Nonfiction Review by Concetta Principe

Jan Zwicky, The Experience of Meaning (Montreal: McGill-Queen's, 2019). Paperbound, 248 pp., $29.95.

The Experience of MeaningInitially, I thought I was not the best person to review Jan Zwicky’s The Experience of Meaning, since she and I seem to operate in very different scholarly and aesthetic realms. Her grounding in the ancient Greek philosophers is specialized knowledge that I lack. Compared to her understanding of Wittgenstein’s logic, I am a dilettante. And all I know about Gestalt (Theory) is what I have garnered from Jacques Lacan’s article, “The Mirror Stage.” Worse than not being versed in the theoretical grounds of Zwicky’s project, I write the very poetry that she claims is “candy” compared to the “food of good lyric poetry”: the “aleatory” works that are empty aesthetic calories. Thus unarmed, I read her project anxious that it would prove that my poetry is trash. The outcome was far from what I feared and even revelatory. The quality and sophistication of Zwicky’s thinking are awe-inspiring; the clarity of her writing on such difficult concepts in aesthetics and psychology makes this project enjoyable, accessible reading for any scholar, teacher, or writer of poetry. Most importantly, her invitation to consider aesthetic theory that can address the debate about the “quality” of art is a welcome and overdue project.

Poetry is difficult, Zwicky argues. The difficulty of poetry is not a weakness of the reader in any way; perhaps this fact has been the cause of poetic experiments that resist meaning, enabled by the absence of a working aesthetic in Western culture, mired as it is in polarizing debates between high and low art, tradition and the avant-garde. Zwicky suggests that we might consider “meaning” in aesthetics not as it has been defined by the dichotomy of meaning and meaninglessness, but through the theory of Gestalt as the non-verbal and experiential apprehension of art: “we register—without calculation—internal relations among aspects of visual arrays.” It is not the parts that are important, but how the parts become bigger and more fulfilling in the apprehension of the “whole.” Through Gestalt, Zwicky outlines how we may accept and read poetry as a fundamentally complex art form.

Zwicky’s argument for a Gestalt approach to meaning is carried out in what I would call “Gestalt fashion”: she introduces the “experience” of Gestalt through such images as the Necker cube and the Ruben vase. These visual puzzles exemplify how meaning-making, in the poetic sense, represents the experience of “reality” as complicated. For example, we can see the white Ruben object on a black background, while also seeing the profile of a black face mirrored in another black profile. This doubling, Zwicky explains, “is an example of metaphor in action, of seeing one thing (two faces in profile) as another (a chalice), on the basis of profound, inalienable, shared structure.” This model of metaphor explains why poetry is so difficult to grasp: metaphors are meaningful in their ambivalence. This ambivalence explains why there is never a definitive interpretation of a poem: there are too many moving parts in it to reduce it to a single meaning. Thus “meaning matters” because poetry aims to represent reality’s complexities, even its confusions, in a whole-full way.

Zwicky’s notion of the “wholeness” of the Gestalt idea of meaning came into focus for me during her review of the neurological science that explains how our brain works to help us process meaning. The left-brain hemisphere determines regulative systems such as time and language, while the right-brain hemisphere, vague on definitions, is deep on sensory experience. The power of art derives from its stimulating both hemispheres, in the very way that the Ruben vase works: there are the parts visible through left-brain processing, while the whole, the principle of the two together, is right-brain processing. This metaphorical processing accounts for that “something more” that is our daily reality.

Zwicky quotes Wittgenstein to exemplify the paradox of “inscape” as more than itself: “… if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be—unutterably—contained in what has been uttered.” In other words, meaning is an experience both full and lacking, present and absent, there and not there. It is in this reverberation of said and unsaid that I am suddenly at home in my own research. Paul of Tarsus spoke in 2 Corinthians about his experience of being taken up into the third heaven, “whether in body or spirit I do not know.” His confused sensory experience has been understood by neuroscientists as right-brain processing. In Zwicky’s terms, it is the principle expressed in Joyce’s literary epiphanies; the revelation that Johannes Kepler had when he recognized that the planetary movements were not circular, but elliptical; the harmony of music. This principle of something greater than the sum of the parts, this wholeness as an “experience of meaning,” is Zwicky’s Gestalt aesthetic.

Her two application chapters, “Show, Don’t Tell” (on the art of poetry) and “Music” (on the Gestalt of harmony and rhythm in music), are brilliant. The formalistic play with Wittgenstein’s aphoristic style in the latter was allusively astounding and a joy to read. It was in these chapters that I found myself reconsidering my own expectations around art. By the end, I was surprised to realize that her aesthetic project does not work against the poetry that I write. Whereas I began the book ashamed of my “aleatory” candy, by the end I realized that some of my work does express what her Gestalt aesthetic would consider wholesome, if exotic, lyric food.


—Concetta Principe

As in The Malahat Review, 210, spring 2020