Sunday, July 21, 2013

Patrick Colm Hogan's "How Authors’ Minds Make Stories"

Patrick Colm Hogan is a professor in the Department of English and the programs in Cognitive Science, Comparative Literature and Comparative Studies, and India Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of fifteen books, including The Mind and Its Stories and What Literature Teaches Us about Emotion, and the editor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his recent book, How Authors' Minds Make Stories, and reported the following:
Page 99 of How Authors’ Minds Make Stories begins with a reference “alterations in women’s political authority” as represented in Jean Racine’s play, Bajazet. It continues as follows:
Racine placed Andromaque in a position of authority after the play bearing her name. He placed Agrippine in that position before the action of Britannicus. He placed Axiane and Berenice in that position outside the action of Alexandre le Grand and Berenice. In Bajazet, however, Roxane is in charge of the empire while the events are unfolding. Thus her position of authority is integral to the story’s elaboration and specification . . . . [I]t may seem that this will simply produce a mirror image of the stories in which men have the positions of authority. However, this is not a matriarchy. The society is still fundamentally patriarchal, even though an exceptional woman has managed to gain some degree of (temporary) dominance. As a result, the position of this (female) leader is more fragile, and the balance of power is more complex. In keeping with this, the female characters in Bajazet draw on both the developmental principles for female characters in earlier plays and those for male characters. The result . . . is a sort of reconfiguration in which the possible interconnections (or configurations) of principles change significantly. Put simply, the metaprinciple that segregated principles by gender has been compromised.
Readers of this site will probably not be surprised to hear that this passage both is and is not representative of the book. It is unrepresentative in that only one chapter of the book concerns Racine. Though the greatest French tragedian, Racine seems to be little read in the English-speaking world, even by professors of literature. This means that the page treats an author who is probably unfamiliar to most readers. This chapter also involves the most thorough and detailed examination of an authorial canon and the most integral use of theoretical concepts. For these reasons, the page is likely to be far more difficult to follow than most of the book, especially when taken in isolation.

On the other hand, there are many ways in which the page is characteristic. The book as a whole concerns what psychologists call simulation. Simulation is the cognitive process of imagining what a particular character will do in a particular situation. It is probably the main process we use to decide whether we want to do something in the future (e.g., ask the boss for a raise) or what we might have done better in the past (e.g., timing the request for a raise differently). The book considers what constitutes simulation and argues that literary imagination is a particularly extended and elaborated form of ordinary simulative processes.

More exactly, a literary author has a set of principles that guide his or her simulation of characters and character interactions. These often involve categories of character, such as male and female. Part of simulation involves making small changes in single properties and imagining the outcomes. For example, one might imagine a male friend asking the bouncer at a club to let one in, then re-simulate the scenario with a female friend.

In the passage just quoted, my contention is that, up to Bajazet, Racine’s literary simulations maintained a fairly strict division between the sorts of things a female character might do and those a male character might do. By making a female character the ruler in the simulation proper, he broke those constraints. In consequence, he simulated the subsequent narrative differently than he simulated similar events in earlier plays. This was a watershed that had significant consequences for the plays that followed.
Learn more about How Authors' Minds Make Stories at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue