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The Physiology of the NovelReading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction$
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Nicholas Dames

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780199208968

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208968.001.0001

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Distraction’s Negative Liberty: Thackeray and Attention (Intermittent Form)

Distraction’s Negative Liberty: Thackeray and Attention (Intermittent Form)

(p.72) (p.73) 2 Distraction’s Negative Liberty: Thackeray and Attention (Intermittent Form)
The Physiology of the Novel

Nicholas Dames

Oxford University Press

This chapter examines the physiological explanation of human attention and its limits, in relation to Thackerayan social anatomies like The Newcomes (1853–5). Thackeray, in line with the Victorian physiological thinking that subtended discussions of literary form in the period, attempts in his novels to manage distraction, not by combating it but by offering it material upon which to work, or spaces to ‘opt out’ of attention. His novelistic form is openly non-laborious: instead of offering an expanse of abstract, undifferentiated time, that of the factory worker, he offers rhythmically punctuated oscillations, or an intermittency between attention and reverie, concentration and drift. This is apparent in the largest movements of his plots as well as in the operations of small scenes, in which even moments of rapt, directed consciousness are bracketed by a descriptive procedure that insists upon the emptiness of attention in contrast to the vibrant fullness of a distracted mental wandering. To read Thackeray's distraction means pushing past the unofficial moralities of attention as they have been handed down to us, and considering instead a fictional form that solicits its readers only in order better to leave them alone, free to drift.

Keywords:   Thackeray, human attention, social anatomies, The Newcomes, absorption

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