Since prehistoric times literature has been serving two complementary functions: to expand the cognitive, emotive, and volitional horizons of human awareness and to integrate our beliefs, feelings, and desires within the fluid mentality required for survival in the complex social environments of human organisms. Frequent participation in protoliterary transactions may have made some early humans more astute planners, more sensitive mind readers, and more reliable cooperators than their conspecific rivals, thereby increasing their chances to become the ancestors of contemporary men and women. Such a view of literature's role in the coevolution of human nature and cultures helps explain its worldwide presence and perhaps even some of its shared characteristics across cultural divides. Three features respectively associated with the cognitive, emotive, and volitional dimensions of mental functioning appear to be universal and will be discussed in detail: (a) the verbalizing of semantic and episodic memory and of ego-centric and participatory orientation through thematic, narrative, lyric, and dramatic modes of discourse; (b) the polarization of literary entertainment into thrilling and gratifying types, inclining audiences toward recognizable subvarieties of either crying or laughing; and (c) the motivating impact of fictive stories about imagined characters on the will of actual people to change themselves and their worlds.
Skip Nav Destination
Paul Hernadi; Why Is Literature: A Coevolutionary Perspective on Imaginative Worldmaking. Poetics Today 1 March 2002; 23 (1): 21–42. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-23-1-21
Download citation file: