The Literary Mind

Oxford University Press
Copyright © 1996 by Mark Turner

Chapter One: Bedtime With Shahrazad

"There was once a wealthy farmer who owned many herds of cattle.[1] He knew the languages of beasts and birds. In one of his stalls he kept an ox and a donkey. At the end of each day, the ox came to the place where the donkey was tied and found it well swept and watered; the manger filled with sifted straw and well-winnowed barley; and the donkey lying at his ease, for the master seldom rode him.

"It chanced that one day the farmer heard the ox say to the donkey: 'How fortunate you are! I am worn out with toil, while you rest here in comfort. You eat well-sifted barley and lack nothing. It is only occasionally that your master rides you. As for me, my life is perpetual drudgery at the plough and the millstone.'

"The donkey answered: 'When you go out into the field and the yoke is placed upon your neck, pretend to be ill and drop down on your belly. Do not rise even if they beat you; or if you do rise, lie down again. When they take you back and place the fodder before you, do not eat it. Abstain for a day or two; and thus shall you find a rest from toil.'

"Remember that the farmer was there and heard what passed between them.

"And so when the ploughman came to the ox with his fodder, he ate scarcely any of it. And when the ploughman came the following morning to take him out into the field, the ox appeared to be far from well. Then the farmer said to the ploughman: 'Take the donkey and use him at the plough all day!'"

With this story, the vizier, counselor to the great Sassanid king, Shahriyar, begins to advise his daughter. The vizier's daughter is Shahrazad, known to us as the gifted and erotic storyteller of the thousand and one nights, whose genius and beauty will make her famous. But at the moment, she has told no tales. She has not offered herself to Shahriyar as a wife or given him any of the multiple pleasures of her bed. She is merely the vizier's daughter, and her father would like to keep it that way. For the last three years, it has been his grim daily task to execute Shahriyar's queen of the day before and procure for him another virgin.

The trouble began when Shahriyar discovered that his first wife was unfaithful. In sorrow, he abandoned his throne to roam the world. He unwillingly became involved in a distasteful episode that convinced him that no woman can be trusted. He returned to his kingdom, ordered his wife to be slain, and redefined "married life."

The situation in the kingdom is very bad; rebellion is simmering, and the vizier is running out of virgins. Shahrazad offers herself as the next bride, but not as the next victim. She is far too well-bred ever to place her father in the awkward position of having to execute his own child. Instead, she will marry King Shahriyar and by telling him marvelous stories free him of the need to behead each morning the woman he had taken as his virgin bride the preceding afternoon. Her hope is to begin once again the daily royal wedding tale, but this time to replace its local, twisted finish with the more common and traditional ending.

Her image of her wedding night is unusual, in keeping with her circumstances: after sex with the king, she will begin a story, supposedly for her younger sister Dinarzad, but really meant for the king's ears. She will time its climax to be interrupted by the breaking of dawn, so that the king, to hear the rest of the story, will have to postpone her execution by a day. She hopes to repeat this trick for as many days as it takes. Some of her stories will be veiled parables. Some will carry King Shahriyar beyond his bleak interior landscape. Some will be symbols of what could be. All will have an amazing and wonderful surface.

The vizier fears that his daughter will merely suffer. True to his character and to his role, he does not say so directly, but instead tells her a story of a donkey who, proud of his intelligence, schemes to trick the master of the farm into excusing the sweet, simple ox from labor. The scheme works, but not as the donkey expected. The wealthy farmer orders the donkey driven into the field to work in the ox's place.

In using a story to warn Shahrazad, the vizier engages in narrative imagining, a form of thinking before acting. In trying to change her mind through story, he unwittingly endorses the very strategy he asks her to reject--to try to change the king's mind through stories.

Narrative imagining--story--is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally. This is the first way in which the mind is essentially literary.

The vizier asks Shahrazad to think before acting by imagining a story and then evaluating it. He traces the consequence of her action forward to disaster, implying that Shahrazad should abandon her plan. In doing so, he puts to domestic use a fundamental cognitive activity: story.

But there is something odd here. The vizier does not say, "Look, daughter, this is your current situation: you are comfortable, so comfortable that you have the leisure to get interested in other people's problems. But if you keep this up, you will end in pain." Instead, he says, "Once upon a time there was a comfortable donkey who got interested in the problems of the ox. The donkey, who thought he was the sharpest thing ever, gave some clever advice to the dullard ox. It worked amazingly well, at least for the ox, but it had unfortunate consequences for the donkey. Before you know it, the ox was lolling about in the hay of contentment while the donkey was sweating and groaning at the ox's labor."

The vizier presents one story that projects to another story whose principal character is Shahrazad. We, and Shahrazad, are to understand the possible future story of Shahrazad by projecting onto it the story of the ox and the donkey. The punch line is that Shahrazad is the donkey. This projection of one story onto another may seem exotic and literary, and it is--but it is also, like story, a fundamental instrument of the mind. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally. This is the second way in which the human mind is essentially literary.

One special kind of literature, parable, conveniently combines story and projection. Parable serves as a laboratory, where great things are condensed in a small space. To understand parable is to understand root capacities of the everyday mind, and conversely.

Parable begins with narrative imagining--the understanding of a complex of objects, events, and actors as organized by our knowledge of story. It then combines story with projection: one story is projected onto another. The essence of parable is its intricate combining of two of our basic forms of knowledge--story and projection. This classic combination produces one of our keenest mental processes for constructing meaning. The evolution of the genre of parable is thus neither accidental nor exclusively literary: it follows inevitably from the nature of our conceptual systems. The motivations for parable are as strong as the motivations for color vision or sentence structure or the ability to hit a distant object with a stone.

Literary parables are only one artifact of the mental process of parable. Proverbs frequently present a condensed, implicit story to be interpreted through projection: "When the cat's away, the mice will play," "Once burned, twice shy," "A poor workman blames his tools," "Don't get between a dog and his bone." In cases like these, the target story--the story we are to understand--is not even mentioned overtly, but through our agile capacity to use both story and projection, we project the overt source story onto a covert target story. "When the cat's away, the mice will play," said at the office, can be projected onto a story of boss and workers. Said in the classroom, it can be projected onto a story of teacher and students. Said of sexual relationships, it can be projected onto a story of infidelity. With equal ease, we can project it onto stories of a congressional oversight committee and the industries regulated by that committee, a police force and the local thieves, or a computer security device and the computer viruses it was intended to control. If we find "When the cat's away, the mice will play" out of context, in a book of proverbs or in a fortune cookie, we can project it onto an abstract story that might cover a great range of specific target stories and muse over the possible targets to which it might apply. "Look before you leap" similarly suggests an abstract story that applies to indefinitely many target stories.

The ease with which we interpret statements and construct meanings in this fashion is absolutely misleading: we feel as if we are doing no work at all. It is like listening to a speaker of English utter scores of syllables a minute: we use complicated unconscious knowledge to understand the speech but feel as if we are passive, as if we merely listen while the understanding happens by magic. With parables and proverbs, just as with language itself, we must see past our apparent ease of understanding if we are to locate the intricate unconscious work involved in arriving at these interpretations.

To study mind, we must become comfortable with the fact that mind generally does not work the way it appears to. This sounds paradoxical. We expect our introspective sense of mind to serve as a reasonable guide to the actual nature of mind. We expect it to give us a loose picture that, once enhanced by science, will represent the workings of mind. But it is instead badly deceptive. Our loose picture of mind is a loose fantasy. Consciousness is a wonderful instrument for helping us to focus, to make certain kinds of decisions and discriminations, and to create certain kinds of memories, but it is a liar about mind. It shamelessly represents itself as comprehensive and all-governing, when in fact the real work is often done elsewhere, in ways too fast and too smart and too effective for slow, dumb, unreliable consciousness to do more than glimpse, dream of, and envy.

Fables like Aesop's, cautionary tales like the vizier's to his daughter Shahrazad, veiled indictments like the one the prophet Nathan delivers to King David in 2 Samuel 12 ("You are the man"), epithets like "wing-footed Hermes," conceits in metaphysical poetry, and extended allegories like Everyman or Pilgrim's Progress or the Divine Comedy all consist of the combination of story and projection. Even stories exceptionally specific in their setting, character, and dialog submit to projection. Often a short story will contain no overt mark that it stands for anything but what it purports to represent, and yet we will interpret it as projecting to a much larger abstract narrative, one that applies to our own specific lives, however far our lives are removed from the detail of the story. Such an emblematic story, however unyieldingly specific in its references, can seem pregnant with general meaning.

The projection of story operates throughout everyday life and throughout the most élite and sacred literature. Literary critics, observing it at work in exceptional literary inventions such as the Faerie Queene or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Through the Looking Glass or The Wasteland, have from time to time proposed that these spectacular inventions are not essentially exotic, but rather represent the carefully worked products of a fundamental mode of thought that is universal and indispensable. Parable--defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the expression of one story through another--has seemed to literary critics to belong not merely to expression and not exclusively to literature, but rather, as C. S. Lewis observed in 1936, to mind in general. If we want to study the everyday mind, we can begin by turning to the literary mind exactly because the everyday mind is essentially literary.

Parable is today understood as a certain kind of exotic and inventive literary story, a subcategory within the special worlds of fiction. The original Greek word--parabole, from the verb paraballein--had a much wider, schematic meaning: the tossing or projecting of one thing alongside another. The Greek word could be used of placing one thing against another, staking one thing to another, even tossing fodder beside a horse, tossing dice alongside each other, or turning one's eyes to the side. In these meanings, paraballeinis the equivalent of Latin projicere, from which we get the English "to project" and "projection."

I will use the word "parable" more narrowly than its Greek root but much more widely than the common English term: parable is the projection of story. Parable, defined this way, refers to a general and indispensable instrument of everyday thought that shows up everywhere, from telling time to reading Proust. I use the word "parable" in this unconventional way to draw attention to a misconception I hope to correct, that the everyday mind has little to do with literature. Although literary texts may be special, the instruments of thought used to invent and interpret them are basic to everyday thought. Written works called "narratives" or "stories" may be shelved in a special section of the bookstore, but the mental instrument I call "narrative" or "story" is basic to human thinking. Literary works known as "parables" may reside within fiction, but the mental instrument I call "parable" has the widest utility in the everyday mind.

We can learn a surprising amount about story, projection, and parable in everyday life by considering for a moment the fictional lives of the fictional vizier and Shahrazad. The vizier is in a terrible position, on the edge of dealing with his daughter's life or death, the complex mind of his king, and the fate of his country. He is called on to foresee, a basic human mental activity, and he is supposedly the national master at foresight. He is the vizier. He has had unparalleled experience in crucial foresight when there is no second chance. He is fully exposed in his roles as both father and advisor. A failure at this moment will destroy absolutely everything. He turns, naturally, to the most powerful and basic instruments he possesses: story and projection. His motivation is absolute, since he knows that to succeed at her scheme, Shahrazad will have to outperform him at his own professional practice her first time out, under conditions more unfamiliar and dramatic than anything that has accompanied his own feats of forethought and persuasion. Yet the contest is unequal: she is a rank novice while he is the reigning grand master.

Shahrazad sees everything at stake, too, but from a different viewpoint: it is her country, her king, her father, her sisters (literally and figuratively), and sooner or later, no doubt, her own virginity and life, whether she volunteers them or not. It is also, potentially, in narrative imagination, her marriage, her children, her future, her genius, her life story. A failure will destroy absolutely everything. She too turns naturally to the most powerful and basic instruments she possesses: story and projection. These are the powers of mind she will live by, not only in the drama of her execution or reprieve, but also in the minute details of her storytelling nights.

It is a recurrent tale: the cautious parent sees all the danger while the adventurous child sees all the opportunity. They stand in conflict at just that moment in their lives when the parent's power is ebbing and the child's capacity is rising. The child, of course, will have her way. Her father must step back into the condition of hope. Shahrazad has always been in his hands. Now he will be in hers. In this story, repeated in every generation, the child is confident and ambivalently thrilled at the prospect of having her capacity put to the test in action, to see whether she can succeed where her parent has failed, while the parent is nearly overcome with fear yet sustained by the secret thought that if anyone can do it, it's his kid.

I imagine Shahrazad at this moment as prescient, knowing just how good she is and just what powers and opportunities she possesses that are beyond her father's capacity to imagine. Her presentiment comes from her own use of foresight through narrative imagining. But not even she, for all her looking into the future, can know that her performance during the next thousand and one nights will bring her a reputation as the greatest literary mind ever. Along with that other fictional author, the Homer of the Odyssey, she will become a paragon of human imaginative superiority.

If Shahrazad and the vizier could know of her fame down to our age, it would probably mean less to them than would its implication that her daring idea succeeds, which further implies that tomorrow morning her head will not fall beneath her father's sword. She will live, not happily ever after--this is an adult story--but for the appropriate temporal space of risk and terror, intimacy and pleasure, until she and Shahriyar are visited by the Destroyer of all earthly pleasures, the Leveller of kings and peasants, the Annihilator of women and men.

* * *

The story of Shahrazad presents to us in miniature the mental patterns of parable.

--Prediction. The vizier imagines the consequences of an event, namely the story that follows the donkey's intrusion into the affairs of the ox and the farmer. By projection, he is at the same time imagining the story that would follow Shahrazad's proposed intrusion into the affairs of the virgins and Shahriyar. Narrative imagining is prediction.

--Evaluation. If the event whose consequences we imagine is an intentional act, we can evaluate the wisdom of that act by evaluating those consequences. The vizier not only predicts the consequences of Shahrazad's proposed intrusion, he thereby evaluates its wisdom. Narrative imagining is evaluation.

--Planning. Shahrazad imagines a goal--to stop Shahriyar. She intends to "succeed in saving the people or perish and die like the rest." It so happens that she has a second goal--to establish a sound marriage with King Shahriyar. It is convenient that achieving the second goal automatically achieves the first. She constructs in imagination a narrative path of action that leads from the present situation to the sound marriage. This story is her plan. Narrative imagining is planning.

--Explanation. We often need to explain how something "came about." We appear to do this by constructing a narrative path from a prior understood state to the state we need to explain. Shahrazad's plan to change Shahriyar depends upon a prior explanation, of how Shahriyar the happily married king became Shahriyar the destroyer of women. This explanation consists of the narrative that starts with Shahriyar the happily married king and ends with Shahriyar the destroyer of women. Narrative imagining is explanation.

--Objects and events. We recognize small stories as involving objects and events. This raises a problem: the world does not come to us with category labels: "this is an object," "this is an event." How do we form conceptual categories of objects and events?

--Actors. We recognize certain objects in stories as actors. This raises another problem: the world does not come labeled with little category signs that say, "this is an actor." How do we form conceptual categories of actors?

--Stories. We recognize stories as complex dynamic integrations of objects, actors, and events. But again, we do not recognize each story as wholly unique. Instead, we know abstract stories that apply to ranges of specific situations. How do we form conceptual categories of stories?

--Projection. The tale of the ox and the donkey, in which the donkey helps the ox but then suffers in the ox's place, is offered as a source tale to be projected onto the story of what will happen should Shahrazad be foolish enough to try to help the suffering virgins. The power of this projection is obvious, but how it works is a mystery. How do we project one story onto another? What is the cognitive mechanism of parable?

--Metonymy. In the tale of the ox and the donkey, the sifted straw is metonymic for luxury--that is, it stands for luxury--and the plough and the millstone are metonymic for labor and suffering. We know this without conscious evaluation. We know, for example, not to take the sifted straw as metonymic for yellow things, or the plough and millstone as metonymic for manmade artifacts. This seems obvious and even automatic, but how we make metonymic associations is mysterious.

--Emblem. The vizier and his daughter stand as emblems or instances of parent and child; their conflict stands as an emblem or instance of generational conflict. What is an emblematic narrative?

--Image schemas. When we think of one thing, for example, the donkey's pride and nosiness, as "leading to" another, such as his suffering, we are thinking image-schematically. This particular image schema--"leading to"--is basic to story. It consists of movement along a directed path. The points on the path correspond to stages of the story: we say, "What point have we reached in the story?" The "path" of the story "leads from" its "beginning" "to" its "end." What are image schemas and what are their roles in the literary mind?

--Counterparts in imaginative domains. The vizier, in warning his daughter, has a mental model of the present. He imaginatively blends it with a hypothetical scenario in which Shahrazad goes to Shahriyar. Mentally, he develops that blend into a robust picture of a hypothetical future. These two narrative mental spaces--of the vizier's present reality and the hypothetical future--are separated in time and in potential. But there are conceptual connections between them as well as differences. In the mental space of the present, the role of vizier's elder daughter and the role of Shahriyar's wife do not have the same inhabitant. But in the mental space of the hypothetical future, they do, which is to say, the vizier is imagining a future in which the person who happens to inhabit the role of vizier's elder daughter also happens to inhabit the role of Shahriyar's (temporary) wife. The vizier, expressing these connections, could say, "If you marry Shahriyar, I will have to kill you," and we would know that the cause of the killing would not be his anger at his daughter for having disobeyed him but instead his obligation as vizier to execute whoever inhabits the role of Shahriyar's wife. We understand these mental space connections as well as the vizier, instantly, despite their complexity. If Shahrazad were to say, "If I marry Shahriyar, you will be surprised; you will be grandfather to the next king," we as well as the vizier would know immediately the connections between Shahrazad's mental space of the present and her mental space of the future. Constructing these mental space connections is amazingly literary and complicated. Shahrazad's mental space of the future, for example, includes a father who remembers his previous mental space of the future and who knows that it does not accord with his mental space of the present reality in the way it was supposed to. How do we construct narrative mental spaces and establish such connections between them?

--Conceptual Blending. The ox and the donkey talk. Talking animals are so common in stories as to seem natural. Why do they arise in imagination and why should they seem natural? This apparently idle question turns out to be both essential to the investigation of mind and profoundly difficult to answer. Conceptual blending--in this case, the blending of talking people with mute animals to produce talking animals--is a basic process of thought. How does it work? What is its range?

--Language. The parable of the ox and the donkey is expressed in language. Where does the structure of our language "come from" and what is its relation to parable?

We imagine realities and construct meanings. The everyday mind performs these feats by means of mental processes that are literary and that have always been judged to be literary. Cultural meanings peculiar to a society often fail to migrate intact across anthropological or historical boundaries, but the basic mental processes that make these meanings possible are universal. Parable is one of them.

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