The Oxonian Review Fri, 19 Dec 2014 18:37:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Photo of the Week: Township Scene Wed, 17 Dec 2014 19:13:45 +0000 township hole vinesh rajpaul tree imizamo yethu xhosa Vinesh Rajpaul


This term, we are featuring photographs by Vinesh Rajpaul, an Oxford student originally from South Africa, who spends much of his free time pursuing his passion for photography. Details of his work and competition successes can be found on his website.

Vinesh writes: This is a scene from the Imizamo Yethu township on the outskirts of Cape Town, also known as Mandela Park. The name literally means ‘our struggle’ in the Xhosa language. The boy in the photograph seems to be covering his eyes to hide from his depressing surroundings, though in fact he is just shy and hiding playfully from the camera.

If you have a photo to submit, please email Benedict Morrison.

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La Vita di Merda Tue, 16 Dec 2014 18:02:06 +0000 ciro—young gomorrah’s gomorrah ciro napoli attilo napoli—in savastano’s ciro—young gomorrah’s gomorrah ciro napoli attilo napoli—in savastano’s Daniel Nicolo Bottiglieri

Created by Leonardo Fasoli, Roberto Saviano, Stefano Bises
Produced by Cattleya, Fandango, Sky
Screened on Sky Atlantic

Unlike Federico Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita, Gomorrah has little to show by way of the good life. The twelve-part TV drama is based on Robert Saviano’s book about the Neapolitan Mafia, the Camorra. Set in Napoli, the drama’s landscape is bleak, ominous and destitute. There is not much optimism to be derived from culture or nature this side of Napoli: not much evidence of town planning, not much of the renaissance architecture that one might associate with Florence or Turin, not one historical museum, not many olive groves, not many cypress trees lining garden steps. Not much at all besides dank alleyways, pasta, popular religiosity, ambitious young men, temperate older men, and dependent women. This is the dark side of Napoli, and rarely does the relentless narrative of Gomorrah allow the mood to lighten.

The main character, and perhaps the only character who the viewer can sympathise with, is Ciro, “The Immortal”, so called because he survives multiple attempts on his life. The narrative is constructed through and around him, and the viewer is encouraged to love him, especially in the beginning and still, to an extent, by the end. Ciro works for Don Pietro Savastano, and the first episode follows the protagonist around Savastano’s mafia empire: a dilapidated tower block, a sports bar, and the Savastano house. This remains the geographical backdrop, more or less, to the entire first season.

Some critics have given Gomorrah an ill-deserved reception. Jasper Rees in The Daily Telegraph writes, “For those who romanticize Italy, Gomorrah is a fizzing antidote.” He’s not wrong, but Gomorrah is much more than that and Rees dedicates his remaining four hundred words to a rather flat description of the characters, a disservice to the series. Bim Adewunmi in The Guardian describes it as a “bed of clichés”, compares it flatteringly but ambiguously to The Wire, and seems more interested in indulging in affectations than saying anything revealing about twelve hours of drama. Such criticism is unfair; the characters are certainly not flat, and what clichés there are in Gomorrah are justified. Gomorrah has much more to tell us about Italy (or at least a small southern corner of it) than the familiar truths of how the Italians passionately love their mothers, their families, and their food. The series’ achievement lies in the fact that compelling writing comes first, and the guns, the blood, the clichés, come second.

This innovation can be seen in a side plot concerning the formidable Lady Imma. She, acting as boss in the place of her husband, Don Savastano, decides to protect a young girl. The girl, daughter of a dressmaker who has been killed for not paying his debts, runs errands for Lady Imma in return for protection from those seeking repayment. The girl looks and behaves more like an Italian boy: with short hair, a willing attitude and a sharp tongue, she is a far cry from a quiet, domestic, clichéd Italian girl. One evening, in a moment of reflection, she tries on one of her father’s wedding dresses in a lowly lit room. Looking in the mirror, we are left wondering if she is reflecting upon her life, her looks, or her sexuality. That day she is shot down, in public, in that wedding dress. This image—of a young woman who craves a conventional role which she has not been able to play herself—is pathetic and deeply moving, questioning many of the clichéd assumptions made about gender roles.

Gomorrah also captures the disruptive and disorientating role technology plays in modern life. Those who struggle to adapt to it, who are suspicious of it, find themselves at odds with the world and the people in it. Attilo, one of Savastano’s veterans, expresses to young Ciro—young in age and experience—his concern about his daughter’s constant writing on the “book”, by which he means Facebook. “What the fuck does she write about?” he asks, exasperated. Ciro tells him that it’s what all young people do. Attilo tells him he will smash the computer up, the solution to most problems in Napoli. Elsewhere, driving down a motorway, Attilo express his distaste for the rap music playing in the car. Ciro tell him that it’s modern. Attilo tells him he is too old for such music. Depicting change, modernity, and its implications for life in Napoli—in the slums, in the mafia—is Gomorrah’s finest achievement. As the drama begins, Attilo struggles to adjust to Ciro, and Ciro in return struggles to adjust to the “old ways.” Later, Ciro himself has to contend with the ignorant youths in the clan. In Gomorrah, there is always a sense of progress and development, with the old making way for the young, be they energetic, impassioned, or naïve.

Gomorrah perfectly balances entertainment with social and cultural comment. Questions of corruption, family values, politics, materialism, and immigration are left, for the most part, hanging in the air, a context to inspire further thought in the viewer. The soundtrack is great, and the drama is beautifully shot, replete with realistic detail. It gives a view of Italy simultaneously familiar and new, both a critique on the clichéd structures of the culture and a startling insight into how the society is changing. The result is a TV series deep enough to leave viewers thinking and light enough to keep them breathlessly entertained.

Daniel Nicolo Bottiglieri graduated last year with an MSt in History from Merton College, Oxford.

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Weekly Round-Up: Cracked Codes, Sexist Sites, Meaningful Margins, Diabolic Drunks, Corrupt Capitalism, Grandiose Graffiti Sat, 13 Dec 2014 09:59:26 +0000 drunkenness drunkenness’ hamper unsteady imitation ‘slavery slavery’s slavery The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “Edward Rothsteinno: ‘Turing’s Spirit Hovers at a Restored Estate’“, The New York Times: detailing many of The Imitation Game’s errors, this account of the exhibition at Bletchley Park celebrates the modest activities that resulted in remarkable feats of code-breaking and changed the course of World War II. “In many ways, too, the human decoding work was more impressive than the mechanical.”

2. “David Auerbach: ‘Encyclopaedia Frown’“, The Slate: where would be without Wikipedia? Though he recognises the site’s great contribution, Auerbach also digs deep into the anarchic editing systems and exposes the many prejudices which are commonplace on the website. “But beneath its reasonably serene surface, the website can be as ugly and bitter as 4chan and as mind-numbingly bureaucratic as a Kafka story. And it can be particularly unwelcoming to women.”

3. “Tim Parks: ‘A Weapon for Readers’“, The New York Review of Books: reading with a pen in your hand, ready to spring into action and make a margin note, is not just a critical exercise but a political one, according to Parks. While there is joy to be found in giving yourself over in passive pleasure to a writer, it is also important that our analytical antennae do not stop twitching altogether. “Let us resist enchantment for a while, or at least for long enough to have some idea of what we are being drawn into. For the mindless, passive acceptance of other people’s representations of the world can only enchain us and hamper our personal growth, hamper the possibility of positive action.”

4. “Kristen D. Burton: ‘Blurred Forms: An Unsteady History of Drunkenness’“, The Appendix: in perfect time for the festive season, this account of four centuries’ attitudes to drunkenness is enough to make you think twice before indulging in just one more glass of mulled wine this Christmas. The Victorians’ commitment to temperance may have been a little pompous but, back in the seventeenth century, the devil got involved, a time when “drinking not only aged the drunkard’s body, but by corrupting judgment, it made the drinker more beast than man.”

5. “Sven Beckert: ‘Slavery and Capitalism’“, The Chronicle of Higher Education: tracing the continued legacy of slavery through violent capitalist structures, this article forges uncomfortable links between the practices of the cotton fields and the practices of the factory, work spaces in which inequality has always been rife and conditions, in many instances, deplorable. The spectre of slavery continues to haunt capitalist culture. “The next time we walk the streets of Lower Manhattan or the grounds of Harvard University, we should think at least in passing of the millions of enslaved workers who helped make some of that grandeur possible, and to the ways that slavery’s legacy persists today.”

6. “Emily Gowers: ‘Ancient Vandalism?’ “, The Times Literary Supplement: reviewing Kristina Milnor’s book on Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii, Gowers explores the extent to which graffiti, when it engages with matters of real political and cultural significance, deserves to be thought of as art. Certainly, it can provide a crucial and colourful commentary. “She ends not by asking us not to canonize graffiti as ‘Latin literature’, but to reflect carefully on where we put the boundary between the literary and the paraliterary at Rome. Thanks to her, the last voices of Pompeii seem to buzz all the more inventively before everyone falls silent.”


If you would like to suggest a link, please email Benedict Morrison

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No one ever wanted to save me from the restaurant industry Thu, 11 Dec 2014 08:44:44 +0000 whore”—roles grant grant’s whore”—roles grant grant’s whore”—roles grant grant’s whore”—roles grant grant’s whore”—roles grant grant’s Rachel Elizabeth Fraser

Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work
By Melissa Gira Grant
Verso Books, 2014
144 pages
ISBN: 9781781683231

In Playing The Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant stresses again and again the imbrication of sex work with other precarious and low paying forms of labour. She does this partly to reframe the speech of sex workers, whose “complaints about sex work shouldn’t be construed, as they often are, as evidence of sex workers’ desire to exit sex work.” Certainly, if academics’ quotidian grousing about their jobs were to be taken as evidence of their desire to leave the academy, its continued overpopulation would be quite astonishing. Many feminist theorists have stressed the commonalities between sex work and other feminised forms of labour in which the heart must be managed and the personality pressed into service. Grant shows that the joins between these forms of labour run through the lives of particular women: “the same workers are performing sex work and nonsexual service work.” Prohibitionist feminists sometimes object to what they take to be the “sanitising” rubric of sex work and sex workers, insisting instead upon the rather more pungent language of prostitution, and prostituted women. To a Marxian ear, though, to designate some practice as labour is hardly fumigatory. Rather, it marks the practice as susceptible to a certain sort of analysis—an analysis which even those of us with the scantiest of acquaintances with Das Kapital ought 
to suspect might not be entirely salutary. The ostensibly “sanitising” rubric has the effect of troubling those productivist ethics in which waged work is seen not merely as economic necessity but also as a moral duty and an indispensable site of “self-­actualisation.” Panegyrics to waged work as an abstract category (think of the rhetoric of Iain Duncan Smith) co­exist with a discourse that produces detailed taxonomies of the problems attaching to particular, given forms of employment (this or that boss, the commute, the so-­called “work­life” balance). But, asked to see “[c]utting cuticles, giving colonics or diapering someone else’s babies” in the same harsh light in which we place sex work with such ease, this odd particularism crumbles away, and the whole category of work starts to take on a slightly grubby aspect.

Once upon a time, Samuel Johnson struck his foot against a stone and proclaimed himself (rather loudly, one imagines) to have refuted Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialist thesis. In so doing, he produced some memorable and amusing theatrics, certainly, and his remarks even have a certain vivacity that might, easily enough, be taken for argumentative force. But his precipitate glibness leaves his adversary intact. And so it sometimes is with Grant when she turns her guns on that most feminist of canards: objectification. Her piquant remarks will surely not amuse quite so many generations of undergraduates as those of Johnson, but they do succeed in preferring wit to wisdom, that most undergraduate of pursuits. The discussion is a series of tart irrelevancies; a study by the APA into the effects of self­objectification on cognitive function is ridiculed for failing to account for “all the actual women who perform essential feats of accounting while wearing G-­strings,” and she cites no theorist of objectification more sophisticated than one Ariel Levy. If Female Chauvinist Pigs were the most adroit comment on the interplay of embodiment, subjectivity and autonomy to be found in the feminist canon, perhaps Grant’s dispatch of its thesis would have been less reminiscent of a man kicking a stone.

Grant’s flippancy wanes when she becomes preoccupied by the speech of sex workers. Political theorists have emphasised that it is through attending to the speech of others that we come to appreciate the texture of their lives. It is stories which provide what Iris Young calls that “thick description of needs and problems and consequences” that we must hear if we are to act justly. But to make themselves understood, Grant argues, sex workers must vie with and negotiate “narrow roles—virgin, victim, wretch, or whore”—roles that they did not themselves “originate” but through which their speech is filtered and its force construed. The evocative particularities of narrative turn out to be no match for the sweeping contours of what Grant calls ‘the prostitute imaginary’. Vivifying the calculus of risk and recompense that regulates sex workers’ disclosures and silences, she tells us that the first women ever to share their stories of prostitution (Grant’s usage) with her were later arrested. For sex workers, even anonymous speech can incur “social, political, and emotional” costs. They will, Grant promises, find their speech relentlessly eroticised—“[t]he storytelling process is a form of striptease indistinguishable from striptease itself”—but unremunerated. By making sincerity burdensome, the disciplinary apparatus applied to sex work excludes prostitutes from our affective economy far more effectively than from the ‘real’ one.

Rachel Elizabeth Fraser is a philosophy DPhil student at Linacre College, Oxford, with interests in language and epistemology.

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Photo of the Week: The Tree by the Water Hole Wed, 10 Dec 2014 16:32:40 +0000 hole vinesh rajpaul tree water giraffes ausspannplatz buffalos hole vinesh rajpaul tree water giraffes ausspannplatz buffalos Vinesh Rajpaul


This term, we are featuring photographs by Vinesh Rajpaul, an Oxford student originally from South Africa, who spends much of his free time pursuing his passion for photography. Details of his work and competition successes can be found on his website.

Vinesh writes: “This image shows a tree reflected in a water hole frequented by wild animals (including elephants, lions, African wild dogs, buffalos, giraffes, hippos, and many birds). The water hole is near Ausspannplatz, in Namibia. I find this reflected image of the tree more fascinating than images I captured of the tree on its own.” The slight warping of the image, the strange framing effect of the dry earth, and the disturbed texture of the water add to the image’s distancing effect.

If you have a photo to submit, please email Benedict Morrison.

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£10 Anarchy Tue, 09 Dec 2014 10:06:45 +0000 mockingjay—part mockingjay–part hunger games mockingjay—part mockingjay–part hunger games mockingjay—part mockingjay–part hunger games mockingjay—part mockingjay–part hunger games Nathan Ellis

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 1
Dir. Francis Lawrence
Released on 10 November 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 1 is a film all about media. The convoluted plot sees Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) making broadcasts to the Districts to stir them up into revolution, and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), under the control of the Capitol, calling for an end to war across the state television network. It explicitly depicts the way the mass-media controls people’s minds, suppressing revolution and reinforcing hegemonic ideology. This may appear at first to be a bold, even radical, concern for a Hollywood production. However, on closer scrutiny the film reveals the ironies of its own project.

This instalment of the Hunger Games franchise has an estimated budget of 125 million dollars. It is produced and distributed by Lionsgate, the makers of such recent gems as Twilight: Breaking Dawn and Expendables 3. It would be roundly absurd to claim any kind of subversive impetus for these films. However, this is the production house which used to make the films that bigger studios thought too controversial: American Psycho, Farenheight 9/11. Responding, no doubt, to the pressure for profit, it is now a studio which specialises in massive, homogenised franchises, splitting the final instalment of any sagas into two for maximum financial advantage.

It is a dishonesty about this shift from subversion to mindless conformity which is so spectacularly horrifying about Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1. The film appears to be talking about educating the masses to have critical minds—encouraging them to consider the institutions which surround them with a questioning mind, seeking underlying ideological messages. But it is in fact an exercise in making money out of projecting relentlessly empty actions onto a screen with enough rapidity to hold the audience’s gaze. It tells its massive audience to shut down and watch. Just by being here, it tries to suggest to its viewers, you are fighting oppression and enacting free speech. You come in a long line of revolutionaries. Now, give me your money and bask in Jennifer Lawrence’s buttocks and Donald Sutherland’s beard. But there is no revolution here, and the sinister semiotic functions of those buttocks and that beard make them, respectively, the opiate and comfort-blanket of the masses.

The film compounds this effect by reinforcing a myth common in bad science fiction and fantasy: that the depicted dystopian world is far, far away, and therefore of no pressing relevance. The result of this naïve distancing is that the issues of propaganda, which the film so crudely handles, require thinking about and interrogating only within the context of distant totalitarian dictatorships. However, despite the film’s best efforts to distract attention from the fact, the parallels between Panem and our own culture are compelling. If the film is seen in the context of the mechanics of its own production, its very existence—solely there to amass huge profits for an enormous studio, its executives, and its stars—it is exposed as part of an attempt to depoliticise and imaginatively castrate a whole generation. The filmmakers may or may not possess the self-awareness to enjoy the irony of the fact that they are the bourgeois Capitol, dressing up, walking down the red carpets, going on TV to sell to the Districts a film that pretends to tell them that anarchy is good.

Far from being an anarchic act, every £10 ticket bought for this film only fans the flames of a bonfire of ideas, with Marx smouldering on the top. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 1 is the nadir of civilisation, the puppetmaster of late-capitalism, hawking Coke and popcorn to tweens and telling them it’s a revolution. In addition, it’s extraordinarily dull.

Nathan Ellis is reading for a B.A. in English language and literature at Exeter College, Oxford.

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n = 1: Valuing Literature and Science Mon, 08 Dec 2014 09:50:25 +0000 cancer cancer—but cancer cancer—but cancer cancer—but cancer cancer—but cancer cancer—but cancer cancer—but cancer cancer—but cancer cancer—but cancer cancer—but cancer cancer—but cancer cancer—but Martin Willis



The simple equation above is one of the key reasons that the study of literature, perhaps even research in the humanities more generally, is received with scepticism by scientists. It is to literary scholarship as kryptonite is to Superman. What the equation tells us, if we read it with results in mind, is that our findings relate only to a single instance. What the literary scholar might say about a work of poetry sheds light only on that single work of poetry and not on anything else, whether on poetry or on the social marginalisation of cancer patients. It has no (statistical) significance.

But statistics, as we know from Mark Twain, are never quite as simple as that. Cancer Research UK, in a series of advertisements on the London Underground earlier this year, claimed that “every day, research saves 3 times the number of people that fill this carriage.” That is quite a statistic, especially if you have ever travelled on the tube during rush hour. What they mean by this, however, is not that new advances in scientific research are curing an additional 66 people of cancer every 24 hours. Rather, the advertisement plays on the statistical fact that approximately 24,090 (365 x 66) people living with cancer in Britain remain alive twelve months after diagnosis. If you died a year and a day later, you would still be a statistic contributing to that self-congratulatory tube advert.

But highlighting the gap between scientific publicity and reality is not really the point. It is far more important to understand from statistical fictions like this one that scientific knowledge alone cannot solve our most pressing problems. There must be a place for other ways of examining, and changing, the world. The rest of us should not be sneering at Cancer Research, however grandiose their statistics. We should be helping them.

Microsoft are already elbowing their way in. Lately, they have been claiming that their Cloud is helping to cure cancer. Their expertise in the collection, organisation, and interpretation of big data, they say, has enabled them to support scientific research with much faster analysis of genomic information used in the study of cancer therapies. This is statistics again: lots of them. Surely, though, if my laptop is helping to cure cancer, there must be a space, and a significant one, for literature?

Is it just that literature does not have the corporate muscle, or lack of modesty, to make great claims? Should our leading universities be paying for billboards in tube stations that exclaim that Shakespeare can save your life? This was, after all, the question that leading novelist Ian McEwan asked, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, in his 2005 novel Saturday when a violent criminal’s murderous intent is halted not by the rational pleas of his neurologist but by a young woman’s reading of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”.

McEwan is far from alone in wondering about the relationship between literature and science, and their relative merits and position in the world. Over the last twenty years there has been a huge increase in the writing and publication of poetry, plays, and novels dedicated to understanding something of the interplay between the literary and scientific. From Michael Frayn’s germinal science play Copenhagen (1998) through Allegra Goodman’s Orange prize shortlisted Intuition (2006) to Barbara Kingsolver’s acclaimed Flight Behaviour (2012) and Marianne Boruch’s fascinating new poetry collection Cadaver, Speak (2014) writers have been examining an incredible range of scientific disciplines, controversies, and challenges.

Not coincidentally the last twenty years has also been a period of considerable advancement for the academic study of literature and science, largely as a sub-discipline within literature departments and led by literary scholars, but sometimes, and increasingly, involving scientists, historians, and sociologists. What this academic community has achieved is a hugely enhanced understanding of the role of literature in the promotion and critique of new scientific knowledge and its implications across history.

While that role still remains, it seems that there are moments, such as now, when we need to remind ourselves, scientists, and other opinion-makers, of it. What is it, then, that we should value in literature’s engagement with science and in the academic study of that engagement?

The first task is to remind scientists that while individual works of literature might well be unique and unrepeatable, that n=1, literature and science scholarship uncovers much greater significance from the study of such works: n= a whole lot more than 1. Literature does not, after all, simply reflect the scientific knowledge being generated elsewhere. Nor is the relationship parasitic; literature should not be caricatured as picking barnacles from the great whale of science to allow it to swim freely onwards.

Fictions engaged with science offer much more than an advertising puff. The worlds they imagine act as laboratories for social and cultural exploration, asking difficult questions of the place of new scientific knowledge in the human world. Like the tableaux vivant used to illustrate scientific books in the eighteenth century they place science in real situations and examine the effects on individuals, societies, and politics. Literature enables all of us to orient ourselves in relation to science by humanising its research and the implications of that research. This is not only vital to our present culture, it also allows us to understand our past and to think appropriately and fully about our future.

It is the academic study of the relationships between literature and science that explores how writers have engaged with science, in what forms they have done so, and with what effects. Such scholarship enables us to see that literary knowledge has as much value as scientific knowledge; and also reveals why it is (and why it should not be) that such a claim seems so radical to us now. Scholars of literature and science are also passing on this knowledge, mainly through teaching and writing, and in doing so are creating a new generation that is scientifically literate; not in their understanding of specialist scientific knowledge, of course not, but in understanding the centrality of science to our world and how to ask the right questions as it develops new methods for intervening in that world.

To that extent, literature about science, as well as literature and science, are not just for small groups of writers, readers, and academics. That would only further anatomise knowledge in the very ways that literature and science is trying to counter. Literature engaged with science, and the study of literature and science are essential for all of us who would wish to be ethical, competent, credible and critical citizens. Not n=1, rather n=everyone.

Where, though, does this leave literature and science in relation to where we began—with cures for cancer? Literature about science can certainly show us what it means to live with cancer, or even the complex scientific and human factors involved in seeking cures for it. It is literature and science scholarship, though, that can mobilise these fictions in pursuit of cancer cures. Work with illness narratives has, for some time, revealed the productive thinking that can emerge when cancer is imagined as a lived experience. This data (if you like) has delivered better cancer care and, in turn, better cancer research. Indeed narrative medicine, as this work is now often named, is making strides within bio-labs and elsewhere as one form of evidence-based research. None of this is basic science—the kind of necessary research that we require to tackle diseases like cancer—but it is undoubtedly, and at least, on a par with the claims made for big data. And if even Microsoft thinks it is helping cure cancer then there is every reason to argue that literature and science scholars are doing the same.

Martin Willis is Professor of Science, Literature and Communication at the University of Westminster and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Cardiff School of Medicine, where he advises on medical education and the history of medicine. His Vision, Science and Literature, 1870-1920: Ocular Horizons (2011) won the BSLS Book Prize in 2011 and the European Society for the Study of English award for ‘Cultural Studies in English’ in 2012. His most recent monograph, Literature and Science: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism is available from Palgrave Macmillan in December 2014.

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Science and Books in an Age of Reform Mon, 08 Dec 2014 09:40:07 +0000 Sarah Hanks

James Secord
Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of
the Victorian Age

Oxford University Press, 2014
£18.99 (hardback)
306 pages
ISBN: 9780199675265

John Withers, the mill owner, inventor, and self-made man of Geraldine Jewsbury’s novel Marian Withers (1851) hopes for the day

when machinery will be brought to such perfection that it will do all the drudgery of work that is not fit for human beings, and thus the workman will only need to give his intellect. The more a machine can be made to do, the more the character and position of the workman is raised; and every invention that goes to perfect machinery improves the condition of the working-classes at the same time.

Withers views education, increased mechanical efficiency, and personal happiness, as parts of a continuous cycle. The better educated the worker, the better he understands the machinery he operates, and the more likely it is that he will discover ways to make it more efficient. The satisfaction this brings, and the moral uplift of study in increased leisure time, satiates an appetite for political agitation. We see a real life Withers in the politician Henry Brougham who, in his Practical Observations Upon the Education of the People (1825), argued that scientific discoveries were likely to be made by men who both worked with machines and who had an understanding of the scientific principles by which those machines worked. Brougham founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) in 1826 with the aim of producing clear, affordable texts on a wide range of subjects, and was instrumental in establishing the Mechanics’ Institute movement in the early 1820s.

The social and political aims of Brougham and the SDUK serve as touchstones throughout James Secord’s Visions of Science. Secord argues that meaning in scientific texts is produced through the combined agency of writers, publishers, printers, and readers. Put simply, Visions of Science shows how scientific texts

can be understood through close reading and an understanding of their physical qualities as books, in light of the experiences of those who bought, borrowed, and discussed them […]

Secord’s chronology begins with the violence and agitation of Peterloo in 1819, and ends with Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837. At the heart of this period sat the 1832 Reform Act, and the movements for social and educational, as well as political reform, that accompanied it. In Edinburgh Robert and William Chambers utilised the steam-powered printing press to produce unprecedentedly cheap instructional works. And in an attempt to consolidate metropolitan and provincial, national and international science, the British Association for the Advancement of Science was established and met for the first time in 1831. Secord brings the politics, press, and science of the period together, refining his scope by focusing on seven key texts published in the early 1830s. Each chapter explores a single work in detail, and in choosing to structure the book in this way Secord is able to include a vast amount of contextual information while retaining a clear focus. His selections derive from a wide range of publication sources: from cheap steam-printed editions, to expensive triple volume works, to serialised journal publications. It is through this diversity that Secord is able to highlight the discordant attitudes towards an apparently politically liberating scientific press. Was the power of knowledge seen as dangerous? Was the cheaper press really successful in distributing accessible scientific works to a wider audience? What were the advantages, for the sciences and scientists themselves, to publishing in a more expensive form?

Humphry Davy’s posthumous Consolations in Travel (1830) consisted of a series of dialogues on belief and scientific discovery, situating God at the root of all understanding of the natural world. Secord’s opening chapter explores the ways in which the dialogue form presents readers, simultaneously, with multiple possibilities for how the book might be read; might we equate Davy’s voice with one, all, or none of his characters? Which position might we ourselves adopt? One possible reading of Davy’s work, that Secord is right to point out, sees in the dialogue form the potential to “recreate the experience of participating in scientific conversation, debate, and discovery.” Reading itself can then be a surrogate for scientific practice.

From the contemplative excursion of Consolations Secord turns to Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), a book well known for its venomous attacks on older institutions of scientific knowledge. Babbage argued that such societies were prone to abuse and devalue science (he singled out the Royal Society for particular criticism). Wealthy individuals joined simply for the letters they could then use after their names, while practising scientists who were employed in government work abused their positions, and some even reported fraudulent results. The book sold badly; its bitter and, at times, personal attacks were a caustic assault on many of Babbage’s contemporaries. In its attempts to redefine decorum in science, Reflections occupies an important position in Visions of Science.

Such questions about the appropriate behaviour of scientific practitioners are at the heart of John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831). As Secord argues, this relatively cheap book sold well and was read partly as a conduct manual, “to encourage behaviour based on an understanding of reason as grounded in the practices of science.” This is the most interesting chapter the book has to offer, as it exhibits the most persistent analysis of the economic production of the book, and the uses to which it might be put by readers. An introductory treatise to the Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse could be advertised as part of the series or as a standalone work. Copies included several title pages so readers could choose how they were to read. Its glazed calico and card binding meant that the book was protected from wear and tear whether or not the reader chose to have her copy rebound in expensive leather. Preliminary Discourse existed, therefore, in multiple material states at once, and it was up to the reader to decide which version to use. In its nineteenth-century afterlife, Herschel’s book was often extracted from or quoted without attribution, a kind of scientific or philosophical commonplacing. This malleability allows for an active readerly agency; what readers might do with books becomes an extension of what they might do with the political powers gained through reading.

On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834) by Mary Somerville seems, in contrast, to be a dense, almost impenetrable work. Henry Brougham had approached Somerville to translate Laplace’s Mécanique céleste into an accessible form, to be printed under the auspices of the SDUK. It quickly became clear that this complex work was unsuited to non-specialist readers; besides, sales for SDUK publications were in steady decline and would never reach the numbers to which Brougham aspired. Connexion was a version of the preface Somerville had written to accompany her work on Laplace, expanded to include aspects of astronomy, physics, and chemistry. While no scientific expertise was required to digest even this book, it was not an easy read. Nevertheless, contemporary reviewers praised Connexion, in particular the mathematical genius of its female writer. Somerville, the first woman to have a research paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society but who, because she was a woman, could not become a member, was held up as the exception rather than the rule of female intelligence. This being the case, Somerville’s work occupies a crucial position in Visions of Science, in drawing together the relationship between gender and the authority to communicate science.

In his following two chapters Secord considers books which aimed to make two disciplines, each with their own religious controversies, into sciences. For Charles Lyell, that discipline was geology. In Principles of Geology (in three volumes, 1830-3), a hugely detailed and wide-ranging work, Lyell aimed to redefine rather than destroy the relationship between science and religion, supporting geologists’ dating of the earth while arguing that an incomplete geological record made it impossible to reconstruct a complete narrative of the earth’s history. George Combe’s Constitution of Man (reissued in 1836 as part of Chamber’s “People’s Editions”) sought to manoeuvre another controversial field into the position of a respectable science: phrenology. Originating around the year 1800 in the work of Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, phrenology drew connections between the mind, and the physiology of the brain. Phrenologists claimed that they could study the external features of the skull in order to deduce a person’s character. Constitution popularized the practice; Chamber’s cheap edition had sold 85,000 copies by 1850. In his analysis of Combe’s book, Secord is again attuned to the afterlife of science texts, recognising that readers reuse and adapt texts even when the content has ceased to be considered scientific. As the status of phrenology declined from the mid-century onwards, the idea of reading the external in order to understand character lived on in social attitudes to race, gender, and crime.

Secord’s decision to dedicate his final chapter to Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833), not a scientific text but a satire on scientific writing, greatly enriches the argument of the book as a whole. Serialized in the Tory Fraser’s Magazine, Sartor was a mock call by Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröck, for a “science of clothes”. Carlyle showed how the use of science to determine internal meanings could be brought to absurd conclusions and, in being published in a periodical that was already critical of the mass education promoted by Brougham, Sartor was a counter voice to such idealism. This chapter illustrates in greater detail what is particularly successful in Visions of Science as a whole: an attention to the contemporary scrutiny of scientific texts and the multi-vocal textual responses to them, in cartoons, satires, and literature.

Secord’s book weaves together strands from the history of science, literary criticism, and book history, in a work which is highly accessible but which does not compromise on academic rigour. By focusing on select but significant texts, Visions of Science achieves an expansive view of early nineteenth-century print culture through a series of acute and suggestive readings.

* Geraldine Jewsbury, Marian Withers 3 vols. (London: Colburn and Co., 1851), III, 46.

Sarah Hanks is a D.Phil. candidate in English Literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.

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Ian Hacking
Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics At All?
Cambridge University Press, 2014
£17.99 (paperback)
304 pages
ISBN: 9781107658158


Jacques Roubaud
Mathematics: (A novel)
Translated by Ian Monk
Originally published in French as Mathématique by Éditions du Seuil, 1997
Dalkey Archive Press, 2012
£10.99 (paperback)
312 pages
ISBN: 9781564786838


“In the history of art”, Adorno wrote, “late works are the catastrophes.” Adorno was reflecting on Beethoven’s late style: its “sudden discontinuities”, its episodic, fragmented feeling and its refusal of harmony. The late Beethoven refuses to gather his “fractured landscape” and his splinters of history into a “harmonious synthesis”. Rather, “he tears them apart in time.” The history of mathematics, too, has its catastrophes. The “early history of Greek mathematics”, Reviel Netz suggests, “was catastrophic, not gradual.” Netz borrows his images of time from the geologists and the biologists and Netz’s catastrophic history of mathematics is invoked, in turn, by Ian Hacking in Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics At All? as he digs back through the origin myths of the discovery of proof.

In Kant’s heroic version of this origin myth, a “new light” flashed upon the mind of the first man to demonstrate the properties of the isosceles triangle from a priori principles. Legend, Kant wrote, has preserved for us the “memory of the revolution” sparked by this new light. During his telling of Kant’s tale, Hacking remarks that Kant’s word, “revolution”, “is almost worn out with over-use.” He suggests instead Netz’s “catastrophe” or his own metaphor, “crystallization”. These metaphors conjure a geological history of mathematics—catastrophes, crystallisations and chalk formations—and invoke the paradoxical logic of mathematical construction and “discovery”, which Wittgenstein described as “alchemy” and Imre Lakatos described as alienation. “Mathematics, this product of human activity, ‘alienates itself’ from the human activity which has been producing it”, Lakatos wrote in Proofs and Refutations: “It becomes a living, growing organism, that acquires a certain autonomy from the activity which has produced it; it develops its own autonomous laws of growth, its own dialectic.”

Lakatos was writing against “formalism” as a kind of forgetfulness that “disconnects the history of mathematics from the philosophy of mathematics, since, according to the formalist concept of mathematics, there is no history of mathematics proper.” Lakatos and Hacking arrived in Cambridge in the Michaelmas term of 1956. Lakatos received his doctorate in June 1961 for the work that would become Proofs and Refutations (“Essays in the Logic of Mathematical Discovery”). A year later, in March 1962, Hacking’s doctoral thesis, “Part I: Proof; Part II: Strict implication and natural deduction”, was approved. In the preface to his thesis, Hacking wrote: “We must return to simple instances to see what is surprising, to discover, in fact, why there are philosophies of mathematics at all.”

Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics At All? returns, therefore, to a question that Hacking first asked over half a century ago. He offers two answers to it. The first answer lies in the experience of being compelled by proof. The philosophy of mathematics endures because “a certain type of philosophical mind is deeply impressed by experiencing a Cartesian proof, of seeing why such-and-such must be true.” The second answer is in the applicability of mathematics. Proof, which Hacking calls the “Ancient answer”, and use, which he calls the “Enlightenment answer”, meet in passing in Hacking’s discussion of Wittgenstein’s remark: “mathematics is a MOTLEY of techniques of proof—and upon this is based its manifold applicability and its importance.”

Hacking’s book is steeped in Wittgenstein’s way of thinking about mathematics and in the strange mathematical vernacular—the glitter and the alchemy—of Wittgenstein’s Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. Hacking is perfectly aware that he has been breathing the haunted air: “I bought my copy of the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics on 6 April 1959, and have been infatuated ever since.” Wittgenstein’s image of “motley” mathematics is given form in Hacking’s miscellany: in the motley of his digressive, episodic book. The book’s table of contents is six pages long and its list of subsections includes:  “Descartes’ Geometry“, “The Langlands programme”, “Eternal truths”, “Leibnizian proof”, “Arsenic”, “Exhaustive classification”, “The experience of out-thereness”, “Kant shouts”, “Plato, theoretical physicist”, “Plato, kidnapper”, “Cambridge pure mathematics”, “Aerodynamics”, “Hauntology”, “Some things Dedekind said” and “A brief history of nominalism now”.

Hacking’s thoughts on the philosophy of mathematics are woven with vignettes from the history of mathematics and with memoir. The lived experience of proof, which Hacking offers as the “Ancient answer” to his question, is, in part, his own. Hacking warns us of the shadows cast by his Cambridge education (“I was brought up in logicism”) and remarks on the escape that Euclid offered to a thirteen year old boy at a mediocre state school: “I learned about proofs, and delighted in them. Hence I am a gullible victim of Plato’s abduction of mathematics, and also of Kant’s Thalesian myth.” Experience is a vexed and unruly concept, tangled with memory. Experiences of proof are dependent on what Eric Livingston called “cultures of proving”. Like “perceptual gestalts“, Livingston writes, mathematical proofs articulate an organised “whole” of reasoning, practice and expectation through material detail, though the “whole” “is not present in any of the argument’s individual details.”

Early on in Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics At All?, Hacking retracts one of his youthful pronouncements about proof: “Some decades ago I had the gall to open a lecture with the words: ‘Leibniz knew what a proof is. Descartes did not.'” In that 1973 lecture Hacking argued that Leibniz “knew what a proof is” in the sense that his idea of proof anticipated our twentieth-century idea of formal proof: “A proof, thought Leibniz, is valid in virtue of its form, not its content. It is a sequence of sentences beginning with identities and proceeding by a finite number of steps of logic and rules of definitional substitution to the theorem proved.” Where Descartes believed “proof irrelevant to truth”, Leibniz thought that truth was constituted by proof and imagined a completely general Universal Characteristic in which proofs could be conducted and through which truth would, he wrote, be rendered “stable, visible and irresistible, so to speak, as on a mechanical basis.” We are still stuck, Hacking said in 1973, in the seventeenth-century conditions of possibility out of which the concepts of proof and anti-proof emerged: “We have forgotten those events, but they are responsible for the concepts in which we perform our pantomime philosophy.”

In Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics At All? Hacking keeps his pseudo-couple, Leibniz and Descartes, as allegorical figures in a seventeenth-century branching of the ways, but where once those branches were “proofs” and “anti-proofs”, now there are “leibnizian proofs” and “cartesian proofs”: two cultures of proof. “It is astonishing”, he writes, “that we have not yet confessed to the duality of proof, cartesian and leibnizian. These are two ideals, which pull in different directions.” The experience of proof on which the philosophy of mathematics is founded and to which it obsessively returns is the experience of cartesian proof: “seeing as a whole, with clear conviction.” Hacking is writing of the lateness of the cartesian proof: of the ways in which it is out of time. Its ideal—that you must be able to see the proof as a whole, in your mind, all at once—feels belated in our world of mechanized proof: a world in which, as Hacking writes, “we are hourly becoming more leibnizian.”

In his doctoral thesis, Hacking noted “the uncanny resemblance between trying to recall and trying to prove; between recollecting successfully after some effort, and hitting on a proof.” This aside was prompted by the story of the slave boy in Plato’s Meno who comes, with Socrates’s help, to see the truth of a geometrical theorem about squares. Since this knowledge comes neither from teaching nor experiment the boy must have already known it somewhere within himself: he must be recollecting it. Plato, Hacking wrote, “tried to reduce the puzzling to the familiar, so proof to recollection. He may have spoken more truly than is currently recognized.”

The story of the slave boy is also told by Jacques Roubaud in Mathematics: (a novel). Roubaud’s book is a sustained investigation of the workings of memory: of, in particular, his memories of the culture of proof in Paris in the 1950s. Roubaud’s story begins in the lecture hall of the Institut Henri Poincaré (certificate “Differential and Integral Calculus”) one winter morning in 1954:

I have waited over thirty-seven years before daring to stop and stare deliberately at that image or handful of images: the board, benches, heads, chalk drawings, charged with meaning. I remove it from hell, or its limbo. I remove it from my memory so as to erase it, as I do with all the memories that I fix by writing them down, like the chalk “potatoids” drawn by “Choquet” on the blackboard, long ago. But before erasing it, I charge it with meaning.

In mathematics—here, in chalk and later, in topology—Roubaud finds metaphors for the art of memory. He reworks the Platonic parable to describe the confusions and conversions of the Bourbaki revolution: “The knowledge of sets was within us. It is the most fundamental mathematical knowledge. But we had to go and seek it out inside ourselves, just as the Boy, under Socrates’s careful guidance, came across the concealed idea of the ‘diagonal’, by way of anamnesis and recollection.”

Nicolas Bourbaki was a pseudonym adopted in the 1930s by a group of French mathematicians who began collectively writing a new treatise on analysis. The projected modern analysis textbook evolved into a multi-volume treatise, Éléments de mathématique, which was planned, as Leo Corry writes, to be “the ultimate mathematics textbook.” The Treatise, self-contained and highly formalised, was to express a unified, modern conception of mathematics, with each volume a comprehensive account of a branch of mathematics. By the time Roubaud was writing his memoir, in the 1990s, Bourbaki had become, he says, a “museum piece”. Yet, the branches and interpolations of Roubaud’s book mimic Bourbaki’s axiomatic presentation, his book’s many beginnings refract their attempts to erase the past of mathematics and his own abandoned great Project was, he acknowledges, indebted to their Treatise.

Bourbaki tried to wrench mathematics out of history. “Apparently, a clean slate had just been made of the past of mathematics,” Roubaud writes of the rumours that circulated around the lecture theatres of the IHP. Bourbaki seemed to be tearing down the entire edifice of existing mathematics in order to built it anew: they were a kind of catastrophe, a revolution that seemed closer and more plausible than political revolution. Roubaud remembers being “gripped by the vertigo of beginning” as he read Bourbaki’s advice to the reader of the Treatise: “This series of volumes […] takes up mathematics at the beginning, and gives complete proofs.” “I needed the illusion of an absolute beginning”, Roubaud writes, but this absolute beginning proved impossible: how were you to know that the real beginning had been reached without first examining the “pre-beginning”? How to begin with the “beginning” of the Treatise when Book I, in which the famous theory of sets was to be presented, had not yet been finished? (A “Summary of Results” appeared in 1939, but the four chapters on set theory were only published in final form between 1954 and 1957).

Roubaud didn’t know how to read Bourbaki’s General Topology when he first sat down to it: he could determine no narrative thread. Indeed, Peter Galison suggests in “Structures of Crystal, Buckets of Dust” that “reading as such, the sequential absorption, seems to pull against the Bourbakian ideal.” The Bourbaki members, Galison writes, “aimed their story of mathematics to be the non-narrative narrative, the account outside time, a structure, an architecture to be contemplated as it ordered ‘mathematic’ from set theory on out.” Roubaud decides to read the Treatise like poetry, which he would re-read and commit to memory until he had “repositioned all of its elements in the present, in the simultaneity of inward time.” In the end, however, Roubaud reads the Treatise against the grain. He extrapolates a theory of memory from the book on topology and uses this theory to express the intertwining of points in inner time: the neighbourhoods of memory in which Bourbaki’s catastrophe is tangled with motley experience.

Alice Bamford is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

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Point of View: Astronomical and Literary Perception Mon, 08 Dec 2014 09:20:16 +0000 Gillian Daw

Anna Henchman
The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature
Oxford University Press, 2014
£60.00 (hardback)
320 pages
ISBN: 9780199686964


Astronomy has always been of interest to writers, and astronomical phenomena and the sensations produced in viewing the heavens have been consistently reflected in their imaginative output. Ptolemy, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Anna Letitia Barbauld, among many others, found inspiration in the moon, planets, stars and immense spaces of the universe. The Victorian period was no exception, due to the influence of literary history and the Victorians’ fascination with astronomical science. The writers Anna Henchman chooses to study in The Starry Sky Within—Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas De Quincey, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot—all use astronomical allusions in their work. Like many people of the period, these writers read widely in the subject and viewed the night-sky. Tennyson, for example, owned his own telescope, and De Quincey was great friends with the astronomer John Pringle Nichol and stayed at his Glasgow observatory. Studies of the connections between astronomy and literature remain scarce, especially when compared with the interdisciplinary interests in other Victorian sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology. However, some attention has already been paid to the writers in Henchman’s book and their textual use of astronomy by Isobel Armstrong, Pamela Gossin and Sally Shuttleworth. Nevertheless, Henchman offers a distinctive approach; she applies astronomical theory, and the psychological uncertainties its alteration of spatial perception caused, to her readings. Astronomy she identifies as describing “not only a physical state”, but also a psychological one. The Starry Sky Within is a thought-provoking new book in the interdisciplinary field of science and literature.

Henchman makes a nuanced analytical study of the writers’ creative output attending in the main to De Quincey’s essay “System of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescopes”, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Hardy’s Two on a Tower and The Dynasts, and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch. She shows how their experience of astronomy invoked problems of visual perception, and how these concerns are translated in their writing. “In nineteenth-century Britain”, she writes, “both astronomers and literary writers were preoccupied with problems of where we see things from.” Through Hermann Von Helmholtz’s Victorian theorizing of optics, Henchman interestingly links the mobility of the eye, its constant movement through the visual field, from point to point, from near to distance, with the mind’s constant adjustment and modification of its focus. These acts of focus she regards as paralleled in the imagination’s ability to allow quick alteration in focus and scale. Inspired by the optical concerns of the first chapter, Henchman moves next to De Quincey’s essay, followed by the poetry of Tennyson, and then in the second section—”Astronomy and the Multiplot Novel”—to novels by Hardy and Eliot, and a final chapter “Narratives on a Grand Scale: Astronomy and Narrative Space”, where she compares Hardy’s The Dynasts with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Her understanding of the scientific texts on optics and astronomy by William and John Herschel, Helmholtz, and Richard Gregory produces her interpretation of how, in the case of the writers examined, their reader’s minds are invigorated by visual and mental motion. Henchman points to Thomas Hardy’s incorporeal mental journey from the earth through the universe of trees, planets, the moon and the stars, in his poem “In Vision I Roamed”: “And as I thought my spirit ranged on and on / In footless traverse through ghast heights of sky.” These lines, in which Hardy expresses the mobile extension of “the self out into the universe”, encapsulate the principal themes of The Starry Sky Within: “an observer’s changing locations in space, and the way the cosmos constantly rearranges itself as a result of that motion.” It claims that nineteenth-century astronomical research aided writers in expressing “a set of formal concerns” that are crucial to large-scale narrative works such as In Memoriam, Bleak House, and Middlemarch. Having established her thesis, Henchman’s argument remains focused throughout her book.

Henchman rightly maintains that astronomy disturbed stable knowledge. By its very nature, astronomical observation makes it difficult to reconcile abstract conceptions, what we are told is there in the heavens, with sensory experience—the “apparent and the real”, as John Herschel called the discrepancy. Invoking Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere (1986), Henchman decides that this irreconcilability is productive rather than limiting. In the case of De Quincey, “the source of astronomy’s inspiration lies in how it stimulates the mind rather than in how it offers an increase in stable knowledge.” Instability is foregrounded by Henchman, and is highlighted in her application of the astronomical and optical theory of parallax to her analysis of “point of view” in the chapters that follow. Point of view is the narrative theory of “contrasts in narrative positioning”, the spatial language of shifts in points of view, or “centers of vision” in the texts under examination. Parallax, which Henchman defines as a “fundamental principle of vision that relies on both perspectival perception and the observer’s own motion”, is requisite to nineteenth-century astronomy’s quest for precise measurement of the distances and motions of the stars and planets. According to Henchman, parallax is also a basic act of human perception and is essential to the workings of the multiplot novel, including Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and large-scale works like Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Parallax creates the “constant motion that the reader experiences in oscillating between the perspectives of narrators and individual characters.” The alterations in point of view produce a “comprehensive system” in which the constituent characters are understood dynamically as part of the whole. Multiplot novels, asserts Henchman, are “celestial systems.” In the case of Hardy, astronomy gave the writer a methodology for constructing the connection between character and character, reader and character. For Henchman, the scenes of astronomical travel in the minds of the “stargazers”  in, for instance, his novel Far From the Madding Crowd are equivalent to the mind travel, “out of their own subject positions” Hardy wants his readers to undertake in coming to know the minds of his characters.

There are shortcomings in Henchman’s text, and probably the most worrying for readers seeking knowledge of astronomy in the Victorian period and its literary effect are those relating to her understanding/presentation of the science. It is notable that the astronomer Victoria Trimble, in her Times Higher Education review of The Starry Sky Within, finds “some 50 items” that are astray scientifically and historically. As well as incorrect dates, and questionable definitions and applications of astronomical and optical theories, Henchman also makes disquieting assumptions. “No way”, she stresses, could De Quincey have known that John Herschel compared the Great Nebula in Orion to a monster. Herschel called the nebula a “monstrous animal” in his 1826 paper published in the Memoirs of the Astronomical Society of London, twenty years before De Quincey’s essay, and his description was reported, for instance, in the Literary Gazette in 1828 and the Athenaeum magazine in 1829. Is it so unlikely that De Quincey was unaware of Herschel’s pronouncement? Should the author be so sure?  After all De Quincey is known to have discussed astronomy with John Pringle Nichol, the then Professor of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow, and whose 1846 book Thoughts on Some Important Points Relating to the System of the World, De Quincey reviews in his essay. It is at least possible, if unprovable, that De Quincey learned of Herschel’s comparison in his conversations with Nichol. It may seem like a small point, but the mapping out of influence is important to the field of literature and science.

Regrettably, Henchman also paints a gloomy picture of Victorian astronomy. What is lacking is a feeling for the sense of wonder astronomy produced in its practitioners and the general population, something which modern-day astronomers vouch for: as said the astronomer David H. Levy in a recent lecture on astronomy and literature at the University of Sussex in November 2014, “Watching the workings of the night-sky, now that is poetry.” It is lamentable that the illustrations, while relevant, are so overwhelmingly—16 out of the 32 in fact—taken from Asa Smith’s American textbook Smith’s Illustrated Astronomy (1850) and the 1871 edition of Amédée Guillemin’s The Heavens. Why take illustrations from an 1850’s American text when her thesis is concerned with “nineteenth-century Britain” when books and periodicals of the period abound with representations, many of which were read, as their libraries, letters, and diaries evidence, by the writers in question? This limitation shrouds the astronomical spirit of the period, a spirit of which the reader will find little account in this text. The Starry Sky Within is not a book for a non-expert reader, since in many instances the application of astronomy to the literature results in some confusingly dense passages of prose. On many occasions Henchman also assumes the expertise of her reader, including failing to introduce them to, for example, the chemist Humphry Davy, the political economist and philosopher Adam Smith, and the philosopher Alexander Bain. Unfortunately, such flaws are not inconsequential: they constrain the usefulness of Henchman’s incursion into the much neglected field of Victorian astronomy and literature.

Gillian Daw is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex. She researches the connections between astronomy and literature.

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