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Fernandez-Medina, Nicolas. Life Embodied: The Promise of Vital Force in Spanish Modernity.

Fernandez-Medina, Nicolas. Life Embodied: The Promise of Vital Force in Spanish Modernity. McGill-Queen's UP, 2018. 377 pp. ISBN: 978-07-7355-337-8.

Nicolas Fernandez-Medina's ambitious tome breaks new ground as the first monograph to examine the history of vital force in Spain. It successfully demonstrates that theories of vital force--broadly defined as "the immanent energy that promotes the processes of life and growth in the body and in nature" (xiii)--have long been the subject of political controversy and unremitting fascination, while simultaneously holding the promise of resistance, critique, and innovation in the face of religious and state authority. There are four major tenets that lie at the core of this project: "the unstable category of the body, the anxiety over the nature of the soul, the complex epistemologies of resistance, and the necessity of reform" (xiv).

To be sure, Life Embodied is a capacious study that exhibits formidable historical breadth and interdisciplinary range, spanning three centuries and bridging history of science, philosophy, postmodern theory, and literature. As the author notes in the unconventionally substantive preface, "the subject of the book is vast" (xviii). It is perhaps for these reasons that the book will not appeal to all readers. A narrow readership will have the interdisciplinary training (the book presumes a baseline knowledge of history of science) and stamina for the book in its entirety, but numerous researchers will be drawn to select sections and chapters, each of which unveil neglected debates on the theories of vital force throughout Spanish modernity. Perhaps the most riveting and generative moments of the book are Fernandez-Medina's literary evaluation of scientific ideas--exemplary of true interdisciplinarity--such as the ones that stem from Cabriada's letter and Mata y Fontanet's poetry.

Life Embodied is organized into three sections, each of which is comprised of two chapters. Part 1 "Blood, Circulation, and the Soul" opens with Juan de Cabriada's Carta filosofica, medico-chymica from 1687. While previous scholarship has focused on the critique it leverages against Spain's backwards scientific community, Cabriada's own contributions to medical theories have been neglected or outright negated. Fernandez-Medina demonstrates that Cabriada contributes the most significant treatises of vital force of the late seventeenth century, one that moves away from Galenic humoralism and takes up new ideas from iatrochemistry and mechanic-vitalist discoveries from abroad. The remainder of Part 1 focuses on the circulation of Cartesianism in relation to theories of vital force, which generated great controversy and suspicion amongst traditionalists and clergy. Examining the critical writings of Marcelino Boix y Moliner's and Martin Martinez, Fernandez-Medina concludes that Cartesianism significantly impacted medical evaluations of the body's vital force. Perhaps the most incisive intervention in this section is the novel reading of Torres Villaroel's Anatomia de todo lo visible, invisible de ambas esferas (1738), showing how it advanced the impossible project of pinpointing the anatomical origins of vital force, what Fernandez-Medina calls "anatomizing the soul." (116). This impulse that begins with Villaroel extends into the Enlightenment period.

Part 2 "Political Reform and the Order of Nature" focuses on Spain's "medical revolution," unsettling commonplace assumptions about the state of medical science in the Bourbon Enlightenment. By this time, Spanish universities had finally dispelled Galenism and theories of vital forces drew from advances in microscopy, as well as new discoveries in anatomy, and the life-giving properties of blood. Here the book delves into the studies of Sebastian Miguel Guerrero Herreros who turned to fibrillar tissue as the origin of vital force, as well as Ignacio Maria Luzuriaga who remained convinced that vital force operated through oxygenated blood and the heart. Interestingly, this attention to the microscopic interior of the body in relation to vital force also led these doctors to conceptualize its macroscopic exterior, anticipating the organicist reason characteristic of Romantic science. Indeed, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, as Medina-Fernandez goes on to show, figures as a kind of bridge figure between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, as he reflected on the embodied subject in nature.

The final section "From Neo-Hippocraticism to the Avant-Garde" opens with the materialist Pedro Mata y Fontanet, who debunked neo-Hippocratic vitalism equating it with the "unmodern," at the same time that Spanish Krausism recast vital force in social and moral terms, "instrumental in building the ideal society of the future, a society unhampered by the conservatism of State-sponsored development" (202). Mata y Fontanet's provocative rebuttal of Hippocratic ideals was met with a great resistance. Angela Grassi's novel El copo de nieve, for example, presented a critique of materialism and warned its female readers of the dangers of the concept of vital force. The author turns to Grassi's narrow reading of Mata y Fontanet's poetry, which expounds a theory of reincarnation. This section goes on to explore Krausist approaches to the body which, as Fernandez-Medina demonstrates, anticipated the modernist bodily aesthetics. The final portion of this section explores corporeality, vital force, and knowledge in regards to bodily potential or a sense of "my body," "one of the most effective means of accessing the truth about the world" (234). This analysis uncovers the centrality of vitalist theories and concepts of embodiment across the literary and philosophical texts of Miguel de Unamuno, Pio Baroja, and Ramon Gomez de la Serna, couched in the context of degeneration theory and regeneration.

This impressive study, which serves as a major contribution to literature and science will generate new lines of inquiries into the study of vital force and corporeality in modern Spain.

Julia Chang

Cornell University
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Author:Chang, Julia
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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