Emotion as Meaning: The Literary Case for How We Imagine

Emotion as Meaning: The Literary Case for How We Imagine

Emotion as Meaning: The Literary Case for How We Imagine

Emotion as Meaning: The Literary Case for How We Imagine


Offers a new model of the mind based upon a new understanding of emotion. It resolves the debate between the imagists and the propositionalists by tracing the translation of language into vicarious experience, showing that the mind represents the imagined world by means of not only image and idea, but emotion.


Emotion is a strange part of our experience. we speak of it as though it were separate from our selves, like the figure of Cupid coming from the outside to overwhelm us. Yet emotion is the heart of our identity. We are the emotions we feel. We are he who is angry, she who is cooperative; she who is lonely, he who is ambitious. We never feel surer of our identity than when we feel strong emotion, never understand others better than when they feel strongly—a subject to which we are exquisitely attuned.

Emotion is central to our experience, then, as several recent books have claimed. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence places what we once called “emotional maturity” firmly at the center of human success. Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error documents the inseparability of emotion and thinking, offering a new model of the mind that he develops in The Feeling of What Happens. and in Paradoxes of Emotion and Fiction Robert J. Yanal explores the contradictions involved in the reader’s reaction to the fiction, showing that emotion is central to the experience of reading.

Books like these reflect the new respectability that the subject of emotion now enjoys. They also—with the work of authors like Susan Feagin, Robert Solomon, Martha Nussbaum, William Lyons, Norman Denzin, Walter Kintsch, and Peter Stearns—form a body of knowledge that is fascinating in its own right. This book belongs to this group with one important difference. I examine emotion not as reaction but as mental representation, or the medium within which we construct and display our internal, imagined experience.

I began this project as an old-fashioned study of literary style, examining the relationship between words and images. Was there, I wondered, any way in which the two are equivalent? No less an authority than Henry James claims (in “The Art of Fiction”) that “the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete.” As I explored this analogy, however, I encountered the fact that we do not form actual images within our minds. How could we, without eyes inside our brain? But if we do not . . .

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