How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
Norton. 354 pp. $26.95
Years ago, the Yale critic Harold Bloom promulgated “clinamen” — that is, “the swerve,” a term derived from Lucretius’s philosophical poem “On the Nature of Things” — as central to his controversial theory of literary influence. Writers, Bloom speculated, swerve away from the dominion, the overpowering authority, of earlier masters to clear a poetic space for their own work. Since then, other literary theorists — many of them, as you would guess, French — have employed their own notions of “clinamen.”
So it seems odd that Stephen Greenblatt in “The Swerve” never mentions this familiar Bloomian use of “clinamen.” Perhaps Greenblatt, who attended Yale, is himself swerving away from an older anxiety-producing master.
Or has he, in fact, like the later Bloom — the Bloom who churns out theme anthologies of his favorite poems — resolutely entered into the popularizing phase of his career? When young, Greenblatt was the principal founder of the New Historicism, in which texts are examined in close connection to their culture and times, and soon rose to become one of our most noted Shakespeare scholars, the holder of a chair at Harvard and the general editor of that great academic money-maker “The Norton Anthology of English Literature.”
But then in 2004, he brought out “Will in the World,”a life and times of Shakespeare, and this proved — such things do happen — a bestseller. In the book, Greenblatt spoke with considerable authority, reflecting a lifetime of thought and speculation about Shakespeare’s plays and career. But “The Swerve,” an account of how the rediscovery of the Latin poet Lucretius shook up the Renaissance, is a work that a journalist or a hard-working amateur might have produced, a sprawling paraphrase of other people’s research. Greenblatt’s 41 pages of end notes and 26 pages of bibliography conscientiously reveal his mining of old and recent scholarship, whether John Addington Symonds’s “The Revival of Learning” (the second volume of his 19th-century classic, “The Renaissance in Italy”) or Ingrid Rowland’s recent “Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic.” In short, this is a book that feels a little mushy and over-sweetened, in the way of so much popular history with an eye on the bestseller list.
In this vein, Greenblatt’s subtitle — “How the World Became Modern” — makes an arguable but slightly histrionic claim: Lucretius’s “De rerum natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), unearthed after centuries in an unknown monastery by the book hunter Poggio Bracciolini in 1417, pushed European civilization away from the religiosity of the Christian Middle Ages into a worldview that we recognize as our secular own.
Many readers are surprised to find that a book-length Latin poem, written in the 1st century B.C., is so remarkably beautiful and gripping, without being any less a didactic work of Epicurean philosophy, one that sets forth a resolutely materialist view of “the nature of things.” According to Lucretius, the gods may exist, but they are utterly indifferent to humankind. Atoms — very much like our modern idea of atoms — are the sole building blocks of the cosmos. Because the atoms occasionally wobble or swerve as they fall through space, collisions result, and from these collisions various complicated, sophisticated agglomerations are created, including people. Souls do not exist, and there is no afterlife. When we eventually die, our atoms disperse and our particular selves utterly disappear. Consequently, it is foolish to fear death since, in effect, we’ll never know we’re dead. Instead, we should simply enjoy this world and relish its pleasures (of which sex is a prominent example). The most truly wise, however, will prefer a simple, unruffled Epicureanism — the quiet enjoyment of plain but good food, the conversation of friends, an existence far removed from the hurly-burly of ambition and “making it.”
As a moralist, Lucretius thus argues for a tepid sort of vegetable life, an almost quietist routine that might appeal to a sexagenarian but hardly at all to a 20-year-old. Certainly, his conviction that one should “live unknown” is fundamentally at odds with the entire Renaissance, the motto of which might be, as art historian Michael Levey once remarked, “Every man his own Tamburlaine.” Despite the impulse to flee the madding crowd, a pastoral ideal that runs throughout history, from Theocritus to Thoreau, shouldn’t a fully human life actually embrace a whole lot of interesting trouble? We strive, struggle and suffer because we are engaged, or ought to be engaged, with enterprises that demand our all. Humankind’s great heroes are overreachers, not retirees.
To those who have never read much classical literature or know little about the Renaissance, “The Swerve” may well seem fresh, even though it trots out one historical golden oldie after another: an account of the destruction of the ancient library at Alexandria, the organization of a monastic scriptorium, a lengthy summary of Thomas More’s “Utopia.” While one can usually see the connection to Lucretius (or to the book hunter Bracciolini), a sense of the scattershot, of elegant padding, remains: Greenblatt tells us more than seems relevant concerning, say, the Roman book trade, as he takes every possible opportunity to meander away from his thesis about “how the world became modern.”
The true heart of “The Swerve” lies in three chapters, two focused on Bracciolini’s life and the other a list — in bold face, with bullets — of Lucretius’s major philosophical assertions, with a declamatory emphasis on their apparent modernity. Good stuff certainly, and yet one might do just as well to read Bracciolini’s own letters in the semi-classic “Two Renaissance Book Hunters” (edited and translated by Phyllis Walter Goodhart Gordan), while most of what Greenblatt says about Lucretius can be found in the introduction to any good English version of “On the Nature of Things.” (That by the poet A.E. Stallings is particularly engaging.) One could even go to the source and read Lucretius directly, the best plan of all. Greenblatt’s excellent notes and bibliography can be relied upon as guides to the scholarship.
It’s doubtless clear that “The Swerve” rubbed me wrong, and, as I read, I kept wondering why, since this is just the sort of cultural history I usually like. Some reasons have already been mentioned, but ultimately I found the book strangely unserious. The prose was clear but lacking energy, the covered material largely consisted of borrowed finery, and the whole felt uncomfortably like an attempt to create a nonfiction pot-boiler in the shallow mold of “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” By no means a bad book, “The Swerve” simply sets its intellectual bar too low, complacently relying on commonplaces in its historical sections and never engaging in an imaginative or idiosyncratic way with Lucretius’s great poem as a work of art.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion at wapo.st/reading-room.