Skip to content

Pattern Recognition

The just-released Spring 2008 issue of The American Scholar, contains a timely article by the New Zealand scholar Brian Boyd. Boyd wants to return literary scholarship to once again studying the “artfulness of literary art,” a topic I discussed in a recent post. But interestingly, Boyd wants to bring concepts from science into play as part of his strategy to reclaim literature for the arts.

Boyd begins:

Stories can offer so much pleasure that studying them hardly seems like work. Literary scholars have often sought to allay unease at being paid to enjoy the frissons of fiction by investigating literature as a form of history or moral education. And since the late 1960s, academic literature departments have tried especially to stress criticism as critique, as an agent of social transformation.

For the last few decades, indeed, scholars have been reluctant to deal with literature as an art—with the imaginative accomplishment of a work or the imaginative feast of responding to it—as if to do so meant privileging elite capacities and pandering to indulgent inclinations. Many critics have sought to keep literary criticism well away from the literary and instead to arraign literature as largely a product of social oppression, complicit in it or at best offering a resistance already contained.

Literary academics have also been reluctant to deal with science, except to fantasize that they have engulfed and disarmed it by reducing it to “just another narrative,” or to dismiss it with a knowing sneer as presupposing a risibly naïve epistemological realism. They have not only denied the pleasure of art and the power of science, but like others in the humanities and social sciences, they have also denied that human nature exists, insisting against the evidence that culture and convention make us infinitely malleable.

To make a long argument short, Boyd, a Nabokov scholar, contends that “art is a form of cognitive play with pattern,” an idea that can help us better understand how literature works – without digressing from literature. Boyd offers up an extended pattern-recognition analysis of Lolita (sounds worse than it really is). We all know that patterns of every kind exist in literature; but Boyd wants to turn this equation around by suggesting that literature functions because of pattern. Admittedly, one would be hard-pressed to find a book more tailor-made to his thesis than Lolita; nevertheless, Boyd makes a convincing case. His summary:

What do these examples from Lolita suggest? A writer can capture our attention before, in some cases long before, we reach what academic critics would accept as the “meaning” or “meanings” of works. The high density of multiple patterns holds our attention and elicits our response—especially through patterns of biological importance, like those surrounding character and event, which arouse attention and emotion and feed powerful, dedicated, evolved information-processing subroutines in the mind.

Boyd mentions W.G. Sebald in passing and I have a sense that Sebald’s works, with their ever-shifting, constantly recurring patterns, would benefit from the kind of reading Boyd proposes.

Boyd concludes:

Literary studies have no need to feel embarrassed at the art of literature or the pleasure we derive from it. Literature and other arts have helped extend our command of information patterns, and that singular command makes us who we are.


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bruce Hay #

    This is a wonderful web site. Who are you? I can’t find any identifying info on the site… Maybe I’m not looking in the right place. BH

    April 16, 2008
  2. I just put up an “About Me” page – way down in the Pages section.

    April 17, 2008
  3. Cutgrass #

    I think of Sebald walking his dog; somewhere I encountered a reference to such ambles with his pet. I think of his daughter who survived the crash; and once again of that dog, whose picture might have found its way into a book of Sebald’s. Not to be.

    From the books I’ve read, I quickly retrieve these random moments and the resoundings I carry with me on my solitary walks:

    I will never look at a moth suspended in the web of a spider the same way; whenever I read in the present-day news of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aus Deutsch, what type of rendering might that phrase beget?) without thinking of the cracking sound of shoulders popping from sockets, a sound too little muted by flesh, but audible only to the torturers in the fortress labyrinth (and to Sebald). Also this: Where, I sometimes wonder, can I find a “teas-clock”? Up, too, in my vision blink the “before and after” postcard photos of Frankfurt; on those images I sometimes apply today’s magnifying pane and ask, “What of destruction from the air in this day and age–will there be an “after” in my time, a time when there seems so little reflection on the destruction (or degradation) of the “before”? And who can forget the cricket-like chirp of Kurt Waldheim’s voice in space–In a strange world of my own imagining, I wonder what the black monoliths, the sentinels of Kubrick and Clarke, would register in the magnetic tracery of the calm voice of good soldier Kurt? Clarke referred to the monoliths as sentinels awaiting signs of intelligent life; others see them as the embodiment of artistic transformation awaiting the sole traveller. Who’s to say?

    For now, sir, a greeting and a leave-taking. I in advertently helped myself to the first and regrettably admit the second. Glad to have discovered here a well-met clerisy. The wayfarer was glad to be waylaid and hopes the same way lay ahead soon.

    TPH, or

    May 10, 2008
  4. Cutgrass #

    Sorry to prattle so; also excuse the un-disentangled clauses and the marks of punctuation that scarpered…Wasn’t sure of edit option…In parting a second time, I recall what Terence McKenna once said of Joyce and FWake: economy is an aesthetic for shoemakers, not artists. But the seams ought not to show, no matter the issue…

    Hoping to return..

    May 10, 2008

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: