Perils of Historicism

“In a small glass case in the library of Christ Church, Oxford,” Stephen Greenblatt writes at the beginning of “Resonance and Wonder,” the last and most recent of the nine essays in Learning to Curse, “there is a round, red priest’s hat.” A note card, he continues, “identifies it as having belonged to Cardinal Wolsey,” and “informs us [that] the hat was acquired for Christ Church in the eighteenth century, purchased, we are told, from a company of players.” This “miniature history” accompanying the exhibit may (he allows) be “too vague to be of much consequence,” but it teases Greenblatt’s imagination: “I do not know the name of the company of players,” he muses, “or the circumstances in which they acquired their curious stage property, or whether it was ever used, for example, by an actor playing Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, or when it was placed under glass.” Yet, as an emblem of contingency, of the mobility of cultural artifacts, including texts, in time, the Christ Church hat and its mysterious adventures fascinate him.

The hat in the display case does not evoke “wonder,” in the manner of a great Impressionist painting. “Wonder,” as Greenblatt sees it here, springs from the capacity of an art object to command “an exalted attention,” to generate in the spectator “surprise, delight, admiration, and intimations of genius.” The response has its origins, he argues, in the medieval and Renaissance cult of the marvelous. Wolsey’s hat does, however, project its modest but compelling store of “resonance”: something accumulated in the course of its transmigration from the wardrobe of a prince of the Church, to theater tiring-house, to the glass reliquary where it still radiates its “tiny quantum of cultural energy,” in the Oxford college founded by its original owner.

“Resonance” for Greenblatt depends on context; it is a product not of the uniqueness or spellbinding quality of the object in itself, but of its relation to “a dense network of evolving and often contradictory social forces.” He expresses some concern in this final essay that the devotees of “resonance” may currently be threatening to strangle “wonder,” as opposed to honoring it as a point of departure. The new Musée d’Orsay in Paris, for instance, by dispersing attention among a wide range of lesser cultural objects, and positioning the masterpieces of Monet or Cézanne where they are difficult to see, downgrades or at least makes “wonder” difficult to experience. Greenblatt himself now seems troubled by some of the consequences of “the new historicism” he insists he never meant to formalize, but of which he has become the recognized high priest. New historicist “resonance,” all the same, is far more distinguishable than “wonder” in this collection.

Selected from essays written over a period of some fifteen years, these pieces make it possible to see how Greenblatt’s own brand of historicism took shape, displaying what he describes in the introduction as “the uneven evolution of my critical methods and interests.” Uneven it may be, but certain…

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