Book review: The Swerve: How the Renaissance began
Almost lost to history, the sole copy of an ancient Latin poem survived to spark the Renaissance and continue influencing thinkers today
The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began
by Stephen Greenblatt
The Bodley Head, 368pp, £25
History can be fatal to literature. Aeschylus wrote 80 or 90 plays, and Sophocles 120, yet we have just seven of each. Didymus Chalcenterus of Alexandria reportedly wrote 3,500 books; not one exists today. Between classical antiquity and us, there has been a hecatomb of words. They have been burned, thrown away, lost to mould or pulverised. They have been rubbed off so that vellum and papyrus could be reused. Bookworms have eaten them by the dictionary-load.
Among the works that survived – but only just – is one so beautifully written and so uncannily prescient that it seems to come to us out of a personal dream. Titus Lucretius Carus’ De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of Things, is a 7,400-line poem in Latin hexameters written in the first century BC. It covers philosophy, physics, optics, cosmology, sociology, psychology, religion and sex; the ideas in it influenced Newton and Darwin, among others. Yet Lucretius almost went the way of Didymus. In The Swerve, literary historian Stephen Greenblatt investigates why his book nearly died, how it was saved and what its rescue means to us.
About Lucretius himself, we have little more to go on than the lurid story told by the fourth-century church father St Jerome: that he was born in 94BC, went mad as the result of a love potion and killed himself at 43. We can add that he was a disciple of Epicurus, who lived 250 years earlier, and hence of the even earlier Democritus, whose theory of atoms underlay Epicurean ideas. (The original texts of both philosophers also didn’t make it, as a surgeon might say with a sad shake of the head in a TV drama; we know them only secondhand.)
Democritus thought that everything was made of material particles, and Lucretius took that as his starting point. Such atoms, he wrote, are infinite and eternal; no one made them, nothing can destroy them. They hurtle through the universe, not in straight lines – that way they could never tangle up together to form objects – but with a minuscule swerve or clinamen in their trajectory. Veering slightly off course, each atom bumps into other atoms and clings or entwines with them for a while; later, their swerve carries them away again.
Humans are made of atoms too, including our souls. If gods exist at all, they are uninterested in us. We are free, liberated by the unpredictability of the swerve, as are all living things. We are all connected, and when we die, our atoms go off to join other atoms elsewhere.
Death is only dispersal; there is no need to fear any afterlife, or mutter spells and prayers to absent deities. We do better to live by the simple Epicurean law: Seek pleasure, avoid pain. This does not mean indulging ourselves gluttonously, but cultivating tranquillity while avoiding the two greatest human delusions: fear of what we cannot avoid, and desire for what we cannot have.
One extraordinary section describes the frenzies of lovers, who exhaust themselves futilely trying to possess one another. The beloved always slips away. Instead, we should step off the wheel and contemplate the universe as it is – which brings a deep sense of wonder, rather than mere resignation or gloom. “What human beings can and should do,” as Greenblatt summarises it, “is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.”
It was an attractive philosophy, exquisitely expressed, and a few decades later Ovid enthused that “the verses of sublime Lucretius are destined to perish only when a single day will consign the world to destruction”. A world without Lucretius seemed unimaginable – yet that was just what nearly ensued.
All ancient copies vanished, except for a few charred scraps in a library at Herculaneum. Some medieval copies circulated, but these, too, mostly expired from neglect or deliberate destruction, for Epicurean philosophies were uncongenial to Christianity.
At last, in 1417, probably in the southern German Benedictine abbey of Fulda, one stray 9th-century copy caught the eye of a Renaissance book hunter from Italy, Poggio Bracciolini.
Poggio saw the manuscript’s significance at once, presumably knowing of Lucretius from Jerome and Ovid. He had a copy made and sent to a friend in Florence, who copied it anew. (That copy survives; both Poggio’s and the original have gone down Didymus Gulch.) Two more copies would turn up in Leiden 200 years later, but for now Poggio’s was alone, and it spawned more copies. With the advent of printing, it spread even farther and won more admirers.
Among 16th-century readers was the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who filled his copy with annotations, including one suffused with obvious delight: “Since the movements of the atoms are so varied, it is not unbelievable that the atoms once came together in this way, or that in the future they will come together like this again, giving birth to another Montaigne.”
It was one of those “rare and powerful” moments, as Greenblatt writes, when a long-dead author seems to reach directly through time to a particular reader, as if bearing a message meant only for that person.
Another such magical moment would occur some 400 years later, when the young Stephen Greenblatt himself picked up a cheap copy of Lucretius for holiday reading. He too was amazed by how personally it spoke to him. Such encounters have become central to the philosophy Greenblatt has elaborated in several decades of work as a literary historian and theorist of the “new historicism” in literary studies. It combines hardheaded investigations of historical context with a profound feeling for the way writers somehow pull free from time, to enter the minds of readers. “I am constantly struck,” Greenblatt once noted, “by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago.” It is a rich literary paradox: authors are embedded in history, yet they slip away; they time-travel.
The voyage of De Rerum Natura through time traced an hourglass shape: It billowed, then dwindled, then billowed again. At the waist of this hourglass stands Poggio, and his life forms one of the main narrative strands in The Swerve.
We follow him from his modest birth in 1380, through a glittering but ill-fated career at the Vatican to an insatiable life of manuscript collecting. It made him rich, yet his love for books was Epicurean in the sense once conjured up by Petrarch, another collector: “Gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join with us in a living and intense intimacy.” This intimacy is one theme of The Swerve; its alarming fragility is another.
What saved Lucretius for us was a swerve of sorts; apparently bent on oblivion, his poem abruptly changed course and found its way back. Similar uneven lines of chance are involved in bringing individual readers to particular books; an accident throws a work in our path or an odd sentence catches our eye, and the book becomes a lifelong companion. Again, the lines are rarely straight. As Greenblatt writes, the story of Lucretius’ text is one of “forgettings, disappearances, recoveries, dismissals, distortions, challenges, transformations and renewed forgettings”.
It could have finished Lucretius off – but we are lucky. The “vital connection” goes on. The intimacy and the fragility still go hand in hand, and Lucretius lives to breathe at least another few breaths.
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