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How Does Matter Feel?: Affect and Substance in Recent Renaissance Criticism
by David Landreth

Drew Daniel, The Melancholy Assemblage: Affect and Epistemology in the English Renaissance. New York: Fordham UP, 2013. xvi + 309 pp. ISBN: 978-0823251285. $81.00 cloth.

Goldberg, Jonathan. The Seeds of Things: Theorizing Sexuality and Materiality in Renaissance Representations. New York: Fordham UP, 2009. xiv + 267 pp. ISBN: 978-0823230679. $82.00 cloth.


We insist on integrating our feelings into our environment—not only in seeking sympathy, affirmation, or reassurance from the fellow feelers who make up our social world, but in locating feeling in the extra-human conditions of our material world. An “atmosphere” may denote the vast envelope of gases surrounding a planet, or, just as readily, a local environment suffused with feeling. The language of meteorology in turn expresses our interior states of feeling, and suggests the way another’s manner produces feelings in us: when we cite a person’s sunny disposition, we don’t mean that she feels the way the sun feels as it shines, but that she makes us feel the way we feel being shined upon. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have argued that these meteorological usages—sunny, warm, frosty, breezy, tempestuous, and so on—are necessary and inevitable metaphors for the articulation of feeling.[1] The pathetic fallacy, for Lakoff and Johnson, is a condition of thought and a precondition of language. And “feeling” itself is such a foundational metaphor: it expresses affect as a sensation on the skin.

Or, rather, these usages are metaphors now, and the pathetic fallacy is the blunder we moderns commit by taking them literally. In the model of embodiment that the Renaissance inherited from antiquity, these usages are literal expressions of the material continuity between an individual’s interiority and the exterior world—between temperament and temperature. Feeling enacts the porosity of the self’s contents to its environment and vice versa. In Renaissance feeling, the skin participates not only as a sensitive surface but as an affective threshold. The stuff of affect passes in and out of the gates of skin, transpiring subtly through the pores or, embedded in grosser matter, consumed and excreted through our orifices.

Understood in such materialist terms, affect becomes both interpersonal and impersonal: powerfully integrative of individuals into their social and physical environments at a level more subtle and pervasive than that of language or behavior, but also disturbingly alienated from the individuated subject. My feelings, in this model, are not properly mine, they are not generated from my being in response to my experience, to be contained in me until I get over them and they cease to be; they are just passing through me on their way from somewhere else to somewhere else. From Petrarch’s Canzoniere to Thomas Wright’s Passions of the Mind in Generall, a foundational metaphor of emotional experience in the Renaissance is that of a fragile boat, the conscious mind, tossed by passionate waves and winds, adrift upon a boundless, turbulent, inhuman sea.

The implications of the pre-modern model of affective materiality for our understanding of early modern individuation have generated some of the new century’s most compelling criticism of Renaissance culture, in a mode that Gail Kern Paster has called “historical phenomenology” and the “ecology of the passions”: key works there include Paster’s own Humoring the Body (U Chicago P, 2004), Michael Schoenfeldt’s Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England (Cambridge UP, 1999), Mary Floyd-Wilson’s English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge UP, 2003), and the essay collections Reading the Early Modern Passions (eds. Paster, Rowe, & Floyd-Wilson, U Penn P, 2004), Politics and the Passions, 1500-1850 (eds. Kahn, Saccamano, & Coli, Princeton UP, 2006), and Environment and Embodiment in Early Modern England (eds. Floyd-Wilson & Sullivan, Palgrave, 2007).

Simultaneous with the emergence of the “ecology of the passions” in early modern studies has been the “turn to affect” in studies of modern, twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture. “Affect” in this criticism operates on a similar register to that of Renaissance environmental humoralism, as simultaneously interpersonal and impersonal, and its theorization likewise grounds itself in an ontological account of material substance as affect’s medium: two recent, complementary collections in this vein, The Affect Theory Reader and New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, Politics (eds. Gregg & Seigworth and Coole & Frost, respectively; both Duke UP 2010) follow the contractions and dispersals of affective matter from individual feeling to social practice. Despite their homology, though, the early modern and late modern criticisms of affect have rarely interacted. Ought they to, or need they to? Is there something to be gained for the analysis of contemporary feeling from the superseded biochemical model found in Galen and Thomas Wright that isn’t available in the vast corpus of Deleuze, the pivotal authority for modern affect theory (of whom more below)?[2] Is it appropriate, conversely, to import anachronistic models of materialized affect to consider Renaissance texts, whose native account of that very phenomenon is so robust?

Clearly I wouldn’t be posing such questions in this forum if I didn’t think the answer was “yes”; but I do want to acknowledge it as a question worth posing, in that the work of traversing these discrete periodizations of affect is demanding to contemplate and to read, and in that those laborious demands might legitimately be regarded as perverse, obfuscating something the Renaissance text is at pains to make clear about itself. It seems to me that the opening for contemporary affect theory in our criticism arises not at moments where texts rehearse the Galenic model, but at the point where a text seems to push away from that model, searching for some other way of feeling in the world. And English Renaissance texts do make such a move more often than the diagnostic cohesiveness of “historical phenomenology” would suggest they needed to, as two recent studies of feeling in the Renaissance demonstrate.

The books I’ll discuss here, Drew Daniel’s The Melancholy Assemblage: Affect and Epistemology in the English Renaissance and Jonathan Goldberg’s The Seeds of Things: Theorizing Sexuality and Materiality in Renaissance Representations, each focus on an affect recognizable within Galenic taxonomy, Daniel on the froward passion of melancholy and Goldberg on the toward passion of desire.[3] But each critic demonstrates that the early modern structure of feeling he attends to exceeds the frame imposed by that taxonomy, and opens itself to the perspectives afforded by contemporary affect studies.

For Daniel, modern theories of affect are useful to address early modern texts because the Galenic model is insufficient to explain early modern melancholy—not only insufficient in our retrospection, but insufficient in the eyes of early modern observers and analysts of melancholy behavior. For Goldberg, Galenism is a coercive and heteronormative discourse, which the writers he studies actively turn away from in order to develop new accounts of sameness and difference among desiring bodies through “aleatory materialism.” The wellspring of aleatory materialism is Lucretius’s De rerum natura (itself a transmission of Epicurus’s teachings, otherwise attested only in fragments), but Goldberg finds it useful to articulate the radical decentering that his writers develop out of Lucretius through an account of the fortunes of aleatory materialism in the twentieth century, focused on Deleuze.

Daniel and Goldberg each also offer correctives to Deleuze, however—correctives that arise both within the scope of historical difference within the field of affect and within the scope of twentieth-century theory. The problem that Goldberg sees is not with “Deleuzianism” as a philosophical position but with the qualities of Deleuze’s own thought, which he argues was too constrained by a vestigial binarism to realize the full potential of his disorienting account of matter. He finds that potential better mobilized in Foucault’s late work on sexuality and self-care, a project which Goldberg presents as implicitly building upon and correcting Deleuze’s work.

For Daniel, the problem that melancholy poses for Galenic, material causality is ultimately a problem with monism—the philosophical stance that asserts that the matter of thought is no different from physical matter. Affect for Daniel is a nexus through which matter and mind engage each other, but not a point at which matter and mind show themselves indistinguishable, as Deleuze might claim. Even as Daniel employs Deleuzian concepts, he redresses the limitation he finds in them by a turn of the affective screw back toward Freud’s epistemology.

Each of these books is fascinating, thrilling, and challenging. Reading them alongside and against each other makes plain how diverse and divergent the relations among thinking, feeling, being, experience, and writing can be, even between two works that have a great deal in common. What’s at stake between these two critics (neither of whom cites the other) is, in one dimension, the adequation of matter to lived being—does an account of matter suffice as an explanatory principle for lived being, or must there be something outside of, or an aporia within, matter’s scope? Conversely, is lived being a site where matter manifests meaning and value, or is our experience an epiphenomenon, or an imposition, or an intrusion upon an order of being to which our meanings and values are insignificant or perverse? And complementary to the metaphysical question of the sufficiency or insufficiency of matter and life to each other, as it’s posed across the two books, is the directly affective (and ineluctably aesthetic) question of the tone of matter. Is matter joyous or dour, evasive or forward, lacking or bountiful, liberation or constraint? Are the harmonies of its coherence in a major or a minor key? Daniel and Goldberg each address these questions in terms of the conceptions of matter they find present in Renaissance texts, but both critics draw out powerful resonances between their texts and contemporary theories (and practices) of embodiment. I’ll turn first to the frowardness of matter, via Daniel.

As Burton’s Anatomy so amply demonstrates, melancholy is the most examined, and least resolvable, of the humoral dispositions. Daniel demonstrates that this provoking irresolution of melancholy as an object arises from a dichotomy between two contrary accounts of melancholy’s origin and its effects on the human individual, the “material” or medical account and the “genial” account. The medical account, given its most enduring form by Galen, associates melancholy with the element of earth, asserts that (like the other humors) it arises in digestion, and links its temperamental preponderance to pensiveness, lassitude, hallucination, and despair. The genial account arises in a remark once attributed to Aristotle, that the most eminent producers of culture—poets, philosophers, artists, the great civilizer Heracles himself—have been melancholy in temperament, and suffered the maladies associated with that imbalance.

In this account melancholy is the burden, but also the mark, of individual genius; it further complicates the paradoxical relations among artist, artwork, model, and Muse already embedded in the concept of “genius” (in which genius is simultaneously the idiosyncratic vision and style of the artistic individual, a gift shared with that individual by some higher power of which the genius partakes, and the universal appeal of his artwork to the rest of his culture), but it also offers a semiotic and somatic handle for the concept of genius to those who stand outside its charmed circle in puzzlement and awe. This doubling of loci classici, between an account of materialist determinism and one of prestigious individual achievement, solicits ontological analysis but precludes its reaching any conclusion; and it confers upon sullen indolence the sign of native brilliance and invaluable productivity.

As Daniel argues, the provocative doubleness of melancholy’s ontology solicits an immediate, epistemological attempt to interpret the sincerity of melancholy behaviors. Are they produced in affect, or in affectation? Are they show, or is there something within that passes their show? All of these, Daniel asserts, are inevitable questions to ask of individual melancholics and of melancholy as a category; but, he suggests, they will never get answers, because melancholy is not a stable object of inquiry, either as a category or in its individual manifestations. Rather, melancholy is an assemblage, in the sense Deleuze and Guattari have articulated: a heterogeneous agglomeration of earthen matter, authoritative and contradictory expertises, imitable and endlessly imitated postures and costumes, incomparable artistic achievement, well-earned ridicule, and interminable speculation upon each of the other elements incorporated into the mass. New elements are constantly assimilated into the assemblage, while others are constantly cast off. Daniel’s central point in positing the assemblage is that spectatorship, and speculation, are as much a part of melancholy as is the hand under the chin or the cloak of inky black. Melancholy behaviors solicit an interpretation which they defy, and in so doing produce an audience—and even, Daniel argues, a sociability—that is incorporated by the melancholic’s performance.

But, Daniel goes on to assert, just as assemblage affords a more capacious and dynamic understanding of melancholy’s antisocial posture as socially productive, so too can that new understanding of melancholy expand the concept of assemblage. Although Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia articulates “assemblage” on an ontological plane that is explicitly opposed to epistemology in general and psychoanalysis in particular, Daniel suggests that, in incorporating the dynamics of surface and depth, melancholy ostentation and interpretive speculation, the melancholy assemblage assimilates and indeed requires epistemological, psychoanalytic work.

At a number of points in the book Daniel simply says he will “bracket” the discrepancy between orthodox Freudian analysis and the concepts that Deleuze and Guattari use to turn that orthodoxy upside down; at the close of his Introduction he offers, more promisingly, to render a “push-and-pull” between the two methods, comparable to that between the material and genial models of melancholy within the texts he studies.[4] In his chapters, Daniel’s coordination of Deleuze (with and without Guattari) and Freud is more often syncretic than oppositional—he picks up one where the other leaves off, as it suits the flow of his thought. But the promise of methodological dynamism recurs in a dense and electrifying passage of the Epilogue, in which, after a whirlwind history of the philosophical battles between dualism and monism, Daniel delivers a stinging rebuke to contemporary thinkers such as Graham Harman who would obviate epistemological inquiry by subsuming thought and language into substance. Mounting a cogent (and, in the “new materialist” context of affect studies, valuably unfashionable) defense of dualism as the probing of inevitable aporias in our understanding of matter, Daniel posits that “Melancholy names a historically specific early modern epistemology effect within and upon what can show up affectively as matter” (239, his italics), in which the phenomenological “showing up” of feeling is at once the surfacing of matter into knowledge and the projection of knowledge onto matter, a membrane upon which knowledge and matter press from opposite sides, each as if seeking to feel the other’s pressure.

The Melancholy Assemblage is sophisticated, acute, and often brilliant in its arguments. Daniel offers a generous number of case studies: the first chapter examines the conventional posture attributed to melancholics—the chin propped by the hand—as it’s represented in German engravings and English miniatures, plus two twentieth-century photographs (a self-portrait by Bas Jan Ader and a scientist’s image of a downcast monkey in a cage); the second considers the attempt to distinguish affect from affectation, sincerity from fashion, as the work of sociability in Love’s Labour’s Lost; the third and fourth pursue that inquiry into the darker registers of The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet, respectively; the fifth posits assemblage as the melancholy textuality both of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and of Benjamin’s Arcades Project; and the sixth offers melancholy as a lens for scrutinizing the willful cancellation of self and social space in Samson Agonistes.

Daniel is a patient, searching, supple reader of Burton. He excels in moving fluidly between close and distant readings of the Anatomy’s inexhaustible torrent of prose, all the while explicating to his reader both the advantages and the limitations of each of the methodological postures he adopts in relation to the text. To me the chapter is a revelation—admittedly I am not deeply read in Burton studies, but I find it exemplary in its analytic acuity, its imaginative sympathy, and its negotiations of scale. I recommend it to anyone interested, not just in the Anatomy, but in the immersive bigness of any prodigious book, The Faerie Queene certainly included. The Shakespeare chapters are each strong in their analyses and compelling in their arguments, but the one I most enjoy is the climactic Hamlet reading: a rich, subtle, and moving demonstration of the affective community that Hamlet forges with the theatrical audience through the convention of the aside, as an utterance that evades the ears of those nearby to seek a hearing in some elsewhere.

Though the Samson chapter offers many local insights, and I am convinced that its diagnosis of Samson as melancholic is apt, its argument is a bit of an anticlimax for the book. The chapter was evidently conceived about ten years ago to engage the post-9/11 contretemps as to whether we should read Samson as a terrorist. Though Daniel apologizes for the chapter’s arrival at that party after everyone else has left, he does not offer a less time-sensitive occasion within Milton studies as the argument’s reason to be; while, in the context of the book, the argument reiterates several claims and turns already made in earlier chapters, especially the Merchant chapter, covering some of the same ground in the company of a different protagonist.

Like that of many literary-critical books (my own most of all), the Introduction to The Melancholy Assemblage reads as a hodgepodge of pregnant anecdotes, intellectual-historical premises, and ex post facto justifications for the key terms that will emerge from the chapters to come, as if those key terms were determined by the conjunction of the premises rather than by the conceptual work of coordinating the divergent departures of the chapters from those premises. The Epilogue is much more forceful, and much more succinct, in explicating how the book fits together and what it has accomplished. And I find the first, art-historical chapter to be the most uneven of the book’s chapters. Although the chapter begins by locating the fad for the hand-to-chin posture historically, as a convention radiating out from Dürer’s Melencolia I, by the end of the chapter Daniel attempts to construe the posture instead as determined by the (universal, transhistorical) somatic experience of infants and even nonhuman primates. Rather than interrogating the ontological bifurcation of melancholy’s origins, this move to psychological positivism simply supplies a third origin myth, one no more persuasive than the two classical ones. Within Daniel’s interpretations of individual images the move from iconology (which Daniel allies to ontology) to psychoanalysis can seem arbitrary, and his iconology itself is not as sure-handed as is his close reading of texts.

Daniel’s prose is intensely and insistently styled, sometimes in counterproductive ways. The introduction and first chapter often drift into distracting cleverness or bravado, and are replete with “Block That Metaphor!”-ready conceits (such as the rendering of the intellectual history of melancholy as an epidemic contagion, which muddies rather than elucidates the means by which the melancholy assemblage assimilates new concepts and actors over time, and entails a jarringly glib citation of Empedocles as “Patient Zero”). By the Love’s Labour’s Lost chapter, though, the ingenuity of his expression and the power of his thought are working fluently together, and the quality of writing and of argument becomes exhilarating. I encourage readers put off by those early pages to keep going (or skim ahead) to the richly rewarding core of the book.

I find Daniel’s argumentative strategy, which works to shift the register of melancholic analysis from ontology and self-containment to epistemology and sociability through the contingently accretive mechanism of assemblage, both compelling and productive. But every method creates its own blind spots, and Daniel’s sometimes leads him to look past more direct and determined interactions between matter and mind that are suggested by his materials. I’d like to dilate on one such occasion that struck me early in the book, a road not taken in the analysis that might enrich the overarching claims of the argument.

In his analysis of Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I, Daniel turns from a very fine reading of the hunk of stone on the left side of the image as melancholy in elemental, earthen form to address the slumping winged figure on the right in psychoanalytic terms (is she modeled on the artist’s wife or his mother, or on an Oedipal conflation of the two?). To move from considering the thing to considering the figure is here to move from ontology to epistemology. The relation between the two elements of the image, left underdetermined in a paragraph break, is presumably either that of allegorical attribute to personification, of externalized symptom to interior neurosis, or of haphazardly constellated units within an assemblage.

But this dichotomy between ontologized stuff and psychologized figure, which the concept of assemblage permits and effectively promotes (the assemblage does not inquire into what it incorporates, does not care about what is proper to each of its elements save as a vector of further agglomeration or dispersion, is indifferent to their differences), begs important questions about the ontology of the figure and the psychology of its relation to stuff. Daniel calls the winged figure at the center of Melencolia I an “angel.” It can’t be an angel; as Isabella points out to Angelo in Measure for Measure, angels don’t have spleens:

                        man, proud man,

            … Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d

            (His glassy essence), like an angry ape

            Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

            As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,

            Would all themselves laugh mortal.

                                                            (Riverside, 2.2.117-123)


Angels may know pure joy and sorrow, but, lacking “our spleens,” they are ontologically incapable of the debased affective performances—ridicule, fantasy, pouting, helpless rage—engendered in us by the splenetic humours of bile and melancholy. So what kind of being is Dürer’s winged melancholic? Daniel cites an allusion to the image in Benjamin, who refers to the central figure as “a pensive genius” (38); rather than immediately translating “genius” into “angel” as Daniel does, I would follow Benjamin in categorizing the figure as a genius—the best self of a human individual who is not himself represented mimetically in the image, his governing idiosyncrasy (like Guyon’s Shamefastnesse), his creative agency. The tools scattered at the winged figure’s feet are sculptor’s tools, as is the compass she still idly holds in the hand not supporting her chin. She is the genius of an artist, and the obdurate block is what she and he are failing to make into a statue. Genial melancholy and material melancholy confront each other in the agon of the image, and matter is winning.

How should we understand the affective dynamic between matter and genius that Dürer’s title names as Melencolia? I do think Daniel’s turn to Freud is apt here—not for the sake of countering ontological investigation with psychoanalysis, as Daniel does, but rather in order to coordinate them. Freud turns to ontology in his definition of the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. There he asserts that matter has an entropic tendency toward inertia and disorganization, which manifests itself in our psychic experience as the impulse to release the stuff of ourselves from the exactions of organic life and let it make its own quietus. Daniel addresses the death drive to coordinate his analyses of melancholy and of masochism in his Merchant and Samson chapters, but does not engage the ontological claim that propels Freud’s epistemological innovation—that we are made of something that would rather not be us, that we do not live as prisoners of matter but as the prisons of matter, and that we feel and react to the yearning of our being for our unmaking.

This is, it seems to me, the affect of the block of stone in Dürer’s engraving, of which Daniel declares, “if Earth is the inmost element of melancholy itself, then the block incarnates a thingly melancholy which, however geometrically wrought, is precognitive, even pre-affective: the mute and still lump of the block constitutes a primal instance of earth as the elemental bearer of the melancholy of matter itself” (39). This is superb; but what Daniel doesn’t acknowledge is that the block, though “geometrically wrought” in its hewing from the quarry, is succeeding in not being further wrought into an artwork. The winged figure had intended to impose another figure upon the block, a body in some particular posture. The melancholy block refuses her making, and its refusal imposes the melancholy posture upon her figure. Her gaze is not so downcast as not still to be looking sidelong at the block, as if reflecting that it is probably right to refuse her. Her neck slackens under the weight of her acquiescence to the block; her head takes on the ponderousness of the block’s mass, her hand feels and props up that en-skulled weight rather than feeling and conducting the emergence of a new figure from the block. In their thoughtless will to inertia and unmaking, and their power to impose that will upon individuals through the medium of affect, Dürer’s melancholy block and Freud’s death-driven materiality are one.

As Daniel remarks in his closing pages, what links the melancholy of the matter we’re made up of to the melancholy of the assemblage that we make up is that both will persist after we’re gone. We may feel even sorrier for the weary matter dragooned into our liveliness when we remark, as Hamlet does, how fleeting a respite is offered to it by our own deaths. Soon enough each morsel released from our being will be subsumed into some other organism, bacterium or worm or daisy, and forced to go through the motions of another life. Or, we might celebrate that recyclicality of being, alongside Lucretius and Goldberg.

In The Seeds of Things the degradation of phenomenal forms (one’s own death most emphatically included) is not a symptom of universal decay, the entropic inevitability of matter’s return to inertia or nothingness, but a manifestation of matter’s microscopic generativity, its ceaseless casting up of new forms from the stuff of old ones. The Epicurean universe tends in its very capriciousness continuously to affirm being and to renew it in every moment, utterly rejecting the cosmic death drive that Lucretius finds encoded in the delusive chains of fate.

To begin his poem, Lucretius invokes the endless productivity of matter as “Venus.” Goldberg attends to a current of Lucretian, “aleatory materialism” (a phrase of Althusser) that circulates among baroque Italian paintings, twentieth-century French philosophy, and English Renaissance poetry and prose, and finds surging through that current an erotics that permeates the being of the universe. The Lucretian Venus, argues Goldberg, is the principle of coherence and transformation across all the scalar levels of being, from the imperceptibly tiny to the unthinkably huge. The Venus that we experience as sexuality is the operation on a human scale of the same perpetual unfolding of sameness and difference at work in the interactions of atoms or of galaxies.

Lucretius demonstrates that, in a universe produced through the atomic swerve, the governing structures that humans have attributed to the sequence of events—divine intervention, fate, teleology, even the reality of future and past—are delusional impositions on the freedom that all being, sentient or not, enjoys. Goldberg shows that the same is true of the categories and strictures that we have imposed upon desire. Lucretius presents a radically disoriented universe, characterized not by up or down, left or right, center or periphery, but by a universal desire that precedes not only individual subjects and their object choices but individuation per se. This material sexuality, argues Goldberg, exceeds the ramifying binarisms of “orientation” that seek to constrain and sort sexuality as reproductive or unproductive, homo or hetero, normative or deviant. The Lucretian Venus desires being, in all its sameness and in all its difference, and so sustains being infinitely.

As is fitting for a book about the swerve, The Seeds of Things is full of surprising, felicitous encounters. The first of these is with St. Paul. It’s hard to think of a more apparently perverse turn of thought than an Epicurean Paul, or a Pauline Lucretius; but Goldberg argues forcefully for such a turn in two paintings of Paul’s conversion, the well-known Caravaggio in S. Maria del Popolo and an early Tintoretto now in Washington. Using these paintings to articulate a subterranean relationship between Epicureanism and Paul’s attention to the desirous body and its eschatological renewal, Goldberg probes the ways in which perversion and conversion may alike be disoriented into the terms of the atomic swerve. The second chapter, as I’ve mentioned, looks at the possibilities and limitations of Deleuze’s thought in its twentieth-century context. Here Goldberg proposes Foucault’s late work on askesis as the most effective deployment of “aleatory materialism” into the problem of sexuality.

The third chapter coordinates Lucretius and Foucault to produce an intense and revelatory reading of the unfolding of sexuality across the three books of the 1590 Faerie Queene. The project of “Spenserian askesis,” Goldberg argues, begins in Book I as a working through of the relation between spirituality and embodied sexuality posited in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The Redcrosse Knight deals with the problem in ascetic terms, as he comes to discipline both his own sexuality and his disastrous misapprehension of Una’s sexuality into the heteronormative prospect of marriage. But, Goldberg shows, Una and Arthur are together more thoughtful about the problem as a problem than Redcrosse is, probing in their conversation the larger mystery of desire that underlies the erratic phenomenal manifestations of sexuality.

In Book II, the world of desire and the individuated sexuality of the protagonist are more markedly divergent and less able to accommodate each other. To Guyon’s waking mind, constantly striving to escape his own embodiment, sexuality is schizoid, either sanitized into blankness or so vile (to him, at least) as to be unrecognizable. The world can only manifest its desirability and its affection for Guyon, as the careful, gorgeous angel of Canto 8, while Guyon’s censorious intellect is unconscious. There has to be a better way, and that better way is the trajectory of Book III. In Britomart’s quest and in the Garden of Adonis, we escape from the invidious binarisms of gender, orientation, and mastery that sustained both Redcrosse’s disciplining of embodiment and Guyon’s horror of embodiment. Instead we directly encounter the ecstatic productivity of the poem’s material world, to which the poem has so circuitously guided us and now challenges us to accede. “Saying yes is the more difficult task,” writes Goldberg, than either assimilating sexuality to normative strictures or renouncing it; “pleasure is the difficult object of the quest” (116).

The third chapter coordinates Margaret Cavendish and Lucy Hutchinson, attending to what the two have in common as seventeenth-century women “writing matter” and to the inflection of that sameness by the manifest differences of status, political allegiance, and natural philosophy between them. In a breathtaking passage that integrates the vagaries of paleography with those of aesthetics, publication, natural philosophy, and desire, Goldberg presents Cavendish’s self-consciousness of the crabbed singularities of her letterforms as continuous with her idiosyncratic atomism on the one hand and her intellectually aggressive bashfulness on the other. Scholarly publication, fantasies of female union, and marital intimacy are all sites for Cavendish to gratify her omnivorous and elusive desire for communion with samenesses, with differences, and with the nature of things. Turning to Hutchinson, Goldberg compares her work in translating De rerum natura to that of writing her husband’s biography. Both works manifest a complex dynamic of self-effacement and self-assertion that hinges on the Lucretian concept of imago. Though Hutchinson claimed to repent her work with Lucretius (while circulating it), Epicureanism affords her the terms to imagine and express the affective interpenetration of her and her husband’s being, across the apparent bounds of personhood, of death, and of writing.

The final chapter addresses Paradise Lost. Raphael’s own loveliness, his place at the climax of Milton’s monist continuum of being, and his delightful telling of angelic sex together mark the “affable archangel” as the most splendid example of the disoriented, material sexuality that Goldberg has been analyzing. But Goldberg moves from that high point to consider how not only hidebound Milton critics, but Paradise Lost itself, fail to sustain the richness of that angelic sexuality, falling back onto the invidious categories of hierarchy, sodomy, gender, and narcissism that are eclipsed in the joyful interpenetration of sameness and difference that is sex for Raphael.

The Seeds of Things is a diamond of a book—crystalline, luminous, cutting, hard. Goldberg expects a great deal of competence on the part of his reader in each of the disciplines the book traverses, and the intensity of his thought demands unblinking attention. He is generous in accounting for critics whose arguments he finds productive, and unsparing in dissecting those he finds counterproductive. What’s even more remarkable than the depth of Goldberg’s expertise, though, is the depth of his admiration for the texts he so expertly addresses. They are great, strange, unpredictable books striving to accomplish great, strange, unpredictable things. Like Lucretius, the de-familiarizer of the phenomenal world, Goldberg demands that we dismiss much of what we thought we knew about these books—and much of what we thought we enjoyed about them—in order to know and love them in a stranger and better way.

As the outlines I’ve given indicate, The Melancholy Assemblage and The Seeds of Things are similar in many ways—in their ambition, in their theoretical approach, in their chosen objects, and even in the sequence in which they organize those objects: an art-historical prelude, a tripartite analysis of Spenser or Shakespeare, a chapter on seventeenth-century prose, and Milton for the finale. Yet they offer very different reading experiences. The Melancholy Assemblage is acrobatic in its mordant wit, while The Seeds of Things is focused and magisterial in its depiction of a universe of exuberant errancy. It might seem contradictory that the book about joy is so studied in its tone, while the book about depression is so playful. But think again of Isabella’s ontological distinction between the affects of the human spleen—fantasy, rage, sullenness, mockery—and the affects of the spleen-free angels, whose native affect is joy and who can only weep at our laughable and apish pouting.

Isabella asserts that laughter, imitation, and melancholy are ontologically continuous. The matter that we know is entropic, pushing toward disorganization and nothingness, and each attempt by life to reorganize it—to stay or reverse its drive to decay—yields only a depressing and ridiculous repetition, as the degradation of matter degrades the form we attempt to reconstitute from it. But is there a matter that we don’t know, a medium of innovation and renewal rather than of imitation and repetition? If there is, how may we come to know it? Through the epistemic transformation of the eschaton, or the ever-subtler microscopic analysis of the matter that surrounds us, or the fine-grained analysis of affect in our own being?

As physics has pushed its border with metaphysics farther and farther below the phenomenal threshold, from the microscopic to the atomic to the subatomic, it has come more and more to converge with the hopes and the terrors of theology and of psychoanalysis. Sifting the remains of smashed atoms for a matter that is a reason for existence to be, a matter that is generative rather than degenerative, physicists triumphed last year in finding the Higgs boson, which effectively enjoins materiality on the other subatomic particles by forcing them to have mass. This boson bears the demiurgical sobriquet of “God particle,” for having brought being out of nothingness. Indeterminacy and overdetermination are as crucial concepts for articulating the behaviors of quantum matters as they are for the matters of the unconscious. General relativity and nuclear fission brought apocalypse closer to the lived present between 1945 and 1989 than perhaps it had been at any time since the seventeenth century. And the notion that to inquire too closely into the warp and woof of reality is to tear reality irrecoverably is as present in cultural suspicions of over-curious metaphysicians (from Tantalus to Faust to Freud) as it is in the recent anxiety that activating the Large Hadron Collider would suck the Earth into a black hole. 

These are probably over-facile comparisons. What I mean by them is to push back against bio-chemical explanations of mind as a function of matter, both historical and contemporary, by pointing to ways in which matter and thought approach each other without either’s reducing itself to the other. Daniel offers melancholy affect as just such a convergence of radical difference, rejecting the monist claim of underlying sameness that Goldberg so staunchly maintains. Like Daniel, and like Lorenzo and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice looking at the stars, I am yet a dualist, even as I look with envy over the gap at the wonderful unities and resolutions of the monists—at the vibrancy and affection and plain old magic they find that matter affords to itself, once freed of the delusional straitjackets of perspective, objectivity, orientation, chronology.[5] The gap is full of terrors, but it is those aporetic terrors themselves that I want to study through the lens of affect. For Goldberg as for Lucretius, the terrors too are delusional, my own internalization of the ideological straitjacket, my foolish excursion into Errours den. But much as I have tried to engage the celebratory being of atoms and angels in my own critical projects, I can’t persuade myself of it. I can see it in others’ work, and admire it. But I don’t feel it.

David Landreth
University of California, Berkeley

[1] Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (U of Chicago P: 1980, 2003).

[2] There are many different lines of filiation that individual critics of affect draw across the twentieth century’s philosophical heritage, between the generations of Nietzsche, Bergson, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty (et al.) and the more recent work of Lawrence Grossberg, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Brian Massumi, Lauren Berlant (et many al.), but most of those lines pass through the work of Deleuze, as thumbing through The Affect Theory Reader makes clear. In that volume Freud and Lacan are cited rarely, and only as a point of contrast.

[3] Other recent studies that problematize the relation of affect to humoral passion in early modern writing include Joseph Campana, The Pain of Reformation, and Garrett Sullivan, Sleep, Romance, and Human Embodiment, both reviewed in prior issues of SpR.

[4] Daniel only cites the second volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, A Thousand Plateaus, and not the first volume, Anti-Oedipus. I point this out not as a Deleuzian theory-checker, a post for which I’m eminently unqualified, but rather because I would have found it helpful for Daniel to address the critique of Freud in the first volume in order to define what is at stake for Deleuze and Guattari in the turn away from Freud, and thereby to express more definitively what’s at stake in his turn of their concepts back toward Freud.

[5] Here I’m coordinating Goldberg with a roster of post-Deleuzian thinkers who are loosely allied in the cheerfulness of their monism, such as Jane Bennett, Bruno Latour, Madhavi Menon, and Timothy Morton.


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Cite as:

David Landreth, "How Does Matter Feel?: Affect and Substance in Recent Renaissance Criticism," Spenser Review 44.3.55 (Winter 2015). Accessed June 29th, 2022.
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