Robert Fulford's column about Mark Turner's The Literary Mind

(Globe and Mail, April 30, 1997)

Those who love stories--love to hear and read them, love to tell them--will be delighted to receive the news that Mark Turner delivers in his audacious and remarkable book, The Literary Mind (Oxford). Telling stories, he briskly informs us, is not the luxury we may imagine, nor the fringe activity of people filling idle hours. Stories are the building blocks of human thought, the absolute necessities of life. Stories and parables, in their endless variety, are the means by which the brain works.

Developing a thesis like this requires heavy intellectual equipment, and Turner carries impressive credentials, including five degrees from the University of California at Berkeley: BA and MA in mathematics, plus BA, MA and PhD in English literature. (Nevertheless, he writes extremely well.) A University of Maryland professor of English, he also works with the university's neuroscience and cognitive science program, though at the moment he's at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a famous incubator of ideas like those Turner hatches in The Literary Mind.

His title describes not a bookish mind but the ordinary human mind. Turner argues, "The literary mind is not a separate kind of mind. It is our mind. The literary mind is the fundamental mind." A literary capacity is indispensable to thinking and "the mind is essentially literary."

He builds on the neuroscience of Gerald Edelman, who sees brain activity as more fluid and less stable than we might imagine. Edelman believes the mind integrates bits of thought and sensation more or less spontaneously, through overlapping systems (or, as he says, maps) of neurons. There is no one place in the brain where we store specific knowledge, no one location for familiar images or ideas. Instead, we pull together bits of information in an ad hoc way. As Turner summarizes the research, "Meaning does not reside in one site but is typically a dynamic and variable pattern of connection over many elements."

And what is it that sets the neurons firing and makes the connections? Stories--and in particular, stories that are blended with other stories. This works most obviously through parables, which are narratives of compressed wisdom that we project onto other stories. If we describe a friend's immoral actions, and then say something like "He that is without sin, let him first cast a stone," we are superimposing on recent events the parable of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. In Turner's view, connections of this kind are the root of human thought.

As he applies his ideas to literary history, Turner casts a wide net. He uses Dante, A Thousand and One Nights, Proust, Homer, the Book of Samuel, and Shakespeare, as well as the sports pages and the song As Time Goes By. The poise with which he handles these examples suggests that he's a reliable navigator in many different literary seas.

Turner introduces his last and most contentious section, on language, with a quotation from The New Yorker, to the effect that linguistics is the most hotly contested property in the academic realm, "soaked in the blood of poets, theologians, philosophers, philologists, psychologists, biologists, and neurologists, along with whatever blood can be got out of grammarians." Turner then sets out to draw a little blood himself, mostly from the body of Noam Chomsky. Tentatively, and of course with the utmost respect, Turner suggests that Chomsky might just be wrong. In fact, when he comes to think about it, Turner can't see any value at all in Chomsky's theory that the human brain contains genetic instructions for the development of grammar. He suggests instead that humans begin with the need to create stories and parables, then invent grammar as a way to tell them. "Grammar comes from parable." In other words, Chomsky turned upside down.

Having ventured this far into the anatomy of storytelling, Turner could presumably go farther. Perhaps he will consider the implications of storytelling as audiences experience it today. He writes as if stories and parables play roughly the same role in the 1990s as they played, say, in the 1490s. But can that be? Today most of us receive through television and print far more stories than our ancestors can ever have heard around the campfire. Last week, in the 48 hours before opening Turner's book, I read 150 or so pages of Ann-Marie MacDonald's story-rich novel, Fall On Your Knees; watched a subtle, shocking episode in the Homicide series on TV; avidly followed the emerging details of the hostage rescue in Lima; and picked up in outline a dozen other stories, from a friend's account of last week's Seinfeld episode to the federal government's agonizing, slow-motion announcement of the election. (That was, incidentally, a clever narrative trick, a boring story designed to make us so impatient that we would believe the Liberals called a late and necessary rather than an early and opportunistic election.) All this, of course, was in addition to the private-life stories generated by me and people I know. I must hear, routinely, many, many more stories than my ancestors heard. Surely that changes the cognitive meaning of storytelling in my life; but how?

By blending neuroscience and literary history in The Literary Mind, Turner has created a story of his own, certain to set billions of neurons firing. He's also illustrated the truth of a famous passage in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, where Peter tells Wendy about the lost boys, who can't grow up because they don't understand stories and therefore cannot inhabit stories of their own, like adults. "You see I don't know any stories," says Peter. "None of the lost boys know any stories." "How perfectly awful," says Wendy. Exactly.

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