Gavin Budge - Romanticism, Medicine and the Natural Supernatural: Transcendent Vision and Bodily Spectres, 1789-1852. Review by Neşe Devenot
University of Puget Sound
Gavin Budge introduces his study as an exploration of the “spectral aspects” of nineteenth-century literature: instances where visionary experiences collide with the latest medical theories about embodied perception. In so doing, his project is aligned with an expanding critical corpus situating Romanticism’s legacy of transcendence within the material body rather than in attempts to escape it. Instead of reducing visionary experiences to mere bodily epiphenomena, however, Budge argues for a “dual epistemological perspective” constitutive of Romantic poetics as such—a “natural supernaturalism” that situates perception in productive tension between bodily materiality and the immateriality of mind.
Budge explains his project’s unusual chronological scope from 1789 to 1852 as charting a legacy that connects Romantic interest in the “natural supernatural” to its successors in the Victorian era. He situates this legacy within the Scottish philosophical tradition represented by the “Common Sense” school of Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Brown, with Brown’s medical theories—linking disease to insufficient (asthenic) or excessive (sthenic) nervous stimulation—playing an especially significant role. In identifying the pervasive use of Brunonian medical terms to describe the nervous effects of intense literary engagement, Budge argues that Brown’s ideas were widely internalized by writers in this period regardless of direct influence.
Chapter 1 reads Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic narratives as self-reflexive commentaries on the nature of the novel and the dangers of solitary reading. In learning to regulate their own nervous responses to frightening or otherwise extreme circumstances, Radcliffe’s heroines model appropriate readerly responses to her own texts. Interfacing with cultural anxieties about the Gothic’s impact on nervous disease, Radcliffe’s texts provide a therapeutic and didactic course for training its readers in bodily self-discipline. By frustrating expectations about the supernatural in her narratives, Radcliffe coaxes readers away from submitting to the “false sublime” of superstition, which would otherwise threaten health with an addictive spiral of overstimulation. Budge aligns this impulse to bolster self-control with the social concerns of a middle-class conservatism at odds with working-class radical enthusiasm.
Continuing on this therapeutic theme, Chapter 2 explores William Wordsworth’s view of his poetry as a direct intervention into the reader’s nervous system, conditioning the reader’s nervous responses away from the spiral of overstimulation induced by modern media and consumerism. Budge situates Wordsworth’s therapeutic poetics in relation to the medical ideas of Erasmus Darwin, for whom disease indicates learned associations between bodily fibers that require reconditioning with new patterns of association. Rejecting Darwin’s implicit materialism in tying associative responses to environmental circumstances, Wordsworth’s poetics links bodily associations to immaterial intuitions in a manner corresponding to the Common Sense school’s hybrid mode of sense perception.
Chapter 3 examines Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s alternative conception of a therapeutic poetics based on the “digestive” function of the imagination. By assimilating the material particularities of sense-perception into an organic whole through the mind’s capacity for intuition, the vivid metaphors of poetic language enable the mind to digest immaterial truths that are inconceivable to rationalization and linguistic convention. The work of genius that results from successful mental digestion depends on the reader’s capacity to embody that work through successful digestion in turn, offering an explanation for why some readers with weaker digestive capacity become overstimulated and react violently to such works. Budge suggests that the influence of Berkeley on the Common Sense empiricist tradition enables a distinctly British conception of transcendent perception, undermining the critical overemphasis on the impact of German Idealist philosophy on Coleridge.
In Chapter 4, Budge returns to the theme of developing self-control over nervous responses in Harriet Martineau’s 1838 novel Deerbrook. Presenting modernity as a chronic condition of morbid nervous stimulation, Martineau urges a model of health based on emancipation from the conditioned responses of one’s nervous system. Contrasting the outcomes of characters who cultivate self-control over a nervous temperament with those who abandon themselves to destructive impulses, Martineau demonstrates how the pernicious effects of morbidity leapfrog from individual psychology to mob violence and mass hysteria in the social realm. Martineau identifies morbid social stimulants in America’s institution of slavery and the mass media commercialization of “public opinion,” mounting a political critique based on the systemic psychological violence imposed by these systems.
Chapter 5 expands on this connection between the institution of slavery and nervous irritability in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which contrasts slavery’s societal production of bodily morbidity with visionary spiritual health. Budge argues for a physiological basis to Stowe’s narrative poetics, which solicits readerly emotion as a calculated strategy of countering the calloused responses of a jaded nervous system. Budge identifies Tom as a representation of Stowe’s ideal reader, since he internalizes what he reads “to such an extent that it associatively reconfigures his nervous system,” increasing bodily receptivity to intimations of the transcendent (166).
Chapter 6 attributes nineteenth-century critical rejections of Pre-Raphaelite painting to its tendency to foreground the physiological conditions of perception that underlie visual representations of transcendent vision. Characterized by “distracting hyperrealism” and the “hallucinatory vividness” of details, Pre-Raphaelite art challenged the aristocratic ideal of disembodied vision by precluding the gestalt of an aesthetic whole. Aligning this criticism with contemporary anxieties over the sensation novel and its emphasis on nervous excitement over coherent plot, Budge associates Pre-Raphaelite painting with a crisis of masculinity, in which mental disorganization and the overemphasis of particularities threaten an addictive spiral of nervous overstimulation.
Budge concludes his book by linking medical ideas about nervous stimulation to the genesis of English literary studies as an academic discipline. Faced with cultural anxieties about mental hygiene, literary criticism purported to bolster societal health by distinguishing between the morbid influence of “popular writing” and the salutary effects of great literature. One area of omission is indicated by Budge’s emphasis on Brunonian nervous theory over other models connecting disease to nervous stimulation. Although Budge attributes Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s conceptions of poetry as a Brunonian “stimulant” to their friendship with Thomas Beddoes in the 1790s (54), Coleridge would develop an even closer friendship with Beddoes’ assistant Humphry Davy, whose 1799 nitrous oxide research at Beddoes’s Pneumatic Institute explicitly challenged the elegant but reductive simplicity of Brown’s theories.
Overall, Budge’s book is an important contribution to the medical influences on Romantic and Victorian literature and non-dual epistemologies, illuminating how scientific ideas about vision and perception contributed to debates about the disruptive influences of modern technology of the categories of class, race, and gender.