Davide Castiglione: Obscurity vs. difficulty in poetry

17. 3. 2020 17.00

Kampus Hybernská

In literary criticism and aesthetics, “difficulty” and “obscurity” are often used interchangeably. Despite personal preferences and differences in emphasis across authors, both terms have been consistently associated to (a) a faulty understanding at cognitive level, and (b) a distortion of linguistic norms at textual level. Against this trend, in my work (Castiglione 2019) I draw a neater line between “difficulty” and “obscurity” – without denying the possibility that the experiences encompassed by these terms may coexist (e.g. a poem can be deemed difficult and obscure at the same time).“Difficulty” is operationalized as a process-oriented reading experience underpinned by the conceptual metaphor DIFFICULTIES ARE IMPEDEMENTS TO MOVEMENT (Lakoff & Johnson 1980). “Obscurity”, on the other hand, is operationalized as a goal oriented hermeneutic practice underpinned by the common UNDERSTANDING IS LIGHT metaphor.

In this seminar, I intend to explore the consequences of this conceptualization by mapping such aesthetic experiences onto cognitive processes of comprehension: difficulty is understood in terms of deautomatized low-level processing operations (e.g. parsing, decoding, integration
through bridging inferences meant to retrace coherence in the text) whilst obscurity is understood in terms of deautomatized high-level processing operations (e.g. inferences on intention, thematic inferences beyond the representation level, etc.). It is argued that the stylistic and compositional properties of poems play a role in prompting primarily a sense of surface resistance (difficulty) or
enigmatic depth (obscurity).

The theory is applied to specific poems or poetic extracts, arguing that their stylistic qualities play a role in prompting primarily a sense of surface resistance (difficulty) or enigmatic depth (obscurity). Finally, suggestions are given to test such hypotheses empirically.

Davide Castiglione is a lecturer at the Faculty of Philology, Vilnius University. His research concerns the questions of difficulty in poetry, stylistics and empirical approaches to literature, the language of 20th century poetry and comparative poetics and literary translation (Italian-American-British). He has recently published a book Difficulty in Poetry: a Stylistic Model.

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