31 March 2016

Review: Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England by George Levine

Hardcover, 326 pages
Published 2002
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England
by George Levine

George Levine's book here is one of the three to have the most influence on me and my scholarship. Something that frustrates me about the field of Victorian literature and science is how focused it is on disciplines and discoveries: people write about evolution and literature (Levine included), astronomy and literature, thermodynamics and literature, geology and literature. Much of this work is great, but to only pursue this kind of work neglects the fact that science is more than a series of discoveries that scientists pick over to employ in their novels-- it's an epistemology and an orientation towards truth.

Levine's book is probably the most prominent monograph that looks at the Victorian scientist in literature from a general epistemological perspective rather than as embodiments of particular disciplines. Levine examines how self-abnegation figures into epistemology beginning in the 1830s, both within literature and within the work of actual scientists, drawing on the writing of scientists such as Tyndall who claimed “a self-renunciation that has something lofty in it… is often enacted in the private experience of the true votary of science” (qtd. in Levine 4). Levine does not examine any specific discipline, but examines both scientists and scientist-like figures during the Victorian period to see how self-abnegation functions as a narrative: how does science create a narrative of self-abnegation, and how do literary narratives incorporate self-abnegation?

This is important (Levine argues, and I agree) because the Victorian realist novel's very project is about finding epistemologies. Levine argues that “the problem of how to find things out, of uncovering what is hidden, is pervasive in Victorian fiction” (148). He goes on to note that there is a “remarkable consistency with which ‘truth’ is registered in Victorian fiction as the most fundamental of Victorian values” (149), citing novels as diverse as Bleak House, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Middlemarch, Adam Bede, Vanity Fair, and Shirley. Drawing on these works, Levine says that the practice of realism “suggest[s] how central to the Victorian novel was the enterprise of knowledge seeking and truth telling, how often plots turn on the power of protagonists to develop the proper temper and state of mind to allow realistic confrontations with the ‘object’—what one might see as the acquisition of the proper ‘method’” (149). And our ways of telling truths and seeking knowledge have a moral dimension: he says in a discussion of Sartor Resartus that “the ethical and the epistemological are, in the nineteenth century, sanctioned by the same values” (70).

There's a lot to like in Levine, in that in his focus on what novels aim to do moralistically, he highlights a lot of what I like about realist novels, especially those by George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. (Though Dying to Know doesn't mention Gaskell, which feels to me its a glaring omission. But then it would.) This is the best sort of literary criticism: the kind that leads you to return to familiar texts with a greater understanding of what makes you like them so much. I really must get around to properly reading his The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley (1981) someday, which Dying to Know continues the project of.

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