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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?.

Monday, May 30, 2011

From the Opening of "The Music Box Routine": My Soon-to-be-Completed Novel

            “There’s a rule for the whole place. No Dogs. Where the hell would they go? There are little scraps of yard here and there. If people had dogs, the yards would fill up with shit in a couple hours. There’s the neighborhood down the road—it could be coming from there. The barking. But I swear it’s closer than that. Do people let their dogs run loose in the cemetery across the street?”

            I had anticipated that Will would go through a period of intense guilt after what he’d done to Stacy—after what we’d done. So, I thought, this is the form it will take, a dog barking so incessantly it keeps him awake at all hours. His eyes were bloodshot and frantically darting around his apartment. “I went to Walmart and bought a fucking pellet gun so I can shoot the damn thing. But I’ve never even seen it. And I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing? I love dogs. I can’t shoot the dog because his owners are fucking retarded.’ I guess I should shoot the owners.”

            I was sitting on his couch watching him move back and forth between the two windows overlooking the parking lot. “Where the hell is the damn thing? I swear if you wait a while, we’ll hear it.” I’d been over to Will’s apartment three times in the last two days. I’d never heard a dog barking. “And then there’re all the cats. They must hang out around the dumpster out back. Goddamn. Have you ever heard the sounds cats make when they’re defending their territory?”

            “I don’t think that’s what you’re hearing.”
            He turned and glared at me as if he’d forgotten I was even there, or as if he was afraid I was about to deliver more bad news. “What do you mean?”

           “Cats make terrible sounds when they’re mating. The females have a membrane sealing off their uterus. The males actually have spines on their dicks so they can tear through it.”

            His face twisted into a dual expression of fear and disgust. “Jesus Christ man, where the fuck do you learn this stuff?” I’d learned it from Laura. But I didn’t tell him that. I just sat there in silence. It occurred to me that if something bad happened to him, if he suffered some misfortune or injury that could be chalked up to karma, he’d feel better; he wouldn’t have to go around waiting for it to happen. Was there some way I could punish him? Better it be at my hands, in my control, than in his.
            If you had asked me a year before it all went down—or a few months even—I would have told you I didn’t have it in me. By the time I got the call from Will, though, I’d been wracking my brain for weeks trying to come up with a way to deal with Stacy, to get her to finally leave him alone. Will’s been my closest friend since he was Billy and we were both in second grade. I knew he was in trouble. I knew things had gone way beyond the point where you have everyone sit down together and talk it out like rational adults. I was scared for him. Someday one of your best friends is going to ask you to do something and you’re going to have a decision to make. The way I did it was to tell myself it was necessary, that it had come to this, and then I did my best not to give it another moment’s thought. I just did what my friend asked me to do.

            “Is it possible to change the date on a package I mail,” was what he asked me first, “so that it says I mailed it yesterday—or two or three days ago?”

            My mind was pulled in all directions, toward figuring out what had him so spooked—I’d never heard that sound in his voice, like someone was pinching his neck as he spoke—toward coming up with some sort of advice or word of encouragement, toward all the practical considerations like when would it be time to involve the police, and now toward how I could hack the scanner at work to print a label with the wrong date.

            “I’m not completely sure,” I told him, “but there are a few things I can try. And if they don’t work I can ask Max if he knows a way to do it. What’s going on Will?”

            “I’m going to Indie to get something for Stacy. I’ll be by your apartment tonight. I need to have it delivered tomorrow and say clearly on it somewhere that I mailed it yesterday or two days ago.” He went silent after saying this, but I sensed he was wrestling with whether he should tell me more, so I didn’t come out with all the questions I had.

          Finally I said, “It’s not a bomb is it?”

          “Not the kind you’re thinking of. But it is something that might end this whole thing. Can you do it?”

           “Bring it tonight when you get back and I’ll do my best.”

            I heard the sounds of the highway over the rise separating it from his apartment building. He has to go out on his balcony to get any bars on his phone so that highway is always yawning and roaring in the background when I talk to him. He must’ve called from his apartment. When I found out what Stacy had done, the mystery of why Will sounded like he did was cleared up—I started marveling instead at how he sounded as calm as he did. He must’ve called me just after it happened.
            Will met Stacy at what turned out to be the peak of our youthful carousing. We were going out to one of our favorite four or five bars two or three nights a week, and we nearly invariably ended up at one of three all-night cafes with a group of women we’d just met. I will probably still mine that swath of time for happy memories when I’m an old man—then again, in light of what’s been happening, I might not. You could divide Will’s and my clubbing phase into two very dissimilar periods. In the first, we did what young men traditionally do: go out, get excessively drunk, stumble around haphazardly, and on occasion come across women who are single and enjoying the same phase of their lives. The second came after a guy I knew from college started researching what he initially believed was a small online community of guys whose members spanned all the big cities in the country.

            Anton had been a journalism major and we had met in an upper level anthropology course. Though I had majored in anthropology, we both played around with the idea of science writing as a possible career and we kept in touch after graduating, exchanging articles and getting practice pitching ideas to each other. The group of guys he discovered online was trying to systematize the process of meeting a woman and starting a relationship with her. They all went out, plied their methods, and reported successes and failures on their posts. What emerged was a surprisingly regular sequence, and surprisingly effective techniques for helping it along. I had the same initial response to hearing about all this as you’re probably having now: first, they’re probably exaggerating their successes because it can’t possibly work as well as they’re making out; second, it must be based on deception—a series of tricks—so it’s immoral; and third, there’s just something outlandishly cynical about trying to master the recipe for a phenomenon most people delight in for its spontaneity. But it’s nothing like what you might think at first.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More of a Near Miss--Response to "Collision"

The documentary Collision is an attempt at irony. The title is spelled on the box with a bloody slash for the i coming in the middle of the word. The film opens with hard rock music and Christopher Hitchens dropping the gauntlet: "One of us will have to admit he's wrong. And I think it should be him." There are jerky closeups and dramatic pullaways. The whole thing is made to resemble one of those pre-event commercials on pay-per-view for boxing matches or UFC's.

The big surprise, which I don't think I'm ruining, is that evangelical Christian Douglas Wilson and anti-theist Christopher Hitchens--even in the midst of their heated disagreement--seem to like and respect each other. At several points they stop debating and simply chat with one another. They even trade Wodehouse quotes (and here I thought you had to be English to appreciate that humor). Some of the best scenes have the two men disagreeing without any detectable bitterness, over drinks in a bar, as they ride side by side in car, and each even giving signs of being genuinely curious about what the other is saying. All this bonhomie takes place despite the fact that neither changes his position at all over the course of their book tour.

I guess for some this may come as a surprise, but I've been arguing religion and science and politics with people I like, or even love, since I was in my early teens. One of the things that got me excited about the movie was that my oldest brother, a cancer biologist whose professed Christianity I suspect is a matter of marital expediency (just kidding), once floated the idea of collaborating on a book similar to Wilson and Hitchens's. So I was more disappointed than pleasantly surprised that the film focused more on the two men's mutual respect than on the substance of the debate.

There were some parts of the argument that came through though. The debate wasn't over whether God exists but whether belief in him is beneficial to the world. Either the director or the editors seemed intent on making the outcome an even wash. Wilson took on Hitchens's position that morality is innate, based on an evolutionary need for "human solidarity," by pointing out, validly, that so is immorality and violence. He suggested that Hitchens's own morality was in fact derived from Christianity, even though Hitchens refuses to acknowledge as much. If both morality and its opposite come from human nature, Wilson argues, then you need a third force to compel you in one direction over the other. Hitchens, if he ever answered this point, wasn't shown doing so in the documentary. He does point out, though, that Christianity hasn't been any better historically at restricting human nature to acting on behalf of its better angels.

Wilson's argument is fundamentally postmodern. He explains at one point that he thinks rationalists giving reasons for their believing what they do is no different from him quoting a Bible verse to explain his belief in the Bible. All epistemologies are circular. None are to be privileged. This is nonsense. And it would have been nice to see Hitchens bring him to task for it. For one thing, the argument is purely negative--it attempts to undermine rationalism but offers no positive arguments on behalf of Christianity. To the degree that it effectively casts doubt on nonreligious thinking, it cast the same amount of doubt on religion. For another, the analogy strains itself to the point of absurdity. Reason supporting reason is a whole different animal from the Bible supporting the Bible for the same reason that a statement arrived at by deduction is different from a statement made at random. Two plus two equals four isn't the same as there's an invisible being in the sky and he's pissed.

Of course, two plus two equals four is tautological. It's circular. But science isn't based on rationalism alone; it's rationalism cross-referenced with empiricism. If Wilson's postmodern arguments had any validity (and they don't) they still don't provide him with any basis for being a Christian as opposed to an atheist as opposed to a Muslim as opposed to a drag queen. But science offers a standard of truth.

Wilson's other argument, that you need some third factor beyond good instincts and bad instincts to be moral, is equally lame. Necessity doesn't establish validity. As one witness to the debate in a bar points out, an argument from practicality doesn't serve to prove a position is true. What I wish Hitchens had pointed out, though, is that the third factor need not be divine authority. It can just as easily be empathy. And what about culture? What about human intentionality? Can't we look around, assess the state of the world, realize our dependence on other humans in an increasingly global society, and decide to be moral? I'm a moral being because I was born capable of empathy, and because I subscribe to Enlightenment principles of expanding that empathy and affording everyone on Earth a set of fundamental human rights. And, yes, I think the weight of the evidence suggests that religion, while it serves to foster in-group cooperation, also inspires tribal animosity and war. It needs to be done away with.

One last note: Hitchens tries to illustrate our natural impulse toward moral behavior by describing an assault on a pregnant woman. "Who wouldn't be appalled?" Wilson replies, "Planned Parenthood." I thought Hitchens of all people could be counted on to denounce such an outrage. Instead, he limply says, "Don't be flippant," then stands idly, mutely, by as Wilson explains how serious he is. It's a perfect demonstration of Hitchens's correctness in arguing that Christianity perverts morality that a man as intelligent as Wilson doesn't see that comparing a pregnant woman being thrown down and kicked in the stomach to abortion is akin to comparing violent rape to consensual sex. He ought to be ashamed--but won't ever be. I think Hitchens ought to be ashamed for letting him say it unchallenged (unless the challenge was edited out).

Monday, May 16, 2011

Art as Altruism: Lily Briscoe and the Ghost of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse Part 2 of 2

The question remains, though, of why Virginia Woolf felt it necessary to recall scenes from her childhood in order to lay to rest her inner conflict over her chosen way of life—if that is indeed what To the Lighthouse did for her. She did not, in fact, spend her entire life single but married her husband Leonard in 1912 at the age of thirty and stayed with him until her death in 1941. The Woolfs had been married fifteen years by the time Lighthouse was published (Lee 314). But Virginia’s marriage was quite different from her mother Julia’s. For one, as is made abundantly clear in her diaries, Leonard Woolf was much more supportive and much less demanding than her father Leslie Stephens. More important, though, Julia had seven children of her own and cared for one of Leslie’s from a previous marriage (Lee xx), whereas Virginia remained childless all her life. But, even if she felt her lifestyle represented such a cataclysmic break from her mother’s cultural tradition, it is remarkable that the pain of this partition persisted from the time of Julia’s death when Virginia was thirteen, until the writing of Lighthouse when she was forty-four—the same age as Lily in the last section of the novel. Lily returns to the Ramsays’ summer house ten years after the visit described in the first section, Mrs. Ramsay having died rather mysteriously in the interim, and sets to painting the same image she struggled to capture before. “She had never finished that picture. She would paint that picture now. It had been knocking about in her mind all these years” (147). But why should Lily experience such difficulty handling a conflict of views with a woman who has been dead for years?

Wilson sees the universal propensity among humans to carry on relationships with supernatural beings—like the minds and personalities of the dead, but also including disembodied characters like deities—as one of a host of mechanisms, partly cultural, partly biological, devoted to ensuring group cohesion. In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, in which he attempts to explain religion in terms of his group selection theory, he writes

"A group of people who abandon self-will and work tirelessly for a greater good will fare very well as a group, much better than if they all pursue their private utilities, as long as the greater good corresponds to the welfare of the group. And religions almost invariably do link the greater good to the welfare of the community of believers, whether an organized modern church or an ethnic group for whom religion is thoroughly intermixed with the rest of their culture. Since religion is such an ancient feature of our species, I have no problem whatsoever imagining the capacity for selflessness and longing to be part of something larger than ourselves as part of our genetic and cultural heritage." (175)

One of the main tasks religious beliefs must handle is the same “free-rider problem” William Flesch discovers at the heart of narrative. What religion offers beyond the social monitoring of group members is the presence of invisible beings whose concerns are tied in to the collective concerns of the group. Jesse Bering contributes to this perspective by positing a specific cognitive mechanism which paved the way for the evolution of beliefs about invisible agents, and his theory provides a crucial backdrop for any discussion of the role the dead play for the living, in life or in literature. Of course, Mrs. Ramsay is not a deity, and though Lily feels as she paints “a sense of some one there, of Mrs. Ramsay, relieved for a moment of the weight that the world had put on her” (181), which she earlier describes as, “Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus” (179), she does not believe Mrs. Ramsay is still around in any literal sense. Bering suggests this “nothingness” with the power to wring the heart derives from the same capacity humans depend on to know, roughly, what other humans are thinking. Though there is much disagreement about whether apes understand differences in each other’s knowledge and intentions, it is undeniably the case that humans far outshine any other creature in their capacity to reason about the inner, invisible workings of the minds of their conspecifics. We are so predisposed to this type of reasoning that, according to Bering, we apply it to natural phenomena in which no minds are involved. He writes,

"just like other people’s surface behaviors, natural events can be perceived by us human beings as being about something other than their surface characteristics only because our brains are equipped with the specialized cognitive software, theory of mind, that enables us to think about underlying psychological causes." (79)

As Lily reflects, “this making up scenes about them, is what we call ‘knowing’ people” (173). And we must make up these scenes because, like the bees hovering about the hive she compares herself to in the first section, we have no direct access to the minds of others. Yet if we are to coordinate our actions adaptively—even competitively when other groups are involved—we have no choice but to rely on working assumptions, our theories of others’ knowledge and intentions, updating them when necessary.

The reading of natural evens as signs of some mysterious mind, as well as the continued importance of minds no longer attached to bodies capable of emitting signs, might have arisen as a mere byproduct of humans’ need to understand one another, but at some point in the course our evolution our theories of disembodied minds was co-opted in the service of helping to solve the free-rider problem. In his book The God Instinct, Bering describes a series of experiments known as “The Princess Alice studies,” which have young children perform various tasks after being primed to believe an invisible agent (named Alice in honor of Bering’s mother) is in the room with them. What he and his colleagues found was that Princess Alice’s influence only emerged as the children’s theory of mind developed, suggesting “the ability to be superstitious actually demands some mental sophistication” (96). But once a theory of mind is operating the suggestion of an invisible presence has a curious effect. First in a study of college students casually told about the ghost of a graduate student before taking a math test, and then in a study of children told Princess Alice was watching them as they performed a difficult task involving Velcro darts, participants primed to consider the mind of a supernatural agent were much less likely to take opportunities to cheat which were built into the experimental designs (193-4).

Because evolution took advantage of our concern for our reputations and our ability to reason about the thoughts and feelings of others to ensure cooperation, Lily’s predicament, her argument with the ghost of Mrs. Ramsay over the proper way for a woman to live, could only be resolved through proof that she was not really free-riding or cheating, but was in fact altruistic in her own way. Considering the fate of a couple Mrs. Ramsay had encouraged to marry, Lily imagines, “She would feel a little triumphant, telling Mrs. Ramsay that the marriage had not been a success.” But, she would go on, “They’re happy like that; I’m happy like this. Life has changed completely.” Thus Lily manages to “over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas” (174-5). Lily’s ultimate redemption, though, can only come through acknowledgement that the life she has chosen is not actually selfish. The difficulty in this task stems from the fact that “one could not imagine Mrs. Ramsay standing painting, lying reading, a whole morning on the lawn” (196). Mrs. Ramsay has no appreciation for art or literature, but for Lily it is art—and for Woolf it is literature—that is both the product of all that time alone and her contribution to society as a whole. Lily is redeemed when she finishes her painting, and that is where the novel ends. At the same time, Virginia Woolf, having completed this great work of literature, bequeathed it to society, to us, and in so doing proved her own altruism, thus laying to rest the ghost of Julia Stephens.

Art as Altruism: Lily Briscoe and the Ghost of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse Part 1 of 2

Virginia Woolf underwent a transformation in the process of writing To the Lighthouse the nature of which has been the subject of much scholarly inquiry. At the center of the novel is the relationship between the beautiful, self-sacrificing, and yet officious Mrs. Ramsay, and the retiring, introverted artist Lily Briscoe. “I wrote the book very quickly,” Woolf recalls in “Sketch of the Past,” “and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.” Quoting these lines, biographer Hermione Lee suggests the novel is all about Woolf’s parents, “a way of pacifying their ghosts” (476). But how exactly did writing the novel function to end Woolf’s obsession with her mother? And, for that matter, why would she, at forty-four, still be obsessed with a woman who had died when she was only thirteen? Evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering suggests that while humans are uniquely capable of imagining the inner workings of each other’s minds, the cognitive mechanisms underlying this capacity, which psychologists call “theory of mind,” simply fail to comprehend the utter extinction of those other minds. However, the lingering presence of the dead is not merely a byproduct of humans’ need to understand and communicate with other living humans. Bering argues that the watchful gaze of disembodied minds—real or imagined—serves a type of police function, ensuring that otherwise selfish and sneaky individuals cooperate and play by the rules of society. From this perspective, Woolf’s struggle with her mother, and its manifestation as Lily’s struggle with Mrs. Ramsay, represents a sort of trial in which the younger living woman defends herself against a charge of selfishness leveled by her deceased elder. And since Woolf’s obsession with her mother ceased upon completion of the novel, she must have been satisfied that she had successfully exonerated herself.

Woolf made no secret of the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay were fictionalized versions of her own parents, and most critics see Lily as a stand-in for the author—even though she is merely a friend of the Ramsay family. These complex relationships between author and character, and between daughter and parents, lie at the heart of a dynamic which readily lends itself to psychoanalytic explorations. Jane Lilienfeld, for instance, suggests Woolf created Lily as a proxy to help her accept her parents, both long dead by the time she began writing, “as monumental but flawed human beings,” whom she both adored and detested. Having reduced the grand, archetypal Mrs. Ramsay to her proper human dimensions, Lily is free to acknowledge her own “validity as a single woman, as an artist whose power comes not from manipulating others’ lives in order to fulfill herself, but one whose mature vision encapsulates and transcends reality” (372). But for all the elaborate dealings with mythical and mysterious psychic forces, the theories of Freud and Jung explain very little about why writers write and why readers read. And they explain very little about how people relate to the dead, or about what role the dead play in narrative. Freud may have been right about humans’ intense ambivalence toward their parents, but why should this tension persist long after those parents have ceased to exist? And Jung may have been correct in his detection of mythic resonances in his patients’ dreams, but what accounts for such universal narrative patterns? What do they explain?

Looking at narrative from the perspective of modern evolutionary biology offers several important insights into why people devote so much time and energy to, and get so much gratification from immersing themselves in the plights and dealings of fictional characters. Anthropologists believe the primary concern for our species at the time of its origin was the threat of rival tribes vying for control of limited resources. The legacy of this threat is the persistent proclivity for tribal—us versus them—thinking among modern humans. But alongside our penchant for dehumanizing members of out-groups arose a set of mechanisms designed to encourage—and when necessary to enforce—in-group cooperation for the sake of out-competing less cohesive tribes. Evolutionary literary theorist William Flesch sees in narrative a play of these cooperation-enhancing mechanisms. He writes, “our capacity for narrative developed as a way for us to keep track of cooperators” (67), and he goes on to suggest we tend to align ourselves with those we perceive as especially cooperative or altruistic while feeling an intense desire to see those who demonstrate selfishness get their comeuppance. This is because “altruism could not sustain an evolutionarily stable system without the contribution of altruistic punishers to punish the free-riders who would flourish in a population of purely benevolent altruists” (66). Flesch cites the findings of numerous experiments which demonstrate people’s willingness to punish those they see as exploiting unspoken social compacts and implicit rules of fair dealing, even when meting out that punishment involves costs or risks to the punisher (31-34). Child psychologist Karen Wynn has found that even infants too young to speak prefer to play with puppets or blocks with crude plastic eyes that have in some way demonstrated their altruism over the ones they have seen behaving selfishly or aggressively (557-560). Such experiments lead Flesch to posit a social monitoring and volunteered affect theory of narrative interest, whereby humans track the behavior of others, even fictional others, in order to assess their propensity for altruism or selfishness and are anxious to see that the altruistic are vindicated while the selfish are punished. In responding thus to other people’s behavior, whether they are fictional or real, the individual signals his or her own propensity for second- or third-order altruism.

The plot of To the Lighthouse is unlike anything else in literature, and yet a great deal of information is provided regarding the relative cooperativeness of each of the characters. Foremost among them in her compassion for others is Mrs. Ramsay. While it is true from the perspective of her own genetic interests that her heroic devotion to her husband and their eight children can be considered selfish, she nonetheless extends her care beyond the sphere of her family. She even concerns herself with the tribulations of complete strangers, something readers discover early in the novel, as

"she ruminated the other problem, of rich and poor, and the things she saw with her own eyes… when she visited this widow, or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a note- book and pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment, in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem." (9)

No sooner does she finish reflecting on this social problem than she catches sight of her husband’s friend Charles Tansley, who is feeling bored and “out of things,” because no one staying at the Ramsays’ summer house likes him. Regardless of the topic Tansley discusses with them, “until he had turned the whole thing around and made it somehow reflect himself and disparage them—he was not satisfied” (8). And yet Mrs. Ramsay feels compelled to invite him along on an errand so that he does not have to be alone. Before leaving the premises, though, she has to ask yet another houseguest, Augustus Carmichael, “if he wanted anything” (10). She shows this type of exquisite sensitivity to others’ feelings and states of mind throughout the first section of the novel.

Mrs. Ramsay’s feelings about Lily, another houseguest, are at once dismissive and solicitous. Readers are introduced to Lily only through Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden realization, after prolonged absentmindedness, that she is supposed to be holding still so Lily can paint her. Mrs. Ramsay’s son James, who is sitting with her as he cuts pictures out of a catalogue, makes a strange noise she worries might embarrass him. She turns to see if anyone has heard: “Only Lily Briscoe, she was glad to find; and that did not matter.” Mrs. Ramsay is doing Lily the favor of posing, but the gesture goes no further than mere politeness. Still, there is a quality the younger woman possesses that she admires. “With her little Chinese eyes,” Mrs. Ramsay thinks, “and her puckered-up face, she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; she was an independent little creature, and Mrs. Ramsay liked her for it” (17). Lily’s feelings toward her hostess, on the other hand, though based on a similar recognition that the other enjoys aspects of life utterly foreign to her, are much more intense. At one point early in the novel, Lily wonders, “what could one say to her?” The answer she hazards is “I’m in love with you?” But she decides that is not true and settles on, “‘I’m in love with this all,’ waving her hand at the hedge, at the house, at the children” (19). What Lily loves, and what she tries to capture in her painting, is the essence of the family life Mrs. Ramsay represents, the life Lily herself has rejected in pursuit of her art. It must be noted too that, though Mrs. Ramsay is not related to Lily, Lily has only an elderly father, and so some of the appeal of the large, intact Ramsay family to Lily is the fact that she has been sometime without a mother.

Apart from admiring in the other what each lacks herself, the two women share little in common. The tension between them derives from Lily’s having resigned herself to life without a husband, life in the service of her art and caring for her father, while Mrs. Ramsay simply cannot imagine how any woman could be content without a family. Underlying this conviction is Mrs. Ramsay’s unique view of men and her relationship to them:

"Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl—pray Heaven it was none of her daughters!—who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones!" (6)

In other words, woe betide Lily Briscoe. Anthropologists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, whose work on the evolution of cooperation in humans provides the foundation for Flesch’s theory of narrative, put forth the idea that culture functions to simultaneously maintain group cohesion and to help the group adapt to whatever environment it inhabits. “Human cultures,” they point out, “can change even more quickly than the most rapid examples of genetic evolution by natural selection” (43). What underlies the divergence of views about women’s roles between the two women in Woolf’s novel is that their culture is undergoing major transformations owing to political and economic upheaval in the lead-up to The First World War.

Lily has no long-established tradition of women artists in which to find solace and guidance; rather, the most salient model of womanhood is the family-minded, self-sacrificing Mrs. Ramsay. It is therefore to Mrs. Ramsay that Lily must justify her attempt at establishing a new tradition. She reads the older woman as making the implicit claim that “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” In response, Lily imagines how

"gathering a desperate courage she would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that; and so have to meet a serious stare from eyes of unparalleled depth, and confront Mrs. Ramsay’s simple certainty… that her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool." (50)

Living alone, being herself, and refusing to give up her time or her being to any husband or children strikes even Lily herself as both selfish and illegitimate, lacking cultural sanction and therefore doubly selfish. Trying to figure out the basis of her attraction to Mrs. Ramsay, beyond her obvious beauty, Lily asks herself, “did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all? Every one could not be as helter skelter, hand to mouth as she was” (50). Lily’s dilemma is that she can either be herself, or she can be a member of a family, because being a member of a family means she cannot be wholly herself; like Mrs. Ramsay, she would have to make compromises, and her art would cease to have any more significance than the older woman’s note-book with all its writing devoted to social problems. But she must justify devoting her life only to herself. Meanwhile, she’s desperate for some form of human connection beyond the casual greetings and formal exchanges that take place under the Ramsays’ roof.

Lily expresses a desire not just for knowledge from Mrs. Ramsay but for actual unity with her because what she needs is “nothing that could be written in any language known to men.” She wants to be intimate with the “knowledge and wisdom… stored up in Mrs. Ramsay’s heart,” not any factual information that could be channeled through print. The metaphor Lily uses for her struggle is particularly striking for anyone who studies human evolution.

"How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people." (51)

According to evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, bees are one of only about fifteen species of social insect that have crossed the “Cooperation Divide,” beyond which natural selection at the level of the group supercedes selection at the level of the individual. “Social insect colonies qualify as organisms,” Wilson writes, “not because they are physically bounded but because their members coordinate their activities in organ-like fashion to perpetuate the whole” (144). The main element that separates humans from their ancestors and other primates, he argues, “is that we are evolution’s newest transition from groups of organisms to groups as organisms. Our social groups are the primate equivalent of bodies and beehives” (154). The secret locked away from Lily in Mrs. Ramsay’s heart, the essence of the Ramsay family that she loves so intensely and feels compelled to capture in her painting, is that human individuals are adapted to life in groups of other humans who together represent a type of unitary body. In trying to live by herself and for herself, Lily is going not only against the cultural traditions of the previous generation but even against her own nature.
Part 2.

Friday, May 6, 2011

How to Read Stories--You're probably doing it wrong

There are whole books out there about how to read like a professor or a writer, or how to speed-read and still remember every word. For the most part, you can discard all of them. Studies have shown speed readers are frauds—the faster they read the less they comprehend and remember. The professors suggest applying the wacky theories they use to write their scholarly articles, theories which serve to cast readers out of the story into some abstract realm of symbols, psychological forces, or politics. I find the endeavor offensive.

Writers writing about how to read like a writer are operating on good faith. They just tend to be a bit deluded. Literature is very much like a magic trick, but of course it’s not real magic. They like to encourage people to stand in awe of great works and great passages—something I frankly don’t need any encouragement to do (what is it about the end of “Mr. Sammler’s Planet”?) But to get to those mystical passages you have to read a lot of workaday prose, even in the work of the most lyrical and crafty writers. Awe simply can’t be used as a reading strategy.

Good fiction is like a magic trick because it’s constructed of small parts that our minds can’t help responding to holistically. We read a few lines and all the sudden we have a person in mind; after a few pages we find ourselves caring about what happens to this person. Writers often avoid talking about the trick and the methods and strategies that go into it because they’re afraid once the mystery is gone the trick will cease to convince. But even good magicians will tell you well performed routines frequently astonish even the one performing them. Focusing on the parts does not diminish appreciation for the whole.

The way to read a piece of fiction is to use the information you've already read in order to anticipate what will happen next. Most contemporary stories are divided into several sections, which offer readers the opportunity to pause after each, reflecting how it may fit into the whole of the work. The author had a purpose in including each section: furthering the plot, revealing the character’s personality, developing a theme, or playing with perspective. Practice posing the questions to yourself at the end of each section, what has the author just done, and what does it suggests she’ll likely do in sections to come.

In the early sections, questions will probably be general: What type of story is this? What type of characters are these? But by the time you reach about the two/thirds point they will be much more specific: What’s the author going to do with this character? How is this tension going to be resolved? Efforts to classify and anticipate the elements of the story will, if nothing else, lead to greater engagement with it. Every new character should be memorized—even if doing so requires a mnemonic (practice coming up with one on the fly).

The larger goal, though, is a better understanding of how the type of fiction you read works. Your efforts to place each part into the context of the whole will, over time, as you read more stories, give you a finer appreciation for the strategies writers use to construct their work, one scene or one section at a time. And as you try to anticipate the parts to come from the parts you’ve read you will be training your mind to notice patterns, laying down templates for how to accomplish the types of effects—surprise, emotional resonance, lyricism, profundity—the author has accomplished.

By trying to get ahead of the author, as it were, you won’t be learning to simply reproduce the same effects. By internalizing the strategies, making them automatic, you’ll be freeing up your conscious mind for new flights of creative re-working. You’ll be using the more skilled author’s work to bootstrap your own skill level. But once you’ve accomplished this there’ll be nothing stopping you from taking your own writing to the next level. Anticipation makes reading a challenge in real time—like a video game. And games can be conquered.

Finally, if a story moves you strongly, re-read it immediately. And then put it in a stack for future re-reading.