I’m trying to thrash out some idea here that seem to be just beyond my ability to explain them, so any thoughts or suggestions would be quite welcome. While I start off by talking about Beowulf, I’m really talking about rhetorical memory rather than the poem. I should also note that I’m probably quoting too heavily. I do that with early drafts, and especially with zero drafts, as I try to internalize the information.
In yesterday’s post, “My Cognitive (Re)Turn,” I discussed how proverbs in Beowulf play a mnemonic role: by reading the generic meaning within the context of the narrative, the poet can tell parts of the story without narrating them. In Beowulf , this form of mnemonic shorthand isn’t just limited to proverbs. In fact, the poem is full of such apposition. People, events, and ideas are projected into the poem and we are meant to interpret the narrative of the poem through these people, events, and ideas. While the connection between the proverbs and the narrative is often clear, many of the people and events referred to in the poem seem superfluous, and are commonly referred to as digressions even while their mnemonic function is recognized (though their function is not specifically described as mnemonic). Each of these elements, say, for instance, the Finnsburg episode or Modþryð, function as concepts pregnant with meaning (what I’m calling their mnemonic value), which are, in effect, stories projected into other stories, which he defines as parables (see the first four chapters of Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language for a detailed discussion of these ideas).
The cognitive work that allows us to read the story of Beowulf through the lens of these concepts takes place in what Turner calls “blended space,” which is where conceptual blending occurs. He writes: “A blended space has input spaces. There is partial projection from the input spaces to the blend. […] Crucially, blended spaces can develop emergent structure of their own and can project structure back to there input spaces. Input spaces can be not only providers of projections to the blend, but also receivers of projections back from the developed blend” (60), and then continues, “One of the great cognitive advantages of a blended space is its freedom to deal in all the vivid specifics–ploughing, straw, barns, planning, talking, deceiving–of both its input spaces. Although the blended space will conform to its own logic, it is free of various constraints of possibility that restrict the input spaces. By means of these specifics from both input spaces, the blended space can powerfully activate both spaces and keep them easily activate while we do cognitive work over them to construct meaning. Upon that circus of lively information, the mind can dwell and work to develop a projection” (61).
While there’s much I want to do with this understanding of conceptual blending (for instance, I’m going to argue in my dissertation that this is the modern explanation of the inner workings of medieval memory theory’s machina memorialis, the engine of thought), what I want to point out here is that this is not a unidirectional system. By working through the conceptual blending of ideas, not only do the input systems (such as the proverb and the story of Beow I discussed yesterday, or the story of Modþryð which we are to read in apposition to the stories of Hroðgar and Beowulf) provide the meanings we are to blend, our potential understandings of their individual meanings are changed – expanded – by that blending. Why do I see this as important? Because, as I titled a short position paper/rant in a history of rhetoric course: “Memory Lane is a Two-way Street.”
The conceptual blending we’re asked to do while reading Beowulf only works if we’re aware of the meanings of the concepts we’re supposed to blend. For instance, if we don’t know who Modþryð is and what historical role she played in Danish history (she was a queen who turned brutal, possibly because of pride), we can’t read her in apposition to Hroðgar and Beowulf. Likewise, if we don’t recognize a proverb as a proverb, or if we have no idea what the proverb means, then we’ll miss the opportunity to decode the meaning, the story, the proverb mnemonically represents. What I want to suggest is that as mnemonic shorthands, these concepts are cultural commonplaces that are invoked by rhetors/authors/storytellers.
Because our traditional histories of rhetoric define rhetorical memory as memorization for purposes of recalling oral speeches, our traditional stories of the commonplaces describe them as one-way systems that work internally: the commonplaces are containers where we store common topics which we can use to develop a composition. Commonplaces, I want to suggest, have a second, external, function. By invoking a shared commonplace, a specific person, event, or concept that is pregnant with meaning, a rhetor invokes those meanings as well, and, in fact, relies upon that commonplace to work as a mnemonic shorthand for those meanings. So, for instance, the Old English maxims invoked in the opening section of Beowulf are able to do their cognitive work when the audience is aware of the maxims or, at least, the social practices to which the maxims refer. They only work when the audience is aware of the connotations they’re supposed to invoke.
Knowing how to invoke commonplaces allows rhetors to invoke the ideas, emotions, and other conceptual freight associated with that commonplace. While I’ve been using literature as my example so far, this is not limited to literature. In fact, like Mark Turner, I believe that literature is not a special case of language in use, but instead, only seems special because it tends to foreground the cognitive function of language that is largely transparent in everyday practice and, therefore, unconscious. Whether we realize it or not, the description of how proverbs work in Beowulf is also the description of how general, everyday thought works. Again, for a full account, you’ll want to read Turner, but let me offer this short quote to help illustrate this point. Turner writes: “Abstract reasoning appears to be possible in large part because we project image-schematic structure from spatial concepts onto abstract concepts. We say, for example, ‘Shame forced him to confess,’ even though no physical forces are involved. Forms of social and psychological causation are understood by projection from bodily causation that involves physical forces. This is parable” (18). What Turner means here is that we have no difficulty processing the idea that shame can force someone to do something even though shame is an abstract concept, which cannot have animate agency. As he explains, it is “the projection of a basic abstract story of movement by an actor under his own power onto a different story of action, whether or not it involves movement” (39): in short, as a parable, we process the sentence “Shame forced him to confess” the same way we process the mnemonic shorthands in Beowulf discussed above. Likewise, words like terrorism and patriot function as parables and serve as mnemonic shorthand for President George Bush in the same way that proverbs and Modþryð do for the Beowulf poet.
I need to better develop and expand upon what I’ve got here, but it’s a start at defining the concepts from cognitive science that I’m using to lay the groundwork for discussing cognitive images, the architectural mnemonic (places and images mnemonic), and contemporary work on mental, verbal, and graphic imagery (chapter 2), and, of course, the whole notion of the bi-directional work of memory leads to the social, and therefore helps set up my chapters on rhetoric and social memory (chapter 4), and literature as social memory (chapter 5).
I realize my use of commonplace here may be problematic because commonplaces are most often discussed as categories, as places (containers) for topics rather than as specific concepts themselves. I still need to do more reading on the commonplaces and commonplace thinking, but much of what I’ve read notes that the whole concept is somewhat vague and never fully defined in any systematic or authoritative way. Unless someone’s got a better suggestion or wants to point me towards something I should read or reread, I want to use it, if for no other reason than to stress the fact that by neglecting memory, we’ve constructed an understanding of rhetoric that is too narrow.