Wagner and evolutionary psychology

by Chris Bertram on March 4, 2004

I’m off to see “Das Rheingold”:http://www.metopera.org/synopses/rheingold.html on Saturday (or, rather, since the production is by “English National Opera”:http://www.eno.org/home/index.php , “The Rhinegold”:http://www.eno.org/whatson/full.php?performancekey=18 ). The anticipation of this set me off googling for a hilarious passage from a Jerry Fodor review of Steven Pinker. I’d have liked to have found the whole thing, but the money quote is there in this “review”:http://www.yorku.ca/christo/papers/Fodor-review.htm of a Fodor’s “In Critical Condition”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/026256128X/junius-20 :

bq. The literature of psychological Darwinism is full of what appear to be fallacies of rationalization: arguments where the evidence offered that an interest in Y is the motive for a creature’s behavior is primarily that an interest in Y would rationalize the behavior if it were the creature’s motive. Pinker’s book provides so many examples that one hardly knows where to start.… [H]ere’s Pinker on why we like fiction: “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?” Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance. (p. 212)

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter C.P. Shaw. The whole Fodor article, which I’d failed to find using Google is “available on the LRB website”:http://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n02/fodo01_.html .



des 03.04.04 at 11:44 am

Is there anyone more urgently in need of having Lévi-Strauss’s collected works dropped on their head than Steven “Just So” Pinker?

I am available, incidentally, for a very modest fee.


KS 03.04.04 at 2:42 pm

I normally find Fodor tiresome, but this is unbelievably funny! Thanks…


C.P. Shaw 03.04.04 at 3:06 pm

Would this by any chance be the review you were referring to?



sue 03.04.04 at 3:35 pm

Thanks for posting that – a passage to be quoted over and over.


TomD 03.04.04 at 6:01 pm

I agree that Pinker’s rationalization has little or nothing scientific behind it…

But concerning the Rhinegold, a literal recounting of the plot is scarcely the point.

Also, Fodor is *incorrect* on several details of the plot. Wotan *already*, before he gives it up, knows that the Ring can bestow the ability to rule the world, but he has also witnessed Alberich’s curse on it. Wotan is *already* immortal, through eating Freya’s golden apples daily, but the Giants had kidnapped Freya once Wotan first defaulted on the payment. So Wotan has a choice between ruling the world (albeit possibly under a curse) and eternal youth (albeit the Giants get the ring).

Corrupting, unstable power or an easy life? This is actually a rather common psychological dilemma, for example in Richard II (Uneasy lies the head, etc.) and The Tempest (Prospero choosing to give up his magical powers). So, Fodor 0, Wagner 2. One for having a better plot that Fodor’s wrong summary, one for having psychological insight.

I am in two minds as to whether to tell Chris to read Shaw’s (that’s G.B.S., Bernard Shaw) ‘The Perfect Wagnerite’ which tells the undercover story, with Marxist overtones of the advent of capitalism. Gold, you know. Rheingold is the opera that fits Shaw’s allegory best, which makes sense because Wagner was rather a socialist at the time. Perhaps his most attractive hypothesis is that the Tarnhelm is a Victorian factory-owner’s top hat.

Myself, I favour a Wild West interpretation of the Ring. Horses, gold, big hats, shootouts, er, swordfights, Wotan as the Sheriff who’s not averse to a little lootin’ himself. Hasn’t been done, to my knowledge.

Phyllida Lloyd (creator of the hit musical Mamma Mia!) sounds like an odd choice, but who knows. Anyway, wish I was there.


msw 03.04.04 at 6:06 pm

On a semi-related note – it seems to me that the number of people familiar with this story is much larger than the number of people who have sat through all 4000 hours of the Ring cycle. Does everyone else know the plot through allusions in other people’s writing (who in turn, etc)?



rilkefan 03.04.04 at 10:05 pm

I haven’t read the Pinker work in question, but it seems to me that in fact part of the reason people enjoy fiction is because it helps us think about and deal with our fears. For example, plenty of children’s lit is exactly this – kids getting into bad situations and finding ways to cope. I suspect some of the popularity of the dead-child genre comes from parents wanting a controlled environment to ponder “What would I do?”.


Chris Bertram 03.05.04 at 12:03 am

Tomd: I knew that. I suspect Fodor does too.


Chris Borthwick 03.05.04 at 3:02 am

But if it’s in English, shouldn’t it be “The Rhine Gold?”
The plot of the Ring cycle was featured in one story arc of Mighty Thor comics, a decade or so ago, if we’re looking for ways to account for its spread. And then there’s What’s Opera, Doc…


chris 03.05.04 at 8:04 am

Pinker is decidedly eccentric. He chooses to devote an entire chapter of “The Blank Slate” to arguing the thesis that the present crisis of funding for the arts in the west is due to the fact that modern artists do peculiar stuff which is at variance with the genetically predisposed aesthetic tastes of the public.

If everybody painted nice pictures like the Inpressionists, now, people would flock to see them and there’d be oodles of boodle for everyone. Presumably Pinker is unaware that the Impressionists provoked riots when they first exhibited, and he has never visited Madrid and stood in the queue to see “Guernica”.

OK, I’m assuming I don’t have to explain to CT why this is nonsense. But it is a pity, because the understanding that the human mind is not a tabula rasa ought to be self-evident to any kind of Darwinist. It’s unhelpful when such a straightforward idea becomes associated in the public imagination with arguments which are so obviously a few sandwiches short of a picnic.


Jeffrey Kramer 03.05.04 at 2:00 pm

…narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?

When I first read that passage from Pinker, my reaction was “Ah; so that’s why, for one century after another, from one nation to another, such reverence has been paid to the name ‘Saxo Grammaticus’!”


TomD 03.05.04 at 6:22 pm

Well, if both Fodor and Bertram know better, why celebrate Fodor’s snark? It’s undeniably good for a brief chuckle, but there doesn’t seem to be any insight behind the chuckle.

With Shakespeare, people have some habit of taking him seriously; Wagner enters popular discourse almost exclusively as the butt of jokes. Super-long operas (shorter than Hamlet, though), dwarves, giants, magic rings, dragons, how quaint, how silly! And that, plus Ride of the Valkyries, is the sum total of most people’s knowledge.

Fodor is playing to this 1860 vintage philistinism, reinforcing the stereotype of Wagner as a laughable archaic fantasy. If most of his readers actually knew Rheingold, this were no crime. But alas, cheap jokes may actually dissuade people from getting to know Wagner.


clew 03.05.04 at 11:53 pm

Some alien archaeologist is going to find this Ring and the LoTR kitsch and gay marriage arguments in the same stratum and confuse at least two out of the three.


DB 03.07.04 at 4:39 am

Thanks, tomd, I learned something there.

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