THE EXPERIMENTAL SELF: HUMPHRY DAVY AND THE MAKING OF A MAN OF SCIENCE by Jan Golinski, Reviewed by Jon Klancher
 

THE EXPERIMENTAL SELF: HUMPHRY DAVY AND THE MAKING OF A MAN OF SCIENCE
By Jan Golinski
(Chicago, 2016) 256 pp.
Reviewed by Jon Klancher on 2017-10-19.

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In recent years, Humphry Davy (1778-1829) has become as interesting to literary studies as he has been to the history of science. Probably first recognized in Trevor Levere's Poetry Realized in Nature: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Early Nineteenth Century Science ((1981), Davy's literary reach has recently been examined by Kurtis Hessel in "Humphry Davy's Intergalactic Travel," Studies in Romanticism 54 (Spring 2015): 57-78, and "The Romantic-Era Lecture: Dividing and Reuniting the Arts and Sciences." Configurations 24.4 (Fall 2016): 501-32. Davy was that rare bird, the celebrity scientist, a figure very different from the famous scientist or the one who can write vividly for a public audience. His celebrity showed less in his prose, or in a lasting reputation, than in his dazzling lectures to Romantic-age audiences in London. Even the word "scientist" wasn't quite right for Davy. Nurtured by an Enlightenment tradition of natural philosophy, Davy's strange career cannot be explained by later nineteenth-century categories of either professional science or disciplinary specialization (the word "scientist" itself was not coined until 1833, four years after Davy's death). He was enigmatic to his contemporaries, and certainly to the historiography of science, which has treated him alternately as a scientist or a dreamer: an important architect of the discipline of chemistry or a foppish Romantic too intoxicated with pneumatic airs and personal ambition to contribute anything important to knowledge at all.

Jan Golinski, a leading cultural historian of British science ca. 1750-1850, seeks to change both perceptions of Davy. To that end, he examines his career as a ceaseless self-experiment with six different personae: enthusiast, genius, dandy, discoverer, philosopher, traveler.

Breaking the mold of the scientific biography, this book shows how the more literary or dramaturgical guises of Davy's career were interlaced with the more evidently scientific roles of the "discoverer" or (natural) "philosopher." Rather than simply narrating the development of a core self that matures over time, Golinksi explores Davy's "experiments in selfhood" (1). The resulting experiment in scientific life-writing is as richly suggestive for literary method as it is novel in the history of science.

Davy's meteoric rise to fame shortly after 1800 owed much to his embrace of "enthusiasm," an early modern term first associated with religious extremism and then with political radicalism. Davy used it to to describe a passionate devotion to knowledge. As Golinski explains, he first enacted this aspect of his public persona by notoriously experimenting with nitrous oxide or laughing-gas in Thomas Beddoes' Bristol laboratory of the 1790s. There he not only invited his friends Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey to share its euphoric effects, but also, like Coleridge, began to think such euphoria gave him a new window onto the nature of reality itself. Thus he moved toward philosophical idealism (though far less studiously than did Coleridge), forswearing the earlier materialism of his association with Bristol's radical intellectual circles and recording in his notebooks that "Nothing exists but thoughts!--the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!" (qtd. 31). While it's easy to scoff at this kind of outburst as unbecoming a scientist, Golinski finds instead that the nitrous-oxide episode becomes an important key to Davy's lifelong preoccupation with questions of identity and the many forms it would soon take in his career.

Golinksi also takes more seriously than most other scholars Davy's sense of entitlement to be called a "genius." This feeling explains, for one thing, his otherwise inexplicable scorn for the status of professional, which he regarded as beneath him. Others saw him differently. To act the part of a genius was to place himself "above all worldly cares" (65), but it was just that kind of lofty self-conception that prompted resistance, leading a good many skeptics to scrutinize his behavior closely for evidence that Davy was, in fact, compromisingly entangled in worldly matters. Most suspect was Davy's enthrallment to the aristocratic improving landowners who founded the Royal Institution in 1799 and hired Davy to lecture at its fashionable venue in London's West End. Even as friends like Coleridge feared the aristocratic showrunners at the Royal Institution would corrupt his genius, he was derided as a puppet of the old landed aristocracy by utilitarian critics--starting with Henry Brougham's screeds in the Edinburgh Review around 1804 and lasting to the 1820s, when a chorus of younger critics mocked his scientific career.

Meanwhile, Tories often sniffed that Davy "smells of the shop," alluding to his lowly social origins as the son of a woodcarver from Cornwall. In one of many slurs cited by Golinski, the London Times in 1813 sneered at Davy's pretentious mode of dress--a green velvet waistcoat was one of many showy costumes--as evidence of his membership in the "dirty finger gentry" (qtd. 83). This class condescension toward Davy was abetted by widespread gossip about his sexual ambiguity. With his flashy dress, his emotional lecturing style, and his evident popularity among women attendees of the Royal Institution, he prompted snide comments about his effeminacy.

Rather than simply defending Davy against such gossip, Golinski portrays his performing selves from many angles. On one hand, he takes seriously Davy's claim that women are more than capable of understanding science. On the other hand, he makes it clear that Davy's welcoming embrace of women auditors was hedged: apparently, they were a fine audience for his lofty generalities about the benefits of science for humankind, but not capable of hearing many details since it was inconceivable that they could aspire to professional scientific careers. In turn, not all women relished his showmanship. While the poet Eleanor Porden often attended his lectures, she was unimpressed by "the pomposity and rolling about" on stage that was part of his public act (qtd. 82).

Beyond these points of cultural history, Golinksi considers a more conventional question: what was Davy's impact on the history of science? In an illuminating chapter on his role as "the discoverer," we learn how far his claims to discovery (of chemical elements and electrochemical properties) fell short of his ambitions. He exploited the powers of Volta's new battery but drew outmoded conclusions about the presence of "imponderable and ethereal fluids" (104). He proclaimed his ambition by writing a textbook, Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812), but since a textbook was a sine qua non of disciplinary reach, its failure--as Golinksi stresses--is a telling sign of how limited his scientific impact on his peers could be. Despite success at establishing some elements, he sparked ongoing controversy with others, like his much-debated claim to have discovered chlorine. Finally, he produced no disciples. Though historians of science often treat Michael Faraday as his foremost student, Faraday forged a very different, sober-sided, and quietly professional kind of career uninfluenced by Davy's flights of imaginative performance. Unable to transmit his own style of scientific work to students, or to consistently persuade his peers, Davy would become especially vulnerable to the charge (mounted in the 1820s) that his brand of natural philosophy was obsolete and showed no path forward.

What finally emerges from this book, then, is a Davy quite different from the one Golinski portrayed in his influential book of 1992, Science as Public Culture. The earlier book stressed Davy's importance for the new kind of scientific expertise emerging in the nineteenth century. Unlike the relatively egalitarian, open-access natural philosophy epitomized by Joseph Priestley in the eighteenth century, this new kind of science became far more institutional, hierarchical, and insulated from public access. As a result, Golinksi's earlier verdict on Davy's impact could be unsparing: "Davy stripped public science of the moral and political purpose that Priestley had given it . . . [and] described experimental science as a genteel, theologically safe and socially conservative activity" (Science 285).

The present book re-affirms this point while also breaking new ground. Golinski still insists that Davy reconstructed the norms of Enlightenment public science and adapted himself, chameleon-like, to the political and religious ideology of aristocrats. But this doesn't mean, as the new book painstakingly argues, that Davy was "passively molded by hegemonic social forces" (8) or that his multiple personae were decisively shaped by the Royal Institution, the aristocratic science venue at which he lectured. Golinski thus redraws the the picture of Davy furnished in Morris Berman's often cited Social Change and Scientific Organization (1978), where Davy appears as little more than an ideological vessel of the aristocratic improving landlords who commanded the Royal. This new book helps show why Berman's estimate of Davy's career seems wrong. Instead of shaping or using Davy, Golinsky proposes, the Royal may have fashioned itself after its charismatic lecturer. Without him, Golinksi contends, it would have been a minor venture rather than the hugely influential scientific institution it became.

Further speculation of this kind is plausible, for Charles Babbage made a similar point in his 1830 Decline of Science in Great Britain. Nevertheless, Golinksi may be underestimating the force of Davy's wider institutional context. We need to recall that the Royal Institution pioneered a model of the public-science institution that was widely followed in England after 1800. The Royal's potent combination of lecturing platform, laboratory, library, and incessant publicity clearly stimulated the founding of other major lecturing institutions in London (the London, the Surrey, and the Russell, between 1806 and 1809) as well as many imitators in the English provinces, like the Liverpool Royal Institution headed by the Dissenter William Roscoe.

Moreover, Davy was not the only wildly popular presence at the Royal between 1800 and 1810. The Edinburgh moral philosopher Sidney Smith, a co-founder of the Edinburgh Review, drew such massive crowds to his own RI lectures around 1804-6 that Smith staggered in surprise, wondering if he was really worth the acclaim (a thought Davy never entertained). The vibrant London lecturing world of 1800-25 could doubtless claim Davy as its biggest star and most controversial presence, but in my view it is too much to say that one powerful chemist could drive the remarkable cross-disciplinary phenomenon that these Romantic-age institutions enacted--in disciplines as varied as physics, fine arts, literary criticism (especially Coleridge and Hazlitt), mechanical arts, and others.

That said, this is a fine and important book--not least for staging a methodological experiment in turning the customary scientific biography into a searching study of what it took for a complex and multi-sided personality, unusually capable of projecting multiple ambitions and guises in different cultural contexts, to produce powerful effects in both the history of science and his own period of intellectual ferment as well. Golinski's book might make both literary and history-of-science students rethink what the "single author" study can accomplish. Both biographies and single-author studies have been especially out of fashion in literary studies in recent decades, usually in favor of ambitious topics stretching across decades and disciplines. Indeed there are few cross-disciplinary ties more challenging or of larger scope than those between literary study and the sciences. Yet this single-author "biography" (in a new key) offers a mode of analysis that will make students in both disciplines see new and resonant interchanges in an uncommonly subtle and accomplished short book.

Jon Klancher is Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.


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