- Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul
Roy Porter's posthumously published inquiry into what he describes (p. 27) as the "demise of soul" in the long eighteenth century will remind his readers (so many of whom became his admirers) of what an exciting intellect we have lost. Porter died in March 2002. Flesh in the Age of Reason was completed shortly before his death, but (as his publishers note) it comes without endnotes since these were still incomplete. Wisely, it was decided not to attempt to reconstruct the scholarly apparatus; instead, the work comes with a bibliography containing more than two thousand items—itself an index of the voracious reading and massive scope of this final work.
The words "flesh" and "reason" structure the polarities around which this book revolves. For in one sense, this is not so much a history of the body in the eighteenth century as it is an exploration of the idea of corporeality—the sense of being embodied—at a moment when a new, mechanical, means of understanding both physiological and mental processes was evolving. For Porter, the eighteenth century is an age of bizarrely ripe contrasts: the preoccupation with bodily matter—feces, sweat, blood, phlegm, and so on, evidenced in the writings of Jonathan Swift (about whom Porter writes with alluring precision)—is held in tension with the larger narrative of the reduction of the operation of the soul to a kind of superior, though mechanical, plumbing system. Mechanism and industry, indeed, feature largely in the book, as though the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century, with its myriad of new machine-driven techniques, was first rehearsed within the more localized sphere of animal and human bodies.
But the book also offers a kind of mental geography of higher processes—the unfolding narrative of how the "essential self" was relocated from the lower organs to a new "centre of symbolic gravity" (p. 60), the head, brains, and nerves. No longer would one feel things in one's viscera (as did Oliver Cromwell in his appeal to the "bowels of Christ" in suggesting to the Synod of the Church of Scotland in 1650 that they might be mistaken). Rather, a new kind of body was being invented in the eighteenth century, following the example of Descartes—a more precise, clockwork-driven, instrument. And yet, this new laboring body was also fleshly, a place of sensation and feeling that, in a polite age, sounded a continuously discordant rumble of ungovernable appetite: sex, eating, and the consequences of [End Page 368] indulgence in all its forms (Porter writes brilliantly and sympathetically on that classic eighteenth-century malady of the well-fed—gout).
What is also so admirable in this final work (and says much about Porter's ability to synthesize his narrative from the most divergent of sources) is the sheer range of the intellectual networks that are pursued here. The familiar landmarks of the body in the eighteenth century are discovered, but Porter manages to assemble a bewildering variety of literary sources: we would expect John Locke to figure prominently in such a study, but chapters are also given over to (among many others) Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, and Lord Byron. This is medical history writ large, alert always to the telling anecdote that manages to encapsulate the larger narrative into one illuminating vignette. Thus the celebrated moment when a visitor to William Blake's house encountered the poet and visionary together with his wife, Catherine, sitting naked in their summer house reciting Paradise Lost to one another, is retold, but here in the context of a larger rebellion: a revolt against the doctrine of the "depravity of the flesh" and the eighteenth-century "desire to refine and discipline the body in the name of higher values (reason, politeness, progress)" (p. 441). In the same vein, crucial scientific episodes—Humphry Davy's explorations of nitrous oxide, for example—are framed by unexpected excursions. That...