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What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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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

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Romantic Love, Nature and Culture

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/12/09 at 02:57 PM

That romantic love was culturally constructed was one of the big revelations of my undergraduate years at Hopkins. I had assumed that that’s just how things were, everywhere and for all time. And now I find out that it was invented at a certain time and place, 12th century Provençal. Kinda’ set me back a bit. 

Of course, the Darwinians, psychologists and literary critics, don’t buy it. They regard romantic love as a universal feature of human nature and they’ve got the evidence to prove it. Thus tut-tutting the postmodern deconstructive social constructivists on this point is a minor feature of writing by Darwinian literary critics. And so we come to this passage in Michael Bérubé’s recent review of Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories:

He scoffs, for example, at the idea that romantic love was invented at some point in the 12th century, because “cross-cultural, neurological, and cross-species studies have demonstrated the workings of romantic love across societies and even species.” This just won’t wash. Other species might court and mate for life, but they do not engage in romantic love in the sense that humanists employ the term, save perhaps for the cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew. “Romantic love” does not mean “mammals doing it like mammals”; it refers to the conventions of courtly love, which were indeed invented in the European middle ages and cannot be found in ancient literatures or cultures. Those conventions are culturally and historically specific variations on our underlying (and polymorphous) biological imperatives, just as the institution of the Bridezilla and the $25,000 wedding is specific to our own addled time and place.

I’m with Bérubé on this. I don’t think that C. S. Lewis and Denis de Rougement and others created romantic love out of whole cloth. Nor do I think the evolutionary psychologists are making up their arguments out of whole cloth. What I think is that things are complicated.

Let’s just set the neural evidence aside and take a brief look at a bit of the cross-cultural work. Consider an article by Jonathan Gottschall and Marcus Nordland, evocritics both: Romantic Love: A Literary Universal? Philosophy and Literature 30: 450-470, 2006. They conducted a cross-cultural study of folktales to see whether or not romantic love was, well, everywhere. They define romantic love as (p. 454) “a feeling expressed in a romantic context between two people; it has a dimension of sexual attraction, even lust, but it is not limited to that; it is an emotion that is typically reserved for only one person (though romantic love is not necessarily inconsistent with sexual promiscuity); it carries the expectation of lasting duration; it involves intense attraction to the beloved’s whole person and is not just about attraction to the body” (their italics). They then assembled 79 collections of folk tales and had a team of coders identify references to romantic love in all those tales (they don’t say how many tales in total).

Some results, briefly stated (p. 457):

In the 79 collections coders identified 263 references that met our shared definition of romantic love: 55 collections had at least one reference to romantic love; 39 of the collections included multiple references. On average, there were 3.32 references to romantic love per collection. Two-thirds of the accepted references enjoyed unanimous coder agreement; for the other third there was one dissenter. References to romantic love were not limited to European tales but were found across highly diverse and isolated culture areas.

This, however, is just preliminary to my main point. I just wanted to give you a feel for what kind of work is involved here. Let’s just say that considerable labor is involved in gathering and preparing the collections, coding them, and analyzing the results.

In the course of discussing their results Gottschall and Nordlund offer this (p. 459): “According to William Jankowiak, cultural attitudes towards romantic love are indeed highly diverse, with some cultures simply rejecting romantic love ‘as an evil and frighteningly emotional experience. In others it is tolerated but not celebrated or asserted, and, in still others, romantic passion is praised as an important and cherished cultural ideal.’” It seems to me that that is an assertion about the institutionalization of romantic love, about how a given society treats a human experience that may well occur in any society whatsoever (and is, by that account, a biological universal). Which is to say that the institutionalization of romantic love is culturally specific. 

Does constructivism really need any more than that?

Consider courtly love, that variety of romantic love discovered in 12th Century Europe. It was explicitly adulterous. That is to say, its essential character was was understood in relationship to the social institution of marriage. That institution is not mentioned in definition that Gottschall and Nordlund used (nor the definitions used by other cross-cultural investigators). So, is adultery an important feature of courtly love or merely incidental? Courtly love was also thought of as being ennobling. Is that incidental or essential? By Jane Austen’s time the adultery clause had been dropped and romantic love had become, at least in the ideal case, the basic foundation of marriage. Is that a deep change, or a superficial one? Is it a matter of mere institutional change, or is marriage such a fundamental institution that nothing about it is “mere”? We’re dealing with questions that are matters both of mere definition and of underlying causal processes. But I don’t know how to separate them out.

Let me conclude with an observation that John Wilkins, a philosopher of biology, recently made about Stephen Toulmin:

Of his ideas, the single paper that has most affected my thinking was his observation on the Lakatos and Musgrave book, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge in 1970, in which he noted of the Uniformitarian/Catastrophist conflict in nineteenth century geology that the uniformities became more episodic and the catastrophes less dramatic, until they met in the middle and that all they were arguing over were the terms used. This, it seems, is routinely the case in scientific disputes, as one side concedes in different terms what their opponents had claimed, but never really admits it.

That, I suspect, is how this mess about romantic love is going to get resolved. Definitions will slip and slide, more and more varied observations will be offered, and the controversy will end. Not with a bang, but a whimper.


Comments

The actual experience of romantic love - I mean the emotions and biological responses involved - is to a degree in-built. I’m sure even the earliest hunters and gatherers sitting around a fire, knew what it meant to be ‘elevated’ beyond the rutting range by the proximity of a particularly beguiling siren. This doesn’t nix the truth of romantic conventions… the traditions of courtly love, which as Bérubé puts it are “historically specific variations on our underlying (and polymorphous) biological imperatives”.

By on 12/13/09 at 06:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for asking me to comment, Bill. Here goes.

It’s worthwhile asking what the constructivists and the evolutionary psychologists obtain from the conclusion that romantic love either is or is not a “human universal” and is “biologically based.” Having written on this topic since the 1980s, and having studied and published about human courtship in field-observational ethological and ethnographic detail, I assure you that a good deal is at stake – if covertly.

One is the universality and embedded genetic antiquity of roles attributed by the writer to men and woman in the romantic encounter. By “role,” these folks (and I) mean the narrative and causative parts played by women and men in real romances between real people, and that are reflected, with varying degrees of accuracy, in folklore, plays, songs, and novels, and more recently in films and graphic novels.

Another issue centers on the universality and antiquity of internal emotions (attraction, allure, falling in love): are these a given of our “fixed biology” or is love – to choose one part of this system – as variable as people and situations? In literary terms, is Nausicaa’s “love” for Odysseus the “same” as Mme. Bovary’s “love” for Leon or Rodolphe? If there exists such a universal core, then is that core the universal Platonic ideaos of love?

Yet another issue centers on semiotics and contingency, and, ultimately, on dialectics. For Ovid, “romantic love” is not a fixed core, but an emergent consequence of actions taken and reciprocated in a virtually Heraclitean flow of ever-changing behavior and feeling. From here a difficult question arises that is missing in the Platonic vision of love (which we can take to be expressed canonically by Socrates in Plato’s “Symposium”). In a Platonic view, the meanings of love and its feelings – the racing heart, the blush, the lover’s gaze – are all given transparently and universally by our biology, and those meanings are (or will be) understood by a participant or a reader in the same way no matter when or where they occur in time or geography.

However, if Ovidian contingency is the more accurate reading of love and its actions, then meaning poses are far deeper questions. The Platonic ideai represent a kind of universal lexicon that provides sure meanings to the racing heart, the blush, and the lover’s gaze, but if there is no such lexicon – that is, if Plato was wrong and no ideai of any kind actually exist anywhere, least of all in our genes – then how do I KNOW what she means or intends when she flirts with me? Do I have to express (or translate) her actions in words, and hence create a logocentric (though perhaps personal) dictionary for HER meanings? Are words NECESSARY for understanding love? If so, then literature rules, and actions are always less than words. Ovid’s answer was that words are secondary, and that no logocentric ideaos shapes “love.” In brief, we invent it each time using our bodies and minds, and discover it anew each time: “Amor novus est” – love is always new. A fortiori, it follows that love is not inscribed in or by the genes, but comes from the emergent game that two people enter into as they flirt and court.

Initially under the strong influence of Ovid, medieval poets took Ovidian love and developed it into extensively codified systems of behavior deemed appropriate for different people in different stations of life. They thus lexified love once again – by “lexify” I mean created dictionaries and compendia of love, e.g., the stages of love through which lovers pass in predetermined precision as they seek consummation. (The literature is huge both original and critical, but medieval love theory has a physiognomy harsh and strange to us moderns.)

When we reach various European bourgeois revolutions, love again enters center stage, but this time in the guise of marriage and family. For the noble (male) practitioners of courtly love, love had nothing to do with marriage. But, with embourgeoisement, love became the cement that created the stable bourgeois family: if the woman is promiscuous, the all-important link between husband = father and offspring is severed and the family is shattered. In this view, the crime of Mme. Bovary is not adultery but treason – she is a traitor to her class and her husband. That is a far cry from Yseult.

So we come once again to what is in it for these writers if one or the other view of love is correct. If Plato is right, then the family does eternally depend on the fixity of the wife’s romantic attention on her husband and ONLY on her husband. If Ovid is right, then the father-centered bourgeois family is a fraud and a delusion, and will be washed away forever the moment the wife’s eyes encounter a handsome man.

Of course, everyone here knows the NAME of that handsome man – don’t we? For D.H. Lawrence, the older traditional or patriarchal family is by definition sterile and Constance’s overt discovery of sex and freedom is authentic only because she has met Oliver Mellors. Lawrence was not afraid to cast his protagonists as exploring radically new territory. (Before someone becomes very upset about the word “bourgeois” – for example, by saying irately that Constance is LADY Chatterley and not bourgeois at all – it’s not the character that determines the label. Lawrence is writing for what we can call a newly liberated bourgeois readership, no matter who his heroine might be.)

But Lawrence is already modern. Already feminism, Marxism, science, and the high-speed printing press were all eroding the faith that the family is based on eternal truths of our genes or our ideai: instead, love, family, marriage, and sex itself became (in this view) superstructural components of political-economic systems whose defenders have vested interests in certain arrangements of family (and hence of property). In such a view, pornography is no longer a carefully kept secret cabinet of the very wealthy, but is spreading everywhere in books and film (in the 1930s), then comics (in the 1950s), the in Internet porn (in the 1990-2000s). The moment pornography becomes a genre instead of a crime, the fixed edifice of gender and sexual relations is shattered – at least in the view of those who hold such edifices in high honor. Some – not all, but some – of these traditionally-minded individuals very much WANT the genes to shore up the certainties of religion and the patriarchal family with an INNATE knowledge of what is right and wrong, for example, the evolutionary psychological (e.g., that of David Buss) view that men tend to prefer “short-term relationships” but women want “long-term relationships.” From there, some, but again not all, writers want to see love and romance OF CERTAIN KINDS as universal in literature and the performative arts. The kind they want reveal a woman as “falling in love” with (an implicitly) genetically superior hero and remaining constant to him. Such a narrative reinforces the superstructural model of Platonic fixity AND inscribes the patriarchy into our genes.

What has been left out of these economic-social-political gyrations is any analysis of what actually occurs when men and women meet, fall in love (or not), and decide to have sex (or not). The concerns of the constructivists and of the evolutionary psychologists (to name two foci of the debate) are not with DATA but with How to make the data support what we want socially, politically, and economically. Since these intellectual-political publicists dominate the market, it’s harder to see that (for example) Bussian evolutionary psychology is simply inaccurate when it asserts that women tend to avoid “short-term relationships.” They don’t—except sometimes, with some men, in some situations… And yet constructivism is also inaccurate, if less dramatically. As I have said elsewhere, people fall in love with other people, and not with ferns or turtles. Our biology is hardly irrelevant to love. But those questions do not concern the publicists of this debate: they want to shore up one or another social-political-economic system in the here and now of social reality, and they do not care what the data say. There will never be, IMO, any rapprochement between the two sides, no more than the Puritans and the Royalists ever lay down in the same garden together. But they will both, eventually, be forgotten.

By on 12/13/09 at 07:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

An interesting set of comments, Tim, more than I’m competent to respond to. I’d like to offer some remarks in response to this:

Another issue centers on the universality and antiquity of internal emotions (attraction, allure, falling in love): are these a given of our “fixed biology” or is love – to choose one part of this system – as variable as people and situations?

First, let me say that I’m not sure I know what emotions are. Yes, there is a psychological, neural and even a somewhat comparative (humans and animals) literature on basic emotions, etc. There is also cross cultural work (e.g. Ekman). The issue is not so much one of compiling a list of the emotions – anger, joy, hate, shame, love, etc. – as one of figuring out just what these things are and how they bear on behavior. Nor, as far as I can tell, is the brain constructed in such a way that we can say that emotions all happen there, in that place, while rational thought happens over there, in that other place, and wishes and desires are, here. Yes, we know quite a bit about the biology of this stuff, but lining it up with our folk vocabulary of emotions is a bit tricky.

Now, some years ago I read a book on emotion and narrative in which attachment was referred to an emotion, a usage I thought rather odd. Whether attachment refers to the child-mother bond (as in Bowlby’s work) or more generally to a strong positive bond between individuals, it is NOT an emotion. It is a type of relationship. In the course of that relationship the parties involved are likely to experience a variety of feelings and emotions, both positive and negative.

Likewise, it seems to me that romantic love, in any meaningful sense, is a kind relationship, not an emotion. I say this because “love” is generally regarded as an emotion, and so romantic love must be an emotion as well. And even fairly sophisticated discussions of romantic love often seem to be (by default) discussions about AN emotion and that just doesn’t make sense. Thus Gottschall and Nordlund do this in the definition they used in their study, which begins by asserting that romantic love is “a feeling expressed in a romantic context” and has a clause asserting that “it is an emotion that is typically reserved for only one person.” This kind of talk seems rather common to me, and not terribly useful. In a romantic relationship, yes, there are feelings of tenderness, awe, and desire, but also anger, frustration, despair, and others. Common usage seems to use the tenderness-awe aspect as a synecdoche for the whole behavioral complex. Once we think of a behavioral complex encompassing a variety of emotions in a single relationship we create room for cultural shaping, not to mention the unfolding dynamics that have been so important in your thinking.

Your formulation, quoted above, seems to distinguish between the “internal emotions” and the “system” in which they participate. That strikes me as a step in the right direction. Would you care to say more?

By Bill Benzon on 12/13/09 at 01:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the problem here arises from using binary opposition to analyse a system that has emerged from heuristic strategies competing on a stochastic fitness landscape such that the system hides away its own ‘machine language’ so to speak and thus binary opposition seizes (it may be) on spandrels with equal likelihood as adaptive forms germane to its approach.
In the case of the Courtly Love tradition, Occam’s razor suggests this us a simple case of adapting Islamic convention for a specific socio-political end.
The Hubb al Udhri tradition had been turned into philosophy (not least by the influence of Plato’s symposium) and then given a poetic form such that it served an important social purpose- viz. showing devotion to either the Sultan or the Pir (spiritual master.
In both cases, the effect was to release the public intellectual from the restrictions imposed by tribalism.
Thus a key role was assigned to the story of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni and his (native) slave Ayaz. Ahmed Ghazali has interpreted their relationship in a manner reminiscent of Hegel’s ‘master-slave’ dialectic- in love, the Master becomes the slave of the slave.
The love relationship between Pir and Shagird (disciple) similarly undercuts tribal or clan loyalties and can also serve as a countervailing power to the State.
The truth is this strategy didn’t really work too well in practice. Mahmud was simply a drunk. Iraqi, appointed successor to his Multani Pir, nevertheless has to flee back to his homeland coz after the Pir’s death, his clan-fellows want one of their own to get the top job.
Still, it was on this basis that Islam developed into a Universal rather than tribal civilization.

The Crusaders brought ideas of chivalry, heraldry but also this spiritualization of the relationship between Lord and Vassal back with them.
Earlier, Christian missionaries had shown how Christ was the true ‘hlaford’ (loaf lord- one who pays the blood money owed by those who take refuge with him).
As Christ’s anointed, the King rises above the status of mere tribal chief. However, to escape the mediation of the Church, the Islamic idea of Udhri love (i.e. love that expects nothing in return- see Heinrich Heine’s ‘Beni Asra) being united with the notion of dialectic- such as that between Rumi and his (Platonic) beloved Shams ul Tabriz) simultaneously valorizes Secular power as an absolute, independent of the Church, as well as free enquiry which. since it is a dialectic founded in Platonic love- like that between Parmenides and Zeno- must yield something valuable rather than dangerous.
The eager adoption of such ideas by the emerging middle class has to do with the danger posed to their young people by purely Religious literature. Put simply too many of them were turning into eremites rather than like getting a job already, pairing off, getting married, having babies and so on.
Caxton recommends Romances as opposed to the sort of stuff produced by Julian of Norwich or Walter Hinton on the grounds that such works promoted good manners, engagement with the world, the desire to get married and so on.

You say that ‘romantic love, in any meaningful sense, is a kind relationship, not an emotion’- well, it’s a Darwinian algorithm or ethological repertoire that needs another to trigger it- except it doesn’t. The guys who enriched this particular concept- made it human- made it noticeable- privileged this discourse over say conversations about taking a dump- were gripped by this emotion WITHOUT any visible, tangible, relationship to anything at all.
But this discourse has nothing to do with how men and women actually relate.
Thus, were we to study the lyrics of popular songs, we would conclude that the West has no conception of romantic love. What they have is ‘bluffin with my muffin/ I’m just stunnin with my love glue gunnin’ whereas it is Saudi Arabia and Taliban Afghanistan which are the countries where the ideal of pure romantic love, with absolute fidelity and ultimate self-sacrifice, is held up as the norm for young people.

By vivek on 12/13/09 at 05:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a great post and superb set of comments. 

When talking about whether or not romantic love was invented in the 12th century--when obviously we have literature from the Old Testament (Song of Songs), Ancient Greece, Nordic, Icelandic, Germanic, and Celtic mythology to suggest that, uh, yes, perhaps people have been thinking and experiencing this emotion for QUITE some time. 

Then the (paraphrase) idea that what was in the 12th century was a socio-cultural variant on a consistent phenomenon--it makes me laugh and also reminds me of Steven Pinker.  I think it was The Blank Slate--but it could have been The Language Instinct.

On Ekman’s pan-cultural emotions we are no longer in doubt.  It seems there are at least six--possibly nine--emotions common to embodied human experience.  But we did not always think this was so.  Steven Pinker’s story was funny and illustrates the confusion over thinking the Blank Slate paradigm to the point of absurdity.

I’m hazy on the details so I’ll use stand-ins, but this is indeed an anthropologic case study that was actually reported in just this way: 

X tribe, it was concluded, did not experience what we have socially experienced as anger. They had something called “song” which was decidedly not the same thing as what we call anger. 

Song was a mood and style of behavior witnessed in the X tribe, eyes widened and rolled, pulses quickened and breathing became forced and labored, usually through the nose.  They would shout and threaten violence, sometimes, actually committing it.  The best example of an instance of song was when on member slept with another member’s wife. 

The strange an exotic varieties of culturally constructed emotions!  I’m so terribly glad that I now understand something as foreign and different as “song"--I might have seen it and mistook it for anger. 

;)

By blognerd on 12/14/09 at 06:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a great post and superb set of comments. 

When talking about whether or not romantic love was invented in the 12th century--when obviously we have literature from the Old Testament (Song of Songs), Ancient Greece, Nordic, Icelandic, Germanic, and Celtic mythology to suggest that, uh, yes, perhaps people have been thinking and experiencing this emotion for QUITE some time. 

Then the (paraphrase) idea that what was in the 12th century was a socio-cultural variant on a consistent phenomenon--it makes me laugh and also reminds me of Steven Pinker.  I think it was The Blank Slate--but it could have been The Language Instinct.

On Ekman’s pan-cultural emotions we are no longer in doubt.  It seems there are at least six--possibly nine--emotions common to embodied human experience.  But we did not always think this was so.  Steven Pinker’s story was funny and illustrates the confusion over thinking the Blank Slate paradigm to the point of absurdity.

I’m hazy on the details so I’ll use stand-ins, but this is indeed an anthropologic case study that was actually reported in just this way: 

X tribe, it was concluded, did not experience what we have socially experienced as anger. They had something called “song” which was decidedly not the same thing as what we call anger. 

Song was a mood and style of behavior witnessed in the X tribe, eyes widened and rolled, pulses quickened and breathing became forced and labored, usually through the nose.  They would shout and threaten violence, sometimes, actually committing it.  The best example of an instance of song was when on member slept with another member’s wife. 

The strange an exotic varieties of culturally constructed emotions!  I’m so terribly glad that I now understand something as foreign and different as “song"--I might have seen it and mistook it for anger. 

;)

;)

By Bill Benzon on 12/14/09 at 08:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I beg your pardon.  It seems your “literary organ” is suffering from a curious sort of peristolsis. Forgive me.  :)

By blognerd on 12/14/09 at 09:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I was confused by your comment, so I registered my confusion with a loooooonnnnngggg overstrike. Sorry.Well, I was confused by your comment, so I registered my confusion with a loooooonnnnngggg overstrike. Sorry.

By Bill Benzon on 12/14/09 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I would have been happy to explain it.  I didn’t intend to confuse--only to elucidate how persistent human phenomenon can exist even if there are cultural and historical variants in the expression of them.  All the best to you in this conversation and exploration.

By blognerd on 12/14/09 at 10:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, you ask Tim to say more about the difference between the emotions and their expression—but it seems to me you summarized matters quite well with this statement in your original post: “the institutionalization of romantic love is culturally specific”. I too would like to hear more from Tim, but on this specific point what else is there to say? Such a formulation seems impregnable; i.e. given this model there is no historical example (or is there?) of the apparent absence of “romantic love” which could not be explained away by asserting that the innate impulses were culturally repressed and/or dissipated.

Gottschall and Nordland’s research somewhat begs the question. The definition they propose of romantic love seems to me to be ... well, unavoidably findable everywhere unless we can encounter a human society without *anything* describable as tenderness in intimate relationships. Dante’s model of romantic love was more narrowly defined: a spiritual experience based on an unprecedentedly noble conception of self that arises exclusively from relationship with the beloved, who functions as a uniquely necessary audience. (Yes, these are dogmatic assertions off the top of my head; feel free to attack them. Perhaps I am doing no more than attempting to describe courtly love as distinct from “romantic love”. Would Dante, or Bertran de Born etc. have thought courtly love was a universal? Certainly not, it was only for noble souls.)

Vivek raises the issue of the origin of the courtly love tradition in poetic tropes from the Arab culture world. The prior art is unquestionable and I would agree (probably no one disagrees) that these can be traced back to the spiritualized love of the “Symposium”. But I have always thought that it was legitimate to regard courtly love as a disjunctive innovation. The tropes of spiritualized love which had previously been applied to male-male relationships were formally the same when applied to male-female relationships but led to significantly different practical results. And this was only possible because of the _comparatively_ high status of women among the European barbarians. I could not agree that the socially conservative contemporary societies who formally idealize women constitute an expression of the same phenomenon. A component of praxis is missing there.

Tim describes the Platonic view of love, as per the “Symposium”, to be something transparently given by biology. I haven’t read the Symposium for too long—but isn’t it Socrates’ thesis that love is an opportunity to attain spiritual perfection by contemplating one’s experience of desire for beauty? I have no objection to describing the essentialist position as a “Platonic” viewpoint, but ... isn’t Plato’s own description clearly specific in its details to his own culture? So that again we are left somewhat arbitrarily arguing whether it counts as an example of the universal, or constitutes a unique phenomenon.

Apologies if these questions add nothing. I am still digesting the very interesting remarks so far.

By on 12/14/09 at 07:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’I could not agree that the socially conservative contemporary societies who formally idealize women constitute an expression of the same phenomenon. A component of praxis is missing there.’

There was institutional support from the Church for monogamy because
1) the Church legitimated its authority by interpreting the Song of Songs to refer to itself. Hence it was important that Christ have only one bride and that divorce be considered wicked.
2) by creating a refuge for aristocratic women, the Church increased its social prestige and also benefited financially. The Church encouraged the move from tribal inheritance laws to inheritance ( by Will and Last Testament because it benefited hugely from bequests by those terrified of Hell fire.
Thus the Church enabled the West to move from tribalism to class society. In the East, there was a return to the default position under the pressure of things like the Mongol invasion.

The Public Intellectuals who begin to operate in the space between Crown and Church did not have strong institutional support till the burgeoning of Civil Society.
They used ‘romantic love’ to legitimate their own position but this was never institutionally enforced.
The value of ‘romantic love’ was that
1) it permits free choice- especially of patron. Thus Dante is religious but against the Pope and for the Emperor
2) it is dialectical.
Once Civil Society asserts itself against Crown and Church, the Public Intellectual can have done with romantic love and get onto Economics and Politics and so on.

Imam Khomeini actually started off writing poems in praise of Mansur al Hallaj.
Faiz had to go back to writing romantic poetry coz the regime cracked down on his writing on behalf of Trade Unions and land reform and so on.
In repressive countries you can say-
‘I’ve given up Islam. I’m now a temple goer’ or ‘The tyrant kills innocent people just to increase his own glory’ or
‘the priests condemn wine but drink secretly’
- and get away with it because you are writing in the Saintly romantic style. The ‘tyrant’ means the beloved the fire arrow of whose side long glance burns down the houses of innocent young men. ‘Islam’ means Monism, whereas Love involves Duality. The ‘priest’ means the comforter of Job, or the prudent counselor who exacerbates the pangs of unrequited love. Indeed, the counselor is now falling in love with her- and I’m jealous of him!

Clearly this subterfuge would serve no purpose at all if Civil Society could protect its Public Intellectuals.

Consider the ‘first modern’- Petrarch. A student of Barlam of Calabria, who rejected hesychasm for Aristotelian proto science, his love for Laura turned into a broader, mass based, passion for Civil Society- a space between Church and State.

By vivek on 12/15/09 at 07:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gottschall and Nordland’s research somewhat begs the question. The definition they propose of romantic love seems to me to be ... well, unavoidably findable everywhere unless we can encounter a human society without *anything* describable as tenderness in intimate relationships.

Yes. A lot of evpsych has this quality.

Let me throw something else into the pot. Here’s a passage from Milton’s Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, published in 1644 (see Hughes 1957: 703) is suggestive. Milton asserts that: “. . . God in the first ordaining of marriage taught us to what end he did it, in words expressly implying the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life, not mentioning the purpose of generation till afterwards, as being but a secondary end in dignity.” This conception of marriage was not commonplace in Milton’s time, much less Shakespeare’s—recall the references to procreation which are part of the explicit ideology of marriage in Shakespeare. It doesn’t seem to be drawn from the ideology of courtly love either. But it eventually became embedded in the ideology of bourgeois marriage.

Now consider this passage, courtesy of the indefatigable Howard Bloom:

... no matter how polygamously he is behaving, Tiger Woods wants to be monogamous. He wants to find “the one.” He wants to finally find a woman who has no interests of her own but who fills his desires totally, who fills even desires he can’t express. Says Tiger in one of his text messages just after he began his relationship with Uchitel, “I get it. It f-----g kills me, too. I finally found someone I connect with. ...Why didn’t we find each other years ago?” And “you want someone to witness your life.” All that is what Woods felt he’d found in Uchitel, a 34 year old former Bloomberg News producer whose fiancée had been killed in the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

The notion of “the one,” of course, derives from courtly love. But the idea of wanting to find someone to “witness” his life, that seems closer to Milton. And it surely doesn’t seem to have much of anything to do either with mating or pair-bonding in animals.

By Bill Benzon on 12/15/09 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s becoming more and more obvious that we need to specify not only a definition but a domain space for the idea of “romantic love”. Is it an aesthetic fad? A pattern of domestic arrangement? A religious practice?

I’ll put my cards on the table—I think it is a religious practice. To that end, here is a definition: “belief that attention to the individual personality of the beloved in an erotic relationship is a unique gateway to the highest spiritual good.”

Obviously (?) this cultural practice would not be possible without the universal experience of infatuation that can occur in erotic and/or educational contexts. (So universal that it stretches outside the human species into other primates—you can observe it sometimes in temporarily pair-bonded monkeys.)

This definition fits both Milton and Dante. Milton’s idea of the relationship between men and women is a pathway to the divine, and is justified in those terms, as was Dante’s distant admiration of Beatrice—Milton simply has a different notion of the divine than does Dante. (Though, note that companionate marriage, which is based on Miltonian “conversation” and today is thought of as intrinsically romantic, inasmuch as it is thought of in comparison with arranged marriage, is not sufficient. The desire of the hypothetical-Tiger-Woods-In-Harold-Bloom’s-mind to optimize his companionship, for example, is not romantic.)

But—looking back at the original post—it seems that this approach does not “solve” the problem Bill introduced, but simply takes for granted one kind of solution. Or is that kind of what you were getting at, Bill, with your original closing remarks that the problem would be resolved by subtle redefinition?

By on 12/15/09 at 04:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’the notion of “the one,” of course, derives from courtly love’

I beg to differ. Courtly love is about a metaphysical fidelity which has nothing to do with who you sleep with, how many kids you have with your arranged marriage wife, etc.
Furthermore- there is nothing gemutlich and cosy about courtly love. It aint about settling down and being nice to each other.
On the contrary the best ‘midons’ is tyrannical, capricious, never happy except counting the lovers she has slain- like Ishtar.

Shakespeare’s sonnets were written against a background of the courtier’s need to simultaneously protest absolute devotion to the Virgin Queen while making profitable marriages, fathering kids etc.
The more capriciously the Queen behaves- she sticks you in the Tower of London- the more you use the courtly love idiom to protest yourself especially favoured by her cruelty to you and thus better fitted for re-employment at Court.

Milton’s early (Comus, Lycidas) fascination with virginity- his assertion that it has magic powers to repel the evils of the world, and grants its (male) possessor extraordinary delights in Heaven- reflects not just his own chastity but the notion that Elizabeth had saved her country from Spain by the power of her Virginity.
Her successor, being descended from that slut Mary, had no such divine gift. Their heads could be cut off if the commonweal required it.
Recall, Milton’s relationship with Roger Williams- perhaps the greatest American religious figure bar none- whose patron was Sir Edward Coke. You guys, by staying faithful to Coke, ended up more English than we are on this side of the Atlantic!
Milton’s thoroughly bourgeois idealisation of the married state reflects the economic fact that for guys who take pupils to board in their own homes- an affectionate, devoted, cultured wife (like his own mom) was the greatest asset possible in making one’s way in the world.
For courtiers, however, what mattered was
1) dowry
2) the wife’s willingness to sleep with influential people.
Such qualities are quite useless to the bourgeoisie.
Who trusts a man whose wife is a gadabout or worse a slut? That cuckold will be bankrupt soon enough!

Milton’s mistake was to marry a lass from a ‘County’ family who just didn’t get it.
His advocacy of Divorce reflects his own circumstances as well as the view that the Apostolic Church had lost Christ’s love and been summarily divorced.
Roger Williams, of course, developed these ideas in a much more radical manner.
Milton’s depiction of Adam’s decision to eat the appleto stay with Eve is one of the most beautiful passages in literature. Living in England, of course, I’d like to say it’s something peculiarly English- but in fact it is America where (as De Tocqueville reported) the full doctrine was developed and, thanks to Hollywood, has spread across the world. Indian movies have no other subject.
This is something really fine that America has contributed to the world. Not that you guys have a different biology but that Civil Society sustained an appropriate Incentive Mechanism for such marriage, on an equitable basis, to be very strongly normed.
The line about wishing for a ‘witness to one’s life’- abstracted from context- is a beautiful one.
I’m indebted to you for bringing it to my attention.
This has been a very interesting and thought provoking post.

By vivek iyer on 12/15/09 at 05:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Tim describes the Platonic view of love, as per the “Symposium”, to be something transparently given by biology.” (laufeysson above)

Sorry for the confusion. Only to Platonists and other essentialists, including some evolutionary psychologists, is that view “transparently given by biology.” Everyone else says that love is NOT given, transparently or otherwise, by biology, at least not in any obvious way. Influenced by it, yeah, maybe, but “given”? No. My point is to link up certain kinds of essentializing (modern) thought and Platonism to a specific view of biology, evolution, and genetics and their role in human affairs. That view is also directly related to concepts of biological and genetic determinism, although the strength and modalities of such determinism are thought to vary by different writers.

I’ll have some additional comments soon.

By on 12/15/09 at 05:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’the notion of “the one,” of course, derives from courtly love’

I beg to differ. Courtly love is about a metaphysical fidelity which has nothing to do with who you sleep with, how many kids you have with your arranged marriage wife, etc.

Well, sure, what Tiger’s up to with Ms. Uchitel is quite different from what Dante was up to with Beatrice. All I’m saying is that there is this idea that somewhere out there is THE ONE, as Beatrice was for Dante, and that notion has persisted to this day and Tiger has got the bug.

But the pure form is with us as well. For example, I just saw Disney’s The Frog and the Princess. There’s a comic relief character named Ray; he’s a snaggle-toothed Cajun firefly who is deeply committed to his beloved Evangeline. Eventually he points her out: She’s the North Star. To him, of course, she’s a distant firefly and she guides his life. It’s better than Dante and Beatrice, ‘cause Dante saw Beatrice only once, but Ray can see his Evangeline everynight. But he can no more converse with her than Dante did with Beatrice.

As for courtly love and the flesh, here’s Andreas Capellanus in the Eighth Dialogue from Chapter V of The Art of Courtly Love ("A man of the higher nobility speaks with a woman of the same class“). The man is telling the woman of “mixed love which gets it effect from every delight of the flesh and culminates in the final act of Venus.” This mixed love is not so fine as the “pure love” that omits “the final solace” but nonetheless it “is real love, and it is praiseworthy, and we say that it is the source of all good things, although from it grave dangers threaten, too. Therefore I approve of both pure love and mixed love, but I prefer to practice pure love.” The woman then replies yadda yadda yadda and the man replies yadda yadda yadda and, as far as I can tell, comes out in favor of pure love, which does admit of chaste nude contact between the lovers.

Or is that kind of what you were getting at, Bill, with your original closing remarks that the problem would be resolved by subtle redefinition?

Well, mostly I quoted that paragraph about definitions because I’d just read it, and liked it. As to what it might mean in this particular case . . . . It’s not clear to me that these evpsych folks realize that definitions are components of theories rather than being something that is somehow prior to and outside a given theory. Until they do, they’re just going to keep scoring rhetoric points against Theory.

Meanwhile there’s all this complicated history, which is not just about how individuals think and feel, but about social practices and institutions at every scale, from dyadic relations to the state. All of that is implicated in “romantic love,” whatever that is.

BTW, it’s HOWARD Bloom, not HAROLD.

By Bill Benzon on 12/16/09 at 09:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Herewith, some additional comments. First, concerning definitions – like all social-emotional phenomena, love and romance have different faces depending on your interests. From one viewpoint, love is intensely personal, subjective, and of substances so subtle they seem to evaporate when examined too clinically. Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes” comes to mind, where love is hypostatized through a variety of images that deflect our feelings to our surroundings, the icy cold of the Bedesman’s world for example, where all love is ashes. From another viewpoint, love is big business; think greeting cards, St. Valentine’s day, and diamond rings. In other visions, love is something we obtain as part of God’s grace… and so so through quite a list.

Next comes history. The exact affiliation these images and realities have with each other comes from Western history, where Platonic, Ovidian, Neo-Platonic and Early Christian thought linked together with the poetry of courtly love, through the emergence of bourgeois love and marriage, and, most recently, the heavily mediatized depictions of love in Hollywood film, television, and the Internet – all to produce a complex mix of ideals, institutions, laws, and emotions.

Then comes ethnography and the comparative view, ably summarized by Vivek Iyer for Islamic sources: none of these processes are uniquely Western. When I think of societies that have produced large-scale traditions of romantic love, what comes to my mind of course includes the West, but Islam and India both emerge with their own traditions—vajrayana is not American, despite the efforts of various pseudo-gurus to sell “Tantric Sex” over the Internet. Japan also comes to mind, in shojo (= girls’) manga especially, with its complex and rich focus on feelings and actions that swirl throughout adolescence. And in an era of transnational transmediatization, none of these stays put for very long, but starts traveling across the world cheerfully finding new fans wherever it goes. If Gottschall and Nordlund can find evidence of “biological universality” in the distribution of themes and images of romantic love, then equally one can find evidence for the global distribution of first poetry, then movies and television in the same data.

So does “romantic love” have origins in biology? I suppose so, but who cares? No hypothesis that thin can support any detailed analysis of the immense database we now have about romantic love. And, I claim, we need detailed analysis, not sound-byte theorizing, if we are to understand these phenomena.

By on 12/17/09 at 10:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So does “romantic love” have origins in biology? I suppose so, but who cares? No hypothesis that thin can support any detailed analysis of the immense database we now have about romantic love.

Yes. Let’s turn that around a bit. Those various scholars didn’t simply say courtly love existed, they gave analytic descriptions of the beliefs and practices characteristic of the phenomenon. And so it goes with romantic love as more broadly defined and studied. Those analytic descriptions are more differentiated and detailed than the characterization of romantic love that’s been used in various cross-cultural studies and that has appeared in the evolutionary psych literature. The EPers want us to toss that detail out as being inessential. That doesn’t seem very useful.

These Darwinian literary critics look rather like biological essentialists, that is, it is the biological substrate of a behavior complex that gives it its fundamental character. Cultural elaborations are secondary.

So, what’s the biological purpose of Dante’s love for Beatrice?

By Bill Benzon on 12/19/09 at 09:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

’So, what’s the biological purpose of Dante’s love for Beatrice?’
Urm, let’s see. Dante is investing a lot of resources in sending out a complex system of signals. Signals are about ‘fitness display’ increasing reproductive success and/or domination/submission which again is ultimately about the relative reproductive success of people sharing your genes.
Dante’s strategy benefits the pro-Emperor faction- to whom Dante is more closely related- by showing how one can be ‘saved’ not by the Pope but by a pure and faithful love. When Beatrice finally shows up in the Comedy, she scolds Dante roundly- i.e. she is herself a Church (which is about scoldings not kisses)- & so loyalty of a pure metaphysical sort is itself the foundation of a soteriology. But it is also the basic notion behind the politics of the modern Nation State where loyalty to the Crown (in England) is no longer dependent on what’s convenient for the clan or what your rival is up to. This follows from the notion that emotions and intentionality- as Darwinian algorithms of the mind- function to bridge game theoretic aporias like Kavka’s toxin, Newcombe’s problem and so on.
Present day (provincial) India is a lot like Dante’s Italy. Yong people fall in love but can’t do anything about it. The older solution was that the guy becomes a drunk- like Shiv Kumar Batalvi- or else comes to England to get cured by psychoanalysis- like Masud Khan- but himself becomes a healer without ever being healed- i.e. he was suborned into becoming a dealer as the price of getting his fix. Later he was drummed out of the PsychoAnalytical association not for fucking and fucking up his patients, or his raging alcoholism, but (hilariously) for anti Semitism by the followers of the guy what wrote ‘Moses and Monotheism’.
The modern solution is that one’s love object is a sort of ‘ego ideal’ and a guarantee that the girl or boy will be more faithful and dutiful in their arranged marriage because this is a way of being vicariously faithful to that ideal. Thus, in India, when your marriage partner reveals who it was he/she was in love with, it actually strengthens the marriage. It is a proof of high seriousness. It also permits greater gender dimorphism- whereas the tendency is for honeymoon couples to get confused about their gender roles. There is a great joke in the Rg Veda about a honeymoon couple who are suddenly woken up by the alarm being given of a bandit raid on the village. Hurriedly dressing themselves in the dark, the couple put on each others clothes. So, when the girl comes out of the house and sees she is dressed as a man- she assumes she really is a man and adopts a belligerent swagger. Meanwhile the groom, seeing himself in female clothes, has swooned away.
This does not happen where the honeymoon night is illumined by the light of that ideal love one can only remain faithful to by doing one’s worldly duty in a dispassionate manner.
But enough about India. Getting back to Dante- the point is he is doing the same thing as Machiavelli and for the same reason- a strong state for Italy is good for the reproductive success of Italians. The Pope- ‘fraid not, sorry.

The other aspect of evolutionary biology is that it explains things like depression, cognitive dissonance, ‘displacement activity’ which, we may safely assume, were all features Dante exhibited while climbing the steep stairs of the stranger and eating the salt bread of exile.
One way out of cognitive dissonance is to project the longed for consummation forward onto Eternity. Dante does that. An aspect of depression- according to Evo Psych- is that it is a ‘testing for support’, people who don’t help you when you’re down aint the people you ought to be with- move on Joe.
Displacement activity- the frustrated political activist becoming absorbed in a purely literary project- also sends a signal, viz that one is less scared than one’s enemies might think- like Bruce Lee pausing to eat something in the middle of a fight.
So the biological ‘purposes’ seem pretty self evident in this case. Dante’s original object fixation, or ‘imprinting’ on Beatrice was rational (the babe was hot)- poetry as a fixed action pattern triggered by the imprinting is also rational- it’s a costly signal for courtship display. If more of Dante’s close kin where pro Emperor rather than pro Pope, his politics is rational. His debt to intellectually prestigious models like Petrarch and his distancing himself from the Goliards signals his high status which affords him a degree of prestige and protection not otherwise available.
In short, there is nothing dysfunctional about Dante. Had he drunk himself to death by Beatrice’s grave he would have been more typical of flawed humanity. Instead the guy was kinda Super adaptive.
Am I missing something subtle?

By vivek on 12/19/09 at 01:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill asked what was the biological function (“purpose”) of Dante’s love for Beatrice. Turns out – Bill knows this! – that’s not a simple question. I’ll try to summarize a 25 years later answer that I first sketched out in my 1985 book “Sex Signals: The Biology of Love.” (Which has lots of references, if anyone needs them.)

First, though, we need a distinction between the functions of Dante’s own personal feelings and behavior toward Beatrice (= activities he actually lived through quite independently of what he wrote about), and the functions of descriptions of himself and of her that he set into words for other people to read.

A. What he lived through. I don’t care if he was a poet or a hod-carrier; the events he lived through were probably much like the experiences of all men when they deal with a woman who attracts them. He looked at her; he wanted to be with her; he wanted to talk to her and to touch her; he was puzzled by the intensity of his yearning and the fascination she exerted over him; he was unhappy when she seemed to spurn him and became very cheerful when she didn’t. The best description of all this is still Ovid’s “The Art of Love.” I updated Ovid in my 1985 book, but Ovid is still the best around. Ovid is a brilliant and insightful observer, and a careful writer.

The functions and purposes of these Ovidian behaviors are psychological, emotional, and biological. Schematically, they are all part of the “courtship sequence,” which is a regular and very widespread temporal pattern of behavior and feeling associated with sex and affiliation. If the partner reciprocates, the sequence functions to bring two people together emotionally and sexually. It also functions to keep them together because they want to do it again, and eventually (barring contraception) she becomes pregnant. So the biological outcome is usually reproductive. Now, reproduction does NOT require the full panoply of Ovidian behavior, but it turns out empirically that if you let people do this stuff their own way without interrupting them, they will enact the courtship sequence.

The sequence, again schematically, consists of look, approach, talk, turn, touch, synchronize body movements, and then usually in greater privacy, kiss, caress, and sexual intercourse. In Ovid’s Latin: visus, alloquium, contactus, osculum, and coitus – look, talk, touch, kiss, and “the deed,” to translate one of the Medieval euphemisms for the last stage.

Simultaneously, there are emotional changes. More or less from the start onward, these are focused interest, fascination, internalization of the other person as a kind of erotic homunculus (a bewilderingly complicated phenomenon!), recognition of intense desire in oneself, motivational changes (being with her/him becomes a paramount hope, desire, and need), a profound desire to encompass or infold the other person, changes in perception especially of her/him but also of time and place, shifts in the interpretation of the significance of events, which, when they all coalesce, lead to a reorganization of the mind into the altered state of consciousness we call “love.”

Then outsiders say things like “they have eyes only for each other.”

B. Very few writers are interested in describing these events in the kind of language I used. Here we reach Dante’s descriptions – or Keats’ descriptions. The crucial issue in the descriptive language centers on the concept of meaning.

Speaking personally, the most accurate description I know of the meanings of these events is “The Eve of St. Agnes.” It is unequalled for its evocation of shifts in hope, desire, motivation, and meaning, and for its awakening of our awareness of how powerfully our sensory experience of the world changes. Color, sound, taste, touch – all change, giving access to world of vastly enhanced immediacy and presence. Keats systematically rebuilds the world from inside out along precisely these lines in “St. Agnes,” and we see the world as different than what it was. Barthes makes these semiotic changes the centerpiece of several sections in “A Lover’s Discourse,” which I highly recommend.

Another brilliant – indeed pyrotechnic – description is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Sire de Maltroit’s Door.” His description of how Denis changes as he talks to Blanche is among the finest evocations I know of for these processes of internal rearrangement as the two characters go from being complete strangers to lovers in only a few hours.

So what is the function or purpose of such writing? In part, it’s the writer’s effort to see if he/she can crystallize these changes into truthful words and images – images that do not misrepresent the truth.

Thus, Stevenson describe Denis and Blanche:

Oftener and oftener, as the time went on, did his glance settle on the girl herself. Her face was bowed forward and covered with her hands, and she was shaken at intervals by the convulsive hiccough of grief. Even thus she was not an unpleasant object to dwell upon, so plump and yet so fine, with a warm brown skin, and the most beautiful hair, Denis thought, in the whole world of womankind. Her hands were like her uncle’s: but they were more in place at the end of her young arms, and looked infinitely soft and caressing. He remembered how her blue eyes had shone upon him, full of anger, pity, and innocence. And the more he dwelt on her perfections, the uglier death looked, and the more deeply was he smitten with penitence at her continued tears. Now he felt that no man could have the courage to leave a world which contained so beautiful a creature; and now he would have given forty minutes of his last hour to have unsaid his cruel speech.
< http://www.classicreader.com/book/2925/1>

Romantic? Yes. Accurate? Yes.  I submit that part of Stevenson’s “purpose” here is precisely to achieve such accuracy. For example, Stevenson is not quite poking fun at Denis when he describes the young hero slip into another world, the center of which is Her. But Denis may not know he was not the first: Here is Ovid, describing a sculptor, who…

…skilfully carved a snowy ivory statue. He made it lovelier than any woman born, and fell in love with his own creation. The statue had all the appearance of a real girl, so it seemed to be alive, to want to move, did not modesty forbid. So cleverly did his art conceal his art. [Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book 10, lines 247-251, p. 231.]

I submit that deeply similar purposes or motivations lie behind both pieces of writing: to crystallize, into truthful words, a description of the intense process through which the engines of desire and allure actually work. It is art – and it both conceals and reveals – and it is therefore truth.

By on 12/19/09 at 02:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

”...internalization of the other person as a kind of erotic homunculus (a bewilderingly complicated phenomenon!)
Indeed! This is the takwin-e-kimmiya of Imam Jafar. Extraordinary that you should have used precisely this form of words.
What is your source?
Or are you a poet?

By vivek iyer on 12/19/09 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Though I’ve got something of an opinion on the matter, I’ll let Tim answer Vivek’s question about whether or not he’s a poet.

Meanwhile, if a neighboring discussion, concerning whether or not literary texts constitute strong evidence about the human mind, laufeysson asked: “Do developments in literary technology change the potentials of the human mind?” I replied “yes” and referenced an article on The Evolution of Narrative and the Self. Here’s the epigraph, from Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (pp. 32-33): “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.”

Of course, he didn’t mean “a new organ” in a literal sense, as though the novel reflected the emergence of a new “module” in the brain. That’s just a way of indicated the depth of the effects achieved by this new form of “literary technology,”—if it is that, which I believe it is. One of the great themes of the novel is that of true love ending in marriage; romantic love has gone bourgeois. Now, did the novel simply reflect what was happening in society, or did the novel in some way help enable that domestication of romantic love? Did those novels, of varying quality and provenance, play a causal role in this process?

By Bill Benzon on 12/19/09 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

FYI, here’s the text for Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes.

By Bill Benzon on 12/19/09 at 06:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Timothy Perper’s published book and other texts are certainly valuable and ‘poetic’- rather than sublatable within a rapidly advancing research programme.

His reading of Ovid is naive- Consider the Narcissus/Liriope relationship- vide.
http://books.google.com/books?id=uDz9hJGr-HkC&pg=PT287&dq=narcissus+vivek+iyer&cd=3#v=onepage&q=&f=false- I suggest, that’s what Ovid meant.
Empedoclean Evolution underlies so much of the thought of the Oikuumene. This is stuff Americans really have to struggle with- though it exists side by side with their own flourishing chrematistics.

Perper’s (surely accidental?) use of the image of the homunculus- itself well known to be derivable from Geber and therefore Imam Jafar- relates to a very much older, indeed fundamental, question- what is it that the husband gives birth to as his beloved suffers the pains of labour?
It is an artificial human- one, therefore, free from Prophesy’s doom- Dante’s Vita Nuova.
That passage in Joyce where, spectacularly, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, was always mediated- nobody, yet, has vomited over this in a PhD dissertation- by Vico’s debt to the father of the Ismaili Imam.
Hence the repeated trope of the great big hairy man ‘big with child’.
Pound, whose ‘deshtyaag’ voluntary exile was treason- coz his Xenophilia was based on a conspiracy theory (i.e. fucking rainbow coalition politics fruitful only in smashing shop window panes)- has also written about the ‘female man’ and what he give birth to. ‘I’m not your dad, but your Mum’ says he/ Buggered by a merchant in old Stambouli...’
Joyce’s exile was patriotism coz he didn’t surrender to crap conspiracy theory of knowledge, Politically Correct, gobshiteism.
Perper’s assertion- (I) submit that deeply similar purposes or motivations lie behind both pieces of writing: to crystallize, into truthful words, a description of the intense process through which the engines of desire and allure actually work. It is art – and it both conceals and reveals – and it is therefore truth.’- lacks a significant component of meaning- viz. apoorvata (novelty)- it’s just pi jaw.
He isn’t a poet. He has good (very very good) reception- but, ultimately, not being a poet- can’t really read. He see’s a fossil record where actually nothing has occurred on the page save an impossible form of life.

By vivek iyer on 12/19/09 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’Now, did the novel simply reflect what was happening in society, or did the novel in some way help enable that domestication of romantic love? ‘

The wife’s infidelity in marriage has always been a constant. Okay, America invents something new- viz. a woman doing well out of serial polygamy.
Is there anything in French literature which suggests that, once a wife has delivered an ‘heir and a spare’, she can’t get it on with other blokes?
As Henry James said ‘To be American is an excellent...PREPARATION.. for Culture.’
Hey, Walt Disney is DEAD. Read Balzac already.

By vivek iyer on 12/19/09 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The wife’s infidelity in marriage has always been a constant. Okay, America invents something new- viz. a woman doing well out of serial polygamy.

FWIW, the thesis of Fiedler’s book is that, while the (19th Century) English novel is obsessed with marriage, the American novel has quite different concerns. Thus, e.g. neither Ahab nor Huck Finn were much concerned with marriage.

I assume there’s a thriving academic industry devoted to the comparative thematics of the Western novel during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Just what this industry has concluded to date, of that I’m ignorant.

Hey, Walt Disney is DEAD.

And so, now, is his nephew, Roy.

By Bill Benzon on 12/19/09 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

... what is it that the husband gives birth to as his beloved suffers the pains of labour?
It is an artificial human- one, therefore, free from Prophesy’s doom- Dante’s Vita Nuova.

You might want to check back with Amardeep’s Pinocchio/Astro Boy discussion.

By Bill Benzon on 12/19/09 at 07:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re kidding right? Amardeep is a second generation American a few years younger than me and way less involved with literature. I’ll listen to him when his inner Punjabi overpowers his sense of duty to his students. That time will come. Coz Punjab has answers for when everybody no longer has real problems and is doin’ real swell.

Did Amardeep get or not get the point about Masud Khan?
He did and he didn’t. Punjabi ambiguity is about letting both sides of the argument burgeon to Cosmic forms. When they do- there is no longer an aporia. Both include each other. These are the lineal descendants of the guys who wrote the Rg Veda. It is the salt of their humour which rescues the Mahabharata from Leela Gandhi style Xenophilia or Swami Agnivesh ‘liberation theology’.

Punjab still has the same hermeneutics it had 3000 years ago. Coz India ran after the false God of ‘Ghaddar’ and ‘Wobbly’ Socialism, Punjabis you have in abundance with you. Doesn’t mean they are cut off from the Oikumene. They aint crap.

To be a teacher does mean cultivating a certain degree of stupidity. It’s strategic stupidity- helpful when from the Punjab, dangerous when from Bengal.
I cast my eye over the discussion on Pinnochio you suggested. Mine is the only specifically Japanese comment- the Natural being necessarily artificial.
America thinks it knows Japan. It doesn’t. Tell me, this is a challenge, what does Basho’s frog jumping into the pond haiku actually mean?
I know the answer to this. You don’t- no matter how much sushi you eat. (Nor, by the way does Pico Iyer know the answer to this. Genetically we are pretty damn close- but the guy is Eton/West Coast)

It suddenly occurs to me, I’m the only practising (albeit crap) poet/writer shooting my mouth of on this site.
I’ve made a faux pas. Maybe, I’m Unamerican!

By vivek iyer on 12/19/09 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It suddenly occurs to me, I’m the only practising (albeit crap) poet/writer shooting my mouth of on this site.

No.

By Bill Benzon on 12/19/09 at 08:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, matters have progressed – is that the word I want? – since I last looked. But not too many people call me “naïve.”

Vivek Iyer is entitled to his opinions of Ovid and other writers too – but I am concerned with a question independent of the “poetics” of Ovid, Pound, Dante, or even Keats. Bill’s question was about the biological purposes and functions of such writing, and that’s what I was discussing, not the politics, PC or otherwise, of their or anyone else’s opinions. Beyond that, I’m not prepared to go, at least not now – some other time maybe. I might add that a number of other people have done the sorts of research I have – Monica Moore, Karl Grammer, David Givens… but I’m not sure that’s what Vivek is driving at.

By on 12/20/09 at 02:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I apologise.
A naive reading is an innocent reading. To be able to read Ovid innocently is a beatitude.
Perper Sahib is a scientist. Moreover, he is happily married and his esteemed wife shares in his labours.
I stand rebuked but, not yet, alas, corrected.
I have looked at every inch of Ovid- and his roots in Empedocles if it comes to that- yet, my high seriousness of purpose must be its own warrant for what I say next- not reading Ovid tells you Ovid but only writing poems within the ironic space (where to inscribe maringalia is to become an all Mighty Augustus) the persecuted poet left blank.

I have previously answered the question about biological purposes.

“I’m not sure that’s what Vivek is driving at.”
‘course you don’t Perper Sahib and not Givens or Grammer or Moore can help you.
But you can help yourself.
Can’t you?
Or can’t you?

By vivek iyer on 12/20/09 at 03:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oops—I omitted something. My reference to the homunculus was to the neurologist Wilder Penfield and his work identifying areas in the somatosensory cortex that receive incoming sensory stimuli and coordinate out-going motor signals. If a number of areas are stimulated, there exists an “activated homunculus” in the brain (my term, not Penfield’s) of one’s own body that “represents” one’s own aroused body. By means unknown to me, the higher levels of the cortex seems also build a parallel “homunculus” of the the partner’s body. I don’t know how and I don’t have any neurophysiological data. But “St. Agnes” describes the results of the “pre-activation” of these mechanisms—the body is preparing to receive inputs that will be synthesized in the cortex into a complex set of “doubles” of oneself and of her.  For example, during body movement synchronization, these homunculi appear to be synchronized. So one of the things that poetry and writing does is create an accurate phenomenological description of these processes.

Bill, with your interests in brain mechanisms, you probably know a lot more about this than I do. It has been a while since I tried to follow this literature. So I’m obviously speculating, but these are speculations with a good deal of background—and not naive background either.

BTW, I agree with Bill’s last comment.

By on 12/20/09 at 03:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim’s raised some interesting questions with that homunculus. Here’s some links that seem relevant:

1. The general Wikipedia entry on homunculus.

2. Wikipedia’s entry on the cortical homunculus.

3. The cortical homunculus and the phantom limb phenomenon (from Tim). That is, you’ve lost a limb, but still feel pain in that limb. How’s that possible?

4. Wikipedia entry on so-called mirror neurons.

5. An interdisciplinary confab on mirror neurons. From the intro:

The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of macaques and their implications for human brain evolution is one of the most important findings of neuroscience in the last decade. Mirror neurons are active when the monkeys perform certain tasks, but they also fire when the monkeys watch someone else perform the same specific task. There is evidence that a similar observation/action matching system exists in humans. The mirror system is sometimes considered to represent a primitive version, or possibly a precursor in phylogeny, of a simulation heuristic that might underlie mindreading.

Today, mirror neurons play a major explanatory role in the understanding of a number of human features, from imitation to empathy, mindreading and language learning. It has also been claimed that damages in these cerebral structures can be responsible for mental deficits such as autism. The virtual workshop will address the theoretical implications of the discovery of mirror neurons. The discussion will try to set the explanatory scope of the phenomenon, and evaluate to what extent it can provide a new empirical ground for a variety of human mental abilities.

6. Mirror recognition test: Which animals can recognize their own image in a mirror? How old are humans when they can first do this?

I’ll have some comments later.

By Bill Benzon on 12/20/09 at 10:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Back to Bill’s question. Ultimately, the “biological functions” of writing, literature, poetry, and related abilities to spin words into meaningful and communicative systems of symbols is to introject a model of the universe into the brain and play with it. Talking about Kali beats encountering ladies who genuinely want to wear your head as a fashion accessory. By “play” I mean surrogate testing of alternative scenarios for their reality potential.

The cost is self-contradiction. I do not know how the brain tolerates self-contradiction. In principle, it shouldn’t be able to. Computers can’t—they hiss and buzz and stop. But the brain ignores contradictions, as the White Queen points out in Alice.

As far as I can tell, the biological functions of writing and literature have little directly to do with reproductive success. Poets are not now, and never have been, known for their ability to gather together large quantities of resources for supporting families. But they make wonderful people to talk to—they spin fantasies and engage us in alternatives to boring old mundane fact. Kids like them. Given that we learn how to spin stories from our mommies—it’s part of being soothed by a lullaby—we learn that we too can invent stuff. I can formalize the argument, but maybe I don’t need to.

By on 12/20/09 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This business of cortical homunculi (see my previous comment for links) and internalization of the erotic and beloved Other is, shall we say, tricky. Let’s start with the sensory homunculus. Imagine someone gently strokes the back of your right hand with a feather. You will, of course, feel something (barring pathology). And a small region of your brain’s primary somato-sensory cortex will be stimulated; call it X. Now imagine this someone stokes your right forearm with the feather. Another tingle, another part of the primary somato-sensory cortex is stimulated; call it Y. Now, your right shoulder is stroked; another tingle, and bit of arousal in the primary somato-sensory cortex; call it Z. Now your forearm is between your hand and your shoulder. Does that imply that region Y (arm) is between regions X (hand) and Z (shoulder)? In the abstract, no. But it just so happens that that is, in fact, how the brain and nervous system are wired. There is a topological mapping between the primary somato-sensory cortex and the body regions to which the cortex is sensitive. That mapping is the somato-sensory homunculus.

The motor homunculus is the same thing, but with respect to the primary cortical area that stimulates the muscles to action. The muscles consist of fibers, which contract and relax, and the fibers are grouped into bundles. Each bundle is stimulated by a specific motor neuron. The cortical neurons that activate neurons in the forearm will be physically between the neurons that activate the finger muscles and those that activate the upper arm.

Now, what about Tim’s erotic homunculus?

Note that you don’t have any neurons in your brain that activate muscles in anyone else’s body. You motor cortex moves your body, not anyone else’s. When you’re dancing with your beloved, your motor homunculus is driving your body, not his or hers. And so it is with the somato-sensory homunculus. You sense what’s happening on the surface of your skin, not the surface of his or hers. And what if you’re touching him (or her)? Well, say you’re stroking her right arm with your left hand. The left-hand region of your sensory cortex will feel the stroke. Now you’re stroking her lower back on the left side, again with your left-hand. Correspondingly, the left-hand region of your sensory cortex will feel the stroke. No matter where your left hand strokes the Other, you’ll feel the stroking in the left-hand region of your somato-sensory cortex. Why? Because your nervous system is wired to your body, not hers.

So, how is it that she (or he as the case may be) is represented in your brain? To a first approximation: everywhere. That is to say, there is no continuous region of your brain that exclusively represents the Other and that contains the complete representation of they other. It would be possibly to destroy your ability to sense anything with, say, your left hand, but destroying the appropriate region of the brain; your left hand would be numb, but no other part of your body. There is no parallel way to destroy your representation of your lover’s left hand, and nothing else.

So, the question of just where one’s beloved is represented in one’s brain is more subtle, more mysterious, than where your own body is represented in the brain.

Now, how is that you are able to dance with your beloved? That has a number of aspects. One of them is temporal, you have to be moving in the same temporal framework, dancing to the same beat. That sort of thing seems to be innate and is present at birth; to be sure, the neonate cannot dance, but she can twitch and jiggle and those motions are in synchrony with the voice of a caregiver (of course, when the caregiver is speaking or cooing, whatever). So, that’s one thing.

But it’s not enough that your moves be in the same time-frame. They must also be complementary or parallel of whatever is appropriate. You may want to mirror her moves. So she moves her right arm in a certain way. Do you move your right arm in that way, or your left arm? Well it depends on whether you’re standing side-by-side or facing one another and whatever convention of correspondence obtains for this particular dance. If the dance doesn’t involve physical contact, then you’ve got to coordinate your motor actions according to what you see. So, just how does the brain do that? If there is physical contact (e.g. as in a waltz), then much of the coordination will involve your somato-sensory system registering her motions.

It’s all complicated and I figure that its all learned. Much of the technique of physical interaction will be learned as an infant and young child through interaction with mother and other caregivers. Patty-cake is high philosophy for a one-year-old. Getting one’s hands to move just so is a significant accomplishment. And there’s lots and lots of that that goes on.

And, as far as I can tell, we’re not anywhere near the business of internalizing one’s beloved. To even hazard much of a guess on that one I’d have to lay some conceptual foundations, and that’s lots of work.

Still, I’ve got this long and detailed analysis of “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” which is about how the poet (Coleridge) uses the attachment system (infant to mother) to mediate his relationship both with his good friend, Charles (Lamb) and with Nature. That’s relevant, but it’s more than I can summarize here. But I can paste in the absract:

Benzon, W. L. Talking with Nature in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November, 2004, URL: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2004_benzon03.shtml

Abstract: By recasting Vygotsky’s account of language acquisition in neural terms we see that language itself functions as a transitional object in Winnicott’s sense. This allows us to clarify the Schwartz-Holland account of literature as existing in Winnicottian potential space and provides a context in which to analyze Coleridge’s “This Lime-Three Bower.” The Caretaker-Child attachment relationship provides the poem’s foundation. The poet plays the Child role with respect to Nature and the Caretaker role with respect to his friends. The friends, Charles in particular, play the mediating the role of transitional object in the first movement while Nature becomes a mediator between one person and another in the second movement. The first movement starts with the poet being differentiated and estranged from Nature and concludes in an almost delusional fusion of poet, friends, and Nature. The second movement starts with the poet secure in Nature’s presence and moves to an adult differentiation between poet, friends, and Nature.

By Bill Benzon on 12/20/09 at 06:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me symplify, at least in part. It is utterly and absolutely necessary to think about how one can “internalize” a beloved Other—scare quotes because I don’t really know what the word implies in the neural context. But Penfield’s homunculi are not a good physical representation of what’s involved. It’s more like the beloved Other is fractally dispersed through the physical mass of brain tissue. Informatically, however, that may be quite a different situation. Informatically the beloved Other may well be a compact and continuous mental (rather than neurally physical) object. That’s about how the system operates, not about how it’s distributed in 3D physical space.

It is often said that the mind is what the brain does. And so I believe. But both mind and brain are more subtle and complex than that comforting formula would have us believe. One can easily divide the brain into parts. There is no reason whatever to believe that the parts (and parts of parts, etc.) of the brain map onto the “parts” of the mind in any obvious way.

By Bill Benzon on 12/20/09 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me stay with the biological functional side of these issues for a while, rather than lured into a discussion of Coleridge, as fascinating as that sounds.

Bill, that’s a good description of the Penfield homunculus. Nonetheless, for it to have any “cognitive” functions, it has to have projections to higher cortical regions, plus other regions of the brain and brain-stem. It is THOSE higher cortical “representations” that create the “erotic homunuculus” of oneself and one’s beloved. We know that such things must exist in general, because we have body self-images, and we can train the body/homunculus to respond to extremely complex systems of cues both spatial and temporal—for example, the pre-activation sequences involved in preparing the muscles for a broad jump, or a step down stairs, or diving into water from a diving board.

What’s involved here, if I understand the literature on kinesiology and sports medicine, is that a trained athlete does not merely stare off the diving board. Instead, the brain and muscles enter a state of pre-preparedness or pre-activation, which ready certain muscles to receive various shifts in weight and balance, and to enact certain pre-planned motor sequences.  The more highly trained and skilled the athlete, the more thorough, flexible, and adaptive are these pre-activations: you can see this kind of stance, for example, in a goalie in a professional hockey game: he is “ready for anything.” The demands of the task cannot be specified in detail in advance, because that depends on the precise pathway of the puck. But the moment the puck leaves the opponent’s hockey stick, the muscles of the goalie kick in with pre-activated sequences: those muscles are ready-to-go. The same is true in fencing and handball.

Something similar seems to happen when a predator, a cat, for example, tracks a mouse. As I said, it has been a while since I’ve followed this literature, but even when I was, it was clear that sensory AND motor fields had been readied to move. If I remember properly—and I may not be—latencies to move are different (= much faster) in a pre-prepared cat, who has been watching the mouse for a while, than in a cat who has just this moment seen it.

I am NOT suggesting a parallel between sexual activity and predation. Instead, I am suggesting that sexual activity involves a similar, and extremely complex, pattern of pre-activation of muscular (and glandular) responses. I am sure from my own observations (Grammer has more extensive data) that the latencies to respond are accelerated during pre-activation.

Now we begin to encounter both common experience and literature. The usual word for such neurological and glandular pre-activation is “arousal” or the even more apt “being turned on.” When he says “she turns me on”—or says “Moe!” meaning the same thing—he is speaking the literal truth: internal machinery has been switched on. It is not yet moving, but the machines are ready to go (barring physical abnormalities). The same holds for women—she may start vaginal lubrication much in advance of any physical contact with him.

Because we are aware of some—NOT ALL!—of these processes, they have become the focus of poetry. Ovid, surely one of the great experts, explains in considerable detail what to do and look for when these changes occur, though of course he does not use my physiological language. Simultaneously, cognitive systems are enhanced and modified—see “St. Agnes” and “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door”—suggesting strongly that the upward projections from the Penfield homunculus have a great many more effects than merely giving central NS recordings of sensory events in the distal sensory field of organs X, Y, and Z.

One example—which I studied in rodents decades ago—involves the suppression of aggression (technically, of agonistic displays) on the female’s part. When another animal approaches you, it is a danger sign: your survival depends on making a VERY fast retreat or a defense. If you have ever seen a female cat turn and try to rip out the male’s stomach when he tries to mount her, you know what I mean. But, in most mammals—NOT ALL—that female aggressive response is suppressed when she is in estrus, that is, is sexually receptive. Instead, agonistic displays are replaced by behavioral indicia of receptivity. That does not happen in mink (most famously); the male and female really are trying to kill each other, and they may succeed in doing a good deal of damage to the sexual partner. But in other mammals, including primates, the potential of female aggression is reduced during receptivity. The word “other” includes bears; I remember a description of an adult male and female bear, with her in estrus, playing on the edge of a pond; they chased each other, pushed each other into the pond, cuddled, chased each other, splashed each other… yet each animal was quite capable of dismembering the other one leg by leg.

But female aggressive potential is not eliminated; far from it. Instead, as a result, I suggest, of the courtship process itself, a CONTINGENT suppression of aggressiveness occurs. If we could do semiotics on these animals, we’d say that the meanings of the approach—sexual or predatory—modulate the female’s aggressive potential down or up.

In brief, a great deal of post-homunculus processing occurs, much of which appears to involve higher cortical brain functions.  I haven’t “derived”—so to speak—the erotic homunculus for oneself and one’s partner from these ideas, but I’m moving in that direction. In specific, humans appear to build—at higher cortical levels—models of themselves and of their partner during these pre-activation processes, models that are enhanced considerably as arousal increases and the models are validated by the partner’s behavior. We now enter a (extremely complex) feedback loop of signals, which alter the internal state of both individuals, particularly their imagery of each other.

And very suddenly we return to poetry—real poetry. Sergio Rinaldi has analyzed precisely these interactive signal systems for the love affair between Laura and Petrarch.

Rinaldi, Sergio 1998 Laura and Petrarch: An intriguing case of cyclical love dynamics. SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics, 58:1205-1221.

Rinaldi, Sergio and Alessandra Gragnani 1998 Love dynamics between secure individuals: A modeling approach. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 2:283-301.

By on 12/20/09 at 08:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s an additional line of reasoning. This will lead to the “erotic homunculus” and one of the functions of literature. (I’m not sure which of these two sets of comments will be posted first.)

When I first started to study how people fall in love, I encountered what I came to call the “template” a person has for an attractive, alluring sexual partner. For clarity, I’ll talk about the man. A “template” is a visual image, usually quite specific and detailed, that he has somewhere in his mind of a beautiful, sexy woman. I’m not concerned here with the origins of such things during development, childhood, or adolescence. Nor am I concerned with where in the brain such things might reside, or their vicissitudes as the man grows older and more experienced. Instead, a physically normal heterosexual male by age 18 or so has such a template, or perhaps more accurately a closely related family of templates.

Now, how do we infer the existence of templates? One way is to systematically observe men as they look at women, and another way is to ask them. Observations first. Let’s say he is standing at the bar, looking at girls. His eyes scan over them, lingering briefly on her, then switching to her, then shifting when three more young woman walk in. Every now and then he looks at something else, like his drink, or some drunk who seems to wandering over, but his gaze returns to the young women (plural). Then we, the observers, see something extraordinary. Suddenly his gaze shifts to the second of those three young women, and his gaze fixates on her. He tracks her as she walks and sits; he will move his position slightly to see her more clearly; he will watch her with a particular kind of facial expression that is very difficult to describe in words, but is characteristic. His facial muscles are relaxed; he is not smiling; his eyes are continuously tracking her.

Let’s say that she gets up and walks over the bar and stands at the bar a few bar stools away from her. He will turn to gaze at her, still tracking her, and now we can follow the patterns of his eye movements as he looks at her. There are brief up-and-down flickers, but his gaze will spend most of its time drifting over her face and hair, lingering on her eyes, her mouth, and her hands if she lifts them. The bartender comes over to her and starts talking; he will glance at the bartender and return his gaze to her. A friend of his may come over, but his attention will remain focused on her. (If you want a confirmatory description, read Stevenson’s description of Denis looking at Blanche.) If another one of the women moves, he may glance at her, but his gaze very quickly returns to the girl he has been focusing on – so we learn that his response is specific to her.

For this, I said he has a “template” for her. She matches, apparently quite exactly, an internal image he already has of an attractive woman. Methodologically, this is an “outside-to-inside” inference. But, under other conditions, we can ask the man what he thinks an attractive woman looks like. Provided he answers honestly and seriously – that is, he doesn’t laugh off the question – it turns out that most heterosexual men can describe that attractive woman in considerable detail. Men will describe her hair color, her eye color, her smile, “something in the way she moves,” all with rather less emphasis than one might expect on her figure. He may also add details that he has “always” liked girls with long blonde hair, or with black hair with tresses brushing her shoulders; or with “open” blue eyes, and so on. And lo and behold the woman he is gazing at with such fascination matches that description. Now we have an “inside-to-outside” inference, from his description to the young woman he is watching, and we infer that he has at least some conscious access to his own templated senses of what attraction and allure are in a specific woman.

Next, we notice that when such a young woman appears in the landscape, his attention shifts to her immediately – within 0.2 second, perhaps – and fixates. There has been no time for long ratiocination or cerebration; and you can see, I hope, the great similarities between these reactions and the pre-activated muscle responses I described before.

If by chance – and if so, he will be very happy – they get together, the details of this template will quickly fill in with details taken from HER body and movement patterns (Denis’ reactions to Blanche illustrate the phenomenon very nicely). And he will continue to gaze at her with rapt attention, his eyes never straying very far from her – he has “eyes only for her.”

Women do the same thing, with some additional bells and whistles I’ll describe another time.

Now, assuming he and she have started to talk, they enter the courtship sequence, and they begin to move together. Now he – focusing only on him – is experiencing the arousal triggered off by a variety of distal sensory inputs, all filtered into the cortex via his Penfield homunculus of himself (and other routes). But we must now also infer that his template of her has “taken life.” That expression, which is borrowed more or less obviously from Ovid, means that the previously inert image I called his template is now being represented (somehow) in his brain as active, moving, and (above all) responsive to him emotionally, physically, and sexually. And that active template of her I am calling an “erotic homunculus.” It is her living image in his mind and brain, with whom he interacts in his own imagination and mind.  And so we conclude that Ovid’s description of Galatea’s statue on the verge of moving is very accurate!

Now, she has a similar living image of him in her mind, and we enter a sequence of repeated doublings and redoublings until they are both utterly entranced with each other. But that takes us further, so I’ll stop here. One of the functions of literature is to capture and preserve such realities.

By on 12/21/09 at 06:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In general yes, & those interesting Penfield cortical homunculi are more or less beside the point. In general we have internal representations of the world and make our about in it by anticipating everything we possibly can, including the actions of people. George Herbert Mead, the social psychologist, talked of a Generalized Other, a template (to use your term) that fits the generic human being. But then we’ve got a template for “counter person at a fast food joint” and one for “Dr. Paul down at the clinic” and one for Aunt Emma, and so forth.

But female aggressive potential is not eliminated; far from it. Instead, as a result, I suggest, of the courtship process itself, a CONTINGENT suppression of aggressiveness occurs. If we could do semiotics on these animals, we’d say that the meanings of the approach—sexual or predatory—modulate the female’s aggressive potential down or up.

Yes. Important stuff. The late Warren McCulloch had the notion of behavioral mode, which Hays and I have glossed* in this way:

The concept of modal control has been explicated by Kilmer, McCulloch & Blum (1969) in an account of the reticular formation. They argue that animals must always be in one of several mutually exclusive modes of behavior and that the reticular formation, with its extensive afferent and efferent connections to the rest of the nervous system, is the obvious structure for implementing that commitment. The reticular formation facilitates activity in those brain regions which are most important for the current mode (see Fig. 1), while the actual behaviour of the organism when it is in the mode will be regulated by other brain centres and systems.

Kilmer et al. list 15 different modes, including, for example, sleeping, eating, fighting, hunting and grooming (see also MacLean, 1978). We are not interested in attacking or defending this particular list; what is important is recognizing that there is some small finite list of behavioural modes.

This strategy for relating the modal principles to gross neuro-anatomy sees the brain as organized in layers about a central core (Pribram, 1971; 175 ff.). The central core, the reticular formation, sets the mode for the next layer, and each successive layer can be seen as setting the mode for the layers peripheral to it. Modes are effected by facilitating information processing in those areas of the brain which are most relevant to the corresponding behaviour and by turning control over to the appropriate neural centres (such as the limbic system and its evolutionary precursors; MacLean, 1978; Olds., 1977, Pribram, 1971). The selection of a particular behavioural goal, the formation of a plan to attain the goal and monitoring the success of that plan are all peripheral to the mode setting mechanism. Once the goal appropriate to a given mode has been attained, that mode will weigh less strongly in the reticular calculations which will then commit the brain to a different mode. The fundamental act is to commit the brain to a configuration of activity which interprets the external world as an arena for the satisfaction of particular inner needs, e.g. for nutrition, a sex partner, etc.

Being in estrous is certainly modal in McCulloch’s sense. The female in estrous is interpreting the external world as an arena for the satisfaction of a sexual need. In that frame of mind – yes, let’s call it mind, even for the rat – the approach of a randy male is just what’s needed and there will be no aggressive impulse. It’s been “down regulated” by the reticular modal mechanism (which likely does some of its work indirectly through the endocrine system).

The thing about the reticular formation is that it is the most primitive part of the nervous system: we’ve got it, monkeys got it, so do pigs and rats and birds and lizards and fish and even worms. It’s very very basic. And yet, if McCulloch is right about its modal function, then there is a deep and profound sense that it’s running the whole show. It’s giving the high and mighty cortex its marching orders.

A deeply painful paradox that Shakespeare expressed in his Sonnet 129, Th’ Expense of Spirit and that I’ve explicated in neural terms: William Benzon, Lust in Action:  An Abstraction. Language and Style 14:  251 - 270, 1981.

*Benzon, W. L. and Hays, D. G. Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 11, 293 - 322, 1988.

By Bill Benzon on 12/21/09 at 09:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill wrote: “In general we have internal representations of the world and make our about in it by anticipating everything we possibly can, including the actions of people. George Herbert Mead, the social psychologist, talked of a Generalized Other, a template (to use your term) that fits the generic human being. But then we’ve got a template for “counter person at a fast food joint” and one for “Dr. Paul down at the clinie” and one for Aunt Emma, and so forth.”

Let me try to clarify some confusion here in how I have used the word “template.” What Bill is describing is not a “template” in my sense at all. A good deal more is involved here than verbal nitpicking: what is at stake is a grounded theoretical description of how courtship occurs. (By “grounded,” I mean a description that comes from thinking theoretically about a good deal of observational evidence; I have no a priori theoretical axes to grind, but I do have a lot of data and experience.)

I’ll illustrate with my own erotic, socio-sexual “template” for an attractive woman. She is medium height, rather slender, with long very dark hair, and I don’t care much about eye color. If and when I see such a woman, I do all the things I described – all the things that Denis does in Stevenson’s story – I gaze at her with locked in interest, watch her as she walks, and keep her in focus all the time, if possible. She is a “template” in the specific sense of being –

A.  a gauge, pattern, or mold (as a thin plate or board) used as a guide to the form of a piece being made;
B. a molecule (as of DNA) that serves as a pattern for the generation of another macromolecule (as messenger RNA);
C. something that establishes or serves as a pattern…
http://www.merriam-webster.com/

The crux is that a template is a pattern or original for generating or establishing something else.

Now, obviously I don’t mean these neurological templates are DNA molecules, but they ARE molds or patterns for shaping or generating what I consider to be an attractive woman, someone who captures my attention and interest, and who I will respond to positively and with erotic interest. This kind of template is NOT an internalized memory of what Dr. Paul or Aunt Emma looks like, which is what Bill is describing.

What is astonishing about these sexual-erotic templates is how they combine strikingly specific elements (like long dark hair) with a complete absence of description (my template has nothing about eye color). Other men differ from me, and are quite capable of providing equally specific descriptions of women whose eye color is essential to his template. We can partly reconstruct Denis’ template from Stevenson’s description: she is somewhat plump or round, with beautiful hair and slender hands.

Why this? I have no idea. (In case someone says “she’s your MOTHER, idiot!” I should point out that my mother was blonde – so, no, it’s not her.)

If you want to test this on yourself, ask yourself – if you’re heterosexual – what comes to mind if you think of a really, really attractive woman. Don’t intellectualize, just imagine her. What have the women looked like whom you have found rivetingly lovely, so alluring that you couldn’t take your eyes off her? But… sigh… I know some men who will deliberately avoid the question. So don’t do that, play honest, and visualize what she looks like. Chances are that’s the template I’m talking about. (BTW, saying “Audrey Hepburn is attractive” doesn’t count as an answer.)

Another way men avoid this question is to say, “Ah, c’mon – I like ‘em all!” My answer is “Is that why you’ve been staring at that redhead over there for the past half hour?”

And briefly back to literature: many kinds of literature have to deal very closely with this sort of template.

By on 12/21/09 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

what was the biological function (“purpose”) of Dante’s love for Beatrice.

the moment the puck leaves the opponent’s hockey stick, the muscles of the goalie kick in with pre-activated sequences

OK, so cognitivism(?)—if I understand it—i.e. the theoretical underpinnings of Bill’s/Tim’s biological approach here—is based on the experimentally demonstrable idea of neural arrangements (templates?) which are equivalent to the more easily understood, pre-activated sequences of an athlete’s muscles.

Now that it’s finally sunk in (for me) that we have this class of entities which possess their own organizational logic and are related to the arts somehow ... In theory we could correlate the library of templates which are affected by artistic tropes ... with a library of artistic tropes. And then we would have a theory that implies that the neural templates evolve and this is the “origin” of the arts. But we could just as well turn the theory around so that the artistic tropes were primary, implying that they were what drove the evolution of the neural templates.

This could also replace the well-intentioned efforts of folklorists to reduce folktales to atomic elements, which seem to have come to nothing. We may if nothing else get hold of a new approach to taxonomy, so that the “Door You Must Never Open” is counted a trope right next to “silver metallic object with dark leather trim” and “vocal tracks in the background with echo”.

And criticism would no longer be contained within genre boundaries; the Gesamtkunstwerk could be described all at once!

By on 12/21/09 at 06:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now back to literature and biology.

Bill is raising an excellent question when he mentions George Herbert Mead and the “generalized other,” and describes memories of people we know, like Aunt Emma. Yes, people do have the ability to create visual, often quite specific, memories of people we know, and we also can create de novo images of people we haven’t ever – and can’t – meet, like Ophelia or Constance Bonacieux, d’Artagnan’s sort-of girlfriend from “The Three Musketeers.” So, isn’t it possible that what I’m calling an “erotic template” for a woman simply one more of these memories-cum-visualizations-cum-inventions, and therefore of no more interest than all such memories and visualizations? If so, then any questions we might have about “erotic templates” are subsumed into – and lost in the maze of – questions long asked and never answered about generalized human abilities like creativity, imagination, and the like.

Yes, that is possible – but… And there is a very big “but” here, because right now is one place where biology and evolution enter the picture very powerfully. Erotic templates differ in a crucial way from memories of Aunt Emma. They are linked directly to our reproductive capacities. They are not merely memories or temporarily interesting pictures our brains concoct as part of a general ability to create images or remember faces. As once again Stevenson’s Denis makes very clear, these templates activate a large set of related and emerging thoughts about her body and about having sex with her. And barring contraception, that means having children, aka passing your genes along. Such things are of immense significance to evolution, for they are part of the engines of evolution itself.

Because the template creates or activates desire—as well as representing desire in less literal and symbolic ways – a man’s ability to create a template for a woman necessarily becomes the object of selection. Someone with a stronger ability to template an attractive woman will therefore court her more vigorously, with shorter latencies to arousal, and longer periods of de-arousal than a man who doesn’t care at all – she’s one more female, nothing special, just another female. Again as Stevenson depicts, an activated template leads the man to greater ardor and desire.

Moreover, the specificity of the erotic template means that the man is more susceptible to her body, her hair, her face, her hands – to any of the features of women that his template stresses. A template is an enhancer of erotic allure, of her “charms” (to use the old fashioned phrase), and of her potential as a sexual partner. If she is a 6 on the objective scale of prettiness devised by the Martians for studying human behavior, a man templated for her sees her not as a 6 but as an 8 – and then a 9.

This is something you can test yourself if you knew a girl in high school you were in love with (her name was Rosalie) and if you have a high school yearbook with her photograph. If you “objectively” rank all the girls in the yearbook for how pretty they are – I mean now, 10 or 20 or 35 years later – you will certainly see that absolutely objectively and with the wisdom of decades of life and experience that Rosalie is, hmm, well, she is certainly an 8 or a 9… No matter that no one else, not even Rosalie, thought of her as particularly attractive, nice-looking yes, but nothing all THAT great; no matter at all. You know that she is/was an 8 or a 9.

Templates are thus long-lasting magnifiers of allure as well as stimuli to expression of interest and desire. They are therefore directly related to the man’s reproductive abilities because the template serves to awaken and focus the man’s interests and desire. “Do you really think I’m that pretty?” she asks doubtfully. “Absolutely!” he says enthusiastically, hoping that she will ask for details, meaning that he can wax poetic about her legs, her breasts, her mouth, her hair… “I’m flattered,” she thinks, “but I think he’s crazy.” But nice crazy, know what I mean? In brief, such templates focus his motivations.

If you now ask, “Well, then why don’t women like it when you compliment them?” the answer is that any man intent on seducing a woman knows how to wax poetic with the compliments. He is IMITATING the genuine effects of templated attraction, hoping to fool her long enough into have sex with him. Women, in their turn, are justifiably very suspicious of men too quick with compliments.

And I hope it’s clear that we have now moved away from the neurological details of attraction and homunculi to something called “narrative.” For me to explain most fully what these templates do and are, I have to start telling stories. The term in sociology for such stories is “script,” meaning a set of norms, expectations, and standardized sequences that we expect to hold (more or less) in everyday life. For example, the rough and crude fellow who disdains the heroine at the start of the novel – we know how it will end, don’t we. But he doesn’t have to be rough and crude – he can also be Fitzwilliam Darcy – and Austen knew about men’s templates. Remember Elizabeth’s “flashing eyes”? Darcy liked them…

So, mirabile dictu, templates are more than memories of Aunt Emma. They are the starting seeds of entire romantic narratives.

A true story. As I am writing this, my wife said she was going to watch a DVD. “Sure,” I mumbled. “It’s Princess Bride!” she announced.

By on 12/21/09 at 06:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I hope Laufeysson will bear with me if I forestall for a little while commenting on his very interesting post. I want to draw some sharper connections between these templates – which are not simple, as I hope we can see! – and literature.

For reasons I do not fully understand at all, the existence of alluring internal images (of a woman, for example) are themselves directly connected to the ability/capacity to tell stories. It doesn’t have to be that way, I suppose – after all, we may want to cook dinner soon, but we don’t write novels about it, at least not usually. Nonetheless, sexuality does link directly to narrative, more accurately, the desire to create narratives. Everyone is a romantic novelist when it comes to their own templates and sexual scripts – what John Money, the great sexologist, called our “love map.” These narratives spin out in daydreams, in masturbatory fantasies, in partly private, partly shared hopes we tell other people about. By narrative, I mean a description of a sequence of events, unfolding over time, with a cast of characters (notably oneself plus the envisioned partner) and often a setting. Then we write dialogue and enact all the parts ourselves. I suppose these romantic tales are similar to stories children tell themselves about imaginary playmates, but I am not at the moment interested in the developmental origins of these tales or of the ability to tell such tales. Instead, their existence seems directly tied to the existence of the template itself. The reverse also seems to hold: imagining certain kinds of (romantic) setting seems to demand characters to populate it, and up she pops, this extraordinarily sexy, lovely woman, and we’re off and running.

A good deal of psychology, especially since Freud, has focused on the functions such daydreams play in the psychological economy of the narrator. Self-solace, rehearsal play, wish fulfillment – and other functions come to mind. But I am less interested in those explanations than I am in the pure fact that such stories directly involve the imagined woman, often imagined in remarkable detail.

Now, I am NOT going to postulate a “narrative module” or somesuch to explain why we tell such stories. That begs the question: why tell stories? Because we have a story-telling module. No, that doesn’t hold water. Instead, I’m going to suggest that the sequential nature of courtship itself (the courtship sequence I’ve mentioned before, with its emotional correlates) lends itself par excellence to conversion into a sequential description of the hoped for events, or, if not exactly hoped for, then certainly very interesting. Such stories provide a way to stay with images that are (by definition of the template) very attractive and alluring. The narratives prolong and decorate the template and its feelings when we elaborate and adorn them with details from the narrative. Once again the statue of Galatea comes alive.

Another way to say the same thing is that with the narrative the templated snapshot or drawing of the woman becomes only one frame in an animated film. The still image seems somehow to call for animation. Now, we ask if it’s possible to reduce, so to speak, all these templates and their animations, into internalized movies, based on what we saw as kids on the Cartoon Channel. For some people, the movies surely enhance their abilities to make such narratives, but that cannot be their historical, cultural, or evolutionary origin. Homer’s “Odyssey” is packed chock full of romantic adventures – remember Nausicaa? Remember courtly love and Tristan and Yseult? The narrative capacities that flesh out the template into a full-fledged romantic tale are a lot older than the movies.

Instead, the template itself seems to invite, a la Galatea, the question “Then what happened?” And with that, we encounter narrative. So I will make a bold suggestion – that narrative abilities evolved, over human evolution, partly to receive and animate templates and their remembered feelings. An animated template is an on-going image of that beautiful woman who has started to walk around, talk, flirt with you, all so you can fall in love with her in considerable detail. The template thus became a character. Are there other origins of narrative capacities? Of course. But I think this is one of them.

A brief aside about modes and the Gesamtkunstwerken. There are other sources for narrative that operate, just as compellingly, in human affairs. Love and romance certainly seem to be one, but so are honor, duty, and war. Nonetheless, let’s stay with one thing at a time.

By on 12/22/09 at 03:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One last step. Narrative adds something to the “raw” data of a sequence of events. One can describe in immense detail what happened when two people meet, fall in love, and decide to have sex. As yet, however, the full potential of narrative is absent.

These additional elements tell us why something happened. Narrative is etiological as well as descriptive. The narrator can provide intensely focused interpretations of the sequence of events as it transpired. Explanations can be given, elaborations can be offered, parallels adduced, and homologies, if I can call them that, can be established between this sequence and that one.  So narrative is an open-ended, value-added process – not a particularly romantic way to put it, but accurate in its functionalism. More figuratively, if one can weave a description of events in narrative, one can simultaneously use the same loom – a loom of language and story – to weave patterns and designs that exist in parallel to the events one might be starting with. Plato quite famously held such poetry in vast suspicion, but the ability to spin out a story in time is equaled in narrative by the ability to move to other dimensions, for example, of motivation and symbol.

And then it was discovered that by including such extras, the narrative itself became more interesting. So the system feeds back on itself – if initially she was fascinating because she was beautiful and sexy, now she is even more fascinating for her and his connections to the etiological and symbolic patterns that have been woven around them. Of course, that also means that society external to the story has also become more complex, but that’s the nature of such things. So narrative may start with a sequence of events transpiring in time that is described as a sequence, but that is not where it stops. Instead – and somewhere along the line in here—we invented art.

I think I’ll stop here. Thanks for listening.

By on 12/22/09 at 04:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting stuff, Tim, interesting indeed. Let me make a few casual observations.

Concerning the Generalized Other, Aunt Emma, Rosalie from high school, templates, scripts, etc., there was a lot of work in cognitive science and AI back in the 1970s and 1980s about computer modeling of stories – Sheldon Klein at Wisconsin even worked on Lévi-Strauss’s myth stuff – that resulted in a lot of technical machinery to handle such things. In the work of Roger Schank, then at Yale, “script” even became term of art, along with “plan” and “remindings” and other things. Other folks talked of frames and episodic structure. From a certain abstract point of view it’s much of a muchness, various technical devices for dealing with descriptions of people at varying levels of detail, accounts of roles for dealing with various situations, and general techniques for ordering actions in time. When I went rather too quickly from the Generalized Other to your templates, I was simply asserting that the same technical machinery is required in all those cases, including your erotic template. You made the specific point that the erotic template is “linked directly to our reproductive capacities” whereas those other things I mentioned are not. Aunt Emma, however, is a superb cook, and so one’s representation of her is linked to memories of eating at her table (perhaps even helping her prepare a meal), and so to one’s need for food. As far as technical machinery for the mind goes, our need and capacity for food is no different from our need and appetite for sex – it’s one of those things over there and, as such, requires a Class B Frinkwhammit Coupling.

I could, of course, be wrong on this matter of technical machinery. But the assertion isn’t so much that an erotic template is the same kind of thing as a Generalized Other or Aunt Emma, but that it is constructed of the same kind of mental tinker toy parts.

Now, getting back to that 70s & 80s work on stories, one of the issues that emerged from this work is that, while we can tell stories about anything (e.g. the mental tinker toys can be used to build anything you please), who do not, in fact, do so. How, then, do you characterize those things about which we do tell stories? One can, of course, list them. But that’s not what’s being asked for. What’s the underlying logic of the list? As far as I know, that discussion just fizzled out.

But the question still persists. Patrick Colm Hogan took a wack at it in The Mind and Its Stories (Cambridge UP 2003) The account he gives in the body of the book strikes me as being almost incomprehensibly baroque, but he’s got an afterword where he says: “Indeed, one could argue that romantic and heroic tragic-comedy are prototypical precisely because they treat the most crucial aspects of social structure – reproduction and group power, the family and the nation (tribe, village, or whatever)” (251). That makes sense.

You’re now dealing with the same issue:

So I will make a bold suggestion – that narrative abilities evolved, over human evolution, partly to receive and animate templates and their remembered feelings. An animated template is an on-going image of that beautiful woman who has started to walk around, talk, flirt with you, all so you can fall in love with her in considerable detail. The template thus became a character. Are there other origins of narrative capacities? Of course. But I think this is one of them.

A brief aside about modes and the Gesamtkunstwerken. There are other sources for narrative that operate, just as compellingly, in human affairs. Love and romance certainly seem to be one, but so are honor, duty, and war. Nonetheless, let’s stay with one thing at a time.

In making his general argument Hogan offered the observation that romantic stories are the single most frequent category of story in the repertoire of any culture, but he doesn’t have any actual counts. He’s guessing; there’s no evidence that he counted anything. If you look at the Gottschall and Nordlund study I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion you see that, while they found romantic love wherever they looked, they didn’t find very much of it, an average of 3.32 references to romantic love in the story collections they examined. How many stories per collection, 50, 100, 150? They don’t say, but unless those story collections are very small, it doesn’t look like romantic stories loom large in the world’s repertoire of folk tales. Nor do they loom large in the myths Lévi-Strauss recounted in The Raw and the Cooked (which are origin myths) nor in the Winnebago Trickster Cycle as recorded by Paul Radin. These stories seem to have a sacred function, and Hogan has since asserted that he wasn’t concerned with sacred stories (he and I discussed this online over the river and through the woods at OnFiction).

What do I make of this? Not a whole heck of a lot, mainly because the empirical evidence on what kinds stories can told and retold time and again is not very convincing at this point. We’ve got scads of stories, but no way to get useful numbers out of them. Still, however important boy-meets-girl is to us (think of all those 19th century British novels), it’s not clear to me that it is an important class of culturally shared and esteemed stories in preliterate cultures.

Of course, those publicly shared stories are hardly all the stories that get told in a culture. What stories to the men tell one another when they’re in the men’s hut smoking tobacco, singing songs, and having a good time? No doubt there are stories about the one that got away. And sometimes the one will be just that, a fish, dinner for the whole family. But other times the one will be a hot babe. “Whoo mama! I tell you guys, she had legs up to here, the cutest little wrinkle in her nose, gorgeous brown eyes, and her hair floated in the wind. So I walked up to her . . . and that’s the last I saw of her.“ No doubt the women tell their own tales while pounding yams.

So there’s a distinction between the stories that are a formal part of the public cultural repertoire and those that are informally told. Each requires basic narrative capacity, but the themes broached in these two broad classes may be quite different. So we’ve got this question: Under what circumstances do romantic stories become a prominent part of the cultural repertoire? Hogan’s answer is that they are always prominent, but he doesn’t have convincing evidence. Gottschall and Nordlund say they’re always there, but prominence isn’t something that concerns them and their evidence seems to indicate that romantic tales are not prominent.

So, where’s our basic narrative capacity come from? That, it seems to me, is a different question. At the level of technical machinery, I note that all animals have to navigate about their environment, moving from one place to another to another and so on during their daily rounds. During this circuit they will drink, hunt, forage, eat, defecate, etc. So there’s some neural machinery that’s organizing these activities and the movement from one to another. I’d nominate that navigational machinery as the core of narrative machinery. But getting that machinery “repurposed” to the task of ordering verbal narrative, well, that’s going to take some work.

FWIW, here’s a post from a few months ago about the fundamental importance of story-telling. It’s starting point is Wordsworth’s observation about poetry being emotions recollected in tranquillity. For biochemical reasons, that’s quite a trick.

By Bill Benzon on 12/22/09 at 09:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the comments, Bill. A few points.

A. Bill wrote: “You made the specific point that the erotic template is “linked directly to our reproductive capacities” whereas those other things I mentioned are not. Aunt Emma, however, is a superb cook, and so one’s representation of her is linked to memories of eating at her table (perhaps even helping her prepare a meal), and so to one’s need for food.”

That might be your Aunt Emma, but not mine. I don’t see any way to link Aunt Emma as a representative of a class of people to any broad adaptive phenomenon or process. I can link food – and hence all food providers – to the need for nutrition. But then “Aunt Emma → food” is an accidental connection, relevant to you and your brothers and sisters perhaps, but not a general fact of human biology. By contrast the linkage “woman → reproduction” is a general fact of biology. Even more, it is a necessary fact, in the sense that no human being ever reproduced without interacting with a woman, and interacting in very specific ways and in specific sequences of behavior. But one can obtain food without Aunt Emma’s intervention.

If we are going to link literature and the capacity for narrative to biology, my feeling is that we need more than accidents of personal biography. I am starting with sexuality because there ain’t no doubt at all of the biological and evolutionary significance of sexuality. It is the mechanism of gene transfer itself. That fact alone privileges sexuality in the discussion.

Once again, I want to repeat that there are other very significant features of existence that play major roles in human life. I listed some (only some!), like war, duty, and honor, although interactions with the dead also loom large. However, as a matter of life and its continuation, sexuality is hard to match. And put them all together – hoo-hah, we have, hmmm… “War and Peace” maybe?

B. Bill wrote: “So there’s a distinction between the stories that are a formal part of the public cultural repertoire and those that are informally told. Each requires basic narrative capacity, but the themes broached in these two broad classes may be quite different. So we’ve got this question: Under what circumstances do romantic stories become a prominent part of the cultural repertoire?”

Those distinctions are important, but only very late in human history, like today. Back in the day, when there were a grand total of 34 of us wandering through the Pleistocene, there had be much less distinction between “public” and “private” because were the only people we knew about. Yet even then, all men had to interact with women if either one of them were to reproduce.

So far as the numerical prominence of stories about romance, I don’t see any way to measure anything about it. The label “about” – as in saying “This story is about X, Y, or Z” – is a modern pastime, something critics might do, but I can’t see how to apply criteria of “aboutness” to long-gone tales from the Pleistocene – or even to Homer. Is the “Odyssey” about love and sex? About sailing ships? About magic? About whirlpools? About revenge? About the duties of a wife? The answer is Yes, meaning “All of the above.”

C. Bill wrote: “During this circuit [wandering around in the Pleistocene] they will drink, hunt, forage, eat, defecate, etc. So there’s some neural machinery that’s organizing these activities and the movement from one to another. I’d nominate that navigational machinery as the core of narrative machinery. But getting that machinery “repurposed” to the task of ordering verbal narrative, well, that’s going to take some work.”

I agree with you, but that’s because I think you’ve made the list too broad to see the answers. When I deal with the kind of erotic template I’ve been discussing, I don’t have to “navigate” among matters as distinct (at least today they’re distinct) as hunting, foraging, and fighting a war. That is what the template does all by itself: it focuses my attention on one small set of things that assume immense importance to me – namely HER. That her, not a “generalized other” her, not an abstract her, THAT her over there, the one with the long hair and slender hands. HER.

And the emotions of the courtship sequence likewise powerfully focus my attention on one set of events, specifically those that transpire between me and her. And the result is a surprise: I then no longer have to worry about “ordering the verbal narrative.” The order of events is given by what she and I are doing and by what we feel. The order of events is a reality of life, not an invented fiction, but a lived and observed reality.

Here I might interject that I am a materialist, meaning that I am assuming that lived realities exist and had and have immense salience to people even during the Pleistocene. I do not make the Platonic assumption that such realities are weak shadows on the wall of the cave. It follows that a Platonic explanation of the origin of narrative will be very different from mine; well, so be it; I will leave it to the Platonists to provide such explanations.

There are some distinct methodological advantages for dealing with sexuality as one the basic engines in the analysis I’m attempting. One of them is that the kinds of issue you’re raising simply evaporate. Then we’re left with other issues – like how does language work such that it can focus our attention on only certain things – but, as I’ve said before, one thing at a time.

BTW, I agree with Wordsworth. It occurs to me that I should once again stress that the word “template” does NOT refer to a “template” for a story. It is an internal image of a specific sexually attractive woman—nothing more. The stories, I suggest, come later, when these emotions and events are “recollected in tranquility.”

By on 12/22/09 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Under what circumstances do romantic stories become a prominent part of the cultural repertoire

Jane Austen’s novels are *about* the absurd consequences of a system in which fortunes change hands with every marriage, in an extremely unequal society, and what pressures this puts on lovers, suitors, families. The stories of relationships could have been written in any case but without throwing light on this contemporary social challenge they would not have found the same audience, and perhaps might not have been written at all.

The Odyssey is *about* Odysseus’ insistence on his own personal narrative, which is unique among his contemporaries and surely related to his other unique qualities of shrewdness and never being at a loss for a plan. The Nausicaa episode describes an erotically-charged meeting, but it could in no way have been the precursor to a “story” between the two, except perhaps a story of conquest and then her bearing strong children (and perhaps roping Odysseus into the dynastic politics of her clan). Odysseus even refuses Calypso and her offer of immortality! Which would have taken him out of his story, and reduced him to a condition of stasis. He has to get back to Penelope because that’s “who he is”. The Odyssey is about the powerful utility, for leadership and survival, of the new technology, long-term personal narrative.

Well, obviously I shouldn’t be dogmatic about such highly-derived interpretations. Nonetheless—I’d suggest that different tropes succeed because they exploit contingent historical opportunities, which are not themselves easily reduced to a system. And on reflection this is contained in the original question: to become part of the cultural repertoire is a two-way street. What is the culture capable of assimilating at any particular moment?

By on 12/22/09 at 04:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now, getting back to that 70s & 80s work on stories, one of the issues that emerged from this work is that, while we can tell stories about anything (e.g. the mental tinker toys can be used to build anything you please), who do not, in fact, do so. How, then, do you characterize those things about which we do tell stories? One can, of course, list them. But that’s not what’s being asked for. What’s the underlying logic of the list? As far as I know, that discussion just fizzled out.

The insufferable Jungians are probably to blame.

By on 12/22/09 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would suggest that there’s nothing special about Odysseus’ story-telling that causes his return to Penelope.  The Homeric narrative is not a buildungsroman (’tho one can see seeds of it in Telemakhos’ story).  Homeric characters are always exactly who they are; they cannot be otherwise.  Achilles must be tempestuous, Nestor must give counsel, Odysseus must be king/husband/father.  Story-telling is one of his traits, ‘tho everyone in Homeric narratives tells storys, predominantly those that place themselves in a lineage and give them identity.  What’s peculiar about Odysseus is his need, even when it’s not necessary to his goals, to tell fictions.  So I don’t think the personal narrative is unique to Odysseus or his contemporaries.  As Finley suggests in *The World of Odysseus*, it is only through remembered narratives that characters confirm who they are and what their place is in their worlds. 

And can someone tell me what we *don’t* tell stories about?  I can’t think of any human experience that hasn’t been turned into a story, and I’m not all that widely read.

By on 12/22/09 at 07:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Quick question, Tim. As I recall from our private conversations you’ve been skeptical about utilitarian arguments for the origins and functions of art. But your last set of comments do have a distinctive utilitarian cast to them: narrative evolved, in part, because it was useful in mating. The man who was most able to tell effective stories about his beloved was thereby most strongly motivated actually to pursue her in the flesh. Has your thinking changed?

By Bill Benzon on 12/23/09 at 07:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A good question. I’ll come back and take a stab at it when the Christmas holidays have subsided.

By on 12/24/09 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re asking a fascinating question – not about my thinking, but about utilitarianism, evolution, and the origins of human behavior. That’s quite a menu! And when we add art – literature, performance art, music, and the graphic and plastic arts – the menu gets even longer.

But to your immediate question, no, my thinking hasn’t changed all that much – but I want to add that I am suspicious/doubtful about utilitarianism in discussions of human art, that is, art produced by H. sapiens, rather than disdaining utilitarian arguments in general and in toto. The crux, it seems to me, is a switch or shift in the kind of thinking we need to deal with the pre-sapiens origins of art (say in the erectine level of hominid evolution and the Acheulean hand ax as a concrete example) and the emergence of sapiens art (say in the paintings at Lascaux). Then the logic of evolutionary biology and the nature of the material we have from pre-sapiens archeological and fossil records invites us to think in utilitarian ways, whereas once we reach modern sapiens, archeology and history invite us to think in non-utilitarian ways. The problem, then, is how to do we think about the transition of one to the other? This, I want to stress, is a problem for how we think about history and evolution – it is a theoretical issue. How do we blend, mix, or adjoin different modes of thinking about events that led, we presume, from one to the other? I have no simple answer, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

Simultaneously, a nasty little terminological problem surfaces. We must be extremely careful in the words we use to describe behavior in the transitional period (erectine → sapiens, if that is where we are placing the major changes of interest). Thus, much of biology uses an openly anthropomorphic language for describing animal behavior – we speak of “whale song” or “bird navigation,” using terms for modern human activities for what animals do. Usually, no problem results – we know that birds do not consult copies of Bowditch’s “Practical Navigator” and carry sextants, not literally. But if we’re talking about an individual (Y-14) living in the transitional period – E → Y → S, where “Y” refers to a group of beings partway between E = erectus and S = sapiens—then the word “song” is horribly misleading. It can invite us to see in Y and in Y-14 many aspects or components of human song – that is, sapiens song – where by definition they did not (yet) exist. When we discuss Y or Y-14, then we are denied an entire vocabulary because it invokes and depends on sapiens characteristics that cannot in principle be attributed to Y. Thus, if I say that Y-14 produced “melodious vocalizations,” then it’s no problem to explain where the sapiens sense of melody came from – I just imputed it to Y. Which begs the question with a vengeance.

We can, I think, move in the general direction of a solution. Up above, I spoke of the Acheulean hand-ax as an example of pre-sapiens “art,” therein committing the error I just warned against. So now we see (I hope) that we need to say that the Acheulean hand-ax is NOT an example of “art,” which by definition is what sapiens makes, but of “art-on-its-way” or “quasi-art” or “semi-art” or some equivalent for an activity that did (given how things actually turned out) eventually become authentic “sapiens” art. OK, so we can talk (yes, clumsily) about the “quasi-singing” or “semi-melody” of Y-14 as he did something that 150,000 years later will have evolved into real singing and real melody. But it ain’t there yet, and yet it isn’t animal vocalization either. So we have a clumsy, but maybe workable, vocabulary.

OK, now how about those templates? Now I’m interested in the transformation of the template (in the strict sense) to a character. Today, a template is a given individual’s visual image of a sexually attractive woman, with details idiosyncratic to that individual and yet clearly female in overall morphology and behavior. If I, today, can tell stories about her, or imagine fantasies about her, or find her endlessly fascinating, that’s because I am operating as a sapiens male, equipped already with language, story-telling abilities, imagination, and a large emotional repertoire characteristic of H. sapiens. I have no trouble converting her into a character in a story – I am human.

Now go back before the erectines appeared. I (TP, I mean) will assume that such males also gazed at females, followed them around, and attempted to mate with them. I can now “explain” their behavior in utilitarian ways: such activities had the evolutionary and genetic functions of transmitting genes. Selection powerfully favors the existence of such activities. But I (again, I mean TP) will NOT assume that those beings were able to tell stories, talk about females, nor imagine what they might do if one gave them flowers, or even fall in love with them. Those attributes, I will now assume – it is only an assumption, since I have no time machine to visit the past and test these hypotheses – are beyond those creatures.

I hope you can see where I’m going. With time – as it turned out – slowly but surely those pre-erectine creatures became erectines, and they slowly but surely became Y-creatures, one of them being Y-14, who can’t sing yet, not really, doesn’t know what a melody is, not really – but is partway there. He isn’t in love yet either – not yet – and he can’t tell stories yet. But he’s getting there.

I suggest that one reason that these Y-creatures did “get there,” that is, did surpass the Y-level of life, is her – that female of the template. We will call her X. The moment she notices that Y-14 is sexually interested in her (that’s an ability that most female mammals have) she, if she’s interested in him, will start courting him back (again, an ability most female mammals have – it’s called “proceptivity”). He is being forced, shall I say, to focus on her.

Now, assume he is equipped with proto-language, quasi-song, semi-melody, on-its-way-syntax, any of these abilities: whatever they were, they focus on her. If he can use any of those, even very partially, it will help his cause, shall we say: so he discovers that he can give her food and share food with her. It has a powerful utilitarian basis: shared meals are nutritionally superior if they are properly mixed (take my word for it, OK?). But, within the framework of quasi-syntaxes and partial-symbols and semi-grammars, it is more than that. It is something new. It is a new word: “we.”

Does that resonate with the relationship of child and mother? Yes – and the infinitesimal system is enriched by something added to it. Is “X” Eve? No, of course not. Do not project onto the past components of modern mythology and belief. X was just a female, one whom Y found – he had no word for it or her, no symbols, no songs, not yet.

That process of discovery must have involved thousands of X’s and Y’s. However, note that their experiences took place in a social system that is itself beginning to evolve language: with language there are now ways to remember crucially important things in the non-genetic medium of proto-speech. And it is crucially important to remember to share food and to remember the word “we.”

Slowly and painfully this system changes: the more it adds into the extra-genetic component material that must be learned – learn to share food or die – the stronger the utilitarian argument becomes that it is functional and useful to do things like this. But simultaneously the more this system adds material into the extra-genetic component – material that is learned – the more it is open to elaboration, decoration, and adornment. Then it starts to elude the purely utilitarian and starts to grow by mechanisms of social learning and elaboration.

This period – which, I assume, the Martian observers have a label for, but we human beings sure don’t – was extraordinarily rich. For example, at some point, X-14 discovered that he had a name. She was surely fascinated by that. As well she might – it was a discovery worth many millennia of further development! And it probably took that long.

Art is coming along in this mix, too, but since today is Christmas, I hope you’ll let me stop here.

Is that at all clear? Probably not – but if the reader will go back to start and re-read it, it might become clearer. Bill, your questions are, as always, very enlightening. More later.

Anyway, Happy Holidays, folks.

By on 12/25/09 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Then the logic of evolutionary biology and the nature of the material we have from pre-sapiens archeological and fossil records invites us to think in utilitarian ways, whereas once we reach modern sapiens, archeology and history invite us to think in non-utilitarian ways. The problem, then, is how to do we think about the transition of one to the other? This, I want to stress, is a problem for how we think about history and evolution – it is a theoretical issue. How do we blend, mix, or adjoin different modes of thinking about events that led, we presume, from one to the other? I have no simple answer, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

Suppose a “song” is a remembered sequence of notes, hummed or vocalized or otherwise produced. (Emerging historically from a kind of formless vocal doodling which we will call “pre-song”.) And let’s designate this as “song(1)” for reasons that will soon become clear.

Since we are talking about cultural evolution, in our historical imagination an element of intentionality is added next. “Songs” are sung to appease the grumpy chief, or to announce the full moon, or whatever.

Song(1) + (particular intentionality) = Song(2)

Suppose there is a cluster of intentionalities that can be treated as a unit, and this definition is stable for 14,000 years. Singing appeases the chief and announces the full moon. Then, one day, some artistic genius decides to sing to his or her sexual partner. This carries with it the resonance of the previous intentionalities. “O Baby you are like the moon and a grumpy chief”—perhaps those were the first song lyrics.

Song(1) + (particular intentionality) + (another particular intentionality) = Song(3)

We could do this again for the idea of romantic love. In fact, in the majority of cases that are of interest to any theory of cultural evolution, the situation will be complex: it will not be a biological simple (like the pleasure of pair-bonding) plus one intentionality, or a behavioral simple (a repeated sequence of musical notes) plus one intentionality, but it will be a long-established complex of intentionality which then acquires another context and another intentionality ... and then another and then another. But we try to form a theory while describing all or most of this long sequence with a single term. As we’ve seen in the other threads, a great deal of time can be spent arguing over which additional intentionalities require a new term and which can be regarded as implicit expressions of the basic concept. Troubadour Poetry to Bollywood Movies?

Well, any theory of these intentionalities is going to be necessarily incommensurable with any biological or specifically neurological theory. Not necessarily contradictory, but necessarily grounded on an entirely different set of truth-conditions.

I’ll put it another way. First a digression. Intentionality is a strange thing. Take one of Wittgenstein’s famous language-game examples, “waiting for my friend”. One could stay in one’s rooms waiting for a friend—but this will be indistinguishable from hanging around the rooms. Furthermore, one need not think of one’s friend at all while waiting. So what does it mean to “wait for my friend”?  This, to repeat, is merely an example.

Here I will dogmatize. By ascribing intentionality, one is entering into a relationship. One brings the other into one’s community with a certain status. Consider the legal analysis of “competence”—this is what is at stake. Is this other a full member of my community? If the other is responsible for his or her actions (i.e. if his or her intentions are comprehensible), then the other is a member of the community. If not, he or she has a very different status, and can be treated as an outsider, perhaps an anthropological exhibit, or even a machine.

In other words, any theory of cultural evolution, insofar as it purports to be about mind, must acknowledge a subjective element. Any theory of cultural evolution will of necessity be a creative act, defining how we in the present wish to be in relationship with the people of the past.

By on 12/30/09 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes. I really like this summary. Thank you!

The essence of this biological evolution <-->cultural evolution stuff is disentangling precisely these components, while meanwhile using a language that doesn’t predispose to one or the other answer. I’ll post more later—New Year’s Eve is closing in. Best wishes to everyone for a good new year!

By on 12/30/09 at 05:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Guys- we just aint there yet with the Math.
Hey, if Brouwerian choice sequences interact to generate Zorn’s lemma as an emergent- then bijective shite might fly.
Otherwise, no.
Do as Socrates did- cultivate mousike not psilosophy.

By vivek iyer on 01/04/10 at 11:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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