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Consciousness of projection in composition and literature. (Education).

IN MY FRESHMAN composition classes at Wiley College, as I begin the Descriptive Essay Unit, I usually repeat a maxim first uttered to me by my eighth grade English teacher, the late Helen Bornemann, "SDT, SDT, Show Don't Tell, Show Don't Tell." Applied to descriptive and narrative writing, this caution helps writers to correct the tendency of the human nervous system to jump levels or orders of abstraction. Such a jump, an unthinking transition from sensory description, to inference, to judgment, in which the author is not conscious of making several inferential leaps, may disregard detail needed for lively description and narrative. It can also cause value judgments to be erroneously represented as facts.

To illustrate what happens when writers naively lack or ignore consciousness of their own inferential and evaluative leaps, I sometimes relate to the students my experiences in Bryce Canyon last summer:

* I had a marvelous time.

* The vistas were dazzling.

* My heart thrilled with the grandeur and the sublimity of the surroundings.

* My heart pounded in excitement as I bounded into the canyon.

* It was one of the unforgettable experiences of a lifetime.

* Nature truly appeared radiant and splendiferous.

After offering 20 or so of these tired, bland, or hackneyed generalizations, I ask students if their familiarity with Bryce Canyon has been greatly improved. We then discuss how my "descriptions" have too much telling and not enough showing. If I had followed the "natural order of abstraction" -- sensory matters first, then inferences and judgments -- the students would have received such descriptive detail as color, form, and size to stimulate their visual memory or imagination.

* Massive carved pink cliffs towered above me.

* Red and maroon pinnacles brilliantly reach from the canyon floor into the dazzling blue Utah skies.

* Formations resembling pedestals, spires, fins, and organ pipes radiate out from the canyon walls.

* Bright green Juniper and Ponderosa pine provide a dramatic contrast to the deep red sandstone cliffs.

Although the adjectives "dazzling" and "dramatic" say more about my emotional state than describe the canyon, there are nevertheless more sensory descriptions appealing to the photo gallery of the imagination. I often use Dr. Mona Campbell's chart describing levels of abstraction or specificity in expository writing, encouraging students to trace their evaluations back to more sensory detail. Students who learn to begin with sensory details before making sweeping evaluative generalizations learn to recognize when literary figures forget to recognize consciousness of projection in their own writing.

As students move from composition courses to literature courses, they learn to recognize when writers naively assume that what they write about is "out there" rather than projected from the nervous system.

Bradford's Histoty of New England has a number of passages in which the writer assumes that what he feels within his skin comes from the outside -- a form of "is of predication." The bold italicized words in this description indicate a failure to acknowledge the consciousness of projection:

Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate

wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men ... For

summer being done, all things stand upon them with a

weather-beaten face, and the whole woods and thickets,

represented a wild and savage hue. (p.141)

"Hideous" and "savage" appear to emanate more from the reified fears and anxieties of Bradford's nervous system rather than a quality or trait of the landscape.

A network news anchor following the assassination of John Kennedy demonstrated the same obliviousness to the consciousness of projection when he irresponsibly referred to "pockets of hatred in our country and places where the disease is encouraged." Another reporter, using the pathetic fallacy quipped, "The day John Kennedy was shot, a climate of hatred enveloped Dallas. One could just feel it in the air." This description reflects the most primitive stage in Gaston Bachelard's epistemological profile, the sensing stage, in which individuals took their sensations and feelings as an accurate revelation of what the world was like. The world was what they felt it was. (Bois, p.158)

Dr. Samuel Johnson, spokesman for the Neo-classic or Augustan Age, regarded art as a mirror philosophy (as characterized by Meyer Abrams, or perhaps akin to stage two of Bachelard's epistemological profile, the classifying stage, which is obsessed with essences, qualities, or substances). In this view, Dr. Johnson saw little or no need to disclose specific concrete details, thus offering the reader few clues as to specific species and breeds of plants and animals, or to personalize with other particulars. The bold italicized words below indicate the rather abstract quality (lack of concrete detail) of Johnson's descriptions, reflecting the Neoclassical penchant for generalizing, reversing the natural order of abstraction, reflecting belief that reality is objectively "out there" rather than as a simultaneous mutual interaction of the nervous system with the environment:

The sides of the mountains were covered with trees, the banks of the brooks were diversified with flowers; every blast shook spices from the rocks, and every month dropped fruits upon the ground. (p.381)

The mirror Johnson uses for this description resembles the clarity of image reflected in some of the unbreakable mirrors found in Interstate rest stops, affording one insufficient clarity to shave or put in contact lenses. Meyer Abrams uses a different metaphor to describe the Romantic period--the lamp, representing the writer's individual creative spirit. Wordsworth characterized poetry as a spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling recollected in tranquillity. The Romantic writer brought into his art a healthy consciousness of projection, mostly absent in Neo-classical descriptions. Wordsworth, whose "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" provided the keynote address of the Romantic era, recognized in his "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" that what is going on is a function of the simultaneous interaction or transaction of the nervous system with the environment:

From this green earth, of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear--both what they half-create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognize

In nature and the language of the sense,

The anchor of my purest thoughts ... (p.554)

Wordsworth recognized that the evaluative human nervous system had the transforming capacity to take raw "beauteous forms" into sublime thoughts and sensations. Wordsworth's disciple Ralph Waldo Emerson also recognized that evaluation is projected from the nervous system outward. In his chapter on Beauty from "Nature," Emerson refers to the eye as the best composer, projecting onto various landscapes beauty. Emerson claims, "Even the corpse has its own beauty. But besides this general grace diffused over nature, almost all the individual forms are agreeable to the eye, as is proved by our endless imitations of some of them, such as the acorn, the grape, the pine-cone, the wheat ear, the egg ... " (p.997) In addition to forms and shapes, emotional states seemed to be projected Onto the landscape from within.

Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat hath sadness in it. There is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend. The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth in the population. (p.996)

Like strong drink used both to celebrate and to commiserate, the capability of the human nervous system to project creates what Wendell Johnson once characterized as Plogglies. The Romanticists had the sensibilities to realize that the Plogglies were their own brainchildren and not something grotesquely detached. When Emerson exclaims, "How does Nature deify us with a few cheap elements!" he realizes that the sense of the sublime emerges Out of a simultaneous mutual interaction of sensory organs and impending stimuli. Rocks and clouds cannot deify without the shaping power of the imagination.

Edgar Allen Poe, another Romantic theorist and practitioner, skillfully blended showing and telling, making sure of following the natural order of abstraction from sensory details to inference and judgment back to sensory details, creating layers of showing and telling (revealing a healthy consciousness of projection) in his connotative sandwiches or layer cakes. Consider for example these opening passages from the opening section of "The Fall of the House of Usher." The bold words below reflect attempts to use sensory detail while the bold italicized words reflect a projection from within, gently "manhandling" or "guiding" the reader to experience the correct emotional response.

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens ... (p.1463)

Upon a few rank sedges--and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees... There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought. (p.1463)

Poe mixes observation and evaluative inferences in approximately two-to-one proportions with the sensory description coming first, reflecting the natural order of abstraction, emphasizing showing before telling.

Students who become sensitized to the consciousness of projection should be able to (a) follow the natural order of abstraction and (b) meticulously avoid confusing inferences with observations. Using general semantics formulations, students can become sensitive to the interplay of environment and nervous system, as they learn how to mix description, inferences, and judgment in the proper proportions.


Bois, J. Samuel. The Art of Awareness. Third edition. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, 1978.

Bradford, William. "Of Plymouth Plantation" in Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, Fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Campbell, Mona. "Extensional and Intensional Levels of Abstraction: A Lecture For an English or Education Course" in Teaching General Semantics: A Collection of Lesson Plans for College and Adult Classes. San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics, 1969.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature" in Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Johnson, Samuel. "The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia" in Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Seventh edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Fall of the House of Usher" in Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2, Fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Wordsworth, William. "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" In Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Vol. 2, Seventh edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.


* David Maas, Ed.D., Professor of English at Wiley College, Marshall, Texas, author of many ETC articles, currently serves as VP/Education, ISGS.
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Author:Maas, David F.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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