Stephen Greenblatt: The Swerve (WWNorton, 2011)

To all but a handful of people in Germany, this quest, had Poggio tried to articulate it, would have seemed weird. And it would have seemed weirder still if Poggio had gone on to explain that he was not in fact at all interested in what was written four or five hundred years ago. He despised that time and regarded it as a sink of superstition and ignorance. What he really hoped to find were words that had nothing to do with the moment in which they were written down on the old parchment, words that were in the best possible case uncontaminated by the mental universe of the lowly scribe who copied them. That scribe, Poggio hoped, was dutifully and accurately copying a still older parchment, one made by yet another scribe whose humble life was equally of no particular consequence to the book hunter except insofar as it left behind this trace. If the nearly miraculous run of good fortune held, the earlier manuscript, long vanished into dust, was in turn a faithful copy of a more ancient manuscript, and that manuscript a copy of yet another. Now at last for Poggio the quarry became exciting, and the hunter’s heart in his breast beat faster. The trail was leading him back to Rome, not the contemporary Rome of the corrupt papal court, intrigues, political debility, and periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague, but the Rome of the Forum and the Senate House and a Latin language whose crystalline beauty filled him with wonder and the longing for a lost world.

This book was mentioned in Dartmouth’s science/philosophy mooc Questioning Reality, a course exploring the limits of knowledge: can we know everything, or are some things beyond science no matter how far we advance? The first week of the mooc looks at ancient Greek and Roman concepts of natural philosophy, what today we’d call physics, concerned with the question “What is the world made of?” Lucretius, a follower of the Epicurean tradition (which has nothing to do with feasting and partying) believed the universe was made of atoms, and the void, and while atoms typically fell in a straight line through the void, once in a while they would, out of random chance, swerve, collide, and create matter. This random chance was eventually theorized by 20th century physics as the Uncertainty Principle, and becomes handy as the escape clause from determinism.

The book starts with Poggio, 15th century manuscript hunter, on his travels through Europe in search of works from classical Rome. He stumbles on to Lucretius’ magnum opus, De Rerum Natura, a work only hinted at by extant documents of his age.

This book didn’t sit well with a lot of people, people like religion reviewer Jim Hinch (LARB), literature professor Colin Burrow (The Guardian), and historian and professor John Monfasani of SUNY (IHR/London). None of them feel Greenblatt’s conclusions are strongly supported in the text. But they all agree that it’s a thoroughly engaging, eminently readable book. While I might lean towards agreeing with them on the first point – hesitantly, since I am not qualified to judge historical writing – I’ll agree wholeheartedly with the second: I loved reading this book.

Not only is Poggio’s story wonderfully told, particularly when the text branches off into interesting digressions about manuscripts, philosophy, history, archaeology, and ecclesiastical intrigue. Each branch works together so smoothly, there was no sense of disruption; I was immersed in a scriptorium, in Pompeii, in ancient Rome or Greece, and heartbroken as Poggio witnessed the execution of his humanist friend for heresy. I’ve come to admire how, in some pieces, digressions create a sense of confusion and disruption, while other writers, as Greenblatt does here, blend things together seamlessly and allow the reader to expand whole networks of knowledge.

So what of the complaints about the thesis of the book?

I’ll admit I was wondering if I missed the part where the world became modern because of Poggio’s find, even before I read a word of commentary. It always seemed to me that the Renaissance had a lot more to do with the printing press than with any single work. The book ends with the oh-so-casual mention of De Rerum Natura in Thomas Jefferson’s library. I have to admit, it’s a goosebumpy moment, reading that and all it implies, but that’s part of the spell of a great book; it needs to be evaluated, much as Wordsworth wanted poetry written, not in intense emotion but in tranquillity.

It’s a bit hypocritical to love a book, yet doubt its primary claim. And yet here I am, contradicting myself, containing multitudes. Would Whitman be proud, or disappointed?

Greenblatt’s specialty has been the Renaissance and Shakespearean era; he was, in the 80s, perhaps the primary founder of The New Historicism; I suppose a lot of folks weren’t quite done with the old historicism yet. I vaguely remember reading an essay of his while in college, but that was a long time ago and I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have; I’d like to try that again, based purely on his writing style.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the controversy, I’m very glad I know a little more about the middle ages, about Epicurianism, and about manuscripts. And about a guy named Poggio, who had a passion for understanding where things came from.


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