Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bodies and Souls

Interregnum and Restoration poetry (1650-1680) ranges in mode and form, but in this generic variety the conflict of physical/material vs. spiritual/emotional crops up again and again. The OED defines the soul as "an entity distinct from the body; the spiritual part of man in contrast to the purely physical" (2a), but these poems repeatedly complicate this seemingly clear distinction. Souls appear to have physical attributes, and bodies suffer from emotional disorders. If we began the course talking about the epistemological uncertainties confronted and propagated by the new empirical science of the early 17th century, these poems confess a preoccupation with the ontological. Epistemological problems (how can we know something? what does it mean to know?) flip over into ontological questions (what does in mean to be in the world? what is existence? what is reality?) when people encounter aspects of their lives that defy knowledge. In this period, England faced deeply fraught issues (can you kill a king who rules by divine right? what do you do when people start falling dead all around you and you don't know why?) that did precisely this. Unlike in earlier periods, ontology was not an easy fix for epistemological conundrums: it was less clear than it had been if God existed, and if so, if our existence on earth was merely a passage into Heaven. Once the basic structure of religious belief had been weakened (by the Civil War as much as by New Science), the question of existence became as fraught as the question of knowing.

As an aside, you can post on big questions like this, but close reading of a passage or discussions of the meaning of one word can be equally productive and interesting, if not more so. Talk about what interests you, but make sure to ground your comments in the text or in relation to class discussion. Also, feel free to add links to your post (as I did in my first post, last week).

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