Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Caleb Crain wonders whether “novels spread human rights and discourage torture.” Quoting Lynn Hunt’s claim in her book Inventing Human Rights: A History that “novels made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings,” Crain glosses Hunt’s claim by adding: “As it became easier to imagine the feelings and interior lives of other people, it became harder to justify treating them with cruelty or systematic inequity.”
This is a cogent enough observation (although it remains after-the-fact speculation), as long as a caveat is added: Novels, or at least certain kinds of novels, can make make it “easier to imagine the feelings and interior lives of other people,” but this is a secondary effect of the novel as a form, not its reason for being. It exists to allow writers the opportunity to create aesthetically credible works of literary art in prose, not to champion human solidarity and facilitate good will toward men.
Crain further wonders whether “the recent decline in novel-reading in America hasn’t got something to do with the country’s new tolerance for torture and lack of concern about human rights.” Specifically, he contrasts the attitude toward torture (violence more generally) conveyed by various visual media--advertisements, movies tv--with that encouraged by novels:
. . .Perhaps the brain’s limbic system responds to the sight of violence without first checking with the forebrain to find out whether the image is fictional. In other words, a person who see a severed arm, or who sees Kiefer Sutherland shooting a Muslim prisoner, might become frightened, at some level, though perhaps not fully conscious of his fear. His limbic system sees a strong person harming a weak one; his moral faculties, meanwhile, are neutralized by his forebrain’s awareness that the sight is fictional; and the limbic system, finding that the forebrain doesn’t seem to care one way or the other, decides to side with the strong person. . . .
“Is it really possible,” he asks, “to watch the famous torture scene in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs all the way through and remain identified with the torture victim? Not only is the man mutilated and terrorized, but his torturers have all the good lines.” Whereas
I can’t think of a vividly imagined torture scene in written fiction where the reader sides with the torturer. Maybe this is because the novel’s heyday happened to coincide with a faith in human rights, but maybe it has something to do with the cognitive processes involved. In reading, one’s forebrain is fully engaged; when it disengages, reading stops. And to every part of you except perhaps your forebrain, reading seems safe. There’s nothing about holding a book and turning its pages to alarm one’s limbic system. In fact, nothing can be “seen” without first being imagined. . . .
Crain presumably knows more about the physiology of the limbic system than I do, so I’ll take his word that the brain responds to images in the way he describes. That an intervening level of “imagining” is involved in reading seems intuitively correct, although I guess I’d like to see some neuroscientific evidence that reading about violence is as different an experience from being confronted with it--or its aesthetic representation--directly in filmed images as Crain thinks it is. As a literary critic, my engrained bias is that reading is a more complex phenomenon than viewing, that literature is in this sense an aesthetically richer form than film or television (although what about painting?), but still. Is it sufficiently more complicated as to make reading novels inherently part of the struggle to establish human rights?
I guess I can’t immediately summon up a torture scene in fiction in which “the reader sides with the torturer,” either, although much of the behavior depicted in, say, A Clockwork Orange seems just as cruel as outright torture, and I can’t say I don’t have some empathy for Alex and his droogs as they resist the curtailment of their freedom and, in Alex’s case, free will. I may not like feeling such empathy, but most well-fashioned first-person narration produces an almost unavoidable identification with the narrator, an identification that might be repudiated but that still does exist. Bardamu, the protagonist of Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, is in many ways a pretty despicable character without much human fellow-feeling, but it’s hard to deny that his narrative is powerful, his narrative voice compelling. We certainly find ourselves admiring him as a fictional creation, if not as a “person” we’d otherwise like to meet. Other novels in which we are invited to inhabit the world evoked by unpleasant or morally dubious characters come to mind as well (Lolita obviously, The Stranger, Naked Lunch), although perhaps Crain would contend that forcing us to sample “the feelings and interior lives” of such characters as these is actually itself a step toward clarifying “human rights” (even if it doesn’t necessarily show us that “all people are fundamentally similar.")
It’s not entirely clear what period Crain takes to be the “novel’s heyday.” Since Crain has mostly presented himself as a critic/scholar of 19th century American literature and culture, my immediate assumption is that he has the 19th century novel in mind (perhaps extending into the early 20th.) Thus one might infer that his concern for the decline in novel-reading is also an accompanying lament for the passing of the novel in its realist/character-centered phase (at least characters who are relatively unproblematic in their psychological make-up, who give us desired access to their “inner feelings.") We are no longer in that “heyday,” and if we were, if the 19th century novel were still the paradigm current writers followed, presumably it would be attracting more readers and helping to spread human rights more efficaciously. Instead we’re left with 24 and Reservoir Dogs.
Perhaps this is unfair to Crain’s more fundamental, underlying argument that if more people were reading and fewer people relied on “edgy” television and film for their entertainment we’d live in a safer and more empathetic world. I’d like to think as well that a planet populated by fans of Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady would be one less inclined to “cruelty or systematic inequity,” although I do have my doubts. My biggest problem with Crane’s analysis is that it strongly implies that a “novel” is properly that sort of thing that was written back in the “heyday” and that those writers of artistically adventurous prose such as Celine or Nabokov (or John Hawkes or Gilbert Sorrentino or, for that matter, David Foster Wallace) have helped to undermine their own enterprise by writing works of fiction that don’t so transparently exteriorize “inner feelings” and thus foster human understanding. It may be that some novels, as Richard Rorty has it, “help us become less cruel,” it may even be that a contingent effect of the kind of heyday novel Crain extols was to create a cognitive bond between the reader and the imaginary “people” depicted therein, but reducing cruelty by promoting such a bond takes no more precedence in defining the novel as a literary form than does, say, Nabokov’s insistence that great fiction produce a certain aesthetic “tingle” in the reader’s spine.
I don’t know if British and American readers in the ages of *Pamela* or *Great Expectations* or *Middlemarch* or *Kim* were particularly more humane. I mean, these were the periods of chattel slavery, wage slavery, child labor, imperial exploitation, &c. And for every ill combated by the novel—slavery, say—another “great” novel of the period was actively championing another ill.
Dan, you’re right also to bring up the tradition of celebrating evil and transgression, one that runs through Poe to Baudelaire, Celine, Nabokov, Bataille, Henry Miller, Bill Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, John Hawkes, and now William Vollman and that Mormon short story writer whose name I can’t remember right now. At the same time, let’s remember that one reason these writers celebrate evil and transgression is not simply to make an aesthetic statement—writers like Celine, Bataille, and Miller certainly are as didactic and moralistic as the worst novels of purpose: they just reverse (transvaluate) middle-class morality.
You might be interested, if you haven’t seen it, in this Coetzee piece on torture and the ambiguous situation of the novelist from 1986.
"I guess I can’t immediately summon up a torture scene in fiction in which “the reader sides with the torturer,””—various scenes in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, last seen on Acephalous with a large number of fans insisting “but you can’t possibly mean that”, done with the usual SF proviso that it was all deploreable though necessary and noble and how sad for the main character that they had to do it (see also Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game in re: genocide).
The thing about celebrating evil more generally is that evil is often depicted as having more energy. For instance, to bring in yet another medium, there are a number of rock songs in which the lead singer momentary sings as the evildoer for the purposes of condemnation; this is almost always when the song itself rejoices in its ability to let go, to let musical values match the nihilistic voice being tried on. But even without musical variation, you often get something like, say, the Dead Kennedys’ Cesspools in Eden, with the following bit sung from the viewpoint of “the company”:
A storage tank’s leaking It’s about to explode
When you can watch the fun
Nothing happens here
Get out the lawn chairs
We’ll drink pink lemonade
And watch Martinez burn
Although this is obviously intended to mobilize moral indignation, the evildoers are the only actors, the ones actively transforming their evil into fun and getting away with it.
I wouldn’t give much credit to Crain’s neural speculations. Talk of the limbic system “checking with the forebrain to find out whether the image is fictional” is probably just a manner of speaking but it isn’t very sophisticated.
Hi, Caleb here. Thanks for taking my essaylet seriously enough to argue with it. A few quick qualifications: I don’t in fact actually know anything about the limbic system, not in any professional way. Thus the apotropaic gestures in my post, where I called my suggestion “wildly speculative” and “only . . . a notion.” I guess I’ve read a fair amount of psychology over the years, but I meant the terms “limbic system” and “forebrain” to sound somewhat outdated and to signal my amateurishness. And no, I have no evidence whatsoever.
I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that if the novel has any effect on the promulgation of human rights, it’s secondary, epiphenomenal, unintended. That was sort of my point: we turn to entertainments of a certain sort merely because we enjoy them, but maybe they have an effect on the way we see the world; maybe they then alter our habits of thought, in a way we weren’t seeking. I’m guilty as charged, I suppose, of what Michael Warner somewhere calls the “Whig-McLuhanite theory of history.”
By the way, other arguments with my hypothesis are here and in the comments of an earlier post here on the Valve, which have like you taken up the challenge of counterexamples. I should probably admit that my speculating may be constrained by my tastes; I can’t bear fiction of the philosophical-gazing-upon-human-pain variety, the Paul Bowles / Dennis Cooper sort of thing (and I make myself absurdly vulnerable by confessing this, because my squeamishness is such I’ve never read those two authors, and so may be mistaken about them). On the other hand, I *do* like Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley and get a (limited) kick out of Genet, but I think it’s because those authors find ways of securing the reader’s sympathy to the characters before they hurt others, and that they have knowingly set up their art for a challenge. (Of course if there were one thing the novel was bad at, the art-novel would have to attempt it.) And I would argue that compared to the movies, even their prose does not dwell on the hurting of others (descriptions of evil do not necessarily involve descriptions of torture), and that a reader does not experience it as a viewer would.
I didn’t mean to suggest that a visual image was incapable of enlisting sympathy for a person in suffering (the Pietà would put paid to that) but I will hazard the suggestion that still images are more congenial to such enlistment than moving ones are.
The heyday of the novel: 1750 to 1950? But for the record, I’d argue that DFW’s “Infinite Jest” is rather classic in its willingness to bring the reader into its characters’ interiorities, of a Dickensian variety and in places a Jamesian thickness of description.
In yesterday’s New York Times, Tony Scott calls people who connect movie violence to such real-life tragedies as Virginia Tech “scolds." And I take his point that a psychologically healthy person knows the difference between fiction and reality, and that the psychologically unhealthy person is too much of a wild card to social-engineeer around. My concern was with the person of average sensibility, who might be drifting without quite being aware of it into a certain callousness about torture.
Hey, I’m an undergrad at the University of British Columbia, although not studying English, who has lurked around this blog for quite a while. Thought I would jump in for the first time…
“It exists to allow writers the opportunity to create aesthetically credible works of literary art in prose, not to champion human solidarity and facilitate good will toward men.”
I’m curious about what possibly justifies such a categorical statement as to the purpose of the novel and the motivations/intentions of its authors. Are you really suggesting the novel has an inherent reason for being? Who decided this reason? Or is it only ‘good’ novelists who ascribe to this reason for the novel? My impression is many great novels have human solidarity as an equal or even greater goal than aesthetics, and can’t think of a good argument to disqualify them in favour of some Platonic definition.
“Other novels in which we are invited to inhabit the world evoked by unpleasant or morally dubious characters come to mind as well (Lolita obviously, The Stranger, Naked Lunch), although perhaps Crain would contend that forcing us to sample “the feelings and interior lives” of such characters as these is actually itself a step toward clarifying “human rights” (even if it doesn’t necessarily show us that “all people are fundamentally similar.")"
I don’t know if they shore up human rights, but they can force reflection on our individual capacity for cruelty (cf. Richard Rorty). I’m not sure what sort of evidence could settle the debate over if they do. Its seems like it will be random speculation back and forth.
Caleb: Thanks for the response. That you consider the “heyday” to be 1750-1950 probably explains why you didn’t dwell much on counterexamples, many if not most of which were written after 1950 (Celine excepted, of course.) Myself, I think the “heyday” of the novel only began in 1950.
Steven: Of course the novel has an inherent reason for being. To be a work of art. (And of course this is my opinion. It’s also my opinion that indeed only “good” novelists “ascribe to this reason.")Why would anyone truly interested in human solidarity and good will write or read novels to achieve these things? They’re so unavoidably indirect and so easily produce writers like Celine, Burroughs, Hawkes, etc.
Perhaps on a slightly marginal point (although hopefully the broader significance will become clear), I feel I should stand up in defence of the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, which I think is the subject of too much unfair criticism. The scene is deliberately constructed to be in a sense enjoyable: as noted, the torturers get all the good lines; in the infamous “ear” scene, the effect of Michael Madsen dancing to the Stealers Wheel song is disarming - the viewer lets her guard down, and ‘gets in to’ the song as well. The point is that when Madsen suddenly slashes the kidnapped cop’s face, and proceeds to cut his ear off, the viewer is implicated in the scene - what Tarantino has done here is to make it impossible to be a detached spectator; he forces the viewer to become a part of the violence. This is what makes it so uncomfortable to watch, and what makes it different from kind of film which allows the viewer to distanciate herself from the violence. In this sense, it is those films in which people are killed somewhere in the background, the bodies pile up and are immediately forgotten (this can be found in movies which are not really considered ‘violent’ per se, like James Bond films) that ought to be condemned; at least Tarantino forces the viewer to engage with the consequences of the violence.
A likely objection to my defence of Reservoir Dogs is that it depends on the attitude of the individual viewer. Well, the same goes for novels…
One could take as a starting point Cervantes and that ‘veritable encyclopedia of cruelty’ per Nabokov.
"As it became easier to imagine the feelings and interior lives of other people, it became harder to justify treating them with cruelty or systematic inequity.”
This reminds me of some of Marshall McLuhan’s more fanciful reasoning. The obvious difference between the golden Then of a seemingly kinder, gentler (more literate) past and the brutal Now is that infinitely greater connectivity seems to render more of us complicit in (or at least aware of) the kind of “local” atrocity the news of which wouldn’t have spread thirty miles in any direction before the age of television. That’s one point.
Pegging less overall squeamishness about torture to *changes of habits in novel-reading* is not only rather a touchingly poignant stretch of the imagination but flows from the assumption that sensitivities in that regard were never lower than they are today. But kids reading lurid comics of the 1940s, for example, had casual knowledge of the “death of a thousand cuts”...a factual, horrifying practise (far grislier than anything Kiefer Sutherland will ever get up to) that I, in all my sophistication, knew almost nothing about until a year ago.
Not to mention the matter of regional variations in levels of knowingness (and tacit consent) regarding the torture, hanging and burning alive of black Americans from the early to the middle years of the 20th century. The South was (and is) an arguable hotspot of literary production (and consumption) during the heyday of said tortures, no?
"I’ll just say that I believe - not empirically, alas, but only theoretically - that, for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens. And I am speaking precisely about reading Dickens, Sterne, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Balzac, Melville, Proust, Musil, and so forth; that is, about literature, not literacy or education. A literate, educated person, to be sure, is fully capable, after reading this or that political treatise or tract, of killing his like, and even of experiencing, in so doing, a rapture of conviction. Lenin was literate, Stalin was literate, so was Hitler; as for Mao Zedong, he even wrote verse. What all these men had in common, though, was that their hit list was longer than their reading list.”
A lot of this conversation is based on a tacit assumption: that moral motivation is grounded in sympathy. If that’s true, then any work which encourages and trains sympathy will have an effect on human rights or other moral institutions, as will any work which dulls sympathy (for instance, by presenting some people as mere automata or orc hordes, to be switched off when they become inconvenient). But is the success of human rights institutions over the last 100 years or so (for instance) really grounded in the cultivation of sympathy? I haven’t seen any particular evidence that it is…
Literature, like religion, is probably morally neutral in this sense. That is, something that is in theory on the side of the angels, but just as often is on the side of the demons or simply sitting on the sideliines. The creators of novelistic fictions can be complete shits, so why do we think the readers of such works will be inevitably edified? Surely novelists have read more novels than other people, on the average, but they are probably just as morally flawed as everyone else.
Just stumbled across something interesting. Even though I didn’t know about it when I wrote my original post, it turns out that there is evidence that watching violence changes the brain, according to “Mind-altering media,” an article by Helen Philips in the 19 April 2007 issue of New Scientist:
Brain imaging and other physiological measures also reveal changes in emotional responses to violent images as a result of viewing violence or playing violent games. Bruce Bartholow of the University of Missouri, Columbia, has found that people with a history of game playing have a reduced brain response to shocking pictures, suggesting that people begin to see such imagery as more normal. Another study found that frontal lobe activity was reduced in youngsters who played a violent video game for 30 minutes, compared with those playing an equally exciting but non-violent game. This brain region is important for concentration and impulse control, among other things. A region called the amygdala, important for emotional control, was more aroused in those who experienced the violent game.
The article also references what is apparently overwhelming scientific documentation of a link between television viewing and increased aggressive behavior in children, so overwhelming that one developmental psychologist calls the ambivalence about the link in the mainstream press exasperating. The implication is that reporting on the research has been befuddled in much the way that reporting on smoking and global warming once were.
Of course this doesn’t prove that reading novels is good for you.
""I guess I can’t immediately summon up a torture scene in fiction in which “the reader sides with the torturer,””—various scenes in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, last seen on Acephalous with a large number of fans insisting “but you can’t possibly mean that”, done with the usual SF proviso that it was all deploreable though necessary and noble and how sad for the main character that they had to do it”
At the cost of once again outing myself as a Wolfe fan, I’ll ask you for specific examples, because I don’t remember any torture scenes in the Book of the New Sun in which the reader sides with the torturer.
"The article also references what is apparently overwhelming scientific documentation of a link between television viewing and increased aggressive behavior in children, so overwhelming that one developmental psychologist calls the ambivalence about the link in the mainstream press exasperating.”
Here I agree with you wholeheartedly. Arguing the point from this way around makes this aspect of it irrefutable. I can’t believe that novels provide a symmetrical counter-force for moral (rather than intellectual) good, sadly. But I am often amused that we expect media (or The Medium, more like) to critique itself rationally.
I’ve not read the comments but I think there’s a huge problem with this in that it ignore the role of the lurid in literature. Perhaps not as much in “high” literature (although I’d debate that of late) but certainly in “low” literature. You raise Tarantino yet the name of his second film, Pulp Fiction, shows exactly where the influence is. And this is old. Certainly the high point of pulp fiction was the 30’s through 50’s and much of it includes violence as a kind of “reader sides with the torturer.” Consider many of the early Tarzan novels where the savage man-beast takes on the villains.
Clark Goble makes a good point. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a lot of spy novels in which the “good guys” torture.
Also, are there really that many torture scenes in movies or TV in which the viewer sides with the torturer? When I watched Reservoir Dogs, I may not have identified with the victim in the ear-cutting scene, but I didn’t “side with the torturer” either. And while it is rather sickening that a TV show (24) that propagandizes for torture should not only air on a major network but be a hit, I suspect that the same thing could have happened in print if novels were still the leading form of popular entertainment. (I only “suspect” because I’ve only seen one episode of 24, and that was mercifully torture-free.)
“Mormon short story writer whose name I can’t remember right now”—Brian Evenson? (If so, he’s written novels, too.)