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  • RJ Smith

What Literature Tells Us About Human Nature


Literary fiction is usually defined in one of three equally unhelpful ways. The first is the question begging reference to ‘works of literary merit’. The second is the excessively broad category of works which ‘engage with the human condition’. The third is works which are not genre fiction, meaning the term is defined not by what it is but what it is not.

This problem of taxonomy is surprising, given all literary works have the same structure and themes. Literary works all follow a hero on an abortive quest for transcendence in a godless world, a quest which is always mediated by a third party.

Sometimes the mediator is external to the story. In Don Quixote, the hero sets out to become a knight errant of a kind he has read about in romantic stories. His quest is naïve and vain, but nothing will stop him in pursuing it to the last. In Madame Bovary, Emma is also inspired by romantic stories. She leaves her provincial life in search of pleasure and prestige leading to her own destruction and that of those around her.

When the mediator is internal, the story builds towards a violent showdown between the hero and the third party. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake desires Lady Brett Ashley. But his path is blocked by Robert Cohn who is assaulted and cast out. In The Talented Mr Ripley, all the hero’s desires are embodied in his mediator whom Ripley eventually murders. The same is true of Dostoyevsky’s The Double, except Golyakin is committed to an asylum before he can kill his doppelganger.

In all literary works the path between the hero and his desire is not straight but triangular, as in Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus theory. But Freud misunderstood the source of desire and the direction in which it flows. Boys do not want to kill their fathers based on a latent sexual desire for their mothers. They covet their mothers because it is what their role models—their fathers—most prize.

Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays appreciated the inter-subjective nature of desire. In 1929 he gave Lucky Strike cigarettes to protesting suffragettes in Manhattan in front of the assembled press. The photos appeared on the cover of several newspapers, leading a generation of young American women to take up smoking.

Novelists and PR men intuit what philosophers, critics and psychoanalysts always miss. Human beings covet prestige. And prestige attaches to persons not objects. All human behaviour is mediated by others leading to rivalries and violence.

All literary works demonstrate this. Whether the mediator is earthly or external the result is the same. Even if the desired object can be obtained, the hero is not satisfied when he takes possession of it. This is because he does not truly desire the object but the illusory prestige attached to it. As he draws closer he realises the vanity—in both senses of the word—of his quest.

In revealing the vanity of his characters the novelist reveals his own shortcomings. This is what Flaubert meant when he said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” All literary heroes take their creator’s desires to their logical conclusion. And that conclusion is violence.

From this troubling observation two conclusions can be drawn. Either novelists are a depraved species, or they are uniquely honest in exposing their own—and our—dark impulses. If the latter is true it destroys wholesale the idea that societies naturally progress towards peaceful rationalist utopias. On this view religion is the antidote to chaos rather than the cause, and the entire western world is built on a foundation of dynamite liable to explode at any moment.

A cursory glance at history lends support to the novelistic view. The Nazis committed genocide in the name of liebensraum and racial purity. Priests were persecuted. God was absent. The society’s thirst for transcendence was reposed in a murderous ideologue. The communists also murdered untold millions in Russia and China in the name of advancing the cause of man in a material world. Religion was the opiate of the masses, according to Marx, a mantra taken up by many of modern history’s greatest villains.

Of course, many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. But if the atheists are right, why is that as we move further from God we draw closer to violence and tyranny? Perhaps it is despite not because of the tenets of religion that man has been so violent since Christ. Perhaps we are not inherently good but inherently bad, and religion is an imperfect way of tempering our immutable impulse to victimise each other.

Nietzsche famously declared that God was dead and chaos would ensue. But he learned this from a novelist. Raskolnikov was an adherent of a peculiar belief structure for his time—atheism. And in his quest for material advancement he saw no reason not to murder those he perceived stood in his way.

Novels are explorations of the human condition, as the cliché goes. But the nature of that condition is either misunderstood, despite its glaring character, or too frightening to accept. It is an insatiable lust for transcendence which, in a godless world, many will seek in the material, and destroy anyone who stands in their way.

© 2020 RJ Smith.