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Abstract

This dissertation argues that seventeenth-century England witnessed an efflorescence of attempts to imagine occupying the same space as another human being. Attending to the figure of copresence in the work of the writers I examine, we obtain a richer account of early modern alienation from the body. These thinkers use the figure of copresence to register discontents about life in the human body, even while retaining the body as central to their vision of a better relationality. Accounts of early modern elevation of mind over body have focused on theological and philosophical accounts of the soul’s connection to a higher immaterial realm; my project suggests that the period offered far more diverse accounts of what might be wrong with life in the body, ones that resonate in surprising ways with the secular discontents or accounts of impasse expressed in our own moment, in queer theory and the psychoanalytic tradition. My first two chapters focus on the ways that images of coextension are used to claim a privileged status for friendship or for heterosexual erotic life. I begin by tracing the motif of souls travelling to a lover’s body through a kiss in English lyrics. In the English context, in contrast to earlier, more Platonized, Neo-Latin kiss poetry, the migration of a soul into the beloved’s body becomes linked with sexual climax as well as the kiss, undermining the contrast between the animality of lust and the distinctively spiritual pleasures of amicable conversation that scholars of early modern literature have documented. These love lyrics envisions a world in which the route to experience of another’s soul lies through the body, through breath and effluvia rather than through the expression of the soul in writing or speech. By contrast, my second chapter traces the complex use of images of bodily intermingling in an account where the body remains abject and male friendship is valorized. Browne’s Religio Medici (1643) displays a revulsion from the quotidian forms of bodily production and reproduction that is expressed via hyperbolic comparison—eating is cannibalism, for him, and the man who has children sees himself buried alive in his progeny. In both eating and reproduction, Browne experiences a dreaded version of coextension—the subject is visible in food, and in offspring, uncannily present alongside these other bodies. Yet, paradoxically, Browne returns to the figure of bodily merging to characterize friendship, describing its intense affective pull in terms that rewrite Lucretius’s critique of love-frenzy in De Rerum Natura. My third chapter argues that Paradise Lost’s (1667) depiction of angelic intermingling affirms materiality, while disavowing specific features of human embodiment—organs, membranes, joints, limbs—offering an explanation of why organs would need to be absent from the idealized body. Milton turns away from the organized body for strikingly different reasons than his contemporaries do: not out of dissatisfaction with the inherent mutability of embodiment but out of impatience with the limitations of the organs’ mediation both of sense-perception and of intimacy. In denying the presence of constituent parts in its angels, the poem allows us to imagine them as fully present within each other, co-extensive, offering total receptivity. However, the poem also connects angelic independence from limbs to a superior capacity for agentive action, and insists on the temporary character of this dissolution of boundaries. My final chapter considers the fantasy of relocating several beings within a single body in Margaret Cavendish’s prose fiction, The Blazing World (1666), aligning this moment with her account of the satisfactions of solitary fancy. The Lady Contemplation (1662) paints the portrait of a self-sufficient imagination; in it, the pleasures of fancy are as fully experienced as the pleasures of a shared material world. And yet, devotion to contemplation in this play involves queer refusal of proffered social alternatives, leaving its acolyte isolated from meaningful relationships. Blazing World, by contrast, is committed to creating a mode of encounter between two people while still centering that encounter around individual’s private contemplations. This difference in project allows The Blazing World to take up and fully develop the desire expressed in The Lady Contemplation: the wish to find a mate who presents no challenge to the pleasures of an imagined world and yet offers real companionship.

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