Stephen Greenblatts' Award Ceremony Speech

Stephen Greenblatt, on stage in the University Aula together with His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon og Sigmund Grønmo, Chair of the Holberg Board. Photo: Marit Hommedal / Scanpix

Holberg Prize Laureate Stephen Greenblatts speech from the award ceremony on 8 June, 2016, in the University Aula in Bergen.

Your Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon, Minister, representatives of the Holberg Committee, my beloved wife Ramie, dear colleagues and friends, esteemed guests.

I am profoundly grateful to those who have chosen me to be the 2016 Holberg Laureate.  My gratitude is personal, of course, but it extends beyond the sphere of my own life and work.  In honoring me so splendidly, you have by implication chosen to honor scholarship in the Humanities, and you have done so at a moment in which the value of this scholarship sorely needs public recognition.  For over the last few years, collective confidence in the significance of the Humanities has sharply declined, along with a belief in the worth of a liberal arts education. 

Though American higher education is often thought to be a bastion of the liberal arts, in fact they represent only a small piece of the overall picture.  According to figures I owe to my friend Louis Menand (who is here with us today), more than twice as many undergraduate and graduate degrees are conferred every year in leisure and fitness studies than in philosophy and religion. Within liberal arts education, the Humanities have been shrinking relative to the social sciences and the natural sciences.  At Harvard, where I teach, the number of English majors dropped between 2008 and 2013 by thirty percent.  At Yale, where I was educated, overall enrollments in Humanities courses have dropped since 2001 by twenty-four percent; history enrollments have fallen there by forty-nine percent.  There are comparably sobering figures for other elite American institutions.  Despite the absorbing interest of the subject and ample statistical evidence that studying the Humanities is a valuable preparation for a wide range of professions, many students and their parents have evidently concluded that it is a perilous waste of time and money. 

The causes are largely linked to developments in the economy and in technology, but this decline has come, in my view, just at the time in which we most need the analytical tools and the humane perspectives offered by literary studies, art, and philosophy. Our culture processes information visually as never before in human history, through charts, graphs, photographs, movies, digital images and innumerable other means.  Is it possible that anyone could think that understanding how images work is not an essential discipline?  Likewise, we consume fictions constantly.  According to the Labor Department's latest Time Use Survey, Americans watch television for an average of almost three hours per day; other surveys suggest even higher numbers.  If we add to these hours much of what passes fraudulently in the newspaper as news, along with music lyrics, articles in popular magazines and websites, advertisements, religious fables, the occasional novel or play, daydreams, and most of what is said by politicians, we grasp that a startling amount of the day is spent producing and consuming fantasies.  Is it possible that anyone could think that understanding how fictions work is not crucially important and valuable?  Yet the course enrollment figures are not lying; the decline is real.

I have lunch with a gifted colleague who runs an important stem cell laboratory.  He tells me that his team is working feverishly to locate the cells that in combination generate high intelligence, so that someday soon these can be selected and enhanced in our population. The Chinese, he remarks darkly, are already way ahead of us in this area of research.  I want to plead with him to call a halt and go back to fundamental reflections on the nature of human life, reflections that from Plato and Dante to Kierkegaard and Hannah Arendt have shaped the project of the humanities.  I watch generals and political leaders complacently praise the power of drones, manipulated on screens in rooms thousands of miles from the places and people on which they will rain down destruction, and I want to revisit with them the battle scenes from Homer, with their unblinking, unsentimental, but deeply tragic recognition of the human reality of combat, injury, and death.  I sit on the subway and look at the people around me, all staring at their devices. I see people doing the same thing even at football games or at the opera or in the middle of dinner at a restaurant. For that matter, I feel the urge in myself, the strange addiction most of us now share.  And I wonder what has happened to us.

I spent a summer once many years ago in a small village near Narbonne, in the south of France.  In the warm evenings, most of the village’s inhabitants sat on the steps of their houses or on chairs in the streets – there were almost no cars back then in that quiet corner of the world– and chatted with their neighbors, exchanging stories along with glasses of homemade pastis.  A very few people had purchased televisions –a new arrival in that provincial place – and these villagers alone sat inside, their doors closed, the spectral light flickering through the windows.  I remember registering the loss, but of course it was only the advanced guard.  Now we are all sitting inside, by ourselves, even when we are outdoors.  In public spaces some mobile phone users talk in loud voices about remarkably intimate matters, as if they had lost all sense of the people around them, or as if they imagined that everyone was similarly cocooned.  Many of my students walk around with earbuds and their eyes on the little screens; their isolation from the human and natural environment is almost complete.   They may, for all I know, be watching and listening to something agreeable, but it is unnerving all the same. For humans no longer seem to be using their devices; the devices seem to be using them, and in the process dividing us into hermetically sealed units.  Though our technology depends upon fantastically complex electronic networks, it has the odd effect – not always but alarmingly often -- of undoing the human involvement with one another envisaged by the Humanities, the involvement John Donne so perfectly articulated in his Devotions:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

When I fell in love with Shakespeare a long time ago it was because his works made me feel closer to those around me and to people I did not know. Through him the world was opening up for me, as it had when as a small child I turned the pages of an old travel book that my parents had in our house. But it was not places -- the fjords, the Golden Gate Bridge, or even London -- that opened for me through Shakespeare; I felt that I was entering human landscapes to which I could not otherwise have access. Those landscapes included battled-scarred Roman generals, medieval kings who believed that God would fight on their behalf, Renaissance princes maneuvering to seize power, and the like.  But what mattered still more was access to quiet inward spaces whose existence I intuited but lacked words to articulate:  the feeling of a love so intense that it obliterates every other object; a secret fear of impotence and failure; the surging up of a murderous or suicidal impulse; a sense of estrangement from the world.  “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?”  Shakespeare seemed to be offering me not simply a heightened closeness to people I did not know; it was greater proximity to parts of myself that lay hidden in the darkness.  And it was precisely access to those parts of myself in the present that paradoxically excited my interest in the past. I have never lost my first, overpowering experience of wonder, my own primal scene:  They already thought that and felt that and did that back then?  How is it possible that the long dead, even from that distant time and place, are speaking directly to me?

It was with this sense of wonder, encouraged by a gifted high school teacher named John Harris, that I embarked on my undergraduate studies as an English major.  As I soon learned, the English Department at Yale, in the early 1960s, was the greatest proponent of the school of formalist literary interpretation called New Criticism.  An interest in historical context was actively discouraged by many of my teachers who treated such an interest as a vulgar, vaguely middle-brow distraction.  What mattered was to chart with growing sophistication the internal structure of complex works, whether a fourteen-line sonnet or a sprawling 18-century novel.  How were the patterns of imagery established and developed by Andrew Marvell?  What was the relationship between the subplot and the main plot of Middleton and Rowley’s strange early seventeenth-century play The Changeling?  In how many ways did Pope’s Dunciad parody Homeric motifs?  If I wanted to know whom Pope was skewering, I could look at the footnotes, but the information I might find there would not be relevant, nor would the apparent justice or injustice of the attacks.  Judging a poem, wrote Yale’s William Wimsatt, “is like judging a pudding or a machine.  One demands that it work.” 

This position, clear, simple, and elegant, had triumphed at post-war Yale and in other university departments of literature, and for very good reasons.  It swept away generations of wooly biographical musing, often absurdly sentimental and moralizing.  It dismissed displays of inherited taste, courtly manners, or presumed rootedness in blood or nation.  It offered instead a valuable, highly adaptable, democratic toolkit of interpretive techniques that did not depend upon contextual knowledge.  For three years I undertook the rigorous training that formalism demanded.  I learned at least some of the ways that my gifted teachers employed to judge puddings and machines.  And I learned what to leave out.    My senior thesis, on Huxley, Waugh, and Orwell, attempted to describe the structure of modern satire.  That Waugh was on the extreme right and Orwell on the left, or that Huxley lived after 1937 in Los Angeles and Taos, where he experimented with mescaline and LSD, simply did not matter. 

Though I had bouts of impatience with what I was taught, I was and remained grateful for it.  One of my failures as a teacher, a failure that I share with others of my generation, has been an inability or unwillingness to hand over the whole handsome toolkit, burnished and enhanced, to my students.  By the mid-1960s I was pulling in a very different direction.  I had gone on a fellowship to Cambridge -- the first time I had left the United States -- and was giddy with excitement at the novelty of it all.  To be sure, in my studies at Cambridge I found considerable continuity with what I had been learning, for a key figure in fashioning American New Criticism had been the Cambridge literary scholar I. A. Richards, whose pedagogical theories, though under challenge, still dominated his own institution.  I understood very little about the philosophical debates that Richards's celebrated books on literary criticism had generated, but I was immediately initiated into one of its practical results, an obsession with dating games.  These were not, I hasten to say, what we now mean by the term. Exercises in close reading, they took the form in tutorials of giving students a brief unidentified passage in poetry or prose, usually drawn from either a minor writer whom no one could expect to have encountered or from a very obscure work by a major writer.  The student’s task was simply to date the excerpt as accurately as possible and to explain the basis for this dating.  The people who were good at this game could almost infallibly come up with the right answer: not merely the latter half of the seventeenth century, say, but the 1680s or even 1686-7. 

We were given no explanation why this exercise was useful and no encouragement to venture from it to the world that lay outside the radically decontextualized, isolated snippets. It had the genuine virtue of encouraging a restless, wide-ranging reading across the centuries, reading that swooped down to seize upon minute, tell-tale signs of particular moments in time.  But, as the weeks went by, I began to feel at once lost and claustrophobic. 

Relief was promised in a different set of tutorials conducted by a young Renaissance scholar -- he is now a knighted eminence -- who undertook to prepare me for the Cambridge examination paper called simply “1579-1603.”  Here at last I was to settle down in a single historical period, the age of Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare.  But I was in for a surprise.  The tutor began by assigning me a very large reading from something called Batman vppon Bartholome his booke.  I still remember the title with a shudder.  This was, as I now better understand, a 1582 revision, undertaken by the learned doctor of divinity Stephen Batman, of a fourteenth-century translation by the Cornish scholar John of Trevisa of a vast encyclopedia compiled in 1240 by the Franciscan scholastic Bartholomeus Anglicus, Bartholomew the Englishman.  Fighting off sleep, I struggled to get through the pages – “Of the order of Seraphim,” “Of the virtues vital, animal, and visible,” “Of the four qualities elementary,” and so forth – and showed up at the tutorial without the paper that I was meant to have written.  I confessed that I could make very little sense of what I had read. 

My tutor looked darkly at me, and in dismissing me his only response was, as they say in blackjack, to double down. For the next week’s assignment, he stayed with the same book, only greatly increasing the number of pages I had to read and about which I was supposed to write something.  I grimly worked through Batman’s version of Trevisa’s version of Bartholomew’s account of the properties of spittle, the remedies for headache, the disease of the nostrils, the nature of the crystalline heavens, and so forth.  When I returned, I had at least written pages in which I tried to explain why this work was so disheartening to me.  I could find no points of entry, I said, no moments in which some sympathetic chord was struck, no sound of a voice speaking to me.  I still remember the harrumphing response: “It is not about you, Greenblatt.” 

Looking back across these many years, I grasp more clearly now what my tutor was trying to do, and up to a point I even approve.  “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” He wanted me to experience radical alterity, the steadfast otherness of a world that resists easy appropriation.   But what I actually experienced was a sterile antiquarianism, a past that had nothing to offer me, a literary inheritance that was not merely alien but dead. If I were sufficiently diligent, I could lay claim to possession of this inheritance for myself and go on to bully the next generation of students.  Not a consummation devoutly to be wished. Not in the mid-1960s, when the windows were being thrown wide open and all structures of authority were called into question.

I was increasingly caught up in the politics of my day, but I had no wish to abandon the study of literature. I wanted to understand why Sir Walter Ralegh -- courtier, monopolist, ruthless adventurer, and restless schemer -- wrote such beautiful, sensitive love poetry.   I described the strange metamorphosis of Thomas More's radical vision of a communist utopia into a prison camp.  I struggled to know why, while most of their contemporaries shrugged, some men and women in the sixteenth century sacrificed their lives for obscure points of theology. Avidly reading the literature of travel and exploration, I brought to bear what I learned on Shakespeare's Henvy IV plays, Othello, and The Tempest.   I reflected with wonder on the ways in which certain remarkable Renaissance individuals contrived to fashion their identities, as if they were artifacts, and clung under immense pressure to a sense of autonomous agency.  These investigations into the past were not attempts to escape from the present.  On the contrary, I felt I could use them to focus and clarify my own contemporary preoccupations. 

But the voices of the dead would never allow themselves only to speak to the here and now.   They insisted on their own urgent desires and fears.  For better or worse, provided I sensed a point of entry, some intimation of intimacy, I have always been pulled head over heels into their other world.  Columbus' first exclamation of wonder in the New World; a dinner party at Cardinal Wolsey's; a minister's pastoral visit to a pregnant woman awaiting execution; a clandestine exorcism in Buckinghamshire; Frobisher's kidnappings on Baffin Island; the cruel punishment of a thief in seventeenth-century Java; a secret performance of King Lear at the house of a recusant Catholic -- such moments were enough to set me off on searches, sometimes for years on end and most often finding their way to Shakespeare. Mourning for my father and brooding about his desire for post-mortem prayers, I began to think about ghosts, which drew me into fascination with the lost Catholic realm of purgatory, which turned into a book about Hamlet, which somehow accomplished my work of mourning.  To grapple with my own world I had to grapple with a world that was not mine, but I could only do so if I could bring myself along.  Otherwise there were only lifeless words on the page, identifiable through subtle markers as dating, say, from the early seventeenth century, perhaps 1602 or 1603, but otherwise mute. 

It took me quite a few years to figure out the balance, and even now I am far from certain.  But the goal is always to grapple with whatever comes to us from the past, in its strangeness and opacity, and at the same time to engage with our own most pressing concerns, whether they are shouted in the public square or whispered in the quiet of our hearts.  I knew that I was doing something -- if not something correct, then at least something powerful – when my book Renaissance Self-Fashioning was treated to a blistering attack, dense column upon column for pages, in the TLS.  And though I am by temperament anything but combative, my sense that I was heading in the right direction was confirmed when in Newsweek the conservative columnist George Will singled out as particularly dangerous to the whole fabric of Western civilization a professor who suggested that Shakespeare’s Tempest was somehow about imperialism.  Mr. Will did not name names, but I looked in the mirror and knew that I was the enemy.

These arguments are by now quite old, and though they have not completely died away, they are worth recalling only as a reminder of the difficulty of the task.  I can demonstrate the ways in which Shakespeare was a person of his time and can show you the ways his work reflects the period's imperialism, and the murderous conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and the spectacles of power in the Elizabethan state.  (With enough time I might even be able to discover all he drew from Batman vppon Bartholome his booke.)  I can demonstrate as well the ways in which Shakespeare is a person of our own time.  I can show you how powerfully he reflects on gender confusion, on the unconscionable gap between rich and poor, on racial hatred, on the possibility of a blustering, morally bankrupt demagogue actually becoming a great nation’s leader.  But how to explain that he is both of these things at once, that is the challenge that still, after all these years, tantalizes and eludes me.

That the Holberg Committee has conferred upon the effort to meet this challenge so magnificent an honor is far beyond anything that I expected or indeed deserved.  But I accept it on this memorable afternoon not for myself alone but for all the remarkable teachers and students, colleagues and dear friends—some of whom are with us today – with whom I have shared the attempt to fathom the magical doubleness of art.