Vital Viscera

Though I have temporarily shifted my research from early nineteenth-century depictions of the body to contemporary zombie studies, I’m finding my previous research and the ideas of Romantic-era physicians to be astoundingly enlightening for this project in terms of the vitalism controversy: does materialism or vitalism—“the theory that life is generated and sustained through some form of non-mechanical force or power specific to and located in living bodies”—dominate the motions of the body? (Packham 1).[i] One of the things I find interesting about this controversy, however, is that both still locates the source of life and animation within the body itself (rather than an outside force, such as a higher power or cosmic force, or sometimes even a physician). I’m just beginning my research on vitalism, but, in my mind, the difference between materialism and vitalism seems to be this “unknown” factor. A mechanism can be explained, but the words used to describe the core principle of vitalism—force, spark, power—speak to its vague and elusive nature in such a way that reveals the physican’s awe for the body while materialists seem to claim more authority, even over the individual whose body is in question. The concept of vitalism also disrupts the mind/body dichotomy, as Catherine Packham points out in her excellent study of Eighteenth-Century Vitalism. “‘Life’ itself began to look rather different:” she says, “no longer a physical entity passively carrying out the orders of reason, but a fluid, constant, dynamic, changeable and ultimately elusive force, existing and communicating throughout a vitally animated body” (19). My goal in this post is to describe and discuss the infatuation with interiority of the body shared with some of the prominent vitalists and their interest in movement within even a body that does not appear to be moving.

In 1785, a Mr. James Whytt wrote to accomplished Edinburgh physician William Cullen of the dissection of a Mr. James Cochman’s abdomen twelve hours after his death: “The swelling of [it] increased gradually to a very great extent after you saw him; previous to opening the abdomen, when filliped, it gave the sound of a drum; when open’d…” and goes on to describe the shape and color of various organs.[ii] Cullen himself was one of the leading vitalists at the Edinburgh Medical School, along with his associate Robert Whytt (any relation to the letter-writer, I have yet to surmise) (Packham 6). There are a few things in this brief example to note. Firstly, there is a distinction between the exterior and interior of the body, but also a correlation: swelling indicates an internal change. An action against the exterior, a “fillip,” can indicate even more about the quality and condition of that interior, but Whytt does not seem concerned about such an action disturbing it. The description that follows (which is not something to read right before lunch) compartmentalizes the body to a great extent, describing where in the body things have settled, as if they were settled in an unusual way and had found their way there themselves. Things have clearly been happening within this (leaky) body in the twelve hours since life had animated it, things that remain animated for a time beyond its larger entity.

Physician Robert Whytt describes this kind of body-agency in terms of three categories of animal motions in his 1751 text on vitalism: voluntary, involuntary, and “mixed”. These last two classifications “are performed by the several organs as it were of their own accord, without any attention of the mind, or consciousness of an exertion of its active power: such are the motions of the heart, organs of respiration, stomach, guts, &c; which have been also distinguished by the name Automatic…” (1-2).[iii] Though these ideas precede the Romantic era, they nonetheless inform the kinds of observations made by James Whytt later in his dissection.  They also speak to the claim made by Alan Richardson in his article “Romanticism and the Body,” about the prominence of the body in Romantic poetry. He suggests that Jerome McGann’s theory that Romantic poets strove to transcend the physical and political upheaval of their world through their poetry “failed to account for the diversity of available ideological positions” (2).[iv] Instead, criticism has been seeing more emphasis on the Romantic body within literature (something Aaron brought up in his post on feet at the beginning of the month). Whytt’s sentient principle, which he uses to explain the reanimation (re-sensitizing) of the body after a period of inaction or even momentary death, claims that, since these body parts do not have the ability of stimulation themselves, there must be an “active sentient PRINCIPLE animating these fibres” (Whytt 242). In other words, there must be some kind of energy or substance that sparks this movement and contributes to the overall animation of the body, particularly its involuntary and “mixed” actions. This begs the question, what are our bodies doing when we’re thinking of other things, when we’re not commanding its every move? The poet’s body, then, proves itself a mystery more expansive and active than even the poet’s mind, able to move and act almost of its own accord… even for a short time beyond death.


[i] Packham, Catherine. Eighteenth-Century Vitalism: Bodies, Culture, Politics. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

[ii] Letter from James Whytt. March 1785. Sibbald Library.

[iii] Whytt, Robert. MD. An Essay on the Vital and other Involuntary Motions of Animals. Edinburgh: Printed by Hamilton, Balfour, and Neill. 1751.

[iv] Richardson, Alan. “Romanticism and the Body.” Literature Compass 1 (2004): 1-14.

3 thoughts on “Vital Viscera”

  1. Fascinating stuff! As a counterpoint to the idea that vitality is expressed solely within the confines of the body, there are the writings of the Naturphilosophen–particularly Schelling, who picked up John “Brunonian” Brown’s notion that vitality could be tweaked from the outside and tied it to his theory of an organic life force that permeated all physical being. I think it’s interesting how metaphorically attractive these sorts of pervasive views of vitality were for writers like Shelley (the “motion and the spirit” that “rolls through all things,” etc), who were well-aware of the more cautious–and more medically accepted!–perspectives you’re describing here.

  2. Your depiction of Hogarth’s Reward of Cruelty caught my eye, as I have been studying the iconography of The Stages of Cruelty in some depth. You may be interested to know that Hogarth has depicted himself in the left rear and most of the other people depicted in Reward, and in Cruelty in Perfection, have now been identified. The process has revealed the series as an attack on the man-midwives, William Smellie and William Hunter.

    Thank you also for the reference to Catherine Packham’s book which I will follow up. I have been researching in this area for some years and new opinions are interesting to compare with my own conclusions. Overlooked until recently was Sir Anthony Carlisle (1768-1840). The iconography of his portrait (as can be found via Google), is worthy of study. In the rear it depicts a cadaver, with a shroud in its left hand rising from the dead, as seen through a doorway to the future. Carlisle included this figure in his portrait, among other relevant elements, to demonstrate his belief he was close to discovering the secret of “Muscular Motion”, i.e. the vitalism you refer to. In his research, Carlisle took issue with the theories of William Cullen, (teacher of William Hunter), who had taught that life was a function of nervous energy, and muscle was a continuation of nerve.

    As is obvious Carlisle did not succeed, but the particular method he researched over many years was to revitalise coagulated blood; in following John Hunter with a belief that blood contained the “Life Force”. Carlisle aimed to pump the revitalised blood through a cadaver to achieve motion in the muscles. Carlisle was a close friend of William Godwin and the nature of his research was inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein.

  3. Laura, thanks for the informative entry—I’ll be interested to see if you develop the dynamics between materialism and vitalism…would be great conversation. Also, if you (or anyone else) is interested in the animated body after death, there are some fascinating and funny passages on the subject in “Machine Man” (1747), by La Mettrie (the title should give away on which side of the fence he sits).—His “Man as Plant” is also amazing…looking forward to hearing more (about zombies, as well!)–

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