Reflection by Anna Gibson

“Attempts at description are stupid,” George Eliot famously announces in Daniel Deronda, dismissing detached and ahistorical presentations of human experience for their inability to capture the “innumerable impressions” that form our encounters with other humans. Eliot’s pronouncement, which serves as the epigraph to the second chapter of Reading with the Senses in Victorian Literature and Science, stages the central question of David Coombs’s book: how can literary texts make present to us that which is outside of our experience?

The Victorians approached this problem, Coombs shows us, by mapping reading onto sense-perception: how do our bodily sensations get translated into perceptions, and how do our mental perceptions relate to things in the world? To grapple with these questions, the Victorians distinguished “knowledge by description” (propositional knowledge; knowledge about something) from “knowledge by acquaintance” (empirical knowledge; direct presentation of objects to the senses). Whereas Victorian science and philosophy drew contrasts between these ways of knowing, Victorian literary texts, Coombs argues, increasingly blurred the lines between them. And for good reason. If Eliot believed that a realist novel could allow us empirical access to material outside our personal experience, she had reason to insist that—despite her avowed distaste for it—knowledge by description could acquaint us with the world.

Eliot’s ambivalence about description underscores for Coombs a circuitous logic by which realist (Eliot and Hardy) and aesthetic (Pater and Lee) writers sought to make readers more intimately acquainted with things in the world by paradoxically pulling away from, making vague, eroticizing, or obscuring a full sensory awareness of them. I wonder how Coombs’s compelling account of literature as a “style of access to the world” might be extended beyond realism and aestheticism to help us reframe the work of novels that embraced sensation directly, even to the extent (according to their critics) of bypassing knowledge by description altogether. I’m thinking here, for instance, of Henry Mansel’s condemnation of sensation fiction as “preaching to the nerves” and “carry[ing] the whole nervous system by steam.” [1]

When Coombs turns to hallucination to think about the function of description in Romola, I can’t help but think of George Henry Lewes’s use of the same metaphor to describe how Charles Dickens’s characters function “like personal experiences” to his readers precisely because he bypasses description (what Lewes called the “logic of signs”) and remains squarely within the realm of acquaintance (for Lewes, the “logic of feeling”). [2] Dickens, Lewes argues, does not imagine characters and scenes; he experiences them “in the sharp definition of actual perception” and then transfers that perception to his readers: “He, seeing it thus vividly, made us also see it.” [3] “So definite and insistent was the image,” writes Lewes, “that even while knowing it was false we could not help… being affected… by his hallucinations.” [4]

Neither Lewes nor Mansel explain how, exactly, a novel can transfer sense-perceptions directly from writer to reader, but in both cases the mechanism seems to reinscribe the boundary between sense-perception and propositional knowledge, staying squarely in the realm of the senses. Coombs reads Eliot as able to perform a “conjurer’s trick” with a realism so detailed and historically specific in its descriptions of imaginary people that they function like visions. Her descriptions make the imaginary virtually present. The logic of hallucination Coombs draws on here comes from Johannes Müller, for whom hallucinations exaggerate normal perceptive processes; like our perception of objects in the world, they are the product of imagination. Lewes reads Dickens’s hallucinatory veridicality quite differently. Dickens’s hallucinations don’t originate in the imagination; they never escape the “logic of feeling” into the realm of thought and sign. Indeed, we read them with the senses.

Coombs’s ambitious book purposefully, I think, sidelines Dickens and sensation fiction (Dickens and Wilkie Collins each get one passing mention in the book) because it is invested in how realist and aesthetic writers made description a mode of sense-perception and turned the logic of signs into a logic of feeling. But I wonder if reading Dickens and sensation fiction via Coombs’s account might suggest that some Victorian literature staged this process in reverse, turning sense-perception into an alternative mode of description. If so, we might find in these novels even greater evidence for Coombs’s claim in his tantalizing epilogue that literature “models for us the complex forms of presence the world can take in our experience” (174).

[1]  Mansel, Henry. “Sensation Novels.” Quarterly Review 113 (1863): 251-68, 251; 254.
[2] Lewes, George Henry. “Dickens in Relation to Criticism.” Fortnightly Review 11:62 (1872): 141-154, 146, 151.
[3] Ibid., 145.
[4] Ibid.

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