Ramachandran, Ayesha. The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe. U of Chicago P, 2015. 288 pp. ISBN: 978-0226288796. $45.00 cloth.
Anything Ayesha Ramachandran writes is worth reading for her rich intellectual responses to her topics, for her learning, and for the elegance of her prose. The Worldmakers is a fruitful, masterful book that keeps a sequence of important texts and their bibliographies under control in service to a clearly drawn central argument. The book begins with map images that help to orient us: the art of the Bildeinsatz is alive. The brilliance of the book lies primarily in its collocations: the comparisons, the sequence, the cross-references all show us comparative literature at its best. There are five chapters framed by a well-conceived, forcefully written introduction and an amusing, pointed epilogue. The chapters consider Mercator, Montaigne, Camões and Spenser, Descartes, and Milton. Each man (and they are very much biographically conceived authors, not texts) is one of her worldmakers: a thinker attempting to imagine the entire world in the face of fractious events in history, discontinuous theology, erupting cosmology, or some other mode of knowledge. Ramachandran is tired of our diagnosing all such ambitious projects as oppressive, colonial, imperialist, and totalizing, and ready to see what else they might mean. Not least, she is a lover of words as well as worlds—the vocabulary of the book ranges from delight to delight. At core it is not a book about space (though sensitive to the spatial turn) so much as it is writing about language as thought.
Spenserians who are eager to revive the history of ideas, to find companion texts with which to read and teach Spenser, to make him shine in a historical survey of literature and culture—we’ll all find much to enrich our work here. The thinking about Spenser is good, with its suggestive comparisons to Camões and its focus on gigantomachy, but I found that the strongest and most illuminating chapters are those around it. Each case is very different, and each involves a different emphasis and approach. I urge Spenserians to consider reading the rest of the book even more closely than the Spenser chapter. Much of the payoff of Ramachandran’s work lies in the way it inspires its readers to go beyond her arguments under her influence.
I received the book from Spenser Review late in the fall and had to set it aside, only a few pages in, for a planned circumnavigation of the globe while teaching classes called “World Prayer” and “Writing World Heritage.” Coming back and opening Ramachandran’s book again, I felt I recognized a glimmer of the mission of her worldmakers: it is indeed a political, theological, aesthetic, and artistic challenge to imagine the world as a whole thing. Moving around in it (still not easy: think of the over twenty million refugees now on foot or raft) does change our sense of what it is; events gravely reshape our mental and emotional apprehension of it. Trying to teach “the world” in any vein means that Britain, for example, becomes a tiny spot, and that one’s sense of audience, colleagues, interlocutors, and expertise shifts radically. Such shifts alter the place of one’s knowledge and the situation of one’s training. How can anyone obtain the credentials to write about the whole? It’s simply impossible, yet we must do it. As we move over every horizon (including the horizon between the medieval and the Early Modern, the horizon between the British archipelago and the Continent, and so forth), the last place disappears. We may attempt to take it with us in our “view,” to register its meaning. It’s a humbling, daunting project—but I believe Ramachandran is right that we must try to think in a way that conceives of ourselves in relation to the largest possible frames. If we are to resist allowing our literatures to disappear over the horizon as the university sails off into globalization, we must convey their importance to the whole of education by showing how the real achievements of long dead poets and thinkers are vital to our ability to conceive of the future of the world. These Early Modern writers were grappling with the same need to make meaning accrue to a whole. They had something like our heightened sense of what is at stake and our awareness of how archives, objects of study, and audiences are all expanding at an alarming rate.
Back on land with her book in hand, I recognize with a pang the experience of not being able to see the entire world at once: even in the 1968 NASA “Earthrise” image that plays a role in the introduction, we have a limited view. A potent illusion makes Ramachandran write: “the dream of encompassing the world in a single glance would be fulfilled when the first manned NASA mission to the moon photographed the earth from lunar orbit” (2). But it’s a mere photo, a particular kind of two-dimensional technology quite different from god’s eye (whatever that might see). On the flat surface of the photograph the far side of the earth is invisible, and the bottom half of the near side, turned away from the sun, is utterly dark. The historical sequence of images she leads us through isn’t really an evolution of increasingly encompassing and full views (after all, the early maps show a lot more than one quarter of the earth’s features), but every image demonstrates how essential art and illusion are to creating imaginative wholes. It serves her point: imagining the world takes a lot of work, and it is work of a surprisingly various and rich kind. We need now to imagine the world in a way that makes its unity possible: this is the drift of her exhortation. We need to imagine scholarship in a way that makes its fragmentary state no impediment to its unity. I cheer from the audience! Ramachandran writes: “Mercator’s ambitions demand that the Atlas be read alongside such late sixteenth-century writers as Postel, Du Bartas, Lefèvre de la Boderie, Louis le Roy, Dee, and Spenser. Like these figures who fought to cut through masses of new information, see beyond diversity, and uncover the harmony of the cosmos, ‘De mundi’ aims to transform how we see the world, penetrating into its originary mysteries even as the Atlas reveals the structure of the world to the mortal human gaze” (68). Avanti, scholars!
The maps provide a good introduction to the topic of synthetic imagining, and Ramachandran is wonderful on Mercator, but somehow medieval maps have disappeared. The ingenious T-O maps that organize all of Christian time and the entire globe into an iconic view would seem, for instance, to falsify a number of her historical assertions. (Though one of the brilliant insights she provides is that Early Modern mapping retains a more devotional cast than we have recognized.) The spherical nature of the earth was proved and generally accepted by learned Europe many centuries before it credited news of the Americas. There’s a wonderful image in Gower’s Vox clamantis that shows a large Gower aiming a bow and arrow at a spherical earth floating near him. In his dream poems, Chaucer takes an astronaut’s view of the earth (at one point shutting his eyes and refusing to look down, though the eagle has brought him and us far into space). But such thoroughly medieval artifacts—well known to Mercator, Spenser, and Milton, at least—are invisible here as Ramachandran adheres to the conventional historiography of much comparatist work (not to mention much Renaissance scholarship), which is still apt to run from the ancient world to the Renaissance while ignoring things in the middle.
Yet I don’t complain—and this is crucial—because her argument is not in fact about the newness of modernity, it’s about Early Modernity’s interior struggles. Nor is it a historical argument that locates the origins or vicissitudes of particular aspects of modernity in the works of five authors. Instead, this book is a set of case studies that explore the question of the world in these authors, finding moments in their work that stand for larger commitments, revelations, quandaries. Ramachandran says something important about their moment in history, not about ideas as they move into modernity and out of what comes before it. That would be another book.
The topic of making worlds has been explored by Spenser and Milton scholars before, of course. Reading Ramachandran’s title, this audience will think immediately of the Worldmaking Spenser (2000) collection edited by Patrick Cheney and Lauren Silberman and of Roland Greene’s Five Words (2013), in which “world” is one of the main rubrics. These critics and many others who have done similar comparatist, spatial, or philosophical work are mentioned here, if at all, somewhat indifferently. As Ramachandran collocates her heroic agents, the local conversations of scholars in her immediate fields generally fade out of focus. It may have helped her develop her ideas to see them from other disciplinary perspectives, but it would have enriched the book if her apparatus had, as she worked her ideas into exposition, become more engaged.
As an object, the book is lovely, though its type is very small (especially the notes, which are inconveniently placed at the end), and I feel a severe frustration with the press for not printing a bibliography. It’s simply too hard to find things in endnotes, especially in this case, because the tiny index includes very few of the author’s references. One rarely reads and never re-reads a book in a single sitting, strictly from front to back, and so one is often stuck searching fruitlessly for full citations. It cannot be to the advantage of the publisher that the volume’s layout disconnects the work from so many conversations.
Still, the book is a scholarly landmark, a pleasure to read, an incitement to virtue in my own work, and an exemplary artifact I will press upon my students. I am glad to be on record as full of praise for The Worldmakers.
University of Virginia