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Nervous Fictions: Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience

Nervous Fictions: Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience

Автором Jess Keiser

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Nervous Fictions: Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience

Автором Jess Keiser

500 pages
7 hours
Sep 21, 2020


In this respect, literary language became a tool to aid scientific investigation, while science spurred literary invention.
Sep 21, 2020

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Nervous Fictions - Jess Keiser

Nervous Fictions

Jess Keiser

Nervous Fictions

Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience

University of Virginia Press

Charlottesville and London

University of Virginia Press

© 2020 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

First published 2020

1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Keiser, Jess, author.

Title: Nervous fictions : literary form and the enlightenment origins of neuroscience / Jess Keiser.

Description: Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2020. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2020024974 (print) | LCCN 2020024975 (ebook) | ISBN 9780813944777 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780813944784 (paperback) | ISBN 9780813944791 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Literature and science—England—History—17th century. | Literature and science—England—History—18th century. | Mind and body in literature. | Science in literature. | Metaphor. | Neurosciences—England—History.

Classification: LCC PR438.S37 K45 2020 (print) | LCC PR438.S37 (ebook) | DDC 820.9/3561—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020024974

LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020024975

Cover art: A surgery where all fantasy and follies are purged and good qualities are prescribed, M. Greuter, line drawing, ca. 1600 (Wellcome Collection); antique map detail, seventeenth century (picturepast/123RF)

For my parents




ONE Personifying the Brain: Willis’s Neuroscience

TWO Nervous Figures: Cavendish’s Panpsychism

THREE From Metaphor to Madness: Locke’s History

FOUR Visionary Dissections: The Satire of Anatomy

FIVE From the Homunculus to the Great Sensorium of the World: Sterne’s Nerves

SIX The Hypochondriac’s Watch: Boswell’s Case





I first want to thank my teachers at Cornell: Rick Bogel, Laura Brown, and Neil Saccamano. They helped this book along in its earliest, most halting stages, and in doing so, they made it possible to thrive. As I continued to work on the book over the years, I often found myself writing to them—a true testament to their inspiring teaching and mentorship.

I also owe special thanks to a number of Cornell faculty for their encouragement, expertise, and mentorship: Kevin Attell, Cynthia Chase, Elisha Cohn, Amanda Jo Goldstein, Michael Jonik, Rayna Kalas, Phil Lorenz, and Jenny Mann. I developed many of the ideas in this book in conversation with numerous friends at Cornell. Bradley Depew, Ryan Dirks, Paul Flaig, and Aaron Hodges were particularly helpful. For their unflagging friendship over the years, Jacob Brogan, Cecily Swanson, Seth Perlow, and Caetlin Benson-Allott deserve special and wholly inadequate thanks.

Sarah Ellenzweig and Nancy Yousef have been two of my most important mentors. They read parts of this book and made it better. Most importantly, they believed in this project when I most badly needed it to be believed in, and for that I will be forever thankful. Thanks to Sarah and to Jack Zammito, I was able to develop important aspects of this book during a year at Rice University’s Humanities Research Center. I especially want to thank my compatriots during that year. They helped me develop, strengthen, and nuance many of the ideas here. They include Keith Ansell-Pearson, Christian Emden, Mark Kulstad, Ian Lowrie, Lenny Moss, Angie Willey, Catherine Wilson, and Derek Woods. During my time at Rice, I also got to know Charles T. Wolfe, who has been an immense help in navigating early natural philosophy and intellectual history.

I have been extraordinarily lucky in my mentors and friends in eighteenth-century studies. They are an ideal audience and a group of people from whom I’ve learned an immense amount. I especially need to acknowledge Al Coppola and Courtney Weiss Smith for all their help—impossible to quantify or to ever repay. I also owe special thanks to Rick Barney, Frank Boyle, Lucinda Cole, Joe Drury, Jonathan Kramnick, Thomas Salem Manganaro, Brad Pasanek, Sean Silver, and Helen Thompson for talking over many of the ideas in this book over the years. Their insight and generosity have made every page better. For advice, encouragement, and intellectual excitement, I want to thank Dave Alff, Dave Alvarez, Misty Anderson, Leah Benedict, Tita Chico, Dwight Codr, Lynn Festa, Mike Genovese, Kevis Goodman, Dan Gustafson, Stephanie Hershinow, Suvir Kaul, Heather Keenleyside, Crystal Lake, Sue Lanser, Wendy Anne Lee, Yoon Sun Lee, Devoney Looser, Kathy Lubey, Deidre Lynch, Ramesh Mallipeddi, Bob Markley, Sandra Macpherson, Laura Miller, Chris Mounsey, Stephen Osadetz, Ruth Perry, Melinda Rabb, Katie Sagal, Wolfram Schmidgen, Joel Sodano, Danielle Spratt, Rajani Sudan, Kate Thorpe, Mark Vareschi, Beth Wallace, and Alexander Wragge-Morley.

Although I began this book in Ithaca, I finished it in Cambridge and Boston. A group of friends (new and old) made that possible. Sarah Eron, Rob Lehman, Andrew Warren, and Audrey Wasser have been my best and most trusted readers. I also want to thank members of the Dialectical Reading Group at Harvard (especially Carly Yingst and Matthias Rudolf). My students at Washington and Lee and at Tufts have been my best interlocutors. Nick Belmore and Collin Cook were particularly helpful and inspiring as I developed this project. I also want to thank David Auerbach for generously discussing Sellars and philosophy of mind with me. My colleagues at Washington and Lee were extraordinarily helpful. I want to thank Lesley Wheeler in particular for all that she has done.

The English department at Tufts has shaped me in ways that are too profound to ever properly put into words. When I was an undergraduate student there, the faculty taught me how to read, write, and think about literature. Now they’ve supported me as I’ve put their lessons into practice. So thanks to all my colleagues at Tufts: Liz Ammons, Jay Cantor, Ricky Crano, John Fyler, Julia Genster, Judith Haber, Sonia Hofkosh, Joe Litvak, Lisa Lowe, Neil Miller, Modhumita Roy, Natalie Shapero, Christina Sharpe, Ichiro Takayoshi, Greg Thomas, and Michael Ullman. I can’t imagine writing this book without them. John Lurz and Nate Wolff deserve special thanks for their friendship, intellectual generosity, and advice, both minor and major, along the way. Anyone who has been taught by Linda Bamber is lucky, but I am particularly lucky for all that she has imparted to me over the years. Lee Edelman has been one of the most important presences in my life. He showed me how—and why—we should read literature. His support has made all of this possible.

Everyone at the University of Virginia Press deserves acknowledgement. Angie Hogan, in particular, has been one of the best editors I could imagine. She has supported this project in so many ways—large and small, subtle but significant—that it would require an acknowledgments section longer than the actual book to thank her adequately.

My work has been supported by a generous postdoctoral fellowship at Rice University’s Humanities Research Center and a junior faculty leave at Tufts University. I presented ideas from this book to audiences at various ASECS and NEASECS meetings, at Columbia, Harvard, Rice, Wesleyan, and the Samuel Johnson Society of the Central Region. My thanks to the participants at all these talks. Parts of the introduction and chapter 1 first appeared in ELH, volume 82, issue 4, 2015. Copyright © 2015 The Johns Hopkins University Press. It is reprinted with permission from the journal. A few paragraphs in the introduction also appeared in Reasoning Beasts: Evolution, Cognition, Culture, 1720–1820, edited by Kathryn Duncan (AMS Press, 2017), and they are reprinted with permission from the press. An early version of chapter 3 appeared in The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Chris Mounsey (Bucknell University Press, 2015), and is reprinted with permission here.

The wonderful cover image for this book was first suggested by the secret genius behind ELH’s Twitter account. My thanks to that person.

Most important of all, I need to thank Marina Bilbija for too much. She helped me finish this book, and she made everything better. Above all, I need to thank my family, especially my sister Lindsay, and my mother and father, Denise and James Keiser, to whom this book is dedicated.

Nervous Fictions


This book is about early neuroscience and the curious literary forms it generated. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, neurophysiology experienced a series of remarkable advances. As more about the brain and nerves became known, the period began to speculate about the relationship between these organs and the mind: How did the nerves carry sensations to the psyche? How were memories stored in cerebral matter? How did thoughts and emotions travel through the winding paths of the cerebrum? The period also developed a corresponding mode of writing I call the nervous fiction. Rather than a plain description of bodily organs, a nervous fiction employs figurative language and other literary techniques to transform the nervous system into something else: a city, a musical organ, an optical instrument, a watch. In doing so, it seeks to reconstruct, through imaginative means, the workings of the nerves and brain. Nervous fictions are attempts to make sense of matter’s relationship to mind. While the period’s tendency to metaphorize the mind—to liken it to a wax tablet or a mirror, say—is well known, these related nervous fictions have received little attention. And yet understanding the work of these fictions also means appreciating the subtle interplay of science, psyche, and literary form in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What Is a Nervous Fiction?

Consider a short poem by Jane Barker, entitled A Farewell to Poetry, with a Long Digression on Anatomy. In 1675, Barker’s beloved brother, Edward, (possibly) a student of natural philosophy at Oxford, died.¹ Barker wrote a series of poems mourning the loss, and A Farewell to Poetry, the first in that sequence, stands as a particularly clear example of the nervous fiction. In the poem’s narrative, Barker’s brother is still alive, though ailing. In an effort to aid him, Barker explains that she must abandon poetry so as to devote herself to the study of medicine and anatomy. Setting aside the literary classics of her youth, Barker now will read "Wise Aristotle and Hippocrates, / Galen, and the most Wise Socrates; / . . . / And all Apollo’s younger brood."² By embracing medicine, Barker must leave behind poetry. But curiously she never stops writing verse—as the very existence of this poem makes clear. Instead, she discovers a new poetic subject in the physiological and anatomical works that are now her focus. Hence, in a move that will be evident in other nervous fictions, Barker appears to forsake poetry for science, only to find in scientific writings more material for poetry.

For instance, Barker’s first act after announcing her abandonment of poetry is to translate, in highly rhetorical and figurative terms, the contents of a natural philosophical treatise on the eye. Reading through this work, Barker discovers that the entire body can be likened to a castle or fortress. She learns from the book’s author

how Pillars of strong Bones are made,

How th’ Walls consist of carneous parts within,

The out-side pinguid, over-laid with Skin;

The Fretwork, Muscles, Arteries, and Veins,

With their Implexures, and how from the Brains

The Nerves descend; and how they do dispence

To ev’ry Member, Motive Pow’r and Sence.³

This first poetic or metaphorical act—figuring the body as a fortress—leads to a second. In the midst of wondering over the nature of the body, Barker’s reverie is interrupted by the anatomists Walaeus and Harvey. The two natural philosophers invite Barker to follow them into the body she has been reading about a moment ago: "expatiating thus, / Walaeus and Harvey cry’d, Madam, follow us."⁴ She happily accepts and—thanks to a dizzying shift in perspective—she soon finds herself on a guided tour through the interior of the heart: "They brought me to the first and largest Court / Of all this Building, where as to a Port, / All necessaries are brought from far."⁵ This moment, strange as it may seem, is also typical of nervous fictions. In addition to combining scientific content and literary language in odd ways, nervous fictions tend to figure the body as a space where an observer can witness its workings from an impossible internal perspective. Hence, having described the body as an immense castle, Barker finds herself, as if shrunk down to the size of a blood cell, mapping this interiority with Harvey, the most celebrated anatomist of the time, serving as Virgil to her Dante (Walaeus strangely fades from the poem). Rather than observing the body from the impersonal, and necessarily distanced, perspective of the scientist standing over the dissecting table (or the reader working through an anatomical text), Barker sees the body up close, from inside its very flesh—all thanks to an initial act of figuration.

At first the tour proceeds with great success, which is to say it reproduces, in an evidently imaginative narrative, an idealized vision of scientific discovery. Barker wonders over some mysterious but enrapturing internal organ, and Harvey, in a process every bit as wonderful, penetrates into the heart of its mystery, explaining its minute workings and thereby dispelling doubt by demystifying the body. For example, when Barker enters into the actual heart, she boggles over its opaque mechanisms:

Bless me, said I, what Rarities are here!

A Fountain like a Furnace did appear,

Still boyling o’er, and running out so fast,

That one shou’d think its Efflux cou’d not last;

Yet it sustain’d no loss as I cou’d see,

Which made me think it a strange Prodigie.

Thankfully, Harvey is there to kindly explain its function:

Come on, says Harvey, don’t stand gazing here,

But follow me, and I thy doubts will clear.

Then we began our Journey with the Blood,

Trac’d the Meanders of its Purple flood.

Thus we through many Labyrinths did pass,

In such, I’m sure, Old Daedalus ne’er was.

While the heart, and perhaps the body in general, may be likened to a labyrinth, Harvey, the embodiment of the scientific enterprise, is happy to provide a guiding thread. His well-known discovery of the blood’s circulation—the solution to Barker’s question about the rushing movement of the fluid—is here reproduced in fictional or poetic terms. To experience viscerally this otherwise abstract, mechanistic process, Barker, Harvey, and the implied reader along for the ride become voyagers jettisoning through the body’s interiors, carried along by the blood’s circulation. In this respect, we witness an ideal unification of science and poetry: science discovers facts about the body, dispels mysteries, and maps the labyrinth, and poetry helps convey those otherwise abstruse truths by re-creating them in vivid imagery. Far from staging the quarrel between the two cultures of science and poetry that seems to mark our own time, far from abjuring poetry in favor of science, as Barker’s own poem promises, this Farewell to Poetry instead manages to marry the two discourses together.

It is a marriage that works perfectly until Barker arrives at the brain. There the carefully calibrated union between science and poetry seems to break down. Barker once again begins by observing the brain with enraptured wonder. In this instance, however, she is not led on by Harvey’s hand. Instead, she encounters three unnamed artists who make a series of odd claims about the organ:

But here methought I needs must stay,

And listen next to what the Artists say:

Here’s Cavities, says one; and here, says he,

Is th’ Seat of Fancy, Judgment, Memory:

Here, says another, is the fertile Womb,

From whence the Spirits Animal do come,

Which are mysteriously ingender’d here,

Of Spirits from Arterious Blood and Air:

Here, said a third, Life made her first approach,

Moving the Wheels of her Triumphant Coach.

The artists claim that they can locate, within the brain, not only the precise place of certain mental faculties (fancy, judgment, memory) but also the source of the animal spirits (the small bits of particulate matter that were said to course through the nerves) and life itself. These claims, however interesting, are soon marked by the poem as extravagant and unsupported, when Harvey steps in to reassert his authority:

Hold there, said Harvey, that must be deny’d,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Then there arose a trivial small dispute,

Which he by Fact and Reason did confute:

Which being ended, we began again

Our former Journey, and forsook the Brain.

Barker leaves Harvey’s objection ambiguous: we never hear his precise reasons for quarreling with the three artists. But what the poem nevertheless makes clear, in this instance, is that the brain, even in this highly idealized and imaginative narrative of scientific discovery, remains a site of dispute, controversy, and opacity. Although Harvey disagrees with the artists, he never proffers a competing, more correct vision of the brain. And before Barker herself can question things further, she is made to forsake the organ and is soon rushed off to another part of the body. In this instance at least, the poem is not serving as an aid or complement to scientific discourse or as a vivifying ornament for some more abstract natural philosophical truth. On the contrary, the poem makes possible a moment of uncertainty, antagonism, debate, and doubt. We see, in the case of the brain, the scientific enterprise encountering its limits. Whereas the mechanisms of the heart can be understood absolutely and experienced perspicuously, the workings of the brain remain hidden—even from the penetrating insights of a Harvey. The connection between the brain’s cavities and convolutions, which Barker plainly sees before her, and the mental faculties of fancy, judgment, and memory, whose workings the three artists maintain they can track, is obscure. And while the poem usually works hard to explain away such scientific mysteries, at this moment Barker’s writing, with all its literary techniques, all its figurative language and perspectival tricks, only makes this obscurity in matters of brain and mind all the more evident.

Barker’s short and strange poem embodies some of the most important themes and devices of the nervous fiction. I certainly do not mean to suggest that every nervous fiction surveyed in this book works precisely like Barker’s. In fact, Barker’s poem, while exemplifying the form in certain respects, also marks some important differences. For one thing, while Barker’s poem is interested in examining the workings of the entire body, a nervous fiction, strictly speaking, concerns only the brain and nerves. Although there is much to be said about the relationship between scientific dissections and literary writing in this period, this book focuses only on the unique problems exposed in those efforts to understand the mind by anatomizing the brain.¹⁰ In this respect, Barker’s poem only becomes a true nervous fiction when it turns to the brain—which is, significantly, the precise moment when the verse is suddenly suffused by a sense of skepticism concerning the very scientific practices it celebrated up to that point. On that note, whereas Barker’s poem clearly stages a gap in scientific knowledge, other nervous fictions have a more complex relationship with this aforementioned sense of skepticism. Other examples of the form use literary devices to close the gap between matter and mind, thereby making it seem as if one can observe the bare flesh of the brain and thereby plainly witness the mental at work—just as the three artists in Barker’s poem promise. Employed in this manner, nervous fictions may provide a temporarily comforting illusion, but mainly they point to deeper problems in the science of mind, even as they raise a host of questions concerning the epistemological status of literary techniques in scientific writing, the autonomy of natural philosophical work, and the very possibility of a plain account of the brain’s relation to the mind.

Nevertheless, Barker’s poem helps us discern the most significant outlines of the nervous fiction. In doing so, it also helps us appreciate just how prevalent nervous fictions can be in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even texts that are not, like Barker’s, explicitly interested in science or physiology often indulge in the form. For instance, we find such fictions at play in periodical writing. Eliza Haywood, writing in the Female Spectator, launches into a nervous fiction in order to explain why women are livelier, wittier thinkers than men. The Vivacity of [their] Ideas,—the Quickness of [their] Apprehensions, it turns out, can be attributed to the amount of nervous fluid flowing through their brains, to the greater Redundance of the animal spirits, which sometimes appear in the nervous system like a Crowd of Mob round the Stage of a Mountebank, where all endeavouring to be foremost, obstruct the Passage of each other.¹¹ Naturally, we also find nervous fictions at work in the eighteenth-century novel: that technology for exploring interiorities of all sorts. Nervous fictions are especially evident in it-narratives, those odd tales told by animals, clothing, coins, and even single atoms. Sometimes the speakers of these stories can float free of their bodies and enter into others. Frequently, the result is a tour through the corporeal labyrinth not unlike Barker’s own. In Charles Johnstone’s Chrysal, the consciousness usually inhabiting a piece of gold explores the nervous system of a human brain. Upon making its way to the seat of memory, the garrulous particle of gold encounters yet another spirit—this one working hard at organizing the mind’s ideas. As this second spirit explains, "This place, where we are, is the seat of memory; and these traces, which you see me running over thus, are the impressions made on the brain by a communication of the impressions made on the senses by external objects.—These first impressions are called IDEAS, which are lodged in this repository of the memory, in these marks, by running which over, I can raise the same ideas, when I please."¹² In both Haywood’s and Johnstone’s writing, mental qualities and faculties can be traced to underlying cerebral mechanisms. To explain—or to seem to explain—how the nervous system creates, say, the capacity for quick wit or the ability to recall past ideas, these texts give us a glimpse of the brain at work. What they reveal, though, is not the brain as it actually is: a bodily organ like any other, a material entity awash in blood and cerebral fluid. Instead, the brain is figured as an internal space inhabited by already intelligent entities, and as a result the mind is explicated by still smaller minds within its organs. Women are quick and witty because their animal spirits chase after lively entertainment. One can recall old ideas because an internal archivist retrieves material from the psyche’s repository.

In fact, nervous fictions became so widespread in the eighteenth century that they eventually served as objects of satire. The Scriblerians—specifically in this instance Gay, Pope, and Arbuthnot—savage this way of writing in their farce Three Hours after Marriage. When Phoebe Clinkett, an absentminded poet and virtuoso, behaves rudely towards another character, she naturally attributes the slight to her animal spirits, now serving as personified mechanisms of her nervous system: Madam, excuse this absence of mind; my animal spirits had deserted the avenues of my senses, and retired to the recesses of the brain, to contemplate a beautiful idea. I could not force the vagrant creatures back again into their posts, to move those parts of the body that express civility.¹³ Like any good natural philosopher, Clinkett understands that one way to reduce mind to matter is to project mental qualities onto the brain and its animal spirits—and then to claim that these intelligent entities are the cause of her own psychological traits. Doing so allows the natural philosopher to sync up the mental and the physical. In her own estimation, Clinkett is preoccupied with aesthetic concerns to the detriment of social niceties because the animal spirits within her cranium enact precisely the same behavior: they contemplate a beautiful idea rather than move those parts of the body that express civility. In this instance, the experience of the whole mind is reflected in the activity of its parts. Clinkett’s brain matter mirrors the actions of her whole person, since every particle in her nervous system behaves as if it were a fully thinking mind.

With all these examples in mind, we can discern some general and important aspects of the nervous fiction. These include:

(1) A nervous fiction is a hybrid work. It imports scientific content into traditional literary forms, or it uses literary or figurative techniques to convey scientific claims. We find complicated figurative language at work in supposedly plain and perspicuous accounts of the brain and nervous system. Likewise, we find scientific concepts at play in literary texts (when novelists explore the mind’s interior they often find themselves following the paths of animal spirits or registering the vibrations of pulsing nerve fibers). More importantly, nervous fictions demonstrate that efforts to replace poetic or imaginative accounts of the psyche with more rigorous scientific explanations of the mind generate new literary forms in turn. Just as Barker’s poem disavows poetry in favor of science—only then to poeticize science—texts that claim to provide a purely scientific explanation of the mind often find themselves trafficking in disavowed figure and fiction.

(2) A nervous fiction figures the brain and nervous system. Often—though, importantly, not always—these fictions transform the body into a microcosm of some sort (as in Barker’s poem). The brain and its nerves are likened to a castle, kingdom, state, home, or universe. And, usually, this initial act of figuration generates still more complicated metaphors. Thanks to such figures, different parts of the nervous system can take on particular qualities or become more preeminent than the rest. For example, if the nervous system is a kingdom or castle, then it must have a capital or throne for the sovereign (usually the pineal gland at the center of the brain). Likewise, if the brain is, say, a tiny house or state, then it must be populated in turn by tiny people. Hence, we find numerous writers during this period personifying the parts of the nervous system, thereby turning the mere matter of the body into persons possessing their own thoughts, emotions, and purposes. By comparing the mysterious processes happening deep within the brain to something more readily familiar (the actions of normal people going about their business in the macrocosm), such figures seem to cast light on an otherwise opaque entity. But this sort of nervous fiction can also distort what we know of the nervous system. Certainly, the organs underlying the mind have some relation to a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the parts making up the person are like the whole person.

(3) Nervous fictions make possible scenes of virtual witnessing: the illusion, prevalent in early scientific texts, that the reader is present at a natural philosophical spectacle of some sort.¹⁴ Thanks to these fictions, we can peek at the neural mechanisms usually hidden from our most direct view. Indeed, because of the aforementioned figures, when we witness the brain at work in nervous fictions, we do not see a wall of enigmatic flesh; instead, we see meaningful actions performed by personified neural mechanisms no different than their macrocosmic counterparts. This aspect of the form is especially clear in Barker’s poem, since it explicitly stages a journey into the body. In other works, the glance into the nervous system is more implicit and subtle, more the result of a minor adjustment in narrative focalization than the product of an elaborately detailed fantastic voyage inward. In either case, many nervous fictions produce what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle has called The Double-Life Legend.¹⁵ In this legend, one’s outward or public actions are matched or paralleled by inward or private ones—in this case, actions taking place within the nervous system. Nervous fictions seem to grant access to the neural mechanisms behind public actions. Reading them, we often have the sense of witnessing the same scene twice: an action plays out in public view and then again upon the folds of the brain.

(4) The sort of nervous fictions that cast the brain as a microcosm populated by personifications were sometimes met with skepticism and scorn. Plainly aware of the problems with such figures, some seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers reacted with satire (as the Scriblerians’ mockery demonstrates). But sometimes satire grew into something else: rival accounts of the nervous system and its workings. Importantly, these rival accounts did not seek to strip away metaphor from neuroscientific writing. Instead, as we will see, writers like Margaret Cavendish, John Locke, and Laurence Sterne created counterfigures, tropes that turned the period’s prevalent images of the brain on their head. Rather than figuring the brain as a castle or kingdom, replete with its own cerebral citizens, this other set of figures likened the nervous system to a tool or agency that could interact with the wider world. If the period’s customary nervous figures made it seem as if one must look inward to witness the source of thought—as if the neuroscientist must map the maze of nerves to track the traces of the still smaller minds that make us think—these counterfigures point us in a different direction: not deeper into the brain but out into the world. In doing so, they reoriented how we might study the psyche.

(5) Most importantly, all nervous fictions—those that figure the brain as a populated interior and those that treat it as a tool—index an uncertainty inherent to our knowledge of body and mind. They are the seventeenth and eighteenth century’s peculiar and (usually) unacknowledged reaction to what we can term, with some caution, the mind-body problem.¹⁶ Once again, Barker’s poem, particularly in its differing treatment of heart and brain, helps us appreciate this tricky point. The poem has no problem explaining how the heart works, but the same cannot be said of the brain. Why? Why is there a mind-body problem but not a circulation-heart one? The answer is simple: the mechanistic account of the heart fully explains that organ and its effects. Once we appreciate that the heart is a pump, we understand in turn how it produces a certain effect—that is, blood circulation. But even if we understood the mechanisms of the brain entirely—even if we could witness the action of its every gear—arguably something would still be missing from our explanation. Even if we grant that the brain pumps out fancies and memories just as the heart pumps blood, we have no way of knowing how it achieves this startling effect. A pump and the force it produces are both physical things, but the brain and its mind are marked, respectively, by physical and mental qualities. An epistemological gap seems to separate the machine (the brain) and its effect (the mind). As we will see, nervous fictions result from this gap. If one could simply observe the mechanisms of the brain and thereby make sense of the mind—if it were immediately evident to anyone who bothered to look how the brain made the mental—then there would be no need for a fictional or literary supplement for such accounts. Likewise, if these fictional supplements somehow fully captured the mechanistic or scientific account of the psyche, then there would be no question of their epistemological status: they wouldn’t be fictions at all but literal accounts of the nervous system’s working. They are nervous in two senses of the word: about the nerves and about our anxious unfamiliarity with that most intimate organ, the brain.

Nervous fictions raise a series of questions about the relationships among science, philosophy of mind, and literary or rhetorical language. They make us wonder about the brain’s connection to the psyche, even as they draw our attention to the frequently figurative terms earlier thinkers used to describe that connection. Such fictions also alert us to a historical mystery, since, speaking generally, they seem to originate, or at least thrive, only in the mid-seventeenth century: the precise moment when the practice of neuroscience—as we understand it today—got its start.¹⁷ For example, while it is possible to find similar imaginative tours through the body’s microcosm in earlier texts like, for example, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the tenor of these older fictions is wholly different from that of the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works I examine in this book. The excursion into the body, or the House of Alma, in book 2 of the Faerie Queene never troubles itself with fitting together specific physiological details and more abstract mental qualities. In that work, the body is simply and evidently a space for various mental qualities. Once the knights of the Faerie Queene make their way to the head of the castle, they discover Fancy, Reason, and Memory seated in separate rooms. And while Spenser’s poem certainly worries over the internecine quarrels of these faculties, the Faerie Queene never pauses to consider, as Barker’s, Haywood’s, or Johnstone’s work does, how the capacity for quick wit or the ability to recall past events somehow results from nervous fluids flowing through the brain or the activation of cerebral traces.

By the late seventeenth century, then, the alliance between matter and mind has become more troubled. Certainly, during that period, the body and brain remain the seat of various mental faculties, but precisely how the mental relates to the physical—how the qualities of mind inhere in the material substance of the nervous system—is suddenly a live question. Stranger still, this uncertainty about the brain’s relationship to the mind appears to result from a more complete, more thoroughly scientific account of that organ. It is precisely because Barker’s, Haywood’s, and Johnstone’s texts describe a real brain—an organ that operates like a machine of sorts, that is driven by the heat and pressure of internal cerebral fluids and is shaped by the traces of sense impressions—that their corresponding figuring of this organ strikes us as odd. Hence, neuroscience, in the very process of producing new and more accurate accounts of the brain and body, generates both a mystery (How do these newly uncovered physical mechanisms relate to the mind?) and a corresponding fictional or figurative supplement (various stories about homunculi toiling away in the nerves or accounts of the brain as a tool or instrument). However, in order to better understand why neuroscience leads to this curious state of affairs, a few words about its earliest efforts are in order.

The Two Images

In the mid-seventeenth century, the nerves and brain—those obscure organs hidden by skin and skull—became enlightened in a series of seminal anatomical works by the English physician Thomas Willis.¹⁸ Before his own dissections, Willis insisted, the labyrinth of the brain and nervous system had not been mapped properly. Willis’s predecessors imperfectly understood these organs.¹⁹ In their excited efforts to cut into the brain, they mangled it, hacking its Globe as it were into slices and parts and thereby making it impossible to appreciate its complete and complex architecture.²⁰ Willis himself admitted that adequately anatomizing the nervous system was difficult. Yea the parts of the Brain it self are so complicated and involved, and their respects and habitudes to one another so hard to be extricated, he lamented, that it may seem a more hard task to institute its perfect Anatomy, than to delineate on a plain, the flexions and Meanders of some Labyrinth.²¹ But thanks to the edge of an assistant’s Knife and Wit, Willis noted, in a short space there was nothing of the Brain, and its Appendix within the Skull, that seemed not plainly detected, and intimately beheld by us.²² Willis and his team eventually produced the most detailed and sweeping picture of the nervous system in the seventeenth century. They were able to establish three functional structures within the brain: the cerebrum at the top, the cerebellum just beneath it, and the medulla oblongata at its base.²³ More impressive still—especially for seventeenth-century readers—the team carefully tracked both the system of nerves plunging from brain to body as well as the network of arteries that fed blood to the organ from the heart.

Nevertheless, these findings, while undoubtedly important in their own right, were hardly an end in themselves. For Willis, and indeed for most of the neurophysiologists who followed in his wake, such dissections served as prelude to a more ambitious project: determining how the brain created the mind. By carefully observing the nervous tissues revealed in the course of such dissections, and by reasoning about the functions of these cerebral organs, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century anatomists like Willis set out to understand how brain matter gave rise to mental faculties (such as imagination and memory) as well as mental affections (like sadness and madness). Throughout this book, I refer to this more ambitious mode of natural philosophical research as neuroscience. The term is knowingly anachronistic. The sort of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century thinker who studied the brain to figure out the mind never used the word. With neuroscience, then, I risk a certain imprecision in order to mark a more important distinction. In my reckoning, those natural philosophers who engaged in plain anatomy or physiology—who dissected the brain and nerves only to display and catalog their structures—were not engaged in neuroscience but in a related, though ultimately more modest, endeavor. An anatomist or physiologist might study the brain or nerves as they would any other bodily organ, but a neuroscientist, like Willis or those like him, takes another, more radical step by attempting to connect body and mind.

More specifically still, early neuroscientists sought to do for the brain what Harvey had done for the heart: namely, to treat it as a machine whose mechanisms can be pried apart and understood absolutely. In Willis’s work especially, the brain becomes a chemical apparatus, a machine of heated liquors and driving hydraulic pressures that can be studied in the same manner, and with the same certainty, as the beakers and flasks stereotypically bubbling away in the scientist’s lab. To explain how brain matter made mind, Willis posited the existence of invisible fluids—the aforementioned animal spirits—coursing through the nervous system. By studying these fluids, Willis would be able to

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