Monday, May 30, 2016

The Ethics of Inventing Modernity: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve

Eirik Furu Baardsen/Akademiet for yngre forskere
a guest post by LAURA SAETVEIT MILES, University of Bergen 

[On 7 June 2016 Stephen Greenblatt will receive the 2016 Holberg Prize, for his “distinctive and defining role in the field of literary studies and his influential voice in the humanities over four decades.” The University of Bergen (UiB), Norway, administers the Holberg Prize, which is “awarded annually to a scholar who has made outstanding contributions to research in the arts and humanities, social science, law or theology, either within one of these fields or through interdisciplinary work,” comes with about $735,000 (4,500,000 Norwegian kroner) in prize money from the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.

On 11 May 2016 UiB organized “Stephen Greenblatt Seminar: Literature, History, the World,” in which I was invited to participate as the UiB faculty member working on pre-modern English literature. Here below is my presentation, slightly revised. Thank you to Ellen Mortensen and Margareth Hagen for inviting me to speak; thanks to Sonja Drimmer for her helpful comments on the first version; and thanks to the participants in the seminar for a good discussion.]

Today I’m not going to discuss Greenblatt’s long, venerable list of books and articles on early modern literature, especially Shakespeare – these have made him broadly known throughout the academic community. Instead I will focus on the one book that, more than all those books before, propelled Greenblatt to an internationally visible position as public intellectual – the book that won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and an MLA book prize – the book that undoubtedly helped to bring his lifetime of great work to the attention of the Holberg prize committee. This book is The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (US title) or The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (UK title), published in 2011. Over the last few years I have read several reviews of this book, by scholars I know and by scholars I don’t know. But it is not really in my field of medieval studies so I hadn’t had reason to read it myself until the invitation to present at this seminar – which I am honored to be asked to be a part of.  That is why I’m here to tell you a story, a cautionary tale of style and method, that all begins on a windy Thursday afternoon, early May, in Bergen, Norway.

So: I sat down to read The Swerve – or, I should say more accurately, to skim it. After all it’s 262 pages long (not including notes and selected bibliography) and I have a grant application to write and other “research points” to generate. But despite my best efforts to skim, I found myself reading every word, totally swept up in the exciting story of Poggio Bracciolini, the fifteenth-century Italian humanist and book collector. I relaxed and just went along with it; in other words, I read like a normal person. Great writing style, I thought. There were so many interesting details, the prose was so easy to follow, so self-assured, no pesky footnotes to distract me from the story.

Poggio travels to far away monasteries and finds esoteric classical texts to have them recopied in beautiful humanist script. He finds this one poem by Lucretius, De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, all outlined by Greenblatt in bullet points in one chapter: about how the universe is made up of atoms that swerve around and collide and create everything, and we can’t really control it, and the gods don’t care about us, souls don’t exist, and so we should enjoy life and avoid pain – like good Epicureans. Other stuff happens in the book, not really plot, more historical stuff.

Well, in the last chapter we learn about how other people copied this poem but it is a bit unclear how much it actually influenced them. What this normal person learned is that Lucretius was definitely really important in the Renaissance and us being modern today. The book feels like a great detective story – it reminds me so much of The Name of the Rose. Or Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code series – really enjoyable beach reading!

And as I read The Swerve, the normal person inside me thought, it is important for academics to write in this accessible style and reach broader audiences with stories about the past! This is the great story of modernity!

And on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Norway – Mother’s Day in the US, and perhaps the first real spring day in Bergen – I put down The Swerve on the table, and thought about how I had let myself read it as fiction. Yet it was supposed to be… not fiction. It is classified as non-fiction, and when I thought of it as a scholarly book, and thought of all those thousands and thousands of people out there who read it and believe every word because this man is an authority and wins prizes, I realized that this book is dangerous.

Every page of the book strives to present the Renaissance as an intellectual awakening that triumphs over the oppressive abyss of the Dark Ages. The book pushes the Renaissance as a rebirth of the classical brillance nearly lost during centuries mired in dullness and pain. This invention of modernity relies on a narrative of the good guy defeating the bad guy and thus a glorious transformation. This is dangerous not only because it is inaccurate but more importantly because it subscribes to a progressivist model of history that insists on the onward march of society, a model that allows moderns like us to excuse our crimes and injustices because “at least we’re better than those medievals.”

Now unlike most of those thousands of innocent believing readers, I see the deep problems of such an approach, as have the last dozen generations of historians. History does not fit such cookie-cutter narratives. Having studied medieval culture for nearly two decades, I can instantly recognize the oppressive, dark, ignorant Middle Ages that Greenblatt depicts for 262 pages as just… fiction. It’s fiction worse than Dan Brown, because it masquerades as fact.

It is enthusiastic, accessible style at a devastating, unethical cost: the misrepresentation of 1000 years of brilliant literature, vibrant culture, and actual people. It’s rewriting history to fit a detective story, and it’s being rewarded by those who don’t know better and those who should know better.

Criticisms of this book are not new. They are in many book reviews both in print and online. I am not going to rehearse all the things you can read in all the book reviews, as you can read them yourself. I am not a classicist or a philosopher, so I won’t go into how actual philosophers point out that Epicureanism wasn’t anywhere so widespread in the classical world, that Greenblatt vastly overinflates its influence both before and during the so-called Renaissance. I won’t mention that in fact Scepticism and Platonism and Neoplatonism should evidently be a huge part of this story, though completely left out by Greenblatt. It’s not my place to point out that the book conveniently disregards a key part of Epicureanism, ataraxia, that urges us to withdraw from the world and to be indifferent to suffering and death in other people – a disturbing apathy at odds with much of modernity, not to mention the civic ethics of the early modern period.

I certainly could, but I’m not going to get into the other Renaissances ignored in this book – the Carolingian Renaissance in the ninth century, and the twelfth-century renaissance in the… twelfth century. Also I won’t talk about the old historian’s Whig fallacy and the long debunked Burkhardtianism Greenblatt admits to following. Sadly I won’t have a chance to explain that no, medieval people were not all obsessed with pain, and yes, there was widespread, state-sanctioned embrace of enjoyment of the senses applying every level of society, as our colleague Henning Laugerud’s recent edited collections attest. And finally I don’t have time to balance out the book’s unbalanced exaggeration of medieval flagellation, like out of a bad Dan Brown novel.

(Wait: Did you see what I just did there? That rhetorical move – occupatio: mentioning by saying I won’t mention? Yes, that’s a classical Latin rhetorical move used throughout the Middle Ages – a move I learned from Chaucer, in fact, writing when Poggio Bracciolini was a baby.)

What I am going to do today is address two issues: first, the representation of monks, medieval manuscripts production, and medieval literary and intellectual culture (my field), and second, the role of Stephen himself in this narrative.

On Monks and Manuscripts

The main representation the medieval period extends over about two chapters of the book, starting when Poggio heads off to visit a monastic library. As part of the historical, factual voice of the narrative – more Greenblatt’s lecturing voice, less his novel voice – we learn about the dismal life of the medieval monk, forced to write, an “educated slave” in Greenblatt’s words. We are assured that in this dark, dark world, “Curiousity was to be avoided at all costs” (41). And what happened was, quote “The complete subordination of the monastic scribe to the text—the erasure, in the interest of crushing the monk’s spirit, of his intellect and sensibility…” (41). Greenblatt writes without qualification that “No medieval monk would have been encouraged to read, as it were, between the lines” (41). Monks are lazy, dumb, and apathetic, while somehow also hard working: “Without wishing to emulate the pagan elites by placing books or writing at the center of society, without affirming the importance of rhetoric or grammar, without prizing either learning or debate, monks nevertheless became the principal readers, librarians, book preservers, and book producers of the Western world” (29). And also a Schrodinger cat in a monastic box, evidently.

In this story of how the world became modern, this represents what came before the modern. No such gross misrepresentation of monastic scribal production – as in, factually wrong – has been published for decades. These are not just old generalizations about monks, they are outdated by a hundred years. But don’t be distracted by this caricature that Greenblatt presents as representing all medieval intellectual culture. Think about what Greenblatt completely fails to mention: all the rest of the vast learning and debate going on inside and outside monasteries – i.e. universities (a medieval invention)! Scholastic debates! The commentary tradition! Medieval hermeneutics! Frequent engagements with classical auctors! Lots of classical rhetoric – ask the many scholars expert in it! Huge commerical industries of urban book production! Secular literature – Romance! All poetry! Courtly literature! Royal patrons and royal literary commissions! Goliardic songs! Lyrics! Drama! Mystery plays! I could go on.

Books were at the center of medieval society, and any amateur history buff could tell you that. I certainly don’t deny that big changes happened in the early modern period, like the printing press and the Reformation, and another wave of interest in classical texts, among other shifts. A more accurate presentation of the Middle Ages as different but not deeply degenerate would make the story of all these changes even more interesting than Greenblatt’s histrionic fable – and have the added advantage of actually being accurate. So why does Greenblatt present such a skewed version of the facts? Clearly Greenblatt knows how to use a library – and he’s a brilliant guy. He also happens to have an office right down the hall from some very clear-headed medievalist scholars. No, I think something else is going on here, if I might read between the lines myself. Something ideological, and something psychological.  

On Poggio and Stephen

This all makes more sense when in the next chapter we hear about Poggio’s true feelings for monks: he despises them. And he despises that he must deal with them because they are the ones that lock away his precious classical texts. More in the novel voice, Greenblatt writes of Poggio’s views on monks: “on the whole he found them superstitious, ignorant, and hopelessly lazy. Monasteries, he thought, were the dumping grounds for those deemed unfit for life in the world.” Yet Poggio is forced to reckon with these imbeciles in order to access their manuscripts: “Though he ridiculed what he regarded as monastic sloth, he knew that whatever he hoped to find existed only because of centuries of institutional commitment and long, painstaking human labor” (37). Again that awkward problem where the caricature doesn’t square with historical evidence. At another point we here that Poggio “…was not at all interested in what was written four or five hundred years ago. He despised that time and regarded it as a sink of superstition and ignorance” (18). And conveniently, when Poggio visits dreadful, rainy England he doesn’t quite get to Oxford, that great university town, so medieval universities don’t have to come up in this book either. Greenblatt is working off of Poggio’s extensive surviving correspondence, so I don’t doubt these statements (even though they are not cited).

What I do see throughout The Swerve is a conflation of views – of Poggio’s view with Stephen’s view. Greenblatt the historian seems to let his inner Poggio take over and thus this non-fiction history takes on the prejudiced slant of a fifteenth-century anti-religious egotistical humanist, and becomes historical fiction. Poggio controls the ideology of this text. Poggio inflects all the voices of this book with a fiercely anti-Catholic polemic. This is a fatal mistake. It is pretty transparent that Stephen as desiring subject idolizes Poggio despite (or maybe because of) his shortcomings. They would be best friends, and they both want this moment to be modern so badly. Unfortunately Greenblatt, against his best training as a historian and critic, allows that personal desire to swerve history into fiction. Instead of pointing out the bias of such views and painting us a more realistic picture informed by decades of scholarship, Stephen adopts Poggio’s view that the Middle Ages was “a sink of superstition and ignorance.” And that is exactly what people could learn from this book.

But I think there’s something even more psychological going on here. In the preface Greenblatt describes his mother’s deep anxiety about death and how that affected him, and how Lucretius’ poem offered him hope: “… she had blighted much of her life—and cast a shadow on my own—in the service of her obsessive fear. Lucretius’ words therefore rang out with a terrible clarity: ‘Death is nothing to us.’ To spend your existence in the grip of anxiety about death, he wrote, is mere folly. It is a sure way to let your life slip from you incomplete and unenjoyed” (5).

Let me first say that I have nothing against such personal anecdotes or emotional connections to history – I love reading about the more individual side of scholars in their criticism and think such moves can be quite illuminating critical tools. This one definitely is, though not in the way it was intended. Coming back to this passage after reading the whole book puts it in quite a different light. We realize that after the preface it becomes the Middle Ages that Greenblatt presents as gripped with anxiety about death, living in obsessive fear, an ignorant, superstitious fear. The Middle Ages is the return of the repressed, of the mother that must be rejected in order to choose life – to chose modernity. Within these dark pasts can be no joy for medieval people because there was no joy for his mother and the narratives have collapsed together. Greenblatt becomes Stephen, the boy afraid of his mother and feeling very small; this Stephen pushes all of the medieval period into the abject to join his mother and make himself feel big and brave again. The modern equals the grown-up Greenblatt and it must triumph; it must find a past to reject and a narrative to inspire its adoring future generations – his readers.

At what cost?

Of course, this is only one book in a lifetime of books, in a lifetime of undeniably great achievement. But The Swerve relies on that lifetime of books to perpetuate factual inaccuracies to a far bigger audience than any of his previous books. Weeks as a best-seller – perhaps selling more copies than all his other books combined? Regardless of the numbers, it’s definitely more minds unprepared to challenge his authority on the past, and willing to swallow his truthiness. In that way the book represents an abuse of power. It is an injustice to the past, and the mythical invention of modernity is an ethical issue because it sets a precedent for history that ignores complexity in favor of oversimplification. What if that history deals with more than cultural production, but genocides or incarceration or forced migration? What if that history is about whitewashing whole religions as all extremists, or naively superstitious, or terrorists? At what cost comes more viewers or higher ratings or more prizes?

No amount of “humanities advocacy” is worth desecrating the past it purports to promote, or undoing generations of valuable scholarly work. The public and the academy deserve better: they deserve the interesting stories that are also true, and they deserve to see awards given to those scholars who labor to find them instead of invent them.

So, I’d gladly assign Greenblatt’s earlier work to my students, if we were reading some early modern poets or Shakespeare. But if I assigned any parts of The Swerve, my students would immediately see the fallacies in this argument because they learn a different story in my classes, from the medieval works I assign them. In the opening lines of Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales they see so much of what Greenblatt sees in the opening lines of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura: unlimited wonder, a celebration of the interconnectedness of the earth, sky, wind, cosmos, with little birds, the smallest roots, our bodies, our desire to be whole, to be connected to each other, to love and to be loved.

If my students read about the Swerve’s dour, self-depriving medieval mindset, they would recall Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale,” by far the most hilarious, sensual, naughty text on the pensum. Nothing else we read delights so explicitly in adulterous sex, explosive farts, and practical jokes involving the anus – all the while critiqueing church and society, and written by the Father of English Poetry.

In my classes we talk about how medieval literature is all about reading between the lines, just like all literature; we look at how monks take joy in their writing even though it’s hard work, just like us modern scholars; we luxuriate in the beauty of medieval aesthetic traditions, just like we do with modern aesthetic traditions. There is no agon; there is history without transition.

What I teach, what I hope they learn, is that there is always nuance to history. History is paradoxical. It’s the cruxes that make history spark and come alive. And what I hope they take away is that we have an ethical responsibility to respect belief and not to belittle it (especially if we don’t share it), and that we have an ethical obligation to listen to what the evidence tells us, and not write what we want to believe, or what other people will buy.

Selected reviews of/commentaries on The Swerve, in approximate chronological order
(all accessed before or on 9 May 2016) *particularly in-depth

2.     Anthony Grafton, “The Most Charming Pagan,” review of The Swerve. The New York Review of Books. 8 December 2011.

3.     *Baerista, “The Swerve is Really a Full Frontal Crash.” The Renaissance Mathematicus (scholarly blog). 1 May 2012.

4.     *John Monfasani, review of The Swerve (review no. 1283). Reviews in History. July 2012.

5.     *Morgan Meis, “Swerving.” n+1 (online magazine). 20 July 2012.

6.     *Jim Hinch, “Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong – And Why It Matters.” LA Review of Books. 1 Dec 2012.

7.     J. J. Cohen, “Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize.” In the Middle (scholarly blog). 5 Dec 2012.

8.     Elaine Treharne, “Swerving from the Straight and Narrow: Greenblatt's Fictional Medieval Period.” Text Technologies (scholarly blog). 5 Dec 2012.

9.     Steve Mentz, “Swervin’: Modernity is Not History.” The Bookfish (blog). 7 Dec 2012. 

10.  *Tim O’Neill, review of The Swerve. Amarium Magnum (academic book review blog).  27 Jan 2013.

11.  *Gjert Vestrheim (UiB), “Problematisk fra Greenblatt om Lukrets” (om Stephen Greenblatt: The Swerve), Norsk litteraturvitenskapelig tidsskrift 16 (2013), 149-160

Also related: Kellie Robertson, “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto.” Exemplaria 22 (2010): 99–118.


Anonymous said...

The problem is, of course, that most "general readers" are quite ok with the truthinesss, even if it is pointed out to them. A student of mine-- a good student, with considerable interest in early literatures--told me he'd read The Swerve over the break. He clearly expected praise from me, and was quite taken aback when I said there were serious problems with the book. Nor had he seen any negative reviews or heard that there was any controversy; he just felt that it was a Worthy Tome, by a Harvard Professor no less, on something quite old and Latin, so surely it must be a Good Thing, in a general sort of way. And he was willing to defend it along those lines: yeah, ok, so maybe it isn't really true, BUT.... I don't think I managed to sway him; actually I let it go because I was running somewhere, and because I felt bad about bursting this nice young man's bubble.

Anonymous said...

That's a great piece, thanks so much for sharing it! The problem, I think, is also much wider - I work on fourteenth- to seventeenth-century England, but am definitely a medievalist, and what strikes me is that the distortions of what the Middle Ages were you describe in the Swerve are actually commonplace among the majority of early modernists I know and read. Noble few actually go to the bother of reading something about the Middle Ages, let alone read any of the texts (apart from Canterbury Tales in high school, perhaps), but *all* have very clear ideas as to what the period was like (just like Greenblatt in the Swerve). So I'd say that not only do we need more voices like yours in the article, but also that we need medievalists to stand up and start fighting against the early modernist lack of knowledge that perpetuates eighteenth-century stereotypes about the 'dark ages'. I really think we should start taking a stance on that, because only through open action that leads to dialogue can we make sure there are less and less people who really think the Swerve is a great and accurate account of what the Middle Ages were like. Not to mention that early modernity as a discipline would also benefit from such a dialogue in general, as would no doubt medieval studies.

ZH said...

The "Book Review Forum" in _Exemplaria_ 25.4 (2013) is also a useful resource for (some very good) reviews of _The Swerve_.

S. Drimmer said...

I disagree with the comment above that "...not only do we need more voices like yours in the article, but also that we need medievalists to stand up and start fighting against the early modernist lack of knowledge." This is like telling climate change scientists that they have to work harder to get skeptics to believe that climate change is a fact. Once they've produced the work, and they've disseminated that work, they've done their job. We produce the scholarship that shows a universe far different from the one described in The Swerve and elsewhere, we have plenty of conversations across disciplines and the curriculum, there are heaps of medievalists who have used public platforms for discussing their nuanced work, and our scholarship is widely available.

At some point we need to put the burden of understanding on those who willfully refuse to change their minds. This stubborn refusal is not innocent. Because those who choose to believe in the teleological version of history's onward march of progress, pushed forward by great geniuses are choosing to believe in what those Great Geniuses were so great at selling.

Susan said...

This is excellent. I'd just add that this sounds like much of Greenblatt's more recent work - elegantly and engagingly written, but usually with one idea that is carried much too far, so that it oversimplifies the problem/issue he is writing about. He is not a historian, and so the context is almost always oversimplified. His biography of Shakespeare is terrible.

Historian on the Edge said...

If you can face it, you might also read David Wootton's The Invention of Science, which does much the same thing as Greenblatt's book and is probably a shameless attempt to obtain the same level of celebrity and financial reward.

Laura Saetveit Miles said...

ZH: Thanks for that recommendation of the Exemplaria reviews. Sorry to have missed it the first time around... so many reviews to track down!

Lem_Fliggity said...

Does anyone have any good examples of books about the Middle Ages that approach the period with accuracy AND are readable? I appreciate Greenblatt's style, but I would appreciate a book like The Swerve, but accurate. Thanks!

Gwendolyn Olson said...

I love history, but I am interested in learning the truth as well as reading a good story. Do you have any recommendations?