Gavin Budge. Romanticism, Medicine, and the Natural Supernatural: Transcendent Vision and Bodily Spectres.
The body has been making inroads into Romantic studies for over a decade now, with scholars from perspectives as varied as affect theory, the history of medicine, and cognitive literary studies exploring the complexity of Romantic writers' concern with their own embodiment. While Gavin Budge's Romanticism, Medicine and the Natural Supernatural shares this concern, it is more interested in the relationship between embodiment and idealism, a perspective registered by the title's double reference to the "Natural Supernaturalism" of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and M. H. Abrams's magisterial 1971 study of the same name. Budge's book examines the "Romantic invocation of a dual epistemological perspective, in which visionary intuitions are not reducible to the body but neither can the embodied character of perception be ignored" (8). He argues that Romantic and post-Romantic writers seeking such visions drew not on German Idealism, a key element in Abrams's study, but on the Scottish Common Sense school of Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart. Their epistemology of a "transcendent language of perceptual signs" (7) offered writers a middle way between empiricism and idealism, in which embodied perception could, if rightly understood, provide access to a transcendent real. Unfortunately, as Budge argues, the dominant theories of nineteenth-century medicine made authenticating such access difficult. Seemingly genuine moments of perceptual transcendence might instead be the fraudulent "bodily spectres" of irritated nerves or an upset stomach. As a result, health--which Budge interprets as a body regulated so as not to mistake hallucinations for authentic visions--became a concern for any artist with an idealist bent. His book tracks this concern through the work of six such artists, beginning in the eighteenth century with Ann Radcliffe and concluding in the mid-nineteenth with Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.
Budge has recently edited a collection on the Common Sense tradition's Romantic reception (Romantic Empiricism: Poetics and the Philosophy of Common Sense, 1780-1830 [Bucknell, 2007]), and his continued investment in recognizing this lineage shows in the current study. Indeed the book seems less concerned with revising our understanding of Romanticism's relationship to medicine than it does with refraining certain medically-inflected readings--such as the influence of Erasmus Darwin's treatise Zoonomia on Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads--within the philosophical context of the Common Sense school. (Walter Jackson Bate's absence from this study--his 1946 From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth-Century England, not even listed in the bibliography--is puzzling, given that his landmark work meditates on Romanticism's relationship to the tradition Budge presents his book as recovering.) And while Budge's case for the centrality of Common Sense to British medicine in the late eighteenth century is credible--many prominent British physicians were trained in Edinburgh under the auspices of the Scottish Enlightenment--his own marriage of this tradition to Romantic medicine can at times feel forced. This is perhaps because of the breadth of his claims for the Common Sense school's particular influence: he plants Common Sense in the bedrock of Romantic aesthetic and political as well as medical discourse, and also makes it the progenitor of a certain strain of Marxian critique. While Romantic writers' fears that their visions might be bodily hoaxes--whether resulting from the effects of disease or psychoactive drugs--is well known, Budge's readings leave it unclear whether the Common Sense context is as necessary for understanding these fears as his study claims.
While the book's six chapters all mount compelling arguments about either the Common Sense school or nineteenth-century medicine, they are sometimes at pains to forge organic connections between the two. A notable exception is Budge's first chapter, which lucidly argues that Radcliffe's heroines train their nerves against the dangers of fraudulent gothic overstimulation via perceptual access to the divine transcendence of nature, a training Radcliffe's novels, in turn, extend to her readers. Here, Budge pairs Robert Payne Knight's empiricist aesthetics with "a Brunonian aetiology of addiction to novels" (32) to show how Radcliffe critiques the Burkean sublime evoked by lurid gothic horrors as a pathological state that traps readers "in the sensations of their own nervous system" (35). A less successful combination occurs in Budge's third chapter, which ably reads Coleridge's fondness for "startlingly vivid metaphor" (87) as a rejection of Dugald Stewart's anti-Humean appeal for literal language, but then contends that the way in which such language "assimilates the external world to the mind" (19) recalls "nineteenth-century vitalist accounts of digestion" (82). Though Coleridge's dual interests in vitalism and his own untrustworthy stomach make this a plausible connection, it is not quite borne out by the chapter's readings themselves, whose extraction of digestive metaphors from the notebooks would have benefited from more thorough explication. As Budge argues, "Coleridge's claim that 'feelings and affections blend more easily with ... ideal creations than with the objects of the senses' implies that the imagination of men of genius performs the function of digesting their perceptions so that they can be assimilated into their mental constitution" (81-82); but it is unclear why such easy "blending" should strike us as particularly digestive in nature.
Where Budge's more Common Sensical chapters on Radcliffe and Coleridge occupy the first half of the book, as his study moves chronologically forward it relies more heavily on its main medical interlocutor, the "Brunonian" system of Edinburgh physician John Brown (d. 1788). Brown's theories attributed all disease to either an excess or deficit of "excitability" and were popular throughout Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, though they did not hold a monopoly on the medical terminology on which Budge draws: that of nerves, irritability, stimulation, and vitality. Budge employs the specificity of Brown's therapeutic lineage to advantage in his Wordsworth chapter, which offers a thorough catalogue of the poet's Brunonian debts in the 1802 Lyrical Ballads (Wordsworth encountered Brown in Darwin's Zoonomia, whose pathologies sometimes employ Brunonian explanations). In other chapters, however, Budge's frequent recourse to Brown distracts from readings otherwise admirably attentive to the medicalized resonance of tenus like "nerves," "irritability," and "sensation," including Budge's own impressive primary research into British medical history, as evinced in his detailed notes. His fourth chapter on Harriet Martineau, for example, offers a sophisticated triple comparison of "nervous irritability" in Hazlitt's satiric portraits of rural England, the "mob violence" threatening Edward Hope in Deerbrook (137), and Martineau's ruminations on American conventionality during her 1834 tour of the United States. The chapter's backward glances to Brown's "sthenic" understimulation (127) as a source for this shared irritability are detours from an otherwise convincing triptych of readings. Of Budge's more medical chapters, therefore, the most compelling are on Wordsworth, already mentioned, and on Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. The latter chapter astutely reinterprets the character of Tom, often read as a racist portrait of an overly sensible and therefore passively child-like "Negro," as "a silent, inarticulate Carlylean hero" (160), a Great Man whose intuitive connection to the truths of Christianity enables him to resist the brutal treatment of his masters.
Budge's turn to Carlyle himself in the book's final two chapters also recovers the third, and perhaps most intriguing, strand of his argument. Budge opens his study by situating it as a response to "recent critical interest" in Derrida's reading of the "ghostliness Marx suggests is characteristic of capitalism" (1). For the book's first four chapters, this response represents a comparatively minor concern, surfacing in occasional mid-chapter discussions or conclusions. During these moments, Budge suggests that thinkers like Coleridge who hailed the "visionary intuitions" of individual geniuses as antidotes to the democratic "abstraction" of the revolutionary project prefigure the Marxian insight that "bourgeois political economy has made material relationships become immaterial, or spectral" (88). Budge's efforts to reconcile the idealist and conservative Common Sense school with Marxism are interesting and worth more sustained attention than the book has space to give them--especially since Budge's sixth chapter seems to overturn this reconciliation, comparing the Pre-Raphaelites' refusal to provide a "central spectatorial position" to "the breakdown of any identification of the epistemologically privileged position of the Romantic genius or Carlylean hero with the socially privileged position of the aristocracy" (190).
The study's treatment of Marx is perhaps an apt metonym for its overall achievement. Romanticism, Medicine, and the Natural Supernatural is an ambitious and well-researched book, knowledgeably covering sixty-three years of literary history on two continents and juggling eighteenth-century empiricism, the history of medicine, and Marxian critique. Budge lays down new tracks between these disparate concerns, opening them up to future investigations that may strengthen their connections further--a testament to the rich potential of the subject he has begun to explore here.
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
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