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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 46 November 5, 2022

Hiner on Keiser’s ’Nervous Fictions: Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience’

Friday 4 November 2022


Reviewed by Amanda Hiner (Winthrop University)

Nervous Fictions:
Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience

by Jess Keiser

Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press

2020. 324 pp

(e-book), ISBN 978-0-8139-4479-1
(paper), ISBN 978-0-8139-4478-4
(cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-4477-7

Cognitive literary studies is a dynamic and growing field of academic research that explores intersections between cognitive science and literary texts and their production. In varied ways, literary scholars have always explored such areas of inquiry as how fiction reflects human cognitive processes and how the act of reading influences cognitive development. However, in the 1980s, an interdisciplinary approach to literary studies emerged that focused on analyzing literature as a reflection of the embodied mind and that integrated both literary and scientific methodologies and approaches in order to explore the complex connections between literature and human cognition. Today, cognitive literary scholars incorporate findings from such fields as neurology, neuropsychiatry, the psychology of fiction, and even functional magnetic resonance imaging into analyses of literature in order not only to view literary texts through new disciplinary lenses but also to explore what the acts of creating and reading literary texts reveal about how the human mind works. This broadly interdisciplinary approach can be fruitfully applied to texts across multiple genres and literary periods; however, literary texts from the “long eighteenth century,” a period spanning from roughly 1660 to 1815, tend to attract special and heightened attention from cognitive literary scholars because of the period’s emerging awareness of the “embodied brain” and its intense interest in psychological interiority.

Jess Keiser’s Nervous Fictions: Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience is an innovative and fresh addition to the growing list of texts that analyze eighteenth-century literary texts through the lens of neuroscience or human cognition. What makes Keiser’s approach especially original is the way his meticulous analyses of “nervous fictions,” or texts that “reconstruct, through imaginative means, the workings of the nerves and the brains,” reveal not only how Enlightenment concepts of the brain and mind permeated and influenced literary texts but also how figural language and literary tropes informed scientific writings and thought during a period of astonishing scientific discovery and philosophical investigation (p. 2).

Keiser’s introduction helpfully establishes a solid foundation for our understanding of “nervous fictions”—what they are, what they accomplish, and what their production during the Enlightenment period implies. A nervous fiction is a hybrid work that “imports scientific content into traditional literary forms” or “uses literary or figurative techniques to convey scientific claims” often through personification or through representing the human body as a microcosm (p. 8). Keiser observes that nervous fictions often draw readers in as voyeuristic “witnesses” to the “neural mechanisms ‘behind’ public actions,” offering a thoughtful explanation of the period’s burgeoning interest in psychological interiority (p. 9). Nervous fictions from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sometimes invite satiric ridicule and critique, but they also “index an uncertainty inherent to our knowledge of both body and mind,” recording what we think we know about the human brain and nervous system and tracing our “anxious unfamiliarity with that most intimate organ, the brain” (p. 10). Nervous fictions thus reveal how people conceived of the brain and of human cognition during the long eighteenth century, but they also mark the limits of scientific knowledge and reveal the gaps and deficiencies inherent in metaphorical or figural language.

Keiser’s Nervous Fictions functions as a fascinating and richly conceptualized history of the field of neuroscience, and it also offers new perspectives on the provocative intersections between the cultural productions of the long eighteenth century and our current understanding of cognitive science and theory of mind. Drawing on, but moving beyond, the work of cognitive literary scholars, such as Blakey Vermeule, Lisa Zunshine, Natalie Phillips, and Jonathan Kramnick, Keiser analyzes both scientific and literary texts within the context of the profound conceptual shift in how the brain and nervous system were understood during the eighteenth century. His discussion of the transition from a “mechanistic” to a “vitalist” model of the brain and nervous system, in which the concept of “animal spirits” inhabiting the body are replaced by “nerves that vibrate or pulse, particularly in the presence of another person or beloved object,” provides a new and crucial context for thinking about literary and cultural developments during the period, such as the rise of the cult of sensibility and the increasing value placed on social institutions (p. 183).

Though Keiser sharply focuses his analysis throughout the book on “the unique problems exposed in those efforts to understand the mind by anatomizing the brain,” his creative explorations of nervous fictions feature diverse genres from the period, including the scientific works of physician Thomas Willis; the philosophical writings of René Descartes, John Locke, and Margaret Cavendish; the satirical “mock dissections” or “mock anatomies” of Joseph Addison, Matthew Prior, and Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Arbuthnot in their Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741); the satiric novels of Lawrence Sterne; and the hypochondriacal musings and memoirs of James Boswell (p. 6). Taken together, these analyses serve to support Keiser’s key claims that “we cannot speak about the mind without figurative language and that such figures serve as symptoms of the period’s more general concerns” and that “science and literature were closer during this period than we might at first imagine” (pp. 26, 28). Indeed, Keiser persuasively argues that both literary and scientific writers from the period struggled to understand and articulate the “mind-body” problem, or the ways the physical brain produces and manifests itself in consciousness and human thought, and that both scientific and literary writers relied on figural language and metaphor, producing “nervous fictions” that served as explanatory frameworks for understanding and articulating neuroscientific concepts and human behavior. This cross-disciplinary and well-argued book will enlighten and engage readers interested in the history of neuroscience, cognitive literary studies, and eighteenth-century literature and philosophy.

[The above review from H-Net is reproduced here under a Creative Commons license]

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