"Everyone dreams at night": Interview with Stephen Greenblatt


What are the paths and life events that have led 2016 Holberg Laureate Professor Stephen Greenblatt to where he is today? Where will he go from here? How will the humanities survive the current crisis? Those are some of the questions Greenblatt answers in this exclusive interview.

For most of his life, Professor Stephen Greenblatt has been surrounded by stories. From his mother’s tales of Terrible Stanley, who did all the foolish things that young Stephen never was allowed to do, to his father’s library of jokes, told to the amusement of acquaintances on the streets of Boston in the 1950s.

In Greenblatt, this translated into a passion for studying and responding to works of literature, especially those containing stories that continue to elude us, while still remaining significant to us.

– There was a teacher I had in high school named John Harris. He seemed to know everything and understand everything. Then, at a certain point in King Lear, he said “I don't understand it, even after all of this time.” And it hit me very hard that even this man, who understood everything, had hit something that represented a limit, and he could admit the limit. He could admit that he didn't understand it, and still stay with it. Even though you may never reach the end, you'll probably never understand, you still grapple. For me was a deeply powerful experience that I never really quite got past, Greenblatt says.

A little bit like love

Still, Greenblatt’s way into the humanities was far from paved. The intention was to go to law school, a path that his father and brother had taken before him. Then, at one point as an undergraduate student on a scholarship to Cambridge, he found himself on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul, with two letters in his hands. One would lead him to law school, the other to graduate school and literary studies.

– I held the two in my hands, and then, impulsively, I tore up the law school letter and I threw it into the water. I have no idea why. It's a little bit like love. What matters is a kind of deep impulse. You can explain in retrospect, but it’s extremely difficult at the time, he says.

New directions

Committed now to the humanities, Greenblatt dove deep into literary studies. He approached the established norms of the field with a critical mind, which in turn led him to establish the movement “New historicism.”

– In the American formalist education I had received it was considered uninteresting to invoke the historical moment of the work we were studying. What mattered was that the works lifted off from their environment and could enter a different sphere where they could be seen to be universal. I and my generation claimed that talk of the universal concealed hidden power structures.  How can you read for example Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, that talks about temperance, love and justice, without understanding that he was a colonist in Ireland, where the English attempted to starve the Irish into submission? There was a moment in the 60s and 70s when we had to insist that this was part of the discussion. There is a partly hidden history behind the works, Greenblatt says.

Save us or kill us

When it comes to the much debated crisis in the humanities, Greenblatt remains unshaken.

– The humanities are not dispensable. Fundamental decisions have to be made that depend on who we think we are as human beings, questions that writers and artists have grappled with for centuries. The most exciting thing in the world today is the technological revolution that might save us or kill us. Crucial decisions will have to be made, and the only hope for making those decisions correctly is to combine and integrate the sciences and the humanities. 

A fraudulent divide

Another misconception Greenblatt aims to expel is the divide between the educated and uneducated in the field of literature.

– The wonderful thing of literary studies is that the human imagination is a universal human possession. It seems a betrayal to treat it as if it were something that belongs only to writers, critics or scholars. Everyone dreams at night. The most ordinary person makes up fictions every night in their sleep and experiences art constantly. Something is wrong if we don’t understand that we live in a world of fraudulent divisions between people who get honours, such as the one for which I am deeply grateful, and those people who mop the floor and empty the garbage bins. We actually are only worth anything because we inhabit the same universe and share our imaginative lives with one another. We must.

The full interview:

The inteview is produced in cooperation with the podcast series Udannet, run by Knut Melvær, who also conducts this interview. 

Other Holberg Laureate Interviews

Visit Udannet to hear Holberg Laureate Interviews from previous years and other episodes related to the Holberg Prize. You can stream directly from the website or download audio files to your device of choice.