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Sleep, Romance and Human Embodiment: Vitality from Spenser to Milton.

Sleep, Romance and Human Embodiment: Vitality from Spenser to Milton

By Garrett A. Sullivan Jr.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012

Once upon a time we were, if not modern or even early modern, blissfully before Descartes. (1) It was a time before the deleterious impact of mind-body dualisms, when the passions and humors implied a greater connectedness to the world. (2) And it was a salubrious era of greater intimacy with animals before non-human creatures were rendered mere machines subject to human exploitation and experimentation. (3) At least, this has been the premise of much scholarship of late, the optimistic assumption being, it seems, that criticism offers some mode of redress.

Garrett Sullivan's Sleep, Romance, and Human Embodiment: Vitality from Spenser to Milton enters into this complex critical arena. The efflorescence and one might say completion of recognizably coherent waves of work on ecology, on creaturely life, and on affect, humors, and passions in early modernity offers an opportunity to ask, what now? Sullivan responds ambitiously by attempting to create a constellation around vitality and the long processing of the Aristotelian tripartite soul between Spenser and Milton including the emergence of Descartes. The role of Aristotle's tripartite soul, Sullivan suggests, cannot be underestimated in as much as "it constitutes a theory of vitality that simultaneously distinguishes man from and connects him to other forms of life" (1). Not only does Aristotle provide a way of "conceptualizing the human" (2), but the regime of distinction implied by the tripartite soul plays a powerful role in literary works. Indeed, "Aristotle's doctrine invites slippage between faculties and creatures, an invitation that literary texts are often quite happy to accept" (6). The complexly intertwined literary phenomena known as epic and romance play a large role in this early modern Aristotelian afterlife.

Relying heavily on theories of epic-romance advanced by David Quint and Patricia Parker, Sullivan suggests that the feminine, digressive, hybrid-making and epic-resisting forces of romance have a role to play in conversations about vitality and the nature of the so-called human. At the moment when masculine figures fall into distraction, sleep overtakes the body and these states of somnolence elude the strictures of epic ideology and thus reveal sensory and affective truths about corporeality, as cognition, embodiment, and environment merge. Such experiences, which take place in the venerable literary topos of the locus amoenus, or idealized pleasant places of romance, challenge the nation-building thrust of epic masculinity but also the "normative conception of humanness" (9). Indeed, Sullivan props an argument about the human upon the play of "sameness and difference" characteristic of the relationship between epic and romance, which often manifests in a moment Quint characterizes as the "romance episode," a moment when, as Sullivan puts it, "epic and romance values clarify one another through juxtaposition and opposition" (11). Thus emerge two models of the human, one vertical, which emphasizes human superiority over and difference from other life forms, and one horizontal, in which "man resembles other forms of life with which he shares a number of vital powers" (9). While Sullivan suggests a certain variability as "each romance episode generates distinctive horizontal and vertical models to suit its own purposes" (11), Spenser, Sidney, and Shakespeare write under the "ascendancy" of Aristotelianism. And as such, the "slippage" Sullivan finds in Aristotle's tripartite soul dominates, as does the "horizontal" model of the human. In the first chapter, Sullivan examines the second book of The Faerie Queene, finding in Verdant, the seduced knight caught in Acrasia's web of delight, a sleeping figure in whom is evident the merger of plant and animal that is the human. Verdant becomes emblematic of "the conceptual bond between, and point of convergence of, difference forms of life" (29). Although "self-discipline and epic" win out in the end, Spenser "smudges distinctions between forms of life" before he "clarifies them" (43).

A chapter on Philip Sidney's Old Arcadia investigates the deathlike sleep of Basilius, the negligent monarch, and the extent to which, in spite of Sidney's investment in self-regulation, "the passions efface the difference between man and animal" (21). It's not only Sidney who is interested in "the effects of passionate excess" emblematized by pleasure and sleep. Shakespeare too examines the conflict among modes of human vitality not, as a reader might have expected, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but in the Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) and Henry V. History plays as well, Sullivan, argues, might engage with the romance episode, and a reading of Mortimer's love for his Welsh wife, Falstaff's corpulent and somnolent body, and Henry's sleepless nights at war in France provide indexes of the way martial bodies do or do not "succumb to the romance world [which] is to resemble vegetable and animal life" (74).

Before the Cartesian rupture, a play of resemblance across species titillates and disturbs in the works of Spenser, Sidney, and Shakespeare. But by the time of Milton and Dryden, Sullivan argues, "the intimate connection between life and literary form is severed" (2) as "Descartes rethinks vitality in a way that drains all the Aristotelian life from it" (8). Milton and Dryden notably resist this development. In a chapter on Paradise Lost, Sullivan attempts to describe a Miltonic vitality. "In stressing the vegetal," he argues, "Milton offers a riposte to Descartes, who denies the existence of the vegetative soul" (99). This "expanded Aristotelianism" appears in moments of sleep experienced by Adam and Eve as well as in Raphael's famous description of a chain of life forms "by gradual scale sublimed" as they become more rarified and closer to God. As Dryden re-imagines Antony and Cleopatra in All for Love, he provides not an Aristotelian riposte to Descartes so much as a "skepticism about Cartesianism that is divorced from any commitment to Aristotelianism" (133).

Sullivan's focus on the utility of concepts of vitality and life has great appeal in and of itself. More importantly, the book attempts to re-index a series of recent and important critical conversations by making vitality and the long life of the Aristotelian tripartite soul the umbrella concept. Sleep, Romance, and Human Embodiment aims to make interventions into conceptions of human and non-human life; eco-criticism; the reception of Aristotle in the Renaissance; epic, romance, and genre criticism more broadly; affect, humors, and the passions; sleep; and Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden studies. That this is all to happen in a slender 150 pages is perhaps the study's biggest problem.

Sullivan's often-deft and at times unexpected literary readings cannot, alas, suture together the parts of a book that treats massive complexities all too quickly and thus at times relies heavily on association and resemblance. As a consequence, an insistently repeated overall argument ends up feeling like a crude schematic rather than a compelling totality, as if it were the victim not of the rise of Descartes but of either too disparate chapters crushed into a whole or of the revenge of the increasingly keyword culture of academic publishing. At times, Sullivan's central terms seem to be simultaneously present and germane, as in his treatment of Spenser and to a lesser extent Sidney. Sleep is prominent in his treatment of Shakespeare and his reading of history plays and romance episodes is intriguing, but his equation of "denigrated vitality" (81) with Giorgio Agamben's notion of "bare life" seems to lose the thread of Aristotelianism while awkwardly applying a philosophical perspective that many now leap to in early modern studies and yet that cries out for a more rigorous conversation with early modern ideas of vegetative life. The chapter on Milton offers a fine reading of Paradise Lost, but it isn't clear how much this work rises above extensive critical conversations about Milton's materiality and vitality. The addition of Dryden adds a fascinating layer to the book, and in a sense intriguingly re-periodizes the project through the legacy of Shakespearean drama, as Sullivan chases down epic romance after the Restoration in a chapter perhaps less about the human than about emerging notions of nature in the Enlightenment.

While questions of human distinction or indistinction from other life forms have been a mainstay of so-called animal studies in a variety of historical eras, it may be fair to say that after at least a decade of recent work in the field, it is no longer clear how useful it is to point out moments of, as Sullivan puts it, "smudging." (4) Thus while many of the chapters of Sleep, Romance, and Human Embodiment end with assertions about the salubrious blurring of distinction between human and non-human, one wonders how useful it is to distinguish between vertical and horizontal definitions of the human. It might be more helpful to ask ourselves to what notions we should turn as division, distinction, and difference feel increasingly exhausted concepts.

Moreover, the reconciliation of the many instances of life exfoliated by recent animal studies with overall theories of vitality may require greater particularity than Sleep, Romance, and Human Embodiment can accommodate. One area not exhausted, of course, would be sex and gender differences, which haunt a book about "human embodiment" that often seems to be about masculine embodiment, a subject in its own right the examination of which would help trouble the very category of the human that has been of such interest to Sullivan and so many others.

As suggested, Sullivan joins others in relying heavily on a world "before and after" Descartes, which is invoked, often vaguely, with respect to a free-floating Cartesianism. (5) Perhaps it's time to set aside the straw Descartes so much scholarship thwacks away at. (6) To suggest as much is not to champion Descartes contra Aristotle or anyone else. If anything, it is time to bury Descartes, not praise him. That is to say, in spite of decades of healthy skepticism about paradigm shifts and Elizabethan world pictures, it seems all too easy to pin a prelapsarian early modernity to the denunciation of a post-Cartesian modernity. No doubt Descartes has much to answer for, but de rigueur anti-Cartesianism feels increasingly easy not to mention insufficient.

What is perhaps most clear from reading Sleep, Romance, and Embodiment is the importance of the ambition to reframe critical fields (animal studies, ecology, embodiment, and others), which are anything but exhausted but are now at risk of stagnation as they become increasingly part of scholarly institutions and publishing mechanisms. A decade of strong work in these fields leaves us poised to think with greater particularity and nuance about life and the complex forms human life takes as it intersects not only with a range life forms but also, and as importantly, with a range of literary forms.


(1.) For the position that has become a timeless slogan see Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). See Linda Charnes, "We Were Never Early Modern," in Hamlet's Heirs (New York: Routledge, 2006), 43-52.

(2.) See, for instance, Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), Mary Floyd-Wilson and Garret Sullivan, eds., Environment and Embodiment in Early Modern England (New York: Palgrave, 2007), and Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe, and Mary Floyd-Wilson, eds., Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

(3.) See, for instance, Laurie Shannon's The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012) for an account of the zootopian constitution or "dispensation" that implied "greater cognizance of" (39) and contact with animals in early modernity. For an account of "shared embodiment" between human and animal see Karen Raber's Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

(4.) Sullivan deploys Giorgio Agamben's suggestive The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004) and his conception of man as "the place--and, at the same time, the result--of ceaseless divisions and caesurae" (4). Agamben argues that "ceaseless divisions and caesuraes" are the result of Aristotle's introduction of the tripartite soul. And yet this particular passage from Agamben is written in response to the rise of Linnaean taxonomy, which dates to the early eighteenth century. Where and when does this regime of division really begin?

(5.) Here, for instance, is Thomas M. Brown in 1989 on the subject of "Cartesian Dualism and Psychosomatics" in Psychosomatics: The Journal of Consultation and Liaison Psychiatry 30, no. 3 (August 1989): 322-31: "Many similar references in the literature exhibit the characteristic features of a shared mythology. Rather than presenting a nuanced and unfolding interpretation based on fresh readings of the primary historical texts, modern authors [writing about Descartes] regularly repeat stock phrases and offer minor variations of identical interpretations."

(6.) A number of scholars have dealt with the simplification of Descartes. See Scott Maisano, "Infinite Gesture: Automata and Emotions in Descartes and Shakespeare" in Genesis Bedux: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Artificial Life, ed. Jessica Riskin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007): "Far from discounting emotional reactions, therefore, Descartes's philosophy makes these passionate feelings the basis of--the necessary scaffolding for--the thinking self." See also, Maisano, "Descartes avec Milton: The Automata in the Garden" in The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature, ed. Wendy Beth Hyman (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011); Geir Kirkeboen, "Descartes' Embodied Psychology: Descartes' or Damasio's Error?" Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 10, no. 2 (2001): 173-91; and Alvin Snider, "Cartesian Bodies," Modern Philology 98, no. 2 (2000): 299-319.
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Author:Campana, Joseph
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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