A review of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How The World Became Modern
While finding a non-fiction book that walks the line between decontextualized facts and fabricated melodrama is rare, Stephen Greenblatt’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a perfect blend of storytelling and history. He is considered to be a founder of the controversial literary analytical method New Historicism, which seeks to interpret great works of literature within their original historical context. As such, Greenblatt has come up with some very interesting readings of long-studied works through the lens of New Historicism.
The Swerve traces the story of an epic poem, “De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things),” written roughly around the time of 50 BCE , that was buried along with the collapse of the Roman Empire and rediscovered a century later. His book explores the degree to which this poem inspired artists and thinkers of the Renaissance Movement, and how it went on to influence scientific icons such as Freud, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein, even extending to such authors and politicians as Shakespeare, Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson.
Greenblatt describes “On the Nature of Things” as a literary work of astonishing intellectual range and seductive poetic prowess. It was originally written by the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius, whose meditations Greenblatt boldly (perhaps hyperbolically) attributes to the birth of modern life. Tucked away in a secluded German monastery for nearly 1000 years, a 4th century copy of this epic poem was exhumed by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini from its moldering monastic tomb and unleashed upon the fourteenth century. Greenblatt resourcefully uses Poggio’s story to contrast life in Europe under the corrupt, astringent Catholic Papacy with the vibrant, liberal, intellectual culture of ancient Rome. Although thoroughly researched and largely accurate, the contrast is just a little too high—and unnecessarily so; corruption within the Catholic Church is sufficiently distressing without exaggeration.
While most of the book busies itself giving context to the cultural and geographic surroundings of Lucretius’s poem, Greenblatt devotes one chapter to a direct description of the poem itself. The poem draws heavily from Epicurean philosophy and expands upon it, comprehensively establishing the foundation for several fundamental scientific and philosophical ideas that are as pertinent to modernity as they were to antiquity. The poem sets up the framework of atomic theory, the theory of evolution and the origins of human existence as its three guiding conceptual themes. An accurate, if basic, recognition of our relation to the earth, the earth’s relation to the universe and an understanding of matter, motion and space are also included. As a poetic powerhouse, the poem goes on to endorse the pleasure principle, and repudiate the fallacy of predestination, the immortality of the soul, the danger of organized religion and superstitious delusion, and the fabrication of Heaven and Hell. Greenblatt points out that as long as “On The Nature of Things” has been accessible to readers, the allure of its artistry has always tempered the shock of its radicalism, protecting it from complete rejection or even destruction.
Stephen Greenblatt is a talented storyteller. His command of language is commendable; you can feel his fascination for the subject and take part in it, and The Swerve is passionate, cogent and succinctly informative, bringing to life one of history’s greatest testimonies to the power of art and truth.