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Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction Hardcover – January 31, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0674026315 ISBN-10: 0674026314 Edition: 1st
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Editorial Reviews


Comeuppance by William Flesch is a surprising excursus into what I might have thought an impossible project. What Flesch undertakes with skill and cunning is what might be called the conversion of sociobiology into its aesthetic analogs. By means of this transposition, we are given a surprisingly fresh account of the workings of high literature.
--Harold Bloom

How lonely I feel when I'm angry. How clearly, deeply, learnedly and originally William Flesch, in this magisterial--yes, magisterial-- work lights up the ways that I am never less alone with my anger than when it finds its way into literature. Drawing on texts I only thought I knew well, and on an array of science I only thought I could never know at all, Flesch redeems some of our most shameful affects--hate; the pleasure we take in the pain of others--as the very material of social charity and communion. I would name famous names to praise Flesch--Hazlitt, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Simmel--except that to do so would be to miss what matters most about this life forgiving work. For all his engagements with the genius of others, the genius of this book is really all his own.
--Jeff Nunokawa, Professor of English, Princeton University

Flesch's book is at once authoritative and flexible, intellectually adventurous and careful. It is hard to imagine a reader who would not learn from its arresting arguments or take pleasure in the freshness of its juxtapositions. This is a book of immense originality and energy. Flesch opens up--for literary critics of every persuasion--new ways of thinking about the books they love.
--Nick Halpern, author of Everyday and Prophetic

Deftly drawing on 40 years of research in evolutionary psychology, William Flesch sheds new light on heroes, villains, narrators, authors and the art of narrative itself. Our fascination with narratives of all kinds, Flesch argues, is based on our evolved capacity to track the selfish, the selfless and those who take it upon themselves to mete out punishment. In this wild romp through contemporary culture and western literature we are treated to new insights into characters, real and imagined, ranging from J.K. Rowling to Jane Austen, Ludwig Wittgenstein to the 9/11 hijackers,Homer's Telemachus to Roth's Nathan Zuckerman and the governess in James' The Turn of the Screw to the Bride in Kill Bill.
--James Schwartz, author of In Pursuit of the Gene: From Darwin to DNA

Those who appreciate theories of fiction from such critics as Harold Bloom, Wayne C. Booth, E. M. Forster, and Northop Frye will find Flesch's work a welcome addition to the literature. And those interested in the juxtaposition of literature and psychology will find this book a refreshing take on both disciplines.
--T. J. Haskell (Choice 2008-07-01)

I admired William Flesch's examination of fiction and evolutionary biology, in Comeuppance: Costly Signalling, Altruistic Punishment and Other Biological Components of Fiction, not least because Flesch, a young professor at Brandeis, is aware of the limits of the application of biology to aesthetics.
--James Wood (New Yorker blog 2008-12-15)

About the Author

William Flesch is Professor of English Literature at Brandeis University and author of Generosity and the Limits of Authority.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1st edition (January 31, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674026314
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674026315
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,900,200 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By D. Junk on December 10, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is not for everyone. It's scholarly and gets technical at parts. It's heavily end-noted. And you may need at least a passing familiarity with evolutionary psychology (not to mention the works of Shakespeare) to get much out of it. It also wouldn't hurt to be familiar with the fine details of the controversy over adaptationist paradigms in biology. On this point, I was delighted to see that Stephen Jay Gould's arguments still have currency.

That said, "Comeuppance" was for me one of those books that actually changes the way you see the world, much the way Dawkins's "Self Gene" did when I read it about ten years ago. I am currently an English grad student, but with undergrad degrees in Anthropology and Psychology I like paradigms that are a little more scientific than the poststructuralism and new historicism that are rampant in the Humanities.

Flesch's theory is an extrapolation of the models for the evolution of cooperation devised by Axelrod and Sober and Wilson. In short, the way to get beyond the simple tit-for-tat exchanges of reciprocal altruism is to operate in a system where several players are watching each exchange and policing the participants. This monitoring of other people (even unrelated strangers) and assessing them to see if they are altruistic or selfish is an activity we engage in even with fictional characters. The reason we do this is that we want to signal our own altruism, our "strong reciprocity," to whomever is monitoring us. And the basis of such signals need not be actual individuals.

This is of course a crude summary of a much more nuanced theory, one that I am currently applying to Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," a story that doesn't seem like very good fodder for evolutionary theories of literature. [...]

Thank you William Flesch for giving me an alternative to the infinite regress of discursive descriptivism.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Donald McMiken on August 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I enjoyed reading this excellent academic argument on our evolutionary preference for certain stories and what this means about the essential nature of humans and our need for stories and literature.
A well written and complex book.

Dr Donald McMiken

Secrets of Writing Killer Essays & Reports: A manual for students and professionals
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