Mesmerism, Medusa, and the Muse: The Romantic Discourse of Spontaneous Creativity

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9780739170434: Mesmerism, Medusa, and the Muse: The Romantic Discourse of Spontaneous Creativity

Mesmerism, Medusa, and the Muse: The Romantic Discourse of Spontaneous Creativity explores the connections among the Romantic discourse of spontaneous literary creativity, the nineteenth-century cultural practice of mesmerism, and the mythical Medusa as an icon of the gendered gaze. An analysis of Medusan mesmerism in the poetry of Mary Robinson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L.) and the prose of Mary Shelley reveals that these Romantic-era writers equate the enraptured state that produces spontaneous literary creation with the mesmeric trance. These writers employ Medusan imagery to portray both the mesmerist and the mesmerized subject, a conflation of subject/object positions that complicates issues of agency, subjectivity, and gender. Images of Medusan mesmerism ultimately work to deconstruct Romantic ideological dichotomies of self/other, female/male, muse/artist, and sublime/beautiful. In contrast to a traditional, masculinized Romantic discourse that emphasizes self-possession, this study uncovers a feminized, improvisational, Romantic discourse, characterized “Other-possession,” an assumption of the mesmerized subject position that enhances subjective fluidity.

This study interrogates the Romantic discourse of spontaneous literary creativity through an examination of Romantic poetry, prose, and theory that utilizes mesmeric and Medusan metaphors to suggest creative inspiration. Building on recent scholarship about improvisational poetics, the subversive potential of mesmerism, and Medusa as a feminist icon, this work suggests that the mesmeric Medusan muse not only enables creativity for women writers but also provides a mirror in which they view (and through which they give voice to) their own societal oppression. The mesmeric Medusan muse in Romantic-era literature—from the Ancient Mariner and the Frankenstein monster to the tragic, abandoned Sapphic poetess—often represents the face of oppression, an unwelcome and monstrous truth in nineteenth-century British society. For women writers in particular, braving the stare of the Medusan muse enhances empathy, and therefore inspiration and literary productivity.

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About the Author:

Anne DeLong is assistant professor of English at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in nineteenth-century British literature and women’s studies.

Review:

DeLong has written a fascinating feminist examination of Romantic notions of inspiration and creativity expressed through two compelling tropes: mesmerism and the Medusa figure. This impeccably researched and argued critical study of English Romanticism offers new insights into the work of the “usual suspects” (Coleridge, the Shelleys, Byron, Wordsworth), as well as making a (sometimes queerly) stirring case for the importance of more neglected figures such as Mary Robinson and Letitia Elizabeth Landon. Besides being an excellent piece of scholarship, DeLong’s book is an absorbing read. (Alexander Doty, professor of gender studies and communication and culture, Indiana University; author of Making Things Perfectly Queer)

An important and historically situated study of models of Romantic imaginations, DeLong’s book explores the challenge to the long privileged Wordsworthian and usually male-identified mediation of spontaneous expression of emotion by self-possessed, tranquil recollection--a challenge posed by alternative models of spontaneity expressed in the discourses of mesmerism, galvanism, and somnambulism and figured by the mother of all mesmerists Medusa.
Subtle, convincing, and wisely juxtaposed readings of texts by Coleridge, Robinson, L.E.L., R. Browning, and both Shelleys expose the tensions between self-possession and possession by one’s muse and reveal the power as well as the risks of entrancement, willed abandonment of the will, fluid subjectivities, mesmeric surrender, and feminization. DeLong’s intelligence, erudition, and sophisticated prose have their own charms as well. (Rosemary Mundhenk, Lehigh University)

DeLong treats nineteenth-century theories, practices, and versions of mesmerism to examine the Romantic discourse of spontaneous creativity, while Budge reads the then-emerging writings on the nervous system to explore Romantic and early Victorian concerns with visionary experience....DeLong...deserve[s] credit for showing us just how much more there is left to be said about such familiar topics as the Romantic imagination, especially when we allow ourselves to step, not outside of the trends that dominate our field, but in the spaces between them. (European Romantic Review)

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