An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


It is extraordinary what sound, touch, taste, smell, or just the look of something will do to you, how it will affect you, where it will take you. In Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913—27), it is famously the taste of a madeleine — a small, shell-shaped cake — that returns the narrator to his childhood in Combray, while in Speak, Memory (1966), Vladimir Nabokov obsessively evokes the sights and sounds that return him to the Russia from which in 1919 he was exiled by the Bolshevik Revolution. These writers are taken out of their bodies by their bodies, but taken out of their bodies in a way that is intimately attuned to sensation. In that sense, they never leave their bodies: memory itself, like consciousness, thought and imagination, is embodied.

In D.H. Lawrence’s ’Piano’, it is the sound of a song that returns the speaker, irresistibly, to an intensely corporeal childhood:

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;

Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings

And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song

Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong

To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside

And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour

With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour

Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast

Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

(1905—6; revised and published 1918)

We tend to think of memory as somehow abstract and intangible, as lodged in some obscure, impalpable and ultimately un-locatable region of our heads. But Lawrence’s poem powerfully suggests that memory, like thought and like consciousness itself, is embodied. It is the sound of the ’piano appassionato’ that transports the man to his past, or that makes him weep for it. Lawrence’s poem is remarkably attentive to touch, hearing and sight. From the delicately tactile sound of the first word, ’Softly’, the poem evokes a range of complex and synaesthetic senses. It insists on the sensory presence, however imaginary, of the speaker’s mother as he remembers or is ’taken back’ by the woman singing. There is that strange and slightly unsettling intimacy of touch, that vaguely fetishistic sensuality, as the boy presses his mother’s ’poised feet’, for example; and there is the intimate sense that it is not so much me but the heart of me that weeps to belong and that weeps for the past. In fact, the poem seems to be constructed around the paradox of the sensorially suggestive word of its title — around an abbreviation of a word that is never fully articulated in the poem, ’pianoforte’ (literally, in Italian, ’soft-strong’). The soft-strong sound of the piano’s ’tingling’ (or ’tinkling’) and boom resonates with other soft-strong duos, such as boy and man, female and male, sentiment and manliness, being mastered and ’insidious mastery’, the ’cosy parlour’ and ’winter outside’, ’glamour’ and ’clamour’, the ’heart of me’ and me, the comforting touch and sounds of then and the harsh reality of now, and the seduction and betrayal of memory. All this might be enough to give you a tingling feeling.

Lawrence’s poem can help us focus on the four main points that we want to discuss in this chapter:

· 1. Mind, memory, consciousness, thought and imagination are embodied: in Lawrence’s poem, the speaker’s memory of the past is as much sensory as it is cognitive or conceptual.

· 2. Literature is always inextricably bound up with bodies; it not only focuses thematically on sensory perception and sensory experience but somehow bodies forth those perceptions and experiences — literature is in important ways sensorial. The poem is about bodies, the man’s and his mother’s, of course, but it is also embodied with respect to the way that the senses are insistently evoked, provoked, enticed by the poem, as well as to the sounds that the words make — the slight susurration of ’Softly … dusk … singing’ in line 1 and other similar effects in lines 4, 5, and 9; the onomatopoeic ’boom’ against ’tingling’ in line 3; the aural anagram of ’piano’ within ’appassionato’ in line 10; the subtle variation in enjambed or run-on and end-stopped lines and in the metre (the shift from the iambic pentameter in the first three lines of each stanza to the dactylic hexameter of the closing line).

· 3. Literary texts are at once undecidably material and immaterial, corporeal and intellectual. They insistently explore tensions between the mental or psychological or cognitive, on the one hand, and embodiment or the corporeal or the sensory, on the other. Lawrence’s poem both enacts these tensions in its evocation of sounds from the past that cannot be heard and analyses the experience of a man transported to the past by the mental processing of memory.

· 4. Finally, bodies are intrinsically and inescapably political. The (human) body is a critical site of political, legal, cultural, ideological contestation. The politics of gender, for example, are explicitly engaged at the end of Lawrence’s poem, which associates femininity with memory, childhood, intimacy and emotional expressiveness. When the speaker says that his ’manhood is cast / Down in the flood of remembrance’, he seems to be talking not only about no longer being an adult but also about no longer being male.

The idea that acts of thinking, remembering, imagining and conceiving are embodied might seem self-evident. After all, your heart races when you experience fear, your mouth secretes saliva just at the thought of food, you are supposed to go weak at the knees when you first encounter the one you love, you can blush from embarrassment or desire, you literally cringe sometimes when you remember what you said last night, and you shudder, tremble, quiver or quake, you cower, recoil, wince, palpitate, quail or flinch just from the prospect of physical harm. And then, of course — how shall we put it? — thinking, remembering, speculating or imagining can have moisturising, dilatory or tumescent physical consequences for specific parts of your anatomy.

Writing in the 1590s, the poet John Donne comments in one of his early ’Paradoxes’ that ’the body makes the minde’ and that the soul, which he identifies with the mind, is ’enabled by our body, not this by that’ (Donne 1990, 15). The body makes or enables the mind, not the other way round: although this is a ’paradox’ for Donne, it makes a lot of sense. Another way to consider the idea is to say that our understanding of the world, including our sense of space and time, is fundamentally governed by the way we perceive it, and that our ’sense of self’ cannot be disengaged from the shapes, colours, textures, and contours, the sounds, movements, expressions and gestures, that our bodies make, from our physical abilities and limitations, and from the places — geographical, spatial and temporal — that our bodies inhabit. As David Hume put it in 1738, ’I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception’ (Hume 2000, 165): there is only perception, no ’myself’ otherwise. And yet the idea that the mind or the brain is quite separate from the body dominated Western thought for several centuries — and is still a very important element of our culture today. At least since the 1620s, when the philosopher René Descartes — famous for coming up with the motto ’I think therefore I am’ (cogito ergo sum) — began to develop the idea of what has been known ever since as ’dualism’ or as ’Cartesian dualism’, Western thought has been dominated by the idea that the mind is separate from the body. According to this model, the body is a machine-like entity that is controlled by the mind — by what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle dubbed the ’ghost in the machine’ (Ryle 1949, 17ff) and by what Freud and others call the ’unconscious’.

Descartes’s dualism, his binary opposition, of mind and body is a simple, powerful, and extremely influential idea. But Cartesian dualism is also highly contentious, if not, in fact, fundamentally fictitious. And yet its ramifications are many and far-reaching. We might mention just three:

· 1. In the first place, mind-body dualism leads to the idea of a self or subjectivity as disembodied, an ultimately religious conception of the self as a non-corporeal, intangible spirit or soul — with all that that implies in terms of the afterlife, spirituality, ethics, and indeed the downplaying of physical suffering. If you choose to consider it at all, the bodily suffering of ’others’ — slaves, women, the poor, colonial subjects, etc. — thereby becomes less concerning because those who suffer physically on earth will have their eternal reward after their souls, their ’real’ selves, have departed their bodies. The whole idea of the ’self’ — so influential in Western culture, politics and ideology over many centuries, is largely premised on this separating out of mind and body. It is there, for example, in Hollywood films, with their fascination with ghosts, disembodied selves, telepathic experiences and life after death, just as much as it is in text-speak (my Boo, my Bae, my BFF, in contemporary lingo), and in all those pop songs that declare, with Celine Dione and the Hollywood behemoth that is James Cameron’s Titanic (1997): ’My Heart Will Go On’. She doesn’t mean heart-as-pump, that fist-sized organ that keeps your blood circulating, of course, but heart-as-self/spirit/soul.

· 2. Cartesian dualism is part of a larger philosophical tendency that pits experience, the empirical and the material against the ideal, the abstract and the theoretical. This can be traced back to Plato’s notion of the ’Forms’ — of real reality as outside of and fundamentally beyond the reach of human perception — which gives priority and logical primacy to the non-embodied, universal realm of ideas. Correspondingly, in a post-Cartesian context, the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724—1804) distinguishes the ’a priori’ from the ’a posteriori’ and posits as fundamental the notion of the ’a priori’ — knowledge or understanding that is independent of experience as opposed to ’a posteriori’ knowledge that is gained through (sensory) experience. This is the sphere of what Derrida refers to as the ’Western metaphysics of presence’, in which the true or the real is also the ’beyond’. Even Freud’s idea of the unconscious may be said to be Cartesian in the sense that it posits an intangible, inaccessible and non-physical realm (the ’unconscious’) that governs our actions, our moods and feelings, our well-being, and the muscular reactions and movements of our bodies. Such movements might include the strange and machine-like: twitches, twinges, tics, spasms, convulsions, shudders and paroxysms.

· 3. Like all binary oppositions, Cartesian dualism leads to what Derrida terms a ’violent hierarchy’ — to a privileging of the mind (self/soul/spirit) over the body (Derrida 1981, 41). As feminists have long argued, in fact, the mind/body oppositional hierarchy is at the root of and ultimately serves to justify patriarchy, a way of thinking and acting that classically associates the body with the female and the mind (and ’higher’ forms of spirit, soul, or other intangible, timeless, essences) with the male.

James Joyce’s great modernist epic Ulysses (1922) is everywhere concerned with the body, with how it works, with what it does, with how it is talked about — from personal relationships to cultural production to religion to politics. Joyce’s novel is driven by the human body, such that all but three of the eighteen chapters or ’episodes’ are built around a consideration of a body-organ — kidney, genitals, heart, lungs, esophagus, brain and so on. (See the Gilbert and the Linati schemata in Joyce 1993, 734—9, for complete lists.) Joyce’s extraordinary, formally experimental, baffling but hugely readable, scandalous, provocative, highly crafted, inventively designed novel is primarily about a day (16 June 1904) in the life of a 38-year-old advertising canvasser, Leopold Bloom, together with his wife, Molly, a semi-professional concert singer, mother, sensualist, adulterer, and Stephen Dedalus, an aspiring writer and somewhat narcissistic intellectual in his early twenties (in many ways a somewhat unforgiving portrait of Joyce’s own younger self). The opposition between the corporeal and the intellectual is established in the very narrative structure of the book, which focuses in particular on the two men (with Molly looming large in the background until the final episode, where she takes centre-stage as the acme of feminine corporeality). On the one hand, there is Bloom, who shits, masturbates, farts (this is what a literary fart sounds like, if you want to know: ’Pprrpffrrppfff’ (Joyce 1993, 279)), repeatedly prepares and eats all sorts of foods with gusto, and who engages with the world as much through his senses as through his mind. On the other hand, there is Dedalus, who is more attuned to the mind (the first three episodes of the novel centre on Dedalus and it is these that don’t have organizing organs), and to that most intellectual of the senses, sight. Dedalus in fact thinks about the senses as much as he senses with them. So ’Proteus’, one of the episodes that focus on Dedalus, begins with the question of vision: ’Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes’ (37). In this strange locution ’thought through my eyes’, Dedalus insists on thought as primary. By vivid contrast, the beginning of the next episode (’Calypso’) presents Bloom absorbed in the sensuous activity of eating:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine. (53)

This is our first encounter with Joyce’s great ’Everyman’ character, and what is perhaps most striking about the paragraph is Bloom’s uninhibited liking for the food that he eats — the passage gives us the impression that he would like almost any food. Joyce also brings starkly to our attention the intimate relationship between desire — or liking — and disgust, when it comes to the body. While we might vaguely baulk or even gag at the thought of these foodstuffs (giblet soup, anyone? nutty gizzards?), Bloom certainly doesn’t, and we get the sense that he likes the kidneys not despite the ’fine tang of faintly scented urine’ but because of it — the tang is ’fine’, after all. Bloom, unlike Stephen, is profoundly and intimately embodied. And yet the novel also resists this binary opposition: as the opening sentence to ’Proteus’ makes clear, it is only an emphasis on the mind that characterizes Stephen’s relationship with the world. Aesthete that he is, Stephen is deeply aware of forms of sensory perception, including, of course, sights and sounds (’aesthetic’, after all, comes from the Greek word for ’perceiving’ or ’sensing’). On the other hand, the mind of the highly sensual Leopold Bloom is also constantly at work querying, speculating, imagining, thinking — not least about bodies, his own and those of others.

Leopold Bloom is no Celine Dione, it has to be said, despite his love of music and song. This is nowhere more evident than in Bloom’s thinking about the heart. For Bloom, the heart is many things — physical and metaphysical, literal and metaphorical, embodied and ensouled. In the ’Hades’ episode (so called after the corresponding episode in Homer’s The Odyssey in which Ulysses descends to the underworld), Bloom attends the funeral of a friend: the dominant organ of the episode is the heart, the organ that, when it stops, signals your death, turns out the lights. The heart, of course, precisely doesn’t go on, not forever, and when it stops, so do you, body and soul. The question of the heart going on or not going on is nowhere more apposite than in a graveyard, and in one wonderfully witty and inventive passage, Bloom speculates about the organ’s multifarious nature as he walks to his friend’s burial-plot. He responds silently to another mourner’s comment on the line ’I am the resurrection and the life’ from the funeral service ’That touches a man’s inmost heart’, with the following stream of thoughts:

Your heart perhaps but what price the fellow in the six feet by two with his toes to the daises? No touching that. Seat of the affections. Broken heart. A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rust pumps: damn the thing else. The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their grave. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job. Get up! Last day! The every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps. (102)

The play on ’touching’ — touching as a haptic encounter of body with body and touching as moving, poignant, tender or affecting — introduces a swift series of tenuously but suggestively linked speculations about death, affection, hearts broken and the heart as a pump, hearts being ’bunged up’ and stopping, hearts and other organs ’lying around’ in the corpses buried in the churchyard, the comic literalization of the Biblical idea of resurrection, and the schoolboy pun on Christ’s call to the dead Lazarus to ’come forth/fourth’ in John 11:43. How rich, fruitful, various and life-affirming this sequence is next to the dreary, one-dimensional, improbable, sentimental gush of one’s heart ’going on’ after death that you have to sit through as the song does indeed go on and on at the end of James Cameron’s three-hour, two billion-dollar-grossing epic disaster movie of love and loss. And what marks Joyce’s engagement with the heart and with life and death more generally, here and in his other writings, is a life-affirming delight in human bodies, their sheer physical materiality as well as their intimate and intricate links with what we call mind or spirit, with a sense of self, with consciousness and unconsciousness, with ideas, and with emotions.

In the Preface to The Phenomenology of Perception ([1945] 2012), Maurice Merleau-Ponty remarked that the project of phenomenology — the experiencebased, anti-idealist philosophy developed in the first half of the twentieth century by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger in Germany, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Merleau-Ponty himself in France — is as ’painstaking’ with regard to the world as the work of Balzac, Proust, Valéry and Cézanne are in writing and painting. Phenomenology works ’through the same kind of attention and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to grasp the sense of the world or of history in its nascent state’ (Merleau-Ponty 2012, lxxxv). In a corresponding way, the critic Steven Connor has recently remarked that it is striking how often philosophers use literary examples to explain how the senses work. Literature, he argues, ’gives the necessary supplement of sensory form to the senses themselves, allowing the senses to be perceived as well as conceived’ (Connor 2015, 180). Drama presents us with bodies on stage — a major impulse behind plays is to stage bodies, to put them in our presence — and poems often offer exquisite meditations on bodies, as well as on the things that bodies perceive and how they perceive them. And it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that it is novels, above all, that confront us with the question of the body, with how it is possible to imagine, remember, conceptualize, and think its urges and aspirations, its visceral disgust and aversion, its ambivalence of desire, its tics and twitches, gestures, gesticulations and movements, its ways of thinking and of being. But all literary forms have their way with bodies, all enact and perform, construct and examine the physical, material facticity of the subject, its haecceity and its haptic actuality. After all, literature is concerned with the body that reads and writes, with the body that both ’is and is not ourselves’, as Merleau-Ponty puts it (Merleau-Ponty 1993, 120). Without the body there would be no poems, novels or plays, because there could be no life.

Further reading

An excellent place to start thinking about literature and embodiment is Hillman and Maude, eds, The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Body (2015), a collection of essays that range from the medieval to the present and through historical, poststructuralist, psychoanalytic, feminist, postcolonial and other approaches to the body in literature. Earlier important works include Francis Barker’s 1984 study of the body in early modern literature, The Tremulous Private Body (2nd edn., 1995), and Peter Brooks’s very different discussion (mainly focused on nineteenth-century fiction) of the narrative ’drive’ to expose the body in Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative (1993). The work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, especially his magnum opus, The Phenomenology of Perception ([1945] 2012), offers a crucial and (once it gets going) surprisingly readable challenge to the dominant Cartesian-dualist idealism that is also an important influence on the phenomenological turn in literary criticism and on what has come to be called ’Body Studies’. Rather differently, Michel Foucault’s emphasis on embodiment in his analysis of knowledge and the regulation of desire, especially in his three-volume History of Sexuality, has been particularly important for recent historical and political accounts of embodiment. Although not for the faint-hearted (so to speak), Jean-Luc Nancy’s Corpus (2008) and Jacques Derrida’s response to Nancy’s work On Touching — Jean-Luc Nancy (2005a) offer fascinating deconstructive accounts of embodiment in terms of touching and self-touching. See also Jones Irwin’s discussion of Derrida’s career-long engagement with bodies — an important element in his work that is often overlooked or ignored — in Derrida and the Writing of the Body (2010). Other interesting studies of literary and cultural dimensions of the body include Steven Connor, The Book of Skin (2004) and Sarah Jackson, Tactile Poetics (2015). Finally, you can find a good, clear account of Cartesian dualism in the entry on Descartes in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (see