The Reading Room: A review of ‘The Cambridge Companion to The Body in Literature’


The Cambridge Companion to The Body in Literature

Edited by David Hillman and Ulrika Maude

CUP 2015


Reviewed by Alan Radley

Emeritus Professor of Social Psychology, Loughborough University, UK


It was in the course of having a routine eye examination that I talked to the ophthalmologist about reviewing the present book, an addition to the Cambridge Companion series. Half-blinded by the light penetrating my eye, (“Look to the left; up; now at my left ear”) he asked if the book was organised by organs of the body. Under the circumstances this seemed an altogether sensible question. I explained that this was not so, though I doubt that either of us would have thought of the organ that Ulrika Maude – one of the book’s editors – chooses in order to illustrate how literature borrowed from the neurological pathologies revealed by medical science.

She uses a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch to show how the body performs non-intentional acts, which are conscious but not thought-conscious:

‘Her lips trembled, and so did his. It was never known which lips were the first to move towards the other lips; but they kissed tremblingly and then they moved apart.’ Maude compares this to the ‘Sirens’ episode of Joyce’s Ulysses, in which, ‘In the second carriage, miss Douce’s wet lips said, laughing in the sun’. (205) Maude points out that these lips are no longer merely trembling or kissing or even laughing in the sun but reveal an organ that, in producing language ‘in a deviant manner’, reveals ‘a physiological organ running away with itself’ rather than expressing the thoughts of the speaker. This difference is a result, Maude argues, of the emergence of body intentionality in relation to language that followed research into aphasia and other developments in neurology in the late nineteenth century.

While Maude’s chapter is the only one in the book that comes near to being organ specific, (thinking of the nerves as an organ), two other chapters show the direct influence of technological innovation on the way that the body is re-written in literature. One, by Steven Connor, reviews the way that the senses were first ordered and re-ordered through technological developments. Through that re-ordering the body takes into itself powers that enable changes in correspondences with the world. Quoting from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, he points out that:

‘Perception reverses the entropy of the world. Better yet, it improves the world. To see the world enchants me, but in so doing, I enchant it too. I participate in the soul of the world.’ (192)

This enchanting of the world is one of the powers of literature, not as Connor says, ‘because everything passes through it, but because, as technographic apparatus, it is becoming part of everything.’ (193).

Paul Sheehan also picks up this transformational potential in his chapter on ‘Posthuman Bodies’, discussing the creation of mythic and monstrous bodies to explore modern concerns about cloning and androids.

The idea that literature reflects and yet transforms the body in its worldly operations is consistent with the aims of this volume as set out by the editors in their introduction. Hillman and Maude point out that ‘there are no bodies in literature.’ (3) This is because the concrete materiality of the body cannot be fully present in words. And yet the fact that the body is everywhere represented through language allows for a re-imagining (‘unbinding’) of forms of fixity to which the body is subject. Chapters on Ageing, Maternal Bodies, Dead bodies, Sexualities and Racialized Bodies serve to illustrate this point in detail and variety.

One chapter that addresses the book’s themes most successfully is Maud Ellman’s discussion of Eating, Obesity and Literature. This is because Ellman serves up a diet of rich metaphor (!) to show that ‘Readers of these novels learn to love fat in both corporeal and literary form.’ (64) Falstaff, Sancho Panza (whose surname means ‘belly’) and Molly Bloom are re-visited as characters who challenge the modernist obsession with thinness. I enjoyed Ellman’s chapter not only for its message but its presentational form, moving between ideas in literature, social norms and historical trends. To give an example, speaking of Ezra Pound’s argument that it is better to present one striking image in a lifetime that to produce a volume of writing she says:

His own minimalist poem, ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (1913), resulted from a kind of liposuction that reduced some thirty lines to two. In the same period, a crash diet is imposed on popular fiction to counter the flabby bourgeois epics of the past.’ (65)

The contributions in this book work best when they do this kind of metaphorical work to show transformational possibilities in the way that authors write about the body. I found the book less engaging in chapters that took ideas about literature together with philosophic concepts and discussed these twin aspects as entities. While there is a place for concept clarification (and I am sure many students find this useful), the book’s special offering is the tracing out of ideas using sources so that a transparency of thinking is made evident. For example, in his chapter on Pain and Violence, Peter Fifield gives an extended analysis of a section of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, in which Walter Morel falls ill and Mrs Morel ‘had him to nurse’. Fifield uses this analysis in the context of Elaine Scarry’s argument that pain deprives us of language and hence of nuanced feeling. By the revelation that “Mrs Morel was more tolerant of him..’ but that ‘Neither knew she was more tolerant of him because she loved him less’ (122), Fifield argues that ‘Walter’s illness is not the cause of the coolness, rather the occasion for deceptiveness and scepticism..’ (123). This insight is useful, though it was one occasion among many when I felt the lack of ideas that have been developed by social scientists working in the field of health and illness. On the topic of women’s bodies Mildred Blaxter wrote:

‘People have to inhabit their bodies, and their physical identity is part of themselves. Particularly as they grow older, they have a need to account for this identity, to draw together what they have experienced. This body is their inheritance, it is the result of the events in their life, and it is their constraint.’ (1983)

The nature of this accounting, its context and actors, is of course part of what Lawrence is doing with the Morels, as noted by Fifield. However, the developed writing about illness relationships and caring that medical sociologists have offered is precisely what could have opened out an analysis of this kind.

Indeed, at several points in the book (usually citing Virginia Woolf’s essay on illness) I wondered why there was no special chapter on this topic. If anything this seemed to me an odd omission, given that modern ideas about health and fitness, cosmetic surgery, in vitro fertilization and images of cancer and AIDS patients have occupied pages of novels and mass media. I looked for Susan Sontag’s name in the index but did not find it.

But how does language work in the expression of bodily powers and feelings? This is a big question, addressed by Andrew Bennett in a chapter focusing upon Romanticism. Bennett uses Wordsworth’s poem ‘Tintern Abbey’ to argue that it realises matters of presence and absence (of the speaker’s body) through an allusion to the senses. He says, ‘For the Romantics, in Nancy’s formulation, body and thought ‘are only their touching each other’. (79) It is the idea of presence that extends beyond the body in spatial terms to the apprehension of feelings (our ‘diviner nature’) that remain only as traces, like wrinkles in the sand made by the waves of the sea. According to Walter Benjamin our thoughts and feelings are out there, not in our heads. Regarding our beloved, he says, ‘feelings escape into the shaded wrinkles, the awkward movements and inconspicuous blemishes of the body we love, where they can lie low in safety.’ (1986:68) Bennett’s chapter is one that draws together many of the questions raised in other topic based contributions.

It also raised for me another question, which the book as a whole addressed only tangentially. What of the body of the reader? How is the reader taken up by reading novels, plays and poems that engage the senses, re-positioning them in respect of moments both historical and social? It seems to me this issue of presence – of re-presenting and of making present – is key to the ways in which the senses and affects are mobilised, diverted, muted so that the reader is brought before, or back or beyond. Jean-Michel Rabate concludes his chapter on Literature and Affect with a quote from Kafka:

‘[We] need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us’. (243)




Benjamin, W. (1986) ‘One -way street’. In P. Demetz (ed.) Reflections: essays, aphorisms and biographical writings. New York: Schocken Books. pp 61-94.

Blaxter, M. The causes of disease: women talking. Social Science and Medicine, 17, 59-69.

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