Victorian Parasites

A blog about Science, History, and Popular Culture

Archive for the tag “coleridge”

Between Boundaries, Places and Cultures: Thoughts on Interdisciplinarity and Nineteenth Century Oneness.

So I’m sitting in Birmingham International airport, waiting for a flight to Sydney.  In front of me are: a caramel latte, and a variously annotated script for the paper I will present at a conference there in 4 days time. The paper is on the figure of the parasite in nineteenth century culture, an adapted version of the founding prequel for my PhD. In it I discuss the boundary and identity concerns which accompany parasitic discourse, and the evolution of the ‘literary parasite’ which combines the historically social, and newly biological, to create a compelling gothic hybrid.

As I go over the main points, check my cues and jot down significant dates in the margins, I am struck by the overwhelming (perhaps poetic) theme of liminality. I am at an in-between point, waiting both to leave this country and arrive in another, indulging half in business, half pleasure, diligently scribbling in the margins of a paper about boundaries. Moreover the research I do, resists the very boundaries it writes about –drawing from both literature and science, and united by history. But my refusal to stay within boundaries is a strength not a weakness, to my mind. Lit-Sci scholars are not new by any means, but I hope that my Biology degree will enable me to truly transcend boundaries. Rather than be a literary scholar tentatively looking across at science and admiring, I propose to use my background in science to actually cross the gulf. I believe this interdisciplinary approach is particularly important for nineteenth century scholars; the scientists I’m researching would have been well versed in the Arts and writers often had scientific training or experience – think H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. P. Lovecraft, to name but a few.

To understand their multi-layered allusions, one must understand the zeitgeist in which they lived and worked. Science and Arts were not seen as the separate cultures they are today, but simply different ways of interpreting the world. These two methods are, however, united by common ground: ‘The knowledge both of the Poet and the Man of Science is pleasure,’ says Wordsworth, and the dialogue between them was considered fruitful and two-way. Both are considered fitting activities of discovery indulged in by all. Coleridge talking of Chemistry says ‘I will attack it like a shark’ and even mentions the desire to set up a laboratory in the lake district with fellow poet Wordsworth.

Ronald Ross demonstrates a literal transfer between the ‘science’ of maritime mastery and Art when he writes, in his memoirs, of a sailor whom he ‘rewards’ for his expertise by immortalising him in literature, ‘An old sailor […] taught me the name of every spar, sail, and line […he] was tattooed all over and told me many tales; in return for which I put him into my novel The Child of the Ocean.’ Ross is famous for his work on parasites and tropical diseases, remembered for his perseverance, scientific mind and finesse with a microscope, but his love of literature and poetry was born long before his passion for science, and when he made his Nobel-prize winning discovery, he expressed it how he knew best – with poetry:

This day relenting God
Hath placed with in my hand
A wonderous thing; and God
Be praised. At his command

Seeking his secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing
A myriad man will save,
O Death where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O Grave?

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