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Joe Moshenska, Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England
by Holly Dugan

Moshenska, Joe. Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England. Oxford UP, 2014. xxii +389 pp. ISBN: 978-0198712941. $99.00 cloth.


In Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England, Joe Moshenska offers a compelling new approach for sensory studies, one that grapples with tactility as an experimental interface with the world. The gerund in his title suggests the stakes of his approach: this is a history of the senses that eschews narratives about sensory shifts and great divides in order to concern itself with something more elusive and, paradoxically, quotidian: what did it feel like to embrace in the Renaissance? What does it feel like now? 

Two provocative epigraphs suggest how Moshenska will answer such questions. The first is a quote from Jean-Luc Nancy’s Birth to Presence that queries: “what is the corpus of tact?” Nancy answers with a list of infinitives that describe various kinds of touch: “to touch lightly, to brush against, to squeeze, to penetrate, to hold tight, to polish, to scratch, to rub, to stroke, to palpitate, to handle, to knead, to rub, to embrace, to strike, to pinch, to bite, to suck, to hold, to let go, to lick, to carry, to weigh…” (xii). Moshenska’s second epigraph, taken from Mario Equicola’s Libro di Natura (1536), considers instead the purpose of touch: to create pleasure, “varied, many-sided and continuous pleasure” (xii).

With these two quotes (one from a twentieth-century French philosopher, the other, a sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance humanist) Moshenska begins his scholarly treatise with a playful gesture towards an important, if implicit, argument made throughout the book: that the corpus of touch includes many kinds of contact, that it is a history made up of strange bedfellows, and that there is risk, reward, and most importantly, pleasure in reaching across disciplinary and bodily divides.  

That tension, between the corpus of touch and the bodily responses it engendered, makes for an interesting and thought-provoking argument about the history the senses. Touch, Moshenska argues across nine substantive, weighty chapters, is a history of contact—with divinity (chapters 1 and 2), with the classical past (chapter 3 and 4), with art (chapter 5), with matter (chapter 7) and with others (chapter 6, 8, 9). These encounters are not unique to the Renaissance, nor are they separate from its core debates. His chapters thus engage a wide range of topics, including, but not limited to, Reformation theology (chapters 1 and 2), Lucretian theories of matter (chapter 3), allegory (chapter 4), aesthetics (chapter 5), cognition and phenomenology (chapter 6), natural philosophy (chapter 7), pain (chapter 8), and Chinese pulse-taking (chapter 9). Each chapter has three parts, offering site-specific and complex arguments about meanings that accrued around different kinds of touch in the Renaissance.

Touch is not a universal or transhistorical modality nor is it one so rooted in a particular time and place that it can only be studied in “highly local contexts” (9). Likewise, Moshenska is adamant that touch was not “the most valued of the senses in this period,” nor was the Renaissance “an age of touch” (3). Rather, Moshenska argues, touch was both “denounced and retained” in the Renaissance, both “anxiously prescribed and tenaciously defended” (3). The sense of touch provoked deep cultural ambivalence: “To debate the nature and value of touch was to engage with many of the most important and contested questions that arose in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England” (3). For this reason, it opens up new ways to approach the Renaissance: “To discuss touch in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is, therefore, both to seek an altered understanding of this era, and to reassess the role of the senses in the way that historical epochs and the shifts between them are construed” (9).  

Moshenska describes his method as “specific, without being narrow, exploratory without losing sight of historical particularity” (9). It is hard not to marvel at the deftness with which he moves between topics. But this approach at times also requires a deferral of some of the questions which it raises. For instance, chapters 4 and 5 both explore what it means to feel beauty by exploring the role of touch in the history of visual arts. Examining Renaissance debates about hierarchies of representation, Moshenska argues that “the haptic refuses to be subsumed into the optic” (174). Rather, “touch recurs as both the sense which much great art must satisfy, even if only in the imagination, and the sense that must be left behind” (174). Analyzing images of touch depicted in painting and sculpture, Moshenska makes an important argument about how visual beauty and cultures of feeling are linked. Bernini’s sculpture The Rape of Proserpine (1622) captures in stone a “semblance of fleshliness” that creates a powerful response in the viewer, provoking a Pygmalion-like “desire to touch” the statue in order to test its pliancy (153). Experiencing the beauty of the statue “means actively refraining” from such an embrace (153).

Is our desire to touch Proserpine like Pluto’s? Moshenska’s reading of Bernini’s statue is powerful: now that I’ve seen “Pluto’s fingers sink[ing] into his victim’s flesh,” I can’t forget them (153). Andrea Jemolo’s detail of the sculpture provides a stunningly beautiful image for the cover of his book. After reading Moshenska’s analysis of it, however, I found myself wondering much more about Proserpine’s experience of being touched by Pluto’s violent embrace than my own desire to touch her. Perhaps that’s the point: in chapter 5, Moshenska takes up this question of being touched, tracing the philosophical and phenomenological inquiries by Aristotle, Bacon, and Descartes into the curious and uncomfortably pleasurable experience of being tickled. But in shifting to new terrain, Moshenska brackets some of the more difficult questions that arise from his reading of Bernini, including Proserpine’s experience of pain. This makes sense: pleasure is complicated, rooted sometimes in the intentions of the gesture, sometimes in the ways that it is interpreted, experienced and understood, and sometimes only by refusing meaning altogether. Its role in more difficult histories is too often rendered oblique.

As the gerund in his title makes clear, “feeling pleasures” are as varied as their meanings: that clever twist of phrasing, readers of this journal may guess, is Spenserian. References to Spenser are peppered throughout the book, though Spenserians may be most interested in the argument made in chapter 3. Touch, for Spenser, “flickers between different modes and habits of understanding,” its meanings both allegorical and literal, refusing “restrictive” forms of interpretation (111). Here, in chapter 8, and in the conclusion, Moshenska demonstrates that he is a careful reader of poetry, unpacking not only how poets invoked touch to create an intimate experience for the reader, of pleasure (in Spenser’s Faerie Queene), of pain (in Milton’s Paradise Lost), and of both (in Donne’s Elegies) but how poetry might offer different insights into the history of the senses than more traditional historiographies of the senses. These poetic representations challenge simple binaries between the past and present, between the self and the world (336). It’s a powerful argument, one that ends the same way it begins—with the pleasure of reading closely. 


Holly Dugan
The George Washington University


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Cite as:

Holly Dugan , "Joe Moshenska, Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England," Spenser Review 46.1.10 (Spring-Summer 2016). Accessed October 21st, 2018.
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