From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 19.1 (1999): 158-76.
Copyright © 1999, The Cervantes Society of America

Against Dualisms: A Response to Henry Sullivan*


In a recent essay entitled “Don Quixote de la Mancha: Analyzable or Unanalyzable?” published in this journal, Henry W. Sullivan makes the case for the psychoanalysis of literary characters. While there is much to ponder in Sullivan's essay, there are two points, both involving dualisms, that I would like to discuss. In the first case, Sullivan argues insightfully and convincingly against an absolute distinction between how we know and think about fictional characters and how we know and think about real people. In the second case, however, Sullivan insists on an absolute (Cartesian) mind-body dualism as a cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory. I would like to repeat and extend Sullivan's argument in the first case, but refute it and deny its validity in the second.

First dualism: Fact/Fiction

     Sullivan cites as representative of a certain widely-shared approach Maud Ellmann's insistence that there is an important distinction between a “human being made of flesh and character made of words” (5), a distinction that allows us to make one kind statement about the former but not the latter. Ellmann is not alone in making the real-life/fictional distinction a fundamental matter of ontology. We are all familiar with arguments like hers, having heard

     * For a response to this response, see “Don Quixote & the ‘Third Term’ as Solvent of Binary Dualisms: A Response to Howard Mancing”, by Henry W. Sullivan, Cervantes 19.1 (1999): 177-97. -F.J.


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them often enough specifically with respect to Cervantes. The case made in terms of fictional characters here is part of a larger issue of the supposedly absolute difference between fact and fiction. The apparent need that so many have felt to assert the existence of a clear and absolute boundary between the real and the fictional can be seen in the many attempts to define fictionality, to determine its unique ontological status, or to distinguish meaningfully between real and possible worlds, that have filled the pages of so many books and scholarly journals for decades.
     Sullivan counters this position with the argument that what we can know —and how we know it— of fictional characters, historical personages, and living human beings is in most cases very similar. I would extend that argument to say that what we can know —and how we know it— of anything, regardless of whether it is “fact” or “fiction,” is in most cases very similar. I base this assertion on what we have come to know about how the human mind works in perceiving and understanding the world and, by extension, in perceiving and understanding texts, as a part of our world.
     Richard J. Gerrig's Experiencing Narrative Worlds (1993) is perhaps the most important book on narrative published in recent years; I recommend it as required reading for anyone interested in narrative. Written by a cognitive psychologist who has studied how real readers read real texts in real contexts, Gerrig's book challenges many fundamental tenets of traditional formalist and structuralist narratology. For Gerrig, narrative texts are seen as intimately related to real-life concerns of their readers, rather than as only self-referential, endlessly deferring, traces of absences. Readers are pragmatic beings who construct personally significant understandings of what they read; they are not abstract or implied entities that somehow exist within the text, as a function of the text, or as a textual norm; nor are they passive, empty spaces upon which language and/or ideology inscribes subjectivity.
     Gerrig is particularly critical of the “toggle-switch” mentality, the belief that our minds automatically shift from one mode of comprehension to another depending on whether we are reading fiction or nonfiction. We do not practice Coleridge's “willing suspension of disbelief,” but rather what Gerrig calls a “willing construction of disbelief” (230). That is, for Gerrig, we first accept what we read as true and only later, and through a conscious and effortful process, reject some or all of it as false.1 As regards fictional characters, Sullivan is quite

     1 Believing first and then consciously unbelieving later (even if only moments later) is the general rule; see the important article by Gilbert.

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correct in arguing that we understand them much as we understand the people who inhabit our everyday existence as well as those who populate history.2 Denied access to the total reality of any other person (as to that of ourselves), we always deal with constructs of that person, never with the person him/herself: we assume, infer, compare, imagine, construe, make believe, and thus construct versions of other people.3 In real life we can actually observe and interact dialogically with others, taking note of their intonation, gestures, posture, and so forth, as well as reading, hearing and thinking about them; and when we read texts, though we do not have direct perceptual and social access, we use very similar processes to comprehend both fictional and real or historical characters and events. As Baruch Hochman says, “the clues that we take in and use to construct an image of a person are virtually identical in literature and in life” (36).4
     Furthermore, the cumulative and convincing evidence from cognitive and developmental psychology, primatology, and neuroscience is that we understand other people, fictional and otherwise, largely because we develop early in life what is called a “theory of mind”: the ability “to understand what another individual is thinking, to ascribe beliefs, desires, fears and hopes to someone else, and to believe that they really do experience these feelings as mental states” (Dunbar 83).5 It is this ability that makes social interactions —and the understanding of historical figures and literary characters— possible.

     2 Sometimes scholars who insist that fictional characters are only words (or linguistic signs) and thus fundamentally different from flesh-and-blood human beings criticize those who take a position similar to that of Gerrig, attributing to them the belief that there is no difference between fictional and historical persons or that fictional characters actually are real people. This is the equivalent of saying that someone who talks about her cat as she would a person believes that the cat is a person. This sort of criticism is always either intellectually dishonest or extraordinarily naive.
     3 Our construal, or construction, largely by means of narrative, of the (or of “our”) reality of other individuals, together with the uncertainty, conjectural nature, imprecision, or fuzziness of this reality, is described, among many others, by: Code, DuPreez, Eiser, Flanagan, Galatzer-Levy and Cohler, Gergen and Davis, Gordon, and Humphrey.
     4 For the similarities between the ways in which we perceive real, historical, theatrical, and fictional beings, see also: Bordwell (1989), Boruah, Galatzer-Levy and Cohler, Gergen (1990), Gerrig, Gerrig and Allbritton, Gordon, Oatley, Ortony et al, Schwarz, Siebenschuh, M. Smith, and States.
     5 The concept of “theory of mind” comes originally from the fields of primatology and animal cognition and has to do with the degree to which animals, especially monkeys and apes, show evidence of being able to understand the thought processes of others. It has become a key concept in infant and child development, as it is apparent that humans are not born with such a capacity [p. 161] but that it develops during the critical early years of childhood, and it plays a key role in contemporary versions of human evolution. See Byrne and Whiten, Carruthers and Smith, Deacon, Dunbar, Nelson, Vauclair, and Whiten.

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Nicholas Humphrey employs the metaphor of “the inner eye” to discuss the fact that we only have direct access (partial and distorted as it may be) to our own thought processes and emotions. With this reflexive self-awareness, we can also then imagine what it must be like to be someone else; we can model on ourselves the behavior, thoughts, emotions, and feelings of other human beings —and fictional characters.6 This is very similar to the “sympathetic understanding” of Bakhtin: “not a mirroring, but a fundamentally and essentially new valuation, a utilization of my own architectonic position in being outside another's inner life. Sympathetic understanding recreates the whole inner person in aesthetically loving categories for a new existence in a new dimension of the world” (102-03). Humphrey further maintains that our culture makes available to us on a regular basis the experiences of other individuals by means of what he calls “institutionalized fantasy: books, plays, music, paintings, films” (1986, 132). The ability to sympathize and empathize with others, to imagine the reality of others —imaginatively to create the reality of other persons— is one of the qualities that most distinguishes humans from other animals and from machines7 and makes the arts in general, and literature in particular, an essential facet of human life.
     All of this suggests that Sullivan is correct in his assertion that fictional characters are every bit as susceptible to psychoanalytic understanding as are human beings of flesh and blood. The question not raised by Sullivan, however, is the degree to which human beings can be understood by means of psychoanalysis.

Second dualism: Mind/Body

     Sullivan posits as an essential part of his psychoanalytic plea that “human animals and human beings are not the same thing” (9). In his Lacanian terminology, Sullivan states that:

     6 The issue of “representation,” the creation of some sort of symbolic description or mental model of external reality, is a complicated and subtle one in cognitive science. The classic study is the book by Johnson-Laird.
     7 Concerning the question of sympathy and empathy, see Gelernter, Jackendoff, Johnson (1993), Oatley, and Restak. For some inquiries into the differences between human (biological) and artificial (computational) intelligence, see Caudill, Clark (1997), Dreyfus and Dreyfus, Franklin, Lloyd, Nadeau, and Norman. On the fundamental differences between human beings and other animals, see Deacon and Wolfe.

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it emerges that the human “being” as an animal “made of flesh” (Ellmann), belongs to the order of the Real. The human subject made of language corresponds to the intermesh of being, founded in the Imaginary, and its subsequent, ego-splitting sublation into the order of meaning in the Symbolic. The human organism and the body, therefore, are not the same thing. What we commonly call the body is, paradoxically, an equivalence of the Imaginary. Indeed, as stated, the very idea of a body is an image that is formed in the Lacanian mirror stage, an image which furnishes a fundamental aspect of the structure of subjectivity. (10)8

There are two points to be noted here. First, there is the supposed distinction between the body and the human organism. Apparently such a distinction is important for Lacan, but as far as most of the rest of the world is concerned, the word “body” is a perfectly acceptable —in fact, the preferred— term for the “human organism.” In what follows here I use the term “body” specifically in its straightforward, standard sense as referring to the organism of flesh and bone —the living, breathing human being who exists in the material world: the human organism— whether that usage is acceptable to Lacan (and Sullivan) or not. Second, Sullivan insists that the biological body is radically and absolutely separate from the mind (in Lacanian terms, the human “subject” as constructed by language). Sullivan's, like Lacan's, aim is “to ‘debiologize’ human subjects” (14).9 No clearer or more unequivocal reaffirmation of Cartesian mind-body dualism is possible. And this is what I want to reject.
     Modern biology, neuroscience, evolutionary science, cognitive psychology, and linguistics have virtually no use for any version of mind-body dualism. Today we make use of concepts like the “embodied mind,” “the body in the mind,” and the “mind-brain.”10 It is

     8 It is ironic but telling that the distinction made by Lacan/Sullivan between the “human animal” (made of flesh and blood) and the “human subject” (made of language) —a distinction Sullivan considers essential— is almost an exact duplication of the distinction made by Ellmann et al. between the “human being made of flesh and character made of words” —a distinction Sullivan considers untenable.
     9 The major problem with the concepts of “the subject” and “subjectivity” as used by Althusser, Foucault, Lacan, and poststructuralist and/or postmodern theorists in general, is its deterministic power that leaves very little or no room for individual agency. See the important book by P. Smith, who makes a heroic attempt to salvage some meaning for the term by “discerning” it. See also Soper and Wojciehowski.
     10 Varela et al. represent the main source for the concept of the “embodied mind;” see also Clark. Johnson's (1987) revolutionary approach to metaphorical [p. 163] language (from Lakoff and Johnson) as based on the mind's concept of the body is a landmark in cognitive science (see also Johnson 1991). Hobson argues persuasively for some term that includes both of the concepts of brain and mind, and more, in a single word. Lacking such a term, which would more realistically and effectively describe the reality of biological cognition, he settles on this hyphenated version. Other variants, such as brain-mind, mind/brain, brain/mind, and so forth, also appear frequently in the literature of cognitive science.

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impossible to separate cognition and emotion, what the body feels and what the brain thinks.11 The mere fact of speaking, for example, has a direct and significant effect on blood pressure.12 In today's cognitive science, the prevailing view of human consciousness prominently involves memory, feedback loops, mental imagery, emotion, inner speech, social context, dialogue, representation, and mind-body interaction; it is an emergent, nonlinear, autopoietic, contingent, contextualized, dynamic function or process.13 Consciousness is “a very special emergent property of the human brain . . . made possible by a sufficient number of parallel interacting modules” (Restak 135).14 There is an unbroken continuum from the very molecules of our physical makeup through society at large. In the words of Ira B. Black:

     11 All modern study of emotion based on up-to-date concepts of how the brain actually functions insists that emotion and cognition are inevitably and intimately connected. To conceive and talk of one without reference to the other is always a mistake. Absolutely fundamental are the books by Damasio and LeDoux. See also Gordon, Oatley, and Ortony et al.
     12 Lynch's research into the relationship between speaking and blood pressure adds a whole new dimension to Bakhtin's concept of “dialogism,” as well as stressing again the inseparability of mind and body, emotion and cognition.
     13 Consciousness is never simply a matter of some sort of mystical and all-powerful animate “language” or “ideology” that “inscribes” something called “subjectivity” on passive human beings (an idea derived from Saussure's absolutely discredited view of the passive “listener” in the “speech circuit”). Virtually no one today subscribes to the old concept of a unitary and self-knowing individual (as many poststructuralists continue to affirm of those “humanists” whom they criticize), but that does not mean that we have to deny all agency (see note 9) to persons. The human being is a unique biological entity, with equally unique experiences and memories, situated in a complex temporal and historical context, who both acts and is acted upon in dialogical relationships that are both internal and social.
     14 The related questions of consciousness and the (sense of) self are probably the most discussed issues in contemporary cognitive science. Though an arbitrary selection, I would suggest that the following books are of particular importance: Calvin, Deacon, Dennett, Donald, Edelman, Flanagan, Humphry (1992), and Varela et al. To complement and extend these fundamental studies, and for a richer sample of the issues involved, together with aspects of the [p. 164] relationships among biology, cognition, and computation, in addition to Restak (cited in the text), see Baars, Black, Damasio, DuPreez, Eiser, Fischer, Gazzaniga, Gee, Gergen (1991), Harth, Hermans and Kempen, Lakoff (1995), Lloyd, Madison, Maturana and Varela, Mithen, Neisser, Neisser and Fivush, Ornstein, Pinker, Schwalbe, Searle, and Tooby and Cosmides.

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Biology becomes behavior, and behavior becomes biology. Indeed, biology is behavior, and behavior is biology. Environmental or internal exigencies drive the locus and are translated into biologic reality. Thoughts or environmental situations provoking anxiety are immediately translated into neural language. Environmental stimulus, mental state, behavior, and molecular mechanisms are in constant interplay, forming an unbroken, continuous cycle. (167)15

Self, mind, brain, body, environment: all interact at every point along the unbroken continuum that makes up reality.16 Neurologist Antonio Damasio, in what almost seems like a direct refutation of the Lacanian position, writes:

This is Descartes' error: the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, up-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism. (249-50; emphasis added)

     The centrality of mind-body dualism to psychoanalytic thought is clearly a major —some would say fatal— shortcoming.17 Of a kind

     15 See also Lynch and Scott on the unbroken continuum from molecular structure to social structure, as well as the concept of “structural coupling” (a kind of organism-environment mutual self-definition) described by Maturana and Varela. Of fundamental importance, also, is the “ecological” approach to perception developed by Gibson and the subsequent emergence of “ecological psychology;” see Anderson, Neisser, Neisser and Fivush, Reed, and Shaw and Bransford.
     16 In fact, cognition is increasingly being conceived of in ways that are not limited by the human body. Early versions of this approach can be found in Bakhtin's dialogism and, especially, Vygotsky's ideas about language and other prostheses as extensions of human thinking; see Bechtel, Clark, Clark and Chalmers, and Maturana and Varela. For the most original, exciting, and influential approach to extended cognition based on evolution, see Donald's chapters on external memory storage.
     17 The separation of mind and body by Freud was one of the primary points criticized by Bakhtin (Voloshinov) as early as 1927. See especially Damasio [p. 165] (cited earlier in the text) on the absolutely necessary continuity between mind and body —and social context.

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is the distinction made by Freud et al. between the conscious and unconscious minds, the latter a seething cauldron of sexual obsessions that controls much of our life from within its hidden underground. Modern cognitive psychology and neuroscience have little room for the traditional psychoanalytic unconscious and have substituted for it the “cognitive unconscious,” that array of cognitive functions that goes on all the time in our mind-brain without our conscious awareness: the regulation of breathing and blood pressure; primary emotional reactions; reactions to many visual, auditory, and olfactory perceptions; our haptic sense; background beliefs and emotions; the schemata that make it possible to perceive things as we do; and much more.18 Freudian dream theory now competes unfavorably with the simpler and more powerful “activation-synthesis” theory that is based in biology and neuroscience.19 Sophisticated recent research in sociology, anthropology, infant cognition, and child development has produced results that bear little, if any, resemblance to the models suggested by Freud —anal and oral stages, the Oedipal complex— or Lacan —the so-called “mirror stage.”20 Repression is one of Freud's foundational concepts that has undergone the most devastating criticism at the hands of the modern understanding of the human mind-brain.21 Little wonder that a major neuroscientist such as Michael Gazzaniga has written on “Selection Theory and the Death of Psychoanalysis” (159-77).22

     18 On the brain functions that go on all the time outside of consciousness see S. Epstein, Kihlstrom, LeDoux, Ratner, and Reber.
     19 Hobson's presentation of the “activation-synthesis” model also includes a history of dream research and detailed comparisons with, and criticism of, Freudian theory. Hobson's is an indispensable book for anyone interested in human dreaming. See also Reiser and Winson.
     20 The essential book on infant cognition and child development is that of Stern. In addition, see: Ammaniti and Stern, Clark (1997), Daly and Wilson, Masling and Bornstein, Neisser (1993), Nelson, Spence, Thelen and Smith, and Weiskrantz.
     21 On the issues involved in repressed memory, recovered memory, false memory syndrome, and related concepts, see Crews et al., Lindsay and Read, Loftus, Ofshe and Watters, Schachter, and Spence.
     22 Criticism of and attacks on Freud in particular and psychoanalytic theory in general make up an already large and ever increasing bibliography. Though some of these books are too hysterical and irresponsible to be taken seriously, a few particularly thoughtful and comprehensive studies are those by Erwin, Esterson, Fancher, Grünbaum, and W. Epstein. Those attempts by some [p. 166] neuroscientists and cognitive and developmental psychologists to salvage aspects of Freudian theory within the paradigm of cognitive science and neuroscience have inevitably resulted in versions of psychoanalytic thought that would rarely, if ever, be acceptable to Freud, Lacan, or their true believers; see, especially, Bucci; but also see Barron et al., Erdelyi, Harris, Kitcher, Kosslyn, Modell, Reiser, and Winson.

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     I am not suggesting that there is absolutely no validity to any type of psychoanalytic theory,23 but I am suggesting that it is perhaps time, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, to reexamine some of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century concepts that form the bases of that theory. Recent research in mind and brain empowers us with a set of concepts and a verifiable basis in observation about the nature of human consciousness, cognition, and emotion that cannot legitimately be ignored in the construction and application of theories in the human sciences. To the extent that Freudian and/or Lacanian theories can be understood as consistent with modern neuroscience and cognitive science, they will be considered valid and useful.


     In general, dualistic thought —and especially its crown jewel, Cartesian mind-body dualism— is not consistent with modern concepts of human perception and cognition. Cervantine studies have certainly been characterized by their fair share of simplistic binary thinking: Quijote/Sancho, reality/appearance, hard/soft, romance/novel, fact/fiction, and much more. Such absolute distinctions in kind tend not to exist in the world, but only in our theories and beliefs. The Aristotelian bedrock of A vs. not-A has, in modern cognitive science, been replaced by fuzzy sets, human-made boundaries, and prototype theories of categorization.24 The world exists not in stark contrasts of black and white but in subtle and shifting shades

     23 And I am certainly not suggesting that there is no validity to clinical practice and therapy, which are essential in our society, and which, of course, also come in many varieties in addition to Freudian and Lacanian.
     24 The concept of “fuzzy sets” was first proposed by Zadeh in order to provide an alternative to the mathematical concept of “the law of the excluded middle” and allow for some things that are partly within and partly outside a “set,” or group of things. The idea has since become a staple of mathematics and computation, at least in some circles (see Kosko). Modern, non-Aristotelian, cognitive category theory has its origin in the elegant work of Rosch and is best elaborated by Lakoff (1987). On the arbitrary but essential human drawing of boundaries, see Zerubavel.

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of gray. Sullivan realizes this and convincingly affirms it in his discussion of the fact/fiction binary, but fails to see it and, as a result, fails to convince in his insistence of the traditional mind/body distinction.
     My aim in this response has been less to criticize Henry Sullivan, a brilliant scholar whom I admire, than to suggest that there is, outside of the narrow confines of the predominant paradigms of poststructuralist and psychoanalytic literary theory, an important and largely ignored (by literary scholars) view of the human being that is grounded in modern research in biology and psychology. This “response” has been, as much as anything, a preliminary essay in alternative bibliography.25
     Sullivan affirms that “the only discipline in the post-Modern era that takes the psyche —psyche or soul— seriously as the scientific object of its study is psychoanalysis” (19). Except for the unsustainable (and unnecessary) claim of scientific status for psychoanalysis, Sullivan is largely correct in this statement. But it can be stated with even greater justification that at the close of the twentieth century the discipline that takes the embodied mind as the scientific object of its study is cognitive science. The vast interdisciplinary activity centered around cognitive science has enormous implications for literary theory and criticism and it will be ignored at our great peril as it continues to form the prevailing mode of discourse of the physical, biological, social, and human sciences in the twenty-first century.


     25 Important (but very uneven) approaches to literary theory and criticism from a variety of starting points in cognitive science have been made by Babuts, Battersby, W. Carroll, Collins, Crawford and Chaffin, Esrock, Frye, Graham, Hart, Herring, Holland, Lakoff and Turner, Rigney, Rubin, Schmidt, Spolsky, Storey, and Turner, among others. In addition, there is already a fairly coherent growing body of theory and criticism based in cognitive science —much of it specifically touted as an alternative to the dominant psychoanalytic paradigm— in the allied discipline of film study; see Anderson, Bordwell, Bordwell and Carroll, N. Carroll, Currie, Messaris, and M. Smith. On vision, visual media, and cognition in more general terms, see Gibson (1979), Solso, and Stafford.


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——. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.

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