Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

James Chandler reviews Pathologies of Motion

Kevis Goodman. Pathologies of Motion: Historical Thinking in Medicine, Aesthetics, and Poetics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2023. 320 pp.

Review by James Chandler

19 May 2023

This admirable book has everything one could wish for in a literary-studies monograph: deep thinking about a great subject that matters centrally to a field, original research in various archives, virtuoso skill in criticism and exegesis, and a willingness to advance challenging theoretical propositions on the basis of its arguments. Like Goodman’s first book, Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism (2004), it takes up authors important in their time but mostly out of favor ever since. If Georgic Modernity created a mini-boom in studies of the once-influential William Cowper, one of Jane Austen’s favorite poets, this new book will do the same for Erasmus Darwin and John Thelwall—though, to be fair, both have enjoyed intensified critical attention of late. Goodman manages to reclaim these others of modern literary history, not just for antiquarian interest but also for critical attention, and she does so by showing how to read them otherwise. Pathologies of Motion had its origins in Goodman’s very specific interest in the medical phenomenon of nostalgia in the early modern period, but it developed serious ambition with time. The result is a book that addresses “historical thinking” across the disciplines of medicine, aesthetics, and poetics—how causes came to be understood as embedded in effects, pathologies in symptoms, circumstances in texts (p. 12). The emphasis on this set of issues—and ultimately on what Goodman proposes as a new genealogy of reading for such causes, symptoms, and circumstances—explains why, for example, the chapter on “a multitude of causes” (a phrase from William Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads) had to precede the book’s exposition of the problem that the diagnosis of nostalgia poses for the medical manuals (nosologies) of the late eighteenth century (p. 35). That wide-ranging first chapter features the work of the eminent Edinburgh physician William Cullen, and traces his many connections with figures in the Scottish Enlightenment and in the Lunar Society of Birmingham.

Goodman’s titular coinage, “pathologies of motion,” does important work in the book. Every student of English poetry ought to be aware of the attraction of motion for a poet like Wordsworth. One need look no further than “Tintern Abbey” to find “a motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things.”[1] And some specialists will be aware of the importance for both him and Samuel Taylor Coleridge of David Hartley’s theories of vibratory associations. But Goodman’s compelling account of William Cullen and his massive influence makes utterly central both the prioritization of the nerves as a medium of motion and what Cullen calls the “‘connexion they establish with the rest of the universe, by which we act on other bodies and they act upon us’” (p. 61). Further, Goodman’s redescription of aesthesis in these terms allows her to show crucial forward trajectories not only through Henry Home of Kames’s widely read Elements of Criticism (1762) but also through the medically trained Friedrich Schiller’s foundational work in aesthetic education in the mid-1790s. The stress on “pathologies,” moreover, allows her to show the darker side of various attempts by Romantic writers to heal and harmonize readers with their writings—think of Mathew Arnold on Wordsworth’s healing power—by revealing what she calls a “counteraesthetic” (not, she stresses, an antiaesthetic) that attends to the severe forms of emotional dislocation that such healing work sought to remedy in the first place (p. 143). Here the book’s emphasis on motion shades into the social contexts of movement and mobility in this period, and so connects its arguments to work now being undertaken on migration studies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The connection between nervous motion and social mobility might appear strained or forced until one realizes that nostalgia is the all-too-obvious linchpin for it. It is a disorder conceptualized within Cullen’s theory of nervous motion, of the nerves as mediating internal and external motions—a disorder that arises precisely when a person has moved away or been moved away from their home. This same frame of reference also allows Goodman to make a contribution to another growing literary subfield—beyond medical humanities and migration studies—because of the crucial role played by the notion of an environment in this discursive framework. The book’s welcoming overture to ecocriticism will provide an important point of entry for many of its readers. Ultimately, though, the book will most make its mark as a contribution to the history of reading, interpretation, and criticism (in the broad sense), for it uses its elaboration of its eighteenth-century materials to reframe a number of major interventions in recent decades:  Raymond Williams’s central notion of determination, Fredric Jameson’s application of Althusserian structural causation to literary analysis, Theodor Adorno’s account of the immanence of historical society within the lyric form, and Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s critique of symptomatic reading, just to name a few. The book will also be of interest to readers wishing to sort through the proliferating numbers of new and newer materialisms that literary studies now contends with.

Three questions to close. First, Pathologies of Motion is at once curiously repetitive and deeply interested in repetition as a critical problem. One of the most detailed sections of the book considers Wordsworth’s reflections on the poetics of repeated words, which appears in his footnote to “The Thorn,” perhaps the most discussed footnote in English literary history. Repetition for these writers, as Goodman reads them, is a rhetoric of “cleaving” in Sigmund Freud’s double sense, a splitting which is also a clinging, and the clinging has to do with the more general understanding of the traumatic effect of dislocation within the pathology of motion (p. 179). What is the structure of such cleaving in Goodman’s own repetitions? What drives them? Secondly, Laurence Sterne is mentioned in passing a couple of times, but his revolution in fiction arguably has everything to do with the intellectual movement Goodman traces, and his Sentimental Journey (1768) appears at the heart of the broader cultural moment she studies in this book. How do these arguments matter to the author in whose writings Viktor Shklovsky found the emergence of the modern novel itself? Finally, there is Goodman’s way with the question of history in this book. On the one hand, the book argues toward a refusal of contextualism. Her project of establishing causes in their effects, pathologies in their symptoms, means explicitly to work against background-foreground configurations. On the other hand, her account of historical circumstances of the Scottish Enlightenment, especially the intellectual circle around Cullen in Edinburgh and Glasgow, seems to rely on very much the kind of contextualism that the book programmatically argues against. Can this tension be cast as productive?


[1] William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth: Cambridge Edition, ed. Andrew Jackson George (Cambridge, 1904), ll 100–103, p. 92.