Jen E Boyle, Anamorphosis in Early Modern Literature

Jen E Boyle, Anamorphosis in Early Modern Literature (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010) ix + 169 pp. £95 Hb. ISBN 9781409400691

Jen Boyle’s Anamorphosis in Early Modern Literature traces the developments in anamorphic representations in art, science and literature from late seventeenth through to the eighteenth century. Aptly beginning the book with an extract from Samuel Pepys’s diary, Boyle situates anamorphosis within early modern scepticism about the senses, focussing in particular on the dubious nature of vision. Describing how technology and psyche ‘speak across and back to one another’ through anamorphism (3) the introductory chapter moves from the well-known Lacanian discussion of double vision in Holbein’s anamorphic masterpiece, The Ambassadors (1543), to an investigation into the ambiguities of anamorphosis in relation to ‘textual, imagistic, and technical perceptual and perspective devices and figures in the early-modern period’ (3). The power of anamorphosis to displace, disrupt and put askew embodiments is central to Boyle’s argument. Drawing from an array of literary, scientific and philosophical texts ranging from as early as Lucretius to Hobbes, Descartes, Milton, Defoe, Newton, and Margaret Cavendish and more contemporary theorists such as Benjamin, Deleuze and Emerson, Boyle’s monograph is not only ambitiously interdisciplinary but extremely adventurous.

The first chapter explores Lucy Hutchinson’s translation of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura and the works of Thomas Hobbes in relation to perspective treatises and mathematical recreations. Focusing on the seventeenth-century preoccupation with material perception, this chapter looks at ‘practical perspectives’ that render a doubled image of reality. The most interesting part of this chapter is Boyle’s discussion of the camera obscura. Following Jonathan Crary, Boyle examines the early modern fascination with the camera obscura and its ‘ability to invert, distort, and transform the image’ (29). The ‘street constructed camera obscura,’ argues Boyle, simultaneously creates a private, ‘hidden chamber’ and yet ‘a communal and dialogic space of the city street,’ so that the hole of the camera obscura becomes a transgressive space, a ‘kind of “vanishing point,” place where embodiment is initiated and distributed’ (30-31). The second half of the chapter, however, uses a rather weak connection between perspective theory and Lucretius’s atomistic philosophy to argue that the ‘image or simulacra functions to “re-produce” and also “transform” biopower’ in Lucretius and Hobbes (42). Even though Hutchinson’s translation of Lucretius was amongst one of the popular translations in the seventeenth century (others include those by John Dryden and Thomas Creech), Boyle’s leap from perspective treatises to Lucretian Epicureanism leaves the reader to fill in the gaps.

The second and fourth chapters deftly focus on anamorphic imagery in John Milton’s Eikonoklastes and Paradise Lost. Drawing on the anamorphic image of Charles I to discuss how Milton criticises idolatrous worship in Eikonoklastes, in the second chapter, Boyle investigates how figures and techniques of anamorphosis demonstrate ‘the interconnectedness of mediating technologies, images and subjectivity’ (42) and, more significantly, how this mediation is indicative of the profound shift in power from the mediated image to political subjectivity in early modern England. In her discussion of the ‘landskip perspective’ in Paradise Lost, Boyle argues that the genre of landscapes is dependent on a prosthesis (such as a frame, a ‘window or a perspective machine’ [52]). The need for a prosthesis leads Boyle to a fascinating examination of Milton’s allusions to Galileo and the telescope. Boyle explores the intrusive nature of this optical instrument in relation to Satan’s struggle with embodiment as he pans the ‘landskip’ of Eden and Eve’s first glance at her reflection in the pool. In her discussion of Eve’s narcissistic subjectivity, however,  Boyle only touches the surface. At times, Boyle glances over heavily loaded terms such as ‘Cartesian subjectivity,’ ‘the technoscientific gaze,’ and ‘the Other’ (58, 64) without contextualising them. Throughout this chapter, the reader may feel frustrated as Boyle skims over complex themes which merit closer analysis. A closer analysis of Paradise Lost is, however, provided in the fourth chapter of the book. Here, Boyle returns to ‘Eve’s double role as empiricist and alchemist’ in Eden (99) to reevaluate how anamorphosis ‘becomes a privileged technology for demonstrating the commensurability between science and aesthetic rendering’ (101). Focussing on Sin and Death, Boyle discusses anamorphic elements of allegory in an innovative and original manner. Boyle could, however, have taken her comparison of Eve and Sin further to inspect the relationship between gender and anamorphosis. Instead, at times her emphasis on new media theory seems to cloud Boyle’s argument and more specifically leaves the rich historical material used throughout the monograph under-analysed.

Boyle’s third chapter considers double perception in Margaret Cavendish’s Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy and Blazing World. Here, she argues that by combining ‘experimental science with allegorical romance,’ (88) Cavendish draws on perspective technology and geometry to discuss shifts in spirituality and temporality. For Boyle, Cavendish remarkably explores the ethical aspects of scientific inquiry through the medium of literary romance. Boyle’s comparison of scientific, technological and literary analysis of Cavendish’s work is refreshing and her use of Deleuze on perspectivism enhances her analysis of Cavendish’s representation of the microscopic and empirical perception.

Daniel Defoe is the central figure of Boyle’s final two chapters. Whilst Chapter Five explores the significance of anamorphic perspective in relation to projective technology in Robinson Crusoe, Chapter Six concentrates on the role of the image in A Journal of the Plague Year. Ploughing through an impressive range of technology manuals written in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, Boyle’s final two chapters unpack Defoe’s critique of the ‘social, religious and philosophical machinery of his time’ (142). Particularly noteworthy is Boyle’s use of mirror neurones as a literary tool to analyse A Journal of the Plague Year. Mirror neurones, Boyle contests, do not represent scientific progress, but rather inform ‘past theories of mediation’ (140).

Anamorphosis in Early Modern Literature successfully challenges the notion of perception in seventeenth and eighteenth century literary works of Milton, Cavendish and Defoe. Boyle brings together contemporary new media and technology studies and early modern notions of perspectivism and anamorphosis in an interesting and unique manner. As Boyle shows, the developments in anamorphosis influenced the technological advancements of ‘the camera obscura, perspectival devices and installations, the microscope and, eventually the cinematic image’ (4). Although the focus of individual chapters can, at times, feel disjointed and insufficiently developed, the monograph as a whole, (filled with curious anamorphic images) coherently situates the importance of anamorphosis in early modern literary, scientific and technological advancements.

Shani Bans, University College London