‘Gut Feeling and Digestive Health In Nineteenth-Century Literature, History and Culture’: Book Review

Arabella Henderson reviews Manon Mathias and Alison Moore’s Gut Feeling and Digestive Health In Nineteenth-Century Literature, History and Culture (Palgrave: 2018)

“However novel the new gut-brain axis science may seem…many individuals who engaged with medical thought in the nineteenth century drew intuitive conclusions of the same nature” (Mathias and Moore 2018: 4). Gut Feeling And Digestive Health In Nineteenth-Century Literature, History And Culture is a book that brings to the fore the cultural origins of this gut-brain pairing. Mathias and Moore achieve this by bringing eleven scholars from varying fields of literature, science and politics to explore the range of aspects encompassing the gut, the mind and digestion, in order to illustrate how this was an area of scientific and medical breakthrough in the nineteenth century. These innovative discoveries, paired with traditional perceptions, exemplify the centrality of discourse surrounding the gut-brain axis at this time. Therefore, this collection of essays successfully brings together diverse platforms that discuss the gut in the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century saw a rise in medical concerns about digestion, indigestion and mental health, which Sigmund Freud attributed to a shift towards a more sedentary lifestyle. The popular term ‘gut feeling’ was one developed in the nineteenth century which denotes that the gut is the first part of the body to respond to external stimuli, creating an emotional sixth sense that is able to govern rational thought faster than the brain. There is no doubt that many of these understandings were speculative and sometimes wildly so but this exploration is useful in helping to widen current research into the relationship between the gut and the brain.

In one of the first chapters, the reader is introduced to the moral reformer Sylvester Graham, who becomes a running thread throughout the book. An advocate of celibacy, pure vegetarianism and cold water, Graham preached that if a moral regimen as illustrated by these core values, was not followed, one was likely to experience indigestion and disease. This influenced American scholar Walt Whitman who believed that indulging in the wrong kind of food could transmit disturbances to the rest of the body and lead to immoral behaviour. Such rich foods included pastries, alcohol, spices and coffee as they could lead to over-excitement and, thus, sickness to the body. Justus Von Liebig was one of the first scholars to move away from humoral medicine and these medieval ideologies when looking at dietetics and developed a more mechanistic, scientific approach. Liebig speculated that the body was cyclical and able to break down what was eaten, after which the body would again need refuelling. Such a mechanistic understanding of the body led Liebig to disagree with Graham’s claim that a lack of energy was a moral deficit and state that it was a lack of energy from food. “Liebig’s nutritional chemistry, in this manner helped complete the modern rejection of Aristotelian teleology and natural philosophy” (Rebrovick 2018: 19).

Many scholars writing about the gut in the nineteenth century made a move away from the philosophical notions of Cartesian dualism, which sets the mind and body apart, by elevating the status of the stomach to that of the mind. The latter part of the century saw the gut being referred to as the ‘second brain’ (Marquer, 2018: 38) and Lacroix even anthropomorphises both the gut and brain with his quote where the gut addresses the brain; “I am as much as you, and I would like to persuade you once and for all, that my face is worthy of yours, that my functions are more extensive, more important than you think” (Marquer 2018: 41). This same link between stomach and mind is identified by Duffy in his chapter as he analyses the works of scholars, Flaubert and Huysmans who attribute poor digestion to be the symptom of psychological distress often experienced in the form of nightmares or neuralgia.

Johnson’s chapter moves away from science and dietetic discourse as she draws on political, artistic and cultural representations of the gut, digestion and their relationship to the brain. Satirical representations of digestive processes were widely spread during times of political turbulence as their direct visual language could easily be understood by all members of society. Satirical prints were thus a favourable medium for message delivery during the French Revolution in the nineteenth century. Daumier’s lithograph (Figure 1) entitled Garaguanta depicts King Louis-Philippe I as a grotesque gargantuan consuming the agricultural produce of France and the blood of his subjects. His never-ending appetite illustrates the greed of the monarchy and the helplessness of the people. Many of the widespread images of the French revolution contained metaphorical representations of ingesting and excreting, which demonstrates the prominence of the gut in nineteenth century French political critiques.

Figure 1: Daumier’s Garguanta, 1831, Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra

The book moves on to discuss the work of Paolo Mantegazza, a leading Italian scholar of post-unified Italy who held the belief that every human should nourish their bodies correctly to ease digestion and promote correct psychological functioning. From an early point in his career Mantegazza explored how particular foods were able to stimulate the mind, like the Coca leaves of South America. This ‘alimento nervoso’ had a range of physiological and mental benefits from teeth whitening and easing digestion to aiding concentration. Mantegazza studied the effects of Coca leaves on both others and himself and believed the leaves helped him explore more “complex and theoretical thoughts” (Turbil, 2018: 209).

Mathias and Moore could have organised the chapters more coherently as there is not much continuity between them; the essays move from science to art and then back to science. The first and last chapter discuss Graham’s writings in depth and though they emphasise different areas of his writing, putting these chapters next to each other would have allowed for easier reading. Despite this, it is clear throughout the book how the gut and especially its relationship to the brain was a central theme embedded in nineteenth century culture, politics, art, medicine and science.

Arabella Henderson graduated from Durham University in 2019, where she studied under Jane Macnaughton who sparked her interest in the field of medical humanities.

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