Sunday, November 10, 2013

STC, Poetic Form, and a Glimpse of the Mind

In which it is argued that we are in a position to glimpse, and only glimpse, a new vision of the human mind and of literary form.

I've created a working paper from my recent series of Coleridge posts (title above). Here's the SSRN download link. Abstract and introduction below.
Abstract: "Kubla Khan" and "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" are two very different poems by the same poet, Samuel T. Coleridge. Think of them as orthogonal to one another within the overall space of the human mind. This working paper provides descriptive accounts of both poems, compares them, and recounts some of the work in the newer psychologies – cognitive, evolutionary, and neuro- – that has recently been brought to bear on the study of literature and how that work is germane to these poems. It concludes with a brief chronology of the parallel trajectories of cognitive science and literary theory in the last half of the previous century.
Through Poetic Form, a Glimpse of the Mind

This is another of those collections that wasn’t supposed to be a collection. It started with one post – “Kubla Khan” and the Quest for Poetic Grammar: A Glimpse of the Pacific? – in which I declared and end to a certain intellectual quest, and that was supposed to be it. But no, I kept thinking, and writing more.

Still, I figured that, once I’d finished explaining why “Kubla Khan” was important, I was done. I’d package those three posts, tack on a chronology as additional information, and I was done. But then I decided, hell, why not run up a short version of the “Kubla Khan” material? So I did that.

I really wanted to call it quits. But, no, I might as well do “Lime-Tree Bower” as well, especially since I already had suitable draft material from several years ago. At that point I had no choice but to add the comparison between the two documents, as that is based on draft material from the same document.

Now I AM done.

What have we got? In that first post, the one glimpsing the Pacific, I explained how, early in my career I decided to seek a poetic “grammar” that could embrace both “Kubla Khan” (KK) and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” (LTB) within the same framework. I also explained that I’ve declared that search to have been a failure. There is no such grammar, as it is understood by linguists or, by extension, as it came to be understood by those who sought story grammars in the 1970s and 1980s.

But then, I said as well, I’ve decided to reframe the problem. And I like the new frame that’s just barely emerging from the mists in the brief and spare comparison of KK and LTB I’ve included in this document. That sketch is very different from the theoretical note I published in MLN over thirty years ago (Metaphoric and Metonymic Invariance: Two Examples from Coleridge. MLN 96: 1981: 1097-1105.). For one thing, it rests on two very long articles (or, if you will, short monographs) on about each poem:

William Benzon. Talking with Nature in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison." PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 2004,

William Benzon. “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003,

The descriptive work in those two articles is fuller and more detailed than any that I had done in the previous century and they contain a great deal of speculation about the underlying perceptual, cognitive, and neural mechanisms that I could not have done then. I couldn’t have done it, in part because we now know things we didn’t back then, but mostly because I didn’t know how to think in those terms.

What it amounts to is this: In the 1970s and 1980s my thinking seems to have gone something like this – not consciously so, mind you, but in practical effect: Language is an isolable component (modular) of the human behavioral repertoire for which we CAN construct a grammar. Literary texts are constructed of language. Since we can construct a grammar for language, we should be able to do so for literature.

These days even the isolable nature of language isn’t so clear. Can we understand human conversation without understanding the whole mind? It’s not so clear what a grammar is either.

And it is REALLY CLEAR that, just because literature is made of language, doesn’t IMPLY that a thorough understanding of language is sufficient for an understanding of literature. Does one understand the design of a cathedral through having a thorough knowledge of masonry, woodworking, metalworking, and so forth?

If literary texts are simulated human experience – as psychologist Keith Oatley argues – then we need to understand the whole of the human mind in order to understand literature. I don’t see how we can sensibly concoct a grammar of the human mind. And, even if it can be construed in a sensible way, it’s not going to be done any time soon.

That, in turn, is why I believe that a glimpse of the underpinnings of literary form – which I’ll get to in a minute – is also a glimpse of the mind, and one like none we’ve had before.

What, after all, do we know of the mind? In bits and pieces, a lot. Whole, it’s a mystery. The Freudian view of the mind is perhaps the last account of the mind, in toto, that has had wide purchase within our intellectual culture. That’s surely why it has remained alive within the humanities even as it has disappeared elsewhere.

To be sure, there is the computational view of the mind, to which I have devoted a great deal of time myself, but it hasn’t given us a vision of the mind as a whole – lots of mechanisms, some useful metaphors, but little sense of the mind as a whole. The same goes for neuroscience – lots of mechanisms, some useful metaphors, but little sense of the mind as a whole.

When then of Coleridge, and his mind, as seen through those two poems, KK and LTB? First of all it is not just his mind, though he wrote them. All of us can read those poems. Whatever “accounts for” those poems thus speaks to all of us.

Second, those are very different poems. That’s why the challenge of putting them into the same framework was an interesting challenge. Think of them as "orthogonal" – to borrow a term from mathematics – to one another within the overall space of the human mind. What I’ve presented in this document is descriptive in kind, and I’m sure I can push that descriptive work farther, just how far, I won’t know that until I’ve done it. By assuming that KK and LTB were constructed to more or less the same end – call it beauty – that comparative description will begin yielding clues about the underlying design principles, which must apply to BOTH of these structures, different though they are.

That work will, in turn, “bleed” into the more speculative perceptual, cognitive, and neural underpinnings I’ve been able to cobble together. In the case of LTB, for example, I’ve posited a simply underlying computational mechanism grounded in the attachment theory of John Bowlby, which has roots in both psychoanalysis and evolutionary psychology. In the case of KK I’ve postulated links to limbic mechanisms (the so-called lizard brain) for territorial marking and defense and, again, attachment. Now if I can manage to say something sensible, albeit speculative, about how these mechanisms are configured so as to produce these very different poems…

Speculative, yes, certainly. That’s all we’ve got at his point. That’s how we move into new conceptual territory. Is it risky? Yes. Will we make mistakes? Sure. Will we get somewhere? How will we know until we try?

What is certain is that we can’t get from here to there through incremental experiment and observation alone. By analyzing our texts with care and precision, humanists can provide roadmaps to a new account of the mind, roadmaps without which the psychologists and cognitive scientists and neuroscientists will never get beyond local accounts of specific phenomena. They’ll accumulate ever deepening accounts of stone blocks, pieces of stained glass, and lead fittings, but they’ll never comprehend the cathedral. We have to point the way.

* * * * *

The first three sections of this document recount my intellectual history with KK and LTB and talk briefly have how the intellectual world has changed in the last thirty years. The last of those three – Why Is “Kubla Khan” Important? – talks specifically about the importance of literature, both to culture in general and as an object of academic study, and about the importance of “Kubla Khan” in particular. Then we have summaries of my descriptive work on KK and LTB followed by a comparison between the two. I conclude with a brief chronology in which I recount milestones in the parallel histories of cognitive science and literary theory in the last half of the previous century (mostly the third quarter).

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