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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58.1 (2003) 92-93

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Zakiya Hanafi. The Monster in the Machine: Magic, Medicine, and the Marvelous in the Time of the Scientific Revolution. Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 2000. xiii, 272 pp., illus. $59.95 (cloth), $20.95 (paper).

Monsters, Zakiya Hanafi tells us, are good to think on. In particular, they can help people analyze their place in the hierarchy of nature amid animals and deities. Hanafi pursues the idea of monstrosity through a series of thinkers operating during the age of the Scientific Revolution in Italy, roughly 1550–1750. Neither chronology nor geography, however, prevents Hanafi from drawing on a wide range of notions and examples that feed into her study of monsters and monstrosity in its many forms. In fact, as the story here unfolds, the reader is taken on a journey through a thoughtfully reconstructed series of vignettes that reveal the origins of early modern ideas about monsters (in the works of, among others, Aristotle and Pliny), the relationship between monstrousness and matter, monstrous machines, medicine and monsters, and the role of monsters as literary metaphor. Along the way, Hanafi undertakes an extended study of Giambattista Vico’s appropriation of monstrosity in his analysis and descriptions of his own body.

Monsters, of course, are wonderfully ambiguous, horrifying, and confusing, thus making them a superb topic for historical and literary analysis. Hanafi wants to trace the intellectual history of monstrosity in an attempt to discover the ways in which people created humanity and civilization through a reevaluation of monstrosity from the sacred to the profane. In other words, Hanafi wants to explain, in a variety of forums, how monsters were transformed from objects seen as sacred prodigies into a group that formed the basis for the scientific study of teratology. Monsters, as a result [End Page 92] of this shift, were no longer scary, prophetic beings that boded ill for those who were confronted by them, but were reconstructed as something that helped people delineate boundaries. In order to discuss this development, Hanafi transforms the typical definition of a monster as a thing and instead treats it as a category. Necessarily, Hanafi ends up with an enormously broad definition of monsters, one that draws on ideas concerning the spirit as well as matter and form. As her definition develops, however, it also becomes more complex and incorporates more and more ideas. Then, Hanafi is able to track this category through a variety of texts to observe how attitudes toward it changed over time and place.

Accomplishing this, however, requires Hanafi to roam widely through an extremely eclectic collection of source materials. In her chapter on medicine, for example, the focus is on monstrous bodies. She begins with a discussion of writings on physiognomy, including Francesco Stelluit’s Della Fisonomia di tutto il corpo humano, Giambattista della Porta’s Della Fisonomia dell’Huomo, and Cornelio Ghirardelli’s Cefalogia Fisonomica. External monstrosity, however, must be examined with the internal workings of humans and so Hanafi also includes a discussion of William Harvey’s work on circulation, René Descartes’s analogy of man as a machine, and Giovanni Borelli’s work in iatrophysics. It is Borelli rather than Descartes, Hanafi concludes, who most clearly mechanized the human body and joined the physical with the spiritual. This chapter is followed by an examination of Vico’s health pieced together mostly through a close reading of his autobiography. Although an intriguing examination of how Vico appropriated contemporary medical culture, this chapter is, in many ways, a deviation from Hanafi’s overarching goal of analyzing the monstrous. More on task is Hanafi’s discussion of monstrous machines, such as those found in the museum created by Athanasius Kircher. Mechanical automata, like monsters, were seen as unnatural; nonetheless, they served to refocus attention away from monsters as portents of future events and toward the monster as a machine.

This book offers an original and fascinating study of...


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pp. 92-93
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