Francis F. Steen
Department of English, UC Santa Barbara
"The Time of Unrememberable Being":
Wordsworth's Autobiography of the Imagination
 A/B Autobiography Studies 13. 1 (Spring 1998): 7-38. Full text
Special issue on autobiography and neuroscience, edited by Thomas R. Smith. 


(revised 2/2/98)

What is the neurological architecture of the autobiographical self, and why does it prompt the rewriting of memories? What are the mind's systemic safeguards against delusional thinking? These questions are important not only for the neuroscience of autobiography, but for understanding aspects of human cognition that have so far been largely overlooked in the scientific study of the mind: the multiple uses (and abuses) of fictional scenarios. The neuropsychology of pretend play, metacognition, and the imagination is just beginning to receive serious attention.  The imaginative mind is being placed under the magnifying glass--or, more appositely, in the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. Because empirical data acquire meaning only within the context of a theory, we humanists, as denizens of the imaginary, would do well to participate in the elaboration of a theoretical framework that does justice to the complexity of the issues at hand.

In such an elaboration, the rich and subtle phenomenology of literary works can be of particular interest, for instance in providing a publicly available and psychologically powerful record of the intimate operations of an individual mind. Such a record need not be literally veridical to provide useful data; traces of distortions and deceptions can be equally informative. Conversely, the competing explanatory frameworks of neuroscience can illuminate our understanding of literary texts by placing the all-too-familiar psychological assumptions we use to interpret them in a novel and challenging light. While a cognitive reading of literature does not fit neatly into the disciplinary traditions of either literary criticism or cognitive science, the best work shows that both fields can benefit, and a new and habitable area is emerging in the fruitful gap between the sciences and the humanities.  Persistent issues in the study of literature, such as the problematics of the self, can be addressed afresh in a psychological as well as a historical context. In the present essay, I have chosen to examine the manuscripts of William Wordsworth's earliest drafts of what was eventually to grow into his magnum opus, the posthumously published autobiographical work The Prelude, for evidence of the nature of the autobiographical self--the self that is a story, yet functions as the locus of being.

The essay begins by examining how Wordsworth's attempt to create a basis for his own poetic genius entailed an innovative break with the cognitive theories of his time, goaded by an encounter with a radical educational scheme proposed by Thomas Wedgwood. Through a close reading of his first autobiographical sketches, dating from October 1798 through April 1799, I chronicle how he creatively remembers his childhood in terms of the development of the powers of the imagination. Forming the warp of the fabric of the essay is thus Wordsworth's earliest autobiographical attempt to trace the ontogeny of the imagination back to the dream state, to play, and to perceptual and conceptual blending, while the woof weaves in the results of cognitive neuroscience, drawing on memory research, sleep research, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, adding to his ontogeny a phylogeny or evolutionary history of fictional cognition. The successful unfolding of the imagination, I argue, is only possible when accompanied by adequate systems of source monitoring--the capacity to distinguish between what originates in perception and what is the response of memory. The resulting tapestry aims to be sufficiently elaborated to permit the formulation of a neurological hypothesis about the self that we find traces of in a poetical fragment Wordsworth wrote as a commentary on this first period of composition: that the autobiographical self-as-being arises as a virus within the source monitoring system itself, and functions to override the action of cognitive proprioception.

Full text of the article
Cognitive Cultural Studies | Vita
 Tintern Abbey from the Devil's Pulpit (photograph by Timothy Wager)

© 1998 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles