Printer Friendly

Stephen Greenblatt:the critic as anecdotalist.

In "The Forms of Power and Power of Forms in the Renaissance," a widely cited introduction to a special issue of the academic literary journal Genre, Stephen Greenblatt provides a fanfare for the arrival of "what we may call the new historicism, set apart from both the dominant historical scholarship of the past and the formalist criticism that partially displaced this scholarship in the decades after World War Two." This older scholarship, Greenblatt maintains, "tends to be monological; that is, it is concerned with discovering a single political vision, usually identical to that said to be held by the entire literate class or indeed the entire population." "Literature," he continues, "is conceived to mirror a period's beliefs, but to mirror them, as it were, from a safe distance." By contrast, "The new historicism erodes the firm ground of both criticism and literature. It tends to ask questions about its own methodological assumptions and those of others." (1)

The introduction that is credited with introducing the term "new historicism" concludes with this peroration:
  The critical practice represented in this volume challenges the
  assumptions that guarantee a secure distinction between "literary
  foreground" and "political background" or, more generally, between
  artistic production and other kinds of social production. Such
  distinctions do in fact exist, but they are not intrinsic to the
  texts; rather they are made up and constantly redrawn by artists,
  audiences, and readers. These collective social constructions on the
  one hand define the range of aesthetic possibilities within a given
  representational mode and, on the other, link that mode to the
  complex network of institutions, practices, and beliefs that
  constitute the culture as a whole. In this light, the study of genre
  is an exploration of the poetics of culture. (2)

The phrases in this definitive account of new historicism (which apply likewise to its variants, cultural poetics and cultural materialism) have been repeated and mimicked, triumphantly brandished and solemnly invoked--usually with the implication that any demurral has been rendered irrelevant--for more than a quarter of a century. They are the key terms of a quasi-scientific account of literature that reduces it to just so much data at the disposal of a new "critical practice." A more revealing insight into the sources of the new historicism, however, emerges in the prologue of a later book, Hamlet in Purgatory. Greenblatt recounts the surprising discovery that his deceased father "had left a sum of money to an organization that would say kaddish for him--kaddish being the Aramaic prayer for the dead, recited for eleven months after a person's death, and then on certain annual occasions." This prayer, Greenblatt adds, "is usually said by the deceased's immediate family and particularly by his sons. ... Evidently, my father did not trust either my older brother or me to recite the prayer for him. The effect the bequest had on me, perhaps perversely, was to impel me to do so, as if in a blend of love and spite.'' (3)

If the earlier remarks set forth the methods of the new historicism and, in some respects, its goals, the anecdote about Greenblatt's father furnishes a provocative hint about its motives. The man who proposes to explain--if not explain away--Shakespeare and other major authors by telling anecdotes here reveals a great deal about himself. The new historicism, as practiced by its leading exponent, manifests a tireless fascination with the culture of the past in all its myriad forms, but it is relentlessly reductive: the distinction between literary works of art and other kinds of writing--like anecdotes--is subverted; every sample of writing is a "social production" that may be treated as a document. In Greenblatt's influential phrase, they are "collective social constructions." There is love, then, but also spite. Attention is lavished upon Shakespeare and his plays, but the poet becomes a case study and the poetry is not scrutinized because of its intrinsic worth; rather the worth is determined by the theorist's scrutiny. Greenblatt, surprised by his evidently irreligious father's concern to be remembered in prayer, says the kaddish, but "perversely." By the same token, the new historicist, scandalized by how seriously both the older historical scholars and the new critics took the works they studied, continues to examine and interpret them, but with the goal of draining them of any inherent significance.

The works that constitute the "canon" of European literature, which provide so vital a part of Western Civilization's self-understanding, are a monument or testimony to the authority of authors. That authority is by analogy paternal: great writers are among the fathers of Western culture. In an age that "is pleased to understand itself as constructed on the idea of autonomy," (4) the wishes of a father may be recognized, but not really respected. As the "father" of the new historicism, a method of scholarship that subjects every tradition to a bath of solvent skepticism, Stephen Greenblatt flaunts a paradoxical anti-paternal paternity. He appropriates, as it were, the authority to call into question every traditional authority with respect to familial, social, and political relationships and, above all, with respect to sexuality and religion. In rendering any and all cultural institutions and moral expectations problematic, he becomes an exemplum of one of the ways Western Civilization is crumbling from within as a result of the relentless trituration of its academic elites.

Greenblatt's first book was a study of Sir Walter Raleigh, but it was Renaissance Self-Fashioning that made his reputation and inaugurated the predominance of the new historicism in academic literary study in America." (5) The latter book manifests a remarkable array of rhetorical skills, often with great verve, in dismantling the originality and wisdom of the authors who are its objects and reducing them to creatures of the social matrix from which they never quite emerge. The opening chapter deploys a brilliant conceit by creating an analogue between Hans Holbein's famous anamorphic painting, The Ambassadors, and Sir Thomas More's career as a courtier. Viewed head-on, the painting displays two sumptuously dressed French diplomats surrounded by articles symbolic of affluence, power, and learning; viewed from an acute angle, the peculiar shadowy image at the feet of the two courtiers is revealed as a death's head or memento mori. Greenblatt finds a similarly unbridgeable crevasse in More's life and work opening up--an irresolvable contradiction between idealism and ambition.

Greenblatt's discussion offers numerous shrewd, arrestingly formulated insights regarding particular texts; after all, he learned to read literature with close attention to detail as a graduate student at Yale, when it was the vital center of academic new criticism in the 1960s. (6) Nevertheless, his interpretation rests on a popular but inadequate and, frankly, banal understanding of More himself and especially his masterpiece, Utopia. According to this view, the young, idealistic (sc. "liberal") More, who wrote "the truly golden little book" (libellus uere aureus), basically agreed with his character, Raphael Hythlodaeus, and accepted the notion that Utopian society does represent the "best state of a commonwealth" (optimus reipublicae status). Regrettably, his involvement in the controversies of the Reformation and his position in the government of Henry VIII turned him into an increasingly strident polemicist and severe persecutor on behalf of reactionary politics and religion. Some (but certainly not all) will allow that his eventual oppression and suffering at the hands of King Henry and his henchmen restored to him a measure of equanimity.

Greenblatt thus assumes that the author of Utopia shares Raphael's belief that sinful pride can be uprooted by the elimination of private property, because of his "insight in Utopia that there is an essential relationship between private property and private selves." The objections to communism by the character "Thomas More" that men who can count on others to work will not work themselves and that a Utopian society will inevitably founder on the innate tendency of fallen men and women to favor their own interests are discounted: "Such arguments assume a selfishness that is canceled by the Utopian reduction of the self." (7) The character "More" remarks, "That all things might be well cannot come to pass, unless all men might be good, which I do not anticipate for some few years to come." (8) The rueful irony of this observation is, for Greenblatt, no part the author's awareness of the literary significance of his own work. "The passion for social justice, the conviction that pride and private property are causally linked, the daring attack on 'the conspiracy of the rich' give way to the demand for discipline and the extirpation of dissent," Greenblatt writes of More's works of religious polemic. "More has recast as hateful, as deserving extermination, some of the qualities of mind we most associate with the author of Utopia. To search for causes, to question the given, to rely on one's own probing 'wit' are now manifest signs of evil, evil that must be ridiculed in print and persecuted remorselessly by both church and state." (9)

Without dwelling upon how fair an assessment of More's life and career is implied by these comments, it is sufficient to note how feeble and simplistic a reading of Utopia they suggest. In the introduction to his definitive translation of this work, Clarence Miller points out that skepticism of the Utopian ideal is built into the stylistic texture of the work. The awkward and eccentric complexity of the Latin syntax of Hythlodaeus's lengthy rants against European political conditions in Book I contrasts sharply and meaningfully with the clarity and brevity of the sentences in Book II, as he describes the social institutions of Utopia."' This stylistic incongruity is epitomized in his name: Raphael, meaning "God's healing" (the name of the archangel in the Book of Tobit), and Hythlodaeus, meaning "dispenser of nonsense." The only connection between the admittedly grim reality of sixteenth-century Europe and the "Nowhere" (Greek utopos "no-place") of idealistic dreams is this dubious and contradictory figure, so the journey from one to the other would require more than a sea voyage. As Miller trenchantly maintains, Utopian institutions will only work for citizens who have already been brought up with a Utopian education. (11) In the twentieth century, serious efforts to construct Utopia with existing peoples resulted in Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, and Pol Pot's Cambodia.

Greenblatt's blunder in reading Utopia is a failure of literary interpretation: it comes of the determination to break down "the distinction between 'literary foreground' and 'political background'"--between a work of imaginative literature, a fiction, and a treatise. The division that he sees in More's soul is actually a feature of the vision of reality presented in Utopia. With his acute sense of sin, as well as of the intrinsic limitations of mortal creatures, More recognizes and finds a memorable means of dramatizing how perfection will always elude the best efforts of human beings. To pursue it too intensely and persistently will end in something far worse than ordinary imperfection, as Greenblatt also sees: "The public quality of Utopian space renders this gaze inescapable, for ordinary citizens as well as slaves. Being seen is central to the experience of shame (and, for that matter, of praise), and thus Utopia is constructed so that one is always under observation." (12) The critic fails to acknowledge, however, that what he has perceived is what the poet has created.

The poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt is subjected to a similar reductionism. Greenblatt is bent on exposing the fragmentation of the poet's self through the poems: "I would suggest that there is no privileged sphere of individuality in Wyatt, set off from linguistic convention, from social pressure, from the shaping force of religious and political power." (13) While he concedes a point suggested by Donald Friedman, that in both Wyatt's translations of the Psalms and his Satires "the poet discovers his true voice," in the next paragraph he undermines the concession: "Thus though both the psalms and the satires self-consciously give voice to a 'true' self, stripped of falsification and corruption, we encounter two distinct versions, the former produced by submission, the latter by negation." (14) The critical procedure in play here requires that generic differences be elided, that the penitent voice of psalm-imitation, a dramatized version of David as everyman, and the sophisticated indignation of the satirical persona be treated as indistinguishable and, finally, as identifiable with the poet himself. The purpose of writing in a particular conventional genre (satire, pastoral, sonnet, devotional lyric) is, however, precisely to assume a mask or voice or role independent of the personal identity of the poet, so that he might embody a perspective and utter sentiments unavailable to an historical individual in a particular time and place.

The new historicist thus devalues both literature and the men who create it by demanding, in effect, that the poet and the poetry be interchangeable. Greenblatt avers that Wyatt achieves in his satires "the voice of what Courthope in 1897 called with perfect precision 'an English gentle-man conversant with affairs.'" But he proceeds to denigrate the achievement because it doesn't square with the details of Wyatt's biography, because "it is important to understand how much of the self is left out of this self-presentation, how tightly the nexus of power, sexuality, and inwardness has been reined in." (15) The detached persona of the poem, critical of court corruption, is tainted by the historical compromises of the poet: ''We may remind ourselves that the estate to which the poet retreats from power is the reward for royal service and that the pleasant acres are swelled with confiscated monastic lands." This smug dismissal is accomplished "only by standing outside the poems and questioning their fundamental assumptions." (16) A fundamental purpose of poetry, to provide a space in which a man can escape from pressing circumstances and the weight of his own interests and partialities in order to contemplate human experience with disinterested perception, is thereby subverted.

In the course of his various arguments, it becomes clear that what Greenblatt most loathes is Christianity, not merely as the mediator of God's authority, but indeed as the channel of God's intimacy with the human soul--what a Christian would call grace. This intense encounter necessarily entails a modification, rather a transfiguration, of human desire: "Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God" (Mt. 5.8); and it is this turning of desire toward a different, infinite object--which seems just a limitation or barrier to a carnal man--that generates such resentment:
  The goal of steadfastness or bound-edness was, as we have seen,
  central to the careers of both More and Tyndale; it is for both
  Catholic and Protestant the response to a crisis in political and
  spiritual authority. Wyatt's penitential psalms offer us an almost
  formulaic reduction of the historical, psychological, and literary
  forces that we have repeatedly encountered: power over sexuality
  produces inwardness. In other words, the inner life expressed in the
  penitential psalms owes its existence to a wrathful God's power over
  sexuality; before the Lord's anger was stirred up by "filthy life,"
  David was blind to his own inwardness, an inwardness he is now driven
  to render in speech. (17)

It must be acknowledged that, despite the elements of hysteria in this portrayal, Greenblatt has located and been repelled by Christianity in its essence, not by an Enlightenment caricature. Remi Brague perceives the same power in the faith, although he is seeing it in its clarity and integrity, not myopically from an occluded vantage point:
  The new law is the law of faith, law of liberty. Christ does not give
  that new law, for example, by dictating it in the Sermon on the
  Mount; rather, by making the grace of the Spirit overflow on the
  believers who form his mystical body, as communicated by the
  sacraments and in the faith. (18)

Following St. Thomas Aquinas, Brague places at the heart of Christianity the very inwardness that Greenblatt rejects: "Thomas defines law as the way we act when in full possession of our freedom. " (19)

For Greenblatt, however, freedom is an illusion, power the only reality. When he turns to a discussion of the destruction of the Bower of Bliss by Sir Guyon, the Knight of Temperance at the end of the second book of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, there is a long preamble in which Jacob Burckhardt's Civilization of the. Renais-sance in Italy is extolled, but its 'assertion that, in the process [of establishing "new forms of identity'], these men emerged at last as free individuals must be sharply qualified." (20) Greenblatt then offers a good deal of anecdotal material about Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I, which purports to reveal "the transformation of power relations into erotic relations, and appreciation of the queen's ability at once to fashion her identity and to manipulate the identities of her followers." (21)

It is against this backdrop that Spenser's elaborate allegorical epic is considered and its moral fiction trumped by gossip about court intrigue. Greenblatt dismisses C. S. Lewis's classic discussion of the contrast between the sterile, sickly sexuality of the Bower of Bliss in Book II and the healthy, procreative sexuality of the Gar-den of Adonis in Book III, by observing that the latter, "that great 'seminary' of living things, has almost no erotic appeal." By contrast, Acrasia, the seductive witch of the Bower, "offers not simply sexual plea-sure--'long wanton joys'--but self-abandonment, erotic aestheticism, the melting of the will, the end of all quests; and Spenser understands, at the deepest level of his being, the appeal of such an end." Greenblatt cannot conceive--or at least will not accept--the paradoxical notion of the law of grace, of the liberation of the will, rather than its "melting," in conformity to the divine will. "The Bower of Bliss must be destroyed not because its gratifications are unreal but because they threaten 'civility'--civilization--which for Spenser is achieved only through renunciation and the constant exercise of power." According to Greenblatt, Spenser's vision foreshadows the melancholy vision of Civilization and its Discontents, and he "participates with Freud in a venerable and profoundly significant intertwining of sexual and colonial discourse, accepts sexual colonialism only with a near-tragic sense of the cost." (22)

Spenser himself may provide, however, the most effective rebuttal to Greenblatt's effort to expropriate the poetic vision of the Faerie Queene for a program of reductive Freudian despair. At the end of the second book of the poem, after he has destroyed the Bower of Bliss and taken the witch prisoner, the Knight of Temperance and his accompanying Palmer come upon a group of "wild-beasts" that "fierce at them gan fly, / As in their mistress reskew." After "pacifying" them, the Palmer explains:
  These seeming beasts are men
  Whom this Enchauntress hath trans
  formed thus,
  Whylome her louers, \vhich her
  lusts did feed,
  Now turned into figures hideous,
  According to their minds like

After the Palmer with his "vertuous staffe" transforms them back into men, they still "vnmanly looke" and "stared ghastly," either for "inward shame" or for "wrath" to see Acrasia taken prisoner. One called Grill is especially enraged to have been changed from pig back into a man, and when Sir Guyon is incensed that a man would choose "To be a beast, and lacke intelligence," the Palmer assures him that indignation is useless:
  The dunghill kind
  Delights in filth and foule
  Let Grill be Grill, and haue his
  hoggish mind,
  But let vs hence depart, whilest
  wether serues and wind. (23)

Now it is, doubtless, excessively harsh to paraphrase Spenser thus: "Let Greenblatt be Greenblatt and have ... "; nevertheless, his materialist conception of humanity and his asseveration that the only alternative to the dissolution of rational identity in the indulgence of desire is the anguish of an unsatisfying, socially constructed, artificial morality implies that men are in principle no different from hogs. The price of Christian civilization is self-control, and self-control is repressive and destructive. In Greenblatt's discussion of Othello, the inwardness that develops from Christianity's focus on spiritual growth and self-mastery becomes the gnawing misery of self-consciousness; and the shared spiritual awareness of empathy is merely a means of manipulation. In a derisory account of sociologist Daniel Lerner's theory that empathy, "the mobile personality of Western society," is the source of the West's dominance, Greenblatt quips, "what Professor Lerner calls 'empathy,' Shakespeare calls 'Iago.'" (24) One need not accept what Greenblatt sees as Lerner's cheery rationalization of Western imperialism to question the former's reduction of the growth of consciousness and conscience in the Christian world to a restless urge to manipulate and deceive.

Before turning to Othello, Greenblatt tells another of his signature anecdotes, borrowed from Peter Martyr Vermigli, about how the Spaniards took advantage of the religion of the natives of the Lucayas (nowadays the Bahamas) in order to beguile them into believing that they were transporting them to a paradise where they would rejoin their deceased relatives, while in fact they were enslaving them in the gold mines of Hispaniola. He then maintains that Thomas More's celebrated "improvisational gift" is likewise "the mystification of manipulation as disinterested empathy." As evidence he adduces "More's controversial works, such as The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, whose recurrent method is through improvisation to transform the heretic's faith into a fiction, then absorb it into a new symbolic structure that will ridicule or consume it." (25) Greenblatt thus suggests that there is in principle no difference between the Spanish conquistadors' mendaciously luring the Lucayans into servitude and death by exploiting their religious beliefs and Mote's refuting of Tyndale's religious beliefs by drawing out implications that Tyndale had not intended. Ironically, Greenblatt seems oblivious to the possibility that his own treatment of More and the other authors whom he discusses might easily be subjected to the same strictures.

Iago becomes in Greenblatt's telling the epitome of Western Christian civilization, which through its feigned empathy, its sinister identification with the "other," inevitably leads to violence and servitude:
  Such is the relation Iago establishes with virtually every
  character in the play, from Othello and Desdemona to such
  minor figures as Montano and Bianca. For the Spanish colonialists,
  improvisation could only bring the Lucayans into open enslavement;
  for Iago, it is the key to a mastery whose emblem is the "duteous
  and knee-crooking knave" who dotes "on his own obsequious bondage"
  (1.1.45-46), a mastery invisible to the servant, a mastery, that is,
  whose character is essentially ideological. (26)

But Iago is not in fact the ultimate villain of the play; he is merely an instrument of "the centuries-old Christian doctrine of sexuality, policed socially and psychically, as we have already seen, by confession." (27)

Othello's tragedy turns out to be "a manifestation of the colonial power of Christian doctrine over sexuality."(28) The unmistakable implication is that the repressive colonization of the New World was the ineluctable result of Christendom's "colonization" of men's souls. The rich complexity of Othello as a tragic character is thus diminished into a caricature-- the dark-skinned "native" inveigled by the crafty white man. Although Iago is a military subordinate, his "attitude toward Othello is nonetheless colonial"; his inferior position "enables him to play upon the ambivalence of Othello's relation to Christian society: the Moor at once represents the institution and the alien, the conqueror and the infidel."(39)

Greenblatt thus misses one of the most significant features of the play: Othello is a tragic hero--not a helpless victim, but an imposing, noble figure, whose catastrophe results from his failure to maintain his own standards. The only characters who make an issue of Othello's skin color and foreignness are Brabantio, the frantic father, Rodrigo, the most despicable character in the play, and Iago, surely Shakespeare's most appalling villain. When Lodovico, an emissary from the Venetian council, sees the Moor strike his wife, he cries out, "My lord, this would not be believed in Venice / Though I should swear I saw't" (4.1.241-242). When later he questions Iago, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his bewilderment and shock:
  Is this the noble Moor whom our
  full senate
  Call all in all sufficient? This the
  Whom passion could not shake?
  whose solid virtue
  The shot of accident nor dart of
  Could neither graze nor pierce?

Greenblatt's anecdote about the Lucayans--so typical of his interpretive tactics--serves only to reduce Othello to a dupe, and his tragedy to a melodrama of ideological sentimentality. He misses the truly crucial point that Shakespeare is free of the racialism that will taint Western culture in subsequent centuries and evidently expects the same of his audience.(31)

To be sure, Greenblatt is a skillful critic, and he rightly calls attention to Othello's lyrical outburst when he and Desdemona are reunited on Cyprus after coming through a storm at sea on separate ships:
  It gives me wonder great as
  my content
  To see you here before me! O my
  soul's joy,
  If after every tempest come such
  May the winds blow till they have
  wakened death,
  And let the labouring bark climb
  hills of seas,
  Olympus-high, and duck again as
  As hell's from heaven. If it were
  now to die
  'Twere now to be most happy,
  for I fear
  My soul hath her content so absolute
  That not another comfort like
  to this
  Succeeds in unknown fate.

The last few lines, especially, are ominous: the extreme idealization of the love of a man and his wife is not only in conflict with Christian teaching; it also portends troubles for the marriage. But the problem is not what Greenblatt suggests in associating it with rigorous Christian condemnations of excessive eagerness for pleasure in marital relations, an attitude that he traces back to St. Jerome's defense of the superiority of virginity to marriage in Against Jovinian. In this discourse, Jerome (following Seneca) famously remarks, "A wise man ought to love a wife with judgment, not passion. Let him rule the urge to pleasure and not be carried away headlong into copulation. Nothing is fouler than to love a wife as an adulteress." (32)

This and other passages quoted by Greenblatt are plainly preoccupied by excessive sensual lust, which can become an obsession that diverts a man's attention from everything else--most particularly from his relationship with God--and leads him to treat his wife as the mere object of carnal desire. One has to wonder whether the knowing modern commentators who sneer at Jerome's words think that a man ought to treat his wife as an adulteress or concubine, whose only purpose is to provide physical gratification.(33) But the attitude expressed by Othello in the passage quoted above is the adoration of the courtly or Petrarchan lover, not simple sensuality. Greenblatt rightly observes that Desde-mona's "erotic intensity" and her "frank acceptance of pleasure and submission to her spouse's pleasure" arouse a "deep current of sexual anxiety in Othello" and thus contribute to his credulous acceptance of Iago's accusation of infidelity. But Othello's shock and dismay at Desdemona's uninhibited delight in their conjugal relations is hardly the result of the Church's admonition that men should bridle their carnal desire and treat their wives with delicate restraint. His delicacy and idealism go far beyond the Christian standard. If there is a harmful ideology in play here, it comes not from St. Paul but from Francesco Petrarcha: Othello wants Desdemona to be his "soul's joy," the angelic, spiritualized "Donna" of the Rime sparse and the medieval tradition of amour courtois. Such is hardly the ideal of Christian "misogyny"!

"The historical anecdote," Greenblatt claims, "functions less as explanatory illustration than as a disturbance, that which requires explanation, contextualization, interpretation."3"1 His handling of Othello, however, suggests that the drive to "con-textualize" the floating anecdote leads not to explanation or interpretation, but to ideological imposition: the critic is so intent on laying the tragedy at the feet of the "patriarchal" authority embodied in Christianity that he fails to see that there is fuel enough for Othello's destruction in his own ideal vision of himself, which requires an equally sublime idealism in his wife. "You were best go in," Iago warns when Brabantio arrives with his retainers to seize the Moor. "Not I," he replies, "I must be found./My parts, my title and perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly" (1.2.29-32). It is an absurd diminution of Othello to regard him as the victim of anyone's "colonization." If he is a victim, it is of his own virtues--ot a genuine and dignified nobility fatally entangled with an aloof fastidious pride. He is not at all a naive savage undone by a wily European; he is a civilized gentleman, ruined by the ideal grandeur of his self-conception.

Stephen Greenblatts anecdotes are a substitute for works of literature, just as the new historicism is a substitute for subtle literary interpretation. If the distinction between works of imaginative literature and other "documents" and "texts" is expunged, then what is intricately structured, dense, and profound will give way to what is random, thin, and shallow, with no real enhancement accruing to the latter. Epic and dramatic poems of high quality arc intrinsically more meaningful and interesting than anecdotes, but a materialist view of human nature and of reality makes authentic meaningfulness problematic. It life itself lacks purpose and significance, then the superb formal achievements ofartistic works can only be illusory, and the casual comment and fortuitous observation--anecdotes, in other words--may be taken for a more credible account of reality. Stephen Greenblatt is a stylish writer and a keen analyst of literary texts, but the dominance of his materialist approach to literature has impoverished our understanding and undermined our confidence in our culture.

(1) Genre 15 (1982), 5. (2) Ibid., 6. (3) Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 6-7. (4) Rcmi Brague, The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), viii. (5) Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973); Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). (6) Cf. the introduction of Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modem Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990), 1-2, where Greenblatt presents a rather self-serving portrait of himself as a disillusioned sophisticate who was too knowing to be bothered with the education he was being offered: "I was only mildly interested in the formalist agenda that dominated graduate instruction and was epitomized in the imposing figure of William K. Wimsatt. His theory of the concrete universal--poetry as 'an object which in a mysterious and special way is both highly general and highly particular'--seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery. I would go in the late afternoon to the Elizabethan Club--all-male, a black servant in a starched white jacket, cucumber sandwiches and tea--and listen to Wimsatt at the great round table hold forth like Dr. Johnson on poetry and aesthetics." Of course Greenblatt never attempts to refute Wimsaft's theory and never actually says that it is tainted with racism and sexism; it's so much easier to gesture dismissively toward the "black servant in a starched white jacket, the cucumber sandwiches and tea" than to engage in an actual argument. (7) Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 47. (8) Utopia, ed. Edward J. Surtz, S.J., and J. H. Hexter, The Yale Edition of the Complete Works of Thomas More, vol. 4 (New Haven, CT; Yale University Press, 1965, 100: "Nam ut omnia bene sint, fieri non potest, nisi omnes boni sint, quod ad aliquot abhinc annos adhuc non expecto." (9) Renaiance Self-Fashioning. 64 66. (10) Utopia, trans. Clarence Miller (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), x-xi. (11) Ibid., Ibid., (12) Renaissance Self Fashioning, 49. (13) Ibid., 120. (14) Ibid., 127. (15) Ibid., 131. (16) Ibid., 132. (17) Ibid., 125-26. (18) The Law of God, 224. (19) Ibid., 223. (20) Renaissance Self Fashioning, 162. (21) Ibid., 169. (22) Ibid., 171, 173. (23) The Faerie Queene II.lxxxiv-lxxxvii is quoted from The Works of 'Edmund Spenser: A Variorum. Edition, cd. E. Greenlaw, C. G. Osgood, & F. M. Padcl-ford (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933), II, 180. (24) Renaissance Self Fashioning, 224-25. Cf. Daniel Lerner,-The Passing of' Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East (New York: free Press, [1958] 1964). (25). Renaissance Self Fashioning, 231. (26) Ibid., 233. (27) Ibid., 246. (28) Ibid., 242. (29) Ibid., 234. (30) Othello, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (Walton-on-Thames, Surrey: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1997). (31) See R. V. Young, "The Bard, the Black, and Jew," First Things 141 (March 2004): 22-28. (32) S. Eusebii Hicronyrni Stridoncnsis Presbyteri Adversuss Jovinianum Libri Duo 49, Patrologia Latina 23, 281A-B: "Sapiens vir judicio debet amare conjugem, non affectu. Regat impetus voluntatis, nee praeceps feretur in coitum. Nihil est foedius quam uxorem amare quasi adulterant." Greenblatt neglects to consult the original text and takes his quotations from John T. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonsis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 47, 80. It is not without interest that in his neglect of usual scholarly procedure, Greenblatt turns to a volume that was, among oilier things, part of a "Catholic" campaign to change the Church's teaching on artificial birth control. (33) Greenblatt, Renaissance Self Fashioning. 305, n. 56, refers disdainfully to a 1978 speech by Pope John Paul I, who reproves "the destructive attitude of sheer pleasure seeking, which snuffs out life." (34) Ibid., 250. (35) Learning to Curse, 5.

R. V. YOUNG is a professor of Renaissance literature and literary criticism at North Carolina State University and the editor of Modern Age.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Intercollegiate Studies Institute Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Young, R.V.
Publication:Modern Age
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2009
Previous Article:Naipaul and the barbarians.
Next Article:Political correctness and the attack on great literature.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |