Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Swerve Code (draft)

by J J Cohen

Below you'll find my short essay in progress for a special cluster on Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, forthcoming in Exemplaria. I don't love the amount of negativity in it but am feeling rather stuck in turning that around -- mainly, I think, because the Middle Ages are so poorly treated in the book.

The Swerve Code            
Despite prestigious awards and an enviable popular readership, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern has garnered a mixed reaction among scholars, especially (but not exclusively) those who study early European literature.[1] With its narrative of classical achievement, gate-busting barbarians, long medieval stagnation and sudden Western rebirth, the book’s collective Bildungsroman mode of historiography is creaky to the point of retrogression. A self-enlightening Europe stands in exceptionalist isolation from the remainder of the globe. Propelled forward by the actions of heroic men, history culminates in an unexamined first person plural that is “us” – and along the way the narrative quietly jettisons the work of feminism, ethnic studies, postcolonial theory, critiques of the canon, and other important qualifiers of the Burckhardtian thesis. Scholars have wondered what deeper research into historical complexities, a fuller account of dissent and diversity, and a more humane accounting of those left to silence might have yielded. Such critiques have been advanced in multiple forums, including book reviews and social media, where a lively conversation about The Swerve has been ongoing.[2] Acknowledging the enthusiasm the book continues to generate despite its scholarly shortcomings, I will in this short piece argue that despite its obsession with newness The Swerve’s popularity derives not from its originality but from a reassuring familiarity. I will suggest in closing a promisingly anti-humanist countermovement already embedded within its broad brush, medieval-phobic plot.
            The Middle Ages described by contemporary medievalists were heterogeneous, roiled, temporally thick, culturally hybrid, and geographically vast. Their plural form in English conveniently underscores that they do not constitute a singular epoch and must remain irreducible to facile summation. The Middle Ages described by Stephen Greenblatt are not quite so complicated. Self-contained like fifteenth-century Florence (“distinctly medieval in appearance”), the time period from the fall of Rome to the rise of humanism is, like the city, “closed in and dark” (110). These two urban descriptors materialize the metaphorical truth of the homogenous age that pre-Duomo Florence embodies: walled against the wider world, lacking in illumination. Thus medieval monks (all of them) possessed a “mental life” that was “hedged” by “high walls” (28). Epistemologically isolated, immured by their inability to swerve (that is, to act unpredictably and thereby precipitate the new), those who historically contributed to a lively and diverse intellectual culture are glimpsed mainly as agentless copyists, “solitary souls” laboring over the reproduction of texts they fail to comprehend (12). Classical philosophy in Greenblatt’s account was detested as pagan and roundly suppressed, leading to a “Great Vanishing” (86) of precious texts. Though prized because of monastic injunctions to daily reading, books were for amassing more than use (39). What reading did occur was a disengaged process, since curiosity had “to be avoided at all costs” (41). Even outside the confines of medieval ecclesiastical structures (an expanse across which the narrative seldom treads), choices in living were severely limited. Ploughmen tilled as they had always tilled, monks prayed just as they did when their orders were founded, oligarchs ruled towns that seem always to have been theirs to control. We never glimpse these secular figures as producers or consumers of texts. The aristocracy who commissioned chivalric romances is as absent as merchants, guild culture, pilgrimage and Islam. Adherence to inherited modes of life continued so long because “it was not as if there were any coherent alternatives” (16). A millennium of pestilent stillness, the Middle Ages becomes an affective expanse enamored of fear and death -- so that even if the period had some art, these efforts tended to be “horrors, loving carved” (76). Likewise omitted from this narrow story are the burgeoning of universities, cultural captivation by King Arthur, the catalytic power of the genre of romance, much consideration of the rediscovery of Aristotle through translation of Arabic texts, the thriving of cities and the new modes of life that they enabled, world-connecting trade, learned women like Christine de Pizan, Marie de France and Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, travel to China and Greenland, dissent and critique. An inventive, cerebral, and successfully unorthodox author like Chaucer has no place in The Swerve, even if his deep reading in Boethius and obsession with chance and fortune resonate deeply with Lucretius (as well as with the elemental theory that Lucretius imported from Empedocles and upon which he drew in describing the actions of atoms). Whereas the Renaissance prized humanist subjectivity, the Middle Ages of The Swerve obsessed over the body, especially the mortification of the flesh.
            Central to Greenblatt’s vision of the Middle Ages is the figure of the self-flagellating monk. In Peter Damian Greenblatt finds the man (it is always a man who is the Great Historical Mover in the smaller narratives that weave the total masculine fabric of The Swerve) who culminates the long struggle to “secure the triumph of pain seeking … the celebration of the whip” (107). This embodied imitation of the scourging of Christ must be self-enacted because the days of martyrdom ended so long ago:
To be sure, Damian concedes, in the case of his glorious predecessors, someone else was doing the whipping. But in a world where Christianity has triumphed, we have to do the whipping for ourselves (107)
Greenblatt offers an extended description of medieval self-flagellation and its “theaters of pain.” Dramatic scenes of loving the whip become metonyms for monastic practice, which is then conflated with European Christianity (singular). So enthusiastic was the ecclesiastic embrace of canes, rods and hair shirts that “ordinary self-protective, pleasure seeking impulses” among lay populations “could not hold out” (108-9): medieval people, it seems, were by constitution weaker and more obtuse than we moderns, at least when it came to resisting ecclesiastical injunctions to self scourge. Societies of flagellants began to thrive. “Mass hysteria” did what it does best, erupting in periodic outbursts (109). Self-mortification and the flow of blood became instilled as “the core values of believing Christians” (109). Thus much later in time, a monastic devotee of Opus Dei will be glimpsed administering this ritual on his pale flesh:
Silas turned his attention now to a heavy knotted rope coiled neatly on the floor beside him. The knots were caked with dried blood. Eager for the purifying effects of his own agony, Silas said a quick prayer. Then, gripping one end of the rope, he closed his eyes and swung it hard over his shoulder, feeling the knots slip against his back. He whipped it over his shoulder again, slashing at his flesh. Again and again, he lashed.
The lay conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, incidentally, does not have a monastic branch and is not known to advocate or practice self-flagellation. Many readers will recognize that the murderous albino monk Silas is a character from Dan Brown’s sensational bestseller The Da Vinci Code. [3] Brown’s book appeared eight years before The Swerve, and although I would not argue that Greenblatt’s enthusiastic monastic flagellants derive from Silas, both Brown and Greenblatt are inheritors of a script luridly imagined within Gothic fiction, with its stock of perverse ecclesiastical figures.[4] The figure of the monk who devotes his life to the flesh (erotically or masochistically or both) rather than the nurture of mind and soul is a Gothic trope, deeply embedded in the genre’s anti-Catholicism. The figure of the self-flagellating monk and the perverse medievalism he embodies seem right because, like Greenblatt’s old-fashioned emplotment of the Renaissance, they are conservative, retrograde, just a little bit dirty.

In the paragraph following Greenblatt’s account of flogging, medieval monks are granted no agency for the production or preservation of the manuscripts found in their libraries. “It was by chance …. It was by chance … And it was by chance” Greenblatt intones three times to convey how a copy of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things came to survive the great darkness of the Middle Ages. A happy twist of fate, then, that monastic communities were so busy self-flagellating; otherwise someone might have noticed what had been copied and preserved within their archive, a space for storage and moldering rather than reading. Greenblatt posits that through Lucretius’s writing of the poem and through Poggio’s rescue of the text, the philosopher and the book hunter enabled the world to become not-medieval. Yet in the narrative he provides to support that thesis it would be just as true to observe that the modernity we are all now enjoying could not have arrived were it not for the distracting allure of the monastic whip.
Although I express that conclusion in a way that is tongue in cheek (and imitative of Greenblatt’s own critical causality), I do so not to make fun of The Swerve but to point out something that its author quietly captures quite well, a smaller drama that undercuts humanistic progressivism. In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal, the book by Niklaus Largier that provides Greenblatt with most of his material about medieval self-flagellation, was translated into English by the Object Oriented Philosopher Graham Harman. Greenblatt’s brand of humanism is antithetical to Harman’s work, which ruminates upon the agency and mystery of the nonhuman. Despite a world that on the face of it is propelled forward through the acts of Great Men, The Swerve also imagines a space in which objects like texts exert force and radiate power. Read a book by Lucretius and its Latin meters change you profoundly, implant themselves like a virus, demand replication and dissemination. Humans and atomistic Latin philosophy become symbionts rather than solitary. Each possesses historical agency within a social, cultural and material network through which they not only move together but propel each other unaware. Were Greenblatt to think critically about this inhuman activity that pulses in his narrative, he might have penned a story more complicated, more innovative, more posthumanist than the attenuated tale of classical loss and early modern rebirth he tells. Aleatory swerves, after all, do not depend upon humans for their slow or sudden motion. They carry us along with them, unaware.

[1] For a trenchant examination of Greenblatt’s claims about Lucretius and the Middle Ages in The Swerve that cites previous reviews, see Jim Hinch, “Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters.” Greenblatt responds briefly to some of these criticisms at the end of John Monfasani’s review of his book.
[2] I gather many of them at this post at the blog In the Middle in a post entitled “Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve and the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize.”
[3] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code; the indented quotation is from page 17. Medievalists know that Da Vinci is not a last name but the place Leonardo was from, and that the book more accurately ought to have been called The Leonardo Code.
[4] Transgressive ecclesiastical figures, especially monks, are well traced and linked to contemporary anti-Catholicism by George Haggerty in Queer Gothic 63-83.

Works Cited

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code (New York; Anchor, 2003)
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve and the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize.”
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011)
Haggerty, George. Queer Gothic (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006)
Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court Press, 2005)
----------. The Quadruple Object (Winchester, U.K.: Zero Books, 2011)
Hinch, Jim. “Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters,” Los Angeles Review of Books Dec. 1, 2012,
Largier, Niklaus. In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal. Trans. Graham Harman (New York: Zone Books, 2007)
Monfasani, John. Review of Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Reviews in History


Steve Mentz said...

I can feel your restraint and scholarly balance from here! Quite an amazing connection to Harman, and I especially like the final move. I wonder if another way to make sense of the caricature of the medieval in SG isn't as a form of nostalgic envy: Greenblatt's Renaissance, as opposed to say Petrarch's, positions itself in relation to Romanticist philomedeivalism and its modernist/postmodernist heirs. Doesn't *The Swerve* envy the flagellating monks their commitment, their passion, their cultural security? (Certainly Dan Brown does!) Of course such solidity has scant historical basis, but inside SG's Renaissance, where everything is both subverted and re-contained, the "chance" that Lucretius supposedly represents is never as free as it seems. *The Swerve* seems clearly a final retreat into a less complicated narrative of modernity than most scholars have been telling for decades -- I certainly agree with you there -- but I suppose the way I'd respond to this book now might be to emphasize the ambivalence that it seeks to hide but cannot, really. Which I suppose is your final point, perhaps.

A housekeeping note: it's not just medievalists who know how to refer to Leonardo!

Ray said...

I read this with great interest, Thank you so much for a great job of addressing the numerous points you brought out. One can only hope that the author will read this review and have a sudden inspiration to rethink his written position.
Again thank you for a very informative review.

Karl Steel said...

JJC here's what I posted on g+
good work! I'm reminded of the humiliating whip in Chretien's Lancelot. It's certainly not yay whips all the time.

Greenblatt's presentation of the common people and their ordinary (read 'natural' or 'common') impulses, his straightforward reading of pleasure as on the far side of pain, could use a touch of ... but why go on? I can understand this getting the Pulitzer. It's so smugly middlebrow, so set on avoiding even the minimal complications of critical theory. But, oddly, the refusal of critical theory strikes me as a call to keep our thinking in check -- think, but not too much! analyze, but not beyond what's natural and normal! Culture, but don't stray too far from Nature!

What role does culture play for Greenblatt? A distortion of our natural impulses? Decoration? Perversion? And does this mean that the medieval means high culture?

Ashby Kinch said...

Thanks for sharing this, Jeffrey, and thanks for writing it. I am glad medievalists are not letting this drop, as the MLA's decision really does merit extended and sustained intellectual critique. The Pulitzer's one thing, but this is the major national organization of literary studies endorsing the putative quality of the book. The other striking element of SG's model that only occurred to me in reflecting on the problem of peasant pleasure (as Karl is) is the way the book traffics in Italian jingoism: SG adopts without question or reflection Poggio's view of a debased German culture. This is at the Council of Constance, a gathering of immensely learned scholars from all over Europe. The only "news" fit to discuss is Jan Hus' execution and naked German bathers. Poggio could not be more detached from the world, and how could one endorse this as proto-Lucretianism? The "freest" unfettered seekers of pleasure in the whole book are those naked German bathers...