Five Words is an innovative and accessible book that points the field of literary studies in an exciting new direction. The University of Chicago Press gratefully acknowledges the generous support of Stanford University toward the publication of this book.
ISBN e-book 1. Semantics, Comparative—History. Comparative literature. Five Words has gained a great deal from imaginative readers and thoughtful audiences. Many friends and colleagues offered observations and criticisms that improved the book, notably Albert Russell Ascoli, Vincent Barletta, Harry Berger Jr. Lees, Seth Lerer, Barbara K. Lewalski, David Loewenstein, Jenny C.
Two anonymous readers for the University of Chicago Press both understood the project and made searching criticisms. As always I appreciate the good sense of my editor, Alan G. Thomas, and the staff at the Press. Kathy Swain copyedited the manuscript with tact and authority. Jennifer Cameron was an enterprising research assistant. At one time that I believed the work at a dead end, my late colleague Jay Fliegelman offered encouragement that made a difference. I was honored by these invitations, each of which gave me the opportunity to rethink elements of the project with an attentive audience.
Peter Hulme and William H. All are reprinted with permission. My best interlocutor is my wife, Marisa Galvez, whose judgment and encouragement have seen the book to its conclusion. Five Words is for her and our daughter, Eleanor.
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Stubborn and imperishable, words precede everything. Before literature represents, philosophy argues, or history records, there are words—protagonist words, complex words, keywords, and, not least, everyday words. The proposition that these words are literally the same then and now but profoundly different in their semantic purchase—that cultural change comes to us in the language of life, work, and the body—is perhaps the main insight of the following pages, commonplace and yet startling.
The first constraint of the project is the five words themselves. This period is the heart of the Renaissance everywhere but Italy, the origin of modernity, and the principal era of European imperial expansion.
Comparative Literature Studies
Neither an interval between two intellectual ages as that term has been applied to the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, nor a scene of coincident change across entire fields of meaning such as the age of modernism, this Renaissance absorbed new ideas according to patterns probably unique to the age. Emergent worldviews stood alongside waning ones and anachronistically, still older, classical ones , while disciplines such as history, medicine, and astronomy came to accept different relations to discovery, power, and the past; the challenge of assimilating New World perspectives into European understandings persisted and even increased throughout the period, even as the wealth obtained by some rulers and their agents unsettled old hierarchies; and the religious schism within the Christian polity contributed active principles of interpretation across the range of human knowledge.
We know the story of the period by ideas and events, and we know of its literary history through authors and works. Instead, my approach is oblique.
I want to see the century in five words—not as essence or epitome, for these are illusory, but as a representation of what a great number of people in Europe and the Americas believed within an experiential field bounded by everyday ideas. How did they conceive their relation to past and present?
How did they imagine their place in the culture? How did these words and the culture change together?
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Now and then my story obliges me to trespass out of this historical range, but for the most part the argument concerns semantic and cultural change that can be seen within about one hundred and fifty years. Moreover, while I invoke several terms for the period provisionally— Renaissance , early modernity , Baroque —the project of Five Words is to build an account of this long era elementally, from the words themselves. Each word offers an array of meanings and associations out of which, in dialogue with heuristic reflection on the period, I attempt to tell a coherent story; the work of each chapter is to dispose the semantic elements in a way that illuminates both word and period, foreground and background, each in relation to the other.
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