Bringing Matter to Life

Ann Louise Kibbie
Bowdoin College

Vital Matters: Eighteenth-Century Views of Conception, Life, and Death (UCLA Clark Memorial Library Series, Toronto, 2012), edited by Helen Deutsch and Mary Terrall, had its genesis in a series of conferences held at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. Broadly focused on “problems and themes relating to matter and materialism,” this program was structured around four capacious topics: conception, life, death, and “the (often indeterminate) border separating animate from inanimate” (3). The editors describe the resulting conference papers as “eclectic” (3), and an invigorating sense of eclecticism survives in this volume, in which scholars from the fields of literary studies, art history, cultural studies, and the history of medicine and science treat a wide-ranging series of topics, including the first complete English translation of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, the scandal surrounding the birth of James II’s heir, various medical and philosophical debates concerning biological conception, the uses of the image of the automaton in Enlightenment philosophical and political discourse, and the iconography of printed funeral invitations. Although some of these essays together might form a unit on a single theme (the essays that have to do most explicitly with conception or with death, for example), the editors’ choice not to divide the collection into distinct parts contributes to the overall sense of interconnectedness that pervades this collection: the sense that all of these essays are engaged in a rich and artful dialogue with each other.

The goal of this project, stated most broadly, is “to locate the history of materialism within a larger history of ideas, as well as in a range of cultural, literary, and scientific practices” (3). This process begins with what is, in effect, an act of re-location: Jonathan Kramnick’s “Living with Lucretius,” a consideration of Thomas Creech’s English translation of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things (1682) that places this work in the context of seventeenth-century debates concerning consciousness, agency, and free will. Kramnick’s insistence on treating Creech’s translation “as if it were a seventeenth-century poem,” “which of course,” he reminds us, “it is” (33), has the startling effect of a kind of resurrection—creating a “Lucretius” (Kramnick himself suggests the silent addition of the quotation marks) whose contemporaries now include John Locke, whose Essay on Human Understanding (1689) provides a counterpoint to the Lucretian account of consciousness, and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, whose own poetic engagement with Lucretian externalism forms the final section of this essay. This essay, both sophisticated and lucid, is a significant contribution to our understanding of the special problems the revival of interest in Lucretian materialism posed for its new audience.

Deutsch’s essay, “Dismantl’d Souls: The Verse Epistle, Embodied Subjectivity, and Poetic Animation,” continues this interest in a kind of secular resurrection. Through her attention to Alexander Pope’s imitation of Horace’s Epistle 1.1 and Mary Leapor’s “An Epistle to a Lady,” Deutsch presents the verse epistle as, itself, an act of reanimation of the “dust” of the beloved dead. With her characteristic critical penetration and sympathy for her subjects, Deutsch argues that Pope and Leapor “transform the Horatian epistle in relation to a Christian framework,” but that each poet “also acknowledges [the form’s] pagan legacy.” Thus, these moving works become powerful examples of how the pagan “confrontation with death and the nothing after death … informs and haunts the Christian vision of the afterlife” (43–44). This essay ends with its own almost necromantic question: “Might literary tradition and the animating power of epistolary poetry allow us to imagine that this dust, a distant material relative of the perpetually moving atoms of pagan philosophy, has a life of its own?” (53).

The animating or reanimating powers of art itself are also the topic of Kevin Chua’s “Girodet and the Eternal Sleep” (1793), which focuses on the artist’s Sleep of Endymion, arguing that Anne-Louis Girodet’s work “becomes a kind of exhumation or resurrection” in which “we are animating a dead body, raising the dead” (80). Chua’s essay depends on the identification of the sleeping body of Endymion depicted in Girodet’s painting with a dead body, and his analysis invokes two discourses that are interested in the possible elision of the boundaries between sleep and death: medical discussions of apparent death and a consolatory theological rhetoric that depicted death as sleep. But Chua’s insistence that, in Girodet’s depiction, the “sleeping body is also a dead one” (79, emphasis added) would seem to threaten to render the very choice that Endymion is granted, the choice of sleep rather than death, essentially meaningless, a possibility that Chua does not pursue.

A series of essays that take conception as their explicit theme begins with Raymond Stephanson’s “Tristram Shandy and the Art of Conception,” which provides new insight into a topic that has long been a focus for readings of Laurence Sterne’s novel: the relationship between biological and literary conception. Stephenson’s lively reading of the connections between the creative imagination and sexual reproduction in Sterne’s novel leads us from the “new materialism” (94) of eighteenth-century reproductive biology to another novel form of materialism: the commodification of books and authors in the literary marketplace.[1] Turning to the context of mid-eighteenth century France, Terrall’s “Material Impression: Conception, Sensibility, and Inheritance” explores “medical and philosophical reflections on the conception of new life, and the transmission of physical and moral resemblances from parent to child” (111). Since the publication of Marie-Hélène Huet’s Monstrous Imagination (1993) and Dennis Todd’s Imagining Monsters (1995), discussions of the maternal role in the creation and subsequent development of the embryo have been dominated by attention to early modern theories regarding the dangers of the maternal imagination. Terrall extends these questions of inheritance beyond this now familiar framework. “By the 1780s,” she argues, “the main focus of medical attention had shifted” from the mother’s imaginative imprinting of qualities on the fetus “to the material vehicles of inheritance: organic molecules, milk, blood, and nerve fluid” (125).

Like Stephanson, Corrinne Harol is interested in what can be described as a fiction of conception, but the fiction she addresses is a political one. In “Misconceiving the Heir: Mind and Matter in the Warming Pan Propaganda,” Harol treats the scandal surrounding the birth of James II’s heir as “a story about stories, or a plot about plots” (136). This is, in Harol’s words, “a feminocentric scandal” (132), one in which femininity and Catholicism are exposed “as similarly invested in illegitimate forms of ‘conception’” (131). Harol ends her account of the scandal and the admittedly “mediocre” literature it produced with the provocative, and persuasive, claim that “the warming pan story made James, Mary, and their son the first victims of the new politics of family values, in which the separate spheres of mind and matter, and fiction and politics, would be as heavily policed as those of gender” (143).

Minsoo Kang’s essay, “From the Man-Machine to the Automaton Man: The Enlightenment Origins of the Mechanistic Imagery of Humanity,” turns from biological to mechanistic models of “life.” Kang traces the uses of the image of the man-machine from the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century, when such mechanistic imagery was “restricted to the functioning of the body (i.e., not the soul) and carried [meaning] of an intricate, well-functioning, and beautiful device,” to the “overwhelmingly negative” rhetorical use of such imagery in the later eighteenth century, a change that she attributes to three factors—“the demise of mechanistic physiology,” “the rise of the culture of sentimentality,” and “the impact of radical political theories that rejected the machine metaphor for its association with authoritarian systems”—as well as the larger historical transitions “from predominantly mechanistic to vitalistic thinking” (149).[2]

If the automaton offers one version of a lack of interiority, the figure at the center of Helen Thompson’s essay, the eponymous heroine of Sarah Fielding’s The History of Ophelia (1760), provides a quite different version of what it might mean to author a human being who is, as Thompson puts it, “without psychology” (195). In “The ‘Fair Savage’: Empiricism and Essence in Sarah Fielding’s The History of Ophelia,” Thompson addresses what she wittily terms “the mind-wife problem,” the problem of how to reconcile a belief in the necessity of the wife’s “unresisting subjection to her husband” with the fact of the wife’s own consciousness. Thompson’s claim here is a deliberately paradoxical one: that the very “aspect of empiricism that would seem inimical to essence—the contention that the mind contains no innate ideas” allows for the resolution of this problem, allowing Fielding “to envision a wife whose happy compliance is the natural expression of her sex” (175). Following Thompson as she works out the stages of this paradoxical insight, with deft excursions into Lockean and Rousseauvian theories of education, and with an especially productive engagement with Frances Ferguson’s argument in “Rape and the Rise of the Novel,” is one of the greatest pleasures that this exemplary volume has to offer.[3] Like Ferguson, Thompson offers a new way of of looking at the history of the novel, and her claims inspire far-reaching questions regarding genre and form. For example, how much of what Thompson describes as History of Ophelia’s “recovery of a feminine nature that refutes Richardsonian literary history” (177) is actually a consequence of Fielding’s satiric goals? (In some ways, Ophelia shares the radical naiveté of many satiric protagonists whose innocence makes them ideal vehicles for observation seemingly purified of reflection.) Or, how much of the absence of “psychology” is the effect of Fielding’s minimal exploitation of the resources of epistolarity itself? (Like John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure [1748–49], History of Ophelia is comprised of only two “letters.”) And like Ferguson’s, this essay should be an inspiration and a challenge to other critics of the novel.

Just as Terrall’s essay moves the discussion of the maternal role in conception beyond what had become a seemingly inevitable focus, so does Elizabeth A. Williams’s “Food and Feeding: ‘Digestive Force’ and the Nature of Morbidity in Vitalist Medicine” move beyond what has become another almost automatic association of early modern psychological discourse with medical/scientific theories centered on the nervous system. Instead, Williams argues that a “vitalist-inspired understanding of digestion . . . laid the groundwork for our approach to psychic disorder and suffering” (204, 216). This focus on the digestion, which she calls “visceralism,” “explicitly challenged the cerebral focus of physicians who sought to explain mental derangement by reference to lesions in the brain and pathways of the central nervous system” (216).

Two essays take us into the world of eighteenth-century anatomists. In “The Divine Touch, or Touching Divines: John Hunter, David Hume, and the Bishop of Durham’s Rectum,” Simon Chaplin focuses on John Hunter’s collection of post-mortem anatomical specimens, which were exhibited in a museum in the London house in which he lived and worked. The exhibition of these specimens allows us to contemplate “how non-medical viewers drew meanings from these morbid preparations, and in doing so made sense of John Hunter’s work as a dissector” (223). After a useful overview of the practice of anatomical dissection in Georgian London, both as public spectacle and in private anatomy schools, Chaplin provides a fascinating reading of the architecture of Hunter’s “home-cum-anatomy school,” based a slightly conjectural reconstruction of the now-defunct building (222). Chaplin’s analysis presents the museum of anatomical specimens as “occup[ying] an intermediate physical position” between the domestic and the clinical, the “drawing room and the dissecting room,” which he argues functioned “as the poles of an axis of propriety running from the refined, heterosocial, and (at least relatively) feminized and public literary space of the salon to the indecorous, homosocial, and wholly masculine and closed medical environment of the dissecting room” (233). In “The Value of a Dead Body,” Anita Guerrini poses the question of what William Hunter (John’s elder brother) and his students actually did in his anatomy courses. For her answers, she turns not only to Hunter’s lectures at the Royal Academy of Arts (available in a modern scholarly edition by Martin Kemp), but also to the previously unexplored resource of notes taken by his students themselves. This essay is a mini-encyclopedia for those interested in anatomical instruction in the eighteenth-century, and in the techniques used for making anatomical preparations and skeletons, and for embalming the dead, and it ends with pithy observations regarding “the special character and social position of the anatomist,” who had to reconcile the demands of gentlemanly conduct in the outside world, while, in the dissecting room, having recourse to “a kind of necessary inhumanity” (258).

In the last essay of the collection, “Noticing Death: Funeral Invitations and Obituaries in Early Modern Britain,” Lorna Clymer adds to her important body of work on the literary and cultural history of death and the dead body. Observing that funeral tickets and obituaries “appeared for the first time in Britain in the mid-seventeenth century” (265), Clymer turns to the ways in which these death notices reveal the “complex relationships between individual and communal concerns, the vitality of expressions that combine practical and symbolic functions, and the importance of traditional contexts for single deaths noticed by means of an evolving, socially determined set of rituals” (265). Clymer’s contemplation allows these materials both their strangeness (in the gruesome iconography of the memento mori and the vanitas) and their familiarity (in the similarities between the pre-modern and the modern obituary). It is especially fitting that Clymer should have the last word in this volume, as in this essay (and in other works[4]) she makes the case, through word and example, for an approach to historical studies that values the study of continuity and survival as much as it does the construction of narratives of “breaks” with the past that are the legacy of a Whig version of history we have, supposedly, outgrown.


[1] Absent from this discussion is any reference to Bonnie Blackwell’s excellent essay, “Tristram Shandy and the Theater of the Mechanical Mother” (ELH 68 [Spring 2001]: 81–133), which could be placed in interesting counterpoint to Stephanson’s own.

[2] This material has since appeared as part of Minsoo Kang’s monograph, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., 2011).

[3] See Frances Ferguson, “Rape and the Rise of the Novel,” Representations 20 (Fall 1987): 88–112

[4] See, for example, Lorna Clymer’s introduction to “Religion and Cultural Transformation in Early Modern England,” ed. Clymer, special issue, Huntington Library Quarterly 71, no. 4 (December, 2008): 553–55.