Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Vital Matters

Vital Matters: Eighteenth-Century Views of Conception, Life, and Death

Helen Deutsch
Mary Terrall
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 344
  • Book Info
    Vital Matters
    Book Description:

    Locating materialism within the larger history of ideas,Vital Mattersexamines how and why eighteenth-century scientists, philosophers, writers, and artists questioned nature and its animating principles.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-9435-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy, History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-12)

    To our own sensibilities, what could be less literary or more alien to history than matter, the timeless substance of living subjects and inert objects? The study of nature and its animating principle would seem to be the domain of science, the matter of fact. Yet hard fact (the phrase itself hinting at the assumed materiality of the known) itself has a history,¹ and after years of productive conversation enabled by the congenial interdisciplinary community of UCLA’s Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies, no topic seemed better suited to the intellectual collaboration of a historian of science and a literary...

  6. chapter one Living with Lucretius
    (pp. 13-38)

    In 1682, Thomas Creech published the first complete translation of Lucretius’sOn the Nature of Thingsinto English. Greeted with some fanfare on its appearance, Creech’s edition stood at the crest of a Lucretius revival of several decades in the making, including complete or partial translations by Lucy Hutchinson, John Evelyn, and John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester.¹ One common explanation for this renewed interest in the poem has been that its cosmology was so amenable to the new cultures of science and observation. The universe is composed only of atoms and void; all forms of life rise from a...

  7. chapter two Dismantl’d Souls: The Verse Epistle, Embodied Subjectivity, and Poetic Animation
    (pp. 39-56)

    My first epigraph, from the novelist Samuel Richardson, perhaps the greatest letter artist of the eighteenth century, defines epistolarity as the ‘converse of the pen’ that transpires through mutual animation. Bruce Redford, whose bookThe Converse of the Pen: Acts of Intimacy in the Eighteenth-Century Familiar Letterbegins by evoking this passage, has described the eighteenth-century letter as a ‘performance’ that ‘owes its texture to the primacy of a conversational paradigm.’³ The letter, in other words, summons a living, speaking voice from a written text. But such correspondence, we might also note as we consider Richardson’s words, also animates the...

  8. chapter three Girodet and the Eternal Sleep
    (pp. 57-92)

    In August 1793, Anne-Louis Girodet submitted a painting, entitledSleep of Endymion, to the Paris Salon (figure 3.1).¹ The choice of an ephebic mythological shepherd was a bold subject for his painterlyenvoifrom his stay in Rome, at once an extension of the neoclassical principles of his teacher Jacques-Louis David and a powerful refusal of them. With this eroticized nude, Girodet seemed to open up a question that had lain dormant in Davidian neoclassicism: that of the idealized nude male body, and its capacity to signify. Girodet seemed to be proposing – against the grain of heavily masculine and ‘heroic’...

  9. chapter four Tristram Shandy and the Art of Conception
    (pp. 93-108)

    Tristram Shandyis one of the great eighteenth-century cultural artefacts about conception, both literal and figurative. Ingeniously (and devilishly) adapting contemporary knowledge and medical debate about sex, conception, embryology, and birth, Sterne treats the matter of conception variously as a microscopic physiological event, as an issue of gender, as ideational, and as an aesthetic question with implications for readers. Beginning the story of Tristram’s life and opinions not ‘ab ovo’¹ as the narrator pretends, but with father Walter’s troubled ejaculation and the literal question of the problematic conditions of Tristram’s begetting, the novel moves on to spend much sophisticated energy...

  10. chapter five Material Impressions: Conception, Sensibility, and Inheritance
    (pp. 109-129)

    The moment of conception, as Tristram Shandy tells us, is fraught with danger and possibility. It is, of course, also the moment when the offspring receives its inheritance, its future. What exactly happens at conception, the starting point of a new life? And can this event or process be understood mechanically? Conception was a notorious sticking point for mechanical explanations of physiology, from Descartes onwards. Descartes’s own hypothesis, that the fetus formed gradually from the fermentation of male and female seminal fluids mixing in the uterus, convinced almost no one (probably not even himself).¹ The proliferation of novel microscopic observations...

  11. chapter six Misconceiving the Heir: Mind and Matter in the Warming Pan Propaganda
    (pp. 130-147)

    According to Steven Zwicker, the revolution of 1688 is distinguished by the fact that no great works of literature resulted from it, especially from the Whig side.⁴ While John Dryden’sDon Sebastianoffers literary legitimacy to Jacobites, Williamite Whigs must content themselves with mediocre political propaganda as their claim to literary fame. The success of the Whig political revolution and its mediocre literary productions are, this essay argues, related to each other, in that the Whig strategy for representing the Jacobites as illegitimate depends upon sequestering them in illegitimate literary forms. The aspect of the revolution most represented by the...

  12. chapter seven From the Man-Machine to the Automaton-Man: The Enlightenment Origins of the Mechanistic Imagery of Humanity
    (pp. 148-173)

    There is an interesting paradox in the way we evoke machines in describing certain types of people in everyday language, a practice that is worth de-familiarizing for historical analysis. On the one hand, referring to someone as a machine can be an expression of admiration for the demonstration of great productivity at a task, unerring accuracy and grace in its execution, or tirelessness in application. To use some examples from popular media, we understand the significance of characterizing the prolific novelist Stephen King as a ‘writing machine,’ the basketball star Michael Jordan as a ‘dunking machine,’ and even President George...

  13. chapter eight The ‘Fair Savage’: Empiricism and Essence in Sarah Fielding’s The History of Ophelia
    (pp. 174-202)

    Ira Levin’s 1972 novelThe Stepford Wives,and the 1975 film of the same name, imagine a disconcerting but unambivalent solution to what might be called the mind-wife problem. Levin’s plot is well known: alarmed by their wives’ encroaching feminism, husbands in an upscale Connecticut village kill those wives and replace them with busty look-alike robots who happily clean house all day long.The Stepford Wivesthus distils its appraisal of upper-middle-class American husbands’ reaction to secondwave feminism – and perhaps its appraisal of husbandstout court– into a pessimistic but unassailable narrative logic. If, as the term ‘consciousness raising’ implies,...

  14. chapter nine Food and Feeling: ‘Digestive Force’ and the Nature of Morbidity in Vitalist Medicine
    (pp. 203-221)

    These strange observations about animals much honoured by the eighteenth century, one as a beast of the hunt and the other as an exemplar of industry, serve a ‘defamiliarizing’ function that is useful in approaching certain features of Enlightenment medicine. Necessary as it may be, however, defamiliarizing itself feels strange when undertaken in respect to matters so everyday as eating. In his bookThe Hungry SoulLeon Kass details the myriad activities we engage in to make eating possible or to intensify its pleasures – growing, transporting, and marketing food; manufacturing dishes, tables, and ovens; obtaining fuel for cooking and water...

  15. chapter ten The Divine Touch, or Touching Divines: John Hunter, David Hume, and the Bishop of Durham’s Rectum
    (pp. 222-245)

    In 1776, having been beset by a complaint which had proved a mystery to an army of physicians, the philosopher David Hume wrote the following lines to his friend John Crawford: ‘The true cause of my distemper is now discovered. It lies in my liver, not in my bowels. You ask me how I know this; I answer, John Hunter, the greatest anatomist in Europe, felt it with his fingers and I myself can now feel it . . . Even St Thomas, the infidel apostle, desired no better authority.’¹ For Hume, the hands of John Hunter (1728–93) were...

  16. chapter eleven The Value of a Dead Body
    (pp. 246-264)

    At the outset of his course of anatomy lectures, William Hunter (1718–83) proclaimed the virtues of ‘fresh subjects’: ‘The dead body cannot be too fresh for dissection; every hour that it is kept, it is losing something of its fitness for anatomical demonstrations.’¹ What was the value of a dead body for Hunter? What did he do with it, and how did he acquire it? In a famous article written over thirty years ago, Toby Gelfand argued that Hunter’s claim of running his classes ‘in the Paris manner’ meant that each student had access to a corpse to dissect....

  17. chapter twelve Noticing Death: Funeral Invitations and Obituaries in Early Modern Britain
    (pp. 265-306)

    Two distinct ways to notice the death of an individual appeared for the first time in Britain in the mid-seventeenth century.¹ A funeral invitation or ‘ticket,’ a printed template completed with details of particular arrangements, summoned mourners to Protestant services.² The obituary, printed in a periodical, briefly summarized a life recently closed by death. Although only a small percentage of funerals and finished lives were noticed in these ways, the funeral invitation and the obituary illuminate several significant aspects of early modern Britain: complex relationships between individual and communal concerns, the vitality of expressions that combine practical and symbolic functions,...

  18. Contributors
    (pp. 307-310)
  19. Index
    (pp. 311-333)