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Cultural History in a New Key: Towards a Semiotics of the Nerve

  • George Rousseau

Abstract

George Rousseau locates his text — the discourse of nerves in the eighteenth century — in a long perspective, that of man escaping ‘the prison of his solipsistic self’ in order to communicate with the outside world. Man has developed his memory to a stage infinitely more complex than that of any computer, in that in the brain’s interlocking cell system it is capable of experiencing not only the nervous event, but also the recollection of the nature of that event. This kind of distinction between experiences relates to divisions of memory and learning, but, antecedent to these, the experience of a chemical reaction consequential on the nervous event which produced an unconditioned responsiveness. Rousseau refers in his analysis to the evolutionary processes of mankind, focusing on a specific period within his slow growth. He proceeds to relate it to a dominant discourse in medical, literary and social texts.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Cultural History Nervous Disease Moral Defect Nervous Condition 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Victor Weisskopf, Knowledge and Wonder: The Natural World as Man Knows It, Cambridge, 1979, p. 223 et passim.Google Scholar
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    For nerves and the ancients see: Friedrich Solmsen, ‘Greek Philosophy and the Discovery of the Nerves’, Museum Helveticum 18, 1961, pp. 150–67.Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    An extended note on the historiography of nerves provides some perspective here. As the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries progressed, nerves played an increasingly prominent role in all sorts of research agendas, including those of the laboratory as well as in more logocentric projects, as I tried to demonstrate over a decade ago in ‘Nerves, Spirits and Fibres: Toward the Origins of Sensibility, Studies in the Eighteenth Century, ed. R. F. Brissenden, Canberra, 1975, pp. 137–57. My point, then and now, has been that there was a progression from nerves to the cults of sentiment and sensibility, and that European Romanticism could not have occurred without this sequence. It is, to be sure, a diachronic theory, and nowhere have I ever maintained that nerves and sensibility were the (superlative) cause of Romanticism. In this essay, I attempt to show more fully than previously the roles of the nerves in cultural history. But see also, for a medical historian’s view of the subject, George Rosen, ‘Emotion and Sensibility in Ages of Anxiety: A Comparative Historical Review,’ American Journal of Psychiatry 6.124, 1967, pp. 771–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    G. S. Rousseau, ‘Le Cat and the Physiology of Negroes’, Racism in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Harold Pagliaro, Cleveland, 1973 pp. 369–87.Google Scholar
  5. R. C. Dallas, writing in a History of the Maroons, 2 vols, 1803, adjudged that negroes could never be integrated into ‘cold climes’ because their nerves and fibres could not withstand ‘the pinching of frost’ (I, pp. 200–1).Google Scholar
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    See Maureen McNeil, Under the Banner of Science: Erasmus Darwin and his Age, Manchester, 1986, and Peter Morton, The Vital Science: Biology and The Literary Imagination, 1984, for discussion of the nerves in Darwin’s works.Google Scholar
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    An entire vocabulary of words originating as technical terms in anatomy that later lost their technical usage and became common household phrases begs for study. These include: tension, corruption, delicacy, irritation, sensibility. Indeed, much of the vocabulary of the School of Taste in the period from Reynolds to Wordsworth appropriated this technical anatomical language for its own aesthetic purposes; for discussion of this specific appropriation see G. S. Rousseau, ‘The Language of the Nerves: A Chapter in Social and Linguistic History’, The Social History of Language, eds. Peter Burke and Roy Porter, Oxford, 1991, in press.Google Scholar
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    The close tie between suicide and nerves was constantly noticed at that time, especially as applicable to the situation of persons in high rank and class. Later on, in the 1770s, as sentimental cults were more dispersed, and as increasingly more persons aped the habits of the great, suicide grew more common, its etiology and dynamic changing as well. In France, J. P. Falret called suicide a class malaise in De l’hypochondrie et du suicide. Considérations sur les causes, sur le siège et le traitement de ces maladies, sur les moyens d’en arreter les progrès et d’en prévenir le développement, Paris, 1822. The social history of suicide in the Enlightenment remains to be written.Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    For whatever complex reasons, the feminists have not explored this aspect of Richardson’s masterpiece, although they have understood so much else about it. A broad approach is found in Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Lacqueur, eds, The Making of the Modern Body, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1986; see also Ann van Sant’s forthcoming study of sensibility and the novel (Cambridge, 1991).Google Scholar
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    That is, in the theoretical sense that semiotics provides the deepest clue to the concept of the ‘fibre’ (here one wants to say nerve-centre, except for the obvious ineptitude) of a culture; see Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America, New York, 1985. Good work in this semiotic vein that is also particularly germane to the cultural history of the Enlightenment is found in Sylvain Auroux, La Sémiotique des encyclopédistes: Essai d’épistémologie historique des sciences du language, Paris, Payot, 1979.Google Scholar
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    Henrietta Knight [Lady Luxborough], Letters of Lady Luxborough … to the poet William Shenstone, London, 1775.Google Scholar
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    See C. F. Mullett, ed., The Letters of Dr George Cheyne to the Countess of Huntingdon, San Marino, Calif, 1940. Richardson’s prose is permeated with the language of the nerves which forms an intrinsic part of his version of sensibility; for his personal commentary about nerves, see Anna L. Barbauld ed., The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, 1804, 4, pp. 30, 283–4, and Raymond Stephanson, ‘Richardson’s “Nerves”: The Physiology of Sensibility in Clarissa,’ Journal of the History of Ideas 49, 1988, pp. 267–85. At this time nervous mythology was intrinsically tied to myths about the English nation and their developing nationalism as the most melancholic people on earth: depressed by their perpetually foul weather, dispirited by new stresses of high living, even unusually suicidal; as the poet Thomas Gray would say in a letter dated 27 May 1742, a nation epidemically stricken by ‘White Melancholy’ and ‘Leucocholy’.Google Scholar
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    Frances Burney, Evelina, ed. Edward A. Bloom, 1968, p. 286 (vol. 3, letter III), where Mr. Lovel tells Lady Louisa Larpent that ‘Your Ladyship’s constitution is infinitely delicate’, to which Louisa replies: ‘Indeed it is,’ cried she, in a low voice, ‘I am nerve all over!’Google Scholar
  25. 43.
    The late eighteenth-century was the era par excellence of developmental patent medicine, the first patent medicines having been brought out in the 1770s after the Patent Office had opened in England; it is not surprising that a flurry of these quack therapies and remedies would be rushed to the public before they could be scrutinised by the officers of the Patent Office. See J. H. Young, The Toadstool Millionaires, Princeton, 1961.Google Scholar
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    Lewis Knapp, ed., The Adventures of Humphry Clinker, Oxford, 1966, 34.Google Scholar
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    Dr William Derry has compiled a still unpublished mss archive of the eighteenth-century Bath doctors. As early as 1699 the soothing effects of these spa waters specifically on the nerves had been commented upon (Benjamin Allen, The Natural History of the Chalybeat and Purging Waters of England, 1699). A generation later,Google Scholar
  28. 49.
    A useful study of Tissot’s theory of nerves in relation to his medical practice and therapy is found in Heinrich Walther Bucher, ‘Tissot und sein Traité des Nerfs,’ Zürcher Medizingeschichtlicher Abhandlungen, ed. E. H. Ackerknecht, Zurich, 1958.Google Scholar
  29. 50.
    If cultural history crosses the lines of traditional disciplines and teaches us how to view these boundaries and borders with scepticism, it also allows us to retrieve lost discourses such as those of the crucial nerve, as Weisskopf in our opening section would say; and within this specific domain it demonstrates that Adair merits a full-length biography, as do Dr George Cheyne and the Bath eccentric and proflic commentator Phillip Thicknesse. Useful information about Cheyne’s career as the doyen of ‘nerve doctors’ is found in William Falconer, Remarks on Dr. Cheyne’s Essay on Health and Long Life, Bath: Leake, 1745.Google Scholar
  30. 54.
    George Cheyne, The English Malady: Or a Treatise of Nervous Diseases of All Kinds, Bath and London, 1733.Google Scholar
  31. 58.
    The imagination was becoming medicalised under the influence of the seventeenth-century mechanists, and became increasingly so in the eighteenth century; for this development, see G. S. Rousseau, ‘Science and the Discovery of the Imagination in Enlightened England’, Eighteenth-Century Studies III, 1969, pp. 108–5; for the Aristotelian tradition, see Michael V. Wedlin, Mind and the Imagination in Aristotle, New Haven, 1989. Some of this work, as found in C. G. Gross, De morbis imaginariis hypochondriacorum, 1755, specifically addressed the imagination in relation to somatic diseases generated in the locale of the hypochondrium. In 1691, Timothy Rogers, a sedentary MA from Oxford, published a confessional treatise, A Discourse concerning Trouble of Mind, and the Disease of Melancholy, linking mind and melancholy through the medium of the Nerves. Others, such as the German physician J. F. Mossdorff, writing De valetudinariis imaginariis, von Menschen, die aus Einbildung kranck werden, 1721, were more concerned with illnesses that had no detectable somatic manifestations (that is, what we would call psychological conditions). In Italy, Lodovico Antonio Muratori, the empirical philosopher-poet whose book on imagination and dreams (1747) was widely discussed, suggested that the imagination played a central role in the formation of illness. In England, J. Richardson (of Newent) wrote Thoughts upon thinking, or, a new theory of the human mind; wherein a physical rationale of the formation of our ideas, the passions, dreaming, and every faculty of the soul is attempted upon principles entirely new, 1755, and suggested that the nerves mediate between ideas and illness. In all these discussions, and others, the nerves played a central role.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 61.
    See Anna L. Barbauld, ed., The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, 1804, 4, p. 30.Google Scholar
  33. 62.
    Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1957, p. 184.Google Scholar
  34. 63.
    George Sherburn, ed., The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, Oxford, 1956, IV, p. 526. In his Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, 1762, Joseph Warton attempts to show that much of Pope’s genius was tied to a delicate sensibility founded on a nervous personality. Warton also considered ‘nervous’ composition as one of ‘three different species,’ which he adumbrates in the Essay, I, p. 170. Adam Smith commented in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Edinburgh, 1759, on the stylistic (i.e. couplet) ‘nervous precision of Mr. Pope’.Google Scholar
  35. 64.
    Misaurus Philander, The Honour of the Gout, 1720, p. 18–19.Google Scholar
  36. 68.
    See Elizabeth Carter, The Correspondence of Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot, 4 vols, 1809, 2, p. 156. More generally the passions, reason, morality and insanity were linked together specifically by the nervous apparatus, as suggested here and in dozens of other similar passages in different kinds of writing by both sexes. Two generations after Elizabeth Carter wrote, the prolific (if also prolix) Reverend Trusler, the moraliser of Hogarth who made his fortune by combining alleged medical expertise with clerical eccentricity, claimed to have penetrated to the truth about cowardice — in his view the most feminine of all moral defects, implying just the kind of genderised nerves we have seen gradually developing throughout the century. Trusler wrote in his Memoirs, Bath, 1806, p. 46:Google Scholar
  37. 70.
    Robert Halsband, ed., The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford, 1965, II, 63.Google Scholar
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    See Frank H. Ellis, ed., Poems on Affairs of State: Augustan Satirical Verse, 1660–1714, Volume VI: 1697–1704, New Haven, 1970, 64, lines 35–36.Google Scholar
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    See Pierre Fedida, ‘Les Exercises de l’imagination et la commotion sur la masse des nerfs: un érotisme de tête,’ in Oeuvres complètes du Marquis de Sade, 16 vols, Paris, 1967, 9, p. 613–25. Perceptive discussion of the nerves in Sade’s prose is found in David Morris, ‘The Discourses of Pain in Revolutionary France,’ in G. S. Rousseau (ed.) The Languages of Psyche: Mind and Body in EnlightenmentGoogle Scholar
  40. 75.
    See William Cullen, Nosologia; translated as Nosology; or, a Systematic arrangement of diseases, Edinburgh, 1768; 2nd edn, 1800, p. 238. J. M. Lopez Pinero has traced the tradition from Willis and Cullen down to current time in his Historical Origins of the Concept of Neurosis, Cambridge, 1983.Google Scholar
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    A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, New York, 1970, p. 19. J. Babinski and J. Froment, Hysteria or Pithiatism and Reflex Nervous Disorders in the Neurology of War, 1918 p. 311.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Joan H. Pittock and Andrew Wear 1991

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  • George Rousseau

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