Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

‘Feeling pleasures’: The sense of touch in renaissance England
by Moshenska, Joseph, Ph.D., Princeton University, 2011, 539; 3445578
Abstract (Summary)

Praised as the ‘most indispensable’ of the senses by Aristotle, who elsewhere dismissed its pleasures as slavish and brutish; denied by the resurrected Christ to Mary Magdalene, but offered to Doubting Thomas; traditionally seen as reliable, but prone to despoil and contaminate: the sense of touch has long been subject to radically contrasting valuations. My dissertation contends that the nature and status of touch were granted unprecedented scrutiny in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, with the sense assuming a new importance amidst the cultural transformations that characterized those centuries. I argue against narratives which associate the reformation and the beginnings of modernity in this period with the growing dominance of vision, the rise of inwardness, and the disenchantment of the world, processes that have been described with surprising frequency as a widespread loss of touch, a falling away from an imaginary age of intimacy and immediacy.

“Feeling Pleasures” shows instead that the secure knowledge and affective experience provided by touch became central to styles of thought, styles of piety and especially styles of poetry in renaissance England. The multiplicity of touch, both in terms of the many forms of touching and the variation of sensitivity between individuals and the parts of the body, made it an apt expression for the variety of human experience and of the world. This was not, however, something to be celebrated unequivocally: the pleasures and reliable knowledge provided by the sense were balanced by an awareness of experiences of touch that were damaging, debasing and disgusting. Each of the English writers from this period upon whom I focus demonstrates an acute awareness of the potential for touch to both delight and corrupt, and each attends in a different manner to the often dangerously unstable relationship between different forms of and motives for touching.

This potential instability also prompted many figures deliberately to obscure the distinction between literal and metaphorical touch. Various English writers claimed that it remained possible to achieve physical contact with the divine, without specifying whether this was literally the case, or merely the most apt image for an intimate, intense and ultimately inexpressible experience. The language of touch lingered, even as its appropriateness could not be fully justified. This tendency to cast expressions of touch into a hinterland between figurative and literal meaning is among the most distinctive aspects of the role played by the sense in sixteenth and seventeenth-century writing. It suggests the need to both situate the sense within the various cultural spheres in which it played a role, and to pay particular attention to the linguistic distinctiveness of touch in the English Renaissance.

In my first chapter, I explore the distinctiveness of touch as a sense and as an object of literary-historical study, taking as my cue Rembrandt’s painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. I consider the recurrent desire to handle works of art, despite the fact that touch is usually considered a non-aesthetic sense; the varying attention that we pay to touch in everyday interaction; the foundational account of the sense by Aristotle; and some recurrent attempts to understand the development of modernity as a gradual loss of touch, arguing that such narratives lapse into nostalgic generalizations.

Chapters two and three consider the role of touch in English religious writing. I discuss the objects against which the attacks of English reformers were aimed and the iconoclastic attacks aimed at these objects. I then argue that reformers could neither fully justify, nor entirely abandon, a language of devotional touch. In chapter three I explore the prolonged and extraordinary account of touch in all its linguistic variety in the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, who assimilated all forms of contact as a way of prohibiting resistance to the king, while continuing to seek a viable way in which the touch of God might be sought.

In chapter four, I turn my attention to the role of touch in the Roman epics which renaissance writers avidly read, and suggest that several crucial scenes and topoi of touch in the work of Ovid and Virgil should be read as responses to the attempt by Lucretius to make atomic contact the basis of all human and natural interaction. I then explore the response to these epics by two of their renaissance readers, Michel de Montaigne and William Shakespeare. Chapter five considers the interpretations to which touch is subjected in The Faerie Queene.

In chapter six I focus upon the cluster of developments which are now considered to represent the origins of modern science and philosophy, and show that a scholarly emphasis on optics and visuality has occluded the continuing importance of touch. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Barkan, Leonard
School: Princeton University
School Location: United States -- New Jersey
Source: DAI-A 72/04, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Religious history, Science history, British and Irish literature
Keywords: Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Lancelot Andrewes, Renaissance, Touch
Publication Number: 3445578
ISBN: 978-1-124-48865-3
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