I’ll be getting soon to the last couple of sections of the first chapter, which discuss different ways of understanding the distribution of goods, in a little while. I want to say something, first, about the bulk of the book. The rest of the chapters consist of a series of examinations of different social goods, illustrated through historical and sociological case studies. Since I’ve committed myself to reading these and looking for a purpose in them, it’s more than possible I’ll find a reason for each of these. As a whole, though, o my first reading these seem to imply a certain political argument that, it seems to me, hasn’t panned out as expected.
What it reminds me of is something like the New Historicism of the subsequent decade, as represented by Stephen Greenblatt’s book on religion in Shakespeare, Hamlet in Purgatory. Greenblatt sets out to provide readers with the religious and social context that he believes lies behind the text of Hamlet. He covers the religious institutions as they existed at the time, popular narratives of ghosts and hauntings, indulgences and masses said for the dead and how they relied on the doctrine of Purgatory that was rejected by the established church, paintings and illustrated books for clergy and the laity (including popular piety, especially that of women), as well as high literature. He introduces readers to the fascinating story of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a cave in Ireland where people were said to experience visions of the afterlife. He explains how the pain experienced by the dead in Purgatory and Hell was conveyed to the living, and bound them to the institutions of the church. Finally he explains how all this historical and cultural context informs Shakespeare’s imagery and dialogue.
The New Historicism is generally taken to have a left political purpose. But Greenblatt doesn’t make any such argument explicitly, and it’s not obvious how a reader should draw one out of the book. There are a small number of clear points made: The kind of burial society that was common in the Old World, and among immigrants to the US, is a democratic way of serving the social need to support people whose loved ones have died, by helping with burial costs and the support of the survivors; in Tudor England this purpose was served by the bureaucracy of the church. People who are mourning often feel their deceased loved ones are still present in some way, often dream about them, and when they believe in an afterlife, often worry about their wellbeing after death; and culture and religion provide a way of thinking about these. Institutions, and also people out for profit, can often benefit financially from the worries of those mourners; thus, the people who controlled the cave known as “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” could charge entrance fees to people who believed they could learn something important from the visions induced there, and the Catholic Church could charge for masses said in order to speed the souls of dead rich people out of Purgatory (and thereby pay artists and musicians who created a culture around those masses). Most of the book is about the second of these three: the way cultural and religious assumptions structure the way people experience the feelings that arise out of mourning, and specifically the details of the structure that existed at the time Hamlet was written (assuming, as Greenblatt does, that Shakespeare was deeply influenced by the Catholic doctrines that the Tudor monarchy had put under a legal ban).
So how does this kind of historicizing literary criticism get read into politics? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s generally read into a theoretical context in which the structuralism of people like Lévi-Strauss and the poststructuralism of people like Derrida, Foucault, and Bourdieu are taken for granted, along with their reworking by Marxian theorists like Althusser. The leftism, that is, like the metaphysics, is incorporated into the literary criticism, basically, by reference; it no longer needs to be stated explicitly (though Greenblatt’s book has a lot of footnotes, with citations to works in social science). Without the Marxian element, of course, this is just poststructuralism, which might have any political valence, or none at all. The politics (for the reader), then, is optional. To the extent that this is true, and that the book itself doesn’t explain the theory, most of the political work is done elsewhere. Greenblatt does often enough explain the theory, but it’s not uncommon to find thoroughly straightforward accounts of literature or culture that do not, yet seem to be intended as political interventions on the left.
It’s this kind of account, superficially naïve even if intended to allude to some deeper, unspoken theory, that Walzer’s case studies seem most to resemble. His chapters don’t have anything like the depth of New Historicist research, which mostly postdates his book. They don’t make obvious reference to a theoretical basis as Greenblatt’s do. Their purpose seems to be intended as obvious and literal. And given Walzer’s emphatic renunciation of abstract philosophizing, any other purpose seems impossible. One kind of reader might, on the contrary, assume that Walzer is writing as some kind of Straussian here, hiding his true, philosophical intentions behind a scrim of unobjectionable facts. Such a reader would expect the true response to Walzer’s book to be some deep thought about his premises and logic, and a thoroughgoing reworking of the ideas he expresses into something resembling more an unexpressed truth. I see no need for that assumption. I think I’d argue, from what I’ve seen of them both so far, that the true continuation of Walzer’s work in this book is to be found in Greenblatt’s.