Previous Next Up Comments
SEHR, volume 4, issue 1: Bridging the Gap
Updated 8 April 1995

cognitive futility

Robert Pogue Harrison


At a certain point in Herbert Simon's paper, which on the whole I read as a statement about-not a demonstration of-literature's translatibility into categories that cognitive science can make sense of, at a certain point in this paper subdivided into twenty one sections, each of which looks at the literary artifact and its interpretation from a discrete thematic perspective, at a certain point in this paper, then, more precisely in the section entitled "Images as Meaning," and I do believe that this is at least numerically the central point in the paper, Simon quotes the first stanza of Wallace Stevens's poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." It was at this point in my reading of the paper that a very cheerless feeling came over me, a feeling that amounted to something like despair over the possibility of a genuine dialogue between Simon and myself on the topic of literature. Something about Stevens's verses struck me as so unlikely, so enigmatic, so redeeming of literature's power to render our preestablished concepts superfluous, that it was like a gust of raw, Alpine air rushing through the claustrophobic laboratory of the cognitive scientist. Let me quote them again:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

In the context of Simon's paper the verses serve as an illustration of his thesis that:

[mental] images, whether generated from sensations or memories, make use of some of the same neuronal equipment that is used for displaying or representing the images of perceptually recorded scenes. (13)

A thesis that concludes:

a mental picture formed by retrieving some information from memory or by visualizing the meaning of a spoken or written paragraph is stored in the same brain tissue and acted on by the same mental processes as the picture recorded by the eyes etc. (13)

Now I have even less to say about neuronal equipment and brain tissue than Simon has to say about literature. On the other hand, when I read that stanza by Stevens I feel sure that more is at stake here than a mental image created by words. The question raised by the verses, and I would say by all the well-chosen words of literary texts, is: how do we read them? What are they saying without saying so, and why this reticence? Why do they seem to make perfect sense yet effectively conceal their sense, the source of their sense, in the very fabric of their phenomenal surface? Why, and of course-how? Why, in other words, would Stevens begin a poem entitled "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" with an image of the blackbird's eye? Who is doing the looking here? To whom is the world appearing like this? What are the conditions of its appearance and how does our presence in the world enable, or mediate, its look? The question I ask is this: Is there some way in which that which literature says without saying so preserves in its text the impenetrability of the phenomenal world as well as the inscrutability of our presence in it-an inscrutability that cognitive science can neither account for nor acknowledge, given that our access to the world takes place ultimately beyond the bounds of conceptualization or at best takes place at the edges of intelligibility where conceptualization struggles, but fails, to maintain its grasp of the world?

I had not read "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in quite a long time, but being familiar enough with Stevens I suspected it was a poem about the relation between the beholding subject and the world it beholds-a relation that Stevens's poetic corpus as a whole labors to do justice to (as opposed to merely "representing" or "describing" or "picturing" it), as if to suggest that poetry for Stevens is nothing other than the hypostasis of that relation. So I interrupted my reading of Simon's paper and looked for my volume of Stevens. As I read its second stanza it became even clearer to me that I did not know how to approach the poem, find my way around in it:

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

I grant that the first stanza, on its own, could be (mis)read as an instance of poetic "imagism" but not in light of the second. What can being "of three minds" mean when it is likened to a tree with three blackbirds in it? This is not the mind, I suspect, the workings of which cognitive science takes it upon itself to understand, but rather a mind which, in its very multiplication, defies the transcendental unity of apperception and no longer relates to the world through the stable categories of cognition. Moving on to the third stanza:

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

At this point I am bewildered enough that I quite forget about Simon's excogitations and give myself over to the effort of making sense of the poem, the next stanza of which seems to make a mockery of the attempt to decode its play on numbers (13 ways of looking, 20 mountains, an only eye, 3 minds):

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

This is a strange holy trinity, insofar as it suggests a series that need not stop at three. In short (since I was asked for a short response), one wonders whether the world itself, in its proliferation of species, individuals, and partial perspectives, is that transcendental unity of apperception denied to the "I" who is of (at least) three minds? The next stanza does not exactly help, let alone confirm, the speculation:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

The statement "I do not know" is one that, in its utterance, names the state that the poem aims to put its reader in, as if to unsettle any concept of what we think it means to know something. And when we read, in the poem's eighth stanza,

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know

the question of what I know, or think I know, or presume to know about the knowing process itself, comes alive as a question aimed not only at our ordinary habits of perception and conception but at any theory of mind that reduces the latter to a subject of cognition (or, by analogy, reduces the proliferation of significations in literature to the author's authorship, as Simon does later in his essay).

This is not the place to attempt to do justice to Stevens's poem, which itself is an attempt to do justice to the obligation we all are under to make sense of our experience, our finitude, our being in the midst of things that are not us, and to make sense of this in a context where a final sense is lacking, is denied to us, and where the order of meaning is dangerously unstable (and not merely "ambiguous"). The point I would like to make is not that literature is ultimately illegible, but that the terms of its legibility are in each case defined by the text in question and that no amount of excogitation about literature's translatibility into cognitive categories will bring us a step closer to coming to terms with them. In the final analysis only the text can do that, and it can do that only after we enter its region of unlikeness and realize that we are lost, as if in a forest, and that we must not only find our way on our own but at the same time must learn the art, the skill, the feel, of finding our way without method. We call this interpretation. It is an activity that begins the moment we are born and that literature intensifies, allegorizes, destabilizes, and renders critical in all its essential aspects. This is another way of saying that there is nothing in Simon's paper (which looks at literature from twenty one thematic perspectives) that helps me make sense of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

Previous Next Up Comments