Lucinda Cole, Imperfect Creatures: Vermin, Literature and the Sciences of Life, 1600-1740 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2016) 240 pp. Open access here, $39.00 Pb, $75.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-472-05295-0
The true merit of Lucinda Cole’s study lies in its ability to unravel some of the quite subtle constituents of how 'the human' is defined. Apparently inspired by Michel Serres’s Biogeia (Univocal Publishing 2012), the individual chapters are arranged in a roughly chronological order starting from the echoes of the plague in sixteenth-century texts, but quickly turning to John Donne’s and William Shakespeare’s accounts. Through tragedy, satire, illustrations and medical treatises, Cole constructs a journey-narrative, through the course of which the reader is invited to face 'their own fears and desires' (4) by confronting vermin – toads, rats, ants, dogs and bees – who 'continually reshap[ed] fundamental categories on analysis and perfection' (2).
The 'Introduction' tries to showcase the condensed form of the bigger narrative, however, its claims remain somewhat baffling, and the individual subsections often do not seem to be as closely connected as they were presumably intended to be. A symptom of this is the way several interrelated definitions of the term 'vermin' appear, without, however, being contrasted with each other. In this way the 'Introduction' seems to represent an edited form of abstracts for the following chapters: the difficulty of the construction of an exact taxonomical category is, for example, repeatedly mentioned on pages 1, 3, 9, 15, 17, and 19.
The first chapter, 'Rats, Witches, Miasma, and Early Modern Theories of Contagion' evokes current studies of the intersection between climate change and literature, drawing the reader’s attention to the Little Ice Age, and linking the plague to dearth and to trials: 'plague is the expression of a gendered earth cursed with and by human sin' (26) – in lieu of germ theory, Cole explains, vermin’s and witches’ 'unnatural modes of generation' (30) are intertwined with the putrefaction of the air itself. At this point she could have begun the ensuing discussion of the witches and the contagion of the air in Macbeth; however, an analysis of Jacques de Gheyn II’s depictions of vermin follows. However fascinating the Dutch artist’s depictions might be, I could not identify a strong and well-explained link between the subsections, save for perhaps the gendered depictions of vermin which become one of the important features of the argument later on. De Gheyn’s scorpions are also scarcely featured and commented on in later discussion, in contrast to which Lady Macbeth is mostly linked to rats which were 'among the most lustful creatures' (39); an explicit link to the pictures, however, is not established.
'Swarming Things' showcases a splendid narrative of several early modern works on the Plagues of Egypt. Though the first five pages repeat the examples of the animal prosecutions and the difficulty of a taxonomical definition already mentioned in the 'Introduction', the Biblical narrative and Foucault’s ideas are convincingly merged. In this chapter Cole starts to explore the agency of vermin by contrasting the instinctive repulsion of seventeenth-century theological accounts and the quasi-scientific renderings of, for example, Cowley, who observed the complexity of interdependence between all species (71-73).
Early modern neuroscience helps the third chapter to form an even more coherent argument, merging superstition, legal documents, gendered discussions, and literature. Focusing on Thomas Willis’ Cerebri Anatome (1664), Cole introduces the specific narrative which, in my opinion, represents the most important line of thought through the rest of the book. Here she describes the Cartesian ideal, which assumed that 'the souls of men and the souls of animals were distinct' (86). The chapter introduces several seventeenth-century assumptions of the location of the soul and the theories of life, strictly focusing on the comparative accounts of the age. Drawing the reader’s attention to Willis’s account of the 'imaginative quality' of certain insects (89), the narrative slowly deconstructs the human/animal (Cartesian) divide, and introduces vermin as man’s equal, culminating in Charleton’s 1652 account of the argument from design and the impossibility of locating one’s soul and/or higher intelligence in the body (101). Finally, human supremacy is undermined by the sarcastic renderings of Shadwell’s The Virtuoso. This chapter – with all its catachrestic metaphors – might be the most appealing to an uninitiated reader, as the narrative arc perfectly mimics the stages through which human identity is construed.
The fourth chapter links dogs, rabies, and (female) madness, thus enters the realm of the 'more perfect' creatures. Dogs are studied through Rochester’s narratives, and contemporary accounts of rabies infections illustrate how humanity and reason are also undermined when it comes to verminous infections: Lister’s description of an infected person is especially striking after the – often forced – analysis of Rochester’s 'A Ramble'. The former text appears fruitful as it merges literature and science, observation and personal horror; and Lister’s constancy serves as a better illustration for the link connecting madness and the divide between human and canine.
'What Happened to the Rats?' focuses on biopolitics and ecopolitics leading the reader directly into the present age. The chapter heavily relies on Robinson Crusoe’s management of his island, as well as his later adventures, and Crusoe’s practices are shown to be somewhat unrealistic. Rats are erased from the island, yet cats take their place as uncontrollable 'vermin' (148). The constant fluctuation of the imperfect//more perfect/perfect divide leads Defoe himself to question the definition of human, and to define humanity in terms of its hoarding practices and structure (153). Cole, then, follows with the planning abilities of bees, and the bestial practices of humans in need, who drink the blood of vermin; the boundaries are further undermined in Crusoe’s later accounts of ravenous, unstructured Indians who appear as vermin on his island (162). Extrapolating from this point, Cole employs a more personal tone in the 'Afterword', where early modern accounts are linked to twenty-first-century practices. The last chapter ingeniously manoeuvres between fact, theory, and personal experience, and is all the better for it; the enumeration of the most important accounts of human intelligence along with the claims of Biogeia and modern climate science constitute a quite pragmatic, well-founded account of our 'idealised, still theologically inflected worlds' (177).
The volume includes extensive notes to the individual chapters, as well as a quite up-to-date bibliography and an index, and apart from the 'Introduction' and the first two chapters, Cole’s engaging style combines rigorous analysis with accessibility even to readers who are not specialists in ecological studies and literature.
Ágnes Füzessy-Bonácz, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest