Biological Discourses

The Language of Science and Literature Around 1900

by Robert Craig (Volume editor) Ina Linge (Volume editor)
Edited Collection X, 438 Pages


The relationship between biological thought and literature, and between science and culture, has long been an area of interest by no means confined to literary studies. The Darwin Anniversary celebrations of 2009 added to this tradition, inspiring a variety of new publications on the cultural reception of Darwin and Darwinism. With a fresh scope that includes but also reaches beyond the «Darwinian» legacy, the essays in this volume explore the range and diversity of interactions between biological thought and literary writing in the period around 1900.
How did literature uniquely shape the constitution and communication of scientific ideas in the decades after Darwin? Did literary genres dangerously distort, or shed critical light upon, the biological theories with which they worked? And what were the ethical and social implications of those relationships? With these broad questions in mind, the contributors consider the biological embeddedness of human nature, perspectives on sexual desire, developments in racial thinking and its political exploitation, and poetic engagements with experimental psychology and zoology. They also range across different literary traditions, from Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, to Britain and the USA. Biological Discourses provides a rich cross-section of the contested relationship between literature and biological thought in fin-de-siècle and modernist cultures.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Can Science and Literature Share a Language? (Robert Craig / Ina Linge)
  • Part I: Legacies of Evolution (Introduced by Staffan Müller-Wille)
  • 1 The Beast Within: Darwinism and Desire in the Italian Fin de Siècle (Elena Borelli)
  • 2 Resisting Excelsior Biology: H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) and Late Victorian (Mis)Representations of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (Anahita Rouyan)
  • 3 Jules Soury and Paul Bourget, or the Influence of Haeckelian Biology on Fin-de-Siècle French Literature (Pauline Moret-Jankus)
  • 4 The Monist Novel as Site of Female Agency: Grete Meisel-Hess’s Die Intellektuellen (1911) (Godela Weiss-Sussex)
  • 5 Darwin’s Imperialist Canvas: Dolf Sternberger’s Panorama oder Ansichten vom 19. Jahrhundert (1938) as Cultural History in the Shadow of National Socialism (William J. Dodd)
  • Part II: Constructions of Desire (Introduced by Heike Bauer)
  • 6 Cryptogamic Kissing: Adalbert Stifter’s Novella Der Kuss von Sentze (1866) and the Reproduction of Mosses (Michael Eggers)
  • 7 Biology, Desire, and a Longing for Heimat in Lou Andreas-Salomé’s Novel Das Haus (1921) and Her Essay ‘Gedanken über das Liebesproblem’ (1900) (Charlotte Woodford)
  • 8 Botanical Perversions: On the Depathologization of Perversions in Texts by Alfred Döblin and Hanns Heinz Ewers (Linda Leskau)
  • 9 (Re-)Constructing the Boundaries of Desire: Sexual Inversion and Sapphic Self-Fashioning in Josine Reuling’s Terug naar het eiland (1937) 235 (Cyd Sturgess)
  • Part III: Projections of Otherness (Introduced by David Midgley)
  • 10 Scientific and Gothic Constructions of the Degenerate, Racial ‘Other’: Reading the Abject in Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire (1897) and H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) (Aisha Nazeer)
  • 11 Narratives of Helminthology: Thomas Spencer Cobbold, Bram Stoker, and The Lair of the White Worm (1911) (Michael Wainwright)
  • 12 A Journey into the Interior: The Self as Other in Robert Müller’s Novel Tropen (1915) (David Midgley)
  • Part IV: The Poet, the Senses, and the Sense of a World (Introduced by David Midgley)
  • 13 Attention and Efficiency: The Experimental Psychology of Modernism (Sarah Cain)
  • 14 Amoeba, Dragonfly, Gazelle: Animal Poetics Around 1908 (David Wachter)
  • 15 The City as Creature: Reconfiguring the Creaturely Self in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) (Robert Craig)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix →


The publication of this volume was supported by grants from the Association for German Studies (AGS) and the German Endowment Fund of the Department of German and Dutch at the University of Cambridge. We are extremely grateful to both for making the volume possible.

We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to all our contributors. We thank them for all their hard work and patience throughout the editing process, and for helping to make the work on this volume such an enriching and enjoyable experience.

Biological Discourses grew out of an international, interdisciplinary conference that took place on 10 and 11 April 2015 at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. The conference was supported by grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Schröder Fund (Department of German and Dutch, University of Cambridge). We would like to thank them for their generous support, without which we would not have been able to host such an inspiring gathering of presenters and delegates from far and wide. The conference was organized by the editors of this volume and David Midgley, Annja Neumann, and Godela Weiss-Sussex. They sparked the conversation around the theme of ‘biological discourses’, and helped to craft the programme that became the book. Angus Nicholls’s excellent conference commentary, in turn, helped us to decide what kind of book we wanted to produce.

We would also like to thank the British Library for giving us permission to reproduce Anna Atkins’s cyanotype impression ‘Chordaria flagelliformis’ from Photographs of British Algae (1843) to serve as the cover image for this volume.

Finally, a special thank you goes to David Midgley, who has supported our work on this volume from the very first day, has shared his knowledge and experience with us, and has offered invaluable support and suggestions for improvements during the editing process. We would also like to ← ix | x → thank Christian J. Emden for supporting the publication of this volume; Laurel Plapp, our commissioning editor at Peter Lang, for her assistance in steering it to completion; Andrew J. Webber for his feedback on a draft of the Introduction; and our anonymous peer reviewers for their time and useful advice.

← x | 1 →


Introduction: Can Science and Literature Share a Language?

Perceptions of the relation between literature and biology in the English-speaking world tend to be dominated by associations with Charles Darwin. A little more than a week after the Darwin Year of 2009 had drawn to a close, the historian of science Steven Shapin took stock of what it had (or hadn’t) added to our understanding of the Victorian gentleman naturalist. History’s ‘biggest birthday party’, as he called it in the London Review of Books, was both Darwin’s 200th and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. The anniversary was marked by an unprecedented array of smaller parties across the globe, from conferences, through theatre performances, exhibitions, and pilgrimages to the Galápagos Islands, to banknote re-issues and even folksy bumper stickers. Darwin’s latent importance to countless aspects of modern self-understanding – our crumbling sense of human uniqueness, our ethics, our politics, our culture, our religion – found recognition in myriad quarters, whether scientific, literary or even ecclesiastical. From Richard Dawkins to the Vatican, authorities of all kinds paid homage.1 But in spite of their focus on the ‘dangerous idea’ of evolution by natural selection, to quote Daniel Dennett’s famous title from 1995,2 Shapin had his doubts about the curiously de-historicized character of the celebrations: the sense that the Darwin mythos had transcended any attempt to relate it back to the cultural context of Victorian Britain. ← 1 | 2 →

This volume is certainly not only concerned with Darwin or Darwinism. We look beyond Darwin, and travel beyond Victorian Britain, to investigate other dimensions of the complex relationship between literature and biological thought around 1900. Nonetheless, the contrived commemorations of the Darwin bicentenary are so revealing because they remind us that the supposedly timeless ideas of science are in fact intensely historical products. Even in the face of the ‘verifiability’ or ‘falsifiability’ of empirical evidence (itself a socially contested authority),3 scientific theories emerge and develop as the subject matters of particular conversations that are by no means limited to the realm of the strictly scientific. In 1995, Dennett famously suggested that as a kind of ‘universal solvent’, natural selection might both account for, and further, the development of humanity’s biological, social, and cultural processes.4 But this suggestion of an all-encompassing triumph has obscured a far more convoluted story. The radical materialism of natural selection, as first expounded in the Origin of 1859, was facing growing opposition by the turn of the nineteenth century. Alternative evolutionary models, notably that of Lamarckism, appeared to some to be a better fit for an intellectual culture still shaped by a sense of compatibility between evolution and theistic design; apparent discontinuities in the fossil record cast doubt on the timescales of natural selection; and the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s theories of inheritance around 1900 seemed for several decades to provide a more immediate account of development than the gradualism of natural selection.5 It was only in the period between the world wars that the so-called modern ‘evolutionary synthesis’ ← 2 | 3 → was achieved between Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics.6 As we consider the life sciences around 1900, then, we are confronted not with a single Darwinian ‘solvent’, but an historical reality of competing ideas and seemingly contradictory evidence.

If debates about natural selection itself presented a fascinating picture, then this book sounds out the cultural resonances of an even more complex and interesting web of theories and disciplines. With their roots in the mythologies and philosophies of Western civilization, a variety of evolutionary theories – whether Darwinian or not – provided a wellspring for literary imaginations in the second half of the nineteenth century. The sheer suggestiveness of these ideas, not to mention their adaptability to broader social truths, were key to their attraction for literary authors working in late Victorian Britain.7 Not only that, but cross-contamination was rife as evolutionary ideas assumed different forms, and were adapted to very different ends, across national and cultural borders. Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) played the pivotal role in propagating Darwin’s theories throughout continental Europe in such best-selling and much-translated works as Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (The Natural History of Creation, 1868) and, later, Die Welträthsel (The Riddle of the Universe, 1899). His monistic adaptations of Darwinism were precisely that: adaptations, steeped in a German Romantic tradition reaching back to Goethe and Humboldt, with its spiritualist sense of deus sive natura (God and nature as one).8 As several chapters will show, ← 3 | 4 → Haeckelian appropriations fed into radically different literary attempts to reconfigure the human being’s meaning in relation to itself, its society and its natural world. Currents of Darwinism also mixed with the ateleological pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory of Will and Eduard von Hartmann’s conception of ‘the Unconscious’, ideas which were particularly prominent in European intellectual culture in the years leading up to 1900. Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud forged unique brands of thinking in response to these inheritances, reconceiving the embodied self in ways that drew upon scientific and literary methods. Fin-de-siècle and modernist bodies (individual and politic) became the shifting screens for biological, social, and political projections that often had little in common with Darwin’s circumspect and, as Nicholas Saul puts it, ‘speculation-averse’ theories of natural selection.9

But even in specialisms apparently removed from the reaches of evolution, new developments were quietly reshaping the disciplinary landscape of the life sciences. In German laboratories, the 1870s and 1880s witnessed new modes of quantitative measurement in experimental psychology, against the backdrop of a growing challenge to a biological and physiological determinism that had seen its European heyday some forty years earlier.10 By contrast, the first three decades of the twentieth century saw the biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944) develop radically new qualitative methods for observing animal behaviour and agency: Uexküll’s ← 4 | 5 → aim was to pursue a biology independent of the positivist foundations of physics and chemistry, and of Haeckel’s seemingly anthropomorphic conception of evolution.11 To put it simply, Darwinism and its descendants were far from being the only games in town around 1900. The literary works of the period crystallized different ways of rethinking questions of identity, ethics, and society through a loosely interlinked but diverse set of scientific ideas, as this volume demonstrates: psychotechnics and modernist poetry come together to explore human attention and efficiency; animal agency is shown to be debated in ecological, zoological, and poetic works alike; and German sexological theories are re-negotiated in Dutch lesbian fiction.

In tracing that rich diversity, we also invite readers to consider anew the famous (and remarkably persistent) sense of cultural dichotomy laid out by C. P. Snow in his Rede Lecture of 1959, The Two Cultures.12 Snow’s strong sense of the opposed academic cultures of literary studies and the natural sciences was very much the product of the Cambridge of the late 1950s, and yet another example of the historical mutability of disciplinary boundaries and battlegrounds. Snow saw science and literature as standing in an antithetical relationship and competing with one another for attention and resources within the educational sphere. In contrast to what he saw as the reactionary potentials latent in modernist literary explorations of alienation, he situated scientists and engineers well and truly on the side of intellectual, social, and political progress.13 The notoriously bitter dispute that ensued between Snow and F. R. Leavis harked back to the cultural politics of a debate of the 1880s between T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold. Huxley’s advocacy of the physical sciences as the basis for a new educational model drew Arnold’s vigorous defence of a traditional diet of the literary classics. ← 5 | 6 →

Yet even that controversy was not fought out in the stark terms of mutual exclusion, revealing a complex history to the relationship between science, society, and the world of letters. The nineteenth century saw a looser connection between the main branches of the life sciences than twentieth-century developments might suggest. ‘Biology’ first emerged in the years around 1800 as a designation of the study of human life, but in English it was only in the 1850s that its modern meaning started to enter into general currency.14 The term covered two broadly different disciplinary orientations: physiology, bacteriology, cell biology, and neurology focused on forms and functions, and fed into modern cultures of experimentalism; whereas theories of evolution came to deal with questions of organic transformation over unimaginable stretches of time.15 The sociologists Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) saw a deep interdependence between these perspectives. Haeckel’s biogenetic law, which stated the single organism’s recapitulation of every stage of its species’ evolution, came to the fore in Spencer’s The Principles of Sociology (1876). On that basis, in 1882 he would argue that ‘the law of organic progress is the law of all progress’, resulting in the evolution ‘of the simple into the complex, through the process of continuous differentiation’ in both the natural world and human society.16 As Anne-Julia Zwierlein has noted, Comte’s and Spencer’s theories of organicism – and most notably Spencer’s theory of the ‘Social Organism’ – highlighted the ramifying affinities between biological forms on the one hand, and the configurations of the late Victorian ‘social body’ on the other. In contrast to a more recent sense of incompatible cultures, the biological sciences and the humanities still largely spoke a shared language. ← 6 | 7 → 17

Within that context, Thomas Huxley had spoken in 1854 of ‘the science of society or Sociology’ as a ‘higher division of science’ that might explicitly deal with ‘the relation of living beings to one another’.18 This idea was echoed in ‘Science and Culture’, an essay originally delivered as an address in Birmingham in 1880, where he argued that literature was important for a complete intellectual culture. This in turn found something of a mirror image in Arnold’s insistence, in ‘Literature and Science’ (1882), that ‘a genuine humanism is scientific’.19 And as we move forward into the debate’s twentieth-century incarnation, we find nothing fundamentally new in C. P. Snow’s suggestion in 1963, after the unanticipated public interest sparked by his Rede Lecture, that forms of social scientific inquiry might come to constitute a kind of ‘third culture’ in addressing ‘the human effects of the scientific revolution’.20

The further diversification of disciplines in more recent decades has led to ever more sophisticated attempts to reach across the boundaries. In his essay of 1980, ‘Modernity: An Unfinished Project?’, Jürgen Habermas pointed to the need to find effective modes of communication beyond the ‘esoteric bastions’ of different disciplines.21 In the wake of national reunification, German universities have played host to numerous public debates over the relationship between the Naturwissenschaften (the natural sciences) and the Geisteswissenschaften (approximately, the humanities).22 One such ← 7 | 8 → conversation, between philosopher Jürgen Mittelstraß and literary critic Ulrich Gaier, brought to the fore the vital role of the arts in pointing to elements of experience that challenge our understanding of the world we inhabit, and in highlighting the constitutively narrative processes of interpretation which make us who we ‘are’.23 However, even that now seems to present too clean a division between science and literature. More recently still, Elinor Shaffer has shown how, after the work of Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault, the notion of a ‘third culture’ has come ever more explicitly to characterize academic investigations into the relationship between the disciplines: one grounded in an on-going (if often unacknowledged) interaction through which literature and science have in different ways – sometimes antagonistic, sometimes co-constitutive – emerged as the products and producers of ‘discourse’.24 In his lecture, C. P. Snow had intimated that ‘it is bizarre how very little of twentieth-century science has been assimilated into twentieth-century art’.25 According to Snow, scientific knowledge had hardly ever made its way into art and literature and, in the rare cases where this ‘assimilation’ had taken place, poets only seemed to be getting it wrong. The present collection aims to paint a far more nuanced picture of an epistemic and aesthetic exchange between literature and the biological sciences.

The scholarship on the relationship between ‘literature’ and ‘biology’ after Darwin is voluminous, with Darwin himself often providing the main focal point. Gillian Beer’s classic Darwin’s Plots (1983) not only excavated ← 8 | 9 → the younger Darwin’s considerable repertoire of reading, from Shakespeare and Milton to Wordsworth and Byron; Beer also sounded out the deep poetic and metaphorical resonances in the gestating versions of the Origin, not to mention the potential for (mis)interpretation.26 Darwin’s world was one in which natural theology still shaped the concepts of natural history, and from within that world he was eking out a precise yet adaptable language to describe not a teleological sense of purpose, but an ‘uncontrollable welter of [evolutionary] possibilities’.27 Following in a similar vein, the volume Science, Literature, and the Darwin Legacy (2010) underlined the interconnections of genre and form between literary and biological writing in nineteenth-century culture.28 Subsequent collaborations have adopted a range of approaches to the ‘Darwin Legacy’ in literary cultures. Darwin in Atlantic Cultures (2010) explicitly followed Foucault in reconstructing a ‘Darwinist episteme’ around a group of thematic areas, including gender and sexuality, race, and colonization and ‘progress’.29 In an ambit that reaches right up to the present day, The Evolution of Literature: Legacies of Darwin in European Cultures (2011) moves beyond conventional questions of historical reception in a bracing yet (admittedly) elusive search for ‘an authentically Darwinist, evolutionary aesthetic’.30 Returning to a more contextual approach, The Literary and Cultural Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe ← 9 | 10 → (2014), as the latter half of a four-volume set on Darwin’s influence, has presented the most comprehensive survey yet of his cultural impact across the continent.31 Broad-based surveys of the literary impacts of Darwinism combine with examinations of evolutionary resonances in such authors as Zola and Proust; and through an engagement with lesser-known literary figures, a number of our chapters build on that groundwork.

Regardless of natural selection’s empirical durability and explanative scope,32 literature is certainly not ‘just’ another evolutionary product; and in precisely that light, we want to ask if its cultural relationship with biology around 1900 is simply one of historical ‘reception’ or ‘assimilation’. A number of publications have already beaten new paths in challenging any notion of a one-way street. In The Vital Science: Biology and the Literary Imagination, 1860–1900, Peter Morton pointed to a dynamic relationship between the late Victorian literary imagination and natural selection, Galtonian eugenics, and Lamarckian reconceptions of inheritance. The close links between Victorian literature and biology owed much to the intellectual accessibility and imaginative resonance of contemporary theories of evolution and heredity.33 Staffan Müller-Wille argues in the introduction to our first section that biological works – both in British and German culture – constituted a best-selling ‘genre’; but as Beer has shown, the connections have to do with more than just a lively culture of intellectual exchange between biologists, journalists, and writers. The resources of myth and metaphor fed not simply into a new theory of natural selection, but a powerful new conceptual vocabulary.

More recently, scholars have ventured beyond Darwin to consider lesser-explored examples of the interplay of ‘the aesthetic’ and ‘the scientific’ in fin-de-siècle and modernist cultures. With a focus on parasitology and contagion, the volume Contagionism and Contagious Diseases: Medicine and Literature 1880–1933 (2013) explores the topic of ‘contagion’ as both a concept and a trope that is co-constructed through medical discussions, ← 10 | 11 → concepts in the social sciences, and literary and visual-aesthetic representations.34 In that direction, the German-speaking world, in particular, has recently played host to new developments in the so-called ‘poetology of knowledge’ and ‘literary anthropology’.35 Building upon Foucault’s archaeologies of knowledge, the former highlights the senses in which the ‘objects’ of knowledge are constituted through rhetorical, performative, and literary strategies. Literary anthropology has taken a more explicitly existential approach to the ways in which twentieth-century literature has shaped forms of knowledge about our hybrid existences in the discursive spaces between biology, psychology, and sociology – knowledge that might transcend the explanative limitations of the natural sciences.36

We draw upon aspects of these trends; but like a collection of connected case-studies, our close readings aim to let authors and texts reveal their sui generis engagements with scientific ideas, rather than filtering them through a single set of presuppositions about ‘the way’ in which biology related to literature. The ‘discourses’ of our title bring into play a terminology that reaches back to Foucault’s famous treatment of the concept in Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things, 1966); and this collection relates to that work’s ‘archaeological’ attempt to situate the modern notion of humanity, from the nineteenth century onwards, at a point of conjunction between biological, socio-economic, and philological thought. But we also go beyond Foucault’s specific sense of an ‘épistémè’ as the unified and unifying a priori that is the defining condition for the horizon ← 11 | 12 → of possible knowledge – and its constituent discourses – in a particular epoch.37 Instead, we aim to bring into view a looser and more permeable sense of a discourse as an historically variable nexus of collective rules for thinking, speaking, and acting: a nexus which, as the literary scholar Jörg Schönert has cogently argued, has no existence in and of itself, but rather emerges through processes of retrospective ‘reconstruction’.38

Both forms of knowledge (literary and scientific) occupied creative and cultural spaces in which ideas, concepts, and trends were co-constructed rather than simply exported and imported. If the present volume’s approaches are shaped by the current critical resources of a ‘third culture’, then its chapters themselves probe elusive ‘third cultures’ around 1900:39 ambiguous sites of confrontation and appropriation which traversed national, imperial, and disciplinary borders, forming a network of rhizomatic connections – as is suggested by Anna Atkins’s cyanotype image of seaweed on our front cover.

Circulations and exchanges: A common language?

Our contributors visit various sites of exchange between ‘the literary’ and ‘the scientific’ around 1900, many of which extended markedly beyond both Darwin and Darwinism(s). One particular ‘site’, which straddled the disciplinary boundaries of science and literature in the early years of the ← 12 | 13 → twentieth century, was that of sexuality and biological reproduction. The sexual sciences of psychoanalysis and sexology, which provide the theoretical orientation for a number of our investigations, stand as examples of a complex interplay of biological inquiry and literary insight in the years around 1900.

In their exploration of desire, sexual behaviour, and the sexed biological body, these ‘disciplines’ drew deeply from literary sources. Take, for example, Sigmund Freud’s The Schreber Case (1911), in which the key psychoanalytic concepts of transference and the Oedipus complex come to bear on Judge Daniel Paul Schreber’s autobiographical and highly literate account of his illness. Here, Freud’s position as analyst in the clinical setting is transposed to the encounter with an autobiographical text. Freud becomes a literary critic – and not for the last time. While the myth of Oedipus took centre stage in the development of his psychoanalytic theory of the human psyche, his analysis of Hilda Doolittle, the American poet and novelist better known as H. D., centred on the figurine (and Greek mythological figure) of Athena. Freud’s admiration of Arthur Schnitzler’s work, his psychoanalytic reading of Vilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva (1906), his analysis of Goethe’s childhood memory, all speak to a deep concern for literature and a literary way of narrating what in fact are clinical case studies which serve to illuminate his scientific investigations. As much as his medical, physiological, and zoological training, then, myth and literature also shaped Freud’s psychoanalytic inquiry.

Sexology, the twin science of psychoanalysis, equally relied on literary sources to build its terminological repertoire. Krafft-Ebing’s notorious Psychopathia Sexualis (first published in 1886) contained clinical case studies and literary examples, side by side. The Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (Yearbook for Sexual Intermediate Types), the main platform for sexological discussions in Berlin from 1899, featured a regular section entitled ‘Biographisches und Literarisches’ (biographical and literary miscellanea). But not only did the sexual sciences rely heavily on profoundly literary examples, which fundamentally shaped their clinical encounter; literature, in turn, popularized sexological and psychoanalytic discourses. As Anna Katharina Schaffner has argued in Modernism and Perversion, the modernist works of Thomas Mann, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, ← 13 | 14 → Franz Kafka, and Georges Bataille all engaged with so-called perversions as they were discussed by both psychoanalysts and sexologists. Schaffner thus reveals that, in the context of the sexual sciences and European modernist literature, ‘the conceptual transfer between literature, medicine and psychology […] works in both directions’.40 In English Literary Sexology, Heike Bauer, who introduces Part II of this volume, also showed that British sexologists, such as John Addington Simmons, Havelock Ellis, and Edward Carpenter, were more closely linked to social reform movements, rather than originating from the medical profession as did their counterparts in mainland Europe. Bauer shows that it was Victorian women writers in particular, such as Olive Schreiner, Sarah Grand, and Edith Ellis, who engaged with the theorization of masculinity, femininity, and sexual inversion, and shaped the ways in which gender and sexuality could be understood.41 We shall re-encounter the contribution of these so-called New Women, along with the fear of them, in the course of this volume, not just in Victorian Britain (Nazeer), but also in Germany (Weiss-Sussex) and the Netherlands (Sturgess).

A number of the chapters more broadly illustrate the significant role of literature in shedding light on philosophical and ethical questions surrounding sexuality, biological reproduction, and ‘embodiment’ itself at the fin de siècle. Through an exploration of a wide range of inter-related topics, from eugenics (Woodford), sexual pathology (Leskau), bryological reproduction (Eggers), and sexual ethics (Weiss-Sussex), to psychoanalysis (Wainwright) and sexological discourses (Sturgess), we explore how literature and biological discourses came together to explore how issues of ← 14 | 15 → gender, sexuality, and reproduction could be rethought at the turn of the twentieth century.

A further dimension of the relationship between biological thought and literature, in particular in the context of discussions around heredity and genetics, was the question of human-animal kinship. Darwin’s writings on biological evolution, natural selection, and a common ancestral species were quickly and prolifically (mis)appropriated in myriad ways. As Elena Borelli will show in Chapter 1, late nineteenth-century ‘Darwinian’ anthropological models, grounded in a sense of the pursuit of human evolution towards rationality, crossed with the philosophical works of Schopenhauer and Hartmann and their pessimistic view of desire, leading to a rejection of the ‘beast within’ in the intellectual and literary culture of fin-de-siècle Italy. In this figuration the human subject is understood as split between rational human thought and animalistic desire. Human-animal kinship brings humans and non-human animals conceptually closer, only to immediately wish them apart, as the human subject is filled with a desire to overcome its bestial instincts as the only way to become sovereign.

Darwinian evolutionary thought and its appropriations thus propelled the figure of the animal into the domain of the human. At the height of its colonial enterprise, Victorian Britain saw the white Victorian gentleman as the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement; the same could be said of the European nations in general. This point of perceived climax was marked both by convictions of human progress, and a terror of evolutionary degeneration into simpler organic forms. When H. G. Wells’s famous Time Traveller reaches the distant future, one half of humanity’s offspring (as he interprets it) appears as ape-like beasts, while the other half has become effete and docile. Darwinian thought certainly triggered a fear of the ‘beast within’, stemming from an awareness of a shared ancestry between humans and non-human animals. Yet, as Anahita Rouyan argues in Chapter 2, H. G. Wells held the concept of ‘degeneration’ to be a critique of myths of inevitable socio-biological progress; and his narrative is a vivid literary projection – beyond even the conceptual reach of Darwinian evolutionary theory – of disintegrated future forms and possibilities.

Such strange figurations stalked the literary imaginations of the fin de siècle, and intertwined with a set of broader cultural, social, and biological ← 15 | 16 → concerns. Perhaps no genre more urgently explored the convergence of biological discourses, and its themes of gender, sexuality, and species differentiation, than that of the Gothic novel. In The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle, Kelly Hurley argues that fin-de-siècle Gothic was profoundly concerned with the ‘defamiliarization and violent reconstitution of the human subject’, a process she describes as reflecting a concern with the ‘abhuman’.42 This concept of the ‘abhuman’ is akin to Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection, the ambivalent psychic trait whereby the ego at once defends a sense of self-identity and welcomes the erosion of its boundaries. Taking its cues from the natural disorder described by Darwin, and from sexological, pre-Freudian, anthropological, and degeneration theories, the Gothic novel remodels the human ‘as bodily ambiguated or otherwise discontinuous in identity’, bringing in its wake a loss of sexual and species specificity.43 In this volume we dissect several famous examples. Wells’s Time Traveller encounters this dissolution of the future human subject into disparate parts (or indeed new species). As Aisha Nazeer discusses in Chapter 10 on Haggard’s She, the frightful goddess Ayesha meets her end in a moment of devolution, which reduces her to an abject and ape-like figure. Finally, in Chapter 11, Michael Wainwright shows how Bram Stoker presents us with literary enactments of parasitic infestation that turn both body and text into abhuman figurations. Stoker’s work unveils the subversive power of Gothic tropes in tracing the helminths’ violations of the discursive taboos imposed upon them: their bodily and their disciplinary intrusions.

Biological theories of species differentiation and medico-scientific inquiries into the distinction of sexual and pathological types also went hand in hand with the taxonomical ordering of races, hence with the reinforcement of boundaries and hierarchies. Precisely this Victorian enthusiasm for racial and biological classification in turn re-emerged in the medicine and anthropology of the fin de siècle. Building on earlier works by Carl Linnaeus and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the nineteenth-century ← 16 | 17 → physical anthropology of Arthur de Gobineau and Karl Vogt extended the taxonomy of nature to the classification of man into different types and physiologically differentiated races. The ‘negroid type’ was considered to represent the most primitive surviving variety. The literary works of colonialism imagine the consequences of this taxonomical categorization. In Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire, as Nazeer shows, the female vampire Harriet sucks the psychic energy from those who come too close to her. We are led to believe that Harriet is a danger to European society because of her blood relation to her Jamaican grandmother who was bitten by a vampire bat. It is here that animal, racial, and sexual others come together as a threat to Western society. But in the logic of this Gothic narrative, it is not Harriet’s miscegenated maternal blood alone that positions her as a threat to society, but also her relationship to her father, Henry Brandt, a scientist expelled from a Swiss hospital for conducting illicit experiments. He later flees to Jamaica to set up a laboratory, where he experiments with vivisection on animals and humans alike. Marryat’s critique of vivisection, not uncommon in Victorian society, expresses the fear of a movement from experimenting on animals to experimenting on humans. Even this fear, though, finds its shadow-side in the racialized sense of a collapse of clear distinctions between the human and the animal.

Time and again, then, we can see how biological ideas were distorted to ideological ends. Peter Morton suggests that late nineteenth-century biology offered up ‘malleable’ concepts, quite ready to ‘plasticise under pressure and ready to fill every cranny of whatever mould had been prepared to receive them’.44 The tension between evolutionary ‘progressivism’ and ‘degeneration’ is a powerful case in point – and it also shows that philosophical and scientific ideas themselves helped to reshape the very moulds into which they flowed. As we shall encounter in different shapes and forms, a growing fear at European populations’ biological proximity to their ‘others’ gave birth to ever more noxious attempts to shore up a sense of cultural, moral, and racial superiority. ← 17 | 18 →

Nonetheless, the intermixing of literature, biological theories, and philosophy also allowed for the shaping of moulds of very different kinds. In her study of French literary and cultural receptions of Ernst Haeckel in Chapter 3, Pauline Moret-Jankus shows how philosophical monism’s unification of matter and spirit made it a foundation for an ideology in which heredity and race might become all-explaining categories for human thought and action – a world view which, through the work of Paul Bourget and other prolific novelists, ambiguously seeped into French literary culture in the 1880s and 1890s. But, as Charlotte Woodford demonstrates in Chapter 7, a doctrine predicated on the interconnection of the natural world and the human mind also held open the promise of a mystical and material reaffirmation of human life and its deep kinship with animals: a sense of restored wholeness that found expression in the psychoanalytic thinking of Lou Andreas-Salomé in the early years of the new century. And in her reading of the German-Jewish author Grete Meisel-Hess, active in the same period, Godela Weiss-Sussex, in Chapter 4, argues that monism’s removal of dualistic distinctions between mind and matter helped to open up an exemplary aesthetic space in which the social and sexual liberation of women might be championed.

Literature thus discloses its subversive function in helping us to reflect upon the ways in which science relates to both self and society. That function becomes all the more vital as we consider the toxic discourses that flourished in European society as the twentieth century progressed. William J. Dodd’s chapter (Chapter 5), for example, reveals how a rhetorically brilliant misreading of natural selection from 1938 served as a veiled attack on National Socialism’s murderous social Darwinism. And yet early twentieth-century literary forms might also offer us more hopeful perspectives on the ethical question of how to live in the world in relation to other beings of all kinds. One such example, as we see in David Wachter’s reading of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Dinggedichte (thing poems) in Chapter 14, concerns the perceptual fields of animals, and the poetics of observation (and ethological knowledge) that emerge from our encounters with them. Here and elsewhere, the figure of the animal becomes a place of convergence between biological research and literary reflection. ← 18 | 19 →

Literary discourses, then, allow us to explore alternative spaces, unknown future forms and territories, and possibilities of knowledge that remain beyond the reach of scientific methods. We can certainly speak of shared discursive spaces between literature, biology, and philosophy; but it is perhaps in literary works that the biological sciences are most keenly brought to bear on the messiness, the contradictoriness, of human life.

* * *

Our book is divided into four parts. Part I focuses on evolutionary theory and its cultural appropriations. Elena Borelli takes us first to fin-de-siècle Italy with her study of literary diffusions of what she calls a Darwinian ‘anthropological model’. Her focus is on three of the era’s most prominent literary figures: the prolific novelist Antonio Fogazzaro, poet and classicist Giovanni Pascoli, and the larger-than-life Gabriele D’Annunzio, now most familiar to us for his role in the history of twentieth-century Italian nationalism. ‘The beast within’ is an embodiment of desire, understood in the wake of Schopenhauerian philosophical pessimism as a nexus of residually animalistic impulses and instincts, to be enlightened and overcome through ‘will’ and ‘volition’. The post-Darwinian figure of the ‘split subject’ is variously enacted in the work of each of these writers: striving towards a perfectly rational re-configuration of human nature, he – and typically it is he – is forced continually to suppress his own bestial awakenings.

If D’Annunzio finds an answer to the ‘split subject’ in the image of the ‘body-machine’, Anahita Rouyan, in Chapter 2, is concerned with a different kind of machine, and a different set of cultural representations. Against the backdrop of scientific specialization and popularization in late Victorian intellectual culture, she offers a subtle new reading of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), one of the pioneering works of modern science fiction and a touchstone in any discussion of literature and science. In the light of Wells’s own journalistic stances towards Victorian popular science, Rouyan focuses on the figure of the Time Traveller, presented to us as an expert scientist fully wedded to an ‘Excelsior’ concept of evolutionary biology: the idea of a progression towards ever higher and better species, its apex unsurprisingly to be found in the Victorian gentleman. ← 19 | 20 → The Traveller’s encounters with bizarre future forms forces him back onto his anthropocentric assumptions, caught between a sense of man’s progress and the ingrained fear of degeneration. Rouyan shows us how this gentleman naturalist, from the vantage point of literature’s first modern time machine, indirectly channels Wells’s critique of discourses of scientific popularization and utopianism in Victorian England.

Pauline Moret-Jankus then takes us to France with her examination of the dissemination of Haeckelian biology in fin-de-siècle French literature in Chapter 3. A now virtually forgotten figure, the anti-Semitic thinker Jules Soury was indisputably influential in his time. His interpretations of Ernst Haeckel infused Haeckel’s evolutionary monism with a strong current of racial anti-Semitism. The chapter then turns to the immensely prolific and widely read novelist Paul Bourget who, as Moret-Jankus argues, incorporated aspects of Soury into his own works: both Soury’s appropriations of Haeckelian ideas, and even Soury the ‘bilious’ ascetic himself. Once again, we are invited to contemplate the ways in which literature becomes an ambivalent, even slippery, gatekeeper between scientific theories and a broader cultural landscape.

Moving forward a few years and crossing into Germany, Godela Weiss-Sussex and William J. Dodd bring our first part to a close with two very different kinds of reception in Chapters 4 and 5, respectively. By the age of twenty-two, the prodigious novelist and essayist Grete Meisel-Hess was already recognized as one of the most promising figures in the German women’s movement. Weiss-Sussex reads her novel, Die Intellektuellen (The Intellectuals, 1911), against a very different social and political understanding of metaphysical monism. By rethinking human life in continuation with the laws of nature, the writings of Haeckel, Wilhelm Bölsche, and Auguste Forel offered the scope for a wide-ranging re-conception of sexual ethics and social conventions. As a literary reflection of the reformist movement in eugenics, through the powerful lens of monism, the novel itself emerges as an intriguing mix: of its time, to be sure, but shrewdly committed to radical visions of sexual and social agency. William J. Dodd then explores a very different kind of ‘use’ for biological discourses. The political theorist Dolf Sternberger, best known today in Germany for his later coinage of the term ‘Verfassungspatriotismus’ (Constitutional Patriotism) in 1979, ← 20 | 21 → is presented here in the German tradition of ‘inner emigration’ under the Nazi regime. Sternberger’s collection of essays, Panorama oder Ansichten vom 19. Jahrhundert (Panorama of the Nineteenth Century, 1938), is ostensibly a polemical critique of the social and political implications of natural selection; but Dodd also uncovers a masterful piece of veiled resistance, and raises difficult questions about the divergence of scientific theories and their political (mis)appropriations.

Against this post-Darwinian backdrop, Part II turns its focus to literary representations of sexual desire. It begins with a view of nineteenth-century German literature in Michael Eggers’s chapter (Chapter 6) on Adalbert Stifter’s novella Der Kuss von Sentze (The Kiss of Sentze, 1866). In Stifter’s novella, a kiss between relatives becomes much more than a ritual sign of peace-making passed on through the generations of the family of Sentze. Indeed, Eggers argues that this kiss functions analogously to an evolutionary jump from asexual to sexual procreation in the lives of mosses. Over the course of his argument, Eggers reveals how Stifter’s work drew on the botanical and zoological works of Carl Linnaeus and the botanical (in particular the bryological) work of Johannes Hedwig. Just as the family tradition has to undergo a generational shift from a kiss of peace to a kiss of love in order to conserve the Sentze species, the German botanist Wilhelm Hofmeister showed that generations of mosses that reproduce sexually and those that do not must alternate regularly in order to maintain the species. Eggers thus shows that Stifter’s characters are not only closely bound to their natural surroundings, but that human and botanical spheres here function according to the same rules of evolution.

Biographical notes

Robert Craig (Volume editor) Ina Linge (Volume editor)

Robert Craig is Postdoctoral Teaching and Research Fellow at the University of Bamberg in Germany. He holds a PhD in German from the University of Cambridge. His doctoral thesis examined the dialectic of nature and self in the work of the modernist author Alfred Döblin (2016). He has also published articles on Günter Grass and on the philosophy of social networking technologies. His work has been funded by the AHRC and the DAAD. Ina Linge is Associate Research Fellow in the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter. She holds a PhD in German from the University of Cambridge. Her doctoral thesis focused on the performance of queer livability in German sexological and psychoanalytic life writings, c.1900–1933 (2016). She has published articles on fin-de-siècle and modernist literature and culture, and the interdependence of sexology and autobiography. Her work has been funded by the AHRC, the MHRA, and the Wellcome Trust.


Title: Biological Discourses