Thursday, July 25, 2013

Literature and Emotional Intelligence: Part IV

Reading for Emotional Intelligence: a Story-minded Quality of Attention

Reading literature allows for our immersion in the stream of time represented by the storyteller’s consciousness. Diverted by the time of the story that moves ahead from beginning to middle to end, we can, as part of the experience of reading, share in moments of psychological unity with the author’s creative vision – enjoying a heightened state that gives us a sense of timelessness. Enlightened by the author’s Emotional Intelligence, we are sometimes able to experience Insight: a recognition of truth that happens in such a personal way that we might feel as though time is standing still. There is nothing mystical about this. Our author, however intelligent, emotionally or otherwise, is merely human. He is not a bodhisattva, not an embodiment of the world soul (ātman).

Reading great literature allows for a variety of learning from the masters. Yet because they come from our experiences as well as from the reading, our insights are our own.

Is reading literature, then, a substitute for the practice of mindfulness in daily life? Does reading great fiction present an alternative to the discipline of meditation? Not at all. Reading literature and the practice of mindfulness are two very different activities, with some similar goals, such as learning to think more realistically about our emotions.

Mindful or Story-minded?

Great literature is peerless in the representation, artistic embodiment, and even analysis of  the human emotions that are the motor of personality, the basis of character. Why ignore the great teachers? Lessons of the human heart cannot be better taught than by Shakespeare, by Dostoevsky, by Stendhal; by the classic epics of Ancient Greece, India, and the Middle East; by the lyric poetry of China. Mindfulness, however, is a practice involving not only thinking about the emotions and better understanding them, but monitoring one’s feelings and managing them. Such monitoring and management of emotion extends beyond the purview of literature.

Meditation, like mindfulness, is a discipline that allows for the internalization of understanding, of insight. Maybe the study and interpretation of literature allows for something analogous to the internalization of insight (It’s up to someone else to make that argument, if the argument has not already been made). Literature by itself though, however close it may bring the reader to a vital source of insight, does not provide a means for the internalization of its brilliant ephemera, of its clever vicissitudes, any more than literature can provide for the internalization of its universal truths. 

Chade-Meng Tan of Search Inside Yourself has described meditation as a practice that quiets the narrative part of the mind; in doing so, it brings us inner peace and the equanimity that comes from being able to perceive our feelings without judging them. By way of contrast, literature, as author Penelope Lively puts it, tries to impose order on life “where order there is not.” Rather than quieting the narrative part of the mind, literature uses it to create “what ifs” – storytelling hypotheses realistic and compelling enough to absorb the reader’s attention.

Storyteller and Listener: Two Minds (can) Think as One

The quality of attention involved in listening to or reading a story has been described more than it has been studied. Anyone who has ever read a gripping mystery or a pulse-pounding thriller knows what it is to be absorbed in a book, but what are the particulars of the experience of absorption? By itself, the word “absorption” only tells us that the reader’s attention is near-total. One can be absorbed in a book as in a video game. What goes on in the mind of the reader absorbed in The Thirty-Nine Steps?

A recent (2010) study of “neuronal coupling” in listener and storyteller makes a good beginning at filling out the picture. The study reveals that when story communication is good, the listener’s brain activity mirrors that of the storyteller, with a slight delay. The exception to this rule is that when the listener is predicting, the listener’s neuronal dynamics precede the storyteller’s. Brain activity for this study was measured on fMRI. Researchers also found “robust” neuronal coupling to be correlated with high comprehension.[1]

This study of the synchronization of minds during oral storytelling offers tantalizing clues about what the quality of attention might be in readers of written stories. Such readers may experience some form of synchronization with the written text. Likewise, story-minded readers – the ones who are in sync with the text of a story – may experience high comprehension and understanding – mental states that differ from mindfulness specifically regarding the role played by judgment. While literature invites the free exercise of judgment, mindfulness involves the suspension of judgment as the practitioner learns to recognize and observe his emotions.

Emotionally Intelligent Design

Story uses the narrative part of the mind to elicit order “where order there is not.” Somehow there is a synchronization of two minds – that of the storyteller whose story has been written, perhaps recorded long ago, and that of the reader. The ordering that takes place is done according to the author’s design. That emotionally intelligent design establishes patterns at three levels of comprehension: the levels of plot, character, and metaphor/ motif.

The basic pattern of the plot (or storyline, or story arc) can in fact be a simple or a complicated pattern. It has the following characteristics:

·      Linearity  (beginning, middle, end)
·      Parataxis (and then…and then…)
·      Suspense (sometimes)
·      Coincidence (especially in novels that mix Romance with Realism)
·      A vehicle for flat or multidimensional characters

Plot imitates reality, or the conventions of reality.

Whether the characters of a novel are flat (stereotypes), round, or larger than life, the pattern that forms on the basis of these characters is typically a complex developmental pattern. The pattern for character has these elements:

·      The novel’s characters can range from flat or stereotypical, to round (realistic), to archetypal, to so lifelike and “real” that the character will live many lives beyond the page.
·      Hyper real characters may engender additional incarnations in sequels, fanfiction, and other media.
·      Examples of life-beyond-the-page characters: Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Gandalf, Elisabeth Bennett.
·      Life-beyond-the-page characters may combine archetypal and realistic development.

The novel’s characters, who, even if they are Hobbits, mirror human appearance and sensibility, typically embody the imitation of reality that we most readily grasp, because it is us. Characters, then, constitute the most perfect fulfillment of the novel’s realist template.

The author also provides a pattern for the narrative part of the mind through the higher-level ordering of motif and metaphor. Motifs or themes are the broadly symbolic, meaningful patterns that shape the novel from beginning to end, perhaps along the lines of concepts such as “coming-of-age,”  “from innocence to experience,” or “man’s place in the universe.”

Metaphors and other figures of speech may occur throughout the novel, enhancing plot and character with imagery that sheds light on the imaginative vision of the storyteller. The higher-level patterning of story according to motif and metaphor is thus worked out in a macrocosmic (motif) and a microcosmic (metaphor) manner.

In the realist novel, the most basic creative category providing a gauge of the author’s Emotional Intelligence, and allowing for the cultivation of the reader’s Emotional Intelligence, is the depiction of character.

Characters Gauge the Emotional Intelligence of the Writer

Emotional Intelligence and Fictional Characters

E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, offers the clearest exposition to date of character development in fiction –– that is, in relation to the topic of his book: the English-language novel up to the first quarter of the 20th century. Forster’s discussion of flat and round characters gives us a vocabulary for talking about character, and suggestions about how to apply that vocabulary that are still useful today. The novel of the 21st century, however, has integrated much of the theory and technique of Forster’s contemporary, Virginia Wolfe, as well as lessons from James Joyce and French novelists Flaubert and Proust. Stream of consciousness, multiple points of view and free association, once cutting-edge, are now part of the repertoire of most authors. Flaubert’s style indirect libre (free indirect style), in which the author’s point of view can become indistinguishable from that of a character, is now widely used by writers who employ ambiguity.

Had Forster been prescient about these developments, he might have augmented his discussion of round and flat characters with some manner of flowchart showing how these character types mutate according to their status vis-à-vis point of view. A round character observed ‘objectively’ by an omniscient author (Pip in Great Expectations) has a different status than a round character that is closely identified with the author, and whose point of view often merges with that of his creator (Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies).

How aware does a reader need to be of narrative technique in order to read with, and for, Emotional Intelligence?

Knowledge of terminology, which in any case changes from one literary generation to the next, does not have any significant bearing on the reading experience. It is worthwhile, though, to be able to discriminate between the emotions expressed by various characters, and to recognize the characters’ status in terms of point of view.

Which authors show especially keen Emotional Intelligence regarding character development? Are these the writers I should be reading?

Most of the great authors of literature show extraordinary Emotional Intelligence in creating characters. Authors especially gifted in this regard can be very different from one another though: take Jane Austen and F.M. Dostoevsky as a case in point.

In addition to recognizing the exceptional Emotional Intelligence of the great authors of literature, awe-inspiring as that is, it may be wise to consider what are the optimum reading conditions for cultivating your own emotional astuteness. Depending on your temperament, you may find Jane Austen’s comedy more conducive to cultivating a free-ranging receptivity to the nuances of characterization, as compared to Dostoevsky’s metaphysically complex, psychologically intense tragic vision.

Emotional Intelligence prefers Realism to Romance.

Emotional Intelligence and Genre

 Realism, like mindfulness, relies upon a certain degree of detachment.

What is mindfulness? To summarize, mindfulness is the act of paying attention to one’s thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness involves acceptance: the awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment. Mindfulness involves monitoring one’s feelings, the practice of discriminating between them, and managing them.

The Romance, if written in the first person, invites the reader to become enchanted, to be absorbed in the author’s intimate narrative. If written in the third person, the Romance invites the reader to be swept away by adventure, to become wholly identified with the persona(e) of the main character(s). In the Western Romance, the main character is almost always an individual. By contrast, the voluminous Chinese Romance, as exemplified by the Classic Novels of China, tells a wide-ranging story in which the main character is often a group or a collective: the household in Dream of the Red Chamber, the outlaws in The Water Margin, and scholars in The Scholars (The Novel: History and Theory, Franco Moretti, New Left Review, 2008)

Don Quixote, perhaps fiction’s most famous reader of Romances in the form of chivalric tales, became so completely identified with that romantic persona, the knight in shining armor, that he lost his reason. The novel Don Quixote, full as it is of adventure, is oriented towards realism: with detachment and comical irony, author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra analyzes the madness of the wandering knight, Quixote.

Engrossed in a Romance, the reader often lets his feelings propel him rapidly forward as he experiences the story’s momentum along with the characters’ predicaments. The realist novel, with its balance between narrative momentum and slower passages of description and metaphor, allows the reader periodically to change pace.

Does Comedy = Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence prefers Comedy to Tragedy. Emotional astuteness is more readily galvanized by the comic vision
than by the tragic. Why is that?  

Consider the Grandeur of Tragedy

Tragic masterpieces such as SophoclesOedipus Rex or Shakespeare’s King Lear proffer an intense, all-absorbing way of learning about the human condition. But we do not experience a tragic drama in anything like a detached state of mind. Through catharsis, the psychological identification with the main characters – what Aristotle calls  our cathexis of pity and fear – members of the audience take in the playwright’s lesson. In order for catharsis to have its purgative effect, the audience must be caught up in the action, and have an immediate, existential experience of the play’s emotions.

When Lady MacBeth says,“Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/And fill me from the crown to the toe topful/ Of direst cruelty!” her audience must be right in there with her, identified as completely as possible with her murderous ambition, terrified for King Duncan, full of pity for MacBeth.

In the tradition of Western drama, almost every great tragedy has its protagonist, or main character. Indeed, the title of the tragedy is often the name of a single main character. Thus, the learning that takes place occurs through a process of identification with the protagonist.

The Case of Comedy

In the case of Comedy, there can be great absorption in the comic plot, and identification with the protagonist and other characters. Both absorption and identification are modified, however, by detachment: the author has signaled us – through commentary in prose fiction, and usually through dramatic irony in comic drama – that we are not to take these characters too seriously, certainly not as paragons or exemplars, for they are in some way benighted, and it is our role to observe the evolution of their folly.

 The Words Behind the Veil of Maya

The sage Śamkara (Adi Shankara, 700-750 CE) maintained in his writings the Upanishadic view that the physical universe was only an appearance, a veil of illusion superimposed upon ultimate Reality. By Śamkara’s reckoning, one might think of the realism of the contemporary novel as a representation of a reality that is itself unreal (because mutable and impermanent).

When our human ancestors gathered around the fire to tell and hear stories, their empirical world, and their stories about it, must have seemed as real to them as their existence. More sophisticated than they, we require denser, more elaborate representations of a reality that may indeed be illusory, for all we know. But whether enthralled by tales told around the fire or buttressed by paperbacks or e-books, we have always needed stories to help us understand our world and our emotions.

The etymology of Maya comes from two clusters of Sanskrit words, the first cluster containing words such as illusion, concealment, seeming, and appearance. Surprisingly (to the uninitiated) the second word group suggests a rich set of associations: cosmic power, divine art, the principle of self-expression (“Śamkara’s Doctrine of Maya,” Religio Perennis). Maya is a veil that conceals Reality. Maya imaginatively projects reality as the empirical world and its representations. Maya is a metaphor for the uses of literature. Needing stories to help us comprehend our transitory existence, we grasp at the side of the veil that is Art.

To read from the beginning Copy and Paste this Link to Part I:


[1] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 2010, August 10 107 (32), 14425-14430,  “Speaker-Listener Coupling Underlies Successful Communication,” Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson.

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