Objects, Brains, and Emotions. Lido Rico’s work and the contradictions of our world of things.

Juan Manuel Zaragoza. 2017

“Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously, at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance. Those Greek were superficial – out of profundity

Nietzsche, Preface for the Second Edition [of The Gay Science], Fall 1886.

Caroline Doyle, Arthur Conan Doyle’s little sister also know as Connie, wrote to his mother, Mary Doyle, the following letter in May 1894:

We have had to get Touie’s old room papered (she has taken the front room for the summer) the other had such a smell of carbolic and medicines about that it was no good (Doyle 2007, 335).

There are few things we have to know to fully understand this quote. First of all, Arthur’s wife, Touie, was diagnosed with tuberculosis in October 1893. Arthur decided to fight against the disease and Touie followed the common therapy on the time: to go abroad, looking for a climate that suited her better, such as high altitudes, and dry and warm weather. Connie’s letter was written from Arthur’s house at South Norwood. Touie was taking in the cost’s sea air, Arthur was preparing a promotional tour to the USA and Connie was in charge of the house. And this was one of her first decisions: to paper again Touie’s room, because the “smell of carbolic”. Carbolic acid was a common antiseptic, widely used in operating areas, but also as a cure for hay fever. There were carbolic acid solutions, sprays, etc.

Why I think this story is interesting? First of all, because it points out one of my own interest in 19th century history, specifically how did they use material culture to do so many things: to care of incurable patients; to reproduce social relations (and inequality); and to express and share their emotions. I know it could be hard to grasp, but I think that, in Connie’s decision, we can witness all that things. Connie was looking after Touie changing the wallpaper. But also because I think that it could help us to better understand Lido Rico’s work.

The Victorian and the Bourgeois

How do we define “Victorians”? Who were “the Victorians”? Well, that’s easy:  those who lived in the British Empire from 1837 to 1901, when Queen Victoria ruled the waves. But this “definition” does not work as a definition properly. According to this, a GP living in Manchester and a farmer from Ceylon were “Victorians”. And even if this is obviously right (they were Victorians), and even if this definition opens up an interesting approach for research, I think we cannot rely in this wide and simple definition of “Victorian” to lead us to safe harbour.

We need a cultural definition of “the Victorians”, and this is the one I really love:

The ideal of the honnête homme, the decent, well-bred citizen […] It had its roots in the aristocratic, seventeenth-century notion of gentility, but by 1768 it had acquired a bourgeois coloring. It suggested good manners, tolerance, reasonableness, restraint, clear thinking, fair dealing, and a healthy self-respect […] the bourgeois gentleman had developed his own way of life. Rich, well fed, correctly dressed, surrounded by tasteful objects, certain of his usefulness, and firm in his philosophy” (Darnton 1984, 139)

The text I’m quoting is from the third chapter of Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre”. The chapter, entitled “A Bourgeois puts his world in order: the city as a text” is probably among the better descriptions of the culture of bourgeoisie, a culture which apogee Peter Gay situated, precisely, in the Victorian era (Gay 1984). Therefore, the “victorian” and the honeête home were the same thing: those sharing the set of values, expectations, hopes and manners (what we call a culture, basically) of bourgeoisie.

A culture that we can define as “transnational”, following the travels of people like José Inocencio de Llano, a merchant of Valencia, who wrote a diary depicting his travels to London, Paris, Dublin, etc. Or following the travel of objects and practices, such as Rachel Rich did in his book on food and bourgeois consumption (Rich 1970; Pons and Serna 2006).

In any case, what we find are common material/symbolical practices that, despite the national differences, all the people we call bourgeois or Victorians shared.