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.

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