Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Do We Experience Images When We Read a Novel?

In reading a novel silently is there anything that imitates reality?  Surely the words don't.  But what about images or "ideas" brought up by the words?  Addison in his famous essay "On the pleasures of the Imagination" argued that that, in reading, the mind compares ideas that arise from words with ideas that arise from the object themselves.  Peter Kivy in Once-Told Tales (2011) observes that this notion comes from John Locke who believed that when I hear "green apple" I am in a mental state similar to that in which I actually experience a green apple.  Kivy thinks the Addison/Locke view ridiculous.  I am not so sure.  Oh yes, whatever image there is must be quite a bit less precise and, as Hume would put it, weaker or fainter, but this actually makes the view stronger.

But I ask myself:  what happens when I read the following passage from Tom Rachman's novel The Imperfectionists (2010)  "She takes a break at the espresso bar downstairs, where she meets up with her friend Annika, who is unemployed and therefore usually free for coffee.  Hardy empties a packet of artificial sweetener over her cappuccino." What happens in my mind is that I see Hardy in a downstairs espresso bar where there is another friend who perhaps comes up to her table, and I also see Hardy picking up a packet of sweetener and pouring it on the top of her cappuccino.  (I might even have an image of the color typical of the sweetener I tend to use.) Moreover, I have a very specific idea of what a cappuccino looks like, i.e. that it will be in a ceramic cup on a saucer and will have a bit of white foam over coffee-colored coffee.  There are not a lot of details here (and some of these details are admittedly contributed by me, not Rachman), but if the next line describes the cappuccino in such a way as to make it look like a coca-cola, I would be very surprised.  (I am not saying that this could not happen in a novel, but it would have a surreal effect.)  Moreover, the similarity between the experience I am having in my mind as I am reading and the one I would have if I were there in the room observing these characters explains why I would respond with the appropriate emotion if, say, in the story, a bomb went off and parts of Hardy flew by (that would be pretty shocking, and I would experience the emotion of shock....maybe you did just now, just a little).  It is certainly true that the word "cappuccino" here does not evoke an image as complex as the perception I would have on actually seeing, smelling and tasting a cappuccino.  But is this enough to reject the theory as presented by Kivy of Locke, Addison, Hume and Kames?  (Kames adds the emotional response component to the theory). 

Hume says that when I experience an "idea" of the cappuccino I am experiencing a faint copy of the original impression of the thing represented.  Kivy rejects this idea, and yet his rejection is based on an appeal to authority:  he simply says that the idea has been "hung out to dry" and that "no one can possibly accept" it (131).  (I accept it.  But he probably means, no one but a confused philosopher would accept it.)  He also thinks that a passage by Edmund Burke refutes the theory.  Burke's passage says, he claims, that if you read at adult speed these images cannot be aroused.  (How does Kivy or Burke know that the adult imagination cannot accommodate adult-speed reading?)  Here is Burke's telling passage quoted by Kivy: "the most general effect even of these words, does not arise from their forming pictures of the several things they would represent in the imagination; because on a very diligent examination of my own mind, and getting others to consider theirs, I do not find that once in twenty times any such picture is formed, and when it is, there is most commonly a particular effect of the imagination for that purpose."  A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (London, 1757).  

So, I am to reject what I see in my mind when I read the passage by Rachman because it doesn't happen in Burke's mind or that, so he says, of his friends?  Remember that Hume had already insisted that the representation would be considerably fainter than the original. So it has already been conceded that it is not terribly similar to the original.  Am I to understand that Burke would in no way see a cappuccino in his mind if he were reading the passage I quoted?  Is this true for Kivy too?  I wonder why novelists would bother to describe things at all if doing so did not produce an image in our minds.  One would think that Rachman was relying on my knowing what a cappuccino looks like when presented in a cafe, so that he can paint a picture for me by using that word, among others.  

Kivy refers to the psychology of perception (Hume's) and theory of linguistic communication (Locke's) as "totally discredited" by Burke's passage.  How is that?  How is it that "The notion that reading a novel or narrative poem produces a continuous series of mental images...in the reader's mind simply will not wash."  (132) Wait!  What was the evidence for this?  Kivy's argument (if we wish to call it such) reminds me of an argument offered in the 1960s by Norman Malcolm that we do not dream at night, despite our recollections of such things:  that dreaming is just a disposition to tell stories in the morning.  You cannot refute a person's experience simply by saying that the idea "will not wash" or that the great Burke never had such experiences -- or claims not to have had them, in any case.  I suspect that Kivy would also have a faint image of a cappuccino when he read this passage every bit as much as I do, although I am lost as to his motive in denying it.  Some of the confusion may be due to some switching back and forth on Kivy's part between an image which is vivid and one which is faint.  He admits that sometimes we do entertain vivid mental images when reading fiction silently.  Fine, but remember that Hume's point was that in addition to the vivid ones there are also faint, non-vivid, even vague ones.  Perhaps they predominate when reading fiction.  I do not claim that my image of the cappuccino upon reading Rachman's novel is vivid or precise.  I do not need that much to "set the scene" and go on with the story.  After all, the subject of the story is not the cappuccino.  Kivy thinks, agreeing with Burke, that only when there is a particular effort of imagination, that one has an image when reading.  But I would argue that it would require a particular effort of imagination not to have a faint image of a cappuccino when reading Rachman's passage. 

Kivy says, "If I pause in my reading to dwell on a particular scene in a novel, I may succeed in conjuring up a mental image vivid enough to arouse an appropriate emotion." (133)  I just read a short story in which a girl threw her dog into a frigid pond and then jumped in after it (no adults around).  I felt a terrible shock and could not read further.  Only later was I able to pick up the story again.  This shock was not the result of pausing, dwelling and conjuring!  It was spontaneous and was connected with the image of a girl leaping fully clothed into a lake, an event that later kills her.  

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