14.11.24, Harbus, Cognitive Approaches to Old English Poetry

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Mary Kate Hurley

The Medieval Review 14.11.24

Harbus, Antonina. Cognitive Approaches to Old English Poetry. Anglo-Saxon Studies, 18. Cambridge:D.S. Brewer, 2012. Pp. 222. ISBN: 9781843843252 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Mary Kate Hurley
Department of English, Ohio University

Cognitive Approaches to Old English Poetry marks an ambitious foray by Anglo-Saxonist Antonina Harbus into new realms of analysis afforded by the "cognitive approaches" of her title. In particular, Harbus aims to demonstrate how "cognitive approaches offer a new group of perspectives to literary interpretation, and are especially invigorating in any attempt to understand texts produced in remote cultures, such as those written in Anglo-Saxon England" (4). She argues that literary studies can productively speak to cognitive science, particularly when it comes to the question of how the human mind might "understand a text produced over a thousand years ago" (19). In Harbus' estimation, Old English literary texts can offer a wealth of information that belies assumptions of pure alterity on the part of early medieval subjects.

Throughout her monograph, Harbus maintains a double view that situates cognitive approaches to literature alongside examples of Old English poetry that function as case studies demonstrating how such methods work. Her book "seeks to deploy ideas and techniques from a range of cognitive approaches to literature and culture in order to account for how twenty-first century readers are able to create meaning from literary texts that are over one thousand years old" (22). The first four chapters of the book deploy different but related techniques from cognitive studies: chapter 2 treats conceptual metaphor; chapter 3 uses conceptual blending; chapter 4 engages text-world theory; and chapter 5 outlines cognitive cultural studies. Chapters 6 and 7 explore the ways in which cognitive science and literary study are, in some senses, already deeply interrelated fields. Harbus first focuses on "the capacity of poetry to represent subjective states and autobiographical memory, and thereby to enact the dynamic interaction of culture and cognition," later shifting her focus to cognitive science, literary study, and the history of emotions (22). Her conclusion promotes "a specifically cognitive way forward for Anglo-Saxon Literary Studies through the range of perspectives made available by emerging cognitive approaches," and attempts to demonstrate "what the long-range view of Anglo-Saxonists can offer Cognitive Science" (23).

In her introduction, Harbus argues convincingly that cognitive science might reinvigorate literary studies "through the provision of multiple new perspectives on how meaning is created in the mind within the triad of text, context and reader" (5). She is equally convinced, however, that literary studies can also contribute to cognitive science through its focus on "detailed and nuanced reading of texts as both the products of and the triggers for mental processes" and its deployment of "highly developed and diverse means of approaching texts as sites where culture and cognition interact" (5). Harbus' clear-sighted prose and careful exposition of ideas quite convincingly illustrate the depths of such possibility.

In her second chapter, Harbus outlines the uses of conceptual metaphor--that is, the assertion that humans "use metaphors not only to express ourselves in language, but also to formulate ideas and to think" (25). Exploring several conceptual metaphors in Old English poetry--including "the mind is an enclosure," "the body is an enclosure," and "the mind is a wandering entity"--Harbus demonstrates that close attention to the specific metaphors of Old English poetry can illustrate how a "cognitive approach to the formation and transmission of language and concepts can...account for individual, as well as cross-cultural, intelligibility" (51). Such intelligibility is central to her third chapter, which describes the stakes of conceptual blending in understanding metaphors. If conceptual metaphors allow for the mapping of language and ideas across time and culture, then conceptual blending theory illustrates how the mind connects specific and divergent schema to create new ideas via inference rather than via precise mapping. Harbus' analysis of Exeter Book Riddle 43--whose probable answer is Soul and Body--argues that the riddle in question utilizes two specific metaphors (soul as a lord/guest and body as servant/host) which are combined in order to convey the central idea of the text, imparting "an awareness that this life will end, and that the body should be the servant of the spirit, the host at the service of the guest" (66).

Harbus' analysis of "Text World Theory" in her fourth chapter strikes this reader as potentially the most productive import from the world of cognitive science to that of literary study. "Text World Theory" argues that "people make sense of discourse through the creation of mental representations of the ideas provoked by that discourse," resulting in a "conceptual space, or mental construct, created specifically from accumulated textual information, and built up from knowledge that the reader assumes is held in common with the writer" (70-71). "Text World Theory" thus argues for a fundamentally collaborative act of meaning-making through reading texts. Harbus convincingly argues that this theory offers a way of grounding affective responses to Anglo-Saxon texts, helping scholars better explore "how we can be moved by texts written so long ago" (77). Harbus uses three Anglo-Saxon texts--Beowulf, Genesis B, and Wulf and Eadwacer--to trace the possibilities of such horizons. Chapter 5's exploration of cognitive cultural studies defines this method as an exploration of "the constitutive role of cognition in the creation of culture--how cultural practices emerge as a result of mental processes, rather than vice versa" (105). Using the "Theory of Mind," broadly defined as "our ability to attribute states of mind to ourselves and to others, and thereby to interpret and predict behavior and to negotiate all social dealings with other people" (109), Harbus analyzes The Dream of the Rood as a complex negotiation of the theory of mind between dreamer, cross, and Christ.

Harbus' sixth chapter treats autobiography and memory, while the seventh looks at the history of emotions. Her chapter on autobiography and memory explores the narrative function of the creation of self with special attention paid to the ways in which studies of older literary life-writing might illuminate the processes by which selfhood is created diachronically in the west. Her final chapter examines how "the textual capacity both to represent the flux of emotional states and also to trigger an emotional reaction in the reader" (163) as one area in which both cognitive scientists and cultural historians might find some overlapping methodological ground.

As this review suggests, Harbus' Cognitive Approaches to Old English Poetry is a dense work that demonstrates the writer's ability to work closely with and explain the ramifications of contemporary terms and ideas in cognitive science. It will be of particular interest to those who want to understand the implications of current trends in literary study to embrace the terms and ideas of cognitive science. The book will also boost medievalists'--particularly Anglo-Saxonists'--ability to speak more clearly about how our methodologies can productively inform cognitive science. Along with works like Britt Mize's Traditional Subjectivities: The Old English Poetics of Mentality and Leslie Lockett's Anglo-Saxon Psychologies, Harbus' Cognitive Approaches to Old English Poetry will help galvanize the field as it continues to chart the possibilities of the mind in Old English literature.

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Author Biography

Mary Kate Hurley

Department of English, Ohio University