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Judith Anderson, Light and Death
by Katherine Eggert

Anderson, Judith H. Light and Death: Figuration in Spenser, Kepler, Donne, Milton. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017. x + 316 pp. ISBN: 978-0823272778. $65.00 cloth.

Light and Death investigates when idea becomes matter, and when word becomes substance. The early moderns thought such transfiguration could occur in a number of venues that are readily familiar to historians, scholars of religious studies, and literary critics, and in this book, Judith Anderson considers many of these venues in passing or at length. These include matters she has discussed elsewhere, such as the theologically important instances of Christ’s incarnation and the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. But in keeping with her previous work—including, most prominently, her splendid Translating Investments: Metaphor and the Dynamics of Cultural Change in Tudor-Stuart England (Fordham University Press, 2005)—Anderson focuses here primarily on the transmutation that occurs in the venue of rhetoric and hence of poeisis. Deeply engaged with how tropes structure the world, Anderson converses in Light and Death with recent theorists and scholars of this issue including, for example, Fernand Hallyn, George Lakoff, and Mark Johnson. Her interlocutors go much further back than this, however: she argues that scientific and rhetorical thinkers since Aristotle have taken seriously and relied upon the idea that imagining the world figuratively means understanding and even shaping the world materially.

Anderson’s central topic is analogy, a figure of speech that poses as simile (as A is to B, so C is to D) but that is closer kin to—or even, as Aristotle would have it, a variety of—metaphor. Despite its tendencies to mathematical precision and even its use in mathematical formulation, analogy, in Anderson’s view, is a bit of a rogue. Like metaphor, which can leave its tenor behind for a far-flung and perhaps counterintuitive vehicle, analogy ‘is deviant, creative, constructive, and code breaking’ (91). Light and Death’s central Chapter 4, from which I have just quoted, grounds this contention in a fascinating, comprehensive, nonlinear, and theoretically omnivorous discussion of analogy in classical to modern thought, and across the disciplines of science and rhetoric. At the heart of this chapter is a discussion of how Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes variously struggle with and embrace the way that empirical description of the natural world depends on imaginative, poetic expression whose aim ‘is to express and in this way to substantiate the ever-elusive real’ (92). This interface between the material and the abstract is not only where poetry resides, it is also where theories of analogy in the Middle Ages leap from an exercise in logic to an examination of faith. Aristotle, Varro, and Quintilian all concerned themselves with how analogical statements work (or don’t work) logically and hence mathematically, materially, or legally: if A is to B as C is to D, are A and C, or B and D, functionally or conceptually interchangeable? And to what degree do the bonds created by analogy then expose such equivalences as not equivalent at all, as socially rather than logically constructed? Anderson’s analysis of Thomas Aquinas (via Ralph McInerny) and Cardinal Cajetan (via Joshua Hochschild) establishes that analogy in its most subtle neo-Aristotelian formulations occupies a middle ground between declaring two pairs of things truly the same and declaring them merely metaphorically related. For Aquinas, corporeal light is to the senses as spiritual light is to the intellect; but spiritual light, while not being the same as physical light, is truly, properly light, not merely like light by way of analogy. This particular analogy functions by means of metaphysics and hence of faith. Bridging earthly and spiritual light, analogy also bridges matter and the ineffable.

Heavenly light takes Light and Death from theology to Kepler. In Chapter 5, Anderson describes the ‘pervasive habit of mind’ that causes Kepler to structure his Optics (a.k.a. Ad Vitellionem paralipomena) analogically. That analogical habit of mind, as it turns out, is not just Kepler’s own but one he attributes to God, who has translated divine, immaterial light into the material realm for the benefit of humans. When Kepler discovers (in Harmonices Mundi) the third harmonic law of planetary motion, in which ‘the cubes of the mean distances of any two planets from the sun are proportional to the squares of their periods of revolution’ (121), he has thus discovered the divine analogy that God has imparted in both mathematical and material form and has made visible by means of the light that makes planetary observation possible: each planet’s motion and distance from the sun are analogous to every other planet’s. That meeting of the material and the transcendent by means of analogy is also, Anderson argues, one fundamental way in which Kepler understands the optical work of the human retina. Kepler’s trope of the image appearing on the retina as a ‘picture’ not only analogizes nature to art, but also identifies the retina as a delicate interface between the physical eye and the immaterial mind. Anderson’s analysis illuminates Kepler’s famous but rather puzzling statement in the Optics that ‘analogies … are my most faithful teachers, aware of all the hidden secrets of nature’ (146). Analogies are not only vessels for thought; they bring thinking into being.

In Chapter 6, ‘Analogy, Proportion, and Death in Donne’s Anniversaries,’ Anderson argues that Kepler’s joyously and divinely ordered analogical universe is something at which Donne’s two poems about Elizabeth Drury can arrive only at length and after hard labor. The poems’ crucial word proportion indicates the key role analogy—and its absence—plays. Lacking proportion and also lacking analogy, The First Anniversarie decries the universe’s lack of coherence even while it trots out conventional poetic segments that could stand alone as ‘parts of the poem’ with a ‘separate, prescripted status’ (154): form alone does not guarantee that parts will fit together or resonate with meaning as analogy should. Brilliantly connecting that absence of meaning to the absence in this poem of Elizabeth Drury’s name—drury meaning ‘treasure’ or ‘gift’ in Middle English—Anderson argues that the speaker of The First Anniversarie experiences form as incoherent or sterile because form is now unconnected to ‘something missing, gone, and not exactly determinate: a pure earthly origin’ (164). The speaker of The Second Anniversarie, in contrast, hesitantly works his way through Keplerian geometric analogies that are not quite adequate—just as geometric ‘lines’ cannot be ‘unjoynt’ into the points that constitute them, so can Elizabeth Drury’s ‘Elements and Humors’ not be isolated in order to describe her (ll. 132-35)—in order, finally, to arrive at a quasi-Keplerian interface of body and spirit. Intricate, intelligent, and almost endlessly referential, Anderson’s reading of the two Anniversaries makes sense of these two poems both in relation to each other and in relation to natural philosophy in a way that I find more satisfying than most any other ‘materialist’ or ‘scientific’ approach out there.

Chapter 7, ‘Milton’s Twilight Zone,’ treads more familiar critical ground—darkness and light, vision and blindness, matter and transcendence in Paradise Lost. But because Anderson gets us to Milton through Aristotle, Aquinas, Bacon, Kepler, and Donne, we see these issues in a new context. As a reversal of Aquinas’s analogy between physical light/eyesight and intellective vision, the invocation to light at the beginning of Book 3 both derives from and departs from how analogies to light traditionally bridge the material and spiritual worlds (199). As a replay of Aristotle’s classical formula for analogy (A:B :: C:D, and so on), Raphael’s extended analogy describing angelic being in Book 5 deploys that loaded word, ‘transubstantiate,’ to refer ‘at once to a physiological process and to the actualizing of a structural metaphor’ (215). The effect of Anderson’s argument in this rich chapter is to nudge recent materialist readings of the poem toward matters of form, but also to imbed those formal issues in a long intellectual history that insists that form and matter have never been separable.

Perceptive readers will have noticed that this review began with Light and Death’s central chapter and that only now am I turning to the book’s beginning: its first three, much briefer chapters on the topic of death in Donne, Spenser, and Milton. To think analogically: imagine a paper bag printed on both its inner and its outer surfaces; turn the bag inside out, and read what is now the outside first. As the inside of the bag is to the outside, so are Chapters 4-7 of Light and Death to Chapters 1-3, and I am taking the unusual step in this review of recommending that this book be read (or at least re-read), as it were, inside out. Follow the course of the book’s title, in other words: read Light and then Death, not the reverse.

Read out of sequence in this fashion, the first three chapters of Light and Death prove an effective and provocative complement to the rest of the book’s placement of analogy at the binding interface of the physical and the transcendent. Chapter 1, which Anderson begins with St. Paul’s wretched cry, ‘Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ (Romans 7:24), considers how Donne’s sermons, The Faerie Queene’s Maleger episode, and Milton’s Sin and Death stubbornly insist that figuration is not abstraction: in a world of human sin, death has both form and substance. This chapter’s pages on Spenser, while few, intriguingly explain Maleger’s inextricability both from Alma (with his representing ‘ghastly embodiment’ to her form [23]) and from Arthur (who must fight Maleger not magically, but as an embodied man, in propria persona sua). In Chapter 2, ‘Mutability and Mortality in The Faerie Queene,’ Anderson reminds us that Mutability, daughter of Titans, is Maleger’s half-sister. Physical change, decay, and death thus reach back from the Mutability Cantos to Alma’s castle and its ostensible devotion to form over substance. Anderson reminds us, too, of how the speaker named ‘Maister Spenser’ in Lodowyck Bryskett’s Discourse of Civill Life argues for the mortality of the intellective soul; death may even undo that most Platonic of forms. Chapter 3, ‘Satanic Ethos in Paradise Lost,’ has less to say about physicality, but its central concern—what is original about Satan?—lends itself to the ensuing chapters’ discussion of analogy as a metaphor that asserts chains of likeness but not univocal sameness. Arguing that in Paradise Lost, ethos is identity, Anderson makes the case that the origin of Satan’s identity is also his original and originating sin, envy. A sin of relationality, envy also requires a sense of self-knowledge and self-desert. Thus Satan’s envy invokes the uncertain question of what kind of unity or blurring of selfhood God has in mind when he declares he shall, in the post-apocalyptic future, be ‘all in all’ (3.341).

Her themes of death, light, figuration, and analogy generate, as Anderson puts it in the introduction to Light and Death, the ‘associated and extended interests’ of ‘the relation of literature and mathematics, the methodology of thought and argument, and the processes of narrative, discovery, and interpretation’ (1). Those associated interests are not only what Anderson explores in this book, they are also what she displays and works out through the course of this book’s multilayered chapters, each of which extends tendrils to every other. Light and Death is not an easy or speedy read, for Anderson unfolds her argument as if we were accompanying her in those very ‘processes of narrative, discovery, and interpretation’. One should read this book to find Anderson thinking, not to find what Anderson has thought. But the challenge is worth it. This book’s meditative, cogitating, interallusive form demonstrates what Anderson herself explicates in the early modern authors she knows and reads so well: form is being, and style creates.


Katherine Eggert

University of Colorado Boulder


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Cite as:

Katherine Eggert, "Judith Anderson, Light and Death," Spenser Review 48.1.8 (Winter 2018). Accessed May 24th, 2018.
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