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Giulio J. Pertile, Feeling Faint: Affect and Consciousness in the Renaissance
by Namratha Rao

Giulio J. Pertile, Feeling Faint: Affect and Consciousness in the Renaissance. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2019. ISBN 978-0-8101-3918-3. $34.95 paperback.


‘Affect’ has been a pervasive critical term over the last two decades over a range of fields, including history, political theory, human geography, architecture, literary studies and art history. The keen turn to affect has, as many have recognised, rendered the term dangerously spacious in reach and use. Brian Massumi, for example, moves from a Spinozist description of the power ‘to affect and be affected’, to ‘to be open to the world’ to ‘the cutting edge of change’. Affect, in his work, becomes synonymous with ‘intensities’ and ‘hope’; it is ‘attached to the movements of the body’; it signals ‘a virtual co-presence of potentials’; it is ‘inseparable from the concept of shock’, and much more besides.[1] A second and subtler challenge, glimpsed in the attachment to ‘the body’, is the tendency of new affect theory to privilege the body and its affects over ‘the mind’ in oppositional terms, and so separate affects from consciousness and cognition.[2] With regard to premodern theories of the passions, (where passions are neither anti-intentional, nor anti-cognitive), this is particularly reductive. In Feeling Faint: Affect and Consciousness in the Renaissance, Giulio Pertile negotiates these difficulties with deftness and elegance. From the seemingly slender base of the faint, or swoon, Pertile builds a perceptive reconsideration of early modern subjectivity. 

Affective-phenomenological accounts of life emphasise its propensity for auto-affection, prioritising immanence in itself. As Eugene Thacker observes, life in this light is neither a quality of a body, nor a vital force divisible from a vitalised object, but a continuum of affects in which subjects are more effects than causes.[3] In Feeling Faint, Pertile seeks to show how instances of fainting in his early modern archive force us to think about how far what affect theorists call the ‘“autonomy of affect” overlaps with, and does not merely displace, conscious experience’ (16). Pertile thus re-imagines early modern consciousness as that ‘vital self-sensing’ that precedes, underlies and is other than knowing. He views affective experience, ‘not as an alternative to inner life but rather as a fundamental form of it—and, conversely, consciousness as a form of affect rather than its contrary’ (17).

It is precisely moments of ‘phenomenological crisis’—here, the swoon—that afford us a glimmer of consciousness and matter ‘as two sides of a single underlying sentient and vital substance’ (19). And when re-conceived in this way, consciousness is, according to Pertile, ‘nothing other than life’ (11). In building this argument, the book impressively draws fresh perspectives on ancient and early modern natural philosophy, mystical thought and medical history into dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Montaigne, and Michel Henry’s of Descartes, among others. This is a great strength. So too, is how it grounds its claims in a series of incisive readings of Montaigne’s Essais, Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Shakespeare’s Othello and The Winters Tale.

In his second chapter, ‘Slippings’, Pertile takes his cue from Montaigne’s famous first-person description of a swoon—on falling from his horse—in ‘Of Exercise or Practice’. Here, Pertile argues (against other approaches) that Montaignean expérience is not coterminous with selfhood, but understood, instead, ‘only when selfhood falls short’ (33). Montaigne’s swoon is read as revealing the persistence of consciousness ‘without the presence of a self who might “know” it’ (47). Consciousness and impersonal affect coincide as life experiences nothing but itself, and knowledge falls away.

In chapter three, ‘Stounds’, Pertile turns to the stounds (a moment, a breakdown of cognitive categories in the face of something overwhelming) and stupefied states of Spenser’s knights of Holiness and Temperance, suggesting that we might discover, in the experiential intensity of these moments, an implicit account of Spenserian subjectivity. Feeling Faint richly attends to the poetry’s investment in embodied experience, over its oft-perceived drive toward transcendent forms. Newly reading the episodes with Galenic and Avicennian accounts of the vital spirits, Pertile shows how Spenser’s spirits are capable of feeling their own state and activity. Redcrosse’s ‘stound’ involves a ‘phenomenological dimension’ previously unnoticed, and Guyon’s trance (long understood as overtly physiological and the result of a dangerous disregard for corporeal needs) discloses ‘the alternate subjectivity constituted by the autonomous life of the environmentally embedded human body’ (80, 87). What seems an image of death is an instance of particular vitality.

In the fourth chapter, ‘Shakings’, Othello’s unnerving, trembling trance is linked—via Paracelsus’ description of the ‘epileptic aura’—to both the ‘wind-shaked surge[s]’ of the storm in Cyprus, and to Cassio’s drunken repetitions in act 2 scene 3. The shared shakings blur the boundary between microcosm and macrocosm as they indicate a material continuity, an alteration in the fabric and makeup of each. Othello is so seen to explore ‘what it means for consciousness to be spread across an environment whose changes are one with the feelings whereby we perceive them’ (111). The tragic force of Othello is re-imagined as neither rage, nor jealousy, but the urge to reduce the drama’s turbulent, transcorporeal vitality ‘into the fixity of vision and judgement’, ocular proof (121).

I found the final chapter, “Sympathies: Sharing Feeling in The Winters Tale’, especially persuasive. Using what Teresa Brennan terms the ‘transmission of affect’, Pertile argues for a play governed by a socio-biological circulation of affect that is at once ‘physical, impersonal, and interpersonal’, framed by Hermione’s ‘exit from and re-entrance into “life”’ (124-6).[4] The early excess of Leontes’ sentience is tied to Mamillius’ sickness and death, in turn tied to Hermione’s swoon. The knotted luminosity of Leontes’ ‘Too hot, too hot!’ and ‘Affection!’ passages yield not the now familiar corrosive skepticism, but instead—through the meticulous tracing of bodily micro-movements (heart, bosom, brains, brows)—the drive to convert feeling into his knowledge. Two (gendered) forms of infectious affect—one usurpatory, the other shared—are related to the play’s generic structure, its movement from tragic to communal. Pertile’s reading thus returns ‘consciousness’ to its original meaning (cum + scio), a knowledge shared ‘with the other before it is of the other’. Feeling feeling through the faint or stound is to accept ‘that this feeling will always be other than our own feeling…even as our own feeling may in turn be more palpable to those around us’ (147).

At times, potential counterarguments are surrendered too swiftly to the vigour and unity of Feeling Faints self-sensing, auto-affective arguments. One example is Montaigne’s swoon. Pertile briefly acknowledges the suggestion that Montaigne reconstructed his experience based entirely on the reports of his wife and his servants, but subordinates this to the ‘phenomenological sophistication’ of the account (53). Another is Guyon’s trance. While the possibly allegorical ‘Life’ that ‘[maisters] her sencelesse foe’ is pulled into focus, the winged young man—‘like as Cupido’—who gives Guyon succour, is passed over in silence (FQ 2.8.53, 2.8.6). I wondered also about the implications of Spenserian Life for literary form. Does the poem flee allegory into the stream of life, in the way that Dolven or Moshenska have suggested it escapes into moments of ordinariness, or pleasure? Or might this activity of vital spirits imply a new understanding of the poem’s allegorical dynamics? Finally, while the Spenser Studies issue on ‘Spenser and Platonism’ is mentioned to suggest the commitment of Spenser scholarship to thinking with Florentine Neoplatonism (Pertile justly distinguishes his work from this approach), the more recent issue on ‘Spenser and “the Human”’ is not (92). This is surprising given its varying, resonant interests in vitality, inhumanity and vulnerability, among other things.

That being said, this is a revisionary and ambitious book that sharply responds to, and builds on, recent critical collections such as Passions and Subjectivity in Early Modern Culture and Affect Theory and Early Modern Texts that have called for new models of subjectivity, and new connections between selfhood and embodiment. Pertile’s book is a pleasure to read, and, in attending to suggestive moments of self-loss, sheds new light on a range of much-studied texts. 


Namratha Rao

Hertford College, University of Oxford

[1] Massumi, Politics of Affect (Polity, 2015): ix, x, 3, 4, 5 and 53.

[2] See Ruth Leys’s influential ‘The Turn to Affect: a Critique’, Critical Inquiry 37/3 (2011): 434-72, which Pertile cites.

[3] Eugene Thacker, After Life (Chicago, 2010).

[4] As Pertile notes, his emphasis on shared affects is compatible with recent work by Mary Floyd-Wilson, Alison Hobgood and Evelyn Tribble.


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Cite as:

Namratha Rao, "Giulio J. Pertile, Feeling Faint: Affect and Consciousness in the Renaissance," Spenser Review 50.2.6 (Spring-Summer 2020). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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