Michael Schoenfeldt. Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England: Physiology and Inwardness in Spenser, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. xii+203pp. ISBN 0 521 66902 2, Price US$21.95 Paper; ISBN 0 521 63073 8, Price US$59.97 Cloth.
In this book, Michael Schoenfeldt adds an important study to the ongoing examination of renaissance ideas of the body. The body we find here is not the leaky, carnivalesque body of Gail Kern Paster's The Body Embarrassed, or the dead, flayed body of Jonathan Sawday's The Body Emblazoned. Rather, Schoenfeldt takes a close second look at the everyday, living body as an arena of self-control as defined by Galenic physiology, classical ethics, and reformation theology. In doing so, he offers a study at times complementary and at times corrective to recent work on the topic. Unlike some historicist readings of renaissance literature, Schoenfeldt's concerns itself not with what respective texts ostensibly hide. Instead, this book reaches back to refresh our understanding of a discourse important to the four writers studied, an understanding of the self that was a "brilliantly supple discourse of selfhood and agency" (11).
Galenic physiology provides a system integrating the material body with reason and the emotions. It associates the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire) with the four humours the make up the body (melancholy or black bile, blood, phlegm, and yellow bile). Individuals must work to balance the humours within themselves by regulating their diets; imbalance results in both physical and psychological abnormality. Ingestion, then, becomes a matter of anxious introspection. Schoenfeldt finds in this self-discipline a space for individual rather than state control: subjects must be regents of themselves in order to attain good health; the person who lacks control of self indeed lacks self. Schoenfeldt further explores a tension between two coexisting but contradicting models of self-control: the stoic elimination of passion and the Christian direction of passion.
Schoenfeldt is at his most confrontational in his chapter on Spenser, where he accomplishes an important re-reading of the second book of The Faerie Queene, and particularly the episodes in the Castle of Alma and the Bower of Bliss. He responds to recent Freudian readings by Stephen Greenblatt and David Miller with the jolting but convincing argument that renaissance psychology focuses not on the genitals but on the stomach, the center of the digestive (and excretory) system. Where Greenblatt and Miller see the repression and redirection of sexual energy, Schoenfeldt points out the careful regulation of body and spirit. Within this framework, the seemingly ridiculous detail of Guyon's tour of the castle's "back-gate" (2.9.32), or anus, makes sense; the chief danger to the body lies not in its being leaky, but in the extremes of it either being stopped up or liquified. Healthy digestion sorts out nutrients from waste and rids itself of the latter before it can cause damage. When read through the Castle of Alma, the Bower of Bliss episode emerges not as a decision between pleasure and control (as Greenblatt would have it), but as a decision between the immoderate and short-lived pleasure of the Bower and the pleasure seen in the Castle, which emerges precisely from control.
While this study works to explain Spenser's seemingly inappropriate exploration of the body, with Shakespeare it brings to attention the subtle yet ubiquitous vocabulary of humoral psychology at work in the sonnets. In particular, Schoenfeldt deals with the critical problem of Sonnet 94, a poem that celebrates those who contain their emotions and are as unmoved by others as stone. Modern criticism has generally viewed the poem as ironic, but Schoenfeldt argues for its sincerity, based on its call for temperate self-control. Reading it against Sonnet 129 ("Th'expence of Spirit in a waste of shame"), he finds in it a way out of the tyranny of desire and toward the kingdom of the self.
The next chapter examines the importance of eating and digestion in the intensely Eucharistic work of George Herbert by contextualizing the ritual breaking of bread within common dietary beliefs and practices. Schoenfeldt demonstrates the palpable materiality of Herbert's Eucharistic language; he points out, for instance, that the term "spirit" in "The H. Communion" mediates between body and soul in that it signifies a material substance, a particularly rarified form of blood produced by digestion and used by the soul. Body and soul interact tightly: nutrition and affliction occur in both realms. Within this context, the Eucharist can be seen as a particularly intense form of digestion, the entry of God into the believer's body and soul as the ultimate nutritive act.
Whereas Herbert sees the Eucharist as a heightened form of digestion, Milton dismisses the idea of sacrament in favor of a celebration of the miracle of digestion itself, which exemplifies the material transformation that animates his universe. As well, the experience of food becomes "the central site of pre- and post-lapsarian morality" (131), with meals requiring deeply introspective choices and constant ethical exercise. As in Herbert, careful eating results in nutrition, intemperate eating in indigestion and even death. Attention to digestion literally fleshes out the ideas of interiority and the individual. Each person must choose what and how much to eat; these choices in Milton carry heavy consequences. Notably, paradise is both lost and regained by dietary acts.
- Paster, Gail Kern. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.
- Jonathan Sawday. The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture. London: Routledge, 1995.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)