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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Fictional Characters 6: Recapitulation

Posted by Bill Benzon on 08/21/06 at 10:22 AM

It’s time to look back at the Fictional Characters (FC) posts and to make some observations. I’m not attempting anything deep here. This post is a set of pointers - “here they are, five posts exploring the problem of literary character - and an observation or two about how they “bang” against one another. 

* * * * *

I began FC1 by stating a general problem and then considering the case of F. C. Bradley’s treatment of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. I offered some quotes from Bradley’s discussion of Othello as an example of the sort of thing we don’t do any more, perhaps even as the sort of thing many would now say is naïve. What struck me is that Bradley regarded Othello as someone - yes, that is the word I want to use - whom Shakespeare had so fully revealed that he, Bradley, now has direct access to Othello in the same way that Shakespeare had. As such he, Bradley, can, if he so chooses, go beyond what Shakespeare has explicitly revealed and tell us more. He treats this Othello as a being whose existence is independent of whatever Shakespeare or anyone else says about him.

Regardless of whether or not it is proper for Bradley, or anyone else, to do this, we might want to know how it is that he does it? Even if he is somehow mistaken to talk in this way, how is it that he can so easily and elegantly, so naturally and convincingly, commit this mistake?

This brings us to FC2, which opened with Norman Holland’s discussion of character from The Dynamics of Literary Response. Holland knows perfectly well that fictional characters are not real, but argues that readers give them life from themselves, using the words on the page as cues in the active construction of characters. I spent most of the post indicating how minds and brains do that sort of thing, referring to work in the newer psychologies - cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. Such claims are empirical in principle, if not yet in well-verified observational and experimental practice. When faced with texts about people, this and this and this is how we understand what we read.

FC2, then, is about the kind of conceptual tools literary critics can find in these newer psychologies. FC3 is quite different. Here I move from abstract theory to a particular analytic problem, a comparison of protagonists in three Shakespeare plays, Claudio (Much Ado About Nothing), Othello, and Leontes (The Winter’s Tale). Each confronts the same problem - a beloved woman appears to be unfaithful - but these characters exhibit different behavioral capacities and are surrounded by a different constellation of associated characters. As Shakespeare wrote each of these plays, it follows that, in some fashion, he created each of these characters out of himself.

We’re not going to understand how Shakespeare did that as long as we think of those characters as autonomous self-driven entities. Each belongs to a particular dramatic design and must be understood in that way. Given the mechanisms indicated in FC2, how’s this done? Think of those FC2 mechanisms as a bunch of building blocks: rectangular blocks in various sizes and proportions, triangular pieces, posts and pegs, and so forth. FC3 looks at, say, a gas station, an ocean liner, and a tall tower (FWIW, things I built with my blocks when I was a child). How are those complex structures built from those primitive blocks? Now we’re talking about how the analysis of literary texts can reveal things that are opaque to these newer psychologies. (I develop this blocks metaphor in the Preface to Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. I call it speculative engineering.)

FC4 continues with a specific descriptive and analytical problem, a scene from Much Ado About Nothing. Using Keith Oatley’s notion of simulation as an intellectual foil, I argue that Shakespeare’s staging of a certain set of events has effects on readers (or, if you will, play goers) than cannot be accounted for by treating his characters as though they were autonomous acting entities. Since, however, the only reality those characters have, reader by reader, is created by those readers (through the means indicated in FC2, plus others) it follows that we really need to think about how readers construct characters. Beyond that, we need to think about how that experience unfolds in time - a general consideration I emphasize in my new PsyArt piece on literary morphology.

Ultimately this is an empirical issue, one that’s going to tax our observational capacities. For the moment I’ll be content to think about idealized readers and to think in terms of general principles and mechanisms. Given mechanism X and Y and Z how, in principle, could this work? Even then it’s a stretch.

And so we come to FC5, which is mostly a pointer to an article by William Godshalk on “Shakespeare and the Problem of Literary Character.” I neither make nor even suggest an argument here. From my point of view the main interest here is the historical perspective and the survey. The big conceptual watershed has been the one that gets us from F. C. Bradley (and his predecessors) to his successors, the New Critics and the Rest. One approach has been to somehow constrain critical discussion more tightly to-through the text itself. The other approach has been to think about what readers do. This is where Godshalk ends up.

But I’m not happy.

I’ll be back.


Godshalk’s essay, however interesting and detailed, should not be praised overly much by the blogger du belle-lettres. Bad for bidness I would claim, tho I need a re-perusal. Godshalk, regardless of his ultimate stand on the “ontology” of character-constructs, invokes not merely a Russellian sort of positivism but hints of anti-platonism. A few more Godshalkian jabs and fans of Shankspeare or Steely Dan might be required to pick up some arch-heretics such as Skinner or Quine.

By on 08/21/06 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Steady on, William. Steady on.

By John Holbo on 08/21/06 at 09:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Quoted in Godshalk, “Shakespeare and the Problem of Literary Character.” :

“Similarly, to maintain that Hamlet, for example, exists in his own world, namely, in the world of Shakespeare’s imagination, just as truly as (say) Napoleon existed in the ordinary world, is to say something deliberately confusing, or else confused to a degree which is scarcely credible. There is only one world, the ‘real’ world: Shakespeare’s imagination is part of it, and the thoughts that he had in writing Hamlet are real. So are the thoughts that we have in reading the play. But it is of the very essence of fiction that only the thoughts, feelings, etc., in Shakespeare and his readers are real, and that there is not, in addition to them, an objective Hamlet..."

Russell, however quaint if not Polonius-like, raises a serious point here (quoted by Godshalk), however bo-ring it may be to literary hepcats. Are there aesthetic truths (say the “truth” of Hamlet) in the way there are say truths of natural sciences or truths arrived at in calculus or formal logic? The traditional epistemological divide is between analytical truth (pertaining to mathematics and formal logic–-i.e., deductive) and synthetic truth (inductive knowledge based on inference and observation: biology, chemistry, physics, as well as social sciences). Leibniz, one of the founders of integral calc. along with Newton, made this distinction: and Russell was quite aware of Leibnizian thought. Where shall artistic/aesthetic “knowledge” (not to say theology) be situated then, given the analytic/synthetic divide? Most would say it is closer to induction or psychology, than to deduction. But the play Hamlet offers no facts; it is not history, tho it may contain a few historical references. IN some sense then Russell reaffirming a rather classical and skeptical view of aesthetic claims: indeed Plato in the Republic bans the lyric poet from the ideal state.

By on 08/29/06 at 12:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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