Reflection by Nate Crocker

How do we read these V21 Collations? On our laptops? A phone? Perhaps a tablet? If we read them on a screen, we also presumably see the orange V21 icon hovering somewhere about. Yes, there it is: above, perhaps somewhat to the left of this. But once I shift the discussion from how we read these Collations to David Sweeney Coombs’s exciting new book (if ever I do), will anything about the sensory experience of reading change as well? To put it another way, will such a turn also affect the capacity for readerly perception in this text? Will my reflection remain a confrontational and monotonous string of black marks? Or will alternative spaces emerge?

Such are some of the questions prodded by Coombs in Reading with the Senses in Victorian Literature and Science. While reading Coombs’s book, one curious feature I noted was the absence of metaleptic interrogations like the one with which I began—Reading with the Senses is, after all, a book about reading. [1] To be sure, I didn’t want him (nor do I want any author) ceaselessly reminding me what I know I am doing; but I expected more moments of diegetic collapse, moments where Coombs would shake me from his analysis and hurl me back to that world where I was just a reader, clinging to a mass of bound paper. And yet, more curiously, this absence approaches the vitally conjoint historicist and methodological crux of Reading with the Senses. According to Coombs, unlike their Rationalist predecessors and Modernist descendants, the Victorians did not understand sensory and/or perceptual interpretations as bound to the empirically observable world. For them, what Coombs defines as “knowledge by acquaintance” (empirical perception) and “knowledge by description” (literary reference) were not dichotomous, but rather two ends of a single epistemological scale. The perceptions experienced whilst reading were not understood as categorically different from the perceptions experienced in the world without books. Unlatched from the book’s concrete reality, Victorian readers were free to (literally) sense through their texts: Vernon Lee’s descriptions of statues could abstract into conceptual spaces for the reader to see whatever images the description conjures; and as the reader of Daniel Deronda navigated the novel’s particular web of references, they might have been able to find themselves seriously asking: “does Grandcourt exist?” [2]

As I came to grips with this diegetically fluid reading, I also came to understand why Coombs wasn’t confronting me with the fact that I was, all the while, gripping his book. Instead of catapulting me back into my office, Coombs adheres to the Victorians’ mutable field of sensual reading, pulling me and his other readers deeper into his rich analyses. Enveloping us by way of perusing the Victorians’ permeable distinction between acquaintance and description, Reading with the Senses implies that literary reference (be it fiction or criticism) is never antithetical to our empirically perceivable life. On the contrary, what Coombs’s book not only argues, but also models, is that description always comprises the very stuff of our world. In reading Coombs’s chapter on Eliot, I caught myself (always retroactively) seeing the ‘faded fairness’ of Grandcourt’s complexion. “Yes, there they are: his ‘long narrow grey eyes’ that express ‘nothing but indifference.’ [3] And here,” I perceived, “here is Coombs’s argument weaving Grandcourt’s eyes into its own expansion.” Reading with the Senses, then, had to ignore the threshold between its text and my life as a reader in order to attend to the inherent sensuality of reading. In other words, why would Coombs toss me from his book? For Reading with the Senses, it’s the same world within and without.

[1] Importantly, Coombs’s book begins with this type of delightfully dizzying confrontation.
[2] Part of the second chapter in Coombs’s book (“Getting Acquainted with Description in Romola”) was previously published under the title “Does Grandcourt Exist?” in Victorian Studies, Volume 59, Number 3, Spring 2017, pp. 390-398.
[3] George Eliot. Daniel Deronda. 1879. Edited by Graham Handley, Oxford University Press, 1984, 90.

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