Beneath the Skin

Review of Richard Sugg, The Smoke of The Soul; David Colclough (ed), The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne

Times Literary Supplement, October 29, 2014

To dissect a cadaver in 2014 is to cut up a highly-regulated specimen: the soul has been banished by materialism to neuropsychology or by strict dualism to philosophy and theology. But for sixteenth-century anatomists—cutting in Early Modernity’s great era of human dissection—it was to open the house of the soul, to reverse engineer the miracle of Adam. The soul for them was as real as the heart or guts, and it held a central importance—responsible not only for the emotional and spiritual life, but for all physiological activity. Understanding it had the highest possible stakes, both worldly and celestial: disputes about its nature prompted war, executions, and licensed the deposition of kings; the soul’s health would determine an eternity of either bliss or hell.

But where was it? What was it? Good question. Depending on whom you asked, the soul might be in your head, heart, brain, blood, or in the nerves branching through the flesh. It could be wholly immaterial, linked to the flesh by ‘spirits’, a corporeal ‘soul-body’ sitting beneath your skin, or the more nebulous general principle of animation.

This fervency of belief and final inability to define the soul makes Early Modern thinking on it decidedly engaging. Oddly, though, the soul as anatomical concept has not received recent book-length attention. Richard Sugg corrects this in The Smoke of the Soul: Medicine, Physiology and Religion in Early Modern England. In doing so, he makes a major contribution to the increasingly vibrant study of Early Modern anatomical practise.

Sugg’s great strength here, like in Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires, John Donne, and Murder After Death, is to bring the reader into the ‘alien’ mindset of the past, specifically, to make us understand how it would have felt to have an Early Modern soul. Surveying anatomical, theological, philosophical, and literary sources, Sugg gives ‘a detailed reconstruction of the early modern soul and spirits as habitual and organic facts of life, vibrating down the nerves and arteries, pulsing in the blood, occasionally throbbing out to the tips of one’s fingers, the fiery light of the eyes, or the ends of the hair’.

Crucial to this account is the ‘spiritual physiology which reached into every possible area of human experience’. For most, the soul was immortal and immaterial, breathed by God into Adam; the spirits were crucial interlocutors between it and the flesh. They were, as Donne says in a 1619 sermon, ‘the thin and active part of the blood … a kind of middle nature, between soul and body, those spirits are able to do, and they do the office, to unite and apply the faculties of the soul to the organs of the body’.

Spirits were ‘functionally ubiquitous and precisely apprehended … in almost any aspect of everyday life.’ For example, if you suspected your beloved of taking up with a more talented sonneteer, the resulting anger would be because your ‘heart is inflamed, and the boiling spirits fly up into the head’. You might return to your chamber to weep: the ‘contraction of spirits in the brain’, says Francis Bacon, which ‘thereby sendeth tears into the eyes’. But if your love returned, your joy would be down to ‘the opening of the heart, and sending out the spirits into all the parts’. And if your rival re-emerged and punched you in the face, you’d notice the spirits pressing beneath your eye as a bruise.

The spirits let an Early Modern person directly feel the soul’s operation. But they didn’t reveal where or what it was. Enter anatomy. As Sugg notes, ‘the forerunners of modern medical science began to actively seek anatomical proof of the immortal soul.’ In a sense, the study of human physiology via dissection was the study of the soul—or, at least, its remnant structures. The question was more focused in arguments about the rete mirabile—the ‘wonderful net’ of veins and arteries, allegedly at the base of the brain—which Galen had postulated as a ‘kind of organ of the soul’.

Baldasar Heseler, an eye-witness to Andreas Vesalius’s 1540 public anatomy at Bologna, reports Vesalius showing the rete’s existence by holding up a dissected sheep’s head to magnify the structure supposedly in the human corpse beside it: ‘Heseler not only saw a “reddish, fine, netlike web of arteries lying above the bones”, but “afterwards touched with my hands” that chimerical entanglement of veins and arteries by which God somehow knotted the human body and soul together.’ Unfortunately, this was bunkum (and uncharacteristic, given Vesalius’s centrality in shifting Early Modern anatomical study from books to human bodies). Vesalius admitted in De humani corporis fabrica (1543) that humans did not have a rete: Galen’s claim had relied on erroneous animal anatomy. But this didn’t stop the rete from being hotly debated by major anatomists, indicating how ‘very hard’ it was, as the priest Pierre Charron said, ‘to define, or truly to say what the soul is’.

More abstract questions about the soul remained unanswered. When did it leave the body? How was it planted—Godly infusion? Paternal transmission? Was it really immaterial? Did women or ‘idiots’ have a lesser form of it? Was it individualized, or part of a great collective? And, perhaps most controversially, was it immortal? Could it die with the body? Sugg, examining literary thinkers (particularly Marlowe), and theological, philosophical, and anatomical interlocutors, offers an exhaustive summary of the period’s major views, showing the epistemological climate that allowed a potent cross-over of disciplines in the question’s prosecution: literary writers exploring anatomy, anatomists citing theology, priests referencing physiology.

John Donne was one of those thinkers who used anatomical ideas when writing about the soul. There are a number of possible sources for his knowledge of the body: Donne read Aristotle and Galen; he was raised in the house of his step-father, Dr John Syminges, president of the Royal College of Physicians; the great western anatomical texts were in Oxford libraries when he attended. It is conceivable (although uncertain) that he attended William Harvey’s Lumleian lectures, where animal dissection and vivisection occurred. He seems to have seen a human disemboweled, possibly an execution at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where his chambers overlooked.

Regardless of the source of his information, Donne’s interest in anatomy was strong and sophisticated: in ‘The First Anniversarie’, he notes that ‘in cutting up a man that’s dead, | The body will not last out to have read | On every part … | Nor smells it well to hearers’; in ‘Love’s Exchange’, he enjoins a cruel beloved to ‘Kill, and dissect me, Love; for this | Torture against thine own end is, | Racked carcases make ill anatomies’.

Donne’s poetic work was exceptional. Initially, his professional career was as promising—Oxford, arguably Cambridge, Lincoln’s Inn, gentleman soldier, and secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. In a move as romantic as it was career-limiting, Donne eloped in 1601 with Sir Thomas’s aristocrat ward and niece, Ann More. Ann’s father, Sir George More, didn’t respond well—he enjoined Egerton to have Donne fired and imprisoned. He was released but his secular career never recovered. Effectively banished from Court, Donne turned to long-form prose and questions of theology. His exile led, amongst other things, to Biathanatos, Pseudo-Martyr, and Conclave Ignati.

In later life, Donne’s public career was re-established through the Church. Thirteen years after he lost his job with Egerton, he accepted (reluctantly, according to his first biographer, Izaak Walton) King James’s suggestion and took holy orders. He ended his career as a Royal Chaplain, Cambridge D.Div, and Dean of St. Paul’s.

In Donne’s magnificent sermons the soul is insistently corporealized. To achieve this, he uses a range of soul theories. For example, St. Basil and Tertullian’s ideas of corporeality—a soul-body within the flesh—allow the sinful soul to be disjointed, bruised, broken on a rack. Galen’s ideas of the ‘sick’ soul perhaps explain the soul ‘effigiated’ through fevers and pustules.

This corporealization facilitates Donne’s anatomy and dissection metaphors for God’s omniscience and the sinner’s introspective gaze: Donne preaches about the ‘soul that is dissected and anatomized to God, in a sincere confession’; notes that ‘in this Anatomy, and dissection of the soul, … the bones of the soul, are the constant and strong resolutions thereof’; and enjoins his auditors to ‘anatomize’ the ‘soule’, ‘find every sinewe, and fiber, and lineament and ligament of this body of sin’.

This rhetorical technique was designed to make his auditors appreciate, in tactile fashion, the holy thing inside them and its potential for corruption. And it reflected the terror of needing to know absolutely the soul’s state but not being able to see it, the savageness of introspection required to confess fulsomely enough to find grace.

Donne’s sermons have received major new treatment in the first complete edition since George Potter and Evelyn Simpson’s in 1953-62. Under the editorship of Peter McCullough and deputy editorship of David Colclough, The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne will, in sixteen volumes, give us every sermon Donne preached, edited by leading scholars, framed with critical commentary, and arranged by place of delivery. This approach fixes each sermon within its historical and performative context, facilitating stylistic analysis via an appreciation of how Donne adjusts his writing to suit each audience.

The first release is Volume III, Sermons Preached at the Court of Charles I, edited by Colclough. Here are Donne’s fourteen sermons preached to the Caroline Court which, as Colclough says, ‘contain some of his most potent, moving, and biting religious prose’ and ‘reveal a preacher who was at the height of his powers until the very last weeks of his life.’ It begins with the first (1625) sermon preached to the new king—a job usually filled by a bishop, and for which an anxious Donne was given one day’s notice. We also see a rare sermon to the Household, rather than the Chamber (sermon 4), the sermon that saw Donne in hot water with Charles I and investigated by the Dean of the Chapel Royal (later Archbishop) William Laud (sermon 5), and his famous ‘owne funerall sermon’, Death’s Duell (sermon 14).

Within these is a soul that can be ‘sick … [a] Carcas’, ‘resuscitat[ed]’, ‘dilated’, ‘shrivel’d, and ravel’d, and ruin’d’, ‘distorted’, ‘rack[ed] and torture[d]’. It is a ‘soul [that] hath bones as well as the body’, in which ‘sin is an incision … a Lancination, a Phlebotomy, a letting of the soule blood’, and it is subject to God’s ‘Anatomies, his dissections’. Uniting principles of soul-based anatomy with theology, Donne portrays a soul that could be physically revealed with a knife—a visceral, poignant representation of sin and the need for grace.

Ultimately, as Sugg notes in The Smoke of the Soul, questions of the soul were pushed away from anatomy, towards theology and philosophy. The insistent materialism of later seventeenth-century soul theory progressively de-souled the body. And, as the Enlightenment began, the epistemological conditions of anatomical inquiry became more rigid; Early Modern anatomists’ remarkable ‘fusion of proto-scientific empiricism and pious rapture’ came to an end.

Two books, then, of great significance. Sugg’s The Smoke of the Soul is an exhaustive, pioneering study of an important and ignored area. There is immense detail and range here, and his lyrical prose and pedagogical approach help to reveal a complex subject. It is a shame that he mounts an argument about cranial centricity in the conclusion, rather than taking the well-deserved victory lap of a more detailed summing-up. And the occasional political polemic can be distracting. But these comments shouldn’t take away from praise for Sugg’s excellent and groundbreaking work. The Oxford Donne will be the definitive text for decades. Containing an introductory essay by a leading scholar, meticulous textual scholarship, separate commentary on each sermon, and detailed end-notes, Volume III is a formidable resource. From what’s on offer here, the series promises to be a once-in-a-century piece of Donne scholarship.

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