Dopamine in Daniel Deronda

The opening of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, besides being transcendently beautiful, is an examination of the effects of dopamine. Sound far-fetched? Dopamine wasn’t discovered until 1957, whereas Daniel Deronda debuted in 1876. So what am I on about?

The opening sequence is about the relationship between desire, longing, suffering, and addiction; in short, about the reward system, in which dopamine plays a critical role. Wikipedia says that the reward system has three main functions: 

  • Pleasure (Do you like it?)
  • Learning (Do you grasp it?)
  • Approach behaviour (Do you approach it?)

These of course are linked. To learn something, you must approach it. Why do you approach it? Because it promises pleasure. (Not, importantly, because it necessarily delivers it.)

Now to the text. The novel opens, staggeringly, with Deronda first laying eyes on Gwendolen:

Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?

It is clear that the above involves all three aspects of the reward system, but approach behaviour is paramount. Deronda has not yet decided whether Gwendolen is herself desirable, but he feels an irresistible urge to look at her. It is significant that it is not quite pleasurable, and that the effect is one of “unrest.” Those familiar with Buddhism will recognise this as craving (taṇhā), which is linked to suffering (dukkha). I would also argue that most desire is learned. Most tastes are acquired; this is a depiction of a taste about to be acquired. To put it in a less poetic way, his brain is laying new neuronal connections. Beautiful faces, by the way, operate on the limbic reward system via the opioid system.

This vacillation (Eliot later calls it a “dilemma”) is followed by a stunning, paragraph-long sentence which contrasts the old, open-air gambling of shepherds to the opulence of Europe society in the mid-19th century:

She who raised these questions in Daniel Deronda’s mind was occupied in gambling: not in the open air under a southern sky, tossing coppers on a ruined wall, with rags about her limbs; but in one of those splendid resorts which the enlightenment of ages has prepared for the same species of pleasure at a heavy cost of gilt mouldings, dark-toned color and chubby nudities, all correspondingly heavy—forming a suitable condenser for human breath belonging, in great part, to the highest fashion, and not easily procurable to be breathed in elsewhere in the like proportion, at least by persons of little fashion.

Notice how she describes gambling: “the same species of pleasure.” Here she invokes a word directly associated with reward. (The idea of a stuffy casino as a “condenser for human breath” is pretty amazing, too, isn’t it?)

Eliot then spends a few paragraphs describing the literal rogues’ gallery gathered around the roulette wheel. It is a scene of gamblers, as vivid, in a dozen sentences, as anything painted by Caravaggio. Then notice how she describes the look in their eyes:

But, while every single player differed markedly from every other, there was a certain uniform negativeness of expression which had the effect of a mask—as if they had all eaten of some root that for the time compelled the brains of each to the same narrow monotony of action.

She explicitly links gambling to the consumption of psychoactive drugs, over a century before modern psychiatry made this connection, when it added pathological gambling to the DSM-III in 1980. Eliot is describing addiction, which is a form of learning gone awry. Not only this, but she describes it as a “narrow monotony,” which captures not just the single-mindedness of addiction, but also the repetition that is required for conditioning. Most addictive drugs “exert their effects primarily or partly by increasing dopamine levels in the brain by a variety of mechanisms” (Wikipedia again). Gambling works the same way.

Next, Eliot describes Deronda’s derision towards the crowd, ugly in their addiction to the game. Yet his own control starts to slip:

But suddenly he felt the moment become dramatic. His attention was arrested by a young lady who, standing at an angle not far from him, was the last to whom his eyes traveled.

A second later, the same thing happens to her, when she spots him appraising her:

But in the course of that survey her eyes met Deronda’s, and instead of averting them as she would have desired to do, she was unpleasantly conscious that they were arrested—how long?

What I find interesting is the unpleasant feeling of a newly developing desire, the not-quite-acquired taste, as well as the loss of a sense of time. It is clear from these passages that the ambivalent sensations are already apt to give way to desire, as indeed they do, for Gwendolen at least, in the remainder of the opening chapter.

Of course that’s my reading, one of a potentially infinite number of readings of what is happening in this luscious piece of prose, itself irresistible, and undoubtedly operating on the reward system to propel the reader through its density. I am fascinated by the way in which a limited number of words can conspire to create an infinite amount of detail. Eliot brings a gambling scene to life with such verve and economy as to seem a feat of magic. And yet it must have been gleaned from her own experience.

I have a further sense that this is a reason why poetry, so like the unmediated emotion made by music, is a young man’s game, a priori, as it were, but that the Victorian novel requires oceans of experience. Eliot was 57 when Deronda, her last finished novel, was published. She leaves us with something on which to set our sights as we age.

Finally, Daniel Deronda as excerpted above is available in its entirety at Project Gutenberg, as is Eliot’s earlier masterpiece, Middlemarch.

One comment

  1. Bruce

    The Victorian identification of the mechanisms of addiction makes me wonder how much information they knew that we currently know about behavior.

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