William Ian Miller
Psychological Acuity in the Sagas
You don’t know what you’ve been missing
Fimmtudaginn 10. mars 2016 kl. 16.30
It is commonly noted about the sagas that the narrator does not enter inside the heads of his characters, but remains a kind of reporter. There are of course exceptions which have been noted, and claimed as breaches of the classic saga style. I, however, find sophisticated dealings with internal states quite usual in the sagas. I want to deal at some length with two saga scenes in particular to show just how subtle and clever the treatments of internal states, whether these be emotions, or legal matters of intention, of ‘meaning it’. There is not time enough to deal with the issue adequately, but if you wish to get a heads up, take a glance at Njáls saga ch. 8 and the toe-pulling scene in Hrafnkatla, the latter I will show to be as good a treatment of the problem of verifying the content of ‘other minds’, the inter-subjectivity problem, as can be found outside philosophical treatments of the issue. Time permitting I will take an excursus into matter of intentionality, specifically how discerning intent in matters of “accidents” works and the deep distrust people have regarding the sincerity of apologies.
There is mild polemic that will inform the talk: that these medieval people were much better psychologists than we are in our age of therapy and neuroscience. How is it we suspend our disbelief sufficiently to let an author inside the head of her characters and think that is somehow more “realistic” than when the narrator stays outside the inside, and is instead relegated to reading interiority of another as you and I must do it in all our social interactions? And that is before we get to the fatuousness that allows us to believe that an fMRI is showing us the truth. Indeed we often find our readings of another’s internal states to be on average more accurate than readings of our own. Hence the whole basic assumption of our cult of therapy. The stakes were higher back then, in an honor culture, of mis-reading another’s internal states. And because the stakes were higher we should maybe not be surprised that so was their skill level in these matters.
William Ian Miller is the Thomas G. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and Honorary Professor of history at the University of St. Andrews. He has written extensively on the bloodfeud, mostly as manifested in saga Iceland: Bloodtaking and Peacemaking (1990), Eye for an Eye (2006), Audun and the Polar Bear (2008); “Why is your Axe Bloody”: A Reading of Njáls saga (2014). He has also written books about various emotions, mostly unpleasant ones: Humiliation (1993), The Anatomy of Disgust (1997), The Mystery of Courage (2000), Faking It (2003), and Losing It (2011) about the loss of mental acuity, mostly his own, that comes with age.