This is a longer summary of Harry Berger’s fantastic analysis of The Faerie Queene Book I. I had to write a summary of this in graduate school (spring of 2004), and I have no idea how I was even close. I’ve probably read this article ten times now, and I’m just now feeling like I’ve understood it. This is a model piece of criticism for me, a wonderful blend of a 30,000 feet above the work insight with some more granular close readings. All of Berger’s secondary sources–both primary (Bacon and Calvin) and critical–are apropos and Berger never worries about trying to defensively situate himself in the “tradition.” It’s masterful. You can find my summary after the jump. Continue reading “Article Summaries: Spenser’s FQ, Book I…Prelude to Interpretation”
Renaissance Art moved along three continuums: external to internal wisdom, distinct to reconciled opposites, and fact to fiction. The last one caused the most problems, and it was only during the Renaissance that theorists began offering a clear argument for why fiction was distinct from history on the one hand and lying on the other. These continuums were tempting in that they all offered ways of moving beyond the actual world, either in a healthier form of working through external reality or in an unhealthier form of trying to escape from external reality. At stake is the reality of the external world: the difference between what is real and what is just a projection of the mind. Poetry emphasized the power of fiction because engaging a self-avowed created world in serious play made the job of distinguishing reality from man-made projections much easier. Artists and audiences never escaped to the world of art for good. First, they would return to the actual world as represented with the work of art, and second, they would return to the actual world and leave the work of art. Poetic theorists of the time could claim that the profit of such an exercise was directly connected to the pleasure that such serious play provided.
It was this emphasis on art as a created space for serious play that was the hallmark of the Renaissance imagination. Classical thinkers did not have a coherent view of art because their epistemology could never adequately distinguish between what was real and what they were projecting. Christianity provided a more solid ground for distinguishing the two in the medieval period but at the expense of art. The humanity-created second world was always inferior to the first world God had made. In the Renaissance, artists and scientists began to believe that the second world was the place not to merely recreate but a space to improve the first world. Artists in the period range from political theorists like Thomas More to playwrights like Shakespeare to poets like Spenser and even scientists like Galileo. The scientific experiment itself was a second world.
Following MH Abrams, Berger labels such second worlds “heterocosms” because they are composed of various worlds that have been combined and held in harmonized tension. Berger calls the tempting and simplified version of the second world that often appears inside the second world “the green world.” Renaissance Art often exploited the difficulty in telling the second world and the green world apart, and the rest of Berger’s article pursues that tension in the period’s painting and Thomas More’s Utopia.