Alan Richardson, British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Alan Richardson, British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 266 pp. $65.00/£40.00. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0521781914).

Reviewed by
Joel Faflak
University of Western Ontario

Alan Richardson's detailed and provocative British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind reads the nineteenth-century concern with the imagination and the mythopoeic powers of the mind through the lens of Romanticism's fascination with brain science of its own era. This reading corrects the view that Kant, or more generally German metaphysics, largely taught the Romantics, by way of teaching us, what they needed to know about how the mind makes sense--and makes sense of--the world. The Romantics were reacting against a too materialistic Enlightenment empiricism, a story which finds its main plot in Coleridge's rejection of Hartleyan associationism in Biographia Literaria. Or as Richardson argues in "Neural Romanticism," the book's Introduction, "Although literary Romanticism has most often been associated with idealistic and transcendental conceptions of mind, the many points of contact between scientific and literary representations of the embodied psyche helps remind us of an antidualistic, materialist register within Romantic writing that has, until recently, been badly ignored" (36).

The monumental Bollingen/Princeton re-collection of Coleridge has produced what Jon Klancher calls an "uncollectable" Romantic subject whose thoughts remain scattered across nineteenth-century culture. Richardson's book takes its metaphorical cue from this idea of a Romantic mind constituted by a dense and polyvalent neural apparatus, a mind often working at cross purposes within itself. And so in Richardson's powerful opening chapter, "Coleridge and the new unconscious," Coleridge's metaphysics, as well as the meta-critical imperative to monumentalize the Biographia and its monolithic, canonical definition of the Romantic imagination, are displaced by a Romantic concern with models of the brain, and thus of the mind, that speak to a range of other interests and objects of Romantic curiosity. That is, instead of reading Coleridge setting aside Hartley for the abstract, spiritualized functioning of the transcendental imagination, Richardson reads associationism and its empiricist legacy as a productive rather than reductive matrix for an ongoing Romantic interest in how the subject is defined in terms of an embodied mind.

A re-embodied Romanticism has become crucial to our seeing through Romantic ideologies to the socio-historical matrix of their generation in the period. So, here Richardson reads Coleridge's famous account of the composition of "Kubla Khan" in the context of emergent and evolving theories of the brain and its connection to a central nervous system, as if to re-attach the Romantic psyche to its own body. The cast of Frankensteins is multi-national: "F. J. Gall in Austria, Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis in France, and Erasmus Darwin and Charles Bell in England" (5). And beyond this group, "important popularizers of a brain-based psychology (especially for Great Britain) Sir William Lawrence, J. G. Spurzheim (Gall's errant disciple), and George Combe. " Emerging among these various figures is an increasingly complex sense of the mind's embodied functioning, crystallized in Gall's organology of the brain as an incorporation of distinct and frequently autonomous parts or "organs." Responding to Gall thus meant staving off the various threats--religious, psychological, political, cultural, linguistic, anthropological--evoked by the idea of an embodied subject not at one with itself, a kind of Romantic organicism that threatens not to add up to the sum of its parts. If a key concern of this science was the absence of the self, "the poor, worthless I," as Coleridge says in the Biographia, then science, while it contributed on one hand to empirically validating this absence, on the other needed to recuperate it by way of responding to charges against science's atheism, but more darkly against an immanent sense of nihilism--charges that would beleaguer the increasingly radical progress of science toward enlightening the unconscious of history in the Victorian period and beyond.

Situating Coleridge's statement within this context, Richardson notes three issues "crucial to contemporary debates on the mind and brain," and central to the unfolding of Richardson's study: "the splitting or fragmentation of the psyche, the status of conscious volition within mental life, and the relationship between mental events and the organic body" (48). Or as Richardson puts it in one of the book's most provocative statements, the Romantics were in the process of discovering that "the body may have a mind of its own" (60). Such a statement raises the spectre of the hysterical symptom that would be such a central problem for and theme of psychoanalysis as it set about rationalizing the subject who is self-absent and thus threatens to go missing for a society that wants to locate her, even if by her self-absence, definitively. Richardson doesn't quite get us to a more radical notion of what psychoanalysis what might mean before Freud. Rather he  moves beyond Coleridge to Wordsworth's poetics and his "science of feelings," of the embodied imagination; to Austen's Persuasion as a post-Enlightenment, proto-Victorian move toward "a new psychological appreciation of the unconscious mental life and embodied cognition" (94); to Keats's exploration of the "embodied mind's unconscious and ineffable magnitude that might be termed the 'neural sublime'" (148); and finally to how these heterogenous neural attitudes "broached an embodied universalism that promised to extend human belonging and mutual comprehension beyond the limits set by an earlier era's governing paradigms" (180). As Richardson concludes, "That the vision was barely sustained and its promise largely unrealized does not make the attempt less intriguing."

But if the embodied universalism that Romanticism implicitly promised, and to which it remained susceptible in turn, never materialized, a different kind of positivism did. And here is where the book's otherwise so convincing central precepts and local unpackings invite a counter-response. Matthew Arnold's notion of critical disinterestedness in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" implicitly borrows from Kant, among others, the idea of "keeping aloof from what is called 'the practical view of things'" (246). Ironically, what is here a statement about the value of Victorian critical objectivity could just as easily be used to label the Romantics as too impractically withdrawn into themselves, and thus from the activity of the world--an identity that Arnold so influentially analysed for a post-Victorian audience. While many of the Romantics had read their Kant in some depth, Arnold's own mapping of Kant onto the Victorian age produced a vision of Romanticism that for so long informed how we read the period, a mind that is always already post-Romantic or Victorian. There is something of this post-Romantic neo-Victorianism in Richardson's methodology as it works to contain Romanticism, despite the book's claim against Arnold that the Romantics were "premature" because they "proceeded without having proper data, without sufficient materials to work with" (240).

British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind is an invaluable resource for those of us interested in Romantic psychology as one of the most fertile "origins" of modern psychology as it has emerged from what has, for better or worse, been termed the Romantic "turn inward." This turn produces what Phillip Reiff has called the birth of "psychological" man, or what Michel Foucault examined, rather more critically, as the end of the human that comes with the birth of "man," psychoanalysis for him signalling one of most interventionist and prescriptive expressions of this end. But the spectre of psychoanalysis in Richardson's book demands a further telling, not as one of its missing themes, for the book's focus on its subject is admirably sharp, but in terms of a missed encounter with the darker implications of its own methodology.

This book is one of the more compelling aftermaths of the New Historicist reclamation of lost, forgotten, or erased layers of the palimpsest of the mind of Romanticism as we have come to analyze its various cultural and historical overdeterminations, yet ostensibly without submitting this analysis to the critical cure provided by so many previous critical schools. We can work through Romanticism, just never through to its "end," and thus to any final sense of a destiny to which it opened itself without quite realizing the illimitable reach of its horizon. So, the disclosures of new historicist and cultural criticism have unleashed an array of heterodox subjectivities which give the lie to the Wordsworthian paradigm of The Prelude and The Recluse, what Clifford Siskin calls Romanticism's "self-made mind, full of newly constructed depths" (13). The dialogue between Romanticism and cognitive neuroscience as part of a New Psychology--Richardson's "neural historicism" or "neural Romanticism"--would reclaim yet another lost personality of this by now much-splintered Romantic cogito.

Yet one wonders why psychoanalysis, while it is clearly important to the critical methodologies of New Historicism or Cultural Studies after it, and despite our current passion for cultural archaeology, is so frequently set aside in histories of the period that deal so specifically with its mental concerns. When Richardson argues that "Post-Freudian accounts of the 'discovery of the unconscious' suggest how these Romantic-era formulations of unconscious mental processes that most closely anticipate psychoanalysis and other 'depth' psychologies form only one subset of a larger discursive field," and that "writers now associated with literary Romanticism were aware of the 'alternate' unconscious, more productive than repressive, working to a large extent independently of the conscious subject, rendering the mind a theater of instinct, emotion, and desires as well as of reason, perception, and ideas" (58), he is having his cake, but not quite digesting it. Richardson locates Romantic interest in the mind as a lost origin of what is called the New Psychology. This paradigm is defined by the revolutionary breakthroughs in cognitive neuroscience distilled in the work on the literary nature of the mind found in the writings of Mark Turner, Eve Sweetser, George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Antonio Damasio, Steven Pinker, and others. Reading genealogically forward to the New Psychology, Richardson shows how it promises a much-needed corrective to our perception of Romantic theories of cognition as primitive or naive. Yet less so does Richardson read archaeologically back from this telos to tell us how Romanticism might contest the later enlightenments it produces.

This book's appeal to the insights of "science" and its various "materialisms," that is, raises the specter of an empiricism that resists containment, a resistance that fuelled anxieties in both the Scottish and British Enlightenments that produced so much of Romantic brain science, but also in Kant and his heirs as they wrestled with the empiricism of a cognition so frequently beyond itself, and not always transcendentally so. The psyche's resistance to the empirical is the resistance of a Romantic psychoanalysis, in Lacan's sense of a resistance to the Real as that which itself "resists symbolization absolutely" (66). One could also argue that the Romantics come to appreciate this resistance as it informs other facets of their writing, especially because of their engagement with the science of their own time.

This resistance materializes in texts such as Blake's Milton, Percy Shelley's Triumph of Life, De Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis, Keats's Hyperions, Godwin's Caleb Williams or Mary Shelley's Mathilda. These texts, in one way or another, can be situated in the context of the various emergent psychologies that Richardson so carefully outlines. How might they tell a different story about this context, however? That is, these texts stage various psychoanalyses of the embodied subject, the knowability of which is situated on what Shelley in his essay "On Life" calls "the verge of . . . the abyss of how little we know" (478). A central concern of a New Psychology, then, would have to be a resistance to psychoanalysis, or at least a faith that, psychoanalysis having taken us only so far, neuroscience will now get us that much farther. One might be skeptical about the cognitive revolution's progressive enlightenment, especially as it promises ever more sophisticated models of the mind and especially as this promise is read back to Romanticism itself. Mapping the psychic reality of the brain's nervous adventures is hardly mere materialism, nor does Richardson have it this way. But it does evoke a neural rationalism that would make the mind's darkness visible, just as the Human Genome Project schematizes our biological determinism. Behind ever more comprehensive blueprints of the anthropos, both in the Romantic era and in our own, lies a philosophical and scientific--and masculinist--confidence, about which psychoanalysis, particularly in Romanticism, has much to tell us.

It's not that Richardson's book works entirely, or even too momentarily, in the spirit of this confidence. But one might find that it perhaps too easily conflates its methodology with--or rather, ties the drive of this methodology to--a telos the scientific and enlightenment confidence of which we might do well to suspect, as the Romantics themselves suspected it. As Frankenstein reminds us, science, as it outstrips literature's ability to imagine humanity's future, forgets how it is exceeded by its own imagination. Always challenging science's idealism is the subject's frequently monstrous spectrality that Romantic and post-Romantic literature frequently treats otherwise. The history of this psychosomatic body that is perhaps too easily embodied, and thus materialized for a future rationalization in brain science of Romanticism challenges philosophical or scientific positivism, indeed challenges history itself, at the same time that it demands imagination. One thinks of the Mesmerized body, for instance, which disputes in so many radical ways the circuitry of the nervous system, no matter how antithetically dynamic its functioning, and is one of the occult discoveries of an otherwise "legitimate" Romantic science of the mind haunting so much of Romanticism.

In discussing how the surgeon William Lawrence's work attempted to "wrest John Hunter's legacy from those who would use it to reconcile the new physiology with orthodox religious conceptions of an immaterial soul," Richardson writes: "Lawrence, to the contrary, argued that Hunter's work taught that the 'functions are an offspring of the structure--or the life is the result of the organization.' A key issue, then, would be to argue the dependence of thought, traditionally associated with the transcendent mind or immaterial soul, on the organization of the brain" (25). Isn't this, however, merely to substitute one map for another, and rather aptly to reflect what a return to Romantic brain science implies for our own mapping of Romanticism? For if the structure of thought determines its functioning, isn't the "organization of the brain" to impose how we map its cognitions, however complexly, onto our understanding of the Romantic mind, to assume that its structure somehow makes sense for us, without in turn realizing that how it makes sense is quite beyond our capacity to know? The darkness of this insight seems beyond the ken of Richardson's approach. Which is not to dismiss the deep importance of the discoveries this book does make, and of the fascinating connections drawn and contexts sketched. Which is also to say that this articulation of my response, and thus of my own re-thinking of what is at stake in working through the aftermaths of New Historicism as it has morphed into Cultural Studies, would not exist were it not for the startling insights of a book such as Richardson's British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. For that debt, abundant recompense needs to be paid.

Volume and Issue: 

Authored by (Secondary): 

Parent Resource: