Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes

Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes

by Roland Greene


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Blood. Invention. Language. Resistance. World. Five ordinary words that do a great deal of conceptual work in everyday life and literature. In this original experiment in critical semantics, Roland Greene considers how these five words changed over the course of the sixteenth century and what their changes indicate about broader forces in science, politics, and other disciplines.
Greene discusses a broad swath of Renaissance and transatlantic literature—including Shakespeare, Cervantes, Camões, and Milton—in terms of the development of these words rather than works, careers, or histories. He creates a method for describing and understanding the semantic changes that occur, extending his argument to other words that operate in the same manner. Aiming to shift the conversation around Renaissance literature from current approaches to riskier enterprises, Greene also challenges semantic-historicist scholars, proposing a method that takes advantage of digital resources like full-text databases but still depends on the interpreter to fashion ideas out of ordinary language. Five Words is an innovative and accessible book that points the field of literary studies in an exciting new direction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226000633
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/10/2013
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Roland Greene is the Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. His most recent book, Unrequited Conquests: Love and Empire in the Colonial Americas, is also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes

By Roland Greene


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-00063-3


<h2>CHAPTER 1</h2> <p><b>INVENTION</b></p> <br> <p>Near the end of Rabelais's <i>Third Book of Pantagruel</i>, the protagonist prepares to sail, in a fleet of ships, in search of the Oracle of the Bottle. He takes aboard sailors, pilots, interpreters, and soldiers, as well as food, ammunition, money, and other provisions for a long sea voyage. "Among other items," writes the narrator, "I saw that he had loaded a great store of the herb Pantagruelion, raw as well as preserved and prepared." Thus begins a curious episode in Rabelais's vast, digressive fiction. For the account of Pantagruelion consumes the rest of the <i>Third Book</i>, four chapters, including the herb's physical and botanical properties, its lifespan, and its uses. One of the enduring questions about this <i>Third Book</i> is why Rabelais interrupts his much-interrupted story to pay tribute to an herb—Pantagruelion is an imaginary amalgamation of plants such as hemp, cotton, and flax as well as minerals such as asbestos—at such length, postponing the narrative of the voyage until the <i>Fourth Book</i>. Pantagruelion refracts the nature and concerns of the protagonist to whom it refers: it is to Pantagruel what the iris is to the Virgin Mary or the laurel is to Petrarch. And yet we are continually reminded in Rabelais's fiction that the early modern world is cut off from the pasts inhabited by such figures; that objects that once would have been legible in classical or Christian terms are now often parodies of those vanished or threatened idealisms; and that a Pantagruelion is more likely to embody the incongruities of the sixteenth-century present than the correspondences of any earlier time.</p> <p>In that spirit, the account of Pantagruelion is striking because from its first mention, the narrator is at pains to anticipate a distinction that often becomes important in narratives of voyages of discovery. On the one side is the plant as the object of discovery, in its natural state, and on the other is the same plant as the object ("conficte et præparée") of human disposition or even creation. In this preposterous voyage, the ships are laden with an herb that already demonstrates what is usually developed through experience, namely, all of its possibilities—medicinal, culinary, practical—as seen in both natural and artificial uses. It is as though the crew plans to run backward through a voyage of encounter, bringing Pantagruelion to the rest of the world as an array of usages as well as a raw discovery. "In Pantagruelion I recognize so many virtues, so much vigour, so many perfections, so many admirable effects," writes the narrator, "that if its full worth had been known when, as the Prophet tells us, the trees elected a wooden king to reign over them and govern them, it would no doubt have gained the majority of their votes."</p> <p>Si promptement voulez guerir une bruslure, soit d'eaue, soit de feu, applicquez y du Pantagruelion crud, c'est à dire tel qui naist de terre, sans aultre appareil ne composition....</p> <p>Sans elle seroient les cuisines infames, les tables detestables, quoy que couvertes feussent de toutes viandes exquises, les lictz sans delices, quoy que y feust en abondance or, argent, electre, ivoyre et porphyre.</p> <p>Sans elle ne porteroient les meusniers bled au moulin, n'en rapporteroient farine. Sans elle, comment seroient portez les playdoiers des advocatz à l'auditoire? Comment seroit sans elle porté le plastre à l'hastellier? Sans elle, comment seroit tirée l'eaue du puyz? Sans elle, que feroient les tabellions, les copistes, les secretaires et escrivains? Ne periroient les pantarques et papiers rantiers? Ne periroit le noble art d'imprimerie? De quoy feroit on chassis? Comment sonneroit on les cloches? D'elle sont les Isiacques ornez, les Pastophores revestuz, toute humaine nature couverte en premiere position. Toutes les arbres lanificques des Seres, les gossampines de Tyle en la mer Persicque, les cynes des Arabes, les vignes de Malthe ne vestissent tant de persones que faict ceste herbe seulette. Couvre les armées contre le froid et la pluye, plus certes commodement que jadis ne faisoient les peaulx; couvre les theatres et amphitheatres contre le chaleur, ceinct les boys et taillis au plaisir des chasseurs, descend en eaue, tant doulce que marine, au profict des pescheurs. Par elle sont bottes, botines, botasses, houzeaulx, brodequins, souliers, escarpins, pantofles, savattes mises en forme et usaige. Par elle sont les arcs tendus, les arbelestes bandées, les fondes faictes. Et, comme si feust herbe sacre, verbenicque et reverée des Manes et Lemures, les corps humains mors sans elle ne sont inhumez.</p> <br> <p>(If you want quickly to heal a scald or a burn, apply some Panttagruelion raw; that is to say just as it comes out of the earth, without any prepparation or treatment....</p> <p>Without it kitchens would be a disgrace, tables rrrrepellent, even though they were covered with every exquisite food, and beds pleasureless, though adorned with gold, silver, amber, ivory, and porphyry in abundance.</p> <p>Without it millers would not carry wheat to the mill, or carry flour away. Without it, how could advocates' pleadings be brought to the sessions hall? How could plaster be carried to the workshop without it? Without it, how could water be drawn from the well? What would scribes, copyists, secretaries, and writers do without it? Would not official documents and rent-rolls disappear? Would not the noble art of printing perish? What would window-screens be made of? How would church-bells be rung? It provides the adornment of the priests of Isis, the robes of the pastophores, and the coverings of all human beings in their first recumbent position. All the woolly trees of Northern India, all the cotton plants of Tylos on the Persian Gulf, of Arabia, and of Malta have not dressed so many people as this plant alone. It protects armies against cold and rain, much better than did the skin tents of old. It protects theatres and amphitheatres against the heat; it is hung round woods and coppices for the pleasure of hunters; it is dropped into sweet water and sea-water for the profit of fishermen. It shapes and makes serviceable boots, high-boots, heavy boots, leggings, shoes, pumps, slippers, and nailed shoes. By it bows are strung, arbalests bent, and slings made. And as though it were a sacred plant, like verbena, and reverenced by the Manes and Lemurs, bodies of men are never buried without it.)</p> <br> <p>Rabelais's parody mocks the earnest enumerations of origins, properties, and uses of plants—and many other things, from wine to musical instruments to magic—found in compendia such as Giannozzo Manetti's <i>De dignitate et excellentia hominis</i> (1453), Alfonso de Toledo's <i>Invencionario</i> (circa 1467), and Polydore Vergil's <i>De inventoribus rerum</i> (1499), which belong to an early humanist tradition that celebrates <i>operosità</i> or constructive activity. And the crude joke of the passage is that we are often unable to tell which of the uses of Pantagruelion is being celebrated. Does it grace kitchens as food, implement, or tablecloth—or all of these? In which forms does it make beds pleasurable—as pillow, blanket, or rope?</p> <p>When the narrator insists that Pantagruel was the "inventeur" of Pantagruelion and then corrects himself—"je ne diz quant à la plante, mais quant à un certain usaige" ("I do not mean of the plant, but of a certain usage of it")—we are reminded that what concerns this episode as much as the herb is <i>invention</i>. The word is ripe for parodic but critical treatment because of how it changes at the threshold of the sixteenth century, under the pressure of the first wave of humanism and its enabling forces, such as the rise of print, the availability of classical learning, and the discovery of new societies. When Rabelais's <i>Third Book</i> speaks of the natural herb as well as rent-rolls, church-bells, and leggings, we hear through the narrator's ostensible subject, Pantagruelion, the cultural and semantic implications of <i>invention</i> itself. And when Pantagruel "invents" Pantagruelion, that process brings to mind Rabelais's "invention" of the fiction itself, introduced in the prologue to the <i>First Book</i> as among several "books of our invention such as <i>Gargantua, Pantagruel, Throw-pint, The Dignity of Codpieces, On Peas and Lard Seasoned with a Commentary</i>, et cetera." Hard though it is to keep in mind a plant of many uses, it may be more challenging to absorb a notion of <i>invention</i> that encompasses many senses from discovery to adaptation to application to conception.</p> <p><i>Invention</i> is perhaps the signal concept of early modernity. Not only is the term largely adapted into its modern semantic configuration during the sixteenth century—with a common core of meaning across languages as well as striking differences from language to language—but it is impossible to think about the early modern period without <i>invention</i> in all of its senses together. When one sense overwrites another, the word registers the changes that lend the Renaissance some of its complexity. In western European and transatlantic societies after the Middle Ages, <i>invention</i> is not only what it seems to be, a rhetorical process received from classical antiquity, but a figure that represents the confrontation between two factors, the human capacity to touch reality and that reality itself. How we understand those two factors depends on the moment, the place, and the position of the observer. The nature of both the capacity (whether recording, altering, or creating) and the enveloping reality (whether divine, secular, or material) is negotiated throughout the century in strikingly new ways. When in the Middle Ages for instance, the reality at issue was understood to be Holy Scripture, as it was for Saint Augustine, invention became a procedure as much for exegesis as for argument. In that era the confrontation between human capacity and its reality was suspended within the precinct of hermeneutics, where a <i>modus inveniendi</i> was adapted into a <i>modus interpretandi</i> concerned with a matter that cannot be gainsaid, the <i>graphe</i> of God. The episode has been amply narrated and is not my concern here. Rather, I am interested in what Rabelais and his contemporaries find intriguing and perplexing: an invention that is under revision throughout the sixteenth century as both human capacity and the surrounding reality are seen to change. <i>Invention</i> is thus a sort of figure that I call a palimpsest. Across the century, every usage of the word not only assumes a certain configuration of these elements but evokes other configurations; the word carries within it the history of its changes as well as its present balance of factors. When early modern thinkers and readers encountered the term <i>invention</i>, they saw it as though written on a palimpsest or tablet held in common across languages, religions, and ideologies. To put it another way, the tension built into the word does not compromise its meaning; it is that meaning.</p> <p>One might say there are two <i>inventions</i> at large in the European and transatlantic worlds, as discovery and as conception:</p> <p><i>Invention as</i>
Conception<br> <br> <i>Object</i>
Matter, Things
Experience, World<br> <br> <i>Medium</i>
Utterance<br> <br> <i>Site of Authority</i> Original Writer Present Writer<br> -> Present Reader <br> <i>Temporality</i>
Past to Present Present to Future<br></p> <br> <p>Although in bold outline the story goes that conception replaces discovery, in fact neither entirely overwrites the other. On the contrary, for most of the long sixteenth century, both of these senses are at least immanent where the term <i>invention</i> appears. The disinclination of many rhetoricians and poetic theorists to define <i>invention</i> in this period attests to the term's power as palimpsest, its access to complementary and perhaps contradictory meanings. Notice that what I call here the meaning of each term entails its objects, its construal of a degree of dependency on earlier models, and its temporal horizon. <i>Invention</i> as discovery posits a more or less inert object, a concessionary (if not a superstitious) approach to textual authority, and a temporal project that brings matter out of the past into the present. By contrast, <i>invention</i> as conception supposes a lively, sometimes ineffable object, a greater degree of independence from past authorities, and a project that creates fictions in the present destined to be encountered in the future. The mutual resistance of these two senses can be found embedded in many of the dichotomies and debates of the period: between the discoverer Christopher Columbus and the freehanded conceivers of American reality such as Amerigo Vespucci and Walter Ralegh; between the generations of Clément Marot and the Pléiade; between the Puritan literalist Stephen Gosson and the theorists of fiction Philip Sidney and George Puttenham; and between the poet and custodian of quantitative prosody Thomas Campion and the defender of vernacular rhythm and rhyme Samuel Daniel.</p> <p>At the start of the early modern period, as the classical concept of invention is revived and reinterpreted, the principle of reality against which human capacity asserts itself is matter, or the raw things or facts of the world as organized by logic. In the middle sixteenth century, the rhetorician Thomas Wilson draws on this sense of the concept when he notes the first of "five thynges to be considered in an Oratour" as "the findyng out of apte matter, called otherwise Invencion," defined in turn as "a searchyng out of thynges true, or thynges likely." By the end of the early modern period, however, that principle has many names, of which <i>matter</i> and <i>things</i> are only two: others are <i>experience, fiction</i>, and the <i>world</i> itself. In between, in the era I am charting, the concept of <i>invention</i> indicates, in its various appearances, the state of early modern thinking on such questions as how to honor the past, how to reflect the present, how to balance nativist cultural interests against importations—in short, how to make a mark on the world. Further, the word <i>invention</i> maintains a wide range of corresponding terms in the several vernaculars—the French <i>invention</i>, the Italian <i>invenzione</i>, the Portuguese <i>invenção</i>, and the Spanish <i>invención</i>, not to mention partial synonyms such as the Spanish <i>ingenio</i>—and each of these finds its own balance among these questions. Of course, there is a great deal of cultural particularity that departs from this anecdote. The words themselves are more unstable than received literary history often allows, and often become more evocative in their instability. Many thinkers of the period enact the counterposition of <i>invention</i> to its reality principles in ways that are motivated by their own circumstances, and perhaps no one lives out the anecdote quite as neatly as I have described it.</p> <p>Still, if <i>invention</i> often registers the confrontation between the singular rhetor or artist and a reality principle that changes character across the sixteenth century, from matter to a more abstract experience, the word itself is a kind of palimpsest, with some of its senses in the foreground and others barely visible but available. As the balance of these senses shifts away from discovery and toward creation, <i>invention</i> changes until it becomes the modern concept that in the seventeenth century will be indispensable to empirical science and technology. When we encounter it as a seemingly static feature in a particular setting, say in a treatise on rhetoric, <i>invention</i> often seems legible as a specimen of humanist triumphalism, the term that perhaps most vividly expresses the early modern interest in the human propensity for devising and creating. This is how literary history typically treats the concept. But in fact the term is never static. It carries multiple senses, shifts implications from one usage to another, is often strikingly different from one decade to the next, and always evokes an array of problems and attitudes about finding and making, the classical past and the open-ended present. Even its most ardent exponents, such as Rabelais, are often ambivalent about what they mean by it, exactly because the term contains the uncertainties of a period suspended between complementary but distinct notions of what it means to make customs, objects, or works of art. Moreover, <i>invention</i> is thought of as embedded always in material and political considerations. It is often an importation, a foreign fashion of working native matter, and thus cross-culturally coded; it is often gendered, usually male, so that female writers must contend with their relation to the term as a problem of authorship; and it is full of economic implications, since as the century goes on it becomes impossible not to see that <i>invention</i> is thoroughly based in not just the imaginative but the technological exploitation of things. In short, <i>invention</i> is a slate on which Renaissance writers reflect on their world but also their agency in it, their entanglement with things and works, and their historical situations.

Excerpted from FIVE WORDS by Roland Greene. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS....................     vii     

INTRODUCTION, An Experiment in Early Modern Critical Semantics.............     1     

Invention....................     15     

Language....................     41     

Resistance....................     74     

Blood....................     107     

World....................     143     

AFTERWORD....................     173     

NOTES....................     177     

INDEX....................     205     

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