Emotion and Cognition in The Prelude[Record]

  • Joel Pace

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  • Joel Pace
    Blackfriars, Oxford

Martha Nussbaum's tenth and eleventh essays in Love's Knowledge are particularly helpful in elucidating the relationship of emotion to cognition in The Prelude. Nussbaum is searching for knowledge of the soul; yet she still has an unresolved question: "How does a soul arrive at truth?". She is debating whether truth is reached through a purely intellectual examination of the soul or through an examination that involves emotion as well. The former viewpoint is buttressed by Locke; and the latter leads to what Zeno the stoic and Proust define as the cataleptic condition, "a condition of certainty from which nothing can dislodge us" (Nussbaum, 265). A third view holds that emotion is a bodily drive which functions entirely independent of cognition. After much consideration of these viewpoints she makes a decision about knowledge of the soul she knows and feels to be right. Wordsworth also is seeking this knowledge. He opens Book I of The Prelude with a declaration of his freedom and the question of what he will do with it: We can interpret this question as Wordsworth's querying fate: What will I do with my life? Where is my place in this society? What kind of soul do I have and where will it find its kindred spirits? The Prelude recounts a journey of self exploration by the end of which he is certain of his calling as a poet. As we study his creative process we will see how he relates emotion, cognition and reflection in his concept of imagination. Another relevant topic is how the reading of emotional literature affects judgment. He reveals his debt to literature of this kind as he shows us how it fostered his imagination, soothed his emotion and helped him develop certainty as to his calling. As he draws the poem to a close, he, like Milton, reveals the didactic purpose of his poem: The emotional visitations have led him to certainty not only about his own soul and mind, but also have made him aware of universal truths. Locke, as well as Godwin, would not have fully accepted his reaching truth through reason which incorporates emotion, and Locke certainly would not have thought poetry an adequate vehicle for conveying truth. Locke will allow poetic writings to delight but not to teach, for Locke directly opposes his view insofar as he believes that the only texts which can lead one to knowledge of the soul are those which contain reason and no emotion; however, Nussbaum holds that the "only text that could promote this sort of knowing would be a text that had the requisite combination of emotive material with reflection" (Nussbaum, 281). Another issue we will explore is how the "spots of time" (particularly the Boy of Winander, Penrith Beacon, the Drowned Man and "One Christmas-time") and the emotional impressions they leave behind, inspire Wordsworth and lead him to a cataleptic condition of certainty that he has a "sensitive, and a creative soul" (1805, XI, 256). During Wordsworth's creative process, imagination functions as a faculty which is both emotional and cognitive. For Wordsworth, imagination is both creative and receptive as is exemplified in the "infant babe" (1805, II, 237) of Book II who is described as "creator and receiver both" (1805, II, 273). To exemplify this concept let us suppose that in his travels Wordsworth sees a village church. Empirically speaking, he has received an object and it has entered into his mind through his eyes. However, in his mind's eye he transforms the church: He is now creator and receiver both, for (through his senses ...