Stories can offer so much pleasure that studying them hardly seems like work. Literary scholars have often sought to allay unease at being paid to enjoy the frissons of fiction by investigating literature as a form of history or moral education. And since the late 1960s, academic literature departments have tried especially to stress criticism as critique, as an agent of social transformation.
For the last few decades, indeed, scholars have been reluctant to deal with literature as an art—with the imaginative accomplishment of a work or the imaginative feast of responding to it—as if to do so meant privileging elite capacities and pandering to indulgent inclinations. Many critics have sought to keep literary criticism well away from the literary and instead to arraign literature as largely a product of social oppression, complicit in it or at best offering a resistance already contained.
Literary academics have also been reluctant to deal with science, except to fantasize that they have engulfed and disarmed it by reducing it to “just another narrative,” or to dismiss it with a knowing sneer as presupposing a risibly naïve epistemological realism. They have not only denied the pleasure of art and the power of science, but like others in the humanities and social sciences, they have also denied that human nature exists, insisting against the evidence that culture and convention make us infinitely malleable.
I and others want literature to return to the artfulness of literary art and to reach out to science, now that science has at last found ways to explore human nature and human minds. Since these are, respectively, the subject and the object of literature, it would be fatal for literary study to continue to cut itself off from science, from the power of discovery possible through submitting ideas to the rule of evidence.
There are many ways in which science can return us to and enrich the art of literature. We could consider human natures and minds as understood by science and as represented in literature, not just as seen through the approved lenses of race, gender, and class, but in terms, for instance, of the human life history cycle, or social cognition, or cooperation versus competition. Or we could develop multileveled explanations that allow room for the universals of human nature, and for the local in culture and history, and for individuality, in authors and audiences, and for the particular problem situations faced in this or that stint of composition or comprehension.
One way to use science to approach literature (and art in general) is to view it as a behavior in evolutionary terms. Why do art in general and storytelling in particular exist as cross-species behaviors? Asking the question in these terms makes possible a genuinely theoretical literary theory, one that depends not on the citation of purportedly antiauthoritarian authorities, but on the presence of evidence and the absence of counterevidence, on examining human behavior across time and space and in the context of many cultures and even many species.
The humanities have always accepted the maxim that biologist D’Arcy Thompson stated with sublime simplicity: “Everything is what it is because it got that way.” How it got that way starts not with the Epic of Gilgamesh but much further back: with our evolving into art-making and storytelling animals. How did our capacities for art and story build and become ingrained in us over time? How do we now produce and process stories so effortlessly: what aspects of the mind do we engage, and how?
To consider art and story in evolutionary terms we have to decide whether they are biological adaptations: are they features that natural selection has designed into humans over time because they led to higher rates of survival and reproduction? I argue in a book I’ve recently written, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, that art and storytelling are adaptations. These behaviors are species-wide, engaged in spontaneously by all normal individuals and spontaneously encouraged in infants by their parents.
Art is a form of cognitive play with pattern. Just as communication exists in many species, even in bacteria, and human language derives from but redirects animal communication along many unforeseen new routes, so play exists in many species, but the unique cognitive play of human art redirects it in new ways and to new functions.
Play exists even in the brightest invertebrates, like octopi, and in all mammals in which it has been investigated. Its self-rewarding nature means that animals with flexible behavior—behavior not genetically programmed—willingly engage in it again and again in circumstances of relative security, and thereby over time can master complex context-sensitive skills. The sheer pleasure of play motivates animals to repeat intense activities that strengthen and speed up neural connections. The exuberance of play enlarges the boundaries of ordinary behavior, in unusual and extreme movements, in ways that enable animals to cope better with the unexpected.
Humans uniquely inhabit “the cognitive niche.” We have an appetite for information, and especially for pattern, information that falls into meaningful arrays from which we can make rich inferences. We have uniquely long childhoods, and even beyond childhood we continue to play more than other species. Our predilection for the patterned cognitive play of art begins with what developmental psychologists call protoconversation, exchanges between infants and caregivers of rhythmic, responsive behavior, involving sound and movement, in playful patterns described as “more like a song than a sentence” and as “interactive multimedia performances.” Without being taught, children engage in music, dance, design, and, especially, pretend play.
Our adult compulsion for the cognitive play of art—from tribal work songs to tradesmen’s transistors to urbanites’ iPods—allows us to extend and refine the neural pathways that produce and process pattern in sonic, visual, and kinetic modes, and especially in sociality.
Humans have not only a unique predilection for open-ended pattern but also a unique propensity to share attention (long before we learn language) and for that reason a unique capacity for learning from others. Our inclination for sharing attention and for social learning ensures that we readily master the rudiments of local artistic traditions. Participating in these traditions amplifies the pleasure we gain from social living. By helping to reduce the costs in tension and raise the rewards of sociality, art helps us to cooperate on a scale far beyond that of any other highly individualized animal.
The OED defines pattern as “an arrangement or order of things or activity . . . order or form discernible in things, actions, ideas, situations, etc.” Pattern usually signals regularities in the world rather than mere chance: the pattern that my head and my feet turn up not far from one another is not coincidence but part of the regularity that is me.
Until very recently computers have fared dismally at pattern recognition, but living organisms have long been expert at it. Pattern turns the data of the senses into information that can guide behavior. The more an organism depends on intelligence, the more it seeks pattern of multiple kinds at multiple levels. Frogs respond to the pattern of small objects flying across their field of vision by flicking out their tongues. That makes them more efficient than you or me at catching insects, but frogs cannot respond to new kinds of patterns. Humans can. In addition to the patterns evolution has programmed us to track, like the shapes or locations of objects, we search for patterns of many kinds. The chemical patterns of insecticides can, for instance, make us more efficient killers of insects than even frogs have evolved to be.
Because the world swarms with patterns, animal minds evolved as pattern extractors, able to detect the information meaningful to their kind of organism in their kind of environment and therefore to predict and act accordingly. Pattern occurs at multiple levels, from the stable information of spatial conditions and physical processes to highly volatile information about individuals and their moods, actions, and intentions. Pattern recognition allows us to distinguish animate from inanimate, human from nonhuman, this individual from any others, this attitude or expression from another. Identifying not only individuals but also the higher-order patterns in their behavior, personality, and powers allows for far more accurate social prediction.
If information is chaotic, it lacks meaningful pattern and can’t be understood. If on the other hand it is completely patterned, we need not continue to pay attention, since the information is redundant: indeed the psychological process of habituation switches attention off if a stimulus remains, if the pattern of information can be predicted. The most patterned novel possible would repeat one letter, say q, over and over again—a queue no reader would want to wait in. But an unpredictable combination of patterns repays intense attention and can yield rich inferences, although it may not be easy finding how to ascertain what forms a meaningful pattern and what meaning the pattern implies.
Committed to the cognitive niche, humans crave pattern because it can tell us so much. The more our minds can handle multiple patterns at multiple levels, the more successfully we can predict and act. We therefore have what physicist Edward Purcell calls an “avidity for pattern.” As Stephen Jay Gould notes: “The human mind delights in finding pattern. . . . No other habit of thought lies so deeply within the soul of a small creature trying to make sense of a complex world not constructed for it.” Extreme informational chaos, the absence of pattern, as in whiteout or dense fog, can even cause distress and loss of sensory function.
Art offers the opposite of chaos. It concentrates and plays with the world’s profusion of patterns, with its patterns of interrelated or intersecting patterns. Our perception of pattern and of deviation from it produces strong emotional reactions. Art engages us by appealing to our appetite for pattern at multiple levels, in producing or perceiving bodily movement, shapes, surfaces, or sounds, words or miniature worlds. Like play, art therefore provokes us to continue the activities it offers long enough and to resume them often enough to modify our neural circuitry over time.
Our compulsion to engage in the behaviors we call art, in cognitive play with high-density pattern, enables us over many repetitions to produce or at least to process patterns in the perceptual and cognitive areas that matter most to us: movement, sound, sight, and sociality. And as in other primate species, the capacity to command attention correlates with status, which correlates in turn with access to resources and therefore with survival and reproduction rates. Those with an exceptional talent in some art can therefore earn status.
For both artists and audiences, art’s capacity to ensnare attention is crucial: for the artist, to accrue status; for the audience, to motivate engagement. Exposure to a single story told once will not transform a mind substantially, but many repetitions, or many different stories, can improve our capacities for social cognition and scenario construction so valuable to us in the nonstory world.
One conclusion I draw from this analysis of the origin of art and story is that attention—engagement in the activity—matters before meaning. Aristotle understood this. So do artists, authors, and audiences. Even children under the age of three grasp the crucial role of catching and holding the attention of listeners. At this age their stories are as much poems as narratives, focusing on striking characters and effects that violate expectations, but in a structure that resembles theme and variation, a simpler kind of pattern, rather than the event continuity that adults expect of stories:
They went up sky
They fall down
Choo choo train in the sky
The train fell down in the sky
I fell down in the sky in the water
I got on my boat and my legs hurt
Daddy fall down in the sky.
The two-and-a-half-year-old boy who concocts this “story” has no idea yet that stories incorporate not just settings, characters, and events, but also aims, goals, and outcomes. He cannot develop a story but seems to intuit the need to surprise, with his unusual characters in unusual places defying the principles of gravity he began to understand before he was three months old. Repetition is the simplest form of elaboration, but since pure repetition holds little interest, repetition of a bold idea with variation offers him the best prospects of holding the attention of listeners with the imaginative resources he has.
A four-year-old boy made up this story:
Once there was a dragon who went poo poo on a house and the house broke
then when the house broke the people died
and when the people died their bones came out and broke and got together again and turned into a skeleton
and then the skeletons came along and scared the people out of the town
and then when all the people got scared out of the town then skeleton babies were born
and then everyone called it skeleton town
and when they called it skeleton town the people came back and then they got scared away again
and then when they all got scared away again the skeletons died
no one came to the town
so there was no people ever in that town ever again.
This story and others by young children are not plotless, but unplanned and episodic, a series of opportunistic riffs, each aimed at catching attention: from the dragon as a conventional category-breaching monster to the decorum-breaching “poo poo” on the house, and so on.
Yet if we normally engage in art simply because it can command our attention, meaning, in academic contexts, elbows its way to the fore, because the propositional nature of meaning makes it so much easier to expound, circulate, regurgitate, or challenge than the fluid dynamics of attention.
Let us turn to an example, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), and consider it in terms of cognitive play with pattern and its means for securing and refreshing attention.
Stories can earn attention through subject matter. Although house buying has become a stressful preoccupation in modern life, we have no genre of real-estate novels. But we do have stories about romantic love. An evolutionist can note the significance of reproduction and survival in the transmission of genes and the evolution of species. This can explain why, over countless generations, our emotions have been designed to respond so intensely to love and death, and why romance stories so often focus on finding love or that thrillers, mysteries, and adventure tales focus on avoiding death.
Precisely because who will partner whom matters so much to us, love stories have always flooded the story pool. Any new romance therefore runs the risk of neglect through habituation, the fading of interest in repeated stimuli. But the passionate sexual love of a mature man for a girl is not an overfamiliar love story. As a novel about an unusual love and an unusual murder, Lolita appeals to immemorial interests but from unexpected angles. It surprised and shocked the public when it was first published, and it still does. At over 50 million copies sold, it is surely the most demanding novel ever to sell so well.
Let’s dive into the details of Humbert Humbert’s story to see if they bear out the idea of art as cognitive play with pattern, and to see how Nabokov eliminates habituation and animates attention. Humbert begins:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two grandfathers had sold wine, jewels and silk, respectively. At thirty he married an English girl, daughter of Jerome Dunn, the alpinist, and granddaughter of two Dorset parsons, experts in obscure subjects—paleopedology and Aeolian harps, respectively. My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.
No other novel that I can recall starts with more patterned prose than Lolita. And its initial patterns themselves form parts of other patterns, like Humbert’s self-projection as an artist, a poet, an adoring lover, or his aestheticizing Lolita. But pattern and tantalizing hints of pattern saturate the text. Humbert’s mother is “the granddaughter of two Dorset parsons, experts in obscure subjects—paleopedology and Aeolian harps.” That in itself may be coincidence, or perhaps meaningful pattern; what are the odds of these two subjects containing the adjacent letters a, l, e, o? Is that accident or design, and if design, why?
Nabokov has been called the greatest prose stylist in English, and not, I think, for the likes of Humbert’s patterned prose, but for his mastery of the psychology of attention, his capacity to shift our imaginations so quickly. Lolita’s name supplies the first word of Humbert’s text, and the last; his attention is obsessively on her, and he cannot introduce her name without caressing each syllable with lips and tongue. But even as he lingers on her in the second paragraph, the sudden images of Lo with different names and in different circumstances flash her into our mind’s eye: “Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. . . . Lola in slacks. . . . Dolores on the dotted line.” Nabokov knows how to catch our attention and fire our imagination by unexpected details and shifts.
Or notice the saccadic jump in attention, without sensory detail but with the surprise revelation of “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Or the shift again from summary to “I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture postcards.” Everyone sits up here, because Humbert suddenly breaks frame, as it were, and because of the sudden concreteness: the mere idea of passing around these polished postcards activates motor, tactile, and visual areas of the brain—as neuroscientists have only recently established.
The average shot length in Hollywood movies has been shrinking as viewers have learned to assimilate film faster and to cope with the information rush of the modern world. Nabokov has influenced writers from acclaimed oldsters (Italo Calvino, W. G. Sebald, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Orhan Pamuk) to feisty youngsters (Zadie Smith, Marisha Pessl) by introducing into fiction something akin to modern film’s reduction in shot length, its rapidity of changes of subject or perspective. I suspect that storytelling in general has speeded up our capacity to shift attention from one perspective to another. Homer generally moves from subject to subject slowly compared with modern storytelling, let alone Nabokov, but even Homer can swiftly shift level and focus when he suddenly backgrounds a warrior dying on the battlefield.
The intense patterns of sound in Humbert’s opening words may be unusual in fiction, but a high density of meaningful multiple patterns occurs everywhere in stories, even without Nabokovian alliterative play.
Character is one kind of pattern particularly significant for social animals: identifying individuals and discerning consistent differences of personality (even animals as simple as guppies distinguish the personalities of others of their kind, and interact with them accordingly). Character clues come thick and fast in fiction. That combination of Humbert’s obsessive focus on Lolita and his capacity to shift attention so rapidly in the opening paragraphs of the novel arouses our interest in his lively, highly self-conscious mind—even if we soon find ourselves uneasy about what that mind intends.
Events can be unique and unprecedented in trivial details, but we understand them because they are similar enough in pattern to other situations we experience directly or indirectly: we recognize romantic love, for instance, as clearly in Humbert’s first lines as we hear the pattern of his words.
In fiction we often find the compounding of event patterns: Humbert’s love for his childhood sweetheart Annabel Leigh, the “certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea,” for instance, prefigures (and, as he wants to suggest, explains, and intensifies the romanticism of, and helps excuse) his love for the girl-child Lolita. In Nabokov and many other authors, the relationship of life and art forms another kind of pattern: here, the relationship between the girl whom Humbert calls “Annabel Leigh” and Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” whose “kingdom by the sea” he also echoes. Such a pattern of characters’ lives echoing art runs through the novel as a genre from Don Quixote to Northanger Abbey and Madame Bovary and into modernism, postmodernism, and beyond.
Expectations are possible because the world and its objects and events fall into patterns. But we learn more from the surprising than from the expected, since surprise signals something new worth notice. Stories fall into patterns of patterns, which storytellers can play with to arouse, satisfy, defeat, or surprise expectations—and no wonder that expectation and surprise drive so much of our interest in story. When Humbert discloses that he is a murderer, certain patterns of events instantly spring to our minds, and as we realize when we read on, our storyteller wishes to toy with storytelling expectations. The usual whodunit pattern of a murder mystery gives way to a whocoppedit pattern, as Humbert parades one possible victim after another before us, and then finds out the name of the person he wishes to kill, but refuses to tell us, although he unhelpfully notes he has sprinkled clues to the victim’s identity throughout the story so far.
The most powerful patterns in fiction tend to be those associated with plot: with goals, obstacles, and outcomes, with expectations and surprises. Humbert’s goal of obtaining Lolita powerfully shapes expectations and ironies throughout part 1 of the novel; his goal of venting his murderous hatred on the rival who took Lolita from him shapes much of part 2. These intensely human, albeit in Humbert’s case perverse, goal patterns shape the narrative impetus of the novel. But Nabokov builds in other patterns, like those of Lolita’s relationship to the stranger pursuing Humbert and Lolita out west: on a first reading we wonder with Humbert whether these signs signal a rival, a detective on his trail, or a paranoid projection of his fears or guilt. Quilty, the stranger, himself weaves a different set of elusive patterns into the hotel and motel ledgers along the way for the express purpose of tantalizing and taunting Humbert and us. And Humbert in telling his story then weaves into his manuscript the patterns pointing to Quilty’s presence to tantalize and taunt us so that we cannot immediately identify the patterns he can now see, comprehend, and control.
In my book On the Origin of Stories, I note two examples of the “early” story: one early in human history, Homer’s Odyssey; the other early in individual development, Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! I do not stress pattern in these two stories, but the openings of both books swarm with form. The Odyssey opens with the metrical pattern of dactylic hexameter, the structural pattern of the invocation to the muse and the proem, the focus on one hero amid larger events, and the verbal pattern of poly-adjectives surrounding Odysseus, even twice within the first line. In the opening four lines of Horton Hears a Who! we find verbal pattern play at least as intense—alliteration, anaphora, anapestic tetrameter, antithesis, assonance, consonance, end rhyme, internal rhyme—usually in multiple doses, and compounded by visual and narrative patterns.
Writers of fiction, from Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare to Dickens, Joyce, Nabokov, Beckett, and Dr. Seuss, produce patterns at many levels. Others produce fewer kinds of pattern, but focus intensely on those that matter most to us in human terms, character and event, plus their own particular predilections: in Austen’s case, for instance, generalizations about human conduct and character, in Tolstoy’s, the patterns of an acutely observed physical and physiological world.
As “The monkeys / They went up sky” or dragons poo-pooing or Homer or Dr. Seuss show in their different ways, pattern saturates story from the start. But Lolita, a sophisticated late instance of story, not only proliferates patterns but also problematizes them. It protrudes pattern but sometimes provokes by suggesting significant implications it nevertheless withholds. The hotel name, The Enchanted Hunters, obtrudes in a first reading of Lolita, especially because it is the goal of Humbert’s quest to possess Lolita, because of the ecphrastic fresco at the hotel, whose enchanted hunters Humbert reimagines in terms of orgiastic incandescence, and because Humbert, although the hunter, feels enchanted when Lolita turns on him and suggests that they make love. A year and a half later Lolita is about to star in a school play called The Enchanted Hunters when she suggests to Humbert that they leave Beardsley and travel west together. In Elphinstone, a gem of a western state, as we later discover, she has an assignation with Quilty, the play’s author, who also happened to be staying at The Enchanted Hunters the night Humbert tried to possess Lolita in her sleep and did possess her when she awoke.
The pattern seems charged with significance, yet it remains elusive, unlike the overt implications of, say, the motifs in Ulysses, such as the outsider Throwaway, the horse that wins the Ascot Gold Cup on Bloomsday and is associated with Bloom, and the ousted favorite, Sceptre, associated with Bloom’s seemingly favored rival, Blazes Boylan.
One aspect of the Enchanted Hunters pattern I noticed many years ago was a series of covert links between the attempted rape of Lolita at the hotel and the killing of Quilty at his manor, where, as he stalks his prey, Humbert calls himself “an enchanted and very tight hunter.” Despite this arch echo, Humbert fails to realize that fate (or Nabokov) has constructed a whole system of parallels between the Enchanted Hunters episode and the episode of the murder. In my biography of Nabokov I ask: What are we to make of this pointed pairing of ostensibly unrelated scenes?
And I answer: Humbert carefully places after the murder that haunting and famous scene on the mountain trail overlooking the valley filled with the sound of schoolchildren at play: “I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.” In the position Humbert has given it, this becomes the last distinct scene of the novel. Even a fine reader like Alfred Appel Jr. can treat this moment of epiphany for Humbert as his “moral apotheosis,” a final clarity of moral vision that almost redeems him. Humbert does indeed feel profound and sincere regret here, albeit it too late, but that is only one part of a complex whole. He places this image of himself to stand in contrast to Quilty, whom he has just murdered, though the vision itself occurred not then but three years earlier, when Quilty took Lolita from him. What difference does the timing make? For two years Humbert had been lucidly aware that he was keeping Lolita a prisoner and destroying her childhood and her spirit, but he continued to hold her in his power. So long as he could extract sexual delight from her, he could remain deaf to his moral sense. Only after her disappearance, when she was no longer available as the thrice-daily outlet for his lust, did he allow his moral awareness to overwhelm him as he looked down into that valley.
But that was a very selective insight. Humbert places the scene at the end of the novel to leave the closing impression that he can be selflessly concerned for Lolita, and his rhetorical strategy persuades many readers. Nabokov assesses things differently, and although he gives Humbert complete control over his pen, he finds a way to inscribe his own judgment within and against what Humbert writes. By the covert parallels he constructs between the climaxes of the novel’s two parts, he indicates that both scenes reflect the same romantic sense of the imperious dictates of desire, the same quest for self-satisfaction even at the expense of another life.
The links between the scenes at The Enchanted Hunters and at Pavor Manor, where the murder occurs, are inconspicuous until noticed but insistently precise and pointed once noticed. Whether others agree with my interpretation of why Nabokov inscribed this particular covert pattern is another question. But the Enchanted Hunters pattern shows how Nabokov can continue to amplify the effects of the patterns of character and event that we register at once by planting further complementary patterns we can discover only on careful re-rereadings.
Another related pattern I noticed only recently. Ironies that ripple through the novel pervade the early scene at Hourglass Lake, where Humbert bathes with his new wife, Charlotte, Lolita’s mother, thinks of drowning her in what seems like ideal seclusion, but decides against it. Sunbathing with Charlotte afterward, he is surprised when her friend Jean Farlow emerges from the bushes. The brief passage below, though funny in its own right, seems primarily preparation for other ironies:
Charlotte, who was a little jealous of Jean, wanted to know if John was coming.
He was. He was coming home for lunch today. He had dropped her on the way to Parkington and should be picking her up any time now. It was a grand morning. She always felt a traitor to Cavall and Melampus for leaving them roped on such gorgeous days. She sat down on the white sand between Charlotte and me. She wore shorts. Her long brown legs were about as attractive to me as those of a chestnut mare.
Notice the names of Jean Farlow’s dogs, casually dropped in here, referred to once earlier as “two boxer dogs” but never mentioned again after the lines above. Cavall was not only King Arthur’s favorite hound, but the first of his hounds to turn the stag in a hunting episode in The Mabinogion. Melampus is the name of the first hound of Actaeon, in Ovid’s telling of the story of Diana and Actaeon in his Metamorphoses.
The precision of these allusions startles: two hounds from different literary traditions that are the first to chase or turn a stag. Actaeon, remember, is the hunter who spies Diana, the virgin goddess of hunting, naked. Diana, enraged, transforms him into a stag, and his hounds pursue him, Melampus leading, and tear him to pieces. He still feels as a man, but he can express himself only as a deer, so his own hounds and his fellow hunters cannot respond to his strangled voice pleading for them to stop tearing him apart.
This leads us back to the Enchanted Hunters motif, and the idea of the hunter hunted, and of sex and chastity as linked with hunting and pursuit. Humbert, stalking Lolita, finds himself hunted by Charlotte and “captured” in marriage. Wanting to end Charlotte’s life, but not daring to, he finds her suddenly killed, after a dog chases a car that swerves and kills her, as if his deadly plans have met with enchanted success. Closing in on Lolita at The Enchanted Hunters, Humbert finds himself “hunted” by her when she proposes they try out what she discovered at camp. But Quilty, already at the hotel, witnesses Humbert and recognizes his designs on Lolita. This recognition inspires him to write the play The Enchanted Hunters, revolving around a character called Diana, whose role Lolita will take. The play itself turns out to be an enchanted device for Quilty’s hunting down Lolita and then for stalking and hounding Humbert, now very much the hunted rather than the hunter, all the way across America. Just after Humbert gives up his hunt for Lolita’s “kidnapper,” he passes through Briceland (echoing Brocéliande, the home of Merlin the Enchanter) and The Enchanted Hunters Hotel, before writing a poem about Diana and the Enchanted Hunters. When he hears from Lolita about her marriage to a young American, Humbert resumes the hunt but finds himself chasing the wrong prey; and when at last Lolita gives him the scent he needs, he heads straight off to kill the man who had hunted and hounded him.
Nabokov was a scientist and had spent most of the decade before writing Lolita in charge of butterflies and moths at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He was fascinated by pattern in nature, like the patterns of butterfly wings, the patterns of matching patterns in natural mimicry, and the complex patterns of relationships a scientist has to disentangle to work out the taxonomic relatedness within a genus or a family of butterflies. As a novelist he was also a shrewd intuitive psychologist, aware of how the mind processes pattern. He realized that the profusion of patterns in nature may obscure or distract us from other significant patterns. Beside Hourglass Lake, the character patterns of Charlotte’s jealousy (of Lolita, of Jean) and of Humbert’s scornfulness of adult women, and the wry verbal patterns of free indirect speech, here ironically maximizing the mental distance between Humbert and Jean—all seem much more prominent than the incidental Cavall and Melampus.
Even if we track down Cavall and Melampus, and link them to the Enchanted Hunters, and through Cavall as King Arthur’s dog link to the Arthurian pattern that Nabokov seems to have attached from the first to the Lolita theme, I am not satisfied with what we can interpret of either the Enchanted Hunters or the Arthurian (and Merlinesque) pattern. Nabokov’s patterns have powerful implications, once we trace them far enough, and in the case of Lolita I don’t think I or anyone else has yet reached that point.
What do these examples from Lolita suggest? A writer can capture our attention before, in some cases long before, we reach what academic critics would accept as the “meaning” or “meanings” of works. The high density of multiple patterns holds our attention and elicits our response—especially through patterns of biological importance, like those surrounding character and event, which arouse attention and emotion and feed powerful, dedicated, evolved information-processing subroutines in the mind.
Patterns in fiction, as in life, may proliferate and obscure other patterns. They can yield rich but sometimes far-from-evident implications. They may be open-ended: they and their implications often do not come preannounced and predigested. Sometimes they feed into efficient, evolved pattern-detection systems, but often they have to be discovered through attention and curiosity, and sometimes in ways that neither audiences nor authors fully anticipate.
At a more general level, humans are extraordinary open-ended pattern detectors, because we so compulsively inhabit the cognitive niche. Art plays with cognitive patterns at high intensity. The pleasure this generates is an essential part of what it is to be human and matters both at the individual level, for audiences and artists, and at the social level, for the patterns we share (in design, music, dance, and story). The pleasure art’s intense play with patterns affords compels our engagement again and again and helps shape our capacity to create and process pattern more swiftly. Perhaps it even helps explain the so-called Flynn effect, the fact—and it seems to be one—that IQs have risen with each of the last few generations: perhaps as a consequence of the modern bombardment of the high-density patterns of art through television, dvds, music and iPods, computer games, YouTube and the like.
And with their high intensity of pattern and their fixed form, works of art should provide ideal controlled replicable experiments for the study of both rapid and gradual pattern recognition in the mind.
Literary studies have no need to feel embarrassed at the art of literature or the pleasure we derive from it. Literature and other arts have helped extend our command of information patterns, and that singular command makes us who we are.