The Mind and the Nervous System: Synaptic Space in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams

By Corlew, Deric | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2010 | Go to article overview

The Mind and the Nervous System: Synaptic Space in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams


Corlew, Deric, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Following neuroscientific interest in the neuron and the reflex arc, Williams understood the mind as a system of anatomical objects arranged in space. This essay argues that Williams also viewed the space of the poem and the external world as "synaptic" systems in which things combine to form larger ideas.

"For ourselves are we not each of us the center of the universe?" (Williams, "Mind" 38). Williams's short story "Mind and Body" begins with this question from a female character apparently suffering from an imaginary illness. She arrives at the doctor's office fearing she has cancer, suffering stomach pains and telling a series of stories that all seem to point to a delusional state: a family history that contains "several who have spent their last days in the asylum" (40), a doctor who poisons her with mercury and silver nitrate, and a pet spaniel that cures her of bronchitis. Faced with these details, the reader is willing to accept that her condition is mental rather than physical, that she is truly at the centre of a universe that is an elaborate and pathological fiction. Yet this diagnosis is not correct, and it is not the diagnosis Williams's doctor offers. Instead, the woman is found to have "mucous colitis [...] a spasm of the large intestine which stimulates all sorts of illnesses" (47-48). The woman's mind is not controlling her body but is rather controlled by her body, the blood and guts being literally the "cause of all her unstable nervous phenomena" (48).

In his essay "The Work of Gertrude Stein," Williams declares that "an art, writing, must stay art, not seeking to be science, philosophy, history, the humanities, or anything else it has been made to carry in the past" (353). Despite Williams's stance against philosophical poetry, it is difficult to read "Mind and Body" purely as medical drama. Demonstrating the importance of human contact, Williams's doctor not only allays the woman's fears about cancer but also restores primacy to the body. In this way, the doctor refutes the woman's egocentrism, her claim that each mind stands at the centre of its own universe. However, the reader should not immediately assume that Williams is rejecting the existence of the mind, implying that the self exists only as a fragmented collection of organs and cells. I would argue that "Mind and Body" overcomes the simple dualism of its title, offering instead a mind that is always embodied in an interconnected system, a meeting of mind and body vividly expressed by the link between spasming intestines and disturbed mental function.

Insofar as traditional readings of Williams tend to compartmentalize mental and physical functions, they cannot fully appreciate the importance of the embodied mind to his poetry and to his concept of the imagination. Williams writes in his autobiography, "The reason people marvel at works of art and say: 'How in Christ's name did he do it?'--is that they know nothing of the physiology of the nervous system and have never in their experience witnessed the larger processes of the imagination" (Autobiography 123). (1) By viewing mind and body from a physiological perspective, grounding the mental process of imagination in the neuronal nervous system, Williams denies traditional divisions between the mental and the physical, the "idea" and the "thing." Instead, he views the mind as always composed of a series of elements separated by what I will refer to as "synaptic space." This space mirrors the action of the synapse: its division maintains separate identity and function but also allows communication and connection. By approaching Williams's vision of space as synaptic, I show how his work challenges and redefines abstract compartmentalizations such as that of "mind" and "body," bridging potentially divisive spaces to form new systems of meaning. I argue that Williams's conception of the mind as a system of functional units, a system in which things combine to form ideas, provides the foundation for his aesthetics and supplies the imagination's power to unite the elements that compose the mind, the world, and the poem. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Mind and the Nervous System: Synaptic Space in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.