Thursday, May 9, 2013

Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning and The Swerve

I read this passage of R.R. Reno's Imprimis article with great interest:

From the end of the Civil War until the 1960s, the wealthiest, best educated, and most powerful Americans remained largely loyal to Christianity. That’s changed. There were warning signs. William F. Buckley, Jr. chronicled how Yale in the early ’50s could no longer support even the bland religiosity of liberal Protestantism. Today, Yale and other elite institutions can be relied upon to provide anti-Christian propaganda. Stephen Pinker and Stephen Greenblatt at Harvard publish books that show how Christianity pretty much ruins everything, as Christopher Hitchens put it so bluntly. The major presses publish book after book by scholars like Elaine Pagels at Princeton, who argues that Christianity is for the most part an invention of power hungry bishops who suppressed the genuine diversity and spiritual richness of early followers of Jesus.

One can dispute the accuracy of the books, articles, and lectures of these and other authors. This is necessary, but unlikely to be effective. Experts savaged Greenblatt’s book on Lucretius, The Swerve, but it won the National Book Award for non-fiction. That’s not an accident. Greenblatt and others at elite universities are serving an important ideological purpose by using their academic authority to discredit Christianity, whose adherents are obstacles not only to abortion and gay rights, but to medical research unrestricted by moral concerns about the use of fetal tissue, to new reproductive technologies, to doctor-assisted suicide, and in general to liquefying traditional moral limits so that they can be reconstructed according to the desires of the Nones. Books by these elite academics reassure the Nones and their fellow travelers that they are not opposed to anything good or even respectable, but rather to historic forms of oppression, ignorance, and prejudice.

I noted Greenblatt's The Swerve when it was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal a couple of year ago and I see that Father Robert Barron noted his work too, partially because Father Barron had read Greenblatt's Will in the World. When I was in graduate school I read the professor's Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare and it was rather influential on my reading of Shakespeare's plays. The University of Chicago Press reissued the book in 2005:

Renaissance Self-Fashioning is a study of sixteenth-century life and literature that spawned a new era of scholarly inquiry. Stephen Greenblatt examines the structure of selfhood as evidenced in major literary figures of the English Renaissance—More, Tyndale, Wyatt, Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare—and finds that in the early modern period new questions surrounding the nature of identity heavily influenced the literature of the era. Now a classic text in literary studies, Renaissance Self-Fashioning continues to be of interest to students of the Renaissance, English literature, and the new historicist tradition, and this new edition includes a preface by the author on the book's creation and influence.

Although The Swerve won the National Book Award, I certainly hope it does not have the same influence in academia--as Reno notes, it should not, because it is not accurate history or effective interpretation, but it just might because it fits a certain pattern and need. Reviews by Father Barron, Jim Hinch in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Professor John Monfasani in Reviews in History make its inaccuracies and errors clear. Just to cite Father Barron's response to Greenblatt's incorrect view of the Middle Ages:

I will give just a few examples of the egregious caricature of medieval Christianity that he feels compelled to present. Whereas Lucretius, Poggio, and their modern intellectual successors were marked by a restless curiosity and an adventurous desire to explore the physical universe, Catholics, Greenblatt maintains, were dogmatic, repressive, exclusively other-worldly. As evidence for this claim, he cites the medieval conviction, cultivated especially in the monasteries, that “curiositas” is a sin. Well, it might have helped if he had searched out what medieval Christians meant by that term. He would have discovered that “curiositas” names, not intellectual curiosity, but what we might characterize as gossip or minding other people’s business, seeking to know that which you have no business knowing. In point of fact, the virtue that answers the vice of “curiositas” is “studiositas” (studiousness), the serious pursuit of knowledge. As anyone even mildly familiar with medieval Christianity knows, this virtue was exemplified by some of the greatest spirits that western civilization has produced. St. Albert the Great assiduously studied Aristotelianism, which was the leading science of his time and which was concerned, above all, with searching out the causes of things; St. Thomas Aquinas’s soaring intellectualism is on vivid display on every page of his voluminous work, which runs the gamut from God and the angels to planets, plants, human societies, economics, politics, animals, etc. Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Alexander of Hales, Henry of Ghent, Roger Bacon—to name just some of the most prominent figures—pursued scientific, practical and metaphysical questions with an intensity and, yes, curiosity rarely rivaled. I readily grant that an intellectual paradigm shift occurred in the 16th century, but to claim that the sciences emerged out of rank and uncurious superstition is simply a calumny.

A second feature of Greenblatt’s caricature is that medieval Christianity was dualistic, morose, deeply opposed to the pleasures of the body, and masochistic in its asceticism. As evidence he brings forward the many accounts of self-flagellation and use of the “discipline” that took place in medieval monasteries and among penitential societies. No one can deny that such practices were a feature of medieval religious life, but to take them as somehow paradigmatic of the medieval attitude toward the body is simply ridiculous. Nowhere in the literature of the world do we see more boisterous and even bawdy celebrations of the body, sensual pleasure and sexuality than in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and Boccaccio’s “Decameron;” and even a casual glance at the figures in the colored glass windows of Chartres Cathedral or the Sainte Chapelle reveals an extraordinary celebration of the energy and color of ordinary life. That the dominant Christian attitude in the Middle Ages was a life-denying asceticism is quite absurd.

Despite Greenblatt’s assertions, the Catholic Middle Ages did not require Lucretius’s “De rerum natura” to learn the importance of either intellectual curiosity or the joys of this life. And in point of fact, the cultural world of modernity that emerged through the exertions of Descartes, Pascal, Galileo, Newton, Jefferson and company actually owed a great deal, intellectually and artistically, to the medieval period. The story of modernity’s rise is much more complex and finally much more interesting than the one told by Stephen Greenblatt, and it is altogether possible to celebrate the legitimate achievements of modern culture without knocking down a straw-man version of Catholicism.

Regine Pernoud would agree!

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