Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

10 MAY, 2012

Graphing Jane Austen: Using Science to Extrapolate the Human Condition from Classical Literature

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What literary Darwinism reveals about universal values.

In 1959, C. P. Snow lamented the tragic disconnect between science and the humanities in his famed “two cultures” lecture. In Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning, researchers Joseph Carroll, John Johnson, Daniel Kruger, and Jonathan Gottschall — who gave us the fascinating The Storytelling Animal earlier this week — embody Snow’s vision and bridge the gap between science and literary scholarship by borrowing from the evolutionary biology and modern data analytics to construct a model of human nature that explains the evolved psychology of character dynamics in nineteenth-century British novels.

Using the framework of the model, they asked a sample of several hundred readers to give numerical ratings on 2,000 characters from 202 British novels, including all of Jane Austen’s.

This exercise in literary Darwinism produced three key findings: (1) these novels have determinate “agonistic” structures of meaning — centered on protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters — that can be captured using the model’s framework; (2) the perceived differences between protagonists and antagonists are much more structurally pronounced than the differences between male and female characters; and (3) the agonistic structure of these novels fulfills an adaptive social function, wherein literature articulates and cultivates specific social values.

A few of the findings (PDF) follow, in unnecessarily ugly academic graphics. (Please, oh, please, would some talented literature-loving information designer care to spruce them up?)

The researchers examined the positive and negative emotional responses readers have to characters based on a number of character qualities, including sex, age, attractiveness, personality, motives, and mate selection criteria. Five key motive factors emerged — dominance, constructive effort, romance, subsistence, and nurture — which varied greatly across the male and female protagonists and antagonists, and which played a key role in readers’ emotional responses.

Personality was also broken down to five factors: extraversion (assertiveness and sociability), agreeableness (warmth and affiliative behavior), conscientiousness (organization and reliability), emotional stability (calmness and evenness of temper), and openness to experience (curiosity or mental life).

The authors sum up the findings in a conclusion that seems as true of literature as it is of real life:

Standing as a protagonist — a good major character — typically depends on a combination of prosociality and an active mental life.

Also found were normative differences in personality based on gender:

In personality factors and mate-selection criteria, female protagonists most fully exemplify the normative tendencies of good major characters. The norms of the novels are thus gynocentric or feminized.

Though some may argue that bringing the rigorous lens of scientific research to world of literature is a barbaric way to rob the latter of its whimsy, if we subscribe to the view that fiction illuminates reality, Graphing Jane Austen shines a spotlight that not only would make C. P. Snow proud but also helps better understand our culture’s relationship with constructs like personality, gender, and introversion.

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09 MAY, 2012

Maurice Sendak’s Unreleased Drawings and Intaglio Prints

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What an American printmaker has to do with Mozart.

After this morning’s bittersweetly funny Sendak remembrance, a trip to his more serious and obscure past: In 2003, Sendak collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner on Brundibar — a WWII children’s opera, originally written by Czech composer Hans Krása, which the duo adapted into a book illustrated by Sendak and an opera for which Sendak designed the sets and costumes. But Sendak’s fascination with the opera dated back some three decades, to the 1970s, when he began collaborating with printmaker Kenneth Tyler while working on sets and costumes for Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

As Marabeth Cohen-Tyler notes, these operas inspired him to create a wealth of sketches, drawings, and watercolors. Some of them appeared in his beloved book Nutcracker and others were printed at Tyler Graphics between 1977 and 1984, and again in 2002, employing lithography and intaglio processes. But circumstances prevented any of these editions from being published. The inventory of rare proofs, collected here as the project’s intaglio ghosts, was signed in 2002, and the prints divided three-ways between Sendak, to the National Gallery of Australia’s Kenneth Tyler Print Collection, and to Tyler’s own personal collection. Sendak went on to hand-watercolor some of the black-and-white intaglios, including Wild Thing and Ida.

Wild thing, state

© Maurice Sendak

Wild thing, state II

© Maurice Sendak

Queen of the night

© Maurice Sendak

Study for the magic flute

© Maurice Sendak

Ida, state

© Maurice Sendak

Ida, state VI

© Maurice Sendak

Nutcracker 1984

© Maurice Sendak

Jen Bekman Printeresting

Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia’s Kenneth Tyler Print Collection

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09 MAY, 2012

Going Solo: A Brief History of Living Alone and the Enduring Social Stigma Around Singletons

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“Despite its prevalence, living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time.”

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle admonished:

The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the polis, and must therefore be either a beast or a god.

Indeed, the ancient world held exile as the most formidable form of punishment, second only to execution, though in Greek tragedies it was often regarded as a fate worse than death. For more than two millennia, this fear and loathing of solitary life endured and permeated the fabric of society. In 1949, Yale anthropologist George Peter Murdock surveyed some 250 “representative cultures” across history and geography, and concluded:

The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No exception, at least, has come to light.

Yet our relationship with solitary life has undergone a radical shift in the recent past. So argues NYU sociology, public policy, and media professor Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone — an ambitious exploration of what Klinenberg calls the “remarkable social experiment” that our species has embarked upon over the past half-century, juxtaposing the numbers with the enduring social stigma around singleness.

Until recently, most of us married young and parted only at death. If death came early, we remarried quickly; if late, we moved in with family, or they with us. Now we marry later. We divorce, and stay single for years or decades. We survive our spouses, and do whatever we can to avoid moving in with others — even, perhaps especially, our children. We cycle in and out of different living arrangements: alone, together, together alone […] [T]oday, for the first time in centuries, the majority of all American adults are single. The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.

Klinenberg paints an even more vivid picture by the numbers:

In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Four million lived alone, and they accounted for 9 percent of all households […] Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million — roughly one out of every seven adults — live alone.

[…]

People who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households, which means that they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type — more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, the roommate or group home.

To be sure, this trend is far from confined to the U.S. — the four countries with the highest rates of solo living are Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, where up to 45% of all households contain just one person. “By investing in each other’s social welfare and affirming their bonds of mutual support,” Klinenberg argues, “the Scandinavians have freed themselves to be on their own.”

Yet the sociocultural norms and dialogue around living solo haven’t caught up with these staggering statistics. As historian David Potter has famously noted:

In our literature, any story of the complete isolation, either physical or psychological, of a man from his fellowman, such as the story of Robinson Crusoe before he found a human footprint on the beach, is regarded as essentially a horror story.

Klinenberg puts it thusly:

Despite its prevalence, living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time.

[…]

Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when there is a public debate about the rise of living alone, commentators tend to present it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and a diminished public life. Our morally charged conversations tend to frame the question of why so many people now live on their own around the false and misleading choice between the romanticized ideal of Father Knows Best and the glamorous enticements of Sex and the City. In fact…the reality of this great social experiment in living alone is far more interesting — and far less isolating — than these conversations would have us believe.

Klinenberg goes on to explore the forces and factors that have sparked the transformative social experience of living alone, which has in turn changed not only the way we understand ourselves and our most intimate relationships, but also the way we structure our cities and orchestrate our economies, demonstrating that solo living affects the lives of nearly everyone in the social ecosystem. He points to four key developments driving this cult of individualism, championed by Emerson and Thoreau: (1) The wealth generated by economic growth and the social security provided by the modern welfare state (“Put simply, one reason that more people live alone than ever before is that today more people can afford to do so.”); (2) the communications revolution (“For those who want to live alone, the Internet affords rich new ways to stay connected.”); (3) mass urbanization (“Subcultures thrive in cities, which tend to attract nonconformists who are able to find others like themselves in the dense variety of urban life.”); (4) increased longevity (“Because people are living longer than ever before — or, more specifically, because women often outlive their spouses by decades rather than years — aging alone has become an increasingly common experience.”).

Going Solo goes on to paint a richer portrait of this age of the singleton, covering a number of complementary forces — including, perhaps most interestingly, the rising status of women and their assertion of control over their own bodies (“[I]n 1950 there were more than two men for every woman on American college campuses, whereas today women make up the majority of undergraduate students as well as those who earn a bachelor’s degree.”). What emerges is a powerful set of questions about some of our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a part of society and, ultimately, what it means to be happy.

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