Markus Iseli, Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious

Markus Iseli, Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2015) 248 pp. $90 Hb. ISBN: 9781137501073

In Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious, Markus Iseli confronts an historiographic gap between contemporary cognitive science and the role of the unconscious in the work of Thomas De Quincey. Iseli argues that modern histories of the subconscious have treated even nuanced Romantic negotiations of the mind and the material self as mere precursors to the work of Sigmund Freud, and that, in particular, De Quincey’s writings on mental activity have too long been read predominantly through a psychoanalytic lens. With Freudian psychology now having given way to more extensive knowledge of our cognitive behaviours, Iseli employs twenty-first-century science to 'sharpen our awareness of this pre-Freudian tradition' (44) through a reading of De Quincey’s literary output more oriented around the issue of physicality.

Iseli’s project spans six chapters over two parts (titled 'Language' and 'Body and Brain'), and assesses texts from the early nineteenth century through to the 1860s, centrally in relation to Romantic (as opposed to Victorian) thought. This focus accords well with Iseli’s greater interest, especially in Chapter One, in De Quincey’s special relationship with Wordsworth and Coleridge, as a set of 'three remarkable thinkers, who shared a mutual interest in psychological phenomena, particularly in regard to unconscious processes' (34). Chapter One moves between exploring the extent to which De Quincey can claim sole authorship of a number of relevant neologisms, and analysing De Quincey’s most distinct uses of the term ‘subconscious’. Iseli argues that this term is less a descriptor for the 'distortion of dreams' that occupies much of De Quincey’s writing, and more a framework for a body of mental processes that better suit the 'cognitive psychologist’s notion of the unconscious' (42) than Freudian and Jungian models of the intermediate historical periods.

Chapter Two then provides a welcome survey of twenty-first-century ideas of the cognitive unconscious, and uses four of these categories (implicit thought, automaticity, implicit perception, and implicit motivation) to explore other striking word choices in De Quincey’s writing, and their possible implications for his views on the physicality of thought. Here Iseli shows significant care while navigating flawed, but still-major source texts in De Quincey scholarship - and in so doing, reveals an approach to unconsciousness that 'does not only store and reproduce mental contents [but …] further processes them on a complex level and vitally contributes to one’s conscious ideas, beliefs, and actions' (57). Iseli argues that De Quincey’s literary portrayals of mental activity stand in stark contrast to 'impulse-driven models' (57) of the subconscious in Freudian psychoanalysis, and cleave closer to cognitive science’s more interactive depictions of the brain today.

One component from Chapter Two emerges more forcefully in Chapter Three, where Iseli navigates De Quincey’s commentaries on authorial style by conceptualizing literature as a body of writing 'that affects the reader in a way that arouses previously present but unconscious mental contents' (76). Iseli also negotiates De Quincey’s interest in musicality as a more direct path than words alone to 'the articulation of unconscious thought' (97), and explores De Quincey’s treatment of language as a means of enacting both power and knowledge within layers of the mind. Iseli’s most provocative recovery work, though, lies with the added agency for dreams within this new critical paradigm. For De Quincey, Iseli suggests, dreams are both dependent on language to be understood externally, but also a dynamic mental space in which language can appear internally – and while present can yet again serve to clarify a given body of unconscious thoughts and feelings. Style, thought, and language must thus be considered equal contributors to the production of ideas – for all reflect a brain in active relationships with layers of itself, as well as layers of the outer world.

With Chapter Four, Iseli enters into part two of his analysis, and here confronts some of the more challenging aspects of historiography. While this opening chapter explores histories of animal magnetism and physiology around some of De Quincey’s most prominent writings on dreams and opium-induced mental states, Iseli openly acknowledges that there is only a tenuous thread suggesting any significant interest in physiology on De Quincey’s part. Iseli instead relies on a summation of De Quincey’s 'large and tightly knit social network' (138) from the 1820s to 1840s to establish that the balance of probabilities favours De Quincey’s exposure to key debates at the time – irrespective of his own, scarce writings on the theme.

Chapter Five then builds from the more robust history of animal magnetism to explore De Quincey’s literary relationship with ‘mesmeric phenomena.’ However, the attendant argument – that De Quincey’s 'Animal Magnetism' (1834) and Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology(1830-33) share stylistic similarities, such that De Quincey can be read as an engaged advocate for objective science – opens Iseli to significant scholarly debate. Even the passages Iseli uses to connect De Quincey and Lyell show a marked difference in tonal focus: while Lyell is confident in the discovery of 'fixed and invariable laws' to explain new data (qtd. on 148), De Quincey depicts new discoveries as potential sites for 'the anarchy of chaos' and 'a thrill of horror so startling' (147). Also absent from Iseli’s figurative analysis of 'Animal Magnetism' is any mention of De Quincey’s interest in Kantian geology – which would also account for the echoes of geological metaphor in 'Animal Magnetism'; and which De Quincey references, as late as 1846, in conjunction with a similar stylistic delight in moments of disruption, not order, in the emergence of a scientific discipline.

De Quincey need not be a staunch advocate of 'objective' science, though, for Iseli’s analysis in Chapter Six to provide the book’s most significant arguments yet. Indeed, Iseli’s central discussions here, on De Quincey’s word choices, dreams, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), and Suspiria de Profundis (1845), easily converge to advance the claim that De Quincey 'explicitly proposes the brain, the very physical organ of thought, as the warrant for "the grandeur of human unity"' (194), and that the 'psychophysiological, productive unconscious is a crucial […] component of De Quincey’s notion of mental action' (197). Iseli’s analysis thus culminates in the assertion that a physiological account of the brain is essential to understanding De Quincey’s views on the unconscious – but also that, despite the clear difficulty of remediating histories of the mind, interdisciplinary scholars would do well to embark upon similar remediations of other nineteenth-century writers. Though their work has long been negotiated primarily through a psychoanalytic lens, Iseli makes the compelling case that, when held to the light of twenty-first-century cognitive science, ideas held by our pre-Freudian forebears will not necessarily prove such strangers to our own.

Maggie Clark, Wilfrid Laurier University C