Cognitive Poetics: Literature as Parable

The chapters in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice on literature as parable bring together all the concepts from previous chapters to describe how meaning is made of whole texts. Each of the carpenter’s tools has been studied thoroughly. The hammer, saw, measuring tape and chalk, framing square, and nails are ready to hand, and the real work can begin. Prototypes, figure & ground, deixis, and scripts are used to build both micro and macro structures from a textbase. Cognitive metaphor and conceptual blending help explain how these structures interact to generate meaning from texts, both personal and general meanings, and how intertextuality provides literature with the capacity to modify the cognitive models that form our world views.

In What Are They Saying about the Parables?, David B. Gowler argues there are “no spectators in the dialogic word of parable.” He is referring specifically to the Biblical parables but his argument can apply to all parables and all literature read as parable. A parabolic reading of a text is a synthesis of the writer and reader as co-authors of the texts meaning. This fits nicely with post-structuralist theories about authorship. As Ellen Spolsky argued in a 2002 paper titled: Darwin and Derrida: Cognitive Literary Theory as a Species of Post-Structuralism, cognitive poetics makes the same argument as post-structuralism:

“…the meanings of texts are indeed unstable and dependent upon contingent contexts.”

But cognitive poetics does not proclaim the death of the author nor even the primacy of the reader. Instead, these chapters on literature as parable provide tools for a detailed analysis of the dynamic relationship between text and meaning. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Stockwell begins by commenting on the literary distinction between plot and story, proposing that cognitive poetics can map out the complex and inherently subjective relationship between plot and story—the implications of such a mapping apply not only to literature but to broader human experience using the theory of embodied cognition.

A reader first compiles facts about the text, constructing a microstructure from the textbase. These facts are assembled on the fly to construct a macrostructure using five cognitive strategies or macrorules:

  1. citation
  2. local deletion
  3. global deletion
  4. generalization
  5. construction

For example, in reading Jane Eyre I construct perceptions of characters and settings based on a description in the text:

Four equestrians galloped up the drive and after them came two open carriages. Fluttering veils and waving plumes filled the vehicles. Two of the cavaliers were young, dashing looking gentleman. The third was Mr. Rochester on his black horse Mesera. Pilot bounding before him…

From this description I form a perception, which not only includes the image of guests arriving at the mansion but also the perspective that frames the scene: Jane Eyre watching from a high window. Many details are quickly disregarded, such as the specific number of riders and carriages, even before the description concludes. Rather than a specific number of guests, my perception is of more than one, several, or a crowd of guests. Other facts linger, such as Miss Ingram’s attire and her “rich raven inglets” and Mr. Rochester on horseback. I share the main character’s interest in both these characters. But within a few more pages some of these details also fade. Of the facts picked out from the text and not deleted I begin to form generalizations about Mr. Rochester’s appearance, his personality, and his place in society. Also, because the whole scene is framed in Jane Eyre’s perspective from the window, I make generalizations about her and her world view. These generalizations combine with my sociocultural knowledge and beliefs of 19th century England as well as my opinions on class and gender as I build a macrostruture, which is my reading of Jane Eyre.

Application of these five macrorules is not linear or unidirectional. Even citation, direct recall of specific text, can vary between readers. The facts I pick out and notice will differ from the facts another reader or I myself upon re-reading may pick out from the same textbase. This nonlinear, multidirectional relationship between the facts (microstructure) and meaning (macrostructure) of the text is what literature as parable describes.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Michael Burke applies aspects of blending theory to explain how multiple input spaces (macrorules) blend to create new spaces that do not have a direct relation to the original input spaces. These blended spaces are also input spaces: macrorules that blend again to make new spaces. Three phases of blending (composition, completion, and elaboration) can extend the blending for as long as a reader is interested.

A parable, religious or otherwise, works on the reader to alter ways of perceiving and thinking about the world. Michael Burke uses the example of a biblical parable from Mathew 20 that tells of workers in a vineyard who are rewarded evenly regardless of how much work they performed. A narrative does not have to be explicitly didactic to be read as a parable, though. The assumption made in treating literature as a parable is that a change occurs in the reader as a consequence of reading. The allure of this assumption is strong because it fits well with my own experience as a reader and supports my motivation as a writer. But having recently read Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen, I have a healthy doubt of extrapolating this assumption too far. Keen highlights the lack of strong evidence to support most extravagant claims about the salutary effects of reading.

However, the claim Stockwell and Burke make about reading does not extrapolate but interpolates deeper into the dynamic process of reading. Parable is a cognitive process that constructs meaning in the real-world, not only literary texts. Parabolic projection is a cognitive blend with input spaces that are mapped onto generic spaces. Parabolic reading is how human beings experience and make meaning of the world using various conceptual tools.

Burke makes a case study of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2 and identifies multiple source domains, including textual features, social knowledge, intertextual connections, and personal memories. He identifies a main conceptual metaphor: PROCREATION IS ETERNAL LIFE and other conceptual metaphors that “parabolically [feed] this one.” Continuing to re-read the sonnect, Burke identifies two more conceptual metaphors: LIFE IS A BATTLE and LIFE IS A VENTURE that trigger other source domains. The field of meaning is constrained to the text but is not limited by it. The only limit to meaning is the amount of attention the reader is able and willing to give.

Burke is self-conscious of how meaning is made and remade while engaging with the text. At times he seems to be engaged in free-association, but he returns to the text after each new turn, not only to ground his reading but also to gather more associations. In his summary he admits that he could have made entirely different connections with equally valid conceptual metaphors. The purpose of parabolic reading is to show that meaning making is multi-directional and expansive, not to find the true or correct meaning.

Stockwell also provides a case study, a parabolic analysis of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His analysis sticks close to one central concept: LIFE IS A GAME and does not examine as many source domains as Burke. But Stockwell allows for multiple subdivisions of that metaphor, and he reinterprets the nature of the text itself as a fairytale, a moral fable, a romance, and possibly a satire. There seems to be no end to the creative process of making meaning, a process in which conclusions reverse back to alter the nature of premises.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Michael Burke compares the medieval conception of meaning to principles of cognitive poetics: neither of which support absolute knowledge. Cognitive poetics establishes prototypes and blends, which do not have the feel of solid answers. Although I am drawn to this open-ended approach, my confidence was tested while treading the shifting spaces of parabolic reading. How far do I trust my own interpretation of my own reading?

One of the study questions at the end of Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction is to “investigate the main conceptual structures across a single long text” and to “sketch out the role this conceptual scaffolding plays in the global construction of the literary work as a parable.” I chose Herman Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno. At sometime I will share my notes from this exercise here. Identifying the main conceptual structures was not difficult and re-reading Melville with close attention was a delight. But the connections I made between the conceptual metaphors and the global construction feel tenuous. I know I could have drawn entirely different conclusions and made altogether different connections.

Texts are not like mathematical functions with a fixed output associated with each input. A text generates multiple and various meanings for each reader, meanings that change even before a reader has completely read the text. I’m fine with contradictions and explanations that provide multiple answers. The cognitive poetic approach to literature as parable promises an approach that is systematic and allows multiplicity and contradiction.

I want to write stories that enthrall readers to the point that their perception of the world around them changes. As a reader, I’ve attributed that feeling of being enthralled to the text I’m focused on at the moment. But the text is only one input space among many input spaces that go into the cognitive blend that shapes my reading experience. Stockwell and Burke offer insights to how readers use the textbase to create a macrostructure. The explanation provided by cognitive poetics goes beyond the basic platitudes that bombard anyone trying to become a better writer, such as “show don’t tell” and “make it count”. Instead of mundane advice, cognitive poetics offers a description of the reading process that contributes to the construction of meaning.

When I’m writing, I consider what aspects of the text are likely to be held onto by the reader and for how long. The goal is to include sufficient details in the text to allow the reader to construct a meaningful world. The world of the text is necessarily incomplete. If not, then what would the reader do? Writing is as much about what you don’t say as what you do say. In visual art this idea is called negative space.

I am practicing how to track the dynamic process of reading and make connections between conceptual metaphors and global construction of meaning. My confidence improves. I am able to recognize connections in my own writing. At least half of writing is reading to revise. Recognizing false triggers, those that a reader may use to activate unrelated blends, will enhance my revisions. I will also look for details to include in the text that suggest specific blending space. Allusions or certain styles of prose can activate intertextual blends. A setting may activate schemas that function as input spaces to enrich cognitive blends. Literature as parable has clarified aspects of the revision process for me which will help me revise more thoroughly and efficiently.

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