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Writing Beauty: Ruskin's Vision of Neural Imagination in the Works of Hawthorne and Eliot



Writing Beauty:

John Ruskin’s Vision of Neural Imagination in the Works of

Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Eliot


Sheena Berwick

This dissertation responds to a growing awareness of beauty and visual sensibility in mid-to-late 19th-century British and American novels. These works demonstrate the authors’ appreciation of beauty as a condition of body, mind, soul, and culture. It also illustrates their ability to create through the text an evocative technique of visual writing that creates an imaginative and sensual connection to beauty in the reader’s neuro-visual experience of their art. In considering this development, the dissertation explores the human imagination of writer and reader: ideas, coded into neural transmissions between writer and reader through the medium of text which creates and recreates fictional worlds through mental images, and consequently produces emotional realities in the reader. I attribute this creative partnership in writing and reading to the perception, writing, and reading theories of John Ruskin, and especially to his discussions of beauty, sensuality and imagination expressed throughout the early volumes of his master works, Modern Painters.

Ruskin thought of the experience of beauty in nature and art as an embodied product of the brain/mind, traveling freely through the mind and body changing one’s perceptions of the world and our relations to it. The human response to art in this view is transmitted through the individual back into society, affecting others and transforming society. If we think of beauty this way, we are thinking of it as a neuroaesthetic communications network circulating pleasure and delight and social enhancement—emotional, psychological, physical and moral —moving as a personal gift to the soul of the community. Another way to understand this happy interchange would be as a neuro-hormone pleasure highway. Ruskin, after all, proposed his own version of this when he imagined the processes of the undefinable feeling called beauty—what science has since discovered as hormonal and chemical products of the brain—distributing elixirs of pleasure from the mind through the body’s mapped highways of veins and arteries. Ruskin’s description of these sensations in reaction to beauty were based on his attention to his physio-biological processes in the 1840s. One hundred and fifty years later modern science put Ruskin’s theory to a neurological test. Semir Zeki—a founder of the field of neuroaesthetics and the first scientist to study the effect of beauty and romantic love on the brain— discovered through fMRI technology that the experience of beauty is part of a continuum [at the orbito-frontal cortex] representing a value attributed to it by the brain. The experience of the pleasure of beauty, his team discovered, increases with neural activity associated with the individual brain’s response. Zeki’s work confirms Ruskin’s deductions of the mysterious passage of beauty from the brain’s response to perception channeled through the body. This opens up Ruskin’s writings and those of the novelists influenced by him to the revelation of their early contributions in the field of neuroaesthetics.

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