- Reading and the Senses
In 'the science of fiction' (1891), an essay published as part of a symposium in the New Review, Thomas Hardy writes that the artistic power of a novelist lies in their gift for perceiving what cannot be discerned by 'the [End Page 411] outer senses alone': 'what may be apprehended only by the mental tactility that comes from a sympathetic appreciativeness of life in all its manifestations'.1 While he distinguishes it from the 'outer senses', Hardy's terms for describing this power have a sensory immediacy–with the etymological connotation of apprehension's haptic grasp of an object; his examples of the novelist's intuitive responses to a fragmentary vision, a few bars of music, a whiff of smoke from a feast; and, most strikingly of all, his coinage of 'mental tactility', which makes mental perception peculiarly tangible, as if to emphasise that what one imagines beyond the reach of sensory perception is still apprehended in a visceral, bodily experience.
Actual perception through the outer senses and imaginative apprehension suggested by limited sensory stimuli: the convergence between these modes of perception is a key feature of Hardy's notion of literary experience, both in writing and in reading. Just as Hardy once compared reading to a 'corporeal journey',2 reading is a strangely tactile act for some of his characters. In the short story 'An Imaginative Woman' (1893), for instance, a woman finds herself in the room of a poet she admires, and scans the 'half-obliterated pencillings' on the wallpaper around his bed. Even though they have never met, she feels his presence around her as she traces the movements of his hand over the walls, as if 'his very breath … fanned her cheeks'.3 In Jude the Obscure (1895), when Jude first arrives at Christminster, he wanders through the medieval edifices, 'feeling with his fingers the contours of their mouldings and carving', thus reading the 'numberless architectural pages around him'.4 His haptic reading of the city's history and his textual reading of its luminaries together raise 'ghostly presences', their murmurs breathing life into the words he has read, for him as well as for the novel's readers.5 The touch of the reader–both literal and figurative, as these characters read the traces left on architectural surfaces and the written words on the page–calls forth illusory presences, so intimately as to make them seem directly perceived by the senses.
David Sweeney Coombs's assiduously researched book, Reading with the Senses in Victorian Literature and Science, rests on this twofold perceptual experience of reading, which combines 'the actual experience of letters printed on a page before us and the virtual experience described therein' (p. 2). This characteristic, according to Coombs, made reading a prime analogy for perception itself in the work of nineteenth-century scientists. Building [End Page 412] on Benjamin Morgan's work on physiological aesthetics in The Outward Mind (2017) and on Nicholas Dames's claim in The Physiology of the Novel (2007) that Victorian novelists and critics theorised the novel in terms of experimental physiology, Coombs foregrounds the reciprocity of this crossfertilisation: that such a physiology of the novel was developed partly because 'Victorian physiologists conceived of perception in terms of reading' (p. 16). Advances in neurophysiology in the mid-nineteenth century showed that our sensations are always 'belated, fragmentary, and incommensurate with our conscious experience of the world' (p. 25). Scientists came to think of perception as the act of 'inferring the presence of objects from sensory intuitions' (p. 16), and they explained the relationship between these two components of experience (sensation and perception) by analogy with reading (the signs on the page and the reader's interpretation of them). Coombs demonstrates how William James's radical empiricism in The Principles of Psychology (1890) recasts this dichotomy–sensation and perception, intuition and inference, knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by...