In Theory: The JHI Podcast

Intellectual History of Racialized Emotions: Kristin Engelhardt interviews Dannelle Gutarra Cordero

In this latest episode of In Theory, Kristin Engelhardt interviews Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, Professor in African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University and Faculty Adviser at Forbes College, about her book, “She is Weeping: An Intellectual History of Racialized Slavery and Emotions in the Atlantic World” (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Her book examines the intellectual history of scientific racism and furnishes examples for the construction of an “Emotional Other” in intellectual discourses from its origins in the ancient world through the 18, 19 and 20th century to our present. Professor Gutarra Cordero also uncovers the dominating features of “White Storytelling” in history books and current media production and reveals the ambivalence within antislavery thought and Abolitionist movement that has entrenched the racialization of emotions within a biased white storytelling, rather than a true revision of a still persisting racialized emotional economy.

Of particular note is the addition of creative writing pieces that frame the different chapters. This book emerges as a harrowing study that questions the extent to which intellectual history can be held accountable for giving an unilateral perspective. By denouncing that, Gutarra Cordero stresses the importance of contextualizing, revising, and opening up broader perspectives on the intellectual history of emotions. The work ultimately argues that this shift can open up a space for emotional justice, within which black emotionality can attain its fullest expression.

Kristin Engelhardt, born in Hamburg, completed her BA studies in German and Italian Literature at the Universities of Hamburg and Geneva. As part of a double degree program, she received her Master’s degree in French and Francophone Studies from Humboldt University in Berlin and the University Ca’ Foscari in Venice. Her thesis explores the reception of French Surrealism in the GDR and, in particular, the anthology Surrealismus in Paris. 1919-1939 by Karl-Heinz Barck, published by Reclam in 1986. Her general research interests include avant-gardes of the 20th century with a special focus on Surrealism, Menippean satire, authors of the early modern period, and Fashion Theory. She is currently working as an editor at rethink GmbH in Berlin.

Edited by: Kristin Engelhardt

Featured Image: “Esclava de Puerto Rico” (1777-78) by Luis Paret y Alcázar.

Conference Report

Citizen/Stateless Person/Cosmopolitan:  Refugee Selfhood in Global Intellectual and Legal History

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

The workshop “Citizen/Stateless Person/Cosmopolitan: Refugee Selfhood in Global Intellectual and Legal History” was held at the University of St Andrews on 9 September 2022. It addressed the dearth of academic engagement with the question of global refugee selfhood in the long 1940s, intersecting perspectives of global intellectual history and legal history. It was co-organised by Kerstin von Lingen (Vienna) and Milinda Banerjee (St Andrews). The workshop received generous financial support from the University of Vienna. It received additional financial and logistical support from Caroline Humfress (St Andrews) and the Institute of Legal and Constitutional Research, University of St Andrews.  The workshop drew part of its inspiration from the journal Itinerario’s special issue “Forced Migration and Refugee Resettlement in the Long 1940s” (Vol. 46, August 2022) co-edited by Banerjee and von Lingen. In its introduction, they argue that the long 1940s witnessed a “global refugee resettlement regime”. The emergence of a global refugee subjectivity was one of the major outcomes of the political conflicts of the mid-twentieth century. Nation states and international organizations debated questions of citizenship, displacement, resettlement, and statehood. However, within global histories of the twentieth century, the figure of the refugee continues to remain marginalised. In fact, the lens of transnational and global history has only recently been applied to the study of twentieth century partitions. Given the specificities of area studies research, historians have also not traced the connected nature of these histories. The papers in this workshop all addressed this crucial research vacuum in modern global history.

How did refugees conceptualise their displacement? Were the grammars of citizenship and political belonging within a nation state important to them? Which categories and ideas do they implement in shaping their global selfhood? These are some of the questions which Dina Gusejnova (LSE) and Milinda Banerjee (St Andrews) addressed in their papers on refugee political thought. Gusejnova cast an eye towards the Baltic German nobility seeking refuge from the violence of the Russian Civil War in the early twentieth century. Her paper analysed the works of international lawyer Mikhail von Taube, a member of the Baltic German aristocracy, who left Russia in 1917 and settled in Paris. As a member of a “community of imperial internationalists” Taube had a “cosmopolitan yet uprooted” subjectivity as a refugee. In shaping this consciousness, Antigone became his spokesperson. Gusejnova located this choice within a broader context of Antigone’s revival in mid-twentieth century Europe, especially in the works of Alexandre Kojève, who was influenced by Hegel. For Hegel, Antigone embodied a moment of unhappy consciousness in the dialectic between the family and the state. For Taube, she did just the same. Antigone became a suitable mouthpiece for Taube’s unhappy consciousness as a refugee in Paris, alienated from his lineage and kin and marginalised by the Bolshevik Russian state.

In Banerjee’s paper, this unhappy consciousness of the global refugee found resolution through critiques of capitalism. He considered Bengali Hindu refugees migrating from east Bengal/Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to the Indian state of West Bengal in India, following the Partition of 1947. Banerjee drew on state archives, refugee memoirs, novels, poems, short stories, and movies, demonstrating that refugee political consciousness was resolutely transnational. In the context of the Cold War, Communist-influenced refugees employed Marxian categories of political economy, such as money, property, value, and wage, to critique the bourgeois state and capitalist landlordism. High-caste refugees often fashioned themselves as “new Jews”, comparing their plight with Jewish experiences of displacement. Lower-caste/Dalit refugee thinkers drew on Hegel, Marx, and Black radical theory to critique caste/class-inflected proletarianization of refugees. Banerjee argued that these Bengali actors produced new models of refugee republicanism and created new practices of refugee democracy that led to the consolidation of Left governance in the region. Ultimately, both Gusejnova and Banerjee centered refugees as political thinkers, and placed them at the heart of global intellectual history.

Shaira Vadasaria’s (Edinburgh) paper addressed the refugee question in the context of Palestine, deploying the lens of racial politics and settler colonialism. She scrutinised the Balfour Declaration of 1917 as paving the way for settler colonialism in the twentieth century. She traced the ways in which British Mandate powers denied Palestinian subjects their nationhood and showed how Zionist leaders cast Palestinians as “subjects of racial difference”. She illustrated how humanitarian aid was prioritised over land repatriation by the United Nations. This move condemned Palestinian refugees to a state of eternal waiting, relegating them to “a life of return amidst extraterritoriality”. Khaled Hosseini in his novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” wrote, “Of all the hardships a person had to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting”. For him, the act of waiting defined the state of being a refugee: waiting for loved ones to return, for migration related paperwork to come through, and for an elusive opportunity to return home. Vadasaria mapped the poetics of this affective ontology of waiting onto the Palestinian refugee selfhood after the Nakba.

For only some Viennese Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, waiting came to end after the Second World War with their return to Vienna. However, it was not the same home that they had left behind. Kerstin von Lingen’s (Vienna) paper narrated one such story of loss and return, contextualised within “the complex practices of resettlement” in post-war Europe. The Nazi state revoked German citizenship for Jews and confiscated their properties, following the Nuremberg racial laws in 1935. This marked the beginning of their “expropriation and pauperization” by the state. As the situation worsened, Jews prepared to leave Germany. Since they were emigrating, they shifted these moveable properties to Italian port town, Trieste. However, Nazi legislation stated that Jews were not entitled to move goods after being denaturalized as citizens, and thus the property got stuck in Trieste. As a result, the port authorities complained to the Nazi government. In response, still during the war, these boxes were shipped to Klagenfurt in South Austria, and put to re-use by the known auction company “Dorotheum”. Subsequently, German citizens incurred massive losses during the Allied bombings. Now, the Nazi government sorted and redistributed these things. Therefore, the goods changed hands from Jewish refugees to German citizens. After the Second World War, British troops came to Klagenfurt and found 8000 moving boxes containing more than 2000 household goods. After the refugees returned to Austria, they claimed their citizenship and property, but to no avail. Since the famous legal battle about the famous painting ‘The Golden Girl’ by Klimt, there is growing awareness in Austria to remedy these wrongs. However, majority of the goods remain lost. Von Lingen concluded that we must center Viennese Jewish refugees within wider transnational histories of loss of citizenship and property.

Whilst some Jewish refugees returned to Austria, others sought to resettle elsewhere and build new lives. Philipp Strobl, in his paper, studied one such instance of Jewish refugees migrating from Nazi Germany and settling in Australia. How did they carve out a space of their own in a new land? What challenges did they encounter? How were migration regimes negotiated? How did post-war politics shape their selfhood? During the late 1930s, Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany arrived on the shores of Australia. Their growing numbers became a concern for Australian policy makers. The political climate in the country remained unfavorable in general to the “mass immigration of any class of aliens.” The National Security Act of 1939 legalized ongoing practices of discrimination against the Jewish refugees. They were labelled as “enemy aliens” and subjected to regular police surveillance. Their movement was limited by harsh travel restrictions. They were also not allowed to become naturalized citizens in Australia. When evidence of Nazi genocide of the Jews came to light in 1942, the situation gradually changed. They formed the “Association for Jewish Refugees” in 1942 and bargained for a better status in Australia. Their individual and organizational efforts bore fruits. The 1939 Act was amended in 1943. They were no longer viewed as enemies and were recognised as “refugee aliens”. Due to these improvements, German Jewish refugees managed to sustain themselves financially in Australia. Soon enough, they were also given the right to become naturalized citizens in Australia. Thus, Strobl’s paper argued that the subjectivity of the Jewish refugee in Australia transformed from “enemy” to “friend” between 1937-1943. This transition in Australia was facilitated by a global recognition of Jewish plight in the face of Nazi atrocities in Germany.

In 1938, Virginia Woolf provocatively proclaimed “as a woman, I have no country”. Written at a time when the world’s population was suffering from increasing statelessness and violent displacement, Woolf sought to draw attention to the gendered nature of the ongoing political crisis. The papers by Anjali Bhardwaj Datta (Cambridge) and Rosalind Parr (Wolverhampton) attempted to do the same for the refugee crisis in mid-twentieth century India. Their papers centered the role of women within global refugee histories by investigating the Partition of India in 1947. They asked, how was refugee selfhood gendered?

Rosalind Parr’s paper illustrated that transnational discourses on universal rights were implemented by women activists and politicians in India, to shape variegated policies on refugee rehabilitation. She engaged with the debates leading up to the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act of 1949 in India. She evaluated the involvement of elite women, in the Indian government and in women’s organizations, in formulating refugee rehabilitation policies. Sucheta Kripalani organised the Central Relief Committee for refugee resettlement before any other attempts were made by the Indian state. Purnima Banerjee secularized the category of “citizenship” by advocating for the rights of Muslim women refugees from Pakistan to remain in India. Rameshwari Nehru, Hansa Mehta, and Mridula Sarabhai too played a decisive role in shaping women’s belonging in the nascent Indian nation state. Tying together these threads, she argued, that elite women from diverse political backgrounds participated in refugee rehabilitation and played an important role in “shaping gendered meanings of citizenship” in postcolonial India.

Datta’s paper picked up where Parr left off. She asked, how did policies of refugee rehabilitation mold the female refugee in postcolonial North India? The figure of the female refugee became fragmented along lines of class, caste, religion, and age. Rural women largely could not access any rehabilitation facilities in Delhi, due to bureaucratic and gendered limitations. Older women of lower class-caste backgrounds faced the same hurdles. However, the marital status of refugee women played a crucial role in determining their access to rehabilitation. Widowed women were rehabilitated out of concern that they might take to sex-work. The Government of India ran marriage bureaus which aimed to get single refugee women married so that they could find their place within the household. Moreover, the support provided by the Indian state to the refugees for economic empowerment remained gendered. Whilst male refugees were trained in engineering works, female refugees were encouraged to practice crafts and nourish India’s fledgling cottage industries from their homes. The female refugee was circumscribed within the space of the household by the postcolonial Indian nation state. Thus, Datta acknowledged the struggles of the refugee woman in acquiring “a room of her own” in postcolonial India. 

From Syria to Myanmar, from Ukraine to Afghanistan, from India to China, the figure of the refugee continues to haunt our present times. Atrocities of state and capital displace more and more people with every passing day. Some become classified as political refugees, others as climate refugees. This condition of homelessness is pervasive in the modern age. State and capital transform all beings into “unbeings”. In this context, the enquiries of the workshop remain timely and relevant. Historical explorations of global refugee selfhood indicate that international organisations of the Global North as well as nation states failed to address the refugee crisis in the twentieth century. It required global solutions which could not be provided adequately due to conflicting national interests. This remains the central tragedy even today. For our present refugee crisis, we urgently require subalternist as well as non-anthropocentric policies which are informed by caring interdependence, rather than by exploitative extractivism – which place refugees at the heart of a politics of care, across racial, class, gender, and even species borders. How can we make our world habitable for all, once again? In this I hope we shall learn from the nonhuman, such as from the geese. As migratory birds, they do not pay heed to national borders. They do not take into account any anthropocentric notions of private property. They live and travel without paperwork. The earth becomes their own. Someday, I hope, it will be the same with humans. 

Shuvatri Dasgupta is Lecturer in School of History, University of St Andrews. She is also a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge and an editor for the Journal of History of Ideas blog.

Featured Image: Balata refugee Camp. Circa 1950, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


How Nietzsche Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Philipp Felsch (Part II)

By Isabel Jacobs

Philipp Felsch is Professor for Cultural History at Humboldt University of Berlin. He is interested in intellectual history and the history of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. His book The Summer of Theory. History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 was published in 2021. An English edition of Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam is forthcoming with Polity.

Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke with Philipp Felsch about his latest book Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam, which tells the story of two Italian anti-fascist philologists who, in the 1960s, discovered Friedrich Nietzsche’s manuscripts in GDR archives. Following the first part of their conversation, Part II focuses on Nietzsche’s revival in 1960s France.


Isabel Jacobs: Let’s talk about the French revival of Nietzsche which opens your book. One of the key events you recall is the Nietzsche congress in Royaumont in July 1964, which marked the emergence of both a “Nietzsche Renaissance” and French postmodernism. One of the issues a young Deleuze and Foucault discussed in Royaumont was how to read Nietzsche’s texts. Can you tell us a bit more about the French reception?

Philipp Felsch: Let me expand on that. We can basically say there are two major Nietzsche waves or fashions in the 20th century. There’s an early one, up to the 30s, which is mainly German, or German-inspired. One problem with Nietzsche has always been that he was not a classical or academic philosopher. Nietzsche had renounced his professorship of philology in early years. He was a Weltanschauung writer, so his status is very unclear. And you can see that many of the early interpretations of Nietzsche, also Heidegger’s, are concerned with legitimizing Nietzsche as a proper philosopher by projecting a systematic, central thought or idea of principle into Nietzsche’s vast body of writing: be it the eternal recurrence, or the will to power, or the superhuman.

In the 70s and 80s, there’s a second wave of Nietzsche revival that had its epicenter in France. There’s a long history of reading Nietzsche in France which goes back to the late 19th century. Nietzsche himself was a Francophile. He was anti-German in many ways, at least in later years. So he made it very easy for French readers to like him, even though they didn’t like Germany. Despite this long tradition, a “French Nietzsche” really only emerged in the 60s and the 70s. And this French Nietzsche was in many ways the opposite of the older Nietzsche. All previous attempts had tried to qualify Nietzsche as a proper philosopher with one central topic. 

Max Klinger’s Nietzsche bust at the Nietzsche archive. Creative Commons.

The new French philosophers, people like Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, they do the opposite. They’re interested in Nietzsche because in their eyes he basically destroyed or exploded philosophical discourse from within. For them, Nietzsche’s work is, among other things, an event in the history of language. Along with the literary modernists, Nietzsche was the first to set free the sign as a material object on paper. Liberating the signifier also meant to free the “text” from a certain definite, fixed, or ultimate meaning. And of course the French post-structuralists were exactly interested in these things.

Now the Italian edition comes into play. It’s published in parallel in an Italian, German, and French version. The first volume of the French edition came out in 67 which is also a very significant year for post-structuralist theory. The novelty about this edition was that Colli and Montinari, for the first time, tried to decipher Nietzsche’s notebooks exactly as they were. Up to then, Nietzsche’s late, unpublished writings had mainly been read in the form of a book, The Will to Power, which his sister had edited. It’s a strongly edited book which tries to systematize a vast body of notes, scribbles, and jottings from his notebooks. Colli and Montinari, on the other hand, tried to merely transcribe these notes into printed letters. Half of their edition is just this collection of short fragments of texts: the unpublished writings of Nietzsche. 

These notes moved into the center of a new Nietzsche cult. Because they show that Nietzsche was not a systematic philosopher, that he was not writing books in a classical form but that he was just producing a vast, autonomous body of text which had its own logic and followed its own laws. Nietzsche’s texts didn’t even have an author in the classical sense, because you have a chaotic mixture in these notebooks of philosophical aphorisms and excerpts from the stuff he was reading, but also everyday notations, like what to buy in the grocery store, things like that. And the French philosophers, namely Foucault, made a point out of that by saying that Nietzsche was not really an author in the way we traditionally perceived authorship. In Nietzsche’s case, the author is then rather an effect of posthumous editing.

How did the French philosophers know that? Of course because they had the Italian edition! Foucault was even a collaborator of Montinari and Colli; he was the guest editor of the French version of their edition, so he had access to these notebooks very early on. Today, the notebooks are all online, but back then nobody had ever seen them because they were in the archives in East Germany. Therefore, I argue in my book, the death of the author and many other of the post-structuralists’ core ideas emerged from the knowledge of and acquaintance with the unpublished writings of Nietzsche. That’s the legacy of the Italian edition. 

At the same time, that’s really not what the Italian philologists intended. They were looking for Nietzsche’s original text without any posthumous distortions. Stemming from the same edition, on the one hand, you have this idea of ultimate textual truth, on the other, in French hands, it turns into the idea of free floating signifiers which are not connected to any definite meaning or truth. And that’s why the Italians felt mistreated, even betrayed by their French readers who were privileged by getting this very early access to this new material, but very openly denounced Colli and Montinari’s philological project as being ultra-traditional and belonging into the 19th century.

Volume from the Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Credits: De Gruyter, 1992.

IJ: This leads me to my question why reading is so important for your story. The reader, it seemed to me, is the main protagonist of your book—as important as the author or even more. Intellectual history is told from a different point of view. This shift in perspective that you already employed in your last book is very productive. One of your inspirations is Michel Foucault’s genre of “reportage d’idées,” this whole idea of focusing on the places and events that give birth to new ideas. Can you expand a little on your approach?

PF: That’s exactly what I’m interested in. Of course there are many different angles if you try to do that but the basic idea is always the same. There’s a book by the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg called The Laughter of the Thracian Woman: A Protohistory of Theory which goes back to the early history of Greek philosophy. One of the Pre-socratic philosophers fell into a well because he was thinking so hard and didn’t watch where he was going. When his maid saw him, she had to laugh. Accordingly, in his book, Blumenberg was interested in philosophy as “exotic behavior” or, in other words, in the exterior, visible side of theory. In my book, and in the last one, I have also tried to describe theory insofar as you can see it. 

I’m interested in the exterior, material, behavioral aspect of supposedly interior ideas and theories. That includes scriptures, books, journals, or paperbacks, the gestures, the whole behavior and comportment of philosophers. What does it even mean to be a philosopher or theorist? And of course, if you’re interested in the exterior, then also the “practice of theory,” as they called in the 60s, comes into focus, but not the practice of theory in the sense of changing the world through practicing theory.

It’s more about the question: what do we do when we do theory? One of the answers is: we read. Reading seems to be a focal point where theory becomes visible and turns into a lifestyle for postwar generations. That connects Colli and Montinari with the protagonists of my former book. When Montinari first saw one of Nietzsche’s handwritings in Weimar in 1961, he was completely allured. He devoted his whole life to a never-ending reading exercise.

IJ: Is there a new project that follows from the Nietzsche book?

PF: Not directly. What I’m doing now is co-organizing an international conference on the comparative history of close reading which arcs from literary studies all the way into philology and philosophy. The idea that you have to delve deeply into texts is something very significant in the twentieth-century history of ideas. Of course, it has a long history rooted in biblical philology. But it seems to be very typical of the last century. Besides, I am writing a short book on the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, looking back at the decades of postwar German intellectual history that he represented like nobody else and that seems to finally come to an end.


Featured Image: Mazzino Montinari working at his desk. Credits: Aline Montinari.


How Nietzsche Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Philipp Felsch (Part I)

By Isabel Jacobs

Philipp Felsch is Professor for Cultural History at Humboldt University of Berlin. He is interested in intellectual history and the history of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. His book The Summer of Theory. History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 was published in 2021. An English edition of Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam is forthcoming with Polity.

Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke with Philipp Felsch about his latest book Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam, which tells the story of two Italian anti-fascist philologists who, in the 1960s, discovered Friedrich Nietzsche’s manuscripts in GDR archives. As Felsch retraces in his book, their critical edition of Nietzsche’s handwritings would pave the way for French post-structuralism. Felsch also sheds new light on European cultural politics during the Cold War, traveling with his protagonists from Florence to Weimar and Royaumont.


Isabel Jacobs: First off, can you tell us how you became interested in the story of your new book? What did the research process look like?

Philipp Felsch: The book started with an image in my mind. I either heard or read about the story, I don’t remember. I imagined one of my two protagonists, the Italian communist scholar Mazzino Montinari (1928-1986), who at the time was, I guess, around 30. He had just moved to East Germany in the early fall or late summer of 1961—a few weeks before the Berlin Wall was built. That was of course a highly significant date. Montinari moved to the GDR, to Weimar, the capital of German classicism and high culture.

Next to Goethe and Schiller’s archives happened to also be the papers of Nietzsche. Montinari came precisely to Weimar to reedit Nietzsche who, which adds to the whole irony of the situation as I perceived it, was of course considered a fascist thinker in the GDR. Therefore Nietzsche’s writings were stored, let’s say, in the Giftschrank [a collection of forbidden books] of Weimar’s archives. And that’s where Montinari goes—apparently undisturbed by the fact that the GDR was building this wall.

At the time, Montinari was already deeply immersed in philology. He moved to the GDR, temporarily at first, going back and forth between Weimar and Florence, where he was mainly staying at the time. But then, after a few years, he permanently settled in Weimar and married a local. He even acquired a certain fame and became part of the “high society” there. A couple of years later, he was interviewed by East German television on the occasion of Goethe’s 215th anniversary. Shortly after, Montinari had already four kids with his wife which led to a telegram with congratulations from Walter Ulbricht himself. So this Italian cigar smoking communist who moved to the GDR in 1961 to decipher Nietzsche—that was just an image so loaded with different cultural, theoretical, and historical symbolism that I became interested in the story.

Philipp Felsch’s Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam. Credits: C.H. Beck, 2022.

IJ: And then you started delving deeper into this figure? 

PF: Yes, somehow the story had an appeal to me, because my previous book, The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, was about the theory obsession of postwar intellectuals, mainly in West Germany, and their departure into abstract theoretical thinking. And in a way my new book does the opposite. While The Summer of Theory was mainly set in West Berlin, Paris, and Frankfurt, the story around Montinari and his companion Colli was situated between Florence and Weimar; it follows a completely different axis in the intellectual geography of the Cold War.

It didn’t have to do with theory, but in a way with its opposite, namely philology. In fact, it’s a dialectical relationship. So the extremely diligent, classical philology of these two Italians led to a renaissance of Nietzsche in France. But first of all, their philology was not about moving into ever higher levels of abstraction. Although Montinari and Colli were leftists and communists, they had to deal with the shock of 1956, when the New Left was born in Western Europe.

But they did not take off into theory; instead, they moved from communism into philology as the quest for an original text. You can see the biblical association here: the idea to discover an ultimate truth that was the opposite of the theoretical movement of the time. So I thought I could tell here a story that was also situated in the postmodern context, a very symptomatic story about the history of intellectuals at the time.

At the same time the research process moved into a completely different direction. That was also, of course, somehow appealing for me. Because, first of all, it became clear that I had to deal with the history of the GDR, which in my previous research hardly featured at all, although the book was located mainly in West Berlin. On the one hand, I began researching the historical context of the GDR; on the other, I had the chance to spend significant time in Italian archives. I studied in Italy in the 90s and speak Italian, and I like to spend some time there every year. So now I had a very nice excuse to spend a large amount of time in Italy which was fantastic! During the pandemic, it was basically empty, there was almost nobody in the archives except for me.

IJ: I find it interesting how you described Montinari’s philological research as a kind of spiritual quest. Let’s speak a bit more about that illustrious figure. While Nietzsche had escaped Germany to Turin, Montinari traveled the other way round, from Florence to Weimar, praising Germany’s healthy air. How did the Italian anti-fascist end up spending decades in Nietzsche’s archives, many of these years depressed and lonely. And what did his work in the GDR look like in practice? We also haven’t spoken yet about his paedagogo, Giorgio Colli (1917-1979).

PF: Yes, it’s important to remember that this is not a story about one figure but about two. It’s a story about a lifelong friendship, which at the same time has certain, let’s say, erotic undertones in a Grecophile, Georgean vein [referring to the literary circle around German poet Stefan George]. It’s a friendship, it’s a master-disciple relationship, and a work relation. And it starts in the 1940s, in 1943, when Giorgio Colli, in his mid 20s, 12 years older than Montinari, moves to Lucca in Tuscany to teach philosophy. At the time, we are of course in the midst of Italian Fascism. Montinari was a pupil in Colli’s class. Colli comes from a liberal bourgeois family in Northern Italy, in Turin; his father was a high-profile journalist who had lost his job under Mussolini. Colli was devoted to anti-fascism.

Giorgio Colli (1917-1979). Public Domain.

Not in an overtly political sense—he was against fascism as he was against politics in general, you know, in a very German way actually. Within the Italian history of ideas in the 19th and 20th century, we can observe a tendency that Italian thinkers had to find their intellectual home somewhere outside of Italy. Many chose France, others, like the literary modernists in the early 20th century around the Einaudi publishing house, Cesare Pavese and others, chose American literature, Melville, Faulkner, people like that.

Many others chose Germany, and Colli was someone who was very versed both in German and Greek philosophy; these two very often go together because many German thinkers were so fond of Greek culture—among them, of course, Nietzsche. So, part of Colli’s anti-fascism was a Nietzsche reading group in the early 40s. And in this context, Nietzsche was understood as an anti-fascist author, as somebody who was against the state and devoted to extreme individualism and freedom. I mean, we can find all that in Nietzsche. At the same time, we’re in the summer of 43, Mussolini turned 60, and Hitler gave him the 30-volume collected works of Nietzsche, bound in blue leather, because they shared, at least officially, a certain fondness of this thinker.

This reading group was the beginning of Colli and Montinari’s collaboration. Since Colli often went to his family in Turin, already in the 40s they were not at the same place. Therefore, there are letters which start at this young age. A 14-year-old Montinari basically wrote love letters to his teacher and colleague. And these letters go on until the 70s, when Colli died, so you have 30 years of intense correspondence. That’s the original scene, this anti-fascist reading group.

Then many things happened in between: Montinari became devoted to communism. Colli was, as always, the Grecophile philosopher who basically deplored politics as something dirty, so they moved apart. And then, in the late 50s, they met again, for many reasons, one of them being the fact that after 56, with the Hungarian uprising, Montinari became skeptical and moved away from the official party line of Italian communism. He meets his old teacher again. And at the same time, a debate starts in West Germany about the legacy of Nietzsche.

When looking at this debate, we have to keep two things apart which are important for the story. After 1945, Nietzsche, on the one hand, was regarded a fascist philosopher, especially within the Western Left, but also in Eastern Europe. In East Germany, in the 50s, it’s György Lukács who called him Hitler’s precursor and the mastermind of fascism. But also within Italian communism Nietzsche was a persona non grata. That was basically the consensus when it comes to Nietzsche. The fact that Hitler gave Mussolini this birthday present was a visible proof of Nietzsche’s allegiance to fascism.

Nietzsche’s Der Wille zur Macht, edited by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Public Domain.

On the other hand, and now we’re in the late 50s, there’s another line of discourse, namely, the question, whether the Nietzsche who was considered the mastermind of fascism was the real Nietzsche. Did the fascists even have the original writings of Nietzsche or was that merely a Nietzsche distorted by the editorial policies of his infamous sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche? That’s a whole story in itself, which I won’t recall here, it’s well-known that Nietzsche lost his mind in 1890. And then the last 10 years of his life, he was in custody of his sister and she began to witness the international fame of her brother. She published many books, among them the infamous Will to Power which Nietzsche himself never wrote in this form.

If we go back to the story, in the late 50s in Germany suddenly erupts a big debate about this question. Do we maybe need a completely new edition of Nietzsche? Of course, this was also driven by the attempt to denazify him. Because if you say it’s not Nietzsche himself but his sister who basically distorted his writing and even forged some of his writings, which in fact she did, then maybe we can save him and rediscover his work.

And that’s the point where the two Italian protagonists enter. They developed the idea to reedit Nietzsche. That’s why Montinari went to the DDR in 1961. You asked me about the existential undertones of Montinari’s philology. That was also for me one of the most interesting things. It’s, first of all, a question of character. Montinari wanted to become a monk in his youth, so the quest for truth was a constant in his life. 

Then he meets his Grecophile teacher, who moves him away from Christianity. Thus, Montinari becomes a devoted reader of Nietzsche and an admirer of the Ancient Greeks. And then he turned into a communist in the post-war years. The Italian Communist Party, as is well-known, was the most glamorous, so to say, and intellectually most interesting of the Communist parties in Western Europe after 1945. So you can imagine that it was a very appealing choice to become a communist in the late 40s in Italy! Communism was very avant-garde, it was not yet trapped in the trenches of the Cold War, but provided a very rich cultural environment.

In Weimar, Montinari discovered philology through his interest in Nietzsche. As we can see from his letters to Colli and also his diaries, the idea of philological truth and the search for the Urtext, the original text, is deeply Protestant in nature. In that way, Montinari was a model Protestant. His diaries of the time almost read like a Protestant Erbauungsbuch [Christian devotional book]. It’s a genre from the early modern period in which authors describe their quest for religion, for truth, for finding themselves. And we can observe all of that in Montinari’s writings. The search for his own personal truth is intimately connected to his search for the truth of Nietzsche’s texts. 

Nietzsche archive in Weimar, located at the Villa Silberblick, the late Nietzsche’s residence. Creative Commons.

Montinari pursued that search for many years, while going to the archive in Weimar every day—a very lonely existence during his first years in Germany. Nietzsche’s handwriting was hardly decipherable. Sometimes it took half a day to decipher two lines of Nietzsche. It was a monstrous task. And Montinari basically devoted the rest of his life to this task. That his work was driven by this very existential quest for personal truth reveals his philological undertaking as something of a deeply Protestant spirituality—which is maybe historically symptomatic for philology as such.

IJ: And despite all that effort, at first, Montinari’s critical Nietzsche edition, the Kritische Gesamtausgabe, was not even very well received. Besides reflecting on philology, your book also explores cultural politics in the Cold War period. Through the lens of Nietzsche philology, you analyze the ties between the GDR, West Germany, and Italy. Could you tell a bit more about your treatment of the Cold War? And why was Montinari and Colli’s edition so explosive?

PF: Yes, exactly. First of all, we’re at the height of the Cold War in the 60s. And the Nietzsche edition is deeply tainted by that context. Already as a student I wondered: why has the definite edition of Nietzsche been edited by two Italians? It has to do with the fact that Nietzsche’s legacy was drawn into the frontlines of the Cold War. The majority of philosophers and publishers in post-war Germany considered Nietzsche a fascist philosopher. On the other hand, there were also the Nietzscheans, people like Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith or, Karl Schlechta—all of them fierce anti-communists. But Nietzsche’s papers were, and that’s the irony of history, in communist hands in Weimar. 

Thus, for a character like Heidegger it was very natural to denounce the unpublished writings of Nietzsche as being irrelevant. To denounce the Weimar archive, Heidegger even claimed that the communists had basically secluded Nietzsche’s heritage and that it wasn’t even possible to get access, which was basically not true. But Heidegger was only one among many others who made such claims. As a matter of fact, Heidegger himself wouldn’t have been welcomed in the GDR for sure—unlike these two Italian communists.

From his time in the Italian Communist Party, Montinari maintained intense connections to the GDR’s cultural bureaucracy. He had been in the GDR many times before, also during the 1953 uprising. These contacts made his work in the GDR possible. From the start, there was a feeling of fighting against the West German “Nietzsche establishment.” That’s the one thing, the other is the reception of their edition in France. And that opens up a completely different chapter.


Featured Image: Private photograph of Giorgio Colli (left) and Mazzino Montinari. Credits: Margherita Montinari.

Intellectual history

Highland Asia as a World Region

By Michael T. Heneise and Jelle J.P. Wouters

Imagine an Asia where trails and paths fork out uninterrupted by nation states, the stoppages of borders, and the daily geopolitics of border crossings, passport patrols, and custom checks. In such an Asia it would be possible for you – provided always that you possess extraordinary stamina and abundant time – to walk from Kyrgyzstan to Vietnam without setting foot in a single lowland. This contiguously hilly and mountainous expanse cuts across the traditional divides inherited from colonial and Cold War era divisions – Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent/South Asia, China/East Asia, Southeast Asia. Geographically and geomorphologically, it connects three adjoining massifs, namely the larger Pamirs, the Himalayan Massif + Tibetan Plateau, and the Southeast Asian Massif, including the hills and highlands of Southwestern China, and is estimated (conservatively so) to be home to well over 250 million inhabitants who adapted to “highland living” in an astonishing variety of ways. The introduction to The Routledge Handbook of Highland Asia, and the 31 chapters that follow, insist that this region should be affirmed and treated as a world-region in its own right. It is a region that we propose to call Highland Asia.

From the vantages of state, nation, and capital, these lands and peoples are alternately depicted in terms of authentic/exotic cultures, as sensitive geopolitical spaces, as remote peripheries to be developed, as realms of cultural deviance that need assimilation, as new resource and capitalist frontiers, and as dangerous smuggling routes and sanctuaries for rebels. However, as this book variously relates, such stereotypes are nowhere close to an adequate representation of the past, present, and envisaged futures of highlands, highlanders, and highland living. There once was an exception to the general misrepresentation of this region, as Stéphane Gross rightly pointed out in Routledge Handbook of Highland Asia — with a comment – The Himalayas and beyond namely the French scholarly tradition of affirming Haute Asia (High Asia), including a chair in “Religions of China and High Asia” and a book series titled “Research on High Asia”, published by the French Ethnological Society. This scholarly tradition largely terminated in the 1970s.

Much of the impetus and inspiration for this project derives from the concept of Zomia, a term introduced by the maverick historian Willem van Schendel in “Geographies of knowing, geographies of ignorance: jumping scale in Southeast Asia” (2002). Van Schendel questioned the spatialisation of social theory as arranged through “methodological nationalism” and politically implicated area-studies that made scholarship coalesce with lowland heartlands from which dependent arteries spread out into highland borderlands. In a sense, what had emerged was a scholarly mandala in which highlands progressively acquired analytical autonomy, yet in their final evaluation theorized back to a lowland centre it shared little in common with.

Van Schendel breathed Zomia into being in essence to both challenge and reassure area studies scholars straight-jacketed by an institutionally calcified vision of the world that took its shape amid processes of decolonisation at the end of the Second World War and was further reified during the Cold War; a vision that seemed to reflect less and less their fieldwork realities. The idea was to take the area studies institutional scaffolding upriver and allow the model to take root at the edges. Some years after Van Schendel proffered the term, Zomia was taken for a wild spin as a region of reactionary statelessness by James C. Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009); and then pruned, racked, and blended by Jean Michaud, particularly in “Editorial – Zomia and beyond” (2010).

The proponents of Zomia have challenged us to rethink the pervasive model of seeing spaces through national boundaries and by default framing the world. Zomia has indeed helped us to view a part of the world, largely considered a periphery, in a logical way that challenges how people that have been invisible and opaque in modern historical writing, must now be taken seriously not only as a people with agency but also as a people who have the capacity to cultivate hope in a time when the threat of the national states and the global order is far reaching. As we build on the Zomia thesis, we not only hold to its broadest geographical configuration, but also suggest that its history – rich and important as it is – is not yet fully written. And in this sense we depart from Scott, who famously stated that “all bets are off” when applying his Zomia thesis to Asia’s contemporary highlanders. Now nearly two decades after Van Schendel first coined the term, the gradual ingress of oxygen has allowed us to address the more astringent critiques, and a rich corpus of Zomia research now available allows us to stand back, take stock, note its faults, but ultimately reflect on how it relates to, or informs, new configurations of space and spatialisation, including that of Highland Asia.

To think of Highland Asia as a world-region also crucially allows us to rethink global histories, variously in relation to ideas, flows, and frictions. While highlands and mountains today readily conjure images of isolation and remoteness, large swathes of Highland Asia were long connected by flows and drives of humans and the objects, ambitions, knowledge, beliefs, and fears they carried with them. And this network – piecemeal, dispersed, and linking oases, caravan cities, steppes, depots, mountain passes, gates, and corridors – connected peoples and polities across large distances. In the words of modern-day Silk Road traveler and writer, Colin Thubron (2008): “a distant disturbance at one end of the road trembled along its length like an electric current, so that the pressure of pastoral tribes along the Great Wall, in a relentless chain reaction, might unleash the Huns over Europe” Indeed, when we widen our historical lens, we recognize that for millennia highland Asians have connected far-flung regions through movements of peoples, goods, and ideas. This makes highland Asians as much movers and actors of global history as the European colonists, Indian intellectuals, Japanese imperialists, Mongol nomadic invaders, Buddhist monks, or Han and Arab merchants who occupy centre stage in global history.

Today’s often more limited readings of history that present Highland Asia as historically isolated and out-of-the-way is derivative of colonial encounters, Cold-War politics with its territorial rivalries, and postcolonial transformations and developments that jointly worked to reshuffle constellations of connectivity, remoteness, and isolation. To illustrate: the Wakhan valley was once a main gateway of economic and cultural exchange and used by travelers between East, South, and Central Asia. However, as part of the Pamir Boundary Commission protocols, which formally ended the so-called Great Game, Wakhan was reduced to a corridor and buffer between the Russian and British empires so that no boundaries would be shared between both adversaries, in the process reducing it to an isolated and remote frontier of Afghanistan.

This is just one example out of many. In fact, central to historical dialectics between connectivity and remoteness in Highland Asia was the colonial and postcolonial drawing and closure of borders and the cutting off of old routes of exchange. These were the eventual outcome of most political rivalries, rebellions, and revolutions and turned into the epic of Highland Asia’s modern geopolitical history. This is an epic of centres becoming margins and vice-versa, of corridors turning into remote frontiers, of mushrooming and mobile political borders, of increasingly ambitious and heavy-handed states coming eye-to-eye in the most unlikely of places (glaciers, mountain deserts, and forested hilltops) where they fence, trench, and garrison themselves in based on the firm belief that territorial sovereignty is best reproduced at the borders. To now think of Highland Asia as a world-region allows us to unearth and see the linkages, connections, and corridors that became blurred by exclusive visions of nation-states.

Besides movers and shapers of global history, Highland Asians have always also been political world-makers and thinkers in their own right, not just the rebels, refugees, actors of resistance, or timeless “primitives” influential socio-evolutionist traditions of scholarship have often reduced them to. Their political craftsmanship reveals itself as much in projects of state and empire-building, such as is central to Tibetan political history and the rise of upland monarchical rule in Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, as in polities brilliantly designed to resist predatory regimes of power and capital, with their loci in adjacent valleys and lowlands.

Premodern state projects repeatedly faltered at the hills, whether in Afghanistan, Northeast India, or the hills of Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Significantly, this was because forms of highland production, exchange, and thought were honed in ways that resisted domination by states and ruling classes. Some of these communities might have originated as runaways from oppressive state projects, as James C. Scott influentially argued, but many others have been in the hills for as long as their oral history can remember. But whether empire-builders, state resistors, rebels, or runaways, Highland Asians have for centuries, and to the present, been skilled and successful practitioners of political worldmaking and have existed sometimes in active connivance and connection, but often out of joint with the worlds created by contemporaneous lowland states and powers.

Combine all of the above: approaching highlanders as actors of global history and political designers sui generis, the linking of the massifs and Zomia perspectivism, and the cumulative knowledge value should be fresh and grounded theory-making that is not just “on” or “about” but also from and with the highlands. However, our comparative and theoretical apparatuses have been slow to catch up with the fresh highland ethnographic and other insights to be explained.What significantly thwarts such theoretical developments is the stubborn salience of the hill-valley/highland-lowland binary as a prime analytical trope, in the sense that most comparisons and theories continue to be developed in the lowlands and from where they are extended into the highlands, either to confirm or critique these theories. In this way, highland historical and ethnographic data have long been treated akin to erosion or mining, with them being extracted to feed the ever-hungry power grid of lowland hubs of social theory.

Said otherwise, akin to the ways in which the highlands are currently incorporated into the capitalist market, which is as a supplier of raw material, scholarship has long mined the highlands for raw data to test and illustrate theories from elsewhere.Thus, most social theorising is constructed and channelled through the lowland-highland binary, and this ultimately keeps in place the centrist, lowland ontology as the designer label of social theory.

If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that our historical and social analysis must be re-tooled because earlier modernisation discourses have fallen flat in the face of rapid, ideologically-driven geographical and geopolitical reconfigurations. The Asia of the future – modern, technologically advanced, politically pragmatic and increasingly ‘open for business’ – is not what it used to be. While Asia’s largest states still promote this old futurism, what is being experienced on the ground races in the opposite direction, and its deepening plights increasingly difficult to censure.

Climate change will undoubtedly pose the greatest challenge, as populations in increasingly hot, disaster-prone, and ultimately uninhabitable regions across Asia’s lowlands, seek better living conditions, largely in adjacent highlands. Temporary migratory patterns will turn to permanent settlements, and Highland Asia, as China’s and India’s supplier of water, will become their refuge – very likely the world’s greatest human refuge by the end of the century.

Is Highland Asia therefore important to study? We feel we make a compelling case, and very much look forward, in the coming weeks, months and years, to engaging scholars in debate and dialogue about this region, it’s importance as critical world region, historically and in the histories to come.

Michael T. Heneise is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. His work focuses specifically on dream experiences and dream narratives as sites of intersubjective encounter, negotiation, and sociopolitical agency. He has worked in Latin America, in Northeast India and more recently in the Norwegian Arctic. The founding director of the Highland Institute in Nagaland, he is co-editor of the journals Himalaya and Highlander.

Jelle J.P. Wouters is an anthropologist and teaches at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan. He is the author of In the Shadows of Naga Insurgency: Tribes, State, and Violence in Northeast India (OUP, 2018), the co-author (with Milinda Banerjee) of Subaltern Studies 2.0: Being against the Capitalocene (Chicago/Prickly Paradigm Press 2022), the editor of Vernacular Politics in Northeast India: Democracy, Ethnicity, and Indigeneity (OUP, 2022), and the co-editor (with T.B. Subba) of The Routledge Companion to Northeast India (Routledge, 2022). 

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Ze-Mnui (Yangkhullen), Manipur, India 2014. Courtesy of Tristan Heneise.

Think Piece

Margaret Cavendish, ‘Restoring Beds, or Wombs,’ and a Feminist-Materialist Quest for Everlasting Life

By Anne M. Thell

The pursuit of long life has a long history, from Socrates to Jeff Bezos. Less known but no less intriguing in this genealogy is Margaret Cavendish (1623–73), an English writer, philosopher, and demagogue of the Restoration period who devoted much of her career to questions of mortality and developed a corresponding set of strategies to cheat death. The author’s thinking on this subject is timely not only in light of ongoing global affairs, but also for other reasons: Cavendish scholarship is exploding in both literature and, more recently, philosophy, while 2023 marks the 400th anniversary of her birth.

Cavendish was a vitalist-materialist, while she also espoused panpsychism. This means that she viewed nature as a living, moving, and sentient thing, while she also believed that nature is both eternal and infinite. Even when a particular creature dies or “dissolves,” its matter simply dissembles and migrates into new forms. For her, there was no entirely new matter in nature, nor was there entropy. Instead, the matter that composes the universe—from the furthest stars to our fingernails—exists in a state of “perpetual transformation” and thereby exists forever. 

Perhaps the most obvious expression of Cavendish’s interest in immortality appears in her career-long quest for fame (or, in her words, her desire to scale “Fame’s Tower” and “Live in Many Brains”). This emphasis on the continuance of her ideas in “after-Ages” typifies what Michael W. Clune has called “the classical tradition of literary immortality,” whereby authors strive to combat time by claiming that art lives on in perpetuity. This rubric is especially important to Cavendish because she wrote in a period that did not look kindly on female philosophers. She thus imagined her texts as progeny who might achieve “glorious resurrection” in the minds of more enlightened future readers.

But Cavendish moved beyond literary tactics by writing the possibility of eluding death into her metaphysics. Across her later philosophy, which includes Philosophical Letters (1664), Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), and Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668), she offered a more totalizing approach to dodging annihilation via the transformational properties innate in natural matter. In the Cavendishean universe, nothing really dies. Instead, natural matter exists in certain formations—a human, say, or a tree—for varied durations before dissolving and then reconfiguring in new ways.

However, the author’s most spectacular—and speculative—solution to preserving bodies against the violence of time appears in the concluding pages of her final philosophical treatise, Grounds of Natural Philosophy. Here, she hypothesizes “Restoring-Beds, or Wombs” that restore life to annihilated bodies. These peculiar devices can restore any natural creature—animal, mineral, vegetable—which means that any given person or thing could be revivified exactly as it existed before decay or illness set in.

Eucharius Rösslin and Thomas Raynalde, The Birth of Mankind (1560), 108. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Cavendish clearly enjoys theorizing these “Beds, or Wombs.” She reasons that they could not be “Fleshy by reason the nature of Flesh is so corruptible,” yet must be “like Flesh, for Softness, or Spunginess; as also for Colour.” She also suspects that they would be located in “the Center of the World,” which is most likely a rocky island in “the Center of the Sea.” The devices consist of a “compounded” substance that contains the building blocks for “all the Kinds and Sorts of the Creatures of this World,” and, obeying laws of self-motion, automatically open once their work is done to release a perfectly restored creature.

We might recall that Cavendish was the author of Blazing World (1666), one of the earliest pieces of science-fiction in English, and thus no novice to the imaginative dimensions of scientific speculation. In keeping with these interests, she places on this island of regeneration a center within the center where the beds themselves are produced. Here we find a spectacular sci-fi vision of a massive “Rocky Creature” that is “all covered with its own Productions”—some wombs “hung by Strings, or Nerves: others stuck close,” some grow out of the “upper parts,” others “the middle” or “lower parts.” This creature is “as lasting as the Sun, or other Planets,” and thus “not subject to decay” (a smart detail that eliminates the problem of finding restoring beds for the restoring beds).

If this all sounds pretty wild, both for the 1660s and today, it is. But it is also canny, self-aware, and largely consistent with her later philosophy. One might immediately notice that these contrivances provide a natural, material, and decidedly gendered account—they are wombs, after all—of revivification that overtly competes with religious notions of resurrection (a rather risky postulate in seventeenth-century England). Indeed, these devices provide a more satisfying explanation for what is essentially a fantasy of an infinite series of lives. One might also notice that these “Beds, or Wombs” eradicate the need for men, sex, or god. In this way, Cavendish reformulates the search for everlasting life in a feminist-materialist way.

Broadly, the wombs also demonstrate Cavendish’s interest in nature’s sentient resilience, as well as its ability to repair and renew its constituent parts. Unlike most scientific thinkers of the period (and notably experimental scientists like Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, or Robert Hooke), Cavendish insisted that humans are part of nature—not above it—and thus that we lack the perspectival leverage to see and understand its operations. A committed probabilist, she believed that human knowledge is always approximate (certain options might shave closer to truth than others, but are never perfect or comprehensive). In Grounds, she recognizes that bodily regeneration is wildly conjectural and thus frames the debate as a lighthearted argument between the parts of her mind and pokes fun at herself for too zealous an interest in immortality. Yet in the end, she decides that it is “at least, probable, there were such things in Nature as Restoring-Beds, or Wombs.” Thus Cavendish concludes her career engaging a type of philosophical speculation that produces open-ended pleasure (i.e., the beds are fun to think about and cannot be ruled out entirely). Such inconclusiveness thwarts death, too, as it becomes an interpretive puzzle for future readers.

If rocky “Wombs” seem too eccentric to demonstrate the regenerative impulses that define Cavendish’s later views on nature, we might return to their logical underpinning: her concept of “translation.” Cavendish was a devout materialist—rivaling only Thomas Hobbes as the Restoration thinker most committed to this doctrine—yet she also recognized that bodies tend to slow, decline, and fail. In response to this problem, translation allows infinite transmutation: When any “particular motion” or “Society” ends, its matter is “not annihilated, but changed.” Organic matter exists “by a perpetual supply and succession of particulars,” or “perpetual alternations, generations, and dissolutions.” Hence, “infinite varieties” of combinations generate “infinite varieties” of “Productions,” which are always temporary and contingent.

“The Tree of Life,” c. seventeenth century, British. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain).

Surprisingly, this topic—“Restoring-Beds, or Wombs” in particular and regeneration more broadly—has received only scant attention from Cavendish scholars, although an increasing number are approaching her work from the perspective of eco-criticism, human/non-human relations, and the medical humanities. Cavendish was a thinker uniquely in and out of her time; her work has deeply syncretic aspects—she was well-versed in both ancient and contemporary philosophy—as well as a restless, idiosyncratic streak, which often anticipates much later thinking (e.g., materialist understandings of consciousness, many-worlds theory, deconstructions of the Anthropocene, Romantic views of imagination, biotech-fueled rejuvenation). She is also one important voice in a long line of literary authors who seek to counter neurobiological time and its inevitable erosion of pleasure, sensation, and self.

As is likely obvious by this point, Cavendish was a unique voice of the later seventeenth century. In her thoroughgoing materialism, she shares much with Hobbes; however, unlike Hobbes, she rejects mechanism and claims instead that all of nature lives, thinks, perceives, and moves itself, with intent and volition. Her hylozoism might seem to align her with thinkers like Henry More or Anne Conway; unlike those vitalists, though, Cavendish adamantly denies “spirits” or incorporeal substances in nature: as she argues, nothing can exist “between Something and Nothing.” She does acknowledge the possibility of a “divine soul,” but this supernatural entity falls far beyond the scope of natural philosophy. Along with Hobbes, Descartes, and More, Cavendish sparred with Jan Baptiste van Helmont, whose materialist understanding of disease clearly influenced her medical thinking. But she disparaged his fusing of theology and natural philosophy and his interest in supernatural substances like blas. In sum, her rigorous brand of materialism stands apart because it infuses all natural matter—rocks, algae, humans—with life, sentience, and free will.   

Cavendish’s materialism is also what connects her most vividly to the present day. Indeed, her material theory of mind is a clear precedent to contemporary understandings of consciousness. Anil Seth, for instance, has demonstrated that our sense of self is based on the experience of our bodies, as we perceive our physical condition via internal sense organs. Thus, consciousness is rooted in our nature as biological organisms: we are “beast machines,” a term Seth adapts from Descartes, and the brain ensures our survival and organismic self-regulation. Seth views consciousness as an embodied system (like many other recent thinkers who seek to reconnect body and mind), and locates us firmly within nature, an approach that Cavendish anticipates. Like Seth, Cavendish concentrates on embodied sentience, while she also, as a rationalist-materialist, examines the phenomenology of consciousness as bodily phenomenon.

In these virus-haunted days, lethal threats to life on this planet seem a uniquely modern predicament. Cavendish reminds us to historicize our entreaties for health and longevity, which extend into past and future—from ancient elixirs to a new quest for immortality in Silicon Valley. Jeff Bezos (Altos Labs, Unity); Peter Thiel (Methuselah Foundation, Unity); Sergey Brin and Larry Page (Calico)—all invest massive sums in life-extending research, or “biohacking,” which does not strive to eradicate death entirely but, over future decades, to control the body’s relationship with time by, say, arresting bodily degeneration (e.g., sustaining heart or brain health), or reprogramming our bodies on a cellular level (e.g., cell-tissue rejuvenation via didactic proteins). These are appeals for a radical extension of life, if not immortality in the Ponce de León sense. But these dreams of living forever on a dying planet—and then shooting into space to set up new colonies—remain noticeably ego-driven, masculinist, and anthropocentric (whatever trickle-down effects they might have on ordinary people). (Here one cannot help but think of Jonathan Swift’s Struldbrugs.) By contrast, Cavendish’s “Wombs” restore all natural things, not just humans, even after their expiry. She therefore reconfigures a familiar yearning in a way that displaces humans as sole beneficiaries.

Today, with our materialist leanings, our ongoing tussle with the “hard problem” of consciousness, and our tendency to view humans as just one small part of nature, we are perhaps better positioned to notice Cavendish’s ingenuity. Indeed, within the academy at least, she has found her “glorious resurrection.” Her work is now standard fare in literature classes, following the pioneering work of feminist scholars of the 1980s and 1990s (here I think of Sylvia Bowerbank, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Sara Mendelson, Anna Battigelli, Sarah Hutton, and Eileen O’Neill, to name only a few). More recently, she has made her way into the philosophy canon, which is notoriously slow-changing. This is long overdue, since she responds with intelligence and creativity to the same fundamental questions as her more famous male contemporaries. She is vital to understanding more fully the philosophical and scientific debates of her era because she noticed and critiqued their masculinist assumptions, while she also articulated alternate explanations of a universe that she saw as infinite, sentient, and alive. We might even say that this renegade thinker offers a secret history of the so-called “Scientific Revolution,” one that envisions nature as a self-knowing, self-governing system that produces and sustains life in ways far beyond human perception.

Cavendish’s “Restoring-Beds, or Wombs” are one distinctive iteration of the human drive to imagine lives that continue on beyond the grave. They are also the final display of Cavendish’s lifelong investment in preserving natural productions against the indignities of time and, broadly, in refuting the temporal-material conditions of our lives. She strives to enrich experience—and to ennoble bodies—in an intense yet secular battle against “the Nature of Blood and Flesh.” In 2023, as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of her birth, she scores one point in that arduous contest and inches further towards “monumental fame.”

Anne M. Thell is Associate Professor of English literature at National University of Singapore and, in 2022-23, a Sassoon Fellow at The Bodleian Library, Oxford. Her most recent book is the Broadview edition of Cavendish’s Grounds of Natural Philosophy (2020). She is now at work on two new projects: One on mental illness as it relates to early British fiction, and another on Cavendish and time.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta & Tom Furse

Featured Image: “The Fountain of Youth,” 1546, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image Wikimedia Commons.