THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern

Congratulations to Stephen Greenblatt, winner of the 2011 National Book Award in Nonfiction.

The Swerve
How the World Became Modern
Norton, $26.95 cloth, ISBN 978-0-393-06447-6

When did the world become modern? The answer, of late, is earlier than scholars once thought. It wasn’t so long ago that modern life was said to begin with Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. More recently, writers have traced its beginnings to the French Revolution. Before the revolutionary age that compromised feudalism and asserted the rights of man (but not woman or slave), there were both Cartesian doubt and the stirrings of modern philosophy. Perhaps then we were on the cusp of becoming moderns. Now Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and an articulate new historicist, locates the principles that generated a modern conception of our world in the Renaissance celebration of a long-dormant classical poem.

With The Swerve: How the World Became Modern Greenblatt returns us to the 15th century and to a Europe corrupted by its grasping, materialistic Church. In Heidelberg, Baldassare Cossa—the self-styled Pope John XXIII—lies in jail, condemned by the General Council of Constance. The imagination pales before the image of a pope in chains, charged with 70 crimes, including the murder of his predecessor, Alexander V. Quickly defrocked, Cossa burns at the stake on July 6, 1415. Among the heretic’s last sights are his books, tumbled in a pyre and therefore prefiguring his own wordless end.

The apostolic secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, the man who recorded the pope’s decisions and crafted his correspondence, was, with others in the pope’s retinue, irrevocably terminated. Poggio could find work again, since scriptors of his caliber were in demand, but the Church and therefore Rome were controlled by enemies. What he thought of his change in fortune is unknown; what he did, Greenblatt asserts, is remarkable. Poggio went into southern Germany in search of precious books.

We might expect an employee of the Church to be seeking illustrated manuscripts from earlier, more glorious times for Catholicism. But Poggio, in a delicious irony, seeks texts from the Roman Empire, ones long forgotten in the libraries of European monasteries. To find a pagan classic or even portions of one gave humanists entry into a prestige economy where they could trade and share books with peers who took pleasure from rhetoric of the highest order. The older and more remote from Italy the monastery, the likelier it would hold a text that a monastic librarian would allow, briefly, to be read and transcribed by a stranger who had arrived from afar.

Poggio knew classical Latin and possessed handwriting to wonder at. A master at several trades who had the ability to ingratiate himself with the powerful, he sought uneasy originals that had been copied multiple times by nameless scribes and then, with the Church’s attention on institutionalizing itself, left to decay. Scarcely believing his fortune, Poggio finds several books that have survived the Church’s assault on the past. His prize, however, is De rerum natura by Lucretius, a follower of Epicurus.

On the Nature of Things is a 7,400-line poem, composed in hexameters, and complex in ways that experts in translation cannot replicate. It takes atomism from Epicurus and does its emphasis on indivisible matter and void one better. Specifically, Lucretius too asserts first principles, arguing for the expression of pleasure and the reduction of pain as refined life goals. The early Christians, helplessly in thrall to Paul’s account of the sinful flesh, see in pain a triumph over embodied temptation. But Lucretius is modern in his refusal of even Roman orthodoxy. The gods, he asserts, are distant from humans by virtue of being gods. Trying to propitiate them is therefore folly. If the gods, much like Darwin’s conception of nature, are indifferent to us, it follows that the afterlife too is a human illusion. Life in its myriad expressions is all there is, and our time can only be limited and precious. What Lucretius hastens to reject is something like what the Enlightenment spoke of as received tradition or we call magical thinking. He delights in representing the many ways we unthinkingly go wrong. Happiness, by contrast, devolves from knowing what is right and turning one’s desire to it, whether that desire is felt when exercising reason or lounging with one’s lover during an afternoon that we, complicit in our own victimization, would easily waste in work.

Greenblatt, a master rewrite man, assembles Poggio’s story and the felt dispersion of On the Nature of Things in Renaissance art and literature by attending to what scholars have left us in dusty, monastic libraries of their own. His story is too well imagined to recount fully here, beyond saying that the pleasures of literary detective work like his and like Poggio’s often emerge from historical set pieces—a description of vellum, an account of Vatican infighting, a mention of Lucretian materialism on Shakespeare’s stage—that punctuate more ambitious chapters. The paradox that concerns Greenblatt is that a moment of feeling and thinking as moderns is not modern at all but ancient—traceable, that is, to a recovered poem whose science can only die but whose speculative implications swerve across time. And perhaps that is what becoming modern really means, if something as time-bound as classical physics set to poetry can compel us—excite us—to imagine a different kind of now.

REVIEWER: Larry Shillock is an associate professor of English and assistant academic dean at Wilson College. He divides his time between Pennsylvania and Montana.

From The Bloomsbury Review©, Volume 31/Issue 2; November, 2011

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