The Passionate Muse

THE PASSIONATE MUSE: Exploring Emotions in Stories, by Keith Oatley.

Passionate Muse, busy reader

Most of those flags—37 of them!—are quotable quotes. 

Here’s a few that stick with me:

“Although the emotions of fiction seem to happen to characters in a story, really, all the important emotions happen to us as we read or watch.

By page 17 we already have a whole new way of looking at fiction.

The author is a Psychology prof, so it behooves him to back up his pronouncements with experiments.  Oatley also hauls in some literary giants to support his ideas.  Marcel Proust, for example:

“When he reads, each person is actually the reader of his own self.  The work of the writer is nothing more than a kind of optical instrument that the writer offers. It allows the reader to discern that which, without the book, he might not have been able to see in himself.”  (from “Remembrance of Things Past”, Vol. 6)

Oatley seems to appreciate literature all the more for the rewards that accrue to us unconsciously. 

“Because we experience reality only through our five senses, there is much that is hidden… It is the human condition.  We need assistance.  Part of this assistance…is literature.”

Oatley calls these insights “literary knowing”. 

And “literary emotions” are those we feel as we identify with fictional characters.  Censors worry that these emotions rub off on us.  Rage, hate, violence, eroticism, dishonesty, addiction—six good reasons to ban books. 

Oatley cites research suggesting that fiction can also leave us feeling generous and altruistic.  He calls the effect “elevation”.

“We cry in the closing scenes of Casablanca… because we feel ourselves in the presence of something larger than ourselves, something that takes us out of our egoistic concerns, something that prompts reflectiveness, something that makes room for insight.”

You remember the final scenes of Casablanca—at the airport—Rick has acquired two letters of transit to fly Ilsa and himself to America.  But he surrenders them to her husband, so that he might continue his valuable work with the Resistance against the Nazis. 

Rick loses Ilsa (again), but his altruism elevates us all. 

Says Oatley:

“It’s a strange feeling of warmth and inspiration that occurs when one sees someone doing something altruistic, like helping a stranger, or behaving in a decent way when self-interest would urge them otherwise.  Elevation is a moral emotion.”

Moral acts may not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world—or do they?  I beg to differ with Bogie.  These literary emotions are “happening to us”.  And when they work on us in a way that summons our higher nature, the world takes a step toward becoming a better place.

Fiction supports the evolution of the species—that’s me getting grandiose.  That’s me pushing the author beyond the scope of his book. 

But perhaps I can encourage Oatley to conduct some research into this special brand of literary knowing.  By vicariously experiencing altruism—does it actually expand our awareness?

For more insights into Casablanca, check out Keith Oatley’s recent blog post.

And coming up on this very blog—my own take on Bogie’s transformation at the heart of the story.

Finally, what film or novel has moved you the most?  I’m always looking for a good recommendation.

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  1. says

    Wonderful post PJ. I don’t think it’s grandiose to claim, “Fiction supports the evolution of the species.” Though obviously it’s living fully that creates evolutionary progress and your article is about how fiction supports living fully. Well crafted stories – whether fictional or real – bring into focus our own inner life. They create self-knowledge and promote self-observation, which are the cornerstones of any new possibility or evolution for ourselves. Hell, I’m not saying anything new than what you’ve just already said – just wanted to you know I appreciate the context of this and all of your articles about the value and possibility of writing.

  2. says

    PJ, the most recent film to move me was ‘Inception’. When I came out of the theatre I was completely removed from the person who had entered the theatre. I had shifted fully into a new space of contemplative awareness. But then, dreaming is my thing so that may just have been me…

    I wish wish I could remember the title of the book that moved me the most as a child. But I can’t, so I’m unable to give you a recommendation. It must have been one of the first really long chapter books I ever read. However I will never forget the emotion because it was so intense. The story was about a black orphan whose entire tribe had been wiped out. Throughout the book the hope was kept alive, that she would be reunited with someone, a parent, a sibling…. Then, on the final page, she was sitting before the fire out in the open, and she reached her arms up to the sky. I realized, there would be no reunion, no happy ending, she would remain alone. And it broke me down utterly. I recall weeping inconsolably. That was my first experience of real emotion from a book. Boy, it stays with you.

    Btw: PJ, ever since reading your concepts of the Heart of the Story, I can’t watch anything or read anything without being aware of it. Now, I understand why some narratives disappoint so bitterly. If there’s no Heart, no Hole, then in Bob Mayer’s words “Fuggedaboudit!”

  3. says

    Yvette… your recounting of the orphan in the wild and her ultimate realization… it came through strongly. She had reached the end. Now she transcends… perhaps. It’s her big moment…even if she’s dead tomorrow. What’s more important? This should be discussed over a glass of wine.

  4. says

    “Fiction supports the evolution of the species” I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m adding you on twitter and facebook for sure. I think that there are some major things we are leaving out as human beings.

    I think story is important because there are these constant repetitions and patterns happening throughout the human species. Story is the one, real-life interpretive version of that.

    I was brought up by salespeople, and became this strange writer type that has a good day job, but could never pull myself together to do sales. I recently watched “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, and I kid you not, it helped me make connections in my own life that I have never fully been able to understand.

    Human brains just aren’t big enough to make all those connections until they look at their own scenario in a story, or maybe that’s just my wacky brain. 😛

  5. says

    “the human brain isn’t big enough…” indeed! Not only that, but it would appear that capacity isn’t the only problem. We go blind in the face of evidence that our belief systems are bogus. It’s a wonderful survival mechanism. I think that good stories depict this feature of the human organism every time. Thanks for visiting my blog, Marla. Come back again.

  6. says

    I agree that literature happens to us. It’s palpable.

    I LOVED All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. It is a masterpiece. My world is much bigger now even if I never write like him.

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