Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Human Unconscious: The Mechanism for Literary Evolution

Jackie Marano's picture

     Human beings are perhaps the greatest, most sophisticated storytellers that have yet roamed the earth. Sure, creatures of other levels of complexity can survey their environment, summarize their observations, and live their lives according to their own stories of reality. In fact, these stories of reality have proven to be, in the Darwinian sense, quite an essential mechanism for the survival, continuation, and modification (biological evolution) of all forms of life, especially humans. What distinguishes humans as ‘special’ storytellers, however, is our capacity for language, a cognitive development that biological evolution has favored. Furthermore, human language communication exists in many forms, including spoken words, written words, gestures, signals and symbols. As a result, our capacity for storytelling has become so elaborate and so advanced that we can actively realize some additional, non-biological forms of evolution within a much smaller time period than that which Darwin’s ‘story’ generally requires: a human lifetime. This is especially true in the realm of literature, where what is being realized is not necessary or directly useful for survival, but rather for the evolution of thought and method in more creative or exploratory endeavors.

     This phenomenon of literature-based evolution is no less valuable to human existence, as the forms of evolution manifested among and within literary works can be very pedagogical, enriching, and useful even beyond the realm of literature (we might even be inclined to reconsider how our biologically evolved selves influence or are influenced by this other form of evolution). With that said, the phenomena associated with literary evolution and its implications are quite impressively represented, described, and made available for our use in Walt Whitman’s mid-nineteenth century work “Leaves of Grass.”

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE       Though primarily poetic in nature, this work is actually binary in function and in composition. If we assume that every new ‘reality’ is fundamentally based on a preceding set of realities, we can safely assert that Whitman’s work represents a blend of literary realities that functions to create a new set of literary realities(which, in turn, becomes the source of further literary realities). Thus, Whitman’s work, like all other literary works, inherently functions as both the cause and the effect of literary evolution. But the partner function of this work in particular is that it indirectly proposes but directly represents the abstract mechanism by which the phenomena of literary evolution may actually operate. And it is together with the biform composition of “Leaves of Grass” that the abstract mechanism of literary evolution is proposed, manifested, and ultimately explained; it is fundamentally the product of the inevitable reorganization and manipulation of literary and everyday realities by the human unconscious. This ‘unconscious’ human depends on the ‘conscious’ human only to materialize these ‘new realities’ and make them available to other ‘unconscious’ agents (human) for further processing and manipulation. But in every other sense, ‘conscious’ humans are dependent upon the works and interactions of ‘unconscious’ humans in order to enjoy, to actively recognize, and to make sense of this phenomenon of literary evolution (potentially within a lifetime).

      Having said that the biform structure of “Leaves of Grass” is inherently linked to its function as a representation, itself, of this abstract mechanism, a brief consideration of the structure is imperative. The introduction to the work is more coherent, conversational, calculated, and consciously conceived; Whitman communicates his thoughts to the reader in rather conventional sentences that demonstrate organization of thought and repeated emphasis of several major ideas. Among the most important of areas of emphasis is his attempt to define the powers, capabilities, and characteristics of ‘the great poet.’ Included in his definition is the notion that the great poet is “…transcendent and new… the arbiter of the diverse…he supplies what wants supplying and checks what wants checking…he is judgment” (Whitman, p.6). Though calculated and intelligible, this introduction is somewhat speculative and interpretational in nature; Whitman makes a conscious effort to define and to make sense of ‘the great poet.’ In fact this introduction consists almost entirely of Whitman’s declarative assertions on this subject that seem to describe some form of progress that he does not support or expect to be supported with data. Thus, in the context of our argument, we can reasonably assume that this introduction represents Whitman’s ‘conscious’ attempting to make sense of and assign a value to the unconscious self that is the primary author of the poems that follow. And thus if we interpret the incoherent, somewhat incomprehensible, and extemporaneous poetry that follows to represent Whitman’s unconscious, then we can firmly agree that this ‘speaking,’ incoherent unconscious was Whitman’s topic of study and his own source of inquiry. And in fact it is likely becomes that of the patient, curious reader.

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE       Whitman likely had to substantially suppress his conscious self (perhaps through use of substances?) in order to achieve this ‘speaking’ unconscious in its purest form. However he managed to do this, the effect likely interested him in some way, as is indicated by the rigor of the introduction to his unconscious. But the reader can reflect more deeply on Whitman’s work and be intrigued as well, as Whitman’s written ‘unconscious’ may very well illustrate that the human unconscious is perhaps the fundamental source of literary evolution. For one, just like evolution in the Darwinian sense, Whitman’s unconscious ‘writes’ these poems seemingly without intent, and this ‘self’ appears not to assign meaning to what it has created, nor does it seem to inclined to do so. But just as importantly it is a source of inquiry, which is indeed the reason that this essay exists, and why Whitman’s work was recognized as different and curious, but nonetheless inspirational and thought provoking.

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE       And though authors and writers succeeding Whitman, including the author of this essay, are capable of consciously reading or studying  “Leaves of Grass,” it is in fact their ‘unconscious’ that most deeply has examined and experienced the work that they have read; upon reading this work, the unconscious self will process, manipulate, and reorganize the new ‘reality’ that Whitman has provided and will potentially communicate it to the conscious self for the purpose of telling and materializing a new set of stories. Please note the use of the word potentially in the previous statement; the unconscious likely processes and records everything, some of which returns to you in dreams that you may remember for only moment or perhaps the long run. But there is something significant about the fact that we do forget things, both temporarily and permanently.

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE      This observation suggests that there is some sort of barrier between the unconscious and the conscious self, and that the act of forgetting or failure to tell a new story based on a certain set of perceived realities likely occurs on one or both sides of the barrier. A qualitative consideration of human dreams suggests that it may indeed be the ‘conscious’ that does the forgetting; why so many people share the compulsion to write a dream down before they forget it? The unconscious may have pushed the dream (likely incoherent) through the barrier, and now it is up to the conscious to manage the input. In fact, its true role in life may be almost entirely to manage the input that it receives from the unconscious. And perhaps this explains why we write down our dreams; management of input can be both a source of inquiry and a sort of exploration that can be very enriching to more than just the dreamer himself.

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE       With that said, it seems reasonable to state that whatever can successively pass through the barrier from the unconscious to the conscious ultimately defines how and by whom new literary realities will be formed. Again, we note that this form of evolution can be compared to Darwinian evolution; is the semi-permeable/selectively-permeable barrier between the all-knowing ‘unconscious’ and the fallible ‘conscious’ not just a small-scale representation of what Darwin has termed ‘natural selection’? That is, not every ‘unconscious’ that reads Whitman’s work will successfully have its thoughts and observations pass through to the ‘conscious’ self and inspire it to talk or write about it. This essay, therefore, might actually represent the product of some internal ‘natural selection’ mechanism that has materialized to represent evolving literary thought. Like Whitman’s work, this essay will be read by the unconscious of its reader, and will endure further evolution or modification only if its thoughts can successfully travel across the semi-permeable barrier to the conscious and inspire it to organize and manage the input.  

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE       But what is important to note, and what concludes the argument that we are pursuing here, is that Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” is not necessarily an exclusive, brilliant, captivating, or life-changing work. What it is, though, is a fantastic source of inquiry that has shed light on the potential purpose and capabilities of the human unconscious. Whitman’s work has been a very useful set of literary realities for the purpose of this story (this essay); it is a material representation of an abstract phenomenon that could perhaps be occurring (and explained biologically?) and that has, in any case, become a source of inquiry. And in this way, Whitman’s work is actually no different from any other literary composition; it has involuntarily contributed a new set of realities to the evolution of literary thought. In the case of this essay, Whitman’s work has prompted the writer (through a modified ‘natural selection’ process) to tell a story about literary evolution, but of course other writers have been (and will be) prompted by other sets of literary realities to form new ones themselves. Whitman’s inspiration for this essay (in the context of this essay) means that there is now one more source of inquiry and one more set of realities that has been added to the greater pool of literary realities, all of which have the potential to contribute to the evolution (and materialization) of literary thought. Thus, in reading this new set of realities, you have partially experienced a small-scale example of the very phenomenon that the author attempts to address.

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE      Recognize, then, that like Whitman’s work, this essay has either been an enjoyment or a frustration…to your conscious. It is up to your conscious to enjoy or dispute this story of literary evolution as inspired by Walt Whitman, but it is up to your unconscious and its interaction with your conscious to continue this branch of thought in the greater process of literary evolution. Your control over this phenomenon is rather limited (as is also the case in Darwinian evolution), but the potential for evolution itself is less so. Thus if this doesn’t happen for you or anyone anytime soon, the wait for evolutionary change as a consequence of this work may actually be longer than a lifetime (this is why your experience has been ‘partial’). But you don’t have to wait for this work to evolve, because it may indeed be a while. But just look (and read) around you; this is happening everywhere all the time. You’ll find something in your lifetime. Or perhaps you already have, and are only consciously realizing that now.



Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE

Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of Grass.” Original 1885 Edition. Dover Publications, Inc. New York 2007.

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE


Paul Grobstein's picture

the unconscious and the conscious in literature: who's on first?

"This essay, therefore, might actually represent the product of some internal ‘natural selection’ mechanism that has materialized to represent evolving literary thought."

"It is up to your conscious to enjoy or dispute this story of literary evolution as inspired by Walt Whitman, but it is up to your unconscious and its interaction with your conscious to continue this branch of thought in the greater process of literary evolution."

Very intriguing.  So too is the issue of the "other direction."  Might the unconscious filter things offered by consciousness?  Can the conscious play a role in what does/doesn't get filtered?  

MAM's picture

Literary Evolution

Ms. Marano
I enjoyed your discussion of literary evolution especially the hypothesis that the process involves movement of unconscious thought through a 'semi-permeable membrane' to the conscious. Is it possible that evolution also may be represented by movement in the other direction (i.e. conscious to unconscious) since the process may be self-sustaining or cyclical? If so, would the state of unconsciousness necessarily peclude the individual from perceiving or recognizing the process in evolution?