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Comparative Literature Studies 40.3 (2003) 334-337

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Membranes. Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science, and Politics. By Laura Otis. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. x + 210 pp. $45.00.

Studies of science and literature (or other fields in the humanities) used to be a "one-way" traffic: Marjorie Nicolson and other distinguished practitioners of this sub-discipline were exclusively concerned with the impact of scientific ideas on poetry, prose, or drama; others were interested in the dramatization of scientific problems, others again with the fictional or non-fictional prose writings of scientists. Although Laura Otis seemingly follows the latter mode, because four of the fiction writers she studies--S. Weir Mitchell, Santiago Ramón Cajal, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Arthur Schnitzler--were trained, practicing, and even distinguished scientists or physicians, yet her methodological approach is quite different. In line with recent shifts in the philosophy of science and the emergence of cultural studies, she does not simply ask what impact the scientific training and research (which, in all cases, chronologically preceded the fiction writing) had on a writer's fiction, but she assumes that both their science and their fiction were conditioned by conscious or unconscious prior ideological presuppositions. More concretely, she establishes a network of metaphoric and structural homologies between nineteenth-century imperialism, the cell theory of Virchow, Koch, and others, and conceptions of identity, as manifested in literary texts. This is an imaginative as well as concrete proposition, and the results are quite satisfying.

The "membrane model" or cell theory of Koch, Virchow, and their followers assumed that both the body and the intruding bacterial cells were highly independent, almost self-contained units. By finding for the various diseases corresponding bacteria, enormous progress could be made in reducing and even eradicating a great many diseases. The ethico-literary fiction that corresponds to this cell and bacterial theory differs considerably from author to author and Otis, while reading, is sensitive to these differences. Weir Mitchell's democratic fiction is based on the notion that mental and moral health, like physical health, necessitates self-control as well as [End Page 334] a resistance to damaging intruders. Proper selfhood means a variety of exclusions. The Spanish Nobel-prize-winning neurologist Ramón y Cajal also saw the need to resist the "infectious bacterial invasion" of "philosophical pessimism, religious mysticism, intense emotion and uncontrolled sexual desire" (74), and he saw scientists as conquistadores fighting against diseases. Conan Doyle, who is seldom remembered as a trained physician, is an excellent choice for Otis' subject, and her treatment of him makes for perhaps the best chapter in the volume. Citing Doyle, who wrote after a visit to Robert Koch's Institute that this great "master-mind" was "rapidly bringing under subjection those unruly tribes of deadly micro-organisms which are the last creatures in the organic world to submit to the sway of man," Otis appropriately adds: "For Doyle, bacteriology is an imperialistic battle fought on the home front" (91). Indeed, much of Sherlock Holmes' detective work consists of tracking down alien bodies trying to penetrate British society. Otis' discussion of Arthur Schnitzler moves from hypnotism to the short story of "Lieutenant Gustl," which carries the subtitle "Killing Intruders," and it concludes with the play Reigen, which is considered here under term (illicit and extra-marital) "Connections." The final chapters deals with Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, both as an example of a "closed personality" and a case of an Eastern disease penetrating the West (in this case Venice).

The strength of this good book lies, for me, in the detail: the presentation of the scientific an medical theories, and the sensible discussion of a number of novels, some well known, others obscure. I have also been swayed by the argument that the scientific and literary works share a common fund of metaphors and use homologous models. I am less convinced by the moralistic ideological spin that Otis puts on the notion of "membranes," which she sums up retrospectively at the end: "I have aimed...


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