Two Problems for the Human Sciences, and Two Metaphors

by Bill Benzon

For as long as I can remember such things – back to my undergraduate years in the 1960s – humanists have been defending themselves and their work against all comers: politicians, scientists of all kinds, and disgruntled letter writers. And always the defense comes down to this: we provide a holistic and integrated view of what it is to be human in a world that is, well, just what IS the world like anyhow?

It's a mug's game and I refuse to play it. I was trained in the human sciences: hermeneutics AND cognitive science, history AND social science, and I've played jazz and rhythm and blues in seedy nightclubs, ritzy weddings, and outdoors before thousands. It's all good. It's all come into play as I've investigated the human mind through music and literature.

2473In this essay I look at literature. First I consider literary form as displayed in ring form texts. Then I review a historical problem posed by Shakespeare and the rise of the European novel. My general point will be that we need all our conceptual resources to deal with these problems. But let's begin with an analogy: how do we understand, say, a cathedral?

The Cathedral Problem

Cathedrals are made of stone blocks, mortar, pieces of stained glass, lead strips, metal fittings, wooden beams and boards, and so forth. You can go through a cathedral and count and label every block and locate them on a (3D) map. You can do the same for the doors and cabinets, the plumbing, heating fixtures, and wiring, and so forth. You will now, in some sense, have described the cathedral. But you won't have captured its design. That's difficult and those how focus on it often use vague language, not because they like vagueness, but because, at the moment, that's all that's available.

And so it goes with literature and newer psychologies: cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience. My humanist colleagues keep hearing that they should get on board with the cognitive revolution and the decade of the brain. But it all sounds like trying to explain a cathedral by counting the building blocks, measuring the pitch of the roof, and analyzing the refractive properties of pieces of colored glass.

The advice may be well meant, but it isn't terribly useful. It takes our attention away from the problem – how the whole shebang works – and asks us to settle for a pile of things we already know. Almost.

Ring Forms in Literature

I first learned of ring form in an article published in PMLA – the oldest literary journal published in the United States – back in 1976: “Measure and Symmetry in Literature” by R. G. Peterson. The idea is a simple one, that some texts, or parts of texts, are symmetrically arranged about a center point: A B … X … B' A'. He produced many examples, from Iliad through Shakespeare's Hamlet to the “Author's Prologue” to Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems. But my interests, like those of most literary critics, were elsewhere and so I merely noted the article and went on about my business.

I was reminded of this work some years ago when I entered into correspondence with the late Mary Douglas, a British anthropologist who rose to academic stardom – such as it was back in ancient times – after the 1966 publication of Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. She spent the last decade of her career immersed in the arcana of classical and Biblical studies, publishing monographs on the Book of Leviticus and the Book of Numbers and, in 2007, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, based on a series of lectures she had delivered at Yale. Among other things, she argues that such forms aren't special to the ancient world, that they continue in modern times – she offers Sterne's Tristram Shandy as an example.

She opens her 10th chapter by referring to Roman Jakobson, one of the pioneering linguistics of the 20th Century, who believed, on the basis of extensive study, that such patterns reflect “a faculty inherent in the relation among language, grammar, and brain.” But why are such patterns so very difficult to recognize if they are so natural to us?

That's a good question. I'm not sure just who has jurisdiction over it, but I should think the newer psychologies would be interested in it. And I would think they would be even more interested in explaining just how it is that the mind comprehends such large-scale verbal structures.

Ring form speaks to the mind's power of and interest in ordering experience–which is why I've been devoting time to ring forms at New Savanna. Ring form is, to continue our metaphor, a design for a type of cathedral. It's not about the stones, mortar, metal fittings, and wooden beams of the cathedral, that is, it's not about our ability to recognize faces, or recognize speech sounds, or to form close emotional bonds with others, whether our children, parents, or spouses. Its about our passion for deploying all those abilities, and more, in an integrated and coherent fashion to create poems, plays, novels, movies, and even comic books and video games.

How do we do it? How does such order emerge spontaneously – for there is little evidence of conscious intent? And why is it so pleasurable? We don't know. But surely any attempt at understanding must begin with the fact that such forms exist and with analyses and descriptions of examples, many of them.

From Shakespeare to the Novel

Now let us consider claims by two distinguished literary critics, Harold Bloom, and the late Leslie Fiedler. These claims are about literary history, hence, about the mind in history. What's at stake in them? How do we determine whether or not, or in what sense, they're correct?

In 1998 Bloom published Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he claimed, in so many words – in fact, very many words – that Shakespeare's works constitute the psycho-cultural workshop in which modern consciousness was forged. Here's what he said in a 1991 interview in the Paris Review:

Western psychology is much more a Shakespearean invention than a Biblical invention, let alone, obviously, a Homeric, or Sophoclean, or even Platonic, never mind a Cartesian or Jungian invention…The principal insight that I've had in teaching and writing about Shakespeare is that there isn't anyone before Shakespeare who actually gives you a representation of characters or human figures speaking out loud…And then, in the course of pondering, undergoing a serious or vital change, they become a different kind of character or personality and even a different kind of mind. We take that utterly for granted in representation. But it doesn't exist before Shakespeare.

Bloom isn't simply talking about ideas about ourselves; he's talking about what we in fact are. If you're going to think about the mind as computational in nature – as some are wont to do – then it's a computer that programs itself. And it does some of that self-programming by drinking in plays, poems, and stories – Toronto psychologist Keith Oatley writes of literature as simulated experience, Such Stuff of Dreams (2011). Shakespeare, Bloom is arguing, created new software for the mind and thus gave us the tools to remake ourselves.

And that, I submit, is what Leslie Fiedler had in mind in his 1966 classic, Love and Death in the American Novel (pp. 332-33):

The series of events which includes the American and French Revolutions, the invention of the novel, the rise of modern psychology, and the triumph of the lyric in poetry, adds up to a psychic revolution . . . a new kind of self, a new level of mind; for what has been happening since the eighteenth century seems more like the development of a new organ than a mere finding of a new way to describe old experience.

This “new organ” is not a physical organ; it's now a new brain region; it's a virtual organ. New software, if you insist.

What are we to make of these claims? Just what can we infer about people's minds by examining the plays they watched and the novels they read? Can we conclude anything whatsoever about their minds? If so, have these scholars drawn reasonable conclusions?

Let's start with that last question. Both men have read a lot. Bloom could pronounce on Shakespeare's novelty, not simply because he's read Shakespeare, but because he's read a great deal of literature both before and after Shakespeare. Fiedler's judgment about the novel is of a similarly comprehensive nature.

You can't arrive at such judgments by reading only 10, 20, 50 or even a 100 books. And mere reading isn't sufficient; you must study them and think about them, reading what other scholars have had to say as well. That's the ONLY way to absorb that range of material.

By way of comparison, Darwin didn't arrive at the notion of evolution by examining a few plants and animals on his property and around his neighborhood. He read books full of accounts of the lifeways 1000s upon 1000s of plants and animals and went halfway around the world to make his own observations about biological diversity. Bloom and Fiedler didn't have to make the perilous trip through the Strait of Magellan to conduct primary research – they could read texts in the comfort of their studies – the comprehensive nature of their scholarship is similar.

All of which is to say that, at least provisionally, we have to accept Bloom's and Fiedler's judgments as reasonable assessments of their subject matter. The changes they observe in texts are real.

So what? Do literary texts testify as deeply about our minds as neuroimaging studies and neuroanatomy?

Of Chess and Culture

Think of the mind as being like a game, such as chess. The game board, the pieces, and the basic rules are given by biology. But there's more to playing chess than simply knowing the rules.

Knowing the rules gets you into the game. To play even moderately well, however, you have to pick up tactics and strategy through actually playing the game and through study as well. While those strategies must be consistent with the rules, you can't derive them from or reduce them to those rules

So it is with culture and biology. When Bloom says that Western psychology is a Shakespearean invention he's saying that Shakespeare created a new family of strategies for playing the game. Fiedler is making the same claim about the novel.

Let's push the analogy one step further. Players who have acquired these newer strategies are going to be more effective players than those who haven't. THAT's what's at stake in the claims Bloom and Fiedler are advancing. By training ourselves on Shakespeare, Bloom is arguing, we can better understand ourselves and thereby act more effectively in their world.

The idea is so outrageous that it is perhaps simplest simply to hide it away, get rid of it. Don't think about it. But those thousands upon thousands of texts won't go away. They testify to a change in mentality.

A Rage for Order

Our two metaphors, the cathedral and the chess game, work in similar ways. The chess metaphor is about the freedom culture enjoys in the deployment of biological materials. The human mind is an elastic machine embodied in a plastic brain. It can change and develop new organs over historical time. The cathedral metaphor is about the relationship between literary study and the newer psychologies.

The point is that sophisticated literary scholars see things in literary texts that are invisible to those psychologies. Humanists resist those psychologies, not because they are wedded to superstition, but because they don't see how those psychologies can help them with the problems that interest them.

If you think that the problem of mind is basically one of the relationship between two kinds of metaphysical substance, mind and matter, then you have bought in to a reductionist account of the mind. Yes, that's an issue. But it's not the only issue.

We must also understand the mind's rage for order and coherence. That's a different kind of problem. That's a problem about the relationship between the cathedral's design and the materials of which it is fabricated, about the relationship between the basic rules of chess and the manifold chess worlds consistent with those rules.

Coming up with a common conceptual language in which to state and investigate these issues has been a problem in the human sciences. And I suppose it will remain so for yet awhile. As far as I can tell, however, no one gets to claim the high ground on this. To put it bluntly, when it comes to mind and culture, the scientists don't know what they're talking about and the humanists haven't quite figured out how to talk about what they know.

An anonymous British poet of the 14th century had a few words for dealing with situations like this. His best-known poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, eventually became a motion picture, twice actually. It tells of a brave knight attempting an impossible quest: “In destinies sad or merry, / True men can but try”. Perhaps we should begin by admitting that we are all…well, true men isn't going to pass muster in this 21st Century, but perhaps true scholars will suffice.

It will have to.