Reflection by Elaine Auyoung
In 2015, 10 million people tweeted about the poorly lit photograph of a dress because it looked white and gold to some while others were convinced that it was blue and black. That ambiguous image was a paradigmatic illustration of how our perceptual experience is mediated by mental processes over which we have little control and of which we are not consciously aware. Colors that seemed to be right before our eyes (white and gold!) were in fact interpretations by our own visual system. In Reading with the Senses in Victorian Literature and Science, David Coombs reminds us, with bracing wit and aplomb, that Victorian intellectuals sought to emphasize the mediatedness of our perceptual experience, an experience that feels unmediated and direct but in fact involves a process they described as “unconscious inference.”
To make their case about perception, nineteenth-century psychologists cited the experience of reading as an analogous phenomenon: just as we experience sensations as percepts, “we understand the meaning of words and sentences––effortlessly, without any specific recollection of the long course of experience that taught us to do so” (25). For Coombs, this comparison has a counterintuitive but elegant and important payoff: when Victorians compare perceptual experience to reading (because both activities are mediated by unconscious inference), we become freshly attuned to just how much Victorian writers and intellectuals understood the experience of reading as something that could approach the phenomenological immediacy of perception.
George Eliot famously declared, after all, that “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” Her ethical project rested on the epistemological assumption that reading a novel could serve as an extension of perception. Yet even as she sought to make her readers “feel somehow directly acquainted with what can only be made known by description,” no one was more self-conscious about the epistemological limits of her medium than Eliot and, as Coombs shows in his reading of Romola, she repeatedly inscribed those concerns into her work (73).
Through its engagement with Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Vernon Lee, Walter Pater, nineteenth-century psychologists, and an array of analytic philosophers, Reading with the Senses raises a question that has profound disciplinary significance: what is it possible to know from Victorian literature? In the absence of knowledge by acquaintance, or firsthand empirical experience, we often rely on knowledge by description, or the testimony of a secondhand verbal report. We routinely acquire such knowledge from history textbooks, from newspaper reports, from a student’s verbal account of her campus visit. (How much we ought to believe these sources is a question raised by philosophers of testimony.)
In the case of fiction, novelists similarly rely on our ability to grasp what they describe even though we know that their words have no actual referent. (Saussure himself asserts that, in practice, words cannot be severed from the concepts they bring to mind.) At the same time, the persons and places made present to us, often with astonishing vivacity, by Romola or The Return of the Native are fictional. While this ontological distinction doesn’t prevent us from responding to Eustacia Vye and Clym Yeobright in social and affective ways, it does complicate the question of what kind of knowledge these texts provide. In a dialectical move that I think Coombs would appreciate, recognizing the kinship between reading and perceiving invites us to think much more carefully about the distinctions between them.
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