Reflections on Self-Reflexiveness in Literature

By Maas, David F. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Reflections on Self-Reflexiveness in Literature


Maas, David F., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


SELF-REFLEXIVENESS, the human ability to pay attention to what we pay attention to by moving to a higher order of abstracting, our power to develop a detached almost third-person perspective about a Cast-person perspective, I consider one of the most fascinating formulations of general semantics. The capacity to step back and observe an intense emotional upheaval, in some cases even studying it in slow motion and thoroughly mapping its subtle changes, distinguishes the human being from the animal.

Dr. Joseph DeVito, in his introduction to General Semantics: Guide and Workbook, suggested that self-reflexiveness was perhaps "the most difficult of the principles, and the least written about in general semantics." Using Korzybski's map/territory analogy, DeVito continues, "an ideal map would have to include a map of itself, if the map were a part of the territory. And then that map would have to include a map of the map."

Dr. Sanford I. Berman, in his How to Think, Communicate, and Behave Intelligently: An Introduction to General Semantics, notes that,

   You can have a map, and then you can have a map of a map. And you
   Can have a map of that map, and a map of that map, and you can go on
   indefinitely having maps of maps. This is also true of language. You
   can have words about the nonverbal world of reality. Then you can
   have a word or a statement about that statements you can have a
   statement about that statement, indefinitely. This is another
   similarity between language and a map--the self-reflexiveness.

We can find examples of self-reflexive human behavior in the works of several writers of what has become labeled the Realistic and Naturalistic periods of American literature. Incidentally, regarding these periods, Meyer Abrams characterizes naturalistic literary philosophy as an expression of the impersonality of the scientific method--a cold detached view of humanity.

Stephen Crane

We can see a form of self-reflexiveness in the precarious situation described in Crane's Open Boat, in which shipwrecked individuals huddle together, afraid for their lives, in a small dinghy surrounded by roaring whitecaps. Even in the midst of this emotional turmoil, the narrator reflects, "viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtlessly have been weirdly picturesque." (Crane, p.904)

As the narrator reflects upon the calamitous situation of their shipwreck, he moves into a detached absurd self-effacing irony. "Shipwrecks are apropos of nothing. If men could only train for them and have them occur when the men had reached pink condition, there would be less drowning at sea." (Crane, p.907) (This narrator's comments remind me of an incident in which I made a statement to a police officer in Pasadena following a fender bender on Colorado Boulevard. "I didn't even see the guy coming," I told the policeman in an incredulous tone of voice. The officer replied flatly, "That's why we call these accidents.")

In another incident in the Open Boat, the crew members become frustrated at the ineffectiveness of their attempt to enlist help from the people on shore. The former light-heartedness has gone. "To their sharpened minds it was easy to conjure pictures of all kinds of incompetency and blindness and indeed, cowardice. There was the shore of the populous land, and it was bitter and bitter to them that from it came no sign." (Crane, p.909) Although we realize that Crane's own hindsight has led to this evaluation, as had the "viewed from a balcony" observation, in the context of the story, the narrator in real time appears to evaluate his evaluations.

Walt Whitman

Similarly, the kaleidoscopically shifting point of view of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" allows us to see the process of the mapper mapping his mapping. Several episodes reveal a systematic shift of focus from the map to the mapper.

   The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails,
   she cuts the sparkle and scud,
                                                      (Whitman, p. … 

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