The next deadline for BSLS postgraduate and early career researcher funding applications is the 1st of March 2024. Applications are accepted quarterly, by the first of March, June, September, and December. Bursaries may be used towards the cost of presenting research papers at conferences, for archival and research trips, for the attendance of summer school, workshop, or training events, and for childcare costs associated with these activities. 

For details see https://www.bsls.ac.uk/funding/

VPFA Study Day, Friday 19 April 2024, Manchester Metropolitan University (and with hybrid options for audience members)

From Newgate novels and silver-fork fiction at the start of the period to science fiction and a gothic resurgence at the end of the century, nineteenth-century periodical fiction presented a wide variety of ways through which to conceptualise, depict, and understand the world. Across this diversity of subjects and epistemological stances, the nature of the periodical format adds further complications through its serialisations, circulations and re-circulations, and a maze of intertextual connections. While scholars have long been attentive to these issues, the development of digital methods have created new possibilities for analysis and the scale of the periodical press - the main textual production of the world’s first industrialised knowledge economy – presents ongoing complexities as new texts and information broaden our understanding of the workings of genres, media, writers, editors, readers. This study day brings together scholars working on periodicals and popular fiction to ask fundamental questions about how periodicals and their fictions constructed, shaped, disseminated, complicated, and otherwise were involved with “knowledge”.

Contributors might consider knowledge as broadly or as narrowly as they wish, focussing on anything from a single page or short story to entire publications, genres, movements, and bodies of work. Papers are invited on any topic that engages with “knowledge” (however construed) within any form of Victorian periodical, but especially as it relates to popular fiction. Approaches might include (but are not limited to):

  • Gendered knowledge and class-based knowledge – the social parameters of writing, imagined audiences versus the reality
  • Empire, race, and diversity – colonial and imperial connections, nationalisms and identity, postcolonial reading and decolonising nineteenth-century collections
  • Genre issues – assumptions, world view, tone, audience, contexts…
  • Economies of knowledge – commodities, advertising, packaging, pricing, production
  • Ways of reading – close/distant, part-issue/volume, serial/anthology, etc.
  • Practical knowledge, useful knowledge, and their implied opposites (impractical/useless knowledge)
  • How texts migrate and evolve across media - intertextual connections, reprinting and re-mediating information, international republications, translations, adaptations…
  • Use of source material, authority, authenticity, and validity; what constitutes plagiarism in the nineteenth century; acknowledgement and canonicity
  • Questions of media and form – serialisations and books, illustrated texts, periodicals read aloud, fiction and poetry/music/non-fiction/photography/sewing patterns/stock market data…
  • Implicit knowledge – unstated forms of knowledge conveyed through character, plot, tone…
  • Contested knowledge – formations and representations of debate, dissent, consensus and “fact” (real or otherwise)
  • Scales and taxonomies of knowledge – anecdote, detail, thick description versus overview, statistics, and panorama
  • Moral and religious instruction versus scandal, muck, and entertainment
  • Past, present, future knowledges – the historical and the contemporary, or the contemporary as historical (and vice versa)

The VPFA invites proposals for 15-20 minute papers, which should be sent in the body of an email to  KnowledgeinthePeriodical@gmail.com by Friday 15th March 2024. Other forms of presentation will be considered. Abstracts should be maximum 250 words and accompanied by a short biographical note. Presentations will be delivered in-person, but audience members may attend via an online option.

A conference organised by Japan Women’s University, Tokyo, Japan, and the Commission on Science and Literature (DHST/IUHPST) Saturday 2 March 2024 (12:30-18:30) How does the study of historical scientific and literary connections contribute towards Japanese scholarly reception of anglophone literature? And how do Japanese literary and critical texts reflect these interrelated scientific and literary influences? This one-day conference, organized by Japan Women’s University (JWU), Tokyo, and the Commission on Science and Literature (CoSciLit), aims to consider these questions and to discuss the opportunities that the field of science and literature affords literary scholarship in Japan. 

 

Programme and registration now available. To register your (online or in person) attendance please go to:  https://rb.gy/x1m18

For 2024, the annual conferences of the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS) and the European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (SLSAeu), together with the biennial conference of the Commission on Science and Literature (CoSciLit), will be combined into a single meeting. This will be the first time that these three societies have joined together to share research at the many intersections of literature and science. 

Registration is now open.

  • In person, waged  £250
  • In person, unwaged £150
  • In person or online, hardship fund recipient £0
  • Online, waged £80
  • Online, unwaged £40

 There are also options to sign up for our conference dinner (vegan set menu) at Birmingham's award winning Asha's Indian Restaurant on Thursday April 11 and for trips to our BIFoR FACE forest research facility and the Ruskin Land forest site on Saturday April 13.       

Please note: There are only twenty places available on the visit to Ruskin Land and the BIFoR FACE site on Saturday 13 April, so if you would like to join this trip you should register as soon as possible.

The BSLS has very kindly agreed to subsidise the first forty bookings for the conference dinner made by unwaged delegates attending in person, so if you are one of these delegates and would like to join us for the dinner you may want to book soon too.

All are welcome to attend the 2024 BioCriticism webinar series. For abstracts, zoom links and other information, please check the website or contact liliane.campos@sorbonne-nouvelle.fr.

 

  • 2d of February 2024, 2 pm CET: “Microbiology in the Twentieth-Century Novel”

Speaker: Dr. Patrick Armstrong (Cambridge University)

Respondent: Dr. Sarah Bouttier (Ecole Polytechnique)

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81781878092?pwd=WVpROG9qUlJXemQ0d1dyNWpkWG8zdz09

Meeting ID: 817 8187 8092
Passcode: 244068

  • 8th of March 2024, 2 pm CET:  “Tiny New World : French Visual Culture and the Microbial Imaginary since the Early Twentieth Century”

Speaker: Dr. Fleur Hopkins-Loféron (CNRS and THALIM laboratory, Sorbonne Nouvelle University)

Respondent: Prof. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (University of Oxford)

  • 26th of April 2024, 2 pm CET: “The Biomolecularisation of the Archive”

Speaker: Prof. Jerome de Groot (University of Manchester)

Respondent: Prof. François-Joseph Lapointe (Université de Montréal)

  • 24th of May 2024, 2 pm CET: “Books of Life in the Age of the Genome”

Speaker: Dr. Paul Hamann-Rose (University of Passau)

Respondent: Dr. Rūta Šlapkauskaitė (Vilnius University)

Ruta Baublyté Kaufmann, The Architecture of Space-Time in the Novels of Jane Austen (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) xiii + 180 pp. £54.99 Hb. £39.99 Pb. £31.99 ebook. ISBN: 978-3-319-90010-0

Space and time are concepts that resonate with a myriad of different meanings within very varied disciplines, from physics to geography and philosophy. In literature, there is a long history of intensive search for the writer’s mental map or topography: how the historical moment might have worked on his or her perception of reality, as well as that one house, town, or landscape that inspired memorable fictitious places. In The Architecture of Space-Time in the Novels of Jane Austen, Ruta Baublyté Kaufmann moves away from conventional studies of the chronology of events or physical locations in literary works and brings forth an analysis of time and space in Austen’s finished novels in which she looks into a series of spatiotemporal patterns that connects the psychology of the characters with ‘linear leaps’ (2). For this, she draws on geographer Doreen Massey’s (re)conceptualization of space as four-dimensional space-time, as outlined in her Space, Place & Gender (1994), and adds Jean Baudrillard’s cyclical and linear or no-return time to the mix.

Kaufmann provides insight into the way the cyclicity—a term she borrows from Simone de Beauvoir—of space-time affects the characters’ psychology and delineates their day-to-day life. These cycles interlock and each one marks important moments in the stories. For example, the changing seasons not only indicate the spacing-out of events but also determine the weather and thus prosaic aspects of human life, such as the characters’ income, what they eat, how they move, and the social events, such as picnics in summer in the countryside or balls in winter in London or Bath. The seasons signal, thus, when the characters experience intense social life and events that will change the course of their lives.

Once the passage of time and its demarcation have been examined, Kaufmann analyses what Gaston Bachelard defines as ‘the topography of our intimate being’ and represents ‘our first universe’: the house/home.[1] She distinguishes four types (childhood, temporary, dream, and independent adult homes) and considers the psychological effect that the houses, which the author describes as ‘a set of relations’ (82) rather than tangible objects, have on the characters, as well as the social dimension inherent to these buildings. One of the most interesting aspects of the Austenian houses is that they can change status: therefore the different types of houses intertwine, overlap, and merge with the subsequent consequences that such convergences may bring about for their dwellers. For example, a childhood home can easily become a dream house—in Bachelard’s terms, a place rendered to the imagination—even when these spaces, according to Kaufmann are antithetical. A dream home can turn into an independent adult home for a marriage, and a short stay in a temporary one, or even a public space such as the theatre, with which the characters may not have developed any emotional attachment, can become decisive for the unravelling of both the characters and the story. The author offers a detailed analysis of each of the houses in all of Austen’s novels, finished and unfinished, and delves into the significance of doors and windows as liminal spaces that bring together the public and the private space.

In the last chapter, Kaufmann explores two recurrent physical activities that constitute a big part of the characters’ social life and that combine in perfect unison time and space, cyclicity and linearity: walking and dancing. While both pastimes involve a beginning and an end, that is, direction and a destination (linearity), the choreography of the dance or the path the characters saunter over and over produces a sense of cyclicity, apart from the fact that these leisure activities already belong to the endless cycle of social intercourse. Kaufmann argues that walking and dancing allow the characters to create a private time cell in which they undergo psychological change: it is through these two types of motions that the characters reflect, reveal their thoughts, develop feelings for each other, and experience their spatiotemporal reality.

By focusing on space as a manifold notion, Kaufmann offers a glimpse into how the spatiotemporal cyclicity affects the simultaneity of social interrelations in Austen’s novels. The changing seasons, the spaces the characters inhabit, and the ritualised activities they find themselves performing fuse the linear with the cyclical, rambling and wandering with a purposeful end. All of them involve recurrent arrivals and departures (of the spring or the autumn, of a guest at a house, or a partner at a ball) that provoke in the characters strong emotional responses and psychological changes. It is the characters’ awareness of their surroundings and the way they interact with them which bring about the recurring spatiotemporal patterns that Kaufmann thoroughly discerns. Her study provides a new way of approaching both space in Austen’s novels, with its deep internalized cycles, and also the psychological life and inner transformations that the spatiotemporal patterns effect in her memorable characters.

Layla Ferrández Melero, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994), xxxvi; p.4.

Lara Choksey, Narrative in the Age of the Genome: Genetic Worlds (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021) 232 pp. £85.50 Hb. £26.99 Pb. ISBN: 9781350102545

Lara Choksey’s Narrative in the Age of the Genome: Genetic Worlds makes the striking argument that the genome is one of the last grand narratives of modernity. Given the rapid pace of biotechnological development, Choksey’s opening statement conveys urgency regarding the major developments and concerns of the postgenomic age. At first, her claim most clearly ties to base-pair language of DNA and its infinite arrangements: A, G, C, and T, the narrative basis of life. Yet this strong statement is further backed through the chapters’ varied texts, and she reveals how genomic narratives emerge across different chronologies, populations, and genres. For Choksey, narratives do not just express genomes; genomes are narratives.

Genomes and narratives are increasingly linked in scholarship. Choksey’s project complements the work of other scholars in the medical humanities and social sciences on genetics, genomics, and literature, including work by Alondra Nelson, Priscilla Wald, and David Kirby. Choksey’s attention to temporality evokes Jay Clayton’s consideration of genome time, and her analysis builds on attention to Josie Gill’s work on contemporary biofictions, genomics, and race. Everett Hamner similarly considers the relevance of contemporary fiction to biological advance and human nature. The analysis of speculative fictions, memoirs, and other texts in Narrative in the Age of the Genome is a welcome and well-researched contribution to the emerging discourse about genomics, narratives, feminist interventions in science, and health humanities.

Choksey’s chronological chapters increase in scalar units of calculation: she begins with ‘genes and families in the 1970s, groups and communities in the 1980s, data bodies in the 1990s, ancestral lineage in the 2000s and ecosystems in the 2010s’ (16). The chronology allows readers to consider the progression of genomic and biotechnological advances, especially as it directs readers to the historical contingency of Choksey’s selected texts. Her linear and scalar chronology organizes what could be overly capacious textual categories, especially since her analysis includes fiction, memoir, film, and their derivatives. Roughly catalogued as speculative fiction, many refuse traditional plot structures and include ruptures, silences, and irresolution. Choksey’s choice in irresolute narratives is not only a feature of post-1970s speculative fictions—it also challenges the reductive, biotechnological drive towards fragmented data collection and unit thinking that defines the postgenomic age.

The first chapter focuses on a critical transition during the 1970s, in which genomic sequencing began to break down individuals into data-driven, trackable entities. The chapter updates the metaphors of genomics during this transition from ‘discipline and punish to military surveillance’ (23) in Doris Lessing’s The Memoir of a Survivor (1974) and Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton (1976). Choksey analyzes city infrastructures as a surveillant backdrop in Lessing and Delany’s consideration of natural selection, genomics, and inheritance through ‘new forms of social organization’ (25). Surveillance and infrastructure pairs with her attention to grammar, which shows how language’s ruptures and silences mimic and encode genetic expression. The chapter concludes with a compelling analysis of Delany’s experimental prose, including parentheticals that mimic the silencing, bracketing, and expressing of genes (48). This grammatical exploration sharpens the parallels between genomics and narratives, a maneuver to which Choksey returns throughout the book.

The second chapter broadens the narrative focus by turning to community conceptions of genomics and infrastructural concerns in Soviet Russian science fiction: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972) and Kir Bulychev’s Another’s Memory’ (1985). Choksey situates the Soviet’s distinctive perspective on eugenic, racial thought, especially regarding the Soviet theory that humans might be genetically cultivated—like plants—into collectively healthy and productive lives. Enclosure and laboratory spaces in ‘Another’s Memory’ are read as representative of the general Soviet project, one that briefly considers the negative implications of private, scientific spaces separated from the community. This brief incursion to the laboratory as a private space is taken up again in the next chapter.

The third chapter offers an excellent consideration of data bodies through memoir and first-person perspectives of the self, which proliferated in the 1990s and beyond. Memoirs form a fascinating ‘crossing place of aesthetic and political formations of the subject. . . tied to economies of property and genealogy’ (85). The self—newly shaped by genomic perspectives and the proliferation of first-person, purportedly factual works—provides Choksey with a particularly rich analysis. Perhaps surprisingly, she does not use nonfiction memoirs in her main analysis: she looks instead at fictional first-person as memoir in Never Let Me Go and the film Gattaca. The self-portrayal of fictional subjects—especially those reduced to sub-human status by ‘genetic inferiority’—makes Choksey’s first-person reading compelling. The claims in this chapter intersect with disability studies, neo-eugenics, and the speculative fears about postgenomic futures.

The fourth chapter challenges the categorization of data bodies through diasporic literature. While data bodies and the compilation of genomic data drive self-knowledge in the third chapter, erasure and diasporic silences characterize the fourth as Choksey draws upon Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother (2008) and Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing (2017). When placed in context of the Middle Passage, Hartman and Gyasi consider the absences, erasures, and exclusions of genomic sciences. Choksey deftly draws upon Black feminist theory, including Hortense Spillers’ differentiation between flesh and the body, to interpret the narratives’ persistent concerns regarding genetic exclusions and belonging. Hartman’s well-known text briefly mentions her use of a direct-to-consumer genetic testing, which revealed her Ghanaian heritage. Hartman’s resulting journey to Ghana reveals the complications of genetic testing and temporality for non-European, diasporic people, especially given a medical landscape rife with racialized science, eugenics, and unethical conduct.

Choksey’s final chapter analyzes Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (1997) and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (2014). Like chapter two, Choksey’s focus returns to communal and systemic issues but now turns towards issues posed by imminent ecological collapse. Metaphorical infrastructure—a framework that builds upon the first chapter’s interest in city infrastructure—is used to interpret broader environmental disasters like Chernobyl, especially regarding its effects on communal caregiving, responsibility, and relationality. Her final chapter culminates in an appropriately wide environmental view, and her consideration of epigenetics is especially timely given her interest in the feminist interventions of science.   

Lara Choksey’s text builds upon the feminist scholarly interventions devoted to literary and narrative studies of genetics and genomics. Her case for genomics as a grand narrative of modernity is built through the gradual widening of her scope, one that is attentive to the broader and more integrated aspects of genomics, human nature, and biotechnology. Her initial claim—that genomics is one of the last grand narratives of modernity—does not veer towards biological determinism and essentialism since Choksey clearly contests the normative human subject and temporality. Her chapters instead reveal that both specificity and universality signify the kinship between narratives and genomics.

One thread could have benefited from further development—the briefly invoked process of reading genomics: ‘What is reading what, and how?’ (21). The role of readers in interpreting textual silences and exclusions is addressed in chapter five, but I believe more could be theorized by considering how reading publics interact with the fragmentation, silences, and textual ruptures. The dexterity of narrative seems to lead towards this capacious interaction with texts and could strengthen its role as one of the last grand narratives of modernity. Still, Narrative in the Age of the Genome: Genetic Worlds offers a robust commentary on a broad range of compelling speculative fictions and nonfictions and makes a compelling case for the role of narratives as a critical aspect of emerging biotechnologies and genomics.

Sarah Hagaman, Vanderbilt University

 

Curtis Runstedler, Alchemy and Exemplary Poetry in Middle English Literature (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023) xii + 205 pp. £109.99 Hb. £87.50 eb. ISBN: 9783031266065

In the last thirty years, historians of alchemy have reevaluated the intellectual and methodological dimensions of this long-maligned discipline. While often still a byword for trickery or charlatanism, studies of alchemical practices in the medieval and early modern world have illustrated its various technical achievements, particularly in the production of precision instruments, and its close relationship with the development of experimental chemistry. While most famous for the search for the Philosopher’s stone and the transmutation of metals into gold, alchemical writing also offered a rich source of analogical and poetic models, owing to the multivalent nature of its writings. Curtis Runstedler synthesizes this reappraisal of alchemy’s intellectual role in medieval society with a close analysis of its literary uses and transformations, particularly in the genre of exempla. The exemplum is ubiquitous in medieval literature, offering moral and religious templates for its readership, shrouded in various degrees of poetic abstraction. Runstedler draws together a number of alchemical texts from several major English poets of the period, including Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, as well as anonymous writers, arguing for exemplarity as the reading of these often-obscure passages.

In Chapter 1, Runstedler outlines the multiple rhetorical valences that authors could explore through alchemical material. Not only does it offer a model of the transformation of matter from base forms to gold (just as religion aims to reform a damned soul into a saved one) but, equally, the ambiguous professional reputation of alchemists offered opportunities to warn against deceit and sloth. Runstedler situates his work within recent scholarship in medieval literature, particularly R.F. Yeager’s approach to Gower’s exempla, and J. Allen Mitchell’s conception of the ‘ethics of exemplarity’.

Chapter 2 offers a clear and detailed account of alchemy in Europe, and particularly its reception in England, up to the fifteenth century. The occult and mystical elements which pervade much alchemical writing have deep roots in the disciplines supposed origins in Antiquity, and are further complicated by the tendency of various alchemical authors to borrow the names of prominent scholastics such as Albertus Magnus and Aquinas. Runstedler provides a rich account of alchemy’s role in poetic allegory in the thirteenth century, prior to the works which are his main focus, as well as rejecting claims that the fifteenth century represents a low point in the genre of alchemical allegory. The works studied in this book represent, for Runstedler, a vigorous vernacular tradition which presented alchemy to a wider audience than theretofore, and proliferated with new forms, such as vernacular alchemical dialogues.

The first text Runstedler tackles is John Gower’s alchemical passages in Book IV of his Confessio Amantis. Gower presents a markedly positive view of alchemy in his Middle English epic. Following the work of Clare Fletcher, Runstedler contextualizes Gower’s alchemical material as the ideal form of moral labor, successfully executed by the great alchemists of the past but unattainable to the morally degraded practitioners of late fourteenth-century society. In particular Runstedler makes a compelling analysis of Gower’s framing of the practicing of alchemy as exemplary, rather than the discipline itself containing deeper moral allegories. Alchemy, even though its material ends may have been lost to postlapsarian contemporaries, still acted as an ethical model for overcoming the sin of Sloth which is the subject of Book IV. Runstedler makes a convincing case for reading Gower’s alchemy as an instantiation of the secular-facing tone of what Yeager calls the ‘new exemplum’.

Gower’s great contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer is the focus of Chapter 4. Like Gower, Chaucer deploys alchemy and its disciples for moral instruction in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, one of the last of his Canterbury Tales. At first appearances, Chaucer’s depiction of alchemy is far more negative, with the Yeoman coming to repent his involvement with the swindling canon-alchemist by the end of the tale. However, Runstedler creates a fruitful comparison with Gower, and it becomes clear that both writers shared a view of the alchemy as a once-noble art debased by the moral laxity and ignorance of its modern practitioners. Chaucer’s Yeoman eventually concedes the inaccessibility of alchemical knowledge, and stands as the paradigm of the misapplication of knowledge for unmoral means. Runstedler highlights the innovations in the literary use of alchemy by both Gower and Chaucer in the development of the ‘new exempla’, and identifies a more complex moral tenor in Chaucer’s exemplary treatment.

John Lydgate’s The Churl and the Bird represents a reverse of allegorical dynamic. As opposed to alchemical practices standing for moral or spiritual matters, the narrative of this fifteenth-century tale was reinterpreted by an anonymous commentator as an allegory for alchemical processes. This writer takes an already moralizing tale by Lydgate and adds seven new stanzas to the work, which has the title bird stand for the alchemical principle of Mercury, entrapped by the greedy alchemist represented by the Churl within the figurative alembic of the cage. In this vision of the poem, alchemy is a harsh mistress, and ultimately gives up trying to impart a moral lesson to the unlearned churl; even if his alchemical goals were possible (and even this is somewhat ambiguous), the churl is too stupid to achieve them.

The final works analyzed are also the most understudied; two anonymous dialogues, one between Albertus Magnus and the Queen of the Elves, and another between Morienus and Merlin. In these fifteenth-century vernacular works, Runstedler’s interpretation of alchemical exemplarity become most clear. Morienus’s instructions to the child Merlin on the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone deploys not only the practical work of alchemy, but also its processes and transformations, to extol the virtues of labor and learning guided by Christian faith. A more spiritually ambiguous lesson in alchemy is analyzed in the same chapter, where Albertus prepares the ‘elixir vitiae’ under the supervision of the Queen of the Elves. This alchemy is ‘elvysshe’, at the boundaries of human understanding, yet is still a worthy pursuit. For Runstedler, these fifteenth-century dialogues present a positive view of alchemy for a vernacular audience, instructive not only for practical advice, but also its example of work-ethic.

Runstedler makes a compelling case for reading medieval alchemical poetry as not only exemplary, but representing a vehicle for new registers of secular and vernacular exemplarity developed by Chaucer and Gower. The work makes significant contributions to the study of alchemical dialogues from a literary perspective, and marshals a complex body of secondary scholarship. Alchemy and Exemplary Poetry offers useful insights for scholars in a range of fields, most significantly for those interested in the complex literary valences of knowledge-making and transmission.

Thomas Banbury, University of Cambridge

Lafcadio Hearn, Insect Literature (Dublin: Swan River Press, 2023) xiv+272 pp. €40.00 Hb. €20.00 Pb. ISBN: 9781783800094

Insect Literature’s unique gathering of Lafcadio Hearn’s insect texts feels authentic and intensely personal: a labour of love for writer, editor, and publisher alike. It is a new edition of a posthumous collection of essays and stories by the Irish-Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). Swan River Press is careful to preserve the heritage of Hokuseidō Press’s 1921 bilingual Insect Literature by printing Japanese titles above English counterparts and by reproducing the original foreword of Masanobu Ōtani, translator, annotator, and Hearn’s former research assistant. To the ten essays collected by Ōtani, Anne-Sylvie Homassel adds ten more, some taken from Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904).

The opening paragraph of Ōtani’s foreword is fulsome in its praise of the author:

Lafcadio Hearn was very fond of insects. Naturally he wrote much about them; there are, I believe, few writers either in the East or the West who wrote so much and so beautifully on insects as he. (xiii).

This comment from the past editor re-iterated by the present one (vii) is particularly apt for a book that is indeed beautiful in its contents and as a material object. Its dustjacket features Takato Yamamoto’s composite insect-human-hybrid ‘Bug’, and the inner flap shows a photograph of Hearn standing next to a young, seated Ōtani, an image which appeared as the frontispiece to the 1921 publication. Beneath the dustjacket are fin-de-siècle entomological illustrations arranged artistically as if for a cabinet display, and the spine gives the author as Koizumi Yakumo, Hearn’s Japanese name spelled out in characters.

Hearn uses literature, folklore, scientific research, religious teachings, keen personal observation, and anecdotal encounters with insects to study them, philosophise about them, and to write the various texts which comprise Insect Literature. He presents a perspective on insects as unknowable: ‘the insect world is altogether a world of goblins and fairies: creatures with organs of which we cannot discover the use, and senses of which we cannot imagine the nature’ (108-09), yet he constantly re-iterates how they are enmeshed with humans, not just spatially and culturally, but also spiritually. Homassel’s preface sets the intimate tone for readerly engagement by sketching Hearn’s biography and his Buddhist-influenced conception of insects as closely interconnected with humankind, perhaps being reincarnated people.

Hearn sits at the intersection of literature and science, and in ‘Ants’, he speaks whimsically of the ‘Fairy of Science’ touching him with her wand to enable him ‘to hear things inaudible, and to perceive things imperceptible’ (25), about which he then writes. He is respectful of the ‘scientific treatises […] of the greatest men who write about insect life’ (214) in which he locates evidence of sympathy, respect, and admiration for the creatures. He invokes Professor David Sharp and Herbert Spencer on the social evolution of ants, formic morphology, innate altruism (26-27, 35-38), and ‘moral rectitude’ (40). For readers seeking scientific enlightenment on animal phosphorescence, he refers them to Professor Shozaburo Watase’s lectures (45-47, 67), modestly aware that his own musings on firefly folklore, and the defining characteristics of a range of insect species tend to be – as Homassel puts it – ‘more poetical than entomological’ (x) and ‘more anthropomorphic than scientific’ (xi).

The Buddhist ‘doctrine of impermanency’ (80) manifested in insects’ short lifecycles and their drastic metamorphoses colours the entire collection. ‘Butterflies’ is the first essay, and it focuses on them as symbols of the souls of the living and the dead. It then counterposes this meaning against the imago’s fluttering frivolity emblematic of youth’s ephemeral attractiveness, which is entirely at odds with the uncharismatic larval state. Hearn is philosophical and lyrical, intermixing Greek legends with snippets of Chinese stories and Japanese literature including traditional seventeen-syllable haikus. The anecdotal and eclectic style of ‘Butterflies’ continues in ‘Mosquitoes’ and ‘Ants’, similarly extracted from Kwaidan’s‘Insect Studies’, and is maintained throughout Insect Literature. In the first essay, a white butterfly soul emerges from the Buddhist cemetery to usher her beloved to a peaceful death. In the second, what emerges from the cemetery’s stagnant and populous water vessels are millions of humming, lancinating tormentors, each of whom, Hearn observes, may be ‘some wicked human soul […] compressed into that speck of a body’ (20). ‘Story of a Fly’ likewise concerns the return of the deceased as an insect. In this tale the rebirth is prompted by unfinished religious business. ‘Fireflies’ are caught and commodified for entertainment purposes but may equally be returning ghosts. Hearn’s reflections on reincarnation are especially poignant since they predate his own death by only a few months.

Hearn speaks of Japan’s old imperial name as ‘The Island of the Dragon-fly’ (71), noting the diversity and beauty of the nation’s species and listing the physical appearance, bright colours, and cultural associations which give rise to their familiar nomenclature. He notes that the formal poetic classification of the voiceless dragonflies does not include them among mushi, ‘insects’, broadly understood to be singing insects, but instead places them in zo orfauna. As with ‘Butterflies and ‘Fireflies’, he includes a selection of brief verse pictures recreating emotions felt in the presence of insects and exposure to their ‘habits and peculiarities’ (90). Following voiceless dragon-flies come chirruping cicadas. Those night-crickets celebrated for thousands of years for their ‘insect-melody’ (106) are contrasted with the irritatingly noisy stridulations of the ‘Sémi’. Other ‘Insect Musicians’ either caught and caged or artificially-bred merit a separate chapter, as does the sad demise of Hearn’s domesticated insect singer, Kusa-Hibari. Further chapters are dedicated to English, Greek, and French poetry, and revisit themes of mutability, the soul, singing, love, and insect pets. Hearn attributes the paucity of insect poems in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western literature to Christian beliefs that ‘gave souls only to men, – not to animals or to insects’ (212). Hearn’s writings offer a multicultural view of insects as ‘millions of millions of tiny beings […] preaching the ancient wisdom of the East’ (127), a philosophy promoting the unity of all life and paving the way for thinkers such as Donna Haraway.

Insect Literature concludes with ‘The Dream of Akinosuke’, a short story from Kwaidan transposing pre-industrial Japanese culture to an ant colony, manipulating the size ratio of human and ant, and essentially describing an interspecies marriage. There is in this tale, as in the entire book, much anthropomorphism and entomological ventriloquising, but Insect Literature’s situatedness in a cosmology in which a person may be reborn as a bug, and in which it is impossible to predict what that may be like, utterly refuses anthropocentrism.

Janette Leaf, Birkbeck, University of London

BSLS, CoSciLit and SLSAeu Conference – Extension of Call for Papers

Thank you to everyone who has already submitted a proposal for a paper or a panel at the International Conference of Three Societies on Literature and Science in Birmingham in April. It has been drawn to our attention that the email links on the conference website have been malfunctioning. We are working to correct this, but in case this has prevented anyone from submitting a proposal, we have decided to extend the deadline for the cfp for one week. If you have not yet proposed a paper or panel and would like to, please send your proposal to litsciconf@contacts.bham.ac.uk by 18:00 (UK time) on Friday 8 December 2023. Proposals should be up to 250 words for individual papers or up to 750 words for a panel. Please include a biography of up to 50 words per speaker and specify whether you hope to attend the conference in person or online.

For more details, please visit the conference website:

https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/edacs/departments/english/events/2024/international-conference-of-three-societies-on-literature-and-science.aspx

John Holmes, Jenni Halpin and Aura Heydenreich

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