Thursday 11 October 2012

Reflections on Popular Fiction and Brain Research in the late Nineteenth Century

Periodically, I will be commentating on research books that came out after the publication of  That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War, Encompass Editions, 2012. In this way, I and the reader can have an ongoing conversation about the book. 

Ferrier's detailed brain map of a dog
In 1881 the British physiologist, David Ferrier, went on trial for violating the Anti-Vivisection Act by performing experiments on two live monkeys without a permit. His defenders, principally neurologists, argued that the detailed cortical maps, that resulted from his experiments on the brains of animals and from autopsies, had saved lives of those who had suffered from brain tumors, strokes and cracked skulls because surgeons were now able to pinpoint the specific damaged tissue. His opponents, mainly middle-class women, contended that Ferrier’s experiments had caused unnecessary cruelty to animals. But the implications of his work caused greater consternation. If there were little distinction between the brains of human beings and animals – Ferrier made clear there was not – an electrical stimulus could be a substitute for human volition or consciousness and turn human beings into automata or soulless beings. Although the case eventually collapsed against Ferrier, the controversy lingered in the public memory and deeply affected the creative work of Gothic novelists who kept abreast of the latest scientific research. Among them were Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells and Bram Stoker, three of the subjects in Anne Stiles’ groundbreaking and stimulating monograph, Popular Fiction and Brain Research in the Late Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Stevenson drew upon the latest research on the left and right hemispheres of the brain and on case histories when he wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Research suggested that dual personalities emerged because of a hemispheric imbalance, when the right impulsive, aggressive more atavistic side outpaced the rational, logical left side. (More was known at the time about the left chamber than the right, whereas, today the latter is acknowledged to be the source of our creativity, intuition, empathy and non-verbal communication.) Stevenson’s accomplishment was not merely to fictionalize these case studies – the second more disturbed personality does reveal striking similarities to Hyde – but to fuse the dual brain theory with a subversive rendering of the supposedly objective format of the medical case study by turning Jekyll from an omniscient, respected physician into a desperate, broken-down patient. By writing in the Gothic form, Stevenson has collapsed the boundaries between objective observation and subjective experience. Through this idiom, Stiles writes that “Stevenson questioned the power structures of the nineteenth-century medical establishment, particularly the inflexible divide between observer and observed, practitioner and patient.” (47)

David Ferrier
The trial of Ferrier directly influenced Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. Though Wells supported the “responsible use of vivisection,” his sensitivity to its abuses is evident in his portrayal of the eponymous protagonist. Moreau’s monumental indifference to the suffering of the animals, his single-minded devotion to experimentation and his overdeveloped left brain renders him an unsympathetic character, indeed more monstrous than the hybrid characters he creates. Yet Wells also suggests that the way he was hounded out of the England by a braying band of vivisectionists who were determined to destroy his reputation may have been the source of his mental illness. It is also not clear whether he did perform cruel experiments on animals. Regardless, the novel is less about the cruelty to animals than the cruelty of human nature. This is evident by the ending when Prendick, devastated by the destruction on the island, returns to London and muses about the similarity between the vivisected animals and his fellow human beings, both of whom are controlled not by their conscious will power but by the stimuli of nature. According to Wells’ parable, the more we attempt to suppress our animal nature through human suffering, the more it re-emerges despite the laws of society that are drilled into us.

Although Stoker was receptive to the more occult sciences, notably telepathy and evidence that proved the immortalization of the soul, according to Stiles, he was the most resistant of late nineteenth-century authors to the brain science exemplified in the experimental work of David Ferrier. Stoker’s background was scientific; he took an undergraduate degree in science, three of his four brothers were physicians, one of whom Thornley initially supported vivisection because it had clinical application that could save lives. But the religious beliefs imbibed in Bram’s childhood exercised a greater influence on him. To Stoker, scientists such as Ferrier and Thomas Huxley, among others, were soulless monstrosities because they were materialists who argued that people were no more than the sum of our brain functions. According to this reading, the vampire Dracula, who robs his victims of their souls, is a mad scientist demonic and inhuman. Just as physiologists cruelly experimented on animals so Dracula experiments on a different species, human beings, with disastrous results. Conventional scientists were no match for the vampire. The limited Seward is the voice of “normal science” as he applauds the advance in knowledge brought about by the vivisectionists. Yet by overlooking the paranormal sciences championed by Van Helsing, Seward, the superintendent of the lunatic asylum. does not understand the occult influence that Dracula exercised over his minion, the mad Renfield, and he fails to prevent the vampire from attacking his patient and take the necessary precaution to protect Mina who is residing next door. Stiles suggests that Dracula is a stand in for those scientists “who tormented animals in the service of a soulless psychology.” She also quotes a sentence from Stoker’s first novel, The Snake’s Pass that likely encapsulates his view: “For a real-cold-blooded horror, commend me to your men of science.” (73)

How could I have incorporated the insights from Stiles’ study into That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War? I largely alluded to the more dubious sciences such as craniometry that measured skulls and how its practitioners influenced public policy toward crime, immigration and eugenics. Yet there are points of convergence. She demonstrates how commentators used the dual-brain theory to argue that the superior left hemisphere was more likely to be more prominent in upper-class European males. In other words, they too used experimental evidence to support a priori conclusions. Moreover, I think I captured Stoker’s ambivalence toward science by demonstrating the Van Helsing’s more boundary-shaking worldview was more effective in tracking down and killing Dracula than that espoused by Seward even though I emphasized more the right-brain attributes of Mina as we know them today (although I did not use that language). It would not have been difficult to integrate Stiles’ chapter on Stevenson and the double brain theory into my discussion of his novella given the focus on how the primitive Hyde illustrated the thinking of the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso and the culture’s bias against those who demonstrated the then-current thinking about the negative right-brain traits. I wish I could have added her brilliant insight into how Stevenson parodied the supposed objectivity of the left-brain scientist. I would have also incorporated her material on the Ferrier trial into my discussion of Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau because it provides valuable context for deepening our understanding of his novel. In short, Popular Fiction and Brain Research provides a wealth of insight that might have enriched my own work. I might one day wish to write another edition.

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