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  • Stevens and the Cognitive Turn
  • Natalie Gerber and Nicholas Myklebust

SURVEYING THE ESSAYS in this special issue, one may reasonably ask what a cognitive approach to literature entails and what such an approach adds to existing critical conversations regarding Stevens as a poet of the mind. Charles Altieri, for instance, has already shown the phenomenological import of an object’s changing “aspect” in consciousness.1 And the multiple meanings of mind have expertly been mapped by Simon Critchley.2 In fact, the phenomenological project that contains, articulates, and ultimately undermines the core epistemological categories put into play by Stevens himself has long been a focus of Stevens criticism, with landmark readings by Bart Eeckhout and Stefan Holander.3 If such critical gains may be had without appeal to cognitive approaches, then what, we may wonder, justifies a special issue devoted to these perspectives? How can they complement or contribute to established critical methodologies?

Cognitive literary studies, or cognitive poetics, is an umbrella phrase for critical perspectives with a shared interest in, and use of, principles of cognitive science. It seeks to rekindle a working, multidirectional network of relationships between such disciplines as neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, cultural studies, stylistics, and of course literary criticism. Through this collaborative framework, it offers insights into the cognitive processes involved in the production and reception of texts while generating rewarding new contexts for close reading and hermeneutical inquiry. As the essays in this issue demonstrate, familiar terms of critical study—image and vision, rhyme, and chiasmus—produce valuable and rousing readings via the cognitive turn.

Prospects for “interdisciplinary exchange values between poetics and cognitive science,” as Mark Bruhn has noted (406), do raise vital concerns about reducing poems to data points or prioritizing empirical findings over nuanced interpretations. And we acknowledge that wariness of the directionality of influence between the humanities, which is often figured as the colonized, and the sciences, as colonizer, has tempered many scholars’ enthusiasm to conjoin the fields. [End Page 137]

Nevertheless, as Roi Tartakovsky’s essay notes, cognitive discoveries can illuminate poetic processes; and the sheer diversity of cognitive approaches helps to obviate any such “disciplinary imperialism” (Bruhn 411). Although shared assumptions concerning the nature of mind and language offer cognitive-poetic perspectives a common frame of reference for modeling our encounters with literary texts, no single ideology or method dominates its field of vision. On the contrary, its eye, like that of the blackbird, is multiple. In its refusal to totalize, it finds something of a sponsor in Stevens, who, in a letter to Robert Pack, protested, “The last thing in the world I should want to do would be to formulate a system” (CPP 954).

This resonance speaks to the crucial question of what cognitive approaches can bring to Stevens scholarship. Perhaps more than any poet of his generation, Stevens produced work that outpaces critical technologies, and this gap may owe much to the “continuous creation of mind” so central to his aesthetics (Riddel 50). This continuous creation, or dialectic of “false engagements” and “enchanted preludes” (CPP 279, 290), is vividly depicted in the twelfth section of “Esthétique du Mal”:

He disposes the world in categories, thus:The peopled and the unpeopled. In both, he isAlone. But in the peopled world, there is,Besides the people, his knowledge of them. InThe unpeopled, there is his knowledge of himself.Which is more desperate in the moments whenThe will demands that what he thinks be true?

(CPP 284)

Here a construct of “categories” mediates between knowledge gleaned by the artifice of perception—the disposal of appearances into “peopled” and “unpeopled” worlds—and whatever force presents the mind with such appearances in the first place. In the movement between categories, in moments when the will demands not knowledge but truth, what holds our attention is neither knowledge nor truth but the poet’s shifting perspective—the vacillating aspect that imbues “desperate” moments with provisional meanings. The poem stages an allegory of perception in which the categorical peopling and unpeopling of the world leads to the “false engagements” with what lies behind, and lives prior to, the disposing categories. Out of tension comes continuous creation of mind, and...