In this essay, Waters highlights a characteristic of Renaissance humanism long acknowledged but always in need of renewed appreciation: the way that some people gave new attention to the literal, the minute, and the particular. The implications of this shift were so radical they turned the world upside down, making possible, even imperative to some, the overthrow of monarchs; the circumnavigation of a globe, the roundness of which had not been until then fully grasped; closer inspection of the heavens; and the reading of the text of the Bible and other key documents, such as The Donation of Constantine. Waters claims that what was at stake was a shift from medieval holism as a frame of mind to modern atomism. He goes to the heart of the positive and the negative sides to the development of what he calls “bitsiness,” the systematic emphasis on the literal and the particular, by giving an account of what it was like for him as a person who had grown up in an orthodox Catholic family in America in the second half of the twentieth century to suddenly find himself, in reading Milton, to be living in a world where bitsiness was the rule. He had to learn to read things literally, not allegorically, to circumnavigate his world just as Renaissance scientists, poets, and explorers had. Renaissance humanism gave him tools, spiritual exercises, for learning to train his attention to the words on the page and to stop seeing them through a distorting haze.
Lindsay Waters; The Recovery of the Literal: Learning from the Renaissance How to Circumnavigate the Globe. boundary 2 1 August 2012; 39 (3): 151–167. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-1730653
Download citation file: