Wednesday, April 16, 2008

avoiding the difficulty of understanding

Right after I wrote about Immanuel Kant and my difficulties in understanding his book on my homeschool journal, I found this mystery book Critique of Criminal Reason. And my library has it ;-). Leonie calls this serendipity.

I found it on the blog The Grail Code -- John Donne and the Case of the Missing Toilet Paper -- and it links to a very interesting article on reductionist literary criticism -- The Neuroscience Delusion. From the article, which is by Raymond Tallis, a professor of geriatric medicine:

The key point is this. The range of “mental objects” Changeux’s theory encompasses is hardly unique to mentally demanding and enriching experiences such as those associated with reading poetry. The processes leading up to mental objects – if they really do correspond to distinctive realities and are anything other than artefactual dissections of consciousness – are ubiquitous. Bellowing in a rage when one discovers that the toilet paper has run out, and someone has neglected to replace it, would involve the very same processes Byatt invokes to explain the particular impact of the poems of a genius, if such processes do occur. The mental objects constructed under such irritating circumstances also involve percepts, memory images, abstract concepts, and an extraordinary confection-by-association of them, as one justifies one’s rage and allocates blame, and deploys sophisticated neural algebras that simultaneously locate oneself in an unsatisfactory toilet and a careless world populated with thoughtless people.

That is, by adopting a neurophysiological approach, Byatt loses a rather large number of important distinctions: between reading one poem by John Donne and another; between successive readings of a particular poem; between reading Donne and other Metaphysical poets; between reading the Metaphysicals and reading William Carlos Williams; between reading great literature and trash; between reading and a vast number of other activities – such as getting cross over missing toilet paper. That is an impressive number of distinctions for a literary critic to lose. But that is the price of overstanding.

Overstanding -- as opposed to understanding -- is a nice word. I like it for lots of reasons.


Laura A said...

When I first started reading, I thought, "What kind of jargon-y quote is this?" but I'm glad I persisted, already having discerned that you choose your quotes for a good reason. And the payoff was worth it! Thanks.

Willa said...

I know it does sound jargon-y. In the whole context of the article it makes more sense. But it does put into words something about trying to contain something into a little box so you can stand back and feel comfortable about it. In this case, poetry appreciation; but you see it in other places too.

"Understanding" requires a kind of spirit of reception -- the etymology implies "standing between, among". "Overstanding" implies a perception of power and distance over the idea which to me can be reductive and a bit misleading.

Anyway, those are the thoughts that I had in mind when I put the quote up. Perhaps a bit related to John Senior's ideas of the attitude towards literature that Susan referred to in her post on a book-rich home.

Laura A said...

Ah, so you do know Susan! (She's the one who mailed me your link.)

I hope you understand that I wasn't criticizing your choice of a quote. I really liked the point. And how could it help but include some of the jargon it was exposing? I thought it related not only to Senior's Poetic Knowledge, but perhaps also to C.S. Lewis' essay "Transposition."

Celulite said...
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