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The Call of Evolution in Cognitive Narrative Theory

This week’s readings bring us into familiar territory in talking about minds in fiction, but also present some new considerations in relation to other readings and on their own. For this week I will be discussing Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction (a great work I found so useful in my MA work) in relation to the pquote-persuasion-jane-austen-L-bKis06revious weeks’ readings of David Lodge’s Consciousness and the Novel and Vermeule’s Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? I will discuss the connections between these works in relation to Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which, total side note, is my favorite Austen novel). I’ll include a picture of the lovely couple from a film adaptation of the novel, mostly because seeing pretty people in love never truly gets old.

One of the interesting and frustrating commonalities in works of cognitive narrative theory seems to be a constant return to evolutionary explanations of how the mind works. Zunshine demonstrates this in her own work when she poses the question of, “What is the evolutionary history of [mind-reading], that is, in response to what environmental challenges did it evolve?” (13). This question is at the same time an intriguing one and perhaps an unnecessary or unanswerable one. Clearly human development was shaped by evolution, and inevitably at some point that must have included the shaping of human consciousness and cognitive processes. However we will ever be able to access these earlier moments in human consciousness, or to say with any degree of reliability what shaped them? Can we ever reach beyond speculation and educated guessing in this matter? The only record of minds from thousands of years ago seems to come in the form of literature, and this can only take us back so far. Surely human consciousness emerged before the written record, likely (and here again we can do no more than speculate) in the formation of language in oral tradition long since lost to us. And if we cannot truly access the human consciousness of different eras even with the written record and literature, could we ever make reliable claims of its evolutionary development? To what extent can we even claim that evolutionary processes affect modern human consciousness, with our access to what is natural or unnatural so restricted by the complexities of social and cultural construction?

These questions are getting fairly large though, so it may be helpful to tie them down to something more specific. Looking at the beginning of Austen’s Persuasion, we immediately encounter Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s father whose narcissism would give Narcissus a run for his money. Sir Elliot is obssessed with his own standing in having a baronetcy: “[Sir Elliot] considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion” (6). We learn very quickly in the novel that the very baronetcy Elliot loves so much is imperiled by his inability to control his spending, a trait he shares with his daughter Elizabeth. To return to the issue of evolutionary cognition, to what extent could we apply this to Sir Elliot and Elizabeth? Are they failing at cognition and mind-reading, and if so shouldn’t that mean they fall as characters more successful at it rise, promoting the evolution of cognition?

It seems that they do fail at cognition and mind-reading, particularly when it comes to imagining themselves and the states of others (this has the consistent potential of getting them into trouble). However they obviously do not fail as the novel progresses, admittedly largely thanks to Anne’s persistent endeavors on their behalf. Their inability to mind-read and play the social game well does not prevent them from arriving safely at the end of the novel. This is by no means a takedown of evolutionary processes in cognition, and indeed it is a bit of a straw man to say that minds in the form of eighteenth and nineteenth century characters are what Zunshine and others are talking about with evolutionary cognition. Nevertheless, the characters of Persuasion demonstrate some of the problems with trying to map evolutionary processes onto modern consciousness and mind-reading. Perhaps it is simply a matter of time, and in the short span of recent human history we cannot see further evolutionary change in social mind-reading. Yet even this relies on a host of assumptions that remain very difficult to prove. What does seem apparent is that cognitive narrative theory needs to be a bit more careful with how and when it utilizes evolution in its explanations of modern human minds.

1 Comment

  1. Natalie Phillips

    More on the content re: the tilt toward evolutionary explanations in cognitive approaches to lit to come in class… A quick note here: your move toward the comparison of different characters’ mind-reading capacities (or sympathetic faculty, as it would likely have been called in the 18th & 19th-C) is pertinent and apt. How do different character’s abilities to read others (or not) influence our judgement of their cognitive richness and depth—and the attention or weight we give them in a novel or play?

    Sidenote: My favorite sentence, aesthetically speaking :), is perhaps this: “Looking at the beginning of Austen’s Persuasion, we immediately encounter Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s father, whose narcissism would give Narcissus a run for his money.” Delightful. 🙂

    To be more theoretical, a series of questions: What effect does the narcissism displayed by Sir Walter Elliot (an inordinate attention to self that blocks attention to others?) have on his capacities for mind-reading other characters in the novel? What does giving him this self-oriented framework in the narrative do to and for us re: our ability (or narrative encouragement) to empathize or identify with him? Is this a quality that distinguishes major and minor characters in Austen? At the beginning, remember, he declares the heroine is “only Anne.”

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