Profile of Stephen Greenblatt
by Mitchell Stephens
"The Professor of Disenchantment
(Stephen Greenblatt and the New Historicism)"
West magazine (San Jose Mercury)
March 1, 1992.
To contact Mitchell Stephens
Stephen Greenblatt's words have been attracting considerable attention to themselves lately.
Berkeley's star English professor is the progenitor of "the new historicism," currently the hottest of the hot literary theories. Academics from Cambridge to Tokyo fly him in for lectures and hang on his analyses with a tenaciousness previously reserved for the mumblings of French philosophers. Debates sparked by his work now rage through the reviews and journals. Universities take turns trying to wrest Greenblatt away from Berkeley; Harvard being the latest contender -- though the arrival of a "new historicist" on the faculty has been likened by one commentator to the arrival of a "brain tumor."
In recent months, Greenblatt's words have also begun to interest an audience outside the universities: those looking for evidence that the scholars inside are abandoning the respectful study of literature, silencing "politically incorrect" views and trashing Western civilization. George Will recently marvelled in Newsweekthat a professor somewhere was actually suggesting that "Shakespeare's Tempestreflects the imperialist rape of the third world." That professor -- somewhat loosely paraphrased -- was Stephen Greenblatt.
Greenblatt is quite capable of defending the universities and himself. But at the moment, as he and a passenger sit in a car on Interstate 91 in Connecticut, the famous professor is, quite conspicuously, saying nothing.
Greenblatt is driving from Cambridge, Massachusetts -- where, as a Harvard visiting professor this semester, he taught two courses today -- to New Haven, Connecticut, where he will give an invited lecture at Yale this evening. Fatigue is not the problem, though a day like this would exhaust many 48-year-old professors. "He does have incredible energy," notes Harvard's Elaine Scarry. "It's almost unaccountable how he's able to do all the things he does."
Nor is Greenblatt suffering from any shortage of things to say. His mind seems never to tire of making connections -- between Shakespeare's plays and the political atmosphere in Elizabethan England, for example, or between his own theory and the intellectual atmosphere in the Bay Area in the 1970s and 1980s.
No, Greenblatt's brain is still hopping. It is his instrument -- his voice -- that has finally given out. And that voice will be called upon to entrance an auditorium full of Yale faculty and students for a full hour this evening. They won't be able to take notes on rasps and coughs.
So, Greenblatt pops a throat lozenge given his family by some monk in Thailand last summer, searches for NPR on the radio, and then, save for a grunt at each mention of the Bush administration, works the steering wheel in silence.
* * *
Greenblatt does not have the most resonant of voices, even when it is well rested. But he fills it out with inflection and humor, and supplements it with some lively theatrical gestures. Indeed, earlier today he had been standing in front of a large amphitheater, half full of Harvard undergraduates, batting his eyelashes so furiously that it seemed as if this short, trim professor might leave the ground. The subject was The Taming of the Shrew.
Greenblatt and his fellow new historicists aggressively try to insert works of literature, like that Shakespeare play, back into the historical contexts from whence they came. They try -- in a provocative, postmodern way, of course -- to get a sense of the political and social atmosphere the playwright himself might have been breathing as he put quill to paper.
When Greenblatt reads The Tempest, a play about Europeans shipwrecked on a primitive island, he wants to know about attitudes toward colonialism in Shakespeare's time. This morning, as he lectured to those students about The Taming of the Shrew, Greenblatt made sure to raise questions about Elizabethan attitudes toward love and toward women.
Such lines of inquiry help distinguish the new historicism from the other half-dozen or so brands of literary theory (deconstruction, reader-response theory, etc.) now battling for shelf space in faculty offices, and they help explain some of the controversy Greenblatt's theory has inspired. Many literature lovers see these historical questions as dangerous distractions from the central business of literary studies: the appreciation of works of art.
Must we really be conversant with the sociology and politics of Renaissance England in order to understand Shakespeare's plays? By dwelling on how life was different then, won't we interfere with the ability of these plays to commune with us now? And aren't such historical investigations inevitably sullied by the contemporary political concerns -- anticolonialism, for example, or feminism -- of the investigators?
"What the new historicism does is to substitute a species of sociology for literary criticism," asserts Roger Kimball, author of Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. "Is there something about the literary experience that transcends contingencies like time, place, race and sexual orientation? Until recently people thought that there was."
Enthusiasts of Greenblatt's theory -- and they now hold forth in lecture halls across the country -- respond that knowing the background against which works of literature were written can only deepen our understandings of these works and help guard against misunderstandings of the intentions of their authors. By fanning the students in that lecture hall with his eyelashes this morning, Greenblatt was attempting to illustrate such a misunderstanding.
Early on in The Taming of the Shrew, Kate, the shrew in question, is introduced to Petruchio, her prospective husband -- the shrew tamer. "There is a stage convention that she falls in love the moment she sets eyes on him," Greenblatt -- his eyelashes madly fluttering -- told his students. But he believes this staging to be entirely wrong.
Marriages often were treated as business transactions in Renaissance England. Love often was beside the point. In Greenblatt's view, The Taming of the Shrew is anything but a love story. Instead, he sees it as being about the creation of a type of femininity.
Kate, an outspoken, if unpleasant, individual, is essentially broken by Petruchio, transformed into a timid, obedient, "womanly" creature, who says things like, "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper." "The woman's biological weakness, her softness, her sexual identity, is learned in this play," Greenblatt suggested in his lecture, reminding his students of another relevant historical fact: that in Shakespeare's theater all the female roles were played by boys.
Here things began to get more complicated. Greenblatt was arguing that our attitudes toward such seeming basic matters as sexual identity and love are not given but are "learned." Indeed, this provocative and postmodern idea is central to his new historicism. ("Greenblatt is an entertaining teacher, more theatrical than most," one of his slightly intimidated students whispered. "But I'm glad I'm taking this course in my senior year.")
Central, too, is the liberal, even left -- staunchly pro-feminist -- stance that appeared to underlie Greenblatt's reading. "In this play it is discipline, not love, that creates the erotic," he added. "I think this is a really chilling play."
Hearing such an analysis undoubtedly would make some traditionalists apoplectic. "Sexual identity is learned"? What's "erotic" in one of the Bard's plays is a sort of sadomasochistic "discipline"? The professor finds the play "really chilling"? Is this not just the sort of left-wing, relativistic, culture bashing that critics of current goings on in literature departments have been warning us about? "The new historicism," Kimball concludes, "is not opening up literature but subverting it."
In a recent article blasting "political correctness" on campuses, New York magazine classed the new historicists along with "feminists, radical homosexuals [and] Marxists" as "united in their conviction that Western culture and American society are thoroughly and hopelessly racist, sexist, oppressive."
* * *
The NPR station switches to a fund-raising appeal, and Greenblatt impatiently begins turning the dial again. Some rock music, maybe. In summer camp Greenblatt used to strum guitar with a sweet-voiced, curly haired, blond kid who would go on to fame as part of another duo -- this one with Paul Simon.
But the rock seems too raucous. Can you get any classical music in northern Connecticut? Soon it's back to NPR.
Greenblatt sits at the wheel in a white shirt with brown pin stripes and a lively tropical-colored tie. His face sweeps back from a strong chin and nose to close-cut, almost spiked hair. The action, when he's talking, is in his eyebrows.
Few traces remain in the voice that Greenblatt is trying to protect of his upbringing near Boston, where he was the son of a lawyer and the grandson of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants -- a studious boy. "My parents used to plead with me to stop studying and watch more television," he has quipped.
Greenblatt remains fond of the Boston area. His mother -- who helped endow him with his fascination with storytelling -- still lives there. Harvard's goal is to entice him back, permanently. But twenty-two years in the Bay Area have not only eased the "ah" in Greenblatt's "ar"s, they have made him impatient with some of the more restrictive aspects of life in the East: the crosswalks for example.
In Massachusetts, cars (He doesn't say, "cahs") have not been trained to stop at the sight of a human being between the white lines. Unless a pedestrian has remembered to press the "walk" button, those "bubbles of metal" (Greenblatt's term) insist upon their right of way. This energetic professor is not the sort to tarry, so his brisk walks across Harvard's large, old campus are often perilous.
Greenblatt's theory grew out of a similar impatience with the constraints life back East placed on his perambulations. The year was 1968, and Greenblatt was completing his doctorate at Yale in Renaissance literature.
It was not his professors' insistence that he study the work of long-dead, white, European males that transformed Greenblatt into something of a rebel. He loved and continues to love these writings. Indeed, for someone supposed to have dismissed Western culture as hopeless, Greenblatt has spent a remarkable amount of time reading it, teaching it and, if truth be told, delighting in it -- particularly Shakespeare's work, of which he may currently be the world's most influential interpreter. "That's why I've decided to do what I do rather than be a stockbroker or a banker," he recently explained.
Greenblatt's moment of confrontation with the powers that were at Yale arrived only when he decided to examine this literature from a wider, more politicized, perspective. As his dissertation topic he proposed an examination not just of Sir Walter Ralegh's poetry but of the uses Ralegh had made of this poetry in his remarkable career as a soldier, explorer and court politician.
This was a more rebellious decision than it might now seem. Students of literature at Yale in the mid-1960s were not supposed to stray from the sacred ground of High Art into such profane matters as careers or lives or politics. The professor to whom Greenblatt presented his idea sneered.
Greenblatt eventually was able to find a reader for his dissertation at Yale. Upon its completion in 1969, he escaped to a teaching job at Berkeley, where the boundaries that separate disciplines like literature, politics and history could be more safely crossed.
* * *
Will Stephen Greenblatt stay at Berkeley or move to Harvard? Academics on both coasts are searching for clues to his impending decision.
If he chooses to leave the Bay Area, Greenblatt, hardly the sort of literature professor who spends life sunk in an easy chair, admits he would miss the bike rides through the hills, the body surfing in Santa Cruz, the backpacking in the Sierras. But most of all he would miss an unusually tight group of friends and colleagues -- the people with whom he developed his theoretical perspective in the 1970s and 1980s.
Earlier in the car ride -- his eyes locked on the road but his thick eyebrows rising with enthusiasm -- Greenblatt had been recalling those special years. "It was the classic California experience of not feeling the need to conform to an entrenched authority structure," he reported.
Greenblatt was then very much the radical professor, teaching courses with names like (Critics take note!) "Marxist Aesthetics." But Greenblatt soon used the intellectual freedom he found at Berkeley, "three-thousand miles from the center of town," to head off in new, considerably less orthodox directions.
He wandered into the offices of historians, anthropologists and political scientists and left with deeper insights into what literature owed to other efforts to "represent" society, and what they owed to literature. Greenblatt helped organize some of the more intellectually adventurous of the professors he encountered into the editorial board of a new journal: Representations. It would become a remarkable success. The chairman of Harvard's English Department, Philip Fisher, now calls Representations "the leading intellectual journal in the humanities."
And through his conversations with this diverse group of Berkeley colleagues, Greenblatt was able to break new ground in his own work. He began to give his courses names like "Cultural Poetics." His journeys back and forth between literature, politics and history became more adventurous.
As bridges he used obscure writings of all sorts from the periods in which he was interested, and sometimes (provocatively) from other periods -- "literary traces," they are called. This is the method behind the new historicism. It is based on the realization, as Greenblatt puts it, "that language does not stop at the border of literature."
To shed light on the tempestuous love between King Lear and his daughter Cordelia, for example, Greenblatt quotes the Reverend Francis Wayland's account, first published in the American Baptist Magazine in 1831, of his attempt to discipline his "more than usually self willed" fifteen-month-old son. To illuminate the meanings of the cross dressing in Twelfth Night, Greenblatt retells the story, recorded by Montaigne in 1580, of eight French girls who plotted together "to dress up as males and thus continue their life in the world."
And then there's The Tempest, George Will's example. Here the goal was to determine the extent to which Shakespeare might have been concerned with the morality of colonialism as he wrote about those shipwrecked Europeans, who eventually enslave the "savage" they find. So Greenblatt uncovered a diverse collection of writings from Shakespeare's time on the subject. They range from essays by Montaigne (one of which is actually quoted by a character in The Tempest) to a few lines from a little-known Elizabethan poet named Samuel Dennis. Together these writings suggest that Shakespeare could not have escaped the debate on colonialism even if he had wanted to.
"It is very difficult to argue that The Tempest is not about imperialism," Greenblatt wrote in response to Will's attack. "It is, of course, about many other things, as well," he hastened to add.
Some critics charge that the great plays that are ostensibly the subject of these essays "are nearly lost to sight," as one reviewer puts it, behind Greenblatt's diverting "literary traces" and hypersensitive political analyses; they maintain that the "many other things" these plays are indeed about tend to be overlooked. Others worry about the validity of this emphasis upon "traces." "The use of historical data outside their full historical context is a continuing temptation in Greenblatt's method," cautions the critic and historian, Garry Wills.
However, the loudest complaints lately have been registered by those, like George Will, who are outraged by the aspersions that are being cast -- from the left, from a position outside the "entrenched authority structure" -- at our cultural heroes. Professors like Greenblatt, they argue, have been charged with celebrating our greatest artists, not bringing them down.
But should we simply ignore these troubling disclosures about Shakespeare's politics? Should we forget that The Merchant of Venice, to choose one of Greenblatt's less original examples, portrays Shylock, the Jewish merchant, as "a kind of devil"? That The Taming of the Shrew presents what to our eyes is a noxious view of what it means to become "womanly"?
Greenblatt believes it is possible to find great works like these both aesthetically brilliant and ethically disturbing. "What is most powerful about art," he suggests, "is not necessarily the same as what one wants to affirm about life."
It is those who "attempt to save the notion of Shakespeare as an ethical hero" by overlooking The Tempest's relationship to imperialism, or by pretending that Kate's transformation in The Taming of the Shrew is a miracle wrought by eyelash-batting love, who are enforcing, in Greenblatt's view, a type of "political correctness" -- on Shakespeare!
* * *
A sign passes announcing that this stretch of Interstate 91 has been named "Christopher Columbus Highway." Greenblatt's latest book, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, is about the European discovery of America, and about Columbus -- another Western cultural hero upon whom aspersion have recently been cast.
Did Greenblatt see the sign? He remains silent. But this professor is reputed to have a prodigious alertness.
Princeton historian Natalie Zemon Davis, who was part of the Representations crowd at Berkeley in what she calls those "truly wonderful early days," praises Greenblatt's ability to create "significant juxtapositions." "And I stress the word 'significant,'" she adds. "He has been able to connect events and texts that might seem incongruous, yet turn out to have important things to say to each other. It's tied up with his ability to notice, to see more than meets the eye."
Greenblatt's friends often gush about his skill at noticing and connecting. Along with his wife, Ellen, a high school English teacher and administrator, and their two teenaged sons, Greenblatt embarks on more than his share of adventures (such as that recent trip to Thailand, which included a visit to Laos). "We go to as many exotic locales as we have money for," Ellen Greenblatt explains.
And her husband usually returns with a few magical anecdotes: the night in Bali, for example, when he stumbled upon a group of villagers watching a videotape of one of their own religious ceremonies; or the man on an airplane, going to visit his mute and suicidal son, who asked Greenblatt to silently mouth the words, "I want to die. I want to die." Many of these anecdotes then wind up in his lectures, in his essays and in his books, where they too are given a chance to "say things" to works of Renaissance literature.
"It's not as if we'll be somewhere and he'll suddenly say, 'My, that looks just like Henry IV!'" his wife explains. "But he hears things and sees things, and they stick with him. And he has the sort of mind that makes all sorts of connections."
This morning's lecture on The Taming of the Shrew had begun with Greenblatt reading from an article he had come upon in the science section of The New York Times about the aggressive behavior of some male fish. Was Petruchio not behaving a bit like those fish?
"Resonance" is Greenblatt's term for the connections he seeks -- the resonance of works of literature with other writings and events. But he pairs it, when describing his method, with another term: "wonder" -- the wonder he feels at the beauty of those works.
Shakespeare's work, Greenblatt is perpetually arguing, was and is entangled with Western culture, with all its moral strengths and weakness. We have to understand this, face this. Still, he acknowledges that Shakespeare's art -- in wonderful, majestic moments -- is capable of soaring above those tangles.
"However much Greenblatt is on the side of disenchantment," concludes Yale's Geoffrey Hartman, "he wants to get back to enchantment."
* * *
Philip Fisher has a large compliment to pay: "Stephen is the most exciting figure in literary studies of his age group," the Harvard chairman asserts. "At an earlier age than this is usually done in this profession he has reached the top of the profession."
That profession involves the analysis and production of words. Indeed, Greenblatt's work has contributed to the twentieth-century realization that our view of reality depends on language, on "representations." And his success has been based on his own great adeptness with words.
"He has one of the quickest wits I've ever heard," says Frederick Crews, a colleague at Berkeley. "The stunningly apt example comes out of his mouth only a millisecond after it might." And, as even Greenblatt's critics concede, he has an uncommon ability not only to talk about tales but to tell them -- a special "narrative gift." Few are as at home in the world of words.
Maybe that's why, with much to say and an eager interlocutor in the passenger seat, Greenblatt seems to be finding it so difficult to hold his tongue. The radio drones on. As the professor stares ahead at wintry I-91, his face, normally animated, settles into a frown.
Perhaps Greenblatt is also apprehensive about the reception he will receive at Yale this evening. Obviously, it is a great honor to be invited to present a series of lectures at his alma mater. But last week's lecture had inspired some spirited, even barbed, questions.
This, of course, was not an entirely atypical reaction. Now that Greenblatt and his new historicism are in ascendency, other quick-witted scholars seem eager for a chance to butt heads. His reviews, once mostly glowing, are now mixed. Newsweek proclaimed that Marvelous Possessions, which examines Columbus's writings about his voyages, displays "the most engaging and illuminating perspective" of all the recent books on Columbus. Newsday called it "an exercise in self-aggrandizing mystification." ("Mystification" is a charge often leveled against contemporary literary theorists, with their inclination to, in Geoffrey Hartman's words, "make the works they are writing about more difficult to understand.")
Another of Greenblatt's books came under attack last spring in The New York Review of Books. In Learning to Curse, a collection of essays, Greenblatt makes much of a note card he once saw next to a museum exhibit. The reviewer, Cambridge's Anne Barton, accuses him -- correctly, he admits -- of having misremembered the contents of that card. Greenblatt has a "tendency to handle historical circumstances approximately," she asserts.
Barton also questions Greenblatt's "fondness for...detaching a single passage" from a work "and making it speak for the whole" and complains that he reduces the works of literature he studies to mere "sites" from which the historical connections he seeks "emanate." (If Greenblatt's attack on the eyelash-batting, love-at-first-sight reading of Taming of the Shrew seemed particularly enthusiastic it may be because Barton, whose review remained fresh in his mind, is a prominent proponent of that reading.)
Some of the criticism has been more waspish. Michael Mason, of University College, London, recently wrote in the London Review of Books of the "destructive potential of the new historicism," which he characterizes as a "new and potent intellectual virus." The most virulent image -- the comparison of a specialist in the new historicism to an academic "brain tumor" -- was employed by Joseph Epstein in The Hudson Review last spring.
"When they start talking about a brain tumor," commented Greenblatt after reading Epstein's essay, "you know we're not at the point of having a serious discussion. The knives are out."
Many of the knives are wielded by writers on the right, who see the big eyes, ears and teeth of an insurrectionist peeking out from behind the bonnet and apron of the literary scholar. "I don't deny that Mr. Greenblatt is very clever," says Roger Kimball. "But when I read him on Shakespeare, it is not Shakespeare I hear, but someone who kind of poaches on Shakespeare. I prefer to take my politics straight, as it were."
Still, the criticism is not coming exclusively from the right: Many Marxists protest that the new historicism leaves too little room for the possibility of radical political change. And there are academics on all sides of the political spectrum who are discomfited by Greenblatt's methods and perspectives.
Those, in particular, with little patience for recent French theories like structuralism, deconstruction and poststructuralism -- with their allegations that language creates reality and is a tool of power -- usually have little patience for their American cousin, the new historicism: too pretentious, too obscure. "I tell my students," Epstein says, "that if it ends in "ism," forget it. That's not where life lives."
Crews, who chairs the graduate program in English at Berkeley, has been a staunch critic of the impact of those esoteric French theories on literary studies. He is much kinder toward his colleague's writings: "Greenblatt is an extremely subtle, very careful thinker. He doesn't go in for huge generalizations." Nevertheless, Crews admits to being uncomfortable with the influence of the French theorists on Greenblatt's thinking. The controversial poststructuralist Michel Foucault, Crews suggests, "is the silent partner in Greenblatt's work." Greenblatt might not disagree.
Foucault showed up at Berkeley in the 1970s, and Greenblatt certainly took notice. "A friend of mine said there was this guy visiting from France and that I ought to go to his seminars," he recalled earlier in the car ride. "I couldn't believe it! Each sentence was more magical and beautiful than the last. I kept rushing out and saying to friends, `This guy's amazing!' And they'd ask, `What's he saying?' And I'd try to explain, but it would sound like I was completely out of my mind."
Greenblatt had sounded reasonably sane in the car as he attempted to explain Foucault's startling message: "It was the revelation that even something that seems timeless and universal has a history." Even our most basic and deeply held feelings -- toward sex, identity, masculinity, femininity and love, for instance -- can be traced to certain historical events and occurrences. People have not always had the same attitudes toward masturbation, to use one of Foucault's examples, or toward a "shrew," to use one of Greenblatt's. Foucault taught Greenblatt that these attitudes are the products of culture.
"This just seemed fantastically exciting to me," Greenblatt recalled, "because it meant that things that just seem given are not given, that they're made up. And if they're made up that means they can be changed."
This (postmodern) perspective now underlies the new historicism. In great works of literature, in his "literary traces," in his anecdotes, Greenblatt is searching for evidence of the processes through which our attitudes -- toward women, toward colonialism, toward love -- are "made up."
"There is a moment in Hamlet," Greenblatt noted in the car, "in which Claudius is claiming that Hamlet shouldn't be mourning his father so long, because the death of a father is natural. `This must be so,' Claudius proclaims. One of the great moments of the seventies was the revelation that there is no truth to, `This must be so.'"
* * *
While Greenblatt is driving in silence, his passenger is wondering, to quote a line from one of Shakespeare's less exalted plays, "to what end are all these words." Do they in fact have any relevance to, as Epstein puts it, "where life lives."
A couple of decades' worth of students apparently have been persuaded. Catherine Gallagher, now a Professor of English at Berkeley, was a graduate student there in 1974. "I remember being enrolled in someone else's graduate seminar on Renaissance literature," she says, "and going to one of Steve's undergraduate lectures, just to see what it was like. His was so much more wonderful that I quit going to the graduate seminar altogether and just went to his lectures."
And there is evidence, if the testimony of Greenblatt's wife can be accepted, that his ideas play well in high school, too.
Ellen Greenblatt is now head of the English Department at University High School in San Francisco, but, before the Richmond school district went bankrupt, she had been teaching English at Pinole Valley High School. As teachers, she and her husband have very different objectives. "I'm not teaching students to be scholars," she points out. But Ellen admits to having used many ideas garnered from more than twenty-two years worth of conversations -- she and Stephen met while they both were graduate students at Yale -- in the classes she taught at Pinole.
For example, she had her students, many of whom were the children of immigrants, read The Taming of the Shrew last year, and she asked them to think about the absence of love in the play and about the origins of its view of what it is to be a woman. "The female students got unbelievably irate with this perverse notion of femininity," Ellen reports. "It led them into all sorts of discussions about life today."
"Steve does the very kind of thing that makes plays more interesting for students," she suggests. "The most exciting high school classes are those that in fact cast the net rather wide."
But is there a larger message here? One that might extend beyond the classroom -- high school or college? Is Greenblatt asking his students to reevaluate their own notions of, say, love? This is the question he had been trying to answer right before his voice gave out. It clearly made him uncomfortable.
"Do I really want my students to go out and feel bad about the illusions they live by?" he said, thinking out loud. "I certainly wouldn't want to disillusion them about romantic love. I mean, why would I want to do such a dreadful thing? I wouldn't regard myself as having the right. But I would want them to be able to think about it a little bit so that it doesn't seem automatic, so that it seems deeper and more complicated. I would want them to know something about where these notions come from.
"And I would like them to think about what they're applauding at the end of Taming of the Shrew," he adds. When we see fantasies that move us -- a show on television, "The Silence of the Lambs," or for that matter "The Terminator" -- it's not a bad idea to have a moment, not in which you reject it, but in which you begin to wonder what it was that just gave you pleasure, and maybe think about why it did, and maybe feel a certain resistance to what it is that you seem to be buying into."
Does Greenblatt feel that the illusions have been depleted from his own life?
"I can ricochet back and forth, like most of us, between feeling a set of quotation marks around many of the things I experience and at the same time just plunging in," he answered. "And I want actually to be able to sustain that flickering back and forth. I don't think I want a life of infinite sophistication in which almost everything comes in quotations. But I also don't want a life -- the life it seems to me our culture encourages -- of almost no reflection whatsoever on what it is that's happening.
"All my life, if faced with attractive choices, I find myself wanting both," he concluded, his voice reduced to a whisper.
* * *
Wait, Greenblatt has begun talking again! Either his throat feels better or he could restrain himself no longer. And the subject is America.
"Despite the influence of Foucault and all the other European thinkers, I think there is something distinctively American about these thoughts," he is saying. "It has to do with what's good about America, with things that are really hopeful and appealing about America -- things that are sort of loose and playful and mobile and intellectually alive."
His next comment indicates that during that long silence Greenblatt had been ruminating about the conservative attacks on the universities: "One thing that's very puzzling about the ferocity of some of these attacks is that -- though they're often mounted in the name of American culture, what George Will calls our 'social cement' -- they seem to me oddly hostile to democratic currents in America, to our ability to absorb lots and lots of different things and make them ours."
Greenblatt sees this as an exciting, not a threatening time in American cultural history, a time when there are an increasing number of opportunities for absorption -- not just of the work of French thinkers, but of wholly different cultural traditions.
"Something has happened in America in the late twentieth century that may be clearer if you live on the shores of the Pacific than in, say, Cambridge, Massachusetts," he maintains. "The belief that we all symbolically have English, or at least European, grandparents has weakened."
It may, therefore, be inevitable -- as the cultural conservative fear -- that one or two sixteenth- or seventeenth-century English poets are going to get bumped from the undergraduate curriculum somewhere in favor of non-European writers. "In order to teach, you have to find some sort of common ground with your students," Greenblatt notes. Many of those students no longer automatically assume that Spenser and Dryden are crucial to their own cultural heritage. "Certainly, the notion that if we don't hold on passionately to Dryden we might go under as a culture is a little hard to believe."
This leads to a discussion of the man who first implanted Europe's cultural heritage on this continent. (Yes, Greenblatt was aware that we were driving on "Christopher Columbus Highway.") His new book contains a characteristically tight-focused examination of Columbus's pretensions and insensitivities.
"I'm completely open to the notion of demystifying Columbus," he says, "in the sense of looking hard and carefully at the extent to which Columbus thought from day one that those Indians would make very good servants. He kidnapped them; he thought of enslaving them. There's no point in pretending that doesn't exist. But I think it's a mistake to try to make him a smaller figure than he is. I think he's quite extraordinary."
Our distaste for aspects of Columbus's behavior, in other words, need not prevent us from marveling at his discoveries. Our desire to teach some Asian or African writers need not interfere with our appreciation of the greatest European writers, writers like Shakespeare. A consideration of Shakespeare's political limitations need not prevent us from appreciating his vast artistic accomplishments.
As usual, Greenblatt -- in his way, very much the can-do, optimistic American -- doesn't see why we can't have both.