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Five Questions: Markus Iseli on Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious

Markus Iseli - Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious

Markus Iseli holds a PhD from the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.  He has recevied a Swiss National Science Foundation grant in support of his research; his work on the cognitive unconscious in the nineteenth-century context has also earned him the Henry-E.-Sigerist-Prize from the Swiss Society for the History of Medicine and Sciences.  He has published journal articles on his work in European Romantic Review and Romanticism.  His first monograph, Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious, which we discuss below, was published by Palgrave Macmillan last year as the first book in the new Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine series.

1) What first got you interested in Thomas De Quincey?

I discovered De Quincey only towards the end of my MA.  A couple of his essays from the Reminscences were on my reading list for the final exam.  He hadn’t been on any of the syllabi before, so I didn’t know much about him at the time, but the essays roused my interest.  Eventually I stumbled over the Confessions.  I began reading it during the preparations for my finals though it wasn’t on the list and rushed through it.  As it had happened to many other people before me, I was fascinated by his prose and, of course, by his story.  The autobiographical endeavour was initially at the core of my interest.

2) You select as your epigraph a quotation by J. Allan Hobson: ‘Let us break down the barriers between science and the humanities’.  What do you think are the main benefits of pulling down these barriers?

There is a great deal that can be learnt on both sides of the barriers.  Hobson is a good example of what scientists can learn from the humanities.  My experience, of course, is mainly that of the opposite direction.  Six years ago I would never have thought that I would say this one day, simply because I didn’t know much about the other side.  However, the more I read about the scientific approach to literary texts, the stronger became my conviction about the importance of that interdisciplinary perspective.  In literary studies, the barriers are, I think, to a large extent a question of sensibilities.  Cognitive science, for example, is not just about brain scans with blue and red areas that supposedly reveal the blueprint of what it means to be human, to which it has been reduced by some literary critics.  The insights may be limited, but they reveal exciting facts about the way we think and feel about things, and that’s what a lot of literature is all about.  This knowledge provides new, fruitful perspectives on literary texts.

Furthermore, today we know that science had an important influence on literary texts in the nineteenth century.  The many friendships between philosophers, writers of all strands, and scientists, who all profited from the knowledge of their peers from other fields, were crucial.  So, if modern science allows us to understand the science of the past, it also allows us to understand literary texts that make use of the scientific discourse of this period.  Breaking down the barriers allows us to come to a more complete understanding of a literary period, for which the nineteenth century is exemplary.  In more concrete terms, modern theories of the cognitive unconscious helped me understand nineteenth-century notions of the unconscious.  They sharpened my sense for instances that don’t fit into the literary theories of the past decades and provided a theoretical framework.

3) In your introduction, you make a persuasive case for many studies of Romantic psychology framing it principally in opposition to Freud.  How do you think we can benefit by considering Romantic notions of the unconscious in their own terms?

My endeavour is finding out what people in the early nineteenth century, in particular De Quincey, thought about the workings of the mind and the unconscious and how this might change our understanding of their literary output.  As I explain in my introduction, the psychoanalytic approach in literary studies fails to do this because it does not take into account historical aspects.  This, however, is indispensable to make claims about the theories of an author or to talk about the rise of an idea in a specific historical period.  It was amazing to find out about nineteenth-century theories of the unconscious that are so different to the theories that were used in the critical discourse of the past decades.  The irony, of course, is that I also needed a modern theory, that of the cognitive unconscious, to be able to make sense of Romantic theories of the unconscious.  However, I tried very hard not simply to impose the modern theories and to make nineteenth-century theories fit our modern views.  Theories of the cognitive unconscious guide my readings and analyses up to a certain point, but the claims I make for Romantic theories of the unconscious are also backed up by thorough historical research.  The award I received from the Swiss Society for the History of Medicine and Science speaks in favour of this, I hope.

4) To what extent were De Quincey’s notions about the unconscious particular to him, and to what extent were they drawn from ideas circulating more widely?

This is a crucial question in my research and my opinion changed considerably during my research.  At first I thought that De Quincey was on to something really new.  The more I looked at other authors, scientific ideas, and cultural movements, however, the more I realised that he was articulating his version of something that many other people were contemplating and investigating around the same time.  This insight does not diminish his achievements, though.  His originality lies in the way he picks up various notions that were in the air at that time, in the way he reworks them, and in the way he articulates the resulting ideas through his famous impassioned prose.  Furthermore, one of De Quincey’s achievements is the promulgation of these ideas, in particular that of the cognitive unconscious.

One point in this respect that I would love to be able to explain in more detail is the relationship between De Quincey, the scientist Thomas Laycock, and the philosopher Sir William Hamilton.  They published almost the same ideas in almost the same terms at almost the same time.  Is is clear – from direct and indirect evidence – that this was no coincidence.  But what was the direct influence, in which direction did it go, how impactful was it, and did they share the same basis for their theories?  I discovered some exciting links but I can only give tentative answers to these question for the lack of evidence.  In any case, it shows that De Quincey’s ideas were not wholly new.  They were the result of that time and De Quincey considerably helped shape the notion of the unconscious.

5) Which Romantic-period writers beyond De Quincey do you think would be particularly suited for reconsideration in light of the issues you raise in your book?

There is a range of authors that would be interesting to look at in this light, not only from that period.  Going back a little further in time, Erasmus Darwin comes to mind, who articulated similar ideas about the unconscious.  Of course the canonical authors, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge deserve attention in this respect. Thomas Carlyle needs closer attention, too.  His essay ‘Characteristics’ is full of allusions to what we now call the productive unconscious.  I hope future research will expand this list.