Friday, December 15, 2000

Q&A Stephen Greenblatt: The Wicked Son


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date Approximate)

Stephen Greenblatt is the best known exponent of the approach to literary studies that has been dubbed "new historicism." Author of "Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture," and "Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World," his most recent book, co-written with Catherine Gallagher, is "Practicing New Historicism."

New historicists linked anecdotes to the disruption of history as usual, not to its practice: the undisciplined anecdote appealed to those of us who wanted to interrupt the Big Stories. We sought the very thing that made anecdotes ciphers to many historians: a vehement and cryptic particularity that would make one pause or even stumble on the threshold of history.

Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher, "Practicing New Historicism"

HB: When I try to define new historicism, I think of Elaine Scarry, the literary critic, studying the crash of TWA Flight 007, and coming up with a conclusion about the effects of electromagnetic interference that the FAA has taken seriously. Is that a fair way of describing new historicism?

SG: I wouldn't have said so myself. It's true that Elaine Scarry writes about the TWA crash with the kind of attention to detail that one, maybe, could expect of a literary critic, but she doesn't write about the TWA crash as a symbolic object. She's truly interested in technical matters having to with electromagnetic interference. Her work on those crashes is a tribute to what it means to be a genuine investigative reporter, figuring out what's up with a subject, even though you're not trained in it.

The goal of new historicism for me -- it's different for different people -- is to put cultural objects in some interesting relationship to social and historical processes. For me, new historicism is really about Hamlet, King Lear, Tom Jones, David Copperfield in relation to a whole set of practices you wouldn't normally think of reading of literature.

HB: You write about the dialogue with Marxism that was important early on. Does new historicism missing having Marxism as a debating partner?

SG: I cut my teeth in Berkeley in the 1970s in heroic times, times that fancied themselves as heroic, and was very dubious even then that getting these literary readings right was going to have a direct political effect on the world. The other extreme position, the one, say, that Auden reached, namely that literature makes nothing happen, is also not true. The goal is to find the middle space, in which you understand that you're participating in a small way in an indirect and glacially slow shift in collective understanding.

HB: There's a relationship among the chapters in "Practicing New Historicism," but it's not easy to extract a single theme or theory from them. There's continuity and I think a kind of intentional discontinuity, as well.

SG: That's true. We do our work through techniques of association, analogy, surprising connection, things contingently leaning against each other, collage.

I could never have written this particular book on my own; it was based precisely on the need to get more than one voice, and not to bring those voices into a single harmonious whole. From a writerly point of view, the most difficult task that Catherine Gallagher and I faced in writing "Practicing New Historicism," was figuring out how to change the personal pronoun, "I" into the collective pronoun "we," in matters that depend so much on perspective and individual point of view.

HB: There are obvious differences in style between you.

SG: Absolutely. We thought at first that we were going to actually write something together -- alternate sentences, alternate paragraphs, and so forth. We couldn't do it. Because your voice is important. Literary criticism is on the whole almost unbearable to read because it lacks much in the way of personal stakes and commitment. The only way to get those qualities is to actually put yourself on the line as somebody. So I couldn't stand back and manipulate pieces of text as if I wasn't present in them. We did our best, we tried to make a virtue of necessity, the necessity here being the breaks, the splits, the seams. Instead of trying to conceal them we tried to make them visible.

HB: It's clear that new historicism is part of the postmodern trend in thinking. It welcomes the breakdown of genres; it invites discontinuities.

SG: It's queasy about traditional notions of causality, and about what is background and what is foreground.

HB: And though you don't use the term "postmodern," there's the same desire to accent voices that have been suppressed or peripheral in the past.

SG: Even the term new historicism wasn't my original intention. I am queasy about jargon, I'm queasy about intellectuals, especially literary intellectuals, writing themselves out of the comprehensibility of a larger public. People say, well, you don't expect theoretical physics to be transparent. But we're not doing theoretical physics. It seems to me our first obligation is simply to be understood outside of a tiny circle of people. Some of my best friends write in an unintelligible way, or are in love with difficulty. I'm not in love with difficulty.

HB: What is the relationship of new historicism to cultural studies?

SG: I'm a very ginger fellow traveler of cultural studies. One simple way of describing new historicism is to say that it's interested in the symbolic dimensions of historical practice, and the in historical dimensions of symbolic practice. And that's a way of describing cultural studies.

The trouble with cultural studies is, first of all, that it's very easy to lose track of the point of complex readings of, say, the contemporary barbershop or restaurant. That's connected to a second, more telling problem, which has to do with my profession more generally, namely the loss of the saliency, the power, the wonder of the object. Cultural studies risks becoming fancy discourse about nothing, or about smaller and smaller objects, objects that are not very compelling. In terms I've used elsewhere, the danger of cultural studies is that it can be all resonance and no wonder.

HB: In "Practicing New Historicism," you pick an object like the potato, and unearth it on all sorts of levels. That's not so different from a barbershop, is it?

SG: I could be revealing a split in new historicist practice if I say that my choice of object was bread, rather than the potato, that is to say, Eucharistic bread, the quintessential object of wonder. Cathy's object was the potato. My original title for this book was going to be, "Bread and Potatoes." But we thought that was too coy.

HB: This seems to me to be the book of yours which new historicism reveals itself most.

SG: I was drawn screaming and kicking toward this. I very much resist coming clean. But insofar as I could, this book does.

One fascinating problem with post-structuralism -- Lacanianism most spectacularly -- is that what began as a subversive explosion very easily becomes a school with a dogma, a party with highly defined set of practices. I understand why it happens; it reflects the power of the charismatic moment. But we try to resist what Weber calls the routinization of charisma as long as possible, to leave some running room, to keep going in whatever intellectual pursuit.

If you look around, broadly speaking, you see that it's actually hard to keep going. People have a certain exciting moment, and the question is how do you keep engaged, how do you keep moving out in new ways. Once you have a position, how do you keep from getting locked in it?

HB: You focus on the dichotomy between representation and the desire to come to an end to representation, signification and an end to signification. The body plays an important role here. Sometimes you write as if the body was a sort of bedrock or ground zero of signification. Other times you write as if the body, too, is full of representation so that there is no end point to representation, not even in the body.

SG: It's a little bit like Dante. You seem to circle closer and closer in to the thing itself, the core of the thing itself, which, in your terms, would be the end of representation. And then, in the case of Dante, when you reach the core, you actually pass through its body, and you are out in the circles again.

For me, if the "new" in new historicism is anything more than an advertising slogan, as in New Fab, or New Cheer, it means anti-historicism, in the sense trying to reach an end. If historicism means understanding the chain of cause and effect and being able to burrow back to the actual determining cause, then new historicism is against it. You are driven to return the radioactive cultural object to its source of energy, but when you get to the source of energy you haven't found the an endpoint; you've only found a complicated relay point.

HB: At times you write as if the desire to reach an endpoint of representation doesn't just plague historians. You suggest that it's a human urge.

SG: Yes, I suppose that's true. There are various ways of running that particular story, including the psychoanalytic one that has to do with the drive to see the primal scene, the originating moment.

My own version is political. I haven't had this fantasy as powerfully as I used to, but I have a feeling, going into this new administration, I'm going to have it again -- namely the desire to see the moment when the money is actually being passed under the table, that never completely visible moment when the exchange takes place. It's the dream of actually stripping away the cover, and seeing the immense power culture gives, say, to the literary object, and asking what the object gives back in return. The desire to take a photograph of that moment, is, for me, the enabling fantasy.

HB: Eliade says the myth of origin is the origin of myth.

SG: Your reference to myth makes me think of Nietzsche and his myth of the eternal return. In fact, one of the many strands that leads into new historicism is the Nietzsche of "The Genealogy of Morals," with its impulse to drive back from a set of abstractions to some process of hidden pain or suffering that generates powerful symbolic values.

I have lots of reservations about Nietzsche but "The Genealogy of Morals," was a book that came to me as something of an upsetting revelation. I remember reading it in high school and feeling my world had been completely turned upside down. I hated it in lots of ways, I was offended by it, but I also felt I could never live the same life after reading it. I still keep coming back to what that book forces one to look at.

The question is: how do we live with all knowledge that we can dredge up about our deepest values and beliefs? One of the attacks on new historicism, mounted most publicly by Harold Bloom, is that it's a product of resentment. According to Bloom, the impulse to understand the historical roots of literary objects, rather than letting them float free in their imaginative spaces, is a way of belittling them, of cutting them down to size.

This seems to me a preposterous claim. When we allow ourselves to fully register the highest objects of our culture, it's not to belittle them, it's to understand what art is giving us.

HB: Isn't it also the impulse in new historicism to say that some of what you find in canonical literary objects is also found scattered outside them? And this, a Harold Bloom would not be very pleased to hear.

SG: Absolutely! The cult of the untrammeled genius, the superman, is the other side of Nietzsche..

To me there's no resentment in seeing that the things we find astonishing and sublime in Joyce or Kafka or Wordsworth or Shakespeare are actually things that we find in ourselves and in the people around us. Otherwise we wouldn't have access to them.

HB: One of the chapters in the book focuses on the relationship between materialism and vitalism in the nineteenth-century, and before. How is it that materialism winds up generating its opposite, vitalism?

SG: Let me give the Hamlet explanation. The Hamlet explanation is that when something dies, it's not actually dead; it's alive in the form of rot. The rot is itself a form of life.

The nineteenth-century understood that image of rot in a much more positive sense, as the continual cycling of capital and commodities in the world. It's an account, not of the death of the king but of the creation of markets.

The Dickensian image moves away from Hamlet's tragic notion of the death of the king and return of the ghost. Dickens depicts the fishing up of bodies from the Thames at the beginning of "Our Mutual Friend," as part of the bio-economics of poor peoples' lives in London.

HB: Has "materialism" gone out of fashion altogether as a philosophical term? Is it no longer reputable to identify as a materialist?

SG: I'm glad you are asking me that. I think it's reputable. I'm fascinated by materialism in the philosophical sense. I think there's been a huge resurgence of studies in Epicurianism and in Lucretius.

I tell you where I'm going with this. Lucretius's extraordinary poem, "On the Nature of Things," one of the greatest works of late antiquity, was lost, that is to say, was not in circulation, for about 1,000 years. Then in the early fifteenth century, a papal bureaucrat, Poggio Bracciolini, became exceedingly dismayed by what he saw at the Council of Constance, namely the entrapment and killing of the reformer Jan Hus and his associate, Jerome of Prague.

Bracciolini writes extraordinary letters back to Florence saying that he's horrified. These people were promised safe conduct, which was arbitrarily removed; they were arrested and executed, and he couldn't do anything about it. In fact, the executioners tried to leave as little bodily material as possible. They were afraid people would take souvenirs so they burned the bodies and threw the ashes into the water. It's at that very moment that Bracciolini recovers "On the Nature of Things," and launches it again into the world.

"On the Nature of Things," is a text that says that individual objects, including bodies, always pass away but also that things come together again. Things that disperse have a way of hooking back into each other and returning to the world. Lucretius has the astonishing idea about the physical universe that is at the very core of materialism, which is that matter actually doesn't die, that what looks like an end is only a redistribution of the material of the world. That notion of the endless redistribution of material, which is a sublime idea and astonishing idea, is, in effect, relaunched out of the deaths of Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague.

That's for me a perfect instance of the bizarre, resonant and crazily accidental conjunction that can encircle a particular historical event. The Catholic Church, as you probably know, didn't put classical texts on the Index; you could read them. If you espoused these ideas in your own voice, you would be executed, or severely punished. But you could circulate and read these texts, as long as they were safely in Latin, and kept to a small number of people. So "On the Nature of Things," this fantastically dangerous text, which argues against fundamental principles of Judaism and Christianity, is launched by the deaths of Hus and Jerome. It's as if Bracciolini found a way of putting their ashes in a new and surprising form, and launching them back into the world.

Now, if that's materialism, I want it.

HB: You frequently introduce a Jewish motif into your studies. In this book, it's the wicked son, the one who, according to the Passover Haggadah, asks the most probing questions at the Seder, and gets scolded for it.

You say we're rolling into this new millennium under the guidance of the wicked son, the guidance of continuous doubt.

SG: Yes, or uneasiness about taking part in the meal, about being a contented member of the community, without asking questions. I think this is a splendid moment to identify with the Wicked Son in our own national culture because we've just gone through a bizarre process [the Presidential Election] in which even those who are on the whole contented with our messy system have had the nauseating experience of seeing how skeptical one has to be.

HB: So the wicked son is recruiting at this point.

SG: Exactly. This is a moment not to sit down and partake of the meal, but to ask, what is this to us? Why should we participate? We want answers that will not simply fob us off with the same stories we've always been told.

HB: In "Toward A Poetics Of Culture," an essay in "Learning to Curse," you wrote: "For from the sixteenth century to the present, capitalism, has produced a powerful and effective oscillation between the establishment of distinct discursive domains and the collapse of those domains into one another."

Where are we now in the oscillation? Wouldn't it seem today's collapse of separate genres and discourses puts us at one extreme?

SG: I would say the utility of that quotation, which I think I would still stand behind, is in relation to our conversation today about new historicism. A critical practice that collapses the cultural object into the historical and social surround is not new historicism. A critical practice that cuts the cord between the cultural practice and the surround is not new historicism. New historicism depends upon the uncomfortable, and what I hope is at the same time fascinating ability to see the object coming out and going in, to see it differentiated and also in powerful league with the world from which it has come.

The wicked son is, after all, at the table; he's not somewhere else. At the table but not participating in the meal that everyone else is participating in. That seems to be the situation of the works of art that I care passionately about. That's why they survive. Works that seem perfectly attuned to their period, actually tend not to survive. It's the works that have an odd way of pulling free and then establishing connections with other times and places, while still reaching back to their original moment, that interest me.

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