THINKING WITHOUT THINKING IN THE VICTORIAN NOVEL by Vanessa Ryan, Reviewed by J. Stephen Addcox
 

THINKING WITHOUT THINKING IN THE VICTORIAN NOVEL
By Vanessa Ryan
(Johns Hopkins, 2012)
Reviewed by J. Stephen Addcox on 2014-02-28.

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This book joins a growing scholarly conversation that draws together thought and methods from the sciences and the historical study of literature. The genesis of psychology as a scientific field in Victorian Britain has been overshadowed by twentieth century developments in psychoanalysis. Because the field itself was in its infancy, nineteenth-century psychology was often a mix of science and pseudoscientific thought. Consequently, the study of psychology in the decades preceding Freud has often been characterized as a kind of historical hiccup before the full breadth of modern psychological study could be realized. The present book offers a welcome corrective to this oversight. Highlighting the theories espoused by physiological psychologists, Ryan convincingly argues that these concepts figure prominently in the Victorian novel. She also shows how this connection between literature and physiological psychology corresponds with contemporary psychological research.

Central to this study is the Victorian concept of "unconscious cerebration." Because psychology and physiology were companion fields, the notion of unconscious cerebration emerged from the study of the nervous system and reflex responses. In this way, Ryan demonstrates how the "idea of nondeliberate, nonconscious thought offered a challenge to an everyday view of the mind and how it worked" (18). These challenges enter into Victorian literature, Ryan suggests, when authors of "psychological novels" begin to "question the very interiority of 'inner' thoughts and feelings" (7). By honing in on unconscious cerebration, Ryan's argument is more focused than those of previous studies such as Rick Rylance's Victorian Psychology and British Culture (2000). Beginning with the works of Wilkie Collins and George Eliot, Ryan persuasively shows how unconscious cerebration permeates much of Victorian literature, suggesting a significance that belies the seeming narrowness of the topic.

Since Collins's The Moonstone refers to specific Victorian psychological theorists, its focus on the mind has already been noted by critics like Jenny Bourne Taylor. But Ryan shows that Collins "purposely puts a great number of scientific points of view into contention. [... H]e uses scientific discourse to confute conventional understandings of objectivity" (41). Since Collins also refers explicitly to William Carpenter, who conceived the theory of unconscious cerebration, and John Elliotson, who practiced both phrenology and mesmerism, Ryan links these references to certain characters in The Moonstone, specifically to their reliance on physiognomic readings. Whereas the theft of the moonstone diamond is solved by the application of physiological psychology, physiognomy proves bankrupt when Superintendent Seegrave, whose appearance the butler Betteredge reads as evidence of competence, soon shows himself to be "hopelessly inept and no help in the case" (43). By means of such examples, Ryan underscores Collins's interest not only in exploring the implications of unconscious cerebration, but also in refuting physiognomy as a reliable way of linking the body to the mind.

Turning from Collins to Eliot, whose "treatment of order" has occupied previous critics, Ryan highlights her "depiction of disorder" (64). In stressing Eliot's interest in order, Ryan argues, critics have overlooked its converse: many of her characters show that "the mind [...] often does not follow conscious and rational intentions. Instead, it seems to act automatically, as if by reflex" (61). Recollecting Dorlcotte Mill in the opening chapter of The Mill on the Floss, for instance, the narrator experiences a reflexive memory: "[T]he narrator's recollection is [...] set off by a physical sensation [...]; it is the numbness of the narrator's arms as they press down on her chair that releases the train of remembered images" (65). In Daniel Deronda, furthermore, Gwendolen Harleth repeatedly undergoes reflexive response, as in her terrified scream at a picture during a performance of The Winter's Tale. Since Gwendolen "struggle[s] to control her inner reality" throughout the novel, Eliot uses "the intensity of Gwendolen's reflexive nature to explore whether one can learn to train and guide such reflexive action" (76). For Ryan, then, Eliot's novels show how Victorian literature questioned the relationship between rational intentions and "choice-making." Decisions could easily spring from unbidden reflexive mental response.

Having moved from Collins's sensational plots to the more psychological focus of Eliot's novels, Ryan sets out to show that "an examination of [...] nineteenth-century questions about the mind can bring into sharper relief [...] some central concerns of present-day cognitive science" (15). To develop this point, she examines the reading practices induced by the novels of George Meredith. Noting that his style is "famously" difficult, Ryan suggests that his narratives explore "the felt contradiction between the failure of introspection and the intense experience of the power of the mind" (126). During his lifetime, Ryan observes, Meredith's prose was often thought to demand "excessive mental effort and work" (127) when compared to the prose of his contemporaries. But Ryan restates this comparison: while Collins's novels provoke bodily sensations in the reader, the demands made by Meredith's prose give rise to mental effort.

As an example, Ryan points to Beauchamp's Career, a novel whose story is called "plotless" by the narrator himself but whose prose bristles with indirect metaphors and elusive allusions. By means of this "peripheralism," a term Ryan draws from David Howard's analysis of another Meredith novel, Meredith is said to represent in his fiction the complexities of consciousness and our inability to fully understand our own minds. For readers, Ryan argues, the experience of unraveling Meredith's obscure style recreates the same process; the "intensity of experience [...] is the result of cognitive effort" (152): while the obliqueness of Meredith's fiction undermines the reader's conscious cognitive processes (since we cannot immediately grasp the meaning of the narrative), it simultaneously demands a mental effort that works toward "strengthening the reader's mind" (152). Hence, rather than simply finding theories of physiological psychology lodged in the plots of Victorian novels, Ryan shows how they represent the experience of unconscious cerebration, which in turn leads to ideation. In the case of Meredith, then, the allegedly difficult experience of reading his fiction generates--by means of later reflection--a "more intensive affective response" to the act of reading itself (131).

If, as Ryan contends, the very act of reading novels like Meredith's enacts Victorian physiological psychology in modern readers, then it is plausible to posit a connection between nineteenth-century psychological theory and current research in cognition. In other words, if we can read Meredith in light of the theories Ryan describes, we can fruitfully re-open Victorian physiological psychology as an object of further study. Additionally, in her final chapters, Ryan shows that Victorian psychological theory was not universally rejected by twentieth century novelists. D. H. Lawrence, for instance, asserted "the vital role of the body" against Freud's "conception of the unconscious" (175), and physiological psychology also survived in the "pragmatic and education-focused" American academy (169). This emphasis laid the groundwork for the emerging field of "consciousness studies," which combines the works of scholars in "philosophy of mind, neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science" (178). Ryan thus aligns her work with interdisciplinary studies like Kay Young's Imagining Minds (2010) and Alan Richardson's British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (2001), both of which use current theories of neurology and cognition to shed fresh light on late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century British texts. And beyond its ability to enhance our understanding of literature, Ryan suggests that by means of consciousness studies, contemporary cognitive science is "permeating public discourse" in something like the way physiological psychology spread through Victorian Britain (178). Moreover, nonconscious or nondeliberate thought has become a particular focus for studies of cognition such as those of the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet, who has shown that we "decide to act well before we think we have made the decision to act" (179). Through her conclusion, then, Ryan suggests that the questions pursued by Victorian physiological psychologists also engage the neuroscientists of our time.

Beyond the argument of the book, it is impressively well organized, with multiple close readings of Victorian fiction woven seamlessly into its texture. While Ryan respects the complexity and richness of Victorian psychological theories in applying them to literary texts, her descriptions of those theories are enlightening and helpful to the nonspecialist. The introduction, for instance, identifies the two primary doctrines of physiological psychology, one, "that the mind is embodied," and two, "that the organism [...] can only be understood dynamically" (5). After thus clearly defining her topic, Ryan slowly develops its implications for readers who may be unfamiliar with them. In so doing, she furthers our understanding of how Victorians conceived the workings of the mind and how their psychological theories informed their literature. Additionally, Ryan's emphasis on unconscious cerebration prompts us to reconsider the common assumption that "character determines action" in the realist novel. Given its argument about the prevalence of reflexive thinking in the Victorian novel, this book complicates our understanding of how Victorian authors conceived of and developed their characters.

J. Stephen Addcox is a candidate for the PhD in English at the University of Florida.


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