Roland Greene. Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes.
It would take far more than a few words to do justice to Roland Greene's Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes given the broad scope of its subject. Five Words's erudition and scope are indisputable as it draws on a vast store of sources ranging from Cicero to Philip Sidney, Antonio Viera to the Inca Garcilaso, not to mention Shakespeare and Cervantes. Greene explores five words ("invention," "language," "resistance," "blood," and "world") based on the key role they play in the early modern period, dedicating a chapter to each. According to Greene, these terms "do not carry obvious ideological marks but instead seem natural, neutral, and quotidian. Invention, language, resistance, blood, and world are words that early modern people not only thought through but lived with" (5). In Five Words each of these terms becomes an actor in a turbulent period of change in the collective history of Europe and the Americas, a period in which the vested interests of colonialism radically change the literary landscape.
One of the most surprising aspects of Greene's work consists of its departure from both past and current approaches to literature. The introduction makes clear that it is "not charting semantic developments as a linguist would, but trying to make tangible what is often abstract and obscure" (8). Greene further proposes such an approach as a model to follow, one that can be applied to terms other than the ones he explores in his own study. How this might be accomplished is not self-evident, as his discussion moves effortlessly from one text to another suggesting a fluid approach to his subject, one that is not bound by any strict methodology. Readers may not so much consider other terms as dwell on those that Greene himself chooses to examine. For example, how does a term such as "blood" figure in texts such as Cervantes' Lafuerza de la sangre (which he briefly mentions) or Pedro Calderon de la Barca's El medico de su honra, works that exemplify the complex conflicts arising from questions of blood understood as both substance and metaphor during the early modern period? The suggestive power of focusing on a few, individual terms, is one of Five Words's greatest strengths.
Whether future studies beyond Greene's own scholarship replicate such an approach remains to be seen; Five Words describes this approach as "oblique" and the questions Greenes introduction raises are worthy of investigation. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine how to respond to them without historicizing them; to examine how people in Europe and the Americas in the early modern period conceived of their relationship to the past and present necessarily requires a contextual framework. In contrast, while Five Words engages the politics of the period, particularly the vested interests of transatlantic ventures, the singularity of language in literary discourses remains its primary focus. For example, Greene's reading of the role the word "resistance" plays in both Fernando de Rojas's La Celestina and the Inca Garcilaso's Comentario reales is both subtle and persuasive as he makes the argument that "resistance as word and concept is recognizable as modern. Like revolution, it becomes part of a vocabulary that imagines and emplots the political developments of the Enlightenment and the late colonial period" (78). Less persuasive is the claim that "little has been said about resistance as a historical and imaginative concept of the early modern period," given the profound changes in Hispanist scholarship ever since Americo Castro published Historia de los heterodoxos espanoles in 1956 and many others since (78). Still, Greenes transformation of words as actors on the stage of early modern history and literature remains undiminished in his analysis.
Greene might have pursued his line of enquiry by permitting the "five words" to speak for themselves; rather, he buttresses his arguments with the parallel concepts or "conceits" of "palimpsest," "pendent," "cartone," "envelope," and "engine" (8-10). Greene employs these terms "to distinguish among the semantic operations of the five words" (8); however, these concepts add a layer of complexity--and sometimes confusion--to the words that originate his discussion. While Five Words aims to explain the relationship between terms such as "invention" as "palimpsest," it does not acknowledge that these terms may be understood very differently from each other. As a result, the connections Five Words draws between concepts appear arbitrary. For example, one may ask if a palimpsest might evoke a very different kind of writing, that is, one associated with an earlier period that is contrary to the notion of "invention" and more attune to that of the scribe's layering and erasures of the manuscript. In a similar vein, in the pairing of "blood" and "envelope," Greene defines the latter term as reality understood in allegorical terms. If this is the case, why not employ "allegory" as opposed to "envelope" in the discussion of the semantics of blood? Greene places the burden on his reader to juggle several terms and to tease out the implications of using one over another. One is left to ponder not only how these words "make tangible" the abstract concepts Greene refers to in his book, but also how they accomplish the more ambitious project of telling "a story about the Renaissance from semantics alone, in five words" (7).
Five Words concludes with a reference to Google relating how, despite the many advances of modern technology to trace semantic change over the course of history, it still lacks the ability to explain the reasons for these shifts. Rather than the concepts themselves, Five Words argues that it is the manner in which they respond to change and their place across a range of discourses that matters. This, Greene concludes, is the critic's role, and one that is urgently needed in the face of the two-dimensional results of search engines such as Google. Five Words leaves us with the tantalizing suggestion to reconsider the critic's role given that these technological changes have radically changed the cultural economy. It conceptualizes the role of literature within a broad discursive horizon, one that is in conversation with the humanities as a whole rather than one that is confined to a particular specialization. Clearly, such a call for change is more urgent than ever, and readers of this journal will appreciate the importance of moving beyond disciplinary borders. More than ever, the field of literary studies is in need of criticism that can articulate these needs in clear and cogent terms to reach a readership beyond the bounds of hyper-specialization. It is less clear whether Five Words offers the reader a text as accessible as it claims; its sophisticated approach and abstract prose suggest a text aimed at specialists in the field.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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