Social intelligence and the novel


Patricia Churchland opens chapter 6 of Braintrust, “Skills for a Social Life”:

The social world and its awesome complexity has long been the focus of performances – informally in improvised skits around the campfire, and more formally, in elaborate productions by professionals on massive stages. Among the cast of characters in a play, there is inevitably a wide variation in social intelligence, sometimes with a tragic end, as in King Lear. [p 118]

We’ll be talking about Lear next. That’s a very good description of his problem, his “tragic flaw” – it’s not anything grand or impressive, it’s just babyish clumsy oblivious lack of social intelligence. It causes him to set up a ludicrous “contest” which simply begs to be gamed, it causes him to be blind to obviously insincere flattery, and it causes him to mistake loving attempts to save him from his own blindness as treason. He’s pathetically mind-blind, and because he’s a king he’s never been taught better, or taught to let people help him navigate.

Lady Catherine is another such, and she too is insulated from the effects by her status and money. It struck me that social intelligence was Austen’s great subject. That’s not true of all novelists. It doesn’t fit Emily Bronte, exactly, or George Eliot, exactly – Eliot did write about it a lot (Lydgate, Rosamund) but it wasn’t dominant the way it was with Austen.

That’s probably why so many people think she’s minor, or trivial – but they’re wrong. Social intelligence isn’t minor or trivial. Mr Woodhouse is just a Lear writ small; he does less harm only because he has less scope.

Comments

  1. 'Tis Himself says

    Lear’s relationships with his daughters is not based on “which of you doth love us the most?” but rather on “which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Cordelia is his favorite daughter at the beginning of the play, so presumably he knows she loves him. Nevertheless, Lear values Goneril’s and Regan’s fawning over Cordelia’s sincere love.

    The character I find most interesting is Edmund. He’s a consummate schemer, a Machiavellian character eager to seize any opportunity and willing to do anything to achieve his goals. However, his ambition reflects not only a thirst for power but also a desire for the recognition denied by his status as a bastard. His treachery is not merely self-interest, it’s a conscious defiance of the social order which denies him the same status as Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar.

    Edmund is such a capable and competent villain that it’s fun to watch him work. Only at the close of the play does Edmund show a flicker of weakness. Mortally wounded, he sees that both Goneril and Regan have died for him and whispers: “Yet Edmund was beloved” (Act 5 Scene 3). After this ambiguous statement, he seems to repent his villainy and admits having ordered Cordelia’s death. His change of heart, rare among Shakespearean villains, is enough to make me wonder whether Edmund’s villainy sprang not from some innate cruelty but simply from a thwarted desire for familial love.

  2. GordonWillis says

    That’s probably why so many people think she’s minor, or trivial – but they’re wrong. Social intelligence isn’t minor or trivial. Mr Woodhouse is just a Lear writ small; he does less harm only because he has less scope.

    This is really rather clever, Ophelia. I hadn’t thought of Mr Woodhouse quite in that light, but your observation is most illuminating. I wonder if you are right, though, about why some people believe that Austen is trivial: my general impression is that those who think so think of her as a writer of romances, of interest only to sentimental women (as Mills and Boone clearly do, and they certainly sell their publications). But your recent extended quote from Pride & Prejudice eminently displays Austen’s views on aspects of the suppression of women and the reasonable claims of women to respect as independent persons. Austen expresses it so beautifully, masterfully combining the ideal of the times towards formality of language with contemporary colloquialisms such as we all unthinkingly adopt so as to provide an astute commentary not only on language itself but on language as device, as social distinction. And the way in which she presents Elizabeth’s position as reasoned opinion in contrast to the dogmatism of privilege is quite superb, and recalls our own present difficulties with making reasoned arguments and being considered “strident” in our turn. I think that the first reason why Austen is not universally hailed as a writer and social thinker of brilliance is that she is a woman, writing about women. The second is that far too many people don’t want women to be thinkers, and the third is that far too many people don’t want their beliefs to be challenged. And in many cases these are all the same people.

  3. GordonWillis says

    Lear’s relationships with his daughters is not based on “which of you doth love us the most?” but rather on “which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Cordelia is his favorite daughter at the beginning of the play, so presumably he knows she loves him. Nevertheless, Lear values Goneril’s and Regan’s fawning over Cordelia’s sincere love.

    Lear doen’t “know” that Cordelia loves him at the beginning of the play, he only thinks that she does, in the sense that he supposes that love manifests itself as agreement with his wishes (and Cordelia has had to grow up). He discovers that this is not so, but too late. Lear’s problem is belief versus reality: he believes what he thinks, but what he thinks is self-serving. The actual fact of love being a concern for the welfare and the respectability (in the literal sense) of the loved one does not occur to him.

  4. says

    Gordon, yes, I think the supposed Mills&Boon aspect is the main reason (poshed up chick lit, sort of thing), along with the class aspect. But people also object to the formality and the restrictions, and I think that blinds them to the brilliance of the social intelligence dissection.

  5. says

    Lear’s relationships with his daughters is not based on “which of you doth love us the most?” but rather on “which of you shall we say doth love us most?”

    Which is why the contest is so easily gamed! And why he’s so socially clueless to set the contest.

  6. GordonWillis says

    But people also object to the formality and the restrictions, and I think that blinds them to the brilliance of the social intelligence dissection.

    Yes, I can see that the ancient language and customs are a barrier. It’s a pity that they don’t understand the “formality and the restrictions” as essential ingredients of the society (middle and upper) of the time. Which in turn presupposes that they assume that people should behave in ways to which they are personally accustomed, and anybody who doesn’t (like people who died a long time ago, for example) is “wierd”.

  7. GordonWillis says

    essential ingredients of the society.

    Thinking about this, I should say that I mean “essential” in the literal sense. I do not mean that early nineteeth-century society had to be that way of necessity. But society was the way it was because it was dominated by people who could impose their preferences, and this is the quarrel we have now, between people who wish to present reasonable views and people who merely prefer things to be they way they wish.

  8. 'Tis Himself says

    I thought Austen was a good wordsmith. In high school I much preferred to read her than the Brontë sisters* because Austen was a better writer.

    *I had both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre inflicted on me in high school.

  9. says

    Austen was a brilliant wordsmith.

    You might want to try Wuthering Heights again though. I didn’t like it in high school either, but that was high school. It’s pretty amazing. Multiple, layered points of view, and a complete lack of sentimentality. Wordsmithery.

  10. Roger says

    “You might want to try Wuthering Heights again though. I didn’t like it in high school either, but that was high school. It’s pretty amazing. Multiple, layered points of view, and a complete lack of sentimentality. Wordsmithery.”

    “Of all the books I have ever read, it is the one in which I would least like to be a character.”- Lewis Carroll’s opinion of Wuthering Heights.

  11. says

    TH: “I had both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre inflicted on me in high school.”

    I had ‘Silas Marner’ by ‘George Eliot’ (both names fictitious) inflicted on me in high school.

    Later I had to contend with ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen. In my view at the time, it could have done with a murder or two to heighten the tension and add a bit of mystery, or the Woodhouse home could have been the base for some sort of intrigue involving say the French Revolution, comme ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’. Given current trends, that will probably come to pass.

    I still seriously doubt the value of forcing teenagers to read novels and ‘high’ fiction. A good biography or two would probably be better instruction in the ways of the world. And by about the age of 13, the average kid has a crap detector refined enough to take on the likes of Lady Catherine de Burgh.

    Shakespeare said: “All the world’s a stage, and the people merely players…” (I think I have that right.)

    In life’s play, much of the script is done by genetics, though to what extent we still do not know. But just as the genes in the breeds of dogs make them largely predictable in their behaviour, so possibly do genes govern the ways of us humans.

    So to some extent, all the world’s a puppet show.

  12. 'Tis Himself says

    I had ‘Silas Marner’ by ‘George Eliot’ (both names fictitious) inflicted on me in high school.

    I loathed Silly-Ass Marner in high school. Some years ago, on somebody’s recommendation, I reread it. I still loathed it.

    However I also didn’t care for Moby Dick when I read it in high school. I reread it about ten years later and discovered it is a masterpiece of literature. Recently I read it again because of a comment my daughter made that the hero of the book is the whale. Reading Moby Dick with that idea made it even better.

  13. Musical Atheist says

    I think the stereotype of female authors as romance-writers also expresses itself in the way people frequently discuss Wuthering Heights as ‘romantic’ (with a small ‘r’). It seems to me that the major theme of WH – as in many of the Bronte sisters’ works – is the disastrous effect of the treatment of children on the adult character. So social intelligence is a key feature, in that many adult characters display a terrible unthinking cruelty or a faulty indulgence to children and fail to anticipate the effects on that child’s development. Heathcliff is an abused child who becomes an abuser, but Cathy is also a tragic figure, because while she is not physically abused or neglected, she is mentally neglected and warped, and grows up unable to stand up for her love for Heathcliff, and marries for very bad reasons, because of her lack of clearly articulated principles. The love story is there to show the fact that two children who are so unloved and ill-treated inevitably grow up incapable of any but a damaged and unrealised love themselves.

    This is a key theme that appears in many of their books, including Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but you’ll notice the ones that are most famous are the ones that can be described – however inadequately – as romantic love stories, because somehow, that’s what people are expecting.

  14. Musical Atheist says

    May I respectfully suggest a discussion about Wilkie Collins at some point? If you’re into him of course. That would be very fun! He’s so interesting on race and gender.

  15. Stacy says

    I loathed Silly-Ass Marner in high school. Some years ago, on somebody’s recommendation, I reread it. I still loathed it

    Oh, dear. I love Silas Marner. Sentimental as hell, yes, but I love it.

    But I didn’t read it til I was in my 40s. That probably helped.

    By the way, atheists should appreciate Eliot’s description of the Calvinist sect Marner grows up in, and the way his sociopathic “friend” is able to gain status in the religious community and destroy Marner by gaming the belief system.

  16. says

    TH:

    Given the enormous number of novels in the English-speaking canon, there is an intrinsic problem with book discussions. If they are organised, every participant gets advance notice, and time to read the ‘set’ book. If extempore, they consist of:
    a. a few of the minority of people who happen to have read the book;
    b. people who say they have read the book, perhaps basing themselves on having read a book by the same author;
    c. people who have read one or two reviews of the book;
    d. people who have spent considerable time in libraries, not reading but scanning. One scanning technique is reading diagonally down the page. (There are also genuine speed readers around, who take something in the order of 10 minutes to get through the average novel.)
    e. bluffers and gamers: ie people who talk in pseudoprofundities such as “X strikes me as an author who is aware of [his/her] own limitations” while cacking themselves (in hysterics) internally;
    f. people who have not read the set book, but concentrate on re-focusing the discussion onto some book they HAVE read;
    g. others.

    But I don’t think any of the participants in this discussion fall into any of the categories b-f.

    Seriously.

    Just thought I’d thro that in in lieu of an attempt at anything more literary. ;-)

  17. Martha says

    It struck me that social intelligence was Austen’s great subject. That’s not true of all novelists. It doesn’t fit Emily Bronte, exactly, or George Eliot, exactly – Eliot did write about it a lot (Lydgate, Rosamund) but it wasn’t dominant the way it was with Austen.

    That’s probably why so many people think she’s minor, or trivial – but they’re wrong. Social intelligence isn’t minor or trivial. Mr Woodhouse is just a Lear writ small; he does less harm only because he has less scope.

    I love this description of Austen! There is no doubt that she is also, as you say, Ophelia, a brilliant wordsmith.

    I have a friend who just can’t stand Jane Austen. When we were both young, he dismissed her out of hand; 20 years later, he confessed to me that he has tried but he just can’t like her. As we discussed the issue further, it became clear that he didn’t understand that her tone was critical, sometimes even sarcastic, and fundamentally subversive. That made me wonder how many people miss this. That’s no doubt in part to do with the fact that we are socialized to see women as writers of romance, but Austen’s subtlety and formality may also play a role.

  18. says

    Martha – oh, lots of people miss it. All the patronizing “Jane”-ing, all the silly nostalgia stuff, the JA Society – arrgh.

    And yes, lots of people also think WH is a love story, tout court. Der. So wrong.

    Musical A @ 15 – I tell you what – you can do a guest post on Wilkie Collins if you like. I haven’t read him, so I can’t do it! (Unless I do read him, but that’s not immediately likely.)

  19. S Mukherjee says

    The problem is — people dubbing Austen as a ‘romance’ writer may not have actually READ her books, they would have just seen the TV series and the films based on her books. I’ve seen a similar thing with ‘Gone With the Wind’ — it is assumed to be (based on the film I suppose) a grand love story between Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler. But actually it is not. It is more about an entire society and an individual young woman, and how both of them changed profoundly due to the drastic events of the war.

    I still read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ every now and then and I find something new to think about every time.

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