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.

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]) in 2nd-century Rome to Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji [Wikipedia, 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.
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.
posted by filthy light thief (19 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
So, can we relate the bicameral mind theory to the theory that the world was black and white until the 1930's? There's equally compelling evidence for both.
posted by happyroach at 10:19 AM on May 3, 2019 [9 favorites]

god spoke directly to me and said this bicameral mind stuff is legit
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:22 AM on May 3, 2019 [12 favorites]

Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?

*looks back to the classical memes thread*
posted by tobascodagama at 11:40 AM on May 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

Note that all these theories about when interiority, etc., began tend to pin it to the period from which everyday documents which might record that phenomenon are increasingly likely to survive. Truly a jawdropping coincidence.
posted by praemunire at 11:58 AM on May 3, 2019 [10 favorites]

Not just increasingly likely to survive.

Before the invention of print, it was a bad, bad, bad idea to bring paper or parchment too close to an open flame.

So reading was done in the daytime. And those precious books were read out loud so that more than one person would benefit. So what got writte, and what got read out loud, got rationed, and censored.

But if you're going to theorize about interiority, re-read the Greek comedies. Re-read The Golden Ass by Apuleius. Written about 200AD, it has the main character speaking in the first person about feeling horny. Interiority a-plenty there.
posted by ocschwar at 1:39 PM on May 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

One of the many things wrong with the bicameral mind theory is the smallness of its scope. You can't use some ancient Mediterranean texts to divine the condition of H. sapiens as a whole. Consider the Egyptian "Debate between a man and his soul" or "Dispute between a man and his ba." This painfully sensitive writing predates the Iliad and Odyssey,* being from somewhere between the 20th to the 18th centuries BC:

Would that I had a heart that knew how to bear up:
then I would make a landing on it
and load it with the words of misery ...

To whom can I speak today?
The wrongdoer is an intimate friend
And the brother with whom one used to act is become an enemy.
To whom can I speak today?
None remember the past,
And no one now helps him who used to do (good) ...

Death is in my sight today
[As when] a sick man becomes well,
Like going out-of-doors after detention.
Death is in my sight today
Like the smell of myrrh,
Like sitting under an awning on a windy day.

The text that has been called a suicide note in modern medical literature, although the speaker does not decide to die in the end. I bring it up because, if that's not interiority, what is?

* Or rather, I presume it would have to, since the destruction of the historical Troy (Wilusa) had not happened yet.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:20 PM on May 3, 2019 [20 favorites]

Shakespeare & cohorts are funny, they're doing pantomimes but with scripts written on paper, and adding filler like soliloquies, which are introspective in style...
posted by ovvl at 7:00 PM on May 3, 2019

"This article continues, delving into documentary hypothesis, "which involved the synthesis of disparate personalities embodied by different Canaanite deities into one God," "

This is a weird misstatement of the documentary hypothesis (and doubly weird because the misstatement part isn't necessary to the point of the article -- the regular documentary hypothesis works fine for the point made). While some modern scholars do identify as "transition to monotheism" in the redaction of the Pentateuch from various sources, classical documentary hypothesis scholars view them as different schools of thought within a single monotheistic or at most henotheistic tradition; I think most classical documentary hypothesis-ists would be actively hostile to the idea that multiple Canaanite/Israelite dieties were being knitted together into one YHWH through the process of Biblical redaction. It's super-weird to claim that's what the documentary hypothesis "involves."

Again, that stance is far less controversial today and I could point to a number of scholars and sources that do suggest multiple deities as YHWH source material, in varying proportions "a bit of borrowing here and there" to "HISTORY'S GREATEST MASHUP!" -- although of course the traditional view that these were disputes within a monotheistic (or henotheistic) group also still has wide support.

But yeah, YHWH's layered and complex personality is absolutely one of the most interesting parts of the Hebrew Bible. Although it's super-hard to say in how unitary a fashion ancient Jews and older Christians understood the books of the Bible, and how much they read individual books (outside the Torah) as being in particular genres or by particular authors and so had a more sophisticated understanding of God's varying "function" in the different books or in the hands of different authors. (Like, there's some evidence suggesting that the book of Jonah is a hilarious slapstick comedy relying on broad stereotypes of prophets and local ethnic groups and on ridiculously impossible scenarios like getting eaten and vomited up by a large fish, which may have actually been performed as a sort of comedy morality play where Jonah's exaggerated flaws as a prophet form the basis of the lesson.) Anyway I'm pretty comfortable with "layering many sources gave YHWH an unusually deep personality for ancient literature and ancient people would have understood YHWH as a unified character with this complex interior life" when talking about the Torah; I'm less comfortable saying so about books outside the Torah as I'm not sure we can say with confidence they would have been received as part of a unified narrative rather than as individual authors/groups giving their takes within specific genres.

But yeah, none of that undermines the larger point, that multisourcing gave YHWH a hella complicated personality and interior life for ancient literature, which I largely agree with.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:37 PM on May 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

I realize you keep referring to God as YHWH, but the hypothesis as I understand it is that there were two gods, the other one being El, or in the plural Elohim. The mashup was that these are considered the same entity, although both words are used in the Torah, apparently interchangeably... or maybe not...
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:53 PM on May 3, 2019

Oh, I only kept saying YHWH to avoid using a gendered pronoun. :) It's a theology-student habit, your papers get marked down if you start gendering God.

Elohim is in the form of a plural noun, but actually takes a singular verb and is treated grammatically as singular in the Hebrew Bible when it refers to the God of the Israelites. Where elohim refers to foreign deities in the plural, it always gets a plural verb.

The traditional or original form of the documentary hypothesis doesn't claim that YHWH and El/Elohim are different gods; just that the Yahwist prefers to use God's name (the unpronounceable YHWH) while the Elohist uses the title "God" (El/Elohim). This is typically attributed either to the 200-300 year difference between when each individual or school was writing/editing, or to the fact that one (apparently) lived in the north and the other in the south (based on the places and events they reference in their texts).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:12 PM on May 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

So, can we relate the bicameral mind theory to the theory that the world was black and white until the 1930's?

That, or to the theory that Westworld something something.
posted by davejay at 10:45 PM on May 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Please tell me if I've missed something, but the statement that "ancient fiction doesn't talk about feelings" is utterly wrong. The first WORD of the Iliad is "wrath". Dido doesn't wave Aeneas off with only a focus on her actions, and Hector's ghost was pretty emotional when he told him to flee Troy. Odysseus remembered by his decrepit dog isn't just an event. Niobe is pretty emotional. I mean, I could go on...
posted by Hadrian at 1:15 AM on May 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

Hadrian, the article starts with the Middle Ages, not ancient literature, so I don’t know why they went with that headline because my first reaction was to point out that the Iliad starts with Achilles having feelings that he manages poorly by 21st century standards.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:02 AM on May 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I wonder if people are looking in the wrong genres. I think there's plenty about interior emotional struggles in poetry and devotional works. People maybe didn't put lots of it into stories.
posted by zompist at 3:54 AM on May 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

It starts by comparing Icelandic sagas to David Foster Wallace, which is just... arg. Sagas are all about performance, to the extent that comparing the two is just so apples to oranges that I'm doubting the article from the start. A better comparison might be Icelandic Sagas to Game Of Thrones on the tv - I suspect that GoT does have more about motivations than the sagas (though I do not watch GoT and it's a while since I read any sagas), and it's a much better analogue.

I think also that zompist has a very good point about genres. You could make an argument that much medieval fiction was the equivalent of our turn-your-brain-off television or blockbuster movies; the social nuances, the emotional stories, were more likely to be found in devotional literature. I mean, if you are looking for something which will "vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences" you will most emphatically find it in The Dream Of The Rood (8th-10th centuries).

You can also argue that allegory is a key part of medieval literature (also big on metaphors and kennings), and that if you're not seeing the internal world of a character, it's because you're not reading it properly. For example, in Gawain and the Green Knight, the hunting scenes deliberately parallell the seduction scenes - you are supposed to read the hunt as the seduction, which brings whole other levels into that description.

This particular sentence in the article annoyed me:
"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."
For a lot of the earlier medieval monastic orders, a monk would be assigned a devotional book for a year. He would be expected to read and re-read that book over that year, to contemplate it, meditate on it, seek out deeper meaning in it. That engagement with text is so incredibly present in religious contexts. To say that re-reading was 'new' with the emergence of print is utter nonsense; a new context and audience for re-reading, yes.

tl;dr: yet again the medieval period is used by people who don't know much about it as an excuse to feel superior.
posted by Vortisaur at 8:58 AM on May 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Countess Elena: "Consider the Egyptian "Debate between a man and his soul" or "Dispute between a man and his ba."

Wow, I was today years old when I learned the origins of this song.
posted by ITheCosmos at 1:17 PM on May 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks, ITheCosmos! I didn't know that song, and I really like it. It's unexpected and lovely of him to keep "To whom can I speak" instead of using the modern conversational "Who can I talk to," which gives it a formal quality at odds with the gentleness of the music.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:40 PM on May 4, 2019

It's also a common difference across languages/cultures to have different norms about whether a speaker/writer can assume knowledge of what is inside someone else's mind. For example, I believe in the Japanese language it is not possible to directly allege that another person feels something. Rather you have to say that they show external signs consistent with that feeling. (See section 3 of this paper - pdf - for more info).

It's not at all surprising to me that European languages may have varied in this way over time, and that (despite the connections the paper I linked above tries to make) this may simply be a linguistic feature or cultural norm rather than anything deeper about human thought.
posted by lollusc at 6:48 PM on May 4, 2019

... 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."

It's ... I mean ... what?

The Tale of Genji, page 1, paragraph 1:

"In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill and came to spend more time at home than at court. The emperor’s pity and affection quite passed bounds. No longer caring what his ladies and courtiers might say, he behaved as if intent upon stirring gossip."

... and so on for the next THOUSAND PAGES.
posted by kyrademon at 2:58 AM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

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