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Cognition, Pleasure, and Perplexity: Their Interactions in the Maelstrom of Fantastika

 “Although literary texts may be special, the instruments of thought used to invent and interpret them are basic to everyday thought. Written works called narratives or stories may be shelved in a special section of the bookstore, but the mental instrument I call narrative or story is basic to human thinking.” – Mark Turner

I have been thinking a lot about last week’s column, because  I feel I did half of the job the title promised the reader. I talked at length about the problem of reification and duality in how we think of the purpose of fiction, but I did not get into the “shading” very deeply. This week I want to talk more about that, partly responding to and building on comments from last week, and also bringing in some ideas I have been gleaning about the linkages between cognition and fiction, pleasure and imagination, and the struggle between understanding and perplexity.  Perplexity is an element in reading apprehension that, I am beginning to think,  gives works of fantastika a distinctive power by creating challenges for our cognition (some of which have gradually become less challenging) and effecting pleasure as we negotiate these challenges, even those that may be more prosaic than we would like to believe.

As I put it last week, “fiction is not just a textual delivery system for either edification or pleasure but a tangle of meanings that the writer and reader struggle to understand.” That tangle is not inchoate chaos, but an effort at processing and translating thought on the part of the creator and then the reader. Before a word is set to paper or screen the writer is already immersed in the process of forming and untangling meaning in the act of ongoing cognition. Writing is an act of intentional (as opposed to habitual or reactive) cognition, of taking the way we think (mediated by cultural elements, language, and our individual intellectual schema) and codifying it for presentation in a medium where we attempt to transmit our thoughts to other people.  What we end up reading is actually two things: the symbols the writer has formed and presented, and reflections of our own internal stories, forming thoughts and narratives out of those symbols. The combination of agreement and dissonance between these two things can produce a range of effects as we work to bridge Wallace’s idea of the “gap” of knowing that separates people.

What bridges the philosophical (and ontological) gap that obsesses Wallace is what Mark Turner calls “narrative imagining” in his book The Literary Mind. Turner, in gross summary, believes that stories and parables format the cognitive functions of our minds. In his book he examines how fiction reflects that and how we in turn think through fiction. This is not the notion of cognition that we have seen in discussions of “cognitive estrangement” as a characteristic of SF; this is the idea that the way we generate thoughts is similar to the way we tell stories, and that stories and parables are reflections of how we structure and express thought. “The everyday mind,” Turner asserts, “is essentially literary.”

I’m beginning to wonder if this is why fiction generates so many different sorts of pleasure and significance. In their comments on the previous column Jamie Todd Rubin and Michaele Jordan both discussed what they aspire to get out of fiction, what gives them significant satisfaction. The two ideas they invoke, that we read fiction to learn about others and that fiction should hold up a mirror to the world around us, reflect two of the primary goals of applying our cognitive abilities. Does this mean that literature in general, and fiction more specifically, has a certain harmony with the way in which we conceive of and activate our thinking?

Some fiction might act in this way, as a sort of mirror or reinforcer at a basic level that engender pleasures of recognition, of vicarious thrills or dream fulfillment, of temporary mental displacement reinforced by cognitive consonance, reinforcements not just of norms or assumptions but of thought-forms. Fantastika (and some more stylistically complex mainstream fiction), however, takes the next step and adds intentional perplexity to the mix. Most mainstream novels strive, through style, content, and narrativity, to not bewilder the reader. Sometimes there is a mystery, but the text contains clues for the reader to use to build a solution to it. Others have characters act inscrutably, but often encoded into the text is another sort of clue that provides either motivation for the way the characters act or gives the reader some release from having to figure it out. Perplexity in these works is labeled as some sort of marked deviance: insanity, the influence of outside forces, etc. so that it can be separated from the core narrative and its mimetic conceits.

In fantastika, the assumption is that the things that may perplex us are intentional, unmarked, integral to the story, and that we should reconcile them rather than see them as aberrations. Sometimes they are presented as marvels we must wonder at before we harmonize them, but sometimes they are textually normalized in ways that can be initially more perplexing than obvious differences. In Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey, which I just finished reading, I was struck immediately by the naturalization of the mythical and magical elements of the story into the narrative. Magical effects, especially early on, happen with barely a ripple in the realistic, straightforward presentation of the story. Even when a physical transformation occurs that may startle or terrify characters, it is presented organically. The perplexity here is that this normalization occurs without great textual fanfare or excessive marking of its difference. The unreal elements are assimilated into the text and, to an increasing extent, into the reader’s reception of that text. Does this occur, in part, because of our cognitive processing?

This is a skill that we learn as we develop cognitively; because of this, perplexity can be domesticated too, even converted into convention. This has happened throughout human history in the stories we tell of the inexplicable and the inevitable, from creation myths to bedtime stories. It may be that as we develop cognitively we simultaneously seek out perplexity to compare it to the stories and parables and schema we are presented with, and that we learn to identify not just what works as part of a story or not, but what jibes with the conventions we synthesize into our thought processes, and thus learn how to apply the parabolic aspects of our cognition using the conceptions of reality presented to us.

My nearly-three-year-old daughter loves to hear improvised tales of Cissy, the Trampoline-Jumping Chicken at bedtime, whose adventures are often very confusing indeed. She has to act in no way like an actual chicken, and her stories must adhere to a double logic of fun and absurdity. She must be resolutely like no other chicken and must always have a moment where her skills at trampoline-jumping are important to the story’s resolution. The stranger the story, the more pleasure my daughter gets out of it, and she often tries to extend the absurdity through improvisational cues (“And then?”) and by refuting scenes where Cissy does chicken-like things such as return to the coop or peck for grain in the yard. She demands innovation even as she demonstrates that she knows that chickens can’t do what Cissy does. She is learning how to think while testing the boundaries of story and asking me to challenge my own cognitive skills to give her the proper mix of resonance and transgression.

My own thinking is that this back-and-forth is part of the reading experience, and that some readers seek more direct reflections while others seek challenges to their thinking. The shadings within fictional texts are the ways in which we interpret the messages of the text and arbitrate them cognitively, constrained by the symbols and their ranges of meaning via the author. Sometimes the shadows have stark outlines, sometimes the entire storyworld is enshrouded and requires us to feel our way through it with limited vision, creating our own map of its contents. In fantastic literature (and other works that resonate with the tropes or even intentions of the fantastic) not just complexity but perplexity is employed to create the potential for fresh pleasures and insights. Maybe this is why literature is so engaging and important to many people, and we can keep returning to it to find new elements, rediscover old ones, and test our thinking.

5 Comments on Cognition, Pleasure, and Perplexity: Their Interactions in the Maelstrom of Fantastika

  1. jeff vandermeer // February 16, 2012 at 4:14 am //

    Interesting.

    Just one observation about “mainstream” and “fantastika”–I don’t agree with the way you contrast the two. Because first of all the generalization about what “mainstream” does in your essay is patently false, especially given the generality of the term itself. Secondly because *committing an act of the unreal in a piece of fiction* is not the criteria for whether the inexplicable is present or whether there is the kind of complexity of shading you allude to. Writers come in types that correspond to the way they see the world and there are “realists” within the fantasy genre just as there are nonrealists in the “mainstream”. Many stories and novels with no fantastical element at all are to my mind *tackling the unknowable or inexplicable* and expressing a non-realist’s point of view far more than many stories and novels with dragons or magic or whatever in them.

    So something about the core assumption in that part of your post doesn’t scan right to me.

    • Hi Jeff. I agree with this to some extent; terms of genre and literary description are often imprecise and hollow. I tried to qualify that to some extent but it’s hard to do because, in the end, we each have our own definitions of what’s what. I agree that “mainstream” is a poor term but at the time I was not sure what worked better. I see your points about the distinction but, as I noted last week, this is often where the conversation begins (with two distinctions, often considered a duality that is very open to subjective interpretation). I need to think about how to craft better ones. What I can say is that my idea of “fantastika” is not just reducible to “dragons or magic.” I should also note that one point I suggested but did not develop is that within some “mainstream” work there is perplexity and shading and within “fantastika” there are plenty of works that fall back on comfortable conventions and the sort of realism you’re bringing up. These are not cut-and-dried distinctions, for sure.

      It would be great if we could figure out better terms for discussing these ideas, but that may be difficult given how each individual’s ideas vary. So perhaps we just need to keep pointing out what works and what doesn’t and keep the conversation going :-). Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. I understand the chicken now!

    In Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey, which I just finished reading, I was struck immediately by the naturalization of the mythical and magical elements of the story into the narrative.

    And I think that’s a real strength of the novel. I thought for a bit that the novel was *too* grounded in the real, but Leicht keeps the fantastic coming well enough to avoid this being an excellent historical novel instead of fantasy. It’s a really good case of integration.

  3. Clearly I must now go read Blood and Honey!

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