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American Literature 74.4 (2002) 715-745

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American Literary Realism and Nervous "Reflexion"

Randall Knoper

American literary realism flourished in the late nineteenth century along with rapid developments in the sciences of the brain and nervous system. The literature that was so devoted to accurate representation, in other words, grew in tandem with the science devoted to explaining how humans perceive and apprehend the world. While we have long assumed the importance of science to realist movements, the primary connection has been drawn rather narrowly, between scientifically objective observation and realist aspirations to truthfulness in representation. Scholarship has not attended to realist writers' interest in sciences of the brain and nervous system or explored the effect of rapid developments in neurology and brain biology on these writers' conceptions of mimesis. But there was an effect. As "mental physiology" intruded upon realist aesthetics, some of the writers we most associate with realism loosened their allegiance to the model of the detached observer and opened their conception of literary production to a biological model of image transmission. New ideas about the apprehension of reality—such as the indexical reception of reality-impressions in neural tissue or the furrowing of memory pathways in brain circuits—dislodged the image of the cool, untouched, representing consciousness. And ultimately the model of unconscious brain and nervous system processes as the manufacturers of literature challenged that of the conscious reporter.

My history here of the intersection between literature and neuroscience in the late nineteenth century is offered partly as a rethinking of American literary realism, in order to put back into the cultural configuration that includes literary realism the physiological psychology [End Page 715] that was more or less dashed from view in the early twentieth century by behaviorism and psychoanalysis. 1 But this is also a more general story of relationship and exchange between literature and science, in which both scientists and literary authors worked to crystallize common cultural concerns; the preoccupation they all shared with questions of identification and duplicity, for example, replays familiar nineteenth-century anxieties about identity and dissimulation, and about signification itself, in urbanizing and modernizing societies. The profound way that gender colors conceptions of both the nervous system and literary creation—with effects we have come to criticize—also connects the scientific and literary cultures. My interest here, however, is more with the way the authors engage science and its discoveries, incorporate science in their thinking and their work, adopt its mistakes, and explore the implications of its conceptions. Most important, this is a story of how science complicated and changed these authors' ideas about the representation of reality, ultimately making "naïve realism" impossible. Moving beyond the ways these authors were affected by science, this story shows too how they departed from scientific modes of thinking, probing the implications of the supposed workings of the nervous system, bringing home the unconscious operations and the fallibilities of perception that the scientists themselves managed to identify and then quarantine in their patients.

What follows, first, will be a tracing through nineteenth-century neurophysiology of the idea that imitation and mimesis, and finally literary representation, are natural and biological functions, effects particularly of the nervous system and the brain. The territory includes not only American neurophysiology but also British psychophysiology and French neurology, which seem to be the sources upon which American writers drew most heavily. Several questions preoccupied scientists in these fields. They wondered, for one thing, if mimetic impulses, or a mimetic faculty, might be automatic and unconscious, the result of natural bodily systems that operate independently of consciousness and the will. (Theories of imitation as reflex action of the nerves were central to this conception.) Of interest too was the question of whether such unconscious mimesis might be more accurate or truthful than mimesis influenced by consciousness, with its capacities for dissimulation and misdirection. But they also wondered whether such mimesis might be the effect of disease, whether its imitations [End Page 716] might therefore be hallucinatory distortions, and whether it required such absolute identification—erasure of self—or suspension of reason and...


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pp. 715-745
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Archived 2005
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