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Review of Social Minds in the Novel by Alan Palmer and Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy by Kay Young

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Review of Social Minds in the Novel by Alan Palmer and Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy by Kay Young
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                        Victorian Studies, Volume 55, Number 1, Autumn 2012, pp. 107-109 (Review)      For additional information about this article  Access provided by Saint Louis University (22 Dec 2015 23:07 GMT) http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/vic/summary/v055/55.1.stiles.html   AUTUMN 2012 BOOK REVIEWS Social Minds in the Novel ,   by Alan Palmer; pp. viii + 220. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2010, $49.95. Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy  ,   by Kay Young; pp. x + 218. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2010, $59.95, $26.95 paper. Since the so-called cognitive turn of the 1990s, literary critics have increasingly applied the insights of psychologists, philosophers of mind, and cognitive scientists to the study of literary works. Scholars such as Alan Richardson, Lisa Zunshine, and Patrick Colm Hogan have demonstrated the ways in which narrative structures reflect the func-tioning of the human brain. They have helped to explain why certain types of stories prove consistently appealing, why narrative plays a crucial role in comprehension, and  why our storytelling abilities evolved in the first place. But for all its interdisciplinary promise, cognitive literary criticism remains a polarizing field. Cognitive literary critics are sometimes accused of biological determinism and anachronism, especially when they apply twenty-first-century cognitive theories to literature of earlier periods.  Alan Palmer’s Social Minds in the Novel and Kay Young’s Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy   make strong cases for the usefulness of cognitive literary approaches to the study of the nineteenth-century novel. Palmer and Young view the nineteenth-century novel as a social art form that elucidates group dynamics and the embodied character of individual minds. Curiously, the authors focus on many of the same works, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–72) and Jane Austen’s Persuasion   (1818). They have chosen such canonical works, I suspect, in order to demonstrate that cognitive approaches can illuminate even the most frequently analyzed texts. While they address similar topics, Palmer and Young bring to their subject matter vastly different abilities and convictions. Palmer is a systematic thinker whose strength lies in his theoretical opening chapters rather than in his readings of individual literary works, which sometimes feel repetitive and flat-footed. By contrast, Young is an adept interpreter of novels by Austen, Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. She is less committed to a particular theory than to teasing out every nuance of a given literary work. In Social Minds,  Palmer argues that “the cognitive approach is the basis of all” other types of literary criticism, whether Marxist, feminist, historicist, or so on, because all rely on a basic understanding of the human mind (7). Social Minds   is the sequel to Palmer’s earlier book on cognitive approaches to literature,  Fictional Minds (2004) ,  which won the MLA prize for independent scholars in 2005. That book draws on neuroscience, psycholin-guistics, psychology, and philosophy of mind to show the ways in which characters’ minds  work similarly to real minds. Readers understand the plots of novels, Palmer argues, because we share with the characters certain basic mental functions and structures.    While  Fictional Minds provides a framework for understanding characters’ mental functions, the purpose of Social Minds is to “put that framework into practice”  108 VICTORIAN STUDIES / VOLUME 55, NO. 1  via sustained close readings of several novels (16). Palmer focuses on nineteenth-century novels because of their “externalist” perspective that emphasizes “active, public, social” behaviors rather than introspective or solitary behaviors (39). He argues that individual characters can only be fully understood as elements in complex social networks. By attending to social context, Social Minds   paints a different picture than traditional narratological approaches, which typically focus on soliloquies, free indi-rect discourse, and other literary forms that privilege individuality and introspection. Palmer’s two opening chapters present these ideas in a clear and engaging style, so that even the less theoretically inclined will enjoy reading them. In chapter 3, Palmer examines “intermental” thinking: that is, collective or shared thinking that takes place within groups, often at a nonverbal or subconscious level. He presents the town of Middlemarch as an intermental unit that behaves like a character in its own right. The collective mind of the town influences each individual in Eliot’s novel, particularly those whose behavior challenges the status quo. Lydgate, for instance, is condemned by the “Middlemarch mind” when he is believed to have accepted Bulstrode’s bribe. Yet this collective mind fragments at key points in the novel. For instance, Farebrother and Dorothea deviate from majority opinion by continuing to believe in Lydgate’s innocence. Palmer aptly describes Middlemarch as a novel that “betrays a fascination with the intermental process; its complexity; how units form, maintain, and modify themselves” (74). This chapter, like the following sections on Charles Dickens and Austen, demonstrates the ways in which a social minds perspective can shed new light on nine-teenth-century novels. Palmer argues his points convincingly, despite the occasionally superficial quality of his literary analysis. Throughout Social Minds  , Palmer provides far more textual evidence than is strictly necessary, often in the form of cumbersome lists, charts, or graphs. Meanwhile, he misses nuances that a more careful reader such as  Young would make much of. These weaknesses are most apparent in the final chapter,  where Palmer applies social minds approaches to twenty-first-century fiction and films, but covers too many works to make sustained arguments about any of them. The skill set that Young brings to her study of cognition in nineteenth-century novels could not be more different. In contrast to Palmer’s tightly argued opening chap-ters, the introduction to Imagining Minds includes relatively little theoretical justification.  Young describes the volume as “a work of neuroaesthetics,” but never precisely explains  what this means. Roughly speaking, Young seems interested in the ways in which mental processes described by modern neuroscientists achieve “embodied, feeling, relational narrative life” in nineteenth-century novels by Austen, Eliot, and Hardy (9). Young suggests that these novels foreshadow recent work in cognitive science in their depiction of mind/body relations, consciousness, emotion, and social interaction.  While Palmer draws on recent cognitive science, Young brings together a much wider range of sources spanning several centuries. In addition to William James’s The Principles of Psychology   (1890) and Antonio Damasio’s neuroscientific works, Young cites various philosophical and psychoanalytic perspectives on the mind. Within indi- vidual chapters and even individual paragraphs, she juxtaposes thinkers with vastly different theoretical orientations and agendas. These shifts in perspective can be disorienting, even if Young’s varied source material contributes to the richly textured feel of her literary analysis.   109 AUTUMN 2012 The real strength of Imagining Minds lies in Young’s brilliant readings of indi- vidual literary works, particularly Middlemarch  . Chapter 3 explores “the deepest longing” expressed in Eliot’s writing: the desire “to transcend the terrors of separateness—one body from another, one mind from another” (74). Young argues that in Eliot’s works, aural rather than visual perception helps characters overcome their mental isolation. Sound can be a route to knowing other minds because sound waves actually penetrate bodily boundaries; “One body emits sound and another body receives it in aural sensa-tion” (77). Characters that prove responsive to music and tone of voice, such as Ladislaw, are likewise open to genuine exchanges of feeling with others. Meanwhile, Casaubon and Bulstrode are effectively tone deaf, both to sounds and to the emotional experiences of those around them. In Middlemarch,  moments of heightened emotional understanding between characters often involve music or vocal resonance. For instance, Lydgate feels moved by Dorothea’s grief at Casaubon’s death; her “cry from soul to soul” leads to a meeting of minds (qtd. in Young 89). Young amply supports her arguments with historical evidence. She shows, for instance, that Eliot knew of Hermann Helmholtz’s ground-breaking work in the 1860s on the physiology of the ear. Young’s fresh perspective on cognition and sound in Middlemarch is essential reading for serious scholars of Eliot’s  work, and for those interested in nineteenth-century mental science. In chapters 5 and 6, Young writes insightfully about impulse and emotion in Hardy’s  Jude the Obscure (1895)   and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) . Drawing from Kay Redfield Jamison’s work on bipolar disorder, Young argues that Jude and Sue represent the depressive and manic poles of the illness, respectively. Young then turns her attention to Tess’s dissociation—particularly her dreamy, trancelike states—and Alec D’Urberville’s narcissism. These two chapters are learned, yet great fun to read. It feels almost as if one is eavesdropping on a therapy session with Tess, Alec, or one of Hardy’s other creations. Taken together, Young’s literary analysis shows a depth and finesse that Palmer’s  work lacks. Yet Imagining Minds is relatively weak on argument and connective tissue. One often loses sight of how all of the chapters fit together. By contrast, Palmer’s beauti-fully organized, well-argued opening chapters outshine his occasionally disappointing readings of individual novels. For all their differences, Social Minds and Imagining Minds both amply demon-strate the usefulness of cognitive perspectives on nineteenth-century novels. These  volumes lay the groundwork for further study in this area, and may even win some converts to the field of cognitive literary criticism. But even skeptics will enjoy Palmer’s and Young’s lively prose and fresh perspectives on classic Victorian novels.  Anne Stiles Saint Louis University  Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists: Theories of Vision in Victorian Literature and Science ,   by Srdjan Smaji c´ ; pp. xi + 262. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010, £53.00, $89.00.The problem with seeing ghosts is that it is difficult to convince others—or yourself, for that matter—that you have. Authenticating such experiences requires evidence, and, as

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Feb 12, 2019
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