Ivic, Christopher and Grant Williams, Eds. Forgetting in Early Modern English Literature and Culture: Lethe’s Legacies.  London and New York: Routledge, 2004.  195 pp.  ISBN 0 415 31046 6.

Anita Gilman Sherman
American University

Sherman, Anita Gilman. "Review of Ivic, Christopher and Grant Williams, Eds. Forgetting in Early Modern English Literature and Culture: Lethe’s Legacies." Early Modern Literary Studies 11.2 (September, 2005) 9.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-2/revivic.htm>.

  1. This volume has arrived in the nick of time, gratifying those of us eager for early modernists to move beyond Quintilian’s view of recollection and to overtake the “memory boom” ongoing in other historical periods and fields.[1]  In this sense, the eleven essays comprising the Forgetting in Early Modern English Literature and Culture: Lethe’s Legacies, edited by Grant Williams and Christopher Ivic, stake out new ground and point the way for more study.  While historians like David Cressy and literary scholars like Jonathan Baldo have pursued the ideological implications of memorial management in Tudor-Stuart England, there have been no collections (to my knowledge) dedicated to the literary investigation of forgetting in the English Renaissance.[2]  Attention to occlusions, erasures, palimpsests, as well as to visual representations of oblivion, demands theoretical adventurousness.  While scrupulously historical, many of these essays are theoretically sophisticated, delivering on the editors’ promise to revise “the parameters of mnemonic culture” by considering “forgetting’s active involvement in the construction of the cultural imaginary--how it fosters subjective and collective identities, desires and fantasies foundational to early modern culture” (14-15).

  2. The book is divided into four sections: embodiments, signs, narratives, and localities.  It opens with a timely and thought-provoking introduction, followed by William Engel’s “The decay of memory.”  Engel’s essay bears traces of Frances Yates’ work on the art of memory, even as it focuses on fear of gibberish, or rhetorical disorder, as evidence of what oblivion means.  This leads to an account of sounds that ghosts make--the squeaking and gibbering of the sheeted dead in Shakespeare and elsewhere--and of emblems and other visual allegories.  Garrett Sullivan takes up Engel’s personifications of oblivion and explores forgetfulness as “a somatic process, one that manifests itself … in diseases, bodily dispositions, and humoral excesses” (41).  Sullivan defends a Galenic view of lethargy, arguing that it is a symptom of resistance to coercive regimes.  The theater becomes a site of self-forgetfulness for audiences who experience a reprieve from disciplines associated with memory.  Elizabeth Harvey applies Freud’s notion of screen memories to problems of intertextuality--in this case, the echoes of Spenser’s Castle of Alma and Garden of Adonis in Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia.  The result is a dazzling analysis of the way erotic displacement, abetted by post-coital lethargy, creates conditions for narratives of gynecological, genealogical and national origins.

  3. In Part 2 Grant Williams discusses “textual crudities” in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica,” thereby designating the overabundance of commonplaces.  He uses humoralism and the language of digestion to talk about supplementarity, arguing that material excess confounds memory, such that it reveals “the mnemonic trauma of early modern subjectivity” (74), even as it exposes the need to purge and forget if knowledge is to advance.  Amanda Watson examines early modern poetic theory about rhyme in order to elucidate how distraction, self-forgetfulness, and selective amnesia operate at both the individual and national level.

  4. The first two essays in Part 3 invoke Benedict Anderson’s work on imagined communities to think about narrative.  Christopher Ivic shows how 1 Henry IV “at once remembers and forgets the Wars of the Roses by representing them as wars between English brothers” (102).  By rewriting internecine butchery as “reassuring fratricide,” Shakespeare engages in a politics of collective forgetting that complicates official memory.  David J. Baker offers a sound reappraisal of John Donne’s attitude toward his Catholic antecedents, arguing that far from rejecting them, Donne had irenic, conciliatory aims, most evident in his Devotions.  Elizabeth Mazzola, by contrast, invokes Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic to discuss the collapse of Neo-Platonism in Books 5 and 6 of The Fairie Queene. Slavery in the New World, she argues, haunts Spenser’s “experiments in Renaissance myth-making” (122), despite his efforts through allegory, abstraction and other “epistemological screens” (132) to forget it.

  5. Part 4 includes another wonderful essay on Spenser.  Jennifer Summit sets the library of Eumnestes (“Good Memory”) in the Castle of Alma and the destruction of the Bower of Bliss in the context of post-Reformation library-building and material reading practices.  Zackariah Long and Philippa Berry turn to the theater as their locus of forgetting.  Long frames spectatorial self-forgetfulness showcased in As You Like It in terms of anti-theatricalist discourse.  Berry interprets the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a site of nomadic eros enabling a forgetting that confounds the distinction between subject and object, hence reconfiguring knowledge.

  6. These summaries cannot do justice to the excellence of this volume, which stands out for its pithy introduction and the way its articles speak to one another, even as they exemplify different methodologies and treat a wide range of texts.  My only gripe involves an omission.  Where is skepticism in these analyses of the dialectic between remembering and forgetting?  Surely, skepticism plays a role in the ‘declining prestige of memory’[3] and contributes to awareness that forgetting is susceptible to the vicissitudes of cultural negotiation.  For this reason, I miss Francis Bacon whose programs of curricular purgation not only require strategic forgetting, but also skeptical inquiry.


[1] See, among others, Patrick Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the end of the First Millennium (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Kerwin Lee Klein, “On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse,” Representations 69 (2000): 127-50; Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); Pierre Nora, ed. Les Lieux de mémoire, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1984-92); Paul Ricoeur, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris: Seuil, 2000); Tzvetan Todorov, Mémoire du mal, tentation du bien (Paris: Laffont, 2000); Harald Weinrich, Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting.  Trans. Steven Rendall (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[2] Recently, however, several monographs have dealt with questions related to forgetting.  See the excellent bibliography in the volume under review as well as, for example, Jonathan Baldo, “Exporting Oblivion in The Tempest,Modern Language Quarterly 56.2 (1995): 111-44 and “Necromancing the Past in Henry VIII,English Literary Renaissance 34.3 (2004): 359-86; David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Andrew Escobedo, Nationalism and Historical Loss in Renaissance England: Foxe, Dee, Spenser, Milton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); Adam Fox, Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000); Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Andrew Shifflett, “Kings, Poets, and the Power of Forgiveness, 1642-1660,” English Literary Renaissance 33 (2003): 88-109; Philip Schwyzer, Literature, Nationalism, and Memory in Early Modern England and Wales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 

[3] I borrow this phrase from Weinrich, who says of the late sixteenth century, “Here begins an era in European cultural history in which memory loses its hitherto unchallenged leading role in public affairs and sinks or even plummets down the scale of cultural prestige.  At the same time there is a consequent increase in the prestige of forgetting” (51).

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).