Review by Jonathan Smith
The Pleasures of Fiction
Philosophy and Literature 28 (2004): 453-66.
Human beings expend staggering amounts of time and resources on creating and experiencing art and entertainment — music, dancing, and static visual arts. Of all of the arts, however, it is the category of fictional story-telling that across the globe today is the most intense focus of what amounts to a virtual human addiction. A recent government study in Britain showed that if you add together annual attendances in plays and cinema with hours watching television drama, the average Briton spends roughly 6% of all waking life watching dramatic performances. And that figure does not even include books and magazines: further vast numbers of hours spent reading short stories, bodice-rippers, mysteries, and thrillers, as well as so-called serious fictions, old and new. The origins of this obsession with comic and dramatic fictions are lost in remote prehistory, as lost as the origins of language itself. But like language, we know the obsession with fiction is universal: stories told, read, and dramatically or poetically performed are independently invented in all known cultures, literate or not, having advanced technologies or not. Wherever printing arrives, it is used to reproduce fictions. Whenever television appears in the world, soap operas soon show up on the schedule. Both the forms that fiction takes and the ideas, types of characters, and kinds of conflict that make up its content can be shown to be strikingly similar across cultures. It has specialist practitioners — rhapsodes, novelists, playwrights, actors — and is governed both informally with stylistic conventions and sometimes formally — for example, by censorship laws. A love of fiction is as universal as governance, marriage, jokes, religion, and the incest taboo.
The question for any general aesthetics is: Why? Joseph Carroll is a literary theorist who has applied his probing mind over the last decade to the origins, nature, and functions of literary experience. His new collection of essays and reviews, Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (Routledge, $85.00 boards, $23.95 paper) looks at literature and literary theory through the lens of evolutionary psychology. At the same time, Carroll’s eye is that of an extremely perceptive literary critic. In fact, I would judge him to be one of the most acute and knowledgeable readers of fiction I’ve ever encountered. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that he is sometimes dubious, or even scathing, about evolutionary explanations of literature that have been offered up by writers whose grasp of psychology exceeds, in his opinion, their command of high literature. His complaints, however, are not about the fundamental notion that evolution by natural and sexual selection have made human beings into the story-loving animals they have become: his adjustments are intended to increase the accuracy and usefulness of Darwin’s revolution. However critical he is of evolutionary psychologists, Carroll remains a Darwinian through and through.
Carroll holds that the only way to attain a general theory of literature is through an account of human nature that builds from the ground up, from the most basic conditions for the evolution of the human species. A Darwinian literary theory first needs a Darwinian psychology. Once we have a basic Darwinian psychology in place, we can see that the narrative proclivities of human beings, far from being an incidental by-product of the evolved mind, are central to some of its most human functions. The structures of basic motives and dispositions are what would be appropriate for a species, as Carroll describes it, that “is highly social and mildly polygynous, that displays concealed ovulation, continuous female receptivity, and postmenopausal life expectancy corresponding to a uniquely extended period of childhood development, that has extraordinary aptitudes for technology, that has developed language and the capacity for peering into the minds of its conspecifics, and that displays a unique disposition for fabricating and consuming aesthetic and imaginative artifacts.” Such a list alone, he contends, would make it impossible to imagine a blank-slate view of the mind, in which the mind evolves in a vacuum, goes onto produce culture, which then gives back to the mind all content and structure.
Some of the mental processes that grow from this ground are universally predictable for individuals, for example such capacities as the acquisition of language and color vocabularies. Other processes, Carroll says, are characterized by a “combinatorial fluidity” of a sort that we prefer to call “creative” or “inventive.” But in all cases, cultural artifacts, “no matter how complex or seemingly arbitrary, are constrained by the limitations of physical nature and are both prompted and constrained by an evolved human psychology.” The best way to understand these prompts and constraints for Carroll is in terms of a hierarchical structure of what he terms “behavioral systems,” which he explicates with a diagram that goes back to the concept of inclusive fitness as a first mover for all adaptations.
The achievement of inclusive fitness requires that human life be organized along lines which Carroll specifies in terms of seven behavioral systems. These systems are saturated by basic human emotions that form the general framework for motivations. These coexisting systems — realms of affect, interest, and constraint — make up the fabric of human life from the Pleistocene to the present. They are the basis for human reproductive success and survival as a social species. Listed along with a few examples of their prehistoric manifestations, the behavior systems are:
(1) Survival: avoid predators, obtain food, seek shelter, defeat enemies.
(2) Technology: shape cutters and pounders, use levers, attach objects, use fire.
(3) Mating: Assess and attract sexual partners, overcome competitors, avoid incest.
(4) Parenting: nurse, protect, provide, nurture, teach.
(5) Kin: distinguish kin, favor kin, maintain a kin network.
(6) Social: build coalitions, achieve status, monitor reciprocity.
(7) Cognition: tell stories, paint pictures, form beliefs, acquire knowledge.
This schema locates imaginative artifact manufacture and story-telling alongside other normal human pursuits. This is surely a valid move, given the sheer quantity of attention human beings devote to fictions and other aesthetically imaginative activities. These cognitive pursuits are not a special, rarified useless realm, but are in different ways mutually implicated with the other specified behavioral systems — in particular, we might imagine, technology, mating, parenting, and general social life.
The seven behavioral systems are the foundation for most of what might be regarded as the social constructions of human life: national politics, specific languages, law, local customs and belief structures. But the seven systems are not themselves social constructions: their existence is not arbitrary and contingent but present today in all human cultures because of the operation of Darwinian mechanisms: ancestors who favored these propensities and strategies survived; their survival over times made such propensities innate. The systems are intrinsically regulated by emotions of pleasure and aversion: Carroll relies on Paul Eckman’s basic psychological typology: fear, joy, sadness, anger, disgust, contempt, and surprise. (These emotions of course subdivide indefinitely into the likes of shame, chagrin, embarrassment, affection, regret, and so forth, depending on local emphasis and traditions: but once again, basic emotions such as joy and sadness are not themselves social constructions, they are the universal conditions for having an emotional life at all.) These emotions saturate behavioral systems, constituting the motivational mainsprings for their relevant attitudes and behavior.
Carroll’s behavioral systems form discriminable contexts for the operation of cognitive modules, the individual blades and pop-up tools of the Swiss Army knife metaphor of mind: “For instance, the cognitive module of vision — edge and motion detection, color, depth, etc. — would be activated within the technological behavioral system and survival system. . . . ‘Face recognition’ modules would be activated within all interpersonal behavioral systems (mating, parenting, kin, social interaction).” He also thinks it likely that the brain has specific modules “geared to the construction of narratives and the recognition of aesthetically pleasing verbal patterns,” and that these modules would be intrinsic to the cognitive behavioral system. In addition to this active mental apparatus, Carroll believes that experience, certainly including the experience of fictional narratives, is conditioned by life-history categories: our life is divided into phases of birth, growth, mating, parenting, and death. Evolutionary psychology has typically over-emphasized mating (and courtship) as the focus of attention, and indeed fictional narrative universally deals with the trials of love. But Carroll thinks that all these life-period patterns must be kept in mind when discussing fiction. He does not accept that maximizing human reproductive potential is so vastly important in the scheme of human history. Sultans who sire hundreds of children, he remarks, are not typical of the human race. Much of what has taken human attention in evolutionary history is directed at bodily survival and at social maintenance: keeping yourself and your family well-fed and healthy, defending family and tribe, and making the tribe a stronger, more fit social unit. Inclusive fitness toward successful reproduction is the ultimate goal, but the lived fabric of daily human life brings many other purposes and ideas into play. Issues of social dissonance and cohesion, death and its meaning, as well as the challenges and adventures of youth that do not involve courtship, can also be expected to figure into the cognitive content of stories and art. I imagine most evolutionary aestheticians would welcome Carroll’s outline of a Darwinian psychology. However, this account so far leaves open the question of how fiction functions as an adaptation. Fictional narrative supplies us with pleasure, but what does it do for us adaptively? Steven Pinker, writing from the standpoint of empirical psychology, supplies one answer to this question. Joseph Carroll, literary connoisseur and theorist, thinks on the other hand that Pinker’s answer shows he does not know what literature is in the first place. It’s instructive to trace out the implications of their dispute.
The universal fascination with fictions is a curious thing. If human beings were attracted only to true narratives, factual reports that describe the real world, the attraction could be attributed to utility. We might imagine that just as early homo sapiens needed to hew sharp adzes and know the ways of game animals, so they needed to employ language accurately to describe themselves and their environment and to communicate truths to each other. Were that the case, there would be no “problem of fiction,” because there would be no fiction: the only alternatives to desirable truth would be unintentional mistakes or intentional lies. Such Pleistocene Gradgrinds would be about as eager to waste linguistic effort creating fables and fictions as they would be to waste their manual skills laboring to produce dull adzes. We can speculate even that the enjoyment of fictions might have put them at an adaptive disadvantage against more Gradgrindish neighboring tribes: homo sapiens would in such a circumstance have evolved to react to untrue, made-up stories much as it reacts to the smell of rotting meat. Now as it happens, this speculation does not accord with facts: the human reaction to fictions, at least when they are properly understood to be fictions, is not aversion, but runs anywhere from boredom to amusement to intense pleasure.
At this point we reach a fork in theory’s road. There are two issues to be distinguished. First, there is the adaptive usefulness of fiction, its functional benefits, from Pleistocene campfire stories to modern novels and movies. Second, there is the pleasure — and perhaps related felt satisfactions that are not well described as immediate pleasure — which the experience of fiction evokes. On the first topic, the functional uses of fiction, Carroll, Pinker, and other evolutionary aestheticians agree. There is an enormous potential survival value for a species in being able to hypothesize non-obtaining states of affairs — imagining, contrary to known facts, what it would be for the neighboring tribe to attack the camp when the men are out hunting, or what it would be to travel in an area where water is scarce. John Tooby and Leda Cosmides talk about the advantages of “decoupled” imaginative acts, Michelle Sugiyama writes of fictions as a kind of imaginative preparation for dealing with real-world problems, and Pinker himself uses a games analogy in How the Mind Works (1997): “Life is like chess, and plots [in fiction] are like those books of famous chess games that serious players study so they will be prepared if they ever find themselves in similar straits.” In life as in chess, “there are too many possible sequences of moves and countermoves for all of them to be played out in one’s mind.” Familiarity with fictional plots obviates the need always in to learn things in first-hand life experience; it can aid in the development of mental flexibility and adaptability to new social problems and expanded physical environments.
On the other, Pinker and Carroll starkly diverge on how to regard the pleasure produced by fiction. Pinker treats the intense pleasures of art, including fiction, essentially as by-products. The arts are a means by which we identify “pleasure-giving patterns” in the brain. For him, the arts “purify” these patterns, “concentrate them,” allowing the brain to “stimulate itself without the messiness of electrodes or drugs . . . [to] give itself intense artificial doses of the sights and sounds and smells that ordinarily are given off by healthful environments.” Pinker explains this process with a culinary analogy: “We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons. Pornography is another pleasure technology.” For Pinker, the arts are yet another. On this account, the arts seek out and find the pleasure centers associated with meeting adaptive challenges — ones which increased fitness in the Pleistocene — and stimulate those centers without going through the risks and toil of actually undertaking the challenging activities. In the creation and experience of art, our minds rise to “a biologically pointless challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing bona fide fitness increments from the harsh world.” The arts are pleasure short-cuts, variously likened by Pinker to puzzles and games, alcohol and drugs, and sweet, rich desserts — things that also give us little jolts of enjoyment.
Pinker’s view of pleasure in the experience of music, literature, and art brings to my mind one of the most enduring arguments in aesthetics. It was first raised not in connection with literature, but as a move in the musical aesthetics formulated in the nineteenth century by Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904). Even though Hanslick only applied his argument to music, it has application to other arts, including fiction, where I think it can be used to resist Pinker’s position. Hanslick was the champion of Brahms against Wagner, for which Wagner pilloried him as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. In his 1854 tract, Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (On the Musically Beautiful), he attacked the idea that the purpose of music was to excite emotions — a common opinion then as now. While he granted that sometimes incidental emotions can be produced by music (parades, church music, dance music, nostalgic music, perhaps), there was no reliable connection between the emotions in music and those putatively produced in listeners — “no invariable and inevitable nexus between musical works and certain states of mind,” as he put it. The beauties of music are peculiar to it, and can be perceived in music even when perhaps little or no emotion is felt by a sensitive and perceptive listener. (A fine discussion of Hanslick is found in Geoffrey Payzant’s 2002 monograph, Hanslick on the Musically Beautiful).
Hanslick’s essential meaning can be captured with a thought experiment: suppose you are listening with pleasure to a particular piece of music, say, the achingly melancholy first movement of the Brahms 4th Symphony. You have a strong sense of its emotions, a sense of its atmosphere. Is the transaction between the music and you properly described as those emotions being produced in you? That is the model Pinker describes — art produces, causes, emotions in us, pushes our pleasure buttons. “Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology,” he says, “a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once.”