- Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England by Katherine Eggert
What happens when we know something is false but still accept it as true? or, as katherine Eggert asks in her ambitious book Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England, what happens "when bad ideas—or nutty ideas, or simply irrelevant ideas—start to look good" (4)? Disknowledge opens a conversation about what it means to know—or, more pivotally, not to know—amid the decline of humanism and the rise of alchemy in seventeenth-century England.
The imprint of Shakespeare is felt deeply in readings of Hamlet, Love's Labor's Lost, and The Tempest. the book also considers Spenser's Faerie Queene; the poetry of Donne, herbert, and Vaughan; Marlowe's Doctor Faustus; Jonson's Alchemist; and cavendish's Blazing World, not to mention aristotle, Galen, Paracelsus, and Bacon. over the course of a concise introduction, five chapters, and an afterword, Eggert makes the familiar topics of alchemy, medicine, religion, and humanism productively strange by examining the epistemological foundations of Shakespeare's world and suggesting how such foundations are both undermined and strengthened, sometimes at the same time.
The central term disknowledge organizes the book's governing heuristic. By tracing disknowledge in rhetorical, literary, religious, and scientific contexts, Eggert explores "the conscious and deliberate setting aside of one compelling mode of understanding the world—one discipline, one theory—in favor of another" (3). this careful, strategic manipulation of knowledge systems opens up the multiple ways in which people "decided not to learn what they had in fact come to know" (8), resulting in "the act of knowing and not knowing something at the same time" (116). chapter 1 makes the case that alchemy emerges as a prime example of this epistemological maneuvering. it is clear from the start that, for Eggert, alchemy extends beyond transmutation, the philosopher's stone, and aqua vitae; it emerges as a flexible epistemological strategy used to deal with existing knowledge systems that themselves garner skepticism. insofar as alchemy encodes "the deliberate choice of the reputedly false over the reputedly true" (43), writers can "deploy alchemy as a means of not thinking about difficult subjects" (92) across the seventeenth century.
How is this dynamic hermeneutic and epistemological work done, and how does such work play out in literary texts? the book's core chapters address disknowledge in terms of four related operations: forgetting, skimming, avoiding, and making fiction (48–49). these chapters trace alchemy's correspondences to other fraught bodies of knowledge: humanism (chapter 1), transubstantiation (chapter 2), Jewish kabbalah (chapter 3), gynecology (chapter 4), and literary fiction (chapter 5). Donne, herbert, and Vaughan, for example, draw on alchemy in order to forget not only catholic Eucharistic doctrine but also the fissures evident [End Page 312] in theories of matter circulating in the seventeenth century. Like forgetting, the act of skimming illustrates how one textual tradition, Jewish kabbalah, is strategically excerpted, translated, and so revised that it is "thoroughly rewritten as a christian domain and a christian creation" (112). For many late humanists such as John Dee, as for Shakespeare's Prospero, the act of skimming is ideological insofar as it attempts to render "Jewish learning not Jewish" (115). The Tempest complicates such activity, however. in aligning caliban with the figure of the Jew (itself a major intervention in scholarship on The Tempest), Eggert shows how caliban, by making the Jewish body physically present, frustrates Prospero's attempt to make him into a golem—an object or possession of his own creation. if one could forget and skim texts, one could also avoid new knowledge. William harvey and helkiah crooke use alchemy to ignore new anatomical discoveries that point to the woman's role in reproduction, illustrating a widespread practice of "steering clear of the facts of female sexual organs" (177). The Faerie Queene and Love's Labor's Lost express ambivalence toward such a prospect, illustrating in different ways how "alchemy signals … the...