Markus Iseli - Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious. Review by Alex Freer

Thursday, October 20, 2016 - 13:05

Markus Iseli, Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). x + 248 pp. (Hdbk. $90; ISBN 9781137501080; E-book $69.99).

Alex Freer
Trinity College, Cambridge

What is the value of the conjunction in “literature and science”? Various answers have emerged over two decades of studies in Romanticism: the history of science provides context for writers and their writing; the study of literature contributes to that history; more ambitiously, literary critical and scientific research might directly inform one another. This last avenue is taken by Markus Iseli’s study of Thomas De Quincey. By focusing on what he calls the cognitive unconscious, Iseli signals his opposition to the substantial psychoanalytic engagement with De Quincey, favouring an account of unconsciousness provided by contemporary cognitive science. The book argues that, for De Quincey, unconscious and “subconscious” processes are rational in aim and material in origin.

De Quincey’s unconscious has long been considered a “precursor” to psychoanalytical accounts. Iseli rightly objects that psychoanalytical assumptions can flatten diverse nineteenth-century conceptions of unconsciousness. Moreover, where it makes universal claims, psychoanalysis produces predictable interpretations of particular cases; freed of its presuppositions, “[t]he critic is no longer under pressure to find yet another dark sexual secret from De Quincey’s traumatic childhood” in order to analyse his opium-fed dreams. In its place, this book provides both de Quincey’s own conceptualization of “subconscious” activity and “striking parallels to the cognitive psychologist’s notion of the unconscious.”

The book begins with the role of neologisms in De Quincey, paying particular attention to the coinage of “involutes,” “palimpsest,” and “subconscious.” The latter term is not definitively De Quincey’s coinage but Iseli makes a case for De Quincey’s specifically psychological usage, to “describe a singular psychological phenomenon in a sober and straightforward way.” In the following chapter cognitive science emerges as “a foil to map De Quincey’s usage of subconscious.” While this displaces the machinery of Freudian psychology, in practice it frequently means translating from one set of jargon to another. Rather than “the innate sexual drives, wish fulfilment, and the symbolic instantiation of repressed childhood experiences,” De Quincey now expresses or “mirrors” the concepts of “implicit thought, automaticity, implicit perception, and implicit motivation.” The claim is essentially of correspondence: De Quincey’s account of Wordsworth’s descriptive technique, for example, “points towards” a recent claim that “attention is captured at a late stage of processing.” A more promising account of De Quincey as an “original theorist” comes to the fore in chapter three, in a study of style and unconscious cognition. In a suggestive but frustratingly short section, musicality emerges as the link between De Quincey’s critical and compositional practices and “the rhythms of unconscious thought.”

Part two returns to a cultural historical approach, situating De Quincey between popular interest in mesmeric investigations and the developing field of physiology. Iseli cashes out De Quincey’s interest in contemporary psychology in both historical terms (reading his essay on animal magnetism with Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology) and biographical terms (arguing that De Quincey “truly endorsed mesmerism because of its affinity to opium”). The final chapter turns to dreams, arguing for “a corporeal point of view, which contradicts the predominant psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams.” This means rejecting mental “causes” for dreams; in their place, contemporary neuroscience returns. While De Quincey describes dreams as “part of my physical economy,” he has little to say about “the absence of frontal cortical monitoring,” making the discussion a one-way street. Moreover, while we can account for the distortions of dreams by “failures of aminergic neuromodulation,” and for the depths of De Quincey’s reveries by the action of opium on brain functions, it is unclear that this answers literary questions. Not all opium-eaters could dream up the Confessions.

It is, to some degree, a matter of temperament whether one favors psychoanalysis and associated critical theory or neuroscience’s rationality and positivism. Similarly, whether an appeal to “our childhood” or “neurophysiological processes” seems more satisfying depends on the questions we ask. Yet the book’s polemical stance is unsatisfying. It portrays psychoanalytic criticism as monolithic and dominant (“almost unquestioned,” “hegemonic,” a “juggernaut”), but sidesteps psychoanalysis rather than providing a sustained critique of either Freud or modern psychoanalytic criticism. This prevents direct engagement with cognitive science; rather than entering a debate we are obliged to choose between two fixed alternatives. Recent work on neuroscience’s relation to psychoanalysis and philosophy (Nima Bassiri, Catherine Malabou) may have proven helpful. Finally, the historicist arguments marshalled against psychoanalysis apply equally to this use of cognitive science.

This book oscillates between cultural history and a bravely ahistoricist account of De Quincey on cognition. The former approach might have included a broader survey of Romantic conceptions of unconsciousness (Coleridge, Wordsworth and Hazlitt, and indeed Schelling, Carus and Schlegel). The latter would have benefited from a sustained debate between neuroscience and psychoanalysis, and clearer separation of each from De Quincey’s own thought. Both approaches have their merits, but their combination is not entirely compatible.