Anne Stiles (ed.), Neurology and Literature, 1860-1920

Anne Stiles (ed.), Neurology and Literature, 1860-1920 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). 240 pp. £48 hb. ISBN 978-0230520943.

In the late nineteenth century, the term “neurology” referred not only to the medical study of the nervous system, but also encompassed a broad range of fields from neuroscience to clinical psychology. This collection of eight essays is thus more ambitious than it first appears, covering a complex field over a sixty year period as it relates to British, American, and Continental literature. As Anne Stiles notes, this type of interdisciplinary study restores the connection between two disciplines that shared common philosophical concerns about the increasing materialization and compartmentalization of the mind. Stiles’ introduction emphasizes the “dialogic or circular” relationship between literature and neurology, and the collection foregrounds this dialogue, including experts in the field of medical history and literary criticism as well as relative newcomers who approach neurology through other interests such as surrealism and musicology. The combination of such varied interests in a relatively slim volume means the book’s ambitions cannot be fully achieved, but the collection nevertheless provides a diverse, engaging, and approachable introduction to its subject.

The challenge with this type of interdisciplinary work, which demands extensive historical and technical background, is striking the right balance between explication and application. Obliged to spend a great deal of time outlining historical context and explicating terms, it becomes easy to force the literature into a secondary position, giving it only a few perfunctory pages at the end of the essay. The best essays achieve the dialogic relationship that Stiles describes, allowing the history to interact with the literature rather than simply introduce it. It is no surprise that the essay by Laura Otis, a pioneer and leader in the field, on physiologist David Ferrier provides a model of this balance. Otis describes how Ferrier’s unlicensed and allegedly inhumane research on the motor cortices of monkeys led to his 1881 trial under the Vivisection Act. Although the charges were eventually dismissed, the essay cleverly argues that Wilkie Collins’ Heart and Science (1883) and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) provide fictional “re-trials” of Ferrier as they re-examine the relationship between animal rights, research ethics, and scientific advancement. Like Otis, literary critic Kristine Swenson also finds a fruitful middle way between the historical and the literary. Her essay on Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ Doctor Zay (1882) exposes the historical conflict between homeopathic and allopathic medicine (a new and interesting avenue of study), showing how this conflict shaped the feminist response to the infamous “rest cures” prescribed by neurologists such as S. Weir Mitchell.

One of the major strengths of this collection is its ability to effectively and quickly summarize the key debates within the field. The two essays on “railway shock,” a form of psychological trauma diagnosed in the nineteenth century but not associated with a visible defect of the nervous system, encapsulate many of the issues currently at the forefront of literary criticism. In the nineteenth century, railway shock raised questions about the basis of trauma and anticipated the psychological study of trauma by Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud. Randall Knoper’s essay relates railway shock to sexual inversion, noting how the failure of expression caused by trauma was connected by pathologists to failed or “abnormal” sexual desire. Reading Oliver Wendell Holmes’ A Mortal Antipathy (1885), Knoper shows how Holmes linked childhood trauma to the main character’s pathological gynophobia, a focus of nervous energy inward that makes heterosexual arousal fatal. Like Knoper, Jill Matus’ essay singles out the controversy over railway shock as a defining moment in nineteenth-century neurology. Matus, however, connects the division between psychological and neurological symptoms in railway shock to the Victorian pathologizing of emotion. Whereas neurologists tended to divide the emotions from the rational mind, Matus shows how George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872) reconciles this division by reconnecting consciousness to the sensual body.

By combining essays focusing on scientific history and literature, Stiles succeeds in creating a dialogue between neurology and literary texts that will appeal to a broad range of readers. However, as scholars attempt to bring together two very different fields and appeal to a wide audience, it can often cause a crisis of identity. In some cases, interdisciplinary work achieves scope while abandoning claims to expertise. While Andrew Mangham provides clever and novel readings of Jane Eyre and Dorian Grey through his research on Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), medically-trained readers may question his diagnosis of literary characters and his failure to distinguish pathological dysmorphophobia from normal instances of vanity or envy. Similarly, musicologist James Kenneway’s innovative work on “nervous music” brings together a variety of fields and is sure to interest a wide readership, but his diverse concerns force him to sacrifice depth as he moves quickly between texts and disciplines. As he jumps from technical discussions of musical forms, historical interest in nervous exhaustion, and close readings of texts as different as Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebours (1884) and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901), some readers will undoubtedly be left behind.

Overall, Neurology and Literature will be useful for readers looking for a history of neurology in the nineteenth century, but may be disappointing for those seeking prolonged engagement with individual texts. Often the novels most conducive to a neurological reading, those which borrow freely from the scientific issues and terminology of their day, are also the most neglected and, consequently, the most obscure. Several of the contributors seem aware that their chosen texts will be unfamiliar to most readers; Otis humorously notes of her text, “Almost no one has ever thought that Heart and Science is a good novel” (37). In addition to the selection of texts, readers may also be dissatisfied with the historical scope of the collection, which is much narrower than the title suggests. Although Don LaCross provides a well-written essay on “magnetic sleep” and the mysterious dancer “Magdalene G”—whose sway over audiences lasted from 1904 to 1907—the rest of the essays are written by scholars who have established themselves as experts in the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth.

Neurology and Literature paints its subject with broad strokes, making it an excellent introduction to an important field still in the process of definition. The reader will undoubtedly leave the collection wanting to read further, but whether this quality represents a strength or weakness must ultimately be left to the individual to decide.

Deric Corlew, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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