Jeremy Davies, Bodily Pain in Romantic Literature

Jeremy Davies, Bodily Pain in Romantic Literature (Oxford: Routledge 2014) 228 pp. £95.00 Hb, £28.00 Pb. ISBN: 9780415842914

The subject of bodily pain is an important and fruitful area of romantic scholarship that Davies gives his full attention in this ambitious and rigorous study. Critics such as Richard Sha, Steven Bruhm and Joanna Bourke have investigated the significance of pain in the literature and science of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and Jeremy Davies’ Bodily Pain in Romantic Literature represents another key study into corporeal suffering in the period. Pain is clearly and succinctly characterised from the outset of this monograph as ‘a directing of our attention towards our sense of bodily sensing’ (21). Whereas embodied existence is usually in the background of one’s consciousness, Davies’ thesis argues that physical pain compels us ‘to notice the body’s very capacity for feeling’ (xi); it is this characterisation of pain that is developed throughout the five long chapters of the monograph. The monograph is largely comprised of an investigation of bodily pain in the works of four key philosophers, authors and poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, even as it extends its scope to engage with the wider field of pain studies in the works of seminal authors and scientists such as Elaine Scarry, Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall. To this extent, Davies’ suggestion that pain directs our attention towards felt experience transcends a romantic understanding of bodily suffering to enter into dialogue with contemporary research into pain. Bodily Pain in Romantic Literature not only establishes Davies as a deft interdisciplinary reader in Romantic studies, but also as an important contributor to the wider field of literature and science.

Chapter One, ‘Romanticism and the Sense of Pain’, fleshes out Davies’ understanding of bodily hurt by exploring historical approaches to the sensation of pain alongside contemporary theorisations of felt suffering in philosophy and medicine. Davies usefully describes two trends of thought in contemporary pain studies: Elaine Scarry’s exceptionalist understanding of bodily suffering, which argues that ‘pain is a pure physical experience of negation’ (14) that is ‘antagonistic to communication’ (14), and the culturalist and humanist approach of gate-control theorists who show that pain ‘can only take on its meaning from the way in which language is actually used’ (15). Davies’ discussion perhaps strays from its concentration on Romantic literature at this point in the monograph and would have benefited from an engagement with Romantic scholars such as William Keach, whose discussion of ‘words and things’ in Arbitrary Power: Romanticism, Language and Politics, successfully forges a link between language and physical reality in the works of the Romantics. However, Davies uses these definitions of bodily suffering as a point of departure to argue that ‘the aim should be to describe pain in the sense of characterising it, rather than the sense of defining it’ (18); a sentiment that resonates with a period in which subjective experience became a benchmark of creative and artistic endeavour.

Chapter Two, ‘Bentham’s Absolute’, discusses Jeremy Bentham’s defence of torture, arguing that the penological infliction of pain ‘was more than just a particular ethical quandary to be resolved by the application of Utilitarian principles’ (39), but also ‘a thought experiment that provided a justification for those Utilitarian principles themselves’ (39). Davies’ exploration of torture methods is as gruesome as it is fascinating and his conclusion that Bentham ‘sometimes asserted, and sometimes denied, that sufficiently intense torture, becomes a psychological absolute that is guaranteed to overpower its victim’s will’ (39) is a useful extension and interrogation of his main thesis.

Davies’ most compelling chapter, ‘Sade’s Unreason’, extends the parameters of his study by discussing the relationship between the body and the imagination that is central to understanding Sade’s paradoxical claim that the victim of torture might find pleasure in bodily suffering. The chapter explores two of Sade’s longest works, Juliette and Justine, to argue that the libertine’s enjoyment of physical pain lies in ‘their self-contradictory desire to feel the mind domineer over sensation even as sensation takes charge of the mind’ (80). Davies suggests that ‘choosing to take delight in torture requires an incomparable degree of willed control over one’s subjectivity’ (78) and an extreme act of imagination on the part of the sufferer such that the mind dominates the body just as the all-consuming agony of felt experience dominates over the mind. Chapter Three is Davies' most insightful and analytical exploration of bodily pain in the monograph in that it grounds its readings in the nuances and complexities of Sade’s writings, thereby engaging with the blurred distinctions between pleasure and pain, mind and body contained within the language and characterisation of each novel. Such attention to textual detail leads Davies to questions that resonate with the period as whole, such as the query, are pleasures born in the imagination or the body?

Davies’ study is at its best in the earlier chapters when he is engaging with the prose works of Bentham and Sade. However, Chapters Four and Five, ‘Living Thorns Coleridge and Hartley’ and ‘Shelley: A Sense of Senselessness’, draw upon the personal experiences of each poet as chronic pain sufferers to investigate their understanding of bodily suffering. Davies’ chapter on Coleridge elects not to build an argument from the subtleties of the poetry itself, but focuses on the biography, letters and journal notes of the poet. The chapter begins by investigating David Hartley’s early influence on the poet’s religious and scientific beliefs, moving on to describe how Coleridge’s personal experience of suffering led him to turn away from the Unitarianism that Hartley supported.  Davies’ argument, that ‘the reflexive quality of physical hurt’ led Coleridge and Hartley to dwell upon ‘the way in which the pain of the body stages a sensory encounter with our sensory system’ (99), amounts to a restatement of the monograph’s thesis rather than an argument that is built from the complexities of each of these important Romantic thinkers.

The final chapter on Percy Bysshe Shelley focuses on representations of pain and torture in Laon and Cythna, The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound. Although the chapter centres on the the relationship between pain and creativity in each work, Davies does not create a unifying argument that brings the chapter together as a whole, instead proposing three separate interpretations of bodily pain in each poem. Davies forges an interesting comparison between the scenes of torture in Laon and Cythna and The Cenci. Whereas Davies argues that Laon and Cythna dramatises Shelley’s ‘commitment to taking bodily pain as a way to envisage possibilities of renewal and revaluation’ (132), he argues that painful self-revision is denied in The Cenci. Davies enters into the critical conversation that confronts the simultaneous guilt and innocence of Beatrice Cenci, arguing that Beatrice ‘is driven by her father’s brutality into a reaction to torture that unsympathetically denies the hold that physical pain can exert over its sufferers’ (132). Davies concludes the chapter with an exploration of Prometheus Unbound, arguing ‘that the drama seeks to justify its wilful leap from a pain-filled world to a utopian one by enlisting the creative will of the reader herself’ (132). Although Davies successfully identifies Shelley’s paradoxical attitude to bodily pain in this ‘lyrical drama’, his argument would have been greatly helped by paying closer attention to the reader’s response to poetic form. Shelley’s masterful use of language and layering of literary genre in Prometheus Unbound often elicits contradictory attitudes in the reader to match the multiple voices and characters that the poetry presents. Such complexity demands detailed engagement with the subtleties of the poem’s language so that the tensions and difficulties of Shelley’s thinking around bodily pain can be teased out of this key text.

Davies concludes the monograph by looking ahead to an historical reconceptualisation of the body in pain after the emergence of surgical anaesthesia in 1846. This study succeeds in its aim of showing ‘how closer attention to the pain of the body might help us to see some important Romantic-period thinkers in a new light’ (xiii). Although Davies does not explain why he has chosen to focus on these four Romantic thinkers to the exclusion of all others, (there is not even a passing reference to the life or works of John Keats, the most famous ‘poet-physician’ of the period), this study nevertheless establishes Davies as a knowledgeable and analytical reader of bodily pain in Romantic literature.

Ellen Nicholls, University of Sheffield