Van Peer

Van Peer, Willie. "Toward a Poetics of Emotion." Emotion and the Arts. Ed. Mette Hjort and Sue Laver. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 215-224.
After presenting the Dickinson poem "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain," Van Peer comments that the usual questions we might be tempted to ask about the content of the work (what is happening, why, etc.), are only part of the "phenomenology of poetic encounter" (216); affective reactions must be considered alongside the cognitive ones, since many readers will experience significant emotions in reading this poem. Van Peer's question is how we can be moved by "black marks on white paper" (216).  
Though Plato saw literature as dangerous and Aristotle saw it as educative, both agreed that it possessed powerful affective properties (217). Most Western societies have adopted Aristotle's view, but where there are censorship laws, "literature is suspect, and the Platonic view prevails" (217). Van Peer argues that this suspicion comes from the opposition between emotion and reason which forms the core of the "folk theory" of emotions: emotions are independent of reason, and cannot be controlled by it. This view, however widely held, is incorrect, and in reality, emotions are closely associated with cognition (218). In support of this claim, Van Peer cites Herbert Simon's idea of "hot cognition," which suggests that most people are able "to attend to issues longer, to think harder about them, to receive deeper impressions that last longer, if information is presented in the context of emotion - a sort of hot dressing - than if it is presented wholly without effect" (218). Simon, 32
Emotions have the power to make us focus on major problems, but can actually impede us in our attempts to solve these problems (220), a dilemma Van Peer calls "the paradox of emotion" (219). Literature and the arts, similarly, allow us to "maintain a high level of emotional involvement, but keep us from getting things done" (221).This common view, however, is incomplete, and Van Peer looks at the process of mourning as an analog to literary experience to make its function more clear. When we mourn, the difference between what is and what was is too great to reconcile easily and immediately. So, we must make repeated efforts to reorient and reposition ourselves (222). Emotion, not efficient action, is what is needed to achieve the new balance. This "is the kind of emotional effect sought and created by literature" (222), which "takes us away from our grey everyday experience, but brings us back enriched with new sensibilities" (223). This means that literature has the potential to "provide readers with the occasion to acquire a new sense of self" (223), which suggests that literature is not only useful, but "hard to live without" (223).  
Van Peer's basic claim, that the affective aspect of the reading experience must be considered alongside the cognitive, is well taken. His suggestion that the emotions a text elicits may result in an individual's gaining a new self-awareness is commonly accepted from an empirical standpoint, though little empirical evidence is provided here. Even more basically, the claims seem intuitively right, or true-to-experience. The devil, however, is in the details (or their lack), which fall short in corroborating the broader claims of the essay.  
An aspect of Van Peer's analysis that needs further elaboration and some adjustment is his analogy which compares reading to mourning (221-222). The analogy is defensible only if we take a weakened version of it. Reading and mourning are both processes in which we engage, wherein we are open to experiencing and generating emotions which demand attention and reflection. As a result, both processes can lead to self-modification. However, the scale of the experiences here compared are quite different. First, mourning is a process that can last for a year or longer, without interruption, while reading is (comparatively) sporadic and temporally limited. Next, mourning draws us in completely, immersing us in grief, colouring every aspect of our existence with its insistent demands. In short, it consumes. Reading, on the other hand, is not such an intensive experience. Van Peer claims that reading affects us profoundly by "momentarily cutting the ties with our environment and our practical concerns" (222). This needs qualification, especially if we are comparing our immersion in a text with our immersion in grief. When reading a text, we are often simultaneously aware of the world of the story, and the fact that it is a story separate from our reality, a condition Richard Wollheim (who is quoted for other purposes in Van Peer's essay) refers to as "twofold attention." Thus we are never engaged in the process of reading at the same depth we experience the work of mourning, meaning that the self-altering potential of the two processes will differ to such an extent that they almost cease to be commensurate.  
Most troubling, perhaps, is Van Peer's claim that "emotions powerfully focus our psychic energies on a particularly pressing problem, without, however, in any way showing us a solution to that problem" (220). This correlates with his earlier statement that "practical action usually demands 'cold' reasoning" (220). These assertions imply a view of the emotions as "interrupts" to normal cognition in the tradition of George Mandler (1984) and Oatley and Johnson-Laird (1987), a view which has been widely discredited, namely by Martha Nussbaum (1995), whom Van Peer actually quotes early in his essay. Nussbaum stresses the intimate connection between cognition and emotion, showing how emotional responses are thoroughly integrated with cognitive, rational processes. Emotion guides behaviour in powerful ways, serving often as a catalyst, rather than an impediment, to action. Indeed, even the word "catalyst" is too limiting, in that it implies incitement with no further effect, whereas emotion works in a far more interactive and simultaneous way with our memories and experiences to shape our selves. Looking back to the example of mourning, which Van Peer suggests prevents action, we can see that the emotions it stirs lead to many responses which are anything but passive. Which of us has not seen a grief-stricken individual initiate and maintain a mourning ritual, which can involve visiting the gravesite frequently to "talk" to the deceased, or the daily writing of their deeply felt loss onto paper, as an active way to navigate the mourning experience? Van Peer is right to claim that emotions "are intimately related to cognition" (218), and that they can modify the self, but his own account does not allow for the range of effects emotions can have. Of course, the distinctive contribution emotions make to the experience of reading is still an open empirical question.  

Mandler, George. Mind and Body: Psychology of Emotion and Stress. New York: Norton, 1984.

Nussbaum, Martha. Poetic Justice. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

Oatley, K. & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1987). Towards a cognitive theory of emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 1, 29-50.

Simon, Herbert A. Reason in Human Affairs. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983.

Document created April 1st 2005