Why read a book about reading, perception, and the Victorians during a pandemic? Though not about the pandemic or sheltering in place, this book has an answer: like perception, it claims, reading literature connects us to the world. Rather than removing or distancing us from "real life" (though we might count this as the best reason now for reading), Coombs argues--with the help of the Victorians--that reading moves our minds to make what J.J. Gibson called "affordances" (qtd. 32), to experience what William James called the "fringe of relations" (qtd. 30) that help us feel we occupy and know the real world. This book aims to show us how.
Like Coombs, a number of other scholars have lately been studying what Victorian authors thought about the relation between reading literature and the emerging sciences of mind, physics, and physiology of their day, and specifically what they thought about the relevance of their own novels, poetry, and aesthetic theories to the mental and physical experiences of their readers. Starting with the groundbreaking work of Nicholas Dames (Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810 -- 1870 (, and The Physiology of the Novel ), this line of inquiry has been pursued by scholars such as Andrew Elfinbein, Rachel Ablow, Elaine Auyoung, Benjamin Morgan, Michael Tondre, and me (in Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy ). While taking his place in this line of inquiry, Coombs breaks new ground with the claims he makes as well as with his arguments for them. To explain reading as a kind of perception, he deploys the overarching analogy of "reading as metaphor"; he links Victorian literature and the perception sciences with current debates on the reading practices of literature and what they mean or "do," and on the reading brain; and throughout the book, he quietly leads up to his culminating hypothesis, which is that reading, like perception, leads us outward to the world.
At its heart, then, this book is an intellectual history that charts the relations between what the Victorians thought about perception and what they thought about reading literature. Both topics lead back to sensation, especially to the role the senses play in both perception and reading. To show what theories about sensation, perception, and reading the Victorians inherited, Coombs cites 18th century thinkers such as Thomas Reid, sometimes joined by Locke and Hume. Their accounts of perception as the interpretation of sensation, Coombs explains, were disrupted by Victorian men of science:
When Thomas Reid identified sensations with signs and perceptions with their interpretation in the eighteenth century, he was arguing for perception's immediacy, a directness that he thought was grounded in the Book of Nature. But his version of that direct realism depended on taking as simply given the precise nature of how the physical facts of sensations give rise to the mental phenomena of perceptions. Once that dynamic became the object of scientific inquiry in Victorian physics, physiology, and experimental psychology, the Book of Nature became unbound. Sensory signs and perceptual interpretations untethered over the course of the nineteenth century. Cut loose from strict causal or cognitive relations with objects, sensations became autonomous. (164-5)
Here is the core claim of the book. According to Coombs, the research and theories of Helmholtz, Wundt, Tain, Bain, Lewes, Ruskin, William James and others freed Victorian authors to imagine sensation as something de-coupled from perception, or at least as something not automatically, directly, or immediately translated into perception. This decoupling, Coombs argues, gave Victorian authors "license to experiment with reading as a technology of perception" (165), to represent sensations as literal, non-figurative presences. He then glosses a sequence of such representations: George Eliot's hallucinations in Romola; Thomas Hardy's associations in The Return of the Native; Vernon Lee's empathy in Belcaro and other treatises of the Aesthetic Movement; and Walter Pater's harmonics in The Renaissance and other texts. To highlight these presences or sites of the literal, Coombs asserts, is to make possible a reading of the senses.
Coombs's argument is based on transitive logic. If a (reading) is to b (literature and the arts) as c (perception) is to d (experience), then a is to d as c is to b: reading is to experience as perception is to literature and the arts. Coombs's repeated insistence on this logic is at times strained. But since for him it suggests associations and thereby enables cross-disciplinary thinking, I gave myself up to his application of it. In adopting the figurative "Book of Nature," Coombs contends, 18th century scientists of perception forecasted his own adoption of "reading" as the "master metaphor" for both reading and perception. In the 19th century, however, scientists began to uncover how deeply perception demands interpolation. In doing so, Coombs argues, they not only made the "reading" of Nature more complex but also gave Victorian authors new ways to imagine the complexity of reading literature. They gave new life to the senses or prompted Victorian authors to make sensation more literal, less figurative.
The book aims, then, to show how literal Victorian literary and aesthetic texts became in the wake of discoveries made by perception science. "The way reading weaves together what is actually present with what is virtually present," Coombs writes,
made it a master metaphor for nineteenth-century perception science. When they encountered that science, Victorian literary writers experimented with ways that its core insight about the complex perceptual presence of letters and words might scale up to the larger figures populating literary texts--characters, authors, tropes, and so on" (173-4, emphasis mine).
That "scaling up" gives form to the formless. "Vagueness," "association," "obscurity," "suggestiveness": in the texts of Eliot, Hardy, Lee, and Pater, these are the qualities which, according to Coombs, signify the influence of perception science on Victorian literature and the arts. Is this kind of evidence enough? Though Victorian authors sometimes mention scientists by name, Coombs cannot always find such references. When arguing, for instance, that Pater's writing reflects the influence of Helmholtz's work on harmonics, Coombs writes: "While he never mentions Helmholtz directly in his published writings, Pater's rise to fame as an apostle of the Aesthetic Movement in the 1870s coincided with the explosion of British interest in Helmholtz's scientific work on music in particular"(136). What then "proves" Helmholz's influence on Pater? Do we need evidence that Pater read Helmholz, or can we "see" the influence of the scientist by simply analyzing Pater's prose? Like the question raised by transitive logic ("Is perception reading?"), this is a problem of intellectual history, a question of metholodology. Whether or not it can be answered, it can certainly be entertained. For me, the master metaphor of reading works because Coombs reshapes it as he proceeds. He uses it to think through how and why Victorian authors came to make the sensation of the more occluded parts of experience more present and more literal in their works. But he also uses it to connect Victorian debates about reading to current literary-critical debates about surface reading (Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus), close reading and thin description (Heather Love), denotative, technical, and literal reading (Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt), and uncritical reading (Michael Warner).
Likewise, Coombs mines 20th century philosophy to enrich his writing about Victorian theories of reading and perception. To think through the problems of language as a symbolic system, for instance, he cites ordinary language philosophy, analytic philosophy, and linguistics (J. L. Austin, Gottlob Frege, Roman Jakobson, Saul Kripke, John Searle); to probe the work of the brain when reading literature, he uses cognitive science (Stanislas Dehaene, Elaine Scarry). In citing both 20th -century philosophy and 21st- literary debates on how we read literature and what those reading practices mean, Coombs strengthens his claim that reading literature creates affordances that lead our minds out to the world. For even as his argument looks backward to Victorian theories of reading, it also looks forward and outward toward other fields of thought.
Richly referring to to multiple fields, this book helps us as well as Coombs himself to see literal, sensory presences in Victorian literature. I am still walking with Vernon Lee at the Vatican and the National Gallery, thinking of her as an experimental psychologist distributing questionnaires about how art makes one feel. At Coombs's prompting I imagine Lee's focus on desire for form, perceptual suggestiveness, and empathy as a form-giving perceptual process. But most of all, I continue to be struck by Coombs's analysis of Hardy's Return
of the Native.
Because Coombs's mind is so associative, because he often links the text under discussion with other texts and other fields of discourse, his close readings up to the Hardy chapter can sometimes feel strained. Also, however interesting may be the distinction between such 18th-and-19th century categories as "knowledge by acquaintance" and "knowledge by description," I'd have preferred the author's own clear and concrete prose to his ongoing repetition of such terms, which often sent me to the the glossary at the end. But the Hardy chapter brings everything together: the method, the claims, the associative weaving, the sustained attention to the novel and elements of Hardy's life. In Return of the Native, Coombs writes, "[c]haracters . . . read each other, each regarding the other's face 'not as a picture, but . . . as a page,' and in doing so they misread each other, with catastrophic results" (75). Powerfully applying Bain's concept of contiguous association and Ruskin's associative architectural aesthetics, Coombs shows how Hardy realizes sensory presence amidst darkness and obscurity. Though neither Eustacia nor Clym can see each other's face when they first meet, each is said to feel the presence of the other by means of association, through voice or the sounds of nature that they infuse with emotional significance and erotic charge. Along with the links that Coombs finds between moments of Hardy's life and theories of association, his close readings of Hardy's novel show how it teaches us about ourselves: how we sense and how we perceive, as readers of the book and as beings in the world.
"When we read as when we perceive," Coombs writes, "we are always in the midst of things, always directed toward the world"(175). At its best, this book gives our reading eyes a world of ideas about reading literature. While prompting us to enter, "as if always in the midst of things," it also leads us outward to re-imagine the relation between literature and the world--and to see why literature always matters, most especially now.
Kay Young is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC, Santa Barbara.