Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England: Physiology and Inwardness in Spenser, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Milton. (Reviews).
(Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture, 34) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xii + 2O3pp. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-63073-8.
Searching the MLA Bibliography, 1991-2001, for "early modern and self" yields 68 entries, while "early modern and body" comes in a close second at 63. This exercise doesn't quite substantiate my sense that every other book or article published on an early modern topic over the last ten years has been about either "the body," or "the self," but it comes close to doing so. However, as Michael Schoenfeldt's Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England makes clear, it is still quite possible to say important and original things about both bodies and selves, and about the ways in which early modern writers imagined each in terms of the other. Schoenfeldt focuses especially on the processes of digestion that were central to Galenic medical theory and practice. His first chapter clearly outlines the ways in which his approach to the early modern body differs from much recent work on that topic by correcting a tendency (derived from Bakhtin) to see bodily excremental functions as grotesque, rather than as natural and ne cessary to health. He also seeks to emend our view of the early modern self by pointing out the anachronistic nature of psychoanalytic concepts of repression in an era when control of emotion was almost universally thought to be necessary to bodily and psychological health. Thus, he argues that early modern subjects imagined individuality to be constituted not through objects of desire, but through a control of desire that was seen to be liberating, not repressive. The book is also original in offering extended readings of four major authors in addition to material from early modern medical treatises. These readings shed light on central interpretive issues in the works of Spenser, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Milton and they also assert the importance of literary reimaginings of culturally central discourses.
Chapter two, "Fortifying Inwardness: Spenser's Castle of Moral Health," takes on influential readings of the Bower of Bliss episode in book two of the Faerie Queene by Stephen Greenblatt and David Lee Miller. Schoenfeldt argues that those critics incorrectly read the destruction of the Bower as "symptomatic of a damaging pathological repression of the erotic," overlooking the "enormous differences between the regime of the temperate self and our own presuppositions about the pathologies of discipline" (53). Schoenfeldt's Spenser uses the Castle of Alma to represent a self that "discovers individuation in regulating a repertoire of desires possessed in some degree by all" (66) and the detailed reading of Guyon's tour of the castle offers many useful insights into the poem.
I found the third chapter on Shakespeare's sonnets to be the least convincing, although still offering a framework for rethinking the role of digestive metaphors in those poems. Here, Schoenfeldt argues that an anachronistic disregard for temperance and self-control has unnecessarily troubled readings of Sonnet 94 ("They that have power to hurt"). Readers who have found the description of those who are "unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow" to be unattractive are not taking adequate account of an early modern system in which "modes of constraint we construe as unhealthy repression are coveted as acts of self-government necessary for the maintenance of the self and the protection of others." (84). However, the tension between self-control and indulgence in the sonnets seems more complex than Schoenfeldt's argument allows, and Shakespeare's digestive images are almost always inextricably mixed with financial, agricultural, and other images, so that economies other than that of temperate health import their own complicating values into the poems.
Chapters four and five, on Herbert and Milton, offer satisfying and illuminating readings of the poems they consider. Schoenfeldt recounts Herbert's own anxieties about temperate diet and health and looks closely at poems on the eucharist, fasting, and other food-related topics. Suggesting that Herbert represents the eucharist as an "intensified version of the quotidian miracle of digestion" (100), Schoenfeldt shows how his poems present eating as "a scenario for profound community between heaven and earth" (127). Perhaps the strongest chapter explores "Temperance and Temptation: The Alimental Vision in Paradise Lost." Like Herbert, Milton had a lifelong concern with diet and temperance, believing that his blindness was caused in part by digestive problems. Schoenfeldt's reading of Paradise Lost argues convincingly that Milton "finds the processes of digestion to exemplify the principles of material transformation that animate his hierarchical yet meritocratic and monist universe." (132). Schoenfeldt provides here, among other things, a fascinating account of the role of excrement in heaven, in the creation, and in the pre- and postlapsarian worlds, offering the useful idea that Milton links the "patterns of eschatology to the rhythms of scatology" (156).
An afterward provides a balanced assessment of what might be gained from taking the more wholistic medical theories of the early modern period more seriously than critics have tended to do. In sum, Bodies and Selves provides some salutary correctives to existing critical assumptions about how the early modern body and self were constituted and it offers readings of major texts that reconstruct their obsession with digestion and temperance.
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|Author:||Crane, Mary Thomas|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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