I went to hear the author, Stephen Greenblatt, speak at the Concord Festival of Authors this week. Greenblatt is a Harvard literary critic, theorist and scholar, the author of many books, who is credited as one of the founders of the “new historicism” (which he refers to as “cultural poetics”). He is most well-known for his book Will in the World, a biography of Williams Shakespeare, which positioned Shakespeare’s work firmly in his time – the idea that these great works should be properly considered in the time, the environment, in which Shakespeare lived – laying bare the mutual permeability between the literary and the historical. Here’s what Greenblatt has to say about his work:
“My deep, ongoing interest is in the relation between literature and history, the process through which certain remarkable works of art are at once embedded in a highly specific life-world and seem to pull free of that life-world. I am constantly struck 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”
Greenblatt is on the speaking circuit because of his new book, Swerve: How the World Became Modern. This book tells the story of a Roman named Lucretius who wrote a poem (“On The Nature of Things“) 2000 years ago, detailing his thoughts on everything from creation to religion to nature to death. The observations in his poem were highly technical and, in many ways, presaged modern science. In particular, Lucretius described the universe as a collection of tiny atom-like particles in perpetual motion. Deviations – or “swerves” – in these motions cause collision and alternate forms. As Greenblatt says, “So much that is in Einstein or Freud or Darwin or Marx as there in the poem.” Not only that but Lucretius postulated that the gods may exist, but they are utterly indifferent to humans, there is no soul and no afterlife – when we die, our “atoms” disperse and who we were becomes nothingness (views that are remarkably close to secular humanists). Pretty heady stuff for Roman times – and the times after. Not surprisingly, Lucretius’s poem was banned as it was seen as heretical and disturbing. And so the poem disappeared.
Enter Poggio Bracciolini – a pre-Renaissance, Florentine “book hunter” who found freedom in pursuing the wisdom of the ancients, hunting down forgotten texts and manuscripts in the monasteries of Europe. Greenblatt’s book chronicles Poggio’s story and, per his “historicism”, renders him in his time and place. Poggio discovered Lucretius’s poem in a monastery in southern Germany in 1417. Once he delivered the poem, and rescued it from obscurity, the power of its idea did their work. Greenblatt traces the emergence of the poem’s impact through time – the Renaissance, Thomas More, Montaigne, Botticelli, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson – to being available for purchase today on Amazon.
In his talk at the Concord Festival of Authors, Greenblatt told a number of fascinating stories about his research for the book and about Poggio and Lucretius. One story in particular stood out for me in its relationship to the McLuhan reading we’ve been doing this week. And that is Greenblatt’s evaluation of Lucretius’s work as a Latin poem. Apparently it is an intensely beautiful poem and a powerful execution of Latin at it’s best. Through the years (before the poem was banned), school teachers regularly assigned it to their Latin students as a translation exercise. Scholars saw the poem as a riveting challenge, its Latin structure intensely complex and beautiful. What a wonderful example of the medium being the message. It mattered that Lucretius’s ideas were presented in the form of a poem.