January 13, 2010 02:55:49
Posted By Patrick
A short (albeit late) follow-up to the last George Eliot post, full of fun phrenological facts I've been coming across...
Eliot, like many other Victorian writers, was intrigued by the thought that you could understand a person's moral make-up, anti-social inclinations, intellect, and so forth from the shape of his or her head, and used phrenology to help define characters in some of her earlier works, like Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, and Brother Jacob (later on she grew less convinced by phrenology's claims). In her first published fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, she describes the lawyer Dempster like this:
Mr Dempster habitually held his chin tucked in, and his head hanging forward, weighed down, perhaps, by a preponderant occiput and a bulging forehead, between which his closely clipped coronal surface lay like a flat and new-mown table-land.
The phrenologically astute reader would infer from this that Dempster might be a bit morally lax, thanks to that under-developed coronal region, where the moral faculties were supposed to be housed. The intellect was located in the forehead and brow (hence "high-brow" as a synonym for "intellectual"), and the animal instincts in the occiput - the back of the head - which is pretty big on Dempster. So he's a clever animal, but not likely to be a nice one...
Eliot was hardly the only writer using phrenology like this. In fact, her nineteenth-century contemporaries, including Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens, found it a useful means for identifying their characters and justifying their places in a plot (the "History of Phrenology" site includes a list of literary works using phrenology, but the list is far from complete). Phrenology served this function in real life, too, acting as a tool for explaining why certain people didn't prosper quite so well as others. This was especially useful if you could identify alleged racial or ethnic characteristics with phrenological principles. Thus, various groups - Irish, Jews, Africans, and others - were depicted in writings and cartoons as having certain phrenological characteristics (hefty occiputal regions and low brows, in the case of the Irish and the Africans) that reinforced racial prejudices.
Of course, as time passed, and the claims of phrenologists were not being supported by convincing evidence, writers began to take a more satirical stance toward the pseudo-science. In Little Dorrit, Dickens writes of the hypocritical slumlord Christopher Casby's lofty and bald coronal peak,
"Oh! why, with that head, is he not a benefactor to his species! Oh! why, with that head, is he not a father to the orphan and a friend to the friendless!"
The joke being, of course, that he is none of these. Eventually phrenologists fell out of favour, and people no longer believes that feeling bumps on scalps could provide insight into character. But the legacy, or curse, of phrenology lives on. The various brain scan technologies producing "maps" of the brain areas reputedly representing specific tendencies or engaged in particular acts or emotions have been dismissed by their critics as a "new phrenology." Only time (&, of course, more research) will determine how unfair this criticism might be.