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Friday, November 1, 2013

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt


I first read The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt when it came out. I must revisit it and reacquaint myself with that old book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini. Greenblatt begins with his own book hunting adventure that happened one summer while he was at Yale. He discovered a copy of Lucretius’ classical two thousand year old poem On the Nature of Things for ten cents. The power of the book was its take on the place of the atom in our lives. The importance of this book on thinkers throughout the ages is the subject of this book. I am reminded of the time when I was eighteen years old and discovered Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in the USO library in Qui Nhon, Vietnam where I was a soldier. For me that play was to be the subject of many papers in college and eventually further study in Stratford-upon Avon. Lucretius’ point that the atom was the center of the universe was blasphemy in his day and even in the days in which it was rediscovered a thousand years later and then by Greenblatt when its contents make sense. The same can be said of my discovery of Troilus and Cressida while I’m at war far from my home written by Shakespeare who borrowed it from Chaucer who borrowed it from Homer.  How is it that ancient authors still have power two thousand or more years later? We all have a book that changed our lives. What is yours?
Greenblatt contends that this book is a part of what he calls the swerve, that event that shapes the future, a moment when things change so as to cause a major change in thinking, such as a time we call the Renaissance, that time after so many years in darkness, we all at once see so many great minds collaborating at the same time that leads to our modern days? The copying of this book, its distribution, and its place in so many lives and deaths is that swerve of which Greenblatt speaks.
Poggio Bracciolini is a book hunter. He was the former apostolic secretary to Cardinal Baldassare Cossa who called himself pope John XXIII. Cossa became an antipope and was imprisoned in 1415 and Poggio was released from duty. He then spent the rest of his life searching out ancient texts particularly Roman texts scribed in Latin. Book hunters such as Poggio and Plutarch, earlier were in search of the humanities, thus “The Humanists” were born. The place for a fifteenth century book hunter to search for ancient texts was in the old monasteries of Europe. Monks were required to read and in turn acquire books by making copies of other people’s books. This practice was forced on the monks in the sixth and seventh centuries because of the politics and wars and destruction of any educational system. The only literate people were the monks. These old monasteries were Poggio’s hunting grounds.
Who Lucretius, the poet, was isn’t exactly clear. Cicero praised the poet for his insight, genius, and beauty of language. In fact he was held in high regard by contemporary authors. On the Nature of Things is the only reference, which makes him a one hit wonder like our own JD Salinger and John Kennedy Toole. He survives for Poggio to find because of discoveries made in Herculaneum, a city when Mt Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. This was a time between the gods and the savior. Man ruled and his intellect was his tool. Greenblatt weaves history and conjecture together wonderfully, sort of how the gene was replicated in Jurassic Park, the movie. Recovering these ancient scrolls has been nearly a two hundred and fifty year project. I can only imagine with huge regret how much was lost in trial and error methods to recover these papyrus scrolls. We have so little of the ancients in actual artifacts. What we do have is how authors allude to and mention other authors and their work. This was a renaissance praised by the later humanists, Plutarch and Bracciolini. The reason for so little has to do with religion and how religious sects blossomed and destroyed what came before. The great libraries of the world are evidence enough. The great divide comes over pleasure in conflict with pain. Epicurus and Jesus are opposed. The Christians promote pain through whippings and suffering to emulate Jesus. There are no references to Jesus ever being happy, laughing, telling a joke. It is all weeping and sadness. Lucretius is an Epicurean and we are lucky some monk in some monastery made copies of his poem On the Nature of Things for Poggio to find in 1417. 
The education of Poggio is fascinating. A humble beginning outside Florence did not deter him from being part of the establishment of Humanism and of clear handwriting. Handwriting was to be his ticket to Rome and to history. He set off to Rome at the age of twenty-three and had already made his mark as a writer who precedes Montaigne, a secular scholar to rival Petrarch, and a mover and shaker in intellectual curiosity. His drive and curiosity is crucial in later developments for man.
He writes, “Your Poggio is content with little and you shall see this for yourself; sometimes I am free for reading, free from all care of public affairs which I leave to my superiors. I live free as much as I can.” After fifty years of working, Poggio retires with money and devotes himself to his humanist ideals, book hunting and reading, and writing. This secular man, this humanist who moved freely as the Pope’s secretary found himself free again after the deposed Pope XXIII, a name not to be used until 1960’s, was gone. Poggio now set out on his destiny like the atoms spoken about in the Poem he was to find, which help thinkers think. On the Nature of Things might be called an atheists treatise, but it is not. The center of the argument is the atom, how it attaches and repels other atoms, how it is the foundation for everything, the gods, man, the cattle, the fish, the leaf. This is new and compelling thinking from a man from ancient Rome, blasphemous for sure. For Poggio to be discovering it and then copying it for his generation and for others who will follow, the text will rock the church and thinking.
The swerves make such sense and certainly captured my thinking about life, especially as we see it in its age-old battle with religion and the origin of things. I wonder how many other Lucretius like folks we have lost over time.