“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
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
I'll be paring this down a bit. My advisors felt that the project spelled out here is more appropriate for doctoral disseration or some such longer work.
Grandeur in This View of Literature?
What, if anything, can evolutionary theory contribute to the study of literature? Is it possible to study literature scientifically, and if so what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so? The trend among literary theorists is to regard science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular as deeply suspect since they have historically functioned as ideological justifications for various types of violence and oppression. Yet, by unmooring literary scholarship from sound epistemology, critics almost inevitably fall victim to what Frederick Crews calls “the fast-talking superstars who have prostituted it to crank theory, political conformism, and cliquishness” (xv). Will E.O. Wilson’s idea of consilience between science and the humanities be just another trendy fashion among literary scholars—if it ever takes hold at all? Will science ever serve any role in the humanities other than that of ideological bastion of European male hegemony? Does an evolutionary approach to literature hold promise in the quest for insights based on sound reasoning that go beyond mere justification for the political status quo?
The primary function of a literary theory is to offer insight into works of literature, what they mean, why they appeal or fail to appeal to readers, how they are influenced by and how they in turn influence the cultures in which they emerge and in which they are appreciated. But the insights borne of the application of a theory to a text cannot be taken as evidence of that theory’s validity. Many literary works have been interpreted psychoanalytically, for instance, and the application of Freud’s theory has yielded insights into those works. But, as evidence against psychoanalytic theories mounts, those insights must be called into question. Theories must be validated independently of their application to texts. And the validity of insights produced through the application of theories is contingent on the validity of those theories.
Interpreting a literary work from the perspective of one or another ideology is usually an easy task, regardless of whether that ideology is scientifically grounded. The question then becomes are there empirically validated theories that might be of interest to literary scholars? If so, do they yield insights into literary works beyond simple distillations of the prevailing culture? Once the difficulty of arriving at scientifically sound theories and the threat that such theories somehow encourage the oppression of women and minorities are dealt with, a third potential stumbling block remains. If a scientific theory of narrative is possible, might it reduce literature to a set of mechanistic principles, and thus rob it of some of its mysterious capacity to enchant audiences? Or might such a theory somehow enrich the experience of literature?
This project will begin with an exploration of some current approaches to bringing literature into the realm of human biological and cultural evolution. The most promising of these approaches to date sees storytelling as emerging from evolved dispositions toward monitoring other people for signals of their propensity for either selfishness or altruism, and toward signaling one’s own altruism by emotionally favoring altruistic characters. This approach is described by William Flesch in his book, Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. Is Flesch’s theory valid? Does it offer any insight into actual literary works?
The second part of the project will explore possible methods whereby theories of narrative may be tested to establish their validity. Of course, these tests must go beyond seeing whether or not applying the theory generates insights into a literary work, because it’s possible for invalid theories to generate invalid insights. The tests must involve predictions emerging from the theories that can either fail or succeed. One possible way to test Flesch’s social monitoring and volunteered affect theory, for instance, would be to sample a large body of works to see if a strong trend exists for stories to focus on conflicts between selfish characters and altruistic ones. If such conflicts only show up in a minority of literary works, or if they take place only at the periphery of most stories, then the prediction, and the theory along with it, fail.
Since gathering such a large sample would be a daunting endeavor, bringing with it a large risk of confirmation bias, previous attempts by scholars to come up with exhaustive catalogues of plot and character types may be of use. Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and Georges Polti’s The Thirty-six Dramatic Situations suggests themselves as good sources for data.
The third and final part of this project will consist of an application of evolutionary theories of literature to diverse works so that an (unavoidably subjective) assessment of the value of the insights can be made. Works from different historical eras and spanning a wide breadth of geographical space may serve to highlight the complementary roles of universal cognitive mechanisms and cultural traditions. What counts as altruism, for instance, might vary across cultures. Likewise, each culture tends to sanction certain selfish acts more than others. So the basic framework of selfless protagonist and selfish antagonist can take on countless forms and carry with it important information about a culture and what’s expected of individuals living in it. Possible candidates for this type of analysis are Milton’s Paradise Lost—an interesting case because many readers sympathize strongly with Satan, the antagonist—and Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a modern cult classic in which one character teaches the other the importance of self-destruction.
Monday, August 29, 2011
I sat taking notes about an email marketing project I’ll be working on at the new job and I was slightly shocked, mostly delighted, by the way it operated. I needed to be brought up to speed. They needed to coordinate their ideas for where we’d be going with the project. Me, two guys, one a Battle-of-the-Bands veteran younger than me, the other a management type with a kind face and a polo shirt with the company logo, and one woman, pretty, assertive in a way that suggests she never had to deal with severe dismissal, the four of us sitting around a table in an office throwing out ideas with only the whisper of top-down control. What would it be like to work at a place where you hardly ever, if ever, eat shit? I don’t know about this real world everyone likes to talk about, and I’m pretty sure the people who talk about it, to a one, don’t know about it either, but I do know that a hell of a lot of people’s jobs consist of eating shit all day, every day. I’m left wondering what I can say about my feet now that I have this new gig.
Twenty hours a week, and most of that time will be devoted to writing copy. At that rate, it won’t take long before my copywriting has overtaken any other writing I’ve done. Are there measures I can take to avoid getting trapped in that style, at once condescending and wheedling, straining to be colloquial and simple while working secret magic on the minds of hapless, bored, or desperate readers with fancy titles and impressive investment portfolios. “Connect with their pain” is the first step in the sales technique I’ll be learning. People are motivated not by promises of gains but by threats of losses. So find out what people are afraid of losing or how they’ve already experienced loss and dangle a way to avoid or restore it in front of them. I have no qualms about selling to “C-Level” people. But what will it do to my writing? My outlook?
Twenty hours at work, then there’s my thesis with its high academic, acid-free prose. Between school and work then I’ll be writing in a voice far removed from what anyone might recognize as genuine or authentic. Of course, I have my suspicions about the use of those terms, but you can’t explode what you haven’t mastered, at least when it comes to conventions of communication. The work you do becomes a part of you, and so you can’t just say this place has a great atmosphere, decent pay, no dealing with moronic disrespectful customers. You also have to ask, who will this job turn me into? Who will I become after I’ve adapted to this place, begun the inevitable social jostling and taken on a role, climbing or otherwise?
I console myself that I’ve spent lots of time eating shit, that people who eat too much shit eventually lose the capacity to arrive at perspective, and I’ll never acclimate as fully as my coworkers in their early twenties. Plus, white collar work is what most of the oblivious conservatives actually mean when they talk about the real world. So maybe I’ll discover some key to the lock of their oblivion. It’s something new. It’s an opportunity. And I’m not the type to forget where I came from.
Saturday, August 20, 2011
Will was talking and at the same time lifting tuna from a can to his mouth with a fork. I’d dropped by his apartment to discuss the arrangements for our trip the coming weekend, but the habit of talking game was ingrained. Since Will is so extraverted, not particularly given to self-reflection, it took me a minute to switch gears and realize he wasn’t just talking about the mechanics of his seduction process; he’d broached the topic by complaining about how lame his grounding sequence was. He’d never even bothered to go into it with Stacy. She must’ve been okay with him not having a career picked out.
“I get into stuff,” he said, chewing, “like football when we were in high school, but it never leads anywhere. I thought maybe I could go into sports psychology or something. But I just can’t sit in a room with a book like you can. My mind starts to drift as soon as I start reading.”
“That sounds like a lot of business people I know. Maybe you should be trying to get into sales.”
“Why? So I can make a bunch of money and turn into a total schmuck? Money’s cool and all, but look around—you see plenty of people selling out and they end up at least as depressed as anyone else. You were the one who told me that once you have enough to meet your basic needs more money doesn’t make you any happier. So what would be the point of getting on the phone or going to meetings, putting on a fake smile and making deals with a bunch of total douches?”
“It might not have to be like that. It might be more like game.”
“Man, I don’t think about game like that. When I’m in the field, I’m not selling a damn thing. I’m being me. Because going out and having a good time and meeting people, meeting beautiful women, showing everyone a good time—that’s what I want to do. That’s what I love most about life. That and the way you and I coordinate so well sometimes that it’s like the two of us can run the whole world, like no one can imagine we know each other’s game so well, so we can bounce routines off each other and they think it would be totally impossible to do on purpose. It’s like we’re taking it to some new level—almost like some out-of-body experience.”
I know the feeling he was talking about. I’ve read similar accounts by dancers and guys describing their marches in military formation. It might be similar to what some people get from religious ceremonies, a sense that you’ve transcended your individual existence and become part of something greater. But those experiences are all choreographed. Will and I rely on routines, but we also improvise—and we play off each other, like jazz musicians. It really is kind of glorious.
“But what am I going to say?” Will went on, setting the empty tuna can on the coffee table with the fork balancing on the rim. “‘I knew from a young age I wanted to be a pick-up artist’? That’s never going to play well. I actually envy you—even though you have all these issues with pick-up. The truth is you probably wouldn’t be talking to these people if you weren’t running game. And I know you don’t feel like you’re genuinely expressing yourself when you are. But you’ve got something else going on and I don’t. I get home from work and I’m jumping out of my skin I’m so bored. But you—I’ve seen you—you pick up a book or a magazine and you just get lost. I wish I could be that fascinated by something, even if it did sort of alienate me.”
“You shouldn’t envy me. I look at people and all I see is rot. I see people brutalizing their own sense of reality so they can convince themselves they’re the shit, that they and theirs are the only ones truly deserving to inherit the world. I see us-and-them and to hell with them, no one giving a damn about anything that goes on unless it’s going on right in front of their faces. I see people either so completely fucking oblivious or so thoroughly deluded that they wear clothes manufactured by people in some far-off country under conditions they’d literally kill to keep their own kids safe from—and it gets chalked up to the wonders of the modern world. I see the promise of the Enlightenment squandered for a bunch of bullshit fairytales and fistfuls of French fries.”
I was losing him. He sat in his recliner looking at me over the coffee table, feeling sorry for me. And what had I wanted him to feel for me? I pushed out a laugh and shook my head, determined to get the conversation back on topic, back on to what Will might do with his life, and on to how he could make a grounding sequence out of it. “Grownups are a bunch of goddam phonies,” I joked, even as I realized he probably wouldn’t catch the allusion. “You know, my grounding sequence has me being a science writer, starting from when we were in second grade and Mrs. Gulius had us reading about dinosaurs and going out to look for Haley’s comet. So from the time I’m 23 I’m writing a blog about science and how it relates to things like politics and world hunger. And you can track your traffic on those blogs. Most of my pages after a while got like ten hits. After two years, my site totaled like two hundred and fifty visitors. I bet half of those were just searching for pictures or something. Then I start talking to Anton and getting into game. I read and post on the forums. Then I start a new blog of my own, all about seduction. It had two hundred and fifty hits after the first month. Every time I post something now I can wait about a week and check the stats—most of them will already have like a hundred hits. The game blog gets as many hits every week as the science one got in two years.”
Will was leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands folded. He looked at me, furrowed his brown, half-frowned, at a loss, wondering what he could do about his friend, the tortured soul. I hate that look of his, that bafflement as to why I’d insist on doing anything but enjoying myself as much as possible. And he’s right. There is no reason. You can’t take life that seriously because you’ll only make yourself miserable and because you have so little influence on the world anyway. But once in a while I slip.
“Well, that’s not the catastrophe you’re making out,” he said. “People search blogs for pick-up routines—I bet three quarters of your traffic is for either the Alpha Test of the In-Love Test. I wish I could pull stuff half that good out of my ass. And you weren’t even running game when you first did the In-Love Test; you were getting revenge or something.”
“What? I wasn’t getting revenge. I was…” What was I doing?
“It doesn’t matter. My point is that blogs are where you go for game stuff. But if you want science stuff I’d guess that’s the last place you’d look. You’d want a site with more authority that not just any jackhole can post on. So, you can’t let that discourage you. And if you’re not thinking about making a career out of game you should probably stop letting it be such a huge distraction. Seriously, if you’re going to be a science writer, what’s the next step?”
“Okay, you’re right. Don’t start running that self-help crap on me. Besides, we’re talking about what you want to do—aside from game.”
He stood up with a sigh and I leaned back into the couch, draped my arm over the top and watched him take up his pacing track, marveling all the while that he hadn’t yet worn a discernable pattern in the carpet.
“I hate to say it, but every time I try to think about it I feel old. It’s too late to start directing movies, or writing screenplays, or—hell, I don’t even know what I’d start doing. I hate this feeling. It makes me avoid thinking about it and that makes it impossible to come up with any good solutions for it.”
“Will, I can’t believe this. I’ve never seen you struggle with anything like this before. Breathe. Now, freaking out’s going to make it harder to think flexibly. So think about something that makes you laugh. –Seriously, think about a good time you’ve had that makes you laugh. That’s how you get a good baseline for your mood, so you can be creative under stress. Now, there are at least ten different angles we can look at this from. For instance, instead of trying to come up with things you’re interested in other than game, try thinking about what you love so much about game and then see if there’s anything else that’s similar. Or—”
“That’s really how you do it? You think of something funny and then you start coming up with different ways of looking at it. I think you should write a book on that. I’d fucking read it. What do I love about the game? Well, people automatically assume it’s just so sinister but how many people—male and female—struggle with meeting people and struggle with relationships? We’re just supposed to leave it to chance, or leave it in God’s hands. Fuck that. People don’t leave their careers to chance—actually, way too many people probably do just leave their careers to chance. But it’s not considered immoral to think strategically about what kind of job you want to spend the rest of your life doing.
“This may sound cheesy, but I want to teach game and help guys perfect their routines because I actually believe it’ll make everyone involved happier. I think of the guys in high school, the ones who look at the quarterback and the cheerleader, and resent the shit out of him just because he has what they want. I want to take those kids aside and be like, ‘You don’t have to be the quarterback, and you don’t have to have rich parents and drive an expensive car.’ They say it’s dishonest or some bullshit. But what’s really dishonest is that poor kid sitting there pining for his high school sweetheart and being fucking paralyzed because he has no idea what to do about it. He’s not being pure and honest. He’s hurting. That’s not innocent. It’s fucking sad. And as kids, boys especially, spend more time playing videogames and looking at porn it’s only going to get worse.
“I know wires get crossed sometimes and people’s feelings get hurt. But maybe we can come up with strategies to avoid that too. I mean, it’s so fun—when it’s going right, it’s so fun. It breaks my heart to see guys walking into the bar with a scowl on their face trying to look tough because they think that’s what women want and because they’re pissed off everybody seems to be getting laid but them.”
“Did you just use the expression, ‘It breaks my heart’? I don’t know how seriously to take you when you’re talking like this.”
“I’m completely serious. Do you ever see me getting into those super alpha matches some pick-up guys are obsessed with? I’m not about proving I can snatch your girl away from you. It’s not necessary. I believe there’s a way to do this stuff and have everyone enjoying themselves. And I don’t look at Mr. Scowl Face and think, you know, ‘What a tool.’ I think, ‘Damn dude, you’re doing it wrong.’ I want to go over and help him.”
“I have to admit, I remember a couple of times when you basically bailed on a set to coach young guys with no self-esteem.”
“I’d do it more often if I thought it would help. Scowly faces won’t let you coach them because they’re afraid you’re trying to tool them out. But I got more joy out of watching that one dude—Sam was his name—open a two-set after I talked to him for like twenty minutes than I got out of closing with that woman later the same night. I actually wonder what Sam’s doing now. Anyway, imagine how great it would be to run a bootcamp for guys and watch them use the stuff you teach—just a little bit of game and your confidence soars. You’re changing their lives, making their lives better.”
“Now, I envy you. Only you could make pick-up into a public service.”
“Hey, that’s how I look at it. And we both know stories about women who ended up freaking out and crying, but those are by far the minority. I know for a fact the girls we game end up having a good time. That’s my point: you can do it right and it’s fun for everyone. The women are going out hoping that—desperate that some guy runs good game on them. They love it. They get hurt when you fuck it up. And one of the things I learned from you is that you can even hurt them a bit and that can just mean even more pleasure later.”
Will broke off, leaving me to turn over what he said about hurting women, while he looked at his phone. “Stacy’s been sending me messages. I have to call her back. Hold on a sec.” It’s true, I thought, he really is going to be an instructor. And he’s going to be fucking good at it. And he’s exactly the type of guy you’d want helping clueless kids figure out how to talk to women they like—unless of course he keeps learning from me.
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Beyond the long, low, still impressively straight peak of the pitched roof was nothing but fallow land for a half-mile and then more trees and then the main road alive with the sounds of distant vehicles straining to keep pace with the busy modern world. Power lines that once brought electricity and phone service to the caved-in house ran along the edge of the woods back toward the unforgotten stretch of inhabited homes running as far in each direction as you cared to drive. What used to be the barn’s double doors sliding open and shut on rollers now stands as a dark gape in the dull gray stacked layers of weathered plank, like the mouth of a cave on the barren surface of the moon, but with none of that enchanted silver glow. These places give me a shocking sense of impermanence, not because they’re old and abandoned, but because you know their desuetude won’t be tolerated for long. Kids and teenagers make up stories about scary things that happen in them, and then approach them day or night with a thrill, unaware that what makes their persistence ghostly is the brevity of their future rather than their surplus of memories.
Appropriately, one of these story-addled kids has spray-painted the word “DEATH” beside the mouth of the cave, just beneath the sagging eaves. As Will, Stacy, and I approached, we were those kids too, a grown woman and two fully adult men pricking their ears and casting wary glances about for evidence of somebody who might get them in trouble with parents they hardly ever see anymore. This return to childhood is a remarkably effective tool for seduction. “What in the hell is that?” I heard Will say as I filed in the barn behind him and Stacy. She said something under her breath as they both tip-toed around some object on the wooden floor.
“Holy shit!” I said, “It’s foot track magic.”
“No,” Stacy said. “Foot track spells are hoodoo. This is a Goetia seal.”
Will and I turned simultaneously to look at her, and then each other, before turning our gaze back to the floor. For a long minute we all stood on the edge of the chalk circle staring at the design in the middle of it—three even-sided crosses, perched on the rim of a bowl shape. Concentric with the outer circle was another, and between them were several letters I had to lean over and move around to read as we all instinctively avoided stepping inside the perimeter, which was about eight feet in diameter. “R-I-S-I-T,” I said. “Is Risit an incantation or the name of a spirit or what?”
“Don’t say his name,” Stacy said. “And you start at the top, stupid—with the S. He’s a demon. See where they burned the candles? Someone did a ritual out here to invoke him.”
“Sitri?” Will said.
“I said don’t say his name. And don’t step in the circle.” She barked these interdictions at him like a frustrated parent as she moved around the design, as if checking to see if it was drawn correctly. “It was probably some idiot teenage girl trying to get some poor guy to fall in love with her,” she said, shaking her head in exasperation. “She probably found this on the damn internet and has no idea what kind of trouble she’s getting them both in.”
I had moved away from the seal onto a dais to get a better view of it in its totality. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Will come upon a bunch of boards that had been pushed up against the wall to clear space for drawing the design. After leaping over the clutter, he stood for a second and then turned excitedly to say something to me. There was a crunching sound that interrupted him and made both Stacy me turn our eyes in his direction. He stood looking down at something with both arms raised out to his sides. “Oh, fuck.”
He took three backward steps right into the middle of the circle. From her vantage, Stacy was able to see what had happened before I did. My first hint was the look of horror on her face. Trying to follow their gaze, I saw that something was wrong with Will’s leg—there was a dark streak that as I approached resolved into a gouge. He had run his shin against a large piece of glass jutting out invisibly from between two boards leaning against the wall. Stacy was at his side as quickly as I was. “Jesus! Don’t let any of your blood get in the circle!”
She pushed the two of us to the side. This should have infuriated me. But when I looked at her I was able to read a story in her expression. It actually reminded me of two experiences I’d had with Will, the first of which occurred in the days before we were experienced drinkers. We were at a club at closing time and the staff was trying to corral everyone out. A bouncer who had been gently shoving me toward the door actually followed me into the men’s room as I rushed into one of the stalls to puke. What I remember is that after retching and falling back away from the toilet, I felt the guy trying to lift me by my shirt. That’s when Will pushed through the door of the bathroom. His eyes went first to mine, allowing him to assess just how sorry a state I was in, and then to the bouncer’s. I’ll never forget his immediate flash of rage on my behalf. “Don’t fucking touch him!” It impressed even the bouncer himself, who all but leapt away from me. As Will was helping me to my feet, the bouncer, no lightweight himself, said, “Just get him out of here,” with a tremble that made me think he was on the verge of tears.
The second incident was years later. It was also after a night at a bar, but we’d been concentrating too much on picking up the two women who’d come back to Will’s apartment with us to have gotten all that drunk. Still, a wave of nausea struck me, and I crawled out of the recliner to lie down on the floor. I looked up to see Will sitting up on the couch beside his girl but with his eyes closed. Something was wrong with him too. My girl seemed to think I was playing some sort of game—ha!—and knelt beside me. When she started petting my head, it was almost too much take. I opened my eyes just a moment before Will opened his. He looked at me, knew instantly I was in distress, and shouted at the poor girl, “Quit fucking crowding him!” before closing his eyes again and leaning his head back. The girls left in a huff—to my relief. It turned out both Will and I had the flu.
Stacy, though she wasn’t angry, had a similar look of urgent concern on her face. Will was hurt, and of course it was time to dispense with all the silly nonsense about seals and spells. But she was genuinely worried for him, and she went into action without hesitation, taking off the shirt she was wearing over a tank top and squatting to inspect the maceration before wrapping it. Will, on the other hand, didn’t seem concerned so much as amused. “Damn,” he said, “it looks like—eh, a certain part of the female anatomy.”
The wound was a good four inches running up and down at a slight angle to his shin bone. And it was indeed both wide and deep enough to be suggestive of a bodily orifice. Amazingly, it wasn’t gushing blood. In fact, it seemed to take a minute before it even started bleeding. “Um, anybody know how to sew? I don’t have insurance.”
“You’re probably in the clear,” Stacy said, dabbing at the blood trickling down toward his sock. “If you’d hit anything vital, it would be bleeding a lot more. We can take care of this with some butterfly bandages and Neosporin. Trust me: I have a lot of experience with cuts. You’re going to have a hell of a scar though.”
After tying her shirt around his leg, Stacy turned back toward the chalk circle. She took a few steps toward the wall, leant down to look at something, and then stood up with her eyes closed, shaking her head. “You got your blood in the circle.”
Will laughed. “Does that mean I’m going to fall in love with some idiot teenage girl?”
“Believe me, Will, it’s not fucking funny.”
Stacy started looking around the barn with a look of concentration on her face, trying to decide on a course of action. Then, decision made, she abruptly turned around and squatted by the boards piled against the wall. When she turned back toward us, she was squeezing her left hand into a fist. “What are doing?” I asked. “We kind of need to get Will out of here—like right now.”
“Just a second.” She held her fist over the spot where she’d found drops of Will’s blood scattered on the wood. And just as I suspected her own blood began to drop from her hand onto the same spot.
“Nice,” I said, the delayed annoyance arriving.
Stacy followed in her car as I drove Will’s truck to Walgreen’s. By the time we’d biked back to the parking lot, Stacy’s shirt was soaked through. But Will carried on a conversation in the truck as if nothing had happened. Back at his apartment, after he and Stacy had disappeared into the bathroom for a few minutes to clean the wound and shave the surrounding area, I watched in amazement as she tended to the wound with deft expertise, applying the butterflies perfectly, dabbing the blood with gauze, and looking up to his face at intervals with tender concern to monitor his response. As far as I could tell, he was never in any pain. He talked and joked the whole time. But maybe she saw something I missed.