Loss and recovery: Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”

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Click photo to download. Caption: Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve." Credit: W.W. Norton and Company.

A few years ago, Stephen Greenblatt was asked to write on Vilna (also known as Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) for the Nextbook series. However, realizing he did not have the requisite scholarly tools to summon up Vilna’s Yiddish culture, Greenblatt ended up revealing a different lost (and recovered) world—and won the 2011 National Book Award.

Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World became Modern (W.W. Norton, 356 pages; $26.95) took the honor in the non-fiction category. The Harvard English professor’s new volume is about a Latin poem, On the Nature of Things,by the ancient Roman poet Lucretius.

Poggio Bracciolini, a humanist book hunter, rediscovered the poem in a 15th-century German monastery. Greenblatt argues that although one poem by itself could not be “responsible for an entire intellectual, moral and social transformation,” it was part of an important “swerve” of the world of ideas in a new direction.

One of Lucretius’s ideas was that individual particles swerve (meaning turned aside, or be turned aside from a straight course) into existence with minimal motion. This movement, called “clinamen,” “declination” or “inclination,”is the source of free will. The value of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, as well as the notion that “understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder,” are other central tenets of this ancient poem—the subject of Greenblatt’s book.

One of the most significant ideas Greenblatt explores is the ability to overcome fear of death. In his introduction, he describes the significance of the words Lucretius said while growing up with a Jewish mother who was petrified of dying: “Death is nothing to us.” These words held a radical significance in the deeply Christian world of Renaissance Europe and were destabilizing, Greenblatt writes, shifting the views of many in that culture.

Walter Englert—translator of Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things (Focus Publishing, 2003) and a classics professor at Reed College—thinks Greenblatt’s argument is on the mark. 

“Finding Lucretius’s poem in Latin, which brilliantly sets out an atomistic view of the universe that argues for the naturalistic unfolding of the universe without divine direction and the mortality of the soul, was a bit of a shock, as Greenblatt points out, and this fit in nicely with the soon-to-be-developed views of Copernicus and Galileo,” Englert told JointMedia News Service. Englert adds that the fact that Lucretius’s philosophy was in poetic form meant, “Once rediscovered, it could be recommended for copying and reading because of the beauty of the poetry, even though the doctrines in it were ‘wrong.’”

Click photo to download. Caption: Stephen Greenblatt reads from "The Swerve" at the 2011 National Book Award Finalists Reading. Credit: YouTube.

Though Greenblatt is certainly concerned with ideas and their impact in this book, what gives the volume its potency is what his friend, architect Moshe Safdie, described in a phone interview. Safdie told JointMedia News Service that The Swerve is written like a “detective story” that the reader does not want to put down. Greenblatt recounts the journey of Poggio from an important bureaucrat in the papal service to an independent humanist book hunter, and tells a fascinating social history along the way. According to Greenblatt, Poggio’s search not only for older books, but also for a new way to write cursive, was “a project that linked the creation of something new with a search for something ancient.”

That is the aspect of the book that holds interest for Jewish readers—the sense that it is possible to look at a past thought to be lost and recover it, allowing it to speak to those in a different time in contemporary ways. This poem in Poggio’s time was seen as a threat to the Catholic establishment; Italian monk and philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for expressing ideas that were influenced by Lucretius. Bruno agreed with Copernicus and wrote that the earth was not the center of the universe, and quoted Lucretius to say that humans are a tiny part of the universe and should “embrace the world in wonder and gratitude and awe.”

The notion of embracing the world is a deeply Jewish attitude. Greenblatt himself describes his upbringing as one that was “intensely Jewish” in the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury and Newton. He was a camper and counselor at Jewish summer camps, Jori in Rhode Island and Tevya in New Hampshire, and is currently on the advisory committee for the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard.

Greenblatt’s Jewish background is on display in The Swerve, as he discusses how ideas that are closer to Jewish sensibilities were reintroduced to the Christian Renaissance world through a once-lost Latin poem. Greenblatt has written of himself in connection with his Eastern European forebears, that “To be sure, the texts had changed, the Mishna and Gemarah having given way to Shakespeare and Milton, but the intellectiual vocation, the cultural position, the essential occupation, remained in a deep sense the same.”

In his consideration of a lost poem whose ideas had a lasting impact on a culture, Greenblatt is continuing the Jewish ability to transmit old ideas into new contexts—much like, as some argue, the Passover seder is a form of a Greek symposium, transmuted into a vehicle to teach Jewish ideas of freedom. Here comes Greenblatt, a modern scholar, using his Jewish background and values to discuss ideas important to our Western culture.

Posted on February 27, 2012 and filed under Book Review, Opinion.