The Neuro-poetics of Pain: Human Physiology in Haller and Lessing


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This dissertation aims to redefine the concept of pain as it appears in literary studies and demonstrate how the new definition garners insight into the interwovenness of literature and physiology in the mid-eighteenth century. It challenges the claim that pain is opposed to language by adopting a new materialist concept of entanglement and insisting that pain, text, and nervous system do not pre-exist their interpenetration. After situating its argument within the greater context of pain research and debates around the nature-culture binary, this dissertation focuses on the poetic works and physiological experiments of Albrecht von Haller. Through a series of close readings, I demonstrate how Haller’s choices within his physiological experimental system respond to texts, and vice versa. I then proceed to elucidate how G. E. Lessing engages with Haller’s physiological system, both in his literary work and his theories on empathy and acting. Liquidity is a central motif that emerges from these readings. I argue that the concept of the nerves as communicating via liquid informs the varied appearances of water imagery in the epoch of Empfindsamkeit. This argument finds evidence in both Haller’s poetry and Lessing’s play, Miss Sara Sampson. Haller’s vision of the Alpine society as an ideal utilizes the concept of a self-contained system of circulation. Lessing’s play is, significantly, considered to be the first bürgerliches Trauerspiel, and it adopts and transforms this circulatory imagery to suggest a destabilization of the natural-arbitrary binary. Far from a mere linguistic exercise, a rigorous examination of pain in texts and as a text leads to a new perspective on these canonical works and their inter-disciplinary relationship to each other.

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  • 04/28/2020
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