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Nervous Fictions

Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience
Jess Keiser

BUY Cloth · 324 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813944777 · $85.00 · Sep 2020
BUY Paper · 324 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813944784 · $45.00 · Sep 2020
BUY Ebook · 324 pp. · ISBN 9780813944791 · $45.00 · Sep 2020

"The brain contains ten thousand cells," wrote the poet Matthew Prior in 1718, "in each some active fancy dwells." In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, just as scientists began to better understand the workings of the nerves, the nervous system became the site for a series of elaborate fantasies. The pineal gland is transformed into a throne for the sovereign soul. Animal spirits march the nerves like parading soldiers. An internal archivist searches through cerebral impressions to locate certain memories. An anatomist discovers that the brain of a fashionable man is stuffed full of beautiful clothes and billet-doux. A hypochondriac worries that his own brain will be disassembled like a watch. A sentimentalist sees the entire world as a giant nervous system comprising sympathetic spectators.

Nervous Fictions is the first account of the Enlightenment origins of neuroscience and the "active fancies" it generated. By surveying the work of scientists (Willis, Newton, Cheyne), philosophers (Descartes, Cavendish, Locke), satirists (Swift, Pope), and novelists (Haywood, Fielding, Sterne), Keiser shows how attempts to understand the brain’s relationship to the mind produced in turn new literary forms. Early brain anatomists turned to tropes to explicate psyche and cerebrum, just as poets and novelists found themselves exploring new kinds of mental and physical interiority. In this respect, literary language became a tool to aid scientific investigation, while science spurred literary invention.


Nervous Fictions maps a domain of eighteenth-century natural philosophical, cultural, and literary discourse that delivers a revelatory view of its vexed cohesion and pervasive currency. In Keiser’s hands, neuroscience is an inescapably literary discourse from its founding, just as brain science provides eighteenth-century literature its most potent modes of representing feeling, cognition, and interiority itself.

Helen Thompson, Northwestern University, author of Fictional Matter: Empiricism, Corpuscles, and the Novel

A sharp and absorbing account of how figural language informs scientific writing about the brain during a period when the disciplinary separation of science and literature was still a long time to come.

Richard Barney, University at Albany, author of Plots of Enlightenment: Education and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England

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