Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

James M. Cahalan, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Kenneth W. Sherwood, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Adrian S. Wisnicki, Ph.D.


Cognitive poetics is a nascent interdisciplinary movement that bridges cognitive science and literary theory to demonstrate how harmonizing ideas from both the sciences and the humanities can help scholars develop more comprehensive theories about how we think through and with language. In this cognitive poetic study I examine parallels between literary representations of consciousness in twentieth-century fiction and contemporary cognitive science. Specifically, I examine the prevalence of "strange loops" in selected experimental fictions. A strange loop, also called a "tangled hierarchy," describes any self-referential system that proceeds through various levels or frames before inexplicably returning to its point of departure. Introduced by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979), the strange loop concept underlies Hofstadter's theory of consciousness as symbolic self-representation. He finds examples of such systems in self-referential Gödel statements, Bach's canons, and the bizarre graphic artwork of M. C. Escher; however, this dissertation is the first extended study to apply his strange loop concept to literature. In my introduction, I present a brief survey of cognitive literary studies to provide the necessary context for readers who might be unfamiliar with cognitive approaches to literature. I then outline a psychosemiotic model of consciousness based on this paradigm. Expanding Hofstadter's idea, I draw connections between strange loops, autopoiesis, and complex systems theory, and posit that the strange loop concept offers a fruitful means of reconciling these ideas with ideas from literary theory and criticism. The body of this dissertation is divided into three triadic movements, each of which corresponds to one of the three major aspects of strange loops. In the first movement, I explore the self-organization in consciousness and investigate how strange loops might elaborate its paradoxical and embodied aspects. In Chapter One, I focus on James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, focusing on how Joyce's stream-of-consciousness techniques produce strange loops to describe the patterns formed in the creation of a conscious self. In Chapter Two, I discuss Franz Kafka's The Castle with a particular emphasis on paradox and the absent center. In Chapter Three, I discuss Samuel Beckett's trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, with an emphasis on embodiment and Beckett's debate with Cartesian dualism. In the dissertation's second movement, I focus on metafiction and its implications for a cognitive literary theory of consciousness. In Chapter Four, I explore the labyrinth trope in Jorge Luis Borges's fictions, particularly as it is connected with set theory and infinity. In Chapter Five, I discuss metaleptic strange loops, using Italo Calvino's fiction as a primary example to describe fiction that violates ostensive boundaries between text and context. In the movement's last chapter, I discuss the notion of the authorship triangle and enumerate strange loops in three novels by Flann O'Brien. The third and final movement is the most speculative, but one where I extend Hofstadter's strange loop concept into areas not yet considered elsewhere. In Chapter Seven, I explore temporal strange loops in two novels by Kurt Vonnegut, drawing comparisons between strange loops, Vonnegut's representation of time, and Gödel's corollary to Einsteinian relativity. In Chapter Eight, I discuss paradoxes and inversions of cause/effect relationships in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, as well as the novel's cybernetic strange loops. In Chapter Nine, I explore the relationship between strange loops and double bind theories of schizophrenia through the work of Philip K. Dick. Finally, in my conclusion I will discuss a few tantalizing loose ends that emerge over the course of the dissertation, review the broader impacts of my study, and look forward to other applications of the paradigm that I have suggested.