Academic journal article Intertexts

The Perception of Metaphor and the Metaphor of Perception: The Neurodynamics of Figuration

Academic journal article Intertexts

The Perception of Metaphor and the Metaphor of Perception: The Neurodynamics of Figuration

Article excerpt

Nestled within The Prelude's "Book the First" is the epic's celebrated "boat-stealing episode," the story of the boy Wordsworth's clandestine launch of an "elfin pinnace" discovered on a twilight outing. In an act of youthful impetuousity, ten-year-old William pilots the shepherd's skiff from its cavern mooring at the foot of one Stybarrow Crag, only to find that a contiguous ridge rises unexpectedly into view as he rows out into the center of the lake.

    A rocky steep uprose
  Above the cavern of the willow-tree,
  And now, as suited one who proudly rowed
  With his best skill, I fixed a steady view
  Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
  The bound of the horizon--for behind
  Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
  She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
  I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
  And as I rose upon the stroke my boat
  Went heaving through the water like a swan--
  When from behind that craggy steep, till then
  The bound of the horizon, a huge cliff,
  As if with voluntary power instinct,
  Upreared its head. I struck, and struck again,
  And, growing still in stature, the huge cliff
  Rose up between me and the stars, and still
  With measured motion, like a living thing
  Strode after me. (394-412) (1)

It is unknown to the future poet as his venture commences that the more massive Black Crag lies beyond Stybarrow, and so, as his vantage point recedes, the former cliff appears to him to advance of an animal volition. Wordsworth's use of the intransitive form of the verb "struck" to describe his reaction affords the reader the temporary sense that he acts directly upon the crag, striking at it in a desperate act of self-defense. Presently it becomes clear that he is rather striking the water with his oars, frantically rowing away from a looming mass that only appears to be striding after him. As the past tense of both "strike" and the oarsman's term "stroke," the verb ambiguously evokes the actions of fight and flight, innate responses that prove to be equally inappropriate to his predicament. One can infer that, in confirming the fugitive's backward motion, the input of peripheral vision (registering that motion), audition (the sound of the "striking" oars and the lapping of the water audible in the still night), and tactile perception (the sense of his hands on the oars) do not therefore conform with the image swelling in his visual field, and so the crag is misperceived as a prideful, threatening animal. Disorientation, heightened by fear and panic, guides the boy's action, which is genuinely motivated by his perception, but the action does not jibe with the sequent perception: rowing away from an inanimate mass does not yield the mass's expected diminishment in appearance as a result of the increased distance of the viewer from it. The attribution of autonomous movement and even life to an inert geological formation is indeed the result of a breach among perceptual modalities, but the sensory schism is also symptomatic of a more fundamental disconnect between action and perception. The phenomenon of preafference, in which the global neuronal activity patterns guiding action also prepare the sensory cortices to expect the consequences of that action, is interrupted (Brains 33). When the corollary discharge messages sent to the cortices leaves them woefully unprepared, the poet is thrust into a state of limbo.

In this insightful passage, Wordsworth unwittingly produces an archaeology of the pathetic fallacy, and a subtle one at that. A secondary meaning of "uprear" is to "exalt," to "elevate with joy, pride, or confidence," and by virtue of this complex, the verb lends a specific emotional valence to the apparently volitional action of the cliff. By grounding this attribution in an instance of unsuccessful action into the environment, Wordsworth roots the pathetic fallacy much more deeply in the perception/action cycle than does Ruskin, who takes that fallacy to task as the irrational projection onto brute nature of a confused emotional state, one ungoverned by the reason (155). …

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