Goulet on Murphy (2020)

Murphy, Kieran M. Electromagnetism and the Metonymic Imagination. The Pennsylvania State UP, 2020, pp.192, ISBN 978-0-27108-606-4

A model of interdisciplinary inquiry, Kieran Murphy’s book appears in the AnthropoScene series edited by Lucinda Cole and Robert Markley, in collaboration with the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts. It’s an appropriate venue for a scholarly work that devotes as much pedagogical clarity to the explication of scientific theories, such as Faraday and Maxwell’s visions of electromagnetic induction or Einstein’s special theory of relativity, as to the analysis of literary works of Poe, Balzac, and Villiers that relate to these theories. The book sustains a very clear and coherent central thesis: the early nineteenth-century identification of a strong link between electricity and magnetism “provided crucial empirical grounds to re-legitimate and redefine the discourse of analogy” across science, literature, and philosophy (5). Analogy, it turns out, is the key to the second part of Murphy’s book title, “metonymic imagination.” As opposed to positing metaphorical links based on resemblance, metonymic thinking leaps across space, time, and difference to create chains of association based on contiguity. With scientific and philosophical precision, Murphy presents this emphasis on analogies of proximity (or “propinquity”) as a fundamental cognitive process that marked an epistemological shift starting around 1820 and culminating in early twentieth-century Einsteinian thought. Underlying that shift were the electromagnetic theories and visualizations by Oersted, Ampère, Faraday, and Maxwell. But just as important as the science, contends Murphy, were the literary imaginings of authors like Poe and Balzac, who anticipated the invention of the Freudian unconscious and the avant-garde aesthetics of surrealism by testing out invisible links made possible by animal electromagnetism and somnambulism in their tales of life, death, and affective connection. By dedicating his book to the convergence of those scientific and literary explorations, Murphy convincingly identifies the metonymic imagination of electromagnetism as one of the “transformational motors” that John Tresch calls “Romantic machines” in his 2012 book by that name (20).

Murphy is helpfully lucid about what his book adds to existing science and literature studies of nineteenth-century France. Some of those have tended to emphasize electricity, in part because of the success of the 1881 International Exposition of Electricity in Paris; but they leave out the magnetism side of the electro-magnetic model, thereby losing its dynamic polar dimension. Others follow Michel Serres’s fertile cultural analyses of the thermodynamic steam engine at the expense of other transformational motors like electromagnetism. Or they focus on watershed technologies like Morse’s telegraph without attending to the electromagnetic motor that made it work. By filling in those gaps, Murphy’s book provides a new understanding of nonlinear, non-contiguous thought as surprisingly important for the age. In one scientific example, William Whewell explains how inductive thinking establishes a chain of connections not immediately apparent: “Induction seizes some thread on which a portion of the heap are strung, and binds such threads together” (72). Not only does Murphy show that Poe, Balzac, and Villiers explore similar inductive logic in their writings, he himself is using that method to “seize on the thread” of electromagnetic thinking in order to pull it out from the entangled “heap” of nineteenth-century scientific and philosophical theories. 

The epistemological stakes that emerge from this “thread-tracing” are extensive. In the book’s first section, Murphy aligns Poe’s ironic, fragmentary style with the contemporary scientific notion of series based on discontinuous elements as an alternative to the centuries-old “great chain of being” theory. Through clever and succinct literary close readings, Murphy puts Poe’s mesmeric tales and his comic story of misplaced love at first sight, “The Spectacles,” into parodic dialogue with Justinus Kerner’s strange reports in The Seeress of Prevorst of Friederike Hauffe’s somnambulist visions. The German mystic Hauffe reappears in the book’s second section, on Balzac’s animal electromagnetism, as a model for the various forms of clairvoyance or magnetic vision in the Comédie humaine’s figures like Vautrin, Louis Lambert, and Séraphîtüs-Séraphîtaas well as, looking ahead, a “foremother” of surrealist automatic writing. The section on Balzac also includes a finely nuanced explication of “induction” as both a scientific phenomenon of electromagnetism and a specific form of reasoning, associated famously with Poe’s Dupin. Perhaps most original is Murphy’s argument that the inductive leaps taken to find the Comédie humaine’s famous “unité de composition” make Balzac a direct precursor of Einstein, who used the relational aspects of electromagnetism to overturn the Newtonian model of absolute space. The electromagnetic thesis also allows Murphy to provide a new take on Villiers’ L’Ève future, in his book’s third section on automata and (electro)magnetic bipolarity. With its “Andréide” as a dynamo-electric apparatus and its Romantic tropes of polar exploration, Villiers’ novel ends up proposing an electromagnetic law of modern love based on the “equilibrium” of mutual induction that surpasses the limits of both base materialism and naïve idealism. Murphy remains attuned to the confounding contradictions within Villiers’ text while maintaining his through-line thesis that the electromagnetic model of cognition brought about a profound epistemological shift, one that connects the anti-mechanical logics of L’Ève future to the twentieth-century invention of the unconscious. His book’s intriguing conclusion extends the stakes of “metonymic reasoning” into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through a discussion of Bachelard’s electromagnetic epistemology and Julien Gracq’s little-known 1948 essay on Breton’s surrealism, with its champs magnétiques and non-linear leaps of imagination.

With its uncluttered prose and careful explications of thorny debates and esoteric philosophies, Electromagnetism and the Metonymic Imagination brings precision to a sometimes fuzzy field of interdisciplinary inquiry. Literary scholars will learn much from this book’s cogent analyses, not only about the long history of magnetism, from the sixth-century Aetius of Amida to today’s Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology, but also about how that history has been deeply intertwined withand marked byliterary reconceptions of imaginative thought.