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Category Archives: Novel
Despite all odds, the ‘digital menace’ resolved into a ‘digital opportunity’ favoring the diffusion of literature. According with wiser predictions (Carrière – Eco 2009), the rise of new media paradoxically fostered the popularity of the the book as a medium, of literature as a crucial communication system, and even more slightly the predominance of the novel as a genre. Calvino (1988) was right indeed when predicting that he trusted in literature and its ability to last through the current millennium, because its specific bag of tools make it possible to do things which are otherwise undoable.
Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed, by web culture and new media, literature seems to be in pretty good shape. Actually, literature played an essential part in the development of groundbreaking commercial web based services such as Amazon, which was originally introduced as a telematic bookshop. Moreover, very crowded second generation web-based communities, such as aNobii, LibraryThing, or Goodreads, are actually based on literature as the main interest shared by thousand of enthusiastic readers from everywhere in the world.
Interestingly, literary systems emerging from digital shelves of socially networked bookworms look like Taleb’s ‘Estremistan’, that is as a winner-takes-(almost)-all cultural environment (Taleb 2007: 30) in which the novel definitely plays an hegemonic role (Fuksas 2008). So, the rise of digital media did not impacted dramatically neither the popularity of literature, nor the predominance of the novel, that is emerging more and more as a global standard for storytelling.
Deep in the middle of the so-called digital era visitors of bookshops such as Barnes and Noble in DC, FNAC in Paris or Feltrinelli in Rome still find themselves surrounded by novels and they keep buying them. Many of them purchase or illegally download thousand of epub and mobi novels which they collect in their ipad and kindle tablets. Matter-of-factly, the novel is playing a dramatic role in the survival of literature across the digital age, as it did through the modern era, characterized by the rise of powerful media such as radio, cinema and television.
The present investigation aims at suggesting that the novel is so powerful and sticky because it is a “Genere Mondo” implying a collaborative interaction between all the literary products which belong to the genre. The very concept of Genere Mondo paraphrases Franco Moretti’s idea of “Opera Mondo”, applying to modern epic literary works which aim at incorporating the entire world into their textual format. An Opera Mondo aims at digesting and outclassing previous literary tradition rather than complementi it, that is at trespassing the boundaries of a specific genre, or the very notion of genre itself, rather than implementing it.
For instance, Dante’s Commedia is “comedy”, as the title suggests, an original verse narrative whose textual format is carefully designed so as to differ from a traditional novel. The octosyllabe (8sill) is replaced by the endecasillabo (10’sill), and the couplet by the terzina, adding 3 syllables ro each verse and 1 verse to any pattern metric unit.
Hence, the Commedia is an un-novelistic literary work whose textual format implicitly exceeds the boundaries of the novel, as its themes and subjects do.
The “Opera Mondo” typically aims at setting itself apart from the esthetics which implicitly substantiate traditional literary genres. A clear morphologic statement gives birth to a literary work which will be eventually celebrated as an original masterpiece, but will hardly emerge as a role-model. The “Opera Mondo” is typically unprecedented and unsurpassed because it is a league of its own, unparalleled and beyond compare, aberrant and superlative at the very same time: a wonder and freak.
Since an “Opera Mondo” will be hardly taken as a model, being intrinsically impossible to emulate, it won’t define the borders of a new literary genre. Sometimes authors are consciously operating so as to produce an inimitable “Opera Mondo”. In other cases such an outcome depends on the degeneration of a literary work which was originally planned to fit the current literary system but accidentally transcended its limits.
Unlike literary works ranging into such a very uncommon category, novels are intrinsically conceived as parts of a greater, collaborative system. Essentially, the writing of a novel entails the implicit reference to other literary works of a similar kind. In such terms, novels complement each other, providing readers with descriptions of characters, facts and events which give for granted and fit into a novelistic system.
Accordingly, new novels typically tell new stories featuring new characters and/or adding significant elements to existing ones by directly or indirectly interacting with them. Their original subject fits a perpetually growing system which aims at incorporating the entire human experience into the aesthetic borders of a “Genere Mondo”.
Medieval verse novels, the avatar of the genre, tell the story of famous knights, featuring minor characters who often emerge as the protagonists of new literary works. Since the medieval origins of the genre individual novels are complementing each other as part of a potentially exhaustive system which aims at incorporating the entire world into its perpetually expanding borders. This propensity to exhaustiveness is pragmatic and accumulative instead of encyclopedic and systematic and collaborative rather than solipsistic.
Based on these premises, it has been possible for modern novelists to eventually broaden the field of such an inclusive system, that is to introduce new classes of characters, such as picaros and tormented intellectuals, femmes savantes and clever detectives. The intrinsic tendency to work as an organic system might be the reason why the novel evolved into the prominent genre in western literatures and eventually in World Literature as well. This claim will be supported by an investigation concerning medieval recollection of verse novels in organic macro-narratives supported by properly “novelistic” manuscripts.
Previous studies had already shown that some medieval manuscripts provide organic recollections of verse romance novels which contemplate individual works as parts of an integrate narrative system. Essentially, novels fit into books which partially approximate the modern organic idea of a literary genre. Indeed, not only these manuscripts just include similar works belonging to the very same kind, but also they range them in a peculiar order, which reflects the idea of a macro-narrative.
The selection of the contents typically shows a peculiar rationale, the overlapping of subjects and topics being rare and occasional. Manuscripts just devoted to a single novel are not so common, and equally rare are those in which novels coexist with literary works of other kinds. Accordingly, the manuscript tradition of the verse romance novel approximates the idea of an integrate and potentially independent literary genre.
Azzam, W. – Collet, O. – Foer Janssens, Y. 2005
Les manuscrits littéraires français: Pour une sémiotique du
recueil médiéval, in «Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire» (Langues et littératures modernes – Moderne taal en litterkunde) 83, 3, pp. 639-669.
Busby, K. 2007
Post-Chrétien Verse Romance. The Manuscript Context, in «Cahiers de Recherches Médiévales et Humanistes», 14, pp. 11-24.
Busby, K. 2002
Codex and Context. Reading Old French Verse Narrative in Manuscript, Amsterdam-New York, Rodopi.
Calvino, I. 1988
Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 1988.
Carrière, J. C. – Eco, U. 2009
N’espérez pas vous débarrasser des livres, Paris, Grasset (italian translation: Non sperate di liberarvi dei libri, Milano, Bompiani).
Gingras, F. 2007
Roman contre roman dans l’organisation du manuscrit du Vatican, Regina Latina 1725, in «Babel» 16, pp. 61-80.
Kelly, D. 2006
Arthurian Verse Romance in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, chapter X of The Arthur of the French. The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature, ed. by G. Burgess and K. Pratt, Cardiff, The University of Wales Press, pp. 393-460.
Middleton, R. 2006
The manuscripts, chapter I of The Arthur of the French, ed. by G. Burgess and K. Pratt, Cardiff, The University of Wales Press, pp. 8-92.
Moretti, F. 1994
Opere mondo: saggio sulla forma epica dal Faust a Cent’anni di solitudine, Torino, Einaudi.
Nixon, T. 1993
Romance Collections and the Manuscripts of Chrétien de Troyes, in Les Manuscripts de Chrétien de Troyes, ed. by K. Busby – T. Nixon – A. Stones – L. Walters, Amsterdam, Rodopi, I, pp. 17-25.
Catalogue of Manuscripts, in Les Manuscripts de Chrétien de Troyes, ed. by K. Busby – T. Nixon – A. Stones – L. Walters, Amsterdam, Rodopi, II, pp. 1-85.
Trachsler, R. 1994
Le recueil Paris, BN fr. 12603, in «Cultura Neolatina», 54, pp. 189–211.
Walters, L. 2006
Manuscript Compilations of Verse Romances, c. XI of The Arthur of the French. The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature, ed. by G. Burgess and K. Pratt, Cardiff, The University of Wales Press, pp. 461-487.
Walters, L. 1985
Le Rôle du scribe dans l’organisation des manuscrits des romans de Chrétien de Troyes, in «Romania», 106, pp. 303-25.
Walters, L. 1991
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds français, MS 1433: The Creation of a Super Romance, «The Arthurian Yearbook», 1, pp. 3-25.
Walters, L. 2006
The Formation of a Gauvain Cycle in Chantilly MS 472, in «Neophilologus», 78 (1994), pp. 29-43 (then in Gawain: A Casebook, ed. by R. H. Thompson and K Busby, New York-London, Routledge (Arthurian Characters and Themes), p. 157-172.
Walters, L. 1994
Chantilly MS 472 as a Cyclic Work, in Cyclification: The Development of Narrative Cycles in the Chansons de Geste and the Arthurian Romances, ed. by B. Besamusca et al., Amsterdam, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, pp. 135-39.
As remarked in previous entries, evidence of effector-specific motor responses to speech and activation of mirror matching circuits during the processing of action-related words and sentences while speaking, listening and reading throws open the door to an ecological theory of narrative reference based on embodied semantics. In fact, the understanding of narratives seems to rely on the reenactment of described events, that depends on congruent effector-specific motor responses. Indeed, action potential emerging from direct environmental experience likely resonates in the body of the listener or the reader during the processing of corresponding narrative descriptions.
Of course, the assumption that the understanding of stories depends on embodied experiences recruited by means of sensory-motor resonance does not imply that narrative descriptions typically refer to automatic reflex actions. Evidence emerging from any page of any novel in any language from anytime and anywhere clearly shows that emotions play a crucial role in defining intentionality and purposefulness of consequent behaviors adopted by protagonists or other characters in the development of the story. Even in such respect novels actually work in the same way reality does, in terms that the understanding of narrative descriptions featured in a novel seems to depend on the very same interplay between perception, emotion and action which supports the decoding of behavioral patterns in the actual experience of natural and social environments.
Recent advances in neuroscience showed that emotions are environmentally situated and somatically marked states of the subject who feels them (Damasio 1994, 1996). Perceptual experiences or memories provide individuals with emotionally competent stimuli to be processed by a so-called ‘interoceptive sense’ (Craig 2002, 2008). Moreover, an action can hardly be defined as ‘planned’ and meaningful at all if lacking an emotional trigger.
Such findings are congruent with the so called Somatic Marker Hypothesis, which maintains that emotions are embodied responses to environmental changes which aim at placing the organism in circumstances conducive to survival and well-being (Bechara and colleagues 1994, 1997, 2000). According to such hypothesis, emotions are just the most evident part of a system of biological regulation that includes for example homeostatic reactions maintaining metabolism, pain, hunger and thirst signaling (Damasio 1994, 1996). Therefore, emotions such as happiness or sadness, embarrassment or pride depend on patterned chemical and neural responses to emotionally competent stimuli which emerge from environmental interaction.
Such responses even target the brain, but their main target is the body indeed, namely the internal milieu, the viscera and the musculoskeletal system. The result of the brain-targeting responses is an alteration in the mode of brain operation during the emotional body adjustments. The result of the body-targeting responses is the creation of an emotional state which involves adjustments in homeostatic balance, as well as the enactment of specific behaviors and the production of particular facial expressions. While feeling those emotions individuals elaborate the mental representation of emotionally-dependent physiological changes which amplify the impact of a given situation, enhances learning, and increases the probability that comparable situations can be anticipated.
Thanks to such integrated system which targets both the brain and the body, Emotions immediately respond to challenges and opportunities, allowing organisms to cope successfully with objects and situations that are potentially dangerous or advantageous. Basically, emotions provide the organism with a couple of integrated biological functions: the production of specific reactions to environmental situations and regulation of the internal state of the organism in order to prepare appropriate responses (Damasio 1999: 53). So, emotions provide embodied and somatically-marked responses to emotionally-competent stimuli which emerge from environmentally-situated experiences. At the same time, they underlay the decision-making processes which make it possible to plan purposeful intentional actions to the point that an action can be hardly defined as ‘planned’ or meaningful at all if lacking an emotional trigger, that is an interoceptive background.
As Damasio (1999: 53-54) remarked, «emotions provide a natural means for the brain to evaluate the environment within and around the organism, and respond accordingly and adaptively». Researches on patients affected by frontal lobe damage offered strong support to such hypothesis, showing that internal states associated with emotional contents support response options and advantageous choice. Other studies indicate that the process of deciding advantageously starts even before knowing the advantageous strategy (Bechara and colleagues 1994, 1997, 2000), emotions should play a major role when it comes to action planning.
Assuming such perspective on emotions, it is not surprising that novels provide readers or listeners with descriptions of character-specific emotional states which reflect the response to perceptual events or underly the decision-making processes which lead to purposeful intentional actions. Indeed, the understanding of environmental descriptions typically rely on the contextual processing of its emotional rebounds. Likewise, narrative action are understood as purposeful and intentional because they rely on an emotional appraisal of the circumstances.
Basically, the understanding of a story necessarily implies the understanding of descriptions which focus on the emotional rebounds of a given perceptual event or on the interoceptive modulations which underly purposeful action planning. Therefore, being descriptions of emotions that crucial to the understanding of a novel, how do humans recognize and process them while reading or listening? As it happens with the understanding of descriptions referring to perceptual events and actual actions, the correct response might be the one resulting from the application of theories of embodied cognition to emotions.
Indeed, neuroscience suggests that emotional resonance across individuals plays a crucial role in observational learning which is likely supported by a reenactment of the emotional experience of the model in the observer. For instance, Wicker and colleagues (2006) showed that observing an emotion activates the neural representation of that emotion, as observing hand actions activates the observer’s motor representation of that action, providing evidence which support the idea of a a unifying mechanism for understanding the behaviors of others. Moreover, Chakrabarti and colleagues (2006) investigated the influence of trait empathy on perception of different basic emotion expressions (happy, sad, disgusted, angry), finding common neural regions underlying empathy across different emotions, and regions that show an emotion-specific correlation with empathy. Other experiments performed by Olsson and colleagues (2007) suggests that indirectly attained fears may be as powerful as fears originating from direct experiences.
Significant evidence emerged from studies concerning direct and social experience of pain. Singer and colleagues (2004) presented data suggesting that empathizing with the pain of others does not involve the activation of the whole pain matrix, but is based on activation of those second-order re-representations containing the subjective affective dimension of pain. Accordingly, they proposed that these cortical re-representations have a dual function: first, they ground human ability to form subjective representation of feelings that allow to predict the effects of emotional stimuli with respect to the self; second, they serve as the neural basis for human ability to understand the emotional importance of a particular stimulus for another person and to predict its likely associated consequences.
More recently Ogino and colleagues (2007) provided evidence supporting the idea that the imagination of pain elicited by viewing images which painful events may be based on representations of pain in the human brain, which reflects the multidimensional nature of pain experience including sensory, affective, and cognitive components. Even Lamm and colleagues (2007) showed that the perception of pain in others results in the activation of almost the entire pain-matrix, including its sensory-discriminative component. They even find that both the sensory-discriminative and the affective-motivational component is modulated by the context in which pain has occurred, and by the consequences the observer is focusing on.
Interestingly, other studies presented evidence which support the idea that even the recognition of emotional meaning in words and locutions which refer to emotions seems to be involving the embodiment of the implied emotion. Namely, Havas, Glenberg and Rinck (2007) showed that language referring to emotional states is only fully understood when those states are literally embodied during comprehension. Interestingly, the authors introduce the paper that presents evidence supporting such a view remarking that «reading a passage from a favorite novel makes it clear that language evokes emotion».
Actually, it seems that comprehension of emotionally-competent linguistic descriptions depends on the simulation of congruent emotional states. Basically, narrative descriptions of emotions are understood according to the way individuals feel them while reading a novel, based on their own experience of similar circumstances. Such hypotesis is congruent with the idea that «the body-sensing areas constitute a sort of theater where not only the “actual” body states can be “performed”, but varied assortments of “false” body states can be enacted as well, for example, as-if body states, filtered body states, and so on» (Damasio 2003: 117-118).
In Damasio’s view, «the commands for producing as-if body states are likely to come from a variety of prefrontal cortices as suggested by recent work on mirror-neurons on both animals and humans». Basically, a mirror-matching mechanism might be even responsible of the understanding of emotions felt and expressed by others both is somatic and linguistic terms. In that case, as-if body states would be the ones experienced while processing and understanding the narrative references that emerge from the reading of emotionally-competent descriptions featured in a novel.
Hence, readers or listeners likely understand linguistic descriptions of emotions according to their own embodied experience of similar emotionally-competent events. Accordingly, philological investigations focusing on emotionally-related words or locutions would make it possible to study single literary works and their textual tradition or to compare different ones in respect to the more or less integrated semantic systems that support their emotional understanding in readers or listeners. Assuming that co-occurrence of words can be interpreted as an indicator of semantic proximity and/or interdependency, co-occurring emotionally related words can be aggregated so as to define the borders of relevant lexical clusters.
Of course, such approach to emotional resonance and the novel is just the preliminary step preluding to the study of the integrated descriptive system that joins together perceptual events, emotional modulations and proper actions in a narrative whole which works in the exact same way the actual human experience of nature and society does. Indeed, previous remarks imply that descriptions of the way emotions are experienced and felt does not consist in isolated narrative events situated in some secluded ‘interiority’ of a specific character. Rather, novels typically describe emotional responses to perceptual events and emotional decisions which underly purposeful intentional actions.
Some narrative descriptions might emphasize the connections between emotions and action, but even the ones in which such connections may seem looser hardly describe character-specific feelings or states of mind as completely unrelated to environmentally situated decisions and actions. Certainly standard novels tend to avoid redundant descriptions of emotional states which do not lead to purposeful actions, because they may sound distracting and disturbing. Rather, such descriptions are typically included in experimental literary works which intentionally aim at broadening the borders of the genre or hybridizing the novelistic format with lyric overtones.
Conversely, even in extreme cases featuring robots or AI as the protagonists, novels can hardly tell the story of such characters without relating some of the described circumstances to emotionally-relevant events. Given that nothing can be told and narrated in a novel that never fell into the borders of human experience, novels tend to ‘humanize’ such extreme characters, so as to comply the requirements of the genre. Indeed, the presence of more or less detailed descriptions of emotional states is a mandatory requirement for a novel.
Specific investigations might provide interesting clues on the variable balance between perceptual events, interoceptive responses and purposeful actions featured by different novels. Action-driven stories are typically perceived as dumb and silly because they mostly lack detailed descriptions of the emotional background which make characters act the way they do. On the other hand, stories which indulge in redundant descriptions of emotions and feelings are usually addressed as boring.
The hypothesis that the more even is the balance of described events, the more the novel seems to be convenient in current social terms triggers interesting questions about the development of the genre from its western medieval origins to contemporary developments spreading everywhere around the globe. Indeed, will it be possible to identify crucial turning points in the history of the novel based on the way emotions are described? Do critical transitions from a standard novelistic format to another depend and/or imply a different descriptive balance between perceptual events, emotional responses and decisions and actual actions?
Moreover, may the role played by classic novels in the global literary system be due or related to such effective balance of perception, interoception and action? Did such novels find the point of equilibrium between action-driven stories and hyper-psychologic ones while exploring the emotional background which underlay decisions and prompt characters to action? Did descriptions of activity patterns based on such balanced integration of perceptual events, interoceptive responses and proper actions define specific morphologies of the story which are effective-enough to emerge as a standard and to be somewhat naturalized as ‘normal’?
Specific investigations focusing on novels which emerge as very popular or relevant ones from library catalogues might contribute to explain why novels which emerged as a global standards for storytelling are made the way they are.
Bechara, A. – Damasio, A. R. – Damasio, H. – Anderson, S. W. 1994
Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex, in «Cognition» 50: 7-15.
Bechara, A. – Damasio, H. – Tranel, D. – Damasio, A. R. 1997
Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy, in «Science» 275: 1293-1295.
Bechara, A. – Tranel, D. – Damasio, H. 2000
Characterization of the decision-making deficit of patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions, in «Brain» 123: 2189-2202.
Chakrabarti, B. – Bullmore, E. – Baron-Cohen, S. 2006
Empathizing with basic emotions: Common and discrete neural substrates, in «Social Neuroscience», 1, 3-4: 364-384
Craig, A. D. 2002
How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body, in «Nature Review Neuroscience» 3: 655-666.
Craig, A. D. 2008
Interoception and Emotion A Neuroanatomical Perspective, in Handbook of emotions, ed. by M. Lewis – J. M. Haviland-Jones – L. Feldman Barrett, New York, Guilford Press: 272-288.
Damasio, A. R. 1994
Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Avon, New York.
Damasio, A. R. 1996
The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex, in «Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B (Biological Sciences)» 351: 1413–1420.
Damasio, A. 2003
Looking for Spinoza. Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Orlando (FL), Harcourt.
Havas, D. A. – Glenberg, A. M. - Rinck, M. 2007
Emotion simulation during language comprehension, in «Psychonomic Bulletin & Review» 14: 436-441.
Lamm, C. – Nusbaum, H. C. – Meltzoff, A. N. – Decety, J. 2007
What are you feeling? Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the modulation of sensory and affective responses during empathy for pain, in «PLoS ONE», 12: e1292.
Ogino, Y. – Nemoto, H. – Inui, K. – Saito, S. – Kakigi, R. – Goto, F. 2007
Inner experience of pain: imagination of pain while viewing images showing painful events forms subjective pain representation in human brain, in «Cerebral Cortex», 17: 1139-1146.
Olsson, A. – Nearing, K. I. . Phelps, E. A. 2007
Learning fears by observing others: the neural systems of social fear transmission, in «Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access», 2: 3-11.
Singer, T. – Seymour, B. – O’Doherty, J. – Kaube, H. – Dolan, R. J. – Frith, C. D. 2004
Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain, in «Science», 303, 5661: 1157-1162.
Wicker, B. – Keysers, C. – Plailly, J. – Royet, J. P. – Gallese, V. – Rizzolatti, G. 2003
Both of us disgusted in my insula: The common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust. in «Neuron», 40, 3: 655-664.
The entire chapter of Mimesis which covers the medieval courtly novel is basically devoted to the initial part of Chretien’s Chevalier au Lion. Indeed, Eric Auerbach (1946: 123-140) considered it somewhat prototypical of the literary experience it belongs to. While isolating its crucial features, he introduced the idea of ‘courtly realism’, a mimetic approach to reality which essentially celebrates feudal knighthood in abstract, absolute, almost mythologic terms.
Basically, Auerbach noticed that in medieval courtly novels a fixed and insulating frame separates the noble world of the knights and the one of common people. The knight just aims at increasing his status by overcoming the challenges entailed by wonderful adventures, which Auerbach defined as a «special and strange form of happening developed by the courtly culture». As a consequence, the description of knightly ethos is essentially unrelated to its original social function.
Accordingly, the medieval courtly novel describes a world of adventures which is built around the knights and their much needed achievements. Topographic descriptions are absolute and synthetic instead of relative and analytic, because they do not aim at defining a consistent geographical scenario. Rather they define the right path to adventure, a narrow scenario which stays the same over time so as to preserve untouched the opportunities for adventure it entails and the challenges it potentially offers to the knight who finds it.
Appropriately, courtly novelistic descriptions include people, items and events which define the introductory premises and the stage set where the adventure happens. Of course, incongruous characters or items belonging or pertaining to different social classes, on occasion fall into the spotlight. Still, such presences are typically limited to ludicrous, preposterous or farcical minor roles which novels inherited from traditional tales.
The various elements which populate these very consistent landscapes are never described in a way which refers to the actual geography, economy and society that underlie the existence of their real counterparts. Basically, the world described in medieval courtly novels simply depicts in a detailed but very abstract way the ideals and the lifestyle of the feudal knighthood. Such an assumption leads Auerbach to conclude that the idealization of knighthood based on the obliteration of its social function leads away from the imitation of reality. Finally, he stated that medieval courtly verse novels look more like an evasion into fairy tale than a poetic description of reality.
Similar remarks led Michail Bachtin to conclude that medieval courtly verse novels essentially define the borders of a prodigious world in which narrative action follows the time of adventure. Indeed, in his renowned work on Формы времени и хронотопа в романе, he noticed that their chronotope adopts a very technical and abstract idea of time and space which can be dilated and contracted at will while entailing both synchronicity and asynchrony and violating elementary spatial correlations. Time is fragmented in segments so as to subserve the description of various adventures which take place in a deformed space resulting from a subjective emotional play with distance and proximity.
Discontinuity and casual correlations prevail on causal ones, so that crucial events happen unexpectedly. The time of adventure takes over when the regular, real, normal timeline breaks, so that the world becomes prodigious and the events start following an unpredictable path. In such terms, the very concept of ‘sudden’ characterizes the whole chronotope which defines the extent and the borders of medieval courtly novels.
Indeed, adventure is the natural element in which the protagonists live, because the entire world exists and becomes ‘normal’ for them when a sudden turn of events makes it prodigious. Their identity depends on adventure and their ethics solely fit the prodigious world in which adventure takes place. The world they live in is everywhere the same and always consistent because it is filled with knightly glory based on amazing feats and exploits and the same idea of dread and shame.
These considerations may somewhat explain why Bachtin (1975 [1934-1935]: 72-233) had already marginalized medieval courtly verse novels in his earlier study on Слово в романе, where he just covered the early stages of the genre by devoting some remarks to Wolfram’s Parzival. Indeed, Bachtin assumed that the rise of the modern novel was made possible by the more intense interaction between different social and cultural levels, to be described in terms of stylistic polyphony. Based on such an approach, Bachtin tracked down the medieval avatars of the modern novel in the tradition of other genres, such as the Fabliaux and Schwanken and discriminated the medieval courtly verse novel.
Cesare Segre (1997 ) criticized such view in a crucial contribution devoted to «what Bachtin did not say», that is to the medieval origins of the western novel. Segre remarked that Slovo v romane presents a very partial approach to the novel, which basically benchmarks Rabelais and Dostoevskij as paradigmatic authors. After identifying the crucial features of the genre in its modern specimina, Bachtin necessarily ends up evaluating the early stages of its history on the basis of what followed.
More specifically, Segre observed that the differentiation of perceptual angles and emotional reactions is not necessarily reflected in the adoption of specific stylistic features, such as so-called polyphony. Accordingly, the lack of stylistic polyphony in courtly novels does not imply a related lack of different perspectives on narrated events. Indeed, medieval novelists clearly established distinctions between different character-specific visual or emotional angles which are always distant from the one of the author.
Moreover, Segre remarked that the lack of a stylistic polyphony aimed at describing the interaction between different socio-cultural levels does not reflect a limited dynamism of medieval society. Rather, the medieval arrangement of literary genres and styles plays a crucial role in defining the extent of the social and cultural positions of characters and events to be described in courtly novels. Sermons, fabliaux or jeux describe events which are related to the life of clergymen, bourgeois and characters belonging to lower classes in general, whereas the novel portrays the feudal knights, their life and their ideology.
Basically, the limited stylistic polyphony of courtly novels must be related to the fact that medieval genres reflect social and cultural standards in a very consistent way. The ignorance of such a crucial fact may lead to critical mistakes when it comes to the understanding of the reason why some features of so called polyphonic modern novels are more easily found in medieval texts which belong to different narrative genres. More in general, it can be observed that a novel must not necessarily adopt specific stylistic features so as to describe the interaction between different social classes.
To some extent Auerbach and Bachtin share a similar idea of literary realism based on the interaction between the protagonist and society. Essentially, the realism of a novel depends on the social relevance of the protagonist’s role in the story and the complexity and dialectic interaction of different social levels which emerge from different descriptive styles. Such an idea presupposes a misleading identification of reality and society which makes a novel more realistic than another because it describes a more complex interaction between the protagonist and the society he is presumably immersed in.
However, the history of the novel proved that the complexity of the described society and the richness of the described human experience are not necessarily related and proportional. In fact, novels which describe very narrow social contexts may refer to an incredibly wide and complex range of perceptual events, affective responses, emotional decisions and goal-oriented actions. Likewise, novels which focus on the interaction between a protagonist and a very complex social context may describe a limited and very stereotypical array of human experiences.
Hence, compelling evidence suggests that scholars must look elsewhere for the so-called ‘realism’ of a novel, very likely in the process which makes it possible for readers or listeners to relate their own experience to the story they are reading or listening to. Such a pragmatic change of perspective was somewhat suggested by Segre himself while discussing «the encounter of the character with the outside world (society and nature)» in the novel:
the writer cannot describe this encounter ataraxically. For him as much as for his characters, society and nature are not givens but realities in which one advances with the help of knowledge, with varying success and repeated attempts. Identifying himself and distancing himself from his characters, experimenting with various points of view, the author not only shares in the investigation carried out by his hero, but conducts the same investigation, within the spaces of his invention
(Segre 1997 : 394).
What is true for the author in Segre’s view, should be true for the reader and/or the listener as well. If authors develop the very same quest of their protagonists in the ‘field of invention’, the same should be true for readers and/or listeners who process the narrative references which the text they are reading or listening to provides them with. An ecological theory of narrative reference based on embodied semantics which has been sketched in previous contributions actually aims at describing the extent of such a quest and exploring the borders of the field of invention in which it develops, so as to redefine the extent of the relationship between novels and reality (Fuksas 2008).
According to such a theoretical framework, the search of authors and readers in the field of invention relies on a process of recognition and understanding of narrative references which is based on embodied knowledge. This process recruits previous experiences of the natural and social environment which are analogically related to the described events so as to establish congruence between perceptual events, affective responses, emotional decisions and purposeful actions. The resulting activity patterns are pertinent insofar as they can be related to significant thematic drives.
Philological explorations of the interaction between characters, nature and society in the medieval courtly verse novels show that they describe activity patterns which do not necessarily define the borders of a prodigious, portentous and exceptional world. The extent of the natural and social environment is proportional to the description of opportunity for actions required for the development of narrative themes. Indeed, medieval courtly novels describe effective-enough representational schemes for the planning of environmentally-situated intentional actions, according to the development of their main theme, exactly as it happens in modern novels.
Basically, characters actually interact with natural and social environment in a way which is very novel-specific and has little to do with fairy tales. Accordingly, differences between courtly novels and so called modern polyphonic ones are not of a kind which make it possible to assume them as separated branches of the genre. Still, such different approaches to the same genre mostly differ because they basically describe different ecological niches.
Introducing his Theory of Affordances as a crucial milestone of his ecological approach to visual perception, J. J. Gibson (1979, then 1986) described the concept of ‘niche’ as a set of affordances with which an animal can effectively deal and cope. Chemero (2003) reframed affordances in ‘situational’ terms, defining them as relations between environmental features and abilities of given organisms. Accordingly, he redefined the concept of niche as the set of situations in which one or more abilities of an animal can be exercised.
Interestingly, Chemero’s definition perfectly fits the novel as a narrative system, as far as one assumes the protagonists as the animals and the stories they go through as the set of situations in which one or more of their abilities can be exercised. In such terms, the array of activity patterns performed by characters, typically protagonists, throughout the story define the extent of an ecological niche described in a novel. The set of situations in which one or more abilities of characters can be exercised is hardly the ideal one in which the character easily succeed in overcoming stakes, fulfilling requirements, performing tasks, accomplishing missions or attaining goals.
Struggle and failure are part of the process of coping with a problematic ecosystem. Accordingly, the dramatic intensity of a novel depends on the extent of the mismatch between characters’ abilities and environmental challenges. Different characters may struggle or succeed in the very same circumstances according to their variable abilities.
In some cases, different adaptation to the very same environment define the borders of different niches, to the point that multiple autonomous or overlapping niches may either conflict or merge into the very same novel. Conflicting niches typically emerge from the adoption of different character-specific perspectives for describing the very same events. Conflictual interaction between different character-specific perspectives, which define the borders of different ecological niches, determines both the extent and the complexity of the ecosystem described in a novel.
According to such premises, the absence of stylistic polyphony in medieval french novels might be related to the fact that neither the frequent adoption of perspectivism nor the (less frequent) description of items which belong to uncourtly social environments actually establish the premises of such conflictual interaction. The protagonists of medieval courtly novels are mostly knights who belong to the same ‘species’ and the same ‘race’, so that their different reactions to the environmental challenges do not define the borders of different ecological niches. Provided that they share a common idea of society and nature, they perceive the very same affordances. Accordingly, the different way they respond to the environmental challenges does not imply that their conflicting options define the borders of different realities, even when their approaches to adventure radically differ.
As Segre (1997 : 75) remarked, «all romances, not just medieval ones, constitute a taking possession of the world, as well as society». The protagonists of medieval courtly novels typically take possession of the world on the base of the very same ethos and culture, even though the action they undertake are based on decisions which reflect different emotional responses to environmental challenges. Basically, medieval novelists seem to be interested in describing conflictual situations which emerge among conspecific individuals who adopt different positions in the very same ecological niche.
Accordingly, environmental descriptions feature very consistent «taskscapes» instead of proper landscapes, that is «arrays of related activities» rather than «arrays of related features», as Tim Ingold (1993: 154-155 and 2000: 195) has defined such a notion. Seldom the audience is provided with ‘useless’ details, eventual digression being typically crucial for a correct understanding of the emotional decision which prompt characters into action. Environmental descriptions are highly selective and reflect the adoption of a socially-inclusive narrative strategy, which is certainly recurrent in medieval courtly verse novels, but is not specific of the early stage of the genre.
Actually, it is impossible to define an historical progression of the novel from highly inclusive descriptive strategies to more complex ones. Every novel is necessarily selective when it comes to describing the interaction between characters, society and nature. Modern polyphonic novels typically adopt a a different selective option by featuring different characters which perceive variable affordances on the basis of an idea of society and nature which is not common to all of them. Still, modern novels are not always and necessarily polyphonic.
The problem is that literary criticism defined the very idea of ‘modern’ on the basis of selected novels which fit an aspiration to be modern and buried deep in the Middle Ages everything which put into question such idea of modern. But in truth medieval courtly novels and modern polyphonic ones do not belong to different branches of the same tree. Rather, they belong to the same lineage whose history is a perpetual and oscillatory process based on an irregular alternation of novels based on more or less socially-inclusive narrative strategies.
In such terms, the history of the novel looks like a long period of stasis in which events happened on a recursive basis. Somewhere and sometimes novels arise which seem very modern, but, unfortunately, they are suddenly followed by very un-modern ones. Such evidence suggests that the abused category of ‘modern’ is just the byproduct of ideological assumptions, not to mention that the very idea of post-modern likely reflect the inability of western culture to finally give up on the illusion of modernism.
The full version of the paper, complete with a discussion of the cart episode from the Chevalier de la charrette by Chrétien de Troyes, is in print in the next issue of the International Literary Journal «Critica del Testo». Please do not quote this short version of the paper without permission.
Auerbach, E. 1946
Mimesis. Dargestellte Wirgklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, Bern, Francke.
Bachtin, M. 1934-35/1975
Slovo v romane, in Id., Voprosy literatury i estetiki: issledovanie raznyh let, Moskva, Chudozestvennaja literatura: 72-233.
Bachtin, M. 1937-38/1975
Formi vremeni i chronotopa v romane, in Id., Voprosy literatury i estetiki : issledovanie raznyh let, Moskva, Chudozestvennaja literatura: 234-407.
Chemero, A. 2003
An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, in «Ecological Psychology» 15: 181-195.
Gibson, J. J. 1986 (o. v. 1979)
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale (NJ), Erlbaum.
Fuksas, A. P. 2008
The Embodied Novel, in «Cognitive Philology» 1.
Gibson, J. J. 1979
The ecological approach to visual perception, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (then: Hillsdale NJ, Erlbaum, 1986).
Ingold, T. 1993
The Temporality of the Landscape, in «World Archaeology» 25: 24-174.
Ingold, T. 2000
The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London Routledge.
Segre, C. 1997 
What Bachtin Did Not Say: The Medieval Origins of the Novel, in «Russian Literature» 41, 3, 1 (April 1997): 385-409. The paper was originally published in Italian as: C. Segre, Quello che Bachtin non ha detto. Le origini medievali del romanzo, in: Id., Teatro e romanzo, Torino, Einaudi, 1984, 61-84, 71, and then republished in: Il romanzo, a c. di M. L. Meneghetti, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1988: 125-145.
Previous entries about Mark Jenkins’ and Xing Danwen’s artworks showed that an investigation on how immersive environments are described in novels and how narrative references interfere with sensory experience of landscapes may take advantage from comparative remarks coming from sculpture and manipulation of digital imaging. More advantageous remarks may come from the field of photography, namely from suggestive artistic shots by Timothy Atherton, a former police evidence photographer who definitely developed an ecological artistic approach to landscapes.
Being resonance a key-concept in Gibson’s Theory of affordances, Atherton conceptualization of photography makes plenty of sense in ecological terms since he maintains that «the idea of a photographer as being a person who follows traces is one that resonates strongly for me». Moreover, Atherton conceives the transference happening when the photographer make a picture as part of an exchange taking place between photographer and scene. Basically, in his view «the photographer simply uses the camera to make a trace of what he sees before him or her». Atherton’s approach to photography doesn’t seem based on traditional mimetic approaches, given that he describes his photography as an «ongoing attempt» to understand what he sees, by following clues so to establish «temporary conclusions that then lead to other questions and other clues». In these terms, by quoting Joyce («Bethicket me for a stump of a beech»), Atherton summarizes his work as aimed to «interpreting traces».
Introducing his series of “Peripheral Vision” (2003) Atherton states that «extended suburban condition does not easily show up on maps, it is in many ways more of a suburban state of mind than a topographic location». While photographing suburban landscapes, Atherton found himself «looking at things that are somewhat off centre, off to the side – a peripheral vision. Things that are often unnoticed and just below our level of perception». Indeed, «things seen that are in plain sight yet so familiar or obvious they are usually ignored, unseen, and their existence barely registered – attention no longer paid to them».
Describing his series of “Immersive Landscapes” (2006), Atherton offers that «to try and impose order on this messy and unordered view seems a mistake. Instead, recognizing the disorder, letting the fine detail spread over the whole image and allowing the eye to wander over the whole field without finding a clear point of rest draws the viewer into the apparent fractal detail and chaos of the image». Indeed, he describes the results of his work as portraits of «“immersive” landscapes where the whole wide visual field is potentially full of interesting subplots over and against the overall story that the picture is telling».
Introducing his new work, Traces (2007), Aherton interestingly quotes Italo Calvino:
The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the street, the gratings of the windows, the bannisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning-rods, the poles of the flags. Every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls
Actually, Atherton’s collection of Traces seems pretty much inspired by Calvino’s remarks from the Invisible City (Le città Invisibili, Torino, Einaudi, 1972), that may even count as a very interesting meditation on hybrid ecologies based on the merge of literary references and sensory experience of landscapes. Namely, the bare concept of Le città invisibili entails open reference to cities that are there even tho they are not perceivable by sight. Actually, Atherton’s Traces exert potential of landscapes referring to previous or potential actions. The camera can help guessing or foreshadowing past or future events on the basis of clues, leftovers, affordances ready to be triggered by somebody who’s actually out of the picture.
Introducing his work, the photographer describes his photo art in very general terms as «an essential way of seeing, of exploring and understanding something or somewhere». Art is conceived as an explorative behavior leading to the discovery of traces. The artist finds and collects evidences and tries to make sense of them, interpreting them in some way, so to reach «provisional conclusions which are then either discarded or built on». Still, art doesn’t imitate some sort of physical reality located ‘out there’. Rather, it establishes temptative approaches to the environment based on «traces people leave, the evidence or signs that the camera can discover, often seeming to find them in unnoticed or disregarded terrain».
Actually, Atherton adopts a very ecological approach to photo art based on «the principle of exchange», maintaining that «every contact leaves a trace – that with contact between two things there will be an exchange». As an artist, he sees exchange as an interaction not just taking place between «inhabitant and place, but also between photographer and place». That is, he regards the trace of light on film as an exchange». Interestingly, Atherton portrays traces in order to make the viewer wondering about actions that eventually took place or are about to happen. In this sense, a former police evidence photographer, he exerts action potential triggered by visual hints in the very same way detectives try to re-enact events leading to crimes on the basis of clues they find on crime scenes.
With all evidence, the very same process is exerted into crime stories, namely the ones defined as “woodonit”, so as to establish a deep involvement of the reader into the story being told. Indeed, the reader is involved into reverse engineering since the very beginning of the novel, when the corpse of the victim is typically discovered. The same process is exerted to a variable extent in basically every novel, thriller as romantic, mainstream as experimental ones, since potential reference always outstrips textual borders, bringing into play speculations about other events that are not necessarily encoded into textual description.
Introducing the Theory of Affordances as a crucial milestone of his ecological approach to visual perception, Gibson (1979) described the concept of niche as a set of affordances an animal can cope with effectively. While redefining affordances as relations between environmental features and abilities of given organisms, according to his “situational” approach Chemero (2003) redefined the concept of niche as the set of situations in which one or more abilities of an animal can be exercised. Chemero’s definition amazingly fits the novel as a narrative system, as far as the animal is intended as the protagonist and his story is basically understood as the set of situations in which one or more of his abilities can be exercised.
Chretien de Troyes’ Chevalier au Lyon draws a set of situations entailing proper merveilles and avantures, meaningful features the environment affords to the knight. Cervantes simply feeds Don Quijote windmills instead of proper giants, exerting special abilities and needs of his hero while defining his ecological surroundings. Musil sticks his Mann ohne Eigenschaften into sort of a claustrophobic environment mostly providing commissions and meetings as opportunities for endless discussion and inaction. James Joyce follows his everyman through highly underrated challenges a very common urban environment provides him with.
The extent of the niche may be basically defined as the array of activity patterns characters, typically protagonists, perform throughout the story. Indeed, a narrative niche, as an ecological one, can be defined as the sets of situations in which one or more abilities of characters can be exercised, not as the ideal one in which the character easily succeed in overcoming stakes, fulfilling requirements, performing tasks, accomplishing missions, attaining goals. Struggling and failing are part of the process of surviving in both natural and a narrative challenging ecosystems. Accordingly, dramatic intensity of a novel may be basically addressed as the extent of the mismatch between character’s abilities and environmental features.
Chemero, A. 2003
An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, in «Ecological Psychology» 15: 181-195.
Gibson, J. J. 1986 (o. v. 1979)
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale (NJ), Erlbaum.
Embodiment of stories has been investigated so far especially in respect to psychotic stories. In particular, Els van Dongen devoted a book (2002) and a follow-up paper (2003) to the topic, maintaining that stories that are seen as irrelevant and incomprehensible get their non-psychiatric meaning and power by embodiment. According to van Dongen, psychotic people, namely patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, try to regain control over their lives and to influence the course of events by performing and carrying out actions that are based on a story, which has become sort of a text for living. Indeed, so as to gain power and control, schizophrenics need to do more than narrating in language: they have to make their story a narration of flesh and blood, they have to become part of the story itself by embodying it. Since the power of psychotic stories doesn’t come from telling but from acting out accordingly, the final meaning of the mad story is less situated in discursive practices than in the performance, exerting narratives as social features.
Van Dongen observed that it can be misleading to contrast the world of normal people and the schizophrenic one by defining the first one as reality and the second one as situated outside reality. Indeed, for the main part, schizophrenics live in the so called real world where normal people spend their lives. Moreover, the so called ‘mad world’ has its own universe of discourse, its own conception of reality and criteria of rationality, sometimes very different from the ones applying to the non-psychotic world. Both the remarks may be ecologically re-framed by saying that so called mad stories embodied by schizophrenics basically rely on peculiar filtering strategies. That is, they are based on a non-standard common coding of perception and action and the special pairing of perceptual events and/or actions with emotional states.
Opportunely, van Dongen never suggested that mad stories should be assessed as different from normal ones because the former have to be embodied and the latter have not. As suggested by previous entries, embodiment of stories is even implied in the processing of narratives normal people go through while reading a novel or listening to a story. That is, embodied stories are part of the every-day experience of so called ‘normal’ people as well. Rather, disembodiment of narratives may be associated to peculiar neural lesions like the ones described by Oliver Sacks (1985) in his famous collection of clinical cases. For instance, the renowned dr. P, aka The man who mistook his wife for an hat,
investigating the difficulties with leftness of his patient, Sacks observed that his visual field deficits affected both his visual perception and his visual memory and imagination. Hence, «thinking of the almost allucinatoryintensity with which Tolstoy visualises and animates his characters», he tested dr. P’s «internal visualization» questioning him about Anna Karenina, a novel he craved. Interestingly, Sacks describes the reactions of his patient as follows:
He could remember incidents without difficulty, had an undiminished grasp of the plot, but completely omitted visual characteristics, visual narratives and scenes. He remembered the words of the characters but not their faces; and though, when asked, he could quote, whit his remarkable and almost verbatim memory, the original visual descriptions, these were, it became apparent, quite empty for him and lacked sensorial, imaginal, or emotional reality.
The clinical case provides an amazing sample of how disembodied processing of a novel should work. Basically, descriptions do not trigger the embodiment of corresponding sensory experiences and interoceptive correlates as emotions and feelings. Besides, the mere words or sentences are stored, saved as ‘empty’ labels and strings lacking any peculiar reference. As Sacks remarks, being dr. P, a musician and a teacher at the local school of music with undiminished musical skills, memory for words might have been part of a more general strategy of compensating visual impairments with peculiar enhancement of auditory and sensory-motor skills.
Interestingly, the clinical case described by Sacks provides evidence of a disembodied processing of narrative events, that is the inability of decoding sensory experiences and emotional correlates on the basis of verbal references, associated to major visual impairments including inability to figure out body part related affordances of very common items. Indeed, dr. P showed undiminished ability of describing shapes, abstract forms, whereas he failed to visually recognize a glove by the pure sight, being rather triggered by sudden understanding of his function as soon as he wore it.
Hence, dr. P’s peculiar ‘reality’ makes plenty of sense in ecological terms. Indeed, inability to focus on narrative events entailing visual references seems paired with a more general visual impairment affecting actual sensory appraisal of natural environments. Likewise, the case of The Lost Mariner presents a similar inability of visual-related language processing paired with a general amnesia involving loss of all visual images, without any sense of loss being present:
Indeed, he had lost the very idea of seeing-and was not only unable to describe anything visually, but bewildered when I used words as ‘seing’ and ‘light’. He had become, in essence, a non visual being (p. 41).
Such evidence corroborates hebbian association models proposed by Pulvermüller (1999, 2002: ch. 4, 50-65), based on the idea that distinct cortical topographies represent biological counterparts of words and their symbolic inherently referential features. In particular, assemblies that process words referring to visually perceived objects trigger neural activity in the perisylvian cortices but even recruit additional cells from visual or motor cortices depending on the content of the word.
In general, observation of patient showing congruent disembodiment of stories and corresponding sensory experiences supports the idea that that understanding of narratives relies on the enacting of appropriate embodied experiences the described events refer to (Feldman and Narayanan 2004). Indeed, the ability to utter and process linguistic references to perceptual events, as narrative ones based on literary sources, seems to be somatotopically related to the ability to process corresponding sensory events and actions in natural environments.
Feldman J. – Narayanan S. 2004
Embodied meaning in a neural theory of language, in «Brain and Language» 89: 385-92.
Sacks, o. 1985
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, New York: Summit Books; London: Gerald Duckworth .
Pulvermüller, F. 1999
Words in the Brain Language, in «Behavioral and Brain Sciences» 22 (1999): 253-336.
Pulvermüller, F. 2002
The Neuroscience of Language. On Brain Circuits of Words and Serial order, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Van Dongen, E. 2002
Walking stories. An oddnography of mad people’s work with culture, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers, 2002.
Van Dongen, E. 2003
Walking stories: narratives of mental patients as magica, in «Anthropology & Medicine» 10 (2003) , pp. 207-222.