Professor of English and Comparative Literature
UC Santa Barbara
Why Is Literature:
Some Co-Evolutionary Implications of Imaginative Worldmaking
(updated 2 August 99)
Literature has been intended, produced, transmitted, stored, and mentally processed in too many different ways for any definition of it to command wide-spread acceptance. But even if we resign ourselves to finding only loose family resemblance among literary phenomena, that very metaphor should prompt us to explore what kind of ancestry makes members of today's literary family resemble each other and why certain clusters of similarities abide over time.
My way of doing that is to link the ancient emergence and world-wide presence of literary expression, communication, representation, and signification to biological, social, and personal needs of humans. I argue that literature has been serving two complementary functions since prehistoric times: to expand the cognitive, emotive, and volitional horizons of human awareness and to integrate our beliefs, feelings, and desires within the fluid mentality required for survival in the complex social environments of human organisms. Frequent participation in protoliterary transactions may have made some early humans more astute problem solvers, more sensitive mind readers, and more reliable co-operators than their conspecific rivals, thereby increasing their chances to become the ancestors of contemporary men and women.
Such a view of literature's role in the co-evolution of human nature and culture helps to explain some of its shared characteristics across cultural divides. Three universal features, respectively associated with the cognitive, emotive, and volitional dimensions of mental functioning, are briefly discussed: (a) the verbalizing of semantic and episodic memory and of egocentric and multiperspectival orientation through thematic, narrative, lyric, and dramatic modes of discourse; (b) the polarization of literary entertainment into thrilling and gratifying types inclining audiences toward recognizable subvarieties of crying and laughing; and (c) the motivating impact of fictive stories about imagined characters on the will of actual people to engage in altruistic cooperation.