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Michael Martin, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Ashgate, 2014)

Michael Martin, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-4724-3268-1, 230 pp., £60.00.

Reviewed by Edward Simon


[1] In his book, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England, Michael Martin tries to interpret and understand the ways in which figures, both canonical and non-canonical, used methods mystical and ‘scientific’ and experienced God through writings both literary and theological. In readings of poets John Donne and Henry Vaughan, hermiticists John Dee and Thomas Vaughan, scientist Kenelm Digby and prophet Jane Lead, Martin phenomenologically investigates experiences these figures had with the divine. He writes ‘Each subject in this study faced a spiritual or religious event – an actual, lived experience . . . and it impelled each one of them to live a life in conformity to its revelation’ (2). Martin’s investigation encompasses the late sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries, a period which saw religious upheavals in the form of the British civil wars, but which also developed consensus on religious conformity after the Restoration. During the seventeenth century medieval methods of personal piety were reinterpreted. Martin writes ‘Despite the anxieties that some Protestants felt about the truth claims of traditional mysticism, individuals continued to seek – and find – ways to encounter the divine’ (4). What unites all of these figures is that they each had their own individual reactions as to what religious ‘experience’ meant. Martin’s is a bold investigation, since much of Christian mystical experience is so firmly medieval, located in the fourteenth century with figures like Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing. Martin rescues figures from the margins, such as Lead and Dee, to demonstrate the ways in which early modern visions were manifested. The book constitutes a collection of case-studies demonstrating the vitality of religious experience in the seventeenth century. It also models for scholars new ways to discuss the role of religion in the late Renaissance.

[2] Martin distinguishes himself from the traditional approach to religion manifested in cultural materialism, developing an interpretive framework phenomenological and theological in nature. With the ‘turn to religion’ in literary and especially early modern studies, a new crop of monographs have begun to appear, which like their predecessors have problematized how we think about religion and literature. In 2004 Arthur Marotti and Ken Jackson noticed a trend in early modern scholarship that had existed for a decade and that was influenced by geo-political realities at the turn of the century. Marotti and Jackson wrote, in Criticism, that the turn to religion acknowledged ‘a deep psychological and emotional experience, a core moral commitment, a personally and socially crucial way of transvaluing human experience and desire, a reality both within and beyond the phenomenal world’. Religion had re-entered discussions of the early modern period on its own terms. The New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt and others allowed for more discussion of religion than had previously been engaged with by more materialist strains of cultural studies but, at its core, religion was still normally reduced to some other category. As Martin explains ‘Greenblatt’s project – to demystify religion and to subsume the religious into the political – ignores (or at least trivializes) the human desire for communion with the divine that is so central a part of the religious side of metaphysical poetry, sermon literature, and mysticism’ (6). If pioneering Marxist historiographers had a tendency to see religion as politics in disguise, the New Historicists at least included religion as a designation within cultural identity. Still, in many of these studies, religion remained an issue of class, gender, or race by other means.

[3] While literary study has become more generous to religious phenomena, expressions, and texts, continental philosophy has begun a return towards the transcendent. Theorists like Slavoj Zizek, Giorgio Agamben, Simon Critchley as well as theologians like John Caputo (embracing the religious turn in Jacques Derrida) commandeered theological language as a tool in critical analysis. Martin explains his own position ‘I read early modern religious writing through the lens of Continental philosophy . . . [because] The question of God is not a joke or a fairytale to Continental philosophy, as it is for so many latter-day positivists-turned-literary critics. Nor should it be’ (19). The intermingling of these two strains allows for the emergence of scholarship that is more radical than that which just allows for religion as a culturally embodied practice. In a 2014 review written for Marginalia, medievalist Ryan McDermott calls this the ‘new theological literary studies’. It is a movement that is willing to use terms like ‘transcendence’, ‘incarnational’, ‘sacramental’, ‘apophatic’, ‘kataphatic’ and so on. This approach to religion and its relation to literature is less anthropological than the old turn to religion and, bolstered by continental philosophy’s recent conversion, willing to use theological language as its own type of High Theory. Indeed Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England is a prime example of this. The word ‘encounter’ alone indicates that arguments will move beyond the old-fashioned cultural studies model of understanding religion, and even beyond the currents of the turn to religion as identified by Marotti and Jackson. Martin does theology through criticism and criticism through theology. In remaining agnostic on any literal truths about the encounters his figures experience he interprets these events while avoiding any condescension. He makes clear, ‘There must be a way in which we can study the literature and culture of an era without portraying ourselves as superior to the people who created it’ (11).

[4] The first Chapter, ‘John Dee: Religious Experience and the Technology of Idolatry’ considers a figure who has often been ‘relegated to the “geek table” of intellectual history’ (18). Owner of one of the largest libraries in Europe, Dee was an intellectual polymath. At home at the courts of Elizabeth I and of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II; Dee was a central intellectual figure of his time. Martin writes: ‘Positioned at the avant-garde of European intellectual life, he was both a man of the medieval past and one anticipating the rational and empirical ethos that would follow Bacon and Descartes’ (23). He has recently become the object of study in works on early English imperialism – it was after all Dee who coined the phrase ‘British Empire’. Yet because of the ambiguous intellectual status of what Dee was doing – was it science or magic? – he has often been downgraded. This is, in particular, due to his relationship with Edward Kelley, a magician who helped Dee through dozens of communications with angels, who spoke them in an ‘Enochian’ language and who transmitted various hermetic truths which seemed beyond the limits and bonds of Catholic/Protestant denominational conflict. Martin’s intellectual humility-as-a-matter-of-method plus his staunch refusal to engage in any sort of chronocentricism force him to take Dee seriously. Martin has produced the first ever full-scale study of Dee that takes him seriously as a religious thinker and not just an occult one. The Chapter helps to reorient an important figure. What emerges is a portrait of religious liberalism during a sectarian period.

[5] Martin’s second Chapter, ‘A Glass Darkly: John Donne’s Negative Approach to God’ provides us with a novel interpretation of Donne. The Chapter reads across poetic works like the Holy Sonnets, to prose works like Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and Donne’s sermon Death’s Duel. The other figures considered here are, in varying degrees, fairly obscure authors, while Donne is central to the canon. This makes Martin’s unique reading of Donne’s religious project all the more impressive. With his recusant youth, his internal debates on religion and his conversion to Anglicanism, Donne is a microcosm of the intellectual vanguard’s debates about theology. Martin contributes to this discussion by identifying a key-strain of Christian theological discourse that permeates Donne’s work. Martin argues that ‘Donne was attracted to negative and mystical theology as a form of religious commitment reluctant to engage in absolutist claims’ (64). Regardless of denominational commitments, Donne was a thorough-going apophatic theologian, in opposition to normative kataphatic practice with its literal language. Donne rather engaged in the practice of via negativa, understanding God in terms of what He is not, indeed understanding God to the point of conceptualizing Him as an absence. Martin convincingly argues that Donne was familiar with the philosophical systems of the fifth-century Syrian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite who combined a Neoplatonism with an apophatic awareness. He writes ‘Dionysius’s ideas crop up in a number of Donne’s sermons in a clearly positive light. Mystical and negative theology profoundly informed Donne’s religious intuitions: a lineage generally ignored by Donne scholarship’ (p. 65). Through creatively utilizing a mystical tradition that Martin says would place Donne next to ‘Teresa of Avilla, Ignatius Loyola, and Thomas a Kempis’ (p. 68), Donne’s apophasis is at least still radically iconoclastic in its Protestantism, where Donne avoids visions which could become icons, and thus ‘a temptation to idolatry’ (84).

[6] ‘Love’s Alchemist: Palingenesis and the Unconscious Metalepsis of Sir Kenelm Digby’ examines a figure who straddles science and magic, though who is perhaps less known than even Dee. Digby was far more famous in his own day where he ‘could rightfully claim to be listed among the virtuosi of the late Renaissance. He was among the first asked to join the Royal Society soon after its founding, and his peers and associates included such notable scientists and thinkers as Descartes, Hobbes, Boyle, and the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher’ (88). Dee and Digby are interesting to read in terms of how much the intellectual firmament surrounding science and religion altered in only half a century. During Dee’s life the differences between science, religion and the occult were indeed murky. As Martin explains ‘The rise and expanding acceptance and popularization of Cartesian materialism, Baconian empiricism, and Hobbesian pessimism resulted in a burgeoning worldview that was characterized by increasing distrust in alleged spiritual phenomena such as visions or apparitions and that tended to ridicule personal religious experiences as enthusiasm’ (85). Despite the fact that ‘Science, art, and religion . . . were obviously slipping away from each other’, Martin makes clear that they ‘were not yet sequestered into isolated spheres’ (90). Martin examines this through Digby’s investigations into palingenesis, which is a Pythagorean belief in the ability of decomposed or destroyed organic material to be resurrected. Digby was a believer that this process could demonstrated and through (poorly planned and far from rigorous) experimentation he believed he had demonstrated palingenesis. Yet in his unusual reading of Digby, Martin claims that ‘He thinks he is treating the subject as a scientist, which in fact he is unconsciously treating it as a metaphysical poet’ (99).

[7] ‘The Rosicrucian Mysticism of Henry and Thomas Vaughan’ provides another novel interpretation of the poet Henry Vaughan and his mystically-minded brother Thomas. An important metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan has been overshadowed by others like Donne and George Herbert. His Neoplatonist interests stand out in his verse, and Martin is correct to read him alongside his twin brother. In reading both Vaughans together Martin erases the distinction that would classify one as a poet and the other as a scholar when a more proper reading of both places them in communication. He writes ‘In this chapter, I argue that the Vaughan brothers’ approach to God can best be described as a kind of “Rosicrucian mysticism”’ (109) and he indeed supplies a bevy of evidence to support the assertion that the Vaughans were within the confines of Rosicrucianism. It is helpful that he has chosen to use this word over the far more general ‘hermetic’ or even ‘occult’. That Rosicrucianism – with its unclear origins and its conspiratorial nature – is central to the programme of not just figures like the Vaughans but, indeed, ones like Rene Descartes, is a point that should not be forgotten. Martin provides a corrective (one that has, in part, been going on for a generation) in critiquing Frances Yates’ seminal 1972 book, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. Unlike Yates, for Martin the scientific revolution did not happen because of Rosicrucianism, it happened in spite of it. Despite its ecumenical nature and its regard toward empiricism, Rosicrucianism was still a reactionary force. This vision of the cosmos was one in which science worked with the truths of faith, where empirical research could comment on the supernatural and vice-versa. It’s also an illusory system that does not work. Martin claims that ‘The Vaughans and their Rosicrucian forbears are emblematic of, not the aurora of a new day (as they thought), but of the sunset of religious and scientific holism’ (149).

[8] In ‘The Pauline Mission of Jane Lead’ Martin contributes to a growing body of scholarship on the leader of the Philadelphian Society. Building on the scholarship of Julie Hirst, Martin traces the influence the Lutheran/Pietist German mystic Jakob Böhme had on ‘Lead’s visionary, religious, and publishing activities [which] all contributes to one central goal: calling the faithful . . . to a renewal of religion’ (156). For Martin what is notable about Lead’s revisions to Böhme – especially in embracing the explicitly feminine figure of Sophia – is the Pauline nature of Lead’s ministry. Like so many other Böhmeist intellectual descendants ‘Lead attempted to transcend categories of class, gender, nation, and even the idea of a church’ (165). More than even her heterodox (or heretical) embracing of Sophia-mysticism or Origin’s soteriology of apocastasis, it was Lead’s egalitarian vision that was radical.

[9] As a series of studies it is easier to take the book’s merits by chapter than it is to pronounce judgment on it over all. The weakest chapters are the third and fifth. While Digby is interesting, Martin’s reading of his motivations is too subjective, if not eisegetical. He connects Digby’s interest in resurrection with his dead wife, writing ‘In his case, palingenesis became a kind of “waking dream symbol”, an absent referent for his absent wife and a receptacle for his desire to bring her back to life’ (90). This is overly speculative, projecting a contemporary Freudian psychoanalysis onto a figure from the past. If Digby’s obsession with palingenesis is related to his wife’s death, Martin does not demonstrate it. The chapter on Lead is more successful, but suffers from being derivative of other scholarship. While her connections to Böhme are obvious it would be interesting to see her placed in a context of wider European Böhmeist individuals.

[10] The book is exemplary in the truly original chapters on Donne and on the Vaughans. Reading Donne through apophatic theology provides a means for fully interpreting texts that have been established for so long. In a similar vein, Martin’s readings of the Vaughan brothers and his placement of them within the Rosicrucian milieu of seventeenth-century Europe provides powerful new interpretations of both figures. Finally, Martin’s most important contribution is to ‘New Theological Criticism’. For too long there has been a positivist strain concerning religion in literary studies (ironically at the same time as the humanities have engaged in a crude relativism as regards the natural sciences). The New Theological Criticism, however, embraces the possibilities of taking religion seriously on its own terms (even if we ourselves are not ‘religious’) generating more sophisticated readings of texts. Martin’s book is on the whole an exemplary model of this new critical paradigm.

Lehigh University, March 2015

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