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The Twenty-Five Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature
By Angus Fletcher
THE MODERN MYTHS
Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination
By Philip Ball
Yet once more the humanities are in crisis. Across college campuses, courses in literature, art history and the classics are increasingly regarded as optional add-ons to degrees in social and hard sciences, rather than social obligations in themselves. And in response to justified demands that Western academia acknowledge that it has long defended the artifacts and intellectual habits of white supremacy, humanities departments have become divided on how to move forward in the 21st century.
But crisis has defined the humanities from the start. Beginning in the 15th century, the studia humanitatis were a practical new approach to learning that focused on the knowledge and skills needed to become fully human. Renaissance humanism placed contemplation in the service of action, arguing that the function of intellectual, aesthetic curiosity was to fashion a virtuous, effective citizen. This carried all kinds of contentious assumptions about what humanity and virtue were (and were not). Humanists were skeptical of the older, competing claim that the point of studying culture, especially antiquity, was for its own sake, as a way to understand the nature of truth and beauty. The debate has never been settled, basically because both sides of the argument are valid and problematic at the same time. It’s what makes studying the humanities important, and maddeningly vague.
In “Wonderworks,” Angus Fletcher, a Renaissance literature scholar at Ohio State University, attempts a practical approach to putting the humanities back on the map. The table of contents alone inspires a certain kind of wonder, bordering on incredulity. Fletcher covers almost 30 centuries of storytelling, from Homer’s “Iliad” and Confucian-era Chinese odes to “Winnie-the-Pooh,” Maya Angelou and “30 Rock”; from St. Augustine, Dante and Shakespeare to Frederick Douglass, George Eliot and Marcel Proust. The sheer volume of written matter Fletcher takes on reminded me of the time I asked one of my college professors if he’d read Samuel Richardson’s endless novel “Clarissa.” “Read it?” he said. “I haven’t even taught it!”
To get through it all Fletcher advocates a “two-step process of reverse engineering literature”: First ask what the work’s effect is, and then figure out how the writer has achieved it. This approach, he says, promises a “mastery” of no less than “all of literature’s inventions, unlocking secret power after secret power.” Fletcher credits this way of reading to the ancient Greek Sophists, humble students who, “on gentle coves and white-sand islands … dedicated themselves to learning all about poem and myth.” In time these students became teachers of literature, “sharing the secrets of how it enriched human life with love and courage and other psychological uplifts.” After them, however, literature became “weaponized” by rhetoricians to make political and social arguments, which Fletcher disdains.
Fletcher has dual degrees in literature and neuroscience, an English Ph.D. from Yale, some screenwriting credits and has taught everything from Shakespeare to story science to film studies. He regards literature as “an evolved machine” containing “deep blueprints” for secret “inventions,” which I would call narrative techniques. To him, narrative is a technology for making difficult feelings go away, and resolving complicated thoughts, which he thinks helps us get better at being human. It all began with Aristotle, whose “Poetics” identified a core literary invention that Fletcher calls “the stretch.” The stretch exaggerates or intensifies some aspect of the story (its plot, a character, a description) to create a sense of wonder in the reader. Each chapter of “Wonderworks” discusses multiple related texts and their hidden inventions: the “valentine armor” in Jane Austen, the “empathy generator” in “Oedipus Tyrannus,” the “gratitude multiplier” in “Middlemarch.” Each chapter includes subheadings on, for instance, “Using the Sorrow Resolver Yourself” (“Hamlet”).
“Wonderworks” contains many instances of critical insight and neat close-reading, often concealed beneath the cumbersome scaffold of its method. But there were also times when my word-loving heart started to shrivel and die. In a one-sentence summary of Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” Fletcher reduces the vivid, passionate heroine Dorothea Brooke to a nonentity who dumped her career: “a woman who failed so completely that she’s been forgotten by history, existing now as ‘a foundress of nothing.’” The facility with which he dispatches text after text sometimes reveals his critical chops, plus a persistent, easy glibness.
What’s most interesting about this compendium is its understanding of imaginative representation as a technology. What’s most troubling is its emphasis on the notion of mastery. Reading can be practiced, he says; practice begets perfection. The problem becomes clearest when the author discusses writers of color. In a reading of Frederick Douglass’s “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855), Fletcher describes how the author sought a “change-nurturing technology” to alter the moral composition of his readers and convince them that enslavement is evil. He writes that Douglass found what he was looking for in the autobiographical “Confessions” of Augustine and Rousseau. Both of these texts, one early Christian and the other from the Enlightenment, are profoundly entangled in European imperial aggression and anti-Black racism. Augustine was probably the son of Indigenous North African parents who converted to Catholicism and assimilated to Roman imperial rule. The literary “blueprint” he passed to Douglass (spiritual autobiography) would be used over many centuries of Christian writing to defend European hegemony in Africa and elsewhere. Such nuances get left by the wayside on Fletcher’s path to mastery.
In “The Modern Myths,” Philip Ball works with a comparatively modest seven classic works in English that he argues have transcended their status as mere books. Ball considers myth a crucial storytelling mode because it not only permits but actively requires retelling; its meanings are open and unfixed. Modern myths, then, tell stories that “could not have been told in earlier times,” he writes, “because their themes did not yet exist.” Ball’s candidates are “Robinson Crusoe,” “Frankenstein,” “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Dracula,” “The War of the Worlds,” the “Sherlock Holmes” stories and “Batman.” Ball is a distinguished science writer, a longtime editor at Nature magazine and the author of many publications explaining complex phenomena in chemistry and physics. He does an impressive job with the literary histories behind each iconic title, assembling a set of origin stories rich in cultural history and imagination.
The real payoff emerges from Ball’s account of how mythic narrative relates to the rise of modern science. As it turns out, his passion is less for the science or pseudoscience that makes each of these texts peculiarly modern, and more for the endurance of myth as resistance, to the certainties that accompany empirical knowledge and scientific reason. To Ball, mythic writing is where the conditions of irrationality, superstition and enchantment persist: forms of wonder that depend on the disconnect between what we know for sure and what we simply believe.
Ball acknowledges that the myths he chooses are Western, white and mostly male in origin. He speculates that their popularity reflects “British imperial hegemony” in the period he’s writing about, the 18th and 19th centuries. Which is fair. But like Fletcher he doesn’t probe any deeper, for example by looking into Indigenous literary traditions, which have a very different relationship with both imperial hegemony and myth itself. Nor does he question exactly why post-Enlightenment Anglophone tales are so obsessed with themes of domination, self-reliance, privilege and supremacy in the first place. Myths of individual power and mastery still exert a significant hold in the mainstream imagination and culture — but whose voices have they overlooked? And which other versions of the story must they ignore?