How to Experience Origins and Remember Infancy in 17th-Century England – Timothy Harrison

Tuesday, March 31st, 16:00, Faculty of Theology, Oude Boteringestraat 38, room 125

Since the experiences that may have accompanied birth and infancy are not disclosed to memory, they remain opaque and unknown. This common sense view—influentially formulated by St Augustine and many other theologians and philosophers—was challenged by a variety of seventeenth-century English poets who developed verbal strategies for articulating the felt valences of early human life. Such poets as John Donne, John Milton, Thomas Traherne, and John Dryden composed imagined or remembered first-person accounts of birth and infancy. In this paper, I argue that these accounts are significant for two reasons: first, they shed light on one of the period’s most persistent fantasies, the coalescence of absolute naivety and full maturity; and second, they reveal historically-specific presuppositions about the nature of the human condition, about what aspects of experience are most fundamental.

Timothy Harrison is Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, where he has worked since finishing his PhD in the summer of 2014 at the University of Toronto. His current book project, Forms of Sentience in Early Modernity, explores the verbal expression of how it feels to be alive in the work of authors ranging from Montaigne to Milton. He is also co-authoring a book with Elizabeth Harvey, entitled John Donne’s Physics.

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