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In a paper "Some Comments on the Lakoffean Conception of Spatial Imagery" I criticised some of the cognitive assumptions of that school as inadequate. A sympathetic reader of that paper made, nevertheless, the following critical comment.
Does not Miall's argument (and your following him) come down to this? You've talked about X, but you didn't mention Y, Z, A, B . . . I have to say that I find this comment by reviewers particularly irksome. After all the author wrote the paper he/she wrote, not some other. More could be said about any topic you care to name.This comment is most disconcerting for me, because I too find that practice of reviewers particularly irksome; and I too believe that the author is sovereign to decide what he ought to write about. Notwithstanding, I believe we are in an academic discipline, and that certain principles and constraints on our work ought not to be disregarded. This problem becomes particularly acute when we pursue interdisciplinary research and, first and foremost, the application of linguistic, cognitive or neurological hypotheses to literature. Here the dangers of reductionism are lurking all the time.
Let me offer a rudimentary answer to the above criticism, to be refined in course of this paper. What David Miall and myself say, in fact,
to Mark Johnson (and many other scholars in that research
tradition) is this: What you say about the Mind-in-the-Body
hypothesis is very important. But you should be aware
of the constraints on its application. A linguistic event may
have a true description in terms of literary structures or in
the Mind-in-the-Body vocabulary, or in a number of additional
vocabularies. There is an
insidious danger of "unnecessary duplication of
terms", as Kenneth Burke put it. In applying the
hypothesis to poetry (or to the clerk's tale, for that
matter), one should avoid offering a true description
in the Mind-in-the-Body language, if it is not used
to make significant distinctions within or between
texts. There are ten thousand different ways to do that.
We are offering our readings not as an imperative
"You should have done this!", but as examples of
how this could be done.
The same is true of the "EVENT STRUCTURE" metaphor and literary stuctures.In what follows, I will try to face this problem, with reference to two readings of a short poem by Emily Dickinson. In the first part of this paper I will quote in full Margaret Freeman's reading of this poem, and most of her relevant theoretical apparatus. Then I will propose a detailed reading of my own of the same poem. Finally, I will make a few meta-critical comments on the two readings, based on a distinction between reductionist and functional application of cognitive theory to literature.
Margaret Freeman's Reading
How do we understand time? It is commonly understood in two ways, depending on figure-ground orientation. That is, we can perceive time as a figure with respect to some ground, as when we say "Time flies when we're having fun," where time is seen as passing quickly across some given fun-filled space. Or we can perceive time as the ground for the figure, as when we say "The train arrived on time." Both these ways of looking at time come from a very general metaphor in our thought processes: the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor. When applied to the concept of time, this metaphor produces the dual metaphors of TIME IS AN OBJECT and TIME IS LOCATION. These dual metaphors produce thousands of metaphors in everyday language. For example, TIME IS AN OBJECT: do you have time to go over this paper for me? the time passed quickly; Where did all the time go? TIME IS LOCATION: Where did you pass the time? Did you arrive in time? We are almost out of time. These last two examples also involve the very common metaphor in our everyday conceptions already discussed: the CONTAINER metaphor.
As may be expected, Emily Dickinson, like any other poet, makes use of the full range of systematic metaphors for time, whether as OBJECT or LOCATION. Time can be barefoot (J 717); weighed (J 834); narrow (J 1100); it can come and go; we can be between eternity and time (J 644); we can look back on time (J 1478), and so on. But, you may argue, so what? All poets make extensive use of metaphor; that's what poetry is; literary criticism is full of metaphor identification in poetry. Just so. But the question is: are these metaphors just strategies for enlivening otherwise prosaic language, for making language fresh through the use of novel metaphors? Or are they indications of a systematic pattern, a marker of the poet's way of thinking about the world, a sign of her conceptual universe?
Emily Dickinson is a great poet, not only because she is a skillful wielder of words, but because she understands the metaphorical nature of our everyday language and thought. She makes use of that knowledge to create poems that literally take our breath away by disrupting our commonsensical and folk theory ways of thinking about the world.
For example, a very common metaphor for time is TIME IS A HEALER. This metaphor for time depends on the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor which entails EVENTS ARE ACTIONS, which in turn entails TIME IS AN OBJECT. The EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor is shaped by the notion of causality, in which an agent is understood to bring about an event. Thus we say "Time heals all wounds." But Dickinson rejects this metaphor:
They say that "TimeDickinson denies the folk theory metaphor that TIME IS A HEALER in order to make the point that true suffering is everlasting. She rejects the idea of time as an agentive figure working against the ground of suffering and replaces it by reversing figure and ground. In the second part of the poem, it is suffering or "trouble" that is perceived as the figure against the ground of time. She replaces the TIME IS CAUSATION metaphor with one in which time is perceived as a standard, a criterion by which suffering may be judged. The words "test" and "prove" suggest the methodology of science, by which "actual" experience may be empirically verified. What is being suggested in this poem is that some metaphors are better than others in enabling us to understand life's experiences. 1
Time never did assuage -
An actual suffering
As sinews do - with Age -
Time is a Test of
But not a Remedy -
If such it prove, it
There was no Malady -
Fascicle 38, H 163, 942 (J 686)
Reuven Tsur's Reading
Let me say at once that I find it almost impossible to speak of time without using some EVENT STRUCTURE format. An attempt to provide an abstract definition of "time" will yield the following not too elegant formulation: "indefinite continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another". In other words, time is not a succession of events, it is one dimension, or one set of circumstances, of such a succession. In other words, time is neither an object, nor an agent in an EVENT STRUCTURE. And that is, precisely, why such constructions as "Time assuages" and "Time is a Test of Trouble" are metaphorical.
One possible paraphrase of the sentence "Time never did assuage -- " would be, then, that "Time assuages" is only a manner of speaking. The correct expression would be "X assuages in time"; time is not an agent; rather, syntactically, it should be an adverbial of time; but it assumes the role of an agent where some unspecified agent does, in fact, the job, in circumstances that include duration. "Time never did assuage -- , it is an unspecified agent who assuages". If this paraphrase is relevant to these lines (and I believe it is), its function is to challenge the "EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor", so as to liberate man from the discrepancy between the structure of language and the structure of existence ("man's basically unsatisfactory relationship to his fellows, his society and the world in general stems from his being imprisoned by language, which is a most unreliable, false and dangerous thing", as Thomson (1972: 165) paraphrased the great German nonsense poet, Christian Morgenstern). As I will attempt to show later, this possible meaning is reinforced by some semantic aspects of the poem.
"The EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor is shaped by the notion of causality, in which an agent is understood to bring about an event. Thus we say "'Time heals all wounds.'" It is clear that the second line negates a manner of speaking ("They say"). But what is it it negates in this manner of speaking? The EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor, or the trite proverbial wisdom? That is, does it say "No, in real life, time is not an agent, but a circumstance, it never did such acts as healing"; or "No, time does not perform the act of healing, but some different act"? The answer depends on the sequel: to what it is opposed in the second half of the stanza. Now notice this. It is clear that the second half of the stanza is opposed to the first half; the reader may gather as much as "Not x is the case, but its opposite, y". But the opposition is rather fuzzy. "An actual suffering", the noun phrase in the referring position (that is, the putative agent), is neither a rough synonym nor a rough antonym of "time"; it is simply different. The verb "strengthens", by contrast, is almost a straightforward antonym of "assuages", especially when "suffering" is its subject. This may foreground two aspects of the opening lines, by way of opposition: it may propose the appropriate agent to be substituted for time, an agent ("suffering") that may have an effect on our feelings; or it may suggest an opposite way for improving our well-being, by a rough antonym of "assuages", something like "If we are less and less hurt in time, it is not because our wounds are healed, but rather because suffering hardens us, and we become less sensitive". Now the last line of the stanza exacts a small semantic change in "strengthens": it turns it from a transitive into an intransitive verb. A new analogy arises: "An actual suffering" becomes stronger, just as the sinews become stronger as one grows up. Thus, a new opposition arises: not only that our well-being doesn't improve in time; it becomes worse and worse.
"Suffering" and "sinews" are strange bedfellows. Intuitively, while "sinews" is the source of strength and vigour, "suffering" typically consumes strength and vigour. Thus, the explicit analogy also suggests some conflicting connotations, or even conflicting emotional tendencies.
The implicit change in "strengthens" from a transitive to an intransitive verb is not as far-fetched ast it may appear. "Assuages" is a transitive verb, but here the object phrase is missing. "Assuages" and "strengthens" are intensely related by shared and opposite meaning components. And "strengthens" too is followed by no object phrase at the line ending. Only the simile in the next line makes it clear that no object phrase is intended, that, in fact, the verb is intransitive. There is an additional instance of this kind in this short poem. In the second stanza, two tokens of the word "prove" occur in close proximity; the first token is an intransitive, the second a transitive verb. In the first sense it means "turns out, is found by trial or experience to be"; in the second sense it means "serves as unrefutable evidence".
"Time is a Test of Trouble" in the second stanza manipulates again "Time" into the referring position of the sentence, that is, it reinforces the EVENT STRUCTURE construal of the metaphor. Rhetorically, the stanza begins with an unqualified assertion of great obscurity, characterised by a conclusive tone. The metaphoric statement "time assuages" relies on a stock phrase that is enough for a beginning of specific construals of the successive statements. For "Time is a Test of Trouble" there seems to be no such available stock phrase. That is, the sentence displays a psychological atmosphere of great assurance, while it is not at all certain what it means. Thus, perhaps, the best thing to do would be to see what "Test" might mean out of context, that is, some dictionary definition, and see whether this might be adapted to the poem's (lack of clarifying) context. The Random House College Dictionary defines "test" as follows: "the means by which the presence, quality or genuineness of anything is determined". That might be sufficiently vague and still sufficiently meaningful.
It is perfectly clear how "Time never did assuage" relates to "Time is [...] not a Remedy": they are near-synonymous. It is less clear how "Trouble" in stanza 2 relates to "suffering" in stanza 1. They display the same emotional tendency, but it is unclear whether they have the same referent or not. According to the foregoing dictionary entry, our progress in time is a continual assessment whether troubles are present, and if so, of what quality they are and whether they are genuine.
I cheerfully embrace Freeman's generalisation: "Emily Dickinson is a great poet, not only because she is a skillful wielder of words, but because she understands the metaphorical nature of our everyday language and thought", as well as her concluding sentence: "What is being suggested in this poem is that some metaphors are better than others in enabling us to understand life's experiences", as a first approximation of the underlying theme of the poem. But, I believe, the second stanza requires us to go one step further. The poem is not merely about better understanding of life, but about better adjustment to life, about regarding oneself as a passive victim of some Malady, or sorting out troubles and taking responsibilities. Imagine a situation of psychotherapy. The therapist brings his patient to a recognition that "Time is not a Remedy", or agent of any sort. This eventually may lead to an insight, that is, it may "prove too / There was no Malady". Now if your troubles and sufferings are a Malady, you are not responsible, you are a passive victim. Thus, metaphor becomes a means not only for an understanding, but also for reorganising one's life, so as to achieve a better adjustment to reality.
I have quoted above Thomson on Christian Morgenstern's attitude toward language: "Man's basically unsatisfactory relationship to his fellows, his society and the world in general stems from his being imprisoned by language, which is a most unreliable, false and dangerous thing"; and, he adds, one must "destroy man's naive trust in this most familiar and unquestioned part of his life, before he can learn to think properly". The first half of stanza 1 liberates us from the imprisonment in language in either of two ways, or both. We seem to be hopelessly imprisoned in such clichés of proverbial wisdom as "Time is a great healer". But there is a much deeper sense in which we are imprisoned in language: as I have said, there is a discrepancy between the structure of language and the structure of existence. As Freeman suggests, "This metaphor for time [i.e., "TIME IS A HEALER"] depends on the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor which entails EVENTS ARE ACTIONS". As we have seen, one possible construal of the beginning of this poem is that it challenges the very essence of the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor that plays the tyrant to our thoughts. When I say that literature does have important operational principles that cannot be exhausted in terms of cognitive science, I do not mean that we must learn more about cognitive science, but that we must learn more about aesthetic principles. I mean that neither a full description of the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor, nor an outright rejection of its validity can account for its aesthetic significance. For this we need a wider principle, such as the one formulated by Thomson following Morgenstern or, for that matter, Shklovsky's principles based on habituation and defamiliarization, or some other principle from an open list of principles. Some of these principles will be shared by several poets, sometimes even of very different styles.
If we ignore my suggestion that the opening lines challenge the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor, we are not so much in the domain of cognitive poetics as in the domain of New Criticism. Here, William Empson uses the term "ambiguity" in an extended sense to cover "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language". Or consider Cleanth Brooks' notion of irony. It is not the opposite of an overt statement, says Wellek, but a general term for the kind of qualification which the various elements in a context receive from the context. For a substantial part of my reading of this poem, the key term might be "the kind of qualification which the various elements in a context receive from the context". The semantic structure of the verbs "strengthens" and "prove" changes before our eyes, from transitive to intransitive, or vice versa. The meaning of "Time never did assuage" changes from moment to moment, according to the components foregrounded in it by the changing context. Thus, the outright denial of "Time assuages" is replaced by the emergent meaning "It is rather suffering that hardens us", which is immediately discarded by the emergent meaning "Our well-being only deteriorates with time". This semantic process has one overwhelming effect: it "destroys man's naive trust in language, in this most familiar and unquestioned part of his life", and delivers him from the imprisonment in language.
Pope and Dickinson
This aesthetic principle can be better understood if we compare this poetic process to the poetics of a poet who is as far from Dickinson or Morgenstern as a poet can be: Alexander Pope. Consider the following two verbs: "approve" and "admire". They are near-synonyms. The Random House College Dictionary defines "approve" as "to speak or think favourably of"; and it defines "admire" as "to regard with wonder, pleasure and approval". Their core meaning is the same, they only differ in the emotional components. Thus, one could say, e.g.: "Do I approve of him? Nay, I admire him". It is of the same kind, but of much greater force. Now consider the following line from Pope's An Essay on Criticism:
For Fools Admire, but Men of Sense Approve.Here the antonyms "fools" and "men of sense" require the reader to restructure the two verbs, which become now antonyms. Pope's wit crucially depends in this line on the reader's awareness that a pair of near-synonyms is turned into a pair of antonyms before his very eyes. The reader may realise now that the reasons for approval can be "merely" emotional or well-founded in Reason. The emotional component in "admire" ceases to be just an additional element in the semantic structure; it is sharpened into the opposite of something in "approve" we weren't aware that it was there at all; and if it was there, it was of extremely low salience: logical reasons. The opposition transfers this logical component to "approve"; and if it was there, it promotes it to a more salient position. Or, to put it differently, the lack of emotional involvement in "approve" is sharpened by the antithesis into some rational judgment.
Antonyms, just as near-synonyms, do have a common core of meaning components; but they are also opposed in some components. Consider the two sentences "John gave Mary a book", and "Mary got a book from John". The two sentences are synonymous, but the two verbs "gave" and "got" are antonyms. Their common core of meaning is [+CHANGE +POSSESSION] (or, in Roger Schank's notation, [+ATRANS]); but they are opposed in the feature [+/-CAUSE]: John, who gave the book, caused a change of possession (or "abstract transfer"). Now such a semantic restructuring of the verbs as in Pope's line does, indeed, "destroy man's naive trust in language, in this most familiar and unquestioned part of his life", and causes him to experience some flexible readjustment to reality. Indeed, the reader receives the impression that he has got a deeper insight into the nature of critical understanding. Alexander Pope too is a great poet, not only because he is a skillful wielder of words, but because he understands the complex semantic nature of our everyday language and thought. He makes use of that knowledge to create poems that literally take our breath away by disrupting our commonsensical and folk theory ways of thinking about the world.
Cognitive Poetics and Reductionism
The most insidious danger for Cognitive Poetics or any other interdisciplinary research comes from "reductionism". We are engaged in a "special science", poetics, and we are attempting to illuminate issues in it by having recourse to such more "basic sciences" as psychology, linguistics, neurology, phonetics, acoustics. Reductionism consists in the belief that the special sciences can be reduced to some more basic sciences, and eventually to physics. I have explored this problem in many of my writings. My paper "Sound Affects of Poetry -- Critical Impressionism, Reductionism, and Cognitive Poetics" raises, among other things, the question, what from the various cognitive sciences can legitimately be used to illuminate problems of literature. Thus, for instance, any instance of poetic rhythm or emotional symbolism of speech sounds has a true description in the vocabulary of acoustics, of phonetics, of psychology, or of literary criticism. But the question is whether an acoustic or psychological description of poetic rhythm or of the emotional symbolism of speech sounds may illuminate them in any way, or merely multiplies information, or even obscures issues. In an Appendix to my book (Tsur, 1987) I discuss at length the question in what conditions can be illuminating to rely in the discussion of metaphor on such neurological distinctions as hemispheric specialisation, and in what conditions would it merely multiply information and obscure issues. In several of my writings, among them Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics (Tsur, 1992a: 3) I am discussing such issues in a theoretical framework proposed by Polányi. It is obvious that cognitive science can very significantly illuminate literature; but it also may most viciously impair the study of literature. In such instances the culprit is usually reductionism. One must therefore study as much as possible the nature of reductionism, so as to know how to avoid it.
A major assumption of the present cognitive approach is that literature does have important operational principles that cannot be exhausted in terms of cognitive science. Any attempt to ignore this results in reductionism. To paraphrase Polányi (1967: 39), a complete cognitive (or phonetic, or phonological, or lexical) topography of a discourse would not tell us whether it is a literary discourse, and if so, how it works, and for what purpose. "We may call the control exercised by the organizational principle of a higher level on the particulars forming its lower level the principle of marginal control" (Polányi, 1967: 40). And Polányi continues:
You can see, for example, how, in the hierarchy constituting speechmaking, successive working principles control the boundary left indeterminate on the next lower level. Voice production, which is the lowest level of speech, leaves largely open the combination of sounds into words, which is controlled by a vocabulary. Next, a vocabulary leaves largely open the combination of words into sentences, which is controlled by grammar. And so it goes. Moreover, each lower level imposes restrictions on the one above it, even as the laws of inanimate nature restrict the practicability of conceivable machines; and again, we may observe that a higher operation may fail when the next lower operation escapes from its control (ibid., 40-41).To paraphrase Polányi (ibid.), the principles of literature may be said to govern the boundary conditions of a cognitive system -- a set of conditions that is explicitly left undetermined by the laws of lower processes, physical, cognitive, and linguistic. Now Polányi's observation that a higher operation may fail when the next lower operation escapes from its control, may have far-reaching consequences for poetics. When a lower operation is disrupted or delayed, it may give rise to some perceived effects. That, precisely, may be a good reason for the poetician to go out from his discipline to some other, more basic science. Thus, for instance, in quite a few of my writings I have argued that the sense of confusion and emotional disorientation associated with the grotesque results when two conflicting defence mechanisms against threat, the sublime (or the pitiable) and the ridiculous, disrupt each other's activity. Likewise, such intuitions as that the speech sound /i/ is higher and brighter than /u/ result from a delay in the recoding of the acoustic stream of information into the phonetic stream. Thus, such disruptions frequently bestow a perceptual quality upon certain elements which, in turn, may combine with similar perceptual qualities of other elements. This becomes their "combinational potential".
In most instances, an extensive description at the linguistic, psychological or acoustic level will fail to illuminate a specific piece of poetry. I have found a few types of conditions in which going outside the specific discipline can be fruitful, of which two will be explored here: when the poetic text disrupts some of the underlying cognitive processes and the resulting combinational potential is exploited for some overall conception or quality; and when the distinctions derived from the underlying cognitive mechanism allow us to make significant distinctions within the specific poetic text. As against reductionism, I wish therefore to propose here a functional conception. The description of some element of a poem, whether at the poetic level, or at some of the "lower" levels, must be assessed according to its ability to explain its function in, or contribution to, the totality of the poem, or of one of its parts. This, of course, introduces some inconvenient complication. In order to do that, we must know something about the character of the totality.
I have said above that I found it almost impossible to talk about "time" without having recourse to some EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor. This suggests that the notion of EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor explains something important about our cognitive organisation. Now there is also a very different question: what can it explain about Emily Dickinson's poem? As Freeman very accurately formulated the thesis of the poem, "Dickinson denies the folk theory metaphor that TIME IS A HEALER in order to make the point that true suffering is everlasting". For making this thesis relevant to an understanding of the poem, the reader must know only that such a folk theory metaphor exists; he need know nothing about the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor. Now consider the following: "A very common metaphor for time is TIME IS A HEALER. This metaphor for time depends on the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor which entails EVENTS ARE ACTIONS, which in turn entails TIME IS AN OBJECT. The EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor is shaped by the notion of causality, in which an agent is understood to bring about an event". All this explains the human cognitive system, and not the poem. To put it in terms of one of my earlier observations, the sentence can have a wide variety of true descriptions, at a variety of disciplinar levels. It can be described on the traditional syntactic level (i.e., "time" is the subject, "healer" the predicate), on the part of speech level (both "time" and "healer" are nouns), on the phonetic level ([t] is a voiceless plosive, [aj] a diphthong, [m] a sonorant, and so forth), on the acoustic stream level, on the articulatory gestures level, or on the cognitive structure level, quoting the above description. But, as far as Freeman's reading of the poem goes, only the description of the phrase as a "folk theory metaphor" is relevant to the poem.
Some of these levels of "true description"
will always remain irrelevant to the description of
this poem as a poem. But some of them may be made relevant
to it by an appropriate analysis. Consider again the
line "Time is a Test of Trouble". There is
here a conspicuous pattern of alliteration (that should
be explained, in harmony with Polányi, in terms
of literary, not linguistic principles): the [t] sound
occurs here three times, reinforcing the internal coherence
and conclusiveness of the utterance (overriding the
semantic vagueness and undecidedness of "Test"
in its immediate context). Perhaps the phonetic description
too can be made relevant to the poem. Plosives are
abrupt, more focused than the "continuous"
speech sounds; unvoiced plosives are more so than the
voiced; and [t] is more compact than [p] (though less
compact than [k]). The articulatory gesture of the
dental [t] (unlike, e.g., of its palatal counterpart
as in "Tuesday") involves a precise, well-controlled
point of contact (as opposed to the vague area of contact
in the palatal consonant). Since alliteration directs
attention to the [t] sounds in this line, the focused,
precise quality of the speech sounds may perhaps be
perceived as reinforcing the conclusive quality of
the utterance. Such a perception involves a disruption
of, or delay in, the cognitive process of recoding
the sound information from the acoustic to the phonetic stream.2
Now consider another instance of disruption. I suggested that the sentence "Time never did assuage" can be construed as a denial of the very validity of the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor, suggesting a discrepancy between the structure of language and the structure of existence. In this case, the above description of the structure of the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor becomes relevant to the analysis of the poem.
I wish to insist on two extremely important points. First, there is nothing wrong in giving such a description of the EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor in the context of Freeman's reading of the poem. But it must be clear that this description is not meant to illuminate in any way the poem. I don't say she does make such a claim; at worst, it is unclear that she doesn't make such a claim. But IF anybody happens to believe that this description contributes to Freeman's reading, he will be looking for his keys under the street light instead in the dark lane where he lost them. Second, I don't argue that a reading of this poem that "misses" the defiance of the "EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor" is inedaquate in any way. It may be perfectly legitimate. My point is that for a reading that accepts the "EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor" without reservation, its description merely multiplies unnecessary evidence; only a reading that capitalizes on some disruption of its automatic application renders its description relevant to the poem. What is more, in this respect I need not be right in my interpretation of the poem. If I am misguided in this part of my interpretation, it still may serve as a hypothetical example of how such a description of the "EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor" can be made relevant to the reading of a poem.
Pope's statements most frequently have a sweeping, conclusive, epigrammatic tone. At the same time, at the semantic level, we have seen great flexibility in restructuring the meaning components of the near-synonymous, antithetical verbs. The conclusive, epigrammatic tone is reinforced by the symmetric structures of the couplet and of parallel rhetorical structures, characterised by a "psychological atmosphere of certainty, security, and patent purpose, in which the [reader] feels a sense of control and power as well as a sense of specific tendency and definite direction", if one may qote here Meyer (1956: 160) on strong Gestalts in music. Thus, we find elements at a variety of levels that contribute to the same "psychological atmosphere of certainty, security, and patent purpose"; this is the poem's emergent regional quality. This psychological atmosphere of certainty is opposed to the ambiguity and uncertainty of the semantic structure of the verbs, generating irony.
In Dickinson's poem, such assertions as "Time never did assuage" and "Time is a Test of Trouble" display a conclusive tone. The word "never" in the first quote contributes an element of unqualified certainty; the alliteration in the second quote contributes an element of coherence and "purposiveness" to the "psychological atmosphere of certainty, security, and patent purpose". This is reinforced by a system of parallesisms and symmetric prosodic structures (which is, nonetheless, less straightforward than in Pope). As I have suggested, on the articulatory and the acoustic levels, too, some readers may discern in the repeated [t] sounds a "sense of control, of specific tendency and definite direction" that contributes to the overall conclusive quality. On the other hand, in Dickinson's poem, too, we have revealed semantic uncertainties at a great variety of levels. Here too we have to restructure the semantic components of two verbs ("strengthen", "prove"), regarding transitivity. There is considerable uncertainty regarding the use of "Test". And there is, of course, the challenge to the trite proverbial wisdom about life and, perhaps, the very use of the "EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor". The strange analogy between "suffering" and "sinews" (with their conflicting emotional tendencies) too contributes to this kind of uncertainty. It is in this perspective that I would consider Freeman's assertion that "the words 'test' and 'prove' suggest the methodology of science, by which 'actual' experience may be empirically verified". Freeman needs this assertion as a reinforcement of the assertion "time is perceived as a standard, a criterion". We still don't have, however, any suggestion, in what sense does "time serve as a standard, a criterion". The conclusive assertion is left vague to a considerable extent. And "prove", too, is precisely one of the two verbs that undergo semantic restructuring regarding transitivity. Thus, it seems to me, the certainty associated with the methodology of science contributes here to a wider sense of certainty which, in turn, is played up against a variety of semantic elements characterised by great uncertainty.
Let us return, now, to another aspect of Freeman's discussion
of time as an "EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor":
"we can perceive time as a figure with respect
to some ground [...] or we can perceive time as the
ground for the figure". Such a conception is most
promising from the cognitive or the aesthetic point
of view, because it offers terms with sufficient desriptive
contents that allow us to make significant distinctions
within a poetic text. That is, precisely, what Freeman
does in her following suggestion: "She rejects
the idea of time as an agentive figure working against
the ground of suffering and replaces it by reversing
figure and ground. In the second part of the poem,
it is suffering or "trouble" that is perceived
as the figure against the ground of time".3
I have insisted in my work on Cognitive Poetics from
time to time, cognitive science can be very useful
for the literary critic, because it may offer critical
terms with specific descriptive contents that allow
him to make significant distinctions within a text.
But, supposing it is accurate, what is the significance
of this distinction (concerning the reversal of the
figure-ground relationship) in this poem? The only
way to know it is to find out to what overall conception
or perceptual quality it contributes in this poem.
But on this matter Freeman seems to trust the reader
that he will do the job for her.
I have done my best to refrain from saying "You've talked about X, but you didn't mention Y, Z, A, B". Instead, I have quoted Freeman's full analysis, and have offered my own detailed analysis of the same poem. Yes, I relentlessly insist on two principles that the critic should observe: that reductionism should be avoided by all means, and that true descriptions of a text should be made also significant -- in view of some overall conception or perceived quality. It is nearly impossible to give here abstract rules. When I am offering my own reading as against some other reading, I don't mean to say "That is what you ought to have done". I am merely offering the details of my reading as examples of how those principles can be instantiated. There are ten thousand different ways to do that; and I don't mind which one of them is chosen, as long as those two principles are observed. Perhaps a third principle too is suggested by my reading: that the greatness of a poet resides not only in the gross macro-structures, but also in the fine-grained micro-structures of his poems. Two issues, however, render this point problematic. First, as I have suggested, some of the fine-grained micro-structure effects have psychological reality for some persons, but not for others; and second, one may not blame a critic for not providing, e.g., a full prosodic description of a poem when writing a paper on, e.g., figurative language.
A cognitive approach becomes increasingly indispensable for accounting for certain central effects of poetry. But the cognitive approach involves a great danger too: reductionism. Cognitive Poetics must learn to benefit of the advantages of the cognitive approach without suffering of the deficiencies of reductionism. The most vicious danger inherent in reductionism is that it offers a true description of the phenomenon under discussion in the alternative language of a more "basic science", arousing the false impression of contributing to a better understanding of it. It is, however, a mere "unnecessary duplication of terms". This danger is not specific to literary studies. We meet it all around in the academy: some scientists earnestly believe that it is only a matter of time that neurological processes will completely account for psychological processes; or biochemical or electric processes will account for neurological processes which, in turn, will account for psychological processes and, eventually, for aesthetic experience. This limitation dominates, according to Polányi, even engineering, where a complete physical topography of a machine would not tell us whether it is a machine, and if so, how it works, and for what purpose. As Fodor aptly observed, no amount of description of the atoms' circulation in the check can illuminate the economical principles described by Gresham's Law.
This paper was an attempt to explore a few techniques
of rendering "lower-level" descriptions relevant
to the aesthetic nature of a poem. The two key-terms
are "disruption" and "combination".
The fact that it is almost impossible to speak about
"time" without having recourse to some "EVENT
STRUCTURE metaphor" is illuminating of the human
mind, but is unnecessary for an understanding of Emily
Dickinson's poem in a standard reading. For this it
is sufficient to know that there exist such hackneyed
expressions as "Time is a healer". The event
structure of the metaphor suddenly becomes highly relevant
in a reading according to which some effects of the
poem depend on the disruption of the automatic application
of such metaphors, by pointing out a discrepancy between
the structure of such metaphors and the structure of
existence. If one can point at other elements in the
poem that emphasize the discrepancy between language
and existence, or suggestions "that some metaphors
are better than others in enabling us to understand
life's experiences", one can see how the "EVENT
STRUCTURE metaphor" combines with the other elements,
thanks to the disruption. The overall conception of
the poem emerges from the meeting of such combinational
potentials which, in turn, are frequently derived from
some disruption of the smooth functioning of the system
at "lower" levels. Now, as I said, I don't
argue that a reading of this poem is inedaquate unless
it claims that this poem defies the "EVENT STRUCTURE
metaphor". For my present purpose, such a claim
may even be misguided. My point is that for a reading
that accepts the "EVENT STRUCTURE metaphor"
without reservation, the description of "EVENT
STRUCTURE metaphor" merely multiplies unnecessary
evidence; only a reading that capitalizes on some disruption
of its automatic application renders its description
relevant to the poem. Likewise, a true description
of the acoustic or the phonetic stream of the speech
sounds can be a mere duplication of terms, irrelevant,
e.g., to a pattern of alliteration in a poem. It is,
in fact, irrelevant in the majority of cases. But,
in one instance in this poem, one may notice that an
acoustic and articulatory description of the repeated
sound [t] may draw attention to a perceptual quality
that may combine with other elements that display a
"psychological atmosphere of certainty, security,
and patent purpose, in which the [reader] feels a sense
of control and power as well as a sense of specific
tendency and definite direction", contributing
to the emergent regional quality of the poem as a whole.
Again, I don't claim that all readers notice this perceptual
quality of the repeated voiceless plosive. What I do
claim is that a true description of the acoustic or
the phonetic stream of the speech sounds becomes relevant
only in a reading in which those perceptual qualities
are noticed and combine with other similar qualities.
And, again, the noticing of such perceptual qualities
presupposes some temporary disruption of the recoding
1. This whole section has been verbatim quoted from Freeman. [back]
2. Initially, I intended to mention phonetic description as an example of a description that is conspicuously irrelevant to the poem; but while writing I noticed that potential of definite direction that may contribute to the overall effect of the verse line and the poem. This potential (and actual combination) may have considerable psychological reality for some readers, but not for others. It depends, among other things, on the degree they rely on phonetic coding in their verbal information processing. [back]
3. This is not quite accurate. In both instances ("Time is a healer of wounds" and "Time is a Test of Trouble") we have, in M.A.K. Halliday's terms, the same types of "relational clauses", of the "attributive" kind. "The relation is one of class membership" (in these relational clauses the less general term is more abstract, unlike in "Marguerite is a poet", where the two terms are of the same order of abstraction). In such relational clauses it seems to be impossible to make distinctions in terms of figure-ground relationship. In "Marguerite is a poet", "poet" is not exactly ground for "Marguerite"; but if it is, then both "healer of wounds" and "a Test of Trouble" are ground for "Time". Whether ground or not, they only differ in the degree of activity they attribute to the agent "Time". But, in principle, if the text permits, very significant distinctions can be made in terms of figure-ground relationship. [back]
Empson, William (1955 Seven Types of Ambiguity. New York: Meridian Books.
Freeman, Margaret H. (in press) "Poetry and the scope of metaphor: Toward a cognitive theory of literature". To appear in Metaphor & Metonymy at the Crossroads. Ed. Antonio Barcelona. Mouton de Gruyter 1998.
Miall, David S. (1997) "The Body in Literature: Mark Johnson, Metaphor, and Feeling". Journal of Literary Semantics, 26 (3), 191-210
Polányi, Michael (1967) The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.
Thomson, Philip (1972) The Grotesque. London: Methuen.
Tsur, Reuven (1987). On Metaphoring. Jerusalem: Israel Science Publishers.
Tsur, Reuven (1992a) Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. Amsterdam: Elsevier (North Holland) Science Publishers.
Tsur, Reuven (1992b) What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive -- The Poetic Mode of Speech Perception. Durham N.C.: Duke UP.
Tsur, Reuven (1997) "Sound Affects of Poetry -- Critical Impressionism, Reductionism, and Cognitive Poetics" Pragmatics and Cognition 5: 283-304.
Tsur, Reuven "Some Comments on the Lakoffean Conception of Spatial Imagery"
Wellek, René (1963) Concepts of Criticism. New Haven: Yale UP.
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