The organic metaphor of the digesting mind from English romanticism to American modernism: a cognitivist approach
Guendel, Karen E.
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Recent scholarship demonstrates that the metaphor of taste, which represents aesthetic discernment as gustatory sensation, foregrounds ideologically laden questions of individual and cultural identity across a wide swath of literary history. But critics have yet to discover that taste is but one component of a much broader network of metaphors that figure the mind as a human body that eats and digests the world of objects and ideas. Using two approaches to metaphor from cognitive science, Lakoff and Johnson’s Conceptual Metaphor Theory and Fauconnier and Turner’s theory of "conceptual blending," I relate metaphors like reading-is-eating, ideas-are-food, and contemplation-is-digestion within a metaphor system that I call "the digesting mind." Applying this insight to organic aesthetics, I argue that poets expand organicism's metaphorical basis beyond the familiar poem-as-plant by introducing a mind that consumes plantlike poems. Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, Whitman, and William Carlos Williams link writers and readers in an ideational economy figured as nutritional exchange. As each poet negotiates questions of creativity and literary influence, his biological, philosophical, political, and aesthetic beliefs converge in metaphors of the digesting mind. After introducing my approach in chapter one, I examine the digesting mind's importance in the evolution of organic aesthetics from English romanticism to American modernism. In chapter two, the digesting mind destabilizes Coleridge's influential distinction between mechanism and organicism by revealing, in Biographia Literaria, his anxiety that a diet of mechanistic literature will reduce the organic mind to a machine. Chapter three reads Wordsworth's Prelude in similar terms, as an allegory representing mental development as nutritional growth, in which the imagination requires an organic diet of poetry and nature. In chapter four, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass Americanizes the digesting mind with an Emersonian aesthetic that locates power in the poet’s present transformation of the literary past into future mental nourishment. In chapter five, Williams adapts Emerson's digesting mind with a pragmatic aesthetics of experience. By representing his Objectivist poems as fruit, as in "This is Just to Say," Williams relocates the organic ideals of vitality and unity from the poem, as aesthetic object, to the audience's felt experience of reading-as-eating.