Learning to Curse
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Learning to Curse

Essays in Early Modern Culture

Stephen Greenblatt

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eBook - ePub

Learning to Curse

Essays in Early Modern Culture

Stephen Greenblatt

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Stephen Greenblatt argued in these celebrated essays that the art of the Renaissancecould only be understood in the context of the society from which it sprang. His approach - 'New Historicism' - drew from history, anthropology, Marxist theory, post-structuralism, and psychoanalysis and in the process, blew apart the academic boundaries insul

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These essays on Renaissance cultural poetics, written over the course of fifteen years, do not tell a unified story but they describe an intellectual trajectory. In graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s, I found myself deeply uncertain about the direction I wanted my work to take. I was only mildly interested in the formalist agenda that dominated graduate instruction and was epitomized in the imposing figure of William K. Wimsatt. His theory of the concrete universal—poetry as “an object which in a mysterious and special way is both highly general and highly particular”—seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery. I would go in the late afternoon to the Elizabethan Club—all male, a black servant in a starched white jacket, cucumber sandwiches and tea—and listen to Wimsatt at the great round table hold forth like Doctor Johnson on poetry and aesthetics. Wimsatt seemed to be eight feet tall and to be the possessor of a set of absolute convictions, but I was anything but certain. The best I could manage was a seminar paper that celebrated Sir Philip Sidney's narrative staging of his own confusions: “there is nothing so certain,” Sidney wrote, “as our continual uncertainty.”
I briefly entertained a notion of going on to write a dissertation on uncertainty—to make a virtue of my own inner necessity— but the project seemed to me a capitulation, in thin disguise, to the hierophantic service to the mystery cult that I precisely wished to resist. For the radical uncertainty (what would now be called aporia) with which I was concerned was not, in the end, very different from the “mysterious and special” status of the concrete universal. Besides, I had another idea. Before starting graduate school, I had spent two years as a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge where, relieved from my undergraduate grade anxieties, I read and attended lectures in an omniverous but almost entirely undisciplined way. I had been struck by what seemed to me the uncanny modernity of Sir Walter Ralegh's poetry (which at that time meant that certain passages reminded me of “The Wasteland”), and I had been equally struck by what seemed to me the intellectual power and moral authority of one of my teachers, Raymond Williams. Marxist literary criticism had received short shrift in my undergraduate years at Yale. Literary Criticism: A Short History, by Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, devoted a grand total of 6 out of its 755 pages, to Marxist thought; “Marxism and the forms of social criticism more closely related to it,” they wrote, “have never had any real concern with literature and literary problems.” Small wonder then that the Marxist critic, “in all the severity of his logic, should have driven this method . . . to a conclusion that completely destroys the literary viewpoint.” Marxism in short was not only historically uninterested in literature but programmatically incapable of understanding the concrete universal and hence of understanding art: “In the crudity both of its determinism and of its inconsistent propagandism, the socio-realistic tradition of literary criticism has on the whole contributed little to an understanding of the relation which universality bears to individuality in artistic expression.”1 I was not at all prepared then for the critical subtlety and theoretical intelligence of Raymond Williams. In Williams's lectures all that had been carefully excluded from the literary criticism in which I had been trained—who controlled access to the printing press, who owned the land and the factories, whose voices were being repressed as well as represented in literary texts, what social strategies were being served by the aesthetic values we constructed—came pressing back in upon the act of interpretation. Back in the United States I thought I could combine my fascination with Ralegh and the influence of Williams by undertaking a dissertation on the functions of writing in Ralegh's career.
I took my proposal to a very brilliant younger professor at Yale; he read it, looked up, and said, “If you want to do that kind of thing, why don't you do a scholarly edition of one of Ralegh's minor works?” I am certain that I was not mistaking the note of contempt I heard in that suggestion. It has taken the remarkable work of Stephen Orgel, Jerome McGann, and others during the past decade to enable me to see that what is at stake in editing texts is precisely the range of questions I most wished to ask. But at the time, I only heard dismissal—a sentence of exile to the hydroelectric plant in Ulan Bator. To my good fortune, I found someone else who was sufficiently interested in my project, and trusted me enough, to supervise the dissertation.
I recount this personal history precisely because it is not entirely personal—I was participating in a more general tendency, a shift away from a criticism centered on “verbal icons” toward a criticism centered on cultural artifacts. In my early years of teaching, I thought of this shift as a turn to Marxist aesthetics; more recently, in the wake of an interest in anthropology and post-structuralism, I have called what I do “cultural poetics” or “new historicism.” The essays collected in this volume trace the uneven evolution of my critical methods and interests. But I am reluctant to confer upon any of these rubrics the air of doctrine or to claim that each marks out a quite distinct and well-bounded territory. To a considerable extent, in American universities critical affiliations like new historicism or deconstruction or now even Marxism are not linked to systematic thought. (They are like our political parties, confusing to Europeans because they are important but ideologically evasive and inconsistent.) It is possible in the United States to describe oneself and be perceived as a Marxist literary critic without believing in the class struggle as the principal motor force in history; without believing in the theory of surplus value; without believing in the determining power of economic base over ideological superstructure; without believing in the inevitability, let alone the imminence, of capitalism's collapse. Back in the 1970s, at a hotel in Morocco, a genial, gray-haired tourist from Hawaii offered me a shopping bag filled with marijuana that he didn't want to take across the border when he left the country the next morning. He was on his way, he said, to Mecca “to have a look around.” When I expressed doubt that he, a non-Moslem, would be permitted to visit Mecca, he replied, “Hey man, we're all Moslems.” Americans in general like porous borders; they think that access (at least for themselves) should be easy.
Does this mean that new historicism is a completely empty term, its relative success due entirely to the felicitous conjunction of two marketable signs: “new” and “ism”? I think not, though it will not do to exaggerate its coherence (nor am I overly sympathetic to calls for its systematization). For me it describes less a set of beliefs than the trajectory I have begun to sketch, a trajectory that led from American literary formalism through the political and theoretical ferment of the 1970s to a fascination with what one of the best new historicist critics calls “the historicity of texts and the textuality of history.”2 My own version of this trajectory was particularly shaped by Raymond Williams and by Michel Foucault, who taught regularly at Berkeley in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And there were other powerful intellectual encounters along the way with the work, for example, of Mikhail Bakhtin or Kenneth Burke or Michel de Certeau. But the intellectual course of which I speak points less to a doctrine, cobbled together out of a set of what an English publishing house calls “modern masters,” than to a shared life experience.
When I arrived in Berkeley in 1969, the University of California was in turmoil which lasted throughout the year and into the next. National Guard troops and heavily armed squadrons of police battled massive student and faculty protests against the Viet Nam War; the campus was continually redolent of tear gas. Everything was in an uproar; all routines were disrupted; nothing could be taken for granted. Classes still met, at least sporadically, but the lecture platform would often be appropriated, with or without the professor's permission, by protesters, and seminar discussions would veer wildly from, say, Ben Jonson's metrics to the undeclared air war over Cambodia. Many students and at least some faculty were calling for the “reconstitution” of the university—though no one knew quite what “reconstitution” was—so that even ordinary classes had an air of provisionality. It was, in its way, sublime.
But despite the heady rhetoric and at least the partial reality of radical ferment, the internal intellectual structure of Berkeley remained for the most part at once stable and staunchly conservative. By “intellectual structure” I mean both the institutional organization that governs research and teaching and the informal network of discourse that determines who talks seriously to whom. On my first day on campus, I was taken to the English Department office housed in a large and imposing building with a grand neo-classical facade and an air of overwhelming respectability. (This building, incidentally, was revealed in recent years to be both contaminated with carcinogenic asbestos fibers and exceptionally vulnerable to earthquake danger.) My guide, the department chairman, told me with pride that virtually the entire building—the dozens of offices, the lounge, the library, the bulletin boards—was given over to English. When I saw the cramped quarters of several other departments, I understood the chairman's pleasure, but I also felt some dismay. For it was possible to spend one's days entirely in the company of other English professors, English graduate students, and English majors—one can imagine a worse fate, I suppose, but the arrangement played into the kind of intellectual isolationism and claustrophobia commonly confused in large American universities with responsible academic professionalism.
My own work was pulling me in other directions—I wanted in fact to erase all boundaries separating cultural studies into narrowly specialized compartments—and in the years that followed, I found people in other departments, at Berkeley and elsewhere, with whom to talk and exchange work. The essays in this collection are deeply indebted to these exchanges, but they also strike me as still written within the governing agenda of the particular discipline in which I had been trained. In part this is a mark of failure—my inability to carry out the utopian project of obliterating disciplinary boundaries altogether; in larger part it is a mark of my recognition that boundaries, provided they are permeable and negotiable, are useful things to think with.


These essays reflect not only my desire to play with boundaries but my will to tell stories, critical stories or stories told as a form of criticism. In one of his last essays before his untimely death, Joel Fineman brilliantly explored the theoretical implications of new historicism's characteristic use of anecdotes. The anecdote, he writes, “determines the destiny of a specifically historiographic integration of event and context”; as “the narration of a singular event,” it is “the literary form or genre that uniquely refers to the real.” The anecdote has at once something of the literary and something that exceeds the literary, a narrative form and a pointed, referential access to what lies beyond or beneath that form. This conjunction of the literary and the referential, Fineman argues, functions in the writing of history not as the servant of a grand, integrated narrative of beginning, middle, and end but rather as what “introduces an opening” into that teleological narration: “The anecdote produces the effect of the real, the occurrence of contingency, by establishing an event as an event within and yet without the framing context of historical successivity, i.e., it does so only in so far as its narration both comprises and refracts the narration it reports.”3
What is crucial for me in this account is the insistence on contingency, the sense if not of a break then at least of a swerve in the ordinary and well-understood succession of events. The historical anecdote functions less as explanatory illustration than as disturbance, that which requires explanation, contextualization, interpretation. Anecdotes are the equivalents in the register of the real of what drew me to the study of literature: the encounter with something that I could not stand not understanding, that I could not quite finish with or finish off, that I had to get out of my inner life where it had taken hold, that I could retell and contemplate and struggle with. The historical evidence—“mere anecdotes”—conventionally invoked in literary criticism to assist in the explication of a text seemed to me dead precisely because it was the enemy of wonder: it was brought in to lay contingency and disturbance to rest. I do not want history to enable me to escape the effect of the literary but to deepen it by making it touch the effect of the real, a touch that would reciprocally deepen and complicate history.
But I do not wish to pretend that these theoretical and programmatic considerations directly motivated the writing of these essays. It was first of all as a writer that I experienced the will to use stories, and I wished to do so less for reasons of hermeneutical method than for reasons bound up with my sense of myself, with my experience of identity. Trained to be sensitive to these “writerly” questions in the authors whom they analyze, literary critics are generally deaf to them in themselves: it is difficult for me even to think of myself as a “writer,” the idea having, absurdly I suppose, something of the grandiose and romantic about it.
My earliest recollections of “having an identity” or “being a self” are bound up with story-telling—narrating my own life or having it narrated for me by my mother. I suppose that I usually used the personal pronoun “I” in telling my own stories and that my mother used my name, but the heart of the initial experience of selfhood lay in the stories, not in the unequivocal, unmediated possession of an identity. Indeed the stories need not have been directly about me for me to experience them as an expression of my identity: my mother was generously fond of telling me long stories I found amusing about someone named Terrible Stanley, a child whom I superficially resembled but who made a series of disastrous life decisions—running into traffic, playing with matches, going to the zoo without telling his mother, and so on. Stanley was the “other” with a vengeance, but he was also my double, and my sense of myself seemed bound up with the monitory tales of his tragicomic fate.
As I grew slightly older, this sense of identity as intertwined with narratives of the self and its doubles was confirmed by my father who also had a penchant for story-telling—stories not so gratifyingly focussed on my small being as my mother's were, but compelling and wonderfully well-told stories of himself and of a cousin, a few years younger than he, by whom he was virtually obsessed. My father and his cousin came from almost identical backgrounds: first-generation Americans born in Boston to poor Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. Like my father, the cousin had become a lawyer, and here began the story. My father was named Harry J. Greenblatt; his cousin Joseph H. Greenblatt. But when the latter became a lawyer, he moved into the same building in which my father had his office, and he began to call himself J. Harry Greenblatt. He managed, or so my father thought, to siphon off some clients from my father's already established practice. By itself this would have been enough to cause considerable tension, but over the years J. Harry compounded the offense by apparently becoming richer than my father, Harry J.—wealth, as far as I can tell, being measured principally by the amount of money donated annually to local charities, the contributions printed annually in a small but well-perused booklet. There were, as I grew up, endless stories about J. Harry—chance encounters in the street, confusions of identity that always seemed to work to my father's disadvantage, tearful reconciliations that would quickly give way to renewed rancor. This went on for decades and would, I suppose, have become intolerably boring had my father not possessed considerable comic gifts, along with a vast repertory of other stories. But a few years before my father's death at 86, the rivalry and doubling took a strange twist: J. Harry Greenblatt was indicted on charges of embezzlement; the charges were prominently reported in the newspapers; and the newspapers mistakenly printed the name of the culprit as Harry J. Greenblatt. Busybodies phoned our house to offer their commiserations to my mother. The confusion was awkward, but it had at least one benefit: it enabled my father to tell a whole new set of stories about himself and his double. When you are in your 80s, new stories can be a precious commodity.
My father's narrative impulse, we can say, was a strategic way of turning disappointment, anger, rivalry, and a sense of menace into comic pleasure, a way of reestablishing the self on the site of its threatened loss. But there was an underside to this strategy that I have hinted at by calling his stories obsessive. For the stories in some sense were the loss of identity which they were meant to ward off—there was something compulsive about them, as if someone were standing outside of my father and insisting that he endlessly recite his tales. Near the end of his life, he would sometimes abandon the pretence of having a conversation, interrupt what was being said, and simply begin to tell one of his stories.
This sense of compulsiveness in the telling of stories is not simply a function of garrulous old age; it is, I think, a quality that attaches to narrative itself, a quality thematized in The Arabian Nights and The Ancient Mariner. In response to the compulsiveness there have arisen numerous social and aesthetic regulations— not only the rules that govern civil conversation but the rules that govern the production and reception of narrative in books, on screen, on the stage. And there have arisen too less evident but powerful psychic regulations that govern how much narrative you are meant to experience, as it were, within your identity.
One of the worst times I have ever been through in my life was a period—I cannot recall if it was a matter of days or weeks—when I could not rid my mind of the impulse to narrate my being. I was a student at Cambridge, trying to decide whether to return to America and go to law school or graduate school in English. “He's sitting at his desk, trying to decide what to do w...

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Citation styles for Learning to Curse
APA 6 Citation
Greenblatt, S. (2015). Learning to Curse (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1515269/learning-to-curse-essays-in-early-modern-culture-pdf (Original work published 2015)
Chicago Citation
Greenblatt, Stephen. (2015) 2015. Learning to Curse. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1515269/learning-to-curse-essays-in-early-modern-culture-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Greenblatt, S. (2015) Learning to Curse. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1515269/learning-to-curse-essays-in-early-modern-culture-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Greenblatt, Stephen. Learning to Curse. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.