- The Commotion of Souls
First, a couple of emotional dilemmas:
I love bringing my six-year-old to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when we are in New York in the summer. On Thursdays, they have a special hour for children. A curator first talks with them about an artwork and then encourages them to draw pictures inspired by it. My son seems to enjoy it. Yet every time I tell him that we are about to go to the MET, he says that he doesn’t want to. Don’t you remember, I plead with him, that you liked it last time? No, he says, he didn’t. I cajole and bribe, and keep hoping that a day will come when he will remember how he felt about it last week.
During a dissertation defense, I ask a question, and, as the candidate begins to answer, I realize that she must have misunderstood me. What she is saying is interesting, though. Should I just go with it, or should I restate my original query in different terms? I wonder, too, if other committee members think that she misunderstood the question or that she did understand it but didn’t know how to answer it and so decided to talk about something else.
A thought within a thought. A feeling within a feeling. A feeling within a thought within a feeling. I hope that my son will remember next week how he feels about the MET this week. I wonder if the other committee members think that the candidate intentionally chose not to answer a difficult question. I am sure that if I ask you to think about your day, you, too, may recall an occasion on which you “embedded” (or “nested”) thoughts and feelings in this recursive fashion. Or: I am sure you will recall an occasion on which you were thinking about other people’s thinking.
It’s difficult to say how often we do this, that is, how often we embed mental states within each other, especially since we don’t usually stop and think about it. On the one hand, many complex social situations seem to depend on this kind of cognitive construction. On the other hand, our days are not always chock-full of complex social situations, which means that we end up thinking about people’s thinking about people’s thinking relatively infrequently.
Fiction is where it gets interesting. Embedded mental states—a thought within a thought within a thought, or a feeling within a thought within a feeling—are everywhere in fiction. That is, they are everywhere [End Page 118] in our experience of reading—as opposed to just being there in the text, immanent, intrinsic, unchanged by who opens the book and when. (The cognitive approach, as Ralf Schneider reminds us, “points to the utter variety of the cognitive and emotional activities triggered in readers who encounter beings in fictional worlds.”1) For instance, a reader not attuned to Jane Austen’s use of free indirect discourse may accept as a given a particular novel’s unflattering view of a character’s feelings, while a different reader may recognize, with delight and amusement, the implied author’s intention to foreground another character’s unselfconscious bias toward the first character. But while the content of mental states may thus differ from one reader to another, what remains constant is the underlying structure: to make sense of what we read, we embed mental states.
How far can we take this claim? For the time being and until proven demonstrably wrong, I will take it as far as possible and say that without mental states consistently embedded on at least the third level, there is no fiction. That is, no novels, no short stories, no drama, no narrative poetry, and no memoirs concerned with imagination and consciousness, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory or Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. (Note that this list does not include storybooks for children under the age of three.2)
Pick a book from your shelf and read one paragraph. Think of how you would tell your friend, who has not read it, about...