The Style of Gestures: Embodiment and Cognition in Literary Narrative
by Guillemette Bolens

Reviewed by Rebecca Hardie


Published by John Hopkins University Press, 2012   |   248 pages

What type of knowledge enables us to understand a smile described by Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past?

À peine arrivions-nous dans l’obscure antichambre de ma tante que nous apercevions dans l’ombre, sous les tuyaux d’un bonnet éblouissant, raide et fragile comme s’il avait été de sucre file, les remous concentrique d’un sourire de reconnaissance anticipé. C’était François. (Du côté de chez Swann 52)

(No sooner had we arrived in my aunt’s dark hall than we saw in the gloom, beneath the frills of a snowy cap as stiff and fragile as if it had been made of spun sugar, the concentric waves of an anticipated smile of gratitude and recognition. It was Françoise. [Swann’s Way 45])

The sentence “les remous concentriques d’un sourire de reconnaissance anticipé” (“the concentric waves of an anticipated smile of gratitude and recognition”), Bolens notes in The Style of Gestures: Embodiment and Cognition in Literary Narrative, possesses considerable evocative power, despite, or perhaps due to, the fact that it resists the possibility of a fixed, singular representation. It forces us, she suggests, in our efforts to engage with it, to recreate the scene it describes with our kinesic intelligence. It is precisely from engagements such as these, Bolens argues, that much of the power and “spirit” of literature, and indeed all narrative forms, arises.

Kinesic perception, as Bolens utilizes the concept, concerns non-verbal behaviours and forms of communication. Her analysis is rooted in Ellen Spolsky’s work on the ease with which humans discern and interpret body movements, body postures, gestures, and facial expressions (which is itself partially rooted in Chomsky’s notion of “generative grammar,” which concerns the ease with which infants acquire language). As in generative grammar, the reflexive, instinctual nature of our kinesic intelligence, in addition to its obvious presence in other species, suggests that it is partially, if not wholly, genetically coded. Much work has already been done on this topic as it concerns “real world” situations; Bolens’ text extends the project of applying this analysis to the arts.

To illustrate the value of kinesic perception in literary analysis, Bolens works through two preliminary textual examples – John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674) and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). In both cases, the gesture at stake is an involuntary response to a crucial narrative moment. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, accompanied by her uncle and aunt, visits Pemberley in the absence of its owner, Mr Darcy, who unexpectedly returns a day early. Darcy is surprised to see Elizabeth at Pemberley and performs a movement that Bolens highlights as “at once minimal and powerfully expressive”: that is, “He absolutely started”. To fully understand the kinesic significance of this gesture the reader must contextualise it in light of the novel’s overall literary style, corporeal atmosphere and value system, which are preoccupied throughout with control, propriety and their loss. Elizabeth’s apparent breach of propriety instigates Darcy’s momentary loss of composure and self-control, thereby jeopardising the social etiquette of their encounter. In Bolens’ reading, the reader’s interpretative process thus involves apprehending the language of the text, recreating the movement it signifies using kinaesthetic and sensorimotor knowledge, and then interpreting the possible implications of this gesture through Austen’s literary style in a dynamic cognitive process.

Bolens examines similar persistent vectors of kinaesthetic meaning – tension and resistance – in a different narrative context, Paradise Lost. At the cardinal turn of Milton’s narrative, when Adam understands the irreversible transgression committed by Eve and decides to stay united to her, a choice that culminates in the Fall of mankind, Milton writes:

On th’ other side, Adam, son as he heard
The fatal Trespass don by Eve, amaz’d,
Astonished stood and Blank, while horror chill
Ran through his veins, and all his joynts relax’d;
From his slack hand the Garland wreath’d for Eve
Down drop’d, and all the faded Roses shed

In this scene the climactic gesture representing the detrimental exercise of Adam’s free-will is the relaxing of joints (“all his joynts relax’d”). Bolens situates this kinesic event in relation to the fact that Milton’s entire work is in effect an argument for the moral imperative of the autonomous will and self-control. Precisely at the text’s crucial moment, Adam’s hand’s slackening embodies the yielding of his body and will. Thereupon the wreath of Roses falls and fades, miming the point of no return of the whole of Judeo-Christian theology. In both of the above examples, the gestures themselves relate crucial information to the central problematic of their respective narratives, but with different significances.

The work’s first chapter concerns the argument that these kinesic gestures cannot be reduced to typologies – eg. that a smile cannot be assumed to denote pleasure – because their significance is dependent on their narrative context and style. This point is illustrated through an in-depth literary untangling of an encounter between Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses. In this scene, Bolens considers the significance of a hand-shake and the sound of receding footsteps in relation to repetitions of these particular gestures at different points in the whole narrative, arguing that meaning is located along an interlace of connected resonances. In chapter two, Bolens develops the idea that gestural movement (within texts) produces multiple shifting perceptual simulations for both the reader and author. She illustrates this point via an analysis of Venerable Bede’s (672-73) celebrated work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), in which Sister Tortgyth has a vision of Ethelburga’s soul being raised into the air after death: Vidit quod quasi funibus auro clarioribus in superna tolleretur, doneccaelis patentibus introducta, amplius ab illa videri non potuit (She saw that it was lifted up on high as it were by cords brighter than gold, until it was taken into the open heavens and could be seen by her no longer). That the soul does not only manifest in the form of body but is “lifted” (subject to the force of gravity) kinesthetically produces the perceptual simulation of a body-like soul endowed with weight. Chapter 3 and 4 turn from the linguistic (the use of tropes and verbs) to the social – in particular interaction rituals – to show that the social too is a crucial facet of kinesis. Bolens conveys this through instances of socially mandated self-inhibition of motor impulses (attempts to hold oneself still) in the legend of Lucrece and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the reader is led to understand what these particular gestures (or lack thereof) signify in terms of gender, social status, religious or moral responsibilities and familial expectations.

As is to be expected, The Style of Gestures is rich in reference to other theoretical writings, but despite the seeming inaccessibility of Bolens’ interpretative fields – narratology and rhetoric in literary studies, gesture studies in sociology and anthropology, action understanding in philosophy and psychology, embodied cognition in neuroscience and kinaesthetic semiotics in dance theory and medieval culture – The Style of Gestures is not intended to be read by specialists only. It encourages conversation across different fields by unpacking complicated theory – that of Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Gilles Deleuze, Wolfgang Iser and Paul Ricoeur – clearly and logically, illustrating it and applying it through pertinent and revealing textual examples. Bolens clarifies both the literary and theoretical texts under discussion, not by simply applying theoretical commonplaces — far too often the case in similar scholarly work – but by engaging deeply with the ideas under discussion. From this engagement with the significance of gesture new meanings (both literary and theoretical) are found.

More than just a work of textual analysis, Bolens’ research offers new insights into the task of qualifying the social function of literature – a difficult and pressing requirement of research funding applications and publication bids today in lieu of the repeated subordination of the humanities to the sciences and technologies in the education system and public spending. Although the direction of Bolens’ reasoning is mainly one way, with sociology, anthropology and cognitive sciences used to provide a “scientific” basis for literary analysis, there are also underlying hypotheses as the (biologically coded and naturally selected) roles literature and other cultural fields serve in human relationships, expression and community. Bolens work also serves to check the overeager application of the ideas of evolutionary biology – unquestionably valid in their own domain – to other areas far too complex to be currently understood.

The Style of Gestures sets the scene for a range of new kinesic interpretations across a wide spectrum of disciplines, including painting, film, texts and choreography. But, though this work is significant for its academic and research potentials, it is perhaps more interesting for its personal dynamics. In Bolens’ reading, kinesic perception is empathetic, intersubjective, and simultaneously embodied and cognitive, calling on the spectator’s or reader’s participation in the creation of meaning and motion in life and art. The Style of Gestures repeatedly evokes self-consciousness in its reader about the way they enter the narrative space and how they exploit and interpret their own embodied cognition. This book successfully translates its analytic tools and interpretative frameworks beyond the page into the reader’s next reading experience and, perhaps, social encounter. As Bolens writes, ‘literature is powerful because, more than any other type of discourse, it triggers the activation of unpredicted sensorimotor configurations and surprises the mind with its own imaginative and cognitive possibilities.’

Rebecca Hardie is a PhD student at King’s College, London. Her research focuses on translation cultures in early medieval religious prose, and asks about the implications of this on the history of subjectivity in the West.

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