Literature and emotions at RSA 2014

There are quite a few proposed panels on emotions/passions/feelings and literature at the RSA in New York, March 2014. Most deadlines are tomorrow or this weekend, so you read this just in time to write an abstract.


CFP Reading and health in early modern Europe

Symposium on Reading and Health in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800

Medieval and Early Modern Research Group, Newcastle University

5-6thJuly 2013

This symposium will explore how early modern texts engage with the regulation of the body and mind through reading. It will investigate the connections between reading and health and consider how reading was understood as an embodied practice in the period with profound implications for both personal well being and conception of the healthy body politic.

We invite proposals that address the relationship between health and reading in any genre in print or manuscript in any European language. The genres might include medical, scientific, literary, religious, or pedagogical and rhetorical writings. We encourage proposals that recover diverse reading communities and practices and readers/hearers. We also welcome papers that consider problems of evidence: e.g. manuscript marginalia; print paratexts (and directions to readers); visual representations; non-material evidence (voice; gesture; touch).

Topics might include, but are not restricted to:

Reading as therapeutic (devotional; recreational etc.)

  • Reading medical writing
  • The physiology of reading
  • Reading and well-being
  • Reading and disability
  • Health and the senses
  • Health as a literary theme
  • Reading and the healthy body politic (censorship; free speech; reading communities etc.)

300-word abstracts for 20-minute papers from individuals and panels (3 speakers) to be sent to the conference organisers.

The deadline for abstracts is Thursday, January 31st, 2013.

View the conference website at Newcastle University.

Literature, mind, body and emotion


Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

In the eighteenth century, young female readers were warned not to meddle with romances, novels, and chocolate, all of which were likely to inflame the passions. (182)

This juxtaposition of two of my favourite actitivities-  reading and eating chocolate – emblematises Daniel Lord Smail’s view of literature in his On Deep History and the Brain (2008). Like my third addiction, coffee, a novel is a psychotropic substance that alters the chemistry of the brain, and thereby alters moods and feelings.

This view of literature features in the final chapter of a book that is aimed to stimulate historians to revise their view of the grand narrative of history. Although the Judeo-Christian chronology in which history began with Genesis has been abandoned by scientists, it has been translated into a secular key: history in the textbooks is assumed to begin when biological ‘pre-history’ gave way to culture with the rise of civilization, six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. Traditional reasons for neglecting the Paleolithic, the period from the introduction of stone tools by hominids to the introduction of agriculture (2.6 million years ago-10.000 BC), is a lack of written sources. Smail convincingly demonstrates that current historiography is no longer based on this assumption. There are other signs than writing that historians can analyse. Smail chose to focus on the brain as a means to connect what he calls ‘deep history’ to our current world. Continue reading

The return of aesthetics

In an earlier post, I noted that Catherine Belsey’s keynote speech at the International Society for Cultural History conference in Ghent this August advocated a renewed attention to literary form and the utopian aspects of fictional worlds. This autumn’s issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly (59:3, Fall 2008) contains an article that thinks along similar lines.

Hugh Grady’s “Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics: The Case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (subscription required) acknowledges that the idea of the aesthetic is often regarded as precisely the opposite of a political reading of a literary text. Aestheticism tends to be associated with formalist approaches that discussed literature as isolated from its cultural context – as a self-contained work of art. Grady, however, proposes a revaluation of aesthetics. He introduces the notion of “impure aesthetics” as a way to avoid a return to formalism. Impure aesthetics, he writes, is “aesthetics conceived as creative of an imagined realm separate from empirical reality, but one that draws its materials from that reality.” (275). This approach does not view a work of art as unified, but takes from current theory the idea that a literary text is disunified and contains internal conflicts.

Although Grady thereby pays tribute to new historicism and especially cultural materialism, like Belsey, he is also critical of their tendency to read literary texts and aesthetic themes purely as vehicles for ideology. The elision of the boundary between artwork and the society that produced it, in his view has led to the loss of possibilities to think about art’s utopian potential – “its ability to create visions of the nonexisting, to embody desire and not just received ideas” (276). The article analyses A Midsummer Night’s Dream – not to attempt to find a unity in the play’s various materials and styles – but to argue that in its representation of the differences between the aesthetics and spaces of the fairy world and the world of Athens, the play offers a theoretical model of the relation between the aesthetic and the larger social world.

I am not entirely sure how the argument that one of the chief characteristics of the play is that it “starkly contrasts an aestheticized, utopian vision of potential harmony with a familiar world of law and ideology” or that “a counterfactual and comic realm can help clarify our unmet needs by conceptualizing their fulfillment in an artifactual, unreal form” adds to traditional interpretations of the forest as a magical world in which the laws and logic of Athens do not apply. What I do find interesting, is that Hugh Grady, like Catherine Belsey, sees in the creation of fictional worlds a possibility for rethinking existing ideologies – both, I think, see fiction as able to step outside of existing ideologies, to create new perspectives. Grady writes, for example, about the way that A Midsummer Night’s Dream can make us (early modern or present spectators/readers?) aware of our own ideologies by offering alternatives:

Shakespeare makes a distinction between a utopian or aesthetic sexuality unrestrained by marriage and a social, “human” world where marriage is the only solution to desire in unconstrained circulation. The result is one of the fundamental possibilities of aesthetic representation: to distantiate us from the familiar human world, to lead us to imagining other modes of living and loving, to look critically into the received ideologies of love and marriage.

I think that both Belsey and Grady would say that the potential of art (Grady’s term), fiction or literature (Belsey used these almost interchangeably) to step outside of a culture’s ideological framework and to offer new concepts and perspectives is enabled by complexity, by the mixing of genres and styles within a work of art, but also by what Grady calls “the internal clashes and the insubordination of repressed materials” (276). This return of aesthetics, then, is based in notions of friction, conflict and disunity, rather than in well-wrought works of art that can be read as unified wholes.

Grady and Belsey are not the only critics to advocate a return to aesthetics in literary theory. Grady’s notes includes references to such works  as James Soderholm, ed., Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in an Age of Cultural Studies (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997); Michael Clark, ed., Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today (Berkeley: U of California P, 2000); Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); and John J. Joughin and Simon Malpas, ed., The New Aestheticism (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003).

Literature and neuroscience

Cerebellum of a chickenIn the latest issue of the TLS, Raymond Tallis, an emeritus professor of geriatric medicine, takes to task the use of neuroscience as a new perspective in literary studies. In “The Neuroscience Delusion” Tallis warns against the tendency to use works of popular science as a basis for interdisciplinarity: in his view, critics use a vague understanding of another discipline as the basis for a new interpretation of literature. Tallis challenges neuroaesthetics as based on an overstated case for neuroscience, and argues that it reduces humanity (as well as reading and writing) to a brain function. 

His main objection to popular neuroscience is that it suggests that the whole of human experienced can be explained from processes in the brain. Instead, human experience is more than a brain – Tallis offers a transcendent alternative that reminded me a little of Jung’s collective unconscious: 

For the extraordinary thing about human beings – and what captures what is human – is that they transcend their bodies; that human experience is not solitary sentience but has a public face; it belongs to a community of minds. This is a process that has developed over many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years since hominids parted company from the monkeys.

What exactly this “community of minds” is and how it relates to literary studies, the article does not make clear. 

Continue reading

The cup, the knife, the coat, the remedy

The discussion about Stanley Fish’s column on the uses of the arts and the humanities at the Valve (here and here) reminded me of the Belle van Zuylen lecture that Jeanette Winterson gave in Utrecht, just before Christmas. Her thesis was that art is essential equipment for the task of being human — a “basic kit for life.” The entire text, in English and in Dutch is on the SLAU website.

The person who introduced her spoke about truth and beauty, and despite being a fan of Winterson’s novels, I was a little worried that the evening was going to be a little too Harold-Bloomian. Then Winterson’s sheer enthusiasm and her engaging style grabbed me.

By cutting through the non-speak and the triviality that surrounds us, art’s language finds the truth about ourselves that we whisper in the night, find revealed in dreams, fend off with good works and good intentions. Under the babble is everything we are not saying about the way we live, privately and collectively, and it is not enough to try and say it in conference notes or essays, or even in the best journalism and non-fiction. We still need the numinous, metaphorical, allusive complex language of poetry – the heightened dialogue of the dramatic text, the strange journeys of fiction.

Next to popular culture and capitalism, Winterson targeted literature courses in academia :

Even people who are supposed to be in charge of education worry about whether the canon of Western art will be too racist, too sexist, too offensive, or just too difficult.

I agree wholeheartedly that a teacher’s enthusiasm is vital in order to stimulate students to read more literature outside class, to go out and explore on their own. Winterson’s lecture really infected me with the desire to do so even more.

I do not quite agree, however, with the critique on modern literary theory that seems to underly this statement. I think that literary and cultural theory, too, are part of the toolkit that can make you see differently and make you think around different corners. Like the strange journeys of fiction, theory can take you out of your familiar ways of thinking.

This idea that theory stands in the way of enjoying literature is alive in Dutch academia, too. The worry is that if we include theory into the curriculum, students will not read enough literature. I agree that students could read more, and it sure would be nice if they also read books in their spare time every now and then. But I do not think that introducing students to the basics of literary theory stands in the way of that. I think it would be good if in addition to being able to close read and analyze a literary text, they could view a book from different perspectives and to see how their reading related to bigger ideas. I even think it could make them enjoy reading literature more.