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  • A “Gorgeous Neutrality”: Stephen Crane’s Documentary Anaesthetics
  • Mary Esteve

Stephen Crane presents some of his most compelling images and observations in quips of direct speech. The dialogue between Henry Fleming and the “tattered soldier” in The Red Badge of Courage is a case in point. Following the torturously slow and spasmodic death of Jim Conklin, the protagonist’s remaining companion recounts what had happened earlier to yet another soldier:

“I see a feller git hit plum in th’ head when my reg’ment was a- standin’ at ease onct. An’ everybody yelled out to ‘im: ‘Hurt John? Are yeh hurt much?’ ‘No,’ ses he. He looked kinder surprised, an’ he went on tellin’ ‘em how he felt. He sed he didn’t feel nothin’. But, by dad, th’ first thing that feller knowed he was dead.” 1

In evoking this condition of feeling nothing when alive, and then of knowing what (presumably) no one knows when dead, Crane blurs the distinction between what living persons and dead persons do or can do. If the use of the vernacular in The Red Badge seems to authorize and promote such tall-tale evocations, the condition itself resembles an actual physiological phenomenon, one receiving much attention at the end of the nineteenth century, namely, the anaesthesia accompanying hypnosis. As, for instance, William James writes in Principles of Psychology, under hypnosis “sensations may be abolished... Legs and breasts may be amputated, children born, teeth extracted, in short, the most painful experiences undergone.” 2

In the following essay I want to suggest that the anaesthetic condition finds expression in James’s and, more centrally, Crane’s work not simply as a phenomenal fact but as a non-phenomenal figure. It contributes to James’s articulation of physiology and philosophy, more specifically, to his ontological conception of a “pure” experiential condition, that constitutes neither subjective nor objective experience but manifests itself instead as “neutrals, indifferents, undecideds, posits, data, facts.” 3 It contributes likewise to Crane’s similar conception of a “gorgeous neutrality,” which, I will argue, predicates his mode of realist representation. At once a realist and journalist in New York, Crane is engaged in the hunting and [End Page 663] gathering of social documents; that is, he participates in late nineteenth-century realism’s dominant project of making urban topoi, especially the situations of the “other half,” sensibly and cognitively available to the newspaper and journal reading public. This realism, Alan Trachtenberg explains, could assure itself of “distance” from the underclasses of the slums by an aesthetics of moral and sentimental paternalism. 4 But as he goes on to argue, Crane’s realism does not adhere entirely to the conventions. Crane refuses to cultivate this comfortable distance by “aim [ing] at accuracy, not compassion.” “Crane’s concern is with the phenomenon before him.... He writes to achieve an accurate statement of the feeling of the scene and his details are physical correlatives.... He writes as a phenomenologist of the scene, intent on characterizing the consciousness of the place” and on “converting sheer data into experience.5 I want to suggest, however, that Crane refuses this distance in essentially the opposite manner: by converting lived experience back into sheer data, back into pure, anaesthetic experience. He in effect sabotages the realist project of making sense of phenomena. He dramatizes the propensity of the underclasses to render themselves conspicuous to the point of invisibility, material to the point of impalpability, verbal to the point of incommunicability: in sum, being human to the point of becoming inhuman. 6 By this means Crane documents the underclasses’ unpredictable, at times unwitting, modes of resisting and confounding the dominant culture’s efforts to locate, understand, and thereby contain them. In his appropriation of medical, psychological, and sociological discourses of anaesthesia and hypnotism he exposes at the same time the propensity of the late-nineteenth century’s established phenomenologists — such as crowd psychologists, urban sociologists, and journalists — to get “lost... in a maze of social calculations.” 7

It is difficult to ascertain whether or not Crane knew James’s work, but he would have come across comments similar to the one quoted above in the pages of journals in which he...

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