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Greenblatt’s melancholy fetish: literary criticism and the desire for loss

(2010) TEXTUAL PRACTICE. 24(3). p.483-500
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Abstract
In the last quarter of the previous century, a number of historicist approaches to literature and culture promised a salutary return to history and reality after the alleged a-historicism of formalist criticism. A careful reading of Stephen Greenblatt's paradigmatic statement that he 'began with the desire to speak with the dead' demonstrates that this historical desire is not so much a desire for the past, but rather for a recovery of the present; it does not aim to resurrect the dead, but rather to finally - and impossibly - lay them to rest. Greenblatt uses literature as a fetish that makes possible a belief in the reality of loss and in the possibility of escaping from a perpetual spectral half- life in which the past and the present can no longer be clearly separated. The anxiety that inspires such a desire for loss is an effect of the massification, circulation, and commodification that mark our capitalist modernity as such, yet it asserts itself in an intensified way in the field of literary studies: the increasing capacities to store and retrieve historical data destabilizes the historical archive, which in its turn inspires the construction of literature as a fetish through which the distinction between past and present can be restored. By showing how this motif structures the work of 'conservative' critics such as Erich Auerbach and Geoffrey Hartman, the article shows how the new historicism is continuous with a major trend in literary studies since the Second World War that tends to fetishize literature in order to recover the obsolete distinction between loss and life.
Keywords
new historicism, Stephen Greenblatt, fetish, spectrality, modernity, melancholia, Erich Auerbach, Octave Mannoni, Geoffrey Hartman, HISTORICISM

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Chicago
Vermeulen, Pieter. 2010. “Greenblatt’s Melancholy Fetish: Literary Criticism and the Desire for Loss.” Textual Practice 24 (3): 483–500.
APA
Vermeulen, P. (2010). Greenblatt’s melancholy fetish: literary criticism and the desire for loss. TEXTUAL PRACTICE, 24(3), 483–500.
Vancouver
1.
Vermeulen P. Greenblatt’s melancholy fetish: literary criticism and the desire for loss. TEXTUAL PRACTICE. 2010;24(3):483–500.
MLA
Vermeulen, Pieter. “Greenblatt’s Melancholy Fetish: Literary Criticism and the Desire for Loss.” TEXTUAL PRACTICE 24.3 (2010): 483–500. Print.
@article{1059005,
  abstract     = {In the last quarter of the previous century, a number of historicist approaches to literature and culture promised a salutary return to history and reality after the alleged a-historicism of formalist criticism. A careful reading of Stephen Greenblatt's paradigmatic statement that he 'began with the desire to speak with the dead' demonstrates that this historical desire is not so much a desire for the past, but rather for a recovery of the present; it does not aim to resurrect the dead, but rather to finally - and impossibly - lay them to rest. Greenblatt uses literature as a fetish that makes possible a belief in the reality of loss and in the possibility of escaping from a perpetual spectral half- life in which the past and the present can no longer be clearly separated. The anxiety that inspires such a desire for loss is an effect of the massification, circulation, and commodification that mark our capitalist modernity as such, yet it asserts itself in an intensified way in the field of literary studies: the increasing capacities to store and retrieve historical data destabilizes the historical archive, which in its turn inspires the construction of literature as a fetish through which the distinction between past and present can be restored. By showing how this motif structures the work of 'conservative' critics such as Erich Auerbach and Geoffrey Hartman, the article shows how the new historicism is continuous with a major trend in literary studies since the Second World War that tends to fetishize literature in order to recover the obsolete distinction between loss and life.},
  author       = {Vermeulen, Pieter},
  issn         = {0950-236X},
  journal      = {TEXTUAL PRACTICE},
  keyword      = {new historicism,Stephen Greenblatt,fetish,spectrality,modernity,melancholia,Erich Auerbach,Octave Mannoni,Geoffrey Hartman,HISTORICISM},
  language     = {eng},
  number       = {3},
  pages        = {483--500},
  title        = {Greenblatt{\textquoteright}s melancholy fetish: literary criticism and the desire for loss},
  url          = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09502360903399337},
  volume       = {24},
  year         = {2010},
}

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