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  • Guided Rapid Unconscious Reconfiguration in Poetry and Art

The idea that literary works are designed to give pleasure does not get much exercise these days. So I would like to take it out for a walk. We’ll see where it takes us, how much ground it covers, and what friends it makes along the way. Perhaps if we take it off the leash of theory, it will roam far enough afield . . . . By this time you are bored with my metaphor, and thus have made a judgment about the use of a trope that is often said to be at the heart of poetry. 1 What I want to do is give an account of the principle that led to that judgment, for it is the same principle, I shall argue, that governs judgments about the aesthetic dimension of literary works.

I first encountered the idea in F. W. Bateson’s English Poetry: An Introduction, where he labels it the “The Principle of the Semantic Gap.” Poetry, Bateson says, does not consist of the transference of feeling from poet to reader (the Romantic and expressive view which he opposes), but of “the successful collocation of contrasted or conflicting ‘meanings,’” 2 and he traces the theory back to Coleridge’s idea that poetry consists in the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities” (Biographia Literaria, chap. xiv). Contrasted meanings defeat normal expectations, so the reader is forced to bridge (apparent) gaps in order to make sense of the words, and it is that collaboration between author and reader that constitutes poetic activity. The theory is, though Bateson does not present it as such, a reworking of the ancient notion that in a successful work of art we perceive unity in variety. This essay is an effort to extend and defend that theory in its modern form, particularly as it relates to literary works.

The modern theory came into being because of a change in the [End Page 412] object of aesthetic analysis from the work and what it imitated to the psychology of the audience:

Up to the eighteenth century the theory of art in the Western world was dominated by ancient philosophy. It was most of all Plato’s metaphysics which, in a number of variations and even distortions, attributed to the artist the capacity of perceiving the divine ideals of beauty beyond the world of the senses and embodying them in his creations. The rejection of this mystical view of art in the course of the eighteenth century . . . was bound to make theorists turn to psychology. 3

It is within this psychological tradition that the modern version of unity and variety has been developed.

Re-castings of the ancient formula for aesthetic value have been done by (at least) five recent theorists. Given that one can probably trace the twentieth-century revival back to Gestalt psychology, it is not surprising that the earliest of the four is Rudolph Arnheim. In an essay on “Order and Complexity in Landscape Design” he defines order as “the degree and kind of lawfulness governing the relations among the parts of an entity,” and complexity as “the multiplicity of the relationships among the parts of an entity.” 4 Arnheim then psychologizes (rather than “cosmologizes”) these concepts by grounding them in the propensity to be perceptually satisfied by a balance between the two: “Complexity without order produces confusion; order without complexity produces boredom” (p. 124). Similarly, in The Act of Reading Wolfgang Iser says:

The reader’s enjoyment begins when he himself becomes productive, i.e., when the text allows him to bring his own faculties into play. There are, of course, limits to the reader’s willingness to participate, and these will be exceeded if the text makes things too clear or, on the other hand, too obscure: boredom and overstrain represent the two poles of tolerance, and in either case the reader is likely to opt out of the game. 5

In the same vein, Francis Sparshott asserts in The Theory of the Arts that “Beauty occupies the ground between cliché and chaos,” with variety protecting against the former, unity protecting against the latter, 6 and in The Sense of...

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