October 2011

Evan McMurry

nonfiction

Curious Visions of Modernity: Enchantment, Magic, and the Sacred by David L. Martin

The first of many arresting images in David Martin's Curious Visions of Modernity: Enchantment, Magic, and the Sacred is a statue that contains the essence of the person it represents. Martin imagines statues as dead sculptures built around the bodies of their living antecedents, a visual metonym of his subject: the magical or spectral presences hidden behind the rational forms of modernity. Martin digs beneath the process of "disenchantment" -- inaugurated by the Renaissance and imperious in modernity -- to find the enchanted vestiges it never quite replaced, the living referents beneath the stone.           

Arguing against rationality is tough, as argument itself is the muscle of reason. Martin acknowledges his dilemma in a worrisome intro that forms a metacriticism of the book before the book has even begun. Fortunately, this is just the author clearing his throat, as if Martin needed only to admit his text would not be free of the types of modern thinking he is criticizing for permission to go wild. The next three long chapters do indeed invert the direction of rational argument, working backward from modern forms of knowledge to their sacred roots, a sort of ideational genealogy.           

Martin is at his best when discussing the history of anatomy. Taking Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp," he traces the evolution of anatomical knowledge from an inherited spiritual understanding in the Middle Ages to one that must be established anew through scientific observation, an observation that occurs, as in Rembrandt's realistic portrayal, via a public viewing of a deceased body. The cadavers in these viewings were no longer slavishly studied as the physical incarnation of God's will, but dissected only to advance the corpus of anatomical science, such that the human body became subservient to the school of knowledge it supposedly funded. What strikes the viewer of "The Anatomy Lesson" is not the corpse in the painting's center, but its radiant relationship with the learned men around it, who take from its death knowledge of life. 

Implicit in this rational method is the very sacramental process it sought to replace: the irrational, spiritual movement of resurrection. Martin asks outright: "Could the basic premise of turning to the study of the dead in order to ascertain information about the living have become so prevalent a mode of scientific investigation, had there not been in the Christian West the ultimate blueprint in the resurrection?" He traces the Enlightenment's employment of criminals as cadavers back to the Middle Ages practice of using saints for anatomy lessons, finding parallels in the textbook drawings of the prisoners' bodies and the artistic representations of the holy men, and sees in the correlation an attempt by anatomical science to harness the redemptive spirit of resurrection in order to launder anatomical knowledge of its profane source -- the dead body. 

This is all as heady as it sounds. Martin edits Postcolonial Studies and teaches politics at Goldsmiths, University of London; he's well and widely read, and challenges the reader to match his nimble, interdisciplinary footwork. But the book is rarely overly recondite. Martin references without namedropping, and draws from multiple discourses to show the breadth of his argument, not his knowledge. And if his numerous quotations to start each subchapter become excessive, enough are enjoyable -- "Had she not been thwarted by the rebellious Goths, Rome might have turned all of Europe into one vast sheet of graph paper" -- to buoy the rest. 

Curious Visions of Modernity is also replete with images and notions as engaging as the living statue. Martin's excavations yield everything from the strange -- a London socialite who once rented a dead man's head for year -- to the wonderful, as in a photographic recreation of the vertiginous effects of Pozzo's Allegory of the Missionary Work of the Jesuits, a larger-than-life ceiling painting that brings the viewer literally to his knees. 

The book's pulse, though, is Martin's full-blooded endorsement of curiosity. Curious Visions of Modernity recalls an era when this world was studied for itself rather than the codification of taxonomic systems of knowledge, an epistemology embodied in the always-entertaining Rudolf II, the eccentric and probably insane Hapsburg king who, from his Prague castle, underwrote Tycho Brahe, employed an obscene amount of alchemists, and gathered a stunning collection of oddities that he considered divinely representative. In Rudolf's example, Martin sees curiosity as a primal force, reaching out and engaging with the world rather than organizing and sublimating it: "Whereas Enlightenment science would define an object as an empty vessel awaiting the natural historian's inscription of meaning in the form of its classification... to the Renaissance scholar the object already 'knew' itself, insofar as it bore the mark of creation within it... magic being the end effect of a world where signs are not locked into one-to-one relationships with what they signify." 

In discovering traces of this magic beneath our systems of knowledge, Martin does more than provide an alternative history of rational progress, but points to moments of curiosity remaining among us. His discursion on contemporary museums is particularly revelatory: in the exhibitions of his example, objects are juxtaposed in disregard to their rational connections -- think a T-Rex skull next to a medieval gown -- for the purposes not only of questioning modern organizations of knowledge but of organization as a method of achieving knowledge at all. The exhibitions treat their objects in a Rudolfian manner, displaying them for their inherent power rather than their role in an overarching system. Martin's joy in this modern magic, even from beneath his academic locutions, is winning. It's as if he'd seen a statue move. 

Curious Visions of Modernity: Enchantment, Magic, and the Sacred by David L. Martin
The MIT Press
ISBN: 978-0262016063
280 pages