Alan Richardson, The Neural Sublime: Cognitive Theories and Romantic Texts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010)
I was talking to someone the other day about What Literature Knows About Your Brain (the topic; not the blog), and I mentioned this book as a way of making the case. Although, within the cognitive theory field, it’s a bit of a classic, I’ve never mentioned it in a post before. So, a brief note on the matter.
Nobody should speak roughly about the sublime as an idea in classical and post-classical poetics, but roughly speaking the point about it is that some things (powerful poetry, for example; or a very big mountain) have the capacity to lift us beyond the everyday and into more elevated realms of thought and experience. Richardson had the neat idea that our minds are, like the universe, awe-inspiring in their magnitude and complexity, and that when we encounter the workings of our brains we are outside and above normal bounds.
Literature might take us there. It might have ways of manoeuvring our thinking into a vertiginous perspective on its own patterns, ebbs and flows, short-circuits, and sharp edges. Literature is a product of the mind, and reading puts the mind to work, and sometimes the harmonics between the thinking on both sides get us deeper into (no — this is sublimity; gets us higher into) the way we think.
That’s the rallying cry I take from Richardson, anyway. It transports a classic notion into a new field. It acknowledges the contributions to knowledge made by cognitive science, but it recognizes that our minds are in many ways a mystery, and there’s no way we can observe them from the outside. It suggests a literary towards a special sort of insight. Highly recommended.