Monday 21 February 2011

Burke's Oceanic Wave

In his new book, Literary reading, cognition and emotion, Michael Burke presents a model of reading that he calls "oceanic." As I understand it, he means that reading a piece of literary fiction is like making oneself part of a wave. To begin with, as we prepare to read, we must be in the right mood, get into the right kind of place, and arrange ourselves properly. As our own resources of mood and memory start up they mingle, like the waters of a growing wave, with the book we start to read and, as the story progresses, the wave rises with a gathering tension until at last it breaks and the tension is released. This final phase can be what James Joyce and Burke call an epiphany. In it, however, the principal purpose of fiction is not yet achieved. As Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Ernest Hemingway: this purpose "is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader's mind" (Burke, p. 1). This is a lovely model, and Burke explores it in his wide-ranging discussion of psychology, stylistics, and literary theory, as well as in the surveys of readers that he has conducted.

Near the beginning of his Chapter 3, Burke gives a quotation from The ebb tide, written by Robert Louis Stevenson and based on a draft by his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, about an Englishman who has changed his name so as not to disgrace his family by his life-habit of failure. He is on the island of Tahiti, "on the beach," meaning washed up. His only possession is a copy of Virgil's Aeneid, into which he dips from time to time. Prompted by its pages there arise in his mind not images of the Roman world of nearly two millennia previously but memories of the England of his childhood: "the busy school room, the green playing fields, holidays at home, and the perennial roar of London" (Stevenson, p. 174).

I read Stevenson's novella some time ago, and liked it. But I did not remember this thought-provoking image of what the reader brings to a piece of fiction. Burke uses it as the starting point for his surveys in which students were asked about their literary reading. His questions start with "Are you an avid reader?" and "When you read literature do you experience mental imagery?" Subsequent questions pursue the issue of imagery in more detail. Burke concludes that his hypothesis is "highly plausible," that readers do experience "Literary Reading Imagery" which includes movements and dynamic scenes in which the reader is actively involved. (Some of these effects have been found, previously, by other researchers.) Burke says, though, that his hypothesis that the imagery often comes from childhood memories remained unconfirmed.

In the last part of his book, Burke moves towards the conclusion of the reading experience. He gave readers the last few paragraphs of Scott Fitzgerald's The great Gatsby. Of 16 subjects who had read the entire novel, six said that the last part did prompt an epiphany in them. Of 20 who read just the closing section, only one experienced such an effect. One of the readers who experienced an epiphany wrote about the lingering after-effects: "somehow I am still reading in my mind" (p. 230).

Burke concludes that "reading does not begin or end when eyes apprehend the words on the page, but long before that and indeed long after it" (p. 255). Perhaps, too, as he remarks, the influence of the empirical tester, and the short passages such testers typically offer, are not as conducive as they might be to the kinds of questions we want to ask. Burke's book offers ideas that are refreshing, and evidence that is suggestive. Its waves continue to rise and break on the mind's beach, where its waters then rattle back again over the pebbles and seashells of thought.

Michael Burke (2011). Literary reading, cognition and emotion: An exploration of the oceanic mind. London: Routledge.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926). The great Gatsby. Harmondsworth: Penguin (current edition 1950).

Robert Louis Stevenson (1893). The ebb tide, in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and other stories (pp. 171-301). London: Penguin (current edition 1979).   
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Laura Vivanco said...

Does he limit himself to writing about "literary fiction" simply because that's the kind of fiction he has the most experience of reading, or does he think that only "literary fiction" can be read oceanically?

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks, Laura, for this comment. My memory of the book is that its focus is entirely on literary fiction. I don't remember discussion of reading genres such as romances, and neither the term "genre" nor the term "romance" is in the index. But I will send an e-mail to Michael Burke to see if he would like to reply to your comment.

Laura Vivanco said...

Thanks, Keith. I was just curious because other people have tried to distinguish between the two. I don't visualise anything when reading (I don't have a visual memory) but I've read enough discussions online to know that many romance readers do visualise scenes in the books they read, and many feel they have learned things from them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura,
Indeed. I only write about literary fiction. I set out a five-point plan, as it were. One of these is "pre-reading mood" (the others are style, themes, mental imagery and the physical reading location). I believe this, (and the kind of "anticipation" that it brings with it), differs markedly from reading non-literary texts. I think that non-literary texts can be read emotionally or even "oceanically" (but in a watered-down version, if you will excuse the awful pun). I would hope that someone might test the model (or parts of it) on groups reading non-literary tests). At the end of the book I muse how the oceanic mind might not be just limited to literary discourse processing. It would be great to see that confirmed.
best wishes,
Michael Burke.
Ps. Interesting that you experience no imagery at all while reading literature.

Laura Vivanco said...

Thanks, Michael.

Re visualisation, it was only when I was in secondary school, studying a poem by Ted Hughes about a pig, that I realised that I was unusual in this respect. We were being encouraged to "see" the pig in our mind's eye. I can't do that, and I couldn't understand what it was I was expected to do. I had to have it explained to me, and at that point I discovered that other people really can "see" things that aren't in front of them.

In general it doesn't cause me difficulties with regards to enjoying or studying literature, though I suspect that some of the long descriptive passages I find boring might be more interesting if I could visualise what's being described. Descriptions work best for me if the words evoke emotions, or if I'm aware of some underlying symbolism.

Re mood, I'm almost always in the right mood to read something; I just need to choose the right text for the particular mood I'm in. I find that non-fiction generally requires a lot more concentration.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments, Laura. Very interesting indeed. Did you not even see fleeting, sketchy images of that pig in your "mind's eye"?
The subjects in my experiment appear to broadly agree with what you say about 'mood'.
best wishes - and thanks for your question,

Laura Vivanco said...

Did you not even see fleeting, sketchy images of that pig in your "mind's eye"?

I can't even visualise the faces of my family in my mind's eye. I do have vague memories of shapes but they're of a similar quality to what one might see when walking through a house at night, with the lights out: most things seem black and white and although one can see shapes, they're blurred by shadows.

For example, if I think about photos I remember their content mostly in words (e.g. X was wearing a red dress, she had her hair pinned up, etc) and if I try to visualise them I would probably only be able to have an impression of the size and position of the people in the photo. Or I can mentally navigate myself round parts of my old school, but it's a bit like doing so in the dark. While I might occasionally catch a glimpse of a detail, or a flash of colour, as soon as I try to focus on it, it slips away.

So I might be able to remember the outline shape of a pig's ear, or have a memory of the size of the last pig I saw, but that's the best I'd be able to do.

I've had discussions with other people about memory, and people's abilities do seem to vary. My father's an artist and his visual memory seems to be so accurate that he can even recall individual bricks in a building he's visited. My brother-in-law's a musician and he can hear music in his head (I can't) and my mother's mentioned that she can remember tastes (I can't do that either).

I suspect that some readers may smell and hear and taste and perhaps touch, as well as see, some of the scenes in the fiction they read.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks, Laura and Michael for your discussion on the vividness of mental imagery. It turns out there is, as the discussion indicates, a wide range of experience of the vividness of mental imagery. (I am like Laura in this respect, but a majority of people do report mental images that are more vivid than hers and mine.) It turns out, too, that vivid imagery for objects is different from being able to think about relationships among objects and moving through space: people who are good at the one are not necessarily good at the other. There is now a whole psychological sub-field, and even a journal, on mental imagery, and researchers are interested in relating the vividness of imagery to memory tasks and the like. I notice that there is some research on the vividness of imagery in relation to people's interest in electronic fantasy games, but I don't know of any research on vividness in relation to becoming absorbed in print fiction.

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