The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Stephen Greenblatt. Norton. 2011. 392 pages.
It's always a surprising pleasure to find an English professor able to write about literature in comprehensible English. It's even more surprising when that professor can write narrative history better than most historians do. What's stunning is an English professor who writes good history that spans about 1800 years and who manages to ground his story in a set of richly contextualized moments that he stitches together with notable deftness. But then, this shouldn't really be all that surprising: we're talking about Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt here. This New Historicist extraordinaire -- author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare -- has just won the National Book Award for his latest book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
The point of departure for The Swerve is the year 1417, when an obscure former papal scribe named Poggio Bracchiolini enters a German monastery. Greenblatt manages to capture both the way in which Poggio is a figure of his time even as he explains the novelty, even strangeness, of this bibliophile's quest to discover ancient works and the practical difficulties involved for a man of his station to do so. He then describes how Poggio encounters On the Nature of Things, a poem by the Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius, written in the first century BCE. Lucretius was deeply influenced by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE). In the context of its pre-Renaissance recovery, the poem represented a radical challenge to the common sense of its time in its emphasis on pleasure as an end unto itself, as well as its de-emphasis on the role of the divine in human aspiration and fate.
Greenblatt's analysis leads to some deeply satisfying digressions, among them an explanation of Epicurean philosophy and the place of Greek thought in the Roman republic and empire. It also includes an explanation of the ongoing scholarly significance of Pompeii as a source of understanding ancient life in the 250 years since its discovery under the mountain of ash spewed by Mt. Vesivius in 79 CE. (On the Nature of Things was discovered in an impressive library in a house there.)
And, most hauntingly, it includes an explanation of the process whereby the classical legacy was gradually erased from the human record by a combination of disasters, neglect, and active forgetting by an ascendant Christianity determined to eliminate epistemological rivals. It's difficult to finish reading this segment of The Swerve without having one's confidence shaken that our current state/memory of civilization is destined for permanence, especially when one considers the utter fragility of electronic information when compared with the strength, never mind beauty, of vellum.
From here, Greenblatt resumes telling the story of what happened when On the Nature of Things was re-injected into the bloodstream of western civilization. This was by no means a straightforward process. Ever a man of the world even amid his classical studies, Poggio skillfully navigated papal politics even as he grew exasperated by a friend's unwillingness to return the book. Eventually, however, On the Nature of Things was re-copied and distributed all over Europe, where its Epicurean vision laid the foundations for the Renaissance in Italy and beyond. Greenblatt traces its influence across sources that include Montaigne, Shakespeare (of course), and Thomas Jefferson.
Readers with intimate familiarity with these subjects will no doubt quibble with aspects of Greenblatt's account, among them the centrality of Lucretius or Epicurus in kick-starting modernity. Whether or not they're correct, The Swerve is simply marvelous -- emphasis here on simply -- in illustrating cultural disruption and transmission as a deeply historical process even as ideas partially transcend the circumstances of their articulation. In some sense, Greenblatt is playing the role of popularizer here, but he could never mesh his subjects and analyze them as well as he does without a lifetime of immersion and first-hand observation.
One can only hope that this book will be among those that survive fires, floods, microbes and sheer human cupidity so that others will know what the finest flower of our academy could produce.
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN.