Experience vs. Narrative

The diachronic study of mysticism turns on an appreciation of the deforming power of William James’s norm of intense personal experience. Deforming, that is, with respect to a different ‘earlier’ kind of mysticism—relevant to the lives of innumerable ‘mystics’ like Julian of Norwich (see Julian of Norwich, Theologian, by Denys Turner).

I think that episode in intellectual history sheds light on the study of poetic form. Usually poems are valued in terms of deep personal immanence. Poems showcase ‘states of mind,’ a belief which encourages a hermeneutics of pathology. This may help explain the endgame of our current habit of apocalyptics.

But if we accept the distinction between Jamesian ‘experience’ and ‘narrative’ (as our principle of emergent form requires), a paradigm shift occurs. Others become the locus of the logos, their stories inseparable from the grammars of the time and the place. “Another fine day tomorrow, she drawled, headlocking a memory” (last line of ‘Muzzy McIntyre’ by Geraldine Clarkson). As function of narrative, poetic style expresses complex values —-humor as well as dead seriousness as here. ‘Tone’ as topic is considerably refined as polyphony or the mix of voices emergent from the narrative.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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