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
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>.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).