder than voiced plosives. Second, voiced plosives were perceived as thicker than voiceless plosives, but nasals were not perceived as thicker than voiced plosives. Whether these imperfect results reflect the true state-of-affairs or not, they clearly demonstrate that voiced plosives are perceptually ambiguous: in certain contexts, they contrast with nasals and, in others, with voiceless plosives.

Our experiment also yielded a puzzling finding. Voiced plosives were perceived as having more resonance than voiceless plosives, though the result was only near significant. This was well expected. However, contrary to expectation, voiced plosives were also perceived as having more resonance than nasals (the result fell short of statistical significance after correction for multiple comparisons).[11] A simple explanation for this unexpected result is that the task was not clear to the participants. As a matter of fact, two participants commented that they had trouble evaluating resonance, and, in general, it became clear to us that many people don’t know what resonance means. However, there is also a possibility that the results are genuine, namely that voicing couples with plosion and endows voiced plosives with a resonating quality, which can be perceived, at least in controlled experiments, out of context. This hypothesis is supported by experimental evidence that voiced plosives are perceived as larger than voiceless plosives cross-linguistically (Shinohara & Kawahara, 2016).

To conclude, there is experimental evidence supporting the cognitive mechanisms we claim to underlie phonetic symbolism, including both double-edgedness and aspect-switching. To be sure, these experiments do not prove that these mechanisms are directly involved in phonetic symbolism. However, they do demonstrate that participants have access to information underlying phonemic categories. We argue that having access to such precategorical information is the basis of phonetic symbolism.


Experimental Evidence for Sound Symbolism

One of the most discussed examples of phonetic symbolism is that of sound-shape symbolism. Back in the nineteen twenties, Köhler (1929) took two nonsense words, takete and baluma, and asked people to match them with two nonsense figures, one with angular edges and one with rounded edges (see Figure 1). An overwhelming majority of respondents matched takete with the angular shape, baluma with the rounded shape.[12] Since Köhler’s study, there were many replications of this effect, including a study by Ramachandran & Hubbard (2001), which used the nonsense words bouba and kiki. So, this effect came to be called the ‘bouba/kiki’ effect.

Recent studies have used more systematic manipulations in attempt to account for the ‘bouba/kiki’ effect. For example, participants in a study by Knoeferle et al. (2017) heard non-word sequences of consonant + vowel (e.g. /ba/, /ni/) and were asked to rate each sequence on a scale. One end of the scale indicated greater association with an angular shape and the other end indicated greater association with a rounded shape. It was found that when the stimulus contained a glide (w, y) or a liquid (l, r), participants tended to associate the stimulus with a rounded shape. This tendency was reduced for stimuli containing a voiceless fricative (f, s) or a nasal (m, n), followed by stimuli containing a voiced fricative (v, z) or a voiced plosive (b, d), followed by stimuli containing a voiceless plosive (p, t). The results are summarised in Figure 2.[13]

We can use the structural theory of speech sounds to account for these results. The left end of this figure is marked by [+abrupt], that is, [–continuous,–periodic]. This acoustic characteristic of voiceless plosives is analogous to the contour of angular shapes, which involves abrupt changes of direction. By contrast, the right end of Figure 2 is marked by [+continuous, +periodic]. This acoustic characteristic of glides and liquids is analogous to the smooth, gradually changing contour of rounded shapes. Thus, we can account for the tendency to associate voiceless plosives with an angular shape and glides and liquids with a rounded shape.

Let us now turn from the edges of the scale in Figure 2 towards the middle, ignoring fricatives for a moment. Nasals, like glides and liquids are continuous, periodic and voiced by default. Accordingly, they are associated more with a rounded shape than with an angular shape. It is not entirely clear why nasals would be rated lower on the scale than glides and liquids. One possibility is that another feature is at play here. For example, in articulatory terms, liquids are [+continuant], while nasals are [-continuant], since air flows continuously through the oral cavity in liquids but not in nasals. Thus, nasals might be considered more abrupt than glides and liquids, presumably since the nasal cavity is narrower and more disruptive for airflow than the oral cavity.

Moving further left on the scale, we see that voiced plosives are associated more with an angular shape than with a rounded shape. Like with voiceless plosives this can be attributed to their abrupt nature. But voiced plosives are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosion and voicing, which is continuous and periodic. Thus, they are relatively abrupt, but not quite as voiceless plosives, and this difference is reflected in their rating on the shape scale.

We have replicated the results reported by Knoeferle et an experiment that was designed specifically to test the contrast between voiceless plosives, voiced plosives, and nasals (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming).[14] In addition to establishing the effects of abruptness and voicing, we also found an effect of place-of-articulation. Labels containing labial consonants (b, p) were judged as more appropriate names for the rounded shape, compared to labels containing alveolar (d, t) or velar consonants (g, k). The results are illustrated in Figure 3. The source of this effect could be either acoustic or articulatory (Knoeferle et al., 2017). An articulatory account builds on analogy between lip rounding and a rounded shape. An acoustic account might be based on spectral differences among different places of articulation. A support for this view can be found in previous studies, e.g. “In /k, g/ spectral energy is concentrated, whereas in /t, d/, and /p, b/ is spread, with an emphasis on lower frequencies in /p, b/ and on higher frequencies in /t, d/… [velar stops] display a stronger concentration of explosion [than labials and dentals]” (Jakobson & Waugh, 2002).

It is interesting to note that the basic demonstration of the bouba/kiki effect (Hung, Styles, & Hsieh, 2017; Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos, 2013; Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001) contrasts a voiceless velar plosive (k) with a voiced bilabial plosive (b). The on-going discussion over the effect of place-of-articulation can explain why /b/ was preferred over other voiced plosives in these demonstrations (but note that this choice inadvertently introduces a confounding factor to the experiment). In addition, the effect of place-of-articulation might help explaining the difference between liquids and nasals found by Knoeferle et al. (if it was, indeed, significant). Both experiments included bilabial (m) and alveolar (n) nasal consonants that were analysed as one group. In our experiment, was rated higher (i.e. closer to the rounded shape) than (mean ratings: 4.07 and 3.93, respectively, on a scale of 1-5), and was rated slightly higher than (mean rating: 4.09). Although the differences were not significant, it is possible that lip rounding (or its acoustic correlates) should be included in the structural model of phonetic symbolism.

At this point, let us reintroduce fricatives to our discussion. As can be seen in Figure 2, voiceless fricatives tended to be associated with a rounded shape more than with an angular shape. One possible explanation for this finding is that shape judgments are somehow affected by relative encodedness. As mentioned earlier, glides, liquids, nasals, but also voiceless sibilants are unencoded relative to plosives. In other words, rich precategorical auditory information is more accessible in the voiceless fricatives, liquids, nasals and glides than in plosives. Perception of this information seems to blur the sharp outlines of the categories, rendering these phonemes more appropriate to designate rounded than angular shapes (that is also one reason why they are perceived as ‘softer’).

However, if shape judgments depend on encodedness, one might ask, why voiced fricatives do not group with their voiceless counterparts. In the voiced fricatives, there are two parallel continuous streams, one periodic (voicing), and one aperiodic (friction); one might cautiously speculate that the two kinds of parallel streams blur each other and their perceived shape is less pronounced. This would suggest that the perceived roundness of speech sounds might be correlated with the relatively clear perception of the precategorical auditory information lingering in short-term memory.


Resonance, Co-Articulation, and Precategorical Perception

As we have said, resonating phones promote the perception of precategorical auditory information. Yet, there is evidence that the effect of resonance is modulated by context. For example, it was found that vowels in consonantal context are perceived more linguistically than isolated vowels (Rakerd, 1984); that is, precategorical sensory information can be better perceived in isolated vowels than in consonantal context. In other words, co-articulation seems to prevent access to precategorical auditory information. Some symbolist poets exploited this property of isolated speech sounds, to amplify the resonance of their poems. The French symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud, wrote in his sonnet “Voyelles”:


  1. A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles

       (A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue, vowels)


The Hungarian symbolist poet, Dezső Kosztolányi, wrote in a poem on his wife’s name, “Ilona”:


  1. Csupa l,       It’s all l

       csupa i,            all i,    

       csupa o,           all o,

       csupa a.           all a.


Thus, the examples above demonstrate that access to precategorical information, both in vowels and voiceless sibilants (and, probably, in liquids and nasals too), depends on isolating the vowels from the consonants, generating a resonating effect. Such a strategy would not work, however, with voiced plosives, because they cannot be pronounced without any vocalic context; in fact, formant transitions — that give information about plosives — give, by the same token, information about the adjacent vowels (speech researchers call this “dual transmission”). Nevertheless, the results of our experiment (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming), demonstrated that, in minimal contexts (consonant-vowel sequences), voiced plosives can be perceived at least as resonant as nasals (though these results should be regarded with caution). We then thought to test whether voiced plosives are perceived differently in a reverberating or non-reverberating context, using an implicit task that does not require participants to have an explicit concept of resonance (see descriptions of such tasks in the next section). Consider Tennyson’s line and John Crowe Ransom’s rewriting of it:

  1. And murmuring of innumerable bees
  2. And murdering of innumerable beeves

There is general consensus that in the sound structure of Excerpt 7 the repeated nasals and liquids are perceived differently from Excerpt 8. In 8 “the euphony is destroyed […] we lose the echoic effect” (Abrams & Harpham, 2009). This is not only because in 7 there is one nasal more than in 8, but also because in 7 the meaning foregrounds the resonant quality of voicing, so that the nasals and the liquids have a fuller, richer, more resonant body. There is an intuition that even [b] is perceived as more resonant in Excerpt 7 than in Excerpt 8. To put it bluntly, in Excerpt 8 it sounds hard and compact as plosives are supposed to sound; in Excerpt 7 it drifts slightly toward the more resonant quality of [m]. This intuition is supported by our experiment. However, testing it explicitly is more difficult because the effect of the phonological context (reverberating/non-reverberating) is confounded with the meaning of the line. Thus, if [b] is perceived as less resonant in 8, it could be due to the change of phonological context or the change of meaning.


Phonetic Symbolism, Innateness, and the Brain

The Bouba/kiki effect (see earlier) has been demonstrated cross-culturally, even with Himba participants of Northern Namibia who had little exposure to Western cultural and environmental influences, and who do not use a written language (Bremner et al., 2013). Thus, the tendency to associate certain shapes with certain speech sounds is a cross-cultural phenomenon. Moreover, the effect has been demonstrated not only in forced-choice matching tasks, but also with implicit interference tasks. In a study by Westbury (2005), participants performed a lexical decision task on words and nonwords presented within curvy and spiky frames. Within each lexical category (word and nonword), some stimuli contained only stop consonants (e.g. toad and kide), some stimuli contained only continuous (e.g. moon and lole), and some stimuli that contained both stops and continuous sounds (e.g. flag and nuck). It was found that responses were faster for congruent shape-string pairs (continuous sounds in curvy shapes, plosives in spiky shapes) than for incongruent pairs.[15] Using a masking technique, Hung, Styles, & Hsieh (2017) showed that the mapping for the bouba/kiki effect occurs prior to conscious awareness of the visual stimuli. Under continuous flash suppression, congruent stimuli (e.g. “kiki” inside a spiky shape) broke through to conscious awareness faster than incongruent stimuli. This was true even for participants who were trained to pair unfamiliar letters with auditory word forms. These results show that the effect was driven by the phonology, not the visual features, of the letters.

In another study, Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos (2013) presented 4-month-old infants with pairs of shapes and auditory stimuli. They found that the infants looked longer at the screen during trials with incongruent pairs (i.e. ‘bubu’ with an angular shape or ‘kiki’ with a curvy shape) than during trials with congruent pairs (i.e. ‘bubu’ with a curvy shape or ‘kiki’ with an angular shape). This finding, together with cross-cultural evidence, suggests that at least some aspect of sound-shape symbolism is pre-linguistic, perhaps even innate. But which aspect exactly? We claim that what is innate is not the symbolic relation per se, but rather the propensity to extract, abstract and compare abstract features from sensory stimuli. In what follows, we discuss other manifestations of this principle.

Roman Jakobson (1968) has shown that children’s acquisition of the phonological system of their mother tongue, the universal structure of phonological systems, as well as aphasic breakdowns are governed by the same principles based on abstracting and contrasting distinctive features. Assuming that we have similar capabilities with semantic and visual features, this would suggest that, whatever the brain processes involved, there is a universally available cognitive mechanism of abstracting, comparing and contrasting features that may be responsible for generating an indefinite number of unforeseeable sound-symbolic combinations.

One of the most striking pieces of evidence for our innate ability to contrast and combine abstract features in different domains can be seen in Synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is intersense perception, in which a person experiences sensations in one modality when a second modality is stimulated (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). For example, a person may experience a specific colour whenever seeing a specific numeral (Galton, 1880). This trait seems to run in families, suggesting that it has a genetic and, thus, innate basis (Ward & Simner, 2005). In addition, neuroimaging studies have confirmed that synaesthesia is genuine, namely that the sensory experiences reported by synaesthetes are accompanied by activation in the related sensory cortical areas. Moreover, there is evidence that synaesthesia is related to an increase in structural connectivity among cortical areas involved in the synaesthetic experience (Rouw & Scholte, 2007).

Mature consciousness is based on the dissociation of the senses, but certain cognitive tasks, e.g. the bouba/kiki experiment still rely on synaesthetic mechanisms. Thus, although many adults do not experience synaesthesia on a regular basis, the cognitive mechanisms underlying synaesthesia seem to be present universally. Moreover, many languages have metaphors derived from the field of two senses, as in soft colour and warm sound— these are fossilized synaesthetic metaphors. The existence of such metaphors depend on, and attest to, the ability of individuals to extract and combine abstract features from different sensory and conceptual domains.

The use of such synaesthetic metaphors can be further extended in literary works via literary synaesthesia. Literary synaesthesia combines terms derived from different senses in unpredictable phrases, as in Keats’s “And taste the music of this vision pale”, where terms derived from three different senses are combined to suggest some elusive, nameless experience. Phonetic symbolism in poetry is a special case of literary synaesthesia, where the imitative sound patterns are generated by unpredictable combinations of words. In Tennyson’s “And murmuring of innumerable bees” sound imitation is generated by repeating the speech sounds of murmur in innumerable— a word that has nothing to do with sounds.

Thus, it seems that writers have access to cognitive mechanisms, similar or identical to those involved in synaesthesia. Note, however, that despite the common surface similarity between “real-life” synaesthesia and literary synaesthesia, there is an important difference between the two phenomena. “Real-life” synaesthesia is automatic and involuntary, and involves stable and fixed cross-modal associations. By contrast, literary synaesthesia is a conscious, productive process that can give rise to an indefinite number of associations.


Objections to the Foregoing Conception

Auracher et al. (2011) criticized our conception that sound-symbolic effects are generated by an interaction between phonetic and semantic features as follows:

One plausible solution to cope with the contradictions between single studies is to follow Tsur’s (2006) and Miall’s (2001) hypothesis. Both authors conceive “speech sounds as of bundles of acoustic and articulatory features each of which may have certain (sometimes conflicting) combinational potentials, which may be activated, after the event, by certain meaning components” (Tsur, 2006, p. 905). However, this would not explain the high significance of the results within most studies. Why, as an example, would randomly chosen poems from different language families apply the same sound structure, expressing the same emotions, if the sound–meaning relation is content-dependent? (p. 22)

Part of our answer to this objection runs as follows: first, this question has a false presupposition, namely that poems that apply the same sound structure express the same emotions. It is false even with reference to the state of the art in our Western tradition. Auracher et al. found that sadness (and negative emotions in general) are best expressed by nasals, joy (and positive emotions in general) by plosives, whereas Fónagy (1961) found that tender emotions (that can be positive or negative) are typically associated with nasals, aggression (which is a negative emotion) with plosives.

Second, the “content-dependent” argument seems to us particularly invalid. Auracher et al. seem to assume that sounds express emotions irrespective of meaning (indeed, they hope to predict the emotion of a poem from the sound patterns). Furthermore, they seem to take Tsur’s (2006) claim as suggesting that sound-meaning relations in phonetic symbolism are arbitrary. Accordingly, they claim that if one takes the position that “sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”, one should not expect sound effects to be translated from one language to another or from one culture to another. In their view, the fact that different studies on phonetic symbolism obtain significant results supports a notion of pre-defined sound-meaning relations. However, this is a misinterpreation of Tsur’s claim.

We don’t expect that “all aspects of [the word’s] meaning be deduced from its sounds”. We assume, rather, that phonetic symbolism can generate, at best, some vague psychological atmosphere, which the referent can individuate into a specific emotion by feature transfer from the meaning. This is part of our linguistic creativity. The results of such creativity may, indeed, fossilize into convention, e.g. a lexical entry; but in the bouba/kiki experiment, for instance, no convention is involved, both the words and their referents are unfamiliar, but participants do it spontaneously, and agree cross-culturally.

For example, let us consider the Japanese word ‘kirakira’. This word contains two elements that have iconic meaning crosslinguistically, reduplication and the vowel [i]. Crosslinguistic lexical surveys and laboratory experiments have demonstrated that reduplication can be associated with concepts such as ‘repetition’, ‘distribution’, and ‘intensification’ (O. Fischer, 2011; Imai & Kita, 2014)[16], and the vowel [i] can be associated with concepts such as ‘smallness’, ‘brightness’, and ‘sharpness’ (Blasi, Wichmann, Hammarström, Stadler, & Christiansen, 2016; Lowrey & Shrum, 2007; Newman, 1933). Indeed, ‘kirakira’, which means “glittering”, “shows sensory sound-symbolism in that reduplication in the word is associated with a continuous meaning and the vowel [i] is associated with brightness” (Lockwood & Dingemanse, 2015: 3). We propose that the above-mentioned meanings, associated with the reduplication pattern and with the vowel [i], are all present in the sound pattern of ‘kirakira’, and that the semantics picks out two of them (i.e. ‘repetition’ and ‘brigthness’) and eliminates the others (e.g. ‘smallness’, ‘sharpness’). Lockwood and Dingemanse suggest that “the vowel [i] is associated with brightness, but it also has conventionalized aspects in that not all aspects of its meaning can be deduced from its sounds”. We propose to handle the issue slightly differently. “Glittering” does not merely tilt the meaning in favour of brightness and repeated events (e.g. shimmering); it individuates the referent within the semantic field of light.

The stem “kiru”, in contrast to “kirakira”, means “to cut”. Here the meaning of /i/ is tilted toward sharpness and individuated as a specific, non-repeated action. Briefly, in phonetic symbolism, the sound structure of a nonsense word may pick out the appropriate unfamiliar referent in a forced choice; in a familiar lexical word, the meaning may pick out the appropriate meaning potential from a number of meaning potentials of its speech sounds. In a cross-cultural perspective, too, “the sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”. In Japanese, the principle works exactly as in English. Only in Japanese and Vietnamese there are formalized linguistic categories based on reduplication, whereas reduplications like “murmur” in English, or “rišruš” (rustling) in Hebrew, or “froufrou” in French, “ityeg-fityeg” (dangle repeatedly) in Hungarian are sporadic.

“The sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”, then, because the meaning components available in the semantic dimension of the text activate a subset of potentials derived from the universally available phonetic and acoustic features of the sound dimension. Characteristically, Auracher et al. rely on circumstantial evidence in the Stimulus–Response mode, “different cultures”, rather than cognitive evidence: whether semantic and phonetic information processing is similar or different in various cultures. This argument of Auracher et al.’s seems perfectly logical when treated on a wholesale, statistical level. But breaks down when treated at a more fine-grained, structural level.

A referee for this article made the following comment on our argument: “I don’t see how this claim [that the relation between sound and meaning is arbitrary] is consistent with the authors’ finding that ‘The structure of speech sounds determines their expressive potentials.’” However, we don’t agree with this objection. The following observation by the same person is a clear support for our argument.

Neologisms and relatively recent creations like English “splat,” which have no etymologies of the usual kind, are of very minor interest in the study of literature, but they pose severe problems for the claim that meaning has nothing to do with linguistic sound. According to Fidler (2014: 229), this is expected, since OpEs (onomatopoetic expressions) provide “the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort.”

How do we produce and understand neologisms? How does “the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort” work? We argue that speech sounds are part of a phonological system, and are bundles of phonological, acoustic and articulatory features. According to Jakobson (1968), the child’s language has two stages: first a babbling period, in which the child experiments with the articulation and the acoustic qualities of the speech sounds, which are emotionally charged; then the arbitrary referential use of the same speech sounds, governed by the will. Mastering the arbitrary referential use is perceptually governed, by maximum contrast. The first syllable children in all languages master for referential use is Pa, which consists in maximum opening and maximum closure of the lips; from this they derive “papa”. The reduplication indicates here that this time the articulation of speech sounds is no mere pleasurable experimentation with speech sounds, but used for arbitrary reference.

Then they master the contrast between labial and dental consonants, obtaining “tata”. Then they master the contrast between oral and nasal consonants, obtaining “mama” and “nana”, and so forth. The process is not iconic, but perceptual and articulatory; meaning is attached in an arbitrary manner. There is no iconic relationship between “papa” and the male parent, or “mama” and the female parent, the terms and references are derived from the system. But then, perhaps, children have an intuition that mothers are contrasted to fathers in being softer, assigning nasals to mothers and plosives to fathers rather than vice versa.

We argue that in adult language, speech sounds, as part of the phonological system, serve for arbitrary reference. The acoustic and articulatory features have a wide range of incongruent, dormant expressive potentials. When a label consisting of a sequence of speech sounds is arbitrarily attached to a meaning, it may (or may not) activate, after the event, some of the dormant expressive potentials. In the word “splat” and “splash” meaning activates certain expressive potentials of the speech sounds; in “split” or “plush” it does not. All language users have access to those dormant acoustic and articulatory features, so that they may activate them creatively and differentially. Sibilants have both hushing and noisy features; that is why they may abound, universally, both in words meaning noises of varying amplitude, or silence. That is why “Onomatopoetic expressions provide ‘the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort.’” The alleged protolanguage is said to have been entirely onomatopoetic; symbolic language is typically arbitrary. Computer simulations show that iconicity is favoured in small systems, but arbitrariness has greater advantages as the system expands (Gasser, 2004). There is experimental evidence that iconicity facilitates for children the acquisition of a small, elementary vocabulary, but it obstructs the acquisition of a large and versatile vocabulary (Imai & Kita, 2014). Onomatopoetic words have two characteristics. First, their referents are sounds, so that the speech sounds may directly imitate them; second, in onomatopoetic words the fluid creative process described above has fossilized into a dictionary entry.


Future Research

Some of our experimental results were indecisive, owing to insufficient number of participants, or participants’ difficulty to understand such tasks as resonance judgment. We intend to repeat some of our experiments with a greater number of participants, and using interference tasks, where participants need not understand such elusive notions.

We assume that sound-symbolic and metaphoric productivity are driven by a homogeneous set of principles. Both are based on unpredictable feature interaction — one of phonetic and semantic features, the other of conflicting semantic features. We intend to explore this similarity.

Another future research plan aims to improve experimental methodology for literary studies, by exploiting new technologies. In recent years there has been an increase of literary studies employing experimental methods from social sciences, such as stimulus—response questionnaires. Such studies typically ask participants to evaluate entities on various pre-defined scales (e.g., rate how sad a poem is). Pre-defined evaluation scales are useful for answering specific research questions. However, such scales might be less suitable for evaluating the effects of aesthetic objects, since they can capture only a limited portion of the subjective experience and thus may predetermine the evaluated scales, missing important aspects of the aesthetic effect. Fortunately, recent advances in methods of natural language processing allow for sophisticated automatic analysis of texts. Such methods can be incorporated in experimental studies using, open-ended questions to evaluate aesthetic objects. Thus, instead of asking participants to rate poems according to pre-defined evaluative terms, the researcher can ask participants to provide their impression of the poem. Subsequently, using automatic text analysis methods, one can obtain a detailed, unbiased profile of the subjective experience. We plan to investigate the utility of such methods for analyzing responses to poetic text.


To Conclude

In this article, we reviewed three types of evidence for phonetic symbolism. First, certain types of phones tend to correlate with certain meanings cross-linguistically (e.g. the frequent occurrence of sibilants in word related to silence and to noise). Second, laboratory experiments demonstrate that participants tend to form consistent associations between speech sounds and concepts from various domains (e.g. made-up names assigned to rounded shapes tend to contain nasal and liquid consonants, while names assigned to angular shapes tend to contain voiceless plosives). Third, various literary devices (e.g. sound repetition) use sound patterns, detached from semantics, to induce a general psychological atmosphere in poems.

We claim that the various cases of phonetic symbolism can be accounted for in a unified manner via a structuralist-cognitive theory. Central to this theory is the innate, general-purpose human capacity to extract abstract features from sensory objects (e.g. sounds, shapes). This capacity, together with our ability to combine and compare abstract features, allows us to attribute meaning potentials to speech sounds based on structural similarities to various objects. Importantly, the cognitive model does not determine sound-meaning associations, but rather constrain them. A given phone can have multiple, sometimes conflicting, meaning potentials, such that different aspects of the same phone are highlighted across lexical items and semantic contexts.

We referred to the multiple meaning potentials of speech sounds as double-edgedness, and proposed that people can shift their attention from one potential meaning to another via the cognitive mechanism of aspect-switching. We described some empirical results supporting the ideas of double-edgedness and aspect-switching. Moreover, we claim that these mechanisms can account for conflicting, or seemingly arbitrary, findings in the literature, such as the conflicting associations of nasals and plosives reported by Fónagy (1961) and Auracher et al. (2011).

The double-edgedness of voiced plosives was of special interest to us. Previous studies, as well as our own experiments, demonstrate that voiced plosives can behave like their voiceless counterparts in certain contexts, while in other contexts they behave more like sonorous consonants.[17] Our structural analysis and experiments suggested that voiced plosives are double-edged. Some of these experimental results, however, may be due to participants’ misunderstanding of the task. More reliable is the fact that voiced plosives yielded significant results in experiments in which they were opposed to continuous phonemes, but also in experiments in which they were opposed to voiceless plosives. Likewise, a structural analysis showed, how [d] and [g] in poems by Verlaine and Hugo could be used to opposite effects. All this suggests that double-edgedness and aspect-switching may have psychological reality. However, more research is needed to investigate the cognitive mechanisms of double-edgedness and aspect-switching.


Appendix A: Double-Edgedness of the “Rolled” [r]

Across languages, rolled [r][18] is frequently associated with noise. Many linguists believe that in some time in the past was rolled in English, French, and Hebrew.[19] English, French and some German dialects have lost their rolled [r] but, as the following examples witness, their lexicons still retain them as onomatopoeia (usually in combination with voiceless fricatives) for noise: In English, “rustling” and “whisper” contain /s/ and /r/. In French, bruit, froufroucrissement, and susurrermean “noise”, “rustle”, “screech”, “to rustle, whisper”, respectively. In German, knistern and raschelnd mean “rustle, rustling”. In Hebrew, raʕaš and rišruš (in phonetic transcription) mean “noise” and “rustle”, respectively. sarasara in Japanese means “murmuring, rustling” (in both cases, reduplication indicates sound symbolism). Iván Fónagy writes to this effect:

Selon une tradition qui remonte à l’antiquité, le est associé […] au combat. […] La distribution de fréquence des phonèmes dans les poèmes appartenant à deux populations sémantiques différentes, dans les poèmes belliqueux d’une part, dans les poèmes idylliques d’autre part, reflète en effet une forte tendance à associer les à la violence […]. Le français déjà «affaibli» à l’époque de Victor Hugo, n’est plus associé à la violence […]. Cette dureté de apical semble qualitativement différente de la dureté des occlusives sourdes […]. Les R «sont les vrayes lettres Héroïques», écrit Ronsard dans la préface de la Franciade (1587, Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1914, VII, p. 93). (Fónagy, 1983: 96)

According to a tradition that goes back to antiquity, the is associated […] with combat. […] The distribution of the frequency of phonemes in the poems belong to two semantic populations the bellicose poems on the one hand, and the idyllic poems on the other, reflects, as a matter of fact, a strong tendency to associate the rs with violence […] French r, already “weakened” by Victor Hugo’s time, is no longer associated with violence […]. This hardness of the apical seems to be qualitatively different from the hardness of voiceless stops […] The Rs “are the true Heroic letters” wrote Ronsard in the preface to la Franciade (1587, Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1914, VII, p. 93). (Fónagy, 1983: 96)

Thus, [r] serves as onomatopoeia for noise as in roar, rustle. Yet, in the same languages, [r] may have a soothing effect as in Lili Marleen. Our cognitive theory of phonetic symbolism can account for this affective duality of [r]. The rolled [r] is periodic and multiply interrupted, thus, it is double-edged. Its abrupt nature makes it suitable for denoting noisy and hard qualities, but, in other contexts, its periodicity can induce a tender effect.


Appendix B: Articulatory Aspect-Switching

In this article, we discussed the mechanism of aspect-switching in the perception of voiced plosives. There is another theoretical possibility, namely that the pronunciation itself changes with context, emphasising either the plosion or the voicing. Alternatively, one may speculate that perhaps different acoustic cues for phonological voicing are at work here. There are several acoustic cues for a voiced stop, usually used in conjunction:

“In distinguishing between voiced and voiceless plosives, the exact moment at which periodicity begins is among the cues used by the listener. [… and] the distinction between post-vocalic voiced and voiceless sounds is carried very largely by the relative duration of the vocalic and the consonantal parts of the syllable; in /bi:t/ (beat) the vocalic part is relatively short and the interruption caused by the consonant is long, while in /bi:d/ (bead) the reverse is the case” (Fry, 1970: 36).

Assuming that both kinds of cues work in conjunction, speakers might, involuntarily, emphasize one or the other cue, voice onset time or vowel length. As a rule, there is trade-off between competing acoustic cues for phonemes.[20]

With that said, note that although it is possible that the switch between alternative qualities of voiced stops is done by modifying their pronunciation, there is no evidence that the poets intended their poems to be read with such an overt articulatory aspect-switching, and there is no empirical evidence that readers actually do read the poems this way.


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[1]This article is derived from our book in progress on “Sound–Emotion Interaction in Poetry”, based on a group of chapters on phonetic symbolism.

[2]The term ‘continuous’ refers to airflow in general. This should not be confused with the phonological feature [Continuant], which refers only to airflow in the oral cavity. Nasal consonants are continuous but not continuant.

[3] We have borrowed the term “double-edgedness” from Ernst Kris, who speaks of the “double-edgedness” of the comic: a comedy about a cuckold may be very funny; but a husband in the audience, who suspects his wife is unfaithful, may find it offensive rather than funny. In poetry, double-edgedness is generated by changing contexts.

[4]The following anecdote can illustrate our ability to switch between alternative perceptions of the same speech sound (in this case, liquid). When Tsur was on a sabbatical in Yale, he was robbed at gunpoint on the parking lot of the foreign scholars’ lodgings. When his wife told their Japanese neighbour the story, he was shocked and exclaimed: “Vat, viz a livorvel?!” Later, Tsur told this story to Professor Yehoshua Blau, president of the Academy of Hebrew Language, and added: If he can say consistently the wrong phoneme, it means that he doesdistinguish between them. He answered “It is, rather, your ear that made the distinction. He probably pronounced each time the same speech sound, somewhere between [l] and [r]. When you expected a [r], it sounded too much like a [l]; when you expected a [l] it sounded too much like a [r]”.

[5]In Appendix A, we will also discuss double-edgedness of the trilled (“rolled”) [r].

[6]In the Rorschach test, for instance, responses based on colours and shadings (as opposed to shape responses) indicate emotional responsiveness.

[7]First published in 1987.

[8]There is another theoretical possibility, namely that the pronunciation itself changes with context. We elaborate more on this possibility in Appendix B.

[9]Although experimental studies have yet to demonstrate aspect-switching in plosives, evidence from other phoneme classes suggests that plosives are likely to show aspect-switching, as well.

[10]Formants are concentrations of overtones that uniquely identify vowels. Formant transitions are the rapid change in frequency of a formant for a vowel immediately before or after a consonant, and give information about the vowel and the consonant simultaneously.

[11]A priori, nasals are expected to be judged as more resonant than their oral counterparts since, in the nasals, the nasal cavity vibrates, in addition to the sound articulated by the oral stop.

[12]In the second edition of his book, Köhler (1947) changed baluma, for by now obvious reasons, to maluma.

[13]To be precise, all the effects of phonemic contrasts reported by Knoeferle et al.were calculated with glides as a baseline group. Thus, we only know for certain that liquids were NOT significantly different from glides while all the other classes WERE significantly different from glides. The distribution depicted in Figure 2 reflects our own interpretation of the results.

[14]We did not test glides and fricatives in our experiment. In addition, in our experiment the non-word labels were presented in a written form rather than in a spoken form. Also, the labels we used were disyllabic rather than monosyllabic, and each label contained two identical consonants but two different vowels (e.g. mamu, pupa).

[15]Note that stimuli in this study mixed voiceless and voiced plosives, affectively treating them as one group. As we have mentioned in several places, there is evidence that voiced plosives, and specifically /b/, are ambiguous. They can be grouped with voiceless plosives in certain contexts, and with sonorants, in other contexts. The Westbury study seems to force voiced plosives to be grouped with voiceless plosives.

[16]But also with completely opposite concepts such as diminutive and attenuative meanings.

[17]Note that Westbury (2005) puts voiced plosives in one bin with voiceless plosives, contrasting them to continuants, whereas Hung et al. (2017) and Ozturk et al. (2013) contrast the voiced plosive [b] with the voiceless plosive [k]. Köhler too puts [b] in one bin with [l] and [m] in “baluma”, contrasting them with the voiceless plosives in “takete”

[18]An alveolar trill, in more technical terms.

[19]It is unknown when exactly the quality of [r] had changed in these languages. Therefore, the ongoing discussion is somewhat speculative. For that reason, we decided to bring the analysis in an appendix.

[20]“While a listener typically perceives only a single change—viz., one of phonetic category—the physical changes that led to this unitary percept can only be described in form of a list with multiple entries. […] If one cue in such an ensemble is changed to favor category B, another cue can be modified to favor category A, so that the phonetic percept remains unchanged.” (Repp, 1983: 342)


Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal (Lecture Video)

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon

Abstract. Hunting demands extensive knowledge of animal behavior, characteristics, and habitat, raising the question of how foragers acquire this knowledge. One potential source is etiological animal tales (EAT), which are pervasive in forager oral tradition and explain the origin of a species’ distinctive physical and/or behavioral traits. If these stories serve as a repository for traditional zoological knowledge, we would expect them to contain information about traits that are useful for identifying, predicting availability of, locating, killing, processing, and/or avoiding dangerous encounters with the animal. These predictions were tested in an earlier study that used story collections from 64 diverse hunter-gatherer societies (Scalise Sugiyama 2017). For each collection, one EAT was chosen at random for content analysis; all 64 stories evinced the predicted information, showing a strong cross-cultural trend. Here I present the results of a follow-up study that examines whether this pattern holds across all EAT within a given culture. For this analysis, ten cultures were selected from the original sample (two from each of five world geographic regions). All EAT from each culture were analyzed for the presence of information about the animal’s availability, behavior, diet, habitat, interspecies relationships, physical traits, sign, techniques used to hunt/process the animal, and hazards associated with the animal. Results suggest that EAT are an important vector of zoological knowledge transmission across forager groups.

This video lecture was prepared for the Literary Universals Workshop at the University of Connecticut, which took place on 24 May 2019. It is housed off-site and is available through the following link: Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal.



24 May 2019

This workshop is made possible by a generous grant from the University of Connecticut Office of the Vice President for Research, as well as funding from the Department of English and the Department of Literatures, Cultures and Languages at the University of Connecticut, and the Emil Aaltonen Foundation. The organizers (Patrick Colm Hogan, Severi Luoto, and Arnab Dutta Roy) would also like to thank Robert Hasenfratz, Melanie Hepburn, Juliet Kapsis, Gustavo Nanclares, Lauren Schaller, and Chris Vials for their help.



(All events will take place in room 112 of Oak Hall, University of Connecticut, Storrs, except dinner, which will take place in room 236 of Oak Hall.)

8:30-9:00         Refreshments, collect registration materials, check computer.

9:00-9:05         Welcome.

                                    Arnab Dutta Roy, University of Connecticut

9:05-9:30         “On the Very Idea of a Research Program Treating Literary Universals”

                                    Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

9:40-10:35      “A Universalist Account of Prominence Distinctions among Unstressed Syllables

                                    Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

                        Chair, Robert Hasenfratz, University of Connecticut


                        “Literary Spatial Patterning”

                                    Liz Finnigan, Southern Regional College, N. Ireland ,

                        “Literary Canons as Universals:

                                                Or, Essential Criteria for a New Philosophy of Literature”

                                    Christopher Kuipers, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

                        “Literary Universals, the Spanish Atlantic, and the Question of Modernity:

                                                From Cabeza de Vaca to Castro

                                    Soren Triff, Bristol Community College and University of Connecticut.

                        Chair, Yohei Igarashi, University of Connecticut

12:00-1:00    Lunch                                                                                                                                                                  

    12:30   Video: “Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal”

                                    Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon

1:00-1:55      “Universals of Literary Meaning”

                                    Joseph Carroll, University of Missouri-St. Louis

                        Chair, Severi Luoto, University of Auckland


                        “Metaphors of Sexuality across the Atlantic: La Celestina and the Popol Vuh

                                    Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, Yale University

                        “Psycholinguistic Sex Differences in Literary Fiction:

                                                A Computerised Text Analysis of 300 Novels”

                                    Severi Luoto, University of Auckland

                        “Politics of ‘Primal Androgyny’:

                                                Some Specific Cultural Implications of this Statistical Universal”

                                    Arnab Dutta Roy, University of Connecticut

                        Chair, Rosa Helena Chinchilla, University of Connecticut


                        “Narrative Empathy Is Everywhere:

                                                The Ability to Empathize with Literature is a Literary Universal”

                                    Kelly Mahaffy, University of Connecticut

                        “Traveling Through Theatre: Cultural Universals: Some Journeys

                                    Sonjoy Dutta-Roy, University of Allahabad

                        “‘Imaginal’ Shapes: Waking, Dreaming, Sleeping in Cross-Cultural Storytelling”

                                    Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, Nassau Community College

                        Chair, Evelyn Tribble, University of Connecticut


                        “Counterintuitive Imagery as a Literary Universal”

                                    Tom Dolack, Wheaton College

                        “Ministering to Power:

                                                Fiction in Court Settings, from Halicarnassus to Heian Japan”

                                    Sara R. Johnson, University of Connecticut

                        Chair, Shailen Mishra, University of Delaware 


                         General Discussion:

                                    Questions for any panelists,

                                    ideas for fostering research on cross-cultural literary patterns,

                                    and anything else anyone would like to bring up.

                        Chair, Lalita Pandit Hogan, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse


   Buffet dinner in Oak 236 for workshop registrants.




“On the Very Idea of a Research Program Treating Literary Universals”

Patrick Colm Hogan, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, University of Connecticut

Modeled on the research program in linguistic universals, the Literary Universals Project seeks to establish a platform for the study of cross-cultural patterns in literature and orature. This opening workshop presentation sets out a basic definition of literary universals, responding to some common misconceptions about universals. It goes on to sketch what it involved in describing and explaining literary universals. It considers some common problems encountered in interdisciplinary research programs, and distinguishes the methodological orientation of the Literary Universals Project from that of non-cognitive approaches, such as Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots. In conclusion, it sets out what intellectual goals might be pursued through the study of literary universals.

Patrick Colm Hoganis a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in the English Department, the Program in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies, and the Program in Cognitive Science. He is the author of over twenty books, including The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and the forthcoming Personal Identity and Literature (Routledge, 2019). He is a co-editor and co-founder of The Literary Universals Project.



“Universals of Literary Meaning”

Joseph Carroll, Curators’ Distinguished Professor of English, University of Missouri-St. Louis

Literature consists in aesthetically modeled verbal constructs that depict or evoke subjective experience. “Meaning” in literature consists in the communication of imaginative effects. I identify four levels for the organization of meaning in literary texts: the pan-human level, the culturally specific level, the level of individual persons (authors and readers), and the level of individual literary works. The term “Pan-human” is synonymous with the term “universal.” When applied to literary texts, those terms signify universal subjects, themes, emotions, and forms of organization. The forms of organization range from large-scale structural features of narrative, drama, and verse to micro-structures of style. By definition, universal features of literary texts appear in all texts, including texts distinguished by differences of culture, by differences of individual authorial identity, and by particularities of subject, theme, tone, and form in any given literary work, each of which is unique in some respect. Literary meaning varies by culture, authorial identity, and individual text, but those categories are themselves literary universals. That is, all texts are embedded in some particular culture, are imbued with characteristics that derive from the minds of the authors who create them, and display unique individual ways of combining subjects, themes, emotions, and formal structures. Universal elements of human experience combine differently in different texts to produce the specific forms of meaning in those texts. I’ll illustrate these propositions with examples from world literature.

JosephCarroll is Curators’ Distinguished Professor in the English department at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Since the early 1990s, he has been working to integrate evolutionary research and literary study. He has developed an evolutionary theory of literature, produced interpretive essays on literary works ranging from plays of Shakespeare to modern novels, written essays in intellectual history, and conducted empirical research on protagonists and antagonists in Victorian fiction.


“A Universalist Account of Prominence Distinctions among Unstressed Syllables” 

Geoffrey Russom, Emeritus Professor of English, Brown University; Nicholas Brown 

Professor of Oratory and Belles Lettres (Emeritus).

In a recent paper (Swedish Academy, 2018), Paul Kiparsky has identified differences in metrical prominence among unstressed constituents. Inflectional endings, for example, are less prominent than independent unstressed words and can be added more freely to a verse as extrametrical syllables. In this respect as in others, Germanic alliterative meters provide evidence not easily obtained from the meters most thoroughly studied by Western scholars. This paper identifies gradations of prominence within Old English verse patterns, as analyzed in Russom (2017), and isolates prominence differences among unstressed syllables due to differences in frequency, syllable count, and syntactic constituency. For practical reasons, metrists have attended primarily to metrical rules that apply without exception. This was understandable in 19th century, when linguists interested in poetic form used index cards and had to put just one feature of interest at the top for indexing. Today, however, relational databases like Excel provide a much more efficient research tool. When the metrical features of each verse are notated in an electronic entry, a researcher can instantly obtain a list of all and only those verses in the same poem that have any of the notated features –– or any desired combination of the notated features. There is no longer any excuse for overemphasizing the ‘always / never’ contrast and neglecting the ‘often / seldom’ contrast, which may sometimes provide better insight into universal principles of verse construction. The presentation will conclude with a demonstration of Excel scansions that provide the evidence for claims made in the paper.

Geoffrey Russomis Emeritus Professor of English at Brown University and Nicholas Brown Professor of Oratory and Belles Lettres (Emeritus). Hiss research interests include Old English, Middle English, Old Norse, and Old Irish literary cultures; linguistic theory; and theory of poetic meter. He is best known for arguments showing that rules of poetic meter are abstracted from rules of ordinary language and, once abstracted, operate like new linguistic rules, interacting with other rules of the linguistic system to yield a varied yet well-defined array of acceptable verse patterns. Russom is author of three books published by Cambridge University Press: Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory (1987), Beowulf and Old Germanic Metre (1998), and The Evolution of Verse Structure in Old and Middle English Poetry: From the Earliest Alliterative Poems to Iambic Pentameter (2017). His 2017 book traces poetic use of English and some cognate languages from about 300 BCE to the present, presenting a theory of evolutionary metrics within Chomsky’s universalist framework. The theory relating linguistic systems to metrical systems is further developed in “Optimality Theory, Language Typology, and Universalist Metrics,” Studia Metrica et Poetica 5.1 (2018), 7–27. In addition to work on poetic form, Russom has published articles on the linguistic history of English, the multicultural backgrounds of Beowulf, and the artistic excellence of preliterate verse traditions.



“Counterintuitive Imagery as a Literary Universal”

            Tom Dolack, Wheaton College

A productive strain of research in the cognitive study of religion has focused on the prevalence of “counterintuitive imagery,” or images that violate our expectations of ontological categories (animals that talk, people without bodies). I propose that such a religious universal is better viewed as a literary universal, and can be regarded as a fundamental element of narrative, not just religion. Making this connection would allow us to apply a wealth of research on the origins of religion to the origins of narrative and literature, enabling at least the formulation of hypotheses about the beginnings of the narrative arts.  

But first some quantitative work is necessary. Is counterintuitive imagery as universal in literary texts as in religious? Is there a difference in rates between written and oral traditions? Has it decreased over time? As an attempt to begin answering these questions, a team of undergraduates and I began to quantify rates of counterintuitive imagery in the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter novels. Ultimately, far more texts will need to be analyzed in as many genres as possible, but these texts served as a proof of concept.

What we found was that the Potter novels in fact had higher levels of counterintuitive imagery than the Bible, even more than the older books that were initially composed orally. Based on informal counts of other works, this does not appear to be an exception, either. Counterintuitive imagery clearly permeates literary texts, not just oral or religious works. In other words, it can be viewed as a universal. Assuming the findings hold up after additional research, this would indicate a need to rethink the purpose of counterintuitive imagery, and the possibility of uniting research on the origins of religion and literature.


“Traveling Through Theatre: Cultural Universals: Some Journeys”

            Sonjoy Dutta-Roy, University of Allahabad

In this presentation, I will explore the deep moorings of fertility myths and rituals in a range of literary and performative works including Eliot’s The Wasteland, Chandrashekhar Kambar’s Jokumaraswamy, and Arun Mukherjee’s Mareech: The Legend.  Among the various sources that feed the cultural universal of fertility rites in Eliot’s poem is the Brihadaranyika Upanishad. I will pick up the encrypted narrative in the Upanishad story and explore the psychological dimensions of sexuality in the gender relationships that trouble Eliot’s poem. I will connect this to the fertility rites in rural Karnataka and Bengal that give birth to Kambar’s and Mukherjee’s plays. All these works encase certain propagandistic political elements that I will try to highlight.  It is at this level that universalisms are often constructed and mobilized for creating power hierarchies in their particular social contexts. But even in such projects, the stories by themselves have bristling indicators that might constantly run against the manipulation of ideas. This often happens as subtext and a much more emancipatory universalism might challenge the canon-creating or political motivated agendas that might be there. I will show this through a reading and sharing of performative experiences from these sources. Through this study, I place the importance of some cultural universals (in this case fertility rites) and their corresponding universalizations in different story-telling and performative traditions for Humanities and its pedagogy.


“Literary Spatial Patterning”

            Liz Finnigan, Southern Regional College, N. Ireland 

In this paper I propose a statistical universal (Hogan 2016) about visual spatial pattering within verbal narrative. The universal states that unique patterns of representation can be found in the literary descriptions for three categories of space: Setting, Place and Person. These patterns are found in particular spatial frames, which I term topological frames, and are a set of schemas for describing setting, places or people. I call these frames topological because they describe the location of objects within a space and their inter-related arrangements. In literary texts, we should expect individual writers to produce spatial representations that are based on stylistic choices which create difference and this also includes the possibility of randomness. Yet, in topological frames the same patterns of spatial relations occur consistently demonstrating a statistical probability in their favour.


“Ministering to Power: Fiction in Court Settings, from Halicarnassus to Heian Japan” 

            Sara R. Johnson, University of Connecticut

It was once a common perception that the novel was a creation of Renaissance and early modern Europe (Cervantes in Spain, Rabelais in France, Richardson or Defoe in England), but today there is growing understanding that novels have emerged more widely in both geographical space and time, from the Greek and Latin novels of the second century CE in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean, to the eleventh-century Tale of Genji in Japan, to the classic form of the novel that began to emerge in fourteenth-century China. In each of these cultural settings, long-form prose was also used to narrate “true” stories of the nation’s past. It is not surprising, then, that one commonly finds alongside “novel” and “history” many narrative texts that mingle perceived “truth” and “fiction” in surprising ways.

In “Embodiment and Universals,” Vittorio Gallese remarks: “It is fair to say that virtually all human beings share the same impulse to narrate – and listen to – stories.” As students of narratology understand, the genres of history and novel both tell “stories” in their own way, and historical and fictional narrative shares many common features. Yet the emergence of both long-form prose fiction and prose narrative history, while widespread, has not been entirely universal. Rather, each has tended to appear in specific cultural and historical contexts, often being associated with one or more “founders” (e.g. Herodotus for Greek history, Cervantes for the Spanish novel, Lady Murasaki for the Genji Monogatari). Likewise, narratives that mingle fiction and fact do not appear universally but along particular fault lines in time and space.

My talk will reflect upon the emergence of narrative texts of an ambivalent nature (those which are difficult to classify neatly as either “history” or “fiction,” “true” or “false”) at two specific points: in eleventh century Japan, shortly after the appearance of the Tale of Genji, and in fourth century BCE Asia Minor, along the boundary between Greek and Persian imperial spheres.


“Literary Canons as Universals; Or, Essential Criteria for a New Philosophy of Literature”

            Christopher Kuipers, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

This presentation will explore two things: first, how literary canons are formed universally, as essential expressions of valuation across all literate cultures; and, second, what this universality of canonization implies for reviving the philosophy of literature.

Despite the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s, “the canon” (as a demarcated set of selections) is still alive and well, as university courses, dissertations, and monographs throughout today’s literary profession blithely attest. But is canonicity truly universal, particularly given the global influence of this avowedly Western concept? There are at least five reasons why canons do seem to be universals in the strict sense. Selection, or valuation of certain things, is unavoidable in culture. Secondly, the other interlinked literary ideas we associate with “canons” (rules, corpuses, lists) likewise form a coherent conceptual-metaphorical complex across cultures, despite varying terminologies. Third, there were a wide variety of such terms in Greco-Roman culture, where “canon” eventually emerged as the, ahem, canonical term. Fourth, in ideological situations where canonicity is specifically declined, all the conceptual usages of “canon” remain fully in play. Fifth, perhaps most interestingly, the selective concept of “canon” exerts profound influence even where there is no positive corresponding keyword, as in the case of the Hebrew Bible (there are only terms to designate works “excluded,” etc. from the canonized Tanakh).

This disruptively anti-ideological, rigorously terministic analysis of canonicity directs us to reconsider the philosophy of literature, which has emerged from scholarly dormancy in the last decade. A philosophy of literature worth the name will entail the following canonical criteria: 1) Literature must be considered as a human instinct, like language and consciousness itself. Anthropologically, literature is likely a human exaptation of music, and certainly a coded expression of ancient patterns of human wisdom. 2) There must be formulated a philosophically satisfactory definition of literature, one free from the pervasive mythology of modern print culture, a definition embracing drama, orality, and visual forms we intuitively recognize as literature, such as film and comics. 3) There must be delineated the values, plural, of literature. The values to be articulated must range well beyond the contingency paradigm of critique, and encompass the full range of literary pleasure and utility, recognition and discovery, that continually engage creators and audiences in any language. 4) There must be acknowledged, so it can be counteracted, the modernizing conceptual impulse to de-mythologize and de-pluralize literature, as epitomized by the singularizing “the” of “the canon” and “the Bible” (< ta biblia “books”). 5) Criticism must be recognized to have a fourth, moral dimension as ethos, in addition to its other three dynamic spheres: grammatica (genitive interpretation alongside generative textuality); mythos (truth-telling alongside fictivity); and logos (gray theory alongside green networks). Increasingly neglected among the canons of criticism since the Enlightenment, ethos is critically keyed to educative value: interest and practice, andragogy and axiology.


“Psycholinguistic Sex Differences in Literary Fiction: A Computerised Text Analysis of 300 Novels”

            Severi Luoto, University of Auckland

Sex is a fundamental biological variable that influences almost all traits in humans. The study of psychological sex differences has been an intensely researched area for decades, if not centuries. Although psychological sex differences have been reported in a variety of domains, linguists still debate about the magnitude of such differences in language use. Using machine learning to find contrasting features of male and female writing, Argamon and colleagues (2009) found significant sexual dimorphism in French texts from the 12th–20th centuries. Female authors used more personal pronouns and negative polarity items than males, while male-authored texts had a higher frequency of determiners and numerical quantifiers. Studying Dutch novels published in the 21st century, Koolen (2018) found large to very large sex differences in the frequencies of pronouns, articles, numbers, and positive emotions, among other categories. I present findings from a corpus linguistic study on 150 male-authored and 150 female-authored British, Irish, and American novels. Sex differences were examined in contemporary prizewinning novels as well as canonical works published between 1800–2017. The novels were analysed with the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program. Very large (Cohen’s d > 1) sex differences were found for personal pronoun use, positive emotion words, social words—all more frequent in female-authored novels—as well as article use and words reflecting analytical thinking, both more frequent in male-authored novels. Other psycholinguistic categories showed sex differences ranging from negligible to large (0 < d < 1). The findings are consistent with existing psychological and linguistic research on sex differences, preliminarily suggesting that literary texts may contain universal sexual dimorphism that arises from fundamental sex differences in psychological traits. These findings on 300 novels provide further challenges to the gender similarities hypothesis while supporting the sex differences hypothesis arising from and supported by evolutionary science.


“Narrative Empathy Is Everywhere: The Ability to Empathize with Literature is a Literary Universal” 

            Kelly Mahaffy, University of Connecticut

Empathy has been one of the most frequently studied concepts of the last decade, yet literary scholars are still unsettled over whether empathy can be considered truly universal or not. If empathy is considered a literary universals, it would mean proving that more often than chance readers can empathize with stories, a feat that has proven difficult. In this presentation, I will consider Suzanne Keen’s “Narrative Empathy: A Universal Response to Literature?” in which she argues against considering empathy as a literary universal and extend the position of Patrick Colm Hogan’s “Comments on Keen: Universal Principles versus Uniformity” to argue that, not only is narrative empathy a literary universal, but that we can universally predict which characters, scenes, and moments of a work of literature will provoke the most empathic responses from readers.

Empathy is no longer a strange pseudo-science constructed solely of self-reported feelings and emotional responses. Now, empathy is often viewed through changes in neuronal activation via neuroimaging, a technique that not only allows for a confirmation of empathizing but also allows comparative analysis of empathic responses across many social strata. Relying on this work on empathy from cognitive science, focusing on the work of Anezka  Kuzmičová, I will prove that it is more likely than chance for readers to empathize with speaking characters featuring ingroup characteristics in emotionally salient situations within literature. This distinction is important, for predicting the times that a reader will empathize while reading a literary text can help to suggest what characters or scenes will be most memorable, why literature is important, and some of the ways evolution makes humans predisposed to enjoying art.


“Metaphors of Sexuality across the Atlantic: La Celestina and the Popol Vuh

            Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, Yale University 

Students of the Popol Vuh and other sixteenth-century indigenous texts from Guatemala and Mexico have long noted the presence of motifs and passages that parallel European texts. The parallels are commonly explained as the result of Spanish religious teachings and other forms of influence on native authors, and the possibilities of parallel but independent origins are rarely considered. In this talk, I explore sexual metaphors involving toothache, which are present in two major literary works produced within decades of each other across the Atlantic: the late fifteenth-century Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea, and the mid-sixteenth century Popol Vuh. While there are good probabilities that the authors of the Popol Vuh incorporated elements of Christianity in their work, I argue that their treatment of toothache as a sexual metaphor did not derive from Spanish teachings. In support of this argument, I explore the meanings associated with toothache in European literature and oral literature from indigenous communities in Guatemala and Mexico.


“Politics of ‘Primal Androgyny’: Some Specific Cultural Implications of this Statistical Universal”

            Arnab Dutta Roy, University of Connecticut

Motifs of “primal androgyny” appear across many mythic and folk traditions around the world dating back thousands of years. Such motifs broadly reveal two interconnected myths (that are evoked either individually or collectively). One, the first humans incorporated both male and female sexual attributes (spiritual, physical, or both). Two, the divinity that created humans was a primal androgyny (mainly on account of its ability to self-procreate). Variations of these myths can be found in a range of pre-colonial traditions from Africa or African diasporic regions (Dogon, Kemetic, Santeria, Haitian), Americas (Navaho, Zuni, Crow, Aztec), Australian tribes, Europe (Greek and Roman), Middle East (Babylonian, Abrahamic), Asia (Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist), and others. A comprehensive study on the topic has not been done so far. As such, this project, in the first part, offers a systematic research program that relates primal androgyny as a prime candidate for statistical universals specific to oral and written mythic traditions.

Building on this comparative frame, the second half of the presentation will examine questions of sexuality and tradition through a reading of androgyny in certain South Asian scriptural and folk traditions (for instance, the mythical Hindu figure of ‘Ardhanarishvara’ or the myths of androgyny in the Tibetan folklore: Uncle Tompa). These readings will explore questions such as how the universal tropes of androgyny have appeared in these traditions, how have they been culturally codified, and what are the broader moral underpinnings of the stories which encase such myths. Thus, my basic aim will be to evaluate the extent to which such readings can complicate and become subversive of existing dogmatic prescriptions of religious patriarchy and unreflective heteronormativity.


“‘Imaginal’ Shapes: Waking, Dreaming, Sleeping in Cross-Cultural Storytelling”

            Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, Nassau Community College

Human experience of wakefulness, dream and sleep have something remarkably common across all cultural borders although how we make sense of them depends upon a culture’s theories of self-perception.  Haruki Murakami’s narrator in his story “Sleep” communicates her experience of one fateful night: “I remember with perfect clarity that first night I lost the ability to sleep. I was having a repulsive dream—a dark, slimy dream….I woke at the climactic moment–came fully awake with a start, as if something had dragged me back at the last moment from a fatal turning point.”  She is transformed as a result of that night and at the end of the story, we are not quite sure about her reality, sanity or our own.

Irving’s celebrated story “Rip Van Winkle”, whose roots go back to a Greek tale of Epimenides who slept for 57 years, presents a perplexed character who finds freedom through his prolonged sleep. In a Pancharatrastory from India a Brahmin’s dream is apparently told as a cautionary tale against castles in the air.  In Robert Sawyer’s trilogy WWW: Wake, Watch, Wonder, we encounter the spontaneous “waking” of Webmind, an emergent AI in a computer. All these stories bring us face to face with the nature of consciousness and human creative imagination’s ability to give “airy nothing, a local habitation and a name.”

Utilizing the articulations of Andalusian Sufi master Ibn al Arabi whose word KhayalHenry Corbin translates as “imaginal” and Indic understanding of the word Kalpana, this paper will observe some of these tales to assert what Thomas Cheetham states in an essay on Corbin and Hillman: “To live a life in tune with imaginal realities requires abandoning the desire for what postmodernists call master narratives.”


“Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal”

            Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon

Hunting demands extensive knowledge of animal behavior, characteristics, and habitat, raising the question of how foragers acquire this knowledge. One potential source is etiological animal tales (EAT), which are pervasive in forager oral tradition and explain the origin of a species’ distinctive physical and/or behavioral traits. If these stories serve as a repository for traditional zoological knowledge, we would expect them to contain information about traits that are useful for identifying, predicting availability of, locating, killing, processing, and/or avoiding dangerous encounters with the animal. These predictions were tested in an earlier study that used story collections from 64 diverse hunter-gatherer societies (Scalise Sugiyama 2017). For each collection, one EAT was chosen at random for content analysis; all 64 stories evinced the predicted information, showing a strong cross-cultural trend. Here I present the results of a follow-up study that examines whether this pattern holds across all EAT within a given culture. For this analysis, ten cultures were selected from the original sample (two from each of five world geographic regions). All EAT from each culture were analyzed for the presence of information about the animal’s availability, behavior, diet, habitat, interspecies relationships, physical traits, sign, techniques used to hunt/process the animal, and hazards associated with the animal. Results suggest that EAT are an important vector of zoological knowledge transmission across forager groups.


“Literary Universals, the Spanish Atlantic, and the Question of Modernity: From Cabeza de Vaca to Castro 

            Soren Triff, Bristol Community College and University of Connecticut 

Literary universals, like story prototypes, can be useful to make “visible” ideologies and discourses that otherwise would remain difficult or impossible to observe in Spanish Atlantic texts. The purpose of my presentation is not to demonstrate the validity of literary universals, that has been already demonstrated, nor their presence in the texts selected, they were chosen because of their presence, but to investigate underlying ideologies and discourses and see what they can tell us about modernity in the Spanish Atlantic. 

In order to put literary universals to the test, I have chosen one narrative structure that Patrick Hogan calls heroic tragicomedy (The Mind and Its Stories [2003] and Affective Narratology [2011]) and apply it to two non-fiction prose pieces. One document is a foundational text of U.S. literature, that happens to be written in Spanish—La relación or Naufragios [Shipwreck], by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and the other is a foundational text of castroism, Palabras a los intelectuales [Words to the Intellectuals], by Fidel Castro. 

In the first part of the presentation, I establish the theoretical foundation, mentioning the relationship between systems of emotion and narratives, and the latter with ideology. Ideology is presented as a connector between universal narratives and particular historically grounded discourses. The theoretical frame for literary discourses is based on Michel Foucault’s “race war” which he sees as the “genealogy” of revolutionary discourse, particularly as he presented it in ‘Society Must Be Defended’ (2003). I rely on Ulf Hannerz’s Cultural Complexity (1992) for a final look at the modernity of the texts. 

In the second part of the presentation, I briefly mention in each case the theme, initial social conflict of the narrative, analyze the body of the narrative including the usurpation sequence and the threat-defense sequence, and the end of the story in which a happiness goal is reached and a new idealized normality is achieved. The heroic tragicomedy contributes to identifying not only explicit and implicit ideologies, but also discursive regularities in very dissimilar non-fiction prose texts like a sixteenth century exploration account by a Spanish author and a twentieth century speech by a Caribbean political leader. The presentation concludes with a reflection on the contribution of the heroic tragicomedy to interrogating texts deeper ideologically, and evaluating to what extent they support or hinder modern worldviews in the Spanish Atlantic.


Embodiment and Universals

Vittorio Gallese, University of Parma, Italy, and University of London, UK,

and Hannah Chapelle Wojciehowski, University of Texas at Austin, USA,

with Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut, USA

PCH: It’s a great honor to be able to speak about literary universals with one of the most important neuroscientists working today and with an innovative, cognitive literary critic who seeks to integrate neuroscience and literary study. Professor Gallese, I realize that literature is not your area of research. However, I believe your insights will be very valuable to students of literature who are trying to determine just what might be universal in literature—absolutely, statistically, typologically, and so on. (On the varieties of universals, see my “What Are Literary Universals?”) Of course, Professor Wojciehowski, your expertise in literary study complements Professor Gallese’s orientation ideally.

I would like to take up your work on the arts and embodied simulation, with its relation to mirroring, while touching also on some other relevant ideas, such as Professor Gallese’s account of spatial experience. As to the former, Professor Gallese and David Freedberg “propose that a crucial element of esthetic response consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions and corporeal sensation, and that these mechanisms are universal.” In connection with works of representational art, “beholders might find themselves automatically simulating the emotional expression, the movement or even the implied movement within the representation” (Freedberg and Gallese 197). They further explain that “Our capacity to pre-rationally make sense of the actions, emotions and sensations of others depends on embodied simulation, a functional mechanism through which the actions, emotions or sensations we see activate our own internal representations of the body states that are associated with these social stimuli, as if we were engaged in a similar action or experiencing a similar emotion or sensation” (198).

It seems that this should extend, with only minor changes, to literature, which requires simulation as well, though the simulation is based on language, rather than perceived images. Indeed, the two of you stress embodied simulation in literary response in your article on “How Stories Make Us Feel.”

First, could you comment on what sorts of commonality you might expect to find in literature? What sorts of patterns would you look for in connection with mirroring and embodied simulation? I realize that, as a scientist and a humanist committed to scientific enquiry, you may be—quite rightly—hesitant to make claims without empirical support. But, as Karl Popper stressed, “bold conjectures” are important for science, because “only with the help of such bold conjectures can we hope to discover interesting and relevant truth” (312).


VG: Thank you for this stimulating opening question. It will also help me to clarify why a cognitive neuroscientist would be willing to address such a question and the ensuing ones. As Hannah and I recently stressed when writing about the so-called “biocultural turn,” more and more scholars are questioning the rigid dichotomy severing culture from nature (Wojciehowski and Gallese, “Narrative”). Hannah and I agree upon the necessity to overcome this dichotomy, on the basis of the assumption that culture can be considered as an extension or outgrowth of the natural. To paraphrase Helmuth Plessner, as human beings we are artificially natural and naturally artificial.

In this vein, culture can be described as a naturally evolved type of human cognitive technology. According to the evolutionary framework, human cultural evolution can be conceived as a perpetually dynamic process of cognitive technological development, where the first prehistoric lithic tools and the iPhone 7 used to shoot a feature movie (Unsane, Steven Soderberg, 2018) represent two different and temporally distinct outcomes of the same technological dimension. What we currently designate as “literature” constitutes no exception to this perspective. The biocultural paradigm posits that any human technology is at the same time the expression of the human mind and of humans’ bodily nature, as the latter scaffolds the former.

To put it in more radical terms, we are always dealing with two sides of the same coin. Nevertheless, the human mind and humans’ bodily nature should be kept separate at the operational level, as they are best approached and studied from multiple perspectives, according to multiple methodologies, leading to correspondingly different levels and languages of description. The real challenge for the biocultural approach is to define bridge concepts and/or empirically test how to deconstruct, revise or even dissolve many of the conceptual tools we currently employ to discuss art, literature, and their reception.

But what is the bearing of neuroscience? I think that cognitive neuroscience can provide those bridge concepts, as it is well equipped to address the conceptualization of human culture, art and literature by investigating the underpinning brain-body mechanisms. By studying the brain-body in relation to artistic expressions and their reception we can better understand the constitutive elements of aesthetic experience and the genesis of aesthetic concepts.

Let me now address more specifically your question about literary universals. First of all, do they exist? I think that the biocultural approach is best suited to address this question, as it allows to overcome the often-supposed equivalence between universality and natural determinism. Indeed, if one considers human culture and nature as mutually interacting domains, any biological description of human cognitive/cultural traits is neither forced to surrender to deterministic innatism, nor to neglect historical and ethnological cultural diversity. This still allows one to look for universals.

Even before asking whether literary universals do exist, I think we should answer an even more fundamental question: what is literature for? Cognitive literary theorist Michele Cometa recently argued that stories help us to live because they help us to compensate for our finitude and related inadequacy at coping with the world’s challenges. It is fair to say that virtually all human beings share the same impulse to narrate – and listen to – stories. Thus, the first universal seems to be fiction-proclivity. I see it as a particular case of the wider human propensity to create parallel worlds, likely first imagining them, then turning those fantasies into images, signs and words. In that respect, solid empirical evidence shows that the neurobiological mechanisms interfacing us with the “real world,” largely overlap with those acting when we imagine fictional worlds both through images and words. Indeed, experiencing an emotion and imagining it are both underpinned by the activation of partly identical brain circuits, although differently connected, when engaged in these different cognitive and phenomenal situations. Similarly, to see something and to imagine it, to act and to imagine one is acting, share the activation of partly common brain circuits.Hence, embodied simulation theory can be used both to account for how we perceive the world and how we imagine it, or build a world of fiction. Basically, my hypothesis is that the world of literature is “felt” not too differently from how we feel the more prosaic world of our daily life. We feel for and empathize with fictional characters in ways that are similar to how we feel for our real social partners, although with qualifying differences (see below).


HCW:  I will add one thing here that is important to establish at the outset of our discussion: when we speak of literary universals, we need to leave open the possibility of exceptions.  In many areas of literary studies today, and for the past several decades, the idea of universals has been heavily challenged. That is because abstract notions of the human or of human experience have often functioned as de factomeans of validating the tastes, values, and authority of dominant groups over those of everyone else within some larger polity.  Literary critics tend to be skeptical of claims to universality—and rightly so. There are persistent and ongoing concerns that any claims to universality will be ensconced as social or cultural norms that delegitimize or stigmatize persons or groups whose experiences do not conform to those norms.

All three of us understand the potential for misuse and/or the denial or suppression of differences in human experiences of all kinds.  Nevertheless, I would argue that we should not be afraid to investigate and to theorize aesthetic experience in light of new scientific discoveries of the underlying mechanisms of human and animal perception, or human-as-animal perception, with the caveat that there are risks involved in claiming universality.  There is new empirical data coming out every day that is highly relevant to what we do as literary critics, and it would be a mistake to ignore it.  Is there still room to talk about universals, relatively speaking, or common experiences? Yes, absolutely.  Moreover, it is necessary and helpful to do so, because it may have the effect of creating conversations across perceived barriers between groups, however we might define them.  Exploring universals may help us gain a better understanding of the categories of experience that we may share with the animal world.


PCH: Before turning to verbal literature, I thought it might be worthwhile to take up the case of picture-based narrative. Relative to paintings, on the one hand, and verbal literature, on the other, picture-based narrative presents an intermediate case, where images are embedded in text. The obvious instance of the last is contemporary graphic fiction, but the practice of intertwining words and drawings in storytelling extends back centuries in a range of traditions (see, for example, Mair). One motif that seems to recur in a number of traditions is the descent into Hell or, more broadly, the depiction of extreme suffering. Here are four examples of what I have in mind, one from Bengal, one from Thailand, one from the United States, and one from Iran (via France). I would like to ask two questions here. First, do you have any thoughts on this as a recurring motif across traditions? (We will turn to some purely literary examples later.) Second, what would you say about the embodied responses that these works seek to elicit, how they do so, and what that might say about cross-cultural patterns in literary or aesthetic production and reception? (I have included the reproductions to make it possible to comment on specific points in the works, if you like.) I am obviously concerned here with “the relationship between embodied empathetic feelings in the observer and the representational content of the works in terms of the actions, intentions, objects, emotions and sensations depicted in a given painting or sculpture” (Freedberg and Gallese 199)—or, in this case, image plus text.


Figure 1. Bengali scroll illustration of “the tortures of hell,” depicting, “among other things, how a liar’s tongue is pulled out with hot tongs and how a miser’s head is smashed with a husking pedal” (Hauser 117).


Figure 2. Thai scroll depiction of the Buddhist monk, Phra Malai, visiting Hell (Lefferts 158). Lefferts explains that the souls in Hell are “in a boiling cauldron” (157). Phra Malai clarifies how they can be released from suffering. I [PCH] might add to Lefferts’s observations that the souls in Hell appear to have adopted the same prayerful posture as the seemingly peaceful beings who accompany the monks—not what one might expect from the cross-culturally common motif of burning in Hell. They are also linked with those beings by the purple color motif (as the monks are linked by their ochre robes).


Figure 3. From Spiegelman’s Maus II (72): One of the methods of mass execution in Auschwitz.


Figure 4. From Satrapi’s Persepolis (15): An atrocity—a crowd locked in a burning theater—that contributes to revolutionary anger in Iran.


HCW: Great question.  In each image, Hell (1-2) or a hellish place or situation (3-4) entails physical pain. Why is hell so often associated with burning?  Is it because being consumed by fire is one of the most excruciating forms of pain that the human body can experience?  The text accompanying the Maus image (3) suggests the prolongation and intensification of that physical pain; those words provide a context that the image does not do on its own.  The Bengali scroll (1) features women getting their tongues torn out by demons–once again, an extreme image of physical pain caused by bodily dismemberment.  The bowl of tongues could function to terrorize the viewer of the scroll, or perhaps it provides comic relief, implying that there are a lot of liars out there.  The liars in this image are female; is the artist taking a dig at women?  It would seem so.  Meanwhile the Thai scroll (2) depicts souls in a cauldron of boiling water. This is more of a purgatorial image, since these souls are performing penance that will enable their rebirth.

Every human body feels pain, with rare exceptions. There are a tiny number of people who lack the pain-sensing mechanisms that we generally rely on in order to avoid damaging our bodies, but most people are capable of feeling pain.  The ability to experience physical pain is something we share with virtually everyone who has ever lived, and many or most animal species, as well.  Religion frequently capitalizes on that fact in order to elicit certain behaviors from human communities—do what we say, or bad things will happen to you.  Religious imagery of hell elicits embodied simulation on the part of the viewer.  We simulate in our minds the affective components of pain, but not the physical ones, as Tania Singer et al. demonstrated in an important study of how we mirror the pain of others.  When we see images such as these, we imagine what that suffering feels like—indeed, we cannot not imagine it, or only with considerable difficulty.

Each of the four images above features not only pain, but also vulnerable bodies.  This vulnerability is depicted via a range of motifs, such as nudity (1-2), sexual defenselessness (1), mouths open in pain (3-4), bodily contortions (1, 3-4), and captivity (1-4).  Physical pain or discomfort is the primary motif of hell, whether that hell has been created by supernatural forces or by humans.  Each image is a prompt to moral reflection that arises from the perception and co-experience of pain.


VG: These four images wouldn’t need any explanatory word, as they are self-evident. Such self-evidence also stems from the beholders’ embodied simulation of the bodily postures, facial expressions and affective correlates of the depicted situations leading the portrayed human bodies to suffer. What is depicted evokes a bodily simulated response; words most likely provide a context, which in turn can modulate those same responses.


PCH: Each of the preceding selections involves moral and/or political concerns. For instance, the Bengali example clearly represents a kind of tit-for-tat punishment for moral failings. On the other hand, readers today are likely to notice immediately that the sinners or victims are all women and the punishers or demons are all male. Similarly, the image from Satrapi is complicated. The complicity of the police with the killing suggests government involvement, but the participation of secular progressives in the revolution might have contributed to the eventual victory of religious reaction in Iran. Where do you see the place of mirroring and embodied empathy in the ethical and political programs of literature (in these cases or elsewhere)?


HCW:  Your question cuts to the chase.  Implicitly you are asking about the stakes of cognitive literary studies, not just for its current practitioners but potentially for literary theorists and cultural studies practitioners who might not see its relevance to more politically and socially driven forms of critique.  These would include feminisms and queer theories, critical race studies, and disability studies, among others.  In fact, the wide-ranging set of discourses that is sometimes called cognitive theory or cognitive cultural studies is highly useful when blended with identity-focused ethical critiques such as those just mentioned, even though that combination may seem counter-intuitive to critics who have been trained to eschew essentialisms of all varieties.  But understanding the mechanisms of shared human experience, or human-animal experience, is not essentialist in itself.  It depends what you do with it.

For example, understanding the near-universality of human pain experiences, together with the variability of the mirroring mechanism (it is innate but not always a given) could be put to the service of a feminist reading of the Bengali scroll.  Are viewers supposed to empathize with the women being tortured and punished?  Why or why not?  How might viewer/reader acts of empathy or of disengagement vary from culture to culture, or from time period to time period? How else might we account for the variety of possible reactions on the part of viewers?  Does the artist’s vision or intention matter?  Why or why not?  These and similar questions are highly salient to our understanding of how works of art make us feel, and whatthey make us feel.

Artists and writers understand that humans live and move in the world via pain-sensing mechanisms, among other things, and they put that understanding to work in their representations of experience. Pain doesn’t have to be present in every painting or story, but it often is, and it can be used deliberately and innovatively in order to have the viewer or reader feel moved in some way. In these images from Maus and Persepolis, we understand that it is humans, rather than God or demons, who have inflicted these sadistic punishments on the innocent bodies of their victims, and we contemplate that injustice.  We empathize with those in pain.  We may desire to understand the social and political contexts of the violence that we are witnessing.

The experience of a powerful work of art may produce a surfeit of feeling—here, distress–that impels us to put emotion and sensation into words.  We may seek to share that experience with others as ethical and/or aesthetic reflections that can be threaded through the rest of our reality.


VG: Mirroring and embodied empathy are not stereotyped and undifferentiated responses. They are both context-dependent and idiosyncratically linked to beholders’ and/or readers’ personal historical, social and biological identity. The political and ethical impact of literature – and of art in general—clearly depend upon how these individual modulating factors affect the bodily responses they trigger. In other words, I think that in our response to literature there always be a projective quality, related to how our personal life history has determined the development of our embodied cognition, as the latter is the outcome of our bodily habits and implicit memories. Each of us, to a certain degree simulates a given fictional content in a very specific way. Indeed, the more we factor in inter-individual diversity, the more we understand how differently people relate to fiction. Contemporary political discourse exemplifies that pretty neatly: some contents that were considered taboo just few years ago, are now openly addressed.


PCH: In connection with this, I might remark on the apparently very different orientation of the Bengali and Thai depictions (though Lefferts does indicate that some other Thai representations are more graphic about the sufferings of those in Hell [157]). I would suggest that this is due to a general, Buddhist tendency to move away from moral judgment to prudence and the associated stress on compassion. (This is related to the Buddhist allowance of many chances across many lives.) Buddhist detachment is beneficial because it is prudent; not following it is a painful mistake, not an offense against God. The same points would hold for some versions of Hinduism, but the influences of Christian and Muslim monotheism and moralism have been strong in Bengal. In any case, do you have any thoughts on the different sorts of embodied and mirroring responses that might bear on these sorts of differences in ethics and politics? Neither the more compassionate view of the Buddhists nor the righteous condemnation of sinners is uniform across societies. I take this to be relevant to universals because neither is uniform within a society either. What might be universal is the different ways one might conceive of ethics, politics, and empathic or compassionate response.


HCW:  Yet another great question.  One of the most influential books of the 1980s among literary critics was Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.  This was an incredibly ambitious book written from a psychoanalytic and anthropological perspective; Kristeva’s topic, abjection, refers to what she argued is a universal human revulsion toward whatever in real life or in fantasy threatens the boundaries between self and other.  One portion of her book explored the ways that each different religion formalizes its own set of relations to the abject in order to provide mastery over it.

So what I am thinking is that someone needs to write a new theory of world religion with embodied cognition and neuroscience in mind.  To what extent would such a project be compatible with Kristeva’s psychoanalytic theory of abjection in religion and art, or with any other analysis?  Likely it would break new ground.


VG: I agree. As I tried to say in my previous answer, the biocultural search for universals does not imply, let alone posit cultural homogeneity. The same neurobiological mechanisms are at stake in every culture. However, we speak of different cultures or of different responses within the same culture, precisely because these mechanisms are plastic and bear the mark of each individual’s personal identity, thus leading to personalized forms of embodiment.


PCH: Here, we might turn to verbal literature. There are many cases of the descent into hell in different literary traditions. The obvious example is, of course, Dante. (I’ve given a selection below, but you should feel free to take up any part you like.) Other examples would include the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata. At the end of that massive work, one of the main characters, Yudhiṣṭhira goes to Heaven. He finds “prosperity,” “effulgence like the sun,” and the dissolution of enmity (1). But he feels enmity for those in Heaven and longing for those who are not, and therefore descends into Hell, led by a Virgil-like guide. Hell is “enveloped in thick darkness” and “Polluted with . . . stench,” filled with harassing insects, surrounded by fire, and fed with a river of boiling water (3). He witnesses tortures all around. Dispirited by what he experiences, Yudhiṣṭhira decides to turn back. However, he hears the laments of his family, who find his presence consoling and in some degree relieving.

In these passages, we see that the descent into Hell has a long and diverse history. What do you make of the recurrence of this idea in these complex, verbal texts? Where do you see embodied simulation functioning in cross-culturally consequential ways?

From the final canto of Inferno (XXXIV):

Quando noi fummo fatti tanto avante,

ch’al mio maestro piacque di mostrarmi

la creatura ch’ebbe il bel sembiante,


d’innanzi mi si tolse e fé restarmi,

«Ecco Dite», dicendo, «ed ecco il loco

ove convien che di fortezza t’armi».


Com’ io divenni allor gelato e fioco,

nol dimandar, lettor, ch’i’ non lo scrivo,

però ch’ogne parlar sarebbe poco.


Io non mori’ e non rimasi vivo;

pensa oggimai per te, s’hai fior d’ingegno,

qual io divenni, d’uno e d’altro privo.


Lo ‘mperador del doloroso regno

da mezzo ‘l petto uscia fuor de la ghiaccia;

e più con un gigante io mi convegno,


che i giganti non fan con le sue braccia:

vedi oggimai quant’ esser dee quel tutto

ch’a così fatta parte si confaccia.


S’el fu sì bel com’ elli è ora brutto,

e contra ‘l suo fattore alzò le ciglia,

ben dee da lui procedere ogne lutto.


Oh quanto parve a me gran maraviglia

quand’ io vidi tre facce a la sua testa!

L’una dinanzi, e quella era vermiglia;


l’altr’ eran due, che s’aggiugnieno a questa

sovresso ‘l mezzo di ciascuna spalla,

e sé giugnieno al loco de la cresta:


e la destra parea tra bianca e gialla;

la sinistra a vedere era tal, quali

vegnon di là onde ‘l Nilo s’avvalla.


Sotto ciascuna uscivan due grand’ ali,

quanto si convenia a tanto uccello:

vele di mar non vid’ io mai cotali.


Non avean penne, ma di vispistrello

era lor modo; e quelle svolazzava,

sì che tre venti si movean da ello:


quindi Cocito tutto s’aggelava.

Con sei occhi piangëa, e per tre menti

gocciava ‘l pianto e sanguinosa bava.


Da ogne bocca dirompea co’ denti

un peccatore, a guisa di maciulla,

sì che tre ne facea così dolenti.


A quel dinanzi il mordere era nulla

verso ‘l graffiar, che talvolta la schiena

rimanea de la pelle tutta brulla.


(“The emperor of the woeful realm from his midbreast issued forth from the ice; and I match better with a giant, than the giants do with his arms. See now how great must be that whole which corresponds to such parts. If he was as fair as he now is foul, and against his Maker lifted up his brow, surely may all tribulation proceed from him. Oh how great a marvel it seemed to me, when I saw three faces on his head! one in front, and that was red; the others were two that were joined to this above the very middle of each shoulder, and they were joined together at the place of the crest; and the right seemed between white and yellow, the left was such to sight as those who come from where the Nile flows valleyward. Beneath each came forth two great wings, of size befitting so huge a bird. Sails of the sea never saw I such. They had no feathers, but their fashion was of a bat; and he was flapping them so that three winds went forth from him, whereby Cocytus was all congealed. With six eyes he was weeping, and over three chins trickled the tears and bloody drivel. With each mouth he was crushing a sinner with his teeth, in manner of a brake, so that he thus was making three of them woeful. To the one in front the biting was nothing to the clawing, so that sometimes his spine remained all stripped of skin.”)


HCW:   We might also ask why heaven is “up there” in Dante, in the Mahābhārata, and in general.  I am struck by the useless wings of Satan, who cannot fly out of hell because he is entrapped in the ice of the frozen Cocytus, which his own wing-flapping keeps frozen.  We don’t have wings, and we cannot fly by our own power, and yet we can co-feel with Satan, insofar as we know what it feels like to be trapped, to be cold, and perhaps sometimes to be miserable.  We do not empathize with Satan, most of us, because the narrative guides us to identify with Dante and Virgil, who are horrified by him (speaking of abjection). In order to escape, they must grab onto the immense hairy body of the demon and climb down through a space between his body and the ice.  When Virgil reaches the hip, positioned at the center of the earth, he pivots.  In order to come out on the other side, he must turn upside-down, which is really right-side up.

The last four lines of the Inferno knock my socks off.  Dante writes:

salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle
che porta ’l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle. (136-139)

(“We mounted up again, he first and I second, till through a round opening I saw of those beauteous things which heaven bears, and thence we came forth to see again the stars.”)

After imagining and co-feeling the impotence of the three damnedest of the damned—Brutus, Judas and Cassius—as they are cannibalized by Satan, and of Satan himself, a flightless demon-bat hybrid stuck in the pit of hell, we imagine the feeling of inverting, of literally and figuratively coming out on the other side.  We feel with the two of them a renewed sense of agency, of upward movement, which for Dante is a completely unexpected reversal, and perhaps even a rebirth through the pertugio tondo (see my forthcoming essay “Metaphors They Lived By”).  We co-feel with the two voyagers a sense of exhilaration as they begin their climb toward heaven, which only one of them—Dante–will enter.


VG: The cross-cultural pervasiveness of the trope “descent to hell” is likely the outcome of a vastly shared negative connotation of the downward polarity of space. If one thinks about body physiology, for example nutrients, oxygen, as well as the teleoceptive senses enabling us to be in touch with the world, like sight and audition, enter the body in its upper part, while dejections come out from its lower one. Following Lakoff and Johnson original insight (1981), human cognition in general, and ethics and politics in particular, are mapped by the body through metaphorical mapping. This is one of the most important element justifying the notion that the human mind is physically- and thus bodily-situated. By the way, embodiment also provides the key explanation for the verses describing Lucifer’s bodily actions being so compelling and disturbing: indeed, Lucifer’s restless wing flapping associated with his perpetual forced stillness, because of the grip of the frozen soil, increases our feeling of uneasiness, as it brings along a sense of useless effort and the accompanying feeling of frustration.


PCH: I have mentioned to you before that it might make sense to try to isolate different “profiles of embodied response,” as we might call them, outlines of the degree and kind of (simulative) mirror neuron or similar activation that may be provoked in a subject while reading a literary work. For example, romantic and heroic stories are perhaps the most common genres cross-culturally. These clearly involve simulation—gentle and intimate in the former case, energetic and combative in the second. I wonder about the degree to which embodied simulation may figure in the apparent prominence of these genres. Put differently, would embodied simulation operate with the same intensity in sacrificial, family reunion, or revenge and criminal investigation stories? (For an outline of the cross-cultural narrative genres, see “Story.”)


HCW:  Well, there is some historical variability in the popularity of genres.  Why that would be I’m not sure, but it’s something to think about.  For example, criminal investigation stories are in ascendance in our own time. Romances were very popular in the Renaissance (I am describing a genre that is somewhat different from what most people mean by “romance” today).  I was going to say that epics abound in antiquity, though the omnipresent superhero films of the current moment are certainly epic.   It makes me wonder why certain affective scenarios / fantasy clusters are valued more at certain times more than others.


VG: One way to answer this question would be to posit that literary genres can be equated to different mindsets, each of which presupposes specific rules, mappings and their related bodily images and behaviors. However, each of this supposedly different mind sets share a great deal of underpinning neurobiological mechanisms. For example, according to René Girard comedy and tragedy show, at bottom, a common mimetic scheme: laughter and tears share the same propensity to put the body into play to expel from it, and cathartically remove the mimetic conflict pattern, which is at the center of both the comic theater and the tragic one. It is no coincidence, Girard says, that laughter is most evoked by tickling, a bodily practice that simulates an attack on the other’s body. Comedy thus becomes an “intellectual tickle” that puts us in a position to witness the eternal conflictual reciprocity of our species, ritualized in the mimetic scheme intrinsic to the comic genre.


PCH: I also wonder if you have any thoughts on the ways embodiment or mirroring operate in fiction and non-fiction? I have claimed for some time that our minds are set up in order to respond to fiction and non-fiction similarly (see chapter one of How Authors’ Minds Make Stories). The adaptive function of simulation relies on our having an emotional-motivational response to imagined scenarios, pursuing those that appear to be opportunities and shunning those that seem to pose threats, thus those that inspire desire in the former case and fear in the latter case. Nonetheless, it is clear that we do in some respects respond differently to imagined and real scenarios—including in empathic response. For example, it at least seems that we are much more willing to have compassion for “sinners” in novels than in news stories. Do embodied cognition and mirroring processes tell us something about this?


VG: Indeed, it is true that we respond differently to imagined and real scenarios: no one rushes out of the movie theatre in panic after watching a house on fire on the movie screen. The same applies to literature. So far we emphasized, clearly, the similarity between our responses to fiction and non-fiction. This similarity transpires even at the level of single neurons. A recent study by Caggiano et al. showed that macaques’ mirror neurons respond to both the observation of real actions performed by the experimenter physically present in front of them, and to their filmed footage displayed on a computer screen. However, needless to say, there is something distinctive of our response to fiction. What might that be?

A possible solution to this conundrum is offered by the hypothesis of “liberated embodied simulation.” That is to say, embodied simulation can be relevant to our experience of fictional worlds because of the potentiation of the mirroring mechanisms that they activate (Gallese “Aby” and “Embodied”; Wojciehowski and Gallese “How” and “Narrative”). In this way, embodied simulation generates the specific attitude informing our aesthetic experience. Such potentiation supposedly boosts the bodily memories and imaginative associations that fictional content awakes in our minds, and thus provides the specific character of its reception. How is such potentiation achieved? One important context-dependent aspect characterizing our relationship to fictional worlds deals with our distancing from the unrelated external world, which remains at the periphery of our attentional focus. Such distancing, this temporary suspension of the active grip on our daily occupations, liberates new simulative energies. When reading a novel, we distance ourselves from the “everyday” context. By adopting such an attitude, our embodied simulation becomes “liberated”—that is, it is freed from the burden of modeling our actual psychophysical presence in daily life; hence, new simulative energies are liberated. The specific and particularly moving experience generated when relating to the world of fiction is enhanced by the sense of safe intimacy with a world we not only imagine, but also literally embody with augmented intensity. Furthermore, when engaged with fictional narratives, the contextual bodily framing—our being still—additionally boosts our embodied simulation. Being forced to inaction, we are more open to feelings and emotions. When relating to fictional worlds, our attitude toward their content can be characterized as a sort of “neotenic look” (Gallese “Neoteny”). This is similar to the way we look at the world during the early period of our development, in which, because of our poor motor autonomy, our interactions with the world are mainly mediated by the embodied simulation of events, actions, and emotions animating our social landscape. We probably learn to calibrate gestures and expressions and to match them with experiences of pleasure/displeasure, while observing them in others, thanks to embodied simulation and its plasticity.

When we relate to fictional worlds, our relative immobility is the outcome of a deliberate decision on our part. However, immobility, that is, a greater degree of motor inhibition, likely allows us to allocate more neural resources to the task at hand, intensifying the activation of embodied simulation and, in so doing, making us adhere more intensely to what we are simulating. This, in turn, helps strengthen our empathic engagement. Curiously enough, some of the most vivid fictional experiences we entertain, such as those occurring within dreams, are paralleled by the massive inhibition of the muscle tone in our body.


HCW:   Hmm.  I would distinguish not only between fiction and non-fiction, but also between third- and first-person narratives.  The latter, whether true or false, are usually easier to follow and imagine from the protagonist’s perspective.  The first-person narrative that has the feel of truth—that is, of being non-fiction—tends to draw us in.  Artful third-person or the much rarer second-person narratives can also pull us in.   So I’m not sure about this question.  There are a lot of variables to take into account.


PCH: As I mentioned before, I would like to turn briefly toward the issue of space. You recently published an essay of mine on “Affective Space and Emotional Time,” where I considered emotional aspects of space in poems by the great Chinese writers, Lǐ Bái (李白) and Lǐ Qīngzhào (李清照). Though I was not focusing on literary universals in that essay, it seems clear that the various aspects of space treated by those poets—for example, its organization in terms of attachment relations—carry over to a wide range of writers from other traditions and other time periods. Indeed, I have maintained in The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology that the emotional organization of space is crucial to recurring features of the cross-cultural genres, as in the common exile of the legitimate leader in heroic usurpation stories or that of the lover in romantic stories.

I suspect that there are many aspects of spatial experience that have cross-cultural literary functions, including aspects of bodily, peripersonal, and extrapersonal space (see Rizzolatti and colleagues), the experience of spatial boundaries and body ownership, and other topics. For example, Professor Gallese and David Freedberg explain that “When we see the body part of someone else being touched or caressed, or when we see two objects touching each other, our somatosensory cortices are activated as if our body were subject to tactile stimulation” (201). This phenomenon seems likely to figure in the development of, for example, erotic literature—a familiar genre in the West, but one that flourished in, for example, India and China as well. I also imagine that it has a place in familial attachment and separation narratives. Do you have comments or observations on the implications of Professor Gallese’s work for thinking about (perhaps at this point merely conjecturing about) the various types of spatial experience and their possible relation to literary universals?


HCW:   There’s plenty of room for comment here—pun intended.  Erotic literature and romance, as well as pornography, play with the sensations of pleasure that are generated in the reader or viewer when distances are crossed, and contact—the bridging of physical or psychic space–occurs.  Patrick, you relate these sensations to familial narratives, which is an intriguing and non-intuitive connection to make.  I am reminded of the parable of the prodigal son, which concludes with the highly satisfying contraction of the heartbreaking physical and emotional distance that separates parents and child for most of the story.

These sensations can work in the other direction, as you suggest of separation narratives.  Estrangement within narratives, tales of separation and isolation, may turn on the absence or loss of physical contact, an opening up of physical or temporal space and distance, that we co-feel as we read or watch.  The genre of a work determines how the usual push-pull of contact and separation will play out according to an established formula.  But if the story should play out differently, then we might be surprised to find ourselves in another genre–distanced, as it were, from our prior horizon of expectations, not in Kansas anymore.


PCH: As to family separation and reunion narratives and tactility, what I had in mind was that not only sexual desire, but non-sexual attachment is commonly expressed and communicated through bodily contact. Caresses and embraces do not need to be erotic. Indeed, they are often important in family reunion, as their impossibility is a painful consequence of separation.

A final question: What other aspects of your work do you feel might be particularly relevant to the study of literary universals?


VG:  I guess we badly need to investigate different cultures and different literary traditions. We all know too well how in the past universality claims were used to support and consolidate a Western-centric view of culture.


HCW:  I am a literary historian by training—one who has specialized in late medieval and Renaissance literature.  Students tend to steer clear of premodern literature because it seems incredibly foreign to them.  Indeed, there are many hurdles to understanding, and as a teacher and scholar of the period, I can avail myself of two approaches:  1) highlighting cultural differences, ruptures, and other impasses to understanding; and 2) highlighting continuities of and within the human experience, which, like Dante and Virgil flipping over as they pass through to the other side, suddenly enable us to make sense of what we otherwise see and experience as forbiddingly or perhaps delightfully alien.  Either way works, and these approaches work even better in tandem.


PCH:    Thank you both very much for your generosity in participating in this interview. I know you are both very busy and it is not a small thing for you to take this amount of time. The result, however, will undoubtedly be beneficial to readers of the website, both humanists and scientists.

In conclusion, I might remark briefly on the important political issues you both rightly mention. As you know, the explicit program of the Literary Universals Project to foster the empirical study, including both description and explanation, of literary universals, as defined on the website in the following terms: “For any given domain of literature (e.g., narrative), universals are features of works in that domain that recur across genetically and areally unrelated traditions with greater frequency than would be predicted by chance” (“What Are Literary Universals?”). It is important to stress that this is a search for universals in the sense of what distinct traditions share. The politically offensive sense of “universal” is almost the exact opposite. It is an assertion of difference across cultures, combined with a claim that one culture should be forced on all the others, since that culture is supposedly “universal,” while the others are not. For example, in literary history, this objectionable sense of “universal” is found in the view that European literary works (e.g., Hamlet) are “universal,” while the literary works of other traditions (e.g., Abhijñānaśākuntalam) are merely of local interest.

In short, the politically objectionable use of “universal” is actually anti-universalist in that it is founded on assumptions of differences across cultures. This is in keeping with general patterns. No fascist ever justified killing Jews by claiming that Jews and Aryans share universal, human features. Nazis rationalized murder by claiming that Jews, Roma, the disabled, and others were fundamentally different. No racist ever justified slavery by saying that Africans and Europeans were fundamentally the same. Racists rationalized slavery by claiming that Africans and Europeans were radically different.

Thus, it is certainly important to discern how someone is using the word, “universal.” But a prima facie political skepticism seems warranted only when the term is being used in one, apparently anti-universalist sense. Specifically, claims of universality might reasonably provoke something like “strict scrutiny” (to borrow a phrase from constitutional law) when those claims in fact assert cultural difference—or, more precisely, when they assert cultural difference in fundamental psychological or other principles. There are, of course, distinct ways of instantiating cross-culturally shared principles. Indeed, one must recognize the variables even to formulate the shared principles. For example, there is reason to believe that all or most traditions–in certain, specifiable respects–shape standard poetic line length through the constraints of working memory (on the complexities of such a principle, see Nigel Fabb’s “Poetic Line Length”). But the precise details of standard poetic line length—thus, the way the shared principle is particularized–are not identical across traditions, periods, movements, or individual poets. The point is that empirically isolating the shared principle of constraint should not be considered a politically suspect undertaking.

Of course, someone might mistakenly assert that a certain feature is shared across genetically and areally distinct literary traditions. A research program in literary universals needs to evaluate all claims on the basis of evidence in such a way as to reject or revise as many such mistaken claims as possible. But that is simply part of ordinary, empirical science and applies as much to biology or physics as to literary study.



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Freedberg, Davidand Vittorio Gallese. “Motion, Emotion and Empathy in Esthetic Experience.” Trends in Cognitive Science 11.5 (2007): 197-203.

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Gallese, Vittorio. “Neoteny and Social Cognition: A Neuroscientific Perspective on Embodiment.” In Embodiment, Enaction and Culture: Investigating the Constitution of the Shared World. Ed. Christoph Durt, Thomas Fuchs, and Christian Tewes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017, 309-332.

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Comments on Hogan, “Impossible Love”

Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

Some pretty clear examples of the mortal-immortal romance sub-genre (discussed in Patrick Hogan’s “Impossible Love: A Sub-Genre of Romantic Stories”) originate in Old Irish tradition and enter English tradition through Marie de France, the mother of the English romance and the grandmother of the novel.

The immortals involved are the Celtic fairies, in early tales called Tuatha Dé Danann ‘people of the Goddess Danu.’ Like other Celtic goddesses, Danu was a manifestation of a great river, the Danube. Fairies are said to live in island paradises like Tír ‘na n-Óg, “the land of the young,” and in fortresses connected to the underworld. Many of them bear the names of Celtic gods mentioned by Caesar.

“The Debility of the Ulstermen,” an important Old Irish instance of the sub-genre, explains why the Ulstermen were helpless when attacked by Queen Medb of Connaught in Táin Bó Cúalnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the great Irish epic in Prosimetrum form.

Plot: Crunnchu mac Agnoman isolates himself after the death of his wife. One day a distinguished-looking woman appears in his house and takes charge of the household. His handsome appearance is delightful to her and she sleeps with him. They live together in prosperity for a long while. One day Crunnchu says he will attend a great festival at the court of the Ulster king. She says he should not go because they cannot not be together if he speaks of her in the assembly, as she strongly suspects he will. He goes anyway. The royal chariot wins all the races at the festival and everyone praises the king’s horses. Crunnchu foolishly remarks that his wife can run faster than those horses. He is seized and his wife is summoned to race against the horses despite her protest that she is about to give birth. She declares that her name is Macha (the name of one aspect of the triple goddess Morrígan, a.k.a. Morgan the Fairy). She wins the race and gives birth to a son and a daughter before the king’s chariots finish. She then declares that everyone who has heard her cry out while giving birth will become as helpless as a woman in childbirth when attacked by an enemy, unto the ninth generation. It is worth adding that the Celtic pantheon includes widely-known horse goddesses like Epona.

A later example of the sub-genre is Marie’s Lanval.

Plot: Lanval is one of King Arthur’s knights. His virtues are many but are not appreciated. Wandering in the forest, he encounters a fairy princess in a beautiful pavilion. They become lovers. The princess warns Lanval that they can no longer be together if he tells anyone about her. With the fairy’s supernatural assistance, Lanval becomes wealthy and earns fame for his generosity. One day Arthur’s queen meets Lanval and attempts to seduce him. He refuses. She says he must be more interested in pageboys. Lanval scornfully tells her about his lover and declares that the princess’s servant girls are more beautiful than the queen. The furious queen lies to Arthur that Lanval has tried to seduce her. Lanval is seized. The barons decide that Lanval can be forgiven if he produces his lover and her servant girls to prove that what he has said is true. The fairy princess decides to rescue Lanval despite her earlier statement that they can no longer be together. Her servant girls arrive at the court, strikingly beautiful and splendidly attired. Last comes the fairy princess, who testifies for Lanval. He is forgiven and freed. He stands on a mounting block, and when the princess passes by on her horse, he jumps up behind her. They leave for the island paradise of Avalon.

Works Cited

“The Debility of the Ulstermen.” In Ancient Irish Tales. Ed., Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969, 208–10. (Old Irish text, ed. and trans. Ernst Windisch, Königliche Sächsische Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Berichte (Philologisch-Historische Klasse), XXXVI (1884): 336–47.)

Marie de France. Lanval. Trans., Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. In The Lais of Marie de France. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1978, 105–23. (Old French text in Lais de Marie de France. Ed. Karl Warnke. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer, 1900, 86-112; available at Lais de Marie de France.)

Comments on Hogan: Impossible Love and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones

Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.

When we read Tom Jones for the first time, we may worry that Tom might engage in an impossible love—incest—because we do not know who Tom’s father is, but we seem to know who his mother is (see Hogan, “Impossible Love“). The two young women he sleeps with, Molly and Sophia, might either be the daughter of whoever his father is, and the theme of incest becomes overt when he inadvertently sleeps with the woman who is thought to be his mother, Jenny.  We are misdirected into suspecting a narrative of impossible love which is stopped in its tracks when we learn not only that his real mother is Bridget but also that his father is the previously unmentioned man Summer.  This revelation changes our understanding of the narrative so that it becomes a narrative of seasonal regeneration.  Tom takes on his father’s role as Summer; Squire Western is interpreted as his primary antagonist and takes on the role of the season he alliterates with, Winter, and young summer must win a girl (Sophia) from old winter.  Instead of the impossible romance of incest, we have a completely different impossible immortal-human romance where the personified seasons interact with humans.

How plausible a reading is this?  Tom and Western are paired in opposition by their different ways of travelling in the natural world—Tom on foot, Western on horse. Tom is associated with birds, not only narratively via Sophia’s bird, but also in the characters of Nightingale and Partridge, perhaps also Jenny (Jenny Wren). Moreover, his own name is a bird name (Tom Tit). Though most of the birds can be associated with any season, we might associate life with summer, and indeed a nightingale is a summer visitor to Britain. Tom Jones thus manifests a pattern found in folklore and mediaeval romances: “Summer is often personified by a young hero who defeats an older, feebler opponent: Culhwch taking Olwen from her father Ysbaddaden…” (Gantz).

Murray has given us an alternative reading of seasonality in the novel: Tom’s father is Summer who has engaged in an “unnatural mating'” (another impossible love) with winter, now personified as Bridget, “no improper emblem” of “a winter’s morning.” Tom is Spring, the result of the mating, and Sophia is also Spring (“the goddess Flora”), which allows them to be matched without further impossibility, while the anti-Sophia Lady Bellaston is in “the autumn of life.”

Though we are offered two incompatible readings, the multiplicity of impossible loves which thus emerge—along with the incest theme—reinforce our sense that Tom Jones exemplifies this type of Impossible Love romance.

Works Cited

Gantz, Jeffrey, trans. The Mabinogion. London: Penguin, 1976.

Murray, Peter B.  “Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn in Tom Jones.” Modern Language Notes 76.4 (1 April 1961): 324-326.


Impossible Love: A Sub-Genre of Romantic Stories

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Recently, I read a number of Seventeenth-Century Chinese stories as well as some classical Roman works that reminded me of one another and that led me to recall some South Asian and Native American stories that I had read earlier. They were all versions of the cross-culturally recurring romantic story, but they were not prototypical. The interesting thing was that their deviations from the prototype were closely related to one another, clustering into a sub-genre. As I reflected more on this sub-genre, I realized that the pattern extended quite widely. The present essay is an attempt to define that sub-genre, to sketch some of its constituent varieties, and to suggest some possible explanations for both. More precisely, I refer to the sub-genre as “intensified romance.” It is intensified in the sense that it makes the lovers’ union appear to be not only socially problematic, but in principle impossible. That impossibility may be either ontological or moral, yielding two types of the sub-genre.

As some readers of this essay were concerned about how I might explain the cross-cultural recurrence of love stories more broadly, I should note that the present essay is not aiming to explain the genre in general. I have discussed that topic in The Mind and Its Stories, Affective Narratology, and elsewhere (for a summary of the account, see “Story”). The present essay explores one specific variant of the romantic story and seeks to give a preliminary account of that variant alone.

A Note on Simulation

Simulation is a cognitive process by which we imagine trajectories of actions or events (for an introduction to simulation and its relation to literature, see Hogan How; see also Oatley, “Meetings”). That process may be a matter of interpolating causal links between real events that we experience, projecting future outcomes of current conditions, envisioning counterfactual alternatives to what has occurred, or creating purely hypothetical scenarios. A key evolutionary function of simulation is to allow us to consider alternative courses of action “offline,” thus without the consequences of real activity. For example, if I simulate a dangerous course of action—say, swimming at a beach closed due to shark sightings—I incur no risk and may decide to avoid real swimming on the basis of the simulation (including its frightful image of the malevolent leviathan crushing my thighbones like toothpicks between its teeth). If I could learn only from actual experience, I might end up eaten by a shark the first time I am faced with such a situation.

For simulation to fulfill its evolutionary function, we must be able to make adjustments to our simulations at various levels. For example, suppose an office worker wants a raise in her salary. She has to be able to consider the various, broad strategies for pursuing this—applying for other jobs, arguing for particular salary evaluation procedures, engaging in a class action suit, approaching her supervisor to discuss an individual increment, and so on. In each case, she must be able to imagine more specific strategies as well—what would be the best evaluation procedures or just what points she should make to the supervisor in support of an individual increment. In connection with this, we may draw a relative distinction between two sorts of variables—first, parameters, which define classes of alternatives; second, local variables, which specify instances of those alternatives.

Stories are the product of simulation. Authors create stories by imagining trajectories of actions and events, commonly through synthesizing genre prototypes with memories of actual experiences, hearsay, trajectories from other stories, and other sources. Part of this simulation involves making both larger and smaller changes, thus altering parameters to produce types of story and altering local variables to produce particular stories.

In The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology, I have argued that perhaps the most common cross-cultural genre or story universal is romantic tragi-comedy. In its most prototypical form, this genre involves two people who fall in love, but are prevented from uniting, often by their parents and commonly due to some social conflict (such as the opposition between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet). They are separated, frequently with suggestions or imagery of death. A rival may enter, producing a love triangle, before the lovers are finally united (or, in the tragic version, prevented forever from uniting).

The preceding comments on the nature of simulation would lead us to expect that there will be versions of any given genre that are produced by parametric variation. These are presumably most likely—as most consequential—at story “junctures,” the points at which significant causal changes occur in the trajectory of actions and events (on junctures, see my The Mind 91-93). One such juncture is governed by the nature of the restriction that separates the lovers. In most of the cases I considered in earlier publications, that restriction is contingent and social. Again, the Montague-Capulet feud comes to mind. There is no necessary reason why these two families must be enemies or why their children could not be united. However, there are other possible types of restriction. Specifically, some restrictions may be felt to be necessary, either necessary in the ethical sense or necessary in the ontological sense. In other words, the lovers’ union may be experienced as in some way unthinkable or impossible, either morally or practically.

The clearest case of moral intensification concerns incest. Ontological intensification bears most often on the union of humans and spirits of some sort—either superhuman spirits (such as gods, angels, or ghosts) or (usually subhuman) animal spirits. I will refer to the superhuman/human/subhuman order as ontological or, drawing on usage in linguistics, as manifesting an animacy hierarchy. Of course, it is not strictly correct to say that these are literally unthinkable or impossible. The moral violations occur in the real world, though they are paradigmatic of sexual taboo. The ontological violations are possible in the storyworlds of some fictions, though (presumably) not in the real world, unless the ontological difference is interpreted metaphorically. The point is that, in each case, there is something about the nature of the lovers that, in certain circumstances, makes it appear impossible for them to be united (in the sense that, on hearing of such a union in real life, one might exclaim, “That can’t be!,” as in “A mother marrying her own son? That can’t be!”). We may refer to the broad varieties of romance—where the restrictions on the lovers are contingent and social, on the one hand, versus necessary, on the other hand—as basic and intensified respectively. We may further subdivide the intensified varieties into moral and ontological.

We will consider some cases of each sort of intensified romance in the following sections. Before going on to that, however, it is useful to note that another variable or set of variables enters here. This concerns just who knows about the problematic identity of the lovers and just when they know. Readers of Romeo and Juliet may recall that the titular lovers become enamored of one another before learning that they are from the opposed families. Sometimes, the ethical and ontological versions of the romantic plot involve the lovers knowing about their difference early on; sometimes, both lovers learn only later; sometimes, one knows while the other does not.

Finally, I should note that two motifs recur with some frequency in intensified romances. As I am using the term, motifs are sequences that can be adapted to different genres and integrated into a range of stories. (The key point is that they cross genres.) Here, the motifs in question are the concealment of identity, where a character hides some important aspect of who he or she is, and mistaken identity, where a character misattributes a category to another person. In the ethical and ontological romantic plots, the concealment and mistake most often concern one or both of the lovers.

Romantic Stories and Animacy Hierarchies (I): Humans and Animal Spirits

A story told by the Arawak (see Lévi-Strauss 256-257 and Roth 203-204) concerns a hunter and a jaguar (or tiger). The jaguar has taken the form of a human woman and joins the hunter as his wife. However, they conceal her identity. The two live together happily; she is a good wife and hunting partner. At a certain point, they visit the man’s mother. Though the jaguar woman stresses that he should never reveal her identity, the man ends up informing his mother, who conveys the information to the society at large. The jaguar woman suffers from shame and leaves her husband. Despite great effort, he is never able to find her.

This is, to my mind, an intriguing and affecting story. It also manifests a structure that recurs with variations in different traditions. A forbidden—putatively impossible—union occurs. Since it is forbidden, the lovers conceal their identities. Despite being warned not to do so, one spouse engages in some action—constituting a tragic error or failure—that leads to the exposure of the identities. This in turn forces the separation of the lovers in a tragic ending. (It may be that tragic outcomes are more common in these intensified variations on the romantic genre than in the basic form.) Note that “tragedy” and “comedy” here are what we might refer to as “modes of resolution” for the genres defined by happiness goals. For example, romantic stories may be resolved by the lovers’ achievement of enduring union (comedy) or by a sequence of events (e.g., one lover’s death) that renders such achievement impossible (tragedy). Like genres, tragedy and comedy may themselves have recurring properties (such as the commission of a tragic error).

One striking feature of the Arawak story is that the inter-species union is, in fact, not impossible. Its putative impossibility is a function of knowledge. It is only when some people know the identities of the lovers—when society learns that they are not man and woman, but man and jaguar (or tiger)—that the impossibility appears. In other words, it is not an impossibility of the lovers or categories themselves, but of social opinion about those categories. This suggests that the restriction is ultimately a social restriction, though it is represented as ontological. In keeping with this, Alexandra Aikhenvald’s research indicates that “jaguar” might suggest a low status group (12), a point consistent with the woman’s feeling of shame. Alternatively, Roth’s work may point to a link between tigers and antagonistic out-groups (367). Thus, we have the usual sorts of social taboo—due either to social hierarchy within the society or conflict with an enemy group. The ontological romance intensifies this ordinary social problem through the animacy hierarchy (hence my name for this variant, “intensified” romance).

Pu Songling’s Strange Tales, an important, late Seventeenth-Century, Chinese work, includes several stories of this sort. In “The Girl in Green,” a woman arrives at the male protagonist’s lodgings unexpectedly. Though she conceals her background from him, they have sexual relations. The man asks her to sing. She refuses, warning that it may be dangerous. Eventually, she gives in to his pleas. When she departs, she is attacked, and he has to rescue her. At this time, he learns that she is not a woman, but a hornet. She thanks him for rescuing her, but leaves forever.

Here we have the same general structure. There is an inter-species union, though one in which the man is ignorant that the woman is not really a woman, but an insect. She warns him that they should behave in a particular way; he insists otherwise. The result is the disclosure of their species difference and their consequent separation. (As is undoubtedly clear, here and below I engage in the sort of structural mapping of story sequences that Lévi-Strauss developed so powerfully in his four-volume Introduction to the Science of Mythology. As is probably no less clear, however, the conclusions of my analysis and the psychological principles it involves are quite different from those of Lévi-Strauss.)

Another story along these lines is Pu’s “Princess Lotus.” In a dream, the protagonist meets a king, who introduces him to a young, beautiful woman. The protagonist falls in love and marries the woman. Everything seems to be proceeding with remarkable calmness. But suddenly the protagonist’s in-laws are threatened with destruction. He eventually learns that they are, in fact, not people but bees. This varies the structure, since the revelation is not the result of a violated taboo. It rather involves a danger to the family of one of the lovers. But there is still inter-species union connected with identity concealment, followed by disclosure.

Staying within the Chinese tradition, we find a further instance of this story structure in the often-retold “Legend of the White Snake” (for a summary of one version, see “Legend”). A magically powerful white snake transforms herself into a woman and marries a human. When the human discovers her identity, he dies. Through supernatural means, she manages to revive him; however, further tribulations follow. In some versions, she overcomes subsequent obstacles and the lovers are reunited enduringly; in other versions, she is unsuccessful.

Romantic Stories and Animacy Hierarchies (II): Humans and Immortal Spirits

The human-immortal romances are, on the whole, more insightful and engaging than the human-animal romances. They are also more abundant, though admittedly a number of stories could be put into either category. Another story from Pu follows the pattern of “The Girl in Green” and the Arawak tale. In “Sunset,” an unknown woman arrives at the protagonist’s home. Despite the intimate relationship that develops between them, she conceals her background and prohibits questions about it. He nevertheless tries to ascertain her identity, then continues this investigation despite further warnings. The man’s family has a crisis when his niece is possessed by a spirit. The mysterious woman helps through magical intervention. In consequence, her father learns about her affair with the human and forces their separation. Thus, we have the usual separation of lovers by the parent, but in this case due to an ontological discrepancy in the identities of the lovers. The woman, it turns out, is daughter to the Golden Dragon King. They are never reunited.

This story is particularly well developed. It takes up the motif of the threat to the family of one lover, which we saw in “Princess Lotus.” It also includes concealed identity, one lover’s attempt to prevent the disclosure of that identity, and the other lover’s violation of a warning.

A comic version of human-immortal romance may be found in Li Hao-ku’s early Thirteenth-Century, Chinese drama, Chang Boils the Sea. In that play, a scholar falls in love with the daughter of a dragon king. Through the use of magic, the scholar is able to join his beloved—although she is “thirty thousand fathoms beneath the blue sea” (170; the physical inaccessibility concretizes the ontological discrepancy between human and spirit). He is also able to secure the consent of the dragon king. Of course, this is not a concealment-revelation-loss sequence. Rather, this story indicates that the human-immortal romance may follow the more routine or basic form, with parental disapproval and the lovers’ work to overcome that disapproval.

The intensified romance is not confined to Chinese and Arawak traditions. In the Indian (South Asian) tradition, there are several versions of the romance between the mortal Purūravas and the celestial nymph Urvaśī. Consider, for example, the important early collection of stories from Hindu tradition, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa (see Wilson iv-viii). In that work, Urvaśī is condemned to a period of earthly existence, where she falls in love with Purūravas. They marry on the condition that Purūravas never violate a particular taboo. He is tricked into doing so and the lovers are separated, though they are ultimately reunited when Purūravas is elevated to the status of an immortal. In Vikramōrvaśīyam, the version by the most renowned Sanskrit playwright, Kālidāsa (fifth century C.E.), the human king Purūravas and Urvaśī fall in love. They are separated, as Urvaśī lives in heaven. However, due to her preoccupation with Purūravas, she commits a serious breach of etiquette and is condemned to become mortal for a certain time. The change of Urvaśī from spirit to human allows her union with Purūravas. But the temporary nature of her incarnation limits the duration of that union. In the end, she is allowed to remain human as long as Purūravas is alive.

In these cases too we see a variation on the intensified romance. In neither version is it a matter of concealment and exposure. However, the ontological contradiction of love between a mortal and a spirit is clear. Moreover, in theViṣṇu Purāṇaversion, there is a taboo on one of the lovers and the violation of that taboo leads to their separation. Interestingly, the human-spirit union is enabled by the change of status—the fall ofUrvaśī in bothversions and the elevation of Purūravas in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. It is also worth noting that, the play seems particularly to recall death and grief. It thereby suggests a connection between separation in the ontological romance and the more mundane issue of bereavement, where the (still living) human lover is separated from (his or her deceased) beloved, who is now a spirit.

A particularly extended and complex version of the structure may be found in the Roman story of Amor and Psyche, as developed by Apuleius in the late second century. Due to a curse and subsequent abandonment by her family, the beautiful (human) Psyche ends up married to (immortal) Amor. However, Amor conceals his identity, and even prevents Psyche from seeing him. In keeping with the pattern we have considered, he warns Psyche that she should not seek to discover who he is. Convinced by her (jealous) sisters, Psyche tries to uncover her spouse’s identity, planning in fact to kill him. Instead of the dangerous monster she anticipates, Psyche sees Amor and falls in love with him. They are separated, and the separation is maintained by Amor’s mother, Venus, thus presenting the standard “familialization” of the pivotal conflict (in which the blocking characters are family members, thus giving their antagonism greater emotional force). Psyche now seeks reunion with Amor. Unlike the Arawak tale, this story develops the quest by the abandoned, human lover. Specifically, Psyche tries to win the approval of Venus by performing various tasks dictated by Venus—a scenario that we might expect for the male lover, rather than the female. (In Chang Boils the Sea, we see a sort of parallel for this, with the male lover undertaking the work of convincing the beloved’s father—in this case antagonistically, rather than deferentially.) In the interim, Amor recovers from an injury caused by Psyche’s misguided attempt to identify and kill him. He manages to procure immortalizing ambrosia. Drinking the ambrosia, Psyche becomes immortal, thus making possible her enduring union with Amor.

Thus, in Apuleius’s story, we have the concealment of identity, the taboo on seeking or revealing that identity, the violation of the taboo, and the separation. This is then followed by the usual familial conflict and a version of the lover’s attempt to convert the recalcitrant parent. However, the resolution does not come from a conversion of the parent. It comes, rather, from a transformation in the status of the lover, a change from mortal to immortal. This change erases the ontological difference that made the union impossible to begin with. There are two points to make in connection with this. First, there are two obvious ways in which the ontological difference may be overcome. One is the elevation of the human lover, as we see here. The other is the degradation of the spirit lover, as in the case of Urvaśī when she is initially joined with Purūravas in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. The second point is that this is parallel with the more ordinary or basic romantic structure, in which the conflict is social, as when the lovers derive from different classes or castes. The elevation of one lover is, in this respect, parallel with the discovery that, for example, the slave girl is actually a patrician who was kidnapped as a child. The degradation of one lover is parallel to the discovery that the apparently higher class or caste beloved is in fact not inaccessible to the lover—as when Duṣyanta (in Kālidāsa’s Abhijñānaśākuntalam) discovers that Śakuntalā is not from the higher, Brahmin caste, but has only been raised by a Brahmin.

Thus, we find Native American, Chinese, Indian (South Asian), and European instances of the intensified romantic plot in which the lovers violate an ontological constraint defined by an animacy hierarchy. These stories also occur across a range of time periods. Further examples may be found in more recent works, both western and eastern. For example, Wings of Desire (directed by Wim Wenders), presents us with the story of an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman. He loses his angelic status, becoming mortal, and is united with the woman. Here, the sort of concealment we found in the Amor and Psyche story occurs before the union of the lovers, as the angel can observe his human beloved, while the latter has only vague intimations of the angel’s presence. In this case, there is no restriction, restriction-violating revelation of identity, and consequent separation of the lovers; it is, then, a reduced or simplified version of the structure.

Another film with this sort of plot is Postman to Heaven, a 2009 work from South Korea (directed by Hyung-min Lee). In this film, a young woman and a ghost fall in love. The ghost has been assigned the task of helping bereaved men and women work through their grief. The young woman had recently lost a lover, which leads to her connection with the ghost. The twist in this story is that the ghost is visible only to people who are in mourning. Thus, the young woman will no longer be able to see or interact with the ghost from the moment she overcomes her grief. But she overcomes her grief in proportion to the degree to which she falls in love with the ghost. Thus, she loses her new beloved precisely to the degree that she loves him; thus, she suffers a new grief precisely to the degree that she overcomes her old grief. The problem is resolved by divine intervention. Due to the ghost’s success in consoling the bereaved, particularly this young woman, Heaven returns him to his mortal life. As a human, he is now able to be united with his beloved, who is thereby freed from both the old and the new grief.

Neither film has the concealment-taboo-violation structure. But both still alter the more usual, basic genre trajectory, by having the lovers violate an ontological restriction and allowing their union by a change in status, from spirit to human. Further cases present other variations. For example, complex instances may be found in other stories by Pu Songling, such as “Grace and Pine,” “Butterfly,” and “The Laughing Girl.”

Romantic Stories and Same-Sex Love: An Intermediate Case

We will turn to the ethical form of the intensified romantic structure in the next section. Before going on to that, however, we might briefly remark on Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe and the Śikhaṇḍinī story in the Mahābhārata. In both stories—one European, the other Indian—two women are married to each other due to concealed identity, though the concealed identity in this case is one of anatomical sex, not of ontological level (human, animal, or spirit). As with the cases considered thus far, the revelation of the concealed identity causes problems for the union, and in each case the misrepresented lover (Iphis and Śikhaṇḍinī) goes through a magical sex change, comparable to the transformation of a human lover into a spirit or vice-versa.

These cases are interesting in part because they show how the romantic structure may, through parametric variation, be applied to significant social issues, in this case same-sex love. This is not to say that either provides any solution to the social conflicts surrounding such love, any more than the animacy-based versions provide a solution to the love between people of extreme out-groups (as in the Arawak case). The transformation of one lover functions most obviously as a fantasy, perhaps giving some people imaginary satisfaction. In any case, its social function is complex and equivocal. For example, in the case of Iphis and Ianthe, it may be taken to validate lesbian love, indicating that the lovers should be joined. But it might also be taken to stress the necessity of heterosexuality, since they can be joined only when they are differently sexed. On the other hand, romantic stories tend to cultivate a very strong preference for the lovers’ union. Thus, my inclination is to see stories such as Iphis and Ianthe as functioning primarily to cultivate sympathy with the same-sex lovers, even as the ending gives the author and reader an out, enabling the plausible denial of such homoerotic sympathies.

I refer to this as intermediate because it is not clear how authors and readers conceive of the restriction in this case. I suspect that it varies with authors, readers, and cultures. Some would think of the restriction as ethical. I suspect that such readers would not, in general, be sympathetic with the same-sex lovers. Other readers would think of the restriction as simply social, comparable to the forbidding of intermarriage between Montagues and Capulets (this is presumably the view of most academic readers today). Finally, some would think of the restriction as part of the order of being, so to speak—in this case, related not to animacy as such, but to the issue of mating. Different species cannot interbreed; neither can spirits and humans. For some writers and readers, the relation of same-sex lovers is probably of this sort. Clearly, this is a topic that requires further research, with many more examples from a much wider range of traditions.

Romantic Stories and Ethical Restrictions: Incest and Adultery

In considering the ontological version of intensified romance, I could not help but be aware of the similarity to one of the most famous and influential stories in European literature, the story of Oedipus. Though not a romantic plot per se, the story does involve two people being united despite the fact that their union is rigorously forbidden. This is possible because the (familial) identity of one person, Oedipus, has been concealed. Thus no one recognizes that the union is incestuous. When that identity is revealed, the couple is separated. In this case, the results are tragic, with the woman hanging herself and the man blinding himself. Interestingly, as developed by Sophocles (in the fifth century before the common era), the story is not only principally romantic (despite the union of Oedipus and Jocasta), but sacrificial. Specifically, there is a plague in Thebes; it has resulted from Oedipus’s crime of (unknowingly) killing his father, which led to his further crime of (unknowingly) marrying his mother. In other words, in this story, a sin perpetrated by the primary representative of the society (the king) has led to social devastation. The result is the sacrifice of the guilty parties (Jocasta’s death and Oedipus’s blinding). In Oedipus the King, then, a sacrificial structure is integrated with a much more limited romantic structure.

As just noted, the form of identity at issue for Oedipus is familial. Some readers have been confused by this, because the identity issue is not one of humans and animals or spirits. That is right. Indeed, that is the difference between two sorts of intensified romance—the ontological and the ethical. Ontological problems keep people and insects from marrying; ethical restrictions bear rather on incest. Of course, the ontological stories may metaphorically represent moral conflicts—or mere social conflicts. The point here concerns the literal representations.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses (early first century of the common era) presents us with other incestuous romantic narratives. One is the simple story of Byblis, who tries to unite with her brother, but is rejected; weeping, she is transformed into a spring. Another, more interesting story concerns Myrrha and her father. Myrrha falls in love with her father and contrives a way of sleeping with him while concealing her identity. When he learns of her identity, he not only rejects her, but tries to kill her. She flees and is transformed into a tree.  The Byblis story is a simple tale of rejected love. The story of Myrrha, however, includes union with concealed identity, followed by revelation and tragic separation.

One might expect other moral restrictions to enter here as well. An obvious case is adultery. In European literature, works such as Anna Karenina come to mind. In Tolstoy’s novel, for example, we have love between Anna and Vronsky, leading to a partial union, which is concealed from society. Once revealed, inadvertently, by Anna, problems arise. On the other hand, this is not a concealment of identity; Anna does not misrepresent herself as unmarried—either to Vronsky or to the larger world. Rather, it is simply the (illicit) sexual relations that are concealed. Moreover, the revealing of the secret does not lead to the separation of the lovers. There are problems with the cross-cultural manifestation of this structure as well, since possibilities for polygamy or divorce limit the degree to which prior marriage serves as a restriction on the lovers. On the other hand, there are some similarities between the structure we have been examining and such adultery stories as Anna Karenina.

Implications of this Analysis

Clearly, the preceding examples of an ethical romance plot are taken from a single tradition. That may suggest that this specific form of the structure is parochial. However, the Oedipus and Myrrha stories remain cases of a larger sequence that does recur cross-culturally.

Again, the intensified romance is defined by a restriction on the lovers that is not simply a matter of social convention or other social contingency, but of identity bearing on animacy or ethics. In its most prototypical form, the intensified romance proceeds as follows:

  • The lovers are united.
  • However,  there is some (intentional or unintentional) concealment of the ontologically or ethically relevant identities.
  • In connection with this concealment, there is often a warning about the behavior of one or both lovers.
  • A violation of the warning results in the problematic identity being revealed.
  • As a result of this revelation, the lovers are separated.
  • In comic instances of the ontological version, that separation may be overcome when the identity of one lovers is changed.
  • However, the ethical version of this structure does not in general allow for such a comic transformation (e.g., Psyche can be made immortal, but Oedipus cannot be made into the son of someone other than Jocasta).

Faced with the preceding examples, we might wonder why there is such a recurring pattern. “Why” here might refer to the generation of the sequence, just what gives rise to it; this could equally be referred to as “how” the structure is produced. “Why” might also refer to the function of the resulting sequence; this is “why” in the sense of “what for.” Note again that the pattern here is a pattern in stories. It is not a pattern in real life (where people do not marry insects either with or without concealed identity). It is, rather, a pattern in simulation.

The “how” question is relatively easy to answer. Again, we may think of simulation as involving principles with parameters and local variables. The simulation of romantic stories involves some restriction that separates the lovers. Obvious possibilities for such separation would include conventional versus necessary, with the latter category including ontological and ethical cases. Within each category, any given character might or might not know about the restrictions or the identities that trigger such restrictions at any given time. (For example, Oedipus and Jocasta do not know their restriction-triggering identities—son and mother—when they get married.) The stories we have been considering begin with an extreme restriction and vary the timing and extent of relevant knowledge. Typically, the knowledge comes to have social consequences only when it is socially available (as when the man’s society learns about the Jaguar woman’s identity). Usually, the lovers are able to maintain their union when they have the relevant knowledge but society does not, though the story of Myrrha suggests that this may be less true in the ethical cases.

The functional significance of this structure is perhaps less clear. However, there are some obvious possibilities. Specifically, we would expect the function to be either emotional or thematic. Emotionally, this sub-genre of romance provides some degree of novelty relative to the basic (and more realistic) form. In connection with this, it often organizes the trajectory of feeling somewhat differently. Specifically, the basic structure commonly begins with the main characters falling in love and recognizing their reciprocal feelings, but then being separated very quickly. The intensified version often involves the lovers joining together in a regularized union, such as marriage, and maintaining that state for some time before being separated due to the discovery of the concealed identity. Both versions treat love, loss, and (in the full, comic version) reunion. But in the basic version, the love is the feverish love of early romance and the loss is a loss of imagined possibilities. In the intensified version, the love is more likely to include a strong “companionate” element, a sense of bonding that may be less intense but may be more clearly enduring, and the loss is a loss not only of imagined possibilities, but of the ordinariness of regular life and ongoing expectation experienced for, in some cases, years of family life.

For the reasons just mentioned, the loss of the beloved in the intensified version may be more similar to the loss of a spouse in death. This too has emotional consequences. Specifically, in its ontological variant, the structure may suggest bereavement, while allegorizing that bereavement in the (perhaps less distressing) form of the human-spirit romance. I have already noted that there are suggestions of this in Vikramōrvaśīyam. The connection seems clear in other works as well. For example, in Postman to Heaven, the young woman falls in love with a ghost. Her former lover has died and her new beloved is actually a boy in a coma in a hospital. The lovers are separated as human and ghost, until his spirit returns to his body and he is revived from the coma, at which point they meet as mortals. The film repeatedly points toward the loss of a long-term partner by death. But it presents the main lovers’ separation as a matter of an ontological incompatibility which is resolved by the spirit leaving heaven to become a mortal.

These points are related to the thematic purposes of the ontological romance. In the comic version, the thematic operation of the structure involves a suggestion that the losses of death may be overcome—a point with obvious emotional consequences as well. In other words, it suggests that apparently irrecuperable losses might in fact be recuperable, and it does this without drawing our attention to death and separation too directly. Indeed, in some cases, it even serves to reconnect our companionate love with earlier, more romantic feelings. I say “our” here because the reader’s relation to the emotions of the protagonists is often intertwined with his or her own emotional memories (see, for example, Oatley, Passionate, 36, 179, 180). In that way, our empathic response to the lovers is in some degree connected with our own romantic histories.

On the other hand, the intensified romantic story is not always related to long-term attachment and bereavement. For example, the Arawak story has suggestions of death and grief. But it also suggests social divisions that have been rendered more extreme by being assimilated to species differences. There are two obvious thematic purposes of this sort of intensification of difference between the lovers. The first is to present an a fortiori case of romantic love in opposition to social divisions. If the Arawak hunter can live an ideal marriage with an actual jaguar or tiger woman, how much more readily could an Arawak live in marital union with another person who is from a class or other society associated with jaguars or tigers? As I have argued elsewhere (see chapter seven of Understanding Nationalism), romantic stories tend to challenge in-group/out-group divisions, preferring the union of the lovers to the maintenance of social oppositions. The ontological romance may simply extend this inclination.

This critical function of the ontological romance is clearest when the lovers’ initial union is untroubled. In the Arawak story, there is no real problem with the lovers’ life together. In other stories, however, there are difficulties, sometimes intrinsic to the lovers’ identities, as in the difference between mortals and immortals. For example, in Wings of Desire, the lovers can be joined only when the difference between them is overcome, when the angel becomes human. This too suggests that ordinary, social divisions are not absolute. If the difference between humans and spirits may be effaced, if immortal spirits can become humans and humans can become immortal spirits, then surely members of one society can become members of another society. This may simply be a matter of one lover being accepted into the other’s society, or it may involve some more elaborate assimilation into the culture of the latter.

Again, the obvious exception here is ethical, as in the case of incest. Incestuous unions are typically not open to this sort of resolution. Oedipus and Jocasta seem perfectly happy together. Everything appears to be going along well, with the family flourishing, including the children. But the union remains wrong for most readers. Thus, the ethical version does not fit with the most obvious thematic purposes of the ontological version of the intensified romantic structure. That may account for its apparent infrequency, relative to the ontological version, both within European tradition and across cultures. On the other hand, the success of the Oedipus story indicates that this version may be emotionally successful.

Before concluding, it is worth noting that concealed identity operates as a motif that may be used in various narrative contexts. Moreover, it may be taken up in complex and surprising ways in relation to romantic narrative. Particularly striking cases of this sort may be found in Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Specifically, in both cases, one main character sets out to engage in adultery, deceptively seducing a young woman, thus initiating a train of events that is commonly developed in the seduction plot (on the seduction plot, see chapter four of my Affective). However, the lovers meet in circumstances where the identity of the woman is concealed (reminiscent of the meeting between Myrrha and her father). However, in these cases, the concealed identity of one of the lovers does not mean that an apparently legitimate union is illegitimate. It means, rather, that an apparently illegitimate union is legitimate, for in both cases the man’s wife takes the place of the woman he was aiming to seduce. The resulting stories are highly interesting, due to this reversal. But they are problematic because the final union is not based on mutual love and it is therefore difficult for the reader (or audience member) to be entirely pleased by the putatively comic conclusion.

In connection with these final examples, one referee of this essay worried that concealed identity may be a motif produced by the romantic genre, not occurring elsewhere. I should therefore mention that in heroic plots we encounter spies who conceal their identities and heirs to the throne who are unknown to be heirs to the throne; in revenge narratives, we find revengers disguising themselves and killing people whose identity they misconstrue; in criminal investigation narratives, detectives take on disguises and innocent people are sometime mistaken for criminals—and so on, for all genres. Perhaps the most relevant case here is the (already mentioned) seduction story, which is often more appropriately termed a rape story. In this structure, the seducer or rapist often conceals his identity. This is significant to the present study because there are some famous cases in which the rapist is a god and the false identity is that of an animal—as in Zeus’s rape of Leda. This is related to the cases we are considering as the union is “impossible,” in the sense we have been considering. It therefore suggests a similar concern with the violation of putatively necessary social divisions, though in another genre.

Future Research

An obvious topic for research in this area concerns ethical restrictions on lovers and the degree to which the topics of incest and adultery, or other possibly morally objectionable unions, do or do not develop a version of this structure. A parallel point applies to same sex unions and the degree to which the relevant restrictions are presented as ethical, ontological, or merely social and conventional. Instances of these relationships and restrictions are clearly under-represented in the preceding discussions.

On the other hand, research on the incidence and varieties of more unequivocal cases of ontological romance is important as well. Again, we find a range of stories in different traditions in which lovers face a restriction that is not merely conventional or contingent, but in some sense viewed as necessary, either ontologically (in relation to animacy) or morally. Prototypically, the lovers in such stories are united, due to some intentional or inadvertent concealment of identity. But that concealment often renders the union unstable. In connection with this, one of the lovers may be warned not to engage in behavior that will reveal the concealed identity. In a tragic error, however, he or she may do just the wrong thing, precipitating the lovers’ separation. In a comic version, one of the lovers’ status may change, allowing the union, but this is generally restricted to the ontological version. We have evidence that the ontological version of this intensified structure occurs in a range of genetically and areally unrelated traditions. But it is not clear how frequent (or infrequent) the appearance of this structure may be. Further research is also important for assessing the preceding conjectures on the generation of the sub-genre and, even more, its function. The generation of the structure—deriving from the operation of variables in principles governing simulation—seems fairly clear in general. However, the specifics of the variables and the resulting variations on the sub-genre could be further developed and clarified. Moreover, the functions of the intensified romance appear more debatable.

Especially in connection with the last point, the relation of this variant to changes in cultural ideology and historical conditions may be worth investigating. For example, one might wonder if the ontological romance occurs more frequently in periods of extensive inter-cultural contact, where the contact has not become routinized; in other words, one might wonder if a particular degree of interaction with alien societies may not promote stories treating the romantic relations of extremely distant partners. For example, we might ask if the Pu Songling stories owe something to the early Qing dynasty experience of Manchu-Chinese cultural conflict (see Roberts 142), the divisive contact with the West and associated anti-Christian reaction of the time (see Rowe 138-139), and related matters. Similarly, we might consider if Apuleius was affected by the cultural interactions of 2ndCentury Rome, with its extensive empire. Along the same lines, we might inquire into the possible relation between the Arawak tale and European contact. A correlation in this respect might constitute a statistical, implicational universal.

I should note here that I am referring specifically to the ontological version of the intensified romantic structure. Such issues as same-sex desire recur in a range of time periods and cultures presumably because same-sex desire recurs in all time periods and cultures. As one reader of this essay commented, stories of same-sex union (as well as adultery and other sexual behaviors) occur because social rules often relate to categorial identities and these are often in conflict with what I have called “practical identity” (see, for example, Understanding Nationalism 25-37), one’s actual capabilities and propensities. That practical identity may include, for example, same-sex desire. However, the case of ontological romance—and even, for the most part, that of the most extreme cases of ethical romance, such as those involving incest—are different. There is no social issue of people marrying insect spirits or even sons marrying their mothers. These stories are, then, fundamentally a product of simulation. Of course, in the end, our narrative simulations, here and elsewhere, are inseparable from real-world issues of categorial and practical identity, as suggested by the Arawak story’s possible allegorization of social identity conflict—just as our experiences of categorial and practical identity are inseparable from simulation. In this way, the two forms of analysis should ultimately be joined with one another.

Finally, one might wonder about the implications of these observations for other genres. The sacrificial operation of the ethical romance in Oedipus the King might lead us to inquire after the relation of this romantic structure to other genres with which it might be integrated. We might also ask if there are junctural points in those other genres—sacrificial, heroic, family separation and reunion, revenge, seduction, and criminal investigation—that define significant sub-genres, such as we have been considering in the case of romantic stories. More exactly, simulation is not confined to romance, but produces the other genres equally. As such, we would expect to find such complex, sub-generic patterns in those other genres as well. In some cases, such sub-genres will be related to the intensified romance, with its ontological and moral impossibilities. Stories such as the rape of Leda suggest that this may be found in seduction/rape structures. Alternatively, such a violation may serve as a recurring motif. For example, there is an element of this in the story of Mary’s conception of Jesus—part of a sacrificial narrative—with its divine/human union and its image of the paraclete as a dove.

[See also Nigel Fabb, “Comments on Hogan, ‘Impossible Love and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones’” and Geoffrey Russom, “Comments on Hogan, ‘Impossible Love’.”]

Works Cited

Aikhenvald, Alexandra. A Grammar of Tariana. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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

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

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

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

Kālidāsa. Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kdlidasa. Ed. Barbara Stoler Miller. Trans. Edwin Gerow, David Gitomer, and Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Lee, Hyung-min, dir. Postman to Heaven. Written by Eriko Kitagawa. Seoul, South Korea: CJ Entertainment, 2009.

“Legend of the White Snake.” Shanghai Daily(26 March 2017). Available at (accessed 21 June 2018).

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. From Honey to Ashes (Introduction to a Science of Mythology: 2). Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Li Hao-ku. Chang Boils the Sea. In Six Yüan Plays. Trans. Liu Jung-en. New York: Penguin, 1972, 159-187.

Oatley, Keith. “Meetings of Minds: Dialogue, Sympathy, and Identification, in Reading Fiction.” Poetics26.5 (1999): 439-454.

Oatley, Keith. The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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

Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Roth, Walter. An Inquiry into the Animism and Folk-Lore of the Guiana Indians. Thirtieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution: 1908-1909. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915, 103-453.

Rowe, William. China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009.

Wenders, Wim, dir. Wings of Desire. Written by Wim Wenders, Peter Handke, and Richard Reitinger. Berlin, West Germany: Road Movies Filmproduktion, 1987.

Wilson, H. H. “Introduction.” In Vikrama and Urvashi, or The Hero and the Nymph. Trans. H. H. Wilson. Calcutta, India: Society for the Resuscitation of Indian Literature, 1901, i-xii.

Literary Spatial Patterning

BY: Liz Finnigan, Southern Regional College, Northern Ireland

In this entry I propose a statistical universal (see Hogan “What are Literary Universals?”) about visual spatial patterning within verbal narrative. The universal states that unique sequential patterns of representation can be found in in the literary descriptions for three categories of space: Setting, Place and Person. For example, in the following quotation from Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), the spatial description in the passage is formatted in a particular way; the narrator describes the space closest to her first and progresses to the space further away from her position: “I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were the two wings of the BUILDING; there was the GARDEN; there were the SKIRTS OF LOWOOD; there was the hilly HORIZON” (Brontë 72; capitalisation, where necessary, will distinguish patterning throughout).

This pattern emerges when we identify the first noun (building) and track its spatial relationship to all subsequent nouns (garden, skirts of Lowood, horizon). Descriptions of Place deliver a trend that describes the centre of the place then its edge, such as a dining table then a wall. Descriptions of characters, Persons, describe the outline of the person first and then the head/facial area and finally features of the body. They can also stop at the head/facial area.

These patterns are found in particular spatial frames, which I term “topological frames” because they describe the location of objects within a space and their inter-related arrangements relevant to the viewpoint of the narrator/character. Typically atemporal and absent of action, topological frames generally pause the story in order to render the detail of what is being viewed by a character or narrator. In literary texts, we might, all things being equal, expect individual writers to produce spatial representations that are based on stylistic choices which create difference and this also includes the possibility of randomness. Yet, in topological frames the same patterns of spatial relations occur consistently, demonstrating a statistical probability in their favour.

The universal can be stated as follows:

Verbal narrative contains topological frames of description which produce a systematic pattern of spatial representation which is, in turn, determined by their category: Setting, Place or Person.

I further propose that the patterning does not differ between writers, cultural influence and historical trends. In this study, one hundred narrative English language prose texts were examined ranging between the literary periods of Victorianism, Modernism, and Postmodernism. A transparent account of data selection would best describe it as purposive sampling. The corpus of texts was manually scanned to isolate any topological frames and then each of these frames was grouped into one of the three categories which were then further investigated for evidence of patterning. The sample includes non-western prose such as Nigerian, Aboriginal Australian, Chinese, and Japanese texts which, with the exception of one text which was a translation, were all written in English. The identification of these patterns in non-western texts suggests that cultural or stylistic factors may not influence the formation of the patterns. The translated text may also suggest that the patterns are conforming to English language conventions.

Before the patterns were identified, Jane Eyre was purposively sampled due to prior knowledge of the text’s frequent references to landscapes in the hope of understanding the more componential aspects of spatial representation for narrative setting. However, Brontë’s landscapes were soon found to produce a systematic pattern, what I term the progressive pattern because of the proximal to distal trend in its descriptions, and further categories were introduced to test for other patterns – Persons and Place. These two latter categories were determined because of the frequency with which descriptions of characters and rooms appeared within the corpus’s topological frames. Persons and Places are also given the same descriptive treatment as that of Setting. For example, Jane Eyre’s description of St. John Rivers seems to be describing a sculptured space rather than a living, moving organism. He is awarded the same spatial consideration by his narrator as a landscape. But new literary periods were also needed to test against cultural practices, hence the introduction of Modernist texts, all of which were sampled for their canonical standing and focus on one or more spatial categories. For example, the assumption for Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925) was that it would deliver a heavy focus on cities (Setting) and rooms (Place). Canonical postmodernist texts were added for the same purposeful reasons to determine whether they conformed to the patterns despite their frequent dispensing with narrative coherency, for example, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939).

Therefore, the nature of this study’s methodology is more characteristic of narrative itself, in that it begins with a discovery in a single novel from a particular period and the scope of the analysis was broadened to test for cultural influence, or lack thereof. The initial exploration of Jane Eyre can be treated as a pilot study and this informed the subsequent data collection and the process was repeated using other texts. Thus, although there is no rigorous methodology adopted here, and in the strictest sense there cannot be, this study sets out to chart topological frames within a collection of texts in order to test the hypothesis against cultural trends. This is perhaps a first step for a potentially much larger study and my hypothesis could be tested by different methods in the future.


If we examine various examples from the corpus in further detail, we can track the following pattern for the category of Setting:

Consider the following description of a landscape from Jane Eyre:

Leaning over the battlements and looking far down, I surveyed the grounds laid out like a map: the bright and velvet LAWN closely girdling the grey base of the mansion; the FIELD, wide as a park, dotted with its ancient timber; the WOOD, dun and sere, divided by a path, visibly overgrown, greener with moss than the trees were with foliage, the CHURCH at the gates, the ROAD, the tranquil HILLS, all reposing in the autumn day’s SUN. (Brontë 90)

The descriptions of the Setting category are typical of outdoor spaces, frequently landscape views. In the example above from Jane Eyre, the contents of the space are sequenced relative to Jane from proximal to distal, resulting in a progressive pattern. This pattern emerges when we identify the first landmark and track its position to the next: Lawn, Field, Wood, Church, Road, Hills and Sun. The landmarks noted here by Jane’s viewpoint do not, however, represent a fixed typology of spatial objects as any kind of landmark/spatial object can be listed within the frames.

Other texts from the same period also conform to this pattern such as the example below from Austen. Here, there are two separate examples of the same Setting pattern in the same passage which emerge with a change in narrative view:

Sense and Sensibility(1811):

The situation of the HOUSE was good. High HILLS rose immediately behind, and at no great distance on each side; some of which were open downs, the others cultivated and woody. The VILLAGE of Barton was chiefly on these hills, and it formed a pleasant view from the cottage windows. The prospect in front was more extensive; it commanded the whole of the VALLEY, and reached into the COUNTRY beyond. (Austen 23)

Thus, we initially are met with: HOUSE – HILLS BEHIND HOUSE – VILLAGE ON TOP OF HILL. And this is followed by: VALLEY – COUNTRY BEYOND.

Even a text with the complex narrative structure of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) demonstrates the same patterning for Setting:

Who blocksmitt her saft anvil or yelled lep to her PAIL? Was her BANNS never loosened in Adam and Eve’s or were him and her captain-spliced? I heard he dug good tin with his doll, delvan first and        duvlin after, when he raped her home, Sabrine Astore, in a parakeet’s cage…[There are 8 other rivers mentioned in the intervening text here]Who sold you that jackalantern’s tale? Pemmican’s pasty pie! Not a grasshoop to ring her, not an ants grain of ore. In a gabbard he barqued it, the boat of life, from the harbourless IVERNIKAN OKEAN till he spied the loom of his landfall and he loosed two croakers from under his tilt, by the smell of her KELP they made the PIGEON HOUSE. (197)

This sample requires some deciphering in order to see the pattern: this passage describes the moment HCE, the male protagonist, first meets ALP, his female counterpart. Throughout the text, each word is generally a pun on another, although not necessarily from the English language lexicon. The first point of space here “pail” could refer to both a pail of water or The Pale, an Anglo-Norman term for Dublin and its hinterlands. Bann – a river in Northern Ireland is also a marriage band (captain-spliced). However, what is evident is that all the points of space can be said to refer to a body of water – PAIL – RIVER – OCEAN. And, like the other examples, there is this movement from proximal to distal. The pail is swollen to a river and the river washes to the ocean. The pattern is reversed when HCE spots ALP (“till he spied the loom of his landfall”) and the water volume dissipates: IVERNIKAN OCEAN – KELP (only grows in shallow oceans and seas) – PIGEON HOUSE (South Wall entrance to the River Liffey in Dublin).


The patterning also appears for people (here thought of as descriptive spaces) and other types of location such as rooms. Notably, for each of these spaces, the systematicity does not alter but what does change is the type of pattern produced by what I term the spatial set. This term denotes the spatial groupings of objects and locations from the beginning to end of a description, and their relationship to each other. The type of pattern produced in the spatial set is determined by how quickly the description delivers the space from origin to boundary and in which direction it moves.  With the category of Place, such as the indoor space of a room, the description often contains multiple spatial sets because the pattern “alternates” between the centre and the edge of a room, as illustrated below:

It was a large, stately apartment, with PURPLE CHAIRS (CENTRE) and CURTAINS (EDGE), a TURKEY CARPET (CENTRE), WALNUT-PANELLED WALLS, one VAST WINDOW RICH IN STAINED GLASS (EDGE), and a LOFT CEILING (CENTRE) nobly moulded. Mrs. Fairfax was dusting some vases of fine purple spar, which stood on SIDEBOARD (EDGE). (Bronte 88)

In this example we see three spatial sets, each involving a movement from centre to edge:




Place patterning for Victorian texts, as with Jane Eyre above, generally appears in descriptions of rooms. However, in Modernist texts particularly, patterns do occur for outdoor spaces – where the pattern of Setting is expected – but as the characteristically indoor pattern of Place. The city, despite architectural embellishment or functional purpose, is pared down to its skeletal frame – it becomes an indoor space and within it we find the patterning for Place instead of the outdoor patterning for Setting. The city literally oppresses its inhabitants and this physical state of suffocation is often accompanied by a mental counterpart. It seems that despite the social, visual, technological and architectural developments that have occurred from Dickens’ 1860’s to the 1920’s of the Modernist writers, our cognition of these changes remains the same. With Hemingway’s Fiesta, buildings, monuments, narrow streets, etc. occlude, and even obstruct, the natural line of sight, forcing the narrator to move upwards constantly for an organic escape. The enclosure of the city renders the narrators’ perception of this space as proxemically limiting and hence, patterns which we would expect to follow the outdoor progressive trend are forced into the alternating patterns of Place due to the demands on the peri-personal space of each protagonist.

Fiesta (The Sun also Rises):

The taxi went up the hill (CENTRE), passed the lighted square (EDGE), then on into the dark, still climbing (CENTRE), and leveling out onto a dark street behind St Etienne du Mont (EDGE), went smoothly down the asphalt (CENTRE), passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe (EDGE), then turned on to the cobbles (CENTRE) of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street (EDGE). (Hemingway 22)


Descriptions of people form a different pattern; they begin with an outline of the shape, for example, “a large, heavy-set man,” and then move to the facial and head area. However, they do not form the closed alternating pattern that we see with the centre-edge combination in rooms, because what follows once the outline/head is delivered is a third component with two possibilities: the description can either remain with the facial/head area or move to a body part. Thus, it is not random because it never returns to outlining the shape. Instead, the descriptions form an open-ended sub-set of two.  This is evidenced in the two differing sample sets below:

Set 1: Outline-Face/Head-Body

Jane Eyre: “I looked at my pupil, who did not at first appear to notice me: she was quite a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, SLIGHTLY BUILT, with a small featured FACE, and a redundancy of hair falling in curls to her WAIST” (Bronte 85).

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea [1]: “They were true Papuans, men of fine stock, athletic in BUILD, FOREHEAD high and broad, NOSE large but not flat, TEETH white. Their woolly, red–tinted HAIR was in sharp contrast to their BODIES, which were black and glistening like those of Nubians” (Verne 80).

Set 2: Outline-Face/Head only

Crime and Punishment: “Sonya was of small STATURE, about eighteen years old, a THIN but GOOD-LOOKING blonde, with wonderful EYES” (Dostoevsky 221).

And, in Pride and Prejudice: “Lydia was a STOUT, well grown-girl of fifteen, with a fine COMPLEXION and good humoured COUNTENANCE” (Austen 40).


Literary Universals  

To conclude, this study demonstrates that a claim can be made for a statistical universal within certain spatial descriptions in verbal narrative which is determined by the spatial categories of Settings, Places and Persons. Traditionally, descriptive terms in verbal narrative have been associated with cultural and theoretical assumptions and for good reason. For example, the word landscape (a nineteenth century invention [see Hirsch and O’Hanlon]) alludes to all sorts of cultural agency–cultivation, environment, or the picturesque, to name a few. Similarly, the term place can denote either inside or outside, private or public, and each of these also comes with its own set of cultural and historical values. For example, the change in historical attitudes towards domesticity and its relationship to place not only impacts societal and cultural discourse but can also inform new architectural modes of thinking (see Rice). Therefore, conceptions of space, it would appear, are neither a cultural nor a historical constant. Despite this, the epistemological difficulty, and perhaps paradox, posed by this study is that the patterns doprovide evidence of a constant.

Future Research

The most important and immediate area for further research is the testing of a much larger, diverse non-purposive sample randomly selected by a concordancer from a substantial sample of non-English texts. A rigorous retesting of this sample multiple times would be necessary to check for data verification/falsification which may enable the claims made here to go beyond the bounds of theory. This would be a large undertaking but it could be performed in stages, and if corroborated, could potentially inform each literary genre/culture as it proceeds. Alternatively, smaller projects could review non-English language texts, professionally translated, to test for textual interference, research data could be collected from writing experiments, the relationship to sign language could be examined in order to test for differential outcomes. Further work could found within the literary texts, for example, a larger variance of period data could be introduced to test the overall claims made here or different perceptual systems. For example, Austen’s proclivity for matchmaking within her texts and the ubiquitous gossip that follows could test for auditory pattern invariance. It is also hoped that the manual search approach adopted here could influence corpora methodological design towards a more efficient search engine to speed up the process of analysis.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: Norton, 2002.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Plant Three, 2003.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Norton, 2001.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. London: Penguin, 2003.

Finnigan, Liz.  “A Cognitive Approach to Spatial Patterning in Literary Narrative.” Doctoral Thesis, Strathclyde University, Glasgow,  2013.

Hemingway, Ernest. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. London: Arrow, 2004.

Hirsch, Eric and O’ Hanlon, Michael ‘Introduction’ in The Anthropology of Landscape. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake.London: Penguin, 1976.

Rice, Charles. Emergence of the Interior. London: Routledge, 2007

Verne, Jules. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Many Books, 2017. eBook collection

[1]This description continues for a further five lines but remains with the bodies of the islanders. Notably, it switches from the male to female islanders but does not begin a new pattern with the women instead it moves from the bodies of the men to those of the women: “Beneath their pierced, distended earlobes there dangled strings of beads made from bone. Generally these savages were naked. I noted some women among them, dressed from hip to knee in grass skirts held up by belts made of vegetation. Some of the chieftains adorned their necks with crescents and with necklaces made from beads of red and white glass. Armed with bows, arrows, and shields, nearly all of them carried from their shoulders a sort of net, which held those polished stones their slings hurl with such dexterity” (Verne 80).