This is the first post in my Great Minds series, a set of interviews with writers who have inspired me. My academic work has introduced me to numerous professors doing fascinating work on literature, cognition, and social action. University of Connecticut English professor, Patrick Hogan, will be my first great mind.
I greatly admire Professor Hogan’s work, his expertise in comparative literature—the study of literature and art from across world cultures—allows him to present evidence of cross-cultural similarities in how humans use arts. Specifically, Dr Hogan is most well known for his work on literary universals, the similarities across all world cultures on the structure and function of narrative and poetic art. His excellent book on this subject is The Mind and Its Stories (2003).
Before entering his PhD studies, Dr Hogan studied under Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, Walter Ong, Jim McCawley, Donald Davidson, and Paul Ricoeur. After completing his MA, and at the suggestion of Walter Ong, Dr Hogan applied to the doctoral program in English at SUNY/Buffalo, primarily because of Norm Holland’s center for the psychological study of the arts. The majority of his ‘literary’ studies there continued to be on philosophical and psychological topics.
Professor Hogan is a prolific author, publishing books and articles on cognitive science, post-colonial literature, and literary theory. He was also kind enough to allow me to publish this interview on his writing habits, his work on Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and his work on literary universals.
I don’t really have a schedule for writing. I’m not one of those people who writes every morning from 7 to 10 or something. I mostly write an article or a chapter when I feel ready to do so . . .
I am interested in a wide range of academic topics and, in keeping with that, I am usually working on many things at once—things that are different, but related. For example, over the next few days I have to revise an essay on grief in Hamlet, finish drafting something on guilt (by the way, I do sometimes write on cheerier topics than guilt and grief!), prepare for my class on Medieval Arabic literary theory, respond to your questions, and prepare for a seminar where participants will be discussing something I wrote on nationalism and war. (They have sent me an intimidating 3-page, single-spaced list of questions!) Suppose I only had to revise the grief essay. I simply didn’t feel like doing that now. If I had nothing else to do, I would have piddled around, putting off the revision. Since I have a range of things to do, I was able to choose something that I felt like doing.
On the writing itself, I’m pretty boring as a writer. I am always trying to read things on topics of interest to me. They usually overlap with several things I am working on (e.g., a book on collective guilt might relate to the guilt essay and the war/nationalism chapter). I take notes on what I am going to write about, usually for months beforehand. I then gather the notes, make an outline, and largely follow the outline—though, of course, the argument expands greatly during actual composition. I usually do a lot of focused secondary research after writing a first draft. I incorporate the research, then re-read and revise the essay one or two times on the computer, then several times in print-outs.
2. In my opinion, you’ve written the best analysis of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Can you tell me about composing that piece? How long did it take? Was it frustrating dealing with such a complex text?
I’m very pleased that you know that article. People who know my cognitive work tend not to know my postcolonial work (and neither tend to know my political writings), though they are interrelated.
Well, here’s a sort of long version. I don’t really have any training in any literary period. I was hired at the University of Connecticut to teach literary theory. But that is only two courses a year (at most). So they had to have me teach something else. I had done some work on Irish literature, mostly Joyce, so they put me in the Modern British course. I soon noticed that postcolonial authors didn’t fit anywhere in our curriculum. I began teaching them in Modern British, eventually creating new undergraduate and graduate courses in “world literature in English.” (I had to teach myself a slew of new authors anyway, so why not African and Indian authors, who interested me more anyway?) I somewhat foolishly began teaching Midnight’s Children in those courses. I say “somewhat foolishly” because it is a complex book, which means that you either spend a lot of time on it in class or you cover it only in a cursory way.
Anyway, having taught the book several times, I knew it pretty well. I had also read some criticism about the work and largely felt that criticism to be misguided. You may remember my analysis of Gandhi’s death happening at the wrong time in Rushdie’s novel. The usual interpretation of this, which questioned the objectivity of historical events, seemed to me to miss the point entirely. This is just one example of the problems I felt were present in that body of criticism. This led me to wish to write on Rushdie’s book, if only to respond to some standard views that I felt really were not helpful to people trying to understand the novel.
My wife is Kashmiri and I had been to Kashmir with her before the revolution began. For this reason, I had a particular interest in the Kashmir section. When working on postcolonial literature, I usually do a fair amount of scholarly research on culture and history before I begin writing. Given the fairly close historical emplotment of Rushdie’s novel, I knew that the Kashmir section would almost certainly be tightly interrelated with Kashmiri history. So I began reading about Kashmiri history. I was already partially familiar with the Islamic (specifically Qur’anic) backgrounds, but I checked those as well. As sometimes happens, I was (I believe) fortunate in what I found.
3. What has the response to your work on Literary Universals been like? What do your critics have to say?
My work on literary universals is by far the best known of anything I have done. It is what has led to invitations to write articles in various outlets and to speak in many places over the past several years. The idea excites people, and there have been some interesting and valuable developments of the idea (e.g., in the special issue of Consciousness, Literature, and the Arts 6.2 [August 2005]). But I must say that, when I go to give talks, I find that almost no one has any concrete idea of what I have said about literary universals, other than the actual person who invited me. When I submit articles or books, referees routinely ask me to explain and often ask me to defend the idea. This gives rise to a logistical problem of how to get the relevant information into the new work while still leaving room for whatever is new in that work.
But I don’t at all want to complain. I’m grateful that the work has gotten any attention at all. Moreover, there has been an enormous change from, say, ten years ago. When I first started submitting The Mind and Its Stories to presses, they wouldn’t even look at it. I remember putting the manuscript in the mail one Thursday and getting it back the following Tuesday. From what I could tell, the editor at the press simply saw the word “universals” in the title and sent it back. Indeed, when it was finally accepted, it was done in a psychology series, not a literary series. (An exception to this general literary aversion to universals was Bill Germano at Routledge, who commissioned Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts.)
For the most part, prominent mainstream literary theorists have not dealt with the issue of specific narrative universals. However, there is far more openness to the idea of universals, not only among editors at presses, but among mainstream theorists—in part because of some recent work by Judith Butler (very different from mine, of course, though we share some criticisms of identity politics).
I would say that the most hostility to my work has probably come, not from social constructionists (as one might expect), but from critics drawing on Evolutionary Psychology (EP). Of course, some have been very supportive of my work. But the problem is that I have been very critical of the EP program. My contention about narrative universals is that they are not innate per se. Rather, only proto-emotion systems are innate as such. These emotion systems tend to develop in similar ways due to similar physical and caregiving environments. The caregiving environment is only in part the result of genetic predispositions. It also results from convergent development through group dynamics. Moreover, narrative structures themselves undoubtedly stabilize after periods of innovation, again with convergent results. Put differently, my contention is that there is only very limited and somewhat distant genetic determination of narrative universals. To a great extent, universals result from historical and cultural developments. However, my contention is that such historical and cultural developments may be convergent rather than divergent in some cases—perhaps even in many cases.
Finally, unlike most EP critics, I see literature as circulating a great deal of dominant ideology. So, I do not see literature as evidence for, say, gender differences. Insofar as research apparently reveals a consistent pattern of such differences in literary representations, my hypothesis would be that this shows converging patterns in patriarchal ideology, not some truth about men and women. Moreover, even apparent patterns of this sort may reflect the ideological orientations of the researchers (including coders who have been trained to produce matching results) more than unequivocal patterns in the texts themselves.