August 10, 2012

The passionate Muse by Keith Oatley

The passionate Muse by Keith Oatley

Exploring emotion in stories.

We can only fully understand and accept our emotions, says Scheff, when they occur at about the right distance. According to Scheff, the function of literary art as well as practices such as religious rituals is to enable significant emotions to occur at the right aesthetic distance, a distance at which they can be experienced and assimilated.

In the west, the foundational text on how fiction works was Aristotle’s Poetics. The equivalent version in India was the Natyasatra by Bharata Muni, who lived perhaps 200 years after Aristotle. The central idea about how fiction works for Aristotle and his followers was mimesis, the relation of literary art to the world, usually translated as representation or imitation. In Indian poetics the fundamental issues were different. The principal Sanskrit terms were dhavni (meaning suggestion) and rasa (meaning literary emotion).

Dhavani was thought to be the soul of poetry. The functional of poetry, drama and other kinds of fiction is to suggest within the context of a rasa, an emotion that can be recognized widely in the minds of readers or audience members. Rasa are like emotions of everyday life and rasa theorists argued that there are nine fundamental emotions in ordinary life, called bhavas, There is a corresponding rasa for each bhavas.

Bava / Rasa (in that order)
sexual delight  / the amorous or erotic
laughter / the comic
sorrow / the pitiable or tragic
anger / the furious
perseverance / the heroic
fear / the terrible
disgust or disillusion / the odious or loathsome
wonder / the marvelous
serenity / the peaceful

Noel Carroll has written that ‘emotions are the cement that keeps audience connected to.... narrative fictions’.

The anxiety that creates the suspense of a story is a form of excitement. The greater it is, the larger is the relief and satisfaction when it’s resolved. You can see this kind of excited anxiety by going to an amusement park that has roller coasters and the like. Watch how people are whirled into the air by elaborate machines. The excitement of being flung about is followed by relief as people get off the ride and talk to their friends. Excitement is on sale in Western society

To fall in love is to extend one’s self to enclose another person. Love stories are fascinating because of the questions of how we might know whom we might join in this all-engaging way. Fantasy is  a strong component both of falling in love and the stories to which this state gives rise.

Abhiavagupta (an important rasa theorist 1000 years ago) gives the following example of a verse from a play, a young woman’s husband is away and a traveler arrives at her house and she invites him to stay. Here is what the young woman says to the traveler.

Mother-in-law sleeps here, I there
Look, traveler, while it is light.
For night when you cannot see
You must not fall into my bed”

The verse works by dhavani - suggestion. An intuition of love has passed between the young woman and the traveler. Abhinavagupta discusses how in it, the young woman speaks openly in the presence of her mother-in-law and by means of a prohibition; she makes the traveler an invitation. If he does not understand it, he misses an opportunity.

Freud writes, “We laymen have always been intensely curious to know... from what sources that strange being, the creative writer, draws his material and how he manages to make such an impression on us with it and to arouse in us emotions of which perhaps, we had not even thought ourselves capable’.

The answer, says Freud, is that the stories that arouse such emotions are expressions of wishes. That is to say, they are like dreams, the meanings of which - according to Freud- are also expressions of wishes.

Play is the very emblem of enjoyment, of doing something for its own sake. The processes that underlie it are also the psychological bases of art. The center of art is the creation of a ‘that’ from a ‘this’.

Stories of anger involve an expectation that has been breached, in which a person’s status and selfhood are demeaned. Anger signals a wrong that demands to be righted, a readjustment that needs to be made in relationship. Readers can easily feel angry on behalf of a protagonist who has been victimized who may follow an urge to exact retribution.

The experience of being able to read and feel and think into a piece of fiction, although it may sometimes be sad, can also be profoundly joyful. It can be joyful, I think, it enables understanding of ourselves to grow and expand, in the way that - as Proist puts it - love can be do. This happens, not so much because of the imitation of life by art, but as we build a world in which we are closely involved. It happens when we allow the literary muse of passion to enable our own selves to bring meaning to life in relation to literary selves.

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