Interview with Christopher Collins, Author of Paleopoetics

“When we feel powerfully moved by what words do to us, I think it’s because we’ve entered into some deeper, older part of us, a place of wisdom and wholeness that is preverbal, even prehuman.”—Christopher Collins

The following is an interview with Christopher Collins, author of Paleopoetics: The Evolution of the Preliterate Imagination

Paleopoetics, Christopher CollinsQuestion: Let’s start with your title: what do you mean by “Paleopoetics”?

Christopher Collins: All my life I’ve been involved with thinking about, talking about, and writing about literature. But through all those years what most intrigued me were the feelings—the moods and emotions—and the mental images that words can invoke. My deepest responses to poems, dramas, novels—any artwork made up of words—always seemed to come from a level in me that somehow went far back into the past. I don’t mean past lifetimes or anything like that—just a very deep and ancient genetic past, some part of me that wasn’t derived from my personal experience. When we feel powerfully moved by what words do to us, I think it’s because we’ve entered into some deeper, older part of us, a place of wisdom and wholeness that is preverbal, even prehuman. In writing this book I’ve tried to find insight into these intuitions by studying what the sciences of the mind/brain have to say about memory, emotion, perception, and the simulation of perception, imagination.

Q: Is that how you arrived at your subtitle, “the evolution of the preliterate imagination?”

CC: Yes, but by imagination I don’t mean foresight or mental agility, but rather the simulation of perception, auditory, kinetic, and, above all, visual imagery. For me, mental imagery is the prelinguistic content that language was evolved to communicate and that writing was eventually invented to disseminate.

Q: How can anyone know how humans thought before they were able to write down their thoughts?

CC: That’s a fair question. We need to approach this from many angles, for example, primate social behavior, the evolving architecture of the brain from pre-human to human, its consequences for the perceptual systems of vision and hearing, the semiotics of gestures, eye–hand coordination and tool use, and the implication of these for fully human social behavior. We need to look for converging evidence from many disciplines—from paleontology, ethology, anthropology, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, cognitive linguistics, and neuroscience. We need to ponder the implications of our reading, let us take us with it, and not be afraid to revise our basic assumptions. Then, if and when concepts seem to click into place, we need to be ready to draw inferences.

Q: Do you have an opinion on evolutionary psychology?

CC: I’m aware that evolutionary psychologists have come in for some scathing criticisms. I don’t reject the notion that the modern skull houses a Stone Age mind, but I believe that that Stone Age mind includes much more than it ever expressed by way of overt behavior, such as mating preferences, sexual jealousy, or fat and sugar cravings. I always sense when reading these psychologists that they are striving to explain human nature in the simplest terms possible—that atavism á la Thorsten Veblen is their idea of “getting real.” I’ve just not been able to get excited about their approach and their conclusions. And for some of the same reasons, I’ve not been interested in the Literary Darwinists, or “evocritics” as some of them now prefer to be called. Too much soapbox evangelism, not enough intellectual discovery. On the other hand, I don’t have much sympathy with most of their social-constructionist critics. I tend to agree with David Buller in The Adapting Minds—evolutionary psychology is a good idea in principle, but up to now, not so good in practice.

Q: In your epilogue you briefly sketch out what you call “the neopoetics of writing”. Have you considered writing a sequel to Paleopoetics?

CC: It might be too early to talk about sequels, but I have been doing some serious thinking about the subject. The shift of medium to writing—print—has had huge consequences. Now with an external storage technology, the scroll or the book, the old mnemonic structures (meter, formulae, and repetition) were no longer necessary. This made prose fiction possible. As for lineated verse, it allowed poets to compose works of greater subtlety and complexity. Writing also created a new kind of imagination, the “literate imagination,” and a new kind of audience, the solitary, silent reader whose visual imagination was no longer distracted by the visual presence of a narrator or dramatic actor. Readers of literary texts were, and still are, being trained in what we might call “imaginal cognition,” the ability to think in mental images and diagrammatic models and to use such paradigms to grasp complex relationships. The capacity of modern humans to envision as-if realities and create scientific hypotheses they owe, I believe, in large measure to their experience of word-cued imagery. If anything can justify the teaching of imaginative literature across the curriculum it is this.

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