What is Literature Worth? Narration, Cognition, and Ethics
The ethical dimension of literary art—never, in fact, quite banished from criticism—is making a comeback. In this revived endeavor, cognitive cultural studies promises nuanced explanations of ethics in the production and use of literature, attendant as the field is to art behavior as both an exchange between minds and an internal process of emotion, mentation, and self-construction for writers, readers, teachers, and students. The three books under discussion here all take up, in one way or another, narrative ethics, and the authors employ different areas of cognitive research to support and elaborate their arguments. Though the present selections evince great variety in subject matter, all are impressive works of scholarship that deliver lucid and thoughtful arguments.
Combining classical and cognitive narratology in Ethos and Narrative Interpretation, Liesbeth Korthals Altes reminds her readers that ethos ascriptions are a fundamental—probably unavoidable—part of the reading process, perhaps constituting a basic cognitive competence. Readers infer the author’s “ethos,” a word that connoted spirit, tone, or attitude for the Greeks. As Korthals Altes explains in her introduction, ancient rhetoricians comprehensively theorized the aspects of persuasion, thoughtfully connecting discursive strategies with community norms and expectations. Classical rhetoric thus stands as the foundation for perceiving the ethos expectations of later, much more diverse, literary genres. [End Page 291]
The book is divided into three parts, each one containing several chapters. Part 1 takes a broad view of ethos and interpretation with the aim of demonstrating the relevance of “a cognitive-anthropological and hermeneutic perspective” for this study’s focus (x). Part 2 concentrates on the goals of narratologists along a scale of scientific rigor, locating Korthals Altes’s hermeneutical narratology at mid-range, and then addresses five key narratological issues. Part 3 explores the heuristic potential of meta-hermenuetics, inspecting particularly ethos attributions in cases of genre violation. Altes points out that cognitive psychology and, following suit, cognitive approaches to literature, typically aggregate experience, aiming to identify or interpret according to psychological norms; contrarily, readers’ construction of ethos via authorial or narrative voice “can completely alter the work they read. . . . Interpretation is a dynamic bricolage, building on hints and hunches that are confirmed, dismantled, and recursively recontextualized in the process of reading and retrospective reflection” (7). Korthals Altes sensibly cautions that the conjunction of scientific psychology, which aims for objective description of inter- and intramental processes, with literary theory can indeed flatten out both the art world and interpretive procedures, leading to too-easy correlations between fictional characters and aspects of actual mind. Thus, Korthals Altes’s conjunction of a renewed focus on ethics with experimental and genre-violating texts pushes the parameters of cognitive literary studies beyond representationalism.
The central approach of this learned book is primarily narratological rather than cognitive, even while Korthals Altes touches on Merlin Donald’s theory of distributed mind, frame theories (especially that of Irving Goffman), and relevance theory to describe the dynamics of reading. These she marries to aspects of traditional hermeneutics and to the rhetorical turn in narratology, thus forming a metahermeneutical stance, one that centers on the processes and conditions of how people interpret (37). Pointing out that James Phelan, perhaps the most prominent practitioner of rhetorical narratology, is centrally concerned with both interpretation and ethics, she asserts that those who ask for proof about his claims are off the mark, because Phelan’s program is fundamentally hermeneutic, not scientific. Altes’s own metahermeneutical procedure is allied to rhetorical narratology but, in the process of interpretation, takes into account how shifts in frame or violations of genre expectations alter the meaning-making process of the reader and the ethos attributions that accompany it. That is, metahermeneutics by definition entails reflection on interpretation-in-action, and it is especially sensitive to the relativism of individual analysis: these readings are Altes’s readings. [End Page 292]
When Altes’s turns to actual literary texts her readings are agile and dynamic, and her selection of works serves to highlight both the ongoing nature of ethos interpretation and her own gifts as a literary reader. In parts 1 and 2, she provides brief examples of challenges to ethos construction. Discussing Michel Houellebecq’s Atomized, for instance, she addresses expectations established by authorial posture: “A posture elicits expectations regarding an author’s ethos, and conversely, ethos clues suggest a posture” (54). Since a posture entails assumptions about literature as well as behavioral scripts and mental models, operating as “top-down, particular interpretive and evaluative regimes,” its effect varies among readers: when Houellebecq “appears on TV as amorphous, badly dressed, clumsily holding a cigarette between the wrong fingers, brooding for five long minutes over a stammer that only gradually becomes a sentence,” one reader will see evidence of brilliance, another a “perfect fraud” (56, 57–58). As Korthals Altes points out, the reactions to such public postures or personae constitute interpretive elements brought to the reading process.
Like this analysis of Houellebecq’s posture, the brief discussion of frame-switching in Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain in part 2 wets the reader’s appetite for more metahermeneutical explications. Korthals Altes delves into these thoroughly in part 3, inspecting several genre-violating works, including Michel Bon’s Daewoo, Christine Angot’s Sujet Angot, and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In this section, she draws on genre expectations as well as earlier discussions of sincerity, irony, and authorial posture to highlight the complexity and ambiguity of ethos construction. For instance, working within the French engagé tradition of Sartre and others, Bon has a conspicuous Internet presence, which includes a website with material in many media about the dismantling of the Daewoo factories. As Korthals Altes sensibly asks of Bon, who publically rejected the usefulness of fictional narrative, “Why add a novel to all this multimedia material?” (178). Drawing on her expertise in French literature, Korthals Altes maintains that Bon wishes to present himself as “seismograph and ethnographer” while simultaneously drawing on art’s ability to produce immediacy through the “[transfer] of meaning and value from the text to the evoked reality” (179, 188). In her discussions of Angot and Eggers, she wrestles with the difficulty of ethos construction in autofiction.
Interestingly, classical narratology and cognitive approaches exhibit simultaneously a natural sympathy alongside an obvious tension. It is hard not to see behind narratology’s desire to categorize aspects of text an implicit orientation toward the mechanism of textual creation (human mind); at the same time, our increasing awareness of intermental and intramental [End Page 293] dynamics and of the ties to the body strongly suggest that structured categorization of its creative products is a somewhat artificial exercise. Korthals Altes pitches her argument to narratologists; nonspecialists are likely to find the attention to narratological issues in the first half not particularly germane to ethos ascription in interpretation. Similarly, while much of the discussion of scripts is appropriate to genres and social settings, the reigning embodiment perspective in cognitive psychology puts the pervasiveness of stories, scripts, and frames into doubt, indicating that much of our processing is emotional-perceptual, never reaching consciousness—in other words, not functioning according to “top-down, particular interpretive and evaluative regimes,” but at what we crudely call the gut level. Although it would be foolish to claim that reading does not engage consciousness and the formal cultural expectations instantiated in genres and cultural settings, Korthals Altes’s basic model of cognition would be enriched by the inclusion of emotional and otherwise nonconceptual elements. This is especially so since Korthals Altes builds her cognitive case around Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind, in which Donald theorizes that human mind developed in three major evolutionary phases, each new manifestation grafted onto the previous one. Korthals Altes returns to the concept of distributed mind in the book’s conclusion, so that it serves as a gentle framing device rather than an interpretive tool throughout the book.
Whereas in its cognitive engagement Ethos and Narrative Interpretation emphasizes the manipulation of conceptual structures that correspond to cultural forms (such as genres), and thus, strictly speaking, on intellection, Alexa Weik von Mossner draws from the other end of the spectrum in the increasingly diverse field of cognitive literary studies. Cosmopolitan Minds: Literature, Emotion, and the Transnational Imagination explores theories of affect to discuss the conjunction of the emplotments of cosmopolitanism and of romance in five mid-twentieth-century American writers. And whereas Korthals Altes concentrates on how readers tease out the ethos or ethical core of a writer’s world, Weik von Mossner homes in on the possibility of cross-cultural understanding through global connections.
In her introduction and throughout much of the book, Weik von Mossner explains emotion via the work of two prominent cognitive literary theorists, Suzanne Keen and Patrick Colm Hogan, conjoining their ideas with debates in criticism and philosophy about cosmopolitanism and literary ethics, and drawing on such figures as Bruce Robbins, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Martha Nussbaum. Among these, Nussbaum has long championed literature as a means of instilling empathy, but Keen’s comprehensive research reveals a problematic, or at least still undetermined, connection between imaginative [End Page 294] empathy and behavior. Since dislocation and disconnection are central features of the cosmopolitan fictions of the authors Weik von Mossner discusses, empathic engagement in world citizenship is a basic issue. Appiah and others have insisted on “rooted cosmopolitanism,” which emphasizes primary attachment to place and nation as the foundation of global feeling.
Each of the book’s five body chapters connects a particular dimension of emotion to the cosmopolitan figurations of a selected American author. In chapter 1, Weik von Mossner provides an overview of empathy and emotion theories, using these as a guide to the readers’ imaginative engagement with Kay Boyle’s novels 1939 and Primer for Combat. Emotion is part of engaged reading, a constituent of imaginative empathy (Keith Oatley) or elaborative empathy (Hogan). Citing Hogan’s work on the emplotment of the romance prototype, Weik von Mossner asserts, “Because it invites readers to develop attachment-enhanced empathetic emotions for two individual lovers who struggle against a hostile social authority that aims to prevent their union, the romantic plot is inherently antidivisive, which makes it a wonderful tool in the hands of writers who want to use strategic empathy to encourage the overcoming of some kind of in-group/out-group division” (35). Since most of the novels Weik von Mossner addresses include interracial or international love relationships, Hogan’s insight about romance plot dynamics has broad application beyond chapter 1. In Boyle’s 1939 (published in 1948), for instance, the Austrian character Ferdl realizes that if he uses his new German passport, he allies himself with the Nazis. Because at the onset of World War II nationality defined the individual, Ferdl becomes, in effect, a nonperson when he tears up the passport, and is, as a result, unable to join the French resistance and to reunite with his French lover Corrine.
Weik von Mossner opens her discussion of Pearl Buck (chapter 2) with an overview of the critical literature on sentimentality, which she connects to Keen’s “broadcast strategic empathy”—that is, a rhetorical stance pitched at readers’ emotions in an effort to change beliefs and attitudes. Using Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an important historical example, Weik von Mossner forwards the conundrum that, while critics like James Baldwin deplored Stowe’s sentimentality, the novel’s sociocultural impact was enormous. Likewise, Buck—a blonde, blue-eyed, Chinese-identified daughter of missionaries, a “Third Culture Kid”—strategically employed sentimentality in the romance plot to expose the destructiveness of prejudice in The Hidden Flower, a story of love between a Japanese woman and a white American man. It is hard not to see shades of Giacomo Puccini’s Madam Butterfly behind this story, an intertextual dimension that Buck was most likely exploiting to raise [End Page 295] the volume of her empathic broadcast, and it is surprising that Weik von Mossner does not mention the enormously popular opera.
Chapters 3 and 4 focus on two black American male authors, William Gardner Smith and Richard Wright, and both look at the complexity of empathic engagement for those who have been exposed to comprehensive discrimination. Weik von Mossner identifies sensitivity, shame, and guilt as the core emotional dimensions of William Gardner Smith’s Last of the Conquerors (1952) and The Stone Face (1963). In the first of these, a black American soldier serving in the occupying force at the end of World War II struggles with the perceived conflict between the racism of the US army and egalitarian treatment by Germans, even including a seeming acceptance of his love for a white woman. As Weik von Mossner suggests, the novel is built on a problematic, strategic idealization of contemporaneous German attitudes. Simeon, the central character in The Stone Face, is an expatriot in Paris who, having been violently attacked on the streets of his hometown Philadelphia, struggles with his ambivalence toward his Arab friends at the time of the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris, a culminating event in the war for independence (1954–1961). Given the present-day situation in France, where tensions with the Arab community are on the rise, and anticipating contemporary writers such as Percival Everett, who also depicts ambivalent racial identities, Weik von Mossner’s discussion of this little-known author is especially timely and points to unfortunate neglect.
Like Smith’s work, Wright’s novels center on negative core emotions produced by maturation in the face of racial hatred, in this case fear, guilt, and self-disgust. Weik von Mossner provides an overview of fear in the psychological literature and relates it to anxiety. More a mood than a specific emotion, anxiety does not have an object, thus becoming an existential state rather than a specific motivation. Frustrated by response to his story collection Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright resolved to avoid sentimentality at all cost, creating violent characters who operate out of anxiety, fear, anger, and self-disgust: “Wright’s novels read almost like case studies on the ways in which internalized social norms combined with a desperate rebellion against the perceived injustice and immorality of these norms can lead to the near-permanent activation of fear and anger systems” (125). It is The Outsider that most exemplifies Wright’s troubled cosmopolitanism.
Weik von Mossner’s final chapter takes up Paul Bowles and the emotion of disgust, identifying in this writer’s works the harmful effects of emotion and judgment in confronting unknown cultures. The Sheltering Sky and the short story on which it is based act as a “particular kind of shock therapy . . . [forcing the reader to see] that a lack of intercultural sensitivity [End Page 296] and critical self-reflection can be fatal when exercised in the wrong kind of environment” (165). In her conclusion, Weik von Mossner reaffirms the importance of emotions in negotiating ethics, and, in turn, effecting an eco-cosmopolitanism. This is the first indication that her argument for global understanding and interracial tolerance is also an ecological argument.
A rich and extensively researched book, Cosmopolitan Minds would benefit nevertheless from more precision in its own use of key terms, including “cosmopolitanism,” “sentimentality,” “empathy,” and “sympathy,” as well as some stronger follow-through on key argumentative points. For instance, although Weik von Mossner provides an excellent overview of sentiment and sentimentality and of its shift in meaning since the eighteenth century, exactly how she is using the word at various times, and thus how it is related to ethics and aesthetics, is not entirely clear. The chapter on Buck is for me one of the most thought-provoking; because it focuses on sentimentality, the chapter questions the relationship between ethics, aesthetics, and social change. Notably, James Baldwin, a novelist, eloquently condemns Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the everyday terms of the writing workshop: dishonesty. The question arises, then, vis à vis sentimentality: Can dishonest imaginative writing produce social change? One hates to think so. Moreover, if emotional excess is socially transformative (albeit aesthetically trying) in Stowe and Buck, why is Smith’s “strategic idealization” of postwar Germans (another sort of dishonesty) problematic? Similarly, “empathy” and “sympathy” have shifted in meaning in recent years, but there is only cursory discussion of the difference between the two. Both terms have strong ethical implications, often connected to sentimentality in its pejorative sense and to a comfortable sense of confusing oneself with a very different social other. Finally, Weik von Mossner acknowledges the rootlessness and in several cases developmental trauma of these writers, which give her the opportunity to accept, add nuance to, or reject Appiah’s notion of “rooted cosmopolitanism.” The conviction that home and community form the basis for excursive journey, emotional and spatial, is no philosophical whim, because it is supported by about sixty years of research in developmental psychology and place studies. I think that Weik von Mossner’s central claim is that, in spite of the homelessness of these writers, they nonetheless connect readers with distant worlds and elicit an emotional, ethical understanding of other cultures, but the book would benefit from direct statement of this paradox.
Like Weik von Mossner, Erin James, in The Storyworld Accord, is centrally concerned with cross-cultural understanding, but she situates [End Page 297] her project firmly within ecocriticism. And like Korthals Altes, she aims to show what narratology’s descriptions of textual function can bring to a fundamentally ethical enterprise. In her own words, “This book attempts to yoke together the fields of ecocriticism and narratology into a new mode of reading: econarratology. Econarratology embraces the key concerns of each of its parent discourses—it maintains an interest in studying the relationship between literature and the physical environment, but does so with sensitivity to the literary structures and devices that we use to communicate representations of the physical environment to each other via narratives” (23). Focusing on select African and Caribbean postcolonial authors, James argues that reading fiction can “bridge imaginative gaps” inevitable in cultural difference. Thus, although Korthals Altes teases out the implications of frame shifts, Weik von Mossner explores emotional participation in fiction, and James addresses storyworld construction, all three authors concentrate on the ethical dimension of reader experience.
James’s introductory chapter provides a comprehensive overview of trends in ecocriticism, explains the value of focusing on postcolonial narrative, and argues for an embrace of anthropocentricism within the field. Noting that in spite of its expansion over the past fifteen years, ecocriticism still orients toward the study of nonhuman natural environment and toward literary realism, she takes up attentively my own argument against such a limited purview: first, a literary text is, unavoidably, a cognitive object, a human construction that cannot stand in as part of the physical environment but rather expresses the orientation and interests of a creating consciousness. This is, second, part and parcel of our bias as living organisms: we are, in short, human ones, who cannot adopt a position outside our species’ perspective. Humans, however, are not doomed to a hermeneutic circle, because consciousness of their limited perspective can be cause for new knowledge, benign rather than disastrous. Since James argues that the evolved human mind perceives and creates literary texts, her next step, drawing on cognitive theories of the storyworld, including those of psychologist Richard Gerrig and literary theorist David Herman, forms a clear logical link. Chapters 2 through 5, constituting the core of the book, interpret works by Sam Selvon, Ken Saro-Wiwa, V. S. Naipaul, and Ben Okri.
Taking up criticism of Selvon’s narrator in A Brighter Sun, who employs standard English, James argues for an econarratological procedure that first analyzes spatiality, using space as a clue to the narrative persona, and combining these with Gerald Prince’s notion of counterpersonal narration. Through this combination of a nonnative voice alongside a vivid description of space, James “[reads] A Brighter Sun as primarily interested in moving [End Page 298] readers from an imperial to a locally informed imagination of Trinidad’s environment and its people” (50). Narrative perspective gradually moves toward intimacy with the local population, as James demonstrates in her close reading of specific passages (56). James connects this treatment of space with David Herman’s observations about readers’ mental representations, then contrasts this effective imaginative representation with Selvon’s later novel The Lonely Londoners, which uses nonstandard English narration but does not describe fundamental locations, limiting readers’ story-world construction.
If the connection between people and the nonhuman environment—the normatively ecocritical dimension—is somewhat elusive in chapter 2, it could not be clearer than it is in chapter 3, a discussion of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozabay. James links Saro-Wiwa’s real-life oil activism with his use of defamiliarization through the literary performative, a “rotten English” that utilizes verb tense ambiguity to great effect. Here, tense ambiguity results in an intentional corruption of the time line, conflating Nigeria’s salt shortages of the past with ongoing oil exploitation. This chapter perhaps best illustrates the intimate connection that needs be made between places and persons that is a central tenet of cognitive ecocriticism.
Addressing V. S. Naipaul’s travel narratives in chapter 4, James reconsiders the line of criticism that discerns an imperialist perspective in the “I” of An Area of Darkness. James argues that Naipual destabilizes this first-person narrator through his inability to clearly see India in contrast to his vivid realization of Cairo, his representation of Kashmir as a fantastical place, and his occasional, strategic use of the second person. In his later book India: A Million Mutinies Now, according to James, “Naipaul moves beyond a critique of an imperial environmental imagination to develop one more informed by local, on-the-ground experience” (164).
James’s reading of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road in chapter 5 confronts critical claims that find the author’s magical realist technique seals the trilogy off from everyday reality. As an abiku child, the character Azaro is a spirit baby who dies and is reborn repeatedly; rather than cutting readers off from day-to-day concerns of present-day Nigeria, Azaro’s ontological ambiguity is, for James, “a diegetic representation of Lagos’s duality and unbalanced development,” its discrepant postcolonial modernity. Concrete, realistic descriptions of Nigerian locales, emphasis on the power of narrative and mythmaking, and strategic use of communal voice all highlight concern for the actual embedded in nonrepresentational techniques (170).
In her conclusion, James reasserts her view that people across the globe imagine differently—that the work of imagination, in its multifarious [End Page 299] dimensions, often brings us into relation with everyday reality, no matter how fantastical it might seem. Drawing on Herman, Nussbaum, Hogan, and others’ claims about the dimensions of sympathy and empathy in literature, James addresses Keen’s research about the undetermined impact of narrative empathy, claiming that she aims for “the more modest idea that narratives can catalyze a greater understanding of what it is like to experience environments according to a different culture, ontology, geography, and so on” (213).
The Storyworld Accord successfully illuminates the promise of econarratology, merging expertise in ecocriticism with that in narratology, and in so doing reflecting how an expanded view of the dynamics of imagination solicits global understanding of persons and environments. James’s dexterity in linking the cultural upheavals caused by the oil industry’s depredations and the earlier salt crisis to Saro-Wiwa’s work is a high point in a book with many rich readings, so it is somewhat surprising that, in her discussion of Naipaul, she doesn’t talk about the longstanding historical conflicts over Kashmir, which, given its representation as a fantasy, would bolster the narratively directed irony she discerns. Additionally, the book overall would benefit from a clear distinction between space and place—the first an abstract concept and the second a designation to specific areas to which human meaning (good, bad, indifferent) has been attached.
The global reach of cognitive literary studies, attested to by the creative, nuanced scholarship of these books, demonstrates the health of this ascendant field, just as diversity of approach and primary literature reminds us that the literal application of psychological research to character or story unnecessarily limits critical understanding of what are, after all, products of imagination. Notably, the cross-pollination of narratology with cognitive neuroscience reminds us that the key benefit of such an approach is its illumination of the link between art behaviors and human values. Given the dire state of the humanities in the United States, the critical turn toward the complex functions of art and away from narrow textualism, nihilist epistemology, and ideological shouting is a welcome change. Let’s hope it has come soon enough. [End Page 300]
nancy easterlin is Research Professor of English and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Orleans. Most recently, she is author of A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), which was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship (2008). In 2014, she edited a special issue of ILS, “Cognition in the Classroom.”