Some Surprises

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From Stephen Greenblatt’s essay “Culture” in Donald Keesey’s Contexts for Criticism, page 439


“Art is an important agent then in the transmission of culture.  It is one of the ways in which the roles by which men and women are expected to pattern their lives are communicated and passes from generation to generation” (439).


“The current structure of liberal arts education often places obstacles in the way of such an analysis by separating the study of history from the study of literature, as if the two were entirely distinct enterprises, but historians have become increasingly sensitive to the symbolic dimensions of social practice, while literary critics have in recent years turned with growing interest to the social and historical dimensions of symbolic practice” (440).


I was surprised to find this first idea concerning art and culture in a literary essay.  I personally consider literature an art form, but I have found that many people do not feel this way.  I also think that it is important to point out that not only is art important in the continuance or dispersal of cultures, but it is probably the only way in which this is done, for other methods of cultural diffusion, such as trade, war, and oral traditions, still involve the art itself.  


I was also surprised to find the second quote above in this essay, for I feel that many of my courses are attentive to the importance of history.  Every single one of my classes has at some time or another touched upon the history of the subject, even the somewhat more practical math, science, and education courses.  However, Greenblatt does mention that this trend is being replaced with one that recognizes the importance of history, and considering the fact that the essay was written more than ten years ago, it would make sense that colleges and universities would attend to this issue.  


Finally, I was surprised by the style of this essay, in that Greenblatt seems to bounce from one subject or literary piece to the next so quickly and without any true conclusion, at least for me, at the end of the essay. 


Although some of these surprises were informative or interesting, the last one disappointed me because I really enjoy and value new Historical Criticism, or Cultural Poetics according to Greenblatt, and would have liked to see some sort of conclusion from this writer who had so many great ideas about many of the works we have read.   


See what others have to say about Greenblatt.


Bethany Merryman said:

I also blogged about the arts influence on culture, and find it pleasantly surprising that Greenblatt combined literature into the arts. I really enjoy when we have the ability to see literature in a new light along with the visual arts.

This also leads to the use of liberal arts and how important our education is to us. I know it can be a pain taking classes outside of our majors, but it is such a useful tool SHU is giving us. We obviously have to appreciate our education!

Nice blog and good observation about the style. I didn't notice as much as you did, but I can definitely agree that it jumps around.

Greta Carroll said:

Erica, I can see why you think that the essay seems to bounce around. However, I am going to disagree with you nonetheless. I felt that he followed a logical progression. He began by dealing with the idea and definition of culture itself. He then says that there are two main things we need to consider regarding culture: constraint and mobility. He deals with constraint first, he explains how constraint relates to culture, then how it relates to literature, then he gives examples of it in literature. The he uses The Faerie Queen as a transition between constraint and mobility, since it evinces aspects of both. Now, he addresses mobility. After that, he considers how art affects culture and culture affects art and the artists role as an improviser within it.

As for the last part of his essay, I think that he does provide an ending to his article. The last point he wants to make in his essay is that in his essay he has acted, “at moments as if art always reinforces the dominant beliefs and social structures of its culture,” and that this is “by no means necessary” (440). He says he realizes that “in our own time most students reserve their highest admiration for those works that situate themselves on the very edges of what can be said at a particular place and time, that batter against the boundaries of their own culture” (440). The termination of the essay with the example of Caliban is meant to be an example of this. Caliban does not “reinforce the dominant beliefs” or “social structures.” In other words, I think he is recognizing that while most authors’ characters are some variant of the culture around them, it is possible for them to create characters who do not lie within these cultural parameters. When Greenblatt ends his essay with this sentence, “If it is the task of cultural criticism to decipher the power of Prospero, it is equally its task to hear the accents of Caliban” (441), I think he means to summarize his main ideas of the article. It is our job as critics to “decipher the power of Prospero” in relation to the culture of the time during which the Tempest was written as well as in relation to our own modern perceptions. But just as it is our job to consider these parts that obviously relate to culture, we are also meant to consider such characters as Caliban (who may seem to contradict culture’s influence on art, since he is a unique character). However, if we are not familiar with and do not consider history, how can we even recognize how different Caliban is from other characters created at that time? He is simply trying to show us that even when culture does not seem to constrain the characters to being a certain way, we still need to know the culture of the time in order to perceive this.

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