Gavin Budge, Romanticism, Medicine and the Natural Supernatural: Transcendent Vision and Bodily Spectres, 1789-1852

Gavin Budge, Romanticism, Medicine and the Natural Supernatural: Transcendent Vision and Bodily Spectres, 1789-1852 (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2013).  viii + 295 pp.  £63 Hb, EPUB, PDF. ISBN 978-0-230-23846-6

Literary critics and historians of medicine will learn much from Gavin Budge’s wide-ranging and erudite study, which argues that Romantic medicine influenced writers from Coleridge through Hazlitt to Martineau, Stowe through Carlyle to the Pre-Raphaelites.  Budge tracks the manifold ways in which Romantic notions of health “constitute the natural supernatural, in which the transcendent vision of the immaterial becomes embodied in a properly regulated nervous system” (17).  This thesis has payoff for literary historians, who come to understand Romantic writing as deeply concerned with its mediatization through the body and the impact of this mediatization on health.  Budge demonstrates how M. H. Abrams’ influential thesis about the psychological interpretation of religious concepts overstates the power of secularism.  In Budge’s view, Romantic poetry and some Victorian novels are an intervention into the reader’s nervous system.  The problem is that because this intervention may be radically inauthentic, it might prove a cure worse than the disease.  The possibility of inauthenticity only rises when figures of the body become increasingly spectral.  Historians of medicine are thus invited to consider why medicine of the period is haunted by figures of corporeality that exceed the natural.  Budge argues for the prevailing influence of the Common Sense School of philosophy and Brunonian medical theories because both relied upon theories of intuition of the real that encouraged metaphorical forms of embodiment.

The first chapter examines how Ann Radcliffe controls the nervous stimulation of her readers, and situates her work in relation to prominent physician Alexander Crichton’s 1798 Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Mental Derangement.  Crichton warns of the dangers posed by overstimulation of the imagination.  Budge stipulates that Radcliffe’s apparitions “symbolize the need for psychological self control in the face of moral trial” (45).  Radcliffe assumes that such self-control can be recovered through prayer, mandating divine intuitions as the only cure to the enthusiasm she herself generates. Her faith is partly explained by her latitudinarian theology and “providentialist epistemology typical of Common Sense philosophy” (40).

Budge turns next to Wordsworth, and argues that the poet developed a strictly materialist theory of mind with the help of Erasmus Darwin.  Yet in Wordsworth’s hands, associative processes spiritualize the body, rather than implying that the mind and body are identical (69).  In this view, The Prelude becomes a poem preoccupied with how its writing can be compatible with bodily health.  Moreover, the disillusionment of the French Revolution joins Brunonianism as an additional challenge, and as a result Wordsworth must figure a moral recovery based on intuitions, which transcend the physical world, by associating them with emblems and types of the immaterial.  A chapter on Coleridge then considers his obsession with indigestion, framing it as the consequences of metaphysical thought upon the body, leading to constipation and mental dejection as well.  In this chapter, Budge is right to stress Coleridge’s refusal to separate religious and scientific strands of argument, and he argues that insofar as Common Sense Philosophy characterized perception as revelation, there was no need to choose between the two.  The way forward was to pursue vital metaphors that could leave behind their material husks.

Budge goes on to read Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook as about both the medical regulation of the self and the regulation of political relationships.  Her Gothicism becomes a way of thinking about mob psychology and its potential influence on politics, especially in an American context, and she shows the deleterious effects of gossip on irritable bodies.  The imaginativeness of Americans explains for Martineau, the tyranny of social conventions in America, as well as the general poor health of Americans.  In a chapter on Stowe, Budge considers how Brunonianism impacted on the sentimental discourse of abolition.  Uncle Tom’s passivity in this view becomes the legacy of the Bible’s transcendent authority.

Budge then considers Pre-Raphaelite painting as being about the breakdown of a religious discourse that dissolves transcendence into the hallucinatory intensity of typological details that threaten to become spectres (175).  Because their pictorial surfaces hover between a painted immediacy and hyperreal realistic details shaped by an interest in stereoscopic images, Pre-Raphaelite paintings endanger their viewers by causing kinds of stimulation that will have deleterious medical effects.   One wishes for close readings of such paintings as “The Girlhood of Mary Virgin” or “Christ in House of his Parents” that might solidify the case.

I learned a good deal from this study.  I would like to have heard more about why Romantic medicine was drawn to competing figures of corporeality and spectres, a somewhat unsurprising preoccupation given the soul’s persistence and legacy within Romantic medicine in such strange forms as animal spirits.  Here Derrida on spectres perhaps is not that helpful because he shows the ways in which figures of the body inevitably participate in an hauntology, his word for an ontology governed by a language that has been necessarily evacuated and repopulated with the ghosts of deferral.  Given the ways in which physicians were responsible for treating madness, it is perhaps understandable that soma demanded psychic leakage.  And given the numerous ways in which Romanticism provided necessary workarounds to any firm dualism between materialism and immaterialism, I’m not sure that these categories are as secure as Budge sometimes suggests they are.  Perhaps the category of materialism only needs secure policing when science must be separated from religion.  Finally, I sometimes found his associative style to proliferate alternative accounts rather than aid understanding.

One important road not taken was a consideration of why the German idealists Kant and Hegel became such devout believers in Brunonianism.  Such influence suggests perhaps that the contrast between them and the Scottish Common Sense school which Budge argues Romanticists have wrongly displaced in their preference for German idealism, is not as significant as Budge insists it is.  Did Brunonianism have any influence on Kant’s teleological judgment, for instance, or Hegel’s phenomenology?  Demurrals, aside, this is, dare I say it, a stimulating a study of nineteenth-century literature and medicine, and although the effects of such stimulation may be instructive, they may not redound to our health.

Richard C. Sha,  American University, Washington, D.C.