Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses

May 21, 2009

Once upon a time," complains Prince Lucio Rimanez in the best-selling of Victorian novels, Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan (1895), "it was considered the height of indelicacy and low breeding to mention 'the liver' or any other portion of one's internal machinery, - but we have done with all that now, and we find a peculiar satisfaction in discoursing of disease and unsavoury medical matters generally".

Rimanez, who subsequently proves to be the Devil in rather obvious disguise, correctly prophesies the enormous subsequent scholarly interest in representations of the body - we have come a long way since Mr Giles in Oliver Twist shows himself too delicate to say the word 'legs' in mixed company. Far from prudishly censoring the body, Victorian literature repeatedly uses the language of embodiment to figure internal states of being; 20th-century discourses of the body such as psychoanalysis, the history of sexuality and, towards the close of William Cohen's absorbing and persuasive account, disability studies, have since opened the body up as a subject for different and new kinds of examination.

Thinkers from the Victorian psychiatrist Henry Maudsley to present-day neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio show how consciousness, far from being the master of the body, is a product of it: "thought is a disease of flesh", as Thomas Hardy has it. Cohen especially if not exclusively focuses his discussion on the organs of the senses, the parts of the body that offer the strongest reminder that the location of selfhood is not in pure mental abstraction but in blood, bone and muscle. Perhaps we are all still, like the Victorians, Cartesians by instinct, disliking to be reminded of the materiality of our own bodies - but that Cohen's strikingly brilliant close reading of the image of a pencil piercing the eye in a passage from the journals of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins may induce a physical response in his reader just shows how much our sense of "being" in the world is connected to our sense of being a substantial body in the world; how closely thinking is intertwined with feeling.

While the brain thinks and the eye sees, other parts of the body excrete and bleed; we project ourselves out into the world, but the world penetrates our pervious subjectivities "through bodily orifices, of which the eyes are but two". For Hopkins, the fact of the self's embodiment achieves its most potent significance in the incarnation of Jesus in a human body, the divine and the corporeal united as the poet's eyes are "still fixed on the divine while his hands are in the mud" - but Victorian literature contains more than one incarnation of embodiment.

Cohen vividly realises the "perplexing weirdness" of his chosen texts' representation of the senses: that in Thomas Hardy the self and the material world are not separate but contiguous; that faces, like landscapes, do not innately bear meanings but carry those we project on to them; that in Anthony Trollope's little-read colonial story The Banks of the Jordan, national, racial and even gender identity may be washed off as easily as river mud; that in Wuthering Heights, ashes have souls and ghosts can bleed. Some readers will be vexed by the occasional sense that the literary texts are presented as being worth reading because they anticipate the insights of 20th-century theorists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty or Georges Bataille, but Cohen's readings are both lucid and subtle and make a compelling case for the continuing interest both of the literature discussed and the theme of the body as a means of doing so.

Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses

By William A. Cohen. University of Minnesota Press 216pp, £42.00 and £14.00. ISBN 9780816650125 and 50132. Published 15 December 2008.

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