Book Review

Daston, Lorraine and Katharine Parks. Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone Books, 2001.

Reviewed by Tassie Gniady | March 18, 2004

Daston and Park begin with an epigraph from Foucault highlighting the ability of marvels “to ‘break up our familiarites,”…“and to regard otherwise the same things.’” The aim of poetry is similar and I started to wonder (there’s that word again) about how one would go about constructing a poetics of monsters. Certainly, the philosophers who have compiled treatises on the natural world since Aristotle have attempted to categorize the marvels in their books and in Chapter Five, “Monsters,” Daston and Park describe sixteenth century enthusiasts as “Readers and writers [who] seem to have found it easier to come to terms with monsters that fell into causal categories of this literature [a specialized body of medical writing on the causes of monsters]” (192). But the three categories used by sixteenth century writers are concrete in nature, highlighting the need for “credible evidence” and “personal, sensory experience” first emphasized by medieval travel writers (63). And even the religious bent of writers intent on seeing monsters as portents points to a poetics of miracles – something Daston and Park may be interested in when investigating wonders – but not as compelling for me as I think specifically about the labels “monster” and “monstrous” and the creatures to whom these titles were applied, specifically human monsters. By the end of the seventeenth century, it seems that thinking about the causes of natural phenomena has become more sophisticated only in as much as the investigative techniques available to scientists and physicians had evolved.

No consensus exists on the religious, social, and historical significance of monsters, as might be expected during a time when the Reformation, internal wars, and the emergence of a middle class all played major roles European destabilization. Monstrous humans are imitative of those without difference so that through them we relearn our “earliest lessons:” what it is to walk steadily on two legs instead of four, to have five fingers instead of six. The second rule of monstrous poetics seems to be, however, that we contemplate a “reproduction.” Here the woodcuts and illustrations of monstrous bodies take on singular importance, as does the role of spectacle that involves the actual monstrous body, alive or dead. How does “personal, sensory experience” of the actual body mediate the exchange? Samuel Pepys wrote that his viewing of the bearded lady “please me mightily” (198), but if her deformity had been more grotesque, would he have preferred to study a proclamation with a woodcut so that his reaction would not be subject to the scrutiny of others and the deformed herself? I might be imposing my sensibilities upon the early modern here, as it might not even have occurred to Pepys to be ashamed when viewing, for example a hermaphrodite (although the illustration of Duplessis’s hermaphrodite in Daston and Park [Figure 5.7.1] with the paper flap does point to cognizance of audience and titillation that comes from peeping at something considered scandalous or shameful).

In the end, Daston and Park compile a treatise on the marvelous that is a good primer, but is by no means complete. Like the whirlwind tour of Europe in two weeks, this book whets the appetite by sketching out backgrounds of important thinkers from the middle ages through the eighteenth century. But for a firm grasp on Paracelsus, Paré, Bacon, Locke, and others, an extended stay is advisable, and the amazing bibliography points readers to the specific territories they wish to continue mapping out on their own.

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