Still Life and Metastability

Elisha Cohn, Still Life: Suspended Development in the Victorian Novel (Oxford, 2016)

As the Reviews Editor of Cambridge Quarterly I get to read about books that I might not otherwise discover. We’ll be publishing a thoughtful review of Cohn’s book (by Noreen Masud) later in the year, and I am pleased I got to find out about it. From a different angle it reaches, I think, the literary ‘metastability’ I described in a couple of posts here and here.
      The scientists said… that our brains have evolved to be ‘metastable’ at times, that is, existing in ‘a state falling outside the natural equilibrium state of the system but persisting for an extended period of time’. And I said… literary forms may reflect and explore that quality in the way they too suspend one kind of progress and do something quite different (but arresting, substantial, coherent in its own way). Even if I do say so myself, my Shakespeare examples (the Sonnet produced by Romeo and Juliet on their first meeting; Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ speech) were excellent, although I was taking the idea of metastability generally rather than precisely as it’s explored in the experiments.


Cohn writes about ways in which the life-story-telling of the Victorian novel (the Bildungsroman quality) gets suspended. She writes, for example, about Lucy Snowe’s ‘swoon’ / ‘trance’ in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, about the ‘deep form of semi-consciousness’ that George Eliot’s Romola enters. Here’s the general idea:

The texts examined here produce suspended structures of feeling in the ‘still life’ of lyrical narrative pauses. These secret passages — often overlooked — ambivalently dilate and delay plots of self-culture. But they do not propose an alternative model of subjectivity or agency that could counter the aesthetic of Bildung — the pressures of self-cultivation are never banished, only held at bay. Suspension contains a paradoxically static intensity — still life, vibrant in its absorptive movelessness. Arresting the ordinary conditions of consciousness, suspension creates a subtle disturbance in received categories of thinking, knowing, and doing that organize development — but only for a moment. (p. 5)

My favourite word here, and my favourite aspect of Cohn’s analysis, is ‘lyrical’. The Shakespearean moments I picked out were poems in the midst of narrative drama: lyrical rather than narrative. So I am pleased to see another exploration of this quality in literature. I think it’s an interesting form in which to think about cognitive metastability and its importance to us.

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