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  • On Contra-Evidential Criticism
  • Brian Boyd

Responding to Laurent Dubreuil, “On Experimental Criticism: Cognition, Evolution, and Literary Theory” [diacritics 39.1].

Claims versus evidence. In his long review article of my On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Laurent Dubreuil claims insistently that I and other evocritics or literary Darwinists rule out the role of language in literature: “they simply cancel the lingual part of literature” [7]; “the obliteration of language prevents Boyd and others . . . ” [7]; “As long as language is deliberately excluded” [9]; “the unfortunate erasure of language” [11]; “his untenable dogma against the theory of language” [11]; “It is just too bad if evocriticism has almost nothing to say on prosody, rhythm, alliterations, echoes, metaphoric networks, syntactic complexities, or semantic fluidity” [15]; “As for evolutionary criticism’s neglect of language” [16]; “but, of course, such scenarios could not obliterate the role of language, or they would just be doomed to fail” [18].

Now, the evidence. Let me quote from the very book to which Dubreuil devotes his 13,000-word critique:

Just as [Dr. Seuss] worked to turn logic, physics, biology, technology, and sociology into play, just as he turned line and color, expression, posture, gesture, movement, and form into an inviting game, so he gradually learned to make his verbal play match the punch of his visual game. In traditional verse around the world the need to focus and refocus attention has led to rhythm and to line-lengths of about three seconds, perhaps in instinctive reflection of the three-second span of the human conscious present. But in most of his children’s books Dr. Seuss returns through this adult norm to the childhood play behind it. He selects an anapestic rhythm that like nursery rhymes and unlike the iambic norm of English poetry skips around natural English intonations: dit-dit-DA dit-dit-DA dit-dit-DA dit-dit-DA. (As if to confirm Ellen Dissanayake’s claim for the importance of mother-infant protoconversations as a start for art, Geisel recalled that it was his mother more than anyone else who was responsible “for the rhythms in which I write and the urgency with which I do it.”) He twists and plays with words in sense, sound, syntax, word formation, names, rhythm, and rhyme. He had always been meticulous, but he became even more of a perfectionist, taking care with every word.


Or again:

Highlighted by the emphasis of their final position in the line, and by their rhyming, the words “caged,” “boil,” and “oil” add to the threat, even as Dr. Seuss adds a playful twist in the invented Beezlenut (brazil nut and betel nut, with a bezel edge and a diesel flavor?). The whole story has lurched forward, as often before, with the abrupt logic of nightmare. Horton’s speech highlights the key surprise and threat, by starting with, and stressing, a repetition of the danger word: “Boil it?” The lines of his speech, visually separated from the kangaroo’s though actually identical metrically, have been split in two, uniquely in this [End Page 97] story, moved to the right so as to match the visual placement of kangaroo and elephant on the page and to reinforce the sense of the elephant’s being cornered and suddenly cut down in size.


So much for what Dubreuil calls “the unfortunate erasure of language” [11].

On the Origin of Stories, as its subtitle indicates, focuses primarily on narrative, especially fictional narrative, not on literature as a whole, and all it claims about language is that narrative “does not depend on language. It can be expressed through mime, dance, wordless picture books1 or movies” [130–31]. Dubreuil comments: “It is quite unbelievable to see that, for Boyd, movies are outside of language” [6n13]. When I sent it to the publisher my text read as quoted; the copyeditor, who inserted many serial commas throughout, inserted a comma after “books” that I overlooked overruling and that distorted what I wrote and meant. Of course most movies depend heavily on language. My only point is that some narratives, including some movies, do not: language is not necessary for narrative (has Dubreuil really never...