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Vision, Science and Literature, 1870-1920:…
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Vision, Science and Literature, 1870-1920: Ocular Horizons (Science and…

by Martin Willis

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Martin Willis is a kindred spirit when it comes to the study of literature of science: he's interested not in what scientists and writers saw, but how. That said, he (thankfully, I suppose) is interested in scientific vision in a very different way than I am. His book has an interesting arrangement, divided in spatial vision and temporal vision. Spatial vision is then divided into small-scale (microscopy) and large-scale (telescopy), while temporal vision is split into past-focused (archaeology) and future-focused (spiritualism). Each of these four sections is then divided into two chapters, giving a total of eight chapters.

Willis is one of those critics who treats literature as simply another example of a cultural phenomenon he's interested in, so his book flits easily from debates over germ theory to Le Fanu's "Carmilla" to a London guidebook to antivivisection protestors to Dracula in the microscopy subsection, for example. I hadn't read much about archaeology as a science, so that was a useful and interesting discussion, but the best part of the book was the last section, an examination of Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle in parallel. Houdini was a magician who did not believe in spiritualism; Doyle was a spiritualist who invented the ultimate rationalist. The two corresponded for a brief time and even met in 1920, and Holmes and Houdini even died around the same time! Willis shows how both were concerned with vision, but in ways that sometimes concurred and sometimes diverged: both connected visual unease to crime (178), and both needed the eye to be trickable (183); Houdini was disillusioned at Doyle's observational naiveté (203); Doyle believed in séances, which insist on the eye's deficiency, while Houdini celebrated the ability of the eye to learn (218). It's the best kind of comparison, one which provides a new perspective on both its subjects.
  Stevil2001 | Aug 18, 2017 |
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