Tuesday 28 October 2008

What to Read 2

With this post, I have placed in our archive of Psychologically Significant Fiction nominations of three further novels and a short story that offer insights into the lives of selves and their relations with other people, in terms of four categories that we have tentatively proposed. The new nominations are Marcel Proust (1913-1927) À la recherche du temps perdu, Anton Chekhov (1899) "The lady with the little dog," Virginia Woolf (1925) Mrs Dalloway, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866) Crime and punishment.

The micro-reviews that accompany these nominatons focus on the works' psychological qualities. The Chekhov short story, for instance, is one we have used in our research, and found that people who read it undergo small, but measureable, changes in personality.

In David Miall's post on Literariness (of 15 October 2008 on this site) and in our post on the Myrifield Manifesto (of 29 September 2008) there are references to a movement that is underway in the interdisciplinary study of literature to shift the centre of gravity of discussion from interpretation of literary works towards the issue of experience of these works. For our research group, interpretation of fiction continues to be of interest. The issue is not to replace it, but rather to establish alongside it questions of the psychology of literary works. These questions include: What is it about plays, films, novels, and short stories, that engages readers psychologically? And, if works affect people psychologically: What are the effects? And: How do such effects occur? It is with questions such as this in mind that our suggestions of significant pieces of fiction are offered. You can see our suggestions and micro-reviews by clicking here.


Bill Benzon said...

Interepretation is a funny business and ill-defined, Keith. In 1988 the film critic David Bordwell published Making Meaning, most of which is a cognitive analysis of how film critics of various persuasions arrive at interpretations. But Bordwell also argues that the business of cranking out interpretations of films has become routinzed to the point where it's intellectual value is doubtful. Thus, he argues that the interpretation of films should be back-burnered. Instead, he advocates a cognitively based poetics of film. My guess is that what he has in mind with his cognitive poetics would encompass much of what you want from interpretation.

What's the point, then, of opposing interpretation? David Miall has his reasons which may or may not be consonant with Bordwells. I've arrived at a position similar to Bordwells. I tend to think in terms of "how texts work in the mind and brain" rather than in "what they mean," including, of course, their "hidden meanings" (a notion Bordwell finds unintelligible). In practice, there may be considerable overlap between the activities of "interpreting texts" and figuring out "how they work in the mind." For me the important point is that I am committed to a psychology that is ultimately grounded in the operations of the brain and that uses cognitive and dynamic models of relatively recent vintage (post WWII). I want to know what happens in people's minds and brains in real time as they read stories and poems or watch plays and movies. Interpretive critics do not necessarily have such committments; their work may be indeterminate with respect minds and brains.

Bill Benzon said...

And other thing, Keith, consider the term reading. I don’t know when it happened, but I think it was in the last 30 to 40 years that literary critics extended the meaning of “reading” from what the term means to the layperson to the act of producing an explicit interpretation of the text. In this extended sense a reading of a text is an explicit interpretation of the text. My sense is that literary critics tend to think of the ordinary meaning and the extended meaning as being continuous with one another so that the act of interpreting a text is continuous with simply reading the text. Correlatively, what the layperson thinks of as ordinary reading necessarily involves interpretation.

Moreover, literary critics tend to think of explicit interpretation as a necessary supplement to ordinary reading, a mental act needed to free the reader from the illusions of ordinary reading. Since explicit interpretive activity his historically new, at least as a routine activity in some subpopulation (that of scholars and their students and a few others) this position would seem to imply, for example, that Shakespeare and his audience were enmired in illusions about his plays, and the same for Austen and her readers, both enmired in illusions about her novels. It is only with the advent of 20th century interpretive schemes that we are in a position deeply to understand literary works.

That may seem a bit screwy, but it is a logical consequence of how literary critics think about interpretation. In contrast, I do not think of “figuring out how texts work in the mind” as an extension of ordinary reading. It is a categorically different kind of intellectual activity.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Bill, for this very interesting comment on interpretation. I haven't read Bordwell's Making Meaning but on your recommendation I shall do so. I very much liked his Narration in the Fiction Film. David Miall has become somewhat opposed to interpretation, I think, because as a long-time member of English departments, he became dissatisfied with interpretation being the only activity, when he wanted something more psychological. What I spoke up for is something psychological alongside the interpretive. On your take, these two would merge, and that seems right to me. I very much agree that we also want to search out hidden meanings. So I shall adopt your proposal: an overlap between interpreting texts and how they work in the mind.

Keith Oatley said...

And thanks, also, Bill, for this second comment on reading and "readings." I had not thought of it like this, but I certainly get the sense of what you are talking about, and the way in which, over the last three or four decades, some critics have seemed to think that ordinary readings are inadequate, so that ordinary readers could only be caught up in illusions. In other words this kind of criticism has an attribute of wanting the establishment of morally superior and morally inferior activities in relation to texts, and perhaps that is one of the things that David Miall wants to move away from. So, I agree, a more cognitive approach, with some concentration on reader responses, seems a good way forward. Trying to figure out how texts work in the minds of readers certainly seems to me the right kind of thing to do.

Bill Benzon said...

Thanks for your reply, Keith. Two notes:

1) While I think discussion at this abstract level is necessary, I also find it very frustrating. That's because the situation "on the ground" is rather vague and fluid and resists precise characterization.

2) These days I keep thinking that, the more we understand the brain, the less we're going to be talking about "hidden" meanings. The purpose of literature is to reveal, not to hide. We just don't know how to explicate what's revealed.

David S. Miall said...

I would endorse Bill’s position: that what we should pursue is "how texts work in the mind and brain" rather than "what they mean." My problem with interpretation is that in literary scholarship it typically takes us away from the text itself to using the text as a specimen of some historical or cultural issue. Peter Rabinowitz has characterized this very effectively as the "Rule of Abstract Displacement." There are two steps to it. "The first step involves an act of substitution: according to this rule, good literature is always treated as if it were about something else." Its "real" meaning, that is, lies in something other than its ostensible, surface meaning. The second step is "an act of generalization," towards some proposition that is supposed to have universal value. This approach has become rather pervasive in the classroom: the rich, sensuous details of a text tend to be overlooked. Also, I don’t believe that most ordinary readers (outside the classroom) are engaged in interpretation, in this sense. Of course, there are other meanings to interpretation, and I wouldn’t want to suggest they are without interest. It’s the bypassing of the text itself that I want to point out.

The comment of Rabinowitz can be found on pp. 139-140 in "Reader Response, Reader Responsibility: Heart of Darkness and the Politics of Displacement," in R. C. Murfin (Ed.), Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness, 2nd ed. (pp. 131-147). Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996.

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