Third speaker: Mark Hansen
Cognitive Approaches to Literature
MLA 2000: The Literary Imagination

Mervyn Nicholson
Professor of English
University College
British Columbia, Canada

Presentation Abstract

Literature and the Logic of Visualization

The word "imagination," once an indispensable term in the critical vocabulary, is now pretty much extinct.  References to "imagination" typically treat it as too quaint for words or as belonging to some hopelessly outdated "Romantic ideology" or the exploded metaphysics of something called "myth criticism."  In this respect, critical theory has returned to the prejudices against imagination common to psychology through most of the twentieth century and to philosophy through most of its history (not all).

The problem is that imagination will not "go away" just because critical fashions have moved away--by imagination I do not mean German-Romantic imagination, but imagination in its primary sense as the forming and transforming of mental images (mental senses more generally including hearing with the mind's ear as well as seeing with the mind's eye and the other senses).  This activity really constitutes a type of intellection in its own right, indeed with its own kind of logic, but this type of intellection is different from abstract reasoning, the preferred and privileged model of thinking in the academy.  Since literary texts are the creations of this "imagethinking" mode of consciousness and not the product of abstract reasoning, literary theory has generated virtually insurmountable problems for itself by ignoring the ways in which this "imagethinking" mode of consciousness constructs and expresses.  Tropes, for example, have to be regarded as the attempt of words to replicate the rhythms and forms of imagethinking, as opposed to abstract reasoning.  It is only to abstract reasoning, therefore, that they are undecidable and. aporetic: what present as insoluble convolutions to abstract reasoning are clear and direct expressions as far as imagethinking is concerned.

A further example is the use of certain "cues", as they may be called, crucial images located at certain points in the text of stories to indicate the direction of the plot.  I summarize and illustrate some of these cues, and draw upon classics of "realism" to illustrate my point (for example Trollope's Barchester Towers).  As soon as one begins to study the logic of visualization as it constitutes literary texts one begins to notice how frequently writers themselves refer to the act of forming and transforming mental images: definitive indication, if one were needed, of the profound importance of this activity for literature and by extension for consciousness and for society itself.


Mervyn Nicholson is Professor of English at University College in British Columbia, Canada, and former Chair of English and Modern Languages and member of the executive of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English and Board member of English Studies in Canada.  He is the author of Male Envy: The Logic of Malice in Literature and Culture and of the forthcoming .


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MLA 2000: The Literary Imagination

Third speaker: Mark Hansen
Cognitive Approaches to Literature
MLA 2000: The Literary Imagination