Charis Charalampous, Rethinking the Mind-Body Relationship in Early Modern Literature, Philosophy and Medicine (Oxford: Routledge 2015) 168 pp. 8 B&W illus. £90.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781138823914
Charis Charalampous’s study is a contribution to the Routledge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture series, and examines theoretical and creative approaches to the human body as an intelligence, with its own understanding and desires operating independently from the mind. It aims to unpick the association of dualism solely with the work of Descartes, arguing that it is overly simplistic and inaccurate to suggest that the mind and the body were two halves of the same whole before Descartes, and were then suddenly separate. The text is keen to emphasize that ideas relating to a relationship as complex as that which exists between the mind and the body did not simply originate with Descartes, even situating the origins of dualism at a point centuries prior to Descartes’s own theorizing. Furthermore, Charalampous does not merely show that, when imagined as an independent entity, the body was associated with immorality and mortality, as readers might expect, but that it could offer moral advancement in addition to spiritual and artistic gain. This piece of research is thoroughly interdisciplinary, although its main focus is on the varied field of literature (including theatrical representation and aural culture) because, as Charalampous argues, in experiencing ‘art’ the individual must synthesize the response of the mind and that of the body to a sole stimulus, triggering a reflection upon the ‘bisected and bi-subjective self’ (1). The study is divided into seven chapters, the first introducing the concept of the intelligent body across disciplines, followed by sections considering the work of Montaigne, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Donne, a number of plays and Milton, concluding with an epilogue considering approaches to the mind-body relationship after the early modern era.
The book's introduction offers its readers early modern examples which endorse the concept of the intelligent body, as evidence for this ontological phenomenon as a pervasive aspect of the culture of the period. The figures discussed are diverse, including Philip Melanchthon, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, James Shirley and Shakespeare. We are also introduced to William of Ockham (c.1287-1347), who, as Charalampous argues very convincingly and with plenty of textual evidence, can be conceived of as the first dualist, as opposed to Descartes. As Charalampous points out, Ockham asserts that the mind and body are separate, since, firstly, they can behave in manners that contradict one another; an individual may feel sensory desire for something, but be repulsed by it in thought. Ockham also suggests that the mind cannot act upon the bodily sensations, and finally that 'the sensory soul is always present in the body and, therefore, subject to material conditions [...] the intellective soul is immaterial' (13).
Charalampous’s second chapter looks at the work of Montaigne, whose kidney stones caused him incredible pain, something which in turn shaped his view of the relationship between the human mind and body, since the somatic self was no longer background noise, but impossible to ignore. This chapter examines Montaigne’s approach to the divide between the human and animal, the imagination as an entity controlled by the body, and his understanding of unconscious bodily processes. The study then moves on to discuss the relationship between allegory and body in The Faerie Queen, demonstrating how Spenser focused on the connections between the intelligent body and allegory and the place of this nexus within the genre. Charalampous suggests that early modern literary criticism would benefit greatly from approaching allegory using a framework that assumes the body is a thinking agent. The fourth chapter is particularly adept in its handling of Donne's most challenging poetry, dealing with Donne's approach to 'fallen dualism', where reason is conceived of as inherently corrupt due to humanity's sin, and where for the poet this separation of mind and body is troubling. The study explores how Donne is nevertheless able to produce a poetics interested in bringing together the mind and body, where the rational soul must rely upon the body to experience that which it cannot otherwise comprehend. Charalampous then devotes a chapter to the intelligent body on the stage, with a focus on the tragic; a lot of ground is covered in a short space here, though it is ably structured, including discussion of plays such as Hamlet, Richard III and The Spanish Tragedy. This chapter explores tragedy’s ability to provide pleasure through confronting audiences with that which is ‘primordial’ and beyond ‘rational comprehension’ (124). It also articulates the actor’s unique position as someone able to inhabit a foreign body as if it is their own, allowing them to understand the strange ‘interiority’ of the body they actually wear, thus representing the human experience of existing as a bi-subjective being split between the mind and the body (125). The penultimate chapter of this book discusses Milton’s desire to appeal to sensory cognition, through echoing an angelic choir in the form of his poetry and wanting to heal the wounds of fallen dualism. For Milton, as the mind and body merge, the individual is able to experience a higher form of cognitive experience. Finally, the epilogue further emphasises the text's interdisciplinary focus, providing an insightful summary of the way in which the early modern ideas it explores evolved throughout future centuries. This study is a much-needed volume in a neglected field, although a little more exploration of the theatrical genre would further illuminate what is already provided. Nevertheless, this is a very perceptive and intriguing text.
Kate Gath, University of Sheffield