Thursday, 16 February 2012

'Perceptions perfectly novel': Romantic experiments with nitrous oxide

We can all empathise, I think, with the experience of doing some reading in a particular area, perhaps as background or contextual information to a more central component of our research, and of being led down a side path into material that is too interesting to be abandoned, but not strictly relevant to the matter at hand. Well, this has happened to me, and rather than discard what I came across, I offer it here as (hopefully) an interesting diversion from whatever you should be doing and a springboard for further discussion.

My current research focusses on the poetry and prose Sara Coleridge, daughter of S.T. Coleridge, and in particular on her understanding of the imagination as located within the physical body. In this context I have been reading about eighteenth century theories on the relationship between the mind or spirit and the body.

Coleridge himself arrived, via a circituous philosophical route through the materialist theories of Locke and Hume, at a firm belief in transcendentalism and the absolute separation of body and soul. This was a position with wide currency: the idea that the soul did not transcend the physical brain but instead had its roots in messy materiality was abhorrent (not to mention potentially blasphemous) to many people in late eighteenth century Britain.

However, as always, nothing is ever that simple. The following are a series of first-hand accounts of experiments with nitrous oxide or 'laughing gas', which I found in Roy Porter's Flesh in the Age of Reason. The 'medicinal' benefits of nitrous were first posited by Dissenting preacher, chemist and general polymath Jospeh Priestly, and explored more thoroughly in 1799 by Dr. Thomas Beddoes, friend and one-time doctor to Coleridge, and his assistant the future Sir Humphry Davy. Davy published his experiments in 1800 as Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and its Respiration.

Davy's experiments were largely carried out on himself, and his report includes observations on his experiences. He writes:
'By degrees as the pleasureable sensations increased, I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images passed through my mind and were connected with words in such a manner as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorised; I imagined that I made discoveries. When I was awakened from this semi delerious trance by Dr. Kingslake [...] I endeavoured to recall the ideas, they were feeble and indistinct; one collection of terms, however, presented itself : and with the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr. Kingslake;- "Nothing exists but thoughts! - the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!"'
This account is hilariously redolent of certain undergraduate behaviour and also interesting in terms of what is going in the language - but we will get to that later. Davy of course encouraged his boss Dr. Beddoes to have a go, and the good doctor reports on taking the gas that
'I felt as if composed of finely vibrating strings.'
Word of the wonderful gas and its particular properties soon passed to his patient Coleridge. Never one to willingly forgo substance experimentation, Coleridge tried the gas and recorded that
'the only motion which I felt inclined to make, was that of laughing at those who were looking at me'
and that he felt
'more unmingled pleasure than I had ever before experienced.'
Coleridge informed his close friend Southey, who duly had a go and then wrote to his brother
'such a gas has Davy discovered [...] I have had some; it made me laugh and tingle in every toe and finger-tip. Davy has actually invented a new pleasure, for which language has no name.'
There are lots of things that could be said about these accounts in view of eighteenth-century concerns about the relationship of body and soul, Romantic treatments of the body, sensation and the limitations of language. What really interests me is the moments of slippage when these men, a mixture of scientists and poets, try to describe how they experience the gas (in this context I think it's particularly interesting that Davy titles his 'researches' as being both chemical and philosophical, suggesting, perhaps, that scientific discovery can help reveal or be revealed by philosophy).

All four emphasise the sensations caused by the gas - it makes them physically feel. But in Davy's account, sensation engenders a falling-away of the physical world. He 'lost all connection with external things' and experiences instead (he claims) a world comprised entirely of thought. When he comes round, this is the one idea he retains and attempts to communicate: that 'Nothing exists but thoughts!' Even as he tries to sustain this claim, however, the physical slips back in through the language of sensation. The universe is not just comprised of ideas, but of 'pleasures and pains'. What precisely is thought, what is sensation and whether sensations are experienced through the container of the body or in some more nebulous way are all questions that Davy's account raises, but it seems to me that at the very least what's happened here is a complication, unwitting or not, of the idea of the body and soul as binaries.

The other thing I notice, particularly in Coleridge's account, is this suggestion that bodily sensation overrules the mind in the moment of intoxication (in Davy's too - it is sensation that leads to speculation). I find this particularly interesting because part of Coleridge's famous distinction between imagination and fancy is a belief that the spiritual mind, and especially the imagination, is 'free' of the body and above succumbing to physicality. Coleridge has lots of reasons for such a position, not least his ongoing struggles with illness and addiction and his inability to produce a coherent body of work. In a letter he describes his body as ‘diseased and fevered by my imagination’, making his body subject to his mind, but the opposite is happening here: physical sensation directs his inclinations and he indulges in another bodily action, laughing.

Finally, Southey's description of a pleasure for which language has no name gets to the heart of the Body Studies dilemma: can language represent sensation and embodiment (well, can language represent anything, of course, but that's a whole other argument)? If it can, does that mean we must accept Foucault's position that the body is only a social or linguistic construct, and if it can't then isn't the body being displaced by language? How could we posit a body that has materiality without also saying that its existence is prior to knowledge about it?

As you can see, I find these accounts extremely suggestive. If anyone else has any thoughts on them or on any of the issues I've raised, please do wade in! Similarly, if you find yourself with some interesting material that needs a home, email us and we can arrange for you to write it up on the blog.

Works cited (and some further reading, for those who are interested)

Allard, James Robert. Romanticism, Medicine and the Poet’s Body (Aldershot; Burlington V.T.: Ashgate, 2007)

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Ed. & intr. George Watson (London: J.M. Dent; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1956)

---.The Collected Letters, 6 vols, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs (London:
Clarendon, 1956-71)

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage, 1994)

Porter, Roy. Flesh in the Age of Reason (London: Penguin, 2004)

Richardson, Alan. British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001)


  1. Beatrice, how fascinating! I love the idea of them all having a go, in purely theoretical interests of course! Your comments also intrigue me because I'm starting to look at how the writer Vernon Lee uses the (very imprecise)language of smells and scents in her work to muddle up the experiences of interiority and exteriority, anticipating Husserl's phenomenological ideas by ten or fifteen years. It's the other end of the century, of course, but there's a similarity going on here about the challenge to mind/body bifurcation by sensations 'for which language has no name'. Does anyone know how this may have related to other nineteenth century practices that located the soul in the body? HellenX

    1. Hellen, your comment on the blurring of interiority/exteriority is really perceptive I think, because the other thing that's in the background of all these late c18/early c19 ideas about the body and what animates it is the repaid development of surgical techniques and the rise of the great medical schools with their focus on anatomy and dissection. Autopsies are becoming, if not precisely common, at least not unheard of (Coleridge had one). What this means is that the body is no longer a sealed vessel with mysterious, and perhaps spiritual, contents. The interior of the body can be laid bare, described and illustrated for the lay person, and, with respect to your point, can be made exterior. The location of the soul or animating spirit can also be looked for! Debates about the division of the body/soul assume medical, as well as philosophical, dimensions, as distinctions between body/soul and interior/exterior become destablised.

      With respect to your question, I'm not absolutely sure but I'd suspect that c19 discourses about the nerves or nervousness would probably yield some interesting readings. In Sara Coleridge's writing at least she locates her imagination and by implication her soul in her sensorium or nervous system, and she understands her imagination as closely shaped by her suffering from 'nerves' (or hysteria).

  2. Really interesting interpretation of how Davy's philosophical and literary preoccupations impacted upon his scientific experiments here! Bea, I was intrigued by how you present Coleridge's separation of body and soul as complicated by his experiences with nitrous oxide. It reminds me a bit of the debate going on during the 1810s at St. Bartholomew's Hospital between two respected physicians, John Abernethy and William Lawrence. Whilst Abernethy maintained that body and soul were separate (thus 'vitality' itself was grafted onto the material body), Lawrence insisted that both were comprised of matter. This sparked controversy, especially in relation to concerns about reviving the materialism expounded by 1790s scientists. It's interesting that Abernethy supported his arguments on life/soul as separate entities by making an analogy between life and electricity, depicting life as 'vitalising' the body. Furthermore, he argued that Davy's experiments with electricity upheld this. I don't know if this debate is relevant to you at all, Hellen, but it sounded quite familiar! Sharon Ruston's book, 'Shelley and Vitality' (2005) is really informative on the feud between Abernethy and Lawrence, and Shelley's engagement with it.

  3. Poetry aside, I think this should really be recommended reading for medical assistant training schools for its physiological merits.

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