27 jul. 2004

One thing that poetry can do is tell you what it is like to inhabit a particular kind of consciousness. Take Clark Coolidge:


Who will draw this out, who will pay
the permission of rhyme? When I gain
whole brain still then myself will I hold
the housing particles stop
for the hurtling mind alone
and stem, as the shadowed one
that sametime halt and grow.

Since I share certain characteristics of this sort of consciousness myself, I "identify" with it and respond to it. It cannot be totally alien to me, or there would be no point of contact. It even trains my brain to think in those terms, to experience those states of consciousness, or to use a similar language to describe my own thoughts.

What I'm getting at is that it would be absurd to suggest that Clark Coolidge read up on cognitive psychology so that he can learn how his consciousness really works. It is a fallacy to say that his poetry is based on an inadequate model of consciousness, since he is actually the best expert on his own consciousness we have. Do we wish Kafka to have had a different sort of mind? How about Borges? Virginia Woolf? Proust? Wittgenstein? We value writers who think just like everyone else, but with a difference: a hightening of a given tendency of mind we might all share to some degree. A sensibility to subtlety (Woolf). A sense of the "strangeness of the ordinary" (Wittgenstein). A speculative cast of mind (Borges). A richly metaphorical and sensory imagination (Coolidge). An interest in balance and symmetry (Alexander Pope). What have you. Any writer of interest will excell in at least one dimension.

This is where ideology comes into play. Why use a given account of cognitive science to privilege some sorts of literary work over another? An anthropologist from Mars who saw the variety of human cultural expressions would have to consider them all to be legitimate expressions of "human nature." You can't say that Woolf is less "human" than Dickens. It's a different sensibility, reflecting historical changes. Modernism, after all, is a response to modernity itself. It is a one experience to inhabit her consciousness, another to look through Dickensian eyes. That's why the literature of one's own time can have a special power: to know what it is like to be alive in a particular time and place. The "inexorable / product of my own time." (Frank O'Hara). If you've never felt this power, I can't do anything for you. You are missing a lot.