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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

A “pure excess of complexity”: Tropical surfeit, the observing subject, and the text, 1773–1871
by Lindquist, Jason Howard, Ph.D., Indiana University, 2007, 394; 3307582
Abstract (Summary)

This study traces the emergence of a distinctive "rhetoric of excess" in the long nineteenth-century travel narrative, its dispersion into British novels and scientific writing, and the effect of this strategy for representing otherness on Romantic and Victorian aesthetics and epistemology more broadly. Facing what Harriet Martineau called a "multitude of unconnected or contradictory particulars" while underway abroad, European travelers worried that a surfeit of impressions might destabilize their ability both to comprehend and write about unfamiliar places—particularly the American tropics. In so arguing, I draw on scholarly disciplines as diverse as the history of science; the history of imperialism; Latin American area studies; ecocriticism and environmental history; and the study of genre, aesthetics, and literary style.

In the writings associated with James Cook's Australasian voyages (ch. 2) and Alexander von Humboldt's travels in Latin America (ch. 3), a "wild and gigantic nature" threatens both to disrupt European aesthetic conventions such as the sublime and the picturesque and contort the first-person structure of the travel narrative. By the mid-Victorian period, in contrast, Charles Darwin would respond more knowingly to the disruptive provocations of excess in his Journal of Researches (1839), where confronting minute particularity catalyzes a movement toward mature reflection (ch. 4).

Nor are the protagonists of mid-Victorian novels always successful in managing their confrontations with natural and cultural surfeit. In Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! (1855), for example, a "rush of ever new objects" in the American tropics provokes fetishistic preoccupations with "exotic" aesthetic objects, fungible treasures, and female objects of desire that precipitate psychological disintegration in the hero and sully his return to Europe at the end of the novel; this failure of ideal bildung, in turn, calls into question the viability of English imperial, epistemological, and aesthetic projects (ch. 5). Finally, mid-century theorists (Martineau, Darwin, John Tyndall, William Whewell, and others) respond to the challenges of excess by articulating an explicitly dialectical response to surfeit in which even a "pure excess of complexity" can be made meaningful once the observer learns to activate the faculty of the "imagination" (ch. 6).

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Sterrenburg, Lee
Commitee: Brantlinger, Patrick, Lynch, Deidre, Williams, Nicholas M.
School: Indiana University
Department: English
School Location: United States -- Indiana
Source: DAI-A 69/05, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Science history, British and Irish literature
Keywords: Cook, James, Darwin, Charles, Excess, Humboldt, Alexander von, Kingsley, Charles, Narrative, Nature, Travel, Travel narrative
Publication Number: 3307582
ISBN: 978-0-549-56560-4
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