Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses by William A. Cohen

Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses by William A. Cohen

By William A. Cohen

What does it suggest to be human? British writers within the Victorian interval chanced on a shocking resolution to this question. what's human, they found, is not anything kind of than the human physique itself. In literature of the interval, in addition to in medical writing and journalism, the inspiration of an inside human essence got here to be pointed out with the cloth lifestyles of the physique. The organs of sensory belief have been understood as the most important routes of trade among the internal and the exterior worlds. Anatomizing Victorian rules of the human, William A. Cohen considers the which means of sensory encounters in works by way of writers together with Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bront?, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. instead of in regards to the physically external because the fundamental place during which identification categories—such as gender, sexuality, race, and disability—are expressed, he specializes in the inner adventure of sensation, wherein those politics emerge as felt. In those stylish engagements with literary works, cultural historical past, and demanding conception, Cohen advances a phenomenological method of embodiment, featuring that we stumble upon the realm now not via our minds or souls yet via our senses

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Rather than seeing through the eyes of the Marchioness what Dick does in private, we learn what he perceives of her, lurking outside his door: her hard breathing and her gleaming eye. If this is an allegory of narration, then we readers identify with the character who looks back at the ordinarily unseen observer. This reversal emphasizes the physical manifestation of observation itself: he hears and sees her seeing and hearing him. The virtual contact between Dick and the Marchioness, in the form of her exposed eyeball and her wheezy exhalations, is almost immediately actualized: he invites her in, recognizes in her a prospective partner for his endless cribbage game, and then stuffs her emaciated frame full of food and drink.

Such phrases occur relatively rarely in Dickens, not because he does not conjure up onlookers but because they tend to look on from within rather than from without a narrated scene—because they tend to be substantial rather than hypothetical. 5 Traditional scenes of keyhole spying, in which readers witness one character spying on another, also represent and intensify the inherently novelistic activities of eavesdropping on and telling about other people’s private lives. 6 While it is tempting to comprehend such acts of spying as allegories of narration, and particularly of omniscient narration—with all the disciplinary apparatus of surveillance such an allegory would entail — I wish to forestall this reading and to suggest what might be gained by reintroducing the physicality of perception to such a scene.

Thus rather than considering the eye as the source for a circuit of disciplinary power between the Panoptic tower and the prisoner in his cell, we can, in the context of Victorian materialism, understand it as both an orifice—an opening into the body—and a tactile surface for drawing together the subject and the object of sight. The materialist strain in Victorian writing presents the relation between subject and object-world less in terms of abstract distance than proximate contact: people are not so much cut off from one another as rubbing up against each other, even when they seem to look at or hear each other from afar.

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