Brian Cummings. Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity, and Identity in Early Modern Culture.
Brian Cummings's new book contains an exceedingly rich collection of essays on writers and painters from More to Milton, Durer to Rembrandt, and on topics ranging from the forms of the soliloquy and of oaths to justifications of suicide and the experience of the body. As with his previous major book, The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (Oxford, 2003), what sets this work apart from others on the "early early modern" (ca. 1500-1660) is its practical understanding of the period as intimately co-determined by Reformation and Renaissance movements: of Reformation as caught up in and animated by humanist textuality, and humanism as shaped from within and from afar by theological crisis. Though the theoretical outlook of the book is largely directed against secularizing stories of Renaissance or Reformation, and apparently shares in the conventional anti-teleologism of our own moment, it's important to note that Cummings communicates a conviction about the unity of the Renaissance as a single period in a way that is fairly rare. Few critics find it quite so natural, these days--leaving aside the matter of scholarly competence, if that's possible--to move in a single essay from Durer and More to Rembrandt and Milton. In traversing the whole field so compellingly even while cutting it off from the putatively secularized modern, Cummings reinforces one's belief in the Reformed Renaissance as an episode in some historical grand narrative in need of construction.
There are eight chapters in addition to the introduction, all of them freestanding essays. All are characterized by a high information-to-interpretation ratio, while offering layered, subtle readings of texts and sharp revaluations of oft-visited topics. The first chapter discusses Montaigne's writing of himself in his Essais and a remarkable nude self-portrait by Durer (an ink and brush drawing, perhaps from 1503), and shows how both works, though sometimes treated as generic breakthroughs to the secular, are thoroughly informed by religious conceptions of mortality. Chapter 2 deals with Thomas Mores trial and conviction, and traces his move, under pressure of Henry's break from Rome and perhaps against his will, to a notion of conscience more "plural, doubtful, fragile" (91), and less supported by the body of Christendom, the traditional church, than More had recognized as Lord Chancellor--to a notion of conscience as private, in fact, though Cummings does not quite say that. (In this chapter he is defending Robert Bolt's play against the condescension of modern historians to its secularizing liberalism.) Chapter 3 traces the difficult paradoxes of identity enacted by Thomas Cranmer's recantation, on the occasion of his martyrdom, of the previous recantation he had made in hopes of avoiding that occasion: which writing is the real Cranmer?; and treats as well the reverberation and reconstruction of this deed in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, where one begins perhaps to see a modern dissident Cranmer, persecuted for his ideological beliefs, through the public witness of the martyr. Chapter 4 makes an arresting case, in a discussion centered mainly on More, Foxe, and Shakespeare, for the apparent burgeoning of profane oaths as a reaction against all the oath-taking forced by religious political crisis on Tudor subjects, and sees a terrible, profane (hence still religious) space of privacy being wrung from or wrested for the subjected self, most memorably in Othello, Shakespeare's most curse-infested play. Chapter 5 treats the form of the soliloquy, especially in Richard II, Hamlet, and Macbeth, and queries the notion that it might signify a new secular sense of the private self; rather it is an internal dialogue, staged before a dramatic audience but addressed to God, on questions of mortal being. Cummings turns next to the topic of providence and chance, and argues that--though Calvinist scripture, from the mid-sixteenth century, was rased of terms of chance ("cas," "fortune," "luck")--still the more sophisticated Calvinist worried over and practically accommodated a notion of luck within the master design: the post-piratical, mature Hamlet has come into possession of a theory of moral luck, and may be lucky himself. Chapter 7, on the thought of suicide in Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Donne, criticizes the notion that the defense of self-killing betokens the emergence of an autonomous self from the soul; instead, while depending on the example of Stoic suicide as proof of the citizen's freedom, as last refuge from tyranny, Renaissance suicide exposes motives beyond the political, and opens to question a "subjectivity of limits" (274). Finally, Chapter 8 meditates on the representation of Adam and Eve, and of the fall, in Durer, Lucas van Leyden, Hans Baldung, Rembrandt, and Paradise Lost, and suggests that Milton's poem (especially the couple's creation stories), like the paintings, directs one to reflect not on psychological motives, but on the mystery of the organic human body, and indeed on embodiment itself as--variably fortunate--fall.
These one-sentence summaries should give some sense of the terrain covered in the book; they cannot convey the richness of the essays, in which the readings tend to surpass the themes they are used to illustrate. This is an extremely commendable book, possibly a great one, whose overall argument--though there definitely is one--is unusually hard to summarize. I will only stress and characterize a few main elements of Cummings's argument here, while recommending that everyone read it for herself. First, the book is an essay in the history of individual identity, a study of the Renaissance-Reformation self, whose primary explanatory assumption is, perhaps, linguistically determinist. Few works insist so effectively that the period's language of subjectivity was different from our own, and in movement. The OED figures as an unusually prominent historical resource, telling us of false friends (like "conscience," "soliloquy"), absent terms, and words yet to be discovered ("suicide,' "identity," and "the self" itself); and Cummings's accent is consistently on lexical change as conditioning rather than conditioned, so that one often discovers one's spontaneous lexical anachronism cutting him off, not so much from social and institutional difference and change, as from the quality of subjectivity in the texts one thought one knew so well. Part of the reason Cummings tends to favor a psychological language of" self" over a more structural psychoanalytic terminology of which he is obviously knowledgeable and which might seem a better match for "pre-centered" subjectivity, I think, is that it enables him better to convey linguistic determinacy in its shifts and inadequacy, and hence subjectivity as in flux and overdetermined, the self as under pressure and overburdened.
Second, though Cummings tends to shy away from overtly characterizing Renaissance subjectivity, one notes that certain themes recur: the period self is peculiarly fragile, contingent, dependent on its material traces, and, in its awareness of these, reflexive. When applied, these terms are rarely unconvincing; yet as a cluster, they raise the question whether the older period isn't being reshaped, however deep the scholarship, to chime with current cultural themes. A fifth motif, that of mortality, or of a new and heightened sense of immanent death, stands apart from these; it tends to rewrite the motif of writing/material traces as perilous embodiment, and seems largely to be owing to the revival of Epicurus. The "mortal thoughts" of the title, shared by visual and literary artists, involve speculation, fearful and eager by turns, on death as non-being (though of course Lucretius would have no truck with non-being as a fearful prospect). And here one might suspect that a post-secular begins to open up to a secularizing reading, one which hinges on a new sense of the body and/as "an organic process which brings life but also brings ... death" (321).
But no--Cummings is generally emphatic that the new mortality should be read as qualifying Renaissance religious experience rather than as looking toward secularity. One understands why Cummings doesn't want to present Montaigne and Shakespeare as inventing or even moving toward a freed, secular selfi if one must choose, reading mortality within a religious frame is richer, better, truer to the texts than taking it as the advent of the secular. Still, the question is why one so often has to choose, why the religious and the secular are--not always, but often--seemingly mutually exclusive options. It seems neither to be entirely by accident nor entirely under control. In his introduction Cummings appears to waver between the position that secularization never happened and the idea that, while it happened, it is a more complicated process than has been allowed; accordingly, he seems to offer his partial history of the self alternately as an anti-secularization story and as a more complex and adequate reshaping of secularization. This is an odd hesitation, since Cummings clearly knows that the better secularization narratives understand secularization not as the eclipse of religion but its emergence as such, its social-political demotion and separation out from other social levels or instances, and that these narratives take secularization not as explanatory but as an ongoing and multifaceted phenomenon calling for systemic explanation itself. (See, for example, C. John Sommerville, The Secularization of Early Modern England: From Religious Culture to Religious Faith [Oxford UP, 1992], whose argument for "pre-industrial secularization" [15-16] is particularly strong.) Still, if this willful hesitation is to some degree responsible for Cummings's consistently surprising, searching reading of Renaissance subjectivity, a reading and reconstruction that convincingly places Durer and Montaigne with Shakespeare at the heart of the period, it should perhaps be emulated rather than criticized.
Loyola University Chicago
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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