Academic journal article PSYART

Paroxysms of the Mind: Narration, Consciousness, and the Self in William Godwin's Things as They Are; or, the Adventures of Caleb Williams

Academic journal article PSYART

Paroxysms of the Mind: Narration, Consciousness, and the Self in William Godwin's Things as They Are; or, the Adventures of Caleb Williams

Article excerpt

Rational Animals, Perverse Souls, and Biomechanical Puppets

The human capacity for rational deliberation is one of the most fundamental concepts in Western thought from Aristotle to the Age of Enlightenment. However, as psychologist Paul Bloom has recently stated, "Aristotle's definition of man as a rational animal has recently taken quite a beating" (Bloom "The War on Reason"). Advances in neuroscience and technology, such as fMRI, have seemingly provided access to that which has long remained hidden and mysterious: the workings of the human mind. The now observable knowledge that mental activity arises from the neural basis of brain activity which in turn is subject to the properties and laws of the physical world have led a number of scholars to consider rationality and free choice as illusions; some going as far as calling the human species "biochemical puppets" (qtd. in Bloom).

But long before neuroscientists began peering into the workings of our brains like mad scientists from a Universal horror movie, the limits of our rationality has been an ongoing subject of debate, particularly evident in Gothic fiction and psychoanalysis. In a moment surely influenced by Romantic novelist William Godwin[1], the first-person narrator in Edgar Allan Poe's tale "The Black Cat" (1843) describes the "spirit of PERVERSENESS" as

one of the primitive impulses of the human heart-one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man.... Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? ... It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself .... (322)

A little over a half-century later Sigmund Freud, himself strongly influenced by the literary Gothic, would theorize an account of human nature where behavior was "chiefly accounted for by motives that were hidden in the secret recesses of the individual psyche, and hidden not just from observers, but often from the subject's own conscious mind" (Lodge 58). And, bringing us full circle, by the late twentieth century a number of neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, and philosophers would similarly consider consciousness-that is, the qualitative experience of human sentience, or the "self"-as essentially narrative in character (which is to say fictive or even illusionary). For example, in his book The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion, and the Making of Consciousness, the scientist Antonio Damasio states "telling stories is probably a brain obsession... I believe the brain's pervasive 'aboutness' is rooted in the brain's storytelling attitude" (189).

From the "perverseness" of the soul in Gothic fiction to the hidden unconscious of the mind in modern psychoanalysis to the narrative nature of the human "self" in post-structuralist theory and cognitive science (seemingly unlikely bedfellows!) to the idea that humans are "biomechanical puppets" helplessly steered by the laws of the material world, the common thread is that we do not have reliable access to the workings of our own minds (let alone another's mind) and that our notion of the "self" is largely a fiction mediated and created through narrative (i.e., language). If the past hundred and fifty years of philosophical and scientific investigation has moved us beyond the notion of the unique, autonomous, transcendental "self" who has reliable knowledge of her inner life through introspection, then William Godwin can be seen as one of the forefathers of modern thought with-among other writings-the 1794 publication of his influential novel Things as They Are; Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams.

Godwin began work on Caleb Williams at roughly the time he had completed his philosophical treatise Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793) and it is difficult, if not impossible, to not consider these texts as in a dialogue with each other. …

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