You are here

Nervous Fictions

Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience
Jess Keiser

BUY Cloth · 352 pp. · 6.13 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813944777 · $85.00 · Sep 2020
BUY Paper · 352 pp. · 6.13 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813944784 · $45.00 · Sep 2020
BUY Ebook · 352 pp. · ISBN 9780813944791 · $45.00 · Sep 2020

In the late seventeenth century, a team of scientists managed to free, for the first time, the soft tissues of the brain and nerves from the hard casing of the skull. In doing so, they not only engendered modern neuroscience, and with it the promise of knowing the mind through empirical study of the brain; they also unleashed a host of questions, problems, paradoxes, and--strangest of all--literary forms that are still with us today.

Nervous Fictions is the first account of early neuroscience and of the peculiar literary forms it produced. Challenging the divide between science and literature, philosophy and fiction, Jess Keiser draws attention to a distinctive, but so far unacknowledged, mode of writing evident in a host of late seventeenth and eighteenth-century texts: the nervous fiction. Apparent not just in scientific work, but also in poetry (Barker, Blackmore, Thomson), narrative (Sterne, Smollett, "it-narratives"), philosophy (Hobbes, Cavendish, Locke), satire (Swift, Pope, Arbuthnot), and medicine (Mandeville, Boswell), nervous fictions dissect the brain through metaphor, personification, and other figurative language. Nervous fictions stage a central Enlightenment problematic: the clash between mind and body, between our introspective sense of self as beings endowed with thinking, sensing, believing, willing minds and the scientific study of our brains as simply complex physical systems.


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

About the Author(s): 

Jess Keiser is Assistant Professor of English at Tufts University.

All UVA Press books are 30% off through June 30th! Use Code 10READ at checkout.
Interested in this topic?
Stay updated with our newsletters:

Related Books