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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 characteristics remain constant. One of them is Greenblatt’s tendency to handle historical circumstances approximately. A wide-brimmed cardinal’s hat, for instance, can indeed be viewed under glass in Christ Church library. The note accompanying it, however, provides information rather different from that Greenblatt attributes to it. It explains that the hat was found in the Great Wardrobe by Bishop Burnet (who died in 1715) when he was Clerk of the Closet. Burnet’s son left it to his housekeeper, from whom it passed to the Dowager Countess of Albemarle’s butler, and then to the countess herself, who in 1776 presented it to Horace Walpole. Described in the Strawberry Hill sale of 1842 as Wolsey’s, the hat was bought by the actor Charles Kean, who is said to have worn it more than once when playing Wolsey in Henry VIII. Kean died in 1868. It was after the death of his only child, a Mrs. Logie, that various members of Christ Church purchased it, for the sum of sixty-three pounds, and presented it to the foundation. This note card is known to have been in place for at least a quarter of a century.

The elegance with which Greenblatt accommodates Wolsey’s hat to a story about how the Reformation tried to dismantle the “histrionic apparatus of Catholicism” by selling off papist vestments to the professional players makes one almost regret having to disturb it with the specificities of Burnet and his son’s housekeeper, Horace Walpole, Kean, and Mrs. Logie. Greenblatt writes engagingly in the introduction to Learning to Curse about how his “will to tell stories, critical stories or stories told as a form of criticism,” reaches back to his own childhood: initially to the narratives he (or his mother) told about his young self, later to his father’s more defensive and obsessive tales. An attractive gesture toward the origins of a critical procedure, it is also a reminder that childhood or private fictions have a license to be multiple and arbitrary. It matters, however, in the context of “Resonance and Wonder,” that by suppressing or reinventing what the Christ Church note card actually says, Greenblatt has prevented the hat from telling him a story, different and at least as interesting as the one foisted upon it, which would also have the advantage of being historically true.

Greenblatt’s fondness for dealing with literary texts selectively, detaching a single passage and making it speak for the whole, is another some-what disquieting characteristic. Works of art have internal as well as external “resonances.” Their parts respond to one another, are conditioned by their immediate as well as by their social and historical surroundings, in ways he is willing to ignore. To say this is not to complain that he refuses to write the kind of formalist criticism from which (as he relates in his introduction) he fled while at Yale graduate school. Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), the deservedly celebrated book with which Greenblatt established his reputation, shows him to be an able, and sometimes subtle, close reader of texts. The newly collected essays, however, like those in Shakespearean Negotiations (1988), develop a trend already apparent in the 1980 book. Arranged as they are, in chronological order, they suggest that works of literature, as opposed to those large cultural, social, and political movements of which they are a part, have come to interest Greenblatt progressively less and less.

Only one of the essays in Learning to Curse, “Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism,” originally published in 1978, could be said to deal with a literary text as a whole. Here, Greenblatt uses Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” to write interestingly about Marlowe’s Barabas as “the alienated essence of Christian society”: the quintessential representative of a social and economic structure which loathes him, and against which he wages a ruthless private war. The openly declared “fantasy” with which this essay opens—about Marx as Barabas’s surviving anti-Semitic child, assailing his father’s Judaism as merely capitalism stripped of its Christian spiritualities—leads freshly and persuasively into a discussion of the psychology of The Jew of Malta: its use of aphorism, its rhetorical strategies, and the underlying peril of the way Marlowe encourages and manipulates the anti-Semitic response of his audience. Greenblatt engages in the kind of far-reaching cultural speculation he enjoys while also, for once, allowing the play to exist as something more than a few deracinated fragments.

Elsewhere, the situation is different. Greenblatt studiously accumulates so much material from the researches of various social and religious historians, psychologists, political scientists, and anthropologists, that the great works of literature which he continues to address—by Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, and other members of what is, on the whole, a very traditional canon—are nearly lost to sight. Quoted from so glancingly as to become almost redundant, they seem less interesting than the material in which he enmeshes them, and sometimes only tenuously related to it. It is difficult, for instance, to feel in “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs” that the Reverend Francis Wayland’s smug and ghastly story about how he high-mindedly starved his fifteen-month-old son into a condition of abject filial love, an account first published in the American Baptist Magazine of 1831, and more recently in various studies of child-rearing patterns in Jacksonian America, really tells us much about Cordelia and her father in King Lear. Instead of exploring how Sidney’s Arcadia, or The Tempest, or King Lear genuinely illumine and are illuminated by their cultural settings, Greenblatt amasses evidences which bear in upon and often seem to control works that are cited, for the most part, in ways that prevent them from speaking to the reader in anything like their full complexity.

Both the strengths and the limitations of this method are already apparent in the title essay, “Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century” (1976). Here Greenblatt brings together a rewarding amount of information about European attitudes toward the languages of the New World, most of them dismissive but a few both sympathetic and intelligent. The two most common mistakes made about Indian tongues, he concludes, were either to slander them as gibberish, or else to wave them airily aside and assume—on the grounds of “a powerful unspoken belief in the isomorphic relationship between language and reality”—that no linguistic barrier of any importance existed. “Perhaps the profoundest literary exploration of these themes in the Renaissance,” he declares, is to be found in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

That is a large and promising claim. Unfortunately, Greenblatt never substantiates it. In a single imaginative leap, he identifies Caliban as metaphor incarnate: the walking embodiment of linguistic “difference” conjoined with “likeness.” Difference, however, turns out to depend on six lines in the second scene of Act Two, where Caliban offers to show Stephano and Trinculo crab apples, pig-nuts, marmosets, and “Young scamels from the rock.” The “rich, irreducible concreteness of the verse,” Greenblatt finds, compels us to recognize the independence of Caliban’s “construction of reality,” while its alien “opacity” is emblematized by the fact that “we do not to this day know the meaning of the word ‘scamel.’ ” This is all very seductive, but it requires only a moment’s reflection to protest that “rich, irreducible concreteness’ is characteristic of much verse in The Tempest, of Prospero’s “midnight mushrumps” and “green sour ringlets…. Whereof the ewe not bites” quite as much as of Caliban’s crab apples and nimble marmosets, and that “scamels” is only one of a number of words in Shakespeare (Hamlet’s dram of “eale,” or the “arm-gaunt” steed in Antony and Cleopatra) which we still cannot define, even though uttered in an Old World context.

Meanwhile, other attitudes toward language are ignored. Alonzo and Gonzalo’s appreciative response to sign language, the “excellent dumb discourse” of the spirit shapes they take for courteous “people of the island,” goes unremarked, as does Shakespeare’s insistence that Caliban’s staple idiom, in distinction from the prose of Stephano and Trinculo, civilization’s savages, should be verse. Might a connection exist between Caliban’s verse speaking and Puttenham’s contention in The Art of English Poesie (1589) that among New World peoples, poetry is more ancient than prose? Greenblatt cites Puttenham but without reference to Shakespeare’s play. Concerned, as ever, with the iniquities of colonialism, what strikes him most forcefully is Caliban’s snarling rebuke to Prospero and Miranda:

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