Reading, Modernity, and the ‘Mental Lives of Savages’


  • Ian Henderson King's College London


History of Reading, Science of Reading, Aboriginality, Freud


This speculative article juxtaposes a series of impressions, like so many flashes of light, from which to suggest a change in European reading which coheres, at the turn of the twentieth century, around perceptions of Australian Aboriginality. The impressions have three sources: (a) high-profile British novels of the 1850s and 1860s with settings in, or significant references to, the Australian colonies; (b) ‘discoveries’ made by scientists of reading after 1878; and (c) the work of deeply influential European modernists James Frazer, Sigmund Freud, and Émile Durkheim, whose theories of the evolution of religious belief made extensive use of Francis Gillen’s and Baldwin Spencer’s work on the Arrernte people, notably The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899); the article focuses particularly on Freud’s Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Thus using impressions of nineteenth-century physiological optics, the science of reading, and Freud’s evolutionary psychology it develops a model of ‘how readers were thought to have read’ in the early decades of the twentieth-century in terms of a rhythmic release and containment (exploitation/management) of savagery-neurosis.

Author Biography

Ian Henderson, King's College London

Dr Ian Henderson lectures on Australian literature and Victorian literary culture at King's College London.