Yesterday, in Part I of “Affective Poetics and Narrative Need,” I introduced the concept of primary process affect derived from the work of affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, and showed how the beloved poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan pays tribute to and reenacts affective processes in her poetics. Here I would like to explore the structure of affect in more detail, tracing its physiology and behavioral manifestations through the poetry of Joe Weil, whose work marks the bidirectionality and ability of affect to shape ontology through the creation of scene, one of the fundamental building blocks of narrative.
To fully explore affect and the seven primary affective brain systems that Panksepp has identified, we need to make a distinction between emotions and feelings, which are usually conflated. “Feeling” manifests in secondary brain processes, while emotion is primary process. In the words of science journalist Rita Carter, who has translated the complications of brain mechanics for a wider audience, “emotions are not feelings at all but a set of body-rooted survival mechanisms that have evolved to turn us away from danger and propel us forward to things that may be of benefit” (Mapping the Mind, 83).[i] As the most recent work in neuroscience has demonstrated, and as I will discuss through the work of Stephen Porges tomorrow, emotions happen first, influencing perception and everything else, and the content of those emotions is rooted in the will to survive, the basic fight/flight or freeze responses, or what Porges has named the “social engagement system” that allows for sociality. So how do these “body-rooted survival mechanisms” that are our emotions manifest in our daily lives, and how do they inform poetics? Here I must turn to Jack Panksepp, who pioneered the field of Affective Neuroscience, and whose work spans decades of empirical research on animals which has demonstrated a cross-species continuity in basic affect: rats laugh, chickens respond to Mozart, and humans are not the lesser creatures for sharing these affects but are rather the greater, ennobled by this potent form of kinship with other forms of life.[ii]
Panksepp’s affective neuroscience argues that affective states are primitive consciousness that emerges from the interaction of brain circuits that control emotional behaviors (“Mammalian Brain,” 14).[iii] In this lexicon, affect is the emotion/desire that influences behavior/ action. Some fundamental ideas in affective neuroscience are:
1) Evolutionary continuity—differences between humans and animals are “differences of degree rather than kind” (Darwin).
2) We share neurochemical and neuroanatomical brain features with many animals.
3) Our behaviors are an interaction between affective, primary processes in the brain and secondary processes associated with memory and cultural learning. Animals have secondary processes as well, but they are based on different memories and cultures and don’t have the same kind of meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) that nonhuman animals have.
4)“The primal affects are intrinsic brain value systems that unconditionally and automatically inform animals how they are faring in survival. They serve an essential function in emotional learning. The positive affects index “comfort zones” that support survival, while negative affects inform animals of circumstances that may impair survival . . .” (“Basic Emotional Circuits,” 1). [iv]
Major findings in Panksepp’s work include:
- Affects have profound developmental consequences for the emergence of cognitive structures
- The operation of core emotions becomes hidden by secondary cognitive processes. Affective feelings show how we prioritize actions and associated cognitive plans (“Mammalian,” 17).
- Raw affects are initially objectless in the brain—linkages between affect and object are LEARNED (“Mammalian,” 22).
- This means cultural learning tells us what to fear, etc.: embeds affect in a network of meanings.
- This concept allows us to examine the relationship between nature and culture and how that relationship effects our behavior: “Constructivist theories of emotion obviously need some basic tools for anything useful to be constructed. The intrinsic, evolutionarily provided emotional abilities revealed by affective neuroscience are such tools” (“Mammalian,” 22).
- ”Through learning, as well as through the guiding role of initial genetic variability in emotional systems, each person [and animal becomes a unique affective being through their individual genetic inheritance and epigenetic experiences of the world” (22).
In Panksepp’s words, “such findings suggest nested-hierarchies of BrainMind affective processing, with primal emotional functions being foundational for secondary-process learning and memory mechanisms, which interface with tertiary-process cognitive-thoughtful functions of the BrainMind” (“Cross-Species Affective Neuroscience Decoding,” 1).
The implications of Panksepp’s work for poetics are vast. Emotions, basic survival structures, are also the source of much behavioral motivation, running the gamut from initial reaction to stimuli all the way through the complicated tertiary processes necessary for aesthetics. Emotions are channeled through cultural learning, memory, and epigenetic expression, informing cognitive processes like aesthetics that in turn serve to give order and ontology to these motivational impulses. Poetry that most recognizes and is most oriented toward primary process affect yields the most comprehensive aesthetic experience. The poems we love the most value affect and activate the affective systems in the reader.
primacy of the affective systems can be most clearly seen in contemporary
poetry that participates in the narrative tradition. A good example is the poet Joe Weil. The affective emphasis that characterizes
Weil’s work generally is unmistakable in his widely anthologized poem “Painting
the Christmas Trees.” There, the lines “unless
grief grows a hand/and writes the poem,” which end the poem, are a figure for
the embodiment of affect, the way it motivates and takes the form of creative
expression through its interaction with secondary brain processes like memory
and cultural learning as these are in turn reflected through cognition. The poem itself works on primary, secondary,
and tertiary levels, utilizing a narrative structure to tell a story—how
workers in experience their lives, how cultural definitions and conventions
work upon them to produced experiences that, though horrible, retain a vestige
of Panksepp’s JOY and PLAY systems, granting them a fundamental dignity that
the rest of the world does not. The
narrator is himself motivated by the SEEKING system to translate affect into
ontology, to traverse the long chain from primary process experience to
secondary process to cognition and back, so that the poem itself triggers
affective response within the reader. Weil’s
longer narrative poems in particular demonstrate the mechanics of Panksepp’s
affective systems, as we will see in “Mr. Danish and the Butterflies”:
Mr. Danish and the Butterflies In my neighborhood, there were no kitchens done in south west motif, no Tibetan prayer wheels, no posters of bleached skulls by Georgia O’ Keefe. The best jobs were tool maker, legal secretary, cop, or maybe you lucked out and got into G.M., and worked there the rest of your life like Mr. Danish, who traded in his blue Chevy with white interior every other year, for a blue Chevy with white interior. Mr. Danish admired Vic Damone. I remember him standing, shirtless, on his backyard patio, orange shorts and lilac socks, conducting the violins with a greasy spatula, dancing the cha-cha with his own enormous beer belly, to the tune of “April Love.” His unhappy wife hissing: Sit down. Fool. He died when I was seventeen, his liver turned to mush, his son Abby, killed in Nam, his daughter Terry, married to a black guy from Duluth, who sold plumbing supplies. I would like to pretend Terry was a courageous trail blazer of racial tolerance, but she was just this lumpy white girl who squinted a lot and listened to the Dave Clark Five. And I am not middle class enough, or white liberal enough, to think the black guy was any great shakes, either. He was skinny and bewildered looking, and talked with a high lispy voice that made Mr. Leo up the street refer to them as the ugly version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” No one was a hero on my street, not even Tommy Byrnes, winner of the silver star, who’d been Thorazined back into civilian life minus the ability to work, whose wife, Beatrice, was pretty and cheerful and good with flowers and, who, according to certain sources, was balling Mr. Danish for the occasional mortgage payment. I kept trying to picture Mr. Danish naked with Mrs. Byrnes, and it depressed me. If I was middle class enough, or white enough, I could make a hero, or at least, a victim out of her, but she was just this pretty lady who looked like Lee Remick, and tipped well on the paper route. And who knows? Maybe she really liked Mr. Danish. Maybe she saw something in him no one else did, some quality of light, some tenderness beyond his black hair. Maybe suffering drew them together for nights in cheap motels out on 1 and 9, a transistor radio next to a bucket of ice, Johnny Mathis singing “The Twelfth of Never.” Who knows? Weirder things have happened. Maybe Mr. Danish wasn’t all that bad. I remember him buying me a cherry ice once, when his family was out food shopping, sitting me down on his front porch, and him just slightly drunk, the way all our fathers were, telling me how he’d come from Pennsy in ‘49, how he’d watched his father die of black lung, a great big oaf of a man whittled down to 90 pounds, and how the sheriff came to post their house, and he drove here with his brothers to Jersey, looking for work in the asbestos plant down in Manville, but lucked out and got into GM, where he’d worked ever since. And, in spite of black lung and sheriffs, wasn’t this a goddamned beautiful country? Where else would a guy with an eighth-grade education, and no past worth a whore’s spit, end up with a new Chevy and a gas grill, and a bungalow down the shore? And he drank another Pabst, and told me about Ted Williams’ miraculous eye, and Lou Gerhig’s final speech, and the Holy Shroud of Turin, and this one field in Mexico where all the monarch butterflies went to spend the winter. And, one year, he heard, they were so thick, they made that field look like a shield of stained glass. Someday, he was going there, he swore, to say a prayer for his father. And then, he got on the subject of Eleanor Roosevelt and how he thought she was a classy broad, and, if given the choice between her and Veronica Lake, he’d have taken Eleanor, because, he said, you go to bed with a woman’s body but you wake up with her mind. And you could tell he thought this saying was wise, because he repeated it under his breath and looked up at the moon as if it might agree. And then he shut up and I noticed he was crying. So maybe that’s what Mrs. Byrnes saw in him. Who knows? The night they took his corpse out of the house, I remember the neighbors staring and how his belly rose under the white sheet. He’s been dead over twenty years now. The jobs at GM disappeared. Simmons and Singer went belly up. Cancer picked off the neighbors one by one. No one talks about how cheap the heroin’s become on the streets of Elizabeth. Tonight I dream the dead are balloons, and I hold them by strings and stand in some park, trying to sell them to the yuppies who pelt me with the complete works of Victor Hugo. I see Mr. Danish bumping up against his murdered son, see his face on a balloon riffling in the wind, and I hoist him down and I tell him: Listen, Mr. Danish, Johnny Mathis sucks, but I’m taking you to that field. And off we float above the frame houses of my childhood, Mr. Danish and all the host of the dead out over the Atlantic seaboard. And it’s midnight and someone on a radio says: You are listening to the voice of the BBC. And they play an old recording of Pablo Casals performing Bach’s cello suites. And all the neighborhood is there. We land in the field where the monarch butterflies go. And we pray. We pray for the living and the dead, and I wake up praying, and put on my work uniform, and go to my shift factory job where I write this poem.
In “Mr. Danish and the Butterflies,” like “Painting the Christmas Trees” but with specific attention to characterization and scene, Weil brings an affective dignity to Mr. Danish that the rest of the world, with its cognitive preoccupations , its “yuppies who pelt me with the complete works of Victor Hugo,” do not. Despite its pretentions, all of humanity is ultimately reduced to a “belly r[ising] under a white sheet,” and Weil grants that material humanity its due, laboring, through poetic narrative, to give it, through the personification of Mr. Danish, the value that never was granted him as he lived. Mr. Danish, who was one of the poet’s childhood neighbors, was not “wise,” drank “Pabst,” and loved Johnny Mathis, all symbolic indicators of a particular kind of cultural devaluation. But neurosymbolic indicators, those related to life, death, and survival across species, make an argument for a different kind of value that is normally denied in the symbolic world of status hierarchies. “Floating off” with Mr. Danish “above the frame houses/of my childhood/Mr. Danish and all host of the dead/out over the Atlantic seaboard,” we see both the particularity of Mr. Danish with his “orange shorts and lilac socks/conducting the violins with a greasy spatula,” and the universality of our shared affective lives where Weil conducts the dead to “the field where/the monarch butterflies go/and we pray.” Meaning resides in the basic ecology of the natural world, that Mr. Danish and all of us in our affect are part of, intimately linked through the same affective circuits all mammals and other creatures to varying degrees share. The return to “this one field in Mexico/where all the monarch butterflies/went to spend the winter” is a return to our affective selves, to the basic value a feeling creature is granted against all odds in a world that normally categorizes through cognitive hierarchies—the very hierarchies Weil’s work as a whole is aimed against.
Both Weil and Maria Mazziotti Gillan, whose work I discussed yesterday, make a case for the primacy of affect in their work. Their poetics is fundamentally narrative in form because narrative, as I will discuss in future posts, has been a basic part of the evolutionary development of our brains and irrevocably links us to the primary affective systems that, in dialogue with secondary and tertiary brain systems, form the bedrock of who we are.
[i] Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).
[ii] See Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions (New York: Oxford, 1998), and The Archaelogy of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (New York: Norton, 2012
[iii] Jaak Panksepp, “The Core Emotional Systems of the Mammalian Brain: the fundamental substrates of human emotions”. In J. Corrigall, Payne, & Wilkinson (Eds.) About a Body: Working with the embodied mind in psychotherapy (pp. 14-32). New York: Routledge, 2006.
[iv] Jaak Panksepp, “The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains: Do animals have affective lives?” Neurosciences and Biobehavioral Reviews 35, pp. 1791-1804.