Katherine Eggert explores the crumbling state of humanistic learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the benefits of relying on alchemy despite its recognized flaws.
2015 | 368 pages | Cloth $55.00
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Table of Contents
Notes on Texts, Biblical Quotations, and Bibliography
Chapter 1. How to Sustain Humanism
Chapter 2. How to Forget Transubstantiation
Chapter 3. How to Skim Kabbalah
Chapter 4. How to Avoid Gynecology
Chapter 5. How to Make Fiction
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio," says Hamlet to his friend, "Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." On the face of it, this is a quite reasonable thing to say at this moment in the play. Occasioned by the Ghost's appearance, which has rattled both men, Hamlet's remark suggests that ghosts are not something that you can think about properly, not in the framework you have at hand. When Horatio calls the Ghost "wondrous strange," Hamlet's observation assures him that this apparition falls into the category of things not knowable (1.5.172).
The question then becomes, though, how you are to think at all. One option—one that may seem tempting at this point in Hamlet—is to leave off thinking altogether. Certainly thinking has gotten no one anywhere so far in act 1. The watch and Horatio alike have been utterly wrong about what the Ghost's appearance portends, and Hamlet himself has already cast the political and familial complexities of the royal household in the half-light of his own highly idiosyncratic, and hence highly questionable, speculations and emotions. Now, after the Ghost's revelation raises more questions than it answers, Hamlet recommends to the other men that they suppress any desire for knowledge they may have. "For your desire to know what is between us"—that is, between Hamlet and the Ghost—"O'ermaster it as you may" (1.5.145-46). What a relief to be permitted to remain simply ignorant! If you never have to try to know anything, you never feel the shame of coming up with a theory that is manifestly wrong.
It is quite possible, however, that what Horatio calls "wondrous strange" is not the Ghost but Hamlet himself, whose "wild and whirling words" Horatio has already noted (1.5.139). And one of the most wondrously strange things Hamlet does in this sequence is put Horatio and the soldiers of the watch in what appears to be an untenable epistemological position. First, despite the fact that Hamlet excuses them from epistemic effort, it is clear that they do know something, or else Hamlet would not warn them to keep their knowledge of the Ghost close: "Never make known what you have seen tonight" (1.5.149). Second, what they are not to make known includes the fact that they know what Hamlet is up to when he "put[s] an antic disposition on" so as to hide his intent: "never . . . note / That you know aught of me" (1.5.177-87). While the men don't know what Hamlet has learned from the Ghost, they know that he has deemed the Ghost "honest" and thus has established a kind of working relationship with it (1.5.144). The sum effect of these remarks is that Hamlet evidently wants them not to know about the Ghost and about Hamlet's relation to the Ghost, even while they do know about the Ghost and about Hamlet's relation to the Ghost.
It is the founding premise of this book that Hamlet's epistemological request, while perhaps "wondrous strange," is perfectly plausible. It is possible not to know what one knows. Indeed, Hamlet, Horatio, and others like them—that is to say, humanistically educated men of the turn of the seventeenth century—were especially in need of this tricky epistemological maneuver as well as especially good at it. The knowledge practices of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I will be arguing, found themselves in such a long-standing crisis that such gyrations started to make sense. In this long interval of time England saw humanism, with its faith in how classical letters could shape moral and civic virtue, becoming less and less credible. But despite calls by the likes of Francis Bacon to sweep aside antiquated learning and start fresh, there was nothing to replace humanism—not yet. A discredited knowledge system that is nonetheless the only game in town: such a thing, as I will argue toward the end of this book, is largely what Hamlet has in mind. Before I get back to Hamlet, though, I will establish that Hamlet's age—an age that we may call late humanism, the Counter-Renaissance, or merely England's late Renaissance—develops a number of strategies for managing knowledge that are peculiar to the needs of a society governed by a threadbare but still ubiquitously operative educational scheme.
Many of those strategies amount to means for knowing less. The equal and opposite impulse of what William West has called the "encyclopedia culture" of early modern Europe—a culture "obsessed with collecting and sorting information . . . driven by the desire to map the world's order and to construct a universal theory of everything"—is an impulse to keep knowledge small, comfortable, familiar. While it is a commonplace that early modern intellectual culture experienced an explosive proliferation of knowledge at the same time that it experienced a proliferation of (mostly printed) texts, the recent work of historians like Ann Blair casts doubt on how cheerful early modern people were about this development. Blair describes a backlash of new techniques intended to organize, censor, and restrict the flow of information. Another form that backlash could take was simply to ignore new knowledge, either because it seemed revolutionary or subversive or merely because it would require that people adjust their views. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin comment, for example, on the curious fact that, despite the prominent appearance in print of accounts of Europeans' explorations of the Western Hemisphere, Africa, and the Far East, these works were unpopular and relatively uncited in comparison to familiar and inaccurate works on geography that dated from before the great age of exploration. One response to the discomfort of the new is to stick with the old.
Other strategies for managing unpalatable knowledge in an age of late humanism, however, are more complicated and epistemologically interesting than simply constricting information's flow. These strategies cultivate the stance Hamlet advocates: being acquainted with something and being ignorant of it, both at the same time. I have invented my own word, disknowledge, for this peculiar epistemological maneuver, because neither the Renaissance nor my own age provides me with exactly the right term. True, the early modern period devised wonderful new language to express how it feels to believe one knows nothing. The sixteenth century, for example, saw the word skeptic enter English as a way of describing the state of epistemological anguish that Maurice Blanchot would later call "unknowing." In their turn, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have devised invaluable terminology to describe how one acts in a fashion contrary to what one knows to be true, with Sigmund Freud's "disavowal," Jean-Paul Sartre's "bad faith," and sociology's "strategic ignorance" being perhaps the most useful. Yet none of these terms adequately pinpoints the process this book describes. The term disknowledge describes the conscious and deliberate setting aside of one compelling mode of understanding the world—one discipline, one theory—in favor of another. The state of knowing that results from disknowledge is not pure ignorance, but rather something more like what Peter Sloterdijk calls "enlightened false consciousness."
In this book I seek to catch disknowledge in action in a number of literary texts, and a few nonliterary texts, from England's late Renaissance. I ask what purpose disknowledge serves. From what kind of knowledge is the text turning, and to what other kind, and why? What I am looking for is what Harry Berger, Jr., calls "the Technique of Conspicuous Irrelevance": a text's "perverse insistence on . . . digressive elements." I am interested in that "perverse insistence," however, not when it is an irruption of the text's political unconscious but when it is a demonstrably conscious choice.
One sure sign that disknowledge is operating in a text is when bad ideas—or nutty ideas, or simply irrelevant ideas—start to look good. My focus in this book is on one discipline that literary texts persistently choose as a sign or signal of epistemological digression: the discipline of alchemy, which, among its many other attributes, was dogged by the reputation of being an especially bad idea. The literature and culture of early modern England were immensely attracted to alchemy for a number of reasons, not least because alchemy offers a treasure trove of metaphors for metamorphosis, or purification, or falsehood, or capitalism. But the literary texts I discuss in this book use alchemy not merely because it is a rich source of figurative language. They use it to signal the way that one knowledge system may be used to displace another, in a manner that allows the displaced system to be both known and not known. Alchemy can serve this purpose because of its own unusual status as a discipline of study and practice. Alchemy seemed, throughout its history and especially in the period with which this book is concerned, to be both true and false, both profound and risible.
In recent decades scholars have evaluated the truth value of early modern alchemy in several different ways. The first stems from the simple fact that "practical" alchemy—using heat to transform substances, primarily through either distillation or its "dry" counterpart, calcination—was truly useful. The working practitioners that Tara Nummedal calls "entrepreneurial alchemists" provided communities with medicines and metalwork, provided the mining and smelting industries with assaying techniques and furnace management, and provided artists and artisans with everything from the composition of new pigments (Jan van Eyck's extraordinary vermilion and verdigris) to a language that could adequately describe the transformation of goldsmithing materials under the influence of heat. Practical alchemists' workroom expertise has recently led a number of historians of early modern science to emphasize a second reason for alchemy's credibility: they have argued that far from being a sidetrack from the development of modern physics and chemistry, alchemy lent method, if not quite yet science, to what would become the scientific method of hypothesis and experiment. For example, William Newman and Lawrence Principe detail the similarities between the laboratory practices of Robert Boyle, father of modern chemistry, and those of his contemporary, alchemist George Starkey, both of them translating the mystical alchemical treatises of Jean Baptiste van Helmont into recognizably modern scientific techniques such as precise material quantification and the synthetic analysis of repeated experiments.
A third characterization of alchemy's truth value stems from the foundational work of Frances Yates, who argues that the "Hermetic tradition" of which alchemy was a part exerted a deep and abiding influence on early modern thought. As opposed to practical alchemy, this "theoretical" or esoteric alchemy explored alchemical purification as an analogue or even a partner to the highest aims of theology, philosophy, and moral philosophy. While the "Yates thesis" of a unified esoteric body of thought has been largely dismantled, her work has borne fruit in a number of fascinating studies of the seemingly endless proliferation in early modern Europe of alchemical symbology, in everything from emblem books to landscape paintings to ceramic tableware. Such exploration has proved especially useful for literary criticism, since alchemical imagery and sometimes larger alchemical structures pervade Renaissance literature, including texts that do not focus explicitly on themes of the magus or the alteration of material substances. Indeed, Karen Pinkus reads alchemy as something like the work of literature itself, "as much defined by a set of images, practices, rhetorics, and fetish-objects, as it is by the goal, the finished product."
So far we have covered some of the scholarship that emphasizes alchemy's truths and profundities. But it is equally the case that early modern alchemy was seen as a powerful delusion, one that possesses addled alchemical practitioners or is inflicted by alchemical con artists on greedy dupes. The connection of alchemy with falsehood and delusion applies to both its practical and its theoretical sides. Practical alchemists since the Middle Ages had garnered a reputation for counterfeiting and other forms of small-time cons and chiseling. Similarly, esoteric alchemy was labeled by any number of writers on natural philosophy as a fool's or a charlatan's game. Between the unsavory reputation of practical alchemy and the charges of intellectual incoherence leveled at theoretical alchemy, by the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the very word alchemy was convenient shorthand for obfuscation, misguided learning, and outright scams. As the alchemist's apprentice in John Lyly's 1583 play Gallathea comments, "such a beggarly science it is, and so strong on multiplication, that the end is to have neither gold, wit, nor honesty." Stanton Linden's important book on this topic directs us past the most obvious instances, stories about alchemists, into a widespread and long-standing satiric tradition that associated alchemy with falsehood; his examples include not only classic con artist tales like Geoffrey Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman's Tale and Ben Jonson's The Alchemist but also Francis Bacon, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, and more. A separate but similarly fruitful line of inquiry—one traced by Peggy Knapp, William Sherman, and David Hawkes, among others—explores the literary associations between alchemy and counterfeit money, suggesting that the charges of falsifying or debasing coinage that were typically leveled against alchemists signal the bad faith at the heart of nascent capitalism.
Alchemy as practical art; alchemy as protoscience; alchemy as esoteric knowledge and literary ally; alchemy as falsehood. It is easy to see how all of these explanations for the continued allure of alchemy can hold true in a single culture. Alchemy need not mean the same thing at all times to all people. This book, however, explores something quite different: how all of these seemingly incommensurable aspects of alchemy are, for some writers, all true at the same time. For the authors I examine in this book, 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). Crediting alchemy's reputation for creating new physical materials and new metaphysical and moral states of being but also remembering its reputation for falsehood, some writers associate alchemy with that same dual state of awareness. Alchemy, in other words, suggests for these writers a special and important epistemological status: it can be characterized as knowledge that is also nonknowledge. More precisely, as I have already suggested, these writers can deploy alchemy to signal a mode of choosing not to know what one knows.
Investigating how disknowledge works and the uses to which it may be put is part of the project that Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger have called "agnotology," or the study of applied ignorance. While my own book is an effort in agnotology, one that also (as I will detail in Chapter 1) draws inspiration from the relatively new field of "ignorance studies," it is so because the likes of Edmund Spenser, John Donne, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Margaret Cavendish, and the other authors addressed in this book are extraordinary agnotologists, thinkers who not only use but also expose and analyze their culture's reasons and methods for shunting aside certain modes of knowing. And these authors' agnotological abilities, in turn, are enabled through literature's own agnotological propensities. At even its most basic level, the level of the trope, literature depends on deliberately saying this in place of that, substituting what is understood as fictional for what is understood as real. What literature also does, however, is insinuate that this is preferable to that: as Philip Sidney puts it in the Defense of Poetry, we prefer literature's golden world, however not-true it is, to history's world of brass. To know something literarily is a conscious choice over knowing it factually. The authors I examine in this book not only engage in that choice but represent it, in effect undertaking their own study of the fancy footwork and clever crosstalk required to make disknowledge take hold.
Analyzing these authors' canny song and dance helps me refine my sense of this book as an undertaking in "historical epistemology," as Lorraine Daston, following Arnold Davidson, calls "the history of the categories that structure our thought, pattern our arguments and proofs, and certify our standards for explanation." Daston notes that such study "transcends the history of ideas, by asking the Kantian question about the preconditions that make thinking this or that idea possible." In the case of alchemy, the structures of thought that were in place made simultaneous faith and disbelief possible. But the fact that these structures are, indeed, historical indicates that they are not prefabricated ideology. Rather, they are put in place, incrementally, each time an argument or proof explicitly depends upon them. The kinds of microchoices that reveal themselves under the lens of literary analysis constitute these incremental building blocks, and attending to the patterns they establish will help us understand how the use of alchemical imagery may signify a series of deliberate determinations of what can and cannot be known. Such an examination of epistemic choice is not at all incompatible with the Foucauldian assumption that "at any given instant, the structure proper to individual experience finds a certain number of possible choices (and of excluded possibilities) in the systems of society." Of most interest to me, in fact, are the textual productions of authors who were considered, or at least considered themselves, as entrusted with making knowledge on behalf of social systems. Arguably, it is precisely their sense of privilege regarding their role as knowledge makers that makes their texts discerning and self-conscious about what disknowledge is good for. Nor is an examination of epistemic choice incompatible with a Kuhnian sense that any massive, revolutionary shift in theoretical systems effectively cancels one set of things that are known and replaces it with another, different set. After all, Thomas Kuhn himself describes the "crisis stage" between the demise of the old theoretical system and the advent of the new as one in which scientists deliberately cobble together bits of old and new in a conscious effort to think two incompatible ways at once.
Disknowledge is, in the end, a deliberate means by which a culture can manage epistemological risk. Early modern England felt itself at risk in many arenas that feel quite familiar today, from credit crises to terrorism. Among those arenas, however, perhaps the most pervasive and the least subject to control was what David Glimp has called "the global flow of risky knowledge." The sense among the early modern intelligentsia that knowledge was risky was both self-generated and imported. Even while they wrestled with the desirability and practicality of a humanist ideal in which, in theory at least, there was nothing that could not be safely known, early modern intellectual circles struggled to absorb challenging bodies of knowledge that came from "out there," whether they were entirely new (such as new scientific theories) or simply unorthodox (such as non-Christian theologies). Learning while not learning was a path sometimes taken to manage that epistemological risk. For example, Schiebinger has recently analyzed the curious phenomenon of botanists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—the great age of not only colonial expansion but also botanical classification—who refused to transmit knowledge of particular New World plants: those that induced abortion. Burgeoning European empires required a larger population, not a smaller one. Hence, their agents, despite being devoted to the advance of science, decided not to learn what they had in fact come to know. Not because they were censored, or censored themselves. Not because they were like the colonizers of North America who, in Paul Mapp's account, made poor geopolitical decisions because of poor maps—that is, because they did not understand the scope of what lay before them. Rather, they simply and professedly believed it dangerous for European women to have access to information about abortifacients, and thus they chose not to learn about what the New World had to offer. Like Milton's Adam, they knew to know no more.
To explain disknowledge further, then, I begin Chapter 1 by addressing the state of learning in the age of late humanism. Humanism's reading and research tools, along with its curriculum of letters, remained the standard for both education and scholarship throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, as I have already suggested, late humanism was beset with a crisis of confidence brought on by shifts in thinking about such issues as epistemology, matter theory, and the advisability of following classical models in shaping personal and national character. Religious and ideological divides meant that late humanism also found its ideal of syncretic knowledge impossible to maintain. One of the reasons, I believe, that authors reached so easily for alchemical metaphors when it came to considering knowledge practices was that alchemy, though it precedes humanism chronologically, adopts humanistic goals and practices and thus shares humanism's fissures. But while all of humanism's shortcomings—including, for example, the new Baconian suspicion that rhetoric was mere frippery rather than truly consequential—were also charges that could be leveled against alchemy, the discourse of theoretical alchemy undertook a magnificent rearguard action against the forces undermining humanism's legitimacy: it threw all of its resources into rhetorical extravagance and into figuration of every kind. That very process of figuration—the turn that defines the act of troping—becomes the grounds, I argue, for alchemical discourse's profitable associations with disknowledge. Proposing a theory of disknowledge that compares and contrasts it to other twentieth- and twenty-first-century models of possessing two incongruous states of knowledge at once, this chapter also begins to sketch out why, exactly, alchemy's habits of learning and expression make it such a suggestive metaphorical referent for thinking about one thing rather than another.
I focus in the succeeding chapters on three different intellectual domains that, in the literary works I discuss, are shunted aside with the specific aid of tropes from alchemy: the matter theory underlying the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation; the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah; and the study of female reproductive anatomy. These were intellectual domains that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England had particular need of disknowing, and the literary works discussed in these chapters share in the cultural project of turning from these uncomfortable topics. At the same time, however, these literary works expose the motives for disknowing these three intellectual domains and the processes by which they are disknown.
I have chosen these three topics for my focus because, in many ways, they share the peculiar epistemological status of alchemy that I described above, and thus are particularly amenable to the use of alchemical tropes. Transubstantiation, Kabbalah, and human reproduction are sixteenth- and seventeenth-century areas of inquiry in which transformation of some kind is at stake—physical, metaphysical, or biological. They are also, however, areas of inquiry in which the nature and even the possibility of genuine transformation are hotly debated. Transubstantiation, while officially discredited in post-Reformation Protestant theology, nevertheless continues to come up in discussions of Aristotelian matter theory and the newer matter theories that are beginning to challenge it. Kabbalah, which promises both physical and metaphysical transformation by means of uniquely powerful linguistic tools, is under suspicion because of its roots in Jewish learning. And the functions of female reproductive anatomy are being reevaluated in part because no one could agree on what role, if any, women's reproductive organs play in the transformation of reproductive matter from seed into child. In all three of these fields it is thus equally possible to rely on theories of transformation and to suspect that those same theories are theologically, biologically, or physically spurious.
My first focus is transubstantiation, and Chapter 2 explores how the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan participates in the fits of cultural amnesia that necessarily surrounded the issue of Roman Catholicism in early modern England. Alchemical imagery in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan facilitates the deliberate forgetting of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, while at the same time highlighting the fact that the Catholic physics underlying transubstantiation had shaped the Aristotelianism that still held currency in seventeenth-century matter theory. Quite ironically, it is because alchemy and transubstantiation share a status as physically dubious that these three poets find alchemy a useful replacement for transubstantiation. Their motives are quite different, however. Whereas Donne conjoins alchemical with Eucharistic imagery to provide some intellectual relief from taking the transformation of matter seriously, Herbert uses alchemy to signal how he finds such questions serious but unanswerable. Tracking Herbert closely, Vaughan—quite surprisingly, considering that he was not only the brother of a prominent alchemist but also dabbled in translating alchemical texts himself—uses alchemy to diverge from the nature of matter entirely. Vaughan's physical world is not a world of physics, and it is alchemy that signals it so.
Chapter 3 turns from alchemy's associations with Catholicism to what it and the other esoteric arts draw from Judaism. My topic here is how Christian theorists of the esoteric arts, like Christian scholars more generally, capitalize on reading techniques taught by late humanism to wrest Jewish learning from Jews. I begin with John Dee, whose hopes of purifying the physical universe through the manipulation of symbols attracted him to the alchemical use of Kabbalah. Dee's method of learning Kabbalah, however, may be fairly characterized as "skimming," a habit of learning he shares with Christian kabbalists from his age and beyond that relieves him of the responsibility for being true either to the Hebrew language or to the vast, seemingly impenetrable, and theologically suspect body of Jewish knowledge that Kabbalah represents. I then address Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare's The Tempest, two plays that reference Dr. Dee but present two very different takes on Christian methods for simultaneously employing and discarding Jewish learning. Whereas Faustus endorses the utility of clever scholarly skimming in order to avoid unintended consequences—like, say, going to hell—The Tempest physicalizes the presence of the Jew in the slave Caliban, and thus reminds us of the undeniable source of the learning one has skimmed.
After attending to religion I turn to texts that use alchemy to help ponder how to handle one of the emerging adept sciences of the seventeenth century. Chapter 4 explores how anatomical and literary texts stave off the startling (and, to many, unsavory) new accounts of the female reproductive organs that became available in printed vernacular sources in England in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I begin with William Harvey, whose surprising introduction of alchemical imagery into discussions of mammalian reproduction coincides with his reading, then dismissing, his predecessor Helkiah Crooke's stout contention that women's contributions to the conception of children are as potent and as formative as men's. I then examine the way that literary texts deploy alchemical tropes in order to echo, play out, and critique the fantasies concocted by the refusal to see what could be known: women's essential part in forming children. On the one hand, in these works women are reformulated into the imagery of the alchemical experiment, in which fecund, productive vessels harbor the growth of new life. On the other, these works also tend to ironize such imagery, teasing the reader with the prospect of female bodies as either inert, dumb experimental vessels (who would want such a companion?) or powerful and perhaps incomprehensible bearers of transformation (who could control such a being?). Analyzing Spenser's Faerie Queene and Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, Chapter 4 addresses how alchemy's alliances with disknowledge help frame larger issues: not only what can be known of the female body but also the ethical, social, and literary motivations for maintaining a particular epistemological relation to the feminine.
This book's final topic is different. I turn in Chapter 5 to how some authors make use of alchemical tropes to ponder the status of seventeenth-century knowledge making itself, and especially the odd form of knowledge making that is the writing of literature. It is no accident that Sidney's trope in The Defense of Poetry for how literature works is an alchemical one. The poet's fiction replaces the historian's fact, just as gold alchemically replaces brass. But alchemy complicates the seemingly straightforward analogy between gold and brass on the one hand, and fiction and fact on the other. "Fact," as Mary Poovey has helped us recognize (and as Sidney himself intuited), is an invented phenomenon: facts come into being in exactly the period of late humanism as a result of disciplinary pressures to account for a rapidly changing and increasingly economic existence. If facts serve disciplinarity, though, so too may fiction. The alchemical metaphor serves Sidney's purpose because alchemy's straddling of the epistemological divide between known and not known, true and not true, suggests a new role for literature in the posthumanist divvying up of fields of learning.
By way of disciplinarity, alchemy comes to represent a choice for literary authorship. When Sidney's analogy is taken up by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Cavendish, it becomes the occasion for a meditation on where literature stands in an age of late humanism, when humanism's ideal of basing a perfected society on literary models was manifestly crumbling. It is true, as Anthony Grafton has argued, that the methods of emerging science continued to depend on humanist habits. Nevertheless, the seventeenth century registered humanism's demotion, and the place of alchemy in these authors' works helps us understand some of the ways this demotion is felt in the literary realm: either as loss or as opportunity. Either literary endeavor may align itself with a threadbare vision of an intellectually omnivorous humanism or it may embrace a new specialism—the specialism of the writer. Those two incomparable plays bracketing the first decade of the seventeenth century, Shakespeare's Hamlet and Jonson's The Alchemist, put the case rather clearly. They distinguish between characters whose alchemical references point toward their pretensions for an all-encompassing knowledge scheme (Hamlet) and those whose alchemy indicates a willing alliance with discrete domains of disknowledge such as literature (Subtle, Face, and Dol Common). Cavendish's Blazing World, in the wake of Shakespeare and Jonson, reconceives literature not as a source for truth, as humanism would have it, but as so woven into the texture of the material world that it belongs to everyone, not to humanistically educated men alone.
In recent years, scholars from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences have proposed that the embrace of ignorance or nonknowledge in one fashion or another—from skepticism to the sublime to relativity to probability—marks and grounds intellectual culture's shift from the premodern to modernity. In the end, alchemy can represent modernity for early modern authors in that it can demonstrate a way forward for knowledge practices otherwise mired in the no-longer-useful past. That way forward, however, may either frighten or hearten us, depending on the variety of disknowledge we see deployed. While this book's argument does not extend to the present moment, it is my hope—even if a chagrined one—that the reader will quickly recognize how the habits of disknowledge impinge in damaging ways upon current learned discourse. The twenty-first century, at least in the United States, is an age of disknowledge redux, as elaborate systems like the theory of "intelligent design" are crafted merely so that they may replace bodies of knowledge that are subject to disapprobation. As Bruno Latour has pointed out, scholarly efforts of the last few decades to expose "facts" as socially constructed are all too easily enlisted in such causes. When any scientific theory, no matter how well founded, may be viewed as a conspiracy theory, disknowledge can be a valuable way of shoving it aside. The use of alchemy by the writers I discuss might, in other words, model for modernity one of its most supple and frightening ideological strategies: not believing in what is not true, but rather knowing it is not true yet still acting as if we did believe.
Based on its affiliations with fiction, though, an alternative for early modern disknowledge is that it might model for modernity a kind of nimble epistemological and literary inventiveness. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz once told the story of how, hoping to consult a secret society of alchemists in Nuremberg even though he knew very little alchemy, he "read some alchemical books and put together the more obscure expressions—those he understood the least." The result was a letter of petition that not only got him admitted to the society but secured him an invitation to be its secretary and the offer of a pension. On first glance, the moral of the story seems to be how to fake it. Leibniz's use of alchemical books parodies and hence undermines his own humanistic training: essentially, he mines alchemical books just as early modern schoolboys mined classical sources, extracting commonplaces they did not understand. But Leibniz is not exactly faking it. He is interested in alchemy because its physics is compelling to him, even if he has not yet mastered the lingo. Thus his petition amounts to creating knowledge, even while eliding its absence. Alchemy gives Leibniz the occasion to engage in an inventiveness that is a far more cheering form of disknowledge. Turning from one kind of understanding can lead to another kind—one entirely new and, in its way, entirely true. True in a way that has never before been dreamt of, neither in your philosophy nor in any other avenue of your current habits of learning.