Romantic Anti-Dualism and the Blush in Northanger Abbey

By Bergmann, Jenna R. | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Romantic Anti-Dualism and the Blush in Northanger Abbey


Bergmann, Jenna R., Wordsworth Circle


Although in Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland learns from Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" that "many a flower is born to blush unseen," her blushes are more often seen than not (Austen 15). In fact, over twenty-five instances of blushing occur in the 220 pages of Northanger Abbey, amounting to approximately one incident of blushing every ten pages. Read in terms of current theories of cognitive neuroscience, which, as Alan Richardson has recently demonstrated, pertain to Romantic-era brain science, the blush becomes an arresting example of a non-verbal gesture that problematizes the mind/body connection. The blush, predicated on an intimate communication between mind and body as in sexual arousal or physical exertion, offers striking proof of Romantic anti-dualism and of theories of materialism. In Northanger Abbey the blush functions as a somatic signal indicating that the mind has read and responded to an inscribed ideology of female behavior. In other words, though anti-dualistic, the sour ce of the blush shifts from a physiological impulse (such as gastric disturbance) to a cultural stimulus (such as the social construct of modesty). However, in this case, rather than sheer proximity of mind and body allowing the system to remain intimate, a cultural impulse, more foreign to the body than a drug, engenders intimacy by acting mechanically on the organic system. The body internalizes ideologies, copying them, as it were, onto the fibers of the system. "Reading" a series of archived templates of possible reactions, the mind selects the appropriate model, thereby causing the body to express its awareness with the suitable "action recipe," in this case, the blush (Russo 2). The body and mind, acting in concert and in a non-dualistic mode, oppose a "foreign" influence that "colonizes" the organic system.

According to theories of anti-dualism, the blush is a site of competing discourses that comment on both the irrationality of unconscious mental life as well as ideologies of sexuality, especially when Catherine interacts with Henry Tilney. For example, Henry compliments Catherine, causing her to "blush and disclaim" (Austen 118). Catherine's blush emanates not from a material or physiological impulse, but from a cultural stimulus, for only cultural discourse writes that a lady should blush when praised. This discourse, however, counters Catherine's erotic response to Henry's compliment; her "arousal" reveals a spontaneous link between mind and body distanced from cultural impress. On the other hand, Henry consciously sets out to make Catherine blush; he complicates her "arousal" by manipulating cultural codes to "pleasure" her, drawing forth the most "natural" reaction from the most ideological markers. The fact that Henry can draw a blush from Catherine but that she cannot consciously choose to blush suggest s that this somatic response expresses competing discourses of ideology, sexuality, and irrationality. Such competition forces a re-examination of what constitutes dualism and anti-dualism when something as alien as cultural ideology can mechanically affect the organic nature of the mind/body connection.

Recent work in cognitive neuroscience helps explain how the mind works in concert with the body to produce the blush as a suitable response to a particular cultural stimulus. In Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio formulates a Somatic-Marker Hypothesis:

Somatic markers are a special instance of feelings generated from secondary emotions. Those emotions and feelings have been connected, by learning, to predicted future outcomes of certain scenarios. When a negative somatic marker is juxtaposed to a particular future outcome the combination functions as an alarm bell. When a positive somatic marker is juxtaposed instead, it becomes a beacon of incentive.... Somatic markers are thus acquired by experience, under the control of an internal preference system and under the influence of an external set of circumstances which include not only entities and events with which the organism must interact, but also social conventions and ethical rules. …

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