Edited by Subha Mukherji and Tim Stuart-Buttle, Literature, Belief and Knowledge in Early Modern England: Knowing Faith (Palgrave, 2018) probes the dynamic between literary form, religious faith and the process, psychology and ethics of knowing in early modern England. We asked Dr Mukherji, Principal Investigator of Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England: the Place of Literature, about the volume and the role of literature in the life of faith.
Q. Dr Mukherji, how did the collection come about?
This book was prompted by an intuition of the centrality of imaginative writing and practice in the period’s experience and understanding of doubt and unknowing, knowing and knowingness, in the context of belief and faith – crucial to English post-Reformation culture, with its specific exhilarations and vexations. The Crossroads project has been examining the role of literature in a wider conversation about knowledge in the period – both its condition and its methods and motives – more obviously ongoing between Theology, Natural Philosophy, Economics and Law. Knowing Faith is the first of our project-dedicated series of volumes with Palgrave (‘Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England’): it probes the intersection between imaginative writing and practice on the one hand, and devotional discourse on the other. The relation between form, faith and knowing in early modern England lies at the heart of this collection of essays exploring the epistemic dimensions of the dialogue between Literature and Theology in early modern England.
Q. Around which themes did you decide to structure the book, and to what end?
The primary aim of Knowing Faith is to uncover the intervention of literary approaches in the early modern cultural debates about religious knowledge: why we need it, how to get there, where to stop, and how to recognise it once it has been attained. Its relative freedom from specialised disciplinary investments allows a literary lens to bring into focus the relatively elusive strands of thinking about belief, knowledge and salvation, probing the particulars of affect implicit in the generalities of doctrine. The essays in this volume collectively probe the dynamic between literary form, religious faith and the process, psychology and ethics of knowing in early modern England. Addressing both the poetics of theological texts and literary treatments of theological matter, they stretch from the Reformation to the early Enlightenment, and cover a variety of themes ranging across religious hermeneutics, rhetoric and controversy, the role of the senses, and the entanglement of justice, ethics and practical theology.
Q. What would readers be surprised to learn about the relation between imaginative literature and religious faith in early modern England?
Readers might be surprised to see how theological texts and practices deployed imaginative strategies that we traditionally associate with literature, and may want to redefine their notion of the ‘literary’, as we have done over the past five years. They would find the productiveness of epistemic negotiations at disciplinary thresholds a revelation, and may be provoked to think about the combination of porosity and resistance at the interfaces between domains that were not as clearly segregated as they are now, but which were nonetheless marked by an emergent discursive self-consciousness. They might be taken aback to see how unclear the placing of doubt, error and uncertainty were in devotional practice, given the critical orthodoxy about the negative import of these conditions in Renaissance theology. They will also perhaps be moved to reconsider the entwinement of the affective with the discursive in the experience and textual practices of early modern faith.
Q. Could you please contextualise the cover image and explain why you chose it?
Ah – the bitten apple! It is a detail from Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting Adam and Eve, depicting the moment when Eve offers the fruit of forbidden knowledge to Adam. I love the painting, but especially love the apple with its bite marks: instantly arresting, it is a kind of punctum, luring the onlooker in, as it invites Adam. The ‘accident which pricks’ the viewer, as Roland Barthes might say, the teeth-marks dig into the substance of fruit and render it flesh. But it also forms an inscription, translating both fruit and flesh into text. The marks of the teeth write in both the bruise of knowledge, and its sensuous element; its risks as well as its temptations, its fragility and its dynamism. It evokes touch and taste, the two sensations explicitly forbidden by God in this context, but which have a suggestive and human role in the lived experience of faith in the period, as well as its poetic translations. So the image seemed just right for this book, which taps into the epistemic vexations and lures that are specifically resonant to a period caught up in the cross-currents of Renaissance humanism and the Reformation, when the exhilaration of possible knowledge was counterpointed against its moral limits and dangers; and which uses a literary lens to focus on this landscape. Beyond their immediate metaphoric valency, the dents of Eve’s teeth also inscribe narrative anticipation; they turn the forbidden fruit into the ‘table’ which Adam is about to co-scribble on; instrument and material of a co-knowing that is about to undo and re-invent them both. At the same time, this wound or point of rupture pulls us in on the edge of their desire, as we read; and perhaps even triangulates their will with ours. It becomes the poignant figuration which, though distinct from ‘real presence’, is far from real absence: a mimetic object that straddles representation and embodiment, effecting a transference in the consciousness through interpretative action without ontologically turning one substance into another. In its distinct act of mimesis, then, the apple brings together the place of literature and the transformative space of the Eucharist as understood in the Reformed tradition. Locating knowledge in participation over cognition, embodiment over creed, feeling over dogma, it marks the interception of desire in the conception of knowledge. In doing so, it conjoins certain crucial realities of religious belief and literary art. That the aberrant detail is also a textual object is suggestive: it offers not only an analogy for the literary experience of knowledge, but a feel of it; its visual vividness, like that of Christ’s body or the scene-painting of the Gospels so admired by Erasmus, is integral to its expressive potency. At the same time, it taps into the centrality of reading, writing and literary thinking in the life of faith; the acts of imagination implicated in scriptural exegesis – ‘the gift of interpretation’, as Lancelot Andrewes said, is ‘bestowed’ by God.
So, the hermeneutically enticing detail of the painted apple, full of jouissance, seemed an eloquent entry-point for a book about how imaginative literature probes, troubles and illuminates the relation between knowledge and belief through aesthetic medium in early modern England.
Q. Where might one find a copy of the volume?
Directly from Palgrave’s website.
On other online websites such as amazon.co.uk, amazon.com and amazon.in.
In University (and – in the Cambridge context – College) libraries. The book should also be available through Open Access very soon.
The research project Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England: the Place of Literature is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement no 617849.
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