Thursday, December 6, 2007

Irrationality in literature

I have an analytic mind. I like to take things apart and see what's inside. With this comes a tendency to see the literal meaning of statements. Add to this that I visualise very vividly when I read, that I see everything before my inner eye, and you see that I have a particular way of interpreting text.

One thing I don't always like is that I'm really, deep inside, a nitpicker and a besserwisser. In particular I instinctively dislike when people use words that have a precise definition in a more general (or perhaps metaphoric) sense. One example is the use of the word "carbohydrate" to mean "food that gives energy". I really had to bite my tongue at a breakfast buffet where a man told his friend that he really needed carbohydrates today — and loaded his plate with bacon and eggs. (There are no carbohydrates in that food, stupid, only fat and protein!) At the same time I think I should be glad that people are creative with language. It works as communication, and as long as the man doesn't think that he's talking about food chemistry it should be OK. I think. But it's wrong!

So I really have built in contradictions. My feelings tell me to be rational, my intellect tells me to allow room for human shortcuts and detours. ("My head is running standard time, my heart on moonlight saving..." Only the other way around.)

Anyway, I recently started to reflect on my reaction to metaphor and poetical descriptions. I usually see the literal meening of a metaphor at the same time as what it stands for, which is actually very nice. But the other day I encountered a sentence and just stopped. "The silent screaming of the Pullulus got louder." This doesn't make sense, it doesn't mean anything at all, I thought. "Silent screaming"? At the same time I noticed that it worked anyway, it still induced the right sort of feeling of something unnatural and bad going on. It works as communication.

I'm funny this way. It's probably obvious for most readers that a sentence doesn't need to be logically constructed, that you can convey a feeling without telling the reader straight out what the feeling should be. To me it's a great discovery, I never thought about it this way. In literature you are allowed to say things that has no logical truth value, that cannot be parsed in the regular way, and you can use this conciously to tell the reader something! (This also demonstrates something that literature can do but that doesn't work on film, which is sort of fun, too.)

"[T]he cold of a hundred winters seems to have been preserved in the stones and to seep out of them." You could not investigate this statement scientifically, and applying a thermometer to the stones would just show that you don't get the point. Isn't it great!

Somehow I think this discovery is related to something that has been bugging me for a while. Some people argue that science fiction is better than fantasy because of "its ability to convey apprehension about the universe and ourselves", the logical structure of it and the connection to science. I don't really believe this, because I think people are clever enough and have enough imagination to use metaphor and myth as one of the ways to understand themselves and make sense of the world. In some ways and in some situations it might be better and more useful than the logical and analytical angle. We probably need both, just because we are humans and work that way.

But on the other hand, we could actually work backwards and use the human reactions to literature to learn something about how we are wired. There is a literature professor, Jonathan Gotschall, who wants to reinvent literary criticism this way (scroll to the bottom):

[T]he field is awash with irrational thought, he says, largely because most literature scholars believe that the humanities and science are distinct. As a result, literary theorists rely on opinion and conjecture, rather than trying to find solid, empirical evidence for their claims, he says. By adding an element of scientific thought to literary criticism, Gottschall says, we could unearth hidden truths about human nature and behaviour.

If he does the research and writes a book, I will want to read it.

(The book quotes are from Wizards at War by Diane Duane and Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell by Susanna Clarke.)


Hans Persson said...

I'm with you on the literal interpretation bit; I also tend to see both sides of a metaphor. On the other hand I'm very bad at visualizing what I read. For me, reading is an intellectual pursuit, not a movie in my head.

Elliot said...

Very interesting post!

I think one problem is with the word "irrational." Perhaps "non-rational" would be better... Just because something is not spelled out through logical thinking doesn't mean it must be anti-reason. Or maybe people just define 'reason' too narrowly.

I've been reading a book called "Something There" which explores the biological basis of spiritual experience. (It's by a David Hay, a zoologist.) Anyways, one of the things he touches on is the way 'emotion' and 'reason' are deeply intertwined. Neurologists are learning that the two work together very closely. So the distinction between 'reason' and 'emotion' or 'intuition' is a questionable category. So conveying the coldness of the rocks poetically and measuring the temperature both work.

Maybe the same applies to 'science fiction' versus 'fantasy.' Now we can see that many of the 'scientific' details of older science fiction (telepathy, say) were not actually scientific, but part of a 'science-flavoured' mythology. This is one thing I like about Gene Wolfe's Sun books - he blurs the categories between sf and fantasy all the time.

I recall reading a militant atheist criticizing all forms of mysticism and making the comment "and anyways, a scientist has shown that intuition is probably only the mind working very quickly and subconsciously," as if this were some devastating criticism. It seems to me that this this finding is in fact a great compliment to intuitive ways of grasping the world, as though reason were saying to emotion "Well, I guess you're not entirely irrational after all."

Åka said...

Elliot: I just found a quote that made me think of your comment. It's from Keeping it Real by Justina Robson.

"She decided, with misgiving, to allow her AI-self to execute the routine to bypass her emotional centre and replace its decision-making finesse with cold calculations."

So Justina Robson knows about the intelligence of intuition (and I very much agree with your way of seeing it).