Can Art Be Universal?
Stephen Jay Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of thirteen books, including The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve; The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning.
Greenblatt is General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and of The Norton Shakespeare, has edited seven collections of criticism, and is a founding editor of the journal Representations. His honors include the 2016 Holberg Prize from the Norwegian Parliament, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and the 2011 National Book Award for The Swerve, MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize (twice), Harvard University’s Cabot Fellowship, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, Yale’s Wilbur Cross Medal, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, the Erasmus Institute Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley.
Among his named lecture series are the Adorno Lectures in Frankfurt, the University Lectures at Princeton, and the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford, and he has held visiting professorships at universities in Beijing, Kyoto, London, Paris, Florence, Torino, Trieste, and Bologna, as well as the Renaissance residency at the American Academy in Rome. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and a long-term fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. He has been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Philosophical Society.
Stephen Greenblatt: I think that the idea of reading from a universal point of view is a fantasy. You read from your own point of view, from a particular place and time, from who you are and what your interests are. Maybe we will when we become cyborgs of some kind or other and cease to have any fleshly existence. But as far as I know now, even in our current situation, we read from the particular people we are and with the particular interests we have.
So whatever we mean by universality in art, Shakespearian or otherwise, I think doesn’t have to do with a lift-off that lets you escape everything, the time and place it was produced and the time and place you are produced. That said, the key question is how is it possible for a work that was written in a particular circumstance with a particular set of interests, nonetheless to speak to other people across a huge gap in time.
I remember as a freshman in college reading Chaucer, who wrote in the 14th century, and thinking, “Really? They had irony back then?” I’d be amazed that I could hear this voice, this laughing, ironic voice that sounded like it was my contemporary, though I also understood that it wasn’t my contemporary, it was written from the 14th century. One feels that in Homer, one feels that in Shakespeare, one feels that in lots of texts that come from very far away.
If you take, what would be an example, A poem by Thomas Wyatt, writing in the time of Henry VIII. Wyatt was probably the lover of Ann Boleyn. He finds himself in kind of erotic agony because his mistress has been taken from him. And he sits down to write a poem. “They flee from me that some time did me seek with naked foot stalking in my chamber I have seen them gentle, tame and meek that now are wild and do not remember that sometimes they put themselves in danger to take bread of my hand. And now they range busily seeking with the continual change. But once in special in thin array after a pleasant guise, when her loose gown from her shoulders did fall, and she me caught in her arms long and small, therewith all sweetly did we kiss and softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'” The poem goes on. But we’ll stop for a moment there.
We have a very particular memory, one so special, one special time, “in thin array after a pleasant guise,” an erotic memory that he’s had was really about something in his life, from the early 16th century. It’s a very special context, this context of the Henrician court, of Ann Boleyn, of Thomas Wyatt. If the poem works as it does for me, it works because it’s somehow is making connection to me across this huge gap of time and class and culture and identity. I can’t explain fully why. I mean, I can try to account psychoanalytically for why it might have some connection, though I’m not inclined to do it at the moment. But it has to do with the language; it has to do with the kind of incantatory magic of words. It has to do with what happens to the air as it passes through your lungs, as you recite the verses. It’s some connection to love and disappointment and it crosses barriers. And that’s what is the fascination of works of art. But it doesn’t mean that it’s universal. It doesn’t mean that it escapes from time and place. It means that it’s able to be mobile. And mobility rather than universality is really for me the key issue.
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
Stephen Greenblatt argues that art is always grounded in its time and place, but that powerful art contains universal elements.
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