ELIT Seminar: “Walter Pater and Literature as a Sensory Experience”, Dr. David Coombs, 5:30PM March 1 (EN)

The ELIT Department is hosting our first talk this semester of the Bilkent Philosophy and Literature Colloquia Series, organized by Dr. Patrick Fessenbecker, Dr. Andrea Selleri, Dr. Atti Viragh, and Dr. Iris Vidmar Jovanović. Anyone interested is very welcome to attend. The event will take place on Zoom.

Speaker: Dr. David Coombs (Clemson University) “Walter Pater and Literature as a Sensory Experience”
March 1 2023, 17:30 Istanbul

This is an online meeting. To obtain event details please send a message to department.

Abstract: As an art form, literature is defined by the discrepancy between its stripped-down sensory presence—a visual field starkly composed of strings of letters along with the tactile heft of a book—and the thick perceptual experience of sonorous speech and mental images it seems to afford to readers. This talk explores that discrepancy in the essays and fiction of Walter Pater, who advocated a rigorous attention to art’s sensory presence as a leading figure in the Victorian Aesthetic Movement. Pater’s attention to the sensory experience of literature drove his engagement with Victorian philosophies of language and scientific theories of perception, particularly the acoustics of the German physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz. This talk argues that Helmholtz’s account of musical harmony offered Pater a model for a sensorily-engaged mode of reading centered on what he identifies as literal metaphors—figures whose figurative significance can only be fully accessed by taking them literally. The most emblematic of Pater’s literal metaphors is the Paterian figure itself, at once human form and trope. To take Paterian figures literally, I suggest, is to be alive to the traffic between sensory experience and mental imagery that together constitute the act of reading. It is also to practice what Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt have called literal reading in the key of a queer ars erotica.

Biographical note: David Coombs is an associate professor of English at Clemson University in South Carolina. He is the author of Reading with the Senses in Victorian Literature and Science (University of Virginia Press, 2019), which traces the intellectual history of a scientific consensus, emerging in the nineteenth century, that divided sensory perception into three basic parts: stimulus (the force acting on the nerves); sensation (the feeling arising from the nerves’ response to the stimulus); and perception (the cognitive apprehension of the object causing the sensations). His work has appeared in ELH, Victorian Studies, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Victorian Literature and Culture, and is forthcoming in The Oxford George Eliot Handbook and Mind and Embodiment in Late Victorian Literature. He is currently starting work on a new project exploring the conceptual history of crisis in the Victorian historical novel.