Friday 13 November 2009

Rasas and Self-modifying Feelings

Among the most thought-provoking accounts of how emotions are important in literary reading is David Miall and Donald Kuiken's (2002) theory of self-modifying feelings. David has recently supplemented this account in his chapter in Directions in Empirical Literary Studies (2008).

Miall and Kuiken propose that self-modifying feelings can occur when two elements come together to produce “metaphors of personal identification that modify self understanding” (p. 221). One element is the literariness of a text, for instance in its defamiliarizing qualities. The other element is personal, for instance in a remembered emotion evoked in the course of reading. Just as in a conventional metaphor, one thing is, or can become, something else, so, in metaphorical identification, one emotion can become another, or can be experienced in a new way. They say that in literary reading:
Remembered feeling ... does not remain merely replicative; what began as remembered feeling may become fresh feeling. Either the original feeling is modified, or limitations of the original feeling are shown in such a way that a fresh feeling is created in its place. In several previous studies, we have provided evidence of the modifying power of feeling, in particular showing how aesthetic feelings, i.e., moments of defamiliarization in response to foregrounding, instigate an affectively guided search for alternative interpretations that, in turn, shape subsequent understanding (p. 229).
I have, for some time, thought of Miall and Kuiken's theory as a version of the ancient Indian theory of rasas (Gnoli, 1968). Rasas are literary emotions, experienced in reading literature or when watching a drama or hearing poetry. In his (2008) chapter Miall also makes this connection. He points out that, in the Indian idea, rasa has a timeless quality. It is an idea of an emotion as experienced by many people across many circumstances.

One of the accomplishments of literary reading is to locate emotions in a specific place and time, by means of the context of a story. In a particular story an emotional event is attended to by the reader because it has been foregrounded by the writer, and because of the foregrounding it can elicit a particular memory of an emotion in the reader, and this may contrast with the timeless quality of its corresponding rasa. In his 2008 chapter David says this:
… a rasa is also considered as separate from everyday emotion, being an emotion that is experienced only in the context of art (Gnoli, 1968). However, when experienced it is felt to be real in a way that makes ordinary life seem illusory, thus rasa does not involve suspension of disbelief so much as suspension of what we take to be reality (p. 100).
In the experiences of literary art, conjunctions can arise between (on the one hand) the specifics of a story and of a reader's memory, and (on the other hand) the timeless qualities an emotion. It is perhaps, David suggests, in conjunctions of this kind that self-modifying processes may begin to unfold.

R. Gnoli (1968). The aesthetic experience according to Abhinavagupta. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.

David Miall (2008). Foregrounding and feeling in narrative. In S. Zyngier, M. Bortolussi, A. Chesnokova & J. Auracher (Eds.), Directions in empirical literary studies: In honor of Willie van Peer (pp. 89-102). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

David Miall & Donald Kuiken (2002). A feeling for fiction: Becoming what we behold. Poetics, 30, 221-241.

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