Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Sara van den Berg: "Disknowledge"

Sara van den Berg

Book Review

Katherine Eggert, Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2015), 368 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4751-0

1> Living in a period of profound cultural change is hard, as people in seventeenth-century Europe knew all too well. “Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” lamented John Donne. That “coherence,” the presumed seamless link between physical and spiritual reality, had been the consensus belief of Christian Europe. Katherine Eggert explores the undoing of that consensus in Disknowledge, her remarkable study of four disparate domains: theology, kabbalah, human reproduction, and the English theatre. She argues that the European humanist vision of a moral leadership grounded in classical learning degenerated into the education of bureaucrats who were content to know only piecemeal and superficial ideas. As humanism decayed, people were too often content to rely on classical ideas that were no longer persuasive, while at the same time remaining ignorant of, or at best indifferent to, the substance and implications of those ideas. At the same time, new modes of knowledge that excited scholars and investigators yielded innovative ideas that were often rejected by others in favor of received ideas, or that were not critically examined for their implications for a new world view. As Eggert puts it, people chose “disknowledge”: not knowing what they knew, deliberately “setting aside” one theory in favor of another (3). To illustrate the practice of “disknowledge,” Eggert focuses on transubstantiation, kabbalah, and human reproduction. These disparate domains have one thing in common: transformation, whether physical, metaphysical, or biological. In all three, she argues, it was equally possible “to rely on theories of transformation” and to reject them as “spurious” (10).

2> Katherine Eggert’s unifying theme is alchemy, a theory that rested on a belief in changeable, uncertain matter that could be manipulated by human knowledge. At once a scam, a mode of esoteric learning, and a model of scientific investigation, alchemy was present throughout English culture, from the urban swindlers mocked by Ben Jonson to virtuosi like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton whose work we respect as science. Katherine Eggert does not simply trace the history of alchemy or explain its esoteric language and methods. Instead, she shows how a mode of thinking that we could call “alchemical” pervades disciplines of thought from the Reformation onward.

3> Eggert appropriately begins her study with the central transformative act in Christian Europe: the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Catholics and Protestants debated the nature of that central moment in the Mass. Since the bread and wine remained visibly bread and wine, what transformation had occurred? For Catholics, the “substance” was transformed into Christ’s body and blood (“the real presence”) and only the appearances of bread and wine remained. For Protestants, the transformation was symbolic and commemorative. Eggert argues that transubstantiation rested on a kind of alchemical thinking, a belief that matter could be changed and perfected—whether into physical or spiritual gold. Discussing “How to Forget Transubstantiation,” Eggert shows that Europeans discarded classical Aristotelian ideas but had not as yet agreed on a new model of materiality. Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan used the rhetoric of alchemy in their poetry about communion, yet both transubstantiation and alchemy rested on unsustainable precepts. Alchemy could only be a provisional mode of religious meditation. Faith required forgetting.

4> In the third chapter, “How to Skim the Kabbalah,” Katherine Eggert shows that Christians who used the Hebrew kabbalah could do so only by ignoring its foundation and appropriating its surface. Here, faith required not erasure but distortion and deliberate superficiality. To do otherwise would have yielded to the truth claims of the Hebrew texts, and would have challenged the truth claims of Christian doctrine.  In this chapter, she offers interpretations of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Her reading of The Tempest does not always seem to build on her theoretical ideas. Eggert follows Julia Lupton in reading Caliban in terms of the master/slave relationship. Eggert treats Caliban as a golem, the figure of earth shaped into a hostile being, and chooses to disregard colonial interpretations of Caliban. Only in a footnote does Eggert mention Ariel, whose connection to Prospero’s magic art is much more direct and whose name can be traced to Jewish mysticism.

5> Turning to another prominent issue in classical Greece and Renaissance Europe, Eggert describes other ways to relate old and new ideas: avoidance and contradiction. In her fourth chapter, “How to Avoid Gynecology,” Eggert offers a compelling account of how anatomists struggled to reconcile their discoveries about the female body with long-held ideas about woman’s passive role in reproduction. No less than the understanding of life itself was at stake in the debates about reproduction, or “generation.” In addition to describing the work of William Harvey and Helkiah Crooke, Eggert shows how Spenser and Shakespeare use alchemical rhetoric to imagine masculine parthenogenesis. In The Faerie Queene, she suggests, Spenser “introduces alchemy to explore what men desire to know, what they think they know, and what they avoid knowing about women’s bodies” (181). The ideals and practices of male learning are comically inscribed in Love’s Labours Lost. This chapter owes much to feminist scholars of science, but the synthesis of their insights is Eggert’s own.

6> It is in the final chapter, “How to Write Fiction,” that Katherine Eggert brings together her ideas about alchemy, transubstantiation, kabbalah, and generation into a discussion about literature itself. She rightly reminds us that Sidney used alchemical language when he described poetry as a “golden world,” in contrast to the brazen world of history and “mouse-eaten records.” In order to discuss this new theory of literature, she offers interpretations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Jonson’s The Alchemist, and Cavendish’s The Blazing World. The Alchemist relies on alchemical language, and Eggert could easily have built on her earlier chapters to relate kaballah to the Hebrew elements in the play, and the issues of reproduction and women’s bodies to the alchemical language of male and female and the depiction of the female characters. Jonson converts the detritus of urban life and characters into comic gold, making us ignore, forget, avoid, or deny what we know in favor of the comic gold he creates. These comments, however, should not detract from an appreciation of Eggert’s book. Her learning and her argument are compelling, and the reader wants even more.

7> Writing in our own time of cultural change, Katherine Eggert is all too aware of the threadbare legacy of humanism. In a coda at once modest, skeptical, and affirmative, she brings her thesis to bear on literary criticism. She laughs at and with her fellow critics, who stand apart in our comfortable disciplines and only indirectly explain the world to the world. Like Prospero, our strength is “most faint.” Yet in modesty lies a hope for the strength of interpretation and scholarship like that of Katherine Eggert. Read this book.


Sara van den Berg specializes in seventeenth-century literature, medical humanities, and disability studies. She and W. Scott Howard co-edited The Divorce Tracts of John Milton, and she also co-edited Language, Culture, and Identity: The Legacy of Walter J. Ong, S.J. Her other publications include The Action of Ben Jonson’s Poetry and essays on Milton, Jonson, Shakespeare, Freud, and medical humanities. Her current project is a study of the cultural meanings of dwarfism since the Renaissance.


Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Nine (2016): Texts & Contexts


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