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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Magic, Fiction, and the Illusion of Free Will part 2

Part 1 of this essay.
Johansson and Hall, in their studies of choice blindness, are building on a tradition harking to the lab of a neurophysiologist working in the 1970’s in San Francisco. Benjamin Libet, in an era before fMRIs, used the brain scanning devices available to him, EEG and EGM (or electromyograph, which measures electrical activity in muscles), to pinpoint when his subjects were physically set in motion by a decision. Macknik and Martinez-Conde explain “Libet found that participants had the conscious sense of willing the movement about 300 milliseconds after the onset of the muscle activity. Moreover, the EEG showed that neurons in the part of their motor cortex where movements are planned became active a full second before any movement could be measured” (180). We all go about our business blithely assured that we decide to do something and then, subsequently, we act on our decision. But in reality our choices tend to be made outside of our conscious awareness, based on mechanisms our minds have no conscious access to, and it’s our justifications for those choices that really come second in the sequence of events. We don’t even know that we’re confabulating, just making stuff up on the fly to explain ourselves, that we’re not being honest. Our confabulations fool us as much as they fool everyone else.

In the decades following Libet’s work, more sophisticated scanners have put the time lapse between when our brains make decisions and when we feel as though our conscious minds have made them as high as seven seconds. That means people who are good at reading facial expressions and body language can often tell what choices we’ll make before we make them. Magicians and mentalists delight in exploiting this quirk of human cognition. Then their marks weave the clever tricksters into their confabulations—attributing to them supernatural powers. Reading this section of Sleights of Mind sent me to my bookshelf for Sack’s The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat because I recalled the story of a patient with Korsakov’s Syndrome who had a gift for rapid confabulation. In a chapter titled “A Matter of Identity,” Sacks narrates his meeting with a man he calls Mr. Thompson, who first treats him as if he’s a customer at the delicatessen where he worked, then shifts to believing the doctor is the butcher next door, then it’s a mechanic, then it’s a doctor—another doctor. In fact, due to neurological damage caused by a fever, Mr. Thompson can’t know who Sacks is; he can’t form moment-to-moment memories or any sense of where he is in time or space. He’s literally disconnected from the world. But his mind has gone into overdrive trying to fill in the missing information. Sacks writes,

“Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them, nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds. For him they were not fictions, but how he suddenly saw, or interpreted, the world” (109).

But it’s not Mr. Thompson’s bizarre experience that’s noteworthy; it’s how that experience illuminates our own mundane existence that’s unsettling. And Sacks goes on to explain that it’s not just the setting and the people he encounters that Mr. Thompson had to come up with stories for. He’d also lost the sense of himself.

“Such a frenzy may call forth quite brilliant powers of invention and fancy—a veritable confabulatory genius—for such a patient must literally make himself (and his world) up every moment. We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs, and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities” (110).

Mr. Thompson’s confabulatory muscles may be more taxed than most of ours, but we all have them; we all rely on them to make sense of the world and to place ourselves within it. When people with severe epilepsy have the two hemispheres of their brains surgically separated to limit the damage of their seizures, and subsequently have a message delivered to their right hemisphere, they cannot tell you what that message was because language resides in the left hemisphere. But they can and do respond to those messages. When Michael Gazzaniga presented split-brain patients’ right hemispheres with commands to walk or to laugh, they either got up and started walking or began to laugh. When asked why, even though they couldn’t know the true reason, they came up with explanations. “I’m getting a coke,” or “It’s funny how you scientists come up with new tests every week” (Pinker How the Mind Works, pg. 422). G.H. Estabrooks reports that people acting on posthypnotic suggestions, who are likewise unaware they’ve been told by someone else to do something, show the same remarkable capacity for confabulation. He describes an elaborate series of ridiculous behaviors, like putting a lampshade on someone’s head and kneeling before them, that the hypnotized subjects have no problem explaining. “It sounds queer but it’s just a little experiment in psychology,” one man said, oblivious of the irony (Tim Wilson Strangers to Ourselves pg. 95).

Reading Sleights of Mind and recalling these other books on neuroscience, I have this sense that I, along with everyone else, am walking around in a black fog into which my mind projects a three-dimensional film. We never know whether we’re seeing through the fog or whether we’re simply watching the movie projected by our mind. It should pose little difficulty coming up with a story plot, in the conventional sense, that simultaneously surprises and fulfills expectations—we’re doing it constantly. The challenge must be to do it in a way creative enough to stand out amid the welter of competition posed by run-of-the-mill confabulations. Could a story turn on the exposure of the mechanism behind the illusion of free will? Isn’t there a plot somewhere in the discrepancy between our sense that we’re in the driver’s seat, as it were, and the reality that we’re really surfing a wave, propelled along with a tiny bit of discretion regarding what direction we take, every big move potentially spectacular and at the same time potentially catastrophic?

Until I work that out, I’ll turn briefly to another mystery—because I can’t help making a political point and then a humanistic one. The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat is, pardon the pun, old hat to neuroscientists. And presumably magicians know something about the trick behind our conviction that we have free will. Pen and Teller in particular, because they draw inspiration from The Amaz!ng Randi, a celebrity in the world of skeptics, ought to be well aware of the fact that free will is an illusion. (All three magicians feature prominently in Sleights of Mind.) So how the hell can these guys serve as fellows in the Cato Institute, a front for fossil fuel industry propaganda pretending to be a conservative policy research? (For that matter, how can research have a political leaning?) Self-determination and personal responsibility, the last time I checked, were the foundations of conservative economics. How can Pen and Teller support politics based on what they know is an illusion?

Macknik and Martinez-Conde cite research in an endnote to Sleights of Mind that may amount to an explanation. When Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler prompted participants in what they said was a test of mental arithmetic with a passage from Francis Crick about how free will and identity arise from the mechanistic interworkings of chemicals and biomatter, they were much more likely to cheat than participants prompted with more neutral passages. Macknik and Martinez-Conde write, “One of the more interesting findings in the free will literature is that when people believe, or are led to believe, that free will is an illusion, they may become more antisocial” (272). Though in Pen and Teller’s case a better word than antisocial is probably contemptuous. How could you not think less and less of your fellow man when you make your living every day making fools of him? And if the divine light of every soul is really nothing more than a material spark why should we as a society go out of our way to medicate and educate those whose powers of perception and self-determination don’t even make for a good illusion?

For humanists, the question becomes, how can avoid this tendency toward antisocial attitudes and contempt while still embracing the science that has lifted our species out of darkness? For one thing, we must acknowledge to ourselves that if we see farther, it’s not because we’re inherently better but because of the shoulders on which we’re standing. While it is true that self-determination becomes a silly notion in light of the porousness of what we call the self, it is undeniable that some of us have more options and better influences than others. Sacks is more eloquent than anyone in expressing how the only thing separating neurologist from patient is misfortune. We can think the same way about what separates magicians from audience, or the rich from the poor. When we encounter an individual we’re capable of tricking, we can consider all the mishaps that might have befallen us and left us at the mercy of that individual. It is our capacity for such considerations that lies at the heart of our humanity. It is also what lies at the heart of our passion for the surprising and inevitable stories that only humans tell, even or especially the ones about ourselves we tell to ourselves.
(Pass the blunt.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Magic, Fiction, and the Illusion of Free Will part 1 of 2

E.M. Forster famously wrote in his book Aspects of the Novel that what marks a plot resolution as gratifying is that it is both surprising and seemingly inevitable. Many have noted the similarity of this element of storytelling to riddles and magic tricks. “It’s no accident,” William Flesch writes in Comeuppance, “that so many stories revolve around riddles and their solutions” (133). Alfred Hitchcock put it this way: “Tell the audience what you’re going to do and make them wonder how.” In an ever-more competitive fiction market, all the lyrical prose and sympathy-inspiring characterization a brilliant mind can muster will be for naught if the author can’t pose a good riddle or perform some eye-popping magic.

Neuroscientist Stephen L. Macnick and his wife Susana Martinez-Conde turned to magicians as an experiment in thinking outside the box, hoping to glean insights into how the mind works from those following a tradition which takes advantage of its shortcuts and blind spots. The book that came of this collaboration, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about our Everyday Deceptions, is itself both surprising and seemingly inevitable (the website for the book). What a perfect blend of methods and traditions in the service of illuminating the mysteries of human perception and cognition. The book begins somewhat mundanely, with descriptions of magic tricks and how they’re done interspersed with sections on basic neuroscience. Readers of Skeptic Magazine or any of the works in the skeptical tradition will likely find the opening chapters hum-drum. But the sections have a cumulative effect.

The hook point for me was the fifth chapter, “The Gorilla in Your Midst,” which takes its title from the famous experiment conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in which participants are asked to watch a video of a group of people passing a basketball around and count the number of passes. A large portion of the participants are so engrossed in the task of counting that they miss a person walking onto the scene in a gorilla costume, who moves to the center of the screen, pounds on his chest, and then walks off camera. A subsequent study by Daniel Memmert tracked people’s eyes while they were watching the video and found that their failure to notice the gorilla wasn’t attributable to the focus of their gaze. Their eyes were directly on it. The failure to notice was a matter of higher-order brain processes: they weren’t looking for a gorilla, so they didn’t see it, even though their eyes were on it. Macnick and Martinez-Conde like to show the video to their students and ask the ones who do manage to notice the gorilla how many times the ball was passed. They never get the right answer. Of course, magicians exploit this limitation in our attention all the time. But we don’t have to go to a magic show to be exploited—we have marketers, PR specialists, the entertainment industry.

At the very least, I hoped Sleights of Mind would be a useful compendium of neuroscience concepts—a refresher course—along with some basic magic tricks that might help make the abstract theories more intuitive. At best, I hoped to glean some insight into how to arrange a sequence of events to achieve that surprising and inevitable effect in the plots of my stories. Some of the tricks might even inspire a plot twist or two. The lesser hope has been gratified spectacularly. It’s too soon to assess whether the greater one will be satisfied. But the book has impressed me on another front I hadn’t anticipated. Having just finished the ninth of twelve chapters, I’m left both disturbed and exhilarated in a way similar to how you feel reading the best of Oliver Sacks or Steven Pinker. There’s some weird shit going on in your brain behind the scenes of the normal stuff you experience in your mind. It’s nothing new for people with a modicum of familiarity with psychology that there’s an illusory aspect to all our perceptions, but in reality it would be more accurate to say there’s a slight perceptual aspect to all our illusions. And one of those illusions is our sense of ourselves.

I found myself wanting to scan the entire seventh chapter, “The Indian Rope Trick,” so I could send a pdf file to everyone I know. It might be the best summation I’ve read of all the ways we overestimate the power of our memories. So many people you talk to express an unwillingness to accept well established findings in psychology and other fields of science because the data don’t mesh with their experiences. Of course, we only have access to our experiences through memory. What those who put experience before science don’t realize is that memories aren’t anything like direct recordings of events; they’re bricolages of impressions laid down prior to the experience, a scant few actual details, and several impressions received well afterward. Your knowledge doesn’t arise from your experiences; your experiences arise from your knowledge. The authors write:

“As the memory plays out in your mind, you may have the strong impression that it’s a high-fidelity record, but only a few of its contents are truly accurate. The rest of it is a bunch of props, backdrops, casting extras, and stock footage your mind furnishes on the fly in an unconscious process known as confabulation” (119).

The authors go on to explore how confabulation creates the illusion of free will in the ninth chapter, “May the Force be with You.” Petter Johansson and Lars Hall discovered a phenomenon they call “choice blindness” by presenting participants in an experiment with photographs of two women of about equal attractiveness and asking them to choose which one they preferred. In a brilliant mesh of magic with science, the researchers then passed the picture over to the participant and asked him or her to explain their choice—only they used sleight of hand to switch the pictures. Most of them didn’t notice, and they went on to explain why they chose the woman in the picture that they had in fact rejected. The explanations got pretty elaborate too.
Part 2 of this essay.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

They Comes a Day: Celebrating Cooperation in A Gathering of Old Men and Horton Hears a Who! Part 3

Read from the beginning.
            The grudging respect all the men on the Marshall plantation feel toward Mathu owing to his readiness to engage in altruistic punishment affords him a status almost equal to the whites. Sheriff Mapes, after letting Lou Dimes, Candy’s white boyfriend, know that he “wasn’t much of a man in his eyesight” because Dimes doesn’t seem capable of standing up to his girlfriend, goes on to say that he admires Mathu. “He’s a better man than most I’ve met, black or white” (74). Later in the novel, a character named Rooster says of Mathu,
"He never thought much of me. Used to call me Little Red Rooster all the time. People even said him and Beulah had fooled around some behind my back. I never asked him, I never asked her—I was too scared. But I wasn’t scared now. He knowed I wasn’t scared now. That’s why he was smiling at me. And that made me feel good" (181).

We may think less of Mathu’s altruism in light of his fooling around with another man’s wife, but it has become clear over the course of the plot that the men who don’t stand up against their oppressors, out of short-sighted fear, are in a sense responsible for their own mistreatment. (And Beulah’s willingness to fool around with Mathu can’t be overlooked as evidence of his increased reproductive potential.) Mathu goes on to admit to the gathered old men that he “hated y’all ‘cause you never tried.” But he says, “I been changed by y’all. Rooster, Clabber, Dirty Red, Coot—you changed this hardhearted old man” (182). This is the men’s vindication; they get to be recognized as men by the single one among them who hitherto enjoyed that distinction. He can be said to be playing the role of second-order altruist, rewarding and punishing those he interacts with, not just on the basis of how they treat him directly, but how they treat others in the group.


            This indirect or strong reciprocity has likewise been demonstrated in experiments by game theorists, and Flesch finds in it the final piece of what he calls “the puzzle of narrative interest,” by which he means “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). A variation of the ultimatum game called the dictator game eliminates the condition whereby the receiver of the proposed split has the option to veto it and ensure that neither player gets any money. With this set up, proposed splits become more lop-sided, though they still seldom drop below a certain limit. Outcomes become even more interesting when a third player is introduced who witnesses the exchange and is given the opportunity to pay either to reward or punish either of the players. It is furthermore explained to this third person that whatever contribution he or she makes will be amplified by a factor of four by the experimenter. Flesch writes,

"Note that the third player gets nothing out of paying to reward or punish except the power or agency to do just that. It is highly irrational for this player to pay to reward or punish, but again considerations of fairness trump rational self-interest. People do pay, and pay a substantial amount, when they think that someone has been treated notably unfairly, or when they think someone has evinced marked generosity, to affect what they have observed" (33).

Neuroscientists have even zeroed in on the brain regions that correspond to our suppression of immediate self-interest in the service of altruistic punishment, as well as those responsible for the pleasure we take in anticipating—though not in actually witnessing—free riders meeting with their just deserts (Knoch et al. 829; Quevain et al. 1254). Taken together, the evidence Flesch presents suggests we volunteer affect on behalf of fictional characters who show themselves to be altruists and against those who show themselves to be selfish actors or exploiters, experiencing both frustration and delight in the unfolding of the plot as we hope to see the altruists prevail and the free-riders get their comeuppance. And our capacity for this type of emotional engagement with fiction likely evolved because it serves as a signal to anyone monitoring us as we read or view the story, or as we discuss it later, that we are disposed either toward altruistic punishment or toward third-order free-riding ourselves—and altruism is a costly signal of fitness.

            This dynamic interplay of rational self-interest and altruism is so central to human nature that it lies at the heart of stories as diverse in their themes and social implications as Seuss’s tale of tiny Whos and Gaines’ of elderly black men finally availing themselves of an opportunity to stand up as men. If Horton didn’t go the great lengths he does to save the microscopic persons he hears calling for help, if he’d given up trying to help them once Vlad Vlad-i-koff flew away with them over the mountains, then the young children who experience the story wouldn’t believe the elephant was quite human—and the story would be pretty lame to boot. The most remarkable part of the story, though, is that there’s really no way to determine whether the Whos prove their personhood by surpassing some decibel limit to become audible to the jungle animals or whether they do it by getting every last Who to cooperate. This ambiguity is highlighted by the fact that the final Who to shout is so small: “They’ve proved they ARE persons no matter how small,” Horton declares. “And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!” An interesting counterpoint to Jo-Jo’s smallness is how massive Charlie is in Gathering. Charlie turns out to the one who shot Beau. One might think that owing to his large size he, like Horton, is more capable than the others of fending off exploitation at the hands of free-riders. But he admits, “All my natural-born black life I took the ‘busing and never hit back” (189).

            Charlie, of course, isn’t alone in his failure to punish those who abuse him or those he loves. In a moving chapter narrated by a man named Rufe, several of the men tell stories of horrible treatment at the hands of one or another white person, all of whom were allowed to get away with it without so much as a word of rebuke. After a man named Tucker tells a story which ends with his confession that “I didn’t do nothing but stand there and watch them beat my brother to the ground,” Rufe says, “We had all done the same thing sometime or another; we had all seen our brother, sister, mama, daddy insulted once and didn’t do a thing about it” (97). And so in game theory terms all the gathered men, excepting Mathu, are second-order free-riders, deserving of punishment themselves in the eyes of men like Mapes and Mathu. Tucker expresses this culpability when he calls out for his brother’s forgiveness and goes on to chastise himself, saying, “Out of fear of a little pain to my own body, I beat my own brother with a stalk of cane as much as the white folks did” (98). After hearing this and several other stories, Mapes says in frustration, “So this is payday, huh? And it’s all on Fix, huh? Whether he had anything to do with it or not, Fix must pay for everything ever happened to you, huh?” (107). What the men are really doing, though, is refusing to stand idly by as another man gets abused and murdered out of fear of a little bodily damage. As Mathu explains to Mapes after the sheriff asks him if he wants to see these men get hurt, “A man got to do what he think is right, Sheriff.” He continues, “That’s what part him from a boy” (85).

            Just as the ability to cooperate lies at the heart of the Whos’ personhood in Horton, manhood is defined in Gathering as a willingness to stand up, to risk injury or death in an attempt to prevent others from abusing or exploiting the man himself or those he cares about. Men are altruistic punishers. As Rufe says of Mapes, “he knowed Mathu had never backed down from anybody, either. Maybe that’s why he liked him. To him Mathu was a real man. The rest of us wasn’t” (84). The rest of them weren’t, that is, until the day Beau gets shot. The first one to begin the transition is Charlie, who in telling the story to the sheriff of how Beau was mistreating him says, “You don’t talk to a man like that, Sheriff, not when he reach half a hundred”—or fifty years of age. Charlie’s change surprises no one quite as much as it does Beau. “He knowed I wasn’t going to hit him” (190), Charlie says, describing a standoff between the two of them. But Charlie does hit him. And that’s when Beau gets his gun to go after Charlie, who flees to Mathu’s house. “Parrain told me he had a gun there, too, and he said he rather see me laying there dead than to run from another man when I was fifty years old.” When Charlie hesitates, Mathu shoves his gun into the younger man’s hands, and Charlie says, “I didn’t want to take the gun, but I could tell in Parrain’s face if I didn’t, he was go’n stop Beau himself, and then he was go’n stop me, too” (191). Mathu is here refusing to be a second-order free-rider even for a man he serves as a surrogate father to. Charlie takes the gun. And Beau keeps on coming toward the front of the house. “He knowed I had never done nothing like that, never even thought about doing nothing like that. But they comes a day, Sheriff, they comes a day when a man got to stand” (191). After shooting and killing Beau, though, Charlie runs off to let Mathu take the fall for him. But before the novel’s end he returns, saying, “I’m ready to pay. I done dropped a heavy load. Now I know I’m a man” (193). The sheriff agrees, and even addresses Charlie as “Mr. Briggs.”

            Beau turns out to be only one of several people who get their comeuppance as the plot unfolds. Fix gets his when his own son Gil refuses to join a lynch mob to go after Mathu, thus repudiating his conviction that blacks are inferior and undeserving of due process. Talking to a deputy named Russ who’s trying to convince him to return to his college town and prepare for a football game the next day, Gil asks, “What about my papa? ... I’ve already killed him. Bury him tomorrow?” (151). Luke Will, Fix’s friend who actually does get a group of guys together with guns to seek revenge against Mathu, ends up killing and getting killed in turn by Charlie. Reverend Jameson gets humiliated by Beulah who calls him a “bootlicker” (105) and forces him to back down by taunting him. Even Candy, the white woman who orchestrated the gathering, gets excluded from the men’s meeting inside the house. And when she refuses to leave, “Lou picked her up, under his arm, and came with her down the steps. Candy was cussing him, hitting at him, cussing Mapes, kicking, but Lou didn’t pay her any mind. He took her out to the road, throwed her into her own car, and slammed the door” (177).So Lou Dimes gets to redeem himself and establish his own manhood by altruistically punishing Candy.

            One of the most interesting punishments, though, is the one suffered by Sheriff Mapes. During the trial that ensues in the wake of the gunfight outside Mathu’s house, the DA demands that Mapes explain why he was unable to secure the peace. After being told to make his answer audible to the court, Mapes says, “The whole fight, I was sitting on my ass in the middle of the walk. Luke Will shot me, and I was sitting on my ass in the middle of the walk. Now, is that loud enough?” Lou goes on to describe how Mapes

"got up from the witness chair and returned to the other seat. That’s when everyone in the courtroom started laughing, including Judge Reynolds. The people passing by out on the street must have thought we were showing a Charlie Chaplin movie in there. That happened the morning of the third day, and until that evening when the trial finally ended, people were still laughing. Mapes, with his left arm in a sling, stayed red all day, and would probably stay red for years to come" (213).

Luke Will is only peripherally responsible for this humiliation; Mapes’s real tormenter is none other than Ernest Gaines himself. After relying on this character to serve as a type of foil and sounding board for the others, the author takes the opportunity to show us how he really feels about the sheriff’s attitude toward the Marshall men.

            Gaines’s altruistic punishment of his own character is only one of the ways he invites readers to participate in the celebration of group solidarity in his novel. Whether they realize it or not, each time they flip the page from one chapter to the next and find that the narration has been handed off from one character to another, they’re receiving the suggestion from Gaines that each of these characters wants to be heard not only by Sheriff Mapes, not just by the whites who become privy to the event through the trial and through the reporting of Lou Dimes, and not even just by the youngest generation, represented by Snookum, who, inspired by the older men, tells the sheriff “Wish I was just a little older so I coulda shot him” (109). The characters in Gathering are telling the story about how they stood up and finally punished the whites who were oppressing them to everyone who reads the book. As Flesch explains of narratives, “The story tells a story of punishment; the story punishes as story; the storyteller represents him- or herself as an altruistic punisher by telling it” (83). Gaines signals his approval for what his characters are doing by writing about it. We signal ours by reading about it and taking pleasure in the positive outcome for everyone but Charlie, who despite not surviving his dual with Luke Will, nevertheless gets the satisfaction of being addressed as, and treated as a man by both Mapes, who calls him Mr. Briggs, and his surrogate father. The handing off of the narration among the characters—but never among the ones like Mathu or Candy who might steal the show, as it were—could have highlighted differences between the various accounts, and in so doing conveyed a message of conflict. But Gaines seldom has the chapters overlap, obviating any concern for inconsistency, and the effect is a sense of the characters taking turns, trusting one another to tell their story right.

            Boyd does a good job of summing up the wonderful appeal of Horton Hears a Who! in terms which are also uncannily suited to accounting for the charm of A Gathering of Old Men. He writes,

"Dr. Seuss’s comedy and his seriousness are the twin chambers of his story’s huge heart. The fantastic extravagance of Horton’s altruism makes him all the more attractive and makes us all the more readily sympathize with him, ally ourselves with his goals, and rejoice in the positive outcome for him and those he champions" (376).

The main difference between the two works is that Gaines focuses more on punishment than Seuss because parents in the 1950s probably would have preferred not to expose their children to the violence that comeuppance tends to entail. But even violence can serve the goal of ensuring cooperation among self-interested individuals. And in the end it’s not the larger-than-life, self-sacrificing heroes that leave us so enchanted upon our departures from Seuss’s Jungle of Nool and Gaine’s Marshall plantation—and so eager to return. It’s rather the satisfaction we get from witnessing and vicariously participating in the larger spirit of community these heroes inspire. For there are circumstances under which humans have evolved to behave selfishly, just as there are those which nudge us toward selflessness. There is grandeur in the view that one of the aspects of our environments that inspire us to be more mindful of others is the presence in our culture of stories like Gaines’s and Seuss’s.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

They Comes a Day: Celebrating Cooperation in A Gathering of Old Men and Horton Hears a Who! Part 2: Punishment

            Punishment, game theorists have found, is crucial to maintaining cooperative cohesion within a group, as it diminishes the benefits purely selfish actors can expect to gain from free-riding. It can also serve as a mechanism to lessen the threat of exploitation at the hands of outsiders who might try to join the group in order to take advantage of any established norm of altruism among its members. Flesch writes, “Darwin himself had proposed a way for altruism to evolve through the mechanism of group selection. Groups with altruists do better as a group than groups without. But it was shown in the 1960s that, in fact, such groups would be too easily infiltrated or invaded by nonaltruists” (5). Obviously, identity as a group member becomes a serious matter whenever each member relies on the others, so much so that evolutionary biologists all but ruled out even the possibility of group selection for nearly forty years. This difficulty is reflected in both Horton and Gathering by the characters whose interests aren’t in line with those of the group. Jo-Jo must be encouraged to give up his shirking and call out with the rest of the Whos for acknowledgment of their personhood. Reverend Jameson likewise signals his own selfish motives as he tries to coax Mathu into surrendering himself, saying, “I ain’t got no home if they burn this place down” (54).

            Even Candy, the white woman who sends Snookum to call the men together—thus playing a role in Gaines’s novel similar to the one Horton plays in Seuss’s story—turns out to be less motivated by the good of the group than by more personal concerns. Explaining her motives to Mrs. Merle, Candy declares, “I won’t let them touch my people” (17). Of course, Candy is risking less than the men. “Clinton can handle Mapes in court” (16), she says, meaning that with a lawyer she can count on the fair trial Mathu and the other black men can’t. When Mapes shows up, she confesses along with the others, and when he starts beating them one after another, she steps to the front of the line and says, “I’m next” (71)—again, secure in her assumption that she isn’t at risk like the others. Even though she’s never in as much danger, at this point in the novel it still seems she’s behaving altruistically, mixing herself up in trouble she had nothing to do with. However, when the men begin to consider the possibility that they’ve waited long enough, that Fix may not be coming after all, and that it may be time for everyone to put down his gun and let Mathu go with Mapes, Candy refuses to let the men even deliberate the option amongst themselves, revealing that her motives are much more selfish than they originally seemed. “I want you to help me with my own child one day” (176), she says to Mathu. “You’ll die if they put you in that jail. And this place’ll die, too. There’s no reason for this place to be if you’re not here” (177). Since her purpose is merely to save Mathu, it can even be said that she’s free-riding on the cooperation of the other black men; in that sense, she’s almost as exploitative as any other white who treats the blacks like servants. And, like Jameson, she has to be dealt with in order for the collective goals of the group to be achieved.

            Experiments that were being conducted around the same time as Gaines was writing Gathering showed that people are willing, even eager to punish others whose behavior strikes them as unfair or exploitative, even when administering that punishment involves incurring some cost to themselves. Like The Prisoner’s Dilemma, the ultimatum game involves two people, one of whom is often a confederate of the researchers, who have to decide on a strategy for interacting with one another. In this case, one of the participants is given a sum of money and told to offer the other participant a cut of it. The only catch is that the second player must accept the cut or neither player gets to keep the money. “It is irrational for the responder not to accept any proposed split from the proposer,” Flesch writes. “The responder will always come out better by accepting than vetoing” (31). But what the researchers discovered was that a line exists beneath which responders will almost always refuse the cut. “This means they are paying to punish,” Flesch explains. “They are giving up a sure gain in order to punish the selfishness of the proposer” (31). Game theorists call this behavior altruistic punishment because “the punisher’s willingness to pay this cost may be an important part in enforcing norms of fairness” (31). In other words, the punisher is incurring a cost to him or herself in order to ensure that selfish actors don’t have a chance to get a foothold in the larger, cooperative group.

            Before considering the role punishment plays in Gathering and Horton, it is important to understand another mechanism that many evolutionary biologists theorize must have been operating for cooperation to have become established in human societies, a process referred to as the handicap principle, or costly signaling. A lone altruist in any group is unlikely to fare well in terms of survival and reproduction. So the question arises as to how the minimum threshold of cooperators in a population was first surmounted. Boyd traces the process along a path from mutualism, or coincidental mutual benefits, to inclusive fitness, whereby organisms help others who are likely to share their genes—usually family members—to reciprocal altruism, a quid pro quo arrangement in which one organism will aid another in anticipation of some future repayment (54-57). But some individuals in some population of organisms in our human ancestry must have benefited from altruism that went beyond familial duty and tit-for-tat bartering. In their classic book The Handicap Principal, Amotz and Avishag Zahavi suggest that altruism serves a function in cooperative species similar to the one served by a peacock’s feathers. Conspecifics have much to gain from accurate assessments of each other’s fitness when choosing mates or allies. Many species have thus evolved methods for signaling their fitness, and as the Zahavis explain, “in order to be effective, signals have to be reliable; in order to be reliable, signals have to be costly” (xiv). A peacock signals his fitness with cumbersome plumage because his ability to survive in spite of the handicap serves as a guarantee of his strength and resourcefulness. Flesch and others find in this idea the key to solving the mystery of how altruism first became established; human altruism is, if anything, even more elaborate than the peacock’s display.

            One of the reasons Horton is the one to champion the Whos—aside from his keen hearing—is that he would be the only one in the population of jungle creatures capable of holding all the others at bay for any length of time. It takes “dozens” of the monkeys in the Wickersham family to pose a threat to the elephant, who is several times larger than any of them. Of course, the teaming up of the Wickershams with the big kangaroo and the small kangaroo in her pouch is also a show of cooperation. And their motive can even be called altruistic: “For almost two days you’ve run wild and insisted / On chatting with persons who’ve never existed. / Such carryings-on in our peaceable jungle! / We’ve had quite enough of your bellowing bungle.” Apparently, the kangaroo is concerned that Horton’s behavior is disruptive to the rest of the animals in the jungle, so she’s playing the role of altruistic punisher. This concern, along with our knowledge that no one but Horton can be sure of the Whos’ existence, probably goes a long way toward explaining why we’re content with Horton’s vindication in the end and don’t feel any need to see the monkeys or the kangaroos punished. But before being vindicated Horton endures a great deal of suffering on behalf of the Whos. The picture of the exhausted elephant picking through the field of clovers is only the beginning. Later, as the Wickershams are trying to tie him up so they can steal the clover again, “They beat him! They mauled him! They started to haul / Him into his cage!” Even in the midst of the ill-treatment, though, Horton continues exhorting the mayor of Who-ville to keep trying to gather more voices so the other animals can hear them. As Horton suffers more and more, our estimation of his altruism, and thus his fitness, grows commensurately.

            Just as Horton is unique among the jungle animals in his ability to stand up to the others, Mathu is unique among the black men on the Marshall plantation in his willingness to stand up to the whites. Upon first hearing about the gathering and its purpose, one of the men, Chimley, recalls that Mathu had once fought Fix, Beau’s father, the man all the characters fear will be leading a lynch mob after his son’s killer. When Fix once told Mathu to throw away his empty Coke bottle, “Mathu told him he wasn’t nobody’s servant” (30). In not allowing Fix to free-ride on the cooperative habits of his fellow plantation workers, Mathu was sending him the message that he could count on resistance from at least one of the black men. To send that message, Mathu had to be willing to fight, and he had to be willing to suffer the consequences of Fix’s wrath even if he won the fight. Sure enough, when Mathu won, “the white folks wanted to lynch Mathu” (30), and it was only because the sheriff took charge and forbade further reprisals that he escaped hanging. “But that wasn’t the last fight Mathu had on that river with them white people,” Chimley says. The other black men know that Mathu’s fighting back could potentially be to their benefit even more than his. And so when they hear about his latest act of altruistic punishment they’re inspired at last to join his efforts. “If he did it, you know we ought to be there” (30), Chimley’s fishing buddy Mat says to him. “Mathu was the only one we knowed had ever stood up” (31), and now they have a chance to stand up with him.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

They Comes a Day: Celebrating Cooperation in A Gathering of Old Men and Horton Hears a Who! Part 1

            Ernest Gaines opens his novel A Gathering of Old Men with a young boy named Snookum being sent on an errand to tell a group of men to come together in defense of an individual named Mathu, a black man who readers are led to believe has shot and killed a white man on a post-civil rights era Louisiana plantation still carrying on the legacy of Jim Crow. But the goal of protecting Mathu from revenge at the hands of the white man’s family gets subsumed by a greater cause, that of ensuring all the gathered men be treated as men and not like slaves. Though it may seem a flippant comparison, there are many parallels between Gaines’s novel and the children’s classic Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss, which likewise features a gathering of threatened people who can only save themselves by collectively calling for recognition of their personhood. Evolutionary critics, who see in narratives a play of evolved psychological mechanisms, would view this resemblance as more than coincidence.

            Brian Boyd examines Horton in his book On the Origin of Stories, juxtaposing it with Homer’s epic The Odyssey to demonstrate that both the children’s story and the ageless classic for adults engage emotional adaptations shared by all humans. Boyd’s theoretical framework incorporates a wide array of findings from both evolutionary and cognitive science. Though much of his thinking overlaps with the ideas William Flesch puts forth in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, Flesch’s theory of narrative is at once more focused and multidimensional. Flesch theorizes that our thoughts and feelings are engaged while reading a story because we’ve evolved to monitor others—even fictional others—for signals of altruism and to emotionally favor those who emit them, while at the same time wanting to see those who behave selfishly get punished. He arrives at this social monitoring and volunteered affect model using research into the evolution of cooperation in humans, research which Boyd likewise refers to in explaining universal narrative themes. Though Flesch’s ideas are more compelling because he focuses more on the experience of reading stories than on their thematic content, both authors would agree that the appeal of stories like Horton and Gathering lies in our strong human desire to see people who are willing to cooperate, even at great cost to themselves, prevail over those who behave only on their own behalves.

            Though her research was published too late to be included in either Flesch’s or Boyd’s book, Karen Wynn, a Yale psychologist who studies the development of social behavior in children, has conducted experiments that highlight how integral the task of separating selfish actors from cooperators is even for children too young to speak. In one setup, infants watch a puppet show that features a small white tiger who wants to play ball and two rabbits, each of whom respond quite differently to the tiger’s overtures. One rabbit, distinguished by a green jacket, rudely steals off with the ball after the tiger has rolled it over. But when the other rabbit, this one in an orange jacket, receives the ball from the tiger, the two end up playfully rolling it back and forth to each other. The young children attend to these exchanges with rapt interest, and when presented with a choice afterward of which rabbit to play with they almost invariably choose the one with the orange jacket, the cooperative one. This preference extends even to wooden blocks with nothing but crude eyes to suggest they’re living beings. When Wynn’s colleagues stage a demonstration in which one block hinders another’s attempt to climb a hill, and then subsequently a third block helps the climber, children afterward overwhelmingly choose the helper to play with. Wynn concludes that “preverbal infants assess individuals on the basis of their behavior toward others” (557). Evolutionary game theorists, who use mathematical models to simulate encounters between individuals relying on varying strategies for dealing with others in an attempt to determine how likely each strategy is to evolve, call the behavior Wynn and her colleagues observed strong reciprocity, which Flesch explains occurs when “the strong reciprocator punishes or rewards others for their behavior toward any member of the social group, and not just or primarily for their individual interactions with the reciprocator” (22).
            Children reading Horton—or having it read to them—probably become engaged initially because they appreciate Horton’s efforts to protect the speck of dust on which he hears a voice calling for help. But that’s only the beginning of the elephant’s struggle to keep the microscopic creatures called the Whos safe. At one point, after chasing the eagle Vlad Vlad-i-koff, who has stolen a clover Horton has placed the Who’s speck of dust on, all through the night over absurdly rugged terrain, the elephant has to pick through a field with millions of nearly identical clovers before recovering the one with the Whos on it. The accompanying illustration of the slumped and bedraggled elephant shows beyond doubt the lengths to which Horton is willing to go on behalf of his friends. And, as Boyd points out, “we all love an altruist. As game theory simulations of cooperation show, any participant in a social exchange benefits when the other partner is an altruist. And Horton’s altruism is as colossal as his physique” (375). But Flesch would emphasize that we don’t favor Horton merely because he would be a good exchange partner for each of us to deal with directly; rather, we can signal our own altruism by volunteering affect on behalf of someone who has clearly demonstrated his own. He writes that

"Among the kinds of behavior that we monitor through tracking or through report, and that we have a tendency to punish or reward, is the way others monitor behavior through tracking or through report, and the way they manifest a tendency to punish and reward" (50).

So, even as we’re assessing someone to determine how selfish or altruistic he or she is, others are assessing us to see how we respond to what we discover. Favoring an altruist (or showing disfavor for a selfish actor) is itself a signal of altruism. In game theory terms, witnesses can become second-order altruists, or third-order, or however many order. But how could this propensity toward monitoring and cooperation have evolved in a Darwinian world of intense competition for survival and reproduction?

            The main conceptual tool used by game theorists to see how various strategies for dealing with others fare when pitted against each other is a scenario called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Imagine two criminals are arrested and taken to separate rooms to be interrogated without being given a chance to consult with one another. If both criminals keep their mouths shut and confess to nothing, then they will both serve a prison sentence of one year. So their cooperation results in a negative outcome. However, if both criminals confess, the outcome is a longer, five-year sentence. What makes the scenario useful in understanding how cooperation could have evolved is the condition that if just one criminal confesses—if he or she takes advantage of the fellow prisoner’s cooperation—the confessor goes free without spending any more time in custody. Meanwhile, the criminal who doesn’t confess, but whose partner does, gets a sentence of twenty years. The idea is that small benefits accrue over time to cooperators, but there’s always temptation for individuals to act for their own short-term benefit to their partners’ detriment (Flesch 23; Boyd 56 uses slightly different numbers but to the same effect).
            The Prisoner’s Dilemma has several variations, and it can be scaled up to conceptualize cooperation among groups with more than two members. The single Who not shouting in Horton is an example of how even a lone free-rider, a “shirker,” can undermine group cohesion. And, mild as it is, this character gets some comeuppance when Seuss refers to him as a “twerp.” More severe punishment turns out to be unnecessary because the mayor of Who-ville prevails upon him how important his cooperation is. In Gathering, the men likewise face a prisoner’s dilemma when, having all brought their own shotguns and shown their own willingness to confess to the killing of the white man named Beau, Sheriff Mapes begins separating each of them in turn from the group gathered around Mathu’s porch and beating them when they refuse to name Mathu as the true culprit. Speaking to Mathu, Mapes says, “I know you did it… You’re the only one here man enough. But I have to hear it from one of them. One of them must say he was called here after it happened” (85). If just one man buckles under the sheriff’s abuse, analogous to the one year sentence for cooperators in The Prisoner’s Dilemma, then all their efforts will be for naught and the men will miss out on their opportunity to stand up to their white oppressors. The gathered men face another similar dilemma when the racist Luke Will shows up with his own group to lynch Mathu; as long as the older men cooperate, they maintain an advantage over the whites who can’t imagine them standing up at all, much less standing up together.

Friday, November 19, 2010

We the Ignorant: The Caveman Conservatives Strike Back

It always annoys me when soon-to-be House Leader John Boehner, or Mitch McConnell, or even Monica Crowley begins a statement by saying, “The American people want,” and then proceeds to finish the statement with republican boilerplate. “The American people don’t want this huge government program.” The obvious objection is that American people are too diverse in their opinions to be treated as a single block—which brings us to another objection, that when it comes to politics far too many Americans are about as smart as one.

Under President Obama, middle-class taxes have been cut, the economy has been growing for the past five consecutive quarters, the number of illegal immigrants has dropped by almost a million (though we need to keep in mind immigration helps, yes, helps local economies), and most of the money from the TARP loans has been paid back, with the rest on schedule to be returned, with interest, to the US Treasury. The Democrats have also, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, passed a healthcare reform bill that will lower the deficit.

But a Bloomberg poll conducted in the run-up to the recent midterm elections found that nearly two-thirds of likely voters believed the exact opposite about middle-class taxes and the current direction of the economy, and the same number had no idea that TARP loans were now being or would ever be paid back. The American people on average may be saying no to big government. Unfortunately, the American people on average aren’t well enough informed—or they’re Fox-informed—to realize they’re saying no to a straw man built by conservatives.

And of course everyone who pays attention to the news knows about the manufactrovercy called Climategate, but everyone is blissfully ignorant of the entire industry that has sprung up to deny the science of climate change.

The network news shows are too afraid of being called partisan—and other outlets simply are too partisan—to report on the single biggest scandal in American politics: that most Americans are too ignorant or too misinformed to contribute anything of substance to any debate on policy. Our education system is a failure. Our media is a failure. Our entertainment industry is a catastrophic distraction. The American people want to hear dumbed-down stories with good guys and bad guys, believe in Braveheart, believe they are Braveheart, and not have to do anything on Sundays so they can watch football.

Our leaders are supposed to represent us, but since there are too few of them to represent all of us, don’t we want them to represent the most knowledgeable and best informed of us? But instead of acknowledging our ignorance is a problem, a threat to our democracy, our leaders pander to our stupidity. Fearful of being labeled elitist, they avoid at all cost making the obvious rebuttal to Americans-want statements: I’m sorry but the American people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sagan's Foreboding

"I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time--when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness."
Carl Sagan, Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1996

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cults and Conversion Narratives

            There are three main positions you can take that will inevitably spark an argument where I’m from. And the people who jump up to disagree always do so with the same strategy: they tell a story. If you tell people here you’re an economic liberal, you may get a brief refresher course on supply side theory, but when you continue to disagree after hearing it, a story will inexorably follow which features the storyteller as a hero battling his or her way up from poverty into the proud and comfortable middle class. The implication is supposed to be that since the storyteller made it, it must be possible for everybody to make it. Hence financial safety nets and programs for the poor funded by the rich must be misguided ideas bound to fail.

            If you tell people you don’t believe in any god, there’s a slight chance you’ll get some inarticulate rehashing of the Argument from Design, but you’re much more likely to get a story. On this topic, there’s quite a bit of variety in the stories people tell. If the storyteller doesn’t have any loved ones who have died, you’ll likely get a story about an encounter with the supernatural. These stories always end with a statement along the lines of “There’s just no way to explain that,” or “There’s no way that could’ve been a coincidence.” But if the storyteller has had a loved one die, the story will be about how that loved one managed somehow to communicate with him or her from beyond the grave to let them know “they’re okay,” and “they’re waiting for me.” This supposedly proves there’s life after death, which somehow supposedly establishes the fact that some all-powerful deity presides over it.

            If you tell someone you don’t accept the theory of repressed memories, or point to evidence that there’s nothing especially damaging about childhood sexual abuse when compared to any other form of child abuse, you’ll first be called some choice names, then you’ll be accused of pedophilia yourself, and then finally you’ll get the poor woman’s story. There’s a lot of variation to these stories as well. But of course they all feature a male character in the role of evildoer. And they all end with a statement about how the storyteller continues to struggle with the resulting emotional turmoil and haunting memories to this day. (Repression and Severe Personality Disturbance from CSA are myths 13 and 34, respectively, in 50 Great Myths of Pop Psychology.)

            No matter which of the three topics you’re discussing, the storyteller will feel exhilarated at first because it seldom happens that they get a chance to spout wisdom to someone so hopelessly naïve. If you hold any of these three unpopular positions, you’ll get to hear lots and lots of stories, as if each storyteller is convinced theirs will be the story that finally converts you. But when you respond to their stories with alternative theories, describe ingeniously designed experiments, rattle off statistics, they’ll start to get uncomfortable. The next stage of the discussion will invariably entail the storyteller making a straw man of you: because you don’t answer their stories with your own, it’s assumed you don’t have any, and the reason is plain—you spend all your time reading. What follows will be a disparagement of “book learning,” an angry dismissal of what “you learned in some book,” and the general suggestion that you’ve lived your life sealed up in an Ivory Tower.

            I am a humanist. I believe the best we can do for humanity is to spread enlightenment principles as far and wide and as in depth as possible. That’s why I’m skeptical of all these conversion narratives. It’s not just that the evidence doesn’t support them. Each one of them implicitly conveys a message of tribalism. The hero of the rags-to-republican story is suggesting he or she made it because they were virtuous, that the people who don’t make it have only themselves to blame. And don’t get them started on that shadowy outgroup, the government. It’s us versus them and we’re better. The very basis of our ideas of good and evil rests on our innate proclivity to confuse the abstract with the supernatural. If you establish that even one supernatural event has occurred, you’ve simultaneously proven that some cosmic order underlies all existence. There are believers and infidels, saints and sinners. And if nearly every young girl in the world is living in the shadow of molestation by some unredeemable male predator then we must all mobilize to do battle against this great evil. You’re either with us or you’re one of them.

            I do not accept the idea that man is fallen, or that humans are. As a humanist, I believe that we are the most exulted beings on the planet, and quite likely among the most exulted beings in the universe. We need to act on behalf of humanity, not for some invisible entity whose interests can never be known, not for any subgroup we see as superior by dint of our individual membership in it. If you can only defend your beliefs with conversion narratives, then you are a member of a cult. And our division into such cults is precisely the impediment we need to overcome. The solution to problems like war and poverty and child abuse lies not in converting more members to this or that cult, but in our ingenuity and imagination. Just look what we’ve accomplished. Imagine what else we could accomplish.

            Are all these conversion narratives completely false then? Personality psychologist Dan McAdams, in his book The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, describes identity as “an inner story of the self that integrates the reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future to provide a life with unity, purpose, and meaning.” To an adult, childhood is a welter of floating details and vague impressions. McAdams suggests that at some point we structure all this ambiguity into a set of narratives. Every time we recall an event we reinterpret or “reconstruct” it, making our memories much more malleable than most of us are comfortable admitting. The problem comes in as we reconstruct the past into a narrative that gives us purpose. Too often that purpose consists of recognizing or acknowledging evil and thenceforth doing battle against it. What we fail to realize is that the supposed evildoers have their own narratives.

            The culture in which we develop our identities provides the raw material of wider narratives for us to sample. Sometime in our late teens or early twenties, we chose elements from one or two of these and subsequently go back in time to carve the formless block of our pasts into sculptures we want to resemble ourselves. (This happened for me when at twenty-two I read Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World.) Some of our memories may better lend themselves to integration into particular narratives, so it’s not as though our pasts have no bearing on who we become. But it’s also probably true that we overestimate the significance of any given experience because it’s hard to accept how insignificant most experiences are. Such thinking leads to existentialism, a doubting of all purpose. But I have a purpose. I am a humanist. I especially enjoy a good story—just not one with good guys and bad guys.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Defiance and Duplicity: Decoding Poe’s Attacks on Readers Part 4 0f 4

Read from the beginning

            Absent from any of the critical attempts to uncover what the cat might symbolize is what ought to have been the most obvious starting point—the cat’s name. In a footnote to the Norton Critical Edition of Poe’s work, G.R. Thompson explains that Pluto is the “name in some myths of the ruler of Hell (or Hades, which is another name for its ruler)” (349). Though Thompson is elsewhere in the same edition savvy in sifting out Poe’s satirical side, he fails here to look further into the name Pluto, probably for the same reason so many other critics fail to look further into it—because it meshes well the preconception of Poe as the writer of Gothic Horror stories. That is precisely the reason why the name is such a perfect trap for those readers unable to view his work with anything but a single, film-covered eye. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “Pluto is the Latin form (used in English) of the Greek name Plutō n, meaning ‘wealth-giver’, because wealth is seen as coming from the earth” (6 April 2009). The word persists with this meaning today, usually in the form of a suffix. As the Oxford English Dictionary Online attests, “pluto-, comb. form,” is used in “forming nouns and adjectives relating to wealth and the wealthy” (6 April 2009), as in the term plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. (The equation of money and the underworld has a long history, dating from much earlier than “Death and Taxes.” The name Dis, another Roman name for Hades, comes from the word dives, “rich.” Dante places Plutus, actually a separate Roman god but whose name in Italian is still Pluto, in the fourth circle of The Inferno, overseeing the Avaricious and the Prodigal, along with the Lady Fortune [59].)

            Poe seems to have made the safe assumption that his use of the name Pluto would be seen with the cyclopean eye of his readers as a casual reference to the resting place of the dead, and some of the bragging of his narrators’ just may be an expression of his own pride in so well concealing, while at the same time expressing, his true feelings toward his wealth-giver, the reading public. When the narrator of “Tell-Tale” says, “in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, [I] placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim” (320), only the befuddled psychoanalyst can keep at bay the suspicion aroused by what is commonly read as an instantaneous transition from pride into a state of overwhelming guilt. The beating of the heart that prompts the confession is really a continuation of the terror excited by the old man’s one-eyed glare; no matter what Poe does with his writing, only the fear-inducing aspects are ever appreciated. Since the old man is an earlier version of Pluto, the tale itself represents the author’s confession of his true ambivalence toward his readers. And why did he make such a confession? “Anything was more tolerable than this derision!” he says. “I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer!” (320) But the confession went unheard, drowned out by the terrified beating of readers’ hearts. It is even possible that “Black Cat,” “Imp,” and “Amontillado” represent continued, escalated flirtations with being found out. The victim of “Imp” is nothing but a reader with money. And the murderer of Fortunato—note the name—though confessing in the tale, ends by bragging about escaping detection for “half of a century” (421); three years after he began playing this game, Poe was probably less and less worried that anyone would catch him at it. But it is in “Black Cat” that the allegory—or coded message—is the most developed.

            Before looking more closely at this story, an important distinction must be made between irony and duplicity. When the author clues readers into knowledge the protagonist is not privy to, as Gargano gives Poe credit for doing in “Black Cat,” that is irony. In this sense, Poe and the narrator of the story need to be distinguished from each other. But that doesn’t mean Poe can’t be seen in the story at a different level. As Regan explains:

"The intention of the writer who employs irony is that the reader shall, perhaps after momentary difficulties, decipher his code; the intention of the writer who employs duplicity is that his code baffle as many readers as possible." (294)

One level is what Griffith calls the “Gothic overplot,” another level is the ironic one identified by Gargano, and yet another level, a duplicitous or coded one—the “satiric underside”—seems to be signaled by recurring elements between this and other tales, like a focus on eyes, and perversity, as well as by the dual meanings of the cat’s name.

            This multi-dimensionality is keeping with Poe’s ideas of the Arabesque, a term which appeared in the title of an earlier collection of his tales. As Thompson explains, “Islamic tradition discourages the artistic reproduction of any natural forms that may be said to possess a soul,” and to avoid such forms artists in this tradition rely on “almost purely geometrical forms” such as the elaborate designs seen in Arabesque architecture and textiles. One of the primary characteristics of these designs is that each patterned is inlaid and interweaved with several others so that the overall image is intricate and multidimensional. Thompson also points out that Poe, following the influence of German theorist Friedrich von Schlegel, applied the same principle to his conception of Romantic Irony, “which is neither just parodic or serious but both simultaneously, as in Cervantes’s Don Quixote and the plays of Shakespeare” (79). It appears, however, that Poe added yet another layer to this design. And this is how he solved the dilemma historian Jill Lepore describes thus: “he needed to turn his pen to profit, but he also wanted to signal…that he was lowering himself” (68).

            The first paragraph of “Black Cat” features a few odd statements that have been the source of much commentary. The narrator calls the story the “most wild, yet most homely narrative” (348) in the first sentence. In this seeming contradiction lies an invitation to a dual reading. In the middle of the paragraph, he characterizes the story as consisting of “a series of mere household events” (349) before explaining how horrible and devastating their consequences have been, another seeming contradiction. But the final sentence of the paragraph is the most telling:

"Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place—some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects." (349)

This statement could of course be read as another application of the Gothic trope of having the unreliably hysterical narrator reference the possibility of his own madness in order to make his ravings more credible. “I neither expect nor solicit belief,” (348) he says in the first sentence—because he would have to be crazy to, the implication runs. But, with Gargano’s evidence in mind of Poe’s deliberate use of the double voice, one the author’s and one the narrator’s, along with Griffith’s discovery of a “satiric underside” concealed by the “Gothic overplot” elsewhere in Poe’s work, and especially in light of the dual meanings of the cat’s name, another reading suggests itself: Poe is taunting his readers to catch him disparaging them.

            It is noteworthy that the narrator himself is responsible for the half-blindness of the cat, since this was not the case with the old man in “Tell-Tale.” Before getting to the disoculation, though, the narrator describes a childhood surrounded by pets, even to the exclusion of human companions. “There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute,” he writes, “which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man” (349). The man Poe, ever frustrated by those on whom he depended for anything, must have taken great pleasure in the complete dependence and obedience of animals. But then cats are much less obedient than dogs. In terms of his career, this early period represents his naïve and romantic youth, before maturity complicated his ideas and feelings toward his art. All that was to change when, with his own pen, he made himself into something more complex than a writer of romantic poetry. His writing was to take on a satiric edge, not that his readers ever really caught on to the difference. Really at this point in the story, though, there is more Gothic plot than coded satire, and the equation of the narrator’s love of animals with Poe’s early romantic writing is no less tenuous than countless other allegorical readings. But when the narrator, in the grip of perversity, goes beyond the initial injury and kills Pluto, things get more interesting.

            The Imp of the Perverse compelled the narrator of that tale not to murder his victim but to confess it, but in “Black Cat” perversity is responsible for the eponymous cat’s demise. “Imp,” published two years later, may have been referring to the symbolic violence done to the reader of the earlier tale. Since the perpetrator had gone undetected for so long, the Imp, a self-destructive force, had proven itself not to have been in play. Poe suffered no consequences for loosing “Black Cat” on his audiences. But he did suffer from his strained relationships with those who served as an intermediary between him and his readers, editors like White and Graham. In another apparent contradiction, the narrator of “Black Cat” claims, “It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only—that urged me continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute” (350). Whom is he hurting when he hurts the cat? The answer comes in the next paragraph: “On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire… The whole house was blazing” (351). Having given in to his frustration with his wealth-giver, the narrator subsequently, immediately, loses his home. For those who missed this not-so-subtle point, he adds a few lines later, “My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up” (351).

            Just as White failed to detect the parody in “Berenice,” Poe could always count on at least a preponderance of his readers at large to miss any satire he concealed in his work. And so, despite the violence done to it, the black cat returns—Poe continues to make money by writing scary stories. But because he was in more dire economic straits at this time in his life, owing largely to his falling out with Graham, the cat returns sporting an ominous sign: “the GALLOWS!”(353) delineated by a tuft of white fur. The narrator brings this second cat home, where it “became immediately a great favorite with my wife” (352). But he says, “I soon found a dislike to it arising with me…its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed” (352). Oddly, it is not until the paragraph following this admission of his dislike, that he mentions what would seem to be its most remarkable feature: “like Pluto, it also had been deprived of one of its eyes” (352). Of course, Poe continued to hate the admiration of his half-blind readers, even though it was helping him support his wife.

            The narrator admits that he “longed to destroy” (352) Pluto, but was dissuaded from doing so “by absolute dread of the beast” (353), which he attributes to the image in the cat’s fur. Forced to coexist with this object of dread, he wrestles with the irony of how he “a man, fashioned in the image of High God,” was being made “wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity” by “a brute beast—whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed” (353), a line which clearly equates perversity with contempt. The uneasy cohabitation persists until his wife, “the most patient of sufferers,” accompanies him, “upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which our poverty compelled us to inhabit” (353). The cat rushes in to trip him, causing him to forget his dread and take up an ax, which when his wife tries to stop him from using, ends up in her brain. His rage for the cat gets turned on his wife. Since the cat is the “wealth-giver,” the image springs direfully to mind of Virginia shivering in her unheated room with nothing but a coat and a cat to keep her warm.

            At this point, the story becomes, like the others in the nexus, a case of self-destructive boasting. After walling up his wife, he says “I looked around triumphantly, and said to myself—‘Here at least, then, my labor has not been in vain’” (354). When police arrive to investigate her disappearance, he shows them to the cellar and the basement—“Secure… in the inscrutability of my place of concealment” (355). Once they have had a look around and are making to leave, the narrator calls them back. “The glee at my heart” he says, “was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of my guiltlessness” (355). He starts boasting about how his is “an excellently well constructed house,” and “through the mere phrenzy of bravado” (355), he raps with his cane on the wall concealing his wife’s body. Just as in “Tell-Tale” and “Imp,” the narrator is responsible for the discovery of his own crime. Pluto, inadvertently walled up with his wife, aroused by the tapping, sounds a cry “half of horror and half of triumph,” so that the wall is torn down and it is revealed, perched atop his dead wife’s head, looking out with its “solitary eye of fire” (355).

            What is most impressive about Poe’s coded attacks on his readers is that the stories concealing them are so good that even critics with a sophisticated awareness of his multileveled satires have found no reason to see them as anything but superbly crafted Gothic tales. This excellence, which he achieved despite his contempt for those who appreciated the genre, is itself yet another form of defiance. Poe must have determined that if he had to write overwrought, hysterical tales of murder and madness to be read, he would just have to show everyone how it was done. He would take it to the next level—and do so in the same stories into which he was weaving his codes. Harold Bloom, straining to find something positive to say about Poe, writes that he “authentically frightens children, and the fright can be a kind of trauma,” and his own reading of the author as a child “induced nasty and repetitious nightmares that linger even now” (3). Bloom is just the kind of authority Poe would have detested, and he would have been delighted to hear to that he managed to give the critic, who hasn’t even caught on to the topmost layer of his layers-deep satire, nightmares into adulthood. Still, his laugh would have to be tempered by the tragedy that he never did get his chance to write what he wanted to write without the specter of poverty looming over him.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Defiance and Duplicity: Decoding Poe’s Attacks on Readers Part 3 of 4

Read from the beginning

            To contextualize the writing of “Black Cat” biographically, two events are of interest. In January of 1842, Poe’s wife, Virginia, damaged a blood vessel while singing, and this was but the beginning of her decline in health brought about by tuberculosis. Her condition was quite likely exacerbated by their poverty; one of Poe’s letters from the time describes how all Virginia had to guard her from the winter cold was his greatcoat used as a blanket, atop of which perched a tortoiseshell cat to keep her chest warm. Despite his money troubles, though, Poe resigned his editorship of Graham’s Magazine after a power struggle with George Graham. Subsequently, he was forced to cast about desperately for editors and publishers for his work (Thompson xxxiii-iv). Tellingly, though, before the falling out, Poe seems to have discovered a fondness for cryptograms. He even tried to get hired by the government to write them. About a year before leaving Graham’s, he published an essay on “secret writing,” which he described as writing “in such a manner as to elude general comprehension” (Lepore 69).

            “The Black Cat” is, on the surface, an especially haunting tale, and it has spurred a great deal of commentary. Oates, ever ambivalent about Poe, features it in the anthology American Gothic Tales. Though she demurs from giving it pride of place, tucking it between “Tartarus of Maids” and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as the fifth story in the table of contents, she nevertheless writes that the story

"demonstrates Poe at his most brilliant, presenting a madman’s voice with such mounting plausibility that the reader almost—almost—identifies with his unmotivated and seemingly unresisted acts of insane violence against the affectionate black cat, Pluto, and eventually his own wife." (4)

            The story introduces “the spirit of PERVERSNESS,” which Poe revisited in a later tale, to account for these “unmotivated and seemingly unresisted acts.” But there is no other reference to any philosophical school or literary tradition. And there are no physical descriptions of the characters. The only character who is really represented in any detail is the narrator, leaving readers to wonder who he is, if they should take him at his word when he recounts his tale, and what they should make of this invoking of perversity as a clue to his motive.

            A long tradition continues of critical attempts to determine what the eponymous cat symbolizes in the hope that doing so will shed some light on what the narrator’s motive—though he claimed he had none—was in killing first the cat and then his wife. Ed Piacentino provides page-long footnotes to his interpretation of the story which summarize, thesis by thesis, this critical history. His own perspective, heavily influenced by all the others, is that
The narrator’s motive for murdering his wife seems to be subconscious and, therefore, the crime

"is not consciously premeditated. Nor is the narrator able to understand rationally or to persuade convincingly why he has done this terrible deed, though he repeatedly offers explanations—actually untenable rationalizations—for his former actions." (153)

Citing Piacentino as an example of misguided psychologizing, Joseph Stark works to place the story in its historical context and suggests that such “analyses…may indicate in their very strivings to provide answers that no sufficiently clear cause for the narrator’s murder of his wife and the cat may be found in the text” (255). Of course, the story states this much explicitly, but what Stark argues would have been disturbing about this taking the narrator at his word is that it “posed significant challenges to increasingly influential scientific thought as well as to shifting evangelical theology” (255). These critics’ points may be valid, but they apply only insofar as the story is taken at face value.

            Originally published in August of 1843, “The Black Cat” forms a nexus with three other tales, “The Tell-Tale Heart” published seven months earlier, “The Imp of the Perverse” from July 1845, and “The Cask of Amontillado” from November 1846. Since the plot of “Black Cat” bears strong similarities to both “Tell-Tale” and “Amontillado,” centering on the murder and immuring of victims and narrated by men at the mercy of confessional compulsions, it may be helpful in uncovering any deliberately concealed satire to pursue a strategy similar to Griffith’s intertextual approach to “Ligeia.” The first notable detail arising from this comparison is the emphasis on the eyes of the victims in both “Tell-Tale” and “Black Cat,” as well as the narrator’s denial of ill-feeling toward them. “I loved the old man,” he says of the victim in “Tell-Tale,” but he was nonetheless driven to murder by one of the old man’s eyes. “He had the eye of a vulture,” the narrator says, “a pale blue eye, with a film over it” (317). The victim in “Amontillado” is also described at one point as looking into the narrator’s eyes “with two filmy orbs” (417), but in this case the eyes are not integral to the plot, whereas in “Tell-Tale” the narrator ends up postponing the violence until the eighth night because in attempting to kill the old man in his sleep he keeps finding him with the offending eye closed.

            In “Black Cat,” eyes come into play in the first incident the narrator describes. Returning home drunk, he suspects the hitherto affectionate cat is avoiding him. So, he chases it down, and then he says, “I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!” (350) Since only one of the old man’s eyes in “Tell-Tale” is ever mentioned, it seems the violence in these stories has something to do with the victims being one-eyed. Poe does something interesting, too, in the line following the narrator’s description of the abuse of his pet: the narrator says, “I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity” (350). It is as if Poe were drawing readers’ attention to the violent implement’s similarity to a pen. The now one-eyed cat goes on to foment the narrator’s rage, much the way the old man’s eye in “Tell-Tale” does, only in the case of “Black Cat” that rage gets turned onto the narrator’s wife.

            The victim in “Amontillado” keeps both his eyes unto death, but the narrator’s motive for killing him is never in question because he states it in the opening lines. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato,” he says, “I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge” (415). The nature of the insult remains a mystery throughout the tale, but Fortunato is presented as a proud, pretentious buffoon. “You are rich,” the narrator says to him to coax him into the trap, “respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was” (417). This exploitation of Fortunato’s pride, along with the vague reference to the narrator’s fallen status, persists until the end. The victim in “Amontillado” closely resembles many of the high-status targets of Poe’s satires. But what is important about him in the context of “Black Cat” and the two other tales linked to it is that Poe gives him a name. Neither the old man in “Tell-Tale” nor the wife in “Black Cat” nor the victim in “The Imp of the Perverse” has a name. In fact, the only details given about this last character are that he had a “habit of reading in bed” (405) and that he had an estate large enough to tempt the narrator to murder so that he might inherit it. But there is another victim in these stories whom Poe did deign to give a name, and that is the black cat himself, Pluto.

            There remains, however, another major intertextual element to examine before considering the possible significance of the cat’s name, and that is “the spirit of PERVERSENESS” (350), as it is referred to in “Black Cat,” and The Imp of the Perverse, which gives the later story its title. “Imp” begins with a lengthy philosophical discussion on what the narrator calls the “overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake” (403). The narrator in “Black Cat” defines it as the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only” (350). Early in “Imp,” the narrator is at pains to distinguish between perverseness and “the Combativeness of Phrenology,” by asserting that while “Combativeness has for its essence the necessity of self-defense,” when perversity is in play “the desire to be well is not only not aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment prevails” (403). However, later in the story, the same narrator concedes that perversity is “occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good” (405). A plethora of examples from Poe’s own biography suggests themselves as illustrations of an impulse akin to combativeness but with an element of self-destructiveness. There is much of pride in Poe’s perversity, but more of defiance. “Imp” is not about a conflict with a superior, though, but rather a well planned and executed murder the culprit would have escaped all suspicion for had he not been overtaken by the mysterious impulse to confess. It’s important to note that perversity does not push the narrator to murder; it compels him to tell everyone he did it. And he states explicitly that the confession is prompted by perversity, not any attack of conscience. Is he really confessing, or is he taking credit, demanding recognition, boasting about his perfect crime?

            A rich drunkard named Fortunato, an old man with one staring eye, a man who likes to read in bed, and an affectionate cat named Pluto, all end up—along with one woman as collateral damage—murdered by unnamed narrators and, except for the reader, walled up with bricks or floorboards, but perversity is invoked to account for only one of these violent acts, that against the one-eyed cat. The “longing of the soul to vex itself,” however, clearly overtakes the narrator again at the end of “Black Cat” when “through the mere phrenzy of bravado” (355) he raps his cane against the wall concealing his wife’s body, boasting to the police investigating her disappearance about how solidly built it is. As in “Imp,” the narrator is betrayed, not by a guilty conscience, but by an inability to restrain from bragging about his deeds, either how well they were planned and executed or how well they were concealed. The pride of the murderer is prominent in “Tell-Tale” as well. Poe not only adheres to the convention in supernatural storytelling of addressing the readers’ supposition of the narrator’s madness but takes it to the next level; not only are the murderers not crazy, they are exceptionally competent and intelligent. “Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust [my head] in” to the old man’s room (317), the narrator of “Tell-Tale” boasts. Later, on the night of the murder, he says

"Never before that night, had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled." (318)

The murder complete, he goes on to boast some more about “the wise precautions” he takes in hiding the body. “I… replaced the boards so cleverly,” he says, “so cunningly, that no human eye—not even his—could have detected any thing wrong” (319-20). In fact, except for “Black Cat,” all the stories in this nexus are really extended boasts. But what was it about that old man’s eye that provoked the narrator to kill him? Could it be the same thing that drove the narrator in the later tale to kill his cat?