Printer Friendly

Romola's "Thinking Bodies": Reading for Proprioception with George Eliot; or, Postural Consciousness as Psychological Realism.

Cognitive literary studies welcome an array of methods and approaches and have proven especially amenable to developing ideas in the cognitive sciences of the embodied mind, a view of cognition that stretches thinking across the entire body, from brain to elbows to toes, highlighting nonconscious processes that support rational thinking. What has surprised researchers in artificial intelligence, for instance--that thinking occurs across brain, body, and environment--may seem almost commonplace to literary scholars who often assume highly mediated consciousness in texts and read body descriptions as clues to inner states. Cognitive literary studies, therefore, take advantage of the overlap between literary studies--which emphasize the culturally specific, networked qualities of literary history and style--and parallel efforts in the cognitive sciences to understand the mind and brain as peculiarly enmeshed in culture and environment. In "Reading Minds--and Bodies--in Emma" for example, Alan Richardson applies modern Theory of Mind approaches to the ways that "Austen's characters must pay special kinds of attention to one another's bodies--the eyes, facial expressions, gestures, vocal tones, and the movements of blood under the skin" to "negotiate the claustrophobic and treacherous social environment of Highgate" (81). His analysis builds on Lisa Zunshine's book Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (2006) and Alan Palmer's Social Minds in the Novel (2010). Palmer in particular makes the case that "the traditional narcological approach... stresses those aspects that are inner, passive, introspective, and individual.... As a result, the social nature of fictional thought has been neglected" (39-40). Reading for proprioception, the body's nonconscious system for monitoring itself in space, begins, then, from the idea that literary minds also depend, in part, on thinking bodies.

When it comes to George Eliot, however, even Palmer stays respectfully cerebral. His chapter on "the Middlemarch mind" exposes the highly networked, social patterns of cognitive activity, or group-based "intermental functioning," that enter the novel as a kind of character in its own right (65, 69). Lists of "verbs of thought," "thought report," and the "double cognitive narratives" shared between Lydgate and Rosamond all present Middlemarch as social and hyper-cognitive, but characteristically disembodied (76, 96, 101). Palmer's effort goes a long way towards expanding the conventional view of consciousness in Eliot's novels beyond the internal, deep, and reflective; and, to be fair, even critics detailing the centrality of the body to psychology in Eliot's novels still describe the mind's "fundamental separateness" (Davis 26). Michael Davis, for example, situates Eliot within her contemporary contexts of early physiology and psychology but primarily reads her embodied references to the mind as "physical images.... [with] strongly metaphorical significance, rather than [indicating] a literally physiological or anatomical dimension of a mental process" (26). I propose, however, that in this case, historical context and contemporary science partially obscure a literally physiological, in fact, anatomical, vector of thinking in Eliot's novels, especially Romola (1863). In contrast to the "disruption" between body and mind perceived by contemporary scientists, Romola exposes the positive integration between automatic, embodied proprioception and conscious thinking. More specifically, Eliot focuses her experiment with the thinking body in the character of Romola, thereby developing a profile for her intellectual heroine as a different kind of thinker--and one dynamically equipped against her cunning husband, Tito. The current perspective of embodied cognition underscores the proprioceptive details that structure thinking bodies in Romola, suggesting that we take its bodies seriously as positive contributors to the mental action of its characters, especially Romola.

I am not suggesting that Eliot somehow anticipated proprioception--first named in 1906 (Gibbs, Embodiment 29). Nor am I suggesting that modern cognitive scientists should read Romola instead of creating experiments (though they should read Romola). Instead, I want to use modern understandings of proprioception and how it relates to thinking in order to highlight anatomical details in Eliot's text that normally get taken for granted. Romola's excessive historical details have always impressed, even overwhelmed, its readers, including its earliest critics. Eliot sets the fictional story of Tito Melema and Romola de'Bardi at a key moment in Italian prehistory: tension between city states, religious factions, and international intrigue all converge as the Dominican monk, Savonarola, leads a populist revival in Florence that ultimately ends with his martyrdom. Other historical figures appear, notably Niccolo Machiavelli, but Savonarola emerges as a central interest, both as the primary actor in his own tragedy and also as a surrogate father and mentor for Romola. Tito, having betrayed his closest relationships, including his wife, Romola, dies at the hands of his adopted father while Romola cares for his abandoned mistress and bastard children at the novel's end. Eliot's exhaustive research for her only historical novel set outside England often frames Romola's critical readings, and early reviewers presciently noted that it "will never be George Eliot's most popular book" because of its prodigious attention to historicity (Hutton, qtd. in Carroll 205). (1) Claiming priority for proprioceptive detail in Romola, then, surely seems to misdirect resources of a reader's attention already stretched to its limits by the scope of Eliot's historicism.

Doubly misdirected: Romola features explicit engagements with contemporary social sciences, especially physiology and Comte's social philosophy, that provide relevant scientific contexts (Shuttleworth 96; Uglow 171-74). In short, I might seem to be paying attention to the wrong kinds of details in Romola and with the wrong contexts. Modern theories of embodied cognition, however, supply the immediate advantages of helping us wade through Romola's historical details to its embodiment and point out what historical contexts have obscured: the positive correlation between proprioception and thinking that revises how we understand Romola as a thinker in her own right. Furthermore, proprioceptive patterns train the reader across Romola in new ways of reading for the body--and thinking--in literature. By focusing on contemporary contexts as the appropriate scientific route into Eliot's writing, critics have overlooked how postural consciousness underpins Eliot's psychological realism in Romola, the ways Eliot constructs thinking outside of the mind in physical vectors, and the thinking body upon which such writing depends. Without removing or discounting her specific Victorian contexts, then, I want to explore how a modern framework exposes the surface thinking that Eliot builds into her characters' bodies at the level of language. By "thinking body," therefore, I mean one formed stylistically in details of posture, balance, grip strength, and passive-dynamic systems, such as joints--details of frame, rather than affect or individual appearance--the kind of body now being studied in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, and embodied cognition as "prerequisite" to intelligence (Pfeifer 19). (2)

The pivotal meeting between Savonarola and Romola provides a good litmus test for reading proprioception. Midway through the novel, Romola leaves Florence to pursue a life of the mind. Her father dead and betrayed by her husband, Romola decides to seek out Cassandra Fedele, a woman renowned for her scholarship living in Venice. Just outside the city gates, however, Romola meets the evangelical Frate Girolamo Savonarola, "with a command from God to stop you.... My daughter, you must return to your place" (R 338). Eliot skillfully manages the bodies in this scene: Savonarola addresses Romola from behind; she refuses to turn around, angry at his interference. Finally, she "started up with anger in her eyes," only to meet Savonarola's "calm glance," their "faces were almost on a level" (339). Subdued by the "simple human fellowship" in his glance, her "anger melted" (339); "blood had rushed to Romola's face, and she shrank as if she had been Stricken ... shaken by the suggestion in the Frate's words of a possible affinity between her own conduct and Tito's" (340). Finally, Romola submits and Eliot closes the scene with a memorable tableau: Savonarola "spoke with growing intensity, his arms tightly folded before him still, as they had been from the first.... Almost unconsciously she [Romola] sank on her kness [sic]. Savonarola stretched out his hand over her; but feeling would no longer pass through the channel of speech, and he was silent" (345).

I have called this scene a "litmus test" because it encourages three ways of reading its bodies. First, the charged body language stresses the emotional contest of willpower between Savonarola and Romola. Savonarola's static posture, his "tightly folded arms," confronts Romola's variability, the starts, shudders, flushes, and, finally, "almost unconscious" sinking to her knees. Deirdre David argues that with this scene, "Eliot replaces female desire for autonomy with a coercive discourse of fidelity to community" (192). She continues: "It seems as if Romola becomes increasingly diminished by her experiences.... and is finally so chastened by Savonarola's sternly imperative discourse, that she falls to her knees before him" (193). David might have said, it seems as if Romola becomes increasingly diminished by her own body. Certainly, along the lines of feminist criticism that David proposes, Romola kneels before patriarchal authority, betrayed by her own unconscious responses. (3) Such a reading aligns with contemporary Victorian discourses of the unconscious, the second way to read the bodies in this scene, one that stresses the lack of unity between conscious will and unconscious activity. (4) These two readings underscore the gendered power dynamics faced by Romola and intellectual women like her but also leave Romola without recourse, trapped socially and biologically as her own body appears complicit in Savonarola's rebuke. (5) Reading for proprioception, however, provides an alternative perspective on the scene, one that alters the dynamics between Romola and her own body. As a figure of embodied cognition, Romola's body supports her intellectual efforts even when her body language does not.

Embodied cognition shifts the interpretive terms of body language from implications of metaphor and signs to focus instead on body systems and even basic morphology: Romola's kneeling contains anatomical as well as social meaning. (6) Scientists have only recently realized the degree to which cognitive activity depends on this kind of thinking body. The philosopher of mind, Andy Clark, begins his case for extending thinking, Supersizing the Mind (2008), by reviewing recent advances in artificial intelligence that have shifted their focus from writing highly detailed software--the equivalent of rational thought for robots--to imitating energy efficient, "passive-dynamic systems," like ball bearing joints (4). Clark notes that when scientists stop micromanaging a robot's thinking and designs it to engage with its environment in energy-efficient ways, the robot achieves more intelligent behaviors. (7) Artificial intelligence researcher Rolf Pfeiffer explores the same phenomenon in the human body in his book How the Body Shapes the Way We Think (2007). "Intelligence always requires a body," Pfeiffer claims; not just because minds need a physical frame but because bodies help manage our cognitive load (18). In other words, because our bodies perform some of the brain's work, our brains can perform higher-order thinking, such as the kind of deliberate thought necessary to competitive chess or abstract mathematics. (8) Even everyday tasks would require more conscious thought with a different morphology. Pfeiffer asks his readers to imagine "grasping a glass wearing thimbles on all your fingers! The reason the task becomes easier [with our soft fingertips] is that part of the neural control that would otherwise be required for grasping is in fact taken over by the morphological and material properties of the hand" (19). The body does not think, therefore, in the conscious ways we normally associate with thinking--but that is exactly the point. Embodied cognition acknowledges the dependence of conscious thought on other body systems, and expands the kinds of thinking significant to intelligent action. (9)

Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century models of the "postural" body suggested that while the conscious mind tracked changes in posture, the body constantly monitored itself subconsciously in order to set a "standard against which subsequent motor changes are measured" (Gallagher 19). Proprioception calculates body movement and has been called the body's "sixth sense." (10) Subconscious, rather than unconscious, the proprioceptive system constantly monitors sensory data and keeps track of the body in space by maintaining the muscle tension necessary for balance, posture, and initiating movement. Our sense of proprioception allows us to "know how our body and limbs are positioned" (Gallagher 43). (11) Like our other senses, proprioception collects and interprets particular types of sensory data; but, unlike our other senses, it is not localized. Proprioception operates across the entire body at all times, a collaborative, holistic integration that adjusts the entire body in response to the tiniest of alterations. (12)

Returning to the confrontation between Savonarola and Romola from the perspective of proprioception highlights the cognitive activity that undergirds the scene without their conscious awareness. Across their interaction, Romola's proprioception monitors her body, calculating each movement through her changes in posture, from sitting to standing to kneeling. Without consciously thinking about her movements, Romola "[raises] her head again," "[clasps] her hands, pressing them tight" (R 341-42). Her movements, of course, reflect the emotional content of her thoughts; but, in a cognitive register, they also indicate an active mind, one moving dynamically through the interaction with Savonarola. Romola's invisible mental action also reflects on her conscious thinking throughout the scene. In a crucial moment, Romola recognizes "the strength there might be in submission, if this man ... had some valid law to show her" (339, my emphasis). Far from being overwhelmed, either by patriarchy or biology, Romola evaluates Savonarola's arguments with caution and sound judgment. She seeks strength and remains open-minded enough to realize that such might be found in an unlikely place. Her body language underlines the turmoil of Romola's thoughts, described explicitly by Eliot as well; but her body provides a source of postural support that is perhaps best appreciated by comparison with Savonarola's immobility. In effect, Romola's decision to try Savonarola's law for its validity demonstrates strength of character and mind that exceeds his. From the outside, Romola appears submissive indeed; but comparing her posture with Savonarola's indicates hidden measures of inner strength. In spite of Savonarola's gender advantage, Romola's body presents a cognitively balanced, intellectual unit. She kneels as much to her own mind, as to his. Reading for proprioception, therefore, complicates the gender relations between Romola and her mentor and highlights the tension between society and anatomy that best captures Romola's intellectualism.

Modern readers may still find that temporary tableau difficult medicine but may also be encouraged to recall earlier episodes when Romola's posture supports periods of introspective consciousness, passages of inferiority that hang on the proprioceptive frame. Eliot frequently opens and closes Romola's interior monologues with details of posture. Preparing to leave Tito, Romola consciously reviews her reasons for doing so, feels deep emotions, and processes memory by first "Feeling her way to the nearest chair," then "[sitting] down to wait for the morning" (R 307). Feeling her way to her seat emphasizes the way Romola's hands and arms precede her. Romola sustains several hours of introspection sitting in the dark, which removes visual reinforcement for posture and body position. The scene foregrounds Romola's deep thinking, downplaying description of Romola's body. The resulting sense of stillness reinforces how, formally, posture frames and facilitates Romola's interior monologue. After two pages of intense mental content--several hours in narrative time--Eliot closes the passage this way: "[These thoughts formed] the tangled web that Romola had in her mind as she sat weary in the darkness" (309). Eliot physically structures the narration of consciousness within proprioceptive support and, as a result, achieves a kind of implied simultaneity. The representation implies that during the seated interval, Romola's posture remains static and therefore does not obtrude on her conscious attention, which processes complex emotion and memory. Eliot repeats this pattern of rest and reflection when Romola "[sinks] down on the step of the altar ... in hope that the inward tumult which agitated her would by and by subside" (419). Eliot narrates Romola's "agitated" consciousness, but during this narration, Romola's body shifts position, "kneeling with buried face on the altar step" (419). This change does not distract Romola from her thinking because her body manages the movement, supporting her conscious reflection as a result.

Scholars' rigorous interest in situating Eliot within contemporary contexts of early psychology risks skewing our understanding of how Eliot represents subconscious activity. (13) According to Davis, Eliot sides most closely with her partner, G. H. Lewes, in conceiving of the relationship between mind and body as peculiarly out of conscious control. Eliot, he argues, "lays more emphasis than Lewes" on the "often powerfully disruptive effect on the individual of a collision between consciousness and the unconscious" but retains an "abiding sense of the power and tenacity of the conscious mind in the face of this disruption" (121-22). As I have begun outlining here, however, elements of subconscious proprioception repeatedly support the kinds of introspective thinking Eliot prizes as the foundation for a conscious sense of self. To invert Davis's claim, Eliot demonstrates the powerfully cooperative relationship between consciousness and nonconscious activity while allowing for the power of rational thought supported by such a thinking body. Her well-known and explicit debts to contemporary science obscure the ways that postural consciousness unites body and mind as a mutually reflexive organism in her fiction. Eliot's commitment to consciousness, then, appears also in proprioceptive details that express the body's ability to manage its own cognitive vectors, such as balance and motor control.

Romola's thinking body, in fact, intervenes when her conscious mind becomes overwhelmed by emotion and memory. As she prepares to leave Tito and Florence, "a sudden wave of memory" threatens to delay her departure until the "coarse roughness" of her clothes "recalled her fully to the present" (R 303). This new sensation, a change in motion and posture that leads to a physical contact, becomes a strategy that Romola consciously pursues over her night of preparation: she "courted those rude sensations" and, later, as the "emotions of the past weeks seemed to rush in again with cruel hurry, and take possession even of her limbs ... [she] began to feel the need of some hard contact. She drew her hands tight along the harsh knotted cord.... She started to her feet ... pressing her hand upon the rough carving" (304, 306). Even when her body appears to contest her will with an agenda of its own, surely the quintessential form of the unconscious as understood by Lewes, proprioceptive details finally converge as Romola's closest ally bolstering her own "wavering consciousness" (305). Romola listens to her body's instincts and recognizes the ways her body aids conscious meditation and even nurtures willed desire.

By linking Romola's proprioception to her psychology, Eliot establishes her heroine's intellectual character, one not easily articulated by critics. Romola's father, Bardo, speaks disparagingly of his daughter's capacity for "the sustained zeal and unconquerable patience demanded from those who would tread the unbeaten paths of knowledge," explicitly tying his expectations of the "wandering, vagrant propensity of the female mind" with "the feeble powers of the feminine body" (R 49). Critics, of course, recognize his overt sexism as rather implying his own lack of insight rather than as any valid statement on Romola. (14) Countering Bardo's negative assessment proves easier, however, than formulating a positive statement on Romola's intellectual abilities. Susan David Bernstein approves Romola's "wide-glancing intelligence" (131), but these words, also from Bardo, suggest critical election of preferred traits. Nicholas Dames wonders if "Bardo's criticism of Romola's memory [can] be recovered as a positive value?" (212). His valuable analysis of Victorian nostalgia, however, characterizes Romola as cultivating a "dependable capacity for inattention and forgetfulness" comparable in ways with the novel's amnesiac, Baldassarre (213). David's analysis of Romola as Eliot's "traditional intellectual" exposes the unsettling ways that such a role depends on "emphatic recognition of her essential womanhood," a bid for patriarchy "transcended" by "inherency" (195-96,188). Even Eliot plays coy. Willing to describe Tito's thinking as "a masculine effectiveness of intellect and purpose which, like sharpness of edge, is itself an energy," Eliot refuses an explicit parallel for Romola, noting only that "Romola had an energy of her own which thwarted his" (R 391). What is this unnamed, other "energy of her own"? Eliot matches its strength with Tito's but leaves the reader to figure out for himself how Romola's mysterious intellectual energy works.

Examining proprioceptive patterns structuring conflict between Romola and Tito helps unpack Romola's equivalent to Tito's "effectiveness of intellect." Tito foils Romola in many ways; he micromanages the future for the sake of any present pleasure and betrays his closest relationships for personal gain. Davis discusses the ways "Tito constantly tries to control his physical being" as a measure of Eliot's exploration of the unconscious power of the body (123); but the fact that Tito serves as the novel's counterexample, a cautionary figure of moral decline, suggests that his attempts to control his body also reflect an extension of his social micromanagement. Tito considers all variables as potentially manipulable, including his own body. Rather than a statement on the nature of the unconscious, Eliot probes the relationship between unconscious activity and Tito's self in order to expose the ways that Tito prohibits his body from thinking. Faced by the adopted father he betrayed, Tito "governed his head and glance ... with apparent ease"--but his physical maneuvers delay other responses (R 332). Tito cannot, of course, control every moment of postural consciousness any more than he can manipulate social circumstances entirely to his favor and Eliot suggests that Romola benefits from the relative autonomy allowed to her thinking body.

The context of Victorian body-mind sciences prioritizes Tito's experience of his body as paradigmatic of Eliot's psychological realism when, in fact, such an account fails to fully interpolate Romola's body-mind experience. (15) When Tito announces the sale of her father's library, the narrator tracks their thoughts and feelings relatively evenly throughout the scene, but gives noticeably more detail to Romola's physical position. She begins "[resting] her arm on his knee, as she used to do on her father's, and looked up at him" (R 267). Despite strong and terrible feelings, Romola "had only drawn away her arm from his knee and sat with her hands clasped before her" (271). After Tito's announcement of the sale of her father's library, Romola's body acts with less and less consciousness. She "turned her eyes on him" (272, 273); "started from her seat and stood looking down at him, with tightened hands falling before her" (272); "her whole frame seemed to be possessed by impetuous force that wanted to leap out in some deed.... the strongest part of her consciousness ... was annihilated by the vehemence of her indignation--she did not sit down; she was too unconscious of her body voluntarily to change her attitude" (273); she took no notice of his kiss "and seemed really unconscious of the act" (275).

Whereas Romola acts through the scene without consciousness of her body's posture, Tito acts with full awareness. His mental acuity does not work in concert with his body, for, in contrast to Romola, Tito consciously focuses on his posture, "holding his head back," "[leaning] forward" for a conciliatory kiss (R 267, 269). His apparently unstudied calm results from "great pains to be like himself" (267). Tito remains remarkably inert, unmoving until Romola submits. His relative ease belies his concentration on his physical posture as Tito divides his attention between the "utmost activity [of] his intellect" and his body (275). The fact that Tito, brilliant though he may be, rarely moves during this scene emphasizes the priority given to his rational efforts with little attention for body management. Eliot undercuts the only proprioceptive attitude that Tito takes in the scene: he "lean[s] in the easiest attitude possible against a pedestal.... Not that he was inwardly easy" (272). Tito's posture foreshadows Savonarola's, when he arrests Romola's escape from Florence. The proprioceptive differences between Tito and Savonarola, however, also highlight their contrast in moral authority and explain why Romola heeds one and not the other. Tito leans against a pedestal for support, hoping to convey confidence and ease with his body language; but readers attuned to proprioceptive detail also interpret his posture as a sign of cognitive impoverishment.

Proprioceptive awareness highlights Romola's cognitive activity without linking her intellectualism to her work, another common critical strategy. Shona Elizabeth Simpson, for instance, reads Romola as representing "the struggle of an intellectual woman to mark out her own space" (53). Simpson contrasts the confinement of Bardo's library, a masculine space contaminated by duty to Bardo, with the openness of Florence's streets conducive to Romola's wandering; "But even outside," nursing the poor, Simpson insists, "Romola still does not do her own work" (62). According to Simpson, Romola finally "finds what she needs" once she leaves Florence (63); but is nursing an island village back to health really so different from her care for the poor in Florence? Bernstein, on the other hand, accepts Romola's library work where she sees Romola as an "active and commanding reader" (127) who "acts as the superintendent of this reading room" with "eyes, voice and body as the active agents of the texts" (131). Though a positive angle for the beginning of the novel, carrying it through Tito's sale of her father's library and Savonarola's discouragement of academic pursuits in Venice with Cassandra Fedele leaves Romola trapped by absence. As Eliot withholds Romola's "energy of her own" from explicit narration, so too does she resist defining Romola's intelligence as expressed by some kind of productivity. Instead, Eliot asks her readers to forego conventional means of intellectual evaluation and to accept Romola as cognitively capable of deep thinking supported by postural consciousness, as when Romola reflects in the dark, or kneels on the stone steps by the altar (R 307, 419). Romola, in fact, need not be intellectually superior; her normal cognitive function satisfies Eliot and releases Romola from the kinds of intellectual strain associated with socially recognizable achievement. Eliot preserves some measure of rest for her heroine that she could not attain for herself.

In any case, reading for proprioception recasts the kinds of intellectual work performed by other characters, such as Bardo and Tito. Eliot did not have the vocabulary developed by embodied cognition, but she is especially attentive to how the body relates to work that seems exclusively mental. Eliot allegorizes the intellectual work carried out by Bardo, Romola's father, as a thinking body. Bardo, blind and immobile, is the mind; Tito, writing and reading, performs as the conscious body while Romola carries out actions typically assigned to the subconscious body. Here is the way Eliot describes the central role Romola plays as Bardo's work goes forward: "[Romola] placed herself at a table just in front of [Tito], where she was ready to give into her father's hands anything he might happen to want, or relieve him of a volume that he had done with. They had always been in that position since the work began" (R 117). Romola carries volumes to and from the shelves, reaching, stacking, and preparing the materials that Bardo needs to think and Tito needs to act. Bardo and Tito take her role in this position for granted; from their perspective, her work matters least. Without Romola, however, their intellectual work could not move forward. Without linking proprioception to cognitive action, Romola's part in her father's intellectual endeavor passes unnoticed; and, in fact, we could say the same about how literary scholars read for the body and mind in Eliot's novels. The approaches taken by Davis and Dames, for example, examine elements that correlate to Bardo and Tito but overlook the kinds of details Eliot allegorizes here: "pointing," "[lifting]" books, retrieving objects (116-17). Eliot draws attention to the neglected resources of the body and women by first assigning Romola the proprioceptive role and then underlining how crucial that role is to more prioritized forms of cognition. She undercuts standards for intellectual excellence as being tied to documentable output. Romola's role in her father's intellectual work foregrounds the body's relevance to thought and challenges the prominence of internalized, rational models of social thinking.

Romola trains its readers in proprioceptive awareness through comparing posture in scenes of conflict, highlighting the ways proprioception complements and forwards inward reflection, and by undercutting the notion that cognitive activity occurs without postural assistance. The novel's epilogue, however, contains one final application for the reader's attention to proprioceptive detail. The epilogue briefly summarizes Romola's current life: back in Florence after a short hiatus, Romola lives in the same house with Tito's mistress and children. While she was gone, both Tito and Savonarola die violent deaths, though an altar to Savonarola's memory and Tito's offspring still make their presence felt. Romola tells a portion of her history to Tito's son, Lillo, as a moral warning and ends with a last memorial to Savonarola. Romola's epilogue puzzles modern readers, in part because it feels formally inconsequential. David Kurnick, for instance, finds the Epilogue "notional at best" (494). (16) In a convincing argument, Dames argues that the epilogue fulfills Victorian ideals for nostalgia and amnesia, the triumph of personal memory, a resolution that continues Romola's "fading" from narrative and history (228). Kelly Battles more bluntly believes "Romola's final retreat" leaves "nothing left to tell" (232-33). I propose, however, that the Epilogue showcases, for a final time, the kind of proprioceptive detail that literally shapes the bodies of Eliot's characters, especially Romola: "Romola sat nearly opposite Lillo, but she was not observing him. Her hands were crossed on her lap and her eyes were fixed absently on the distant mountains: she was evidently unconscious of anything around her" (R 546). Rather than fading, Romola sits, solidly and intently, thinking. Readers following the patterns of proprioception through the novel should recognize the presence of postural consciousness that ends with a scene of anatomical embodiment, the shape of thought. Romola's strange dreaminess registers the success of her body in contributing its mental awareness to her mind, allowing for the kind of absorption necessary to long meditation, a form of postural consciousness that Eliot uses again in Middlemarch when Dorothea rests her cheek on her palm in Rome and observes Featherstone's funeral back in England.

Romola's posture suggests ongoing reflection and it harkens back to earlier episodes where her body supports periods of introspection. This time, however, Eliot does not narrate Romola's thinking; Eliot elides narration of consciousness, but maintains similar postural details. Romola remains seated, "absorbed," until her young charge intrudes with a "preserving [look]" (R 546). Romola's obscured thoughts may contain memories, or dreams for the future, an open-endedness that lends itself to a key ambiguity: the realization that Romola, still in her early twenties, has plenty of time for intellectual pursuits, whether we witness it or not. For all readers know, beyond the epilogue, Romola will pursue a scholarly career and her books were lost to history--or wait to be discovered. Reading for body language or Victorian science tends to entrap Romola, crushed under the dual pressures of sex and patriarchy, but reading for proprioception suggests the potential for a hopeful alternative, one predicated on the supportive relationship between nonconscious and conscious mental activity. Romola's embodied stillness, then, rewrites previous models from Savonarola, Tito, and even Bardo, confined by blindness to his chair. Romola waits and dreams without the overbearing confidence, deception, or arrogance of the other thinkers in the novel. For Savonarola, Tito, and Bardo, posture cues their desire for control and power over their bodies, a sign of their moral character. For Romola, posture can be read as posture; a final release from the over-signification of interpretation and the burden of meaning.

Romola focalizes Eliot's engagement with proprioception but Eliot bolsters her psychological realism throughout Romola by extending postural consciousness even through minor characters. For example, as Tournabuoni discourses to Tito Melema about political strategy, he crosses his legs: '"In truth, Melema,' Tournabuoni was saying ... laying one hose-clad leg across the knee of the other, and caressing his ancle [sic], 'I know of no man in Florence who can serve our party better than you'" (R 328). Nancy Henry "decode[s]" this detail as homoerotic but the way Eliot includes it emphasizes proprioception in action (329). (17) Descriptive clauses interrupt the sentence but their movements do not interrupt the flow of Tournabuoni's speech. Eliot exaggerates this fact by stretching the clauses of the speech tag, piling up three gerunds (saying, laying, and caressing) in the real-time length of a breath. Tournabuoni's basic morphology--the bend in his hips, the proportion of his legs to his torso--enables his seated balance and maintains a dignified posture during strategic conversation. Tournabuoni's conscious mind focuses on his political persuasion--or Tito's curls, Henry might suggest. From the perspective of embodied cognition, the simple details of posture reveal an entire body system at work. In fact, in cases where subjects lose proprioception, movement only becomes possible with conscious attention and visual reinforcement (Gallagher 43). (18) These moments capture why many cognitive scientists now consider proprioception as vitally involved with conscious thinking, in deeper ways than we currently understand.

Of course, proprioceptive details contribute to Eliot's overall realism; but stylistically, such details draw our attention to the centrality of knuckles, thumbs, ankles, knees, and fingers--the nuts and bolts of the body--for higher-order modes of cognitive processing. Such structural, systems-based details rarely enter into traditional readings for the body in literature; frameworks of sensibility, sensation, and affect, even while claiming priority or agency for the body, still read the body semantically, or as a unit distinct from mind and self. Eliot certainly incorporates aspects of the body as its own entity but she also highlights the integration of body and mind as another way of configuring intelligence. Eliot does not suggest that Romola's body somehow does more than her mind; she takes nothing away from more recognizable modes of Romola's consciousness. Reading Romola alongside modern research paradigms for artificial intelligence helps underscore the ways that Eliot seeks to understand intelligence holistically, not compartmentalized in either mind or body. She narrates her sense of consciousness in proprioceptive details that draw our attention to a neglected vector of the body in literature, one that is also a neglected vector of thinking. The ways that Eliot deploys proprioceptive patterns--movement then awareness, shifting levels of conscious attention--eventually compile a significant amount of relevant integration between conscious thought and subconscious proprioception. Eliot makes the case that cognitive activity may take important but unrecognized forms, and, furthermore, that reflective thought depends on these overlooked thinking bodies.

Perhaps no subset of literary studies inspires as much suspicion as cognitive literary studies, for, among other reasons, the question as to what cognitive science adds to literary analysis. (19) This concern becomes even more evident when critics attempt to read historical texts with modern studies of the brain. Even Mary Crane, an accomplished scholar who applies frameworks from cognitive linguistics to early modern texts, acknowledges that "I have been trying to combine cognitive and historicist approaches to early modern literature for some years, but I recognize that the attempt to meld cognitive science with historical and cultural studies is potentially problematic" (15). The challenge made by cognitive literary studies to more established disciplines of literary analysis, including historicism, throws the assumptions underlining standing interpretations into relief. Victorian mind-sciences described unconsciousness in ways that resonate with our own poststructuralist, postmodern inclinations for fragment, disruption, and multiplicity; but from the perspective of modern cognitive science and postural consciousness, we can evaluate the extent to which our methods of historicism contain hermeneutical biases. Eliot's psychological realism incorporates both an understanding of the unconscious as foreign and powerful and, in the postural consciousness of the bodies of her characters, as a daily, moment by moment support for physical and cognitive activity. If, as Simpson suggests, "George Eliot continued throughout her writing life to struggle with the rules by which we judge the success of intellectual women" (64), why resist new methods, even, or especially those, like cognitive literary studies, that contest the "rules" for reading intellectual women like Romola?

Alyssa Bellows


ALYSSA BELLOWS completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Boston College in the fall of 2017. Her dissertation, "Thinking with Games in the British Novel, 1801-1901," brings together three interests: nineteenth-century gaming culture, especially related to chess and whist, games in nineteenth-century novels, and modern cognitive science. Rather than turning to contemporary mind science, such as early psychology, her approach to cognitive literary historicism seeks alternative, popular ways of reading for minds in the nineteenth century. This essay comes from a longer chapter on games and George Eliot, who owned at least three gaming manuals herself.


(1.) See Battles 215-37; Dames 207-34; Szirotny 109.

(2.) See Clark 3-43; Pfeifer 19-22; Gibbs, "How the Body" 610-14.

(3.) Jennifer Uglow writes that "Romola submits to the familiar voice of male authority" (168).

(4.) Michael Davis aligns Eliot with "contemporary scientists of mind," such as William Carpenter, Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer, and Eliot's partner, G. H. Lewes who all "[emphasize] the close link between a decision and both the outward circumstances and the inner workings of the body which influence it" in pre-Freudian conceptions of automatic cognitive function (126).

(5.) Julian Corner reads a positive view of the unconscious but only as realized by the novel's end. In the meantime, for Corner, Romola "seems permanently divorced from any source of strength" (71).

(6.) One of the primary criticisms of cognitive literary studies doubts whether or not modern cognitive science adds anything to literary interpretation besides new vocabulary, implying that a mere change in language does not justify a new brand of literary studies. For a well-known example of this criticism, see "Adjusting the Frame" by Hans Adler and Sabine Gross. Adler and Gross argue that cognitive literary studies only alter the vocabulary--"adjust the frame"--rather than provide new readings of literary texts. They suggest that cognitive literary studies only relabel familiar readings with cognitive terms. Their reservations prompted several key responses such as those by Alan Richardson and Francis Steen ("Reframing the Adjustment") and Ellen Spolsky ("Cognitive Literary Historicism"). As I argue in this essay below, cognitive science adds new meaning to interpreting the meeting between Romola and Savonarola; it does not only describe their body language in terms synonymous with those already familiar to us from feminist or embodiment studies.

(7.) See Clark 3-29.

(8.) See Lakoff, George, and R. Nunez, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. Basic Books, 2000.

(9.) Valero-Cuevas et al. (2007) found that our hand "control is not enabled solely by the nervous system but involves complex and essential contributions from the network of linked tendons" in our fingers (Clark 212). Local nerve functions rely on the materials of bone and tendon to find the best possible approach for picking up or handling an object. We not only talk with our hands but we actually think with them too.

(10.) Sir Charles Sherrington (1906) (Gibbs, Embodiment 29).

(11.) And to know our world: Manoel et al. (2016) determined that humans develop reliance on proprioception to understand our immediate environments (whereas children rely on vision until proprioception matures): "In a more radical view of embodiment, the object's reality is framed using the actor's body as a reference" (472).

(12.) For example, Tsay et al (2016) found that limb signals do not come from muscle spindles, as previously thought, but from other sensory inputs like skin and joint materials. Depending on the position of the arm, the elbow plays a greater role in our sense of position than our muscle system.

(13.) For more on Eliot in the context of early psychology and physiology see Garratt, Mills, Paxton, and Shuttleworth, especially Chapters 1 and 3.

(14.) Susan M. Bernardo describes Romola's role as her father's assistant as in the "realm of language and patriarchy" in order to convey how Bardo's words construct gender expectations (89). Deirdre David notes Romola "is a daughter kept firmly in her subjugated place by peevish reminders of her intellectual inferiority" (190). Susan Bernstein argues Bardo's "masculine, colonising approach to learning carries its own limitations" (131).

(15.) For readings of Tito's psychology as paradigmatic of Victorian science, see Dames 222-24; Davis 119-59; Shuttleworth 107-09.

(16.) Critics disagree whether Romola's ending constitutes some kind of failure--a "final retreat" from history (Battles 232) marked by "infinite resignation" (Corner 85) and "ethical languor" (Reilly 639)--or a triumph of the "maternal mission" (Uglow 174), the fulfillment of Romola's vocation as educational Madonna in "control" of her situation (Bernardo 101). See also Paxton 140; Simpson 63-65; Szirotny 105.

(17.) Recent studies have found that gesture functions "as part of the actual thinking process" (Clark 123-25).

(18.) See Gallagher's discussion of "The Case of the Missing Schema," 40-64.

(19.) As in the discussion inspired by Hans Adler and Sabine Gross, "Adjusting the Frame: Comments on Cognitivism and Literature."


Adler, Hans, and Sabine Gross. "Adjusting the Frame: Comments on Cognitivism and Literature." Poetics Today, vol. 23, no. 2,2002, pp. 195-220.

Battles, Kelly E. "George Eliot's Romola: A Historical Novel 'Rather Different in Character."' Philological Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 3, 2009, pp. 215-37.

Bernardo, Susan M. "From Romola to Romola: The Complex Act of Naming." From Author to Text: Re-Reading George Eliot's Romola, edited by Caroline Levine and Mark W. Turner, Ashgate, 1998, pp. 89-102.

Bernstein, Susan David. "Researching Romola: George Eliot and Dome Consciousness." Roomscape: Women Writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf Edinburgh UP, 2013, pp. 113-146.

Carroll, David. George Eliot: The Critical Heritage. Routledge, 2013.

Clark, Andy. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford UP, 2008.

Corner, Julian. '"Telling the Whole': Trauma, Drifting and Reconciliation in Romola" From Author to Text: Re-Reading George Eliot's Romola, edited by Caroline Levine and Mark W. Turner, Ashgate, 1998, pp. 67-88.

Crane, Mary Thomas. "Cognitive Historicism: Intuition in Early Modern Thought." The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies, edited by Lisa Zunshine, Oxford UP, 2015, pp. 15-33.

Dames, Nicholas. Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting and British Fiction, 1810-1870. Oxford UP, 2001.

David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth

Barrett Browning, George Eliot. Springer, 1987.

Davis, Michael. George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Psychology: Exploring the Unmapped Country. Ashgate, 2006.

Eliot, George. Romola. Oxford UP, 1998.

Gallagher, Shaun. How the Body Shapes the Mind. Clarendon P, 2005.

Garratt, Peter. Victorian Empiricism: Self, Knowledge, and Reality in Ruskin, Bain, Lewes, Spencer, and George Eliot. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2010.

Gibbs, Raymond W. Embodiment and Cognitive Science. Cambridge UP, 2006.

--. Review of How the Body Shapes the Way We Think: A New View of Intelligence, by Rolf Pfeifer and Josh Bongard. Pragmatics & Cognition, vol. 15, no. 3, 2007, pp. 610-14.

Henry, Nancy. "The Romola Code: 'Men of Appetites' in George Eliot's Historical Novel." Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 39, no. 2, 2011, pp. 327-48.

Kurnick, David. "Abstraction and the Subject of Novel Reading: Drifting through Romola." Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 42, no. 3, 2009, pp. 490-96.

Manoel, Edison de J., et al. "Proprioceptive-Visual Integration and Embodied Cognition, A Developmental Perspective." Perceptual and Motor Skills, vol. 123, no. 2, 2016, pp. 460-76.

Mills, Victoria. "The Museum as 'Dream Space': Psychology and Aesthetic Response in George Eliot's Middlemarch" 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, no. 12, 2011, doi:10.16995/ntn.596.

Palmer, Alan. Social Minds in the Novel. Ohio State UP, 2010.

Paxton, Nancy L. George Eliot and Herbert Spencer: Feminism, Evolutionism, and the Reconstruction of Gender. Princeton UP, 1991.

Pfeifer, Rolf. How the Body Shapes the Way We Think: A New View of Intelligence. MIT Press, 2007.

Reilly, Ariana. "Always Sympathize! Surface Reading, Affect, and George Eliot's Romola" Victorian Studies, vol. 55, no. 4, 2013, pp. 629-46.

Richardson, Alan and Francis F. Steen. "Reframing the Adjustment: A Response to Adler and Gross." Poetics Today, vol. 24, no. 2, 2003, pp. 151-159.

Richardson, Alan. The Neural Sublime: Cognitive Theories and Romantic Texts. Johns Hopkins UP, 2010.

Shuttleworth, Sally. George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning. Cambridge UP, 1984.

Simpson, Shona Elizabeth. "Mapping Romola: Physical Space, Woman's Place." From Author to Text: Re-Reading George Eliot's Romola, edited by Caroline Levine and Mark W. Turner, Ashgate, 1998, pp. 53-66.

Spolsky, Ellen. "Cognitive Literary Historicism: A Response to Adler and Gross." Poetics Today, vol. 24, no. 2, 2003, pp. 161-83.

Szirotny, June. George Eliot's Feminism: "The Right to Rebellion." Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Tsay, Anthony, Trevor J. Allen, and Uwe Proske. "Position Sense at the Human Elbow Joint Measured by Arm Matching or Pointing." Experimental Brain Research, vol. 234, no. 10, 2016, pp. 2787-98.

Uglow, Jennifer S. George Eliot. Pantheon Books, 1987.
COPYRIGHT 2018 Northern Illinois University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Bellows, Alyssa
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2018
Previous Article:The Rhetoricity of Need.
Next Article:Praying and Preying: John McGahern and the Claws of Religion.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters