This chapter starts by reassessing the significance of the intellectual hostility expressed towards Franz Joseph Gall’s former assistant, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, by the Edinburgh physician John Gordon. This opens the chapter up to the first substantial assessment of the content, significance and consequences of Spurzheim’s lecture tour, which began in London, took him across the English provinces and saw him also lecture on, and practically demonstrate, phrenology first in Ireland and latterly in Scotland. The chapter advances an unprecedented body of detail with regard to the content of the lectures delivered in London in particular, with substantial quotation from unreprinted contemporary accounts of these events. The significance and impact of Spurzheim’s later symposia is also discussed at length, with particular reference being made to his lectures in Bath and Bristol, and his tour of Irish venues which saw him speak in Dublin and Cork prior to a long tour of Scotland.
The book ends with a coda which illustrates and analyses the enduring presence of phrenological imagery within a culture that retains little memory of the theory itself. Towards the close of his presidency, Donald Trump was on several occasions mocked by political cartoonists who purported to analyse and explain his behaviour and aspirations by mapping these out upon a recognisable phrenological map of his profile. The implications of this act demonstrate the continued presence of phrenology in a contemporary culture very different to that in which the pseudoscience originated.
The concluding chapter examines the persistence of phrenology into the twentieth century, and the relative success of a small number of practitioners in Britain who maintained not merely a programme of instruction but also continued to offer consultations and cranial analysis. The chapter contemplates the significance of the British Phrenological Society which was founded by Lorenzo Fowler in 1886 and which survived until 1967. The activities, pedagogical programme and publications of the society are acknowledged, as is the ostensible value of the endorsement it provided to practitioners through the status of membership or fellowship signified by postnomial letters. The effective cessation of phrenological practice in the decades that followed the society’s dissolution is noted.
The dome of thought examines how phrenology and phrenologists were represented in British daily newspapers, popular magazines and serious journals from the opening of the nineteenth century to its conclusion, before tracing the residual influence of the pseudoscience across the twentieth century and, surprisingly, into the second decade of the twenty-first century. The book opens with a consideration of how phrenology was deployed to explain literary celebrity in the Victorian period with particular attention being directed to the interpretation of the skulls of William Shakespeare and Robert Burns. The book then continues by recalling the manner in which the doctrine of phrenology was introduced to British culture in the early nineteenth century, and the manner in which the Continental activities of Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Gasper Spurzheim were reported. The lecture tour of Britain and Ireland subsequently undertaken by Spurzheim is discussed, and the book reassess the controversy which surrounded his encounter with the Scottish medical establishment in 1816. Spurzheim’s influence upon George Combe, the Scottish lawyer who was the popular face of British phrenology for much of the century, is then considered, as is the interface of phrenological thought with mesmerism in the work of John Elliotson. The final chapter of the book surveys the declining years of speculative and theoretical phrenology and its transformation into a primarily commercial activity under the particular influence of the American Fowler brothers. The conclusion surveys phrenology in the twentieth century, and its resurgence in political satires directed against Donald Trump.
Phrenology in Britain during the first decade of the nineteenth century
The origins of phrenology are Continental rather than British. The opening chapter therefore surveys the earliest theories of an identifiable phrenology – those formulated by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall in Vienna – as they were reported in the British press. The religious controversy surrounding Gall’s studies, which were ostensibly associated with a form of secularism incompatible with Roman Catholic spirituality, is noted for its prominence in British popular reportage, where authors were quick to avail themselves of the opportunity to enjoin in xenophobic mockery. Gall’s extensive tour of Europe, which followed the apparently hostile reception by the Austrian authorities, is then considered, and hitherto unreprinted reports of the doctor’s earliest phrenological experiments are quoted and analysed. These include both favourable accounts and others which dismissed phrenology as a fad already in decline, and thus not likely to attract any following in Britain. The possibility of Gall travelling to Britain, and of his analysing the crania of the upper classes, was similarly the subject of mocking journalism. The chapter reproduces some of the earliest graphic images of the phrenological model of the skull and discusses and explains the significance of the earliest tabulation of the phrenological organs to appear in the English language. Notably, the fluid and developing nature of the phrenological map of character is acknowledged, and the debate about the function and location of different organs is played out in the popular press. This is an important chapter as it outlines the earliest incarnation of phrenology in anglophone culture.
The chapter opens by contemplating the Victorian debate as to whether Shakespeare’s grave should be opened in order to ascertain not merely the presence of his body but also the conformation of his skull. The significance of that skull is outlined with reference to Wilkie Collins’s novella Mr Wray’s Cash-Box, which emphasises the role that the bust of the dramatist in the parish church of Stratford-on-Avon plays in the myth of Shakespeare’s genius. Other portraits of the Bard are then highlighted as the focus of phrenological speculation, and the connections between physiognomy, phrenology and genius are made further with reference to the actual exhumation of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, during which an authorised cast of his skull was taken specifically for phrenological analysis. Having established the presence of phrenology in a popular culture that proceeds far beyond medicine, the remainder of the chapter outlines the basic tenets of the pseudoscience, identifies the central protagonists of its early years in Britain and describes the chapters which follow.
Mesmerism, celebrity practitioners and the schism of 1842–3
This chapter examines the uneasy relationship between phrenology and mesmerism, and the division of opinion with regard to the potentially secular implication of the pseudoscience that further eroded phrenology’s position in mainstream culture. Attention is paid to how John Elliotson came to dominate the debate on phrenology’s utility in London medical circles, and how the journal he edited – the Zoist – was instrumental in redefining the nature of the pseudoscience. The chapter also considers the equally lively debate outside the English capital and makes detailed references to reports of the careers of a number of now-forgotten provincial phrenologists and phreno-magnetists, these latter being practitioners of both phrenology and mesmerism. As well as the apparently sincere demonstrations that were given by the evidently philanthropic Spencer Timothy Hall, the chapter examines the somewhat more scandalous activities of Henry Bushea as well as the controversial opinions of William Collins Engledue and their relationship to the schism which proved the downfall of the Phrenological Association – a short-lived and elite body which never quite exercised an effective oversight of British phrenology. The chapter concludes by intimating the rise of a commercial phrenology increasingly shaped by touring American practitioners and analyses the rise of the influential Fowler and Wells publishing empire and its subsequent reinvention as a consulting practice headed by Lorenzo Fowler in London. Beyond this financially lucrative phrenology, other practitioners persisted as mere entertainers, occupying booths at fairgrounds or on seaside piers. These were the declining years of phrenology.
The chapter begins by reappraising the encounter which conventionally forms the climax of Spurzheim’s British tour – a demonstration of anatomy which Spurzheim made in Edinburgh – the content of which apparently prompted a bad-tempered verbal exchange between Spurzheim and Gordon. Greatly mythologised by proponents of phrenology, the actual details of this encounter are revealed through access to an unreprinted contemporary newspaper account published in England rather than Scotland. The subsequent reception of Spurzheim by the Edinburgh intelligentsia is then contemplated, before the chapter moves to consider the impact of Spurzheim’s teaching and writing upon George Combe, the Scottish lawyer who would become the central figure in a specifically British incarnation of the pseudoscience. A major consequence of Spurzheim’s visit was the establishment of the first British phrenological society in Edinburgh in 1820: the history, foundation, rules and activities of that influential body are discussed at length, and its influence upon a substantial network of local societies across the United Kingdom is demonstrated through insights into the meetings they organised and the museums they maintained. The activities of the Phrenological Society of London, founded in 1822, are also discussed, and in particular the examination which its members made of the crania of convicted criminals. The chapter closes by intimating the background to the slow decline of the phrenological societies and anticipates the gradual integration of phrenology into mesmerism under the particular influence of the London physician and teacher of medicine, John Elliotson.
Chapter 6 explores Dickens’s use of the “as if” linguistic structure in Little Dorrit to reflect the ontological crisis of nineteenth-century speculative capitalism, which, in Lacanian terms, threatens the status of the “quilting points” of the “Name-of-the-Father” that grounds the symbolic order (and thus identity) in reality. The “as if” structure in Dickens is thus shown to have a double function. It allows Dickens to introduce a kind of “montage thinking” into the narrative form, giving images a disjunctive relation to the realist tendency of the narrative and also giving the images or details a kind of symbolic or signifying autonomy of their own. The “as if” also provides a radical critique of the effect of capitalism on the social sense of reality and its patriarchal structure, which is why the novel is so concerned with the motif of unmasking paternal signifiers in the case of the novels “three fathers” (the “Father of the Marshalsea,” the “Patriarch” Casby, and Merdle the begetter of speculative capital).
Chapter 5 takes as its point of departure Stephen Marcus’s intriguing claim that “Dickens has committed himself at the outset of The Pickwick Papers to something like pure writing, to language itself” and develops this idea by considering this “pure writing,” understood here in terms of the materiality of language, in a psychoanalytic framework. This framework provides a way to interpret character in relation to both language and the unconscious (which is “structured like a language” according to Lacan), but also places language in the context of Lacan’s symbolic/imaginary/Real dynamics. Taking these factors into account as “spectral materiality” provides a new perspective into Dickens’s fascination with fragmented and compound, often quasi-allegorical names, with scenes of writing, with speech tics and impediments, and with capturing spoken idiom in written form, all of which are central to his characters’ subjectivity. Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield provides a central illustration of the fact that language itself (“pure language,” its autonomy from the subject) is the “extimate” aspect of subjectivity and thus “spectralizes” the author himself.