The Romanian warlord, Wladislaus Dragwlya, aka Vlad the Impaler, reputedly turned back an Ottoman army by impaling twenty thousand of his own citizens on stakes. The Turks took one look and marched back to Turkey. Closer to home, a friend of mine likes to tell the story of how his parents met one night at a pub in Bunbury, WA. One evening at the bar, a promising courtship had started up between the two, until coming back from the toilet, his father-to-be noticed that another player had swooped in and bought his love-interest a drink. He marched up to the other guy, grabbed the glass beer bottle, and took a bite out of it. The competitor fled the scene. Five broken teeth and thirty stitches in the mouth later, the young couple was happily married.
There’s a term for these violently self-abnegating strategies: costly signaling. And once you’ve heard of it, you can’t help seeing it everywhere. I came upon it—and much else—in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction by William Flesch, a professor of literature at Brandeis University. Flesch’s work could be classed with the ‘Darwinian literary studies’ movement that has managed to carve out a niche by taking authors and their fictional characters off the couch of Freudian/Lacanian/Marxist analysis, and reading them with through the lens of natural history. The heroes of The Iliad brawl and squabble like male chimpanzees. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is, it turns out, is all about about Newland Archer’s choice of whether to pursue the ‘domestic bliss strategy’ or the ‘he-man strategy’ when selecting a mate, and so on. Since a Lacanian analysis of a novel probably has as much connection to the real world as an astrological one, it’s good that people are now turning to other areas—like evolutionary psychology—as a tool for literary analysis. Unfortunately, the results often seem inspired more by science-envy rather than scientific rigor.
Flesch’s book is a happily successful mutation in this often sickly gene-pool. Rather than analyse fictional characters and authors in terms of successful reproductive strategies, Flesch locates the human tendency to keep tabs on one another as the origin of storytelling: ‘Fiction recruits this central capacity in human social cognition for taking pleasure in responding to the nonactual. It gratifies the proximal or psychological aim of our interest in what some have done and how others have responded.’ It’s a rich, strange mixture of game theory, Blanchot, 18th century British moral psychology, Wittgenstein, and the work done on animal signaling by the Israeli biologists, Amotz and Avishag Zahavi, furnished with a range of examples from literature and film.
The central concept is simple, but Flesch’s detail, drawn from Shakespeare, Dickens, Nabokov, Hitchcock, Proust, and The Onion, show how ‘from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’. One of his central theses is the double-sidedness of altruism: it can be generous or punishing. ‘To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage at defection and a concomitant sympathy for the victims of defection.’ Put simply, we like stories about vengeful punishers like The Count of Monte Christo or Hit Man for the same reason we like feats of selfless altruism—Christ’s dying for our sins, or this piece of heartwarming schlock from buzzfeed.
The book is full of analyses that capture ‘what oft was thought, but never so well expressed’ (to quote Pope). In particular, I liked this passage on the limits of vindictive pleasure:
I am reminded as well of the brilliant satirical headline in The Onion: “Hijackers Surprised to Find Themselves in Hell” (September 26, 2001). Their surprise is what we want: they thought they were right, and didn’t even fear death. But they were wrong, and would come to know they were wrong beyond the grave. Yet fear and regret would humanize them too much: their surprise at being in hell is about the most our vindictiveness can consistently contemplate with gratification. I wish them to know, with the full human shock of knowing it, that they are monsters, but if they could know it and be shocked by it, that would mitigate the sense of their monstrosity that I want to cherish.
Comuppance is a theory of why we enjoy literature and a superb aid to appreciation. It enhances, rather than deflates, the pleasure we take in fiction. This book both delights and instructs.
Since Crimea fell again into Russian hands, my desk has been cluttered with Slavonika. I have James H. Billington’s classic The Icon and the Axe: an Interpretive History of Russian, The Short Dictionary of Russian Roots (600 pages!), and a collection of stories by Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekov and others. I’ve been looking at the three Russian language textbooks (uchebniki) that I used as an undergraduate student a few years ago. Taken in sequence, they capture Russia step by step over the last thirty years.
The first was Russkii Iazyk Dlya Vsyekh (Russian Language for All). Published in Moscow for foreign students, it’s full of optimistic anecdotes about life under socialism: Ivan Ivanovich receives a signal from Sputnik on his ham radio; Svetlana puts her career in law on hold to help out with the construction of a hydroelectric dam in Krasnoyarsk. It came out in 1988, and reading it, you’d have no idea that by the following year the USSR would no longer exist. ‘Painted rust’, as a deserter general once said of the Russian army.
The next was Let’s Talk About Life, a grungy unit full of phrases and conversation topics that I guess were important in the wild nineties, and unashamedly Moscow-centric: ‘Masha knows that her boyfriend steals her money to buy heroin on the Arbat’; ‘If you want to meet homosexuals, search the alleyways behind the Bolshoi Theatre.’
My last textbook, V Puti (On the Road), is a document of the Putin era’s Faustian pact—comparative comfort in exchange for the surrender of critical faculties. The bad paper, patriotic vignettes and edgy realism of its predecessors give way to glossy pictures and bland summaries of historic figures. The political, ethnic, historic tensions of contemporary Russia are rigidly excluded.
In comparison to streamlined modern English, the Russian language positively bristles, its words swelling with spiky consonants and elaborate prefixes and endings. A correct sentence in Russian satisfies in the same way solving a rubik’s cube does, as each word in the sentence slots into the right tense, case, aspect, number. My relationship to the language is a bit like that of the caddish Gurov to the young Anna in Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’. After years of brief affairs and non-committal flirtations with learning other languages, I’m almost twenty-five and the language circuits of my brain are starting to harden—it’s either now or never to make a serious long-term pledge to learn the Russian tongue.
Billington’s masterpiece, The Icon and the Axe: an Interpretive History of Russian Culture was written in the late Sixties (an anxiously government-funded golden age for Russian studies) and apparently inspired the young Condoleeza Rice to major in Soviet studies. It moves from the conversion of Kiev to Christianity to the Soviet 1960s and covers a huge swath of Russian art, religion, literature, and ideology. I’m skeptical about invoking the distant past to explain the present—a favorite pseudo-intellectual past time if ever there was one—but two small details in Billington’s great almanac of Russianness made me think about the present situation (just not about Ukraine).
Firstly, we read a lot about Russia’s legal crackdown on ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour in the lead up to the Sochi Olympics. Russia has been fighting unsuccessfully on behalf of family values for a long time now, but campy deviancy is clearly too deep a part of its cultural DNA to ever be expunged. Kievan Rus, Billington notes, was notorious throughout Europe for its licentious culture of log bathhouses and all-male monastic retreats.
Secondly, there are lots of rumors about Putin secretly being the world’s richest man or marrying that Olympic gymnast, but when will someone actually come out and say that he isn’t the real Putin? The political ‘pretender’, Billington tells us, has a long and weird history in Russia. The ‘pretender’ was usually some foreigner or disaffected muzhik who would make a bold claim to being ‘the true heir’ to the Russian throne and lead a popular rebellion before being caught and executed. The last half of the 18th century alone had no less than thirteen of these incidents, the last and greatest of which was the Pugachev revolt, which great poet Pushkin fictionalized in his thriller The Captain’s Daughter (1836). Reading it, I was charmed that both the rebel leader Pugachev and the Czarina Catherine the Great both appear undercover in disguise at various stages to save the protagonist and his love interest.
Alex Lewis is an itinerant scholar and writer. He has had book reviews published in ABR and, as a teenager, he won the Somerset National Novella Writing Competition. He recently completed a Bachelor with Honours from the University of Melbourne and spent a year in Mexico and Burma. Later this year he will commence a Masters in literature at the Oxford University.
21 Apr 14 at 11:51
Very, very well written piece. Demonstrates a huge range of sources and texts read. Look forward to reading more
22 Apr 14 at 15:28
I also had the pleasure of studying with ‘Russian Language for All’ back in the early nineties – what small command I had of the language has totally disappeared, but I still remember Ivan and the ‘signal iz sputnika’ he picks up on his radio!
26 Apr 14 at 0:57
Good food for thought – sounds like you’ve got quite the glutton’s share of books to read! Does Flesche talk about reciprocity and nepotism too? I guess I’m quite curious about their relationship to biological altruism: on a localised level they’re conducive to survival, but in some circumstances probably weaken the wider gene pool. Similarly, I wonder if the urge to punish counterfeiters derives in part from the risk of false signalling. Literature is no doubt an interesting place to explore these matters, though naturally coloured by cultural factors. The fate Dante reserves for Pope Nicholas provides a striking case – known for his altruism, Nicholas is nonetheless condemned to the eight circle for his nepotism. Still, Dante consigns traitors to a lower circle of hell than Nicholas and counterfeiters, so in that respect seems to favour more parochial evolutionary interests and behaviours.