Matthew Kaiser (Harvard University)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Stevenson’s Lungs’

“Stevenson’s Lungs” is part of a second book project titled Anatomy of History, which explores the unacknowledged physiological dimension to historical consciousness. Focusing primarily upon his historical novels, I locate Stevenson’s meditations upon the past—in particular his representations of eighteenth-century Scotland—within nineteenth-century historiographic debates about how we determine whether our claims about the past are true, or, at the very least, viable. Historical conceptualization, or the intellectual process by which we come to “know” history, Hayden White famously argues, is inherently aesthetic in nature: historical consciousness is a narrative impulse, a set of “poetic formalizations,” which we mistake retrospectively for historical “truth.” Following White, I also explore the aesthetics of historical consciousness, but I focus on the sensory dimension to the “aesthetic” of history rather than on its formal dimension. Is it possible to have an actual sense of history, a sensory perception of the past? Can we feel history? And if so, how? Is ahistoricity essentially anaesthetic, a temporal numbness, a literal insensitivity to the past? Informed by medical and scientific innovations, by nineteenth- century physiology, and by a growing awareness of the embodied nature of Mind, Victorian historiographers located historical knowledge increasingly in and on the body, associated historical consciousness with bodily sensation. As Marx, Nietzsche, and other materialist thinkers argued, all consciousness is bodily—even, we can assume, historical consciousness. The bodily conditions of our existence—illness, vigor, hunger, satiety, destitution, ease—determine our consciousness, rather than the reverse. Thus, concepts, Nietzsche insists, are “the graveyard of perceptions”; beneath ideas lurks a suppressed body. Which perceptions lurk beneath the concept of history? The relationship between physiognomy and historiography has never fully been explored. Nostalgia, for instance, was initially the name of a disease: homesickness, restlessness, yearning. In the seventeenth century, “nostalgia” had a set of identifiable symptoms, an etiology, and a cure.

This paper is not merely an attempt to locate Stevenson within nineteenth-century historiography. It is also an exploration of how Stevenson, like many of his aesthetically inclined contemporaries, located or oriented himself in time spatially, felt history on his body. Admittedly, the idea that we can feel history seems, at first blush, laughable. And yet, as psychologists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have documented, the corporeal sensation that lurks beneath the concept of time—and that enables us to know it—is the sensation of motion through space. Time is a metaphor that we have forgotten is a metaphor. We conceive of temporality spatially. We talk of the distance of a past event, of how “far back” in time it is. We look towards the future. The past is behind us. We experience historical consciousness as situatedness in space. The present is where we are. To think of time, then, is to perceive one’s body in space. Spatial perception is not only visual, however, that is, proximity to or distance from a visible marker or horizon. In fact, because the past is by definition unseen and unseeable, because it is always alreadybeyond the temporal horizon, we should think of the historiographer as seeing-impaired: as Homer contemplating the Trojan War. History heightens our other senses; it forces us to locate ourselves in space by other means than sight.

This paper tells the story of how Stevenson felt a past he could not see, specifically, how he felt the past, as my title indicates, in his lungs: in the seemingly unremarkable act of inhaling and exhaling, which, for Stevenson, who suffered from acute pulmonary disease (or from Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome or Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia), triggered an emotionally and intellectually profound awareness of mortality, of the fleetingness of time, of the body in space. Stevenson associates awareness of the past, in particular his consciousness of the pre-modern Highlands, with deep and expansive breathing, with physiologically-informed tropes of inspiration (literally, a “breathing into” or “blowing onto”). Nineteenth-century modernity, by contrast, he aligns with suffocation, with Jekyll’s foggy London, for instance, with myopic and self-centered pulmonary constriction, a narrowing of passageways. In his essay “Pan’s Pipes,” Stevenson is quite explicit about the pulmonary dimension to consciousness, suggesting that a full, fearless, panoramic experience of the cosmos, of the “allness” of time and space, derives from one’s ability and willingness to partake of Pan’s blowing on his pipes, feeling one’s soul vibrating with the music of life. Those modern, commercially-inclined men and women who flee the consciousness-shattering motions of Pan’s exhalations, who take refuge in the future, in intellectually suffocating self-preservation, are alienated completely from life. The ethical interiority produced by historical consciousness, by letting one’s insides expand with the cosmos, letting oneself be inspired by life, filled with the motions of time, is aligned in Stevenson’s mind—and in his representations of the unseen but felt experience of the past—with the fleetingness of his pulmonary health, with elusive deep breathing, which he devoted his life to achieving.

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