The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. 365 pp. $26.95 cloth. $16.95 paper.
Stephen Greenblatt's Pulitzer Prize winning The Swerve: How The World Became Modern is a narrative in search of a story. The narrative is a simple and familiar one: the world became modern when the forces of reason, enlightenment, and human dignity replaced the benighted and repressive superstitions and hypocritical hierarchies of medieval Christendom. This emancipation allowed humanity to live without illusion, prejudice, or fear and thus enabled the full flourishing of human autonomy.
Greenblatt is John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his critical works. The New York Times's fawning review noted Greenblatt's "enormous erudition" and The New York Review of Books called The Swerve "a seductive, beautiful book that will inspire wonder, reflection, and the pursuit of pleasure." In short, Greenblatt touched the right sorts of cultural notes that resonated deeply with his audience.
This should not surprise. Greenblatt is best known as a Shakespeare scholar and a central figure in the literary movement the New Historicism. The essence of the New Historicism is to view expressive acts such as literary products as epiphenomena of the material or social condition of life; in particular as those conditions evolve in relationships of power and contestation. The author thus is part of this power struggle, encoding his messages to his audience, and engaged in a kind of "self-fashioning" wherein his identity is shaped in socially acceptable ways. The self is itself, as it were, a kind of artifact, a mode of social production in its own right.
The text's meaning derives from its place within these power relations. But not only the text. The critic as well operates within a social complex, motivated by his or her political and social concerns, but without any access to the "meaning" of a text. The act of interpretation is thus an act of historical positioning by which the anecdotes of the past may inform the author's present in the present's own arena of subversion and contestation. Text, context (for there is no historical continuity), criticism, have all been destabilized as grounds for legitimate interpretation. Instead, the New Historicist is impressed only by historical contingency and the haphazard happenstances of the lives of both the subjects of their studies and the world of the critic. The worlds of both the author and the critic, however, emerge out of the randomness of matter itself. The past has no hold on us except as a kind of narcissistic reflection on our own concerns and desires. But what history can never do is point to anything beyond history itself, for there is no beyond. The latter axiom is, of course, posited as an article of faith.
In order to keep the interpretations from devolving into nonsense the critic may well posit a set of "values" or ideas that give the interpretation compelling weight and that resonate with the critic's audience. In Greenblatt's works the two main ideas are "humanism" and "evolutionism." And the critic may also hold the belief that the best we can hope for is consolation in the face of the radical contingency and essential meaninglessness of existence. Both these Nietzschean strategies are very much in play in The Swerve, a book which tells us more about Greenblatt's present than Medieval Europe. Indeed, any critic worth his salt will be attentive to the demands and expectations of the audience, for interpretation, Greenblatt believes, itself can never rise above prejudice. Throughout the book one senses that Greenblatt uses the past to elevate the personal experiences of an academic whose greatest pleasure is discussing ideas in lovely settings with like-minded colleagues. For them, since death itself poses no harm, the greatest threat would be religious zealots who threaten their way of life.
To give the book heft Greenblatt adapts to the story the familiar narrative of evolutionary positivism combined with the self-conscious humanism of modernity. The story he tells, however, is not familiar, nor is its central figure, Poggio Bracciolini, and this itself suggests the tendentious nature of the narrative. Greenblatt employs a very clever scholarly trick to make his case. Begin by picking a maligned period of time different enough from the present and use it as a foil to elevate one particular view of the contemporary world. Find a heretofore unknown or inconsequential...