As a fiction writer — primarily — I think a lot about imaginative literature and how it fits, nowadays, in a tightly-wired yet tatterdemalion world. Yet over the weekend the most provocation considerations on the issue turned up in the papers, the New York Times.
On the Times “Opinion” pages, recently, they’ve invited contributions from philosophers. The series is called “The Stone,” and the Oct. 24th take “on issues both timely and timeless” (as the subtitle has it) was by John Allen Paulos, a mathematician as well as philosopher. Paulos went to one of his specialties, statistics, to try and explain the human impulse to storytelling. He says:
[T]he notions of probability and statistics are not alien to storytelling. From the earliest of recorded histories there were glimmerings of these concepts…. Consider the notions of central tendency — average, median, mode, to name a few. They most certainly grew out of workaday activities and led to words such as (in English) “usual,” “typical,” …and so on. The same is true about the notions of statistical variation — standard deviation, variance, and the like. Words such as “unusual,” “peculiar,” “strange,” “…come to mind. It is hard to imagine even prehistoric humans not possessing some sort of rudimentary idea of the typical or of the unusual. …These and other fundamentally scientific concepts have in one way or another been embedded in the very idea of what a story is — an event distinctive enough to merit retelling….
Paulos continues for a few hundred words, his argument always intelligent if a bit, hmm, unexceptional.
The entire piece can be found here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/stories-vs-statistics/?ref=global-home
, and a typical argument for the mathematician addresses what he called the “conjunction fallacy.” That fallacy underlies the way a creator, constructing a story in which psychological consistency matters, will layer on details in keeping with his conception of a character.
For example, imagine the tale of Fabio, a talented Italian soccer player who also happens to be gay. He feels compelled by the standards of his profession to stay in the closet, and so the poor giovannoto‘s hidden sexual orientation will find much-needed expression in many elements common to Italian masculinity. Fabio will revel in fine, tight clothes, in his exceptional skill around the kitchen, and in both welcoming his teammates and saying goodbye by kissing them on both cheeks (on the face, the face). The compiling of linked detail, in this way, certainly contributes to the creation of just about any fiction one can think of. But it’s a fallacy, Paulos reminds us. Such conjunctions aren’t the norm, statistically. He expresses the “cognitive foible” this way:
For any statements, A, B, and C, the probability of A is always greater than the probability of A, B, and C together since whenever A, B, and C all occur, A occurs, but not vice versa.
So Paulos turns up, one after another, the logical breakdowns on which storytelling depends. He concludes, indeed, with”the most fundamental tension between stories and statistics,” namely, fiction’s “focus… on individual people rather than averages.”
The upshot? Hmm, intelligent, even witty now and again, but… unexceptional.
Paulos, for all that he seems to enjoy imaginative literature, referencing Moliere and Gilgamesh and more, continually neglects how much storytelling relies on the exceptional: the marvelous, the fabulous. “Statistical improbability” seems far too mild a description for, say, Odysseus slipping past monsters and seducers to return home in late middle age — at which point, in a single busy day, he slaughters his wife’s many virile young suitors and, more’s the challenge, wins back her trust.
Such an outlandish gallimaufry (evinced also by a carnival word like “gallimaufry’) characterizes narrative and its hold on the human animal, much more than do pallid compilations of A, B, and C. Conjunctions certainly matter to storytelling, and especially in a story like the closeted Fabio’s. His would be another novel of society and its discontents, essentially realistic, bounded by a certain era and its expectations. Yet even a great social realist seeks to astonish, first. The Tolstoy of War and Peace, for instance, seeks to expose timeless mysteries of armed conflict and what, if anything, it might accomplish for a person, a family, and a culture. He’s about the serendipitous and terrifying reach of the animus, far more than about social and economic hegemonies.
Science tends to close down modes of astonishment. Indeed, that’s its job, rendering the Unknowable knowable, and it’s performed this job especially well over the last century or so. The human brain has heldthe concepts of “average” and “peculiar” for millennia, just as Paulos argues, but only recently has the species developed the kind of statistical machinery he operates so efficiently. Nor would any reasonable person object to such efficiency, in a wide range of cases, from when need an appropriate antibiotic to when we need the quickest way out of a hurricane’s path.
Yet when applied to an art dependent on the imagination, that machinery functions dangerously like a compactor. It turns out boxes of conjunction fallacies, when the true storyteller finds his or her vocation in those very fallacies and mashups. A story-minded man or woman will call for madder music and stronger wine, and louder call as the chatter of science and its applications rises around them. I mean that the canniest fiction-makers of our ever-more technologized era have seen the need for new-style freak shows, and they’ve delivered accordingly: with Kafka’s harried and underpaid bug, Borges’ world-smashing encyclopedia, or Barth’s infinite funhouse. Imaginative leaps like these don’t merely confound probability; they enlarge the spirit, and ennoble it by their very strangeness, their cosmicomics.
John Domini is the author of Bedlam, Highway Trade, Talking Heads: 77, Earthquake I.D., A Tomb on the Periphery, The Sea-God's Herb, Movieola!, and The Color Inside a Melon. Domini has won awards in all genres, publishing fiction in The Paris Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere; and journalism and criticism in The New York Times, Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere (including Italian journals). He live in Des Moines, Iowa.