Romantic Circles stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Read our statement.

Alan Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease

Thursday, August 24, 2000 - 07:31
Alan Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease. Medicine and Culture Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xviii + 374pp. illus: 17 line drawings, 2 halftones. $45.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8018-6225-6).

Reviewed by
Timothy Morton
University of Colorado at Boulder

"As a study of the geographical dimension of disease during the Romantic period, Romanticism and Colonial Disease examines the role played in the making and unmaking of national identities by ideas about the geographical distribution of diseases and what kind of people were susceptible to them" (17). This is a modestly stated plan. But Alan Bewell's project, while posed as the recovery of empirical information, has a grander view than this: it is a strong work of ecocriticism.

The Disordered Body by Suzanne E. Hatty and James Hatty has recently argued that the Plague, in its disrupting of the very categories of physiological knowledge, was a turning point in European medicine and society. One might describe this in Lacanian terms as the interruption of the symbolic by the real. Just as the Black Death was a tuche, a shocking event (Greek: "chance"), an inruption of the real into the conventional world of medieval Europe, so ecological catastrophes of all kinds have acted as a tuche, a disturbance of reality in a globalized world. The radiation of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island knows no boundaries of culture, polity, nation, or state. Global warming is a great leveler in the age of identity politics. The poisonous excrement of productive forces has returned to haunt the world of clean plastic surfaces. All kinds of global plagues, real and imagined, travel in the wakes of the bodies, commodities, stocks and currency that revolve with accelerating frenzy around the earth. The AIDS panic is a particularly potent and painful example of the ways in which society, culture, "nature" and "the body" boil around a gaping hole, a gap in normative ways of understanding reality. The reality of a global world is evident in the minute observation of the pressure placed upon the local in the auguries of innocence of that Romantic poet, Prince: "In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name" ("Sign o' the Times," 1).

There are three ways of avoiding the full horror of ecological catastrophe(s); and in general, these ecological "solutions" are surely all displacements of how to avoid responding to historical conditions more fully. (As Alan Bewell points out, the Black Death was called a "miasma" [Romanticism and Colonial Disease, xi], and the Oedipal implications of this Greek notion should be obvious. A psychoanalytic approach to the politics of ecology thus seems appropriate.) The first way of avoiding the disaster would be fetishistic denial: "I know that global warming is real, nevertheless I will act as if it were not"; "Although household plastics contain endocrine disrupting dioxins, I will continue to await conclusive experimental results." The second psychic defense is compulsion: seeming to control the horrific tuche of the real as it rends open normality (normative reality, that is) by repeated tiny acts of personal or small-scale redemption. Although corporations and the military are responsible for much of the polluting of the world, if one were to purchase the right number of apparently eco-friendly products, and recycle those products that one had purchased, perhaps one could stave off catastrophe, ward it off with the rosary of green consumerism (or some other highly constricted action). The third possible defense, the most compromising to the psyche, is a psychotic one: attributing some kind of transcendent meaning to ecological disaster, positing an other "behind" the other of the failing ecosystem. In the psychotic defense, the genuine reason why the earth is in trouble is that God, or some other other, wants it so; one might even include racist fantasies about overpopulation as belonging to this defense. And one would certainly include the kinds of fantasy of "pathogenic space" described by Bewell, evoked in the Romantic period to justify very real social policies.

The sanest way to respond to all of this would be to start by admitting to the horror of ecological catastrophe in all its meaningless contingency: "fessing up" to it. This is the strategy that Slavoj Zizek suggests in Looking Awry (34–39). Rather than avoiding fear, perhaps one might fully take account of the object of fear. Then disaster might become a liberating moment, a chance to rethink so-called normality around the hole made by the inruption of the real; a chance to address at deep levels history, politics, justice, culture, spirituality . . . what it is, feels like and means to be a conscious being. It would entail a thorough historicization of nature: not a denial of nature's existence, however. Ecological problems of all kinds force humans to reconsider the categories of the cognitive, the ethical and the aesthetic, categories that have come apart as modernity has emerged.

This forging of new bonds between the aesthetic, the cognitive (for example, medical discourse) and the ethical is the work that Alan Bewell starts to do in Romanticism and Colonial Disease. It is quite clear that the author of this very well-researched and clear study is not just doing it for "intellectual" reasons, narrowly defined (far be it from me to make this into an anti-intellectual statement). Bewell cares about what he is writing; and this care makes for a much more powerful analysis, in an age when fact and value have drifted apart even further than they had during the Romantic period. For this is a work of ecocriticism more than anything else, a fresh kind of ecocriticism, though it does not directly name itself as such. But where some ecocriticism seeks solace in the aesthetic for the ills of modernity, this book troublingly, and carefully, suggests that one must keep the aesthetic touching the political for it to make sense, just as Derrida remarks that deconstruction must touch the political to be doing its job.

Romanticism and Colonial Disease marshals an astonishing range of material, largely in the history of medicine. Accounts of tropical disease, journals, medical treatises, graphic satire and other visual art (there are abundant illustrations) and many other sources are carefully brought in to support the argument that the Romantic period witnessed a pivotal moment in the construction both of disease and of colonial and imperial territory. The introductory material is especially helpful. The Preface (xi–xv) introduces the subject from imperialism's later moment, around the publication of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898); the strong view of continuity imparted by this is gratifying to a lover of long history (rather than New Historicist synchronicity). "Colonialism and Disease," the introduction (2–26), successfully shocks the reader into a sense of the constructedness of disease, opening with a Native American narrative about smallpox (2–3). The book's map (12) is of mortality rates of European troops both at home and abroad (from the work of Philip D. Curtin), setting a rigorous standard of evidence.

The first chapter examines the extent to which medical discourse in the Romantic period constructed "pathogenic spaces" out of the colonial and imperial territories. The opening is again proleptic, anticipating the later discussion of Jane Eyre (27–28). Bewell helpfully observes the extent to which tropical landscapes were hybrid rather than homogeneous, ending the chapter with a reading of Wordsworth that renders this clear in literary terms (46–65). The second chapter examines narratives of colonial military disease (66–130), culminating in a reading of Coleridge via Smollett and Stedman. The third chapter is a reading of the extent to which colonialism reproduced the local as the edible (131–60; see the discussion below). It concludes with an interpretation of opium eating, notably in De Quincey (154-60). Chapter four interprets Keats's representation of England in the "Ode to Autumn" as a means to evoke a counter-miasmatic space, a region of health (161–93). The fifth chapter is an analysis of representations of Africa, focusing in particular on the work of Joseph Ritchie, recuperating that poet for an understanding of Romantic figurings of "the most extreme environments of the globe" (194–204; the quotation is from 203). The following chapter claims Percy Shelley as a poet of climate, placing his linking of nature and culture in its revolutionary context (205–41). The Triumph of Life, not often read for its cultural allusiveness (despite its content), is interpreted alongside "Mont Blanc," a poem equally resistant to historical reading (apparently), as a meditation on the politics of environment (221–41). The seventh chapter exhaustively investigates the ways in which discourses around cholera and sanitation provoked hegemonic figurations of India as a pathogenic space (242–76). Chapter eight, a presentation on the literature of tropical invalids, is in part a reading of Jane Eyre (277–95), while the final chapter is, fittingly, a reading of Mary Shelley's The Last Man in the light of the arguments made throughout Bewell's study (296–314). Bewell emphasizes that "Percy and Mary Shelley stand out as writers who insist that Western societies cannot isolate themselves from the world they have helped create" (311).

One of the stronger moments of ecocriticism in the study is a point at which Bewell historicizes nature, against a New Criticism and a New Historicism that would make of nature in "The Ruined Cottage" a salve for politicized pain: "'nature' [is] itself historically inflected." Bewell shows how the poem opens up a "pathogenic space" at the "heart of Englishness" (51). There follows a sensitive reading of Wordsworth's re-tracing of his brother John's steps both in the grove and on the Abergavenny (63–65). This is just one example of the general historicizing of nature throughout Romanticism and Colonial Disease. The advantage of focusing on disease is that it rests uneasily between a cultural construct and a natural phenomenon. Bewell is thus able to defeat the nihilism of a constructivist approach, and the essentialism of a spilt religion of "nature," in a simple presentation of empirical evidence.

The final sentence of Bewell's book, ostensibly the conclusion to a fine reading of Mary Shelley's The Last Man, is also a moral and political directive: "The biological diversity—the 'foreignness'—that caused so much pain and suffering in the colonial world might also hold within it something that will preserve at least some of us somewhere from the coming plague that Shelley prophesies" (314). This is not simply a statement about biology. One could read in it the idea that we might be helped by the very otherness, rather than the sameness, at the heart of identity.

Of course, there is a double edge. The phrase is too hastily conceived; one wishes it had been thought out a little more. Bewell might be overinvesting in an idea, "the coming plague" (the title of a recent American bestseller by Laurie Garrett), that serves well the interests of those who would erect even tougher boundaries against "foreignness" than currently exist at every level of normalized social reality in the modern nation-state. (Throughout the book, there are opportunities to do more with suggestive phrases—"pathogenic space," "eating spot.") "Foreignness" might also be reduced to indigenous genomes, in which case Bewell is making a case for a new kind of colonialism, the kind pointed out by the ecofeminist Vandana Shiva: a colonizing of life-forms themselves (GM foods, the patenting of genes, the seeking of profits in rainforest medicines . . . ). But let us assume that Bewell's intent is benign. Let us also recall that traditionally ecological writing has drawn upon images of home and at-homeness, rather than foreignness. To consider carefully notions of otherness is to step quite a way beyond the dangerously identitarian pieties of Kultur, whose logic too often underpins ecological-political (and aesthetic) discourse. Bewell is hinting that "nature" is not "identity": a helpfully subversive hint. As he puts it in the conclusion to the chapter on Shelley, "Shelley's attempt to go beyond a local understanding . . . remains one of the most important social theories of disease articulated in the nineteenth century" (241). And it is admirable that Bewell is also attempting to go beyond a local understanding, indeed beyond localism.

The reasons for this are not narrowly academic. This is not a book for devotees of culture in its localist, that is its identitarian or communitarian senses—Romantics of a certain kind. (By "communitarian" I mean a community defined by violent exclusions and rules—zero tolerance, as it were, towards reality.) Romanticism and Colonial Disease is remorselessly global and general, taking a long view that includes the full eighteenth century, from Addison to Wordsworth, and never settling on the mystifying pietism of Gemeinschaft and other völkisch notions. This is going to upset those Romanticists who cleave to the particularism of their period, and to their period in particular (as opposed to the menacing sounding "long eighteenth century").

There are, however, intelligent reasons within the Romantic period itself, especially in ecological writing, to opt for this kind of global, long view, and to opt on the whole for French civilisation rather than German Kultur. To choose the Romantic period as the object of study is to name a point at which the globalizing forces of capital entered a decisive phase: the phase in which colonialism became fully fledged imperialism. The local was being remorselessly destroyed and reconfigured by the global: the long march towards Microsoft and Starbucks had begun. Simultaneously, the local was being revalued, ostensibly against the globalizing forces, as shown by David Simpson in The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Fascism is one (not necessary) outcome of this revaluation, as Geoffrey Hartman has recently argued in The Fateful Question of Culture (Columbia University Press, 1997), an outcome perilously ignored by Heideggerian ecocriticism. Despite the 1970s eco-directive to think global and act local, much ecocriticism has been decisively localist in its thinking. One of the strengths of Romanticism and Colonial Disease is that it shows just how attenuated locality could become under nascent imperial circumstances: reduced for instance to a "dietary anxiety" in which one knows, say, the Chinese by "eating Chinese" (a notion explored by Oliver Goldsmith, though not specifically discussed in this book); the French become frogs; what you eat becomes what you are (chapter 3, esp. 134). (In this light, as I have recently argued, vegetarianism could have a cosmopolitan edge as well as expressing nationalist anxiety.) The modern idea of national identity was born, dependent upon some meaningless little piece of enjoyment (exemplified by the reified fiction of a "national dish"). As news has recently been reduced to soundbites, one might say that nationality is here reduced literally to bite-sized pieces. The extreme discrepancy legible here between general and particular, between global and local, between citizens of the world and frogs, is itself a symptom of the capitalist sundering of fact and value. And it is the strongest reason why a religion of authentic indigenousness (Kultur) will not heal this sundering—indeed, it could perversely reinforce it.

There is an ideological frame that supports notions such as colonial disease. Such notions are figures for colonial and imperial capital, which is logical, as they were themselves enabled by it. This is quite clear for instance in Percy Shelley's image of commerce as a poison tree (Queen Mab section 5; Romanticism and Colonial Disease, 209). The ideological frame depends in its figuration upon what I have called the poetics of spice, which means that my recent work shares, happily, some of the concerns of Bewell's. At one point he calls it "Tropical Verse" (172–75), by which I understand an orientalist, "Asiatic," copious poetics that in Keats, for one, threatens the supposedly stable masculine self. (Indeed, this verse is truly tropical, in its insistence on the tropological dimension of language, a dimension some might find a little lacking in this study.) Ironically, this poetics enables a global view that could sprout into forms of an ecological aesthetic; it generated the kinds of "relational or differential model" that Bewell himself uses to describe global disease (19). This differential model is particularly useful in the discussion of Keats's ode "To Autumn": "the landscape . . . presents an English face, yet it achieves this quality differentially, by rewriting the fever-ridden features of the tropics" (181). I have recently argued that this differential figuration has a specifically literary history, as well as a contemporary political resonance.

Readers with a narrow view of the aesthetic might argue that in Bewell's book there is not a great deal of attention to the aesthetic dimension, as they define it. One would have to reply first that this is a book in the cultural history of medicine and it has so much to accomplish in this regard that a quantity of close reading would have made it twice as long. A cultural and literary historian of these matters (someone who is not content with mere forensic historicism) is often expected to be a sort of one-man band: to play the close-reading mouthorgan at the same time as beating the history drum; and I for one am glad that there is at least one other one-man band out there. Nevertheless, the extent to which ecological problems are aesthetic problems, and vice versa, is laid bare in Bewell's study. The Triumph of Life, for example, is read alongside imperial anxieties about the effect of tropical light upon the white body (231–32). The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is read as colored by Yellow Fever (97–108). This would be the second part of one's reply to the put-down, "It doesn't have enough close reading in it." No, precisely: what it has a lot of is medium reading, a wider view that takes in context. Which is quite Romantic: quite true to the relaxed contemplative gaze of a Wordsworth, a quiet, disturbing contemplation that might notice particulars within the atmosphere of a more general climate. (Sometimes this quietness is too quiet: Theodor Adorno asked much more than "whether after Auschwitz the literary representation of suffering was any longer possible" [67].)

The subject matter of Romanticism and Colonial Disease is wide ranging in its contexts, though not in its chosen authors. It must take a wide contextual view, precisely because, as with post-colonial writing, the marginal is used to critique the central: referring to the implication of De Quincey's contemporaries in the East and West Indies, Bewell quotes his remark that "'everybody has an Indian uncle'" (14). I wish, however, that the book had considered the women poets and novelists of the Romantic period, though there is a reading of Jane Eyre (285–95) and, as mentioned before, The Last Man, and remarks on Austen (15, 132). Surely Charlotte Smith could have been a key figure for the culinary anxieties of national identity? Her view of a spice ship in Beachy Head is an obvious example of her investment in these concerns. Anna Seward's Colebrook Dale might usefully have been read for its calibration of orientalism with domestic pastoralism; and this is also true of Letitia Landon's The History of a Child. In the spirit of Keith Thomas's Man and the Natural World, more authors would have given the argument more authority.

I also wish, for the sake of vanity and/or vegetarianism, that a little more had been put into the chapter on Percy Shelley. The reading of Medwin's Oswald and Edwin (236–38) neglects to point out that Oswald was a potent name in the Romantic period. John Oswald (d. 1793), whom Wordsworth may have actually met in Paris, fought in India and was indeed a convert to Hinduism; Medwin and Bewell call it "Brahmanism," which implies a specifically vegetarian caste. David Erdman has suggested in Commerce des Lumiéres that Oswald/Rivers in The Borderers was this Oswald.  John Oswald headed the pikemen who surrounded Louis XVI at his execution, and he wrote The Cry of Nature (1791), one of the most potent works on vegetarianism in the Romantic period (see my "The Pulses of the Body: Romantic Vegetarian Rhetoric and Its Cultural Contexts," in 1650–1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, vol. 4 [AMS Press, 1998], 53–87 and chapter 1 of Shelley and the Revolution in Taste [Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1994; reprt. 1998]). Shelley would certainly have known about him, at least from his intensive reading of Joseph Ritson's An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food (1802).

The arguments about the Tremadoc Embankment project (211–12) and "Ozymandias" (217–18) are very much in line with the argument of the sixth chapter of my book on Shelley. There is evidence in MS Shelley Adds. e.6 (Bodleian Library, Oxford) that Shelley took notes on Humphrey Davy (see 213) alongside practical calculations concerning potato production (one of his vegetarian and technotopian projects for reforming English agriculture). On the subject of potatoes—a subject that immediately calls to mind the working class struggle against them—it is surprising that in such a magisterial study as this there is hardly a word on Thomas Malthus.

The reading of Gillray's French Liberty, British Slavery (140) neglects to point out the vegetarian context for this image, or the more general contexts for Gillray in "The Roast Beef of Old England" and Burkean organicism. The analysis of Gillray's Temperance Enjoying a Frugal Meal, a brilliant satire both on George III and the Regency, does not notice the copy of a made-up book, "Doctor Cheyne on the Benefits of a Spare Diet," on the trunk in the bottom right corner. George Cheyne (1671–1743), doctor to the literati (including Samuel Richardson) earlier in the eighteenth century, was the most prominent English vegetarian apologist between Thomas Tryon (1634–1704) and Joseph Ritson (see "The Pulses of the Body" for a reading of this image). In a book that considers Addison, it is a shame that Cheyne is absent, not least for his transmission of proto-ecological Behmenism into the medical discourse of the eighteenth century.

From these symptoms, it is possible to diagnose that more work will need to be done in the field of capitalism and medicine. Despite these concerns, Romanticism and Colonial Disease is an eloquent, powerful and major contribution to a flourishing area of research, a recovery (in the archival rather than the therapeutic sense) of an entire realm of culture: for example the chapters on colonial military disease narratives (66–130) and John Ritchie's view of Africa (194–204). The eloquence of its elegant middle style alone should attract readers. This book will need to be on hand when anyone does work in its fields of study, and I hope that it is published in paperback to satisfy the enormous (in my experience) graduate student demand for works like this on their bookshelves.