Forgetting in Early Modern English Literature: Lethe's Legacies.
Routledge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 3. London: Routledge, 2004. x + 196 pp. index. illus. bibl. $60. ISBN: 0-415-31046-6.
Recent scholarship on the art of memory has been flourishing. As its title indicates, this collection recognizes a related and growing interest in forgetting, a process with its own cultural roles, iconography, and material history. Coeditors Grant Williams and Christopher Ivic's introduction establishes the scholarly relevance of oblivion, arguing that its urgency consists not solely in its mutually constitutive relationship to memory but in how it both enables reconsideration of the divide between premodern and modern and enhances our understanding of early modern subjectivity.
Section 1, "Embodiments," contains essays by William Engel, Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr., and Elizabeth Harvey. To illustrate the fear of forgetting, Engel carefully illustrates the relationships of a variety of examples from visual culture to representations of memory and to several classical and Renaissance texts. In the next essay, Sullivan argues for forgetfulness's centrality to the theater, "associated as it is with practices and physiological processes antithetical to ideals of bodily comportment ... idleness, sloth, lethargy, and excessive sleep" (48). Suggestively, in the case of Hamlet, however, he claims "forgetfulness is generative of depth of character" (52). I will consider Harvey's essay below.
Part 2, "Signs," contains just two essays, by Grant Williams and Amanda Watson. Williams studies crudity's role in shaping the importance of commonplace books to Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. Less explicitly about forgetting than most of the other contributions, Williams's essay deals with the effects on the body and mind of an excess of knowledge and fictions. Like Williams, Watson is interested in rhyme as excess: she shows how it was thought to aid not only memory but also amnesia and reason's absence. In the second half of the essay she outlines some positive aspects of rhyme's penchant for forgetfulness, for both contemporary and Renaissance poets, settling on the notion of its productive "ambivalence" (93).
Christopher Ivic and David J. Baker treat forgetting in the context of large groups of people: nations and the political and religious groups within them. Building on the work of Benedict Anderson, Ivic reads Hal's eulogy for Hotspur in 1 Henry IV as "facilitat[ing] remembering ... precisely because it is constitutive of forgetting" (106). Baker begins by noting the familiarity of the narrative of English Renaissance Protestantism's need to forget Catholicism in order to legitimate its practices. The central example of this tendency is John Donne, who in the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions creates a "flexible piety," at times valuing Catholicism just as his king did. Like many other contributors, Baker cautions against reliance on binary oppositions to describe Renaissance authors' stances toward forgetting and memory.
Philippa Berry and Zachariah Long write on Shakespeare, with the latter two focusing on comedies: A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. Eros and forgetting are brought to bear on Dream's depiction of space, nature, and "nomadism, involving physical and emotional alienation in a wilderness location" (143). Long, like Watson on rhyme, brings out the relevance of forgetting in anti-theatricalist treatises. Like Berry, he shows the importance of forgetting to comedic family relationships: Rosalind's memory of her father and need to lessen her pain through forgetfulness is as important at the play's start as Hermia's rebellion is in forgetting her father's "imprint." Separating "theatrical forgetfulness" from "the foundation of a remembered past," characters like Rosalind can use one to lead to and vindicate the other.
Elizabeth Harvey, Elizabeth Mazzola, and Jennifer Summit discuss The Faerie Queene. Harvey notes that Helkiah Crooke owes a great deal to Spenser in terms of ideas about generation and pregnancy and the forgetting necessary to them. Harvey's interest is in book 2 and the Castle of Alma; she ends with a discussion of female sexuality and erotic forgetfulness in the Garden of Adonis. According to Mazzola, Mount Acidale can be read through postcolonial theory by Bhabha and Gilroy as a place where Neoplatonism is forgotten and the racial differences of colonialism and slavery lurk. Summit's essay focuses on book 2, canto 10, in which Spenser tells the history of England through texts characters read: the "dialectic of remembering and forgetting that began in the library" (166) recalls the dissolution of the monasteries and its libraries in 1535.
Because of the wide-ranging texts discussed and the complex roles of forgetting in them, this collection is a significant achievement in Renaissance studies. Forgetting's inextricable relationships to dissolution, error, erasure, excess, absence, the possibility of regenerating new knowledge, and, of course, memory, are all illuminated in provocative contexts. One small problem is that the book's division into sections does not enhance its coherence: the contents of each seem interchangeable, and the principle governing their ordering is obscure. But this in no way diminishes the persuasiveness and innovativeness of the volume as a whole.
University of Kentucky
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|Title Annotation:||Forgetting in Early Modern English Literature: Lethe's Legacies, Routledge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture, vol. 3|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2007|
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