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...

  • Book Reviews Opinion Robert Gates’ Memoir is a Jaw-Dropping Read (REVIEW)

    Robert Gates’ Memoir is a Jaw-Dropping Read (REVIEW)

    Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’s memoir follows the classic form, telling the story of his years at the Pentagon during the Bush and Obama administrations. He focuses on what he did and experienced personally as secretary, neither writing a broad policy treatise nor recounting the entire history of the administrations in which he served. In so doing, Gates provides penetrating insights about the inner workings of US national security decision-making. Had I been George W. Bush, I would [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews The Media, Israel, and Anti-Semitism (REVIEW)

    The Media, Israel, and Anti-Semitism (REVIEW)

    Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed from A-Z by Lee Bender and Jerome Verlin (Pavilion Press, Philadelphia, Pa. 2013) Sophocles said, “What people believe prevails over truth,” Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed from A-Z is ideal for the arm chair reader who would like a basic grasp of the terms used in the mainstream media’s presentation of the Arab-Israeli situation as is reported today. This is a book whose time has come. This is a book where the reader gains a [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs William Shatner’s One Man Show Keeps Him in the Limelight (INTERVIEW)

    William Shatner’s One Man Show Keeps Him in the Limelight (INTERVIEW)

    JNS.org – On Thursday, audiences around the country can feel what it is like to be William Shatner, the Jewish actor best known for his portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk on “Star Trek.” Shatner’s one-man show “Shatner’s World”—which was on Broadway and toured Canada, Australia, and the United States—will be presented in nearly 700 movie theaters nationwide for one night only on April 24. Sponsored by Fathom Events and Priceline.com (for whom Shatner has famously served as a pitchman), [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews The Origins of Palestinian Refugee Relief Efforts (REVIEW)

    The Origins of Palestinian Refugee Relief Efforts (REVIEW)

    Romirowsky and Joffe’s book Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief is an important volume for those interested in truly understanding the origins of the Palestinian refugee issue. Utilizing a treasure trove of newly released documents, the authors link UNRWA’s (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine) origins to the Quakers/American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). For those readers who thought they knew most of the Middle East story, Romirowsky and Joffe’s version provides another twist. The authors meticulously [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israeli Soccer Team Faces Prospect of International Ban

    Israeli Soccer Team Faces Prospect of International Ban

    The Israel National soccer team could be facing a World Cup ban, and other soccer sanctions, unless it alleviates travel restrictions and increases field access for Palestinian players and coaches. The head of the Palestinian Football Association is pushing for international soccer’s governing body, the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), to issue a ban on Israel competing internationally, claiming Israel’s restrictive travel for Palestinians is equivalent to a form of oppression. “It’s not only the athletes,” Jibril Rajoub explains. [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Jewish Author of ‘Eat to Live’ Dishes on Health Care, Nutrition, Disease Prevention

    Jewish Author of ‘Eat to Live’ Dishes on Health Care, Nutrition, Disease Prevention

    JNS.org – While the national debate on “Obamacare” rages on past the recent March 31 sign-up deadline, bestselling Jewish author Dr. Joel Fuhrman says the “current disease care model of what we call ‘health care’ cannot possibly be sustained.” “There is simply not enough money available to support a system in which the lion’s share of expenditures is devoted to acute care, with virtually nothing being spent on preventive medicine, i.e. health care,” Fuhrman says in an interview. “To make [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    JNS.org – “This is how I want to be—without fear. Independent. I want to be like a bird. I want to spread my wings.” So reads part of the description beneath one of the 30 paintings on display until the end of May at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv. The collection represents the first-ever art exhibit of its kind: an exhibit created entirely by Israelis in treatment for eating disorders. Dubbed “Tears of Color,” based on one of the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    JNS.org – Rachel Ament noticed that she and her friends often shared humorous anecdotes that were typically variations on a theme: overprotective, worrying Jewish moms who smothered them with love. That included Ament’s own mother. “My mom is probably every Jewish stereotype scrunched into one,” the Washington, DC, resident tells JNS.org. “At the root of all these stereotypical, worrying, overprotective moms, is love.” A social media writer for Capital One, as well as a freelance writer, Ament decided about three years [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.