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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Bow Listens to the Iliad

Bow and I have been listening to FL Light's English translation of the Iliad.

This is rather difficult English, and Bow is not finding it all that interesting, despite all the action scenes.

It's strange how a literary work can be full of violence, yet lull a chimpanzee to sleep. If I showed him a movie enacting this, he would have his hair standing on end and would feel forced to display his prowess. But when the word for killing someone is "disanimate",  the shear opacity of the vocabulary can make war seem very tame.

They say that there is now "scientific" evidence that reading literary fiction improves empathy.

For the experiment, participants either read a piece of literary fiction or popular fiction, followed by identifying facial emotions solely through the eyes. Those who read literary fiction scored consistently higher, by about 10%.
"We believe that one critical difference between lit and pop fiction is the extent to which the characters are complex, ambiguous, difficult to get to know, etc. (in other words, human) versus stereotyped, simple," Castano wrote to Mic. 

What exactly is the scientific definition of "literary" versus "popular" fiction? Is The Iliad  literary or popular fiction? Was the answer in the time it was composed the same as now? Was it literary or popular when it was current? Isn't it usually the case that what was popular fiction centuries ago becomes literary fiction today, in great part because of the inaccessibility of the language used to describe the same sorts of emotional stimulus?

Of course, there are also cultural shifts to account for. "Your mind is ravaged by the gods." How often do you hear religious people say such things today? Even neo-pagans seem to picture their deities as bearing universal love.

But life is structured by conflict of interest, and minor conflicts are part of every day . Every time we eat, we kill something -- or someone else does the killing for us. The sacrifice of one life for another is not the exception, but the rule. How much empathy do any of us have? How much empathy could we stand to have and still be able to live?

Literature, since ancient times, was made to bring about catharsis. Selective empathy is conducive to that end. But every time we feel for one being, we must harden our heart against another. That is because what is good for the Greeks is not so good for the Trojans and vice versa. And that is why, in ancient times, each side had specific gods and goddesses to intercede on their behalf.

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