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REVIEWS Peter Melville Logan. Nerves & Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century British Prose. Foreword by Roy Porter. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. xvii + 248. $40.00 US (cloth); $16.00 US (paper). In his brief, measured foreword to Nerves & Narratives, Roy Porter, emphasizes the "great gains" accruing from "the breaking down of old disciplinary boundaries in the humanities" (xiii). "[0]ne of the most exciting recent developments in the humanities," he remarks, "has been the interaction between literary criticism and the history of medicine, mediated through studies of the body" (xi). Encompassing in scope a richly heterogenous range of medical, autobiographical, and fictional texts by such authors as Thomas Trotter, Thomas de Quincey, and Maria Edgeworth, Nerves & Narratives certainly works squarely at the intersection of precisely these disciplinary fields, and Roy Porter, for one, deems Logan's study "a signal example of reading the stories the body tells" (xiii). To my mind, however, Nerves ? Narratives ultimately presents somewhat less than a fully exemplary treatment of the ensemble of theoretical issues — namely, the body, hysteria, and narrative authority — that it attempts to address. Certainly, Logan's cultural history of the "nervous" body during the period spanning roughly from the lateeighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century is not without merit, perhaps most especially in its attentiveness to class and the abiding drive for medical professionalization and status as pivotal factors in (reconstructions of the "nervous" body. In this regard, Logan's book provides a useful development of foundational studies in the field of medical history by such scholars as M. Jeanne Peterson, Jan Goldstein, Michel Foucault, and, of course, Porter himself. It is, rather, in the incomplete theoretical relationship it posits between nerves and narrative, and its troublesome conflation of "nervous disorder" in general (and hypochondria in particular) with "hysteria," that Logan's study is apt to present problematic gaps and persistent questions for the feminist reader. Reviews279 In a brief introductory chapter, Logan articulates the formal dilemma at the conceptual core of his project in Foucauldián terms as "an archaeology of ... the nervous body and its implicit social critique": In particular, this study focuses on one of the central characteristics of the nervous body: its tendency to talk, especially about itself. . . . What happens when the nervous body tells its story?. . . . Without the disease, there would be no narrative, not even one with the social utility of warning against the social conditions that created it in the first place. And so, paradoxically, the nervous narrative promotes, in its formal structure, the very same disorder it cautions against by transforming the narrator's debility into a narrative premise. . . . [These "nervous"] narratives have to negotiate two contradictory problems, one in which hysteria implicitly undermines the authority to speak, the other in which it becomes the basic conditions of speech. (2-3) It is this "inherent paradox" of the nervous narrative — that "the illness enables — in fact compels — the narrative act" (46-7) and so implicates the author in the disorder he or she would caution against, that Logan concerns himself with as it plays itself out, variously, in a series of firstperson literary and autobiographical texts, ranging from William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) and Mary Hays's Memoirs ofEmma Courtney (1796), to De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater (1822) and Maria Edgeworth's Harrington (1817). The intrinsically paradoxical nature of the relationship between nervous pathology and narrative, thus formulated, shapes the focus of the early and mid-section of the book's chapters. As Logan maintains, however, "the object" of his study is less the individual works themselves. It is, rather, "the cultural episteme" of the "nervous" body "in which they [all] participate." As an analysis of the cultural production of "nervous" bodies in prose discourse of the period, "the basic historical claim" of Nerves & Narratives is that the nervous body enjoyed its clearest moment of cultural ascendancy in the late Georgian period, when specifically middleclass disorders became part of the official discourse of medicine, and that its cultural status changed with the emergence of the workingclass body in the early Victorian years. (5) While the book's "basic literary claim" — that "the nervous body is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 278-282
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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