Matters of Memory
Victorian Studies, Volume 49, Number 2, Winter 2007. Papers and responses from the Fourth Annual Conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association
Athena Vrettos, ‘Displaced Memories in Victorian Fiction and Psychology,’ pp. 199-207
Thomas Hardy recounts why it might be disturbing to rent a furnished house in his observation that ‘articles…are saturated with the thoughts and glances of others,’. Not least because I am just about to rent a furnished flat myself, I found Vrettos’ analysis of Victorian representations of displaced and dissociated memories fascinating.
‘To what extent to do we possess our own memories?’ she asks. ‘Can memories be transferred between, or exist outside of human minds?’ By tracing the theories of F.W.H. Myers, Samuel Butler and William James and by recounting how their ideas were echoed in literature, Vrettos offers an insightful glimpse into the debates that were being played out in nineteenth-century British, continental and American narratives.
After recognising that ‘James sees the psychological fusion of bodies and things as evidence of how thoroughly individuals assimilate aspects of the material world into a fragile conception of self’ and that Butler and Myers understand ‘a perpetual interaction between the self and the material world’ to break ‘down the boundaries of identity,’ Vrettos maps their ideas onto the work of novelists. She analyses the complex boundaries between the self and the material world as demonstrated in Conan Doyle’s 1903 story ‘The Leather Funnel’. In this, she recognises that the theories of Lionel Darce, a collector of antiques, are almost identical to those of Myers. She quotes Darce’s argument:
According to my theory, any object which has been intimately associated with any supreme paroxysm of human emotion, whether it be joy or pain, will retain a certain atmosphere or association which it is capable of communicating to a sensitive mind.
‘Proved’ by the terrifying incident of his friend’s dream of torture, Darce is able to confirm the leather funnel as a channel for transmitting traumatic memory. After this analysis, Vrettos notes how ‘material possessions bear the physical residue of their previous owners’ lives’ in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Recognising that Thomas Hardy’s fiction offers a subtler account of the ‘displacement of memory through the haunting power of material things,’ Vrettos speaks of ancestral memory and traces signs of the ‘retrocognitive’ nature of memory as demonstrated throughout Tess of the D’Urbervilles. After considering the memory-saturated rooms of the D’Urberville mansion where Tess and Angel spend their honeymoon, she moves onto argue that
Angel’s somnambulism and re-enacted burial of Tess among her ancestors registers not only his psychological distress at Tess’ revelation, but also his pervasive sense of being haunted by traces and memories of a past that belongs to Tess but now inhabits his own mind.
Alexandra Nell, ‘”A Something-Nothing Out of Its Very Contrary”: The Photography of Coleridge’ pp. 208-217
For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Nell argues, Hartley’s theory of association ‘assumes an impoverished model of human agency best represented by the camera obscura: a hollowed out, mechanical object that simply reflects “materials ready made” from the outside.’ Rather than just illustrating the passive human agent, however, Coleridge speaks of exceeding representation and propelling the active poetic imagination. Mapping Coleridge’s theories of representation and transformation onto The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Nell traces the Mariner’s passive fancy and the active imagination necessary for the author and writerly reader. Outlining the limitations of taking the camera obscura for a model of the poet, she moves onto speak of the visuality of the poem itself and the mechanistic way of fixing images that Coleridge seeks to critique and transcend.
Mandell, Laura, ‘Imagining Interiority: Photography, Psychology, and Lyric Poetry,’ pp. 218-227
In this essay, Mandell considers William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) and William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798). Arguing that these poems provide a similar model for imagining interiority to that which propelled the photographer’s desire to capture inner states, she suggests that ‘romantic interiority may be understood as…a byproduct of literary authors’ investigations of the limitations of printed media before 1810.’
Outlining the contradictions inherent in contemporary romantic criticism, Mandell writes of the debate over the importance of the graphic and the aural in the composition of poetry. Arguing that Blake and Wordsworth knew that most would encounter their work as silent and graphic, she suggests that ‘their poems thematize their own soundlessness while offering compensatory images.’ One of these compensatory images, she writes, was the lexical illustrations Blake used to decorate his poems.
Mandell encourages us to look at Blake’s plate, Holy Thursday from Songs of Innocence and Experience and recognise how the ‘marks engender difficulty for the eye and therefore require that other sense be brought into the reading process: sound and perhaps even touch.’ For this reason, she argues, ‘Blake’s Songs challenge Hegel’s vision of poetry as the “universal medium” that translates the materiality of other arts into the nonmaterial, by refusing to remain silent and nonsensous.’
Considering the dynamics between depth and surface that function in our understanding of poetry, Mandell moves onto compare William Henry Fox Talbot’s picture of his wife Constance with the passage from “Tintern Abbey” in which Wordsworth poetically draws a portrait of his sister Dorothy.
Turning from an analysis of the photograph to ‘Tintern Abbey’, she speaks of how the ‘tension between aura and mastery, between sight and sense’ enables Wordsworth to transform an image of Dorothy into ‘meaning-laden graphical marks.’ To conclude, Mandell writes that
As readers-and as viewers of a photography-we become seers seeing without sound. Poetic narrators struggling to see printed words or human figures reproduced graphically…They teach us…to warm up graphic marks by anthropomorphizing them into a voice, the voice that is similarly conveyed by figures in photographs or photographers’ ways of seeing, carved in light.
Deidre Lynch, ‘Matters of Memory: Response,’ pp. 228-240
Apposite here, Lynch suggests, is the observation made by Helen Groth in her book Victorian Photography and Literary Nostalgia (2003) that ‘the experience of reading was injected by the Victorians with a new time-consciousness and a new sense of the disparity between “poetic time” and “photographic time”’ (45). After briefly considering the ‘disparate accounts of the formalizing of subjectivity’ in the three essays in this cluster, Lynch looks at the complex feelings of the Victorians about the medium of photography and the ways in which the technological advancement of the daguerreotype set them apart from the romantics.