Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Spatial Metalanguage and the Literary Sublime: Toward a Rhetoric of Cognition

David Hill.

Near the beginning of Cather’s My Antonia characters on a train-ride are said to “flash through” countryside in two straightforward sentences that embody complex interactions between temporal and spatial categories. Those interactions engender that fusion of motion and stasis that characterizes literary evocations of the aesthetic sublime. While, from an absolute cartographic perspective, the characters do “flash through” their surroundings, from the perspectives available to our sensory experiences, the surroundings “flash” past them—even though, from neither perspective, can surroundings fulfill the on-off, instantaneous (punctual) aspectual argument that defines the English verb “flash.” By evoking an on-off pulsation and deforming it into a series of perceived (conceived?) continuities, the sentences bring their readers closer to the modalities of brain function. The contention here is that aesthetic experiences of the sublime evoke excitement and feelings of renewal in readers by bringing them into contact with the psycho-biological equivalent of a quantum mechanics—a rhetoric that embodies the oscillations and pulses of consciousness normally overlain by the continuities supplied by long-term memory.

Romantic writing (here from Wordsworth through Wallace Stevens) brings us again and again to the brink of a world of abrupt, discontinuous pulses of experience, a world of jagged milliseconds that we smooth into the days and years of continuous selfhood. The analysis of several (three or perhaps four) short literary passages is informed by the work of cognitive theorists in brain neurology, cognitive psychology, cognitive linguistics, and anthropology. (Handouts will supplement and perhaps clarify the brief oral presentation.)


David Hill  (United States)
Professor of English
Department of English College of Arts and Sciences
State University of New York—Oswego

I am a professor of English working in 19th-century American literature with an added interest in linguistics. I co-edited Vol. 16 of the Journals of Emerson and co-edited Emerson’s Poetry Notebooks, as well as essays on Emerson’s essays. My interests in American literature include later 19th- and early 20th-century writers. Presently I am studying the relation between conceptual categories and those aesthetically generated states of mind and feeling associated with the literary sublime.

  • Literary Sublime
  • Cognitive Processing
  • Grammatical-Semantic Aspect
Person as Subject
  • Cather, Willa Wordsworth, William Stevenson, Robert Louis Damasio, Antonio Grossberg, Stephen

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)