From the Individual to the System: Expanding the Range of Literary Interpretation

Article excerpt

Investigation of the ways in which "real" human minds and fictional minds are similar and different is an important undertaking for literary critics, psychologists and neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers. Thankfully, this investigation has begun in earnest and in the spirit of collaboration. Clearly no single effort is likely to unite the diversity of knowledge and method necessary for a thorough understanding of the mechanisms that connect brain function, and perhaps structure, psychological factors, and the workings of narrative. Information provided by single-minded research and the rational processes of construction and evaluation reach far beyond the boundaries of a single disciplinary pursuit.

Palmer's concepts of "fictional minds" and "social minds" provide significant pathways to understand the psychosocial function of reading, particularly of reading fiction. The essential assertion of cognitive theory underlying other theoretical frameworks from which to visit literature demands further pursuit of the meaning and function of cognition, particularly in the process of reading, and perhaps writing, literature. As this pursuit ensues, freedom from disciplinary limitations expands the possibilities for understanding. The structural components and processes of thinking require broader ranges of investigation than can be contained in a single set of theories and methods.

The psychological contribution to literary studies essentially has been dominated by psychoanalytic theory. Freud's own delving into literature as either explanatory of his theory or examples of the sources of the theory established a strong precedent for literary criticism based on psychological principles. Discussion of the drives and motives of characters, and sometimes authors, provides rich interpretation of the thinking and behavior of characters that infuse plots with meaning. As Holland points out, there are three people involved in the process of psychoanalytic literary criticism: the author, the audience, anda character in the text.

In the construction of the "social mind," Palmer broadens the "character" in the novel to the cast of characters, which includes both the individuals and the relationships that are contained in the narrative. By highlighting both internal and external positions with regard to the narrative, he includes the reader and asserts the importance of the relationship between the cognitive processes of the reader and those that characterize the narrative. The range of interpretation is expanded to include a system of relationships that may be involved in the process of understanding and interpretating narrative.

This shift of focus broadens the psychological interpretation of literature beyond that which may be addressed by psychoanalytic theory. Palmer's recognition of the use of the "hard" neurological sciences by literary critics and his call for greater attention to the "soft" sciences, in which he includes social psychology, invites recognition of the system of relationships that is the object of study.

Knapp and Womack bring the principles of family psychotherapy, a relatively recent development in the history of psychological approaches to treatment of behavioral and emotional maladies, to the study of literature. This volume features 13 alternative, broader interpretations of specific literature, successfully, in my view, establishing systems theories as promising perspectives for literary study. Knapp and Womack demonstrated the breadth of systems theories in communications studies, psychiatry, and psychology.

Shiff narrowed the scope from the range of systems theories to one specific, natural systems theory in her treatment of the work of Philip Roth: Bowen Family Systems Theory. Pointing out that psychoanalytic theory is essentially individual in its orientation and is highly subjective, she offered Bowen theory as a more objective alternative, visualizing the individual human organism as a part of its environment, particularly the relationship systems of which it is a part. …


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