Bringing history back

In Conversation


Bringing history back

Known as the founder of one of the most influential schools of literary theory and criticism today called New Historicism (or cultural poetics), Stephen Jay Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor at Harvard University, where he teaches English. With the publication of his Renaissance Self-Fashioning in 1984, Greenblatt's ideas revolutionised literary studies. He is also the editor of Norton Shakespeare. The new insights in "contextual" reading that he developed are widely applicable in various disciplines today.

Excerpts from an interview.

On the genealogy of New Historicism and his role in founding the movement

The formal education which I had received, and was grateful for, did not allow for certain questions to be asked, about society, culture, anthropology, gender and race. In the 1970s, Women's Studies played an important role as a catalytic agent. You began to ask what the rules of the discourse were, who was being allowed to speak and who was not. Berkeley, California, in the 1970s is also associated in my mind with the smell of tear gas. In a variety of ways, Berkeley then was in a ferment of rebellion.

It was a time for change.

I do not wish to claim that New Historicism was mine alone. Like so many things in the 1970s, it depended on a collective enterprise. We were sitting together, reading and arguing about Althusser, Marx, Freud late into the night.

The immediate genealogy of New Historicism was not German historicism but the Marxism of the mid-20th Century. In my case, studying with Raymond Williams was very significant in Cambridge. In early 1970s, I used to teach Marxist aesthetics in Berkeley. In addition to being a way of rebelling against New Criticism, it was also an attempt to try to think about how to reintroduce history into cultural studies.

How different is New Historicism vis-�-vis Bateson, Caudwell and Raymond Williams?

Raymond Williams is trying to hold on to the model which in Christopher Caudwell (of Illusion and Reality fame) is very strong — the idea that literature is part of the superstructure and economics is the base. We wanted to make the context not simply a safe background but actually a part of the enterprise. In an older historicism, you adduced a context in order to secure the meaning of a work of art. We wanted to say that what was being described as the context, was itself open to interpretation. It was not the stable background. We wanted to have the interpretive struggle shared by what used to be called the background.

On his interest in Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies

If you are interested in Renaissance studies, it is hard not to be interested in Shakespeare. I became interested in Renaissance while studying for the tripos in Cambridge. I read at that time Sir Walter Raleigh's "Ocean's Love to Cynthia" and I remember being powerfully struck. I thought it was a fantastic poem. In fact, I thought that it was a poem strikingly modernist, a sort of poem written by T.S. Eliot.

My sense of literature holds on to a strong aesthetic dimension, an encounter with something that seems to reach you only because Raleigh sounded like Whitman. It was a work that wasn't written in the 1920s. It was written in the 1590s. How does this work seem so contemporary? In other words, historicism for me arose from an aesthetic engagement of feeling that you have been spoken to. It rises from a contemporary encounter. It is not antiquarian. In that sense it is existential.

Some want to dislodge the Western Canon completely. Others like Harold Bloom and Cleanth Brooks have made a qualified response. Is he defensive?

No, I am not defensive. I am actually quite interested in the range of works from different parts of the world that have now been put in play in literary studies. It is a large world and it is appropriate that there should be many things read and studied. But, there are practical problems in anthology making. The Norton Anthology, for instance, is 6000 pages long and we can't make it longer. The question is, for every Anita Desai, Naipaul or Achebe that we bring in, what is it that we take out? As an editor you have to figure out where the centres of interest might be now. But this is an ongoing problem.

On the relationship between literary production and social production

The idea that imagination is only the possession of specialists, that language is the possession of specialists is undemocratic and unjust: We know from our daily experience that language and imagination are universal possessions of humanity and they don't belong to particular classes, groups of specialists, particular races and religions. They are part of the apparatus of human life. There is something constricting and absurd in the counter position that only cultural production will be beside the imagination.

On New Historicism as a network of signs

New historicists feel that they can use their hermeneutical skills on all aspects of culture. We understand that most of literature is signs of systems, but sign systems do not stop on the boundary of books. They are networks and dense textures that embrace all other fields as well. I myself have been greatly interested in anthropology, in history of art, and more recently, in the history of science and philosophy. There are no a priori limits.

On Marvelous Possessions and the discovery of the new world and the genesis of this project

Towards 1998, the U.S. was in an elaborate multi-year build-up for the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landfall. That enterprise led to what I thought was a particularly repellent burst of American/ European chauvinism — a fantasy that there was nothing there before the Europeans arrived. For many years, I was teaching in the San Francisco Bay area and there was a remarkable statue of Columbus looking out into the Pacific, suggesting somehow that Columbus had been to California and was now setting his sights on Asia. The uncritical circulation of such ideas in the 1990s served the need of an answer, a response.

On the main insights of Marvelous Possessions with regard to the history of ideas

In Columbus' diary, there is a chilling reference to a native who touches one of Columbus' swords and cuts his finger because he had not seen this kind of sharp metal object. But what fascinated me was the way in which the dream of possession was enacted through speeches, declarations and announcements. It was the idea that you could claim to own huge tracts of the globe and human beings who lived therein, through the performance of certain words — that seemed to be compelling and fascinating. In Columbus' speech acts, there is the emptying of the other as if the other had been erased, the other had no language. He was going to kidnap some of these people and bring them back so that they could learn how to speak. As the ancient principle aptly says, to be human is to have language.

On the crucial role storytelling plays for the practitioner of New Historicism

The idea that you could somehow escape from a narrative, that you could find your way into some kind of scientific and analytical language, could only be done at an enormously high cost. In writing recently a popular biography of Shakespeare, I saw the attraction of doing this by tapping into the popular fascinations with the literary biography. And this fascination is entirely bound up with the desire to tell a story.

On connecting with the Indian cultural universe while traveling to South Asia

India made an overwhelming impression. I was there for several weeks. I had the feeling of encountering a world rich and complex, dense and bursting with life, intellectual and cultural energy.

On the future of New Historicism

At least in the American cultural scene, a lot of the work of New Historicism has been absorbed. It is no longer new. It is well established. It is being absorbed into ordinary works of literary studies. New Historicism is moving, at least in one direction, towards a trust in mobility, not only in travel narratives but in the idea that culture itself is always moving from one place to another. And it is that extraordinary mobility of which India is a sublime example. That seemed to be one of the challenges in the years ahead.

Sachidananda Mohanty is Professor of

English at the University of Hyderabad and a recipient of the 1992 Katha Award for outstanding translation.

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