Jonathan Sawday, Engines of the Imagination

Jonathan Sawday, Engines of the Imagination: Renaissance Culture and the Rise of the Machine (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007). 424 pp. £65 hb; £18.99 pb. ISBN 978-0415350624.

Engines of the Imagination is an acute re-assessment of the status of technology in Renaissance Europe, tracing the permeation of the world of the machine into poetic, political and philosophical realms, and describing the moral and social dimensions in which such devices ‘worked’. Sawday argues that the Renaissance witnessed a significant imaginative and artistic engagement with technology, and substantiates this through delicate textual and pictorial analyses. His literary and artistic subjects are eclectic, including Brueghel, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Marvell, Milton, and Rochester, while his technological references are similarly full, numbering not only the many ‘engines’ (mills, pumping houses, spinning wheels, clockwork, calculating machines) but also microscopic and telescopic lenses, and automata.

The first chapter helpfully sets out how Renaissance culture moved away from a distrustful attitude towards technology. This stance, originating in the Classical and Biblical traditions, is explored through early-modern representations of Icarus and Babel. Sawday highlights the paradox of techné as a product of the Fall and yet also as a possible way of restoring paradise: a cultural tension which is returned to throughout the book. The chapter then moves onto a discussion of images of wind- and water-mills in landscape art, with Sawday engaging in enlightening analyses of familiar works such as Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow. Focusing on the political power of mechanical devices, in chapter two Sawday suggests convincingly (in contrast to previous scholars) that Montaigne engages significantly with the idea of machines, ‘using’ them in a philosophical sense. The chapter also includes one of the many intriguing micro-narratives of the book, describing the movement of the obelisk in Rome, 1585-6, achieved through the work of a ‘megamachine’ of devices and human bodies (led by the architect Domenico Fontana). This feat of engineering represented a ‘fusion of religion, politics, and technology’ (p. 66) in which the Catholic church re-inscribed ancient technological prowess to Christian ideology.

Chapter three is particularly concerned with how technology itself began to regulate society, and shape the division of human labour. Sawday’s analysis illuminates further the brilliance of the sumptuous ‘theatres’ of machines; machine books like Agricola’s extensively illustrated and elaborately descriptive De Re Metallica. Such manuals not only disseminated technical knowledge but also triggered a reordering of disciplines, as the ‘mechanical arts’ began to be acknowledged by scholars. The chapter is particularly insightful where it contrasts Agricola’s ‘infectious mechanical optimism’ (p. 95) and celebration of communal labour through machine-use, with the alienation of labour following the industrial revolution, as described by Marx. The chapter concludes with a return to theological issues, focusing upon the ‘ideal’ of the perpetual motion machine, with Renaissance engineers trying to emulate the workmanship of God which they saw in the ‘mechanical’ motions of the heavens.

Among Sawday’s many achievements in this book is his exceptional awareness of the diachronicity of ideas and images (from the Classical tradition up to twenty-first century popular culture) which affect our readings of technology in the Renaissance period. This is perhaps most evident in chapter four, which explores the relationship between gender and the machine, focusing upon the paradox that, despite the association of mechanical devices with manliness, the most technologically advanced instrument (the spinning wheel) was reserved for women. Sawday brilliantly moves from works like Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting ‘Rosie the Riveter’ (which celebrated the female contribution to heavy industry during the war effort), to the popular Renaissance genre portraits of women with spinning wheels, to Ovid’s Arachne.

In chapter five more esoteric subjects come into view, as Sawday explores the philosophical problem of the connection between the natural and artificial. First, an examination of the significance of metallic imagery in the poetry of Donne allows Sawday to approach the questions raised by the status of metal machines as natural substances but shaped by human craft. This is followed by an account of the mechanical fantasies of hermeticists and alchemists, who saw their manipulations of nature as ways of achieving both material and spiritual refinement. These include stories of fabled automata such as the eagle of Regiomontanus: legends which are still able to inspire wonder. The fascination of human (as an emulation of divine) artifice continues as a theme, in the form of the (female) automaton as an object of (male) desire, including the anti-materialist propaganda which claimed that Descartes had constructed a mechanical figure modelled on his illegitimate daughter. This discussion inevitably leads Sawday to consider parallels with the Pygmalion myth and E. T. A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’.

Chapter six explores the significance of instruments within the Restoration, when microscopes and telescopes became objects not only of wonder but also of fashionable consumption. Sawday outlines the visionary schemes of natural philosophers like John Wilkins, Athanasius Kircher and Blaise Pascal, whose ‘calculating machines’ sparked questions about the nature of ‘thinking’ itself. There is little room for the many inventions of Robert Hooke here unfortunately, with the chapter increasingly focused upon the philosophical and theological significance of the man-as-machine analogy which became pervasive in late seventeenth-century thought after Descartes. The social and economic importance of invention within this later period, especially the significance of patents, is also absent. However, these are minor omissions which do not halt the motion of Sawday’s finely tuned mechanism, reaching maximum speed in chapter seven, which considers Paradise Lost. Exploring Milton’s paradoxical engagement with mechanism (suspicious of anything produced by fallen man, but thrilled by the energy, power and force machines unleash), the reading of his Christian epic is innovative, rounded and nuanced. Sawday brings substantial new insight, through the figuration of Adam as an automaton, to a question often-visited: if all ‘components’ of the human are determined by his Creator-God, how can free will exist? The chapter therefore constitutes a substantial addition to Milton criticism.

Chapter eight continues in those pastoral idylls where writers sought to escape the noise and movement of the machine. But even here Sawday finds the encroachment of artifice. Marvell’s poetry in particular, with its scythes and ‘industrious bee[s]’, hints at how ‘mechanism and artifice has stealthily transformed’ a world ‘still suffused with an older pastoral stillness’ (p. 299). However, Sawday concludes by pointing out that technology is likewise always under the threat of destruction, as envisioned by Spenser in his poem ‘The Ruins of Time’, or by Forster in his short story 'The Machine Stops'. Fortunately for us as readers, Sawday’s insight keeps the Renaissance machine a fascinating subject throughout its ‘imaginative history’.

In the last decade or so, interdisciplinarity has (rightly or wrongly) become one of the principal markers of quality research in the humanities. Our own fragile discipline of ‘literature and science’ relies upon this belief in the value of the cross-fertilization of ideas, metaphors and tropes. While few books can truly lay claim to the achievement of crossing disciplinary boundaries, Sawday’s impressive Engines of the Imagination must certainly be numbered as one of them.

Gregory Lynall, University of Liverpool.