Growing up I had far more books than friends, and have been writing regularly since I was about seventeen. In high school I was a voracious reader of “the classics”; with the lamp on late into the night I’d turn the pages of Hemingway and Dickens, not caring to wait for the English class in which they’d be taught. Owing to some high test scores I started college studying masterpieces of world literature with more advanced students, which necessitated much in the way of paper writing and classroom debate.
So it may be a surprise to learn that I’ve never had much patience for literary criticism. Upon hearing someone say “the author is using the bridge as a metaphor to…” or “the lion’s jaw is clearly an expressive vehicle for…”, I would think to myself, how could anyone possibly know that? Yes, a bridge could be a metaphor, but it could also just, y’know, be a bridge.
Now, literary criticism is a vast field and I admit to having explored little of it. But I have had many friends who enjoy literature and film, a nontrivial fraction of which were themselves steeped in the relevant theory. In an honest effort to understand I’ve often asked them about the basis of their interpretations, but they’ve rarely provided answers which I found satisfactory.
But with time and experience I’ve learned much. This essay is an attempt to answer my younger self’s skepticism by providing two different mechanisms which can justify the literary critic’s perception of metaphorical significance.
Semi-permeable cognitive membranes
I’ve written before about the fact that human introspection is shallow and much of what’s going on between our ears must be inferred. If we envision the mind as a kind of machine then many of its components are submerged under water and can only be understood indirectly. Further, the cognitive processes utilized for things like crafting a story are not cleanly partitioned from each other.
A corollary of the foregoing is that layers of meaning and metaphor can creep into a work even if the author fails to realize this. I see two ways this could happen, the first being through what may be called “leaky empathy”.
As an author tries to model characters and situations they may themselves begin to drift into corresponding emotional states. The process of writing about a group of horribly oppressed villagers preparing to travel through the forest surrounding their town could well give rise to feelings of despair or anger, albeit probably mild versions. If so, when the author conjures up an image of the forest their brains will be more likely to produce one that is dark, caliginous, and perhaps vaguely sinister.
The setting has become a metaphor for the internal states of the characters even though the author may not be remotely aware of this dynamic.
Second, and for basically the same reason, a work might reflect an author’s convictions and knowledge despite being ostensibly unrelated to the work through what may be called “leaky concepts”.
Imagine an author has just spent a year thinking about how Communism is/isn’t the greatest/worst idea anyone has ever had. When the same author sits down to design a world and plan out a story arc, is there any serious chance they’ll be able to keep these political beliefs from influencing their depictions of kingdoms, economies, and states?
Of course many authors write with the explicit purpose of promulgating a worldview or exploring some complex theme. But even if an author fails to see the lessons implicit in their work, that does not mean that the lessons aren’t there.
There was supposed to be some rational explanation to justify the mumbo-jumbo. Left-hemisphere pattern-matching sub-routines amped beyond recognition; the buggy wetware that made you see faces in clouds or God’s wrath in thunderstorms, tweaked to walk some fine line between insight and pareidolia. Apparently there were fundamental insights to be harvested along that razor’s edge, patterns that only Bicamerals could distinguish from hallucination.
-Peter Watts, “Echopraxia”
Another corollary to the shallowness of human introspection is that you may be surprised by the contents of your own consciousness. Sometimes the only way to explore your mind is to twist dials until lights start coming on.
Everyone has had the experience of being unusually moved by a song they’ve heard many times before. If a loved one has just passed away, then heightened emotional sensitivity is to be expected. But this isn’t always the case; sometimes, life is progressing as normal and a snatch of conversation, the light of the sun reflected in the glass windows of a skyscraper, or a memory from childhood grabs hold of you and stops you dead in your tracks. Besides being profound and worth experiencing for their own sake these moments also hint at a range of emotional states which most people don’t realize they’re capable of.
If you’re tempted to resist my claim that you don’t know yourself as well as you believe, read through this characteristically thoughtful post from Scott Alexander. It relates the story of a boy who lived his entire life without a sense of smell and didn’t realize it until his late teens. This despite the fact that he used all sorts of olfactive expressions like saying fresh bread “smells good” or teasing his sister by telling her she stinks.
But how was he to know that his sensory experience was different from anyone else’s? He can’t borrow someone else’s nose. He can’t just open a neural command line, run ‘$ grep feelz.txt’, and get back a schematic of his perceptual apparatus, complete with a little blinking cursor in the spots where there are gaps.
Put more plainly: there are numerous facets of your own mind that you aren’t aware of, so it’s worth reading poetry, listening to new music, and going to art museums, just to see how you react. Likewise, it can be useful to try and interpret a piece of literature just to see what your brain comes up with.
This first began to dawn on me in a major way while I was living in South Korea. I had just re-read Dancing With the Gods and it came to my attention that an unusually careful and prolific neopagan scholar had taken up residence in a town not far from mine. We spent a day hiking and discussing all manner of recondite issues in philosophy and religion.
It was a blast.
Near the end I half-jokingly made a disparaging remark about tarot cards. He calmly pulled a deck from his backpack and told me he always carries it with him. During the return walk he made a compelling argument for the utility of reading cards which was rooted entirely in a secular, non-mystical understanding of human psychology.
His reasoning was that superimposing an interpretive framework over cards as they come out can yield genuinely useful information. The mental dots being connected were there all along; the cards emphatically do not provide access to knowledge of the future. But, in the same way that you can agonize for weeks over an important decision and then realize that the answer is obvious after a five minute conversation, sometimes you just need that initial spark.
This is the key point behind Scott Alexander’s essay “Random Noise is Our Most Valuable Resource“. He specifically mentions tarot cards as a source of noise which can help break us out of our mental ruts. Vivian Caethe has tried to leverage this for profit by inventing a tarot deck calibrated for aspiring authors stricken with writer’s block. Both of these are examples of outwardly-focused processes which can also usefully be turned inward.
And when viewed a certain way I think literary criticism can be a similar sort of introspective scaffolding. Whether or not you believe that the author intended the lion’s jaw as a metaphor, seeing how your brain interprets it metaphorically can be akin to performing a literary version of the Rorschach test. I imagine that, as with tarot cards, doing this long enough will yield an increasingly subtle familiarity with the folds and wrinkles of your psychology.
It’s important not to get too excited about this. Just as people can form incorrect hypotheses about physical data, they can form incorrect ones about introspective data; all the usual rationalist warnings apply. But I have come to believe that this sort of “applied apophenia” can be a tool in the arsenal of those wanting a better understanding of their phenomenological field.