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Naomi Booth, Swoon: A Poetics of Passing Out
by Rachel Hare

Naomi Booth. Swoon: A Poetics of Passing Out. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 2021. 248 pp. ISBN: 9781526101181. £80 hardback.

 

In Swoon: A Poetics of Passing Out, Naomi Booth examines the literary and cultural significations of swooning, from medieval art depicting Mary fainting and weeping at the foot of the cross, to the (often ironic and never embodied) social media trend of responding *swoon* when we find something (or someone) appealing. Her chapters explore Geoffrey Chaucer and transformation; William Shakespeare and interpretation; Jane Austen and the cult of sensibility; the writings of John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce in relation to artistic creation; vampire narratives and thought transference; and examples of female empowerment and disempowerment in modern romance novels. Booth’s dizzyingly wide scope enables her to track how contemporary swoons reimagine, develop, or fall back on what has come before and to draw compelling arguments about the cultural, artistic and scientific contexts of each time period she considers; as she explains, ‘a literary history of swooning is also a history of crux points for how we have imagined the body’ (10). As the trope is rarely studied in depth, this work greatly advances our understanding of swoons in literature and their significance. Booth builds on Giulio J. Pertile’s 2019 monograph on Renaissance consciousness Feeling Faint (reviewed in the Spring-Summer 2020 issue of The Spenser Review) and articles or chapters on particular faints by scholars such as Jill Mann, Gretchen Mieszkowski, and Kimberly O’Donnell, but extends beyond them to uncover new and surprising perspectives on what it means to pass out. She also draws on a wealth of different discourses, including aspects of aesthetic, psychoanalytic and ecological theory, as well as religious, medical, cultural and political narratives of the body.

In her introduction, Booth discusses the ways in which a swoon can be desired or eroticised ‘as a rapturous climax of the most intense forms of experience’ (1) and can disrupt our usual constructions of self and being. Booth describes her concept of ‘swooning’ as something more ‘literary’ and unstable on its feet than the physical act of ‘fainting’, expanding the definition to also include some fits and falls; swooning, she suggests, ‘sinks between involuntary reaction and studied rhetorical flourish; between medical phenomenon and fiction; between bodily action and literary stylisation; between physiology and physiognomy; between private response and public legibility; between feeling and performance; between corporeality and textuality’ (12). Booth contends that literary swoons often exist in moments of intense emotion which go beyond the bounds of language. Examining the strange phenomenon of people passing out (or feeling giddy) while viewing art, she posits a complex interrelationship between art and swooning: ‘if the “greatest” works of art seem “alive” but draw the viewer into faintness and into close proximity with death, then art and literature, begin to seem constitutively dizzying’ (9). Swooning here is a symptom of art’s power to engender an altered state of consciousness, disordering our usual sense of time and ourselves to create an intense affective experience which simultaneously enlightens and overwhelms.

Chapter One considers the transformative potential of swooning in medieval texts. Beginning with some of the earliest examples of passing out in extant English literature, Booth suggests the princess’s swoons and miraculous recovery in the ‘Life of Mary Magdalen’ (c.1290) body forth the spiritual renewal of being reborn through Christ and the physical renewal of creating new life after the pain of childbirth. She then proceeds to discuss the swoons of both lovers in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c.1380). Unlike many of the other examples in the book, Troilus’s swoon has already received critical attention, but Booth advances and complicates previous scholarship by also exploring Criseyde’s swoon (which, as she explains, is often overlooked). Drawing on Leo Bersani’s theory of masochism as ‘self-shattering’, Booth reads Troilus’s swoon as exposing the physical risks of a lovesickness which is presented as potentially terminal. She compares this demonstration of vulnerability to Criseyde’s swoon when she learns that she will be sent back to the Greeks in exchange for a Trojan prisoner, a bodily manifestation of her own different kind of vulnerability as a war-commodity. Explaining how Criseyde is deprived of agency and wrenched from her lover whilst Troilus moves towards an idealised and elevating death, Booth proposes that the divergences in the lovers’ swoons foreshadow the inevitable collapse of their union. She places these ‘asymmetrical’ swoons alongside recent scholarship arguing that the poem privileges Troilus’s ‘exquisite suffering’ ‘as the apotheosis of an elite, spiritually masochistic masculinity which is offered as a superior alternative to the female experience of suffering’ (48–49) (a value judgement also apparent in the disproportionate amount of critical interest in Troilus’s swoon while Criseyde’s passes out of notice). Booth understands both swoons as moments of potential where the subjects are suspended between possibilities; when the lovers wake (or die), the possibilities are curtailed, and the pair are firmly set on opposing courses.

Chapter Two focuses on three Shakespearean swoons which destabilise early modern conceptions of the readable body, building on disability theory to demonstrate ‘the complexities of the different significatory matrices surrounding individual bodies and highlight the contestability of different narratives of bodily health in circulation at the time’ (60). Booth first explores the way the male characters in Much Ado About Nothing (1598) write their own prejudices onto Hero’s swoon at the altar, defaulting to paranoid narratives about female promiscuity while disregarding her voice. Turning to Julius Caesar (1599), Booth then considers Cassius’s attempt to prove Caesar unfit to rule by depicting his fits as signs of unmasculine and unreliable inconstancy. She argues that Antony’s funeral speech overwrites the conspirators’ account of Caesar’s frailty and ultimately overturns Cassius’s conception of his own invulnerability. Booth’s reading of Othello (1604) casts Iago as ‘a kind of poisoner: he is a man who seeks to alter the minds and bodies of others through the administration of toxic materials, and its deadly effectiveness is demonstrated by Othello’s swooning, fitting reactions in the play’ (84). According to Booth, Iago plagues his master with conventional narratives of gender and race as he persuades him that his Venetian wife is promiscuous, his Florentine lieutenant is passionate, and, eventually, that he himself is unable to judge accurately. She suggests that Iago’s rhetorical poison causes Othello’s seizure and then associates that seizure with savage wildness to estrange him from his usual sense of self and to catalyse both Desdemona’s murder and his suicide. While some might question the congruence of fainting and fitting, Booth’s decision to discuss the phenomena together here illuminates a continuity in the ways moments of bodily weakness expose prevalent bodily assumptions, and how beliefs about gender, race, and health affect the interpretation of embodied gestures.

Chapter Three examines the epidemic of passing out in sentimental novels. Booth claims that the swoon was both more common and more significant than other signs of sensitivity in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature and also ‘dramatises the risk that high “sensibility” might turn in on itself, becoming incommunicable and unconscious’ (94). In her analysis of Emily’s swoons in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), Booth argues that the narrative shape of the fallen and penitent woman maps onto the narrative shape of a swoon and recovery. Demonstrating one of the ways gendered biases impact upon how swoons are written and read, she proposes that audiences relish the downward fall of female bodies as well as the possibility of their raising and redemption, and comments on the kind of sympathy which pities a distressed other, while denying the same individual agency or communication. The majority of the chapter then considers Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811). Booth conceives of Marianne’s frequent falls (in which she includes falling in love and falling into hysterics, as well as her fall in the rain) as revealing the comorbidity of sensibility and sickness, and suggests that Elinor’s self-control is partly defined by her ability to resist swooning. Reading Austen alongside Mary Wollstonecraft, Booth asserts that the moments of imbalance in Sense and Sensibility demonstrate the concomitant need for balance, recognising that ‘available language may fail to fully account for feminine feeling and desire’ whilst maintaining that ‘to feel might also be to stay conscious in order to attempt to speak and write’ (117).

Chapter Four draws on disability theory to explore how swoons instigate artistic transformation in the writings of Keats, Poe, and Joyce. Booth’s reading of Keats opens out from the poet’s idea of artistic creation through ‘Negative Capability’, a kind of passivity which Booth suggests ‘privileges symbolically feminine qualities to challenge masculinist accounts of artistic endeavour’ (127). She contends that the swoons in Keats’s poems are often visionary experiences which enable rebirth from a kind of death. In contrast, Booth conceives Poe’s swoons as offering ‘the chiasmatic macabre alternative: that the swoon might carry us off, living, into the charnel house’ (131). She considers Poe’s fear of being buried alive, but also examines his interest in ways revivification might engender a new aesthetic sensibility which blurs the borders between life and death. Developing these ideas, Booth then posits that Joyce’s ‘soul-swoons’ work to ‘complicate the relationship between mind and body – to disturb the received, religious dogma of an immortal soul that will leave the intermittent, swooning body behind’ (136). After exploring how the soul-swoon in ‘The Dead’ (Dubliners, 1914) interacts with romanticised notions of Irish nationalism, she argues that the image of the swooning soul in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914–15) celebrates the importance of intense embodied sensory experience to both artistic creation and full life.

Chapter Five uses ecological theory to suggest that swoons in vampire narratives disrupt notions of the individual. Booth takes up Timothy Morton’s concept of ‘dark ecology’ (which captures ‘our profoundly interconnected coexistence in a world poised on the brink of environmental catastrophe’) to consider the ways vampiric swoons ‘anxiously – and erotically – present catastrophic entanglements and interconnections between the human and non-human others’ (157). Situating the trope within the history of vampire narratives, Booth argues that the swoons in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) bespeak anxieties about thought transference or interference in the age of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud’s hypnotic cure for hysteria, and associated fears about telepathy and occult thinking. She explores the swoons of both male and female characters as pleasurable and erotic sinkings into other bodies and other minds which can also be understood as commentaries on power, free choice and capitalism. Booth expands these ideas with a reading of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire (1976), where the vampire’s own vulnerability while drinking opens up a perilous two-way interdependence, and then examines the intertwined images of contagion, love and nature in Sheridan La Fanu’s Carmilla (1872). She avers that the swoons in these novels systematically collapse accepted binaries (between self and other, nature and disease, and human and nonhuman), offering a radical ecology of human interdependence which helps expose and explode the kind of ‘dualism’ Morton identifies as the ‘“fundamental philosophical reason for human beings’ destruction of the environment”’ (181).

Chapter Six considers the subversion, repetition, and re-imagining of the swoon trope in twentieth- and twenty-first-century romance novels. Booth asserts that the fainting figure in Patricia Highsmith’s Carol (1952) – and the author’s description of feeling faint while writing the novel – coalesce to triumphantly override heteronormative attempts to cast same-sex attraction as an illness. Conversely, Booth suggests that the many swoons in E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2012) and its sequels ‘might be understood as a form of bathos, or disappointed hope; a falling back into cliché and into received ideas of gender submission’ (196). While swooning often indicates a heightened bodily state, Booth argues that Anastasia Steele’s propensity to pass out into Christian Grey’s arms and the images of ecstatic shattering during sex mark her trajectory to becoming a woman who prizes her lover’s pleasure above her own; Ana’s purported fragility – the risk that she might fall apart at any moment – validates Grey’s drive to protect (or control) her body, and enables him to rebuild her shattered pieces to his taste. Booth observes that Ana’s ‘clumsy nostalgia for a romanticised re-imagining of past female powerlessness’ (205) misreads the classic literature she claims to love (most notably Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles), and then analyses Ana’s final submission to Grey alongside Luce Irigaray’s conception of the ‘phallic proxy’. The chapter concludes with a reading of Angela Carter’s reworking of the tale of Bluebeard, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979), where the narrator endures the terror of finding her husband’s trove of murdered ex-wives, succeeds in escaping, and does not swoon until she encounters the blind piano boy and he looks at her kindly; Booth contends that this final faint dazzlingly transforms narrative expectations to disrupt notions of female frailty and male domination, both recognising past suffering and welcoming in the possibility of a gentler future.

As a whole, Swoon might appeal most to researchers working on the medical humanities or the history of the emotions, but individual chapters would also reward those interested in a particular topic, text, or period. A fiction writer as well as an academic, Booth crafts prose which is pleasure to read, demonstrating a deftness with language and syntax which is thoughtful, lucid, and often playful. Her swoon research project also resulted in a novella, The Lost Art of Sinking, which was published by Penned in the Margins in 2015. While Booth does not always foreground a gendered reading, Swoon frequently illuminates ways that bodily and emotional vulnerability is understood differently for men and women; her exploration of falling unconscious thus makes us conscious not only of the perils and pleasures of dizzying aesthetic, affective and erotic experiences, but also of the received narratives that might diagnose us as sentimental, sensitive, or just sick.

 

Rachel Hare

University of Bristol

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Cite as:

Rachel Hare, "Naomi Booth, Swoon: A Poetics of Passing Out," Spenser Review (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed December 6th, 2022.
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