The Daily Dose: A Subject Dark and Intricate

Welcome to Literary Medicine: The Daily Dose (companion to the Fiction Reboot).

I have been talking at length recently about the discipline required for being a professional fiction writer–a philosophy corroborated by my interviews with authors. However, we should not forget that that same discipline–the ability to work, work, work on a writing project–is also necessary to the researcher in any field. Let me raise a toast to my colleagues of literature, medicine, history and anthropology for their diligence, their sacrifice of time and energy (and social life, at times) to bring us incredible work! After all, it is hard work I am finding–less eviscerating than the dissertation process, but requiring an incredible force of will. And glue. To paste your rear to the desk-chair

Today, I am featuring the short description of my monograph, “A Subject Dark and Intricate”: Identity Dissolution and Mental Disruption in Eighteenth-Century Gothic Fiction. Including five chapters, an introduction and a coda, this has been the work of several months (and promises to be the work of at least six more). I hope you enjoy it; I will be putting further updates on my main website’s research page.


Introduction (brief)

A Subject Dark and Intricate explores the proliferation of electrical, neurological and reproductive sciences at the often cited naissance of Gothic literature at the “other” fin de siècle: the end of the eighteenth century. Such texts provide an unusually robust picture of the unexplained psychological phenomena—and the increasing proliferation of disease categories from medical science—threatening Enlightenment ideals of rational identity and the perspicuity of knowledge. Gothic fictions use their conventions to explore the margins of identity at a time when Locke, Hume and Kant were providing a dialogue about unity of consciousness, rooting existence in perception and suggesting we lose identity when we sleep or die. It is this disruption of continuity that forms (and informs) the threat to identity dissolution underscoring early Gothic texts. Contextualizing these fictions in the often weird and wonderful medical and scientific constructions of the age and offering a cultural-historical account of their significance, this project provides new insight into the monstrosity not primarily of the supernatural (or the super ego), but of the disturbed nerves, the disrupted minds, the dissolving identity boundaries of pre-Victorian tales of horror and intrigue.

Laudatory for the heroines of sensibility, the indulgence of the mind frequently becomes dangerous employment in the gothic tale. In Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, Emily St. Aubert sinks into a dangerous reminiscence that “rendered her at times sensible to the ‘thick-coming fancies’ of a mind greatly enervated.”[1] During such times, Radcliffe warns, “nothing less than momentary madness” takes possession of the heroine,[2] a “temporary failure of mind.”[3]This relationship between the Gothic and physical and mental disturbances has been frequently remarked upon; Terry Castle recognizes the comparative importance of déjà vu to Udolpho in The Female Thermometer: “the principle of déjà vu dominates both the structure of human relations in Udolpho and the phenomenology of reading.”[4] Claudia Johnson, in Equivocal Beings, makes a similarly gendered and politicized argument about the haunting nature of mental anguish: “assailed by the restless anguish of the dead and, even worse, by the restless cruelty of the living.”[5] Yet these symptoms do not exist independently. Accompanying visions, anguish and the re-memory of déjà vu are examples of misjudging senses, strange visions and a propensity for fainting. Taken together, these are signs of a larger disorder—even if the link is not clinically explained. Diseases and their symptoms pre-exist scientific authentication, and literature often serves as a vehicle—even a proving ground—for unexplained physical phenomena. In my own work on Udolpho, I have called this capability the mediation of a symptomatic text, wherein manifestations of a disorder (epilepsy in the case of Udolpho) are linked to the Gothic’s preoccupation with dreamy or altered states. What might be learned from a medical view of eighteenth-century Gothic narrative? What might the context of contemporary brain science reveal about the end of the English Enlightenment and the beginning of an Age of Melancholy? And finally, what might this tell us about the dissolution of self, the boundaries of identity and the burgeoning science of psychology undergirding Gothic texts of the nineteenth century?

[1] Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho.(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 102.

[2]Radcliffe, 102.

[3]Radcliffe, 103.

[4] Castle, Terry. The Female Thermometer.(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 127.

[5] Johnson, Claudia L. Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender and Sentimentality in the 1790s.(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 94.


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