Academic journal article Parergon

Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England

Academic journal article Parergon

Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England

Article excerpt

Eggert, Katherine, Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015; cloth; pp. 368; 11 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. US$55.00, [pounds sterling]36.00; ISBN 9780812247510.

Katherine Eggert considers how, at particular times and under certain conditions, humans have consciously chosen to disavow what they know, or know that which they know is not so. Her term 'disknowledge' refers to 'the conscious and deliberate setting aside of one compelling mode of understanding the world--one discipline, one theory--in favor of another' (p. 3). Phrased this way, it appears innocuous enough, but the argument of the book is that the promise of Renaissance Humanism rapidly disappeared and, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the language, strategies, and imagery of alchemy, a discredited and discreditable 'occult science', were increasingly used to signal the failure of Humanism in the absence of a better, subsequent system. Eggert claims the humanistic ideal that classical learning could be integrated into 'a Christian knowledge base' (p. 15) is the second of a three-pronged view of Humanism that also espouses mastery of the Ciceronian rhetorical style and the commitment to self-betterment and the betterment of society. In this regard, she notes the anti-humanist sentiments of many humanist-trained figures, such as Luther and Macchiavelli. The next intellectual framework, Baconian empirical science, does not emerge immediately, and Eggert argues that the rhetoric of alchemy fills the gap between Humanism and the rise of Enlightenment science. This is a large claim, and the book is only a partial success.

Three case studies and three associated methods of disknowledge are investigated to demonstrate how alchemical rhetoric facilitated the deliberate business of not knowing: the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation (which exemplifies forgetting); Christian readings of Kabbalah (which shows skimming); and gynaecology (which exemplifies avoiding). Eggert's primary method of investigation is literary criticism. In Chapter 2, 'How to Forget Transubstantiation', for instance, she analyses the poetry of John Donne, concluding that for Donne alchemy is 'an all-purpose disknowledge system ... Handy for forgetting about the disputes that were at the heart of the Reformation [and] also handy for not allowing the new science to challenge cherished humanist presuppositions, however erroneous they may be' (p. 91). The oeuvre of George Herbert, similarly, wrestles with contemporary matter theory. Whereas Donne is fascinated by 'exceptional matter', Herbert's focus is 'the ordinary things of this world' (p. …

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