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Richard C. Sha, Imagination and Science in Romanticism. Reviewed by Bysshe Inigo Coffey.

Monday, October 21, 2019 - 09:43

Richard C. Sha, Imagination and Science in Romanticism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). 344 pp. (Hdbk., $59.95; ISBN 9781421425788).

Bysshe Inigo Coffey
University of Exeter

The Two Cultures? Not so much . . .  Today, literature students of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (in particular) learn happily about analogical thinking, electricity, Humphry Davy’s laughter, the twitching legs of frogs, and vitalism. The scientific turn is triumphant—a development which is, in certain respects, welcome. There are many reasons for its success: generous funding, the instant knee-jerk seriousness with which anything featuring the word ‘science’ is met, and science is, for some, in an age of cynicism, a subtle way of justifying the importance of studying literature. There is a hope that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s philistine ‘reasoners and mechanists’, derided in A Defence of Poetry, might begin to appreciate literature if it is understood as the handmaiden of science. In the worst work of this kind, poems become supplements; they are not to be worked with, but worked on.   

With refreshing sophistication, Richard C. Sha’s Imagination and Science in Romanticism avoids this danger and seeks to introduce students and scholars of the Romantic period to diverse scientific contexts not readily associated with it, and science, thankfully, is not elevated over art. The book constitutes an act of conceptual reclamation. It begins by declaring its principal ambition: “to restore connections between Romantic literature and science through one of the period’s key terms: ‘imagination’” (1). Sha notes that “within literary studies, the imagination itself has been discredited for its false idealism and its misleading promises of autonomy”, and he continues “this dismissal has been too hasty”. The study challenges “both the traditional view of the imagination and the version of the Romantic imagination that historicism has left us with”. Rather, he suggests that the imagination afforded Romantic artists and scientists a means of engaging with the experience of objects: “Imagination operated […] as hypothesis, to link literary creation with the creation within scientific discovery”. Sha’s restitution of the imagination as a concept of unavoidable importance to the arts and sciences in the Romantic period is both elegant, important, and, in the context of current discussions of the relation between science and literature, crucial.

The book offers a series of important readings of canonical authors: Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Mary Shelley. The first chapter, ‘Imagining Dynamic Matter: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, and the Chemistry and Physics of Matter’, argues that Shelley turns to accounts of “dynamic matter to reconceptualize the subject as continually dissolving and being remade, which, in turn, remakes the objects that bring the subject into being” (95). Shelley’s materialism is a fraught topic, and Sha offers a new contextual network for scholars of the poet to consider. Since Jerrold Hogle’s influential study, Shelley’s Process (1988), Shelley’s relation to matter and motion has been variously rethought in terms of change, or Lucretian flux. Sha’s exploration of ‘dynamic’ matter might further encourage scholars to consider how Shelley’s work anticipates developments in processual biology and developmental systems theory. The problem with focusing on Shelley’s interest in dynamism and action is, however, that it tends to neglect his clear fascination with pauses and intermittences which are a fundamental challenge to many forms of materialism. How might, for instance, materialism adequately account for stoppage and arrest? Whilst Sha’s chapter is extremely important and rewarding to scholars interested in the formulation of materiality, what is missing is clearer evidence of Shelley’s reading in the scientific contexts adduced and his engagement with antithetical positions. 

The second chapter, ‘William Blake and the Neurological Imagination: Romantic Science, Nerves, and the Emergent Self’, is beautifully conceived and executed. Sha demonstrates how ‘William Blake understands the imagination to be embodied in the nerves’ (96) in Vala, or The Four Zoas. This does not result in Blake the nullibist; “[a]gainst historicist treatments of the imagination that reduce it to ideology, Blake actively thinks about the fine line between imagination and delusion, and ultimately argues that one must always be on guard because not only might one’s imaginations be delusions, but also collective delusions like moral law, priesthood, and holiness simultaneously enhance one’s own passivity and disenfranchisement along with the illusion of one’s superiority” (143). Blake emerges as a thinker of agility and invention who bestowed, to borrow a phrase from Shelley, “severe attention” on the nervous system which informed his thinking. 

Problems arise when Immanuel Kant makes an early appearance. The reception history of Kant is too complex, particularly in English speaking circles for me to rehearse here. Sha explains that in addition to the imagination’s functioning in a hypothetical mode, it also “operated to bracket ontology as beyond what is possible to know, since, after Kant, the thing-in-and-of-itself was considered widely to be outside of epistemology” (2). Consequently, “these modes of operation facilitated the rise of phenomenality over ontology, even within science, enabling both to seek the Kantian transcendental or knowledge of what human faculties could know based upon rules to ensure knowing, while remaining either agonistic or modest about ontology” (3). My problem here results from the intellectual elision. Whilst everything Sha says about Kant’s ideas is correct, how useful is it to retroject these ideas into such periodic coherence? Is it accurate, for instance, to claim that the secondary operations of the imagination enabled someone like Joseph Priestley to seek the Kantian transcendental? Not quite: the adjective, “Kantian”, for me, is unhelpful. Whilst my last point is a question of methodology and preference—I am, after all, the kind of historicist from whom the imagination is being saved—the book is a wonderful testament to the significant place afforded to imagination in both the science and literature of the Romantic period.