Valeria Finucci and Regina Schwartz, eds. Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994. viii+273 pp. Paper ISBN 0-691-00100-6.
Thomas H. Luxon
Dartmouth College

Luxon, Thomas H. "Review of Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 5.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/rev_lux1.html>.

  1. This collection of astute and often entertaining essays proceeds on the assumption that Renaissance literature is, among other things, a psychoanalytic discourse (albeit pre- and, interestingly, proto-Freudian), and that its apparent preoccupations with "sexual identity, gender definition, doubling, ... voyeurism, memory, melancholy, the uncanny, even the unconscious" can fruitfully be read as early modern versions of modern and post-modern psychoanalytic preoccupations. It also recognizes that Freudian psychoanalysis is itself preoccupied with the Renaissance and its most famous figures -- da Vinci, Ariosto, Shakespeare, and Tasso (3).

  2. Beginning with Marjorie Garber's elegant and highly amusing reading of The Changeling (male and female hysteria, castration anxiety, and faked orgasm) and ending with David Lee Miller's disturbingly moving meditation on the "specular son" in Ben Jonson's "best piece of poetrie," the essays are uniformly strong, original, and frequently path breaking (239). Most offer new modes of reading Renaissance texts and authors; some also push the boundaries of psychoanalytic categories as they are presently formulated. None indulge in simply reading early modern literature through psychoanalytic filters; rather they work hard at setting up a conversation between two related, but often quite different psychoanalytic modes -- the early modern and the modern. Most of them suggest new possibilities for reading Renaissance literature and also use those readings to sharpen and reformulate modern psychoanalytic discourses.

  3. Because space and time are limited, allow me to focus briefly on just two essays that indicate new interpretive and analytic paths.

  4. Regina Schwartz's "Through the Optic Glass: Voyeurism and Paradise Lost begins the complicated task of taking a longer and deeper look at "the clichés of voyeurism-as-aggression and exhibitionism-as-passivity" that have governed readings of "the male gaze" since Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (Screen 16 [1975]: 6-18). Paradise Lost, Schwartz reminds us, "is brimming with lustful eyes" (150), from the Galileo simile of Book 1, to Satan's temptations, Eve's dream, Adam's desire to penetrate the hidden secrets of the cosmos, and invocations of the problematics of both the narrator's and reader's oscillations between desiring gazer and desired object of the "Transcendental Voyeur," Milton's God (156). Acknowledging that there is plenty of fodder in the poem for the familiar reading of "Satan as voyeur/aggressor and Eve as exhibit/victim," Schwartz avails herself of more subtle Lacanian and Miltonic analyses of the gaze for reading those bits of the poem that cannot be forced into the "voyeurism-as-domination" model (153). If the gaze is always gendered (and read) as male, aggressively dominating, and fiercely subjective, then we will have trouble understanding Eve's persistently scopic agency, the narrator's complex desire to exhibit (and to see) himself as one both "denied the gaze" and privileged "to see and tell of things invisible to mortal sight," and God's own status as both primary and ultimate narcissist, "Transcendental Voyeur" and "Transcendental Exhibit" (157). Schwartz's essay points in some very promising directions in an effort to displace "the tired question of Milton's old-fashioned patriarchalism ... by another inquiry" (166).

  5. Juliana Schiesari's "Libidinal Economies: Machiavelli and Fortune's Rape" offers not just a convincing reading of a scene from Machiavelli's fantasy life, but it also discovers the fascinating ways in which his anxieties about emergent capitalism and powerful women overlap and finally occlude each other. Each anxiety both signifies and represses the other in Machiavelli's remarkably transparent attempt to mystify his greatest fear -- that the rules of commercial exchange in the emergent capitalist order threaten to upset the political order he claims to have mastered. Schiesari allows us to ponder Machiavelli's "fear of a feminine symbolic order, one where the distinctions between political economy and sexual economy, subject of exchange and object of exchange, masculinity and femininity, are blurred" (178). She allows us to witness Machiavelli's attempts to displace this fear with a fantasy of violent virility and misogynist rhetoric about Fortuna's desire to be brutally mastered. One can almost watch the emergence of early modern masculinity as a remedy for Machiavelli's twin fears of powerful women and uncontrollable market forces. Unfortunately Machiavelli was hardly alone.

  6. The collection as a whole exhibits the breadth and maturity psychoanalytic criticism has achieved in the rich field of early modern studies. These are some of the best recent essays on Renaissance literature and culture. And, taken together, these essays prompt a host of questions still unexplored, such as: how does linguistic structuralism come to replace or displace religion as the underlying structure or syntax of psychoanalytic thought? How does the early Puritan focus on "heart work" open up the region that Freud will later dub the unconscious? Is structuralism itself structured like a religion?

  7. Other contributors include: Natasha Korda on Castiglione, Valeria Finucci on Ariosto's Orlando, Harry Berger on Spenser, Lynn Enterline on Petrarch and Ovid, William Kerrigan on As You Like It, and Elizabeth J. Bellamy on Virgil and Tasso.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(August 21, 1996)