Catching up on my old, unread editions of the Times Literary Supplement, I come across a long and curious article by Gregory Currie, Professor of Psychology at Nottingham University, on the subject of characters in fiction, and the latest results of psychological tests. I know I should provide a link to this, but since this article is available online only to subscribers of the TLS, there seems little point. (Any reader who is a subscriber can easily find it on the TLS website: it’s in Issue 5657, dated September 2nd 2011.)
Since I can’t provide a link, I suppose I should provide some sort of summary of it, but that is not easily done: it’s a long article, with many qualifications and nuances. And, to be honest, I am not sure I have understood it properly. I have read it over a few times to make sure that Professor Currie really is saying what he appears to be saying. But if he is, then, professor or no professor, what he is saying, or seems to me to be saying, is utter nonsense.
At the risk of simplifying his arguments, let me attempt to summarise it – or, at least, let me summarise my understanding of it:
Research in psychology laboratories indicates that the concept of an underlying human character that determines to a great extent how people think and behave is weak; and that the thought and behaviour of humans is far more likely to be influenced by the stimulus of the moment. Since fiction – i.e. novels, short stories, plays – focus primarily on character rather than on the stimulus of the moment, the understanding fiction provides of human behaviour is unrealistic and spurious. Therefore, fiction should be enjoyed merely as a self-referential entity. We must not allow that fiction has any connection with the reality that lies outside it.
I appreciate that Gregory Currie is a professor of psychology, and I appreciate also that I am quite ignorant of the subject, by my response on first reading Prof Currie’s article, and my response still after the umpteenth reading, is a somewhat inarticulate “Eh?” Of course one recognises the importance of immediate stimuli: when I am tired and hungry, I tend to become irritable; when I am warm and comfortable, I tend to feel contented; and so on. Show me any novelist who is not already aware of this. Indeed, show me anyone with half a brain who is not already aware of this. But this overrides underlying human character and personality? Really? If we receive an unexpectedly large bill, I tend to panic and become flustered; my wife, affected by the same stimulus, remains calm and collected, and sorts matters out. If our underlying characters aren’t as important as the stimuli of the moment, then why is it that we react so differently to the same stimulus?
Maybe I have misunderstood what the good professor is saying, but I have read the article over a few times, and I really can’t see that my summary above, albeit simplified, is an inaccurate reflection of the article. (I’d welcome any correction on that point.) And what particularly concerns me is the conclusion of the article: literature, Prof. Currie concludes, must not be regarded as something that relates to real life; it is but an enjoyable and sometimes intellectually stimulating game, but it has no more connection to reality than has a crossword puzzle.
If this is all literature is, then it is worthless. Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Joyce – you could discard the whole damn lot, and, other than losing a means of whiling away a few idle hours, we would not be any poorer for it. As if it weren’t bad enough that various strands of postmodernist thought, with its insistence that words cannot depict reality, or even that there is no objective reality to depict, have already reduced literature to a mere parlour game! Now psychology is getting in on the act by claiming that something that is and always has been bleeding obvious (that we react to stimuli of the moment) is a new discovery, and that it invalidates any claim of literature of depicting the real world.
Literature is not easily capable of abstraction: if it cannot depict reality – either through what we call “realism”, or through some other stylised means of depiction – then it is nothing. And I find it sad to see so many academics, so many literary academics at that, so busy sawing away with glee at the very branch on which they are sitting.