Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Francis Bacon, Robert Burton, and the Thick Skin of the World: Sympathy, Transmission, and the Imaginary Early Modern Skin

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Francis Bacon, Robert Burton, and the Thick Skin of the World: Sympathy, Transmission, and the Imaginary Early Modern Skin

Article excerpt

Reading Early Modern Skin

In Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Selfand World, Claudia Benthien offers a history of skin as "the central metaphor for separateness; arguing that it is only at the boundary of the bodily integument that subjects are able to "encounter one other" (i). That the skin is or has been at various periods in Western history "the place where boundary negotiations take place" is indisputable; what constitutes the skin object and whether or not the skin has always been the site of boundary negotiations between bodies is a matter of greater historical complexity (xi). Benthien follows Dither Anzieu's reasoning that since the Renaissance, Western epistemology (modeled on the "penetration and uncovering" of bodies in Vesalian anatomy) has been predicated on the notion that "knowledge of what is essential means breaking through shells and walls in order to reach the core that lies in the innermost depths" (7). According to Benthien, it is only recently, with the development of modern psychoanalytic and medical discourse, that we have come to recognize the skin's ontological destabilization of the body's "inside" and "out:' Echoing Anzieu, Benthien writes that neurophysiology "has had to come to terms with the paradox that even the brain is a rind--and the human 'center' is actually situated at the periphery" (7). While I am sympathetic to Benthien's project, I take issue with the version of the skin to which she compares post-Renaissance ontologies of the body's surface. Benthien writes that in the pre-modern period skin "still constituted a structurally impenetrable boundary to the invisible and mysterious inside" (10). I aim to show that what Benthien regards as the modern re/invention of the skin as a porous ontological interface between bodies and subjects is forcefully present in early modern natural philosophy, medicine, and science. It goes, however, by different names and describes different functions than those we attribute to skin.

The challenge of writing about skin, especially but not exclusively in the early modern period, is that it requires study of the representations of encounter and communication that pertain to a wide territory of the body's surface sometimes referred to by the word skin, or its synonyms, but very often is not. The fact that the skin is not described as a concrete and stable object in the early modern period indicates precisely how fluid early modern ideas of the skin were. A relative dearth of references to the skin proper in late Renaissance depictions of the body has compelled literary historians to look for the skin in the "elsewhere" of analogy, allegory and, of course, the history of touch. (1) My approach to reading skin works in two ways. It works backward, approximating a meaning for earlier models of skin by looking in the places we expect to find it, namely at the border or boundary between bodies, and discovering something far more fluid in its place. Second, I study the illocutionary as well as articulated representations of skin-like encounters and surfaces.

I use these methods to offer a reading of two very different early modern writers, both of whom have been singled out by historians of the body as iconic figures: one of anxious bodily indeterminacy and the other of the rationalist orientation of early scientific empiricism. My subjects are Robert Burton and Francis Bacon and the texts that were published within four years of one another, Burton's The Anatovny of Melancholy and Bacon's posthumously published natural history Sylva Sylvaruvn and the fictional utopia New Atlantis, to which it was appended. My interest in these texts is not in their named references to the skin (of which there are far fewer than we might expect) but rather to their depictions of bodily encounter and intercorporeal influence, so that we might discover what role, if any, the body's surface played in negotiating the relationship between bodies.

This investigation is centrally concerned with early modern representations of the skin as a zone of encounter, not between opposed, solid, and impermeable skins but precisely between "skins" understood in the early modern period as membranous conduits between an indeterminate "inside" and "outside" of the body. …

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