Sylvain Belluc, and Valérie Bénéjam, eds, Cognitive Joyce

Sylvain Belluc, and Valérie Bénéjam, eds, Cognitive Joyce. (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) xvi + 285 pp. £83.49 Kindle. £89.99 Hb. ISBN: 9783319719931

While no longer the Next Big Thing, nor a suspicious newcomer to the humanities, cognitive literary criticism (CLS) has still some way to go before it fully establishes itself as a ‘normal science’ in the Kuhnian sense of the word. Whether the ‘cognitive turn’ in the humanities started with the publication of Literary Discourse: Aspects of Cognitive and Social Psychological Approaches edited by Laszló Halasz in 1987 or with the issue of Mark Turner’s seminal study Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science in 1991, the intervening three decades or so should have been enough for an about-turn to have been completed. 

If no such sea-change in our thinking about the creation, the nature, and the reception of literary works has happened, if cognitive approaches to literature remain, as two leading practitioners of the field have aptly put it, ‘on the verge of affecting the mainstream’,[1] it is certainly not the fault of the editors and authors of the volume Cognitive Joyce. Whatever its minor shortcomings, the eighteenth instalment in Palgraves’s series ‘Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance’ is a fine representative of the many strengths and few weaknesses of cognitive literary studies at their current stage of evolution. The thematic coverage of Cognitive Joyce is as comprehensive as the academic credentials of its contributors are impressive. Regardless of their institutional and national backgrounds, this international assembly of scholars employ state-of-the art approaches sound in their theoretical foundations built upon and representative in the source disciplines consulted. The Joyce aficionado, the cognitive neuroscientist, and the informed general reader will all find plenty of material worthy of her attention. From a number of central stories in the collection Dubliners, throughkey episodes of the genre-defying Bildungsroman A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to nodal chapters in Ulysses and darkly illuminating motifs in Finnegans Wake, all the major turning points of the arch-modernist’s career are revisited in the successive chapters of this twelve-station tour. Along his equally safe and enlightening intellectual journey, the reader is guided by literary exponents of disciplines ranging from classical and modern philosophy to linguistics and, needless to say, cognitive narratology.

It will not go unnoticed though that the authors,  who are of  French-speaking backgrounds except for an Irish, a Dutch and an American scholar, are all academics coming from the humanities, mostly from university departments of English or comparative literature. Such an apparently uniform composition of disciplinary affiliation does not seriously diminish the interdisciplinary quality of the collection. Discounting one or two professorial contributors leaving it to the reader to relate their chapters’ historical or phenomenological topics to the ‘hard’ sciences, most of the authors did their homework in the sciences acquiring sufficient familiarity with the potentials and pitfalls of venturing into foreign terrain. Whether it is the precise meaning of parallax in optics, hypnagogia in experimental, and the theory of mind in evolutionary psychology, the contributors always know as much as it takes to determine how much their readers can be expected to know and how much is needed in the way of brief, user-friendly explanation.

And that is done without any patronising concession: the authors insist on treating the reader to the best that the various scientific disciplines they draw on can currently offer. Rather than settle for the insights derivable from traditional cognitive science with its exclusive reliance on computational and representational views of the mind, the contributors work with the ‘second generation’ theory of the ‘4Es’, i.e., the idea that cognition is embodied, enactive, embedded, and extended. In his contribution to literary neuroaesthetics, Pierre-Louis Patoine draws attention to the reader’s ‘embodied simulations’ of the protagonist’s painful experiences in A Portrait, Jean-Baptist Fournier describes the enacted creation of the Dublin cityscape in the minds of the perambulating characters of Ulysses, Caroline Morillot convincingly argues that waiting, whether kinetic, static, or phantasmagorical, can constitute yet another type of spatio-temporal engagement with the material environment depicted in Dubliners, and Dirk Van Hulle explains how the books consulted by author and character alike constitute a vital aspect of both Joyce’s and Leopold Bloom’s extended consciousness – to cite but the most salient instances of how the 4E-theory is put into explanatory practice in the collection. 

Although the authors are in full possession of up-to-the-minute interdisciplinary expertise, they also know how to exercise self-abnegating modesty, that indispensable guarantor of reliability. The contributors make frequent caveats about the limited applicability of MRI scanning in reader-response criticism, or the possibility of reading into the Joycean text more than the writer may have put in it. One of the authors openly warns himself of yet another Sokal hoax whereby fashionable dabbling in the ‘hard’ sciences, in this case neuroscience, can be painfully exposed as intellectual imposture. 

And yet, the absence from Cognitive Joyce of experimental scientists engaging with literary texts can easily make the whole enterprise appear to be a rather one-sided affair with plenty of take and no, or precious little, give. It is very useful and enlightening to demonstrate how James Joyce kept abreast with, or indeed rushed ahead of, contemporary medicine and psychology, no less than Marcel Proust, who was famously dubbed as a neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer in the title of his celebrated book on the topic. The Joycean reader can only be delighted at seeing erudite demonstrations of how Joyce’s mind was like the colour black in Ulysses, which, in Leopold Bloom’s understanding, ‘conducts, reflects (refracts is it?) the heat’ of contemporary medicine, psychology and neurology. What the volume stops short of accomplishing though is to confirm how Joyce’s art may inspire today’s laboratory researcher in his work. Interdisciplinary in its useful borrowings as the book Cognitive Joyce may be, transdisciplinary in the sense of full mutuality it isn’t.

But then is the absence of all-round transdisciplinarity a real shortcoming? Not if we accept the book for what it is: a substantial contribution to our understanding of James Joyce’s fictional work in particular and literary scholarship in general. This particular reader has, for example, found Annalisa Volpone’s comments on Joyce’s multilingual pun ‘amygdaloid almonds’ potentially relevant to his own examination of embodied remembering in Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza (Cognitive Joyce,p. 243). Of equal importance to this reviewer are the insights gained from Pierre-Louis Patoin’s Portrait-related chapter promising to enhance a fuller understanding of how Anthony Burgess uses the quaint teenage argot Nadsat and theological speculationsin A Clockwork Orange to counterbalance the excessively visceral effect of his ‘terrible but fantastical somesthetic images’ and thus provide an integrated ‘complex aesthetic experience’ (Cognitive Joyce,pp. 182, 186). Idiosyncratic as such sparks of inspiration may be, they are meant to suggest some of the uses the volume under review here can be put to. And that in the scholarly investigations of period, i.e. modern and contemporary literature, which has so far been largely neglected in cognitive literary studies, pace Jonah Lehrer’s Proustian interventions referred to above. Cognitive Joyce is a timely gift offered by scholars well-versed in the sciences to other scholars with an interest in those sciences and a stake in the humanities.


[1] Michael Burke and Emily T. Troscianko qtd in Marcus Hartner, ‘Scientific Concepts in Literary Studies’, Cognitive Literary Science, ed. by Michael Burke and Emily T. Troscianko, p.17.

Dr Ákos Farkas, Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest

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