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Elisha Cohn, ”One single ivory cell’: Oscar Wilde and the Brain’

2011 October 16

Detail of 1890 typescript of Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, with handwritten corrections. Reproduced by kind permission of Merlin Holland and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles. The typescript is held at the Clark Library: W6721M3 P611 (1890) Boxed.

Recent studies have demonstrated how new theories of materiality in the late nineteenth century shaped conceptions of everyday objects—top-hats, teapots, green carnations—yet have not extended this research to the burgeoning late-Victorian field of the neurosciences, and its conception of the mind as material.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde traces ‘the thoughts and passions of men to some pearly cell in the brain’ (280). As his notebooks from his undergraduate days at Oxford show, Wilde was fascinated by the materiality of mind. For many late Victorian thinkers, like T. H. Huxley, William Kingdon Clifford, John Tyndall, and many writers for the eminent journal Mind, brain science challenged beauty because it had the potential to invalidate conscious experience. Wilde, however, stresses the visual pleasures of invisible brain cells, adapting scientific ideas without relinquishing beauty as his ultimate value.

Most critical approaches to Wilde focus either on his dandy’s fascination with beautiful objects as a way of protesting against industrial capitalism, or on his interest in socialism’s goal of extending aesthetic enjoyment to the masses. Yet these approaches, which in different ways stress the political agency of Wilde’s work, have been difficult to reconcile. Cohn argues that Wilde’s interest in the materiality of the brain offers a new way of relating Wilde’s political aims to his aesthetic engagement with objects. The pearly or ivory cell gives sensory access to what is both a human and inhuman form of beauty—human, because it is the material basis of our mental life; but inhuman, because, as Wilde often suggested, the richness of consciousness is determined by the brain’s microscopic and little-understood materials. The cell’s beauty explains why Wilde brings neurological accounts of the brain to his aestheticism: art and science collaborate to ‘cure the soul by means of the senses’—to reveal a shared biological world.

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