Literature's evolution reflected, spurred growing complexity of society
May 3, 2019 9:18 AM Subscribe
Elizabeth Hart, a specialist in early literature, writes that in medieval or classical texts, “people are constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing, but they somehow manage to do this without the author drawing attention to these mental states.” This changed dramatically between 1500 and 1700.... Hart suggests that these innovations were spurred by the advent of print, and with it, an explosion in literacy across classes and genders. People could now read in private and at their own pace, re-reading and thinking about reading, deepening a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts. Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings? (Julie Sedivy for Nautilus)
And by the 20th century, many authors labored not just to describe, but to simulate the psychological experience of characters. In her literary manifesto “Modern Fiction,” (via The University of Adelaide Library) Virginia Woolf wrote, “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”Looking farther back in the history of literature: God Created Consciousness in Fiction (Ed Simon for Nautilus)
Muses, daemons, and gods were real for the Greeks, voices heard in the process of thought or inspiration. Erich Auerbach’s 1946 book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Wikipedia) was concerned with the depiction of lived experience. He anticipated Jaynes, writing that Homeric style represents “phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts,” adding that “[n]or do psychological processes receive any other treatment… nothing must remain hidden and unexpressed.” Jaynes would argue that nothing was left hidden or unexpressed because nothing could be hidden or unexpressed. The most ancient literature has no depictions of interiority because there was no interiority to depict.This article continues, delving into documentary hypothesis, "which involved the synthesis of disparate personalities embodied by different Canaanite deities into one God," where "the Jewish god is one who evolves over the course of the Biblical narrative," and paves the way for other literary evolutions.
When did interiority arise? Elizabeth Hart, a specialist in early literature, quoted by Sedivy, suggests it arose with the advent of print, allowing people to read in private and at their own pace, deepening cognitive skills and creating an appetite for complex and ambiguous texts. [Maverick psychologist Julian Jaynes] (Wikipedia), for his part, claimed the first glimmerings of consciousness appeared three millennia ago due to social, cultural, and material stresses, which began to break down the bicameral mind and overwhelm the inner voices of the gods. Because of his reliance on literary evidence, Jaynes was feted by literary types (John Updike blurbed the book’s first edition), though his fellow psychologists remained unconvinced, then and now. By giving consciousness a cultural origin, “Jaynes disavows consciousness as a biological phenomenon,” Christof Koch (Nautilus), president and chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, told Veronique Greenwood for her Nautilus article on Jaynes, “Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Talking.” (Previously)
However, as fantastical and compelling as Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind might be, we don’t have to rely on psychological or neurological evidence to debate it. There is one character drawn from literature who serves as a counter-example to the ancient hero with no inner life. Of course, you have to count the Bible as literature. Given his grandeur, pettiness, and complexity, and his capacity for introspection, he’s the major exception to the flatness of ancient characters—God. (There are also a few minor exceptions. Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, for one; and as literary historian Steven Moore has shown (Google books preview), there are forerunners to the novel long before Miguel Cervantes penned Don Quixote, from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass [Wikipedia; translations on Archive.org]) in 2nd-century Rome to Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji [Wikipedia, Archive.org search; previously] in 11th-century Japan.) In biblical accounts God is both loving and jealous, merciful and vengeful, confident and surprisingly vulnerable. He is sometimes a god who doubts, and he can be capricious. Anticipating the contradictions and complexity of later literary characters, God says in Isaiah 45:7, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”
God’s complexity may have something to do with the fact that the Bible is the story of the Hebrews’ transition from polytheism to monotheism.
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