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

Article excerpt

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. …