Stephen Greenblatt
Todd III
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Benefit of Clergy, Benefit of Literature

In 1969, in my first year of teaching at Berkeley, I was in the English Department office checking my mail (a ritual I repeated several times a day in the vague hope that something, as Mr. Micawber was fond of saying, would "turn up"). I was carrying a copy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, though I can no longer remember why: perhaps I was actually reading it or perhaps I merely hoped to impress one of my new colleagues. If the latter was my motive, the strategy sorely backfired. A senior professor did indeed notice the book. "You are reading Kant, Greenblatt?" he said. (He was one of those who affect the brusque manner of address of the Oxford Senior Common Room.) "That's right." "I don't like Kant," he declared flatly. "Oh, why is that?" I ventured to ask. "Because Kant had a Jewish mind." "A Jewish mind? What on earth do you mean?" "Clever, sterile, absorbed in endless hair-splitting subtleties—a mind without true culture." "Oh," I said, for want of something better to say.

There were many things to say, most of them impolite, but one that is relevant to the present occasion is that my colleague's weird remark, in the context of an English Department, could be seen not as garden-variety anti-Semitism but as boorish Arnoldianism. "Jewish mind" was the country-cousin of Arnold's "Hebraism," the term used in Culture and Anarchy to characterize the side of the human spirit that stresses strictness of conscience, obedience to inflexible moral law, and puritanical discipline in the service of self-conquest. Set against "Hellenism," the rival pursuit of a clear-eyed, harmonious vision of beauty, Hebraism was not for Arnold a description of actual Jews, nor was it meant to be derogatory. The flavor of English anti-Semitism, circa 1869, can be far better savored in the novels of Anthony Trollope. The hook-nosed, glib-tongued Jew of Victorian fiction is not generally saddled with an implacable conscience; on the contrary, he is all too ready to allow himself—like Trollope's Ferdinand Lopez with his shady speculations in guano futures—an almost limitless moral latitude. In such a context, Arnold's Hebraism, with its scrupulous, prescriptive insistence upon obligation, must have had the ring of paradox.

A century later my colleague's version of Arnold—his remark about Kant's so-called "Jewish mind"—seemed less paradoxical and more coarsely offensive, but looking back from this distance on our conversation in the English Department office, I can perceive something beyond mere insult. For in 1969, engaged in protests against the Vietnam war and feeling myself part of a generational insurrection, I was in fact far more sympathetic with Arnold's Hebraists than with his Hellenists, more in tune with fierce moral absolutism than with sweetness and light. Indeed it was not Arnold's "culture"—the pursuit of beauty and harmony—that seemed to me worth fighting for but rather something like what he pilloried as "anarchy": "an Englishman's right to do what he likes; his right to march where he likes, meet where he likes, enter where he likes, hoot as he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes."

And now, twenty-five years later? My profession has done its best to dismantle Kantian moral imperatives, in the name of a celebration of radical difference. It has called into question the possibility of seeing things as they actually are—Arnold's "light"—and, more surprisingly, challenged the "sweetness" of aesthetic order. Having eagerly divested itself of the resources of both Hebraism and Hellenism, it finds itself staring blankly into the face of an insurgent fin de siècle philistinism, entrenched in national power, and a world-wide drift toward anarchy that, for reasons at once psychological and historical, now seems to me more terrifying than alluring. 1 We cannot return to Arnold, even if we wish to, but the time has come to renew on our own terms—the terms of a world in which Jews, Greeks, and Englishmen are not the only or even the principal players on the world stage—the reason, if we have one, to study literature.

But how are we to do this? Or, to ask a more modest and preliminary question, how are we now to understand the history of literature, the textual traces that our profession has taken upon itself to organize, institutionalize, interpret, and teach? The conception of this subject as focussed exclusively on belles lettres already seemed hopelessly inadequate to Matthew Arnold in 1882, when he wrote "Literature and Science." Arguing in defense of the traditional classical curriculum, Arnold also expressed grave reservations about an understanding of literature in national terms. The position against which he wrote—"Literature may perhaps be needed in education, they say; but why on earth should it be Greek literature? Why not French or German? Nay, 'has not an Englishman models in his own literature of every kind of excellence?'"2—was in effect the one that triumphed in the early twentieth century, displacing Classics with the departments in which most of us today teach.

But for a professor of English literature, teaching Shakespeare in the late twentieth century at a state university by the waters of the Pacific, the model of literary nationalism seems increasingly irrelevant. This could simply mean that American literature has triumphed, and its importance in the curriculum has indeed vastly increased, but American literature has itself fractured into pieces that no longer fit together into a traditional model of a national culture. I want to propose that, as the belletristic and national models slowly crumble about us, we look at some of the uses of the term "literature" before either of these models was yet in place. What we immediately encounter is literature's implication in institutional structures, its deep functional utility.

"Literature" in its late-Medieval and Renaissance meaning of polite or humane learning was an important piece of what Pierre Bourdieu would call symbolic capital; it served to mark off men of culture from the great mass of the ignorant, the "comyn people," as an early sixteenth-century saint's life by Henry Bradshaw puts it, "Which without lytterature and good informacyon/Ben lyke to Brute beestes." This and similar locutions suggest in effect that the term was part of a mobile and flexible apparatus of social and spiritual distinction. Without "literature," Bradshaw writes, men are "rude, wylde, and boystrous"; they lack not only the good manners that are necessary for collective comfort and decency, but also the instruction that is essential for salvation. "What were mankynde without lytterature?"3

In the ninth story of the sixth day of the Decameron, Boccaccio provides a revealing gloss on this conception of literature. A Florentine gentleman named Betto Brunelleschi and his companions attempt without success to enlist into their social circle an extremely rich, learned, and cultivated young man of philosophical bent named Guido Cavalcante. When they chance upon Guido walking in a cemetery, they taunt him: "Guido, you spurn our company; but supposing you find that God doesn't exist, what good will it do you?" Guido replies, "Gentlemen, in your own house you may say whatever you like to me," and then, vaulting over the tombstones, makes his escape. Betto's companions are mystified by Guido's reply, but Betto understands it too well:

    In a few words he has neatly paid us the most back-handed compliment I ever heard, because when you come to consider it, these tombs are the houses of the dead, this being the place where the dead are laid to rest and where they take up their abode. By describing it as our house, he wanted to show us that, by comparison with himself and other men of learning, all men who are as uncouth and unlettered as ourselves [idioti e non litterati] are worse off than the dead.4

Only the lettered, in this account, are truly alive.

Whether or not a man was literatus, whether he possessed "lytterature and good informacyon," actually could in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period mean the difference between life or death. I refer not to the state of a man's soul but to the status of his body in the eyes of the law. In the early Middle Ages benefit of clergy—the right of a cleric accused of a crime to be tried before an ecclesiastical court and hence the virtual guarantee of an escape from the gallows—was established by displaying tonsure. But a shaved crown is not so hard to come by, and this test of eligibility, not surprisingly, was subject to abuse. A late thirteenth-century law case notes that the justices were suspicious of Robert de Neuby's claim to benefit of clergy quod corona sua de novo rasa est.5

By the mid-fourteenth century a more reliable test had been developed; this test, known as the "examination," was for the ability to read. Evidently, lay literacy was sufficiently rare, at least among those likely to be brought to trial (treason, for which benefit of clergy did not apply, always excepted), that the courts regarded it as a sufficiently rigorous proof that the accused was in holy orders. The bishop's representative gave the prisoner a passage to read, most often the first verse of the fifty-first Psalm which thereby came to be known as the "neck-verse": Miserere mei, Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam; secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitatem meam ("Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness: according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions"). According to his performance (which, judging from the verb sillibicare, could be on a fairly modest scale), he was pronounced legit or non legit. If the latter, he was condemned to be hanged; if the former, he was remanded to the ecclesiastical court which had no death penalty. In this sense, literature could bring a man back from the grave.

The great and obvious virtue of "literature" rather than tonsure as the test for benefit of clergy is that it was harder to fake. A compliant jailor and a razor suffices for the latter; the former notoriously takes time, and this time—the prolonged effort needed to achieve even a minimal competence in "literature"—is an essential element of the logic of the "examination." Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that desperate prisoners tried to pass the examination by reciting words they had memorized. Thus in 1366 an accused murderer, John, son of Thomas Dennyson Trotter, claimed benefit of clergy, but the judge noticed that the prisoner pretended to read when he had been given the psalter upside down. In an inquest, the jury discovered that at the time of his arrest the accused had been illiterate but that he had been quickly coached in his cell by two boys from Appleby whom the jailor had admitted. John Trotter was found guilty. Another case from the same period implies a frantic feat of learning under pressure. An accused thief, William Pernill, failed his examination and was condemned to die. But before the sentence was carried out, the bishop's officer came before the court again and certified that William could in fact read. Evidently, the prisoner had had time to cross the boundary from non legit to legit, though the court records do not indicate how his fate was decided.6

Such cases provoked an official concern which intensified as lay literacy gradually increased. It was feared that criminals were learning to read in order to labor more securely in their vocation, so that in time highwaymen would presumably have become one of the most literate trades in society.7 In the late fifteenth century a solution of sorts was devised: a person who successfully claimed benefit of clergy was branded by a hot iron with the letter "T" for thief or "M" for murderer.8 If he was arrested on criminal charges a second time, the man so marked would be "read" and executed. With the status of literatus indelibly inscribed on the flesh, we have located the zero degree of the history of literature. 9

The "examination" for benefit of clergy would seem to bear out Raymond Williams' remark that "literature" in its early uses "corresponded mainly to the modern meanings of literacy," 10 a nineteenth-century coinage, but this correspondence is misleading, since the late-Medieval and Renaissance term referred less to a skill than to the status signified by that skill. The court was interested not in whether William or John could read, but in whether they were clerks, as formally indicated by their ability to read. That ability did not, of course, constitute clerical status, but at least in the context of the law it determined whether the accused should be moved from one jurisdiction to another.

I have not found a single instance of "literature" being used quite as we would use "literate," since the critical distinction was not strictly technical but cultural. Literature is a critical sign of a particular position within a social system; it marks a boundary or rather signifies that a boundary has been crossed. Accordingly, most of the uses of the term reach far beyond the level suggested by sillibicare. The man of whom Nicol Burne writes in 1581 that he "hes nocht sufficient literatur to vndirstand the scripture" may well have been able, as Burne himself acknowledges, to read and sign his name, but he lacks the ambient learning that would enable him to resolve, without institutional guidance, the meaning of Christ's words.11 Similarly, Colet's early sixteenth-century distinction between literature and what he terms "blotterature" depends upon extending the deprecation of messy handwriting to books that fall below a norm of social correctness. 12

The point of such norms, as Norbert Elias has taught us in the case of table manners, is that they do not stand still: the boundaries or constituent features change as soon as a hitherto excluded group threatens to achieve mastery. Consequently, the object of historical attention—whether literature or courtesy—is far more difficult to get into focus than the relations that this object implies and sustains. The term "literature" has a built-in escape clause—if its meaning were fixed, if it would stand still or allow its history to be adequately written, it would not so successfully serve its social function. By coming to mean belles lettres, the term "literature" might seem at first to have narrowed its meaning from the late eighteenth century onward and hence to have facilitated a proper history. But the modern sense of literature as having something to do with imaginative writing is only superficially sharper in focus. Quite apart from the fact that we can use phrases like "the medical literature" to designate texts whose relation to the "real" is different (we hope) from that of poems and novels, the categories of writings referred to by such entities as Departments of English Literature have always been remarkably variable and porous. As the familiar course title, "The Bible as Literature," suggests, the term seems to refer to a quality of attention, a certain range of questions, that are themselves not at all fixed but are rather the questions asked at a particular time by accredited members of Departments of Literature.

Somewhere along this road lies the view that the history that matters is the history of the will—personal or institutional—and not the history of literature which is always and only a mere screen for the power of the clerks. There is no doubt much to be learned from a scrupulous investigation of the complicity of our profession in the creation of the cult objects it professes to adore. But there are limits to the repeated demonstration that our holy relics are in reality pigs' bones fobbed off on the lay public by a pardoner only too pleased to disclose the emptiness of the whole intricate ideological edifice. The limits have to do with a considerable exaggeration of the creative power of the professoriat and a corresponding underestimation both of the independent agency of artists and of the force of popular or at least non-academic preferences. Teachers of literature may not be hierophants altogether innocent of the mysteries they expound, but neither are they Nietzschean demi-Gods, inventing the worlds they profess to dominate. In its sociological and psychological narrowness, the notion of the professorial will cannot adequately account for the long-term interest of certain literary works and for the cultural significance of a distinction between the literary and the non-literary.

The compelling interest of literature suggests a quality of resistance in the objects, a will in certain cases even stronger or at least more enduring than that of professional interpreters.13 At a minimum, we have to acknowledge, I think, that the history of professional interpretive communities is only one fragment of the history of literature, that literature has had its own shaping effects upon the interpreters, and that the apparent trans-historical dimension of literary texts is a significant, if little understood, part of its history. The stakes of literary history lie always in the relation between the contingencies that made the work of literature possible for those who created it and the contingencies that make it possible for ourselves. In this sense, literary history is always the history of the possibility of literature.

There is for this reason no single "history" of literature, and it would be difficult even to imagine what such a history would look like. I am not at all sure that we have made much conceptual progress beyond Sir Francis Bacon who notes, in the expanded Latin version of The Advancement of Learning, that "the History of Literature is wanting."14 Bacon, to be sure, does not mean by the term "literature" exactly what we mean—though, as I have already remarked, I'm not at all sure we could specify that very exactly. He is proposing the stupendous project of "a complete and universal History of Learning," only one part of which would consist of the history of what he calls "Poesy." Poesy, for Bacon, has the double sense of words and of matter—that is, it refers to figured language on the one hand and feigned history on the other. In this realm, either through the conspicuous beauty of words or the conspicuous fictionality of the matter or both, the constructed nature of literature is foregrounded, as it is not, for example, in history or philosophy. Poesy then is a piece of a much larger whole encompassed by the term "literature," a term whose modern equivalent would be "cultural poetics" in the sense of the sum of discourses through which we apprehend and act upon the world and, more particularly, the discourses through which we distinguish between the imaginary and the real. Bacon is famously wary of the unreliability of these discourses. In the dedicatory epistle of The Great Instauration, he urges King James to emulate Solomon "in taking order for the collecting and perfecting of a Natural and Experimental History, true and severe." The meaning of "true and severe" is clarified by a telling parenthesis: "unincumbered with literature and book-learning" (24). But the whole of Bacon's project cannot do without a history of such learning, "without which the history of the world seems to me as the statue of Polyphemus without the eye; that very feature being left out which most marks the spirit and life of the person" (418).

The cultural history Bacon projects would entail an immense act of assemblage and organization: "the argument," he writes, "is no other than to inquire and collect out of the records of all time what particular kinds of learning and arts have flourished in what ages and regions of the world, their antiquities, their progresses, their migrations (for sciences migrate like nations) over the different parts of the globe, and again their decays, disappearances, and revivals" (419). As if this were not enough, he proposes attention to the invention and transmission of each art, along with the order of its study and practice, its particular institutional history, and the full range of its characteristic controversies and rewards. He calls, as he puts it, for an "account of the principal authors, books, schools, successions, academies, societies, colleges, orders—in a word, everything which relates to the state of learning." The crucial point for our purposes is that while Bacon differentiates poesy from other branches of human learning, he does not want the history of any of these branches to be undertaken in isolation. "Human learning"—by which he seems to mean human cultural creativity rather than simply acquired knowledge—is a phenomenon far broader than any one of its distinct forms, and the significance of these forms depends upon their interrelation.

Though the fantastic scope of the imagined project might at first suggest the virtually random collections of indefatigable seventeenth-century pack-rats like the Tradescants, Bacon insists that there is an overarching principle of order: causality. "Above all things," he writes, "I wish events to be coupled with their causes" (419). Again he does not imagine that an inquiry into causes will best occur within a single, isolated form or a single national tradition. Instead Bacon appears to envisage a comparative study, so that one can set the "natural dispositions" and ideological structures of one society against another, in order to determine which are "apt and suited for the study of learning, or unfitted and indifferent to it." In this view, the proper history of literature must not only be cross-disciplinary—with poetic inventions taking their place in relation to all other forms of discourse—but also cross-cultural; there is nothing to be gained by staying within one's own national boundaries, since a culture's fitness for a particular discursive practice can only be grasped by setting it against another's. Such an enterprise, Bacon makes clear, is not for the purpose of constructing an honor roll: "all this," he declares, "I would have handled in a historical way, not wasting time after the manner of critics in praise and blame, but simply narrating the fact historically with but slight intermixture of private judgment" (419-20).

The point of this injunction is not only to forestall tedious panegyrics but to distinguish the project of literary history from the display of taste. The purpose of this enormous enterprise is not to enhance the prestige of the historian, not even to enhance the prestige—"to swell the honour and pomp"—of literature itself. Nor is it motivated by the disinterested love of learning for its own sake, learning pursued, as he puts it, "even to curiosity." Rather Bacon characteristically posits an instrumental end: a history of the kind he proposes "would very greatly assist the wisdom and skill of learned men in the use and administration of learning." We are not so very far after all from the cultural system glimpsed in the neck-verse, and, more generously, we are not far from a vision of learning as the instrument of cultural advancement and ultimately of cultural redemption.

But how could administrative use ever emerge from a project whose scope is apparently without limit? How does Bacon imagine that the history of literature—a history, you recall, that he finds "wanting"—could be written? The answer he proposes is worth careful scrutiny, for it anticipates the procedures and guiding vision of the main histories of literature in our own modern sense of the term and, at the same time, it contains hints of a way to refashion those histories. "For the manner of compiling such a history," he writes,

    I particularly advise that the manner and provision of it be not drawn from histories and commentaries alone, but that the principal books written in each century, or perhaps in shorter periods, proceeding in regular order from the earliest ages, be themselves taken into consideration, that so (I do not say by a complete perusal, for that would be an endless labour, but) by tasting them here and there and observing their argument, style, and method, the Literary Spirit of each age may be charmed as it were from the dead. (420)

This advice in 1623 sketches, in many ways, the method of the historians of literature whom I encountered at Yale in the 1960s. To be sure, the literary history that was to be found at that time and place was a tired and damaged thing. It had been pummelled so routinely by New Critics that its surviving practitioners were with a few exceptions reduced to a disagreeable combination of surly defensiveness and pedantic bluster. Their most visible contributions to the curriculum by the time I arrived were the requirement of a year of Old English and the provision that the oral examination begin in the darkness of Grendel's lair and end with T. S. Eliot. But the basic idea, I now realize, had been laid out by Bacon: commentary—that is, the history of reception—was less important than "the principal books," and these were to be treated "in regular order [seriatim] from the earliest ages," that is, with a steady, chronological predictability, in order to convey the literary spirit of each age. Leaps in time were discouraged, let alone radical discontinuities, anomalies, eccentric illuminations. Aesthetic judgments were eschewed; literary historians followed Bacon's admonition not to waste "time after the manner of critics in praise and blame." And since time was properly spent linking literary events with their causes, detailed, immanent interpretation—that is, close reading of works deliberately detached from extra-textual or inter-textual causality—was also the business of critics rather than historians (except insofar as the latter would occasionally venture to take philological potshots at the formers' hermeneutical excesses).

Modern literary history on these basic principles had once arguably possessed a liberating dimension. In the late nineteenth century it was linked, as Antoine Compagnon has pointed out in the case of Gustave Lanson, the author of the monumental Histoire de la littérature française (1895), with the Dreyfusard democratization of society, since "rhetoric"—the cultivation of a sense of taste and style—was an aristocratic prerogative. Lanson recognized that literary works could not be treated solely as archival documents, but he sought "to reduce the part of personal sentiment in our knowledge to an indispensable and legitimate minimum, while still granting it all its value."15 This recalls Bacon's admonition to allow only a "slight intermixture of private judgment," and Lanson's goal similarly resembles the project sketched in the De augmentis: to provide the "portrait of the literary life of the nation." In practice, however, this ambitious goal, as Compagnon remarks, "shriveled up around the text" (822), and the English literary history I encountered, like the French version produced by Lanson's heirs, consisted for the most part of source and influence studies, a narrow, hard-bitten positivism yoked uneasily to woolly invocations of the spirit of the Elizabethan age or the Victorian sensibility. 16 Moreover, and perhaps most damaging, virtually all explicit concern with what I have called the status of the literary, its position in shifting and contested cultural systems, had disappeared.

Let us return to Bacon's idea that "by tasting" the principal books "here and there and observing their argument, style, and method, the Literary Spirit of each age may be charmed as it were from the dead." This seems, we have noted, to resemble Lanson's project of painting a "portrait" of the nation's literary life, and it resembles as well other familiar models of literary history such as Edwin Greenlaw's idea of treating literature as what he calls "a transcript of life."17 But Bacon is writing in 1623 when the conjuration of spirits is not altogether a metaphor, let alone a dead metaphor. The phrase "as it were" (veluti) is not only a way of calling attention to the language of conjuration but a way of insisting that this language is only metaphorical. This insistence, this disclaimer of any pretension to real conjuration, would seem to be comfortably reinforced by the conjoined image of tasting, but if we remember that magic in this period was typically categorized as a kind of gluttony, we are compelled to acknowledge that here, as elsewhere in Bacon's work, the scientific is inhabited by an uneasy consciousness of other powers and other practices. Bacon's prose calls attention to its own poetical character because it would be entirely possible for its early readers not to take it as poetical.

My point is not that the dreams of magic survive within the rational project of Baconian science—an observation that has been repeatedly and justly made—but rather something more specific to the history of literature: its chronological regularity, its conception of causality, its anecdotal practice of selecting and analyzing "the principal books" originate in the desire to charm a spirit—the Genius Literarius—from the dead. What is compelling about this desire, what is almost entirely lost in its banal and routinized successors, is its queasy relation to reality, its trafficking in spectres.

The ambiguity of Bacon's figure—the impossibility of saying quite what the phrase "Literary Spirit" means—is not a sign of the radical indeterminacy of all metaphor or perhaps of all language but rather the sign of a cultural contestation. The intellectual elite of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were deeply divided on the status of the spirit world, on the possibility and legitimacy of conjuring up ghosts, on the nature of such ghosts as would from time to time appear, conjured up or not. Thus, to take a single example, even so clear-headed and skeptical a thinker as Francesco Guicciardini does not know quite what to believe:

    I think I can definitely state that spirits exist. I mean those things which we call spirits, that is, those airy beings which converse familiarly with men, for I have had such experience of them that I feel absolutely sure of it. But what they are, I believe, is as little known to those who think they know, as to those who have not the slightest idea. These...are hidden forces of nature, or indeed belong to that higher power which moves everything. Clear to Him, hidden from us, and such that the mind of man cannot grasp it.18

Why should Bacon, who hates muddles of this kind, be drawn to the language of spirits? In part, we could argue, he is drawn to this language precisely as metaphor, highlighted by the telling phrase "as it were." If he speaks of conjuration, his project is to turn spirits into figures, just as he turns ancient myths into sly allegories for scientific method. But why should he risk the mystification of metaphor? The answer is that the history of literature cannot do without conjuring, specifically without conjuring up literary genius. 19

Genius here has the force not of an honorific but of its literal sense in classical antiquity, "the begetter." In Latin genius referred to a tutelary spirit, similar to the Greeks' daemon, a divine force that engenders and shapes the character of each male. (A female child was assigned a Juno who had a similar function.) A genius was a principle of pleasure as well as of generation: indulgere genio meant to realize one's personal capacity for creative joy in life, while defraudare genium meant to punish oneself, to abstain from permissible and possible pleasures.20 In Roman popular culture genius came to be identified with the household gods, the Lares and Penates, and with the deified spirits of the ancestors, the Manes; hence it was the life force of the household as well as the individual. By the time of the empire the term had acquired an institutional dimension as well: Augustus had the image of his genius exhibited in the 265 chapels of the capitol district, and the Senate decreed that everyone should offer libations to the emperor's genius at the beginning of every meal. In addition, every professional association, caste, community, bath, theater, and above all school and college claimed the protection of a genius. For it was the principle of collective continuity as well as individual creation, of continuity precisely through the continuous creative force of individuals.

It is this complex tangle of meanings that Bacon's notion of "the genius literarius of each age" (Genius illius temporis Literarius) seems to invoke. The begetter in question is evidently not a particular author—Bacon seems little interested in any individual's originary claims—but rather the creative, generative power of language in a particular historical period, the power that manifested itself in the "schools, successions, academies, societies, colleges, orders" that Bacon urges the literary historian to investigate and that has left its traces in the "principal books" that he counsels the literary historian to taste. This power will not be equal in all cultures, for one genius or daemon could overpower another. Thus the Egyptian soothsayer tells Antony, in a story Shakespeare took from Plutarch, that he should distance himself from Caesar:

    Thy daemon, that thy spirit which keeps thee, is Noble, courageous,
    high, unmatchable, Where Caesar's is not. But near him thy angel
    Becomes afeard, as being o'erpowered.
    (Antony and Cleopatra 2.3.17-20)

Here the "daemon" is close to fortuna—the soothsayer goes on to speak of Caesar's "natural luck"—but Bacon's genius, as we have seen, is a creative power allied more to skill than to luck. He acknowledges, however, that in different places and times there are "natural dispositions," some "apt and suited for the study of learning," others "unfitted and indifferent to it."

But in what sense can this power be said to exist? To what extent does Bacon subscribe to the associations of his term genius? What reality does any of this have for him? The ambiguity about the referential status of his language is not a sign of carelessness; it is a theoretical and practical necessity at the heart of his project. Why? Because the interest of literature, in our own sense as in Bacon's, resides in the place where imaginings may be made real and realities may be disclosed as the products of the imagination, resides in the place where skepticism and faith struggle bitterly over the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen, resides then in the place where, to use Elaine Scarry's terms, the made-up and the made-real touch.

Literary history may seem to have other, more exigent concerns: first, a shared confidence in the expressive power of language, a confidence often established very slowly and by no means uniformly; second, systems of storage and retrieval that enable powerful utterances to outlast their immediate situation; and third, a cultural tolerance for symbolism, parable, story-telling, or socially sanctioned lying. But all of these concerns rest upon, indeed all of them are articulations of the making and unmaking of boundaries. This is why, as I have already remarked, the history of literature is always the history of the possibility of literature. The boundaries of literature mark the point of a significant status change—between such critical categories as legit and non legit, or "poesy" and "philosophy," or "illusory" and "real," or "dead" and "undead." And the perfect figure for those boundaries, or rather for the mysterious power that generates and breaks down and regenerates them, is the genius literarius that Bacon urges the literary historian to call up from the dead.

Conjuring up a spirit is not the same as rationally anatomizing it, still less demystifying it. Bacon is elsewhere deeply suspicious of language and committed to stripping away its corrupting influence from perceptions of the truth. He wishes, as he says in the New Organon, to "exorcise every kind of phantasm." 21 But he cannot exorcise the phantasm of literature. Literary history has from its initial conception been an elaborate structure of institutional analysis, causal speculation, cunning homologies, and intertextual organization built up around the weird intuition of ghostly presences. It is possible, of course, to scoff at ghosts, to deny the existence of any genius literarius, to rebel against the repellent mystification of human artifice, but literary historians for the most part have not done so and probably for good reason. For they—and I should here acknowledge my own involvement by shifting the pronoun to "I"—do not as yet have a satisfactory alternative. Instead I find myself repeatedly enacting Horatio's skepticism—"Tush, tush, 'twill not appear"—followed by the wondering, pleading half-belief that lies at the other side of skepticism: "Stay, illusion."

I do not invoke Hamlet here casually, for it is not only one of the most enduring manifestations of the genius literarius but one of the most searching explorations of its secrets or rather of its refusal to give up its secrets. The exploration centers, as we might expect, on the figure of the Ghost, the figure Horatio initially dismisses as a "fantasy." "Is not this something more than fantasy?" asks Barnardo after the spirit has appeared, looking as it must quite as substantial as all the other characters on the stage, and Horatio seems to agree, though what that "something more" is remains maddeningly uncertain. The sentinels had asked Horatio to accompany them on the battlements because, as Marcellus makes clear, they knew he was literatus: "Thou art a scholar—speak to it, Horatio." It is the role of the scholar to speak to the dead and to make the dead speak: "Stay, speak, speak, I charge thee speak." Horatio questions the Ghost directly—"What art thou?"—but he receives no answer, and his subsequent speculation, that it "bodes some strange eruption to our state," is at once canny and yet inadequate to the fear and wonder that the apparition has caused. The speeches that follow, setting out historical background, details of the military preparation, strategic analysis, are fragments of an historicist project—a patient reconstruction of the "context" of the Ghost's visitation—and like most such projects this one seems solid, earnest, a bit dull, and curiously beside the point. The exposition breaks off in exclamatory amazement when the Ghost reappears—"But soft, behold—lo where it comes again!"—and the question, "What art thou?" remains unanswered.

The Ghost's own subsequent declaration to Hamlet—"I am thy father's spirit"—would seem at first to resolve the matter: certainly Hamlet himself acts for a few moments as if it has been resolved. But the play goes on to insist—from the moment that the Ghost disappears into the cellarage—that the resolution is itself illusory. For the Ghost's intense theatrical power is closely linked to the ontological ambiguities that we have remarked in Bacon's figure of the spirit of literature. The obsessive discussion in the history of literature about the nature of the Ghost—a spirit of health or goblin damned, a figure from Catholic purgatory, a Protestant demon, a distorted reflection of English popular culture, a Senecan theatergram, a psychological projection, and so forth—is a discussion about the nature of literature: that is, about its implication at once in the invention of the real and in the recognition that the real is invented.

There is no more powerful claim in literature to an absolute attention, a complete investment of uncritical belief, than the dead king's horrific tale of his death:

    Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
    Unhouseled, dis-appointed, unaneled.

And yet, everything about this account calls attention to its powers of figuration and rhetorical manipulation, to an inventedness that extends to the human experience of death itself, to massive institutional and psychological claims that may be challenged as fraudulent illusions: unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled. Each of these terms, and the practices they designated—practices supposedly essential to a human being's status in the afterlife—had been attacked in Shakespeare's culture as unreal, merely or devilishly theatrical. Appointment, or death-bed confession for the relief of anxiety, had been made optional; anelement, or anointing on seven places of the dying body, had in 1549 been abbreviated and then in 1552 eliminated altogether; and houseling, or communion, had had its fundamental significance, its ontological basis, radically challenged. The rituals that governed the passage of a person from the living to the dead had been changed, and the words that signified these rituals had been unmoored, making them the objects of a prolonged and murderous struggle. In Hamlet they have become a piece of spectral poetry, a weird pentameter line, voiced by a "questionable shape" that resembles a dead father and a living actor. The ontological claims of this theatrical "thing" are put to the test in Hamlet only by the staging of another play. Outside of Hamlet they are put to the test by the kind of philological commentary in which I, as literary historian, have just briefly participated, but this commentary, as Bacon understood, is itself a form of conjuration. Philology recapitulates ontology. The Ghost in Hamlet is the genius literarius come to excite the literary historian's wonder at the imagination's power to invent and unsettle the real.

When my senior colleague declared years ago that a "Jewish mind" was one that lacked true culture, he was presumably telling me that, in his judgment, I was non legit. Without "literature," given the profession I had chosen to enter, I was as good as dead. As it turned out, I managed to pass the academic equivalent of the "examination" for benefit of clergy: I successfully recited my neck-verse and was awarded the extended institutional life known as tenure. I in turn, of course, give examinations: the profession I served and continue to serve involves the use of literature as a small but significant element in a complex process of certification, a system in which social status is assigned and regulated.

It is almost impossible to separate the literature we teach from this system, a system that is the successor of other, earlier institutional structures in which literature played a comparable part. But this functional character must not be conceived as the sober, bureaucratic truth of literature lurking behind the spectral mystifications of genius. Literature is functionally powerful precisely because it carries the traces of those who are now only ghosts, because it has the uncanny ability of seeming to be written, as St. Paul puts it, "for us," because it has always stalked the boundary between life and death. "Thou art a scholar—speak to it, Horatio."

Stephen Greenblatt
This article appeared in Critical Inquiry 23.3 (1997): 460-481 under the title "What is the History of Literature?"



(1)  I hope it is clear that I do not regard the literary studies of the past few decades as somehow "responsible" for either philistinism or anarchy. The charge is so absurd that I would not feel the need to acknowledge it at all, were it not for the fact that it has been repeatedly and belligerently made: destabilize the canon, the argument goes, and, the next thing you know, you're in Bosnia.

I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge with gratitude the criticisms and suggestions of those who read early drafts of this paper, and particularly of Paul Alpers, Harry Berger, Jr., Homi Bhabha, Catherine Gallagher, Simon During, Eve Sanders, Deborah Shuger, and Philip Schwyzer.

(2)  "Literature and Science," in Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold, ed. A. Dwight Culler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961) 395.

(3)  Henry Bradshaw, Here begynneth the holy lyfe and history of Saynt Werburge/Very fruitful for all Christen people to rede (London: R. Pynson, 1521), prologue to Book 2. The passage is cited in part in the OED entry for "literature."

(4)  Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. G.H. McWilliam (London and New York: Penguin Classics, 1972) 505.

(5)  Quoted in Leona C. Gabel, Benefit of Clergy in England in the Later Middle Ages, Smith College Studies in History 14 (orig. pub. 1928-29) (New York: Octagon Books, 1969) 64. On clerical status and the legal processes both of verification and of degrading, see R. Génestal, Le Privilegium Fori en France du Décret de Gratien à la Fin du XIVe Siècle (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1924); Austin Lane Poole, "Outlawry as a Punishment of Criminous Clerks," in Historical Essays in Honour of James Tait, ed. J. G. Edwards, V. H. Galbraith, and E. F. Jacob (Manchester: n.p., 1933) 239-46.

(6)  See Gabel, Benefit of Clergy in England 72-73.

(7) "Particularly dangerous to public order was the high percentage of highway robbers who were able to plead their clergy and who returned to their particular form of crime at a later date." John Bellamy, Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973) 154.

(8)  The statute of 1489 that established this procedure, "An Act to take awaye the benefytt of Clergye from certayne persons," makes plain the official concern: "Whereas upon trust of privilege of the Churche divers persones lettred hath ben the more bold to committe murdre rape robberty thefte and all othre myschevous dedys, bicause they have ben continuelly admitted to the beneffice of the Clergie as ofte as they did offend in any of the premisses: In avoiding of such presumptuous boldnes, be it enacted ordeyned and stablisshed by thauctorite of this present parliament, that every persone not being within orders, whiche onys hath ben admytted to the benefice of his Clergie, eftsonys arayned of eny suche offence, be not admitted to have the benefice or privilege of his Clergie; And that every suche persone so convicted for murdre, to be marked with a M upon the brrawne of the lefte thumbe, and if he be for eny othre felony, the same persone to be marked with a T in the same place of the thumbe…" (Stat. 4 H VII, c. 13., quoted in Gabel, Benefit of Clergy in England 123-24).

(9)  A judicial record concerning two men caught in a burglary in 1613, cited by Lawrence Stone, eloquently conveys the difference an ability to read could make: "The said Paul reads, to be branded; the said William does not read, to be hanged." Stone argues that the possibility of claiming benefit of clergy was, along with the desire to read the Bible, one of the two principal motives for the rise of lay literacy in Early Modern England ("The Educational Revolution in England, 1560-1640," in Past and Present 28 [1964] 42-43). David Cressy notes that the Middlesex records show that 32% of the capital felons in the reign of Elizabeth and 39% in the reign of James successfully claimed clergy (Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980] 17). On the significance of reading and writing for medieval England, see M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979).

(10)  Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976) 151.

(11)  "The Lauterian vil say maist constantlie, that the scripture iudges for his pairt, that the treu bodie of Christ is in the sacrament ioynit vith the breid and vyne. The Zuigliane vil constantlie afferme, that thair is na thing in the sacrament bot breid, and vyn, quhilk ar signes of the bodie and blude of Iusus Christ: The Cauuinist maist bauld of al vil afferme, that the vord of god is for him, that the bodie of Christ is treulie in the lordis suppar, and that ve be certaine pilleis, or ingeynis ar liftit vp to heauin be ane incomprehensifibl maner: quhat vald ze nou that ane pure man, quha can nather reid nor vryt, and suppoise he could, hes nocht sufficient literatur to vndirstand the scripture sould do in this caice? I dout nocht bot gif ze be nocht aluterlie obstinat, ze may persaue that he vald be in ane very greit perplexitie: and that he hes no sure moyen quhairbie he may resolue him self, and consequentlie gif thair be na vthir iudge by the vryttin vord that Christ hes nocht sufficientlie prouydid for his kirk, nocht leuing in it ane esie and infallibil reul, quhairbie euergie ane quha plesis may discerne the treu religione from the fals, as euerie man in the dasy of iudgement may gif compt in particular of his auin religione and fayth." Nichol Burne, Disputation Niii-Niiii.

(12) Cited in Williams, Keywords 151-52.

(13)  It has, to be sure, been argued that what appears to be the ability of certain works to survive the local concerns of particular interpretive communities is in fact an illusion. Only the names—Homer or Shakespeare—have been unchanged to protect the guilty; the texts are in reality discontinuous. But as with claims that the world does not exist or that it is recreated anew every generation—complete with fraudulent memories of supposed continuities that never in fact existed—one wants to know less whether such arguments are true than what interests or purposes they could possibly serve. The notion that literature is the invention of groups of powerful professors at first appears to be a turn toward history and away from the timeless transcendence of literary masterpieces. But the institutions and motives posited by such a notion are so narrowly conceived (and so recently developed) that the effect is a repression of history. When I see Stanley Fish playing with Milton, why should I not believe that the proposition that Milton has invented Stanley Fish is at least as plausible as the reverse?

(14) De dignitate et augmentis scientiarum libri IX (1623), in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Ellis, and Douglas Heath (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1864) vol. 8, 418.

(15)   Quoted in Antoine Compagnon, "Literature in the Classroom," in A New History of French Literature, ed. Denis Hollier et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989) 822. My account of Lanson is based on this article.

(16)  In 1935 F. W. Bateson declared in a response to F. R. Leavis that literary history makes propositions of the type "A derives from B"; his example is Dryden's tribute to Waller: "Unless he had written, none of us could write." Literary criticism, by contrast, pronounces A to be better than B. The province of the former then is verifiable facts—"The truth or falsehood" of its propositions, Bateson writes, "can be tested by a simple examination of the relevant evidence...just as a fact is tested in a court of law"—while the province of the latter is intuition, opinion, and faith (in René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1942] 28). By the 1960s the evaluative project ascribed to criticism had evolved in America at least into an interpretive one, and there was no longer a social requirement, a test of breeding, for the interpreter. Hence whatever democratic advantage literary history might once have enjoyed was lost.

(17)  Edwin Greenlaw, The Province of Literary History, Johns Hopkins Monographs in Literary History 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1931) ch. 2.

(18)  Guicciardini, Ricordi 211.

(19)  Levinas observes that "magic, recognized everywhere as the devil's part, enjoys an incomprehensible tolerance in poetry" ("Reality and Its Shadow," in The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand [Oxford: Blackwell, 1989] 141). But it was precisely this tolerance that made Bacon, set on liberating man from the idols of the mind, suspicious of poetry.

(20) On indulgere genio and defraudare genium, see the references in the long entry on genius in Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, ed. Ch. Daremberg and Edm. Saglio (Graz: Akademische Druck u. Verlagsanstalt, 1969) 1488-89. See also the useful entries in the Oxford Classical Dictionary and Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. Ben Jonson, perennially alert to Latinate implications, has Volpone declare that he will "cocker up his genius and live free."

(21) "Whenever I come to a new experiment of any subtlety (though it be in my own opinion certain and approved), I nevertheless subjoin a clear account of the manner in which I made it, that men knowing exactly how each point was made out, may see whether there be any error connected with it, and may arouse themselves to devise proofs more trustworthy and exquisite, if such can be found; and finally, I interpose everywhere admonitions and scruples and cautions, with a religious care to eject, repress, and as it were exorcise every kind of phantasm." (Great Instauration, in Sidney Warhaft, Francis Bacon: A Selection of his Works [Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1978] 321).

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.