The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature. Edited by David Hillman and Ulrika Maude. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, xiii + 271 pp.
The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature is an “eclectic theoretical” (2) endeavor and it claims to provoke “the thought that there are deep kinships between literature and the body” (4). It seems that this is truly a companion that should not be missed, as it “analyses the ways in which medical, scientific, and technological advances have shaped our understanding of ourselves and addresses the manner in which literature reflects the shift in our experience. It combines historical, thematic, and theoretical perspectives on the body, from the middle ages to the twenty-first century” (2). The volume’s scope is broad and aims for a wide readership, students and scholars alike, who are interested in how literature has dealt with body images during different times and paradigms.
The introduction is excellent in its very comprehensive overview (and this is also the reason why I quote it extensively here), including a brief historical account of scholars who engaged with the literary representation of the body. These range from Michel Foucault and his discursive biopolitics to Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, who questioned the phallocentric power in literature; from Frederic Jameson to Jean Baudrillard, who established postmodernist and poststructuralist viewpoints; from Marcel Mauss’s to Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological perspectives; and from Edmund Husserl’s to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s and Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenological approaches (2). The introduction then lists the essays of the volume as “[c]ontemporary approaches to the body…ranging from medieval ideas of embodiment (Bill Burgwinkle) to posthuman bodies (Paul Sheehan)” (2-3). Topics such as “language (Andrew Bennett), sensory perception (Steven Connor), childbirth (Clare Hanson) and eating (Maud Ellmann)” are added “to the ways in which culture marks bodies, for instance through the invention of race (David Marriott) or normative ideas of sexuality (Heike Bauer) or disability (Jonathan Hsy) or body weight (Maud Ellmann)” (3). Further categories point to bodily experiences such as “pleasure, pain (Peter Fifield), ageing (Elizabeth Barry), the representation of death and dying (Sander Gilman), the place of affect (Jean-Michel Rabaté) and the non-representability of the traumatised body (Josh Cohen)” (3). Other essays cover “scientific and medical ideas” (Ulrika Maude), “early modern proto-scientific ideas” (David Hillman), and “culture and science” (Connor) (3). No major topic is missed, and this alone could be a remarkable achievement. The editors understand literature as “the place par excellence for the body to express itself,” and thus present a large variety of essays on the “many forms of literature [as] a kind of substitutability of words and flesh” (4).