Rachel Eisendrath. Poetry in a World of Things: Aesthetics and Empiricism in Renaissance Ekphrasis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. ix+191 pp.
At the centre of Rachel Eisendrath’s book is an intriguing thesis, that ekphrasis, the lengthy description of material objects that features so prominently in Renaissance literature, is a principal repository for the poetic exploration of subjective emotion. She follows the path charted by Lynn Enterline, who has demonstrated how late-classical school exercises were used to train Renaissance schoolboys in the use of literary complaints to probe unexpected and extreme emotional states. Eisendrath contextualises her argument by noting how this practice of investing objects with emotion coincides in time with the rise of Baconian science, which demands exactly the opposite condition, namely, the separation of subjectivity from the material world in pursuit of a new objectivity. ‘Art’, she argues, ‘was becoming the complex repository of that partially renounced subjectivity’ (3). Through this coincidence in time, she throws in relief the role of an aesthetic realm, and marks a shift to the emergence of a modern subject.
Eisendrath advances her argument by interweaving five different layers. First of all, Eisendrath is a superb close reader, as demonstrated by her treatment of her central Renaissance texts. Along the way there are interesting asides on Mantegna, Cervantes, John Webster, and others. Around these are woven readings of classical literature and art, including the Aeneid, Homer, and Roman wall painting. A third layer is the argument about empiricism versus aestheticism in the Renaissance, on top of which is an intermittent discourse on ruins, topped by a layer of modern and contemporary criticism. Particularly interesting is her invocation of a double-dyad of German scholars of the early-mid twentieth century: (inevitably) Benjamin and Adorno and (interestingly) Auerbach and Spitzer. So there is a lot going on in a book of only 162 pages of text, and most of it serves her well.
The close readings that make up the body of the text are used to illustrate four different facets of objectivity within ekphrasis, each of which breaks down into a complex interaction of empirical and subjective modes of thinking. They are: antiquarian factuality (Petrarch), detachment (Spenser), reification (Marlowe), and fragmentation (Shakespeare). Of these, Petrarch offers the paradigm. While Petrarch’s 1341 letter describing the ruins of Rome is sometimes considered an early document in a modernist form of history that relies on physical evidence, Eisendrath notes that the letter spends little time describing things, and instead links his itinerary through the city to its history as recorded by Livy. What one sees (ruins) and what one knows used to be there (from reading Livy) are held together in suspension. Turning to Africa, Eisendrath focuses on the ekphrasis of captured Carthaginian booty in the Temple of Jupiter as seen through the eyes of Carthaginian ambassadors. While the things become infused with the subjectivities of the ambassadors, they in turn are stupefied by the signs of their defeat, and lapse into the condition of things, incapable of action. In this complex double movement, Eisendrath finds a poetics by which ekphrasis offers a superficially objective description of material objects that becomes a vehicle for the re-capture of lost subjectivities. If the emergence of a new desire for objective knowledge brings a severing of knowledge from subjectivity, then that knowledge loses ethical impact and cannot transform the subject. Into the breach steps poetry.
The readings of Elizabethan poetry work out variations on this chiastic theme, whereby ekphrastic objects become repositories of lost subjectivity, and their beholders become objectified. The chapter on Spenser’s Faerie Queene focuses on the two chambers of the House of Busirane. Eisendrath sees Britomart’s progress through the rooms as an epistemological-aesthetic itinerary, in which the first chamber acts on her with its enchanting artifice, reducing her to a passive entrancement, while in the second chamber she is the active looker, reducing its grotesque decoration to the status of inert artifact. Through this journey, the aesthetic is evoked, investigated and undone. She relates this to Adorno’s notion of the ‘dynamic processes that demand our interpretive involvement’ (78), though one could reach the same conclusion by starting with the well-developed notion in Renaissance literary criticism of the self-consuming artifact, and raising it from the verbal to the visual plane.
The chapter on reification in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander is less satisfactory, despite its nuanced close readings of the poem’s many ekphrastic passages. The poem is positioned as an exercise in the late-classical mode of the Second Sophistic. This approach attunes us to the poem’s rabid artificiality, which submerges under its sensuality the human suffering recorded in the poem. But it reduces the poem’s unsettling qualities to a critique of social decadence, rather than a piercing portrait of the primal urges that underlie society from its beginning. It seems odd to see a ‘parodying of parvenu bourgeois ostentation’ in Hero and Leander (108) when Marlowe is himself the ultimate and electrifying parvenu, a shoemaker’s son who boasted upon his arrest about his aristocratic connections and flaunted his heresies. Marlowe and his poem are far more subversive and dangerous than this critique lets on.
The chapter on Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece brings to the foreground the theme of ruins. As Lucrece identifies with the figure of ‘ruined’ Hecuba in the tapestry in her chamber, she demands that the Trojan Queen speak for her, effectively transferring her own voice and subjectivity to the silent object. In this transference (I am simplifying a more complex argument here), Eisendrath finds the basic form of modern, self-alienated subjectivity:
Long before Beethoven or Marx, Shakespeare and other Renaissance poets were calling into question the seamlessness of their own poetic and dramatic works, which are animated in no small way by a constant process of self-interrogation. Through its internal complexity such work both embodies and calls into question the spirit of its time, creating and disrupting illusion… . Thus Shakespeare presciently explores problems of objectivity that were just emerging in the late sixteenth century but that have continued to shape the world we live in today. The result is a poem that manages to reflect and critique our current mentality. How can a late sixteenth-century poem accomplish such a seemingly impossible feat? Here’s one way: by proving, in the end, more complex than we are. (149-50).
There is much to admire here, and some things to criticise. This argument is, in essence, Burckhardt upside-down: the Renaissance is affirmed as the beginning of our modern/post-modern world, but it is a birth into fragmentation as well as into a wholeness of consciousness. This overview is having your Burckhardtian cake and eating it with a Viconian spoon. And the surface difficulty of the claim is glossed with the indescribability trope: if the poem is more complex than we are (really?), then how could we grasp it enough to dispute its semi-divine foreknowledge of our mental state?
That said, Eisendrath’s far-reaching claim puts back at the centre of our collective inquiry several important questions that are too often subsumed in specialist study. Are we not in fact, as Eisendrath indicates throughout, still struggling with questions of mentalité and Weltanschauung in the long wake of Burckhardt, with the aid of the great figures of the inter-war Germanic intellectual world, including Benjamin, Adorno, Auerbach, Spitzer, Curtius and the Warburgians? Are the interactions of subjectivity and objectivity at the core of a Renaissance Weltanschauung exhausted by the taxonomy of detachment, reification and fragmentation? Can one take seriously the claims of Joel Feinberg, Harold Bloom and too many others that our modern consciousness was the invention of an Elizabethan playwright? (Yes, it is good for business and hard to give up, but millions of other people and hundreds of other cultures might stake equal claims.) Can we truly talk about Petrarch and Spenser as dwelling within the same Weltanschauung, or is that spatial/temporal jump just too great? And shouldn’t we make a hard choice between ‘early modern’ (the beginning of our own epoch) and ‘Renaissance’ (a passage in Western history from which, however fascinating, we are now cut off in our post-modern, post-Eurocentric world)? And finally, does not serious specialist work demand that we link our specialist findings to such big, big questions, as Eisendrath has dared to do?
A final thought: a century ago, in his poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, Ezra Pound dared to look back critically at Western civilisation across the ruinous waste of the First World War:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
Eisendrath’s book joins a fine list of books by younger scholars (David Karmon, Rebeca Helfer, Andrew Hui) exploring the ruin as the aesthetic symbol for our engagement with a ‘Renaissance’ (rather than ‘early modern’) past. Collectively they point us to an important way forward in understanding its persistent hold on our energy and attention.
University of Illinois at Chicago