Katherine Eggert, Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England

Katherine Eggert, Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) 368 pp. Hb, EPUB, PDF $55.00. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4751-0

Katherine Eggert’s examination of early modern alchemy and epistemic practices begins with a seemingly irrational proposition; namely, it is “possible not to know what one knows” (2). As Eggert’s analyses into the period’s literature reveal, however, early modern authors employed a strategy of what she terms “disknowledge” - not knowing what one does, in truth, actually know - as a means for reconciling, scrutinizing, or critiquing the growing number of disparate knowledge systems during the late Renaissance. For Eggert, disknowledge was an epistemic method for responding to the evident shortcomings of late humanism; despite humanism’s limitations, there was not necessarily alternative modes of thought to supplement contemporary approaches in the acquisition of knowledge. Eggert deftly compares this disaffection with humanism to the science of alchemy, which was also increasingly ridiculed as outmoded and impractical. Interestingly, Eggert discovers the epistemic move of disknowledge through literature’s relationship to the period’s understanding of alchemy, which was both a theoretical and practical science. Skillfully delineating rhetorical - particularly allegorical - moves in alchemical works and in the period’s literary engagement with such practices, Eggert demonstrates that the turn to alchemy as a means for disknowledge was not, simply, unidirectional. Instead, Eggert captures the seemingly incongruous aspects of alchemical science’s relationship to literature: “alchemy can be, all at once, true (a practical art, protoscience, or syncretic philosophy), false (a delusion or a con game), and unprovable (a literary model)” (6). Turning to alchemical signaling in the works of authors like Spenser, Donne, Herbert, Jonson, and Shakespeare, among others, Eggert’s Disknowledge contributes to the field’s larger consideration of alternative epistemes and rhetoric in the period.

Humanism arrived on England’s shores relatively late during the Renaissance. Tracing its influence on categories of epistemology through alchemical rhetoric in Chapter One, Eggert illustrates how alchemical authors exploited stylistic flourish in response to growing critique. The ability to position disknowledge within alchemy thus allowed literary authors to borrow discursive practices from the alchemical field in their fictional representations. Underpinning the gradual move away from humanistic explanatory frameworks was also a consideration, or rather an anxiety, regarding the very matter of the universe. As Eggert explores in Chapter Two, “How to Forget Transubstantiation,” the doctrine called into question the very material of the cosmos. These challenges to such explanations discarded Aristotelian notions of essences but scholars lacked any immediate, more comprehensible model of understanding materiality. As Eggert demonstrates, metaphysical poets such as Donne, Herbert and Vaughan recognized the problems in debates on the doctrine of transubstantiation. Rather than engage actively in such considerations, however, these authors turned to alchemy as a tool for encouraging deliberate forgetting of the vexed problems, spiritual and scientific as they are, of matter. For example, in Donne’s poetry, unlike his sermons, Eggert identifies a type of nostalgia for the explanatory abilities of transubstantiation, which Donne articulates through a consideration of the equally untenable precepts of alchemy. Herbert, truly interested in the question of what physical matter is, adopts the epistemic maneuver of disknowledge once the tool of alchemy fails to produce an adequate answer to these natural philosophical questions.

From Christian doctrinal cruxes, Eggert moves in Chapter Three, “How to Skim Kabbalah,” to the ways in which Christian authors erased traditions and traces of Jewish learning, employing alchemy and other arts as the means for reshaping these narratives. As Eggert suggests, skimming texts enabled authors to assimilate Kabbalah into humanistic frameworks: “[i]n the case of Kabbalah, an entire body of learning is remade so that it may be known in a new and piecemeal fashion that serves only Christian purposes” (116). Turning to John Dee as her case study of this violent and yet selective appropriation of knowledge, Eggert demonstrates how the magus flirted with Hebraic language only to put his surface-level knowledge to use in Christianizing his own angelology. And yet, as Eggert rightfully points out, literature reflects on both the benefits and the dangers of this late humanistic syncretism of Jewish works. Eggert concludes her chapter on Kabbalah by examining the reading practices and the figure of the magus in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Both Faustus and Prospero owe their knowledge at least tangentially to the Kabbalah tradition, through Faustus does not skim this dangerous source material strategically, instead he chooses “sheer ignorance over strategic ignorance” (143). Nonetheless, Prospero confronts a stark imagistic and ensouled reminder of the Jewish sources to his arcane knowledges in the figure of Caliban.

Female anatomy was another category of knowledge cleverly and purposefully elided by early modern authors. In “How to Avoid Gynecology,” Eggert discusses the methods of avoidance and contradiction utilized by anatomists such as William Harvey and Helkiah Crooke. Excluding women from the act of generation, alchemical imagery allowed for literary authors such as Spenser and Shakespeare to imagine a form of alchemical, masculine parthenogenesis. In her reading of The Faerie Queene, Eggert shows how Spenser “introduces alchemy to explore what men desire to know, what they think they know, and what they avoid knowing about women’s bodies” (181). The tropes of alchemy are put to slightly different ends in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost - alchemy signifies male fantasies that comingle distanced study with direct interaction with female bodies. Finally, Chapter Five, “How to Make Fiction,” returns to the central themes of Eggert’s previous chapters - transubstantiation, kabbalah, and gynecology - in works that consider seriously the pleasures of a poetic knowledge system removed from other disciplinary divisions. In a discussion of Hamlet, The Alchemist, and Cavendish’s utopic novella The Blazing World, Eggert revisits the arguments throughout her book but expands on how these works uniquely present the project of learning.

Ultimately Disknowledge is an important contribution to literary studies and the history of science. Eggert’s research is historically informed, comprehensive, and convincing. Scholars seeking an understanding of knowledge systems in the early modern period will find Eggert’s monograph a helpful supplement in this narrative of knowledge, ignorance, and this new category of disknowledge.

Katherine Walker, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill