Organic Memory: History and the Body in the Late Nineteenth & Early Twentieth Centuries

Organic Memory: History and the Body in the Late Nineteenth & Early Twentieth Centuries

Organic Memory: History and the Body in the Late Nineteenth & Early Twentieth Centuries

Organic Memory: History and the Body in the Late Nineteenth & Early Twentieth Centuries


How does the past live in us? Do we inherit our ancestors' memories as we do their physical characteristics?

In the nineteenth century, mainstream science embraced a long-standing superstition: the belief that memory could be inherited. Scientists reasoned that, just as bodies were reproduced from generation to generation, so were thoughts, memories, and cultural achievements. Heredity and identity were no mere family matter, but the basis of nations. The glories and sins of the past were not gone: they remained in the tissues of living people, who could be honored or blamed accordingly.

Organic Memory surveys the literary and scientific history of an idea that will not go away. Focusing on the years between 1870 and 1918, Otis explores both the origins and the consequences of the idea that memories can be inherited. The organic memory theory contributed to the genocidal programs of the Third Reich, and it erupts in pop-psychology, racist propaganda, and ethnic cleansing.

To track the spread, intensity, and endurance of this especially powerful idea, Otis singles out major authors whose work reinforced or ridiculed belief in organic memory. They include writers who were internationally influential yet who simultaneously represented their national traditions: Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, C. G. Jung, Emile Zola, Thomas Hardy, Miguel de Unamuno, Pío Baroja, Emilia Pardo Bazán, and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The debates over the human genome project and the explosions of ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia, in Azerbaijan, Somalia, and elsewhere demonstrate how seriously organic memory continues to affect modern medicine and politics.


"Why would anyone want to study the literature from past times?" asked a fellow graduate student as I was about to leave a neuroscience Ph.D. program to begin studying comparative literature. "What relevance does it have for today?" Six years later, on a train from Köln to Heidelberg, a German engineering student asked me the same question, politely, and with genuine curiosity. Why study literature?

My answer, in both cases, was that literature gives us access to ways of thinking that go beyond literature, ideas that sprout, blossom, die, and are reborn in our philosophy, our science, and our politics. Studying their past incarnations helps us understand the role they play in our current thoughts. Literature, of course, is art, not merely a transparent medium through which past ideas can be studied. Its authors' ingenious use of language and irony, however, often makes it an ideal starting point from which to examine past ideologies. What is taken for granted in a psychological textbook may become more apparent in a playfully distorted literary articulation written the same year. That is why, in following a way of thinking, I analyze literature and science in combination. At times, where one is silent, the other speaks eloquently. But most often, the two speak the same language, rely on the same metaphors, reveal the same premises and the same anxieties. It is this common ground, this common discourse, that forms the basis of this study.

My project does not construct critical readings of literary texts for their own sake. Although organic memory plays a key role in the plots and narrative structures of the novels I analyze, and although consideration of organic memory theory may lead to a heightened understanding of these works, this type of analysis can only begin to do justice to their artistic complexity. My primary purpose is to explore the idea of organic memory across the disciplines. For this reason, Michel Foucault's theoretical work on the development of epistemologies and . . .

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