Hamlet’s age, mirror neurons, immersive realism, and imagination

Date: Thu, 28 Sep 2000 09:58:46 -0400
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From: Gord Sellar
Subject: Hamlet’s age, mirror neurons, immersive realism, and imagination
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Hey. I know, I know, this is long . . . Some of you might remember me asking you a question about Hamlet’s age. Others of you are having this inflicted on your for the purpose of farming out the ideas in the end of the thing, and hopefully eliciting responses. I have the answer to the Hamlet question, now, so I thought I would share what I found. But a much more difficult door is now open for me to think my way through. It led me back to mirror neurons. [Yes, Michele, this is the article I mentioned to you regarding autism, by the way; oh, and Vera, yes, this is the article I mentioned regard your comments elsewhere on the gestural communication of octopi.]


Okay. Here we go. I promise it gets more interesting after the Hamlet thing, but the Hamlet thing is necessary.
One late-night debate followed by some scattered inquiries led me to reread the play, to see whether Hamlet is indeed specified to be 30, as most respondents asserted (in agreement with my recollection) or whether the few who disagreed and thought him far younger were correct; I was suspicious that perhaps the age of Hamlet in the text had been less clearly marked, and that perhaps film versions had only made him seem older in memory.
Interestingly, I was told some interesting arguments about his being “a grad student” or being described as “short, fat, blond, and 30” in the text, to claims of his “youth” being made a big issue by Polonius (who, by Hamlet’s reckoning, by the way, is twice his age — “for yourself, sir, should be as old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward” (II.2.205-7) — and thus likely to consider him “young” even at 30).
What surprised me was the wide agreement that he was indeed thirty, but based on all kinds of differing claims about how this is known as fact. People were split on whether there was an explicit textual reference to his age, or whether there was not but it was obvious from context. And as well, a few people stubbornly insisted that he was “young” and definitely not thirty. Considering spurious those arguments founded on the use of the word “youth” to claim that the play is centered on a teenaged or early 20s Hamlet — for as we know, the concept of “youth” has changed a great deal over time (and I suspect at this time was linked to responsibility and marriage), I set out to see if Hamlet’s age is in fact explicitly stated in the text.
I found on rereading the play, that it fact it is, but that most of the arguments made, from memory mind you, were really quite off. More on that in a bit.
There are two passages which help define his age; the first is merely suggestive, the second definitive. While the line numbers in my edition are often not the standard line numbers (since I have not the Riverside edition, but instead some awful American 1950s edition that I got for cheap), I will cite them as they appear in my (imperfect) text anyhow and give a little context so as to help any interested parties locate the passage.
The first is a reference to the duration of the marriage between Hamlet Sr. and Gertrude: in Act III Sc 2, in the play-within-a-play, there is some discussion of “thirty years” being the length of time that they have been married:
Full thirty times hath Phoebus’s cart gone round
Neptune’s salt wash and Tellus’ orbed ground,
And thirty dozen moons with borrow’d sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been,
Since love out hearts and Hymen did our hands
Unite commutual in most sacred bands. (III.2.165 – 170)

To base the argument solely on this passage would be slightly tenuous: it depends on two assumptions: that (a) the play-within-a-play is in fact designed to be in many points literally accurate as an account of the story of Gertrude and Hamlet Sr., instead of merely being generally isomorphic enough for the desired effect on the consciences of Claudius and Gertrude, and (b) that if Hamlet Sr. and Gertrude were married exactly 30 years before, that they had a child within the first year of marriage (although, a year–give or take–would not be a grand issue).
However, there is a second and more crucial passage which decides the question rather thoroughly. This second passage is in Act V Scene I. There, Hamlet is interrogating the Clowns, and just before the famous lines about Yorick, the Clown claims that he has been a maker of graves since
. . . that day that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
Hamlet: “How long is that since?”
First Clown: “Cannot you tell that? every fool can tell that: it was the very day that young Hamlet was born; he that is mad, and sent into England. (V.1.156-161)

A few lines later, the Clown punningly works in a reference that he has been a sexton [in Denmark] “thirty years” (V.1.177). Being that the sexton is the person in charge of all the maintenance at the Church, including gravedigging, this is also a statement of the length of time since the day on which Hamlet was born.
Hamlet is therefore 30. The text says so.
Whoopty ding.
However, what I found interesting is that when people were asked how old the character was, most people were quite certain of his age, and produced “support” from their memory of the play, but it was mostly not in the form of real references, hazy, or references to nonexistent passages “somewhere in the text.” I suspect that, like me, they recalled there was a passage that stated his age, but couldn’t recall which. However, it was more their sense of the character, their memory of the character, melded with this set of facts in the text.
But wait, isn’t all we get of the character a set of “facts” (no matter how poignant or stirring the speeches) as contained in a text? Where does this other stuff, this “sense of the character”, come from?
“Our imaginations,” I hear you saying. Yes, okay, but how?Imagination seems this magical word, like “unconscious” or “spirit”. Can we be more rigorous about it? Can we plumb the depths and see how the imagination appears to work? The question that occurred to me, for example, is “How does it relate to how we have a sense of other people in the real world?” Having recently engaged in an exchange with a computer-graphics artist regarding writing and graphics-making as crafts that, when they present apparently real images, tend to rely on a very deceptive set of stylizations and tricks to create an immersive illusion of realism, I have been thinking about the comment Igor Stravinksy made, that music “does not convey emotion”. It can be structured to elicit an emotional response, yes, and in highly standardized or “codified” genres it can be used to manipulatively (in a non-pejorative sense) elicit very specific responses from an audience. But the emotions are all in the audience, elicited by the work.
Well, the techniques of “realism” in literature seem well-known, to the point of being not quite strictly definable or outlinable, but more being self-evident in texts. This may be in part an aesthetical accretion — something common the the notion that, say, tonal music is “natural” when in the strict sense of “tonal” (the compositional systems used by composers in the European tradition from roughly 1700 – 1900, and which survives in states of disassembly ranging from partial to complete, to this very day) it is a highly arbitrary way of structuring music, not necessarily more natural than say modal/canonic systems, modal free-rhythmic monophony, Hindu and Karnatic music, polyrhythmic modal music of West Africa, and numerous other systems. [This is not to accuse proponents or fans of tonality with being bigots, though this has been true in the past, but to note the naturalization of a system simply because it is popular and familiar to its audience. This kind of naturalization is something we note — or fail to note — continually and all over the place in subjects ranging from sexuality to dress and hair style.]
However, even so, the currency of “realism” is solid enough that plenty of people shed tears for characters (myself included on occasion, I shamefacedly admit), or exult in their triumphs great or small, or feel badly for them (no matter how delightfully entertaining we find the irony that crushes these characters) and so on.
So perhaps I am asking, why does “realism” work? I am certain that part of it is a familiarity of the system of representation, yes, but might there be more to it? Why does any form of “character representation” — with the *apparently* deeply-developed characters we find in “realist” texts — work in such a way that printed blotches on a page can elicit responses of this nature? I can see one weeping for a character that is seen represented by an actor being explicable much more easily, but characters in pure text media seem to be more problematic . . . unnecessarily so?
This raises for me the question of . . . well, I guess, how much of a character that we experience when reading is filled out by US ourselves, is absent from the text, and so on, and what are the processes involved in this imaginative filling out of the “realist” text into an immersive imaginative “world”? Now, one recent paper I encountered online presented an interesting possibility in line with this. Have a look at the piece on mirror neurons at the following Website (and don’t be fooled by the tiny excerpt, the full article is down below a little bit under the Ramachandran bio, the first article in the page, and fascinating if a little speculative and seen as a “cure-all” for neuroscience mysteries):
http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge69.html
For those who will not follow the URL, a tiny bit of text to get a gist across, followed by some final comments:
[A researcher named Rizzolati] recorded from the ventral premotor area of the frontal lobes of monkeys and found that certain cells will fire when a monkey performs a single, highly specific action with its hand: pulling, pushing, tugging, grasping, picking up and putting a peanut in the mouth etc. different neurons fire in response to different actions. One might be tempted to think that these are motor “command” neurons, making muscles do certain things; however, the astonishing truth is that any given mirror neuron will also fire when the monkey in question observes another monkey (or even the experimenter) performing the same action, e.g. tasting a peanut! With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: “mind reading” empathy, imitation learning, and even the evolution of language. Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to “read” and understand another’s intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated “theory of other minds.” . . .
Mirror neurons can also enable you to imitate the movements of others thereby setting the stage for the complex Lamarckian or cultural inheritance that characterizes our species and liberates us from the constraints of a purely gene based evolution. Moreover, as Rizzolati has noted, these neurons may also enable you to mime — and possibly understand — the lip and tongue movements of others which, in turn, could provide the opportunity for language to evolve. (This is why, when you stick your tongue out at a new born baby it will reciprocate! How ironic and poignant that this little gesture encapsulates a half a million years of primate brain evolution.) Once you have these two abilities in place the ability to read someone’s intentions and the ability to mime their vocalizations then you have set in motion the evolution of language. You need no longer speak of a unique language organ and the problem doesn’t seem quite so mysterious any more.
Whatever the larger role of this brain structure which is probably, suggests Ramachandran, present in humans as well as monkeys, it seems that it could be important to the way we read, fill out, and experience — let us say, interface with — fictional texts, narrative, or what have you. I’m curious regarding to what degree these structures actually interact with fully textual abstractions of characters — imaginary people — as opposed to enacted characters (ie. Hamlet on stage) and finally as opposed to “real” people. I wonder if this “emulation” of sorts that gets mobilized when observing a person take an action also in some way is mobilized when we imagine a person taking that action, or when we read about a person taking it (if reading about it an imagining it are separable, in fact . . . something which I suppose also leads us back to the question of how this structure might work in relation to abstraction).

One thing I have been thinking about is how our aesthetics shape our media technologies, but how our media technologies also reshape our aesthetics. To what degree is it an accumulated cultural norm, a change we have worked in ourselves by institutionalizing textuality, and thus something we gain only by being a textual culture, that “people” of the degree of abstraction that we find in some of these characters can elicit responses that seem to be wired in our brains for living people? It’s one thing to be told a story in an emotive tone by a human voice, or see some event happen. It’s another to see words in an effectively linear arrangement on a page and react as if one is observing a human act.
I wonder therefore if it is the same emotive mechanism at work at all, and if so, how it comes to be that characters of such an abstract nature can be piggybacked into provoking some heightened degree of the same kind of reaction we get when we see people onstage in the same situation, or people in real life [though we are also aware of a difference, usually].
Does anyone have any comments or thoughts on this? More articles to recommend, or theorists, or anything? Finally, if anyone interested in seeing the responses let me know, I will forward them (if there are any) on request.
Anyway, those are just some thoughts. All the best to y’all and sorry for such a long mail.
Gord

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