Psychology by Katherine Mansfield

Edwardian Interior c.1907 by Harold Gilman 1876-1919

“Psychology” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, redolent with sexual tension which unexpectedly morphs into something else at the end. As expected from the title, the bulk of the story comprises a character’s interiority. After first setting the mood, Mansfield gets right into a woman’s feelings. Yet do we feel we know her? We must read between the spaces, what I call ‘Mansfield Gaps’. Everyone fills the gaps differently in a lyrical short story; this is my interpretation.

Katherine Mansfield liked to explore the theme of retaining one’s individuality. Characters seem terrified of losing themselves, of being subsumed by the roles expected of them. They wish for individuality. Mansfield’s stories, when taken as a whole, show that there are many pitfalls in love.

“Psychology” is an exploration into the emotional variability that goes hand in hand with intimacy. This variability is also pronounced in “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “Taking The Veil” and “The Singing Lesson“.



Fear of Engulfment

This is all related to what commentators have called Fear of Engulfment. An excellent example of a Fear of Engulfment story is “The Frog Princess“, in which a young woman is terrified of being trapped by matrimony and the ensuing (forced) pregnancy. This is a fear specific to people with child-bearing capacity, and many stories have cropped up to try and assuage this fear, or to persuade young women that everything will be all right, or at least, that they are not alone in this particular fear.

Is “Psychology” a Fear of Engulfment story? Quite possibly. A woman of reproductive age risks much in an era lacking reliable birth control, let alone social welfare payments for unwed mothers. Then there’s the intense social ostracisation.

Safer instead to develop a taste for The Erotics of Abstinence, replacing the sensual pleasures of sex with that of cake, augmented with a nice cuddle with your Auntie Virgin neighbour.

What did Katherine Mansfield think about human psychology?

If you really want to immerse yourself in how Katherine Mansfield viewed people, you probably want to read Principles of Psychology by William James.

William James was a ‘vitalist’ (alongside Henri Bergson). James believed that behaviour influences emotion. Previously it had been thought that a person’s emotion influences behaviour. Modern psychologists now know that emotion is more of an interacting cycle than a cause and effect kind of thing. James also came up with the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, which describes modernist authors.

VITALISM, MODERNISTS AND CHARACTERISATION

Vitalism affected how modernist writers viewed ‘character’. Beforehand, the self had been understood in terms of a single transcendent ego, but modernists put it to their readers that ‘self’ was not only multiple, but also mutable. The self is not one single, never-changing thing. We change from moment to moment, as situations change. (Bergson added to this theory by making a distinction between superficial personality and deeper consciousness, which is exactly how storytelling gurus tell writers to create characters today.) This is partly what made Mansfield feel so modern. She challenged the ideology of the one true self (which we still see in much children’s literature today, as in ‘Be yourself’ stories). What does it mean to be yourself?

For Mansfield, the self is porous, caught between a virtual past and a virtual future. The self transforms moment by moment under the pressure of a past which breaks through into the present, and also by a future, essentially unknowable. 

VITALISM, THE MODERNISTS AND TIME

In this way, vitalism also probably encouraged Mansfield to question the nature of time. She does all sorts of interesting things with time in her stories. She achieves The Overview Effect in “Prelude” and links children to the elderly. She picks symbols (e.g. the aloe in “Prelude“) for their interesting relationships with time. According to Henri Bergson, these separate selves don’t begin and end (I guess the would tip a personality into the realm of dissociative identity disorder), but each personality extends into another.

By this view it’s impossible to respond in exactly the same way to a single thing twice in succession. That’s because you’ve already had one reaction, and that first reaction will inevitably influence all subsequent reactions. It’s impossible to remain the same person, even from moment to moment. This is why so often Mansfield’s characters seem to be high on something one moment — the next downcast. e.g. Beryl in “At The Bay“, first viewing herself as a ‘lovely, fascinating girl’, then ‘All that excitement and so on has a way of suddenly leaving you’. (She has become aware of a nearby ‘sorrowful bush’.) Bertha in “Bliss” is another stand-out example.

Here, too, in “Psychology”, Mansfield’s unnamed playwright spends most of the story erotically charged at the thought of an impending sexual encounter… then suddenly shifts this eroticism into something else, directed at her older female neighbour who happens to drop by with flowers, and who is portrayed as a lonely, non-sexualised eccentric.

NARRATION IN “PSYCHOLOGY”

As many critics have agreed the stories in narrational parallax are [Mansfield’s] greatest. They attempt to epitomise the complicated and multifarious world within a narrow space from a variety of positions in order to create an image of an Impressionist atomistic modern world.

Apart from the juxtapositional parallactic method of using more than two perspectives, the stories “Psychology” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” are worth mentioning, because here only two equally important perspectives are contrasted with each other and sometimes even combined into a hazy, oblique one. The contrasting or juxtaposed perspectives are often roughly similar in their degree of limitation and reliability. In “Prelude” and “At the Bay”, Linda’s and Beryl’s visions are both deluded, in their fantasies and distorted views, although they themselves regard their visions as invested with superior wisdom or social or marital respectability. No perspective is authentic or authoritative, but through the narrator’s ironic modulation between various contradictory perspectives the image of the world is confused and blurred.

The world is depicted as fragmentary, momentary. It lacks a centre. The narrator is merely a medium through which reality flows into words. Mansfield’s ironic use of juxtaposition and contrast suggests that man’s experience of the world is multi-faceted and that is what marks this particular modulation as Impressionist in concept. In “At the Bay”, ironic narrative juxtaposition is employed, contrasting the preoccupations of the different characters, Kezia, Beryl, Linda, Mrs Fairfield, Stanley, and Jonathan with the minor ones. Juxtaposed to their restrictive views are the narrative intrusions, the detached philosophical and pastoral framing by the narrator, and occasional general narrative comments.

the author’s intention is not to focus the material in a certain single character and thus achieve unity of vision. She centers the material upon all characters and thus obtains a number of visions which exist not in a hierarchy but in an anarchy. The very sectioning of the stories indicates the author’s intentions of avoiding characterisation. Each section is a piece of coloured glass, and all the pieces exist together not in subordination but in juxtaposition. Out of each piece comes a shaft of light, the point of view of a character.

Yuan-Shu Yen

The effect of these ‘shafts of light’ by means of ‘the coloured glass’ suggest the different moments of great intensity, varying in significance according to the perspective from which they are seen. The reader is led to consider the preoccupations of the different characters, sometimes from both an oblique abstract view and sometimes from one which identifies closely with the characters’ situations. This is one of the impersonal and objective ways in which Mansfield was able to reconcile intrusive narratorial passages with the restrictive assumptions of Literary Impressionism.

Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia van Gunsteren

STORY WORLD AND SYMBOL WEB OF “PSYCHOLOGY”

FIRE AS EMOTIONAL STATE

As you read “Psychology”, notice how Mansfield uses fire as a metaphor for desire. The verbs could equally describe the feeling in a lover’s heart.

  • He ‘came over to the fire and held out his hands to the quick, leaping flame.’
  • ‘Just for a moment both of them stood silent in that leaping light.
  • ‘She lighted the lamp under its broad orange shade’
  • ‘Two birds sang in the kettle; the fire fluttered
  • ‘That silence could be contained in the circle of warm, delightful fire and lamplight. How many times hadn’t they flung something into it just for the fun of watching the ripples break on the easy shores.’

COLOUR

Also take note of the colours in this story. Mansfield emphasised colour and related it to character mood. Colour is used for more than simply describing something.

Colour images fall into two basic categories:

  1. Images related to the visual experience of the character who sees it and
  2. Images which express in colour the atmospheric mood or their mental state.

Some commentators have said that Mansfield’s technique of describing colour maps directly onto pointillism, in which artists use short brush strokes to create a lot of dots and avoid blending, instead requiring the viewer to stand back in order to make out a scene. (Stand too close and all you’ll see are the dots.)

The orange of the lamp and the flame in this room, the red chairs, the blue of the chair and teapot — these are complementary colours. Why complementary? The playwright’s two types of intimate experiences are are equally complementary, meaning they are opposites but also perfectly matched.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “PSYCHOLOGY”

SHORTCOMING

If we crudely divide selves into public, private and secret, Mansfield was especially interested in the secret self, and in this story she uses the actual phrase ‘secret self’, showing that she must have thought in these terms.

Their secret selves whispered: “Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?”

DESIRE

The exact nature of the ‘secret self’ is left to the reader’s interpretation. Clearly, from the body language, from the fact that a man is visiting a woman’s private rooms, checking they won’t be disturbed, these two are getting ready for some kind of erotic experience together.

But why does the playwright hold back? That part is left for the reader to extrapolate. I am taking the era into heavy account, as well as Mansfield’s own life. Biographers believe that Mansfield had at least one abortion. Penetrative sex with men was risky for almost any young woman living in a pre-birth control era.

It seems the playwright of “Psychology” wants an erotic experience with a man, but without the masculine, patriarchal, high-risk version of sex, which is almost certainly the kind he expects.

OPPONENT

The playwright and the writer are romantic opponents. He smiles in ‘a naive way’. Why naive? Perhaps he came for the transcendent experience with cake, not realising the playwright is getting far more out of this moment than high tea.

POTENTIAL, TRANSITIONAL SPACE

What does it mean to be a ‘romantic opponent’? Much has been said about the mind-meld that takes place in this particular story, referring to how two minds become one.

Donald Winnicott was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst who came up with a concept known as ‘potential’ or ‘transitional’ space. At first I wondered why the man is talking about a little boy. Which little boy? (Is he into little boys…?) But no, commentators have gone into that.

…touch, very lightly, that marvel of a sleeping boy’s head… I love that little boy

Apparently the little boy is to be coded as a ‘symbolic object’. The (non-existent!) ‘little boy’ exists in the transitional space between the man and the woman. This space both separates and unites them. When the man imagines he touches the boy’s sleeping head, he sees it happening only inside his head. Touching but not touching. This is how Mansfield creates both distance and closeness between two characters at once.

NEIGHBOUR AS SECONDARY ROMANTIC OPPONENT

The virginal neighbour may not in fact be virginal. Mansfield’s style of narration moves in and out of a main character’s head — it’s up to the reader to decide which details are veridical fact and which are character interpretations. ‘Virginal’ is how the neighbour strikes her.

But this ‘virgin’ drops in with flowers quite often. In Mansfield’s other stories, for instance in “Carnation“, flowers are connected to eros, including between women. When we offer another person flowers we are encouraging them to enjoy a sensual experience, be it from colour, smell, texture of the petals. An offering of flowers feels almost like a check: “Are you capable of enjoying a sensual experience? How about one… with me? At some point? Maybe?”

Has the playwright already realised this about the neighbour? Doesn’t really matter. She realises it later, I think.

By the way, the violets, like the ‘little boy’ are thought to be another ‘transitional object’ which distance the two women as well as bringing them together. ‘Even the act of breathing was a joy’, she says. I have no idea what it’s like to live with tuberculosis, especially while being a smoker (as Mansfield was) but I can imagine Mansfield felt a special pleasure in easy breathing.

PLAN

It’s clear the playwright has invited the writer to her room, and made sure they won’t be disturbed (though she does have that neighbour inclined to pop in without notice). The playwright must trust this man sufficiently to respect her boundaries. He is not the ‘sexual conquering’ type:

For the special thrilling quality of their friendship was in their complete surrender. Like two open cities in the midst of some vast plain their two minds lay open to each other. And it wasn’t as if he rode into hers like a conqueror, armed to the eyebrows and seeing nothing but a gay silken flutter — not did she enter his like a queen walking soft on petals.

Nothing suggests this is a well-thought-out plan, but the playwright’s plan is this: She will enjoy the frisson of a man in her private room. She seems to want what these days may be called a queerplatonic relationship with the man.

Queerplatonic has been used to describe feelings and relationships of either/both a nonromantic or ambiguously-romantic nature, in order to express that they break social norms for platonic relationships. It can be characterized by a strong bond, affect, and emotional commitment not regarded by those involved as something beyond a friendship.

Aromantics wiki

“if you’d picture romance with taper candles over dinner, and sexual relationship as a queen bed, I would try picturing the queerplatonic as string lights over tea and a bunk bed with tin can-and-wire phones between them. The same, but not.”

Aromantics wiki

BIG STRUGGLE

The entire story is one long big struggle between desire and restraint. The playwright uses food as children’s books use food — as a highly sensuous experience, where other works use sex.

ANAGNORISIS

Mansfield tended to leave anagnorises off the page. They happened between the gaps.

In the gaps of “Psychology”, the playwright does seem to realise something, though in true modernist style, she probably doesn’t fully understand it.

The stupid thing was she could not discover where exactly they were or what exactly was happening. She hadn’t time to glance back.

She seems to realise that she can have a rounded and satisfying emotional-sexual experience with a combination of hot guy followed up with a cuddle from her virginal older female neighbour. She’s getting one type of erotic stimulation from the man, and another complementary (though completely different) sort of care from the neighbour.

On the page, it is the neighbour who realises something. “Then you really don’t mind me too much?” she asks showing that, until this moment of shared tenderness, she’d been doubting her value in the playwright’s eyes.

NEW SITUATION

Perhaps the playwright and the neighbour will forge a closer friendship after this beautiful embrace.

It’s also possible that once the playwright has come down from her erotic high, lit by her time with the man and seeping into her moment with the neighbour, the playwright will feel uncomfortable with the neighbour — who seems to want more — and shrink away. Earlier in the story she has compared herself to a snail, who retreats into its shell, so I think this extrapolation is equally likely.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
The Two Friends
1894
The Two Friends 1894 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Header painting: Edwardian Interior c.1907 by Harold Gilman

Emotion in Storytelling: Psychic Numbing

Sir Luke Fildes - The Widower 1875-76

Have you heard of ‘psychic numbing’?

As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two.

The Limits Of Human Compassion, Vox

(Robert J. Lifton coined the term in 1967.)

Psychic numbing is at play when a story about one empathetic character trapped in a concentration camp is more likely to induce tears than a documentary offering an overview of Nazi Germany, even though the mass murder of many should logically be more upsetting than the murder of an individual.

Psychic numbing is why the vast majority of stories focus on one main character, perhaps alternating points of view, but focusing on one at a time. Increased popularity of the close third person viewpoint, replacing a more omniscient point of view favoured by writers of the 1800s, suggests modern storytellers are more aware of this human tendency.

Think of the novels and films that have brought you to tears. Chances are, those stories were about an individual rather than an entire population.

Think of a time when you were affected by someone’s situation in real life. More likely than not, that person seemed alone in the world.

Garry Frost from the New Zealand/Australian band Moving Pictures is the writer of the song “What About Me?” Frost was in a corner shop one day and saw a young boy with autism trying to buy something. The boy was struggling to communicate what he wanted and kept getting pushed to the back of the line.

Saddened and appalled by this, Garry Frost went on to write the iconic song.

While storytellers understand the phenomenon of psychic numbing in order to tell resonant stories with empathetic main characters, we should all be aware of this cognitive bias. We can’t exactly live happily in a world of constant bad news without an ability to turn off empathy. We’d be emotional wrecks without it.

Unfortunately, the terrible downsides of this human ability can be catastrophic. See The Arithmetic of Compassion, a website which exists to combat the negative consequences of psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy and the prominence effect.

Header painting by Sir Luke Fildes – The Widower 1875-76

The Ideology Of Individuality And Social Norms In Children’s Stories

Academics who study different cultures have come up with various ways of taxonomising those cultures. Some of those grand theories are pretty well-known among laypeople. I’m familiar with the axes of individuality, collectivism, e.g. family oriented vs individualistic. You also get hierarchical vs egalitarian societies.

Recently I listened to cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand talk about her theory of ‘loose’ vs ‘tight’ societies on Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast.

This spectrum refers specifically to the extent to which social norms are automatically respected. We don’t often recognise the rules that are all around us until someone breaks them.

LOOSE AND TIGHT SOCIETIES AND PEOPLE

Are you living in a tight or in a loose society?

  • Would you avoid crossing the street when the little flashing man remains red, even if there are no cars coming?
  • Are you fined for littering, chewing gum or for leaving dog poo on the street?
  • Are you currently dressed in almost identical clothing to the people around you?
  • Do the city clocks each display the same time?

If so, you’re probably in a tight culture.

Gelfand tells us that the most successful societies tend to sit somewhere between loose and tight.

It’s not just societies we can describe as loose or tight, but each of us living within our society sits at a slightly different point along the spectrum. Situations also vary in tightness — a job interview is a ‘tighter’ situation whereas a party with friends is a ‘looser’ situation.

This metric is independent from other variables like economics and political leaning. Tightness tends to be positively correlated with collectivism but there are many tight, individualistic societies e.g. Switzerland. Brazil is the inverse — they value family but have looser norms.

Looser cultures have more tolerance for difference. This includes tolerance for people of different races and religions. Looser cultures are more open to change, more creative and also have more crime.

Tight cultures are more ethnocentric,  have more cultural inertia and less creativity.

EXAMPLES OF LOOSER SOCIETIES/contexts
  • Oregon, USA
  • New York, USA
  • New Zealand
  • Italy
  • Brazil
  • Greece
  • Public parks (tighter in Pakistan than in the USA)
  • University
  • Rural areas in China
EXAMPLES OF TIGHTER SOCIETIES/contexts
  • Alabama, USA
  • North Carolina, USA (honour cultures tend to be pretty tight)
  • Japan
  • Singapore (known as the ‘fine country’ — you can get fined for chewing gum)
  • Germany
  • Austria
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Libraries
  • Funerals
  • Job interviews
  • The military
  • Airlines
  • Urban areas in China

Why do some countries evolve tighter? It depends on how much threat that culture has endured historically, whether from chronic natural disasters (Japan) or from war, or from population density. Singapore is so tight to allow so many people to live together. You need strong rules to coordinate to survive. However, diversity can override population density when it comes to settling at a point on this continuum. New York is also densely populated but unlike Singapore is loose. Mobility is another lever towards looseness.

Freedom to break rules is not just a geographical thing — it’s also a socio-economic thing. Within the same societies, richer people tend to value individuality while poorer people tend to value conforming to social rules. This is because when rich people break rules, the rule breaking itself is interpreted differently, with far more leniency.

NEW ZEALAND VS JAPAN

I love Gelfand’s theory of culture — it makes a lot of sense. I grew up in New Zealand, rarely leaving New Zealand until the age of 17 when I spent a year as an exchange student in Japan. The hardest thing to adapt to was the tightness of Japanese society. I found the differences fascinating:

  • In New Zealand no one cared if we walked down the street eating a sandwich. In Japan however we were given strict instructions not to eat in public. An exchange student had the previous year got into big trouble for eating bread at the school train station.
  • In New Zealand I had worn mufti (free choice) clothing in senior high school. In Japan, my host mother requested I avoid wearing my very comfortable, bright red corduroy trousers because ‘people would talk’. In New Zealand, if you’re feeling a bit chilly you put on long sleeves and long pants. In Japan, there are set days when you are supposed to switch from summer to winter clothing and vice versa.
  • In New Zealand, small talk has no particular script. There are certain safe topics, such as the weather, but there is not the stock of ‘set phrases’ that has evolved in Japanese. When you write a letter in Japanese, it is mandatory to open with a poetic phrase about the weather. It is also mandatory to include two pieces of paper in the envelope even if you’ve only written on one.

I could list many, many more examples of the differences between New Zealand and Japan’s social norms. Overall, I think the extremely circumscribed lifestyle required of Japanese people is what ultimately sent me back to live the rest of my adult life in the West. Fascinating as these differences are, I prefer living in a looser society long term. These days I live in Australia, which I imagine is similar to New Zealand, leaning loose.

Tight and loose are dynamic constructs. It’s possible that after the  mass shooting incident in Christchurch recently that my hometown has veered a little tighter than before.

Tight/looseness is a concept Gelfand prefers to reserve for describing societies rather than individuals because the terminology can get confusing once we start using the same word to describe both. (That’s what happened to the word ‘collectivist’, which is applied to both societies and to individuals.) When describing individuals, be mindful of an important distinction — we’re referring to mindsets rather than ‘personalities’.

Psychologists can do experiments that make people tighten up — all we need is a perceived threat and we tighten up. However, it takes a lot longer for tight mindsets to loosen up. Psychologists are currently trying to work out a way of loosening up a society that has become too tight to allow for adaptability.

SOCIAL NORMS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

“The word “indie” is meaningless now. It’s so over-used that people think it simply means green hair.”

Morrissey

During her interview with Carroll, Gelfand mentions picture books, which got me thinking about whether picture books, as a corpus, swing loose or swing tight.

Elmer is the story of a patchwork coloured elephant. Do you remember how Elmer ends? Hint: The story does not end with Elmer painting himself grey in order to fit in.

Elmer the Elephant has proven so popular that there is a whole series of picture books featuring his adventures. Basically, it’s an elephant who is patchwork instead of grey, which could symbolise any way in which a child happens to be different from other children. The storyline and message is similar to Freckleface Strawberry by Julieanne Moore, which is specifically about the difference of having red hair and freckles.

(Elmer’s Special Day has since been turned into an app, if you happen to own an Apple touch device.)

Other examples of picture books in which the reader is encouraged to break the mould:

  • Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae
  • Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
  • Stephanie’s Ponytail by Robert Munsch
  • Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
  • Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell
  • Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey
  • Happy Dreamer by Peter H. Reynolds
  • A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon

Gelfand uses American muppet characters to illustrate various loose vs. tight personalities, with Bert (or Ernie and Bert) at the tight end, Animal at the loose end.

Bert doesn’t even want to play a simple guessing game. Animal, on the other hand, performs Bohemian Rhapsody on stage and doesn’t bother getting the words right.

In 1990s Japan, it’s telling of the tightness that there was a TV game show in which the contestants had to perform a pop song from memory without getting a single word wrong.

The following is a topic for someone’s PhD, but I put it to you that people who write for children and who are drawn to children’s publishing tend to swing loose, compared to their surrounding culture. The big publishing houses in America cluster in New York, which swings loose. If they were clustered in Alabama, we’d probably see children’s books swing slightly tighter.

Instead of looking at the geographical spread of publishing houses, safer to look at the stories themselves. What is the dominant ideology regarding following the rules? Gelfand has noticed many picture books place emphasis on Being Yourself. But who, exactly, has the luxury of being themselves?

In tight cultures such as Japan, children are taught to be keen self-monitors, to look at their own actions and be aware of how they are fitting in. Structure and conformity is prioritised in these societies.

In loose cultures, children (and adults alike) need to develop a high tolerance for ambiguity. In loose cultures we are going to encounter a lot of unexpected behaviours and weird situations. Picture books such as those listed above seem to have a message which teaches children to be comfortable with ‘weird situations’. To encounter a patchwork elephant is the ultimate weird situation, picked as metaphor for looseness by David McKee.

MIGHT SOCIO-ECONOMIC STATUS AFFECT A CHILD’S RESPONSE TO A PICTURE BOOK?

Socio-economic difference in regards to social norms can be seen in children by age three. Working class parents teach their children that rules are important. Upper class kids are more likely to laugh when puppets in a lab break the rules.

I refer you now to the great corpus of carnivalesque children’s books. With Gelfand’s research in mind, might carnivalesque stories be decidedly middle class?

SOCIAL NORMS AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

The ideology of looseness = good persists right through the age-range of children’s books, intensifying in young adult literature. Below is a rare critique of this ideology, by someone who lives in New York (a loose city), but whose biography shows was educated at a private girls’ college in Pennsylvania (possibly tight):

“Not like the other kids” is a dangerous ideology, and it’s one that constantly gets peddled, especially to the kinds of teens who are choosing to spend their free time reading YA novels. Out of all the toxic ideas I believed as a teenager, this is probably the one that I’m still struggling the most to get away from. And it’s not one I’m happy to see repeated in literature, or in the communities discussing literature.

But the protagonist wouldn’t be the protagonist if they were just like all the other kids. Would they?

YA Subscription

On the Mindscape podcast interview, Sean Carroll quips that ‘all those stories about Hollywood rich kids who refuse to follow the rules are just the truth’.

original cast of Beverly Hills 90210

Gelfand responds that the socioeconomic-looseness relationship is, like many things, curvilinear.

FURTHER READING ON SOCIAL NORMS

More on some of the books listed above…

PEARL BARLEY AND CHARLIE PARSLEY BY AARON BLABEY

Pearl is an extrovert, Charlie an introvert (as described by what each of them likes to do), but they are great friends regardless and help each other out. This teaches children that people are all different but can be friends regardless.

SUNDAY CHUTNEY BY AARON BLABEY

This is another book which celebrates individuality. Sunday Chutney is a little eccentric, and the story reminds me of the opening sequence of the movie Amelie, in which Amelie gives us a snapshot of her strange life, including a rundown of the things she does and does not like.

Sunday Chutney sometimes feels lonely because she is always the new kid at school. (Her dad’s job means they move a lot.) There would be a lot of kids in this position – I was one of them all through primary school – and this book might help them to feel as if being new or different (or both) isn’t so bad.

Sunday Chutney is a well-chosen name for a children’s book, and I think it was the name which grabbed my attention – especially since I had already read the Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley book, so assumed (without knowing the author’s name) that the book had been created by the same person. (Did you know that one of Diana Ross’s daughters is called Chudney? With a ‘D’? Happy days.)

Here is a great interview with Aaron Blabey.

MILO ARMADILLO BY JAN FEARNLEY

A little girl wants a pink fluffy rabbit because all the other kids have got one and she doesn’t want to be different. No one can find a pink fluffy rabbit, so grandma decides to knit one, but it ends up looking more like an armadillo. The girl gets laughed at. The toy seems to come to life, and they play together. But whatever the armadillo does, the girl is critical, thinking a rabbit would do it better.

I’m not sure why, but this book did manage to pull on my heart strings a little – I think it’s the expression on the armadillo’s face when he decides to go back to grandmother for an unravel and reknit.

Fortunately, the girl realises how special her armadillo is, and no one gets unravelled.

The knitting theme is prominent in the illustrations and page design, with textures made of photographs of knitting, and occasional fancy font reminiscent of looped wool.

WHAT COLOUR IS YOUR WORLD? BY BOB GILL

This was first published in 1962 and was still in print in 2008. It teaches colours, but in an original way, because different people see that the objects in their lives are not necessarily viewed in the same hue.

I thought this was going to be a book which teaches a basic concept of art (that the sky isn’t always blue, for instance) but the milk is brown and the cabbages are blue, so I think it’s simply about indulging in your eccentricities.

(Still, I wouldn’t drink brown milk.)

NAKED MOLE RAT GETS DRESSED BY MO WILLEMS

I love books by Mo Willems, which appeal to the humour of adults equally. Besides, there’s something inherently funny about naked mole rats.

In this story, one naked mole rat bucks trends by deciding to wear clothes. This causes a stir, but catches on. By the end of the story, some naked mole rats are wearing clothes and some aren’t, but they’re all having a lovely time regardless. So this story is about going your own way, while pointing out the inherent ridiculousness in some of the social conventions we take for granted as normal.

LUKE’S WAY OF LOOKING BY NADIA WHEATLEY ILLUSTRATED BY MATT OTTLEY

Misunderstood by his teacher, the boy in this story sees the world differently from other people. This is reflected in his art assignments, which are meant to be realistic but which he depicts in an abstract way.

One day he escapes school and spends the day at the art gallery. This only spurs his imagination. When he arrives back at school the teacher doesn’t know what to say, so doesn’t say anything at all.

Suspension of disbelief is needed here, because a kid absconding from school these days is very much on the radar of the truancy admin team, or should be, but perhaps the world has changed even since this picturebook was published, in 1999.

Despite that plot hole, the story is a good one, with fantastic artwork, and will strike a chord with any kid who has ever been misunderstood by his or her teacher for failing to follow instructions to the letter.

GIRAFFES CAN’T DANCE BY GILES ANDREAE ILLUSTRATED BY GUY PARKER-REES

The author wrote this book after noticing while in Africa that giraffes are far more graceful than one would expect given their ungainly looking neck and limbs. When he returned home he wrote this story, in which the giraffe surprises all the jungle creatures at a dance by his unexpected graceful moves.

This is a story about having a go even if you don’t think you’re going to be any good at it, and secondary to that it’s about doing things your own way, because while all the other animals are doing a ‘type of dance’ (cha cha, Scottish dancing etc.) the giraffe simply dances.

La cosa più importante by Antonella Abbatiello

The most important thing for the rabbit is having long ears, but the giraffe doesn’t agree: it is better to have a long neck to reach the most supple leaves on the top of the trees, isn’t it? That’s how a passionate discussion among the animals of the forest starts, during which each one of them celebrates their own main feature as the best that one could have.

Meanwhile the pictures consequently modify the appearance of the participating animals bestowing the praised feature to each of them. It is only thanks to a wise owl that the animals are persuaded to stop their crazy game of imagining themselves all the same, and each one finally starts to feel important for their own peculiarities. … [This book] represents an invitation to look at diversity as a richness.

The World Through Picture Books

Picture books as listed above teach children ‘You are fine the way you are’. Closely related: the instruction to just be yourself. Underlying this message is the ideology that there is such a thing as the One True Self.

Is there such a thing? And even if there is, might these ideas stop being useful after a certain age?

Act Like Someone Else

In an interview on the Incredibly Interesting Authors podcast, creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams [milkshake duck], dismisses the common advice to ‘just be yourself’ whenever you’re faced with a difficult situation in which you don’t feel confident. Instead, he advises to act like someone else. He argues that everyone acts all the time, according to how they think they are expected to perform.

  1. What do you think of this advice?
  2. Do you think you have an ‘essential self’?
  3. If so, when does this essential self come out? Are some people better at acting parts than others?
  4. How do you think you are at acting the role that is expected of you? Do you think that people who can act the part end up doing better overall than those who can’t/don’t?
  5. Does the expectation to act different parts according to circumstance vary from culture to culture?

We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works so we embrace it.

All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin, page 2

The Problem With Expressive Individualism

In research on American high schools, one finds the idea that American schools are intertwined with notions of “expressive individualism” – the idea that human beings should find out and be true to who they really are on the inside. Might this also contribute to school shootings?

Suburban high schools, in particular, are seen by the middle class as places to accomplish expressive projects. Sociologist Robert Bulman points out, for example, how Hollywood films set in suburban settings focus on student journeys of self-discovery, while urban school films focus on heroic teachers and academic achievement. In the same vein, many suburban school shooters see what they are doing as acts of self-expression.

Reading stories of school shootings, one often finds moments in which the shooters claim that something inside, whether hatred or frustration, needed to find expression. An example of this is the manifesto left by Luke Woodham, who shot two students in 1997. “I am not spoiled or lazy,” he wrote, “for murder is not weak or slow-witted, murder is gutsy and daring.” The school became the place where Woodham thought he could express the gutsy and daring person he found on the inside.

Why security measures won’t stop school shootings

SORT OF RELATED

Out-of-character Moments In Fiction

What does it mean to act ‘out-of-character’? Unfortunately, audiences are influenced by the folk psychology that people behave somewhat consistently. That’s not the case.



I was once reading through a list which described common problems in short story submissions, by someone who reads a lot of amateur short stories. One plot they see a lot: A calm, sensible, normal character suddenly snaps. Maybe the main character is on a train, another passenger is smacking gum, the main character gets really annoyed with this, perhaps they’re angry about something else; they transfer the violence and whop the other passenger over the head. The end.

PROBLEMS WITH THE ‘THEN-HE-SNAPPED’ ENDING

  1. It’s not saying much of interest about humankind.
  2. It’s been done.
  3. (Supposedly) People just don’t work like that. A character who commits a violent act will have a history of violence. This needs to be foreshadowed, otherwise the reader will feel they wouldn’t really act like that.

The example above is an extreme example of characterisation and plotting done badly, but you’ll see it in milder form if you hang around writing groups long enough.

But focusing on the third problem, is it really the case that there are ‘restrained people’ vs. ‘violent people’?  Is there no situation on earth where you, personally, would not snap?

THE FOLK PSYCHOLOGY OF ENDURING CHARACTER

An audience does expect fictional characters to have some sort of ‘enduring character’. Writers are influenced equally by the following folk psychology:

People are often assumed to have personality traits (introvert, timid, etc.) as well as virtues (honesty, courage, etc.) or vices (the seven deadly sins, etc.). In folk psychology, these features are assumed to be stable over time and across situations. Proverbs in all languages testify to this assumption:

  • Who tells one lie will tell a hundred.
  • Who lies also steals.
  • Who steals an egg will steal an ox.
  • Who keeps faith in small matters, does so in large ones.
  • Who is caught red-handed once will always be distrusted.

If folk psychology is right, predicting and explaining behaviour should be easy. A single action will reveal an underlying trait or disposition and allow us to predict behaviour on an indefinite number of other occasions when the disposition could manifest itself.

FROM EXPLAINING SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR: MORE NUTS AND BOLTS FOR THE SOCIAL SCIENCES BY JON ELSTER

But of course, it’s not possible to predict behaviour. If it were, we’d live in a Minority Report society.

Folk psychology is demonstrably false.

also John Elster

All sorts of psychological experiments have been carried out to show that humans are not rational, though we do aim for rationality. I won’t summarise those here. We are irrational humans with unstable traits and little in the way of enduring character. Psychologists know that the best predictor of how a human will behave is not what sort of ‘character’ they have, but rather what sort of situation they are placed in. Obvious, right? But only when it’s pointed out.

But the audience expects characters to have ‘character’. (I mean, it’s right there in the word.) Any storyteller thereby faces a balancing act: The creation of characters whose traits are believably stable, but not so stable as to seem unrealistic.

THE RULES OF CHARACTERISATION — AS DESCRIBED BY A SOCIOLOGIST

For those of us trained in the humanities, John Elster’s sociological toolkit may feel a little foreign, but this is where the humanities overlap with sociological science:

  1. The acts and utterances of fictional characters have to be intelligible. [Intelligible = it has to make sense to the audience. See its subcategories below.]
  2. The author has to meet the twin requirements of fullness and parsimony. By ‘fullness’, a writer might talk about ’rounded’ characterisation. We often hear about that. The concept of parsimony is less explored among writers. The principle of parsimony (Occam’s razor) dictates that a theory should provide the simplest possible (viable) explanation for a phenomenon. It must ‘feel like it fits’. Don’t overcomplicate your character motivations, in other words.
  3. The work must flow downhill, minimizing the appeal to accidents and coincidences. Coincidences that happen in real life often don’t work in fiction. This is a well-known phenomenon among writers. If you tell an experienced critique partner that your story is ‘based on something that happened in real life’ their heart may sink. So often, real life incidents, no matter how interesting, don’t work as fiction because they contain events that seem like contrivances when presented as fiction. When unbelievable turning points are pointed out, the beginner writer may say, “But it really happened!” as if that counts for anything. Elster encourages writers to respect the fact that readers are not finely attuned to probability theory. ‘The overall plausibility of a scenario depends much more on the plausibility of its weakest links than on the number of links. I believe the author should respect this particular quirk of the readers, since it prevents him from resorting to facile but unlikely coincidences.’
  4. The work must offer a psychologically gratifying pattern of the buildup and resolution of tension. This blog is all about the aforementioned ‘psychologically gratifying pattern’. You can find it explained here.

SUBCATEGORIES OF INTELLIGIBILITY

Elster also explains that intelligibility can be absolute or relative. Intelligibility can also be global or local.

  • Absolute intelligibility: Can any human being behave in this way?
  • Relative global intelligibility: Is the behaviour of this particular fictional person consistent with the overall character the author has already set up?
  • Relative local intelligibility: Is the behaviour of this fictional person consistent with earlier behaviour the author has already set up?

The requirements of absolute and of relative local intelligibility are crucial constraints on authorial rationality. But relative global intelligibility is not a constraint. In fact, if an author lets relative global intelligibility constrain the work, it may be seen by the audience as an aesthetic flaw.

Fortunately, we don’t have to be fully paid up social scientists in order to understand all this, because TV Tropes explains it in layman’s terms:

Real people will not always behave in the most expected way, and indeed, it is unrealistic to expect a fictional character to behave any more consistently. Depending on the general circumstances, immediate situation, and who is around, the mildest individual can just snap.

Out-of-character Moments

Some types of stories require a hero who acts uniformly bravely, as in a thriller, or uniformly comically, as in a sit-com.

So-called literary fiction can overcome the audience expectation that character is global. Dostoyevsky is known as an author who disregarded the folk psychology of character consistency. His characters change their behaviour depending on the situation they are in, which is the most ‘real’ depiction of humanity available to us in a work of fiction.

Can you think of more modern stories in which characters behave according to the situation rather than according to some folk psychological concept of global character?

The Expectation Of Character Consistency In Children’s Literature

It’s unlikely your first example is from the world of children’s literature. Audiences may have less time for local versus global intelligibility in stories for children:

Consistency implies that a literary character cannot have contradictory traits. Neither can characters behave in a manner incompatible with what has already been revealed about them, in description, actions, or the narrator’s comments. Normally we place a higher demand for consistency on literary [fictional] characters than on real people. Since children’s literature is generally didactic, we place still higher demands for consistency on children’s literature characters. Characters must be understood from the text alone; therefore, any radical deviation in the way a character is presented will be perceived by readers as an artistic flaw.

Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature

Folk psychology is something we must resist, in our real lives and in our reactions to fiction, because it is hugely liberating to understand that situations rather than enduring characteristics are key to behaviour. It is especially important when coming to grips with the situations of historically marginalised groups.

FURTHER READING

Header photo by Mark Daynes on Unsplash