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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    “Girls” creator Lena Dunham responded on Tuesday to charges of antisemitism over an article she had penned for the New Yorker, saying it was all in good humor. Speaking to Variety, Dunham reflected on her “tight-knit Jewish family, where Jew jokes were part of the essential fiber of our communication.” The article Dunham referred to was called “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz,” with options such as “He doesn’t Tip” and “He’s Crazy for Cream Cheese.” Among Dunham’s critics, Anti-Defamation [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Retired NBA player Keyon Dooling tweeted a link on Wednesday to a wildly antisemitic article that accuses Jews of seizing control of the world’s media and using it to promote their own interests. The article, published by an obscure blog in April 2013, highlights six companies it claims are owned by Jews — such as Time Warner, Inc. and the Walt Disney Company – that allegedly “control 96 percent of the world’s media.”  The post includes allegations of “Jewish control” and says [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz responded to an outcry from Jewish fans on Tuesday, saying he will go ahead and play in the season opener despite the fact that it falls on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “Keep getting tweets about that being the first night of Rosh Hashanah… Don’t know what I’m supposed to tell you. It’s a tough break,” the Jewish athlete wrote, referring to the Giants’ on-the-road game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Sept. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    JNS.org – When David Blatt was hired as head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers last June, he was not often recognized when he walked the streets of downtown Cleveland. What a difference a year makes. Now, Blatt can go few places without being recognized. For good reason. The Jewish coach has the Cavaliers in the mix to win the city of Cleveland’s first championship in a major sport since the Browns won the National Football League title in [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    A Hebrew tattoo sported by Croatian soccer star Mario Mandzukic became an internet sensation in Israel after it was exposed on Tuesday during a Champions League match between Ateltico Madrid and Real Madrid A first glance, the tattoo, on the athlete’s back, might leave one with the impression that it was an unfortunate artistic mistake, since the Hebrew letters do not make sense as they are written. However, a closer look at the tattoo shows that it was actually written [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    For the past two years, I have served as Opinion Editor at The Algemeiner. I’m perhaps most proud of the paper’s commitment to publishing diverse and opposing viewpoints on the controversial issues of the day. We pride ourselves on voicing different opinions because we know that most issues are not black and white, and because our community is better served by a public debate. In my life outside of the paper, I am a professional actor and playwright. And similarly, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    JNS.org – “Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest,” the classic Parker Brothers board game, requires imperial ambitions. Players imagine empires and are pitted against each other, vying for world domination. Amid this fictional world war, beginners learn fast that no matter the superiority of their army, every advance is a gamble determined by a roll of the dice. After a defeat, a player must retreat. Weighted reinforcement cards provide the only opportunity to reverse a player’s fortunes and resume the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Sports Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    JNS.org – For Daphna Krupp, her daily workout (excluding Shabbat) at the Jewish Community Center (JCC or “J”) of Greater Baltimore has become somewhat of a ritual. She not only attends fitness classes but also engages with the instructors and plugs the J’s social programs on her personal Facebook page. “It’s the gym and the environment,” says Krupp. “It’s a great social network.” Krupp, who lives in Pikesville, Md., is one of an estimated 1 million American Jewish members of more [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.