Academic journal article CLIO

Desires and Disavowals: Speculations on the Aftermath of Stephen Greenblatt's "Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture"

Academic journal article CLIO

Desires and Disavowals: Speculations on the Aftermath of Stephen Greenblatt's "Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture"

Article excerpt

Even for those not predisposed to endorse psychoanalytic approaches to literary texts, an inherent compatibility between psychoanalysis and Renaissance literature is hard to deny, as evidenced by Regina Schwartz and Valeria Finucci's neat summary of Sigmund Freud's fascination with the Renaissance: "Exploring homosexuality, Freud turned to Leonardo da Vinci; inquiring into identification and art, he went to Michelangelo; studying the creative process, he cited Ariosto; ruminating on the compulsion to repeat, he examined Tasso; focusing on mourning and melancholia, he went to Shakespeare's Hamlet; and investigating gender relations, he turned to the stories of daughters and fathers in The Merchant of Venice and King Lear." (1)

But Stephen Greenblatt, in an influential 1986 essay, "Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture," dismisses Freud's many returns to the Renaissance: "the bafflement of psychoanalytic interpretation by Renaissance culture is evident as early as Freud's own suggestive but deeply inadequate attempts to explicate the art of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare." (2) My essay will later explore in more detail why Greenblatt finds Freud's engagements with the Renaissance so "deeply inadequate," and why his essay has presented so many intractable challenges for critics engaged in psychoanalytic approaches to Renaissance texts. For now, a succinct taxonomy of Greenblatt's objections to psychoanalytic approaches to Renaissance literature can suffice: in no uncertain terms, he contends that with respect to the Renaissance, psychoanalysis can only be "belated," "anachronistic" (210), "crippled" (216), and "marginal" (221).

Literary critics are probably much more familiar with Greenblatt's 1980 Renaissance Self-Fashioning, a founding text for the New Historicism. (3) But for scholars engaged in psychoanalytic approaches to Renaissance texts, Greenblatt's 1986 essay has been a bombshell whose shock waves, almost twenty years after its publication, are still being felt. (4) I myself have critiqued his essay extensively, (5) but that was some fifteen years ago, and I feel compelled to return to it--if only as an opportunity for an extended meditation on the essay's aftermath. Particularly for medieval and early modern literary critics invested in the concept of "selfhood," I intend to trace, phrased psychoanalytically, the intriguing desires and disavowals that uncannily accrue around any failure to take his complex argument into account.

I begin not with "Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture" (to which I will return in due time) nor with early modern literary studies, but with a close reading of two essays by the medievalist Lee Patterson, published in Speculum, the preeminent journal of medieval studies. In the early 1990s, several prominent medievalists, led by Patterson and David Aers, took a number of early modern literary critics to task for their underexamined assumption that the origin of western "subjectivity," "selfhood," or "interiority" emerged during the Renaissance. In his key 1990 essay "On the Margin: Postmodernism, Ironic History, and Medieval Studies," published in Speculum, Patterson located several prominent early modern literary scholars' blindspots about the Middle Ages and, by logical extension, about the many contributions that medieval studies could make to ongoing efforts to trace a history of western subjectivity. Patterson critiqued Catherine Belsey's claim that "the inner space of subjectivity ... came into being in the Renaissance" as greatly oversimplified. (6) He took Francis Barker to task for arguing that medieval society "does not properly involve subjectivity at all," and that medieval subjectivity lacks "an interiorized self-recognition." (7) Patterson objected to Joel Fineman's contention that in Shakespeare's texts we discover "a genuinely new poetic subjectivity" centered on "the resonant hollowness of a fractured verbal self." (8) He particularly singled out for critique Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning and its author's conviction that essential to his project is "the perception--as old in academic writing as Burckhardt and Michelet--that there is in the early modern period a change in the intellectual, social, psychological, and aesthetic structures that govern the generation of identities. …

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