- Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England by Katherine Eggert
The theme of this ambitious, engaging, and occasionally frustrating book is twofold: persistent interest in the medieval science of alchemy during the early modern period and the deliberate literary use of that science, despite knowledge that it was false, by a wide range of Renaissance writers. Alchemy, according to Eggert, helped authors as diverse as John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Margaret Cavendish—to name only three of the very many mentioned here—to respond imaginatively to the challenges posed to humanism by the ideologies of Catholicism, Judaism, and early modern feminism. Eggert analyzes in a wide variety of Renaissance works something that she calls “disknowledge” (the neologism is hers), a willful ignorance or false consciousness concerning the truth of alchemy that, she suggests, reveals deeper epistemological crises and anxieties at the heart of early modern culture.
Readers who come to Disknowledge for a primer in alchemical practice will [End Page 281] be disappointed. The author is more concerned with alchemy as a trope, which during the Renaissance “enabled and perhaps even helped constitute imaginative literature itself” (54). She does not have much to say about the techniques of this pseudoscience, although she does note their curious appeal to such otherwise pre-Enlightenment types as Newton. Rather, she probes what she calls the special “mania” (52) for alchemical language, ideas, and imagery among British writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, parsing the stylistic manifestations of this madness by different poets, playwrights, and prose writers.
A major strength of the book is its new readings of particular, often worn-out canonical texts. Eggert’s approach to Donne, Herbert, and Henry Vaughan, for example, is bracingly innovative (103–9). Alchemy for all three, she indicates, provided a means to express by way of metaphor their differently conflicted attitudes toward the key Roman Catholic doctrine of tran-substantiation—the teaching that, during the Mass, the priest’s words of consecration transform the substances of bread and wine into those of Christ’s body and blood. Eggert emphasizes the very physical concerns of these Metaphysical Poets, their interest in matter theory, a concept that involves both convergences and collisions between Aristotle and Aquinas in the details of the latter’s Eucharistic theology. Her exploration of alchemical imagery in Donne’s religious prose and verse, impressive in itself, is outdone by her investigation of alchemy’s often implied presence in his erotic verse, such as the notoriously difficult “Air and Angels,” for which Eggert provides an analysis that is a tour de force of her exegetical method. Concluding that “Donne references alchemy as a way to model not caring about religious doctrine’s incapacity to cope with physics” (92), she gestures toward one of the most distinctive insights of her book—the often deliberately irreligious and irrational impulses of many late Renaissance writers, their eagerness to step outside both old and new systems of thought in order to delight in verbal and rhetorical gymnastics for their own sake. Although I did not notice Eggert using the term, Disknowledge lays the groundwork for what I would call a ludic reevaluation of early modern literary history, at least in Britain.
The necessary moral dimension to such a re-evaluation emerges in Eggert’s discussion of certain Shakespeare plays, such as The Tempest and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Her analysis of The Tempest in light of the alchemical strain of Christian Kabbalah is compelling. The analogy she draws between Caliban and the Golem of Hebraic tradition establishes a brand new and convincing connection not only between Caliban’s status in the play and Prospero’s magic but also between that magic itself and the esoteric wisdom of mystical Judaism. “The use of Kabbalah to animate earthen matter with a human soul [End Page 282] puts the kabbalist in a more elevated but also a more precarious position than that of an ordinary magus who merely fashions some kind of...