LIBRI: Novel Notions

Medical Discourse and the Mapping of the Imagination in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction.

Jameson Bell  

The Pennsylvania State University, USA 

Kickel, Katherine.  Novel Notions: Medical Discourse and the Mapping of the Imagination in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2007. 185 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-415-97948-1, $110.00 (Hardcover)

Novel Notions argues from the outset that 17th Century medical discourses on the imagination influenced several 18th Century British novels.  A collection of separate articles rather than a cohesive monograph, Kickel’s text employs alternative readings of mainly canonical works of fiction (Defoe, Fielding, Sterne, and Radcliffe), yet struggles to prove a connection to previous medical discourses as more than just anecdotal observations based on secondary sources.

The text quickly presents a second thesis, which is that 18th Century English novels were an intentional attempt to map the terrain of the imagination.  To combine 17th Century medical discourse with 18th fiction writings on imagination, Kickel relies heavily on the distinction found in Elaine Scarry’s now well-known text, The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World (1985), between objects that are “made real” and those that are “made up.”  This power of the imagination to make the world is then, per Kickel, explored by 18th Century novelists.  The theoretical basis leads to a brief introduction on pre-modern brain and imagination theories that begins to undermine expertise assumed in the title’s “medical discourses.”  Aristotle is combined with other cerebral centric ventricular theories rather than the more accurate cardio-centric model with the brain being only secondarily responsible for the intellect and primarily a cooling agent.  With this shaky start, subsequent chapters then describe how Thomas Willis’ localization of the imagination in the brain tissue, Cartesian dualism, Locke’s material perception and finally Berkeley’s theory of vision become material for 18th Century novels.

In the second chapter, Kickel provides an alternative reading of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1772) in light of 17th century medical research on speech disorders.  Novel Notions follows the challenging transformation of language from an oral to textual experience during the plague’s silencing yet constantly audible effects on the English population.  Print’s unstable existence is described as a fluctuation of written thought between limitless talk and silence. Accurate though this description of early novel writing and reading may be, the connection with medical discourse is vague and undefined, relating more to contemporary theories on human interaction with media than 17th Century writings on the imagination.  Possible avenues of interpreting textual discourse remain totally unexplored, such as the novels sensual effects on the reader, which would have tied in with Rene Descartes and Robert Burton’s discussion of passions and imagination.

In chapter three, Kickel presents Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) as an example of a text-object that becomes an independent, self-authoring force, generated by an individual’s imagination yet receiving new life and independence as it is engaged by the reader.  Per Kickel, the novel provides its own afterlife as it attempts to relieve the reader’s body deficiency through imaginative possibilities.  This liminal status of the 18th Century novel as a ‘sentient object’ aligns well with Scarry’s view that objects can be made to be both fictional and at once real, yet only analogically connects the novel to Willis’ localization of the imagination in the brain that creates the world. 

Kickel approaches Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) through its metaphors of synesthesia to reverse the dominance of vision normally applied to the imagination.  The usual five senses are not simply experienced as such, but are cognized and prioritized through language, and can be reorganized to provide a somatic reading rather than recapitulate a visual paradigm.  By removing the established vision based perceptual framework, Tristram provides the reader with an uncomfortable physiological experience rather than a merely cognitive one because perceptual habits are challenged.  Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding is utilized as an emphasis on the imagination’s work involved in creating an intelligible impression.  Locke’s famous example of the blind man who sees the color as a trumpet sound is uniquely transformed into an ethical call for a more holistic, or full-bodied experience.

In the final chapter, Kickel reintroduces vision as a rubric for understanding the imagination in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).   She utilizes Bishop Berkeley’s A New Theory of Vision that associates seeing with language rather than with mechanistic models of eye and brain.  Vision, for Berkeley, required cognitive work to build an image, rather than passive reception.  Kickel applies this interpretation to Udolpho, focusing on the learned visual habits required for the main character, Emily St. Aubert, to make sense of a chaotic world.  Thus the imagination, in creating a mental object received from vague sense impressions, is just as important as the sense organ.  This interesting point becomes lost to the close reader in that Bishop Berkeley was neither a medical practitioner nor was his treatise on optics published in the 17th Century, both of which contradict the multitude of theses in Kickel’s text. An engagement of actual 17th Century medical debates on the imagination such as humor temperaments and the effects of uterine vapors on mental functioning, remain glaringly absent in the study of a tormented female character.

Kickel’s argument is a laudable one, that early British novelists seriously engaged the imagination as a literary topos. Yet, demonstrating a connection to medical discourses attains only a tangential correlation.  Breadths of topic, time periods and figures covered in Novel Notions, as well as mainly contemporary sources prove too difficult to reconcile in one argument.  Rather than a nuanced understanding of medical sources from the 17th Century as they would have been read or understood by 18th Century novelists, the terms “imagination” and “mapping” are applied interchangeably and without specificity, becoming ubiquitous metaphors for the totality of creative experiences that occurred in English medicine and literature between 1600-1800.

Overall, Kickel’s text offers an interesting perspective on the concept of the literary imagination, however, Novel Notions falls rather short of the promised medical connection put forth by the book’s title. 

Jameson Bell is currently on a Fulbright Fellowship at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology working on the construction of early modern brain images. He may be reached for comment at

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Submissions Editor,
Mar 17, 2009, 5:04 PM