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  • The Influence of Anxiety and Literature's Panglossian Nose
  • Michael Austin


Scheherazade may be the protagonist of The Thousand and One Nights, but her stories are the heroes. Her audience for these stories consists only of her sister and her husband, the great sultan Shahryar, who three years earlier had vowed to avenge his wife's infidelity by marrying a new woman each night and executing her the following morning. With the supply of virgins in the kingdom running short, Scheherazade forces her father, the royal vizier, to allow her to marry the Sultan, assuring him that she has a plan to end his bloody practice. Her plan is simple: every night, Scheherazade tells Shahryar a piece of a story. Many of these stories are overtly didactic, and some are even thinly veiled allegories of Shahryar's own situation, but Scheherazade aims to do more than simply rehabilitate the sultan with pedagogically sound morality tales. She weaves her stories together, often using multiple frames and levels of embedded narrative, to make sure that the night always ends in the middle of at least one story, and, each morning, the Sultan postpones his sentence of death one day so he can hear the conclusion.

Scheherazade's gambit succeeds—with the Sultan and with readers everywhere—because it taps into a very deep human need for literature, which, broadly defined, includes folk tales, songs, oral epics, and other forms of narrative expression. Stories have been a source of pleasure for human beings for a long time—much longer than there have been writing systems to record them. And, during all this time, as Paul Hernadi writes, "the pleasure of succumbing to literary seduction has long served as a psychological reward for what was once and perhaps still is [End Page 215] a biologically advantageous thing to do."1 Scheherazade's stories give Shahryar pleasure—more pleasure, arguably, than the sexual encounters that precede them. In more than a thousand marriages (assuming three full years since he began the practice), sexual pleasure never entices the sultan to suspend his vow. With an entire kingdom full of potential wives, of course, he need never fear an end to such pleasures. The pool of wives who can bring the pleasure of narrative to the marriage bed is much smaller indeed.

But pleasure alone cannot explain Scheherazade's success; if it could, she would not have to end each night in the middle of a story. By doing so, she combines the pleasure of narrative with the anxiety of incompleteness. Scheherazade's cliffhangers work on Shahryar for the same reason that they work on us today: we expect to find out what happens in a story, and we experience anxiety when this expectation is frustrated. This anxiety is just as deeply rooted in biology and natural selection as the "pleasure of succumbing to literary seduction." Most of the things that produce great anxiety in people—such as snakes, spiders, fire, high places, large bodies of water, contaminated surfaces, and unknown social situations—constitute very real threats to our survival. Anxiety is nature's way of telling us to pay extra attention around potentially dangerous things or to take steps to avoid such things whenever possible. Pleasure and anxiety work hand in hand, as carrot and stick, to encourage, or discourage, the same fitness-enhancing behaviors. Eating when we are hungry gives us pleasure; wondering where our next meal is coming from gives us anxiety.

The pleasure and anxiety that we experience in literature are neurologically indistinguishable from the same responses that we experience in the life-or-death situations for which they were designed. According to John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, "fictional worlds engage emotion systems while disengaging action systems. . . . An absorbing series of fictional events will draw out of our mental mechanisms a rich array of emotional responses—the same responses that would be appropriate to those same events and persons if they were real."2 The ability to respond in this way appears to be unique to human beings, but it also appears to be a universal element of human nature. People everywhere tell and respond to stories, and many people devote considerable...


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pp. 215-232
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