Reflection by Livia Woods

Ways of Unknowing

Elisha Cohn’s 2016 Still Life: Suspended Development in the Victorian Novel reads moments of “still life” – reverie, daydream, lapse – in the work of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy. In “reflecting on non-reflection,” the book lingers in uneasy borderlands between body and mind, resisting the impulse to map that territory (6). Instead, Cohn argues for the prevalence and power of the unmapped and unmappable in Victorian literature. Still Life is concerned with the aesthetic and ethical attractions of a literary criticism attuned to more “varied modes of attention” than the agential (187).[1]

The second chapter of Still Life focuses on “when and how [Eliot’s] work lets efforts toward knowledge and self-knowledge fail;” it is Cohn’s interest in “unknowing” that intersects most directly with my own research (66). Given that overlap, I’ll focus my attention on this concept. As I completed a dissertation on pregnancy in the Victorian novel, the project revealed itself as a nascent book on reading practices, literary realism’s engagement with somatic interiorities and exteriorities, and the importance of narrative and critical unknowingness, the spaces in text and scholarship that exceed established epistemologies. As we name and re-name our humanist methodologies and develop new digital and interdisciplinary ways of knowing, we must also acknowledge and explore ways of unknowing that mark encounters with art. As Deirdre Lynch argues in Loving Literature, “self-reflection on our [humanist] ways of knowing will not suffice” to counter the challenges of the embattled humanities (1). We need more feeling, more willingness to linger in the incoherent territory into which feeling can thrust us.

As when we experience a sudden pang to which we can ascribe no cause or when a character in the novel we are reading suffers vague symptoms, bodies offer up unknowing. Bodies can participate in economies of understanding and intention – indeed, entire scientific fields explore these participations – but bodies also escape and refuse understanding and the control that comes with such putative understanding. When it comes to bodies, we are never purely agents and “alternatives to ‘agency’…fascinate us in our current critical moment” (Cohn 187). So does the somatic. Indeed, something like a somatic turn is afoot in much recent criticism: Ericka Wright’s new book, Reading for Health: Medical Narratives and the Nineteenth-Century Novel (Ohio UP, 2016) argues for reading the body beyond the crisis of illness and into its quotidian experiences; historian Ruth Goodman’s How to Be Victorian: From Dawn to Dusk (Liveright, 2015) treats the somatic texture of Victorian life; Pamela Gilbert is at work on a book on skin (building on her 2014 article “The Will to Touch: David Copperfield’s Hand”), dead bodies are the central stuff of recent books by Claire Wood (Dickens and the Business of Death, Cambridge UP, 2015) and Deborah Lutz (Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, Cambridge UP, 2015) Peter Capuano (Changing Hands, Michigan UP, 2015) and Aviva Briefel (The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imagination, Cambridge UP, 2015) have both recently published books on hands, and Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol’s book on George Scharf and “somatic life-writing” won the 2016 NAVSA book of the year prize (Love Among the Archives: Writing the Lives of George Scharf, Victorian Bachelor, Edinburgh UP, 2015). In popular memoir, fiction, and criticism, bodies, particularly maternal bodies that force encounters with just how much we cannot know or control, abound. In recent popular criticism, there is Sarah Blackwood’s recent “Monstrous Births: Pushing Back Against Empowerment in Childbirth,” Pamela Erens “Labored Prose,” her novel Eleven Hours, and Lily Gurton-Wachter’s “The Stranger Guest: The Literature of Pregnancy and New Motherhood.” “The Stranger Guest” calls attention to a range of recent novels and memoirs concerned with the unknowability of the maternal body: “Elisa Albert’s After Birth (2015), Eula Biss’s On Immunity (2014), Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors (2016), Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015), and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015).” Surveying this literary explosion, Gurton-Wachter asks “how [one can] think about an experience [like childbirth] that seems to prevent or frustrate thought?” This question resonates, I think, with the “excursions into the unknown and unknowable sleep of the mind” at which Cohn takes aim in Still Life: (185).

For Cohn, moments of still life live both “within the grain of the text [and] also within the grain of the flesh.” In Still Life, they reflect the possibility of fictional somatic experience and play upon the “realities” of our experiencing critical bodies, the knowing and unknowing that inheres in the flesh (25). “Eliot,” Cohn argues, “hints at an ominous, potent, yet unknowable will hidden in the body” (102). It is this unknowability of somatic still life that points toward a new approach to the well-trodden territory of the bodily in nineteenth-century studies. We have a methodological tradition that helps us to know bodies; but, in noting that still life “run[s] counter to the [diagnostic] logic of body-reading,” Cohn signals a desire for methodologies of not knowing (27). Somatic experience is perhaps marked by nothing so insistently as its resistance – even in the face of unprecedented scientific access – to being fully known. How might quotidian somatic experiences of unknowing speak more directly to academic work and for what might such a shift make room? As the humanities seek to quantify and justify our work and its value, we must also advocate for the particular emphasis on that which cannot be quantified and justified that our fields allow.

Many thanks to Maeve Adams for soliciting this piece and to Talia Schaffer for our discussions of “the somatic turn.”

[1] My full review of Cohn’s novel is forthcoming from Victoriographies.


Alicia Christoff Responds

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