Text World Theory: Martian Time-Slip

I am continuing my exploration of text world theory as described in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice that I began with an analysis of Sozaboy. Here I analyze the first few paragraphs of Martian Time-Slip and consider the implications of text world theory on my own writing.

The discourse world of Martian Time-Slip is no less complex than that of Sozaboy which I considered in my previous text world analysis. Philip K. Dick (PKD) is best known as the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was made into an acclaimed movie. I came across PKD the way I imagine many readers do: through Bladerunner and other films. Dozens of PKD novels and stories have been made into films, including: Total Recall, Minority Report, Screamers, and A Scanner Darkly. These films and the stories they are based on shared themes that question our perception of reality and pit the individual against corporate and government agencies. Parts of PKD’s life mirrored these themes. His struggles with mental health and drug use are public knowledge and formed the basis for A Scanner Darkly, published in the late seventies. These themes inform the Common Ground of the discourse world.

Martian Time-Slip was first published in 1963 as a serial in three issues of the SF magazine Worlds of Tomorrow. It was not uncommon for novels to begin as serials before being published in books. Charles Dickens found success publishing in periodicals early in the 19th century. In the 20th century, when paperbacks made books more affordable, magazines continued to be a way for publishers to generate a buzz among devout SF readers before releasing novels to a larger market. The modernization of printing a couple of decades earlier had resulted in the rise of the paperback as a popular medium. Innovative publishers, such as Ballentine, had taken advantage of this new, inexpensive medium to produce science fiction stories published first as magazine serials and then as novel length books. The story of these influential changes in the publishing industry are outlined in a couple of articles at Kirkus Reviews. And it is also described in the novel Trouble on Triton, where Sam Delany writes:

The technological innovations in printing at the beginning of the Sixties, which produced the present “paperback revolution,” are probably the single most important factor contouring the modern science-fiction text. But the name “science fiction” in its various avatars—s-f, speculative fiction, sci-fi, scientifiction—goes back to those earlier technological advances in printing that resulted in the proliferation of “pulp magazines” during the Teens and Twenties.

As a reader in the 21st century, I can’t help but think of all the film adaptations when I read a book by PKD. And to further complicate the issue of discourse participants for the novel, I did not read Martian Time-Slip as a book but listened to an audio version published by Brilliance Audio. I did have a paper copy of the book to use as reference for writing this text world analysis, but I do much of my reading now in audio. With so many discourse participants, the weighty concept of a “capital A-Author” loses some of its substance. Yet, I knew I was reading a PKD novel and that informed my expectations of what I would find.

Expectations are the beginnings of the Common Ground, elements of the discourse world that participants tacitly agree are relevant to the reading. Although the Common Ground shifts and changes as the novel is read, it is fundamentally driven by the text itself. Martian Time-Slip begins by establishing the Common Ground with a title that suggests conventional tropes popular in 1960s science-fiction, such as martians, advanced technology, and impossible physics. The first paragraphs continue to build the text world with World Building Elements (WBEs) that satisfy the expectations of an SF novel.

From the depths of phenobarbital slumber, Silvia Bohlen heard something that called. Sharp, it broke the layers into which she had sunk, damaging her perfect state of nonself.

“Mom,” her son called again, from outdoors.

Sitting up, she took a swallow of water from the glass by the bed; she put her bare feet on the floor and rose with difficulty. Time by the clock: nine-thirty. She found her robe, walked to the window.

I must not take any more of that, she thought. Better to succumb to the schizophrenic process, join the rest of the world. She raised the window shade; the sunlight, with its familiar reddish, dusty tinge, filled her sight and made it impossible to see. She put up her hand, calling, “What is it, David?”

“Mom, the ditch rider’s here!”

Then this must be Wednesday. She nodded, turned and walked unsteadily from the bedroom to the kitchen, where she managed to put on the good, solid, Earth-made coffee-pot.

In Trouble on Triton, Sam Delany wrote that landscape is the primary hero of an SF novel and the episteme is the secondary hero. The SF genre is defined in terms of landscape, in terms of the time, location, and objects in the story. The episteme is realized in the way characters interact with the landscape. In other words, the most important slots in the SF literary schema will be filled by the WBEs related to time, location, objects, and characters. These are the most salient parts of the story and the parts most readily employed to describe the story.

In her paper on Text Structure: Movie Scripts, Nelly Tincheva states that the text world structure is what most people recall when they describe a movie. But for SF movies in particular, I think the text world structure, which Tincheva argues is often based on the SOURCE-PATH-GOAL metaphor, is less likely to be recalled than are the WBEs. For example, when I tell a friend about Bladerunner or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I would say something like: “A post-apocalyptic story set a few decades in the future on an urbanized planet Earth that has completely destroyed the natural environment. Humans have expanded to colonies in outer space using the labor of androids called replicants. When replicants become sentient and try to pass as human, they are hunted by the police using a device that measures emotional response.” The elements I would first related are time (a few decades in the future), location (post-apocalyptic Earth and outer space colonies), objects (androids and device to test for androids), and characters (replicants and police). Of course, there is more to say about the story, but these elements of time, location, objects, and characters are the defining slots in the SF literary schema.

The WBEs in the first few paragraphs of Martian Time-Slip satisfy the expectations of a SF novel. The sun is reddish, as expected on Mars. Someone called a “ditch rider” arrives. The word “ditch rider” is a metonymic device that also meets the stylistic expectations of a SF novel: two common words joined together to evoke a fantastical object, for example “lightsaber” or “starship”.

The opening paragraphs also include WBEs that are completely mundane: alarm clocks, window shades, a glass of water, and a coffee pot. The adjective “Earth-made” applied to the coffee pot is another marker of the SF novel, but the effect of applying this metonymic device as an adjective instead of noun is to make an ordinary object uncanny instead of fantastic. This stylistic nuance is suggestive of another theme of the novel, mental health. The drug phenobarbital introduces this theme more explicitly, which satisfies another expectation of a PKD novel.

The Function Advancing Propositions (FAPs) in these first few paragraphs are both character advancing, “Sharp, it broke the layers into which she had sunk, damaging her perfect state of nonself.” and plot advancing, “Sitting up she took a swallow of water from the glass by the bed.” The character advancing propositions are frequently related to her use of the drug and its effect on her. The plot is simply to get out of bed and make coffee, a plot made interesting by the complications of her being under the influence of the drug. The balance of character advancing and plot advancing FAPs is a good example of building character through action, demonstrating the writerly technique of “show don’t tell”.
Sub-worlds are introduced as Silvia’s thoughts and goals. These sub-worlds also serve to introduce one of the central themes of the novel: mental health. Her thoughts and goals construct a modal sub-world. She must not take any more of the drug. She waivers between her and the ditch riders obligations to drain the water tank. Later in the text, it will be established that the elements of this sub-world, specifically the schizophrenic process are actually part of the text world.

If I were to tell a friend about Martian Time-Slip, I would say something like: “Corporations are moving in to transform a Martian colony from a small settlement into a major urban center. Schizophrenia and autism have become a wide-spread epidemic. But schizophrenia is a disjointed form of time travel, which the native Martians have a way of controlling.” My emphasis would be on the WBEs and the themes of urbanization and mental health which are addressed in the sub-worlds generated by the FAPs. For SF stories, the structure of the text world is shaped by the WBEs and themes suggested by sub-worlds.
Although I have found the insights provided by this analysis to enhance my reading of both texts, especially Sozaboy, my purpose in analyzing these two texts using text world theory is to support my growth and development as a writer. Text world theory allows for a close examination at the level of sentences and clauses of an entire text, such as a novel, that lead to broad conclusions about the text. The analysis looks for patterns in the WBEs and FAPs.

One thing I noticed in my analysis of both these novels is the use of consistent types of FAPs for rhetorical effect. Saro-Wiwa uses argument advancing propositions in the first few paragraphs of Sozaboy to create anxiety. PKD uses modal sub-worlds to introduce his novel’s theme of mental health. The consistency in types of FAPs and sub-worlds contribute to the narrator’s “voice”.

My text world analysis of Sozaboy was helpful in allowing me to engage deeply with the text. On my first reading of the novel, I had not noticed the argumentative structure of the opening. Surely, I had felt it, but it hadn’t stood out to me as a stylistic attribute. The process of doing a text world analysis drew my attention to that attribute, enhancing my appreciation of the novel. Although my text world analysis of Martian Time-Slip did not provide a similar dramatic insight, it did lead to a deeper reading. The connection between the sub-worlds and the themes of the novel were not obvious to me as a stylistic feature of the text at first.

I can see two beneficial uses for text world analysis as a writer. First, as I become more familiar with text world theory I am learning new ways of using FAPs for rhetorical effect. I am becoming a better reader, and that will make me a better writer. Second, I can directly apply text world theory to my own drafts to better control the narrator’s “voice”.

Summer Retreat 2017

This June I went on another retreat at Gethsemani Abbey. This is the third year I’ve started my summer with such a retreat. In 2015, I wrote about my initial experience at the abbey. Now the retreat has become an annual tradition for me, one that marks the transition into summer for me. The retreat also provides a framework that helps with the self-discipline required to sustain my writing efforts throughout the summer. And perhaps most important, my time at Gethsemani Abbey takes me outside the concerns of my own life and brings me in contact with something universal, expansive.

This past winter was a difficult time in my writing life. I wrote about my experience of writer’s block: Not Writing is Writing, and Not Writing is Not Writing. Summer retreats must be scheduled as early as February, so I had to set the intention early in the year. And as spring approached, I began looking forward to the summer months when I could devote several hours a day to my writing. In May I started writing a little more often than I had been throughout the winter months, bringing my laptop to the coffee house for a few hours each weekend. The repetitive or ritual aspect of these actions helps me to orient myself. And when the retreat finally happened, I found that not only was I able to focus on writing, but I was also able to refresh my spiritual and contemplative practices.

I brought Thomas Merton’s: Path to the Palace of Nowhere by James Finely along with me to listen to. This audiobook is structured as a series of talks or lectures preceding meditation, a format I am familiar with from Buddhist retreats I’ve gone on. Finley provides instruction on meditation, love, humility, contemplative prayer, and more based on Merton’s writing and his own experience as Merton’s student. These talks provided me focus for contemplation while on retreat.

On retreat, the silent company of others fosters a sense of intimacy. The absence of verbal communication highlights other forms of communication and other messages besides those communicated verbally. A powerful phatic message resounds in the shuffle of feet as each person makes their way to the church for prayer or to the dinning room for meals: we are here. It is perhaps the most relevant statement any of us can make, but it often gets drowned out by all our other discourse. On retreat, “we are here” is all there is.

While the retreat provides me an opportunity to transition into my summer and a chance to enrich my contemplative practice, my core motivation for going on retreat is to write. This summer I was able to revise several chapters of the novel I am currently working on. And I was able to establish a routine of writing for several hours a day that continued throughout the summer. I find starting this routine easier on retreat because there are fewer distractions, and the retreat provides a framework conducive to self-discipline because it is both unstructured and centered.

For retreatants, there are very few proscriptions except for silence and for meal times. But the monks form a highly structured community that begins each day with morning prayers at 3 AM. The bells ring throughout the day, calling everyone to prayer. But it is my own internal voice that gets me out of bed in the morning and gets me to sit at the computer to write. The bells are frequent reminders of a rigorous structure, but what I take away as a retreatant is an ear for my own voice prodding me to wake up and get to work.

After the retreat, I was able to sustain my writing through to the end of summer when I started a new job. The requirements of this job have once again limited how much time I can devote to writing. But I continue to keep up my reading and start each day with a cup of coffee and a few minutes making notes on this blog. Soon I will post a follow-up to my investigation of Text World Theory and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy. And when winter settles in, I plan to return to my novel with some fresh ideas and perhaps an entirely new direction.

Text World Theory: Rotten English of Ken Saro-Wiwa

In this blog post, I am familiarizing myself with the theoretical methods described in the chapters on text world theory from Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice by investigating two novels: Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English by Ken Saro-Wiwa and then Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick.

In my initial response to text world theory I discussed how I am using these theoretical methods to revise and reorganize my own novel. During my revisions, I limited my consideration to the text world level of the novel so that I was free to experiment at that structural level. Also, I listed the FAPs and WBEs so that I could see connections that I had not thought of before. Now, I will apply the methods of text world theory to a reading of the post-colonial Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English by Ken Saro-Wiwa and sci-fi Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick. I have limited the detailed analysis to the first few paragraphs of each novel, because I am particularly interested in how these opening pages relate to the complete novel.

An analysis using text world theory begins first by considering the discourse world of the text, which for post-colonial literature is quite different from the prototypical discourse world of two speakers in conversation. This prototypical discourse world can be stretched to accommodate a personal letter writer and receiver. And an analogy between letter writing and book writing, motivated by the metaphor “A book is the author’s letter to the world”, can further elaborate the model of a discourse world to accommodate novels. However, post-colonial literature, such as Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, draws attention to consequences of the isomorphic relationship between the prototypical discourse world and the discourse world of the novel.

A prototypical letter is written by one person and delivered to another person by a system which is fairly indifferent to the letter’s contents. In contrast, a novel is written, edited, published, and disseminated by multiple people and organizations. It is also read, discussed, and taught by many more individuals and organizations. Almost none of the parties involved at any stage in the discourse world are indifferent to the contents of the novel. This is especially true for Sozaboy which is politically charged.

I first encountered to Sozaboy at a literary conference in Boulder, CO several years ago. The topic of the conference was first-person narrative, “The Shape of the I”. Timothy Morton was the key note speaker, and environmental philosophy was a central concern of the conference. The discourse world included university professors and artists giving presentations on the African Diaspora, literary criticism, environmentalism, performance art, and philosophy. All of these view points framed my reading of Sozaboy as an international novel, an environmental novel, and an anti-war novel.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian author and activist. He was executed in 1995 after a controversial trial by a military tribunal that was allegedly supported by the Shell Oil Company. In 2009, Shell Oil settled out of court and gave the families of those executed over fifteen million dollars without admitting any involvement.

The “Rotten English” in which Sozaboy is written is an invented language, a mixture of Nigerian pidgin, broken English and occasional idiomatic English phrases. According to a paper by Jeffrey Gunn at University of Glasgow, this invented language crosses “ethnic and cultural barriers and allows a critique of all parties involved in the Nigerian Civil War.” These parties involved in this civil war, which lasted from 1967 to 1970, include the Ibo–the dominant tribe in Eastern Nigeria–and the multitude of other ethnic minority groups that were located within borders of the newly proposed country. Saro-Wiwa invented a language that speaks across ethnic and linguistic lines, entailing every reader will at some point feel displaced by the language. Rotten English, at the level of the discourse world, is no one’s actual language, not even the author’s. The glossary included at the end of the book, even if it is not actually utilized by the reader, introduces into the Common Ground tools for crossing linguistic lines, implying that cultural displacement can be overcome.

In my initial post to this blog on Sozaboy I wrote about my feelings of social anxiety attending the conference, the anxiety I feel at all large gatherings. Sozaboy begins with a large social gathering, a celebration among the fictional villages of Dukana. The feeling of social anxiety Saro-Wiwa creates at the begining of the novel is rooted deep in the grammar of Rotten English and arises from a conflict between sub-worlds.

Although everybody in Dukana was happy at first.

All the nine villages were dancing and we were eating plenty maize with pear and knacking tory under the moon. Because the work on the farm have finished and the yams were growing well well. And because the old, bad government have dead, and the new government of soza and police have come.

Everybody was saying that everything will be good in Dukana because of the new government. They were saying that kotuma ashbottom from Bori cannot take bribe from people in Dukana again. They were saying too that all those policemen who used to chop big big bribe from people who get case will not chop again. Everybody was happy because from that time, even magistrate in the court at Bori will begin to give better judgement. And traffic police will do his work well well. Even one woman was talking that the sun will shine proper proper and people will not die again because there will be medicine in the hospital and the doctor will not charge money for operation. Yes, everybody in Dukana was happy. And they were all singing.

World building elements (WBE) establish location, time, objects, and characters. The WBEs in these first few lines locate the text world in farming community, Dukana, made up of nine villages and situated near a larger urban center, Bari. The celebration is happening at night in the middle of the growing season just following a regime change. The objects of the text world include the celebration, yams and other food, the moon and the sun, gossip (knacking tory), governments (old and new), courts, medicine and hospitals, and bribes. Except for the mention of an anonymous woman, there are no specific characters introduced to the text world in this opening. There are hints as to what kind of characters may appear in the story, but the lack of specific characters focus attention on the community, Dukana, as a whole.

The function advancing propositions (FAP) are elements of the text that advance the discourse in some way, that move or motivate the discourse. Most of the FAPs in this section are argument advancing rather than action advancing, statements about what will happen and will not happen. There are a few action advancing propositions: dancing, eating, gossiping, and singing; but those actions are tersely described. The argument FAPs, on the other hand, describe actions related to government corruption creating sub-worlds where bribery and corruption have ended. But the very first line of the novel undermines the potential efficacy of these arguments for ironic effect.

The very first line signals a discursive FAP with the subordinate conjunction “although”. The line is also an incomplete sentence, a dependent clause that calls for an independent clause to contrast with it. But the paragraphs that follow do not contrast with this dependent clause and instead argue for the truth of the statement that everybody in Dukana was happy. The feeling of social anxiety that arises in these first few paragraphs is rooted in the grammar of Rotten English. The sub-worlds created by the argument FAPs bolster the dependent clause in the first line, but grammatically, these sub-worlds increase the anticipation for the inevitable independent clause that will contradict them, undermining the sub-worlds even as they are established. The grammar signals to the reader that no matter how extravagant the promises of the new government, there must come an independent clause that runs counter to the happiness of Dukana. Indeed, several pages into the book the first line is repeated with the addition of an independent clause: “So, although everyone was happy at first, after some time, everything begin to spoil small by small and they were saying that trouble have started.”

In my next blog post, I will consider Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick using text world theory. Although, Martian Time-Slip is a very different kind of novel than Sozaboy there are some interesting connections.

Not Writing is Not Writing

In my previous post, I described how writing is not writing, how frequent breaks and non-writing activities are necessary to the creative process. Here I’m going to consider those extended intermissions which are not conducive to creativity. What do I do when I’m in a slump, when not writing is indeed not writing.

My vocational demands are greatest during the fall and winter months. During these months, I don’t have the luxury of manufacturing distractions from writing with walks through the park or rides on my motorcycle. My life during these months is full to the brim with responsibilities that distract me from writing. I’m usually only able to make time to write a few days a week and only for an hour or two at a time. I’m generally satisfied if I can keep that pace, and the sparse writing schedule can even spur creativity as I discussed previously.

However, if I miss a few days of writing because of some pressing demands, then a week or more may pass by without any writing at all. I consider myself in a slump if two or more weeks have gone by without my working on my novel or this blog. Some slumps are easily recovered from. I only have to set aside some time during the weekend, cancel any engagements I may have, and write. But a slump can gather momentum until the situation feels intractable. When I find myself in an intractable slump, I have two ways of responding. First, I attempt to mitigate the consequences of being in a writing slump. And second, I try to pull myself out of it.

The consequences I experience while being in a slump, when I’m not writing at all, are lethargy, dullness, and inertia; in a word, depression. Sometimes the factors that keep me from my writing are beyond my control, and there is nothing else to do but deal with it as best I can. I try to keep myself engaged in activities related to writing but that don’t require the same level of time and commitment. In short, I read.

Reading maintains my ability to use and manipulate literary schemas. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Peter Stockwell describes literary schemas as “a higher-level conceptual structure that organizes our ways of reading”. Literary schemas structure ordinary world schemas (context), text schemas (structure), and language schemas (style) when we are reading or writing in a literary context. Being able to use and manipulate literary schemas means being able to manage various levels of schemas to restructure, reinforce, disrupt or refresh these ordinary schemas. Reading is where writing starts, and I always have several books near to hand. But when I am in a writing slump, I make an extra effort to read more than usual.

I enjoy a wide variety of novels, from serious fiction to scintillating pulp. Often what distinguishes one from the other is the level of schema the writing engages. Writing that manipulates language schemas is considered highbrow. Writing that engages world schemas is called lowbrow. I find all of it pleasurable, including experimental writing that plays with text schemas. And I like to take my time with novels, reading a book over a period of weeks or months allows me to digest the writing and live with the story, rather than merely to find out what happens. And occasionally I will re-read a novel, attending to a different level of schema on subsequent readings. How does the writer of this detective novel use language to develop characters? How does the structure of this experimental novel determine the narrative?

Poetry is something I linger over. I may read and reread the same poet or long poem for several years, growing with it and letting it shape me. When I find myself in a slump, poetry is an effective tonic. Reading poetry inspires me, and very often I am compelled to return to my own writing after reading poetry. Perhaps because I don’t usually get caught up in the narrative, reading poetry focuses my attention on language schemas.

But pleasure reading, even intense pleasure reading, is several steps removed from actual writing. Although more actively imaginative than watching a movie or playing a video game, pleasure reading is passive compared to writing. Reading can go deeper than pleasure, though. Research into literary analysis engenders my reading of fiction and poetry with a level of engagement that goes beyond the passive connection to already developed schemas. So when I am in a writing slump, I also read literary criticism to develop my understanding of the nature of literary schemas. This understanding increases my appreciation of literary schemas encountered in fiction and poetry, affording me the opportunity to read creatively at the level of context, structure, and style. And reading moves that much closer to writing.

Mitigating the negative consequences of a writing slump is important, but there is really only one way to pull myself out of a slump: I write. This blog has been helpful for that. Although my posts are relatively long compared to many blogs, each post is short enough that I can complete it in a reasonable amount of time. And if a slump has stretched on for several months, then my writing always feels clumsy when I return to it. When I am working on my novel, I know I will have to edit and revise any chapter I write that is subpar—which can be yet another deterrent to writing. But I allow myself to write and post to the blog even when I don’t feel the quality of my writing is at its best. My apologies to the reader.

I also have people who encourage me. My sister asks me occasionally about my writing and if I’ve been working on anything recently, which serves as a gentle and kind reminder to get back to it. And I encourage myself. I’ll promise myself treats and rewards for an honest hour work at the keyboard.

As I look toward 2017, I find myself mired in a writing slump. I have been writing but not on my novel. So this blog post and the last are attempts to shake off the slough. Most importantly, I don’t chide or berate myself for being in a slump. That doesn’t help at all. I maintain a positive attitude and keep myself engaged as much as possible through reading. The muse will return, always, I am certain.

Writing is Not Writing

I’ve been thinking about my writing process. During the summer months I’m able to devote my days to writing, and the story I’m working on often takes over my world. But in the autumn months, vocational demands impinge on the days, even hours, I can devote to writing. So how do I make the most of the fecund summer months? And what do I do during the withering months between summer and spring?

The hard work of writing, putting down words, is essential. I call it hard work, because for me it often is. Sometimes it seems the hardest work of all. I’d rather be doing anything than write—dishes, house cleaning, running errands, my day job, anything. But I have to stay in the seat with my fingers on the keyboard for hours. There’s no other way.

However, I also know I have to get distracted. If I don’t get distracted, nothing comes: no words, no ideas, nothing. If I sit at the computer all morning, three or four hours, then eventually the words will trickle through, but too slowly to create a story. There needs to be a flow that can’t be forced.

So writing in the summer months is about balancing distraction with production. There are many new books on learning that reference cognitive research into the important role of distraction in learning and creativity. How We Learn by Benedict Carey describes that balance in a chapter called, “The Upside of Distraction”, citing psychological research on the role of incubation in problem solving. According to a meta-analysis of the research, breaks with mild activity, such as video games, TV, and surfing the web, are optimal for solving linguistic problems.

Anagrams and crossword puzzles are a different order of linguistic problem compared to writing, but the research jibes with my own experience. For example, to write this blog I went through several drafts, beginning with a free write. After jotting down my ideas about summer writing, I took a break. I went for a walk, made some lunch. Then I returned and made an outline that included references to Carey’s book.

The timing of the break is crucial in obtaining the most benefit. For incubation to occur, I have to get stuck, which means I have to be gripped by what I’m writing. That takes time in the seat, usually an hour or two. Stopping just when I’m engaged creates something called the Zeigarnik effect, named after a Lithuanian researcher who found that people remembered more when interrupted during a task than when they completed the task.

Beginning a piece of writing but stopping before I’ve finished prioritizes the writing in my mind, which colors my perceptions and experiences. The story takes over my world. My mind becomes inclined to make connections relevant to the interrupted writing. Sometimes these connections are major insights, but other times they are small but interesting: an overheard turn of phrase or an observed character trait.

Another strategy I employ in my writing process is described in A Mind For Numbers by Barbara Oakley. The book is geared toward applications to learning math and science, but the strategies Oakley recommends is based on the same research as many of the new cognitive learning books. She explains the difference between focused thinking and diffused thinking. Oakley recommends setting a timer for twenty-five minutes and focusing on a particular problem. When the twenty-five minutes is up, stop and take a reward.

I will set a timer for an hour when I sit down to write. Sometimes I place a piece of chocolate on the table and tell myself I have one hour of writing before I can have it. If the hour goes by without much writing, I’ll set it for another hour (but still eat the chocolate, of course.) If the words are flowing and the timer goes off, I stop. I do something else. I watch Netflix. Or I play on the computer. Forty-five minutes or an hour later, I set the timer and sit back down to write again. The words usually come easier by this time, even if I don’t have a chocolate waiting for me. There is a flow.

I’ve gotten pretty good at writing by not writing during the summer months when I have time to sit down to write and time for walks and web surfing. But other times, when I’m busier and lazier, I don’t write by not writing, I just don’t write. In my next blog post, I’m going to write about what I do during the times when I’m not just distracted but stuck, completely blocked.

Cognitive Poetics: Text World Theory

I am continuing my response to Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics and Cognitive Poetics in Practice edited by Joanna Gavins and Gerard Steen with an overview of text world theory. This chapter, like the previous chapter on parable, is more complex than the beginning chapters because these methods and approaches incorporate the foundational concepts previously introduced to expand the range and depth of the cognitive poetic analysis. For example, text world theory is similar to possible worlds theory described in the chapter on Discourse worlds and mental spaces, but text world theory is more thoroughly rooted in the cognitive approach and is generally applicable to longer texts.

Possible worlds and mental spaces offer a way of explaining the process a reader uses to interpret literature. Cognitive poetic analysis using possible worlds theory is limited to generalized statements about texts that describe setting and analyze characters. Mental space theory can extend possible worlds theory by describing the cognitive means by which readers track these possible worlds. But possible worlds theory is a philosophical conceptualization that models knowledge as a formal logical set rather than using a cognitive model of information.

In text world theory, a text world is constructed as a consequence of reader’s cognition. In other words, text worlds are what readers build in their minds using the material of the text. Text world theory offers a finer, more detailed text analysis, as well as a fundamentally cognitive explanation for how reading is a process of world building. It is broader in scope than possible worlds theory in that the top level of the text world theory is the discourse world, a language event that includes all the immediate situation in which the text is read. The discourse world, as modeled in text world theory, includes two or more participants. Participants bring all their memories, intentions, knowledge, and motivations to the language event.

The next level down is the text world, which can be divided into two types of components: World Building Elements (WBE) and Function Advancing Propositions (FAP). Below the text world are levels of sub-worlds that can extend indefinitely. Changes in focalizing, location, time, etc. will create sub-worlds, which can be participant accessible or character accessible.

Although the top level discourse world potentially includes every aspect of the reader’s world, all of their memories, knowledge, and motivations; only those aspects which form a necessary context for understanding are used as the Common Ground. The concept of Common Ground directly links aspects of the discourse world to the text world. Agreement is implicit between discourse participants on elements included in the Common Ground. Disagreement at this level would cause a breakdown in communication leading to misunderstanding, absurdity, or incoherence.

The text world level is constructed incrementally from elements of the Common Ground and linguistic features of the actual text to form WBEs and FAPs. These elements and propositions are directly linked to the words and phrases in the text. WBEs provide detail of location, time, objects, and characters. FAPs introduce motivation, action, and argument to the text world. The same cognitive mechanisms used to organize the information in the actual world, such as prototypes, scripts, schemas and cognitive metaphors, are used to organize WBEs and FAPs that build the text world. To accommodate the richness and subtlety that can be expressed in literature, the text world includes sub-worlds with the same basic structure as the text world. Flashbacks, points-of-view, hypotheticals are all sub-worlds.

Joanna Gavins writes in Cognitive Poetics in Practice that a typical cognitive poetical analysis using the methodology of text world theory begins at the level of the discourse world where participants are engaged in a language event. She continues from the discourse world to the construction of the text world or mental representation by the participants. Gavins applies the methodology to an analysis of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White, which is a notoriously difficult novel in the postmodern style. Gavins’ analysis reveals that much of the difficulty can be traced to the top-level discourse world where the author repeatedly rejects “his obligation to communicate clearly and efficiently”. She concludes by suggesting that although some readers may be put off by the complexity generated by an uncooperative author, for many readers the complexity is what attracts them to the text.

A similar conclusion about the aesthetic pleasure of complexity was arrived at by the author of a paper I read several years ago which also used text world theory. Nelly Tincheva’s paper Text Structure: Movie Scripts proposes at least three types of text structure: textual world structure, superstructure, and overall structure. Her claim is that the Textual World—“a cognitive construct which organizes all activated mental models of PEOPLE and OBJECTS.”—is structured around the SOURCE-PATH-GOAL image metaphor. What she identifies as the superstructure correlates with sub-worlds within the text world, or rather with how sub-worlds are structured in the text. She makes the interesting observations that what is generally remembered by readers is textual world structure and not the superstructure but that a disjunction between textual world structure and superstructure is aesthetically appealing.

Peter Stockwell provides three short examples of cognitive poetic analysis using text world theory. First, he considers a passage from Birdsong a novel by Sebastian Faulks set in WWI. He contrasts this passage with one from The Brain-Stealers of Mars by John W. Campbell, a 1936 pulp SF novel. What he finds is that for Birdsong , the FAPs in the text world are mostly relational and descriptive, with action driven FAPs occurring in sub-worlds. But for The Brain-Stealers of Mars, the FAPs in the text world are primarily actional, and sub-worlds with FAPs that are attitudinal “are all present only in order to explain the immediate reason for an action.” While the contrast between the styles of two novels is a useful exercise for elucidating the technique of text world theory, similar conclusions could be drawn from a variety of analytical techniques.

Stockwell ends the chapter with a cognitive analysis of a poem by John Keats that does provide some unique insights specifically based on the sub-worlds of the poem. First, Stockwell comments on the fact that When I have Fears is written in such a way as to have a clear discourse world and clear sub-worlds, but no actual text world. He proposes borrowing a technique from deictic shift theory so that movement between sub-worlds can be described as world-switches along a nested hierarchy. So then, the phrases: “When I have”, “Before high-piled books”, “When I behold”, and “Then on the shore” all que the same sub-world which is a literary top level, just below the discourse world. Furthermore, the final line: “Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.” can be read as part of this literary top level sub-world or as part of an embedded metaphorical sub-world. The two different readings lead to unique interpretations of the poem, one stoical and the other despairing.

As I concluded when I first wrote about text world theory in my response to Tincheva’s paper, any critical theory that facilitates my engagement with texts is appreciated. And I find the techniques and methods described in these chapters on text world theory useful for thinking about what I read and what I write. This has been especially true for when I consider structure. For example, I am currently revising the first few chapters of the novel I am working on and restructuring the first part of the story. Since I have already written a draft of these chapters, there are multiple sub-worlds including flashbacks and focalizing changes. I have found it useful to consider only the text world level of the story as I do this restructuring, focusing first on the WBEs and then the FAPs at this level provides a summary of the text world.

I will continue my response to this chapter on text world theory in my next blog post by investigating two texts: Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English by Ken Saro-Wiwa and Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick.

Poetics Today: Ideology and Entertainment

I am interested in understanding what reading fiction does to us while we are being entertained and how a writer works to transfer ideology while also working to please the reader. Here I respond to a paper from Poetics Today v23 by Francis F. Steen that sets out to explain Aphra Behn’s approach to exactly that problem and the apparent contradiction between her ideological feminism and her political support of royalism. In two prior blogs, I responded to articles by Reuven Tsur and Liza Zunshine also from Poetics Today v23, a collection of papers from 2002 on the cognitive revolution in literary studies. This paper by Francis F. Steen applies cognitive blending theory to an analysis of Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister by Aphra Behn. Steen’s approach is different from Tsur’s and Zunshines in that he attempts to draw broad conclusions about fictional narrative compared to other modes of discourse and does not strictly hold to a cognitive analysis of the text.

Steen explains that Behn’s “instructional pact” was not between writer and reader but between writer and ruler. She wrote for the Royalists, using literature as a means of “insinuating” Royalist beliefs and attitudes toward government. Aphra Behn intended her writing to be political and instructive. Steen quotes her saying:

They are secret instructions to the People, in things that ‘tis impossible to insinuate into them any other way.

But Steen makes the argument that literature cannot “effectively serve two masters, the pleasures of the individual and the priorities of the state.” To support his argument, Steen uses conceptual blending to analyze how Behn maps the devotion of two lovers onto the devotion of subjects to the monarch. What Steen draws attention to is the nature of the love affair and the unexpected configurations implied by the mapping. Royalist devotion is mapped onto an illicit and incestuous affair; Whiggish limitations on the monarch are mapped onto moral objections to the love affair.

Steen claims that the “advantage of fiction” is to allow exploration of possibilities without a commitment to factuality or practicality. Conceptual blends, especially complex literary blends, are not firmly determined. Not every aspect of an input space gets mapped onto the generic space or blended space. The reader can and must explore contradictory possibilities. New structures of information are developed and tested in fiction that might not be accessible in more earnest nonfiction.

The cognitive task of fiction, says Steen, is to improve the internal organization of information through simulation. Readers must be “seduced” into imagining the fictional world, a cognitively demanding act of suspending belief. Steen argues that the cognitive demands of reading fiction undermine the “instructional pact” described by Aphra Behn.
For writing to be effective as fiction it must afford an experience of simulation that has no immediate consequences for the real world. For example, I can enjoy reading a novel about vampires because vampires are fiction. But if there were vampires in the actual world, I would be like the Frog Brothers in the The Lost Boys who read horror comics as nonfiction texts in order to learn how to fight the undead. The goal of a nonfiction text is consistency. If vampires existed in the actual world, I would want to read a text with facts consistent with the actual world: inviting a vampire into your home nullifies the usual deterrents. But the goal of fictive simulation is not consistency but possibility. Fictions way of knowing the world is to provide a multitude of possibilities that are explored by the reader. Because I am assured that vampires do not in fact exist, I am willing to entertain all the possibilities: What if I were attacked by a vampire? What if I became a vampire? What if someone I loved were a vampire?

Steen’s contention that the more effective writing is as fiction the less effective it will be as propaganda depends on the distinction he makes between propaganda and “absorption and learning”, a distinction he characterizes as each being the obverse of the other. But his point here was not clear to me. The word “propaganda” can have different meanings with either a narrow or a broad scope. I wasn’t clear on which meaning Steen was using. Taken narrowly, propaganda refers to the dissemination of false or exaggerated ideas in service of a government or cause. Literature of World War II Nazi Germany is exemplary of this type of propaganda. But taken more broadly, propaganda can refer, without ethical evaluation, to the spread of any ideas in service of a government or cause. This broad definition is less morally loaded than the narrow definition. Both definitions are useful. But the narrow, moralistic definition feels anachronistic when applied to literature of the 17th century. And the distinction Steen sets forth becomes shaky when using a broad definition of propaganda.

Steen’s cognitive analysis of Behn’s writing based on blending theory is thorough, but he does not explain or justify the comparison between fiction and non-fiction with the same cognitive tools. In an article that appears in the same volume, Tony Jackson critiques Steen’s paper for relying on literary tools outside of cognitive poetics. Jackson responds to several papers in the volume and identifies general problems confronting cognitive poetics in that early stage. He calls for more specification of how blending theory operates in the mind, and he challenges Steen’s deployment of Dorrit Cohn to discuss the nature of fictional narrative. According to Jackson, what is lacking is clarification on what cognitive poetics can yield that other approaches, such as Cohn’s, do not already offer.

In another article in Poetics Today v23 that appeared after Steen’s and Jackson’s, Eyal Segal discusses one of Dorrit Cohn’s books: The Distinction of Fiction. While Steen’s argument pits fiction against philosophical writing, in this book Cohn narrows her comparison down to two categories of narrative: fiction and historiography. But even between these two categories, Segal identifies the difficulty Cohn has in coming up with consistent criteria for distinguishing fiction from non-fiction. Cohn identifies three “sign posts of fiction”:

  • emancipation from an external database
  • open to inside views of characters’ minds
  • narrator’s voice is distinct from author’s voice

Eyal Segal points out the inconsistency in the nature of these criteria: only one of them is a textual feature. The relationship between the text and an external database or between the narrator’s voice and the author’s voice cannot be determined from the text alone. Segal contends that these two criteria are actually conditions that produce fictionality, characteristics of the communicative framework rather than of the text itself.

Perhaps the inconsistency Segal identifies in Cohn’s sign posts are necessary in any system that distinguishes between fiction and non-fiction. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Peter Stockwell describes the literary reading experience as a two stage process: interpretation, which begins in cultural knowledge, and reading, which is analytically engaged with the text itself. These two stages can be distinguished from one another but not uncoupled. There would be no way to distinguish one type of reading experience from another (i.e. reading fiction from reading non-fiction) without naming differences in the interpretation stage and in the reading stage.

Segal’s review of Dorrit Cohn’s book along with Stockwell’s description of the literary reading experience can help frame Steen’s argument that the more effective writing is as fiction, the less effective it will be as propaganda. Steen is analyzing contradictory experiences at different stages of reading. Readers are (and were) aware of Behn’s political support of the Royalists and encounter her writing as propaganda at the interpretation stage. But at the reading stage, textual features, such as described by Steen, allow for different viewpoints that contradict impressions formed in the interpretation stage.

I found Steen’s application of blending theory to Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister interesting because he reveals an aspect of the structure used by Aphra Behn that is unusual and intriguing. But I also found Jackson’s critique of Steen’s paper valid. Steen’s deployment of Dorrit Cohn to support his broad argument about fiction would have benefited from further application of tools from cognitive poetics, such as those described by Peter Stockwell in the chapter on prototypes and categorization in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction.

Poetics Today: Evolution & Natural Kinds

I am continuing my response to Poetics Today v23 (2002), a collection of papers from the then nascent field of cognitive poetics. In my previous blog, I responded to an article by Reuven Tsur, the scholar who coined the term “cognitive poetics”. Here I will respond to a paper by Liza Zunshine on the English poet A. L. Barbauld by Liza Zunshine. A couple of years ago, I briefly summarized this article in a blog post about the chapters on cognitive grammar of Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics In Practice. Now I will consider Zunshine’s paper as it connects to my own writing.

Zunshine argues that the use of metaphor in the catechistic hymns of A. L. Barbauld activate two distinct cognitive domains: one for natural kinds and one for artifacts. Zunshine’s explication of the interplay between language and these cognitive domains suggests a solution to a particular writing problem I’ve been considering since I read Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature.

Prior to reading Morton, the environment was not an explicit concern of my writing. When I write, I am usually focused on socio-economic and psychological issues. But Ecology Without Nature convinced me that there are interesting problems associated with environmental writing. Indeed, all writing can be understood as environmental writing.

Morton outlines an ambient poetics that contributes to environmental or “nature” writing. He uses the term ecomimesis to describe writing that creates a sense of nature that is hushed, perhaps not peaceful but certainly pure. The problem Morton draws attention to is that the ideology behind this pure hush is complicit in big and small environmental catastrophes. And Morton further argues that getting beyond that ideology is especially problematic because the desire to get beyond is a symptom of the ideology.

In her paper, Zunshine argues that Barbauld’s catechistic hymns rhetorically evoke a hierarchy of God above human beings using the categories of natural kinds versus artifacts. Zunshine makes clear that she is not claiming an ontological distinction between categories of natural kinds and artifacts. Rather, she argues that human beings have evolved to perceive such categories, to classify every perceived object into one of these two categories. Like the approach in Ecology Without Nature, Zunshine does not endorse the ontological distinction between natural kinds and artifacts nor does she try to move beyond those categories. Instead, her analysis of Barbauld’s hymns demonstrate how a writer can use the tension between these cognitive traits to ideological effect.

Perception of natural kinds is different from and evolutionarily older than perception of artifacts. Natural kinds have “natures”, intrinsic qualities. Artifacts have functions. The two cognitive domains also have different architectures with different inference procedures for dealing with objects belonging to each domain.

Barbauld’s hymns establish a hierarchy with God as a natural kind and human beings as artifacts, objects created by God. My own interest is how I might deploy similar rhetorical techniques to draw attention to the functioning of these two cognitive domains. I am currently working on an urban fantasy novel. The fantasy genre allows for a broad exploration of culture, history, and ideology in narrative form. Tropes that foreground the tension between natural kinds and artifacts are standard in fantasy. Golems and zombies, for example, are beings with agency who are actually artifacts. Haunted houses, on the other hand, are artifacts that behave like natural kinds. Zunshine’s article provides an analysis of how language can work to organize the world by activating these two cognitive domains. As I am writing in the fantasy genre, her analysis will be helpful in articulating and dismantling ideological hierarchies.

Often, I approach my own writing as a problem-solving, posing interesting challenges for myself such as representing the different ways time moves or expressing various shades of burgeoning love or explaining where monsters come from. I read the articles in Poetics Today v23 with a mind toward my own writing. I hope to glean some insight or strategy which could be applied to a particular writing problem, and if I am lucky, to find suggestions for new problems to work with through my writing.

There are many other papers in this volume that I found helpful. In my next blog post, I will respond to Francis Steen’s paper on Aphra Behn.

Poetics Today: Literature and the Cognitive Revolution

I have been reading the journal Poetics Today, a scholarly journal published by Duke University. Volume 23 collects articles from 2002 which are primarily concerned with “Literature and the Cognitive Revolution”. The endeavor has been a challenge for me. I’ve read academic writing in the past but not so thoroughly or consistently. The writing in this volume is not as turgid or intricate as literary criticism often is, perhaps because one influence the “cognitive revolution” has on literary criticism is to make it more technical and precise. Here I will respond to a few of the articles in this volume as they connected and influenced my own writing.

I’ll begin with Reuven Tsur’s article “Some Cognitive Foundations of Cultural Programs”. I had previously encountered Tsur in the chapter on deixis in Cognitve Poetics in Practice and was quite taken with his acuity and his detailed analysis. Not only is his research impeccable, but I also find his style of writing engaging.

In Poetics Today v23, Tsur argues that cognitive constraints can help explain and describe poetic conventions across cultures. He considers the impact of two cognitive processes on poetic form: short-term memory and gestalt rules of perception. The constraints on writing set by short-term memory are of interesting and useful, but I am especially intrigued by the application of the gestalt rules.

Can the gestalt rules of perception be applied to narrative structure in fiction? The gestalt rules of perception refer to our capacity to perceive objects as a whole rather than a mere collection of parts. The gestalt rules say that the mind tends to perceive an integrated whole when the individual parts are more complicated. Tsur applies these rules to an understanding of how various cultures share a preference for similar poetic meters, such as the placement of a caesura in a line of poetry or the bias for iambic over trochaic. Can this principle also be used to understand what makes a narrative complete? Or how many ways can a novel be subdivided into chapters and sections?

Questions about chapters and sections first came to me listening to a series of lectures by Catherine Brown on Literature and Form. Brown’s series of lectures provide an historical overview of various novelistic forms. And aspects of the cognitive approach toward these questions of narrative structure are laid out in the chapters on prototype and cognitive grammar in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. Tsur’s article suggests a way of approaching narrative structure that is both cognitive and historical.

I must admit to being just a little enthralled by Tsur’s writing. Some Cognitive Foundations of Cultural Programs is exemplary as an application of cognitive poetics to poetic form. Prosody has always confounded and amazed me. I try to learn as much as I can about meter but always remain a novice, practicing finger exercises and laboriously sounding out words. I suspect that it is a skill which requires intense and extended focus to master, like the calculus or playing the violin. Although prosody is tantalizing, my devotion is to narrative. I am interested in extrapolating the points Tsur makes about poetic form to an increased understanding of narrative form, so that I can shape my own writing in ways that work with a reader’s cognitive capacities.

Next I will respond to the paper written by Liza Zunshine on the poet A. L. Baurbauld’s catechistic hymn.

Cognitive Poetics: Benito Cereno as Parable

A few months ago I posted about the Literature as Parable chapters in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice, chapters that brought together many of the ideas and techniques discussed previously in those books. Here I continue my response to Literature as Parable with some notes I made doing an exercise from one of those chapters. The assignment in Peter Stockwell’s textbook was to “investigate the main conceptual structure across a single long text” and to “sketch out the role this conceptual scaffolding plays in the global construction of the work as parable”. The long text I chose as subject for this exercise is the novella Benito Cereno by Herman Melville. In this post, I will consider how the peculiar structure of metaphors in the novella contribute to reading it as a parable.

Benito Cereno was published in 1855 when slavery was a major point of concern in the US. The Compromise of 1850 may have postponed open conflict between southern states and northern states, but neither side of the slavery issue was satisfied. And the Fugitive Slave Act further exacerbated the contention for many northern abolitionist. Harriet Beecher Stowe made the Fugitive Slave Act a central issue in her bestselling Uncle Tom’s Cabin, explicitly referencing the law in a scene depicting an Ohio senator and his wife debating it.

Slavery is also a central theme of Benito Cereno, which I read as a parable about the Fugitive Slave Act. Melville based the plot of Benito Cereno on an actual incident recounted by the real Captain Delano in his memoirs. The novella describes an American sea captain’s chance encounter with a Spanish frigate that has been taken over by rebelling slaves. The mutiny is not initially apparent, and Captain Delano, the focalizing character, only understands the situation at the point when he leaves the Spanish frigate to return to his own ship.

Irony is an important feature of Benito Cereno, and contemporary readers responded to the suspense and mystery evoked by Melville’s telling. Dramatic irony builds as the focalizing character makes curious observations aboard the Spanish frigate but repeatedly fails to conclude that the ship is not under the authority of Don Benito, the titular character. Melville sometimes tags the focalizing character’s perspective with quotes or phrases like “thought Captain Delano”, but at other times he employs the technique of free-indirect discourse. (Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville) It is evident throughout that the narrative is filtered through the mind and perceptions of Captain Delano, who is not unobservant but is also unable to comprehend the actual situation aboard the ship. The peculiar structure of the metaphors used by Captain Delano allow Melville to include detailed observations but steer clear of conclusions that would diminish the sense of irony until the last possible moment. This peculiar structure can also be applied parabolicly to the reasoning of northern supporters of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Three different metaphorical structures contribute to this parabolic reading and to the sense of irony for readers: (1) cognitive metaphors that reverse the prototypical mapping, (2) image metaphors, and (3) cognitive blends with metaphors as input spaces. Each of these three structures circumvent the tendency toward abstraction and meaning construction by the focalizing character.

As might be expected of a sailor, Captain Delano frequently relies on WEATHER as a component of metaphors. But he structures these metaphors in a way that limits their functionality, limits the effectiveness of the metaphors to construct meaning. WEATHER related metaphors are commonly used in literature and in everyday language to describe problems in the mind. Izabela Zolnowska has studied such metaphors and concluded that the “directionality of metaphorical transfer is uniform and proceeds from concrete to abstract concepts.” In her paper, Weather as the source domain for metaphorical expressions, she outlines several conceptual metaphors that all have the absence of problems as the target domain and WEATHER CONDITIONS as the source domain. Zolnowska provides the following examples from the category of CLEAR SKIES IS LACK OF PROBLEMS :

  • “His kiss was pure joy, winging happiness as if her spirit was soaring into a clear sky.”
  • “It is truly said that he can go to bed at night with a clear sky as far as Home Affairs are concerned and wake up the next morning with a major crisis.”
  • “It’s gonna be clear skies from now on.”

The source domain in each of these examples is CLEAR SKIES and the target domain is a problem-free situation. Features of the source domain are mapped onto the target domain, and the mapping does not typically go the other way. In other words, being free of difficulty can be said to be like CLEAR SKIES, but clear, blue skies is not said to be like having no difficulties.

In contrast, Captain Delano offers Don Benito the following advice on coping with depression following the mutiny aboard his ship. Notice the reversal of source and target domain from Zolnowska’s examples:

“See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all, and the blue sea, and the blue sky; these have turned over new leaves.”

When Captain Delano claims that the sun, sea, and sky have “forgotten it all”, he is trying to map features of an abstract mental state onto the actual, concrete weather conditions. Essentially, he is telling Don Benito to make his mind like the fair weather that day. But reversing the direction of the metaphorical mapping ignores salient features of the human mind. And so goes Don Benito’s reply:

“Because they have no memory,” he dejectedly replied; “because they are not human.”

Captain Delano is undeterred by Don Benito’s argument. He anthropomorphizes the weather: “Warm friends, steadfast friends are the trades.” Reversing the usual direction of WEATHER metaphors makes some sense for a sailor. But outside the nautical world—for example in the political and social worlds—the reversed direction limits the capacity for Captain Delano to make sense of Don Benito’s condition despite his detailed and curious observations. And the term “trade” suggests the mercantile implications of Captain Delano’s congenial outlook. Throughout the novella, Captain Delano fails to understand Don Benito’s situation because of the metaphors he uses to make sense of his observations.

In addition to reversing the direction of WEATHER metaphors, Captain Delano makes frequent use of image metaphors. Image metaphors, as Peter Crisp explains in Cognitive Cognitive Poetics in Practice, do not map features of a concrete domain to a more abstract domain but instead map from one experiential domain to another. Again, Melville is able to provide descriptive observations through the focalizing character while withholding full understanding of the situation aboard the Spanish frigate.

In the following three examples from the novella, image metaphors map concrete aspects of the Spanish frigate to aspects of another type of dwelling in ways that are thematically suggestive:

“…the ship…appeared like a white-washed monastery after a thunderstom.”

“Peering over the bulwarks…throngs of dark cowls…Black Friars pacing the cloisters.”

“…frigates…like superannuated Italian palaces, still under a decline of masters, preserved signs of former state.”

These image metaphors are suggestive, implying something amiss aboard the ship: The ship has been through an ordeal and washed of its “whiteness”. The people peering over the bulwark are devoted to an authority higher than the ship’s captain. And the master of the ship, Don Benito, no longer holds power. But these conclusions can only be arrived at after the facts of the narrative are known. Image metaphors themselves do not, as Peter Crisps states, “…play a direct role in constituting metaphorical resources for abstract reasoning.”

A focalizing character who is oblivious to his surroundings would make telling and reading the story difficult. But a focalizing character with acuity would spoil the suspense and mystery of the story. Captain Delano is fully aware and attentive, demonstrated by the rich abundance of metaphors used to describe the Spanish frigate and its crew. But he fails to construct meaning from his observations because the metaphors he uses do not enable abstract reasoning.

One metaphor in particular was exemplary of Captain Delano’s attentive but impotent awareness. He observes that Atufal, one of the slaves, moves like a mute. Such a comparison implies Captain Delano is very focused on Atufal, but little sense can be made of the observation. Even if one could conceive of attributes belonging to the movement of mutes, what would it mean that Atufal has those same attributes?

Some metaphors Captain Delano employs do seem to follow the prototypical pattern of mapping from a concrete domain onto a more abstract domain. He uses several bestial metaphors to describe slave women and their children aboard the Spanish frigate:

“…like a doe in the shade of a woodland rack”

“…her wide-eyed fawn.”

“…unsophisticated as leopardesses, loving as doves.”

Comparing the women and children to animals maintains Captain Delano’s impression of their subjugation, as does his comparison with Babo, the leader of the slave rebellion, to a “shepherd’s dog”. The text makes Captain Delano’s patronizing attitude explicit, suggesting he is self-aware:

“…like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.”

On their own, these bestial metaphors preserve Captain Delano’s racist attitude of white supremacy and his self-perception as a man with a “good, blithe heart”. But when Captain Delano compares the Spanish sailors to poachers, hunters, and animals of prey, these metaphors blend with the bestial metaphors to alter generalizations made by the reader. The target and source domains of both sets of metaphors can be mapped onto a generic space relating elements of territory and authority. The blend that comes from this mapping marks the Spanish sailors as trespassers and puts the slaves in a position of authority and dominion over the Spanish frigate. This blend is not done by Captain Delano, even though he provides the metaphors that act as input spaces. The sense of irony and suspense depend on the reader making use of the focalizing character’s observations in a way that that character does not.

The peculiar structure of Captain Delano’s metaphors do more than obfuscate meaning and prolong suspense. The metaphorical structure also enriches a parabolic reading of Benito Cereno as related to slavery. Allegorically, the Spanish frigate represents the Southern states where slavery is legal and the American ship represents the Northern states where slavery is illegal. The Spanish ship suffers the consequences of slavery—Don Benito is unable to recover from the ordeal and dies in a monastery within a few months. And Captain Delano, who is initially tolerant of the practice of slavery, becomes complicit in its enforcement, the position of the northern states under the Fugitive Slave Act. Although the tale does not suggest dire consequences for Captain Delano as a result of his actions, which would be expected of a morality tale, the impotence of his reasoning and observations eliminate him as the hero or as one to be emulated. The only character left to fill the role of hero, then is Babo—or no one.

In my previous post on Literature as Parable, I noted that Michael Burke self-consciously admitted he could have used different conceptual metaphors from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2 to generate a very different reading than the one he wrote for Cognitive Poetics in Practice. Having done this exercise reading Benito Cereno, I more fully understand his statement. There is much more to Benito Cereno than I’ve considered in these notes, more richness to the writing techniques of Melville and more depth to the parabolic implications about slavery. But this exercise has been especially effective toward pursuing my goal in studying cognitive poetics which is to become a more capable writer. Narrowing in on Melville’s use of peculiar metaphorical structure for his focalizing character has provided me with a better understanding of one way to use a focalizing character to generate suspense and mystery.