Imagination and Science in Romanticism.
With this learned and rather intense book, Richard C. Sha joins the roster of scholars who have worked to dispel the notion that Romanticism as a literary movement was hostile to the sciences. While historians of science--including Nicholas Jardine, Trevor Levere, John Tresch, and David Knight--have thrown lines across to the literary domain, a group of literary scholars--including Alan Bewell, Robert Mitchell, Alan Richardson, and Richard Holmes--has been building the bridge from the other side. The two parties have converged on the finding that leading figures of British Romanticism, such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Percy and Mary Shelley, were deeply interested in the scientific thought of their time. Notwithstanding the convergence, however, differences of approach between historians and literary scholars--and within each group--have remained evident. For this reason, it is still not exactly clear what kind of shared discursive space is being uncovered. Coleridge's oft-quoted remark that he attended the chemical lectures of Humphry Davy to renew his stock of metaphors suggests a semantic exchange between established fields of chemistry and poetry. On the other hand, Jon Klancher has argued that the very territories of science and literature were being fundamentally reconfigured in this period, in the context of crucial institutional reforms and innovations in publishing.
Sha's approach is very different from Klancher's, focusing on semantic transfers and the traffic in metaphors rather than institutions or the market for publications. For Sha, the concept of imagination is the key to unlocking relations between science and literature, since the faculty was viewed as central to scientific inquiry and literary creativity alike. Its importance was signaled by William Blake's dictum: "What is now proved was once, only imagin'd" (quoted, 23). Sha demonstrates that scientific thinkers, far from being antipathetic to the imagination, repeatedly indulged it and then tested its results experimentally. As he notes in his introduction, this went along with a stance of phenomenalism, a willingness to relinquish access to things in themselves as beyond the limits of possible sensory experience. At the same time, unharnessing the imagination allowed for sensory experience to be synthesized into more abstract constructs of forms, laws, affinities, and relationships. Sha mentions the work of Goethe, Humboldt, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and 0rsted, who developed a wide range of abstract and integrative concepts in the sciences. He also stresses, however, that the imagination was not supposed to roam entirely unleashed. It was accepted that underlying physiological and epistemological laws constrained its working, whether in scientific reasoning or poetic composition. The operations of the mind were thus assimilated to natural processes that were also thought to unfold in a goal-directed way. In this respect, as Sha notes, "the boundary between materiality and immateriality was porous" (14), though materialism as such was generally regarded with deep suspicion for its atheistic implications.
Having made his case for rehabilitating the imagination in the scientific thought of the period, Sha turns to an analysis of texts conventionally classified as literary. Each of the four main chapters of his book focuses on one such text, which he reads as reflecting scientific and philosophical doctrines of the imagination: Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1820), Blake's The Four Zoas (a manuscript begun in 1797), Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (1817), and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Sha tells us nothing about the circumstances in which these books were composed or published, and his commentaries range well beyond their immediate historical contexts. In the first case, for example, he reaches back to the previous century to examine the development of dynamic theories of matter in the writings of Roger Boscovich and Joseph Priestley. The concept of matter being composed of forces and affinities, lacking any solid corpuscular core, can be traced through the work of Percy Shelley's contemporaries, Davy and Michael Faraday, both of whom allowed a role for the imagination in generating scientific theory. It seems entirely plausible that Shelley made metaphorical use of these ideas in his poetic work, but, when Sha reaches for a comparison between Shelley's notion of love and the Higgs boson, one is reminded that metaphors can be slippery things to track.
The second chapter ranges just as widely. Aiming to connect Blake's materialistic emphasis on the body with nervous physiology, Sha invokes twenty-first-century neuroscience, which he claims shares preoccupations with Romantic theories of nervous sensibility. Reaching in the other direction, he makes reference to a work of the 1720s by John Quincy, whose theory of the nerves was iatromechanical rather than vitalistic in character. It seems to me that his case would be strengthened by more consistent reference to the nervous physiology of Blake's own day, on which a significant body of scholarship exists. The third chapter explores links between Coleridge's theory of the imagination and contemporary medical thought. Sha is on solid ground in arguing that the imagination was of pressing interest to medical writers at the time, given the cures ascribed to mesmerism and the "tractors" promoted by Elisha Perkins. Coleridge was well aware of the debate concerning the role of imagination in these purported cures, and had also participated in Davy's trials of another controversial therapy: nitrous oxide. Again, Sha might have strengthened his argument by more consistently attending to the context in which Coleridge articulated his theory.
The final case-study seems to me the most impressive of the four. By considering the role of the imagination in theories of reproduction in the period, Sha develops an original reading of Frankenstein. He persuasively argues that Mary Shelley was criticizing the masculine outlook that prioritized (paternal) conception at the expense of (maternal) pre--and post-natal development. Identifying creativity with conception, Victor Frankenstein takes no responsibility for nurturing his offspring after it comes to life. At the same time, Shelley was highlighting the role of imagination in scientific inquiry by offering the monitory example of Victor as a scientist captivated by his own imagination. As Sha puts it, "the problem is not so much science itself but rather how to do better science. Because [Victor's] imagination has no corrective, he adopts outdated and superseded models like alchemy and magic, and mistakes narcissism for autonomy" (214). Within this framework, Sha brings forward some fascinating contextual materials, such as the case reported in 1814 of a boy who seemed to be pregnant at the time of his death, and whose postmortem examination revealed an internal conjoined twin or teratoma in his abdomen. One can only (as it were) imagine how Shelley might have reflected on this while grappling with her own traumatic experiences of pregnancy and giving birth.
Sha's book ends abruptly, without a conclusion, which seems typical of its unrelenting style. Tracking uses of the word "imagination" and its cognates through a large number of texts, he tends to accumulate snippets of quotation to which he appends his own glosses. He never offers his readers the relief of a descriptive vignette or extended illustration, and he rarely pauses for reflection. The range of references in his endnotes is astonishingly wide, and he fires off several ripostes against scholars he disagrees with. One consistent theme is his criticism of historicism, which he identifies with dismissal of the Romantic theory of imagination as a class-based ideology that made fake claims to transcendence. Perhaps this antipathy to historicism explains why Sha's own writing is unanchored in dates or chronological narrative. He never specifies what he takes to be the parameters of Romanticism in temporal, geographical, or socio--cultural terms, preferring to range freely for comparisons to his focal texts. As a historian, I am bound to find this irritating. I am, nonetheless, grateful for many penetrating insights in Sha's book. I also appreciate his providing words with which I can respond when his juxtapositions seem like leaps too far. As the surgeon Richard Saumarez wrote about the poetic effusions of Erasmus Darwin, "I am ready to confess that the brilliancy of [his] imagination is too great for the dullness of my conception" (148).
University of New Hampshire
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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