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  • What Literature Teaches Us about Emotion
  • R. S. White
Hogan, Patrick Colm, What Literature Teaches Us about Emotion (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011; hardback; pp. 352; 6 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £55.00; ISBN 9781107002883.

As good books should, this one provokes a sense of engagement and stimulates dialogue with its reader, and the question it poses in the title is a profound one.

Studies of emotion have been conducted in various disciplines, most notably psychology, philosophy, literature, and more recently history. Each discipline has its own understandings, specialist language, methodologies, and landmark scholarly reference points. The result is that the various approaches do not necessarily take account of others, to the extent that their primary subject of attention – emotion and emotions – seems eerily different in each.

Patrick Hogan seeks to bridge at least two of these areas, literature and cognitive psychology, arguing that the latter rarely uses literature as part of its field of data, while literary scholars pay too little attention to scientific findings about cognition and the role of neurone activity that drives human feelings. The result may not fully satisfy either camp – students of literature may find themselves alienated by unfamiliar terms from neuroscience while psychologists may be more interested in the normative rather than the isolated aberrancies produced by imaginative writers. But it is a brave and valuable attempt.

What will be contentious for some is the trans-historical and transcultural approach that is inherent in adopting a perspective developed through psychological methodology. The author defends his choices as part of an undoubtedly laudable attempt to find common ground between disciplines and between different cultures and ages. He shows similar patterns concerning [End Page 218] love are found in the fragments of Sappho’s poems, poems by the Chinese Li Ch’ing-Chao who wrote 900 years ago, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Processes of attachment and ‘mood repair’ in grief appear as autobiography in the Japanese Kobayashi Issa and then are indirectly enacted through Hamlet. Chinese jokes are set alongside The Comedy of Errors. These accounts, invariably perceptive as literary criticism, are set alongside a conceptual model based on recent findings about emotions by neuroscientists. The results are enlightening, and they come from an expert in pattern recognition in diverse sources, since Hogan has written extremely interesting books on The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotions (2003) and Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories (2011).

Although his consistent litmus test is Shakespeare, Hogan mounts a strong case that emotions are indeed, broadly speaking, expressed through ‘narrative universals’ and thus comparable across ages, cultures, and nations. Meanwhile, psychology can offer some illuminating reasons why, in terms of the mind’s workings. The comparative approach set up in the early chapters continues since we find guilt, shame, and jealousy located in Macbeth, Othello, Wole Soyinka’s The Strong Breed, and Kagekiyo; attachment and ethical feelings in Measure for Measure and the works of Rabindranath Tagore; and compassion and pity in The Tempest and its modern imitation Une Tempête. The inescapable conclusion to the way the material is presented is that emotions are expressed through narratives repeated through history.

This is a comforting and reassuring position to take in a world that is tragically divided, suggesting as it does that emotions bind together human beings, no matter where or when they have lived. Moreover, the theme is developed in a persuasively friendly and personal style, by turns moving and homely, as the writer speaks from personal experience as well as expertise. Indeed, the best parts of the book substantiate observations with an appealing commonsense that has the virtue of breaking down disciplinary boundaries between literature and psychology with clarity.

Some will be left unsatisfied and will want to push a little further into those very differences which can be as significant as the similarities, and perhaps more subtly expressive of unique emotional states. For example, if it is surprising to find how similar works can be even when divided by many centuries, it is just as teasing to query how two novels which could not be more opposite in emotional temperature...


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pp. 218-220
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