Turning the tables on the relationship between literature and the human mind

Professor Mari Hatavara’s research project lays the foundations for a new approach.

Professor Mari Hatavara’s research project lays the foundations for a new approach.

Starting this autumn, Professor Mari Hatavara, from the School of Language, Translation and Literary Studies at the University of Tampere, will lead a significant consortium project on the boundaries between literature and the everyday. The project introduces a completely new approach to the topic that could revolutionise the field of research globally.

“In research on the movement between literature and the everyday, reversing the traditional direction of study is a significant change; we now want to investigate how literary techniques become part of our everyday understanding. Traditionally, studies have focused on the opposite direction, namely on how our way of being affects the way we interpret literature”, explains Hatavara.

Among other things, the research material includes narratives on the experience of falling ill. In these narratives, people write or tell about the onset of their illness either to themselves or to others, thus analysing their misfortunes. Amidst everyday life, falling ill is a powerful experience that may cause a break in a person’s normal life.

“When people are able to analyse and process their experience – by verbalising it in the form of a story, for example – letting go of it becomes easier”, Hatavara points out.

In all aspects, making sense of oneself is literary, and it is common not only in autobiographical literature but also in social media. How each person perceives his or her own life and analyses the past varies, as do the means used, which can vary from the visual to the poetic and from reminiscences to aphorisms. Some people make assumptions about others. A prime example of this tendency is exhibited by the late Finnish politician and founder of the former Finnish Rural Party Veikko Vennamo. This is especially evident in his recollections on his opponent, the former Finnish president Urho Kekkonen. In interviews and in his memoirs, Vennamo often says or writes something like: “Kekkonen wanted to have all the power himself. Vennamo had to be defeated; otherwise the Finnish Rural Party would take power.”

“Here it is assumed that Kekkonen had an idea like this, which is then expressed very literally – almost as a direct idea, but changed into the past tense”, explains Hatavara.

Memory is neither reliable nor unreliable, but rather a continuous process in which a person constantly perceives his- or herself in the moment. The past self is also analysed by the means produced by literary fiction.

Experiences and emotions

The project’s research material also includes medical records written by doctors. Medical records are doctors’ written reports on how patients have described their symptoms and experiences; doctors record this information by connecting the patients’ experiences to the relevant medical context.

“In literature studies, the concept of experience has become more and more important, as has the question of how personal experiences and the experiences of others are presented”, says Hatavara.

Within the framework of the research project, researchers in Tampere, Helsinki and Jyväskylä will reconsider how literature reflects, determines and alters social life. The project will analyse literary practices in traditional, creative and experimental expressions of literature and in other textual forms. The researchers want to cross the boundaries that traditionally have isolated works of art from everyday life and textual practices from day-to-day routines.

University Lecturer Maria Mäkelä, one of the participants in the research project, will concentrate on investigating new media reports and their literary patterns, outlining people’s experiences and life stories in these media.

In addition to the social aspect, the research project focuses on experimental and emotional effectiveness. The research material includes experimental and found poetry, and, among other sources, phrases taken from women’s magazines that aim to represent transvestite identity. The analysis focuses on different forms of expression, everyday life and narratives, and the researchers try to answer questions concerning the renewing and effective power of literature.

An everyday example can be found in the much-discussed topic of loneliness. Poets can express loneliness without explicitly mentioning the word; yet poetry and prose produce ways to understand what loneliness is, what a lonely person is like, and what being lonely involves.

A new direction for research

The purpose of Hatavara’s research project is to understand the human mind in action and to explore the social interaction between literature and the everyday. Researchers from other disciplines are also involved in the project. Hatavara herself has cooperated with, among others, Matti Hyvärinen, professor of sociology. Hatavara and Hyvärinen have already collaborated for a decade.

“The researchers in Tampere will focus on studying everyday communication situations and the literary techniques employed in these situations, such as making assumptions and presenting scenarios. In this work, it is good to have sociologists involved, as they bring a different perspective to the research.”

The researchers in Helsinki will examine, among other topics, the means that literature has produced for us to talk about feelings, and the generation of feelings through literature. Hatavara takes Finnish nationalism as an example; it was developed through work to create a national consciousness. Although the description of everyday life in nineteenth-century Finnish literature has not received much attention, it created a new way to think about and express one’s personal feelings.

One member of the research team in Tampere, University Lecturer Jarkko Toikkanen, will examine reality TV shows that document visits to houses where the residents claim to have experienced supernatural phenomena. Camera angles, cuts, colours and words are used to create an atmosphere of horror. What is essential is the human experience – the feeling of being in the presence of a ghost. The way people talk in these shows closely resembles the way in which literary works have traditionally told stories about haunted houses and darkness, illustrating that literary traditions affect the way we experience our environment.

“The ways of presenting and making assumptions about another person’s mind in the literature we read affect the way we read and understand each other’s minds in our everyday lives”, says Hatavara.

The researchers will examine all aspects of their material: the methods by which the texts have been crafted, the register in which the texts function and the forms of language expressions used in them. Hatavara wants to identify those literary techniques that become part of our everyday understanding. Until now, much of the mainstream research across the disciplines has concentrated on the opposite direction, namely on how the way we think about the world affects the way we interpret literature.

“One of the international evaluators of our project stated that, thanks to this new emphasis, our research approach has the potential to turn around the direction of research worldwide.”

The consortium project The literary in life: Exploring the boundaries between literature and the everyday, which is led by the University of Tampere, has received Academy of Finland funding for the period 2015–2019.

Text: Taina Repo
Photograph: Jonne Renvall
Translation: Camilla Kiviaho