A Tale of Tales

Michael Bérubé in American Scientist:

Gottschall_storytelling_animalOnce upon a time there was a group of literary critics who got very excited about neuroscience. They especially liked what neuroscience seemed to be able to offer their field: a good, hard-science foundation for the importance of their work. For the neuroscientists were telling people that Homo sapiens sapiens is hardwired for storytelling. And these scientists weren’t telling just-so stories, either; they had clear evidence that human brains universally make up narratives, ranging from religions to sports to memoirs to dreams to delusions to conspiracy theories, and they could even point to the specific areas of the brain that light up when certain stories are told. Now, thought the literary critics, we can finally live happily ever after. And Steven Pinker will be our friend!

The only problem was that it wasn’t clear what neuroscience could offer the study of literature other than the claim that humans are hardwired for storytelling. It didn’t seem to have anything very interesting to say about specific stories, nor did it evince any great interest in getting into the textual details of those stories—or the various interpretive disputes about those stories—that make up so much of the work of literary criticism. In On the Origin of Stories (2009), which I covered in an earlier review for American Scientist, Brian Boyd tried to make neuroscience the basis for the study of literature, and although his account of neuroscience was compelling, he couldn’t come up with anything to say about literary works other than that their creators devised various storytelling techniques to hold our attention. And as Laurent Dubrueil wrote in an essay in Diacritics, Boyd “seemingly believe[s] language to be a diabolical invention of ‘Theory,’” which, Boyd complained, “cuts literature off from life by emphasizing human thought and ideas as the product of only language, convention, and ideology.” Unfortunately for this branch of literary criticism, it turns out to be very difficult to talk or write about extralinguistic matters.

More here.