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"Renaissance" Talk: Ordinary Language and the Mystique of Critical Problems.

Stanley Stewart. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1997. xviii + 306 pp. $48 (cl); $21.50 (pbk). ISBN: 0-8207-0273-0 (d); ISBN: 0-8207-0274-9 (pbk).

"Renaissance" Talk is two books in one. On the one hand, Stanley Stewart proposes a labyrinthine "metacritical study" (13) of recent works on canonical figures of early modern English literature (Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne and Herbert). On the other, he subjects a number of early modern texts, either in whole or in part, to an admittedly "eclectic" (13) literary-critical analysis of his own. Sometimes, however, less is more. "Renaissance" Talk swerves back and forth between criticism and metacriticism, but the end result is too disjointed and rambling for many readers to follow.

Stewart is dissatisfied with developments - roughly from 1980 on - in early modern English studies. He advocates, by way of an antidote, an approach to current critical controversies in the field that draws extensively on Wittgenstein's "ordinary language analysis." By paying "attention to certain locutions" (14) and looking "for accommodation between the language of the critic and a reasonable expectation of what a description of the object in question would, could and should look like" (12), the Wittgensteinian approach should allow us "to question the vocabulary" (17) and "assertions" (18) of those critics who accuse Spenser of pornography, Donne of misogyny, Herbert of onanistic excess, and so on. By scrutinizing the claims of such critics in this way, Stewart explains, it is possible to achieve "clarification" (21) and thus "to 'unproblematize' supposed problems" (250) by exposing them as mere linguistic and conceptual confusion. This "complete clarity" (20), which requires careful reading of primary works as well as criticism, allows us to see that the source of these supposed problems is found not in "the nature of language or the nature of things in the world" (21), but rather in the way in which certain critics of early modern English literature have put language to use in constructing their arguments.

Critical approaches dependent upon Marxian premises, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and feminism are accorded particularly careful scrutiny and largely found wanting. In these pages Stewart takes on some of the leading practitioners of new historicism, including Goldberg, Montrose, Greenblatt, Helgerson, and Crewe. He also deals with other well-known revisionists, ranging from Fish to Paglia to Belsey, together with a host of early modern scholars who draw on the newer theoretical perspectives of the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter 2 the most successful of Stewart's demystifying thrusts - is concerned with recent Spenser criticism, chapter 3 with recent Shakespeare criticism, chapter 4 with recent Donne criticism, and chapter 5 with recent Herbert criticism (Stewart published a monograph on Herbert in 1986). A traditionalist by today's standards, Stewart appeals to "experience" (167) and "common sense" (167) - rather than theory - as the sine qua non of early modern studies. In each of the main chapters he tries to show how the "Renaissance talk" of our time is not only shoddily composed, but "depends upon debatable assumptions about social history" and normative terms such as "patriarchy, masculinist, utopian, and ideology" (167). Slamming "Critics for a Politically Correct Curriculum" (183), he concludes that "we can be sure of . . . the exceptional value of Shakespeare's poetry" (152) and that "there is no incontrovertible reason why we should not read [Donne's] poems as stunning and enlightening works of art in the here and now" (198). There is a annoying sense of deja lu in all this that detracts from Stewart's often legitimate insights into individual poets and critics.

Apart from its academic polemics, "Renaissance" Talk has several further defects. One of these is a lack of serious critical scrutiny of Wittgenstein's philosophy, which is repeatedly used to buttress Stewart's arguments as if it were itself quite unproblematic. Another is the author's cluttered and meandering style: one can only lament the failure to impose a slash-and-burn editor to bring order to the overgrown thickets of Stewart's prose. The book has nevertheless been attractively produced, and Duquesne University Press is to be commended for issuing simultaneous cloth and paper editions.

University of California, Santa Barbara
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Snyder, Jon R.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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