20 March 2008

Perception, Emotion, Consciousness

[Insert Emotion Here]
We have, then, the following levels and types of emotions:

1. Emotions toward characters: (a) sharing the emotion of a character by identification, (b) reacting to the emotion of a character.

2. Emotions toward the 'implied author,' the sense of life embodied in the text as a whole: (a) sharing that sense of life and its emotions through empathy, (b) reacting to it, either sympathetically or criticially. These emotions operate at multiple levels of specificity and generality.

3. Emotions toward one's own possibilities. These, too, are multiple and operate at multiple levels of specificity and generality.

All of these emotional responses (with the exception of those that involve a rejection of the work) are built into the work itself, into its literary structures. Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions p. 242.

The creation of a fictional character is not simple. As noted in our previous post, it involves inhabiting and portraying the consciousness of a fictive being through the use of empathy and imagination. But the portrayal of simple perception is insufficient: human consciousness has an emotional content drawing from, among other things, memory, aspiration, and attitudes. The written depiction of perception must also bring this emotional content into play—whether through metaphor or simile or other form of figurative language or outright assertion. Fictional characters must be portrayed as inhabiting their bodies (as perceptual mechanisms) and as having a passably human range of emotional responses to their world (which Nussbaum does not address).

Failure to bring perceptual content into play—a flaw we've noted in the analyses of both James Wood and Jill Lepore—renders fiction a mechanical thing, an intellectual exercise; no different in form than history. Distant. Imprecise.

Failure, at the next level, to imbue perception with emotional content is a prescription for sterile fiction.

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