Poets distil feelings and emotions, they have the power to translate them into words. And even within an art form often associated with subjective expression, lyric poetry is largely considered the epitome of verse as the externalisation of personal sentiments. This is a genre where the speaking voice is often in the first person, the so-called Lyric I. The first-person narrator prompts the reader to imagine the speaker, to try to go beyond the page in order to understand who the mysterious protagonist is. The reader shifts between the information given on the page and the one s/he mentally constructs in reading the poem. This shifting movement sometimes finds a parallel in the speaking voice itself. Within the same poem, it can move from abstract to concrete, from ideal to real, making the reader’s task of visualizing a coherent speaker even more difficult.
Does the Lyric I always give information about the speaker? If so, how? If not, how does the readers’ conceptualising experience change? How does a speaking voice portray its own shifting? All these questions were raised in the seminar ‘The Lyric I as Other Mind’, organised by the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT) network, part of The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH).
The event was part of the OCCT ‘Fiction and Other Minds’ project. This seeks to explore how fiction, particularly in its readerly aspect (its relation to the reader’s experience of the act of reading itself), can play a part in the scientific study of human interaction. Crucial to this is the notion of “mindreading”, the attempt to understand what goes on in other people’s minds, an essential process in everyday human interaction, and its application in neuroscientific literature forms the basis of the project. OCCT aims to observe how “mindreading” in human interactions is explored in works of fiction. In this sense, the seminar was something of a slight diversion from the main thread of the project, since the focus was on poetry rather than prose.
The seminar presented two different applications of the mindreading theory, one to Classical Greek Lyric poetry, and the other to Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’. Dr Felix Budelmann, Tutorial Fellow at Magdalen College, presented a cognitive reading of some Greek lyrics (chiefly by Theognis, Sappho, and Anacreon) while Ellen Spolsky, Professor Emerita at Bar Ilan University, showed a cognitive-based reading of Marvell’s poem. Although both presentations rose from the same conceptual basis, they focussed on very different aspects of it. Dr Budelmann talked about the three ways in which mentalising works in Greek lyric: readers mentalise the speaker, the author, and the performer. Prof. Spolsky, instead, presented a reading of Marvell’s poem that focused on the cognitive shifting (or, as she called it, toggling) within the Lyric I itself. This also has implications on the reader’s mentalising process. The latter differs from what happens in Greek lyric: as Dr Budelmann pointed out, the Greek lyric speaker provides very little information. This forces the reader to trust the speaker and prompts him/her to exert a high form of mentalising, a term used in the seminar to describe the reader’s process of visualization. ‘The Garden’, on the contrary, reports the speaker’s toggling step by step. Despite the conceptual difficulty of the subject, both speakers presented their points with great clarity. Prof. Spolsky incorporated images to accompany her argument, Giorgione’s Pastoral Concert provided a fitting contrast to Guercino’s Et in Arcadia Ego, the former presenting the bucolic ideal at its highest, the latter showing the crumbling of the pastoral ideal, which spurs the toggling represented by Marvell in his poem.
The lively Q&A following the two presentations raised important questions. For example, how legitimate is it to de-historicise cognitive theory by applying it to ancient texts? Prof. Spolsky’s take on the matter was that cognitive theory is based on universal processes. Although these authors did not have the scientific evidence of today, their brains functioned in the same way as ours. The question – and its answer – only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. The issue of whether it is valid to apply new theories to ancient cultural productions is relevant to many disciplines, and each has a different take on it. Prof. Spolky’s answer might be satisfactory for a literary critic, but what would musicologists or art historians make of it? The debate also questioned the validity of such interpretations. The audience was divided between those who believed that cognitive theory does provide new readings of such texts, and those who saw it as a reduction of texts to mere examples of a particular cognitive process.
The most pressing question the debate left me with was whether it is appropriate, useful, and productive to read ancient texts through the lens of modern theories. This is an issue on which much literature has been published, especially in recent years. It is particularly challenging in the Classical field. Greek and Latin texts sometimes feel so different from modern ones (in form, content, and in the cultural context that produced them) that to apply modern theories to them can seem far-fetched. However, this seminar suggested that modern theories can indeed produce new readings of old texts. The application of new theories to old texts can uncover new aspects that might provide a better understanding of an author’s corpus, or of the time when these texts were produced. New theories also keep literary discussion alive, breathing new life into the texts they address. This, surely, is sufficient reason to encourage the use of more recent scientific, as well as literary, critical discourse in reading previous works of literature.
More information about upcoming TORCH events can be found on their website.