- Romanticism, Medicine and the Natural Supernatural: Transcendent Vision and Bodily Spectres, 1789–1852 by Gavin Budge
Riding the wave of critical interest in spectrality following Derrida’s Specters of Marx (2003), Gavin Budge begins his study of the “spectral aspects” of nineteenth-century literature with the observation that “the majority of nineteenth-century books about spectres and related topics are by doctors” (1). Accordingly, Budge situates Romanticism’s much discussed interest in visionary experience—including religious visions, apparitions, and drug-induced hallucinations—within medical discourses of the period from 1789 to 1852. More specifically, Budge recovers the widespread cultural currency of John Brown’s medical theories, which understood all disease as a product of either excessive stimulation (asthenia) or insufficient stimulation (sthenia). This historical context allows Budge to recover the medical resonance of terms like “overstimulation” and “irritability,” and to explore how medical ideas about these conditions often coincided with philosophical and literary debates about the nature of perception and the danger of novel reading. This confluence of medical and literary-philosophical notions provides the foundation for Budge’s examination of the ambiguous relationship between bodily materiality and the immateriality of the mind that constitutes Romantic and Victorian interest in the “natural supernatural.”
The aim of Budge’s study is threefold. First, Budge hopes to fill a gap in Romantic scholarship, which he claims has hitherto paid little attention to the intercourse between literature and medicine. Second, Budge wants to interrogate the unstable opposition between the Romantics’ belief in the [End Page 275] embodied nature of poetry and the imagination and their simultaneous belief in an immaterial mind or soul. As Budge demonstrates, this opposition was often staged in terms of undesirable bodily specters produced by overwrought nerves versus the kind of transcendent vision claimed by Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge. Budge’s study falls in line with the recent critical trend of locating Romanticism’s claims to transcendent experiences within the material body. However, Budge shows that these writers often attempted to retain a concept of the transcendent in spite of their belief in the bodily nature of perception. Third, Budge aims to underscore the continuities between Romantic and Victorian, British and American writers and artists, insofar as they all drew on—consciously or not—the ideas of Brunonian medicine.
Chapter 1 explores how Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels dramatize the need for readerly self-control. Although Radcliffe is often considered a key propagator of the sort of overstimulating novels deemed dangerous to readers’ health by many doctors in the Romantic period, Budge situates Radcliffe within Romantic discourses about the nervous system to demonstrate her awareness of and participation in the Romantic-era project of disciplining enthusiasm. Pointing to her repeated invocation of the language of apparitions and specters in The Mysteries of Udolpho, coupled with her character’s refusal to submit to these figments of the imagination, Budge portrays Radcliffe as an ironic and self-reflexive writer indebted to a neurological concept of the imagination.
Chapter 2 begins by looking at the connection between Victorian conceptions of “health” and “manliness” and Wordsworth’s claims to an intuitive understanding of the transcendent. Tracing the influence of Erasmus Darwin’s reformulation of Brunonian medical tenets on Wordsworth’s views of poetry, Budge clarifies Wordsworth’s claim in the preface to Lyrical Ballads that his poetry represents a mild stimulant able to cure overstimulation. While this notion reflects a unified theory of mind and body, Wordsworth could not accept Darwin’s merely materialist view of this continuum. Instead, Budge argues that Wordsworth combined Darwinian ideas with the philosophical intuitionism of the Common Sense school to develop a therapeutic poetics that preserves the predominance of soul in its conception of the self.
The longest chapter in the book, and the most persuasive in my opinion, Chapter 3 treats Coleridge’s appropriation of digestive metaphors to defend the healthiness of genius. Through close readings of several enigmatic passages in Coleridge’s notebooks, Budge outlines Coleridge’s view of the imagination as enabling the...