A recipient’s first response to any work of art, suggests Ray Robertson, is probably somatic. For Robertson, we react to a book or a painting or a piece of music first on an emotional level, and only later on an intellectual one. This is an assessment with which Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto and author of The Case of Emily V. (which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book), would undoubtedly agree. “One might say that fiction is all about the emotions,” Oatley writes in the early stages of his new book. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one.”
The Passionate Muse is an odd little volume, consisting of an original short story, “One Another,” segments of which alternate with Oatley’s examination of how emotion works in fiction, both within the context of a story and on the reader. The story is set in Eastern Europe in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Alex, the protagonist, agrees to smuggle a Russian dissident’s manuscript out of the country and make certain it gets into the hands of a sympathetic foreign publisher. On the train, he meets Toril, a beautiful blonde Swede whose sexual openness is in stark contrast to the chilliness of Alex’s girlfriend, Sonya. After spending the night together in a Helsinki hotel room, Alex awakes to discover that Toril has stolen the dissident’s manuscript.
Oatley uses this scenario as a springboard to examine subjects such as sympathy, eroticism, and suspense in fiction. The author’s background in cognitive psychology allows him to speak authoritatively about matters such as hierarchies of status, displacement of anger, and “backward chaining” (in which a reader begins with a conclusion then works backward to find evidentiary support). He also invokes a wide pantheon of literary critics, from Aristotle to Hélène Cixous to Orhan Pamuk.
Unfortunately, the brevity of Oatley’s text (fewer than 200 pages, excluding notes, bibliography, and index) makes this appear as a light skim over some fairly weighty topics. Nor is the author helped by calling attention to this lightness. In the section on eroticism, for example, he tries to draw a distinction between erotic literature and pornography, but after one short paragraph is forced to admit, “I wish I could say more on the subject, but I’m sorry that, apart from these derivations, I can’t think of anything.”
But the largest problem is the so-called “hybrid” nature of the work itself. By chopping up his story and parcelling it out in discrete pieces, Oatley ensures that it is impossible to enter into what novelist and critic John Gardner referred to as an “uninterrupted fictional dream.” Because an extended engagement of this kind is essential for a reader’s emotional response to fiction, Oatley has effectively guaranteed that we cannot have the very somatic experience he insists is so central to literature.