Tuesday, February 19, 2008

IV. Some Notes on Language and Literature

We have seen how new instincts can emerge from older ones due to the neotenous development of the human brain. Thus poetics could have arisen from a combination of the music, language, narrative, and beauty instincts, in combination with the requirements of our short-term memory. It may appear odd to repeat narrative after having shown its importance for the evolution of language, but I do so because the increased repetition of narrative at newer, higher levels has been a hallmark of literary development. We have already seen how a sentence is a narrative. But a scene (found in lyric poetry and some short stories), which has two or more characters interacting, is also a narrative. An episode (found in some short stories and in novellas), consisting of two or more scenes, is also a narrative. And a plot (found in novels and plays), consisting of two or more episodes, is also a narrative. Thus a novel is a narrative fractal to at least four levels of self-similarity. A short story would be less complex, having only two to three levels of self-similarity. Boccacio’s Decameron would be an example of a form between the short story (it is practically a series of short stories) and the novel (they are practically unified), leading to the novel in complexity. A novel (and epic poems and some plays, including Shakespeare’s plays, are equivalents in this case) is a narrative consisting of narratives consisting of narratives consisting of narratives, the highest narrative fractal. One could project, perhaps, the further development of narrative into a five-level narrative fractal, a genre consisting of two or more plots – which may already be in development in the use of subplots and the multiple plots found in series. Since the latter could be seen as just one long plot, a better example of two plots in parallel may be Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, a novel composed of two apparently unrelated (they are not unrelated, as we will see in the chapter on tragedy), unconnected plots, which are approximately equal in length, and alternating. We seem to see an emergent art, entering into new levels of complexity that appears to be related to the evolution of culture and to its relative complexity.

So literature, at least on the level of narrative, is necessarily fractal. With the addition of other fractal levels of character, description, theme, sentence rhythms, word repetitions, etc., we get increasing complexity – a complexity resembling the fractal complexity of nature, since nature too is not complex on only one level, but is complex on several levels simultaneously. The recognition of this complexity, and the pleasure we feel at this recognition, is what we call beauty. The creation of this fractal complexity on several levels by humans is what we call art.

But why would humans evolve pleasure at recognizing the deep complex fractal structures of nature? James Watson, appearing on the PBS show Charlie Rose April 25, 2002, said that “Happiness is a reward for doing things that you should do.” He tied this to our pleasure receptors, pointing out that even fish have opiate receptors and, therefore, have some sort of emotion, or happiness as “a reward for doing things that [they] should do.” Our brain rewards itself for properly recognizing the structures of nature. Individuals unable to recognize these structures were less adaptive on two levels. One, those who could not understand the actual nature of nature soon found themselves killed by those who could (including predators who undoubtedly found those organisms walking around aimlessly, as would happen if we could not sufficiently recognize things in the world), and two, those who received pleasure from this recognition were, then, doubly rewarded. Death provided the stick, pleasure and happiness at the recognition of the nature of nature provided the carrot. Both made for a highly adaptive species. Any species that found pleasure in seeing nature’s patterns would naturally be more adaptive. And humans were hardly the first to do this. Any animal that uses ritual recognizes beauty, since ritual acts as a way to highlight nature’s repetitions, bringing them into full relief. We also create similar repetitions in our art – it is the very highlighting of nature’s repetitions in movement, language, sound, and lines and colors that we call art. Anything that highlighted nature’s repetitions would, naturally, be selected for, since those who could better pick up on nature’s repetitions would be better able to adapt to the environment, avoid predators and find and hunt for food. When we combine this with Pinker’s explanation of how and why a behavior (and recognition of repetitions is certainly a behavior) becomes an instinct, we can see that the recognition of beauty is as much an instinct as language – and with deeper roots, since any animal that engages in ritual is programmed to recognize these same heightened repetitions we call beauty. The difference is that we take these rituals and play with them – art is, as Storey points out, both play and ritual, since “ritual rarely relaxes its ties with the narrativically familiar and the sacred” (106), and play is ever-changing. Art is sacred play and living ritual. Art evolved out of our (ancestors’) instincts to both play and to ritualize. Poetics has both components. Here is a typical ritual of literature: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy kills self. The play of literature has given rise to various forms of this ritual, including Romeo and Juliet and The Sorrows of Young Werther. Both of these works are ritualistically identical. What differs is the way the authors played with them.

In his essay in Time, Order, Chaos, Thomas Weissert points out that narrative helps us separate what is important out from the noise, and helps us turn the noise into meaning. Especially when we engage in ritual. Look at the story-ritual just given above: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, tragedy ensues; it is the noise surrounding this ritual that makes it into Romeo and Juliet versus The Sorrows of Young Werther. This is because

we use filtering and preconceived structures to obtain the narrative identity. We use the identity to recognize subsequent changes in the identity and, depending on the level of nature we describe, the changes define the meaning we can attribute to the narrative. The changes come from the background noise that to some degree obscures our view of the repetition of the pattern. So it is from the noise that we ultimately get meaning. (171)

Noise also “drowns out the possibility of divining meaning precisely, if at all. But without noise there can be no meaning. This noise represents a level of fuzziness beyond which we cannot see” (172). The ritual of boy meets girl, etc. gives information, but it does not give meaning. But each specific example given does carry meaning (though the meaning of each is ambiguous). One could apply this too to searching for chaotic patterns (noise) in word distribution. If one found such a pattern of words in a long work of literature, it would make that work more, not less, ambiguous. At the same time, it makes it more meaningful. Thus, we have a specific way in which language gives meaning in a work of literature by using pattern recognition and information theory.

Art and literature are highly complex ways we store and communicate social information. They both act as “institutional forms which persist across generations and shape past experiences that date back beyond the life of any particular individual.” These “authoritative resources can be stored across time-space distances. Storage of authoritative resources involves the retention and control of knowledge” (Fuchs, 15), meaning artists and authors help determine what knowledge will be passed on to future generations by retaining the knowledge in their works, while controlling how that knowledge is transmitted, understood, and perceived by future viewers/readers/listeners. This is not a judgement – it is an observation regarding what it is artists and writers do. And it helps to understand too the great responsibility the artist and the writer has. “In non-literate societies the only “container” storing knowledge were human memory, tradition and myths. Writing and notation have allowed a certain time-space distanciation of social relationships.” And ritual objects, wall paintings, building and tools allowed this to occur even before the advent of written langauge. What we now know can potentially be passed on hundreds, or thousands, of years. Oedipus seems timely – but Oedipus tyrannus is over 2400 years old. The American Civil War occurred about 150 years ago. The American and French Revolutions occurred over 200 years ago. Columbus discovered the New World for Europe over 500 years ago. Jesus was born and lived 2000 years ago. And Oedipus is older still. But Oedipus tyrannus was written down and passed down and performed and discussed through the ages. Through Oedipus and all the other writings from ancient Greece, the ancient Greeks are still with us, contemporaneous with us. We are richer, more complex for it. Because of them, “the basics of acting socially do not have to be formed in every situation” (Fuchs, 15). They – which includes all information passed down to the present day – serve “as a durable foundation for social actions” (Fuchs, 15), even if we do understand that this foundation is, as Nietzsche says, a foundation built on running water (TL), due to the fluidity of interpretation. Any given culture “can be seen as the subsystem of society in which ideas, knowledge, social norms, and social values are defined within the framework of habits, ways of life, traditions, and social practice” (Fuchs, 16). Culture is kept dynamic because it “encompasses a dual process of defining the rules and being legitimised by observing the rules” (Fuchs, 17). It shows us where we are going by reminding us of where we are and have been – preventing us from getting lost. This is important if art and literature – or any sort of information at all – is to be effective. In other words,

a message that does nothing but confirm the prior knowledge of a receiver will not change its structure or behavior. Thus, with confirmation up to 100%, a message gives no pragmatic information. On the other hand, a message providing only original/novel material completely unrelated to any prior knowledge also will not change structure or behaviour of the receiver, because the receiver will not understand this message. Thus, with firstness up to 100%, a message gives no pragmatic information. Only a relevant mixture of firstness and confirmation allows the receiver to get pragmatic information from the message. (Burgin, 61)

All good art and literature should be able to do precisely this – with each new reader and each new reading.

The combination of the instincts for language, beauty, and narrative give us the instincts of poetics and storytelling. What does literature do? It draws attention to our language, improving our use and understanding of it. It highlights the repetitions in the language, whether those repetitions are on the level of phoneme (drawing our attention to the musicality of the language – yet another fractaline level), word, phrase, or sentence, and it is in this highlighting that our attention is drawn to our language, to consider and reconsider how we use it. Repetition creates intensification, and it is the intensification of reality which we call art, with beauty the experience we feel from this intensification (Dissanayake, 83-5). Such repetitions too extend to various forms of storytelling, which draws our attention to narrative itself, helping us to make more and better narratives, so that we can project ourselves into the future, to try out various futures in a safe play-space before we try them out in real life. Any creature which could not only project itself further out into the future, but create alternative, “fictional” futures it could try out, would have a selective advantage over those creatures – especially those of its own species – which could not.

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