Anxious Anatomy: The Conception of the Human Form in Literary and Naturalist Discourse

By Abbott, Scott | Goethe Yearbook, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Anxious Anatomy: The Conception of the Human Form in Literary and Naturalist Discourse


Abbott, Scott, Goethe Yearbook


Stefani Engelstein, Anxious Anatomy: The Conception of the Human Form in Literary and Naturalist Discourse. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. 326 pp.

As its title suggests, this book works at the intersections of science and literature. Like an ecotone in nature, that's a fecund zone, especially when scientific theories of the eighteenth century aren't used simply as tools with which to make sense of contemporary literary works. In Stefani Engelstein's fine book, both forms of discourse are seen as contributors to establishing the meaning of nature, and specifically the meaning of the human body.

For a reader like myself with an unsystematic background in eighteenth-century biology, Engelstein's book is rich with information. From competing theories of procreation to the origin of the word "mammal," from developments in grafting to amputation techniques, and from fears that nature might be mechanistic to relationships between the human body and societal organization, the book presents a wealth of primary material with a light and confident touch. "As we analyze the literary, naturalist, surgical, aesthetic, philosophical, and political interventions into the body," Engelstein writes, "the formative influence of human interpretive strategies will come under repeated scrutiny" (24). And where better to begin a study of interpretive strategies in science and literature than in the novel by a naturalist with a title from chemistry.

Ottilie's catastrophe in Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften, Engelstein argues, arises out of her reaction to various relationships and resemblances. Ottilie rejects talk of human kinship with monkeys, but obstinately lives a passive life resembling a vegetable graft. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Engelstein deftly situates her discussion within the critical context, laying out Gundolf's and Benjamin's thoughts on Ottilie as plantlike before moving to her own analysis of Ottilie on the basis of contemporary writing about plant grafting (Reichart, Holyck, Henne, Elßholtz, etc.). If the "germ is the soul of the eye [bud]" (43), according to Henne, and if grafting takes place somewhere between sexual bonding and parenting, then "Ottilie combines all of these traits of the graft: an indeterminate generational position, an extreme dependence, and an asexual productivity regulated through the eyes" (45). Violence arises in the novel when characters attempt to control or gloss over nature with false analogies, and even the novel's title is seen as problematic on those terms.

In her second chapter, Engelstein writes about connections between organic reproduction and the artistic reproduction of the human form. William Hunter's Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, Illustrated Tables,hased on an aesthetic that saw nature as superior to art and that thus preferred exact reproductions in the service of a fixed and lawful nature, is challenged by the reproductions of another engraver, William Blake. Emphasizing multiple histories of development and a variety of possible futures for the human body, Blake's Book of Urizen becomes, for Engelstein, an alternative obstetrical atlas.

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