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Ketabgian review of Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis

(Small and Tate, eds.,  Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis, 1830-1970: Essays in Honour of Gillian Beer.  Oxford University Press, 2003.) Review published in Australasian Victorian Studies Journal, 9 (2004), 213-16.

Beautifully produced and carefully edited, this volume honors Dame Gillian Beer’s contributions to the intersecting fields of literature, science, and psychoanalysis.  It does so very handily, with essays that equally demonstrate and respond to the formative impact of her work these past few decades.  Although its contributors primarily hail from literary studies and the history of science, their articles all seek to emulate the remarkably expansive and rigorous gaze that Beer has cast between the disciplines, both in her more recent work on psychoanalysis and Lewis Carroll and in path-breaking earlier studies such as Darwin’s Plots and Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter.  This gaze owes its distinctive perspicacity not only to Beer’s historical erudition, but also to her nuanced attention to language—to the careful treatment of syntax, metaphor, structure, and analogy that consistently grounds its purview.  As Beer notes in her new preface to Darwin’s Plots, “how Darwin said things was a crucial part of his struggle to think things, not a layer that can be skimmed off without loss.”[i]  Following her lead, this volume offers a salutary corrective to some of the sloppier claims and practices to which we have grown accustomed in recent works of cultural studies.  Indeed, Tate and Small’s collection presents us with a sunnier and more impressive alternative: real cultural studies, based on sustained historical and linguistic analysis.

The essays in this volume provide an instructive selection of recent directions in science and literature studies, written by a number of eminent contributors who could well merit honorary volumes in their own right.  For readers already familiar with these scholars, their essays are not unexpected departures.  They are, however, no less valuable and striking for this reason.  Moreover, due to the accessible and representative nature of its essays, Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis would be a good volume to assign to graduate students desiring a general background both to Beer’s legacy and to some major critical figures who employ similar approaches.

In her introduction, Helen Small does a good job of addressing the varied scope of Beer’s work, while also pointing out some of its more unremarked influences and continuities.  (The volume includes an extensive bibliography of Beer’s scholarship as well.) Although I would have welcomed a lengthier discussion of Beer’s critical legacy, both as represented in this collection and beyond, these remarks are nonetheless measured and valuable.  Small emphasizes Beer’s interest in the perspective of the child, “as a way of displaying, and thereby questioning, our inherited assumptions about the world” (3).  Throughout Beer’s oeuvre, this child-like “curiosity” offers a comic, irreverent, and powerfully transformative heuristic.  The volume responds to this concern with some excellent essays on childhood and knowledge.  For instance, in her reading of Freud’s “Little Hans” case, Rachel Bowlby explores metaphors of curiosity as they describe the often deceptive forms of enlightenment sought by children and by psychoanalysis itself.  In an essay on emerging notions of child psychology, Sally Shuttleworth uncovers the opposite—a surprising silence in medical texts on this topic until the very late Victorian period.  Shuttleworth claims that we must instead turn to literature as the arena that most skillfully imagined the consciousness of children in this period.

If the gaze of the child is one of the “quiet hallmarks” (3) of Beer’s work, a more obvious but no less striking concern is psychoanalysis, a term listed suggestively after “literature” and “science” in this volume’s title.  Psychoanalysis might, more rightly, appear between the two terms, as a mediating fulcrum.  In her own work, Beer treats psychoanalysis both as a contested field of science and as a mode of inquiry indebted to literary practices of narrative and interpretation. A number of essays privilege its role here, some focusing solely on writings by Freud and others exploring broader disciplinary questions posed by psychoanalytic narratives and tropes.  In her careful reassessment of The Interpretation of Dreams, Jacqueline Rose explores the conceptual problems presented by sleep in Freud’s general theory of psychology.  Mary Jacobus examines a similar topic in her essay on Ella Freeman Sharpe, whose 1937 revision of Freudian dream theory stresses the corporeal and material—rather than linguistic— texture of psychic representation.  Finally, in her compelling account of metaphor and the death instinct in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Suzanne Raitt traces the unexpected continuities that ally Freud’s view of “undead” microorganisms—protista—with Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray.  Raitt shows how, for both psychoanalysis and fin-de-siècle fiction, the distinction between life and death is so ambiguous as to be “merely figurative” (130).  Indeed, she argues that this emphasis on the mutable aspects of metaphor has telling disciplinary consequences: “If the distinction between life and death could be shown to be merely figurative, then the natural sciences themselves—even, or perhaps especially, biology, the science of life—were themselves no more than the endless elaboration of linguistic figure” (130). 

Aside from psychoanalysis, the contributors to Small and Tate’s volume treat a variety of other scientific texts, figures, and movements.  Darwin, of course, looms large:  Nigel Leask studies the influence of Prussian traveller and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt upon Darwin’s narrative style, and George Levine draws refreshing conclusions about Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and Victorian gender attitudes.  Other essayists delve equally deeply into “the figurative dimensions of science” (63): Harriet Ritvo discusses different metaphors for the Victorian taxonomic system and E. F. Keller addresses the peculiarly “uni-dimensional” aesthetic of another scientific model—that of DNA—in J. D. Watson’s The Double Helix.  One wishes that, among these studies of Darwin and postmodern science, Small and Tate had included one on recent neo-Darwinian theory, a topic that Beer herself discusses in her second preface to Darwin’s Plots.  (Beer notes that in some instances Darwin’s legacy has even provoked a return to the rhetoric of design and natural theology.)  But such remarks perhaps reflect this reviewer’s own predilections more than those of the volume at hand, which offers a variety of other attractions and consolations.  For instance, in several broadly focused essays on the discursive links between science and literature, Kate Flint considers noise in Woolf and modern scientific rhetoric, Alison Winter explores responses to “truth serum” in medicine and dystopian fiction, and Helen Small reads Hardy in the context of Henry Buckle, a Victorian polymath who used probability theory to devise a scientific approach to history.  Additional essays include Maroula Joannou’s literary and cultural study of the difficulties faced by women in science during the age of suffrage and Trudi Tate’s rereading of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the context both of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and public debate surrounding the Crimean War.

While there is much to praise in this collection, its finest—and most “Beerian”—feature lies in its approach.  Beer’s most signal contribution to interdisciplinary study is, undoubtedly, her attention to the unexpected cultural and symbolic dividends of language.  She is renowned for this practice in Darwin’s Plots, which shows how The Origin of Species frames a rich and contradictory cultural imaginary, drawn from language already freighted with meaning.  The same may be said for evolutionary theory, which has led a surprising life of its own,  “function[ing] in our culture like a myth in a period of belief, moving effortlessly to and fro between metaphor and paradigm, feeding an extraordinary range of disciplines beyond its own biological field” (Darwin’s Plots 13).  In laudable emulation, this volume contains a multitude of similarly unexpected correspondences and continuities—between disciplines, between texts, and between cultures.  Casting such a broad reach is, of course, not without risk: a small minority of essays end with remarks that are less than magisterial.  On the whole, however, this practice yields remarkably novel and adventurous insights—theoretical and cross-disciplinary conclusions that emphatically affirm the power of figure, metaphor, and narrative. 

Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis is filled with essays that think deeply about the transformative capacity of language and the mechanics of discursive encounter.  They offer a fine tribute to Gillian Beer and are, indeed, well worth emulating in turn. 

(c) Tamara Ketabgian, University of Utah, 2003


[i] Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2000), xxv.