Anthropologists and novelists, part two

Anthropology is just one way among many fields that try to make sense of and represent social life. A post ago I stated that it probably isn’t even the most superior at it. Funnily, in the days after I wrote that post, I read in the papers several similar comments made by other social scientists.

“The best novelists and playwrights are – almost by definition – those who understand human nature better than others” (the social and political theorist Jon Elster quoted by the ditto theorist Rune Slagstad in Morgenbladet 19-25, 2010. Jon Elster is interested in the role emotions play in relations to knowledge and behaviour. And no social scientist gets as deep into these intricacies as authors.

The gender researcher and novelist Wencke Müleisen has provided some fine social science inspired analyses of Knausgård’s writing earlier, and some days ago in a feminist column in Klassekampen she, too, ended her comment by singing the praise of novels:

A friend told me that while reading volume three [about childhood], she realised for the first time that her mother had behaved similarly [passive] in relation to her father’s aggressive behaviour. … It is hard to understand how this passive feminine violence seeps so invisibly into a kind of cultural gender pattern that one simply just doesn’t see it. In that respect, it is telling that in Knaugsård’s novel, [the mother’s deceit] is staged [“iscenesatt”] as absence and silence. Much seem to indicate that more readers get activated unpleasant memories of fathers’ aggression and mothers’ betrayals. The visibility of masculine violence makes us blind of the feminine passive acceptance. Language at work [“språkarbeid”] is needed. Novels can do that. (KK 22.02.2010, my translation)

Why is that? How do novelists do that? Does it have anything to say that the versimilitude (truthlikeness) of their depiction of the world within and around us resonate with the reader’s experience, rather than hinge on the logics of scientific methodology? Or is it a function of the literary language compared to concise concepts?

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