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The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature

Angus Fletcher

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eBook - ePub


The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature

Angus Fletcher

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About This Book

This "fascinating" (Malcolm Gladwell, New York Times bestselling author of Outliers ) examination of literary inventions through the ages, from ancient Mesopotamia to Elena Ferrante, shows how writers have created technical breakthroughs—rivaling scientific inventions—and engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind. Literature is a technology like any other. And the writers we revere—from Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and others—each made a unique technical breakthrough that can be viewed as both a narrative and neuroscientific advancement. Literature's great invention was to address problems we could not solve: not how to start a fire or build a boat, but how to live and love; how to maintain courage in the face of death; how to account for the fact that we exist at all. Wonderworks reviews the blueprints for twenty-five of the most significant developments in the history of literature. These inventions can be scientifically shown to alleviate grief, trauma, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, depression, pessimism, and ennui, while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. They can be found throughout literature—from ancient Chinese lyrics to Shakespeare's plays, poetry to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and crime novels to slave narratives.A "refreshing and remarkable" (Jay Parini, author of Borges and Me: An Encounter ) exploration of the new literary field of story science, Wonderworks teaches you everything you wish you learned in your English class, and "contains many instances of critical insight....What's most interesting about this compendium is its understanding of imaginative representation as a technology" ( The New York Times ).

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ONE Rally Your Courage

Homer’s Iliad and the Invention of the Almighty Heart
The boy with the quiet brown eyes was about to die.
His sisters and his brothers had already been eaten. And now his father was hunting him, too, flashing long teeth and waving a blood-crusted scythe.
But the boy did not run. He faced his father on the mountaintop, the skies live with fire, the valleys howling with the tongues of giants. And fate was with the boy that day. He tore his father’s belly open, ripped out his swallowed siblings, then hurled his father into hell.
The boy was Zeus. From that act of heaven war, he became tyrant lord of Greece. And he would go on to rule for generations, from the late Neolithic era of the fourth millennium BCE to the steel age of the fourth century CE, when the Roman Empire wielded whips and roadside crucifixions to impose a new god, Jesus Christ, upon the Greeks.
During the years of Zeus’s reign, the Greeks constantly repeated the story about how he’d disemboweled his father on the mountaintop. And the Greeks repeated many other stories about Zeus too. There was the story about how Zeus flooded the earth, drowning a million infants in their cribs. There was the story about how Zeus assassinated the world’s first doctor, Asclepius, with a jealous lightning bolt. There was the story about how Zeus descended in swan feathers to rape the Spartan queen Leda; and in satyr hooves to rape the night-haired Antiope of Thebes; and in goddess flesh to rape the virginal Callisto of Arcadia; and in bull shape to rape the seafaring Europa of Lebanon; and in tandem with Hades to rape his own daughter, Persephone; and in eagle feathers to rape a little Trojan boy with quiet brown eyes named Ganymede.
Why did the Greeks tell these stories? Why did they imagine their sky master as a child born of violence, a child who grew up to re-inscribe that violence endlessly upon the tender lives within his care? Why did they gather round hearths, and shaded fountains, and red-opium altars to terrify one another with fables of the monster in the atmosphere above?
The Greeks told their fables because they believed them. The Greeks may never have witnessed a god plunge in lusting from a cloud bank, but they’d seen many an infant perish, and many a doctor struck down, and many a young life pointlessly damaged. They’d felt their mortal fragility and the harshness of powers on high. In a word, they’d felt scared. And their tales about Zeus reflected that fear, painting a heaven that matched their existence below.
With their frightful stories, the ancient Greeks took the first step of literature: crafting a representation of life. But as the Greeks would learn around 750 BCE, there was another step that literature could take. Literature could go beyond representing our worldly fears—and it could help to remedy those fears.
The year 750 BCE, give or take a decade or two, was when a new story arrived in Greece from the East. The story was borne in the brain of a wandering balladeer who quickly became enveloped in gossip: “His name is Homer.…” “He caught a disease of the eye and went blind in his youth.…” “He once earned his keep as a schoolteacher, composing children’s tales of river frogs and mice.…” And since those ancient times, still more rumors have come to swirl: “He was in a collective of folk singers.…” “He stole half his verses from his daughter.…” “He was not one poet but many.”
Perhaps these tales have truth to them. Or perhaps they’re just engaging fictions. But what we know for sure is this. The balladeer’s own fiction is titled the Iliad; it’s set during the Greek assault on the Bronze Age trading city of Ilium (or more commonly, Troy); and it captures the massiveness of that assault by unfurling a catalogue of mighty heroes: Achilles, Hector, Ajax, Aeneas, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Patroclus, Diomedes—the list goes on and on and on.
This epic list has dazzled audiences for almost three thousand years. Yet the Iliad’s real triumph isn’t its heroes. The Iliad’s real triumph is a literary invention that doses our brain with the courage to face down lightning and death and even Zeus, transforming us into heroes ourselves.

The Origins of the Invention

The courage started with the literary technology that we now call the narrator.
The narrator is the mind behind a story. It’s the feelings, memories, instincts, attitudes, enthusiasms, desires, and beliefs of the story’s teller. That storytelling mind, like all minds, is hidden from view. It reveals itself only through its public acts, and in the case of a story, those acts take the form of the narrator’s voice.
Back at the very beginning of stories, perhaps on Stone Age Moroccan shrublands or in the red-tinged firelight of Daoxian caves, the voice was a literal voice. All storytelling was oral, uttered by living mouths. Those mouths were richly diverse, and they could inflect stories in many vibrant ways, but the main two were the tone and the taste:
The tone was the ring and timbre of the voice. Maybe the voice trembled when it spoke of terrible creatures or chuckled when it spoke of ridiculous coincidences. Maybe the voice was rich with empathy when describing the pains of the poor, or deep with wonder when talking of the gods.
The taste was the subject matter preferred by the voice. Maybe the voice liked to concentrate on nature and the seasons. Maybe the voice preferred to speak at length about love, or war, or urban architecture, or sea leviathans.
Every storyteller had her own tone and taste, filling the world with different voices. And then astonishingly, the world became even more full. Because there was a storytelling breakthrough.
The breakthrough began in an indistinct era that predated 8000 BCE. During that era, at sites such as India’s Bhimbetka sandstone juts and Indonesia’s island of Sulawesi, storytellers discovered how to translate their oral voices into the visual media of painting, sculpture, and dance. To translate tone from oral into visual, storytellers devised the endlessly inventive characteristics of individual style. And to translate taste, they engineered the remarkable tool now known as narrative focus, enabling them to narrow and sharpen their story like a movie-camera lens, zooming tight on some objects and events—while turning others into background scenery.
The next stage of the storytelling breakthrough occurred a little more than five millennia ago, with the advent of writing. Writing, like painting, was a form of visual media, set down as Sumerian cuneiforms upon mud tablets, or Egyptian glyphs upon stone blocks, or Chinese oracle scripts upon cloth strips, or Mesoamerican logographs upon wood planks. And when the ancient authors of this visual media availed themselves of the painters’ tools of style and focus, they engineered a brand-new kind of narrator: the literary—that is, literally, the “written”—narrator.
The literary narrator was a seeming impossibility. It existed as inertly monotone script upon a printed page, and yet through the tools of style and focus, it could warmly emote, or solemnly articulate, or fearfully whisper, or dryly remark, or do anything else that a living mouth could do.
We don’t know who the very first literary narrators were; the mud, stone, cloth, or wood upon which they were written has long since passed into oblivion. But we can hazard a guess that they were psychological extensions of the human minds who birthed them. If those minds took a wryly detached view of life’s impermanence, then their narrators’ style might have coupled cosmic we-speak with gentle irony, as in this modern rendition of an age-old Akan tale:
We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go.
If those minds believed in Nature’s cosmic import, then their narrators’ focus might have blurred (or even excluded) supernatural forces while sharply delineating the desires, actions, and memories of natural characters, as in this nineteenth-century transcription of an ancient Cherokee creation story:
When all was water, the animals were above in Galûñ'lăt, beyond the arch; but it was very much crowded, and they were wanting more room. They wondered what was below the water, and at last Dâyuni'sĭ, “Beaver’s Grandchild,” the little Water-beetle, offered to go and see if it could learn. It darted in every direction over the surface of the water, but could find no firm place to rest. Then it dived to the bottom and came up with some soft mud, which began to grow and spread on every side until it became the island which we call the earth. It was afterward fastened to the sky with four cords, but no one remembers who did this.
From these organic beginnings, our ancestors then used further innovations of style and focus to engineer original literary narrators who sounded nothing like their human authors. Narrators who spoke in the voices of trees or rivers or beasts. And narrators who did something more extraordinary yet.
Narrators who spoke in the voices of gods.

The Narrator God

“Let there be light.”
This is the voice of a supreme God. Its style is declarative, simple, absolute. And its focus is galactic: the light-shine of stars.
Gods don’t need to speak like this; gods are gods, so they can speak however they wish. But the basic “Let there be light” blueprint is the one adopted by the narrators of the world’s most ancient scriptures, from the Old Egyptian Pyramid Texts (circa 2400 BCE), to the Sanskrit Rigveda (c. 1500 BCE), to the Hebrew book of Genesis (c. 750 BCE). The style of these scriptures is forceful, austere, and unequivocal. And the focus is giant entities: Life, Truth, Heaven, Beauty, Law. This combined style and focus creates the impression of an almighty being who sees into the deepest nature of things. Which is why we usually refer to the almighty being as the “God’s-Eye Narrator,” or more concisely, the “God Voice.”
The God Voice is an extraordinary literary invention. It allows anyone with a pen to sound like a deity. And by sounding like a deity, that anyone can touch the minds of audiences with two powerful emotions:
  1. Wonder. Wonder, as we saw in the introduction, is generated by the stretch. And stretch is what the God Voice does. It stretches truth into Truth, and law into Law, and light into cosmic brightness, making all the stuff of life feel bigger, expanded from the familiar to the divine.
  2. Fear. Fear is a near cousin to wonder; things that inspire awe were once said to be “awe-full” or “awful,” because the same bigness that stretches our brain can easily alarm. So, it’s only to be expected that a narrator who booms like an omnipotent deity would make us nervous. Its gigantic size is scare inducing; it skips our pulse and sends a light chill down our spine.
Both these emotions, wonder and fear, were actively cultivated by the earliest known authors of God Voices. The cultivation of wonder wasn’t especially remarkable; almost all literature, regardless of its historical era or cultural origin, uses wonder to entice us to listen. But the cultivation of fear was remarkable. Fear is often unpleasant for audiences: it can be upsetting and even traumatizing, lodging in our memory to cause recurrent distress.
And indeed, just such distress seems to have been the goal of many ancient God Voices. The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE) offered this glimpse of Death: “His brow of darkness, his hands of a lion, his claws of an eagle, he walks the path to the Temple of Dust.” The Egyptian Book of the Dead (c. 1500 BCE) warned: “The heaven-house of Osiris is guarded by a mouth of flame, and a spirit of knives, and a destroyer of hearts, and an eater of blood.
Some ancient authors may have thought that the sweating terror inspired by these God Voices was good for us. But other authors had a more sinister intent. Fear was (and remains) a common tool of psychological control: in the Egyptian noondays of the twentieth dynasty, amid the golden valleys of the Theban Necropolis, the gruesome spook of the Book of the Dead was wielded by the high priest Ramessesnakht to aggrandize himself above even the pharaohs, and many another ancient tyrant and ecclesiastic similarly employed a God Voice to dispossess his subject peoples.
But then was built the Iliad. And its builder (who, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll call Homer) revealed that the God Voice could do the opposite of treading us down with fear. It could lift us up with courage.

Courage—and Its Neural Source

Our word courage derives from the Old French cuor, which itself goes back to the classical Latin cor, both of which mean: “heart.” So, to Old French and Latin wordsmiths, courage wasn’t a stoic virtue or a rational choice. It was a feeling that collided with the terror that rushed through our veins in times of danger, counterbalancing one emotion with another, and rousing us with the psychological desire to hold our ground.
The wordsmiths’ old insight into courage has been extended by modern neuroscience. The neural origins of courage start deep in the primordial center of our brain, where there sits, ensconced upon a drop-shaped double throne, the coward despot known as our amygdala. As soon as our amygdala senses danger, it panics. Hastily overruling whatever else we’re doing, it triggers our sympathetic nervous system, our periaqueductal gray matter, and the other components of our brain’s threat-response network to release a mix of adrenaline and natural opioid painkillers, boosting our heart rate, numbing our hurt, and filling us with energy. This heated feeling of fearful strength isn’t courage; in fact, its original biological purpose is to help us flee danger. But it can be converted into bravery through the addition of one more neural ingredient: oxytocin.
Oxytocin is the hormone that bonds mothers to newborns, and as neuroscientists have discov...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Epigraph
  5. Preface: A Heaven of Invention
  6. Introduction: The Lost Technology
  7. Chapter 1: Rally Your Courage: Homer’s Iliad and the Invention of the Almighty Heart
  8. Chapter 2: Rekindle the Romance: Sappho’s Lyrics, the Odes of Eastern Zhou, and the Invention of the Secret Discloser
  9. Chapter 3: Exit Anger: The Book of Job, Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus, and the Invention of the Empathy Generator
  10. Chapter 4: Float Above Hurt: Aesop’s Fables, Plato’s Meno, and the Invention of the Serenity Elevator
  11. Chapter 5: Excite Your Curiosity: The Epic of Sundiata, the Modern Thriller, and the Invention of the Tale Told from Our Future
  12. Chapter 6: Free Your Mind: Dante’s Inferno, Machiavelli’s Innovatori, and the Invention of the Vigilance Trigger
  13. Chapter 7: Jettison Your Pessimism: Giovanni Straparola, the Original Cinderella, and the Invention of the Fairy-tale Twist
  14. Chapter 8: Heal from Grief: Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Invention of the Sorrow Resolver
  15. Chapter 9: Banish Despair: John Donne’s “Songs” and the Invention of the Mind-Eye Opener
  16. Chapter 10: Achieve Self-Acceptance: Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, Zhuangzi’s “Tale of Wonton,” and the Invention of the Butterfly Immerser
  17. Chapter 11: Ward Off Heartbreak: Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, and the Invention of the Valentine Armor
  18. Chapter 12: Energize Your Life: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Modern Meta-Horror, and the Invention of the Stress Transformer
  19. Chapter 13: Solve Every Mystery: Francis Bacon, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of the Virtual Scientist
  20. Chapter 14: Become Your Better Self: Frederick Douglass, Saint Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Invention of the Life Evolver
  21. Chapter 15: Bounce Back from Failure: George Eliot’s Middlemarch and the Invention of the Gratitude Multiplier
  22. Chapter 16: Clear Your Head: “Rashōmon,” Julius Caesar, and the Invention of the Second Look
  23. Chapter 17: Find Peace of Mind: Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and the Invention of the Riverbank of Consciousness
  24. Chapter 18: Feed Your Creativity: Winnie-the-Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and the Invention of the Anarchy Rhymer
  25. Chapter 19: Unlock Salvation: To Kill a Mockingbird, Shakespeare’s Soliloquy Breakthrough, and the Invention of the Humanity Connector
  26. Chapter 20: Renew Your Future: Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and the Invention of the Revolution Rediscovery
  27. Chapter 21: Decide Wiser: Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Thomas More’s Utopia, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Invention of the Double Alien
  28. Chapter 22: Believe in Yourself: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the Invention of the Choose Your Own Accomplice
  29. Chapter 23: Unfreeze Your Heart: Alison Bechdel, Euripides, Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot, and the Invention of the Clinical Joy
  30. Chapter 24: Live Your Dream: Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, a Dash of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and the Invention of the Wish Triumphant
  31. Chapter 25: Lessen Your Lonely: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, and the Invention of the Childhood Opera
  32. Conclusion: Inventing Tomorrow
  33. Coda: The Secret History of This Book
  34. Acknowledgments
  35. Notes on Translations, Sources, and Further Reading
  36. About the Author
  37. Index
  38. Copyright
Citation styles for Wonderworks

APA 6 Citation

Fletcher, A. (2021). Wonderworks ([edition unavailable]). Simon & Schuster. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2306137/wonderworks-the-25-most-powerful-inventions-in-the-history-of-literature-pdf (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Fletcher, Angus. (2021) 2021. Wonderworks. [Edition unavailable]. Simon & Schuster. https://www.perlego.com/book/2306137/wonderworks-the-25-most-powerful-inventions-in-the-history-of-literature-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Fletcher, A. (2021) Wonderworks. [edition unavailable]. Simon & Schuster. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2306137/wonderworks-the-25-most-powerful-inventions-in-the-history-of-literature-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Fletcher, Angus. Wonderworks. [edition unavailable]. Simon & Schuster, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.