Elizabeth Spiller, Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature

Elizabeth Spiller, Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature. The Art of Making Knowledge, 1580-1670 (2004. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2007). 232 pp. ₤56.00 hb/₤24.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-521-83086-7 (hb)/978-0-521-03768-6(pb).

In Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature, Elizabeth Spiller addresses the manner in which literature and science arose out of the same philosophical tradition and asserts that the interest of both disciplines was the production of knowledge. Focusing on the historical period from 1580 to 1670, Spiller argues that ‘early modern science is practiced as art and, at the same time, that imaginative literature provides a form for producing knowledge’ (2). Spiller’s text is a welcome addition to the field of literature and science.

Spiller opens her study by arguing that Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy and William Gilbert’s On the Magnet reflect an earlymodern interest in creating small worlds. For Sidney, the poet is a ‘maker’ and the poem is a small world by which the poet maker creates knowledge; thus the poet has the capacity to form worlds or to ‘re-form the whole “small world” of England’ (42). For Gilbert, magnetism and the study of it were procreative acts since the earth is a womb and hence a mother common to all. Having the quality of the ‘very soil of England’ (50), the magnet, particularly the globe-shaped ‘terrellas’, can re-form England, offering a form of good government. Spiller asserts that  Sidney offers a theoretical practice that Gilbert realizes in his study of magnets.

In chapter two, biology functions as the framework for Spiller to explore the intellectual and generative processes of the creation of knowledge, which, she claims, inform both art and the sciences. Edmund Spenser in the Faerie Queene and William Harvey in his Disputations Touching the Generation of Animals, she argues, give multiple accounts of creation while simultaneously imagining themselves as part of the process of knowledge creation. Not only does Spenser construct the ‘travails’ of the quest as generative, but the generative process itself informs a number of cantos, such as the Garden of Adonis. While ‘Spenser may be pregnant with poetry,’ Spiller writes, ‘Harvey becomes pregnant with the idea of scientific practice’ (85). According to Spiller, ‘art and science depend on and begin in acts of sensory perception’ (88). Harvey, for example, found Seneca’s notion of the painter a means by which to move from idea to process, and hence constructs reproduction in his Disputations not as an anatomical function but rather as a biological process.

Spiller argues in chapter three that reading is of greatest concern in those areas of science which most depended on experimentation and observation. How could readers believe what they could not see? Thus, in The Starry Messenger Galileo attempted to persuade readers to accept his discoveries by exploiting the technologies of printing and engraving to turn his text into ‘a kind of textual telescope’ (107). Kepler offers in his utopic Dream a revision of the ideas expressed in Starry Messenger, presenting not only an optics demonstration, but considering as well ‘how reading and observing intersect as acts of seeing’ (130).

In chapter four, Spiller claims that early modern reading became a contested activity. Asking how ‘readers responded to the philosophers who wrote for them’ (139), Spiller appoints Margaret Cavendish as a ‘typical reader’ of men such as Thomas Hobbes and Robert Hooke. In The Blazing World, Cavendish ‘writes back’ to these men, exploring the space between ‘scientific truth’ and the reader’s apprehension of truth, and constructing her text like a telescope to model the reader’s experience of the text as though he or she were looking through the lens. Cavendish, Spiller claims, encourages the reader to question whether the world she presents is not truer than that defined by the natural philosophers. Cavendish does not test the truth of science, Spiller argues, but rather ‘promotes her fiction as a competing form of truth’ (174), presenting for her reader a choice between becoming a scientist or a reader.

Spiller’s links between literary and scientific texts are often pleasantly surprising; however, it is difficult to view her arguments as paradigmatic in any way when she pairs them so narrowly, i.e. one writer and one ‘scientist’. Nevertheless, given that she has chosen this particular format of juxtaposing two thinkers, she offers considerable depth and insight in her close readings of primary texts. Still, there is much missing here in using this technique. For example, the small worlds in chapter one present an opportune moment for a discussion of poetry in an age when the poets’ concern withother worlds was clear;yet even John Donne’s ‘little world’ is missing here. Her work with Spenser and Harvey in chapter two is, perhaps, the most exciting in the book and certainly the more nuanced, but her exploration of Galileo and Kepler in chapter three comes closest to fulfilling the argument she posits at the start of the chapter.  Even so, with chapter three there seems to be a shift in focus as her earlier concern with knowledge-making in the first two chapters gives way to reading and reading practices without the adroit handling in the shift that the reader might expect.

Spiller’s fourth chapter, however, is unquestionably the most problematic. While sheacknowledges that a ‘history of reading practices is notoriously difficult to recover’ (22), Spiller uses the work of one of the most contested readers and writers of the period, Margaret Cavendish, as a paradigm for the early modern reader. Can Cavendish, who was viewed by her contemporaries as eccentric,be held up as the mean by which present-day scholars might understand the typical seventeenth-century reader?Nor does Spiller here seem to recognize fully the complexity of gender issues when she chooses a female reader for this purpose, or the atypical advantages Cavendish enjoyed, not only in her wealth and social rank, but in her relationship and correspondence with men such as Henry More and Thomas Hobbes.

This is not to argue that Spiller’s work is for naught, for she has opened the door to a complicated and complex area of study. Her linking of these radically different writers in seemingly disparate disciplines, her focus on sensory perception, and her discussion of the generation of knowledge are perceptive and illuminating. Although she never does effectively establish how the reader becomes a maker, and although sometimes the lines she draws between the writer and the natural philosopher are not always clear, the book is nevertheless well worth the read.

Judy A. Hayden, University of Tampa