Flesch ponders readers’ connections to characters

October 24, 2008

On Wednesday Prof. William Flesch (ENG) discussed his new book Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction in Rapaporte Treasure Hall. Flesch spoke for about an hour between 4:00 and 5:30 that afternoon on the various topics that pertain to his new novel.

Much of the conversation was scattered, as Flesch bounced around from topic to topic – from the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy, the “prisoner’s dilemma” exemplified by the boat scene in the glorious Dark Knight, and the story of Hamlet, and Literary Darwinism – all of which had a connection to his book.

The very first line of the novel begins by setting the stage for the large amount of complex information that follows: “This book is an attempt to use evolutionary psychology to account for the surprising fact that humans can become so emotionally absorbed in stories we know to be fiction.”

Flesch, a somewhat divergent but fascinating speaker, had a lot to say about the evolution of species, and the purposes of their specific traits. Particularly, he focused on the limited function of the peacock’s ornamental feathers. This point was tied in with his theory on costly signaling, as the peacocks use their tail feathers to show off what they are capable of.

One of Flesch’s central talking points was the human being’s propensity to be emotionally connected to fictional characters. He spoke a great deal on the relationships between Darcy and Elizabeth of Pride and Prejudice. Flesch went on to ask the audience a series of profound questions: why do we care so much about fictional characters when they are essentially nothing to us, not part of our society, not conceivably alive?

He made the distinction between personally identifying with the fictional characters, which feeds into our emotional attachment, and the desire to live vicariously through them and their storybook lives.

Flesch provided some interesting anecdotes and commentaries on various topics that pertain to his new novel. He also explained his motives for writing. “There were two things,” he said, after his talk was over and he started signing copies of his book. First, he was compelled by information in his first book about gift giving, which mixed biology and anthropology.

Also, he was attracted to the idea that enemies can cooperate in their fight. Flesch noted that, to him, “it was such a moving idea.”

“Flesch seems to be really interested in the idea of unifying subjects that usually don’t have much to do with each other, such as biology and fictional writing. He is a very eloquent speaker and made insightful points about the subject,” observed Megan McGrath ’12, who is currently enrolled in Flesch’s USEM – Thinking About Infinity.

The crux of Flesch’s argument in Comeuppance, though, can be seen by his analysis of the world’s obsession with the fictional character. Flesch’s passion lies in examining the effects of the written word on humanity.

In the novel, Flesch makes the extremely clever observation that, “the simplest definition of drama is overheard speech.”

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