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

Article excerpt

In mediaeval and Renaissance poetry the use of genres is conventional. The first person singular is frequently regarded as a rhetorical device rather than as evidence of personal experience. 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 pro?cess of repeated social transmission, cultural programs [viz. poetic conventions] take forms that fit the natural capacities and constraints of the brain. In light of this model I explore the convention of catalogues of contradictions. Finally, I explore varieties of poetic effects resulting from aesthetic manipulations of these catalogues of contradictions.

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

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2008_tsur01.shtml

Some Fundamental Questions

Dr. Ratna Roshida Abd Razak's paper highlights the question, Can we read a poet's personality through the works, and, in particular, can we do so with mediaeval or Renaissance poetry? I believe that Ratna Roshida Abd Razak's attempt to apply Maslow's theory to Mediaeval poetry is an important event, and has significant implications for literary research. The dominant (and sometimes militant) view among scholars of Mediaeval poetries is that one may not apply to Mediaeval poets and poetry modern psychological theories that were not shared by the poets themselves. Such a conception is not unlike the claim that one may not assume that blood circulated in the poets' body before 1628, when William Harvey published his research on the circulation of blood.[1] Dr. Abd Razak's violation of the prevalent professional taboo is, therefore, more than welcome. I also believe, however, that we should not take for granted what it is that we have explained by the application of some psychological theory, and should scrutinize its implications in light of research done on poetic conventions. That's what I am going to explore in the present essay.

First, a disclaimer: I don't know Arabic, and know al-Mutanabbi's poems only through quotations by scholars who do know Arabic. So, this is an improvisation apropos Dr. Abd Razak's article rather than a straightforward response to it. Consequently, I will make no statements about al-Mutanabbi's poetry, only ask questions, and then will offer a generalized discussion on the nature of poetic conventions in Mediaeval and Renaissance poetry (about which I do know one or two things), and about the psychological foundations of poetic conventions in general. So, I will proceed in four steps. First I will ask some questions regarding Dr. Abd Razak's conception of al-Mutanabbi's poetry; then I will give a caveat against regarding Mediaeval and Renaissance poetry as a clue to the poet's personality; then I will offer an alternative conception of the application of psychological theories to poetic conven?tions; finally, I will apply the conception to be put forward to one wide-spread poetic convention.

Among other things, Dr. Abd Razak argues:

In order to please patrons, poets had to compose panegyrics (love poems [sic]) that satisfied their patrons by showing mastery of the language. The poet would be conferred prestige after giving praise for his patron's accomplishments.

The recital of a panegyric was an important formal occasion and provided an opportunity for the sovereign to demonstrate his generosity publicly by handsomely rewarding the poet, who, if he genuinely, but secretly admired his patron, could be inspired to produce truly excellent work. …