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Download the paper "Poetic Conventions as Fossilized Cognitive Devices—
The Case of Mediaeval and Renaissance Poetics"

Reuven Tsur

Poetic Conventions as Fossilized Cognitive Devices
The Case of Mediaeval and Renaissance Poetics


In this paper I argue that in mediaeval and Renaissance poetry the use of genres is conventional, determined by vogue or social conventions rather than the psychological needs of the poets. The first person singular is frequently regarded as a rhetorical device rather than as evidence of personal experience. The notion of "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling" as proof of excellence is alien to these poetries. We should not, therefore, take for granted that we have explained the poet's subjective experience by the application of some psychological theory. I adopt, rather, Ehrenzweig's conception regarding the defense mechanisms with the help of which human society protects itself against the expressive force of artistic devices and turns them into style, that is, harmless ornament. From Roy D'Andrade I adopt the notion that in the process of repeated social transmission, cultural programs [viz. poetic conventions] come to take forms which have a good fit to the natural capacities and constraints of the human brain. Regarding mediaeval and Renaissance poetry, psychological theories can be revealing of the psychological processes fossilized into the conventions rather than of the individual poet's emotional life. In light of this model I explore the convention of catalogues of contradictions, widespread in mediaeval and Renaissance love poetry. The ambivalence inherent in love is a potential source of undesirable stress. Splitting the mother figure into a good mother and a straightforward wicked stepmother in dreams and fairytales is less threatening than an ambivalent attitude. Likewise in poetry, the undesirable stress of an ambivalent feeling can be made less threatening by "sharpening" into a straightforward logical contradiction. Logical contradictions can be threatening too, but this disturbing element can be eliminated by inclusion in a catalogue. Finally, I explore varieties of poetic effects resulting from aesthetic manipulations of these catalogues of contradictions.

Keywords: Genre conventions, "Biographical Fallacy", expressive devices fossilized, catalogue of contradictions, ambivalence, Mediaeval poetry, Renaissance poetry, al-Mutanabi, Ibn Ezra, Petrarch, Villon, Alain Chartier, Wiatt, Drayton, Ronsard.

Download the paper "Poetic Conventions as Fossilized Cognitive Devices—The Case of Mediaeval and Renaissance Poetics"

This paper has been published in PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts

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