Thursday, September 30, 2010

Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse

Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse; Essays in Early Modern Culture, Routledge, New York, London, 1990.

Pleasure is an important part of my sense of literature… You certainly cannot hope to write convincingly about Shakespeare without coming to terms with what Prospero at the end of The Tempest claims was his whole “project”: “to please.” (The terrible line from King Lear echoes darkly as a condemnation of failed art: “better thou/Hadst not been born than not t’have pleas’d me better.”) (Introduction, 9)

For Gregorio Garcia, whose massive study of the origins of the Indians was published in 1607, there was something diabolical about the difficulty and variety of languages in the New World: Satan had helped the Indians to invent new tongues, thus impeding the labors of Christian missionaries. (Learning to Curse, 18)

Indian languages even found some influential European admirers. … “Their language is a kind of pleasant speech, and hath a pleasing sound and some affinity with the Greek terminations.” Ralegh, likewise, finds that the Tivitivas of Guiana have “the most manlie speech and most deliberate the euer I heard of what nation soeuer,” while, in the next century, William Penn judges Indian speech “lofty” and full of words “of more sweetness or greatness” than most European tongues. (19)

This complex of convictions may illuminate that most startling document, the Requerimiento, which was drawn up in 1513 and put into effect the next year. The Requerimiento was to be read aloud to newly encountered peoples in the New World; it demands both obedience to the king and queen of Spain as rulers of the Indies by virtue of the donation of the pope, and permission for the religious fathers to preach the true faith. If these demands are promptly met, many benefits are promised, but if there should be refusal or malicious delay, the consequences are made perfectly clear:
‘We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us. And that we have said this to you and made this Requisition, we request the notary here present to give us his testimony in writing, and we ask the rest who are present that they should be witnesses of this Requisition.’ … A strange blend of ritual, cynicism, legal fiction, and perverse idealism, the Requerimiento contains at its core the conviction that there is no serious language barrier between the Indians and the Europeans. (29)

The two beliefs that I have discussed in this paper—that Indian language was deficient or non-existent and that there was no serious language barrier—are not, of course, the only sixteenth-century attitudes towards American speech. I have already mentioned some of the Europeans, missionaries, and laymen who took native tongues seriously. There are, moreover, numerous practical acknowledgments of the language problem which do not simply reduce the native speech to gibberish. … But the theoretical positions on Indian speech that we have considered press in from either side on the Old World’s experience of the New. Though they seem to be opposite extremes, both positions reflect a fundamental inability to sustain the simultaneous perception of likeness and difference, the very special perception we give to metaphor. (31)

On the contrary, he insisted that his father’s hated religion was simply the practical essence of Christianity, the thing itself stripped of its spiritual mystifications. The Christians who prided themselves on their superiority to Jews were themselves practicing Judaism in their daily lives, worshipping money, serving egoistic need, buying and selling men as commodities, as so many pounds of flesh. The son’s name, of course, was Karl Marx. [40] Marlowe and Marx seize upon the Jew as a kind of powerful rhetorical device, a way of marshalling deep popular hatred and clarifying its object. The Jew is charged not with racial deviance or religious impiety but with economic and social crime, crime that is committed not only against the dominant Christian society but, in less “pure” form, by that society. Both writers hope to focus attention upon activity that is seen as at once alien and yet central to the life of the community and to direct against the activity the anti-Semitic feeling of the audience. The Jews themselves in their real historical situation are finally incidental in these works, Marx’s as well as Marlowe’s, except insofar as they excite the fear and loathing of the great mass of Christians. It is this privileged access to mass psychology by means of a semimythical figure linked in the popular imagination with usury, sharp dealing, and ruthless cunning that attracts both the sixteenth-century playwright and the nineteenth-century polemicist.
Twentieth-century history has demonstrated with numbing force how tragically misguided this rhetorical strategy was, how utterly it underestimated the irrationality, the fixation upon its object, and the persistence of anti-Semitism. The Christian hatred of the Jew, nurtured by popular superstition, middle-class ressentiment, the frequent complicity of Church and state, the place of the Jews in the European economy, the complex religious and cultural barriers, would not be so easily turned against a particular structure of economic or social relations or a cast of mind that crossed racial and religious boundaries but would light with murderous force upon the whole Jewish community. (Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism, 41)

The law did not permit the Jew to acquire land, and the Jew, for his part, did not attempt to secure such permission: ‘Landed property attracted the ordinary burgher who attained wealth because of the feeling of stability and economic security it gave him and the social prestige involved. But in his peculiar situation, the Jew would set no great store by either. (42)

Shylock … To be sure, he appeals at moments to his sameness—“Hath not a Jew eyes?”… if Shakespeare subtly suggests obscure links between Jew and Gentile, he compels the audience to transform its disturbing perception of sameness into a reassuring perception of difference. Indeed the Jew seems to embody the abstract principle of difference itself, the principle to which he appeals when the Duke demands an explanation for his malice: (43)

But while never relinquishing the anti-Semitic stereotype, Marlowe quickly suggests that the Jew is not the exception to but rather the true representative of his society. Though he begins with a paean to liquid assets, Barabas is not primarily a usurer, set off by his hated occupation from the rest of the community, but a great merchant, sending his argosies around the world exactly as Shakespeare’s much-loved Antonio does. (44)

Barabas’ avarice, egotism, duplicity, and murderous cunning do not signal his exclusion from the world of Malta but rather his central place within it. His “Judaism” is, again in Marx’s words, “a universal antisocial element of the present time” (p. 34). (45)

For Marlowe as for Marx, the dominant mode of perceiving the world, in a society hagridden by the power of money and given over to the slave market, is contempt, contempt aroused in the beholders of such a society and, as important, governing the behavior of those who bring it into being and function within it. This is Barabas’ constant attitude, virtually his signature; (46)

Most dramatic characters—Shylock is the appropriate example—accumulate identity in the course of their play; Barabas loses it. He is never again as distinct and unique an individual as he is in the first moments: / Goe tell em’ the Iew of Malta sent thee, man: / Tush, who amongst ‘em knows not Barabas? (1.102-3) (49)

The shift that critics have noted in Barabas’ language, from the resonant eloquence of the opening to the terse irony of the close (49)

At the end he seems to be pursuing deception virtually for its own sake: … As Barabas, hammer in hand, constructs the machinery for this climactic falsehood, it is difficult not to equate him with the playwright himself, constructing the plot, and Marlow appears consciously to my mind,” Barabas instructs his carpenters, “Why now I see that you haue Art indeed” (5.2285-86). Deception here takes on something of the status of literary art, and we might recall that Plato’s rival Gorgias held that deception—apate—is the very essence of the creative imagination: … Barabas devises falsehoods so eagerly because he is himself a falsehood, a fiction composed of the sleaziest materials in his culture. At times he seems almost aware of himself as such: “we are villaines both” (5.979) (52)

In fact, Marlowe celebrates his Jew for being clearer, smarter, and more self-destructive than the Christian whose underlying values Barabas travesties and transcends. Self-destructiveness in the play, as elsewhere in Marlowe’s work, is a much-admired virtue, for it is the sign that the hero has divested himself of hope and committed himself instead to the anarchic, playful discharge of his energy. Nothing stands in the way of this discharge, not even survival… (55)

Threatened with such a drastic loss of their status and authority, parents facing retirement turned, not surprisingly, to the law, obtaining contracts or maintenance agreements by which, in return for clothing, and shelter. The extent of parental anxiety may be gauged by the great specificity of many of these requirements—so many yards of woolen cloth, pounds of coal, or bushels of grain—and by the pervasive fear of being turned out of the house in the wake of a quarrel. (Lear’s Anxiety, 95)

We are, of course, very far from the social world of King Lear, which does not represent the milieu of yeoman and artisans, but I would argue that Shakespeare’s play is powerfully situated in the midst of precisely the concerns of the makers of these maintenance agreements: the terror of being turned out of doors or of becoming a stranger even in one’s own house; the fear of losing the food, clothing, and shelter necessary for survival, let alone dignity; the humiliating loss of parental authority; the dread, particularly powerful in a society that adhered to the principle of gerontological hierarchy, of being supplanted by the young. Lear’s royal status does not cancel but rather intensifies these concerns… (95)

Though he seemed at moments to sympathize with many of these demands, Luther quickly spoke out against the rebels. “You assert that no one is to be the serf of anyone else,” he writes to his “dear friends,” the peasants, “because Christ has made us all free. That is making Christian freedom a completely physical matter. did not Abraham and other patriarchs and prophets have slaves? Read what St. Paul teaches about servants, who, at that time, were all slaves.” When the peasants persisted in confusing spiritual and worldly freedom, collapsing the crucial distinction between the Two Kingdoms, Luther wrote in 1525 his notorious pamphlet “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.” The rebels, he declares, are the agents of the devil, and their revolt is a prelude to the destruction of the world: “Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.” (Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion, 105)

Inescapable but not simple: new historicism, as I understand it, does not posit historical processes as unalterable and inexorable, but it does tend to discover limits or constraints upon individual intervention. Actions that appear to be single are disclosed as multiple; the apparently isolated power of the individual genius turns out to be bound up with collective, social energy; a gesture of dissent may be an element in a larger legitimation process, while an attempt to stabilize the order of things may turn out to subvert it. And political valences may change, sometimes abruptly: there are no guarantees, no absolute, formal assurances that what seems progressive in one set of contingent circumstances will not come to seem reactionary in another. (Renaissance and Wonder, 165)

I argued in an essay published some years ago that the sites of resistance in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy are coopted in the plays’ ironic, complex, but finally celebratory affirmation of charismatic kingship. That is, the formal structure and rhetorical strategy of the plays make it difficult for audiences to withhold their consent from the triumph of Prince Hal. Shakespeare shows that the triumph rests upon a claustrophobic narrowing of pleasure, a hypocritical manipulation of appearances, and a systematic betrayal of friendship, and yet these manifestations of bad faith only contrive to heighten the spectators’ knowing pleasure and the ratification of applause. The subversive perceptions do not disappear, but insofar as they remain within the structure of the play, they are contained and indeed serve to heighten a power they would appear to question. / I did not propose that all manifestation of resistance in all literature (or even in all pays by Shakespeare) were coopted—one can readily think of plays where the force of ideological containment break down. (165)

Moreover, even my argument about Shakespeare’s second tetralogy is misunderstood if it is thought to foreclose the possibility of dissent or change or the radical alternation of the processes of history. The point is that certain aesthetic and political structures work to contain the subversion perceptions they generate, not that those perceptions simply wither away. On the contrary, they may be pried loose from the order with which they were bound up and may serve to fashion a new and radically different set of structures. How else could change ever come about? (166)

Everything can be different than it is; everything could have been different than it was. (166)

Or rather it seemed overwhelming clear that neutrality was itself a political position, a decision to support the official policies in both the state and the academy. … The fascination for me of the Renaissance was that it seemed to be powerfully linked to the present both analogically and causally. This double link at once called forth and qualified my value judgments: called them forth because my response to the past was inextricably bound up with my response to the present; qualified them because the analysis of the past revealed the complex, unsettling historical genealogy of the very judgments I was making. To study Renaissance culture then was simultaneously to feel more rooted and more estranged in my own values. (167)

One of the more irritating qualities of my own literary training had been its relentlessly celebratory character: literary criticism was and largely remains a kind of secular theodicy. Every decision made by a great artist could be shown to be a brilliant one; works that had seemed flawed and uneven to an earlier generation of critics bent on displaying discriminations in taste were now revealed to be organic masterpieces. A standard critical assignment in my student years was to show how a text that seemed to break in parts was really a complex whole: … Behind these exercises was the assumption that great works of art were triumphs of resolution, that they were, in Bakhtin’s term, monological—the mature expression of a single artistic intention. (168)

If I do not approach works of art in a spirit of veneration, I do approach them in a spirit that is bets described as wonder. Wonder has not been alien to literary criticism, but it has been associated (if only implicitly) with formalism rather than historicism. I wish to extend this wonder beyond the formal boundaries of works of art, just as I wish to intensify resonance within those boundaries. (170)

It will be easier to grasp the concepts of resonance and wonder if we think of… galleries and museums… By resonance I mean the power of the object displayed to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which as metaphor or more simply as metonymy it may be taken by a viewer to stand. By wonder I mean the power of the object displayed to stop the viewer in his tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention. (170)

In Louis Montrose’s convenient formula, the goal has been to grasp simultaneously the historicity of texts, and the textuality of history. (170)


Blogger Charles said...

Hi Raul de Saldanha,

Reading your blog, it's apparent you have no small understanding of 'baroque' prose, or at least aspects of seventeenth-century English style. I was wondering if there were any particular books you could recommend me on the subject?

I'm particularly interested in the rhetorical flourishes that seem to be unique or unusually prevalent in the period.

Thanks for you time.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Raul de Saldanha said...

Hi Charles,

Thanks for asking. A good overview on the catch-phrases used discussion of 17th century English prose is Morris Croll's 'Style, Rhetoric and Rhythm' (Princeton, 1966).

Jonas Barish's 'Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy' gives a really detailed analysis of the so-called Curt Style.

George Saintsbury's 'A History of English Prose Rhythm' is the classic metrical analysis of how writers like Jeremy Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne achieve the effects they do.

I myself would like to find more material that addresses why certain rhetorical figures were used more often in certain periods. One kind of composition I have come across (discussed, for example, in Leon Howard's 'Essays on Puritans and Puritanism') is Ramistic writing (writing that follows the logic of Petrus Ramus). When I was in graduate school, my advisor urged me to explore Ramus. Dry stuff, truth be told, but relatively unexplored.

Soon I plan on reading Sister Miriam Joseph's 'Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language'. There have got to be some goodies in there. It looks to be a pretty thorough treatment of grammar and rhetoric. I also plan on reading Frank Kermode's classic 'Shakespeare's Language'. I read a selection from it a while ago, and it was highly rewarding.

There's going to be a lot of great scholarship in the future on the prose style of the 17th century English writers. I know that Donne's sermons are being (re-)edited for (re-)publication.

None other than William Gass, the postmodern novelist/formalist critic, says he's writing a book on the 17th century sermon, focusing primarily on Jeremy Taylor.

If you read anything great, or even middling, that you'd like to share, I'm all ears!


1:53 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

Thanks for the recommendations, you've given me plenty to check out!

Man, don't get me started about Mr Gass. He's one of my favourite writers. In fact, I found your blog while googling "Middle C". I've actually read Saintsbury's History, after I read it mentioned in the Thomas Browne pillar of Gass's Temple of Texts. Regarding the Jeremy Taylor book: I can hardly think of a better topic for Gass to write about; The Tunnel in particular is testament to the power that ornate rhetorical turns can add to prose. It seems he's got a few major works in the pipeline.

Funny you should mention "Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language"; I just borrowed it from the library the other day, though I haven't yet had time to have a good look through it.

The sermons of John Donne, Jeremy Taylor et al seem to be criminally neglected in terms of publication/appreciation (especially compared to the exposure Donne's poetry enjoys). But the republication of his sermons is good news, I also understand Thomas Traherne's complete works are in the process of being released, I think volume three or four is due next.

Thanks again for your help; information on the baroque/ornate/anti-ciceronian style I've found very hard to come by, I'm glad to have some starting points.

4:47 AM  

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