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Ayesha Ramachandran and Melissa E. Sanchez, eds., Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual, Vol. XXX
by Gordon Teskey

Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual. XXX. “Spenser and ‘The Human.’” Edited by Ayesha Ramachandran and Melissa E. Sanchez. AMS Press, Inc., 2015. ISBN: 978-0404192006. $178.50 cloth. 

In some periods of intellectual work—for example, in Spenser studies of the 1960s and 70s—the meaning of the human in the humanities is not fully a problem, that is, something prominent and sticking out, an issue demanding attention, either for suppressing or enhancing our pride in the human and the humane. Spenserians could get on with their demanding scholarly work confident it is deeply humane because of its concern with the most deeply human creation: poetry. There was, on the whole, no need to ask what the human in the humanities is, least of all for Spenser, who never raises the issue explicitly, and in whose work the boundaries between humans and animals, between humans and faeries, between humans and concepts, between humans and things, and even between humans and gods seem so permeable. Spenser is preoccupied with morals and all that resist them, that is, with the circumstantial complexities of being human, not with the essence of the human. It is not apparent Spenser thinks there is such an essence, apart from every human’s possession of an immortal soul, of which he has nothing to say, not even in the Legend of Holiness. For him, the important boundary for us worldings is not between the human and the non-human but between the gentleman or “noble person” and the rascal many. For Spenserians in the past, therefore, the permeability of human boundaries wasn’t a problem, a thing to think about and worry about. 

But in the present intellectual climate, infused with the writings of Giorgio Agamben and Bruno Latour, among others—Donna Haraway, Quentin Meillassoux, Timothy Morton, N. Katherine Hayles and Graham Harman, to name some of the many thinkers cited here—it is. Accordingly, this volume of Spenser Studies brings together older and younger scholars to meditate on the central intellectual issue in the humanities at the present time: the category of the human in its relation to objects, things, machines, consciousness, and animal life.

The collection is intelligently assembled and introduced by Ayesha Ramachandran and Melissa E. Sanchez. They also conduct, in learned and insightful essays that make up the collection’s first section, what they term a “dialogue on method” with reference to the ideology of humanism, “Humanism and its Discontents” (Ramachandran) and “Posthumanist Spenser?” (Sanchez). Ramachandran and Sanchez rightly expect the collection will be useful “to scholars studying the intellectual history of the concept of ‘the human’ and to recent theoretical work in posthumanist studies” (vii), not least because the category of the human was called into question in the sixteenth century, as it still is, by the often genocidal encounter with native peoples in the Americas and Oceania, and by the horrifying traffic in African slaves. Of course, the mayhem of war and human displacement does this as well, as we are seeing today.

As for Spenser himself, especially in The Faerie Queene, the most casual reader will see that the category of the human—Ramachandran points out how seldom the word is used in the poet’s corpus—has porous boundaries: “faeries, automatons, satyrs, friendly lions, amorous rivers, and talking trees are just a few of the actors that we encounter in his poetry” (ix). In twenty-three essays (including the five responses after each section) the authors address the limits of the human, the politics of the human, the human in relation to bare life, the human in relation to animals, and finally the human aesthetically and ontologically considered in relation to artifacts, matter, and things, thus probing the conventional, biological limits of what is thought of as human. This last is what Julian Yates, in the response essay that closes the volume, calls “Spenser’s Infra-Human Aesthetic.”

One is tempted to say the volume hardly needs a reviewer because it does a good job of reviewing itself, as is to be hoped for in a collection of this length with so many authors. There are the two fine essays by the editors already mentioned, plus their joint introduction. David Quint responds to the essays in Section II, “Human Limits”; Joseph Loewenstein to those in Section III, “The Politics of Humanism and Humanity”; Stephen Guy-Bray to those in Section IV, “Theorizing Life”; Bruce Boehrer to those in Section V, “Animal Life”; and, as mentioned, Julian Yates to the closing Section VI, “Aesthetics, Objects, Things, and Matter.” What is more, as is standard for Spenser Studies, the essays come equipped with abstracts, which do much of the reviewer’s summary work, while the respondents, all of them absorbingly responsive, fulfill the reviewer’s duty for further reflection. What is left to do except some inhumane caviling and carping, or picking out favorites?

Yet it is hard to pick favorites among these essays, especially under the pressure of time, for this is a collection that Spenserians, including your reviewer, will be returning to often in the future. On a first reading, the essays that caught my attention were William Oram on laughter breaking human ethical boundaries by convulsively exposing the body, Tullia Giersberg on language and humanity, James Ross MacDonald on the limits of holiness, Anthony Welch on anthropophagy, Russ Leo on “The Species-Life of Worldlings” (that magnificent Spenserian word), Steven Swarbrick on friendship as undoing “human-exceptionalist ontology,” Andrew Wallace on the stirrings of radical posthumanism in The Faerie Queene, Sean Henry on the imagery of goats and the more-than-figurative relation between humans and animals that they imply, and Joseph Campana’s “Spenser’s Inhumanity,” which is especially strong on current criticism relevant to the concerns of this volume, for example, Chris Barrett’s essay on the dragon in Book I and the limits of allegory, published in Spenser Studies 28 (2013).[1] Campana reaches far back in the critical tradition to show how it adumbrates and strives toward these concerns; and he reminds us, to speak of more recent criticism, that Elizabeth Bellamy, Elizabeth Harvey, and Joseph Loewenstein held a panel on “Animal Being” at the International Spenser Society meeting in Toronto in 2005, later published in Spenser Studies (2007).[2] In the course of his own meditation he makes the theoretically challenging connection between the philosophical theme of a distributed and decentered realm of the living and the question of literary figuration: “in addition to the array of often recalcitrant life forms and unusually active (even vocal) objects and materials in Spenser’s corpus, literary devices especially associated with allegory, such as personification and prosopopoeia, render humanity through conspicuously inhuman systems of figuration” (278). The best moments in this collection occur when the analysis turns in this manner from thematic concerns to their poetic expression.  

An attractive feature of the collection is the feeling of logical progression towards its final section, in which some of the original themes set forth by Ramachandran and Sanchez are taken up again. Yates says that Spenser was “not particularly interested in something called ‘the human’” (415). But by this point in our reading we have come to expect such a statement to be the beginning of a discussion, not something that might threaten to end it. To the supposition there is an “ontological category to which only the animals we name homo sapiens belong,” Spenser’s works may be offered as evidence to the contrary. That is something all the essays in the collection show, addressing not only The Faerie Queene—the main text under scrutiny—but also Fowre Hymnes (Matthew Zarnoweiki), A Vewe of the Present State of Ireland (Katarzyna Lecky and John Walters), and Prosopopoia (Bradley Tuggle).

The essays in the final section draw this transgressive negation of human limits into the open, especially in relation to art, that radical othering of the centered, human self. Rachel Eisendrath writes on a human subjectivity that is always “going outside” itself in aesthetic contemplation. Michael West writes on the contemplation of artifacts (Britomart at the House of Busyrane, Artegal and the False Florimell) and the dialectic of wonder and cognition. Tiffany Jo Werth, in a wide-ranging essay, writes on the Spenserian word for historical and moral decline, degendered. She discusses this metamorphic word in connection with the jointed iron man Talus and the myth of Pyrrha and Deucalion, throwing over their shoulders stones from which new human beings grow. In the proem to Book V Spenser says that this tale has gone into reverse in our “‘stonie’ age,” with humans turning to stone. They also turn into iron, as we see from machine-like iron man Talus’s horrific slaughter, which makes it impossible, as she wittily observes in allusion to the Aeneid, to distinguish “the arms from the man” (408). “Talus’s actions,” says Werth, “are our actions.” “As Talus lends complexity to prosopopoeia, it becomes less clear where the human ends and the thing begins, what is the poem, and what is us. When his ‘yron flayle’ breaks Malengin’s bones ‘as small as sandy grayle … and did his bowels disentrayle’ (V.ix.19), we are entangled in the carnage” (408).

One could point to many passages in the collection of comparable intellectual and expressive power. This one leads to the conclusion that “Talus’s jointed nature portrays a lively congruent and transactional—as opposed to static hierarchical—view of ‘the human’” (408). 

 

Gordon Teskey
Harvard University

 


[1] Chris Barrett, “Cetaceous Sin and Dragon Death: The Faerie Queene, Natural Philosophy, and the Limits of Allegory,” Spenser Studies, vol. 28, 2013, pp. 145-164.

[2] See Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, “Spenser’s ‘Open,’” Spenser Studies, vol. 22, 2007, pp. 227-241, Joseph Loewenstein, “Gryll’s Hoggish Mind,” Spenser Studies, vol. 22, 2007, pp. 243-256, and Elizabeth D. Harvey, “Nomadic Souls: Pythagoras, Spenser, Donne,” Spenser Studies, vol. 22, 2007, pp. 257-279.

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47.1.13

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Gordon Teskey, "Ayesha Ramachandran and Melissa E. Sanchez, eds., Spenser Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual, Vol. XXX," Spenser Review 47.1.13 (Winter 2017). Accessed June 22nd, 2017.
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