Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form

Article excerpt

Naturalist literary theory conceives of literature as an adaptive behavioral realm grounded in the capacities of the human brain. In the course of human history literature itself has undergone an evolution that has produced many kinds of literary work. In this article I propose nine propositions to characterize a treatment of literary form. These propositions concern neural and mental mechanisms, and literary evolution in history. Textual meaning is elastic-through not infinitely so-and constrained by form. Form indicates the computational structure of the act of reading and is the same for all readers. Over the long term, literary forms become more complex and sophisticated.

keywords: form, cognition, neuropsychology, evolutionary psychology, evolution, literary theory, cultural evolution, computation

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_benzon01.shtml

The Naturalist Study of Literary Form

There are signs that the study of literature has begun recognizing the cognitive and neurosciences and evolutionary psychology, each a loosely organized arena of intellectual activity that has flourished in the last three decades. Empirical work continues being published on how people understand literary texts while the Stanford Humanities Review devoted an entire issue to cognitive criticism, taking at article by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon (1994) as its point of departure. Poetics Today has had special issues on cognitive poetics; Philosophy and Literature has been friendly to Darwinian thinking for perhaps a decade; book-length studies and anthologies are becoming more common, as are conferences.

Much of this work is theoretical and programmatic in nature, suggesting models, modes of explanation, and ways to proceed but not analyzing specific texts or groups of texts in any detail. Practical criticism inspired by these newer psychologies is, like most current practical criticism, concerned primarily with the meaning of texts. My emphasis is different. I am interested in form, in morphology. The purpose of this essay is to explain and justify that orientation and, in particular, to indicate why the newer psychologies provide an opportune conceptual environment in which to explore literary form.

There is nothing new about the study of literary form. But the term is ambiguous, between "literary form" as a kind of literary work, and "form" as differentiated from content. Sorting out the ambiguity is not easy.

Some ideas about form are basic to all study of literature, such as the existence of comedy, New and Old, tragedy, romance, lyric, and epic-discussed in such standard works as Northrup Frye's Anatomy of Criticism and, more recently, Alistair Fowler's Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes. Beyond these we have the categories that line the aisles of the popular fiction (as opposed to literary fiction) sections of bookstores: Fantasy, Romance, Science Fiction, Mystery, Horror, and their subtypes. All of these are literary forms, kinds of text; but discussions of them typically address matters of content as well as form.

Students of poetry can turn to handbooks detailing poetic forms, e.g. Lewis Turco's The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, which in its third edition has well over 300 pages and describes I don't know how many poetic forms-I own the 160-page first edition and it has more forms than I care to count. These forms are characterized in traditional terms, meter, stanzas, rhyme, number of lines and so the handbook is mostly about form as differentiated from content. This is not a theoretical treatise; it is a practical handbook, intended for poets and for those who need a way to describe the formal aspects of poems.

While my discussion has some overlap with those discussions, my intention and focus are different. Unlike the handbooks, my aim is methodological and theoretical, not descriptive. The intellectual program I outline might well have implications for discussions of literary kinds, but I do not take the sorting out of kinds as my starting point. …