A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought

A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought

Stephen Kern

Language: English

Pages: 448

ISBN: 0691127689

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

This pioneering work is the first to trace how our understanding of the causes of human behavior has changed radically over the course of European and American cultural history since 1830. Focusing on the act of murder, as documented vividly by more than a hundred novels including Crime and Punishment, An American Tragedy, The Trial, and Lolita, Stephen Kern devotes each chapter of A Cultural History of Causality to examining a specific causal factor or motive for murder--ancestry, childhood, language, sexuality, emotion, mind, society, and ideology. In addition to drawing on particular novels, each chapter considers the sciences (genetics, endocrinology, physiology, neuroscience) and systems of thought (psychoanalysis, linguistics, sociology, forensic psychiatry, and existential philosophy) most germane to each causal factor or motive.

Kern identifies five shifts in thinking about causality, shifts toward increasing specificity, multiplicity, complexity, probability, and uncertainty. He argues that the more researchers learned about the causes of human behavior, the more they realized how much more there was to know and how little they knew about what they thought they knew. The book closes by considering the revolutionary impact of quantum theory, which, though it influenced novelists only marginally, shattered the model of causal understanding that had dominated Western thought since the seventeenth century.

Others have addressed changing ideas about causality in specific areas, but no one has tackled a broad cultural history of this concept as does Stephen Kern in this engagingly written and lucidly argued book.


Bone River

La grande bellezza

No Onions Nor Garlic

The Great Gatsby

The Chisellers (Agnes Browne, Book 2)











oriented psychiatrists interpreted in terms of defining causal modes.2 A causality of determinism dominates the depressed person, for whom everything seems to result from the pressure of circumstances over which he or she has no control. A causality of chance dominates the manic, for whom nothing happens according to any deterministic order and the future looms fraught with possibility—unpredictable and anxiety-provoking. A causality of intentionality 2 • Introduction dominates the paranoid,

influenced him in that direction by her own example and by neglect of his moral education.44 In Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Dickens’s murderous Jonas is schooled in vice by his own father, shaped “in the precept and example always before him to engender and develop the vices that make him odious, . . . and justified from his cradle in cunning, treachery, and avarice” (39). When Jonas’s father discovers his son’s intention to poison him for an inheritance, he realizes his own responsibility and

early defects in ego formation and later severe disturbances in impulse control.” In the four murderers studied, there was evidence of violence in childhood, emotional deprivation by parents, physical or sexual deficiencies (all were called “sissies”), and in some cases severe oral deprivation.47 The description of murders as “without apparent motive” implies a historical dating, because the lack of “apparent” motivation refers to the expectations of pre-Freudian analysis of murder by researchers

stimuli from impulses, fantasies, and vision. Earlier novelists’ discretion about sex, routine with George Eliot and Henry James, became unthinkable with D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce. 148 • Chapter Four In the modern period, explicit renderings of sexual desire that in the nineteenth century and earlier had been confined to pornography and had sketched mainly superficial relationships with casual partners or prostitutes appeared for the first time in serious literature to re-create more

“had deadened his core to wood” (292). Zak became a “mannequin man, his face moving with conscious efforts only, muscles tugging into an alien mask” (292). He killed victims slowly and cruelly to maximize the duration and intensity of his momentary respites from an emotional void. These modern sexual anxieties and failures contrast sharply with the powerful, albeit sometimes bottled-up, sexual excesses that motivated Victorian killers. While Hugo and Dickens raised questions about the wisdom of

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