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Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England.

Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England

By Katherine Eggert

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania

Press, 2015

Katherine Eggert's Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England is an original and provocative account of the period spanning the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in England when an older paradigm for understanding the universe slowly and haltingly gave way to the new science. Literary scholars have tended to study this period with an eye to tracing how new ideas and new approaches to knowledge replaced the old and outmoded, and how literature participated in and furthered the long project of developing a modern understanding of the world and our place in it. In recent years, however, literary scholars have begun to follow the lead of historians of science who have realized that the ways in which people got it wrong might be more illuminating than looking for ways in which they got it right, and that the replacement of old beliefs by new science entailed a long period of confusion and anxiety. Indeed, literary texts in this period were perhaps more reflective of confusion and anxiety than of the triumph of empiricism.

Eggert argues that early modern English writers did not just fail to understand new ideas, and did not just remain wedded to old ones, but instead willfully and purposefully chose to espouse (old) ideas that they knew to be wrong, and to ignore (new) ideas that they knew to be right. She calls this intellectual tendency "disknowledge," and identifies four main techniques that it employed: "forgetting, skimming, avoiding, fictionalizing" (48). She identifies alchemy as the source of these techniques and as a persistent origin of and trope for disknowledge. The book focuses on the operations of disknowledge in several areas of human knowledge, ranging from transubstantiation, to Kabbalah, to human reproduction, to concepts of fictionality. She gives alchemy a central role in establishing a modern understanding of the role of fiction as a form of knowledge: "literature recognizes its own underpinnings in the modes by which alchemical theory operates," leading to a system that involves "fiction existing in a world of its own, not answerable to the requirements of the civitas" (53).

The chapter on transubstantiation and forgetting convincingly traces the ways in which medieval reinterpretations of Aristotle's Metaphysics provided the basis for an explanation of the physical mechanisms involved in transubstantiation (the transformation of the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ, while retaining the outward appearance of bread and wine) and also provided a basis for alchemical theories about the possibility of transforming any metal into gold. By the early seventeenth century, she argues, Protestant rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation called these received ideas about the composition of matter into question, and there was no convincing alternative theory of matter available (since theories of atomism were not fully developed until later). In this intellectual void, Eggert suggests that for seventeenth-century poets like Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan, alchemy offered "not a way of asking what physical matter is but rather a highly sophisticated device for forgetting we ever cared about the question" (57).

In this light, Eggert offers an original account of "metaphysical" poetry, associating it not with a serious attempt to reconcile thought and feeling, but with a purposeful embrace of ideas about the relationship of matter and spirit, body and soul, that have turned out to be "junk science" (70). She traces the references to alchemy and transubstantiation in Donne's secular poems and argues that these poems present a point of view that "disclaims either substantial theological commitment or significant scientific engagement" (71). This Donne is the poet of "not thinking," who uses what he knows to be outmoded theories in order to pursue "a safe venue where knowledge is not required" (91, 90). Some readers may initially resist this interpretation of Donne, but it does account for the simultaneous obsession with the intricacies of matter theory and seeming indifference to its shortcomings that shape the secular poems. "Disknowledge" provides a way to understand why Donne's philosophizing in his secular poems so often sounds like a game. Eggert sees Herbert as caring more than Donne about "the physical nature of the world" (92) and using alchemical tropes for transubstantiation in order to convey religious mysteries without having to explain them. Her readings of poems like "The Altar" and "The Agonie" are fresh and illuminating.

Chapter 3 provides a clear and fascinating account of early modern interest in Jewish Kabbalah, as it was connected with alchemy and other "hermetic" bodies of knowledge. She links the early modern Christian's selective use of Kabbalah with what she calls the humanistic disknowledge technique of "skimming"--the practice of excerpting (and often copying into a commonplace book) bits of text that mesh with what the reader already believes. Eggert rightly shows how "skimming" was used to disconnect Kabbalah from Jewish belief, and to make it compatible with Christianity. Her scorn for this erasure of Jewish thought is certainly not misplaced, but her treatment of "skimming" as a form of intellectual bad faith leaves out the long history of humanist use of it to make pagan classical texts compatible with Christianity (so that paganism was effaced as thoroughly as Judaism would be in skimming Kabbalah) and also its utility as a way of making the intimidatingly authoritative texts of classical antiquity into something that could be a dismantled, worked with, recycled, and turned into a source for original writing. In this chapter she reads Marlowe's Faustus, intriguingly, as an example of someone done in by inept skimming techniques in a reading that convincingly accounts for the lameness of the magic he actually practices in the course of the play. Her reading of The Tempest sees Prospero as an "alchemicalhermetical-kabbalistic magus," a skimmer who is confronted by a representative of the Jewishness he has attempted to efface. I initially resisted the idea of Caliban as a golem--an artificial human created by kabbalistic magic--but Eggert does successfully establish that Caliban's otherness hints at a Jewish identity.

The fourth chapter explores the disknowledge technique of "avoiding" as applied to early modern understanding of gynecology and female reproduction. Here Eggert enters into the debates about the one-sex vs. two-sex models, and the role of men and women in conception, arguing that by the early seventeenth century, it would have been clear from the work of a range of anatomical writers that women did contribute to conception. For Eggert, male writers in the period who persist in adhering to the Aristotelian-Galenic belief that women did not contribute to sexual reproduction but served as simply a container for male seed did so willfully, making a conscious "choice to be wrong rather than right" (158). Alchemy here plays a role in offering a range of theories for the reproduction of metals, ranging from male parthenogenesis to others where the female element was more powerful. Eggert offers readings of Spenser's Faerie Queene and Shakespeare's Love's Labor's Lost in light of these alchemical theories of reproduction. The creation of the false Una and false Florimel take on new resonances in this context, and Eggert ultimately sees The Faerie Queene as both positing orthodox views about reproduction, and revealing their inadequacy. She reads the male academy in LLL as seemingly preferring alchemical to sexual reproduction, a project that ultimately fails, unless the aftermath of the one year's hiatus announced at the end of the play manages to produce life out of death.

A final chapter charts the strategy of creating fiction as a mode of disknowledge, revealing the movement toward cordoning off literature as a subset of human knowledge that occupies its own specialized niche, rather than purporting to subsume all knowledge (as, she argues, humanism did). Beginning with Sidney's "golden world" created by the poet from the existing brazen world of nature, she argues that Sidney models his theory of fiction on alchemy. She identifies two reactions to the failure of earlier claims about the universal reach of literary knowledge: a "pernicious" attitude where people "insist against all reasonable evidence, that one's theory is true because it is persuasive, " and a more productive view where literary creativity is "acknowledged to be smaller in scope than other venues of intellectual endeavor" (209). Here, Jonson's Alchemist and Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World represent works where the "cordoned off" and bounded role of literature is established and accepted. Her reading of The Alchemist is especially successful, bringing to bear the complex associations of alchemy and disknowledge in fruitful ways. This chapter also includes a reading of Hamlet that will be controversial, since it views Hamlet as the villain of the play, who stubbornly maintains a "theory of everything" (211) by ignoring evidence that does not fit, and whose confidence in the truth of his own arguments brings about the deaths of Ophelia, Gertrude, and himself. This bad guy Hamlet maintains "a totalizing solipsism" which "shares its intellectual contours with the reputed knowledge practices of alchemy" (213). I have myself always been attracted to arguments that find some fault with Hamlet, but I found Eggert's account of the play to be perhaps too extreme.

And yet, one of the pleasures of reading this book is the extent to which it expresses, directly and loudly, the frustrations with early modern thinkers (and characters) that anyone who spends a lifetime studying these works must sometimes feel. Eggert enthusiastically calls out theologians for their belief in "junk science" (89), criticizes Faustus for the "increase in his manifest stupidity as the play goes along" (136), names William Harvey's "epistemological misogyny," exposes John Dee's ignorance of Hebrew and his general erasure of the Jewish roots of Kabbalah. Early modern writers were wrong about many things, and the tendency of scholarship has generally been to soften their wrongness--to explain why they thought as they did, to find circumstances that mitigate their racist and sexist assumptions, to show how what was wrong turned out to be productive, or to lead forward to different ideas that turned out to be right. And in her final chapter, Eggert does embrace the latter kind of argument, suggesting that the creation of a limited sphere for the literary imagination was a positive development of disknowledge.

As someone who has approached the epistemological quandaries and intellectual history of this period quite differently, it is not surprising that I do not agree with every argument in this book. I have actually repressed a main strand of its argument for the bulk of this review: Eggert's contention that humanism was the source of disknowledge, and that when humanism failed as a field of knowledge in the late sixteenth century, "alchemy became humanism by other means" (19) and in the process "absorbed and imitated the bad habits humanism had developed and the increasingly tenuous reputation humanism had acquired by the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" (19, 20). In writing a book that charts the progress of vast intellectual movements over a long period of time, it is impossible fully to acknowledge the nuance and complexity of every strand. Eggert traces the intellectual history of alchemy, Kabbalah, and related esoteric fields with care and precision. The somewhat sinister version of humanism represented here lumps together some fairly different movements. The ambitious claims of Italian humanists are attributed to the somewhat more modest early English humanists, and the rather different educational goals of the version of Christian humanism that developed in England are not really taken into account. English humanism tended not to claim that it gave access to demonstrable truth about the natural world, but, instead staked out a more modest goal of achieving probable knowledge about prudential action. Eggert's humanism is identical to (or subsumes) the Aristotelian-Galenic-Ptolemaic model of the universe that did make these stronger truth claims. But humanists often criticized this kind of Aristotelianism and saw themselves as reacting against it. Certainly, humanism did contribute to development of the techniques that she identifies. And I believe that the central argument of the book--that there were strategies of disknowledge associated with alchemy that shaped early modern English thought in this period--can stand without accepting her strong claims about the direct relationship between humanism and alchemy, or the somewhat oversimplified picture of humanism as an intellectual movement.

As I read Disknowledge, I found myself being convinced by arguments that I initially resisted, and being pulled along by its frankness and lively writing. The book offers fresh and strikingly original readings of familiar texts, and generally shakes things up. Any scholar writing about the relationship between literature and science in early modern England, or about the legacy of humanism, will have to reckon with Eggert's argument and her powerful theory of disknowledge.
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Author:Crane, Mary Thomas
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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