Making Sense of (Non)Sense: Why Literature Counts
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, Elzbieta Chrzanowska-Kluczewska, Grzegorz Szpila, eds., Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009
18 Pages Posted: 7 May 2009
We can't help ourselves. We have, in Meir Sternberg's phrase, "a rage for meaning." Our brains are constructed in such a way that human cognition is a peculiar anomaly, existing in a never-ending dynamic tension that balances on the one hand the dangers of absolute objectivism and on the other the dangers of subjective relativism. Both positions reduce to failure in empathic understanding and moral action. In their extreme forms, absolute objectivism leads to rigidity of thought and a closing down of alternate perspectives; subjective relativism to indecisive waffling and inability to achieve closure. (In the United States, the Bush administration is a perfect example of the one, the current Democratic leadership a perfect example of the other.) The two main problems identified as the theme of this IALS volume explore the nature of this tension in human cognitive processing as expressed through the varied interpretations of literary texts.
Rather than ask whether literary semantics should "strive after an interpretation of all [literary] texts at all costs," I ask why do we strive after interpretation in the first place, and what are the consequences of doing so? Rather than ask "to what degree we are able to keep literary semantics autonomous," I ask why would we want to, and what are the consequences of doing so? If we are, "by any chance, fascinated by nonsense," we need to ask what does nonsense "mean"? Exploring these questions from a literary linguistic perspective sheds light on the role that literary experience plays, not merely in furthering our understanding of human cognitive processes but in developing and maintaining the dynamic tension of seeking coherence and meaning without falling into the swamps of absolute objectivism or the quicksands of subjective relativism. Literature, as is true of all the arts, resists as it reveals. It is, in the American philosopher Susanne K. Langer's words, the semblance of felt life, works of art images of the forms of feeling. In its attempts to model the forms of feeling in literary works, recent work in cognitive poetics traces the dynamic tensions that result from the embodied nature of the human mind and that are reflected in literary interpretation.
Keywords: cognitive poetics, literaray interpretation, objectivism, relativism, embodied mind
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation