By Charles Matthews

Monday, October 4, 2010

11. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, pp. 295-325

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)Davy on the Gas, 11-12; Dr Frankenstein and the Soul, 1-3
Davy's first Bakerian Lecture at the Royal Society, in November 1806, caused an international sensation. The topic was the revolutionary possibilities of the new field of electrochemical analysis. Challenging the notion that electricity was some kind of invisible fluid, he established that it was a form of bipolar energy, with positive and negative charges, and that it could be used to analyze substances into their components, which were entirely new elements. Surveying the scientific work going on elsewhere in Europe, he asserted that British chemistry now led the scientific world. The following November, he announced the discovery of two new elements, potassium and sodium, from his experiments using voltaic batteries to decompose soda and potash. Joseph Banks was so impressed with Davy's work that when he had his portrait painted the following year, he was shown holding a copy of Davy's Bakerian Lectures.

Joseph Banks in 1809, by Thomas Phillips
Banks fell seriously ill soon after these lectures. He had been working on a ventilation system for Newgate Prison and came down a form of typhus known as "jail fever" because it was so easily spread by lice in crowded prisons. He was away from his laboratory until April 1808. During his convalescence, he worked with Coleridge, who had been debilitated by opium, on the lecture series "Poetry and the Imagination," which Coleridge delivered at the Royal Institution in the spring of 1808. Davy also reported a hallucination of a beautiful woman who had nursed him at the height of his fever. He would later claim that he met her again in 1818 and in 1827-28, noting the ten-year cycle of recurrence that took place each time he started a new decade, turning thirty, then forty, then fifty. Holmes notes, "If there had been an earlier one, it would have been in 1798, when he turned twenty, and had just met Anna Beddoes. Anna had returned to her husband and was nursing him when he died in December 1808. After his death, she moved to Bath and then finally settled in Rome. Their son Thomas Lovell Beddoes became a poet, spending twenty-five years on a long poem called Death's Jest-Book, some of the imagery of which was drawn from his childhood memories of his father's laboratory. He committed suicide in 1849, at the age of forty-five.

In 1810 Davy went to Dublin for a series of hugely popular lectures, and he returned in 1811 to receive an honorary doctorate from Trinity College.
In these lectures he particularly stressed the importance of scientific knowledge for women's education, and for "the improvement of the female mind." Milton was wrong on the subject, and Mary Wollstonecraft was right. Among his attentive and admiring audiences was a strikingly pretty and vivacious Scottish widow called Jane Apreece. At a glittering reception afterwards, Jane Apreece told Humphry Davy that she loved fishing. 

In September 1811, Fanny Burney underwent a mastectomy in Paris without anesthetic. It was successful -- she lived twenty years longer -- but the pain was so excruciating that she wrote a 10,000-word letter to her sister about the ordeal, through which she had remained conscious except for "two total chasms in my memory." Even recalling the experience was so painful that it took her two months to write the letter, which is a remarkable glimpse at the the state of medical practice, especially surgery, at the time.

Although France was considered the leader in medicine at the time, England and Scotland were gaining renown, especially for the teaching hospitals of London and Edinburgh. Once again, Banks was concerned with promoting British prestige, and when Astley Cooper of Guy's Hospital perforated a patient's eardrum to treat a potentially fatal infection of the inner ear, Banks had it written up for the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions. Cooper became a member of the Royal Society and was awarded the Copley Medal in 1814. One of Cooper's students was John Keats. Other Romantic poets also had medical connections: Coleridge was treated by John Abernethy of St. Bartholomew's for his opium addiction, and Joseph Henry Green of Guy's was his amanuensis in 1818. Byron's traveling companion was William Polidori, who had become a doctor at Edinburgh Hospital.

One of Banks's medical protégés was William Lawrence, a young surgeon who worked under John Abernethy at St. Bartholomew's. Lawrence was a specialist in comparative anatomy, and he was elected to the Royal Society at the age of thirty. Two years later, in 1815, he became professor of anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1814, Lawrence's mentor, Abernethy, gave a series of lectures known as the Hunterian Orations in honor of John Hunter, who had accumulated a great collection of anatomical specimens. Hunter's collection demonstrated clearly the kinship between human beings and "lower species," leading to the conclusion that mankind had developed out of the animal kingdom. Abernethy had come across papers in Hunter's collection that speculated on the nature of life itself. From these speculations, "Abernethy proposed a theory of human life based on a semi-mystical concept of a universal, physiological life force" and even "suggested that this theory brought scientific evidence -- if not exactly proof -- to the theological notion of the soul." He also connected Davy's experiments with electricity to this theory of the life force.

But in 1816, it was Abernethy's student, Lawrence, who led a vociferous attack on the "life force" theory. Abernethy felt betrayed: Lawrence had been his assistant since the age of sixteen, and had even lodged with Abernethy for three years. Still, Lawrence had also studied anthropology with Johann Friedrich Blumenbach at the University of Göttingen and was well read in French medical literature. "If not an avowed atheist, he had little time for conventional pieties." Blumenbach had not gone so far as to deny the existence of the soul, but his work tended in the direction of a materialist view of life itself. He was also interested in the comparative study of "racial types," and Lawrence had translated Blumenbach's Comparative Anatomy into English in 1807.

Like Abernethy, Lawrence was also friends with a poet: Percy Bysshe Shelley, who consulted Lawrence in July 1815 on a variety of nervous disorders. Shelley, then twenty-two, was grateful for Lawrence's advice and treatment, and by September 1815 began his long poem Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude about the search for self, wrote some essay on the nature of life and death, and his "Essay on a Future State." He continued seeing Lawrence until he and his wife, Mary, left England for Italy, whose climate Lawrence had recommended, in 1818. 

It was Lawrence who was tapped for the Hunterian Lectures in 1816, and instead of performing the usual courtesy toward the previous lecturer, he began by attacking Abernethy and the theory of the life force. The human body, he asserted, was just "a complex physical organisation. In a phrase that became notorious, he claimed that the development of this physiological organisation could be observed unbroken, 'from an oyster to a man.'" He moved from attacking Abernethy to arguing that science, as Holmes puts it, "had an autonomous right to express its views fearlessly and objectively, without interference from Church or state." In his own words,
It seems to me that this hypothesis or fiction of a subtle invisible matter, animating the visible textures of animal bodies, and directing their motions, is only an example of that propensity in the human mind, which had led men at all times to account for those phenomena, of which the causes are not obvious, by the mysterious aid of higher and imaginary beings.
In 1819, Lawrence continued his attack on Vitalism, as Abernethy's life force theory was called, in a book, Natural History of Man, sparking a debate that had political, social and theological implications, "a premonition of the debate over Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, exactly forty years later."

In fact, there was nothing really new about the Vitalism debate. It had been anticipated in the 1780s by the vogue for mesmerism, which had been debunked by a series of blind trials. (Among other things, the trials provided the first demonstration of the "placebo effect," in which patients grew better simply because they believed they were being cured. Vitalism, however, got a boost from the ideas of Friedrich Schelling, who posited that "the whole world was indeed replete with spiritual energy or soul, and all physical objects 'aspired' to become something higher." This theory of evolution by aspiration was eventually laughed into extinction.

In 1803, Giovanni Aldini, a professor of anatomy from Bologna, did a series of public experiments with electricity on corpses, including an attempt to revive a hanged murderer six hours after his execution. The press reported that the electrical charges caused the muscles of the corpse to contract, the left eye to open, the fists to clench, and even made the body blow out a candle several times. "That small, grotesque detail of the opening eye may well have caught a young novelist's imagination." Further experiments on dead animals and "another human corpse which was said to have laughed and walked," caused such an outrage that Aldini was forced to leave the country.

The political implications of this quarrel over Vitalism took their character from the Napoleonic era: "Here was humane, pious English science fighting against cruel, reductive, atheistical French science." The conservative Quarterly Review, which is best known today for its savage attacks on the younger Romantic poets, weighed in with a scathing denunciation of Lawrence: "Mr Lawrence strives with all his powers to prove that men have no souls!" it fumed.

The debate also spread among the poets, and some of their comments, taken out of context, seem to suggest that they came down on the anti-science side. In December 1817, the painter Benjamin Haydon hosted a dinner at which Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Keats were present to celebrate Haydon's completion of part of his huge painting of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. The painting included portraits of Wordsworth (representing "natural English piety), Newton ("analytical science")  and Voltaire ("godless French philosophical scepticism"). Keats also appears in profile. Haydon recorded that the conversation centered on a debate over reason versus imagination, with the poets coming down on the side of imagination. He reported that Keats said Newton had "destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism." But Haydon was a devout fundamentalist Christian who "believed that most science was inevitably godless," and he may have biased his account accordingly.

Wordsworth is often cited as anti-science because of his poem "The Tables Turned," in which he refers to the "meddling intellect" and charges that scientists "murder to dissect." But Wordsworth also regarded Newton as a hero, celebrating him in The Prelude. Shelley, who was not present at the dinner, had previously twitted Haydon for his "religious superstitions" and referred to "that most detestable religion, the Christian." Like Coleridge, Shelley always defended science. Coleridge continued to argue that the soul existed, but he also rejected the idea of a "life force" as a physical fluid of some sort. He wrangled with the notion of the soul, which he identified as "the moral conscience and the spiritual identity."

Keats, from his medical studies under Cooper and J.H. Green, "undoubtedly knew more about medical, chemical and dissection procedures -- as well as the Vitalism debate itself -- than anyone else at Haydon's dinner party. His witticism at Newton's expense could be seen as the typical knowing humor of a clever medical student." But he did express some ambivalence about science in his poetry, particularly in "Lamia."
... Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings....
Unweave a rainbow, as it erstwhile made
The tender-personed Lamia melt into a shade.
But the poem shows Lamia, a serpent-woman, to be something other than "tender-personed." She is an alien life-form, "both sexually alluring and yet clearly menacing and 'demonic.'" She is unnatural, and a "scientific" approach to her would have unmasked that fact. "Lamia" is a richly ambiguous poem that eventually undermines the anti-scientific position expressed in the lines above. Holmes asserts that the poem "engages many of the moral issues surrounding Vitalism, the nature of life, and the notion of human consciousness. Above all, perhaps, it asks if the beautiful Lamia has a soul." 

No comments:

Post a Comment