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Book Review: Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher

Technology has never been my strong point, and I’ve long held that if human progress relied on me, we’d still be naked in caves and communicating in grunts. Had you and I been sitting together in ancient times staring out at a meadow of tall grasses, I never would have been the one who said “You know what sounds great? Gathering the seeds off those stalks, grinding them to a powder, mixing it with a little water, flattening it and setting it on a hot stone to bake. Yummy!”

Turning fiber into cloth? Water wheels, clocks, electrification, radio waves? Nothing but blank stares from me. I am forever amazed by the type of mind who can imagine such things and then actually create them.

It was therefore gratifying to read Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, by Angus Fletcher, which judges literary devices to be just as vital a technology in human progress as any mechanical invention. I can do that! If one of you clever people invent language, writing, paper, pens and computers for me, and I can create a story. We are all in this together!

As Mr. Fletcher puts it:

“Thus it was that literature’s technology distinguished itself from Neolithic axes and Bronze Age plows and other creations forged of metal, stone and bone. While those creations turned outward to grapple with the problem of surviving in our world, literature turned inward to grapple with the problem of surviving as ourselves….

That, in brief, is why literature was invented and what it was invented to do. It was a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology. It was an invention for overcoming the doubt and the pain of just being us.”

Author Angus Fletcher has degrees in both literature and neuroscience, and his insight is that literature does not merely teach us, in a pedagogical sense, through the telling of tales. Rather, the history of literature is composed of a series of ‘technological advances’ in literary devices that actually trigger different areas of our brains. If the development of the plow helped spark an advance in agriculture, so to did Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus  help spark an advance in the psychological trait of empathy.

Empathy is the theme of Chapter 3 of his book, Exit Anger: The Book of Job, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, and the Invention of the Empathy Generator. The neurology of the human brain, he argues, is wired with an innate desire for justice, which itself contains the seeds of such unhelpful mental states as anger, bitterness, mistrust and the desire for vengeance. The stories in the Book of Job and Oedipus Tyrannus present our brains with the plot device of an apology, or an epiphany of wrong-doing, or a regret of unintended consequences, or some other form of remorse, a self-acknowledgement or self-judgment. Such tales rewire our minds away from the mere demand for justice and towards a counterbalancing feeling of empathy.

“Empathy is powered by some of our newest neural circuitry: the perspective-taking network of our cortex. That network can imagine the wrong from the wrongdoer’s perspective, searching for mitigating factors….Perhaps the perpetrator acted out of ignorance or desperation; perhaps he made an honest mistake; perhaps he’s willing to change his ways and be rehabilitated. If so, then we can forgive him, avoiding the harsh social consequences of total justice and freeing our brain from the negative effects of persistent anger and distrust.

This neural leap inside a perpetrator’s head is an astounding feat. It allows our brain to be us while also being someone else. Yet just like justice, empathy alone is far from perfect….

This unreliability of empathy puts us in a bind. On the one hand, empathy has been a boon for our social and mental health. But on the other hand, it’s fickle enough to make us feel soft-hearted toward psychopaths and hard-hearted towards innocents.

And so it was that our ancestors invented an ancient tool for improving our powers of empathy. That ancient tool was: the apology.”

Where Job says “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes, “ and Oedipus cries “Eeeoouuu! Eeeoouuu! It’s true! I am an unholy son!”, they are not apologizing for their sins. Rather, they are crying out in anguished remorse, and triggering in the reader a sense of empathy. Literature provides examples of remorse and apology, wiring our minds to accept the possibility of mitigating circumstances, while also training us in how to not be fooled by the fake apology. It gives us the tools to balance “the maximum amount of certain justice and the maximum amount of possible forgiveness, making us as fair as our brain can be—and as generous as life allows.”

The 25 chapters of Wonderworks have titles like Rekindle the Romance: Sappho’s Lyrics, the Odes of Eastern Zhou, and the invention of the Secret DiscloserHeal From Grief: Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the invention of the Sorrow ResolverFind Peace of Mind: Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, James Joyce and the Invention of the Riverbank of Consciousness; and Live Your Dream: Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, a Dash of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and the Invention of the Wish Triumphant.

Sounds gimmicky, I know. Already English teachers are harrumphing: ‘I guess traditional teaching about irony, paradox, metaphor and the like, and how authors employ those techniques to make a point, is evidently too retro for the modern world.’ Well, no. Literature can and should be taught that way. But this is a fine and illuminating book. It surveys hundreds of examples from ancient texts to comic books to show how our minds—and in turn, our societies—are wired by the developed technology of literary devices in the stories we read.

More about the author’s work can be found at the website of Project Narrative, where Angus Fletcher is part of the core faculty in this workshop on narrative theory at Ohio State University.