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Vanessa L. Ryan. Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9781421405919. Price: US$55.00

  • Shannon Sears

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  • Shannon Sears
    Michigan State University

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In Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel, Vanessa Ryan asks us to reconsider how we understand consciousness in Victorian fiction: we are invited to think in terms of opacity instead of transparency, in terms of unconscious dynamic processes rather than trains of rational thought. Ryan’s exciting, incisive study charts an alternative to the view that Victorian novels model the mind as an object of clear and easy access. Rather, she contends, authors frequently aimed to capture the difficulty of perceiving one’s own mental processes. She points to Victorian physiological psychology as giving rise to this ambition: this school discovered that most reflexes need not travel all the way to the brain to be processed, which revealed that a great deal of human “thought” occurs without conscious intention or intervention. As scientific writers of the period developed theories about non-intentional thought under the aegis of “unconscious cerebration,” novelists took up the aesthetic task of representing the subjective experience of mental life it suggested, and of showing how consciousness can often only access the results of mental processes, but not the processes themselves. As an outcome of this cross-disciplinary work, “unconscious cerebration” (11) came to be understood as a mode of thought that was crucial to everyday mental activity and, if less purposeful than reasoned thought, nevertheless just as productive. Unquestionably distinct from the Freudian picture of an unconscious mind working against reason and control, the Victorian unconscious was regarded as the source of “some of our most sophisticated thinking and some [of] our most moral behavior” (18).

Ryan’s second chapter shows how unconscious cerebration fundamentally challenged a set of Western traditions respecting the mind: the Cartesian mind-body split, the German Idealist belief in a unitary ego, and the British associationist trust in introspection. This chapter centers on Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), which Ryan describes as a psychological detective story in which “to discover the diamond is to discover the unconscious” (30). The solution to the criminal mystery (that Franklin Blake stole the diamond during an opium-induced sleepwalking episode) serves as the basis of a psychological mystery: the paradox that the mind and body may function without the intervention of the will or even of consciousness. The Moonstone’s exploration of the liminal realm between physical and psychological, Ryan argues, reflects the way that “interiority” was becoming increasingly destabilized in Victorian thought. If consciousness was superfluous to idea and action, then the notion of a mind that could be transparent to itself was untenable. Collins underscored this point with genre, demonstrating the porous boundary between mind and body through “sensational” stories that thrilled readers both emotionally and physically. This chapter attests to the way that thinking itself was being redefined in the Victorian era as an activity that was “not wholly agential or wholly conscious,” nor confined solely to the brain (13).

The third and fourth chapters are organized around questions of agency and responsibility in George Eliot’s novels and in William Carpenter’s, George Henry Lewes’s, and Herbert Spencer’s scientific work. Ryan points out a persistent element in Eliot’s novels that casts doubt on the freedom of individual choice, which has profound implications for individual moral responsibility in a social context. Novels like The Mill on the Floss (1860) depict characters experiencing their own actions as if they occurred “independently of active will or intention,” and Ryan posits that this dislocation from agency suggests the general “difficulty of locating intention and motives in action,” and thus the pivotal role reflexive mental processes play in crucial moments of decision (65, 66). While the function of reflex unsettled Victorian ideas about the rational, self-determined individual, Ryan shows that physiological psychologists embraced it as the source of a practical moral psychology. Carpenter’s, Lewes’s, and Spencer’s work maintained that the mind’s unconscious processes could be guided through deliberately cultivated habits: that habitually good behavior could train the mind’s unconscious processes into morally desirable tendencies, benefitting both the individual and society at large. These hypotheses, particularly those asserted in Spencer’s psychologically-based theory of evolution, gave individuals a role in their own development and in their social community’s development. At a time when scholarly debates about literature, science, and morality are contextualized by Darwin’s purely biological philosophy of a non-intentional world (as in Angus Fletcher’s 2011 Evolving Hamlet), Ryan draws our attention to an important non-biological model of evolution in which automatic mental processes are compatible with individual agency and moral responsibility.

The final set of chapters encompasses discussions about fiction’s “special access” to mental function. A chapter on Henry James examines his technique of “radical ambiguity,” which stresses the opacity of mental life and the consequent impossibility of rationalizing or verbalizing consciousness (115). Next, Ryan explores George Meredith’s notoriously difficult writing style, contending that it signals his attempt to recreate an experience of the mind’s opacity via the cognitive difficulty of reading. She locates Meredith’s insistence on the mind’s intense power in the mental exercise effected by such labored reading,. Finally, she turns to the psychologist James Sully, who argued that reading fiction increases our awareness of our own cognitive processes. Sully’s essay on George Eliot serves Ryan as a bridge between Victorian theories about fiction and consciousness and the “bidirectional influences” between science and literature taking place today (154). The ways that reading made “thinking without thinking” visible to consciousness in Sully’s formulations are being taken up again, Ryan claims, in works like Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds (1984) and Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book (1999).

Ryan concludes with an account of physiological psychology’s afterlife, during which she makes a number of quick turns. First, she briefly discusses American physiologists Oliver Wendell Holmes and William James and their expansion upon some of British physiological psychology’s theories. Next, she takes up English author D. H. Lawrence, identifying him as an ideological rival to Freud and arguing that he “attempted to renew the intrinsic relation of body and mind” (175). The conclusion ends with a gloss of “consciousness studies,” a capacious term consisting of many disciplinary approaches, including neuroscience and cognitive literary studies. This two-page coda reiterates Ryan’s opening claim that the Victorian works she has spent most of the book analyzing raised many of the questions that still intrigue authors and scientists. Here, as it sounds its last note, Thinking Without Thinking leaves its reader wishing for greater depth and context. While Ryan demonstrates familiarity with recent popular publications in consciousness studies (e.g. Antonio Damasio’s 2003 Looking for Spinoza and Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 Blink: Thinking Without Thinking, from which her own book takes its title), there is a noticeable dearth of references for specific scientific studies that shape the research trends she singles out in neurophysiology and cognitive neuroscience. Furthermore, D. H. Lawrence is the most recent literary figure to appear in the book, which creates a curious tension between the claim that science and literature today are once again productively interacting with regard to consciousness and the lack of examples of recent novels that participate in this relationship.

In any case, readers will find the most stimulating material in the first five chapters, where most of the heavy intellectual lifting happens. Ryan there lays out the stakes of physiological psychology’s interventions in Victorian thought about the mind as well as the stakes that we face, as critics and historians, in exploring the concept of thinking without thinking in the Victorian novel. Throughout the book, Ryan provides clear, precise explanations of complex theoretical and historical developments, acting as an adept guide through what could otherwise easily become an overwhelming corpus of texts and concepts. Appropriately, there seems to have been a great deal of planning for the reader’s cognitive experience: illuminating examples from primary works of science and literature are effectively chosen and expertly deployed, and the order of ideas (both from sentence to sentence and chapter to chapter) proceeds in ascending complexity, neatly laying the groundwork for what follows.

Overall, Ryan’s book supplies a framework for thinking about thinking during a period whose science and literature are generally acknowledged as having developed important psychological theories, but which has been chronically neglected by consciousness studies. When it comes to sustained analysis and discussion, cognitive literary studies has tended to jump from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, tacitly suggesting that the authors in between were incapable of or uninterested in writing about the way the mind works—or seems to work. Similarly, as Ryan notes, books that address Victorian psychology and literature (such as Nicholas Dames’s 2001 Amnesiac Selves and William Cohen’s 2008 Embodied) are preoccupied by the mind’s architecture rather than its dynamic function. Thinking Without Thinking admirably addresses this double gap in literary scholarship and offers a compelling picture of literature’s relationship to consciousness during the Victorian period. Ryan’s method is rigorously historical and historicizing, preserving the novels’ contemporaneous scientific context. This approach, in contrast to some cognitive literary analyses that pair literature of the past with the science of the present day (like Lisa Zunshine’s 2006 Why We Read Fiction) offers an insightful view of both Victorian literature and Victorian science, of their fascinating and productive interdisciplinary relationship, and of the Victorian mind’s dynamic and surprisingly secretive life.

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