- Still Life: Suspended Development in the Victorian Novel by Elisha Cohn
Elisha cohn's Still Life: Suspended Development in the Victorian Novel focuses on moments of "attenuated consciousness"—a catch-all phrase used to refer to sleep, trance, reverie, and other liminal mental states—in the Victorian Bildungsroman when writers defy genre conventions by temporarily disrupting the narrative framework and suspending character development. As Cohn notes, "we tend to understand narrative as structured by temporal framework of plot, event, and closure … the wish for progress, revelatory knowledge, and textual mastery" (17–18). The central question propelling Still Life, then, is this: What are we to make of literary representations of "reverie, trance, and sleep" (3) as well as "other forms of unconscious experience" that might be characterized by "diminished agency" (17) and "attenuated volition" (7)? Cohn argues that literary representations of diminished consciousness halt "the prospect of development" (3) in the Bildungsroman because such states "preclude agency" (111) and are "unavailable to reflection" (3). Readers should not confuse Cohn's discussion of "attenuated consciousness" with historical theories of "unconscious cerebration" or "productive" (40) unconsciousness popularized by the biologist W.B. Carpenter in his Principles of Human Physiology (1842). Cohn's use of the term "attenuated consciousness" refers to moments when "nothing and no one happens" (185). Because self-consciousness (and subjectivity) are not privileged in such cases, "self-cultivation" is stalled (9).
So what is the purpose of momentarily de-privileging consciousness in the Bildungsroman? Cohn's central claim is that representations of attenuated [End Page 383] consciousness play an essential role in the Bildungsroman's "aesthetics of agency" because they "redefine the boundaries of the self" in "lyrical passages" that Cohn dubs "still life" (3). "Still life" is characterized by moments wherein "shifts of mood, tone, and voice slow time, privilege feeling over action, and find plentitude in sensation" (3). Within the larger Bildungsroman narrative, these lyrical passages produce a "tension" between style and plot and function rather like a freeze frame: structures of feeling are suspended and "ambivalently dilate and delay plots of self-culture" (9). However, these "dissociative gaps" (190) do not "propose an alternative model of subjectivity or agency that could counter the aesthetic of Bildung—the pressures of self-cultivation are never banished, only held at bay" (9). Nevertheless, the aesthetic value of still life is not contingent upon its transformative potential. As Cohn puts it, "Victorian novelists were never as committed to an instrumental project for art as we have imagined" (6).
Still Life is a pioneering, cogent, timely study that will be of interest to a broad range of literary scholars as well as intellectual historians. It follows close on the heels of Kenton Kroker's The Sleep of Others and the Transformation of Sleep Research (2007) and Natalya Lusty and Helen Groth's Dreams and Modernity: A Cultural History (2013), both of which devote chapters to Victorian dream theories and sleep science but neither of which examines in depth Victorian literary investigations of these phenomena. Cohn's study precedes Sasha Handley's Sleep in Early Modern England (2016), which offers a groundbreaking account of the embodied experience of sleep, its material practice, and its complex social and cultural significance. Viewed in this context, Still Life appears as an important contribution to a new and rapidly growing body of scholarship concerned with historical beliefs, practices, and representations of sleep. It diverges from these other studies by offering an in-depth treatment of both literary and poetical representations of "attenuated consciousness" that intentionally diverge from Victorian medical and scientific theories.
It is now widely established that many Victorian novelists "were actively informed about new accounts of the mind that stressed development, volition, and self-reflection as key to biological, social, and political life" (6). Still Life's significance lies largely in its demonstration that literary criticism informed by these scientific theories often undervalues or overlooks representations of attenuated consciousness. While Cohn acknowledges the bidirectional influence between the literary and scientific domains, her study's purpose is to identify...