(1) Proverbs originate in, and still carry important marks of, oral traditions even though they continue to flourish in literate, typographic, and postliterate (i.e., computerized and televisionary) cultures.
(2) The study of proverbs needs to address their dual location in individual minds and social circulation.
(3) The initial verbal formulation, long-term mental storage, and frequent public retrieval of proverbs are facilitated by such phonemic, gramatical, and lexical features of memorability as alliteration and rhyme, repetitive syntax, and transgressive troping across different cognitive domains.
(4) Proverbs are compact, largely invariant, and rhetorically effective means of transmitting accumulated experience. By guiding our dispositions, they help reduce situational uncertainty. They can lend communal or even supernatural legitimation to individual choice, thus enabling us to make decisions, and make us feel that our decisions were justified, without exposing ourselves to intolerable levels of anxiety, guilt, or shame.
(5) Such enhancement of both pre-decision and post-decision self-confidence
can provide psychological and social benefits because it mitigates our
often disturbing sense of individual responsibilty for choosing among alternative
courses of action. Recourse to a shared repertoire of proverbs may have
been especially beneficial when grammatical language and imaginative "off-line"
thinking had just begun to afford early modern humans new capacities for
publicly and mentally deliberating about behaviors that were neither automatically
triggered by perception nor adequately regulated by instinct.
Paul Hernadi has been Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCSB since 1984. Born in Budapest, he studied at the University of Vienna (Ph.D. in history of the theater) and Yale (Ph.D. in Comparative Literature). His books include Beyond Genre: New Directions In Literary Classification, Interpreting Events: Tragicomedies Of History On The Modern Stage, and Cultural Transactions: Nature, Self, Society.
Francis Steen is a Doctoral Candidate
in the Department of English. His dissertation, Negotiating the Natural
Mind, returns to the "first cognitive revolution" of the eighteenth
century to negotiate the significance of opening up literary and cultural
studies to the cognitive sciences. His first article, "The Time of Unremberable
Being: Wordsworth's Autobiography of the Imagination," will be published
in Autobiography Studies this spring.
Bert O. States has written five books of literary criticism and three on dreaming, the most recent being Seeing in the Dark (Yale UP, 1996).
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