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 ...
Shannon Sears is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. Her dissertation, Vacancy: Mental Voids in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel, examines nineteenth-century novelistic depictions of mental emptiness.