Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture 
by Stephen Greenblatt.
Routledge, 188 pp., £25, January 1991, 0 415 90173 1
Show More
Show More

As befits an undisputed chef d’école, Stephen Greenblatt includes in this latest collection an account of his own ‘intellectual trajectory’, which features a decisive revulsion from his teachers at Yale, a submission to ‘the intellectual power and moral authority’ of Raymond Williams at Cambridge, and the almost inadvertent invention of the New Historicism, the école in question.

The first and last of the nine essays are explanations of what he thinks New Historicism is or ought to be. The rest are investigations into aspects of Renaissance culture held to be in some measure formative for the culture of later periods, including our own. They are aspects that have been neglected, or at best given only blinkered attention, because we have all been conditioned against holding in one and the same complex thought documents or ideas assumed to belong to different and unrelated categories: on the one hand, a valued aesthetic object, such as a Dürer drawing or a Shakespeare play, and on the other, testimonies to the contemporary realities of colonialism, status, rebellion and so forth.

Even without engaging the subtleties of New Historical theory and method, one can see that Greenblatt is a critic who, not quite single-handedly – for he feeds on the work of others, in his own and adjacent disciplines, such as history and anthropology – is bringing about a transformation in the way people, and not just literary people, choose to think about the Early Modern period.

One can describe the way he goes about this work without elaborate recourse to the growing and rather rickety structure of theory it is attracting. Greenblatt likes to open a study with an anecdote, and may well have developed a fondness for doing so without giving a lot of consideration to its theoretical implications: but when others do so he is glad of their support. The exploitation of anecdote is a means to the construction of a more interactive view of history, a view which can include neglected social and cultural densities, and does not depend wholly on texts which have been certified, and to some extent isolated, as possessing aesthetic value. The neglected documents can actually confer fuller senses on plays or poems that would normally get a more restricted kind of study. To put it simply, they can change and enrich the context of the major work by supplying the social significances of which a restrictive aesthetic ideology has starved it.

The method is not entirely unprecedented, though Greenblatt uses it like a virtuoso, and for his own serious purposes. The idea is to meditate intensely on some apparently peripheral image or document, gradually allowing its discovered significance to spread out over a background of history, or, as he puts it, to ‘resonate’. Doing this calls for much disposable historical information but also for fine textual perceptions. There are plenty of people who are now working this vein, attracted by a seemingly new and fashionable way of doing history, but not many of them are comparably perceptive. The present fame and influence of Greenblatt are in large part due to his reception as a theoretical and methodological model: but in the longer run he will probably be admired more for his idiosyncratic critical penetration and meditative power.

A couple of examples will give some notion of how he works. An essay called ‘Filthy Rites’ opens, quite abruptly, with an anecdote. In 1881 a certain US Army cavalry officer was entertained, though that isn’t quite the word, by a group of Zuñi dancers, weirdly garbed and performing what looked like a mockery of a Mexican Catholic service. They drank urine and would, they said, have eaten faeces had any been available. The captain was disgusted but impressed, and subsequently spent many years compiling a book called Scatological Rites of All Nations, in which it emerges, among much else, that the repulsive objects consumed by outlandish societies included not only faeces and urine but garlic, hashish and earwax. Repulsion by and fascination with societies that ignore our own cultural rules is, says Greenblatt, the very motive of ethnography, which would have no material in the absence of such differences. But they have too often been explained as evidence of the imminent disappearance of the backward society that regarded such behaviour as acceptable, and so made to serve colonialism and a general disregard for the Other.

Soon we find resonating to this anecdote the works of Norbert Elias, and our own perceptions of ethnographic barriers between cultures. The little etiquette book people give you when you go to Japan contains, among many other daunting prohibitions, a ban on blowing the nose in public. If this seems hard to believe, or if we are tempted to think that the Japanese, having so efficiently caught up with us in other respects, must by now have come into line on the use of the handkerchief, a trip to Tokyo will sort us out. Only the other day a highly civilised Japanese professor confided to me that the habit of public nose-blowing was a sufficient reason why he could never live in the West. According to Greenblatt, there were New World cultures which also felt disgusted by the European habit of carrying round nasal excrement in pieces of cloth.

Did the Zuñi know that the captain would be disgusted by their act? Was the purpose of their carnival to insult the captain, or should it be read as an admission and representation of defeat and subjection? Or was it something different altogether, a healing ritual, powerful medicine? Greenblatt likes complexity, so perhaps it was all these at once. And since it is reminiscent of the European Feast of Fools, studied at length by Bakhtin, we are made ready for an excursion on the scatology of Rabelais, said to have been ‘generated in response to a culture increasingly intolerant of disorder’ and ready to bowdlerise his text. Then there was the royal office of Groom of the Stool, assistant to the operations of ‘the lower bodily stratum’ of charismatic monarchs. And we can contrast the treatment of this ‘stratum’ in More’s Utopia with Luther’s excremental obsession (‘I am like ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic ass-hole. We will probably let go of each other soon’). A further comparison of Luther with Rabelais will suggest a difference between Protestant and Catholic ‘semiotics of excrement’.

We have come a long way from the Zuñi, but we are not done yet. There is still one more anecdote to come, the suppression of the Diggers at St George’s Hill in 1649. The proclamations of Winstanley, at once egalitarian and scatological, reconciled the visions of More and Luther, but the Diggers’ festive faeces proved unequal to the landlords and enclosers, who, craftily adapting the old carnival behaviour to their own ends, sent along thugs in festive drag to murder the peasants. So what the 19th-century army officer started us off on was an exhilarating tour of the social, theological and political resonances of excrement in the Early Modern period.

An essay called ‘Lear’s Anxiety’ starts from an account in the American Baptist Magazine for 1831 of a minister who set out to tame his 15-month-old baby boy by ‘a strategy of intense familial love’, a strategy Greenblatt regards as the ‘sophisticated product of a long historical process whose roots lie at least partly in Early Modern England, the England of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In other words, he argues that the minister’s child-rearing techniques were developed from those used in Shakespeare’s England. But these techniques cannot be treated independently of their representation on the stage, for it is always an important consideration that between the Renaissance theatre and contemporary society there is constant negotiation. Thus the drama had its part in establishing practices like those of the 19th-century clergyman. It resonates, it potently proposes that ‘cosmic meanings’ are ‘bound up with local and particular circumstances’. Indeed, works of art in general are to be thought of as ‘collective actions’ or ‘paradigms of relationships’ which both express and fashion ‘social evaluations and practices’. And so to Lear and Cordelia.

Here as elsewhere, one may feel a certain strain, a calculated risk, in parts of the argument. Sometimes the strain arises from the sheer boldness of the venture, the initial apparent heterogeneity of the ideas to be yoked together by an elegant violence. Sometimes it is induced by the writer’s honourable respect for evidence that might seem to deflect him from his intended drift. For example, the argument of the title-essay requires him to show that European attitudes to the inhabitants of the New World were governed by an assumption that the ‘natives’ had no culture, no religion and no languages worth bothering about. But Greenblatt cites missionaries and traders who took Indian languages seriously, and reminds us that Montaigne and Ralegh, William Penn and Bartolome de Las Casas, expressed much admiration for Indian speech: indeed, de Las Casas remarked that the European sounded just as barbarous to the Indian as the Indian to the European. The argument is then quickly and efficiently dragged back on track, the point being that these people, though sensible, were exceptional, and that the influentially educated, the Humanist praisers of eloquence as the means to civility, were firm in their disparagement of New World languages as gibberish. However, Greenblatt does let you consider the evidence for a different view: he is unlikely ever to go in for simplicities that belie or distort the facts, for what he most enjoys is intellectual movement – negotiations, circulations and contradictions are proper to his kind of argument.

Clearly this is in many ways a risky business. In a review essay on Greenblatt’s previous book Shakespearean Negotiations, A.D. Nuttall * suggests that risk is a particularly appropriate word, the author’s method being, he remarks, characteristic of capitalist enterprise. He is no Marxist, and his rhetoric draws heavily on the language of commerce, its figures being circulation, negotiation, exchange. Nuttall is tempted to object that despite all this swirling intellectual motion, nothing is really explained: the thesis, however dazzlingly presented, is simply that ‘social energy circulates.’ In this mood he calls Greenblatt ‘continuously brilliant but not continuously plausible’, alleging that some of his material ‘escapes from his intellectual control’. Nevertheless, Nuttall, himself capable of brilliant and at times risky speculations, describes Greenblatt as ‘quite clearly a marvellous critic’, almost alone in his power to ‘cause the reader to catch his breath’.

The chapter called ‘Murdering Peasants: Status and Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion’ illustrates this power. It begins with a study of some plans Dürer made for imaginary civic monuments. Contemplating these strange drawings – rather as, in the past, what Ernst Gombrich calls ‘symbolic icons’ were employed as instruments of meditation – we are drawn into a study of the Peasants’ War of 1525, and so to the question why Dürer’s Monument to Commemorate a Victory over the Rebellious Peasants can be interpreted in antithetical senses, almost as if he had designed two separate monuments. One signifies ‘the radical irony of personal dissent’ and the other is a ‘harsh celebration of official order’. Having thus illustrated ‘the pressure of history on genre and of generic conventions on historical representation’, Greenblatt explores the resonance of the social attitudes he has identified, and ends with a comment on the way the upper classes treat peasants in Sidney’s Arcadia and in Book Five of The Faerie Queene.

I share Nuttall’s view that exclusive attention to negotiation, circulation and so on has, for all its benefits, the defect that the power of the literary objects is often underestimated, and sometimes defeats the explanatory model. These powerful initial acts of attention to the marginal symbolic icon, where the meditation and the negotiations start that should end by giving us a richer sense of the great, still central texts, can use up some of the energy that might have gone to those greater works. However, I also agree that nobody at present is writing better about Shakespeare and other Early Modern matters, even if what we get are, perhaps inevitably, what Nuttall characteristically calls lucida tela diei, shafts of light rather than the full blaze of noon – but where shall we go to get that? He is right to say we need more of the same, but although the model is available to all, and will in principle work for and across all historical periods, high critical talent, the secret ingredient, doesn’t abound and cannot be borrowed. These Greenblattian operations call for delicacy as well as audacity, imagination as well as method, and the signs are clear that, in this case anyway, more will probably mean worse.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences