You do something strange every day. You consume fictions. It’s such an omnipresent habit, shared by all, that we rarely consider the oddity of it.
I’m a fiction writer myself, but I’m also a neuroscientist, so this activity fascinates me. What’s the cognitive utility of learning things that aren’t true? We’re evolved biological beings who need to understand the world to survive, and yet all facts we learn about Hogwarts are literally false. How can any of this information be useful?
Still, fictions surround us. I grew up in my mother’s independent bookstore and I’ve been a writer since I can remember. A significant change in my lifetime is that media, like TV channels, books, magazines, and films, have been condensed into a single one-stop shop: the screen. I call this the supersensorium. Screens are now supermarkets for entertaining experiences. Such easy access to fictions means we often binge watch, we stuff our faces.
One of the more unsettling moments in “Hemingway,” the latest documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, finds Ernest Hemingway, big-game hunter, chronicler of violence and seeker of danger, doing one thing that terrified him: speaking on television.
It is 1954, and the author, who survived airplane crashes (plural) earlier that year in Africa, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He agreed to an interview with NBC on the condition that he receive the questions in advance and read his answers from cue cards.
These reoccuring story elements have proven effects on our imagination, our emotions and other parts of our psyche
By Angus Fletcher, smithsonianmag.com March 10, 2021
Shortly after 335 B.C., within a newly built library tucked just east of Athens’ limestone city walls, a free-thinking Greek polymath by the name of Aristotle gathered up an armful of old theater scripts. As he pored over their delicate papyrus in the amber flicker of a sesame lamp, he was struck by a revolutionary idea: What if literature was an invention for making us happier and healthier? The idea made intuitive sense; when people felt bored, or unhappy, or at a loss for meaning, they frequently turned to plays or poetry. And afterwards, they often reported feeling better. But what could be the secret to literature’s feel-better power? What hidden nuts-and-bolts conveyed its psychological benefits?
After carefully investigating the matter, Aristotle inked a short treatise that became known as the Poetics. In it, he proposed that literature was more than a single invention; it was many inventions, each constructed from an innovative use of story. Story includes the countless varieties of plot and character—and it also includes the equally various narrators that give each literary work its distinct style or voice. Those story elements, Aristotle hypothesized, could plug into our imagination, our emotions, and other parts of our psyche, troubleshooting and even improving our mental function.
Dr. Ott compares Hemingway’s carefully constructed public persona to the careful construction of Hemingway’s prose. A true master of the topic, Mark Ott draws connections between Hemingway’s style, Cezanne’s paintings, and the idea that composition applies similarly to painting, writing, and life.
Mark Ott is the author of A Sea of Change: Ernest Hemingway and the Gulf Stream, A Contextual Biography, co-editor of Ernest Hemingway and the Geography of Memory: New Perspectives and Hemingway in Italy: Twenty-First Century Perspectives. He is also the editor of the “Teaching Ernest Hemingway” series for Kent State University Press, and was the co-director of the XVI Biennial Ernest Hemingway Society Conference in Venice in 2014.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at http://ted.com/tedx
Editor’s Note: I’m a member of the Hemingway Society, and this question –why are you still teaching Hemingway– comes up often from those reading or studying Hemingway, or from others. Dr. Ott makes a great open discussion of the pros and cons, flaws and humanity of the man and author.
A Death in the Afternoon, By Tobias Wolff, February 20, 2021
On July 2, 1961, I was sitting in the parking lot at Convair Astronautics in San Diego, listening to music on the car radio while my older brother, Geoffrey, interviewed for a job with the company. Our father had been working there, but had suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized. Now it had fallen on Geoffrey, just graduated from Princeton, to support us for the next couple of months, until he moved on to a teaching post in Turkey and I began my new life at a boarding school in Pennsylvania. I had just turned sixteen and was largely uneducated, and Geoffrey had taken it upon himself to prepare me for the academic rigors of my new school. So he was applying to fill the vacancy left by our father.