Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World

Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World

by Stephen Greenblatt

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A masterwork of history and cultural studies, Marvelous Possessions is a brilliant meditation on the interconnected ways in which Europeans of the Age of Discovery represented non-European peoples and took possession of their lands, particularly in the New World. In a series of innovative readings of travel narratives, judicial documents, and official reports, Stephen Greenblatt shows that the experience of the marvelous, central to both art and philosophy, was manipulated by Columbus and others in the service of colonial appropriation. Much more than simply a collection of the odd and exotic, Marvelous Possessions is both a highly original extension of Greenblatt’s thinking on a subject that has permeated his career and a thrilling tale of wandering, kidnapping, and go-betweens—of daring improvisation, betrayal, and violence. Reaching back to the ancient Greeks, forward to the present, and, in his new preface, even to fantastical meetings between humans and aliens in movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Greenblatt would have us ask: How is it possible, in a time of disorientation, hatred of the other, and possessiveness, to keep the capacity for wonder—for tolerant recognition of cultural difference—from being poisoned?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226525044
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/20/2017
Edition description: First Edition, Enlarged
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 526,484
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of many books, including the groundbreaking Renaissance Self-Fashioning, also published by the University of Chicago Press, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.


Cambridge, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

November 7, 1943

Place of Birth:

Cambridge, Massachusetts


B.A., Yale University, 1964; B.A., Cambridge University, 1966; Ph.D., Yale University, 1969

Read an Excerpt



When I was a child, my favorite books were The Arabian Nights and Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels. The appeal of the former, even in what I assume was a grotesquely reduced version, lay in the primal power of storytelling. Some years ago, in the Djeema EI Fnah in Marrakesh, I joined the charmed circle of listeners seated on the ground around the professional storyteller and attended uncomprehendingly to his long tale. In the peculiar reverie that comes with listening to a language one does not understand, hearing it as an alien music, knowing only that a tale is being told, I allowed my mind to wander and discovered that I was telling myself one of the stories from the Arabian Nights, the tale of Sinbad and the roc. If it is true, as Walter Benjamin writes, that every real story 'contains, openly or covertly, something useful', then that tale, of diamonds, deep caverns, snakes, raw meat, and birds with huge talons, must have impressed itself upon my prepubescent imagination as containing something extremely useful, something I should never forget. The utility, in this particular case, has remained hidden from me, but I am reasonably confident that it will be someday revealed. And I remain possessed by stories and obsessed with their complex uses.

The appeal of Halliburton's Book of Marvels is less easy to explain. Halliburton was a popular American traveler and journalist. He wrote in what now seems to me a dismayingly exclamatory and hyperventilating manner, as if he believed in some part of himself that his marvels were not all that marvelous and needed to be rhetorically enhanced for the marketplace. But, even in a debased form, The Book of Marvels was in touch with what Michel de Certeau calls 'the joyful and silent experience of childhood: ... to be other and to move toward the other.' And I suppose that my suburban soul, constricted by the conventionality of the Eisenhower 1950s, eagerly embraced the relief that Halliburton offered, the sense that the real world was full of wonder, the wide-eyed account of exotic travels — Iguassu Falls, Chichén Itzá, the Golden Gate Bridge. It was Halliburton's trademark to put himself into danger in order to witness or verify his marvels: he flew a light plane perilously close to the raging waters of Iguassu Falls, he jumped into the Pool of Sacrifices at Chichen and swam to safety, I suppose he drove at rush hour across the Golden Gate Bridge. I shouldn't make light of his daring; as if to prove that the risks he was taking were real, Halliburton disappeared on one of his voyages and was never heard from again.

At a certain point I passed from the naïve to what Schiller calls the sentimental — that is, I stopped reading books of marvels and began reading ethnographies and novels — but my childhood interests have survived in a passionate curiosity about other cultures and a fascination with tales. It will not escape anyone who reads this book that my chapters are constructed largely around anecdotes, what the French call petites histoires, as distinct from the grand récit of totalizing, integrated, progressive history, a history that knows where it is going. As is appropriate for voyagers who thought that they knew where they were going and ended up in a place whose existence they had never imagined, the discourse of travel in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance is rarely if ever interesting at the level of sustained narrative and teleological design, but gripping at the level of the anecdote. The sense of overarching scheme is certainly present in this discourse, most often in the conviction of the inexorable progress from East to West of Christianity or empire or both, but compared to the luminous universal histories of the early Middle Ages, the chronicles of exploration seem uncertain of their bearings, disorganized, fragmentary. Their strength lies not in a vision of the Holy Spirit's gradual expansion through the world but in the shock of the unfamiliar, the provocation of an intense curiosity, the local excitement of discontinuous wonders. Hence they present the world not in stately and harmonious order but in a succession of brief encounters, random experiences, isolated anecdotes of the unanticipated. For the anecdote, which is linked at least etymologically with the unpublished, is the principal register of the unexpected and hence of the encounter with difference that is at once initiated and epitomized by Columbus's marvelous landfall in an unimagined hemisphere that blocked his access to the eastern end of the known world.

If anecdotes are registers of the singularity of the contingent — associated (to introduce the Mandevillian terms I will discuss in the next chapter) with the rim rather than the immobile and immobilizing center — they are at the same time recorded as representative anecdotes, that is, as significant in terms of a larger progress or pattern that is the proper subject of a history perennially deferred in the traveler's relation of further anecdotes. A purely local knowledge, an absolutely singular, unrepeatable, unique experience or observation, is neither desirable nor possible, for the traveler's discourse is meant to be useful, even if the ultimate design in which this utility will be absorbed remains opaque. Anecdotes then are among the principal products of a culture's representational technology, mediators between the undifferentiated succession of local moments and a larger strategy toward which they can only gesture. They are seized in passing from the swirl of experiences and given some shape, a shape whose provisionality still marks them as contingent — otherwise, we would give them the larger, grander name of history — but also makes them available for telling and retelling.

My own traveler's anecdotes are bound up with those that I study, shaped by a similar longing for the effect of the locally real and by a larger historicizing intention that is at once evoked and deflected. An example: in August, 1986, on a tourist's typical first night in Bali, I walked by moonlight on narrow paths through silent rice paddies glittering with fireflies. I reached a tiny village which in the darkness I identified less by the low, half-hidden huts and temples than by the frenzied barking of the dogs at my approach. I saw a light from the bale banjar, the communal pavilion in which I knew — from having read Clifford Geertz and Miguel Covarrubias and Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead — that the Balinese gathered in the evenings. I drew near and discovered that the light came from a television set that the villagers, squatting or sitting cross-legged, were intent on watching. Conquering my disappointment, I accepted the gestured invitation to climb onto the platform and see the show: on the communal VCR, they were watching a tape of an elaborate temple ceremony. Alerted by the excited comments and whoops of laughter, I recognized in the genial crowd of television watchers on the platform several of the ecstatic celebrants, dancing in trance states, whom I was seeing on the screen.

We may call what I witnessed that evening the assimilation of the other, a phrase it is well to leave deliberately ambiguous. For if the television and the VCR and, for that matter, my presence on the platform suggested the astonishing pervasiveness of capitalist markets and technology, their extension into the furthest corners of the earth, the Balinese adaptation of the latest Western and Japanese modes of representation seemed so culturally idiosyncratic and resilient that it was unclear who was assimilating whom. The villagers had purchased a sophisticated version of international capitalism's representational machinery, its leading device at the moment for the production, reproduction, and transmission of cultural texts. The immense transformative power of that device, its ability to diminish difference by initiating relatively isolated and autonomous cultures into the imagery and values of the world system, has been amply demonstrated around the globe. But the VCR allows a surprising amount of local autonomy, and what I witnessed was the pleasure of self-representation, as the villagers had their own bodies and voices and music enter the machine and be projected back at them. Whose ideological triumph is being registered here? Whose possession is disclosed? Representational practices are ideologically significant — it is the purpose of this book to explore some aspects of this significance — but I think it is important to resist what we may call a priori ideological determinism, that is, the notion that particular modes of representation are inherently and necessarily bound to a given culture or class or belief system, and that their effects are unidirectional.

The alternative is not to imagine that representational modes are neutral or even that they give themselves over, like Chekhov's 'Darling,' to whoever has embraced them, but to acknowledge that individuals and cultures tend to have fantastically powerful assimilative mechanisms, mechanisms that work like enzymes to change the ideological composition of foreign bodies. Those foreign bodies do not disappear altogether but they are drawn into what Homi Bhabha terms the inbetween, the zone of intersection in which all culturally determinate significations are called into question by an unresolved and unresolvable hybridity. Even representational technologies that require highly specialized equipment along with an infrastructure that includes electric generators, the accumulation of so-called hard currency, and the middlemen and customs bureaucracy in Tokyo, Jakarta, and Denpasar are not unequivocally and irreversibly the bearers of the capitalist ideology that was the determining condition of their original creation and their expansion throughout the world. In the case of the Balinese television set, there is not only the remarkable adaptive power of the local community but a distinct sense conveyed by that community that the adaptation is not all that remarkable, that nothing very novel is occurring, that no great expenditure of collective energy is engaged in the assimilation of the other.

At first I accounted for my impression as a consequence of the gracefulness for which the Balinese are justly famous, but a few days later it received a sharper focus when I milled about in the town of Amlapura with an enormous crowd celebrating Indonesian Independence Day. I had hoped to see some traditional legong dances, which were to take place on the stage of the large movie theater on the town square, but by the time I arrived the dances were over and the current movie, Charles Bronson's Death Wish II, was about to begin, a free screening that evening on the occasion of the holiday. Across the square another movie was already showing on a large makeshift screen — evidently a comedy about rich yuppies in Jakarta. The film, depicting people whose language, religion, and sense of identity are far different from those of the Balinese, was also being shown in honor of the celebration, a gesture then toward that cultural assimilation of Bali that Javanese have been attempting to achieve, most often by considerably less genial means, for centuries. Finally, against the side wall of the movie theater, and jutting into the square, someone had constructed a rough trestle stage on which had been erected yet another screen, stretched across a wooden frame. Behind this screen, which was lit by a coconut oil lamp, was an aged dalang, a mystic storyteller. The dalang sat cross-legged beside a coffin-like box out of which he took, one by one, exquisite puppets cut from buffalo parchment and arrayed them before him. He then began to perform with amazing dexterity a wayang kulit, a shadow puppet play based upon episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The Balinese were moving gaily and apparently at random from one of these shows to another, crowding in to witness a few illuminating minutes of American screen violence, moving outside to listen to the chanting of the dalang and watch the shadow puppets flickering across the screen, squeezing in behind that screen to watch the dalang manipulate the puppets, crossing the square to see the gilded youth in Jakarta race around in red sports cars. In the context of this festive perambulation, the villagers whom on my first night I had seen huddled together before the television set seemed part of a larger Balinese fascination with images on screens. Though the wayang scaffold was propped against the movie house, it seemed far more plausible symbolically at least to imagine the movie house propped against the ancient puppet theater, with its intimations of the unreality of the world.

But it is not the question of cultural origins or priority that most interests me here. Rather I want to emphasize the multiple sites of representation and the crowd's movement among them, for they suggest that the problem of the assimilation of the other is linked to what we may call, adapting Marx, the reproduction and circulation of mimetic capital. There are three reasons why it is worth invoking 'capital' here. First, and most obvious, I want to insist on the crucial connection between mimesis and capitalism, for, though the Roman Empire and Christianity provided impressive precedents, in the modern world-order it is with capitalism that the proliferation and circulation of representations (and devices for the generation and transmission of representations) achieved a spectacular and virtually inescapable global magnitude. This magnitude — the will and the ability to cross immense distances and, in the search for profit, to encounter and to represent radically unfamiliar human and natural objects — is the enabling condition for the particular experiences with which this book will be concerned. Second, I want to convey the sense of a stockpile of representations, a set of images and image-making devices that are accumulated, 'banked,' as it were, in books, archives, collections, cultural storehouses, until such time as these representations are called upon to generate new representations. The images that matter, that merit the term capital, are those that achieve reproductive power, maintaining and multiplying themselves by transforming cultural contacts into novel and often unexpected forms. And third, I want to suggest that mimesis, as Marx said of capital, is a social relation of production. I take this to mean that any given representation is not only the reflection or product of social relations but that it is itself a social relation, linked to the group understandings, status hierarchies, resistances, and conflicts that exist in other spheres of the culture in which it circulates. This means that representations are not only products but producers, capable of decisively altering the very forces that brought them into being.

This emphasis on the productive power of representation should not lead to a collapse of the distinction between mimetic practice and any other kind of social practice. It is important to grasp that mimetic capital — the stock of images, along with the means of producing those images and circulating them according to prevailing market forces — is differentiated from other, nonmimetic forms of capital. Cultures are not altogether an assemblage of screens, or texts, or performances. In concentrating on mimetic capital, we can get at certain important qualities — the multiple, interconnected sites of representation, the mobility of spectacle and spectator alike, the unreality of images paradoxically linked to the dazzling power of display — but we also risk ignoring other important qualities: modes of non-mimetic production as well as reproduction, presentation as well as representation, reality as well as simulation. It is, I think, a theoretical mistake and a practical blunder to collapse the distinction between representation and reality, but at the same time we cannot keep them isolated from one another. They are locked together in an uneasy marriage in a world without ecstatic union or divorce.

The authors of the anecdotes with which this book concerns itself were liars — few of them steady liars, as it were, like Mandeville, but frequent and cunning liars none the less, whose position virtually required the strategic manipulation and distortion and outright suppression of the truth. But though they were liars, European voyagers to the New World were not systematic, so that we cannot have the hermeneutic satisfaction of stripping away their false representations to arrive at a secure sense of reality. Instead we find ourselves groping uneasily among the mass of textual traces, instances of brazen bad faith jostling homely (and often equally misleading) attempts to tell the truth.


Excerpted from "Marvelous Possessions"
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Copyright © 1991 Stephen Greenblatt.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Preface: Plunder and Wonder,
1 Introduction,
2 From the Dome of the Rock to the Rim of the World,
3 Marvelous Possessions,
4 Kidnapping Language,
5 The Go-Between,

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