Here we are at week two, and another set of readings is ready for exploration. This week’s loose theme is Emotion and Literature, though I’m going to be focusing in on a cognitive narrative reading and its relationship to Othello, which we also read for this week.
The reading that most caught my attention this week was Blakey Vermeule’s Why do we care about literary characters, a book about how we encounter characters and indeed other minds more generally. Putting aside what I consider to be some pretty problematic claims (any time someone starts throwing around words like “primitive” or “natural” with cognition and consciousness I bristle a bit), Vermeule offers several really interesting concepts surrounding the idea of humans as social creatures with social minds. These concepts include animism (attributing life and thought to creatures and objects, p. 21), agency (imagining how others have specific intents, goals, and reasoning, p. 22), person (person is more than a body, it is a body with a mind, p. 23), and social orders (networks of persons, how they relate to each other, p. 23). All of these basic concepts are united by narrative, which is itself a way of organizing and understanding experience and consciousness.
Where all of this gets fun though is in considering minds in relation to one another–specifically, how our minds imagine other minds around them. Vermeule puts this in terms of a Machiavellian game (30), one in which we are constantly measuring and anticipating other minds in cooperation or conflict. This is an interesting move that relies on a number of unspoken assumptions–for example, the assumption that social living is inherently competitive–but it does get at how playful and imaginative the process of relating to others is. Existing in a social network of minds necessarily involves the constant reading and rereading of others’ thoughts and actions, what Vermeule calls “mind reading” (34). This reading involves imagining the mind of someone else, and thus attributing to them thoughts, emotions, habits, etc. One can be better or worse at this process, and, as a result, better or worse at playing what we might call the social game.
Of course one cannot be *too* Machiavellian in one’s mind reading, as that implies a maliciousness that cannot be tolerated by the proper social order. One must play the game, but never too well or too selfishly.
Here we can easily shift to the character of Iago from Othello, the titular character’s nefarious ensign or “ancient”. Iago outwits many of the other characters for the majority of the play, but his intelligence is a very social one–he excels at reading others and anticipating their actions. This does not necessarily mean that he is always right about others or even that he is more rational in a given situation. For example, much of Iago’s hatred for Othello is driven by the (almost definitely) mistaken conviction that Othello has slept with his wife: “For I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat–the thought whereof / Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards” (37). Here Iago has misread the reality of the situation and ultimately the minds of Othello and his wife–the latter of which will cost him dearly in the end.
Despite this crucial misreading, Iago demonstrates a keen ability to understand and manipulate others to his own ends. He correctly infers that Roderigo loves Desdemona, and will do anything to win her (women are just prizes to be won after all, right?). As a result he has a most willing pawn to use in stirring up Brabantio, unseating Cassio, and ultimately attempting to murder Cassio. Iago’s successful mind reading of Roderigo gives him power over Roderigo, furthering for us the connection between social minds and Machiavellian power games. Iago also successfully plays on Othello’s emotions, knowing that driving a rift between Othello and Desdemona will ultimately undo Othello. Of course an additional key to Iago’s success is the inability of every other character to correctly mind read him–every other character regards him as a friend, and as such they regard him as incapable of any devious thought or action. Here we can see that the Machiavellian strategy of reading social minds is built not just on correctly imagining the minds of others, but also effacing their ability to read yours.
Iago ultimately meets his end though when his wife Emilia outs him on the case of the missing handkerchief (he would have gotten away with it too, if not for those stupid kids…). Beyond misreading his wife and her loyalty to him, Iago also failed to properly adhere to the social order of mind reading–he was too selfish, too Machiavellian. This can only endure as long as the true Machiavellian can hide their true mind from others. As soon as this fails, other minds will perceive the Machiavellian mind for the threat that it is, and they will act to eliminate the threat. Iago demonstrates how playing with minds can be both fruitful and dangerous. We should be careful how we encounter the minds of others, and how we let them encounter ours.