Is it possible to boil the plots of all great literature down to a few formulas? Whether you sympathize with the effort to reduce literature to a science or not, you have to admire the efforts. A brief history from Michelle Legro:
In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462
While still a young director in England, Alfred Hitchcock requested the book from America, and the creator of the courtroom drama Perry Mason claimed he had learned a great deal from it. The success of Plotto inspired other write-for-pay miracle workers. In 1931, screenwriter Wycliffe Hill declared that he had invented a “Plot Robot,” which turned out to be nothing more than cardboard wheel of options that would help you choose a plot in the same way you might choose a color for your living room.
Michelle’s post largely centers around the history of Plotto, which was reissued last month. She mentions the “exceedingly” complicated categorization system, which seems to rely on reduce the story to two key characters and everyone else is understood by their relation to these two. But it turns out that Plotto was not the last effort to categorize plots. Scott Page, who is currently teaching the University of Michigan’s online Model Thinking course, recently shared a chapter from one of his books in which he compares models and narratives:
Indulge me a moment’s description of the Great Books. Hutchins and Adler, include four hundred and thirty one texts by seventy-three authors, an entire bookshelf. Even if someone did read that entire bookshelf, the more troublesome problem would be making sense of them all – separating transcendent ideas from plot. What are we to take from the Odyssey: That you should put wax in your ears? That you should remain faithful to your spouse? Or perhaps, that you should build an unusually large bed?
This dastardly duo: the time commitment and the problem of separating anecdote from deep analogy led Adler and Hutchins to produce the Syntopicon: a glossary of sorts to the Great Ideas inside the Great Books. The Syntopicon debuted in 1952. Inside, it listed one hundred and two Great Ideas including as imagination, physics, liberty and death. Connecting all of these ideas back to the texts required prodigious outlays of time and effort, and, one can only imagine, produced long discussions over interpretations. Why or how they decided to stop at one hundred and two is mystifying to me. Had they thought of just two more, they could have released them as a bridge set of playing cards. As for the wax ears of Odysseus’s crew, the faithful Penelope, and the enormous bed, these would seem to fall into the categories desire, prudence, and symbol, so all should make the list.
I mention the Syntopicon because the Great Models align more closely with the Great Ideas than with the Great Books. Models formalize many of the Great Ideas, though not all (dialectic and prophecy would be difficult to model). Hutchins and Adler did not devote much attention to models. In fairness, the tools we use to make sense of have changed since the Syntopicon was created. When they began selecting the Great Books, the library from which they chose contained few books from outside the natural sciences that contained models. Darwin didn’t use models. Neither did Adam Smith. Not because Darwin and Smith’s ideas couldn’t have been improved with models (they have been!), but because the relevant models had yet to be developed. Today if you take a course on evolution or economics, you learn models. That’s also true if you take courses in psychology, anthropology, or archeology.
Besides Page’s take on the role of models, the main thing I take away from this is the large variation in the number of plots that each project ultimately reduced to. Is there a true number? Probably not. (Interestingly enough, Adler later came out with a book called Six Great Ideas.) But as with all models, the interesting aspects go beyond the results, to how the model’s creator chose to simplify reality. A more in-depth exploration would be fun, but this post is already getting quite long. Follow the links for more fun.
Note: This post was originally going to riff on the quant/qual divide in political science, but I was afraid some readers might take it too seriously and miss the spirit of these midweek posts.