This is the first extensive study of literary swooning, homing in on the swoon’s long, rich and suggestive history as well as its potential for opening up new ways of thinking about the contemporary. From the lives of medieval saints to recent romance fiction, the swoon has had a pivotal place in English literature. This study shows that swoons have been intimately connected to explorations of emotionality, ecstasy and transformation; to depictions of sickness and of dying; and to performances of gender and gendering. A literary history of swooning is therefore also a history of crux points for how we imagine the body, and for evolving ideas of physiology, gender, and sexuality. Tracking the history of the figure of the swoon from the thirteenth to the twenty-first century, this study suggests that the swoon has long been used as a way to figure literary creation and aesthetic sensitivity: from the swoons of early mystics to contemporary literary-theoretical depictions of destabilised subjects, literary faints have offered a model of overwhelming, aesthetic, affective response. In the work of Chaucer and Shakespeare, swoons are seen as moments of generic possibility, through which the direction of a text might be transformed. In romantic, gothic and modernist fiction, this study focuses on morbid, feminised swoons used by writers who reject masculinist, heteronormative codes of health. In contemporary romance fiction, irony, cliché and bathos shadow the transformative possibilities of the swoon. This book offers an exciting new way to examine the history of the body alongside the history of literary response.
This chapter argues that the swoon has had a crucial place in literature in English for the last millennia. Swoons occur in narratives at moments of high emotional intensity: they often dramatise ecstasy and grief. Swooning can indicate a profound disturbance of the human body’s balance, in literal fashion, and this introduction argues that swoons are presented in literature to be read and interpreted; and are often used by writers to explore bodily experiences that disturb or challenge dominant narratives of health. The swoon is explored as an event of the body that always also calls for the practice of hermeneutics: it is a ‘somatic testimony’, in the sense that Mary Ann O’Farrell suggests of literary blushing. Swoons are intimately connected to explorations of sickness and of dying; they cluster in narratives that are preoccupied with femininity and queer sexuality; and can be unsettling indicators of political instability (the swooning body as metonym of the body politic in disarray). A literary history of swooning is therefore also a history of crux points for how we have imagined the body, and in particular for evolving ideas of health, gender, sexuality and race. This chapter examines the ubiquity of falling and swooning as indices of high aesthetic response, from classical religious iconography to contemporary literary theory, and suggests a new basis for understanding the aesthetic through non-normative accounts of the body.
This chapter explores some of the earliest surviving examples of swooning in English, in which the swoon’s symbolic power is bound up with the potential it allows for dramatic alteration: for conversion, for renewal, for sudden change, for spiritual revival into life from death. In the ‘Life of Mary Magdalen’ (c.1290), the swoon is bound up with religious renewal and transformation, and with the new life in ‘Crist’ that might come from a symbolic death. This early example binds suffering in childbirth to swooning, and anticipates the (apocryphal) artistic tradition of the Swoon of the Virgin during the Passion, bringing birth pangs and swooning together in an overwhelming agony that produces new life. This chapter also examine the relationship between passivity and passing out in terms of the construction of gender in the most famous swoony text of medieval literature, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c.1380). Troilus, a ‘weldy’ knight, swoons spectacularly in this text and Chaucer provides us with a strikingly physiological account of the swoon. Criseyde also swoons at an important point in the text, and these paired but asymmetrical passings-out reveal much about mutuality and difference in the lovers’ relationship. The radical claims made by contemporary theorist Leo Bersani in respect of masochism are considered here alongside the erotics of suffering rendered through the medieval literary swoon. Attentively reading the swoons in Chaucer’s poem helps us to understand its larger patterns of transformation, including its movement into tragedy.
The swooning Shakespearean body is mired in expressive crisis. The Shakespearean swoons that are brought into focus in this chapter are abyssal: they stage a fall into the dark depths of a body that is inaccessible to the modes of ‘reading’ attempted by other characters in the plays. This chapter examines pivotal swoons in Much Ado About Nothing (1598), Julius Caesar (c.1599) and Othello (1604), because these are plays in which bodies are explicitly presented as texts to be read and deciphered – and swooning reveals such processes of reading to be complex, fraught and/or tragically flawed. Each of these swoons occurs when the body cannot be parsed through the signifying systems available within the world of the play: when the systems by which bodies mean something – according to humoral theories of the body and/as character, or via narratives of differentiation according to sex and race and religion, for example – break down under pressure.
A plethora of passing out coincides with historic moments during which emotional demonstrativeness is highly valued: there is therefore a flourish of swooning in eighteenth-century novels under the rubric of sensibility. This chapter argues that the literary swoon has a crucial status in the discourse of sensibility: it is the most dramatic in a long list of textual somatic signs of sensitivity – sighs, blushes, tremblings, flinchings, agitations, palpitations, tears, fevers. But, paradoxically, the swoon pushes high sensibility over into insensibility. In sentimental literature, the swoon becomes a test of the aspirations to produce a communicable, socially useful version of interior feeling through a new rhetoric of the body. It is also an important component of evolving performances of gender: sentimental scenes of swooning fall back on the pleasures of regarding the inert female form, and a complex scenography is created around ‘fallen women’ (which might pertain to other sentimental depictions of suffering, such as the conditions of slavery). Focusing on feminine swooning in two novels separated by forty years – Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) – this chapter analyses their treatment of the swoon as symptomatic of differing attitudes towards the female body in relation to sensibility. As anxieties about sensibility and its representation in ‘feminine’ novels deepen towards the end of the eighteenth century, a morbid excessiveness of feminine feeling is linked to different types of falling: to the disastrous tumble of the ‘fallen woman’; to ‘falling ill’; to ‘falling into hysterics’.
This chapter proposes a series of connections between ways of imagining the task of writing and ways of imagining the swoon, whereby the swoon is offered as a model of artistic transformation. The swoon in the work of the writers considered here is a shadow of dominant narratives of resurrection and rebirth: it is used to describe dark and ‘death-born’ processes of revivification, and we find it frequently in the work of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers who seek to channel feminine morbidity in order to challenge masculinist discourses of health and power. If the swoon had become tarnished by associations with feminine incapacity by the end of the eighteenth century, the writers discussed here play on that association in order to devise new forms of writing and of politics. Recent work in disability studies, particularly from scholars formulating ‘disability aesthetics’, has demonstrated how the formal dimensions of artistic work are shaped in relation to ideas and lived experiences of the body: disability aesthetics rejects notions of the ‘healthy body’ as the crucible for the production of art. I (re)present the work of John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce to show that they revere a morbid process of swooning as the initiator of art, and in so doing they reject received narratives of health, virility and vitality. James Joyce’s descriptions of souls swooning is given special consideration here as part of his complex reconfiguration of the mind and the body in relation to the aesthetic.
This chapter argues that the frequent swoons of vampire victims are blurred, altered states that are darkly and sensuously ecological: in vampire narratives, victims swoon into networks of predation, contagion, telepathy and environmental degradation, and the vampiric swoon displays a highly erotic and anxious imagining of interconnection and interference. The swoon iconises a pleasurable softening into receptivity that allows incursions of one body into another; and of different minds into one another. Some classic vampire texts are re-presented here (The Vampyre (1819), Carmilla (1872), Interview with a Vampire (1976)) focusing on the swoon as an initiation into a polymeric reimagining of mind and body – the vampiric swoon produces a mesmerised, ecological continuity between victim and vampire which is, at its most extreme, telepathic. The most famous vampire text, Dracula (1897), coincides with the early development of psychoanalysis and the swoon-states of the novel express deep anxieties about interference and thought transference, anxieties that were also important to the early development of psychoanalysis and to Freud’s treatment of swooning hysterics. The chapter presents a set of correspondences between the vampiric swoon-states of Dracula, the early hypnotic treatment of hysteria, and psychoanalysis’s anxious relation to telepathy and occult modes of thinking. Finally, it reads swoons in the context of pandemics: mass-unconsciousness events are considered in the relation to mass-extinction events and the zoonotic transmission of disease to think about violent, deadly, morbidly beautiful forms of interrelation.
This chapter considers feminine swooning in romance fiction by female writers in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, arguing that the swoon offers the possibility of innovation and transformation, but also risks cliché and bathos. This chapter examines Carol (1952), Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking queer romance text, suggesting that Highsmith deploys fainting in a way that anticipates the work of ‘crip theory’ to challenge norms of sexuality and the healthy body concurrently: she valorises elements of sickness in order to challenge ‘health’ as construed by a heteronormative culture. In contrast to Highsmith’s work, E. L. James’s depictions of feminine sinking in the Fifty Shades of Grey (2012) novels are presented alongside Alexander Pope’s Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1728) to argue that the sinking James depicts might be understood as a form of bathos or disappointed hope: a falling into cliché ideas of gender submission. James’s work sets itself up in relation to several historical works of literature, including Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), but travesties its literary precedents into bathos. Nostalgia – the desire for temporal sinking back – is embedded in these novels as the eroticisation of past female powerlessness, largely produced through (mis)readings of iconic literary moments, including swoons. As a final contrast to James’s bathetic approach to the past, this chapter considers Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979) and a reimagining of gender relations that hinges on a depiction of female faintness.
The final section of this book considers two contrasting instances of contemporary swooning: Marianna Simnett’s Faint with Light (2016), a light and sound installation which records Simnett repeatedly passing out; and the ubiquitous use of *swoon* as an online ‘action’. Online swooning is considered in relation to the endemic irony David Foster Wallace referred to as ‘sardonic exhaustion’, which leads to questions about the role swooning might have now in terms of the virtual, affect and embodiment.