Scanning for Silence: Psychoanalytic Listening from Keats to Freud

Allison, Kiera, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Tucker, Herbert, English, University of Virginia

“Scanning for Silence” is, first and foremost, a study of rhythm in the postromantic Anglo-German canon. More specifically, I’ve tried to show how signal works of nineteenth-century verse and prose deploy the diagnostic metrics then in currency—supplied by the contemporary vanguard of physicians and psychologists—to declare the deeper, inarticulable meanings that all writers, authors and clinicians alike, were attempting to convey within this period.

Ultimately, the project looks toward a certain methodological transition in Freud’s Studies on Hysteria (1895), a slight shifting of attention from the verbal contents to the interruptive rhythms of his patients’ oral reports. Be it a slip of the tongue, or a stutter, a gestural spasm or a recurring phrasal trope—or in the more advanced conception of his 1916 Papers on Technique, the subliminal “oscillations” exchanged between the patient and the psychoanalyst—rhythm takes the stress of the unspoken, and very possibly unconscious, truths which language does not fully comprehend in Freud’s analyses. Psychoanalysis thus reinstates a style of reading which goes back to the very beginnings of Freud’s literary century. Keats set the tone with his famous “proofs upon the pulses”; and Wordsworth before him, laying down the universal “laws” of meter against the “arbitrar[iness]” of language. Chiefly the dissertation builds on three major authors at midcentury, who, writing on the very precipice of language’s collapse, help to convey the extra pressures that get routed into rhythm in the decades leading up to Freud. Chapter One investigates the prose-poetic patterns that consistently emerge, in Thomas Carlyle’s history of The French Revolution (1837), just where the author wants to get a gauge on the unscripted (“inarticulate” and “unconscious”) forces at the heart of that event. Chapter Two looks at an epistemic crisis on a smaller scale in Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850); and discovers the finely-calibrated verbal and phonetic recurrences whereby Tennyson registers, and at the same time tries to makes his literal “returns,” upon the tragic loss of Arthur Hallam. Chapter Three revisits the idea of traumatic repetition in the life and works of Charles Dickens: particularly, the “flashback” rhythms he performed throughout his railway writing in the 1850s, leading up to his own near-fatal accident at Staplehurst in 1865.

Finally this project verifies, albeit to qualify, what trauma theorists have discerned across the board in Romantic and Victorian writing. Rhythm spells a mental crisis: the neurological replay ad infinitum of some event which Freud would say had bypassed comprehension in the first place. What trauma theory tends to undervalue is the reconstructive, ultimately therapeutic work that is the other half of postromantic rhythm: a potential that reveals itself more fully when the above three authors are read alongside their contemporaries in clinical physiology (cardiologists vis-à-vis Carlyle, neurologists when we come to Tennyson) and the new “associationist” psychology which Dickens captures at a Victorian midpoint between Wordsworth and Freud. Sounding the unconscious through the well-established patterns of the pulse, the brain, and the autonomic nervous system, ultimately these writers—in every reach of nineteenth-century science and letters—provide a glimpse into the longer history of what this dissertation styles as the “hermeneutics of rhythm.”

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Literature, rhythm, psychoanalysis, Romanticism, Victorianism, Carlyle, Tennyson, Dickens, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Trauma theory, Cardiology, Neurology
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