Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Spatial Cognition in Literature: Text-Centered Contextualization

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Spatial Cognition in Literature: Text-Centered Contextualization

Article excerpt

The call in recent pedagogical scholarship for a "holistic" approach to literary study is consistent with postmodernist opposition to text-oriented criticism. Education theorists have advocated what Betty Jean Craige terms a "contextual holism," which involves "a shift in focus from canonized texts to methods of contextual interpretation" (1). Arguing that "meaning is contextual," she encourages reading texts as "documents of social history," whereby scholarship would become "a means of political activism" (122, 76, 86). Thus by "holistic" she means oriented "toward the whole of society" (115).

What the contextual approach overlooks, however, is that a literary text is in itself a site of contextualization by reason of the way that figurative language operates. Cognitive linguists have demonstrated that we think in terms of metaphor, and metaphoric thinking is always contextual. Through metaphor, a work of literature organizes and unifies concepts and experience into a synergistic gestalt. As philosopher Max Black has observed: "A memorable metaphor has the power to bring two separate domains into cognitive and emotional relation by using language directly appropriate to the one as a lens for seeing the other...in a new way" (236). My purpose in this essay, therefore, is to discover the contexts that are embedded in the literary text and to suggest the way that many literary works are themselves models of holistic thinking. Specifically, I wish to argue that the very concept of holism is rooted in a spatial metaphor and that it is via metaphor that literature moves out of itself and into our daily lives. Designed to identify the spatial metaphors that make literature a site of holistic consciousness, my procedure will involve a synergistic correlation of neurophysiological research, Northrop Frye's "anatomy" of literary structures, psychological theories about the nature of the unconscious, and recent philosophical investigations of the orientational dynamics of figurative language and its basis in the physical experience of our environment.

As explained by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, "the structure of our spatial concepts emerges from our constant spatial experience, that is, our interaction with the physical environment" (56-57). Fundamental spatial images are "root metaphors" in the manner described by Stephen C. Pepper: they organize metaphors into networks (91-92). Such networks orient consciousness and structure it by analogy to the physical environment. The psychologist Julian Jaynes has described consciousness as "narratization," a movement of "I" through time and inner space (63-64). The structure of that inner space is a complex metaphor of the outer world. As Herman Melville expressed the idea in Moby-Dick: "O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind" (310).

Spatial metaphors are also evident in scientific descriptions of brain structure. Neurophysiologists such as S. J. Dimond and J. G. Beaumont, for example, see the human cerebral cortex as composed of two hemispheres, a concept that is reflected in the Eastern idea of the Yin and the Yang, and in the Western polarity of the head and the heart. Head and heart, in turn, became identified with different spheres of activity, providing a spatial basis for specialization of the sexes in Anglo-American social mythology: man became associated with mastery in the external and public domain; woman became associated with the inner realm of the heart, which in turn was identified with the hearth or home. A composite evocation of this spatial way of thinking may be found in Anne Bradstreet's "A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment," where husband and wife personify complementary psychological components of a spiritual unity separated in physical space: "So many steps, head from the heart to sever...I here, thou there, yet both but one. …

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