The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt review

by David Larsen / 07 January, 2012
Stephen Greenblatt overplays his hand in The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.
The devil is in the subtitle. ­Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began is a small book with big ambitions. Both the ambitions and the book could stand to be smaller.

“Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. The book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius – a thrillingly beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion.”

And thus, modernity. Lucretius was a disciple of Epicurus, from whom we derive “epicurean”, “devoted to the pursuit of pleasure”. Only a few fragments of Epicurus’s writing have survived. In the unlikely rescue of Lucretius from a similar fate, Greenblatt sees the seed from which our whole modern worldview sprouted.

Other classical writers argued for atomism, and even for atheism. Lucretius argued for these and for pleasure. It was the licence to pursue ideas for simple enjoyment’s sake that in the long run allowed his other ideas to matter. He sparked a pan-European culture that celebrated the “embrace of beauty and pleasure and propelled it forward as a legitimate and worthy human pursuit”: he sparked the Renaissance, and here we all are.

This is a simplification of a story Greenblatt tells in some detail. But it isn’t an oversimplification, because he doesn’t tell it in all that much detail. Or very well. Even in the brief passage above, you can see his over-reliance on the rhetorical rule of three (“short, genial, cannily alert”), and his predilection for adverbial clutter and overstatement. It isn’t enough that a poem be beautiful. It will always be “thrillingly beautiful”. Its ideas will not just be dangerous, they will be “the most dangerous”.

He’s fond of the phrases “of course” and “after all”, both of which, by suggesting his version of intellectual history needs little defence, draw attention to his failure to defend it. His writing has the self-defeating formulaic exuberance of advertising copy: once you realise that he will always make the strongest claims he can for any given piece of data, reading him becomes an exercise in working out how much air to let out of his balloon. Most of it? Just a little?

Most of it, I think. Although he acknowledges early on that no single poem can be held “responsible for an entire intellectual, moral and social transformation”, this is just a pro forma pawn sacrifice. His constant rhetorical thrust is that Lucretius is the unsung demiurge of modernity. The book’s real achievement, which is to demonstrate that the poet is an interesting philosopher who may have influenced quite a lot of people to at least a small degree, wilts in the shade of these inflated pretensions.

When I said this book could usefully be smaller, I was not merely being snide. Greenblatt wrote a six-page article about Lucretius that appeared in the New Yorker in August. Most of the sentences in the article approximate sentences in the book, although space constraints have inspired a happy winnowing of adverbs. But the article is structured around a brief account of Greenblatt’s late-teen discovery of Lucretius in a bargain bin, and the insights the poetry afforded him into his difficult relationship with his mother.

It’s moving. It’s also proportionate, in a way the book is not. The book proposes that Lucretius is of primal importance to all our lives. The article makes the same claim, but it devotes half its space to the more interesting story, which is why Greenblatt might want to believe this.

THE SWERVE: HOW THE ­RENAISSANCE BEGAN, by ­Stephen Greenblatt (Bodley Head, $54.99).

Click here for more reviews and stories by David Larsen.
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