The power of literature to alter your state of mind

Shoes and hand-bag

Not shoes to want to walk a mile in perhaps.

There’s an article on BBC News today discussing the effect of music on people who are grieving or depressed. Which works better, they ask, cheerful music to try to alter your mood, or sad music which reflects your mood? It made me think about literature in the same context.

Reading is a more cerebral and less visceral activity than listening to music. Its influences are more on the conscious level and can be more complete and detailed. It follows that the ways in which it works are more complex.

Let’s think of the medium which is possibly closest to music in the context: poetry. A poem can speak to the inner, quiet, individual mind like nothing else can, throwing up images in a similar way to song lyrics. It can also meet us on an intellectual plane, and sometimes it’s through the intellect that comfort is derived or the spirit is uplifted.

Small volumes and pamphlets of both poetry and prose exist to address the different emotions and situations which people struggle with during their lives. Mostly a rational mind tries, through their pages, to reach another mind which is trying to be rational. But sometimes it isn’t straightforward advice that breaks through to a person but a saying or ‘mantra’ which speaks to them and alters their life, or a desire to imitate a character, or personal identification with a hero or a villain.

“Never criticise a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes,” goes the saying. This could in theory change one person’s way of thinking about another. I personally prefer the rebuttal: If you’ve got his shoes and you’re a mile away, you can say what you want!

Literature can present a complete world for immersion and hence distraction of the troubled mind. Stories and novels lighten a humdrum life, relieve boredom or inspire hope. Dark tales of tragedy soothe through harmless schadenfreude.

Music stirs our entrails with irrational feelings but literature introduces us to other realities in which we can live, and heal. I would say that the primary value of much of literature, and certainly of fiction, is its power to alter your state of mind.

The value of repeating a joke


Humour is constantly evolving and some jokes wear thin

When we were read stories as children, which many of us can recall, a large part of the enjoyment was knowing what was coming and being able to join in.

“Fee, fi, fo, fum,

I smell the blood of an Englishman,”

or “Trip, trap, trip, trap,” of the Billy Goat Gruff going over the troll’s bridge.

As more sophisticated adults looking for realism in our reading, this appreciation of repetition, or of fulfillment of expectation, has largely migrated to our sense of humour.

Sideshow Bob of ‘The Simpsons’ can step on the tines of a rake and bang his head with the handle multiple times, and it’s still funny.

Comic characters rely on repeat phrases and stances, even if it’s just the calling out of a name. Again in ‘The Simpsons’, there’s the school inspector’s inflexion as he yells: “SKIN-NER!!”; we instantly look forward to seeing the Principal in trouble.

These catchphrases are a form of branding. The audience lifts them out and uses them, and their enjoyment of the original is intensified.

The same thing works in written fiction. ‘Shiver my timbers’ is uttered 7 times by the ‘Treasure Island’ pirate Long John Silver and is then adopted by Nancy Blackett, the Amazon Pirate of the children’s classic series ‘Swallows and Amazons’. It’s the pirate’s comical exclamation ‘par excellence’.

Two articles in the BBC News, one from yesterday and one from today, list a total of 30 euphemisms, some of which have become widespread due to their application in a political context and others of which have their origins in private family use. They’re invariably funny; that’s what makes them memorable and what made them catch on, and it’s through repetition that they come into their own. I particularly like ‘Paddling up the Mohawk River’ – look it up!

What better way to highlight a fictional world than by creating original and humorous phrases, and repeating them to the point that they stick!

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