Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Loss and Recovery: Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”

February 27, 2012 3:31 pm 0 comments

'The Swerve' by Stephen Greenblatt. Photo: 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.'”

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.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Why do we think so negatively about psychiatrists that we still insult them by calling them shrinks? Some medics might be quacks, but we don’t generally refer to them as witches! Shrinks; The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, is a sobering account of how psychiatry has swung from a marginal, unscientific mixture of weird theories into one of the most common and pervasive forms of treatment of what are commonly called “disorders of the mind.” Is it […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    JNS.org – Nine months ago, Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Randall Lane, editor of Forbes Magazine, were schmoozing about the “vibrancy of Tel Aviv and soul of Jerusalem,” as Lane put it. They dreamed about how they could bring young and innovative millennials to the so-called “start-up nation.” From April 3-7, Forbes turned that dream into a reality. Israel played host to the first-ever Forbes Under 30 EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) […]

    Read more →