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Embodying Literature

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Abstract:

Walt Disney’s movie, The Pagemaster (1994) begins on a dark and stormy night, with a young boy stumbling into an immense, gothic-styled library for refuge from the rain. Once inside, he is soon carried away by a tumultuous river of coloured paints, transformed into an animated characterization of himself, and thrust into an animated world of literature, where he battles Captain Hook, flees Moby Dick, and participates in other classic tales of adventure, horror, and fantasy.

Adults might understand the film as a fanciful description of how they feel when reading a lively book. Although they would probably not imagine themselves tagging along with the animated characters like a 4th musketeer, they might very well claim that they enter a fiction through the viewpoint of one or more of the characters, experiencing, imaginatively, mental images of the sights, sounds, smells, and movements that the character would experience. Under this description, the reader would be forming multi- modal images that would correspond directly to what the literary characters are doing, thinking, and experiencing. When a fictional hero whips out his sword and slashes a rope in half, the reader might form a visual image of the hero’s determined face, an auditory image of the sound of the whizzing sword, and a motor image of an extended arm movement. I call such an imitative participation, by use of mental images in any modality, a simulation.

I suggest that this imitative experiencing of a fiction through the production of multi-modal imagery - a simulation - is not the only way in which readers might engage a literary text. In this paper I explore the hypothesis that readers might use their own bodily processes - those of the somato-viscero-motor system (SVM) for a non-imitative activity that I call a reinterpretation and that the reinterpretation might make a distinctive contribution to the reading process. As an example of a simulation and a reinterpretation, take the SVM experience of the reader’s breathing. A simulation would occur if the text describes a character who is taking deep breaths of air and the reader creates a mental image representing the experience of breathing. In this case, the reader’s mental image of breathing would stand for a property of the literary work - the fictional experience of breathing.

By contrast to the simulation, a reinterpretation would occur if the text describes a character who is gazing at long, wispy clouds that extend outward from a horizon and the reader uses his own experience of breathing to stand for the visual sense of looking at a long, continuous expanse of filmy white: the reader’s actual breathing would stand for a property of the literary work - the fictional experience of seeing. Breathing is not the same as seeing. This should help clarify the following definition.

I hypothesize that a reinterpretation occurs when the reader becomes aware of some component of the SVM system and reinterprets it as a property of the literary work that is not the same as that particular SVM process. The SVM experience is projected into the literary work.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Language, Literature, and Communication, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180. USA., Email: esroce@rpi.edu

Publication date: January 1, 2004

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