Academic journal article Style

Minds at Play: Narrative Games and Fictional Minds in B.S. Johnson's House Mother Normal

Academic journal article Style

Minds at Play: Narrative Games and Fictional Minds in B.S. Johnson's House Mother Normal

Article excerpt

What does it mean to read minds in fiction? Are fictional minds merely artificial figments, or are they shaped and understood in much the same ways as real minds? How can new hypotheses about real minds (e.g., with regard to embodiment, enactivism, extended cognition, Theory of Mind) provide new answers to these questions? These are some of the most heavily debated questions in cognitive literary studies since the late 1990s (see, for example, Palmer 2004, Zunshine 2006, Herman 2011, McHale 2012, Caracciolo 2012, Makela 2013). Against the backdrop of those questions and debates, this essay explores how second-generation cognitive approaches to narrative might be able to bridge the divide. It argues for a synthesis in which the hypotheses of the extended, embedded, and embodied mind can be reconciled with a narrative analysis that recognizes the artificial nature of fictional minds. As the guest editors of this issue explain in the introduction, this strand builds on a "second generation" of cognitive science, which acknowledges that minds function in constant interaction with the body and the environment. Minds can and should not be seen as separate from that interaction.

Introduction

When it comes to the thematic and stylistic aspects of fictional minds, each literary narrative raises specific questions, which can shed light on more general issues of consciousness evocation. In this essay, I wish to focus on House Mother Normal (1971), a novel that enriches our understanding of the ways in which both the literary conventions underlying fictional minds and their cognitive facets contribute to the process of literary meaning-making. Also, my reading of the novel highlights the added value of second-generation cognitive approaches to fictional minds. At issue in House Mother Normal, written by the experimental British writer B.S. Johnson, is how dementia can be convincingly depicted in interior monologue and how metafiction affects the illusion of authenticity associated with the mimetic evocation of minds. The novel evokes fictional minds with familiar as well as with less traditional means, which fits in with Johnson's project of novelistic experimentation. In his seven novels (1963-1975), he uses inventive narrative strategies for consciousness evocation. In House Mother Normal as well as in other novels, visual and material features of the book are granted a narrative function. These features can also expose the illusion of the fictional world. In view of its particular narrative structure, the novel is thus suited to test an approach that does justice to the cognitive and the aesthetic aspects of fictional minds.

The first section of this essay will introduce the novel and describe the ways in which it experiments with the evocation of minds. In the second section, these procedures will form the basis of my discussion of some tendencies in cognitive-narratological accounts of fictional minds. Whereas critics have emphasized that the minds depicted in House Mother Normal turn inward and back to the past, a cognitive approach instead reveals that there are also extended, embodied, and embedded dimensions to the characters' minds. Not only does a traditional narratological approach ignore these aspects of the formal composition, it would also miss an important thematic strand in the novel, I will argue. In fact, the ethical crux (1) of the novel becomes more sharply visible when one notices how these minds are coupled with the environment, the body, and with other minds.

Also, the cognitive-cum-narratological approach itself will be put to the test: can it illuminate the evocation of minds if these minds are situated in a metafictional context? In other words, can a cognitive approach do justice to the aesthetic nature of (meta)fictional mentation? The answers to these questions will also lead to a heuristic model for the analysis of fictional minds, which combines narrative modes with what I call "cognitive modes," and makes room for "scales" (e. …

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