27 December 2011

Victorian Controversies, 1882-83: Scientific Materialism

I didn't actually read this novel for my "Victorian controversies" class, but instead read it independently to write a paper on it for a philosophy of science seminar I was taking, but it fits right in, so here it is...

Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time
by Wilkie Collins

What everyone, even the defenders of this much-maligned later novel from Collins, feels compelled to talk about is its role as an anti-vivisectionist work; they especially like to focus on Dr. Benjulia, the creepy vivisection-practicing anatomist. But Benjulia and vivisection only occupy a scant few chapters of the totality of Heart and Science. They are but single examples of the novel's larger discomfort with science in general. Heart and Science is afraid of the way the scientist looks at people, fearing that her scientific training makes her see people as objects for her use in experiments.

Yes, I said "her"-- Heart and Science is a positive anomaly in the Victorian period, a novel that features a woman scientist. Mrs. Gallilee is a fascinating character, a villain through and through, as she attempts to steal the inheritance that is due her niece for herself and her daughters. But like in Collins's The Woman in White, the villain is more interesting than the heroes; this novel is particularly bad, as Ovid Vere and Carmina Graywell are "sympathetic" to the point of paralysis and insipidness. But Mrs. Gallilee-- Mrs. Gallilee is utterly fascinating to read about (as is Dr. Benjulia). To a modern reader, most of Collins's critiques of the scientist's vision fall flat, so one is left with a very interesting character. Maybe a Lex Luthor for her time? (I suspect many Victorian readers would have found the critiques ridiculous, too. On the other hand, many modern feminist philosophers of science probably agree with Collins, which is all the more worrying.)

The thing that Collins seems unable to bring himself to admit is that Mrs. Gallilee is actually the smartest person in the novel. For all that the narrator comments that she doesn't understand human emotions, she actually proves more capable of recognizing people's emotional states than anyone else; she figures out who is in love with who when no one else has noticed, and she uses this knowledge to manipulate people, often successfully. (She grows less successful as the novel goes on though, for reasons I can't quite pin down, but think have to do with the people she's manipulating acting less selfishly.)

She also is the only character with any appreciation for something beyond her immediate circumstances; Ovid and Carmina (and the author, implicitly) sneer at her for her interest in the upper atmosphere, dinosaurs, and more, but I was on her side in those exchanges. What do they have that's more interesting than dinosaurs? Collins never shows me anything. Mrs. Gallilee's position reminds me a lot of John Tyndall's transcendental materialism, which was often attacked by people who didn't understand it. (Tyndall gave his famous Belfast Address in 1874, less than a decade before Heart and Science.) But I'd rather look on the universe with breathless awe like Tyndall than stay closeminded like Ovid and Carmina. Heart and Science is a fascinating look at late Victorian attitudes toward science, but you shouldn't believe a word of it.

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