Vision in early modern culture

vanities1.jpgStuart Clark’s Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford University Press, 2007) had been waiting for me on my bookshelf for a while, and this week I finally got round to it. It was a great read. Vanities of the Eye is a wonderfully erudite book, teeming with information and original ideas about the changing perception of the sense of vision in early modern culture.

The book argues that contrary to what theories of the rationalization of sight and the invention of perspective suggests, vision came to be characterized by unreliability and uncertainty in the early modern period. As Stuart Clark puts it with a pun: “It is as though European intellectuals lost their optical nerve.”

In Aristotle’s chain of cognition, current in the premodern period, the eyes were given priority over the other senses because they were thought to provide the most direct knowledge of things. The eye received the sensible form of a thing, because things produced species that transmitted their likenesses to the eye. This representational model of sight, argues Clark, collapsed between 1400 and 1700, when it was overwhelmed by paradoxes and anomalies.

There are several factors that made the early modern period problematize vision. For example, notions in demonology (here Stuart Clark builds on his earlier Thinking With Demons [1]) of the ability of evil spirits to assume any bodily shape, to make objects invisible, and even to enter a person’s brain or eye to move images around them. Other factors are the rethinking of notions of vision in the context of new perspectival techniques, the Protestant Reformation and its suspicion of visual representation; and the revival of ancient Greek skepticism from the 1560s onwards. From within these perspectives, visual error was in general ascribed to three causes: nature, human artifice, or demons.

Nature could deceive mainly through the workings of the early modern imagination, which occupied an ever more central role in thinking on cognition. It was primarily seen as a visual process susceptible to the influence of bodily humours and passions, and came to be seen as an unreliable and undisciplined faculty that could misrepresent reality. Clarke argues that the early modern fascination with melancholia may have caused the neutral meaning of the imagination to be overtaken by a suggestion of illusion and misrepresentation. In the category of human artifice, the popularity of magicians or “jugglers,” the vogue for magical optics, as well as the new technique of perspectival drawing in the period similarly increased suspicion of the reality principle of vision, simply because these widespread phenomena proved that the eye was not always to be trusted. Demons, the third general cause of deception of the eye, could wreak havoc at every stage of the process of seeing and cognition: they could influence the eye, the air and the species that traveled in it, and the perceived object itself. How the senses were bedeviled is explained by John Deacon and John Walker in their Dialogicall discourses of spirits and divels (1601):

For, much blood descending before into the sensitive facultie, there descends withall, many imagined formes, whereby there is forthwith procured a very lively resemblance of some such things as are not existing at all. By this meanes therefore (there being beforehand procured a commotion of humours, as well in the interiour, as exteriour senses of all the beholders) the Divel might both inwardly and outwardly also, applie certained apparant formes to the very organons of all the senses; even as effectually, as if they had risen only from outward sensible objects[.] [2]

Other chapters focus on the effects of the Protestant Reformation, religious debate on apparitions, philosophical skepticism, and the philosophy of dreams as visual paradoxes.

One of the chapters focuses entirely on Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a play “preoccupied by the workings of human vision” (236): the action pivots on seeing things, the language of the play turns often to eyes and sight, and of course it contains spectres and apparitions. Clark surveys the work of previous critics on the theme of the problematics of sight and seeing in the play, especially that of Huston Diehl, Lucy Gent, Stephen Greenblatt and Iain Wright. He then broadens his scope from the play into the post-Reformation controversies over vision discussed in the preceding chapters. These controversies often touched on the biblical story of King Saul, “a story with an outline very similar to Macbeth.” Clark offers the tale of Saul as a source for the play (given Shakespeare’s habit of analogical thinking across roughly parallel texts) but also as a story that would have been in the mind of early modern audiences of the play, and, finally, as a way to link “a vision-centred play to a vision-centred debate” (246), since the reading of the story of Saul in Protestant Europe accorded a central role to the notion of visual paradox. Thus placing Macbeth in the context of the controversies of sight, Clark argues that the play expresses its central problematics of politics and political morality through the problematics of sight:

If vision was supposed to be the most certain and most noble sense, then to acknowledge its uncertainty in fundamental ways was to dislodge particular political, religious and moral values and question their certainty too; it was to make the problems of vision a vehicle for the exploration of the problems of politics and religion. The reliability of vision became itself a political issue. (257)

In his introduction, Clark mentions that “the one topic” relevant to the book that he has not ventured upon, is “that of the theatre as a newly controversial site of perspectival illusion and other visual fictions” (7). In my seminar on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, I get the students to dive into Early English Books Online and to explore the associations between the demonic, magic, and performance/spectacle in anti-theatrical pamphlets, as well as in the play itself. Clark’s book provided me with an incredibly rich store of primary material and convincing arguments to further contextualise these problems the next time I teach the play — and I am sure I will find many more resonances in other plays as well. Vanities of the Eye has given me a set of spectacles through which to look at early modern drama from a richly documented and convincing new perspective.

[1] Stuart Clark, Thinking With Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 1999). Strangely, the dust jacket of my edition of Vanities of the Eye (also Oxford UP) refers to the author of Thinking With Demons as “Stewart” Clark…

[2] John Deacon and John Walker, Dialogical discourses of spirits and divels, qtd. on page 134 of Vanities of the Eye.

More reviews:

  • Guardian book review of Vanities of the Eye and Simon Ings’s The Eye (see also here for an illustrated version)
  • Times Higher Education review
  • The Renaissance Quarterly (61:1) that I just found in my mailbox has a review by Sven Dupré of another recent book on early modern vision: Vincent Ilardi’s Renaissance Vision From Spectacles to Telescopes (2007).
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