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 World Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Tour operators are calling attention to Jamaica’s little-known Jewish heritage by arranging visits to historic Jewish sites on the Caribbean island, including a cemetery where Jewish pirates are buried. A report in Travel and Leisure magazine describes the Hunts Bay Cemetery in Kingston, where there are seven tombstones engraved with Hebrew benedictions and skull and crossbones insignia. According to the report, centuries ago, Jewish pirates sailed the waters of Jamaica and settled in Port Royal. The town, once known as “the wickedest city in the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    JNS.org – Telling Israel’s story. It’s the specific title of a short film that Eyal Resh created last year. It’s also the theme behind the 27-year-old Israeli filmmaker’s broader body of work. The widely viewed “Telling Israel’s Story” film—directed by Resh for a gala event hosted by the Times of Israel online news outlet—seemingly begins as a promotional tourism video, but quickly evolves to offer a multilayered perspective. “I want to tell you a story about a special place for me,” a young woman whispers […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read 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 →