“For me,” Stephen Greenblatt once told an interviewer, “it had everything to do with the extraordinary place that Berkeley, California was. In the 1970s there was a sense of excitement, of disorder, of the dream of reconstituting the world—a sense that hierarchies were breaking down. It was a great institution for that.” Greenblatt, who started his career at the institution in question, namely the University of California at Berkeley—and who now, having held since 2000 the title of John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, is by many accounts the most influential figure in academic literary studies—was referring to the birth of the so-called New Historicism, the “school” of criticism that he founded and that turned out to be his ticket to the top. He had been trained—at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and Yale—to be a New Critic, analyzing literary texts in a formal, dispassionate way with the goal of understanding what made them tick. But he was living, as he put it, in “an exuberant moment of generational insurgency,” when some of his professors at Yale were starting to show an interest in “theory”—principally deconstructionism, that wonderful new import from France—and when he and some of his friends and colleagues at Berkeley, influenced by “the Marxist ferment of the late sixties,” were “passionately reading [Walter] Benjamin and [Louis] Althusser,” not to mention Michel Foucault and Raymond Williams.
Rejecting the New Criticism, Greenblatt and his crew, while unable to come to total agreement on anything so strict as a theory, decided that they shared certain attitudes and attributes, which he and Catherine Gallagher summed up as follows in Practicing New Historicism (2000): “the fascination with the particular, the wide-ranging curiosity, the refusal of universal aesthetic norms, and the resistance to formulating an overarching theoretical program.” Literature, they affirmed, was
not the path to a transhistorical truth, whether psychoanalytic or deconstructive or purely formal, but the key to particular historically embedded social and psychological formulations. . . . Where traditional “close readings” [in the New Critical mode] tended to build toward an intensified sense of wondering admiration, linked to the celebration of genius, new historicist readings are more often skeptical, wary, demystifying, critical, and even adversarial.
New Historicists were at once insufficiently knowledgeable about history and insufficiently sensitive to literary merit.
Greenblatt and company treated “culture as text”; they challenged such concepts as originality, genius, aesthetic merit, “the classics,” the canon, and “major works” vs. “minor works”; and even as they sought to upend conventional approaches to literary criticism, they sought, too, to overturn what they saw as old-fashioned approaches to the telling of history, producing “counterhistories” that would amount to “assaults on the grands récits inherited from the last century.”
If all this sounds rather vague, it’s because it is. Greenblatt himself has admitted that the New Historicism “slightly resisted, and still resists, definition. If I simply say that it’s about recontextualizing works, or resetting them in their cultural and historical moment, or treating them as objects of anthropological analysis—if I say any of those things, I slightly distort the origin and the impulse.” He’s even acknowledged that “New Historicism” was “a not particularly deeply thought-out term.” The one thing that can be said with reasonable certainty about the New Historicism is that whatever it was meant to be, it was meant to be radical—a product, as well as an integral part, of the campus-centered youth rebellion of the day. “There was a moment within the discipline of literary criticism,” Greenblatt has said, apparently unaware of just how embarrassingly callow it sounds, “in which it felt like a political act in itself, just to open the windows and bring other things to bear on literature.” Yet there’s a good deal of truth, too, in the British literary critic John Carey’s suggestion that, for all their radical hype, many of the New Historicists were doing little more than “putting literature into its historical context”—something that had long been a standard element of literary criticism prior to the ascendancy of the New Critics in the mid-twentieth century. The chief difference was that New Historicists were at once insufficiently knowledgeable about history and insufficiently sensitive to literary merit.
Eager to spread their purportedly new, edgy, and impossible-to-define modus operandi to English departments far and near, Greenblatt and his colleagues founded a journal, Representations, that became their movement’s flagship publication. Thus did Greenblatt help initiate the long, slow destruction of the serious study of literature in the American academy. Few people, if any, have played as significant a role in this process as he has—and few have profited from it as much, either professionally or financially. Academic fame came early: years before he had even coined the term New Historicism, Greenblatt had already come to embody—in the minds of colleagues who’d attended his guest lectures at universities on both sides of the Atlantic—a new breed of hustling, jet-setting, self-promoting English professor. (In David Lodge’s 1975 novel ChangingPlaces, a now-classic satire of cynical academic flim-flam artists, Greenblatt appears briefly under the name Sy Gootblatt.) Lucasta Miller has recalled that in 1988, when he spoke to a packed lecture hall at Oxford, he was a glamorous figure, “his flamboyant rhetoric, his energy and focus, even his elegant suit add[ing] up to something far removed from the tweedy understatement of the average Oxford don.” A 1992 newspaper profile began as follows: “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.”
Now seventy-three years old, Greenblatt has served as the President of the Modern Language Association; he’s currently the general editor of both The Norton Shakespeare and The Norton Anthology of English Literature; and in addition to being perhaps the most celebrated humanities professor in America, he’s also parlayed his academic celebrity into success with the general public, receiving (reportedly) at least one million-dollar advance, making the bestseller list, and winning the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and last year’s Holberg Prize from the Norwegian government (which included $735,000 in taxpayer funds). Yet throughout his career, he’s been dogged by questions about his basic competence in several of the areas into which he’s wandered. Camille Paglia said it plainly in a 2005 interview in which she lamented the supplanting of the New Criticism by the New Historicism: “the people practicing it, people like Stephen Greenblatt, they’re not good historians. They’re not erudite.” To be sure, one point that should be made about the damage Greenblatt has done to literary studies is that he has done almost all of it indirectly: while his own work has certain merits and he writes in a style that is unquestionably more lucid than that of his theory-besotted contemporaries, the same cannot be said of most of his New Historicist protégés: as Miller has observed, Greenblatt’s followers “employ dull, tautological abstractions—‘the textuality of history and the history of textuality’ for example” (that’s a quote from the New Historicist Louis Montrose)—while “Greenblatt’s own prose style is sinuous and lively.” Sir Jonathan Bate, a Shakespearean at Oxford who considers Greenblatt a “clever critic” and gifted writer with “enormous panache” (yes, “panache”) and an interest “in the diversity and oddity of historical forces,” argues that Greenblatt’s influence “is in a curious way at odds with what he really is himself. He’s been followed by second-rate Marxists offering a crude model of literature being in the service of ideology.”
Cultural Studies is an intellectual and scholarly disaster. And its spiritual father is Stephen Greenblatt.
Another point to be made about Greenblatt’s influence is that it has spread beyond those who identify themselves as New Historicists and has helped shape—if that’s the right word to describe something almost entirely shapeless—what is now known as Cultural Studies. As I wrote in my 2012 book The Victims’ Revolution, Cultural Studies (the term was coined in 1964 by the British scholar Richard Hoggart) is “the soul of today’s humanities—or is, rather, the empty space where that soul should be. In a time when the line between the humanities and social sciences is blurring, Cultural Studies is the prime location where that blurring is taking place.” It makes sense that Cultural Studies has succeeded the New Historicism at the top of the humanities heap, because it’s even more unserious, even more indefinable, even more open to recherché (not to say inane and capricious) topics of “study”; to an even greater extent than the New Historicists, the typical practitioner of Cultural Studies combines a breathtaking cultural and historical illiteracy with a tendency to lean on pseudo-radical tropes about Western imperialism and so forth. In sum, it’s an intellectual and scholarly disaster. And its spiritual father is Stephen Greenblatt.
Originally a specialist in the twentieth century, Greenblatt soon turned his attention to Shakespeare and the Tudor era generally. In his first important book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980)—he had previously published his undergraduate thesis on Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley, and his Ph.D. dissertation on Sir Walter Raleigh—Greenblatt subjected the Bard and some of his contemporaries to a critical discussion focused on the New Historicist concept of “self-fashioning.” The term became so trendy that it has its own Wikipedia entry: self-fashioning, the online encyclopedia informs us, describes “the process of constructing one’s identity and public persona according to a set of socially acceptable standards” and reflects a “conscious effort to strive to imitate a praised model in society.” Renaissance Self-Fashioning (“the book in which I first found my own voice”) starts off interestingly enough, with an engagingly detailed analysis of The Ambassadors, a Holbein painting of two noblemen. The analysis doesn’t read like the work of some academic who’s bent on selling a new school of criticism but rather like something that could have been written decades ago by any intelligent art critic. From Holbein, however, Greenblatt shifts to Thomas More, and this is where things get odd: quoting short, obscure fragments of More’s writing, Greenblatt interprets them in a way that involves a great deal of dubious speculation, and uses his interpretations to leap to conclusions not just about More himself but about the supposed centrality of “self-fashioning” to life in Tudor times. Greenblatt may be talking about literature and art, but only so that he can pontificate about identity-creation, social roles, and, ultimately, individuals’ ways of dealing with the power structures of the societies in which they live.
Greenblatt goes on to read More’s Utopia, very curiously, as an act of self-criticism. Try to follow this: what we would regard as the real More, based on what we know about his life, is, for Greenblatt, a “self-fashioned” More, a fake More, a factitious image self-consciously concocted and theatrically incarnated by More in order that he might thrive in Henry VIII’s court and country. It is not in More’s biography, then, but in Utopia that we can discover the lineaments of the real More: for in this book, writes Greenblatt, More imagined a society in which he would have been free to be his true self, and consequently truly happy. More’s kind of “performance,” we are meant to understand, was typical of the Renaissance, when people in a wide range of social positions, liberated from what Greenblatt views as lockstep medieval restrictions on personal self-presentation, grasped “the role of human autonomy in the construction of identity” and took advantage of it to devise their own public selves. But was the Renaissance really, as this might imply, a time of new individual “power” and “freedom”? No, says Greenblatt, because then, as in every era, the acts of “fashioning oneself and being fashioned by cultural institutions” were “inseparably intertwined,” making people always and everywhere “remarkably unfree,” the “ideological product[s] of the relations of power in a particular society.”
Greenblatt may be talking about literature and art, but only so that he can pontificate about identity-creation.
Power, power, power: it’s all familiar, and tiresome, postmodern schtick, of course. Fortunately, Greenblatt’s thesis doesn’t force itself on you on every page, and you don’t have to buy into it to get something out of the book here and there. It’s possible to read with pleasure, for example, such set pieces as the opening passage on Holbein, while fully discounting Greenblatt’s argument about “self-fashioning,” or, alternatively, seeing his thesis as somewhat valid in certain instances while recognizing at other points that it’s being rather crudely forced upon the material. At times, indeed, one suspects that Greenblatt is pushing his thesis in order to preserve and enhance his street cred as a cutting-edge, Foucault-influenced academic, even as he’s engaged in critical activities that are, to a considerable extent, thoroughly conventional.
Greenblatt continued down the same road in Shakespearean Negotiations (1988) and Hamlet in Purgatory (2001), although several critics did notice that the latter book indicated at least the beginning of a turn away from the New Historicism: having previously denigrated literary greatness and exalted ideology, Greenblatt now extolled the former and played down the latter (so much so that Robert Alter, reviewing the book in The New York Times, applauded Greenblatt for resurrecting exactly that which he and his acolytes had striven to undermine: “This sort of appreciation of the distinctive ‘magical intensity’ of the poetic imagination has been eroded by many of the recent fashions in literary studies”). Greenblatt pretty much completely jettisoned the New Historicism in Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004), for which the Berkeley rebel-turned Harvard eminento reportedly collected that aforementioned million-dollar advance. Frankly (if not shamelessly) tailored to a general audience, it became a major bestseller; reading it, you’d never know that its author had founded a purportedly radical critical movement that questioned the very concept of literary greatness. For Will in the World isn’t only a celebration of Shakespeare’s greatness but a flight from radicalism by a patently cynical author who’s determined to give middlebrow readers exactly what they want.
Now, as everyone knows, the challenge that has always confronted any would-be chronicler of the Bard’s life is the lack of solid information about it. For that reason, all Shakespeare biographers have been obliged to speculate to a certain degree. But Greenblatt, eager to fill all the gaps in the narrative and thus provide his customers with a dramatic, novelistic tale in which the protagonist is as real as real can be, takes speculation to a new level. Colm Tóibín, noting in his review of Will in the World that “[a]lmost every step” Greenblatt takes in reconstructing Shakespeare’s life “involves a step backward into conjecture and a further step sometimes into pure foolishness,” provided an example from the book’s early pages:
Greenblatt discovers, for example, that Shakespeare’s father in his official capacity was responsible for paying two groups of touring players who came to the town in 1569. Would the father “have taken his 5-year-old son to see the show?” Greenblatt asks. The answer is as emphatic as the question is banal: We do not know. In the following paragraph, nonetheless, Greenblatt writes as though Shakespeare had in fact attended the play. “His son, intelligent, quick and sensitive, would have stood between his father’s legs. For the first time in his life William Shakespeare watched a play.”
This placement in the reader’s mind of a vivid image of the five-year-old Will watching his first play—an image with no basis whatsoever in the documentary record—exemplifies Greenblatt’s procedure throughout this book. Drawing on equally scanty evidence, Greenblatt decides, among much else, that Shakespeare was a friend and follower of the Catholic martyr Edmund Campion and that he was obsessed with making money and accumulating property. Greenblatt spends half a page on a last will and testament that turns out not to have anything at all to do with Shakespeare but that simply mentions somebody else with a similar name. He drags into the book anecdotes and personal details about contemporaries whom Shakespeare “might have” met, events he “might have” witnessed, and so on, all with an eye to shaping an image of the playwright. Again and again, he serves up speculations built on speculations built on speculations: was Shakespeare’s father a secret Catholic? If so, was he a Catholic for only part of his life, and Protestant for another part? Or was he, in some distinctive way that was perhaps anticipatory of later Anglicanism, “both Catholic and Protestant”? In any event, how much did his son know about—and share—his religious leanings? If Shakespeare did know about them, or even share them, did this have anything to do with certain characterizations, settings, plots, and lines in this or that play?
Some of Greenblatt’s biographical speculation, admittedly, seems reasonable enough and even helps illuminate Elizabethan life; too much of it, however, is much less valuable, and makes you wish you were reading about Shakespeare’s plays instead of about the few scraps of public documents he and those close to him left behind (and not just reading about those documents, moreover, but reading about everything Greenblatt has decided to read into them). Repeatedly, and with wild abandon, Greenblatt does the very thing all of us were warned never to do when we studied literary criticism under the New Critics—he pulls out specific lines, incidents, and details of character from works by Shakespeare and uses them to draw all kinds of conclusions about the author’s life. For instance, he attributes various devices in Hamlet (such as the use of a ghost) to sundry personal reasons ranging from Shakespeare’s grief over his son’s death to his supposed dissatisfaction over the abolition of the doctrine of purgatory under Queen Elizabeth. Greenblatt’s discussion of Hamlet itself is often absorbing, but every time he tries to squeeze some biographical significance out of it, the effort feels strained and unconvincing.
Similarly, it’s interesting when Greenblatt ponders “the centrality of wooing” in Shakespeare’s works, the number of marriages in Shakespeare that are “forced upon one party or another,” and the “terrifying” nature of the two truly strong marriages in Shakespeare’s plays (Claudius and Gertrude and the Macbeths). But then he uses all this as a reason to speculate at length about Shakespeare’s own marriage—and it just seems harebrained and boring. Shakespeare, he maintains, had “an overall diffidence in depicting marriages.” Is it permissible to say of a pronouncement by Harvard’s John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities that it sounds just plain silly? “It is difficult,” asserts Greenblatt, “not to read his works in the context of his decision to live for most of a long marriage away from his wife.” No, not that difficult, at least to anyone trained in the New Criticism. And there’s more:
Perhaps, for whatever reason, Shakespeare feared to be taken in fully by his spouse or by anyone else; perhaps he could not let anyone so completely in; or perhaps he simply made a disastrous mistake, when he [married at] eighteen, and had to live with the consequences as a husband and as a writer. Most couples, he may have told himself, are mismatched, even couples marrying for love; you should never marry in haste; a young man should not marry an older woman; a marriage under compulsion—“wedlock forcèd”—is a hell. And perhaps, beyond these, he told himself, in imagining Hamlet and Macbeth, Othello and The Winter’s Tale, that marital intimacy is dangerous, that the very dream is a threat.
Yes—perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. The bottom line is that Greenblatt, for whatever reason, has decided that Anne Hathaway was a nasty piece of work and that Shakespeare’s marriage to her was unhappy. Over to John Carey: Will in the World “would seem, to any self-respecting 1980s new historicist, so old-fashioned as to be feeble-minded.” But the book’s most sensational review came from Edinburgh University’s Alastair Fowler, a top-flight Shakespearean, who thundered in the Times Literary Supplement that Greenblatt was giving his readers “toy history” and had “a mind quite innocent of English history.”
But the controversy stirred up by Will in the World was nothing compared to that which erupted upon the publication of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011). If in Will in the World Greenblatt had had the nerve to try to flesh out Shakespeare based on very little evidence, in The Swerve he did something even more audacious: he claimed to have uncovered the previously unrecognized secret of how the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance and, eventually, what we now think of as the modern world. The story he tells in The Swerve is that of Poggio Bracciolini, a Florentine monk, humanist, and bibliophile who worked for the Pope and who, while visiting a German monastery in 1417, ran across a copy of De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, the first-century B.C. Roman poet, which he took home with him, copied, and distributed. Lucretius’s poem is an expression of Epicurean philosophy, which Greenblatt sums up in a couple of dozen statements, among them: “Everything is made of invisible particles.” “All particles are in motion and in an infinite void.” “The universe has no creator or designer.” “Nature ceaselessly experiments.” “The universe was not created for or about humans.” “The soul dies.” “There is no afterlife.” “All organized religions are superstitious.” Greenblatt would have us believe that Lucretius’s philosophy was by far the closest the ancient world came to the mindset of people living today in secular liberal democracies, and that Poggio’s discovery of De Rerum Natura set off the Renaissance and made the modern world possible. The title The Swerve refers to Lucretius’s statement that “[e]verything comes into being as a result of a swerve” (clinamen in Latin), meaning “an unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory.” For Greenblatt, Poggio’s discovery of Lucretius’s book, and its impact on Western civilization, represented just such a swerve, turning Western civilization away from where it had been headed (i.e., “toward oblivion”) and aiming it in the direction of modernity.
Like Will in the World, The Swerve received glowing reviews in general-audience publications and became a bestseller. It also won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a terrific read. The only problem with it is that it’s a barefaced lie from beginning to end—drastically simplifying and distorting history for the sake of a gripping story. First of all, Greenblatt wants us to believe certain flatly untrue things about the Middle Ages—for example, that during that period everyone “turn[ed] away from reading and writing” and the culture of ancient Greece and Rome was essentially lost. On the contrary, books were revered and classical authors such as Aristotle, Virgil, and Ovid were a staple of scholarly studies. Likewise, Greenblatt depicts medieval Europeans as gripped by “a hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage and an obsession with the afterlife.” But no one who’s ever taken a course in medieval literature would buy that picture, and no respected historian has painted such an unequivocally dark view of the Middle Ages in generations.
The Swerve is a terrific read. But it’s a barefaced lie from beginning to end.
Second, Greenblatt wants us to see Lucretius as the very model of modernity – a distant mirror, as it were, of our own contemporary selves and sensibilities. Yes, Lucretius wrote a number of things that atheists today would agree with, and he anticipated, sort of, some of the basic discoveries of modern physics. But in order to depict Lucretius as the father of the modern world, Greenblatt has to drop the very heart of Epicureanism down the memory hole. I’m referring to ataraxia, which for Epicureans meant cultivating a state of serenity in which one is emotionally impervious to absolutely everything, including the suffering and death of others. As Laura Saetveit Miles, a medievalist, wrote last year in a splendid takedown of The Swerve, Lucretius’s poem “actually proposes an apathetic, anesthetized calm that is as incompatible with empathy, compassion, affection, bodily pleasure, or joyful happiness as it is with pain.” Just as Alastair Fowler called Will in the World “toy history,” so Miles accused Greenblatt, in The Swerve, of “dumbing down the complexities of history and religion” and “rewriting history to fit a detective story.”
Third, what about Greenblatt’s insistence that this philosophy, thanks to Poggio’s discovery, spread around Europe and ultimately triggered the Renaissance? Quite simply, there’s no evidence for it whatsoever. As John Monfasani, a professor at suny Albany, wrote, The Swerve “purports to tell us how the Renaissance began. Yet nowhere does it do so.” Yes, noted Monfasani, there were fans of Epicureanism in the fifteenth century, but they learned about it from Cicero and others, not Lucretius. In any event, the works of the Skeptics, who had vastly outnumbered the Epicureans in classical Rome, played a far more significant role in shaping the Renaissance than Epicureanism did. Furthermore, several historians have pointed out that the very idea that Poggio “rescued” or “discovered” De Rerum Natura is absurd: two manuscripts of it, produced during the ninth-century “Carolingian Renaissance,” existed, and still exist, in the library at Leiden University, and scholars before and after Poggio are known to have quoted from them.
Surely Greenblatt did enough homework to know all these things, but if he’d told us any of them, it would have ruined his story. And what kind of story is it to read? Miles herself admits to having been swept up by it, only to realize, upon finishing it and thinking about it, that she’d been taken in by a “dangerous” book. Same here. Greenblatt takes history, which in and of itself cannot help being fascinating when told well and honestly, and reduces it to a cheesy potboiler. How, you ask, can a purportedly distinguished Harvard professor lower himself to serving up such dishonest swill? Reading Will in the World and, especially, The Swerve, I couldn’t help feeling that for somebody who had been at Yale when the Gallic smog of deconstruction was beginning to poison the New Haven air with its fashionable questioning of objective, absolute truth, and who at Berkeley had led a coterie of academic rebels determined not to build on known truths but to challenge received views (not, mind you, for the sake of truth, but for the sake of challenge itself), telling outright lies about history might not be all that big a stretch. It could be, quite simply, that the truth doesn’t matter as much to Greenblatt as a good, rousing story.
This thought was still lingering in my mind when I dove into Greenblatt’s newest product, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. As it happens, the book opens with an autobiographical introduction in which he remembers recognizing, as a child, that something his family rabbi said was untrue. His immediate reaction was: “I have been lied to.” But that incident also engendered a lifelong fascination with “the stories that we humans invent in an attempt to make sense of our existence.” He has “come to understand,” he writes, “that the term ‘lie’ is a woefully inadequate description of either the content or the motive of these stories. . . . Humans cannot live without stories.” And one of those vital stories, he argues in The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, is that of the Garden of Eden—and his aim here is to chronicle the ways in which Jews and Christians have viewed Adam and Eve over the millennia.
It’s a long slog. Greenblatt tells us about non-canonical ancient texts that expanded on the Genesis story of Adam and Eve; about early Christians who debated whether or not to accept that story as canonical; about Origen and other ancients who read it as symbolic; about the insistence by Augustine on its literal truth, an insistence that was inextricable from his own fixation on carnal sin; about Jerome’s influential argument that Eve, not Adam, was responsible for the Fall, and that all women shared in her guilt; about the depiction of Adam and Eve in medieval art, especially that of Albrecht Dürer, who forged “the most influential contribution to the image of Adam and Eve”; and about Paradise Lost, which “forever transformed the ancient narrative,” giving Adam and Eve “a more intense life . . . than they had ever possessed in the thousands of years since they were first conceived.”
I’ve read electrifying books about the Bible. This isn’t one of them.
From Milton, Greenblatt moves on, rather meanderingly, to the “tremors,” in the Renaissance and afterwards, “that began to cause cracks in the Bible’s origin story,” compelling more and more Christians to view it as allegorical; to Voltaire’s animus toward the Adam and Eve story; to the Mormons’ insistence that Eden lay in the western United States; to Mark Twain’s mockery of the Garden of Eden story; and—boom!—to the explosion that was Darwin. The book’s long, anticlimactic final chapter finds Greenblatt in the jungle of Uganda, where he encounters chimpanzees and imagines that he is in some kind of Eden; this bemusing envoi is followed by not one but two appendices, the first of which compiles interpretations of Adam and Eve by figures ranging from Duns Scotus to John Calvin and the second of which brings together creation stories from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Zimbabwe, Togo, and elsewhere.
I’ve read electrifying books about the Bible. This isn’t one of them. From the opening sentence, one has the sneaking suspicion that one is in the presence of an author who has nothing fresh to say, is not genuinely charged up by his topic, and has selected it in the cynical hope of making a triumphant return to the bestseller list. From the introduction: “The story of Adam and Eve speaks to all of us. It addresses who we are, where we came from, why we love, and why we suffer. . . .” And so on, for pages. Greenblatt might as well be begging the reader to start skimming. It’s mechanical, obvious, repetitive; the sense of awe and wonder feels thoroughly inauthentic. (From the first page of Chapter One: “We cannot know when someone, venturing to imagine how the universe and humankind came to exist, first told this story about what happened in the beginning to set our species on its course.”) Like Will in the World and The Swerve, this is a work of potted history, a grab-bag of set pieces, combining borrowed scholarship with mostly unremarkable commentaries by Greenblatt that rattle on far longer than seems justifiable. Much of the book—notably the long biographical accounts of Augustine and Milton, the latter of which runs to over sixty pages—feels like sheer padding. Just as, in Will in the World, Greenblatt sought to find traces of Shakespeare’s life in his plays and poems, he seeks here to read Paradise Lost as a poem largely informed by the events of Milton’s own life; just as in The Swerve, the principal villains here are the medieval prudes who, after Augustine, saw the Adam and Eve story as primarily concerned with the sinfulness of sex, even in marriage, and used it as a cudgel with which to punish and oppress women.
As I read this book, I kept thinking of Jack Miles’s God: A Biography (1995), not least because it was standing on a shelf a few feet away from me. Miles’s book, I found myself thinking repeatedly, is everything Greenblatt’s is not: a thrilling, revelatory account of the development of the image of God from the beginning of the Hebrew Bible to the end. Startlingly original, it’s written with deep knowledge and with a palpable urgency, relish, and passion for the subject; when I first read it, it made me see the Hebrew Bible with new eyes, and over twenty years later its impact remains with me. Equally impressive, in its own way, was a recent YouTube talk about Adam and Eve by the Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson. Brilliantly, over the course of over two hours, he uncovered rich layers of meaning in the Eden story, bringing in psychology, physics, philosophy, evolutionary biology, and anthropology in ways that made profound sense and weren’t in the least pretentious. It was mesmerizing. By contrast, after reading Greenblatt’s book, I hardly know what to make of it. It feels—if I may be so blunt—like a gratuitous contrivance, a mishmash of second- and third-hand material that doesn’t seem to add up to anything particularly coherent or compelling. If nothing else, it is yet more evidence that the founder of the New Historicism, that magnificent if half-baked fusion of ambiguity and radicalism that made his name, has put that childish enterprise behind him for good and continued to cultivate the middlebrow public that has made him rich. For all its defects, I have little doubt that, like its two immediate predecessors, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve will win major prizes, sell like hot cakes on the free market that Greenblatt and his Berkeley confrères started out despising, and affirm yet again his position at the forefront of the very institution, the academic humanities, for whose ongoing demise no one on the planet is more responsible than he.
1The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, by Stephen Greenblatt; W. W. Norton, 368 pages, $27.95.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 1, on page 4
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