Lorenzo Bartolucci will workshop “The Surface of the World Itself: W. H. Auden and the Umwelt”, a draft chapter from his dissertation, “The Neurological Imagination: Neuroscience and the Self in Twentieth-Century Poetry.” Prof. Craig Svonkin (Denver) will offer a response, followed by questions and group discussion. Here is an overview of the paper:
Before earning a reputation as “the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century” (Mendelson), W. H. Auden (1907-1973) grew up among doctors, and went to Oxford to study not literature, but the natural sciences. This chapter pursues the ramifications of that background in the development of Auden’s career, with an eye to how it primed his poetry to provide a crucial, yet unexplored, point of conjunction between the poetic imagination of the twentieth century and the “new philosophy” of neuroscience (Ramachandran). The analysis focuses on Auden’s encounter with the work of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), whose theory of the Umwelt—the “perceptual world” that shapes an organism’s entire experience of existence—laid the foundation of the epistemological framework that defines the idea of subjectivity within which contemporary neuroscience still operates. The close reading of several poems serves to illustrate Auden’s appropriation of that framework in the form of a new conception of the idea of the self, wholly coterminous with the embodied experience of inhabiting a particular landscape. The (tentative) result is a revealing perspective on the idea of human nature at the heart of one of the most influential poetic experiences of the twentieth century, disclosing one of the gateways where the seemingly distant discourse of neuroscience began to emerge in the words of American poets.
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