Siderism in the Practice and Theory of Literary Studies
by Angstrom Hughes
Among the theories that the Foundling Theories
Fund has helped to revive, possibly the most maligned and unfairly
ignored has been that of Johann Wilhelm Ritter's siderism. I first ran
across siderism in the writings of James Burke, the historian of science.
He mentions, however briefly, Ritter's discovery of "a special
subterranean kind of electricity, analogous to geomagnetism . . . .
a general principle governing the interaction between inorganic material
and human phenomena" (118). Burke also mentions that Ritter's work
was largely dismissed in his time, in large part because of his excessive
The intriguing thing about all this, of course, is how closely Ritter's
self-experimentation and later reporting upon it resembles postmodern
notions of the self made public: it is as if, even though Ritter lived
only from 1776-1810 (Strickland 454), he already shows Foucaultian understanding
of social relationships. Not surprisingly, this point is undergird by
the very holistic nature of siderism itself. Being the all-encompassing
mechanism of organic-inorganic interaction, siderism is uniquely placed
to explain not only geo-human relationships, but insights gained from
self-experimentation or self-medication. Stuart Walker Strickland mentions
Ritter's "commitment to the ideology that bound self-knowledge
to knowledge of nature," thus creating a set of experimentations
in which his body is an instrument of scientific inquiry (454).
Interestingly, siderism's similarities with the theories of the late,
great Russian mystic and scientist Erythromycin Gel are, as far as research
allows, purely coincidental. Gel, however, seemed to understand the
complex relationships between subterranean electromagnetism and human
functioning almost intuitively, allowing him to skip many stages of
The important thing to remember here is that insights into sideristic
forces require either serious (and often painful, as Strickland points
out) self-experimentation, or uncommon intuition. Neither of these are
likely to be palatable or available to the average human being. Thus
a character like Walter Morel of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers
goes through life unaware of the ways in which his own activities tend
to upset natural siderism, usually to the detriment of his own body.
Strickland mentions Ritter's attitude towards his own body as that of
an instrument (455). This separation of self and body he chalks up to
Ritter's Romantic scientificism--body both as lover and object, experiment
and soul-mate (454-5). The alternate view, however, is that Ritter's
body and the personal objects of his experimentation are separated in
the experimenter's mind by the unbalancing of the very forces he sets
out to study. The sideristic fluctuations of Ritter's self-testing lead
him to view his own body unnaturally: as mere object. His purely organic
notions of love and value are displaced by tampering with the organic/inorganic
balance maintained by natural sideristic principles.
In the same way, Walter Morel is seen throughout Sons and Lovers to
be aloof to his family, insensate to the natural instincts. The ultimate
example of this is when Morel's wife dies. We would expect mourning,
or at least some form of serious reaction. Instead, we get this: "The
miner sat still for a moment, then began his dinner. It was as if nothing
had happened. He ate his turnips in silence" (Lawrence 395). The
important word, here, surprisingly, is "miner": it is Morel's
occupation as a miner that leads to his sideristic unbalancing. Like
a boot disturbing a naturally flowing stream, Morel's daily descents
into the mine disturb the subterranean electromagnetic forces that keep
up in a natural balance with ourselves as organic creatures. Morel's
perceptions of the organic are skewed: his wife then becomes nothing
more that a curious object whose passing exists for Morel no more than
the passing of a cloud's shadow over a picnic.
Morel's drinking, too, is easily attributable to unnatural fluctuations
in sideristic forces. Unable, as Ritter or Gel were able, to locate
the deep sense of electromagnetic disturbance within him, Morel does
what many of us do when distressed: he drinks. It is the simplest and
cheapest form of self-medication available to Morel in turn of the century
working-class England. Further, alcohol serves as an available cure
to problems to which a Western male could never admit: deep and depressing
feelings. This problem compounds itself with the sideristic disturbance
that leads to Morel's aloofness to all things organic when he confronts
his middle son and the book's main character, Paul, while the elder
is in a drunken rage:
What--what!" suddenly shouted Morel, jumping up
and clenching his fist. "I'll show yer, yer young
"All right!" said Paul viciously, putting his head
on one side. "Show me!"
He would at that moment dearly have loved to have
a smack at something. Morel was half crouching, fists
up, ready to spring. The young man stood, smiling with
"Ussha!" hissed the father, swiping round with a
great stroke just past his son's face. He dared not,
even though so close, really touch the young man, but
swerved an inch away. (Lawrence 213)
Lawrence shows Morel as a fractured person, certainly a drunkard,
but more, cosmically unbalanced, at once outraged at the sideristically
balanced like his son Paul, but, at the same time, afraid of them.
In the same way, Morel is afraid of his wife's natural process of
dying, though he is detached from her death itself. In the natural act,
there is sideristic balance: the organic is naturally drawn away from
becoming the inorganic while it still lives. Morel, in his electromagnetic
upset, is confused by the whole process: "Morel, silent and frightened,
obliterated himself. Sometimes, he would go in the sick room and look
at her. Then he backed out, bewildered" (Lawrence 389). The mine,
then, becomes symbolic of the organic become inorganic: life is drawn
down into the earth to extract from it its wealth. The organic descends
into the realm of the inorganic. Every day for Morel is a symbolic death.
In his dis-siderism, he is unaware but deeply effected.
Likewise, the sideristic disturbance takes its toll on Morel's body:
As he grew older Morel fell into a slow ruin. His
Due to the unpredictable nature of sideristic disturbance, Morel is
not instantly killed by it, but rather slowly pulled into a state of
decline. One is reminded in these cases of members of The Rolling Stones,
pickled by drugs, uglified by hard living, but, somehow, maintained
by it. Ritter's experiments with sideristic disturbance were, of course,
far more severe, but the health hazards were duly annotated in the name
body, which had been beautiful in movement and in
being, shrank, did not seem to ripen with the years,
but to get mean and rather despicable. There came
over him a look of meanness and of paltriness . . . .
When the children were growing up and in the crucial
stage of adolescence, the father was like some ugly
irritant to their souls. His manners in the house
were the same as he used among the colliers down pit.
[Johann Bartholomae Trommsdorff] noted that Ritter's
suffering had already been extreme, that, after having
sat for an hour in a circuit with a battery capable of
sending a shock from the fingertips to the shoulder, he
had lost the use of one arm and, "a shudder befell him
and a languor and dullness in all his limbs" that
lasted over a week and forced him "to take refuge in
serious remedies." (Strickland 460)
Among those "serious remedies" were opium and alcohol, an
only slightly more sophisticated way of dealing with his pain than that
practiced by Walter Morel.
Ritter saw the body as a holistic model of the universe: "For everything
in nature appears to be joined through one chain . . . of which the
voltaic column is only a fortunate member" (qtd. in Strickland
455). Woe to he who rattles this chain, and woe to those who have to
put up with him.
It is the great strength of siderism as a literary theory that it can
explain almost anything. Since it is unmeasurable and unknowable except
through extreme personal experimentation, and since it is the primary
explanation of the relationship between organic and inorganic forces,
siderism lends itself perfectly to any literature written by humans.
All genres, time periods and forms may be analyzed using sideristic
techniques. It was in this light that I originally applied for the FTF
grant: as physics has its own search for a Grand Unified Theory, so
should literary theory. The adoption of a single theory universally
applicable would make for a very streamlined pedagogy and a very accessible
body of literary criticism, since readers would need master only one,
fairly straightforward theory instead of a complex set.
The dismissal of siderism by mainstream science should not, of course,
be viewed as a problem: Freudian theory has long since been abandoned
by mainstream psychology, but that is no bar from its use in literature.
Indeed, siderism's rejection from the mainstream should be a strength:
a move toward siderism would be a move both safely radical and sufficiently
scholarly for current literary realities.
What I call for, then, is nothing more than the overthrow of all current
theoretical regimes. Only through universal adoption of a standard literary
theory can criticism be saved from its own balkanization. More important,
the establishment of siderism as a standard form would easily fit into
current trend-driven cycles of critical theory. There is no need for
it to stay in power forever; natural forces of fashion displacement
must be allowed to apply.
In that regard, a sideristic revolution should be both revolutionary
and normative: indeed, it strikes the perfect academic balance.
Burke, James. "What a Nerve." Scientific American May 2000: 117-8.
Gel, Erythromycin. Mysteries and Sciences of Geomagnetism. 1924.
London: Oxford UP, 1975.
Lawrence, D.H. Sons and Lovers. 1913. New York: Bantam, 1985.
Strickland, Stuart Walker. "The Ideology of Self-Knowledge and
The Practice of Self-Experimentation." Eighteenth Century Studies
31.4 (1998): 453-71.