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Katherine Eggert, Disknowledge
by Jessica Wolfe

Katherine Eggert. Disknowledge. Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England. U of Pennsylvania P, 2015. ix + 351pp. ISBN: 978-0812247510. $51.00 cloth. 

Disknowledge is not, in spite of its title, a book about alchemy. It is, rather, an ambitious study of the “waning” of the Renaissance, to borrow Johan Huizinga’s famous phrase, a provocative and broadly ranging meditation on the epistemological fissures that open up in the intellectual culture of the English Renaissance between 1580 and 1660.[1] Like Hiram Haydn’s The Counter-Renaissance (1950) and Charles Nauert’s Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (1965), Disknowledge seeks to account for the attrition of intellectual confidence, the erosion of belief in correspondences, and the casting off of philosophical and religious orthodoxies typical of the late Renaissance.[2]

The book’s titular concept of “disknowledge,” informed by Stanley Cavell’s 1987 study of “disowning knowledge” in Shakespearean drama, encompasses various epistemological stances and rhetorical strategies, many of them evocative of skeptical habits of mind but not neatly allied with them. Eggert’s neologism acquires a series of meanings over the course of the study: a “means of knowing less” (2), a tendency to be “acquainted with something and … ignorant of it” (3) at the same time, and the “conscious act of choosing one system, body, or mode of knowledge over another, even if the one chosen is manifestly retrograde, ill informed, poorly supported, sloppily organized, or even simply wrong” (40). At the foundation of Eggert’s study is the question of why alchemical images and symbols, especially as embedded in the language of poets and playwrights, persist far beyond the point at which alchemy ceases to be taken seriously by natural philosophers, and she excavates the various motives for clinging on to alchemical discourse not because of its scientific validity but rather for its lack of validity. For writers such as Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, Donne, Henry Vaughan, and Margaret Cavendish, among others, alchemy is “both true and false, both profound and risible” (4) and thus serves as an instrument for recalibrating the relationship between reliable and unreliable ways of making knowledge in the late Renaissance. In other words, alchemy is a kaleidoscopic lens through which humanists may contemplate the fragility of the most resilient assumptions of humanism itself, a way of assessing the vulnerabilities of various humanistic methods, beliefs, and practices (active reading, rhetorical prowess, the moral potency of fiction) that begin to look, in the final century of the Renaissance, like “bad habits” (20), intellectually suspect even as they continue to exert authority over the literary and intellectual culture of the era.

It should come as little surprise to scholars working in a field with two names—Renaissance and Early Modern—that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a Janus-faced era, a period in which vestigial and emergent ideas co-existed, sometimes rather uncomfortably, side by side. Disknowledge is, at its best, a work that seeks to uncover the deep structures of thought that make such incongruous juxtapositions of outmoded and “modern” ideas tenable within the same culture, and often within the same author. Influenced by recent work in the sociology of knowledge, in particular the work of Robert Proctor, Eggert offers an account of how certain forms of knowledge require, or are accompanied by, concomitant ignorances, ignorances that “are produced by and correspond to particular knowledges” (41), an argument that helps to explain the persistence of alchemical metaphors long past their “sell-by date” of earnest trust in the efficacy of the practice itself, and even when the writer in question is less interested in entertaining belief in alchemy than in using its metaphorical potency as a way of avoiding or forgetting other forms of knowledge.

Although Eggert initially portrays this forgetting as conscious and deliberate, individual chapters take us through a set of case studies about various strains of “cultural amnesia” (10) in which such acts of forgetting, avoiding, or selective reading appear to be ingrained habits of mind rather than deliberate strategies of obfuscation. In Chapter 2, Eggert illustrates how alchemical language in the poems of Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan become a way of “forgetting” about transubstantiation, or rather turning away from the heated Eucharistic debates that marked sixteenth-century religious discourse, and also a means of disengaging from contemporary debates over the relative validity of Aristotelian and Atomistic theories of matter (107). In a similar vein, Chapter 4 explores how the alchemical language that pervades seventeenth-century discussions of generation constitutes a “refusal to see” (11) the increasingly persuasive evidence that women play a formative, active role in conception and generation. Throughout, Eggert deftly illustrates how alchemy, or at least an abstracted idea of alchemy possessed by humanists, “binds itself” to other disciplines and discourses, a “junk science” that nonetheless has legitimate applications and does “valuable work” for humanists wishing to elide or muddy key questions (67, 85).

Eggert should be especially commended for chapters that consistently offer up original, often provocative close readings of literary texts whose engagement with scientific (or pseudo-scientific) ideas is already well-trodden ground. In Chapter 3, she argues persuasively that Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Tempest examine both the advantages and the perils of “building a body of learning that hopes or claims to be syncretic but is not” (135), an argument that culminates in a powerful reading of the word “project” in Prospero’s epilogue (155-56). Chapter 4 offers an interpretation of Spenser’s false Florimell (The Faerie Queene III.viii) at once surprising and compelling, particularly in its attempt to link the imagery of that figure to that of the perennially puzzling scene in Isis Church (The Faerie Queene V.vii). On a few occasions, the book exhibits an over-eagerness to find alchemical metaphors where they might not actually be lurking, such as the “golden” and “brazen” worlds contrasted by Philip Sidney in his Defense of Poetry (207), much more obviously a contrast between the first and third “ages of man.” And, at times, Eggert portrays all manner of transformation as alchemical: the Kabbalah, we learn, must be “thoroughly alchemized, tried in the fire” in order to be “refined enough to be used” by Christian humanists, a metaphor that says more about the author’s preoccupations than it does about how sixteenth-century scholars understood how their habits of skimming and selective reading could sanitize dangerous texts (115).

The treatment of alchemy in Disknowledge does not extend to laboratory practices, nor to the complexity of chemical theories about the potential transmutability of matter, and the alchemical texts under discussion are a well-curated selection of vernacular English works and a handful of Latin ones, not fully representative of the rich array of alchemical writings in the period. Instead, Eggert approaches alchemy as a semantic network, and the book as a whole is far more concerned with “alchemy’s attentiveness to the power of language” (27) and its tendency, much like poetry, to traffic in tropes of likeness and substitution (33). Disknowledge doesn’t replace the foundational studies of alchemy and Paracelsianism by Walter Pagel, Allen Debus, or William Newman, and it doesn’t claim or aim to. Historians of science might well find the book’s oblique and predominantly textual engagement with alchemy frustrating or limited, particularly since Eggert often neglects to mention recent scholarship in that discipline alongside recent literary studies of Early Modern scientific thought by figures such as Jonathan Goldberg and Stephen Greenblatt. For literary scholars interested in how poets and playwrights adapt scientific discourses to their own ends, however, Disknowledge offers a great deal, not the least in its thorough-going reevaluation of what we mean when we talk about the “crisis,” or “waning,” or “counter-turn” of the late Renaissance, as well as where and how that crisis takes place. 

Jessica Wolfe
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 

[1] Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, translated by Frederick Hopman, Penguin, 1965.

[2] See Hiram Collins Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance, Scribner, 1950, and Charles Nauert, Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought, Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences 55, U of Illinois P, 1965.


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Jessica Wolfe, "Katherine Eggert, Disknowledge," Spenser Review 46.2.8 (Fall 2016). Accessed March 20th, 2018.
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