Renaissance quickly f e l l out of f a shion. Many of Greenblatt’s admirers have therefore been sur pr ised recently to watch h im wr i t e f i r s t a b i og r aphy of Shakespeare – Will in the World, published in 2004 – and now The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, with its attempt to explain the origins of the Renaissance in all its apparent ‘vitality’ and ‘pursuit of beauty’. His renunciation of the defining arguments that shaped his work for half his career is as perplexing as Hamlet’s notorious inaction (the subject of Greenblatt’s last great academic book, Hamlet in Purgatory).
where Poggio stumbled across it and other texts. There i s an impassioned account of Chr i s t ianity’s ‘g rand design’ to demonise the Epicurean tradition, exemplified by Lucretius’s scandalously ‘decadent’ poem, described by Greenblatt as ‘one of the great cultural transformations in the history of the West’, through which ‘the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure’. In the humanist book-hunter Poggio there is also a smack of Greenblatt himself, as the Italian tries, unsuccessfully, to reconcile his ‘obsessive craving’ for ancient books with his immersion in ‘the lie factory’, the venal and corrupt world of the papal court.
As a story, The Swerve is terrific; as an argument, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The claim that Lucretius’s arguments ‘are among the foundations on
Like Hamlet, The Swerve has not one but two protagonists: a ghost accused of morally dubious qualities, and his intellectually ambitious heir-apparent. The ghost is Titus Lucretius Carus, the Roman poet who, in the middle years of the fir st century BC, wrote his poem On the Nature of Things. His intellectual heir was the man who rediscovered the poem in a German monastery in 1417, the I t a l i an Pogg io Bracciolini (1380–1459), a brilliant classical philologist and papal secretar y. For Greenblatt, the drama of Poggio’s rediscovery of Lucretius’s poem and its radical contents stand at the heart of ‘the or ig ins of moder n l i fe and thought’, and the Renaissance and its humanist pr inciples are exemplified in the remarkable career of Poggio. Lucretius’s challenge to the prevailing world of early fifteenth-century Christian Europe was his unflinching mater i a l i sm. Drawing on the lost work of the Greek philosopher Epicur us, Lucretius’s poem argued that all organised religion is a delusion; there is no afterlife; the highest goal of life should be pleasure; and everything is made of invisible particles, or ‘atoms’, which at unpredictable moments ‘swerve’, or deviate from a straight course, creating collisions that generate life. Greenblatt’s book is thus ‘a story of how the world swerved in a new direction’ thanks to Poggio’s discovery.
Poggio, in a manuscript of his work ‘De varietate fortunae’
which modern life has been constructed’ is contentious enough, but the poem is surely just one among many defining t exts unear thed by humanists l i ke Poggio, and to accord Lucretius singular credit for inventing the modern world is extremely questionable. Greenblatt’s evidence is squashed into a f inal chapter, which a s s er t s that the poem ‘began to resonate powerfully in the works of Renaissance writers and artists’ such as Botticelli and Leonardo, but this is the first and last we hear of them. Instead, the putative influence of Lucretius on everyone from Shakespeare to Montaigne, Galileo, Newton, Hume, Darwin and even Thomas Jefferson is evoked in a final, hectic twenty pages. Greenblatt is better than this, and it feels as though the nar rative drama of Poggio’s discovery overwhelms
These are big claims, but the majority of Greenblatt’s book is concerned with recreating the loss and dramatic rediscover y of Lucretius’s poem. Although l i ttle i s known about the exact circumstances of the book’s recovery, and even less about Lucretius’s life and his poem’s reception, Greenblatt vividly describes how the archaeological discover ies at Herculaneum shed new light on the book, as well as the medieval copying of ‘pagan’ books such as Lucretius’s in the monasteries the detailed pursuit of Lucretius’s influence that would have strengthened the argument.
There is also a final, inescapable conclusion that The Swerve cannot sidestep, which seems profoundly at odds with everything Greenblatt has previously argued. His story of the Renaissance driven by secular, competitive Italians rediscovering classical antiquity and revelling in disinterested learning and the pursuit of beauty could have been written by those who first proposed such an account 150 years ago: Jacob Burckhardt and Walter Pater. This book is indeed about a swerve, but it is more significant for what it reveals about Stephen Greenblatt’s change in direction than for what it tells us about Lucretius and his fifteenth-century disciples. To order this book for £16, see LR bookshop on page 20
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011