The Fury of Men's Gullets: Ben Jonson and the Digestive Canal.
Bruce Thomas Boehrer admits in this book's conclusion that in choosing one of his major strategies he has "run a real risk" (204). I agree, and will argue that the choice he refers to is by no means the only major risk he runs. But I admire his risk-taking, and believe that (on the whole) he wins at this gamble.
He uses as a theoretical base the cultural theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. As he notes, "readers sympathetic to theory may object to Deleuze and Guattari as unfashionable or even lunatic fringe, whereas antitheorists will doubtless object to them as theory" (204). Pretty much an antitheorist myself and not well-read in Deleuzian theory, I was initially hostile to this book. But the theory seems to work for Boehrer as well as most theorists work for most literary critics, and in any case the theory does not get in Boehrer's way.
But Boehrer takes much more fundamental risks - including his choice of subject. Ben Jonson is not a particularly fashionable figure, and Boehrer focuses on the importance in Jonson's life and works of alimentary imagery. Any book concentrating on ingestion, digestion, and excretion opens itself up (pun intended) to bad jokes such as the one I just made. Does any scholar really want to become known as an expert in scatology? No doubt about it: the very act of writing on this subject is risky. Once again, however, Boehrer's gamble pays off. Any student of Jonson knows what a wealth of such imagery the poet uses. Jonson frequently compares the work of a poet to that of a cook; he frequently argues that good writers digest what they read, whereas bad writers don't; and, finally, he makes more remarkable uses of scatology than any writer except Swift. So the subject, though it will strike some as indecorous, is extremely apt.
The final, and most important, gamble has to do with Boehrer's attitudes toward this unusual subject. First, although it is fashionable in some circles to denigrate canonical authors, Boehrer admires Jonson intensely, I believe, and often says so. Second, Boehrer paradoxically stresses what he calls the lunatic side of Jonson's personality and writings (205). This Jonson will not fit with the marmoreal image of Jonson the Classicist which some casual readers of the poet mistakenly hold. And yet Boehrer once again wins the gamble. His image of Jonson is convincingly multivalent and dynamic; he makes Jonson come alive.
The book is well-organized, well-researched, and (for the most part) well-written. The first chapter is on Jonson's ideas about manners concerning eating and drinking and, by convincing extension, both the importance and the ambiguity of conviviality. The second, "Renaissance Overeating," deals with the social meaning of excesses of the table; the third, with digestion; the fourth, with excretion; the last, with vomiting. The book is well-researched in a number of ways. First, he knows his Jonson, and wisely chooses to consider life as well as works, plays as well as poems, masques as well as Discoveries. Though Boehrer inveighs against the Classical Jonson that is cold and dead, he makes crucial use of classical influence on the poet - particularly in the chapter on manners and conviviality. He also makes good use of Renaissance medical texts and the history of sewage disposal in Renaissance England. The book is well-written in that one can always follow his arguments. I could, however, wish for a prose style a little less influenced by theory - especially as regards Boehrer's fondness for out-of-the-way polysyllabic words. I recommend the book. Digest it.
University of New Mexico
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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