Paul Youngquist’s Monstrosities, born among the Hunterian Museum’s skeletons, tumors, stomachs, and fetuses, offers an embodied, biologizing counterpoint to the critical inclination “to see ideas as what matter most” (xiv). For Youngquist (as for Judith Butler), bodies matter, not only as objects of the regulatory schemes of culture but also as media of regulation, “the material through which relations of power circulate to reproduce cultural norms” (xiv). Examining “deviant flesh” in its intersection with culture, he shows how medicine professionalized monstrosity in the nineteenth century, coming to view bodies not in relation to their life histories but rather in relation to other people’s bodies. Yet, in delineating this norm of embodiment, he shows how monstrosity nevertheless sustains a disturbing and haunting presence: liberalism’s proper body is troubled by what it excludes. Monstrosities jam the system, “inserting the material fact of bodily difference into the circuit of its reenactment” (xv). On the one hand, monstrosity is a fiction produced by a regime of propriety: “the norm of the proper body … constitutes monstrosities through exclusion” (xxvii). On the other hand, the monstrous body—irreducibly material and unincorporable to the ideology of the proper body—preserves a counter-normative agency. Moving beyond Rosemarie Thomson’s reduction of marvelous monsters to medical cases, Youngquist reveals a “dynamic history” that entails “the resistance of deviant flesh” to the power of medical culture (9).
The book’s three sections roughly correspond to the Blakean conditions of Innocence, Experience, and Higher Innocence. The first, titled “Incorporations,” examines the ideology of the proper body as it emerges at the interface of aesthetics and medical science in the early nineteenth century. It begins with an enthralling account of John Hunter as “the Immanuel Kant of modern anatomy, reducing particular appearance to general functions in what might be called a transcendental critique of animal cadavers” (11). Hunter’s physiology grounds a norm-generating medical establishment that enables the construction of deviance as a recognizable category. The chapter yields a renewed appreciation for the role of the exemplary body in the political texts of Burke and Paine, both of which, Youngquist demonstrates, are governed by a fixation on the norm of proper embodiment. The ideology of the proper body is so total that Burke’s and Paine’s various liberalisms both “make deviant flesh the dark other of solid citizenship” (26).
Chapter two turns to John Brown’s Elementa Medicinae, which posits excitement as the characteristic quality of living tissue and health as the consequence of dynamic interchange of excitation and exciting powers. Wordsworth’s descriptions of poetry turn on excitement and stimulation, and Youngquist shows how the “physiological aesthetics” of this “poet laureate of the proper body” (29) bear a striking similarity to Brown’s theories of life. The chapter also builds on the work of Peter Stallybrass and Allon White to contextualize Bartholomew Fair—ground zero, in Wordsworth’s Prelude, for the representation of deviance as monstrosity—as a carnivalesque site of resistance. It includes fascinating material on some of the medical curiosities who inhabited this space of physical and quasi-political representation, including the amazing Sarah Biffin, a limbless artist who paints with her mouth, and Daniel Lambert, a mountain of a man who makes a living “just by sitting in his parlor, offering his body to amazed gazes” (39). The latter part of the chapter is peculiarly satisfying, for not only does Wordsworth deserve to be completed by characters he works so hard to marginalize, but the readings themselves are fantastic, especially that of Lambert as an unlaboring-laboring man whose property in himself is so great that he need acquire no more. A turning point in Monstrosities, this is the place we first see the counter-establishment agency of monstrosity at work. The chapter ends with a brief treatment of Frankenstein, the literary moment most readily associated with a monstrosity that refuses containment, overflowing the containers provided for it by culture.
Chapter three examines racial difference as the sine qua non of deviant flesh. Interrogating “what a criticism of Romanticism [might] do to vindicate bodies that actually matter” (62), Youngquist finds, in the raciological writings of a Manchester physician, Charles White, and a Continental anatomist, Petrus Camper, potent backdrops for exploring paintings by Reynolds and Blake, as well as Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography. The connection to Reynolds and Blake is especially inspired, its unexpected yet intuitive brilliance a microcosm of the book as a whole. In a brilliant and unsettling reading of Blake’s engraving of “A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows,” he shows this to be an echo of Reynolds’s idealized portrait that reveals “the tortured form beneath the beauty of appearance.” (He modestly calls this a “speculation,” though I found myself persuaded.)
The book’s second section, “Habituations,” veers from the culture of medical science toward addiction as the epitome of bad health—and thus a starting-point for productive critique. The guiding light of this section, and perhaps of Monstrosities as a whole, is Nietzsche’s The Gay Science and its proclamation that “there is no health as such, and all attempts to define a thing that way have been wretched failures. … [T]here are innumerable healths of the body.” Reexamining the legacy of Coleridge as a promising writer turned addict, Youngquist makes strenuous claims for the creative and Dionysian power of addiction. Coleridge’s turn from poetry to philosophy gets read, in conjunction with his “cure” under the care of Dr. James Gillman, as part of a normalizing procedure that, if it helps Coleridge to live his last seventeen years in relative health, embeds a loss of “the truth of excess that attends the Dionysian” (96). In a remarkably sympathetic reading, Youngquist transforms Coleridge “from weak victim of ‘inclination and indulgence’ into a creature of excess and strange delay, a belated votary of Dionysus, whose coming destroys the proper body along with its will” (97). Coleridge’s great creative work was born of opium; addiction, far from being disabling, splits volition from will in productive ways, yielding “a body that prevailing norms cannot accommodate” (94). Philosophy, on the other hand, is the writing of the asylum, and in Coleridge’s case, it moreover assumes a right-religious form that inscribes “the power of law and proper embodiment” (103). Philosophy becomes a habit of its own, a kind of intellectual nicotine-patch, in Coleridge’s own words “steal[ing] / From my own nature all the natural man” until it grows “the habit of my soul.” With rehabilitation, Youngquist laments, comes loss.
Chapter five may be familiar to readers of PMLA as “De Quincey’s Crazy Body.” For Youngquist, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is a “dietetic parody” (118) of Kant’s idealizing aesthetics, as well as a critique of the nineteenth-century association of healthy bodies with a healthy body politic. Against a self-mummified, never-sweating Kant, De Quincey revels in his bodily processes. Eating materializes cognition, the stomach becomes a faculty of judgment, and Being a matter of embodiment (if possible, untouchable by formal representation). Pondering “the fate of eating,” Youngquist writes, “De Quincey becomes the first philosopher of bad digestion” (118). Looking past the fact that even De Quincey’s bodily processes happen as representations, this chapter unfolds as a lively and compelling test of transcendental philosophy. It fixates much on digestive processes and includes one moment that made this reader genuinely woozy (a woman’s treatment of her own indigestion). Together with the chapter on Coleridge, the reading of De Quincey suggests positive political effects of bad health.
The final section of the book, “Appropriations,” combines, as the earlier chapters had not, the discussions of liberalism, medical culture, and potentially liberatory improprieties. If addiction suggests a refreshingly non-normative but self-destructive way of life, Youngquist works toward a politically grounded advocacy of “corporeal freedom” (132). Beginning with an experience that ought, at least, to be the most innocent of all, childbirth, the sixth chapter reveals there to be nothing at all innocent about generation in the late eighteenth century. The emerging independence of the child often rested on the death and abjection of the mother’s body. The drugged body-without-volition of the earlier chapters becomes, here, the pregnant body-without-volition treated by obstetric doctors—a passivity with consequences for women’s place in liberal society. For instance, the discovery of the placenta by William Hunter and his subsequent masculinization of it, combined with the imperative to let it come out on its own without any volition on the part of the mother, “establishes a physiological basis for limiting the agency of female bodies”: “human bodies are born free, while women become trapped in the carceral anatomy of reproduction” (147). (Among other things, this kind of work reveals a startling new understanding of Mary Wollstonecraft’s death.) Working at the intersection of obstetrics, sexual anatomy, and female education, Youngquist offers a challenging discussion of liberalism’s stake in disentangling the mother’s body from that of her offspring, a stake propelled by the medical specialty of obstetrics. The final chapter, on Byron’s personal deformity and the nationalist investment in the deviant flesh produced by military conflict, concludes the book in the spirit of Blakean Higher Innocence, by opening onto an experience that is neither entirely proper nor improper. From the perspective of the medical establishment, prostheses are disciplinary and normalizing, but from the embodied position of the deformed, the prosthetic is subjectively transformative.
If the first section of Monstrosities exposes the ideology of the proper body, and the final section reaches toward a transformative politics of transgression, the middle section contains the book’s soul. Here, as Youngquist engages in unfamiliar ways with some very familiar texts, the critical possibilities of bad health and the author’s own (counter) allegiances come into clearest view. “For all its dry durability,” he argues in his chapter on De Quincey, “Kant’s kind of health may not be to the body’s benefit, at least not every body’s” (114). But is health always culture’s proper body, reducible to cultural ideology? Believing that it is enables Youngquist to read against the grain in many instances, reclaiming the agency of addiction in Coleridge or asserting the “living death” of health in Kant. His chapter on Coleridge may be the best in the book. It certainly is the most provoking. Can addiction—as the foregoing of conscious control over one’s body—be an act of resistance against a cultural norm of proper embodiment? Despite the attractiveness of the idea, there is an odd way in which “the proper body,” as the goal of health, becomes its own normalizing discourse within the book, a one-size-fits all explanation for any effort to cultivate well-being. A healthy body is a proper body, born of an ideological regime; addiction is unhealthy and therefore represents a positive resistance to the cultural norm of embodiment. Similarly, Wordsworth’s desire to rouse his readers from the “savage torpor” brought on by reading “sickly” tragedies no doubt shows him attempting to make his readers into proper liberal subjects (as Youngquist argues), but isn’t his goal, on some level, to instill in his readers a mental health that will allow them to think critically and avoid becoming dupes of culture? The very fact that Burke and Paine are said to belong to the same plane of “proper embodiment” indicates that some sharper distinctions might be drawn among the various “healths” (and proprieties) that are possible.
Yet, such is the power of Monstrosities that it’s best where it most provokes. Youngquist knows what he’s doing and would be greatly disappointed, I suspect, if his arguments were not to ruffle feathers. He scoffs at propriety in all its senses and forces valuable reconsiderations of conventional positions. There may be no other academic book that asks its reader to think in so sustained a manner about his or her own insides, a feat that alone (to borrow Youngquist’s rhetoric) deserves our respect. But there’s much more to admire. Monstrosities is written with gusto and illustrated with fascinating, often disturbing images that support Youngquist’s contention that the proper body instantiated by medical practice is essential to the ideology of British romantic culture. Its ambitious interdisciplinarity produces surreal but satisfying effects: the Apollo Belvedere haunts equally Blake’s engraving of “A Family of Negro Slaves” and a photograph of a prosthetic leg. The book is filled with remarkable examples such as the story of the ten-year-old Mademoiselle Caroline Crachami, a. k. a. “the Sicilian Dwarf.” The photograph of her skeleton, which appears at the end of this anecdote, is deeply unsettling, as are many of the images that illustrate the book. The author’s own, deeply felt (though rarely overtly expressed) sympathy with the medical curiosities who he considers will be apparent to any reader not distracted by his enviable gifts as a storyteller. The business of anatomy is often shady, and Monstrosities captures these unsavory aspects with a verve and color that’s rare to find in scholarly writing. Youngquist’s narrative gifts are abetted by a quickening wit: Charles Byrne, aka “the Irish Giant,” at 8-foot-4-inches comes to London “to try his large hand at the metropolitan trade” (4); “Wordsworth may not have been a physician, but he played one in his poems” (30); “Public hygiene is a trickle-down morality” (122); “Some say it was for money, others for love, but in 1775 Martin Van Butchell pickled his wife” (129). Some readers may be put off by such glibness. But Youngquist knows what he’s about, and with self-mocking wit he imagines the “aghast” reactions of his readers. Readers for whom Romanticism is unfamiliar territory will surely appreciate the digestibility of Youngquist’s lively prose. Monstrosities, full of fresh, counterintuitive readings, with intellectual daring, humor, humanity, provocations, and admirable outrage, repays the efforts of any reader. A squeamish one myself, I will gladly take my health with a dose of delusion, but thanks to this book I will do so in a more enlightened way.