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  • The Touch of the Real in New Historicism and Psychoanalysis
  • James Newlin (bio)

"poor Lear..."

—Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis

"Well, well; the event."

—Albany, King Lear 1.4

Let us begin, as the New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt does in his essay "Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism,"1 with a fantasy. Consider the highly unlikely scenario of a graduate student in English, well versed in the methods of psychoanalysis, Lacanian methods in particular, yet wholly unaware of the New Historicism and its occasional skirmishes with psychoanalytic reading. Then, what if this theoretical student somehow stumbled upon Greenblatt's famous phrase and formulation for the New Historicist ideal, The Touch of The Real, which Greenblatt has used repeatedly in his writing on the New Historicism since 1997,2 without recognizing its context in Greenblatt and the New Historicists' querying of historiography. Would our fantastical student first assume that Greenblatt was a Lacanian?

What I hope to address by this fantasy is the obvious problems and uncanny power of reading for and from the fragment, specifically the fragment of the anecdote. Following both Richard Burt and the late Joel Fineman, whose essay "The History of the Anecdote: Fiction and Fiction" provides the finest critique of Greenblatt's method and the New Historicism of which I am aware, I seek to query the intersection of psychoanalytic discourse and methodology with that of the supposedly dead New Historicism. I do not intend to argue that Greenblatt actually or unconsciously means the Lacanian réel when he writes about the touch of the historical real. Though what Lacan means by the first can certainly help illuminate how we understand the latter.

I hope, instead, to trace how the New Historicist Touch of the Real appears to unsettle or unravel itself. Long criticized for its "programmatic refusal to specify a methodological program for itself" (Fineman 62)—what Greenblatt and his co-writer Catherine Gallagher more generously call their skill at "slipping out of theoretical nooses"—the New Historicism sought or seeks, by means of the historical anecdote, to "rub literary texts [End Page 82] against the grain" (Gallagher and Greenblatt 3, 52).3 By rubbing New Historicism against its own grain, we can further complicate the notions of "touch" and "real," and (re)open up a method of intertextuality for reading the canon. Through reading the New Historicism against not only itself but also against psychoanalytic texts by Freud and Lacan, I move towards an engagement with the post-Lacanian philosophy of Alain Badiou—in particular his notion of fidelity—to propose a reading for the Touch of the Lear, as (opposed to) the Touch of the Real. I hope to show that Badiou's formulations provide us with a valuable method of understanding and treating the literary canon (and more specifically, the "problem" of Shakespeare's genius) and engagements with the canon through intertextuality. As an example of what I mean by the Touch of the Lear, I close with a reading of Lear with Sarah Kane's controversial first play, Blasted.

To qualify, if not wholly define, the New Historicist Touch of the Real, let us examine two brief quotations from Greenblatt, which seem somewhat contradictory. First, defining the Real as "the textual traces of history" (Burt 27):

That both the literary work and the anthropological (or historical) anecdote are texts, that both are fictions in the sense of things made, that both are shaped by the imagination and by the available resources of narration and description helped make it possible to conjoin them; but their ineradicable differences ... made the conjunction powerful and compelling.

We wanted to recover in our literary criticism a confident conviction of reality, without giving up the power of literature to sidestep or evade the quotidian and without giving up a minimally sophisticated understanding that any text depends upon the absence of the bodies and voices that it represents. We wanted the touch of the real in the way that in an earlier period people wanted the touch of the transcendent.

(Gallagher and Greenblatt 31)

Burt's comparison of the New Historicism to the unfortunate plague victim in Monty Python and the Holy Grail—the one who howls "I...