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  • The Sphygmograph:Pros-theses on the Body
  • Gregory Brophy (bio)

When Havelock Ellis set out to record the "pulse of life" in The New Spirit (1890), his figure of speech carried strikingly literal implications. Though this new spirit was to be determined through a study of five literary personalities, Ellis's aesthetic inquiry is shot through with the language of physiological diagnosis. In his preface, Ellis suggests that the study "might be called a bundle of sphygmographic tracings" (xxv); this singularly unpoetic and nearly unpronounceable expression would be denounced as a "monstrous phrase" (Whibley 440) in The Scots Observer, a criticism that seems to accuse Ellis of disfiguring language. But Ellis saw the sphygmograph as a means by which he might render figures of speech literally, and his attempt provides us with a glimpse of how two prevailing nineteenth-century discourses of writing—literary practice and the graphical method of science—intersect with each other in Victorian culture.

Literally a "pulse writer," the sphygmograph was one of the first diagnostic [End Page 13] graphing instruments to be used in physiology. Designed to be strapped around the patient's wrist, the apparatus was equipped with a pressure sensor that sat on the radial artery, measuring and recording the strength of the pulse. Its key innovation was the translation of vital signs—theretofore palpable, but internal, invisible, and ephemeral—into permanent, externalized markings. Consequently, physicians no longer had to rely on the grasp of their fingers upon the patient's wrist, a procedure that suddenly seemed a very imprecise register of such a complex matter. The sphygmograph capitalized on a cultural epidemic of graphomania: the widespread epistemic desire to see everything, including a broad range of phenomena never before considered graphically, set down in writing. Behind this desire lay the conviction that diligent recording and deciphering of these traces of phenomena brought one closer to the truths of the material world.

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Fig. 1.

"Marey's Direct Sphygmograph" (E.J. Marey: La methode graphique).

A few months after The New Spirit's publication, the sphygmograph would receive mention again in Ellis's The Criminal (1890). Here he recounts the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso's experimental use of the device on criminals to detect the faintest degrees of involuntary excitement triggered by a series of tantalizing objects that included wine, cigars, and nude photographs (139). The sphygmograph proved to be a versatile instrument for Ellis, equally applicable within literary and criminological investigations. One cannot mistake the genuine admiration with which Ellis describes literary representatives of "the New Spirit," but he nonetheless resists taking authors at their word, due to a conviction that something more telling must lie behind the words: "How he desired to appear is of little importance; I can perhaps learn all that it imports me to know from a single involuntary gesture, or one glance into his eyes" (xxvi). Intrigued by its spontaneous and irrepressible gestures, Ellis presses upon the body in hopes of revealing the script of its interior reality. In this light, the sphygmograph serves as a fitting emblem for Ellis's method, a hermeneutics of suspicion that examines the author's "body" of work for symptoms whose referent is the cultural body at large. [End Page 14]

Owing to its simple and precise design, the sphygmograph that Étienne-Jules Marey introduced in 1860 was the first to find a market among English physicians (Lawrence 516). Marey's La méthode graphique (1874) finds him applying this same clarity of purpose to the elaboration of his "graphical method," a practice that met the emergent epistemological ideal of scientific objectivity with a host of different technologies designed to replace human perception with mechanical observation and substitute human notation systems with "automatic" transcription. Marey advises scientists to "keep for other needs the insinuations of eloquence and the flowers of language" (vi, all translations by the author). For the purposes of empirical observation, only a hard, unflinching indexicality will serve, one that strips away the conventions of language, along with its symbolic embellishments. Marey's machines translate "with a clarity that language does not possess" (i) because their inscriptions exchange figurative language for body language...


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