Sounding bodies: music and physiology in Victorian literature
Draucker, Shannon Burke
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“Sounding Bodies: Music and Physiology in Victorian Literature” argues that new scientific understandings of the physiology of music – the ways in which humans sweat, quiver, and convulse while listening or performing – particularly fascinated nineteenth-century writers looking for ways to vividly describe bodily experiences of pleasure, desire, and intimacy. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, acoustical theorists like Hermann von Helmholtz and John Tyndall began to understand music as a physical force that ignited sensations in the human body – exciting the nerves inside the inner ear, arousing the nervous system, and precipitating muscular convulsions. In turn, Victorian authors from Charles Dickens to Vernon Lee began to depict music listening and performance as intensely corporeal events. When, for instance, a female violin player activates her strong arm muscles to perform, she achieves a sense of physical power rarely available to her in a culture that deemed women incapable of such bodily invigoration. When a male concertgoer experiences an orgasm in response to a male virtuoso’s piano performance, he accesses a same-sex erotic encounter otherwise unavailable to him. Scenes of music listening and performance enabled Victorian authors to imagine alternatives to female docility, companionate marriage, cross-sex desire, reproductive sexuality, and stable human subjectivity. Though often associated with the most highbrow and conservative of ideals, music in fact fostered some of the Victorian period’s most subversive representations of embodied life.