Point of Wonder

A.D. Nuttall

  • Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World by Stephen Greenblatt
    Oxford, 202 pp, £22.50, September 1991, ISBN 0 19 812382 5

‘Greece, having been subjected, subjected her wild conqueror and introduced culture into boorish Rome.’ The poet Horace, himself a Roman, can take a stylish pleasure in describing the Roman conquest of Greece, even though – or rather because – it piquantly entails the intellectual and artistic near-humiliation of the conqueror. Rome is notorious for its brutality, but it was not so brutal that it could not see that, when confronted by the poetry and sculpture of Greece, it must fall to its knees. The paradox of a conquest of iron mirrored and almost eclipsed by a converse conquest of discourse is deliciously Greenblattian. But in Marvellous Possessions Stephen Greenblatt is dealing with the Spanish conquest of the New World. This time the conqueror’s assurance of superiority is brutally uniform: a superiority of arms, together with a superiority of spirit, consisting in the possession of the True faith, produce an inertly predictable result.

Greenblatt’s natural taste is for paradox, incongruity and two-way traffic in causal relations. His books appear to be conceived on the principle laid down by Dr Greenslade at the beginning of John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, as the proper way to write a ‘shocker’: ‘The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it deductively ... I begin by fixing on one or two facts which have no obvious connection ... imagine anything you like.’ Or think of Livingstone Lowes at the beginning of his huge study of ‘Kubla Khan’, The Road to Xanadu: ‘We shall meet with ... lightnings and Laplanders, meteors and the Old Man of the Mountain’ – incongruous (but alliterative) marvels. Greenblatt moves from a television screen in Bali to the sightless gaze of the Mixtec god of death. The study of travel literature, it seems, can broaden the mind, almost to the point of disintegration. There is a close link between this thrill-a-minute method of writing and Greenblatt’s attitude to Marxist criticism, at first affectionate but then studiously oblique. In his last book, Learning to curse, he told how he was educated in the formalist tradition of American New Criticism, represented in his mind by the physically gigantic figure of W.K. Wimsatt (still remembered in Oxford for his way of stalking through the Upper Reading Room in the Bodleian Library and stooping over the reserve counter in order to pick up ten books in either acromegalic hand). From this formalism he was rescued by the Cambridge lectures of Marxist Raymond Williams, who taught him not to read literature as if it were insulated from history. Old-style Marxists believed that economic reality was fundamental: from this causally sovereign infrastructure all the rest flowed. The picture might be blurred, by reference to Marx’s more liberal writings or to, say, Althusser’s notion of ‘relative autonomy’ for literature, but, by and large, the direction of the logic of explanation, from materio-economic ground to any-and-every sort of consequent, was clear and unilinear.

In Greenblatt’s critical practice, it is never so. History modifies literature, but literature, equally, modifies history. One may smoke here the different formalism of the Structuralists, who have had some success in tacitly reversing Marx’s materialist project (he thought he had transformed Hegel’s idealist dialectic by introducing material praxis; the Structuralists re-idealise both matter and practice by turning everything back into discourse, or text). Thus Greenblatt is willing to treat documentary texts as rhetorical, fictive structures (which, indeed, they often are). But he will never make the full metaphysical leap of the radical Structuralist and deny the very existence of an extra-textual reality. Instead he delights in the dizzy complexity of action and reaction between text and extra-text. In his Shakespearean Negotiations economic language is to be found everywhere, from the word ‘negotiations’ in the title to ‘joint-stock companies’, ‘trade-offs’, ‘consumer’, ‘transaction’, but always with a stronger sense of pleasurable exchange than of fundamental wealth production with its power of ultimate determination – not economic reality but fiduciary notes. Paper money may suggest a completed transition from Marxist materialism to a Structuralist sovereignty of signs, but it is not so. Paper money is still money. Rather Greenblatt emerges as a kind of contradiction – half-Marxist, half wheeling-and-dealing yuppy. Greenblatt’s extra-textual reality is a riot of curiously shaped facts, the proper matter of anecdote.

All of this casts an ironic light on the term ‘Historicism’. It Abbot Suger can be said to have invented Gothic at Saint-Denis (the proposition is in my opinion 75 per cent true), Greenblatt can be said to have invented ‘New Historicism’. There were pointed arches in Europe before Suger began to build. Wesley Morris’s Towards a New Historicism came out in 1972, and Roy Harvey Pearce’s Historicism Once More still earlier, in 1969. But Greenblatt established a sort of proprietorship with his use of the term as a badge for a collection of essays on the Renaissance published in 1982. In Learning to curse Greenblatt seems mildly surprised when his dictionary tells him that historicism is the doctrine that history has a determinate shape. Marxism is, of course, the primary example in modern times of this idea, but Greenblatt’s riot of contingency is something quite other. He seems not to know, entirely, what he has in fact done.

There is a distorted echo of this imperfectly acknowledged transformation in the more avowedly Marxist work of Jonathan Dollimore. In his absorbing book Radical Tragedy Dollimore made free use of the term ‘essentialism’, meaning the ascription of a permanent, necessary form to reality. He wrote, in a way which still seems bizarre to me, as if Karl Popper had never existed, had never argued in The Poverty of Historicism that the most spectacular version of essentialism in modern times was the Marxian theory of the necessary form of history. Dollimore instead assumes that everyone knows that the real essentialists are the scholars and critics of the previous generation (Empson?) and that Marxists and their friends are all for a joyous anarchy, transgression, gaiety transfiguring all that dread.

Yet Greenblatt, having with whatever degree of self-awareness accomplished the fundamental shift from determinism to a random multiplicity, finds himself faced with a phase of history in which the end seems indeed to be inscribed in the beginning, in which the dice are loaded and all fall one way. There is a point in Marvellous Possessions where Greenblatt pauses on the thought that all the rhetoric of conquest – all those millions of words expended – is anticipated by the brute reality of superior Spanish swords. Columbus noted in his Diario that, when he showed swords to the natives, in their ignorance they took them by the edge and cut themselves. Greenblatt asks: ‘Isn’t the fate of the natives sealed in the first innocently drawn blood?’ In H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds the conquering Martians are, in one of the strangest of all variants on the Horatian formula with which we began, themselves conquered by terrestrial bacteria. But in the conquest of the New World the very bacteria are on the side of the conquerors: ‘Isn’t the whole miserable story, the story of an absolute denial of consent,’ writes Greenblatt, ‘already written in the first Spanish sneeze, with its millions of invisible bullets?’ The terrible sharpness of those Spanish swords evokes, not the Renaissance of the rhetoricians, of Sidney or Puttenham, but rather the anti-rhetorical realpolitik of Machiavelli. Francis Bacon almost out-Marxed Marx when he cited Machiavelli in his speech to the House of Commons on 17 February 1607. Bacon explained how the learned Italian scorned the idea that ‘moneys are the sinews of war.’ Iron, says Bacon, is more fundamental than gold, because with my iron sword I can take your gold away. After all, the Indians had gold and the Spaniards had iron – and look who won. It is as if at this point in the book Greenblatt glimpses the possibility that his own skills in polysemous discourse are rendered useless by this harsh simplicity of material domination.

The Spaniards, however, took their swords to the New World for the sake of not iron but gold. Gold was ‘the final cause’ of the conquest. Mandeville thought that the Great Khan, who used paper money, could simply add to his fortune by making more notes. Neither Columbus nor Cortes are quite as naive as that, but it is likely that they assumed that gold is absolutely and objectively valuable. In fact, however, the priority of idea to matter is nowhere so apparent as in the bloody struggle for yellow metal. Columbus proudly writes how he gave the natives cloth and other things, without receiving anything in return. As the Spanish conquest gradually unfolds, it becomes clear that, in return for trivial gifts, the Indians are to give their all, their wealth and their lives. The operation appears to be wholly cynical, but Greenblatt rightly insists that it was not, because the Spaniards really believed that they had a gift greater than all others to bestow upon the Indians: Christianity. It is curious how in such matters conviction tends to evaporate as success is achieved. At the time of the Korean War I imagine many Americans thought they were giving democracy to a potentially grateful world. Today, as the Soviet Union crumbles before our eyes, the old missionary confidence is hard to find. Greenblatt is delighted, of course, by the fact that ‘conversion’ is both a financial and a religious term.

Greenblatt remarks, à propos of the record of Frobisher’s three voyages in the 1570s in search of a North-West Passage, that the word ‘trifles’ is frequently used of the presents offered to natives. The English do not once consider that relative scarcity rather than absolute worth is the key in such matters, so that a glass bead might well be remarkable in an Eskimo community. Even the briskest intelligence can fall into a curious rhetorical uncertainty in this area. Greenblatt could with profit have brought into his discussion the El Dorado episode in Voltaire’s Candide. There the Europeans come at last to a city where the people are of surpassing beauty and gold is so plentiful that it is unregarded – used for the meanest utensils. It is when we are told of the children in tattered gold brocade playing ninepins with precious stones that we sense uncertainty. If Voltaire’s thought were wholly relativistic, the meaning of this passage would be ‘El Dorado is like anywhere else; there are ragged children there as there are in Paris.’ But part of his mind remains as awestruck as poor Gatsby’s at the wealth of these people – they are so rich that even then street-urchins wear gold! With this part of his mind he comes very close to repeating the error of Mandeville, who did not see that printing money would alter its scarcity-value (though the case is modified by the latent, perfectly reasonable thought, ‘If we could get some of this stuff out of the country, just think what it could do!’). Something very similar is going on in the notorious passage about gold chamberpots in More’s Utopia. The person who says, ‘A gold piece is just a not very useful chunk of metal,’ can ‘sound realistic’, but the remark is also, in a perfectly obvious way, stupid. Fiduciary value, once conventionally established, really does operate in the world, with the consequence that a chunk of gold is very different indeed from a chunk of iron. Greenblatt ends his chapter on linguistic appropriation by lightly explaining that Frobisher, after all his contempt for the unworldly Eskimos, returned with 1,296 tons of fool’s gold. Here Frobisher is shown up, notice, not because he made the mistake of supposing gold to have an objective value, but became he didn’t know true gold when he saw it – almost the opposite mistake.

Conventionally-based power is real power. A bit of paper bearing certain signs will obtain bread for a family. But bread is not a conventionally-constituted thing as a five-pound note is. Clearly, bread is more obstinately material, more recalcitrant to our powers of notional manipulation, than money. Yet bread is convertible into bodily tissues, may be more or less scarce at different times. Thus a loaf of bread in its turn is, as the Gospel says, not like a stone. But at each stage in the process of distinction some sort of contrast of form and matter must be acknowledged. Those who would annexe all for form (or discourse, or ‘text’) are, as it were, constitutionally obliged to ignore the contrast. The drama of Greenblatt’s book is entirely dependent on keeping the contrast alive. In Learning to curse he rightly insisted that Edmund Scott’s documentary Exact Discourse ... of the East Indians is not the same kind of book as Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller, with the consequence that Scott could, if his account proved to be a fabrication, be accused of lying. Similarly, in Marvellous Possessions he, again rightly, resists the modish interpretation of Mandeville as a witty ironist. Instead Greenblatt invites the reader to see how a purportedly eye-witness account turns into an almost comically circular citation of written authorities, in the Late Medieval manner (something, however, if not travel, had broadened Mandeville’s mind, for he cites as backing not only the Pope but also a holy letter from the Sultan). The fact that all the eye-witness accounts which follow are infiltrated by a pre-conditioning rhetoric ceases to be exciting if one resignedly supposes that all discourse is in any case only a complex tissue of cultural fictions. Not so Greenblatt. Early in his book he observes, robustly, that the authors of the anecdotes with which he is concerned are ‘frequent and cunning liars’.

On the same page, however, he drops for a moment into the opposite mode, with the half-penitent sentence: ‘I catch myself straining to read into the European traces an account of what the American natives were “really” like.’ The placing of the word ‘really’ in inverted commas is almost de rigueur in the latter part of the 20th century. It signals awareness on the part of the writer that the reality in question is only a so-called reality, conventionally constituted. A moment’s reflection will show that this amounts to a full negation of the original conception: ‘really’, in inverted commas, equals ‘unreally’, with no inverted commas. In Greenblatt’s sentence this pious tic of punctuation is doubly absurd, since in any case he is here confessing the sin of old-fashioned realism. This concession is, however, happily not sustained in the pages which follow. Greenblatt is fascinated by cultural distortion and, of course, without a prior truth there can be no measurable distortion. Still more, he delights in moments of discontinuity, when the complex rhetoric of Christendom bumps its nose, so to speak, on something fundamentally other. To all this, the hope of truth in the eye-witness account is essential. In Learning to curse Greenblatt had already confessed this hope when he wrote: ‘The anecdote uniquely refers to the real.’

Greenblatt, one senses, is conscious of offering a hostage to fortune when he tells an anecdote of his own about a visit to Bali. With antic formality he writes ‘I, Stephen Greenblatt, have seen ...’ The sentence is stylistically exciting because the humour is nourished by a certain fear: that one day some smart-ass critic will arise and prove that Greenblatt’s account of his visit was heavily preconditioned by his obsession with representations (in the anecdote the Balinese watch themselves on television; the notional essay virtually writes itself; Greenblatt’s story is simply an instance of a topos which goes back to the beginning of travel-literature, the moment where Odysseus, listening incognito, weeps to hear his own adventure sung by a poet). This fear also makes no sense unless a truth-claim is being lodged. If the latterday critic showed only that Greenblatt’s account was selective, that the Balinese did other things on that day, Greenblatt could breathe easily. If he showed that the Balinese never watched television at all, Greenblatt would have sustained injury.

We have returned to the ‘riot of contingency’, as distinct from historicist organised process. Even in the most uniformly appropriative conquests, an excited response to the strangeness of foreign parts, to that which precedes the act of appropriation, can be found. That is why the principal subject of Greenblatt’s book is wonder – or, more concretely, marvels. We experience wonder when our system of tacit expectations is broken in upon by something radically unfamiliar. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has nothing to do with Greenblatt’s book, we know what Puck is – a wood-goblin. In The Tempest, which has everything to do with Greenblatt’s book, we just do not know what Ariel is. Why did Shakespeare choose that particular name for Miranda?

We must not exaggerate the uniformity of the expectations which the Spaniards brought to the New World. Queen Isabella opposed the slave trade and Francisco de Vitoria argued for the legal rights of the aboriginal inhabitants, only to be answered with an argument that the Spanish claim was even more anciently founded than that of the Indians. The system of discourse was not so tightly coherent as to preclude all argument (some of which was highly rational). But the point which interests Greenblatt is the point at which the voice is stilled in the throat, the point of wonder.

It remains mildly disappointing that Columbus, who actually accomplished perhaps the greatest of all voyages, succeeds in virtually emptying the word ‘wonder’ of all meaning – by, so to speak, beating it to death. He seems to invite the punishment of Dante’s Thais, who is – perhaps a little severely – condemned to an eternity of hell among the other flatterers for gushing Meravigliose! By an odd irony, however, it may be that Columbus is driven to do this by the profoundly disconcerting character of his experience, to fill the void in his misunderstanding with dummy curiosities; he buried his wonder in mere marvels. The Romantics learned to enjoy the imperfectly apprehensible, but the great voyagers lived before the revival of the category of the sublime. Thus Keats’s Cortes who stared at the Pacific, while his men ‘looked at each other with a wild surmise’, has no place in Greenblatt’s book.

Stephen Greenblatt still writes with grace, still has all his glittering intelligence, but one has an odd feeling, as one reads, of walls closing in. When I reviewed Shakespearean Negotiations I ended by saying: ‘We need more of the same.’ I have been taken at my word. A medium made it into the papers, a few years ago, because she had, she said, established contact with certain composers. She was therefore in a position to offer to those who were interested some more Beethoven. The music was duly delivered and the musicologists scratched their heads. The music sounded indeed like Beethoven, but too much like (the rest of) Beethoven. If the real Beethoven had added to the oeuvre he would have moved forward in some way, been less content to echo his own past. Greenblatt, meanwhile, is becoming more narrowly Greenblattian with the years. My complaint may seem graceless in the face of, say, his brilliant analysis of Columbus’s evasive and seemingly ridiculous assertion that none of the Indians contradicted his claim of possession (it is likely that they understood not a word of what was said on that occasion). Here Greenblatt is at his most restlessly brilliant, noting in turn the vacuity of the words, their possible legal force, the fact that they are addressed to a world elsewhere and, last, a strange, just-surviving element of moral scruple. Many years ago a friend of mine (from Sri Lanka) claimed that on a flight to the New World he had been confronted by a conversely vacuous sentence on a form he was expected to fill in: ‘Do you intend to overthrow the United States Government by force or guile?’ ‘I chose “guile”,’ he said, ‘because it sounded safer,’ and then added: ‘But it did occur to me that a really guileful subversive would have lied.’

Greenblatt’s fascinating account of Doña Marina, Cortes’s Indian interpreter, is similarly masterly. It is, however, precisely because Greenblatt is so fine a critic that one is frustrated by his persistent refusal to address the importunately relevant literary materials. What was once described, in a censuring phrase which yet allowed a certain energy in the person censured, as a flight from literature has now become a sedentary habit of his mind. It is as if Coleridge had confined his attention to Purchas his Pilgrimage and steadfastly refused to consider Milton. In his discussion of the marvellous, Greenblatt gives a perfunctory sketch of the critical views of Minturno and others, but says nothing about Marino, who wrote that ‘the poet’s business is to astonish.’ Marino might have led him to the important tension set up in France between le merveilleux païen and le merveilleux chrétien – all deeply relevant to his assessment of the missionary project of the Spaniards and sacred and secular metonymy in Mandeville. Perhaps he might have found his way at last to les poissons ébahis in Saint-Amant’s Moyse Sauvé, the fish who gape in witless wonder, gazing through the now vertical surface of the Red Sea as the Children of Israel pass by, dry-shod. In the entire chapter on the conferring of appropriate names there is no reference to the chilling imposition of the name Man Friday in Robinson Crusoe. He does not cite Samuel Daniels’s lines in Musophilus on ‘the treasure of our tongue’, the golden gift to the New World of our language, nor does he refer to Chapman’s De Guiana Carmen Epicum (1596), which closes with a picture of the new Golden Age, to be realised on the banks of the Orinoco. Greenblatt’s Calvinist commentator who scornfully compares Brazilian cannibals with practitioners of the Roman Catholic Mass might have been set beside the cooler anti-clericalism of Voltaire’s Chinaman, who, centuries later, was aghast to learn that Europeans eat the flesh of their god and drink his blood (in Dialogues et anecdotes philosophiques). The figure of Odysseus/Ulysses might have been vertebral in this book. Homer’s Odysseus sailed to the misty limit of the world but all the while longed only for home; Dante’s Ulisse is an Odysseus turned inside out, one who in old age longs only to venture out upon unknown seas. But, most clamorously of all, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, his one play about America, demands to be included, from the first, idyllic phase in which Caliban is taught to speak, and is shown the Man in the Moon, to the attempted rape of Miranda and subsequent subjugation, from ‘O brave new world!’ to ‘’Tis new to thee.’ Greenblatt, indeed, touches upon these lines but seems to be afraid of engaging fully with them. It is as if, behind the book he has written, there is another much more important book which he is peculiarly fitted by genius (if not by learning) to write.

My parenthetic hesitation is caused by the fact that there are odd, small mistakes at the fringes of his subject. He cannot spell ‘Quintilian’ and attributes ‘Philosophy begins in wonder’ to Socrates. Did Socrates ever say this? Surely the famous and influential passage is Aristotle, Metaphysics, 982b, which Greenblatt ought to have been aware of since in another place he quotes an immediately relevant observation by Albertus Magnus, from his Commentary on the Metaphysics.

The irony is deep indeed. In a book about intrepid voyagers Greenblatt is himself pusillanimously unadventurous. Perhaps this American critic is only the latest transformations of Ulysses, who now sails not among islands and monsters but among texts and ideas. Greenblatt is now so snugly ensconced in the travel books that he dares not come home – to poetry, drama, fiction, where the waves are higher, the weather rougher. He is afraid, one surmises, of boring people, of saying something obvious. Therefore the familiar is as daunting to him as the Cimmerian darkness was to Odysseus. Greenblatt himself confesses at the end of his Introduction, that the greatest marvels are to be found at home. Did not Graham Greene once say that the saddest poster in the world was one which read: ‘BOAC get you there, and then bring you back’? But Greene, as anyone can see, was a Ulysses of the Dantean phase, with an unappeasable hunger for wilder shores. In Robert Paltock’s Peter Wilkins the hero makes landfall in the Antarctic; where the inhabitants, like the fish of the Southern Hemisphere, can fly. There he falls in love with the beautiful Youwarkee, who falls to earth outside his hut. Strange remote stuff, but not half so strange as the green children who walked out of the Earth in an East Anglian village in about 1150 (carefully set down by William of Newburgh). Far is near and near is far.

By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end,
Methinks it is no journey.

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.

Let the voice of Tom o’Bedlam and the voice of the nurse call Professor Greenblatt home, to the world of imagination.