Life After Papyrus: Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve"

In The Swerve, however, death is nothing, and people aren’t much either.

By Swati PandeyFebruary 17, 2012

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. W. W. Norton & Company. 356 pages.

BOOKS. THEY HAVE AN ALMOST alarming corporeality. Stephen Greenblatt, esteemed Harvard professor and founder of New Historicism, tells us that between the eras of papyrus and paper, books were often made of the pumice-smoothed skins of sheep, goats, deer, or, most luxuriously, of an aborted calf. The act of writing required rulers, awls, fine pens, and weights to keep the surfaces flat. Ink was a mix of soot, water, and tree gum; it was revised with knives, razors, brushes, rags, and page-restoring mixtures of milk, cheese, and lime. Squirming black creatures called bookworms liked to eat these pages, along with wool blankets and cream cheese. In the silence of monastery libraries, even the books' contents were indicated by bodily gestures. Monks copying pagan books requested them by scratching their ears like dogs with fleas, or, if the book were particularly offensive, shoving two fingers in their mouths, as if gagging. In Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, these objects, offensive or sacred, are the primary players.

Those who tended to, or searched for, or even wrote the books — monks, Renaissance book hunters, and ancient Greek and Roman poets and philosophers — are decidedly secondary in The Swerve. Though "nothing lasts forever," as Greenblatt mournfully says of papyrus, which crumbles in a few centuries, poor humans don't last nearly as long as that substance, or even as long as a solidly bound and decently stored modern paperback. This rings all too true for Greenblatt, who lived with a mother obsessed with her imminent death. (She died quite old, after having spent decades instilling grim terror in her son, as he admits in a frank preface.) In The Swerve, however, death is nothing, and people aren't much either. 

The book's central character is a six-volume, two-millennia-old poem, Lucretius's On the Nature of Things, that imagines a world made of crashing, combining atoms, denies life after death, prescribes the pursuit of pleasure as the rational goal of individuals and societies, and suggests that all things arise from a swerve - a slight and random deviation from course. The swerve of Greenblatt's title does not refer to the work of Gutenberg or Newton or any of those most often credited with ushering in the world as we know it, but to the resurrection of Lucretius's poem. Greenblatt describes the hunt for the text with great narrative panache. In his least poetic and most bullet-pointed chapter, he traces, lightly and somewhat vaguely (perhaps out of deference), the poem's role in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and even the establishment of the American Republic. Though somewhat hyperbolic, as such claims tend to be, the idea that a recovered text transformed the world offers some comfort to anyone worried about the long-touted death of the book. 

It can be said that two men are responsible for the continued existence of On the Nature of Things: Lucretius, its author, and Poggio Bracciolini, its hunter. Of Lucretius almost nothing is known; an unkind, five-line biography by St. Jerome, disregarded by modern historians, has Lucretius going mad after drinking a love potion and then committing suicide. Poggio's life has a far clearer outline, recorded in letters and essays. He was born at the end of the 14th century in Tuscany and rose from a modest background to serve eight popes as official secretary, thanks to his mastery of that now-disregarded art, penmanship. Poggio hated the papal system for its hypocrisy, calling the Roman Curia "the lie factory," but held his post as long as he could. Poggio was also a bibliomaniac (bibliophile is too mild a word): a hunter, collector, copier, and plain old fan of books at a time when these precious but feared objects were generally locked up in monasteries. 

Poggio was not the first or even the most influential bibliomaniac; his finding Lucretius was the result of his single-mindedness, his hatred of the present day, and plain luck. Unlike his forerunner Petrarch, who made brilliant new poetry inspired by found classical texts, Poggio had no poetic ambition. He only wanted to collect books and copy them. Poggio's was "a cult of imitation and a craving for exactitude," a "dream, narrow and arid in spirit." Poggio abhorred his relatively bookless time with a fervor familiar to any contemporary bibliophile/technophobe:

[T]here is no indication that he ever felt anything other than a kind of soul-sickness at the contemporary world in which he was immersed ... Like Petrarch before him, Poggio cultivated an archaeologist's sense of what had once existed, so that vacant spaces and the jumble of contemporary Rome were haunted by the past.

Poggio longed for the ancient world, when the problem with books was that there were too many of them, when vacation homes had libraries, when books were inherently social and not the products of lonely genius, to be read in empty solitude. In classical times, texts, often idealized dialogues themselves, were pretexts for conversations, the meat of a budding public culture that extended beyond kin. Poggio would write in the same sentence and emotional tenor of a buried book and a burned heretic, in what Greenblatt depicts as a sort of pagan transubstantiation. To Poggio, a book was a person. 

Poggio's fundamentalist passion for books and the deposing of his patron, Pope (or Antipope; it was during the Western Schism) John XXIII — recounted in alternately gleeful and somber detail by Greenblatt — sent him book hunting to French and German monasteries. His mastery of Latin, perfect penmanship, and personal charm afforded him access to libraries in order to loan and copy ancient books. He discovered, or rediscovered, works by the epic poet Silius Italicus, the historian Ammianus, the orator Cicero, and, at last, Lucretius. As the ideas within On the Nature of Things diffused throughout the culture and gave new fuel to atomists as well as Christian humanists, Poggio distanced himself from the work's contents. He returned to a new pope and was later awarded chancellorship of Florence; he entered marriage in his old age; and dreamed of building himself a garden, gymnasium, and academy, as if he were one of the Ancients he so admired. Poggio's death in 1459 was marked with a modest funeral. He had no idea, Greenblatt notes, what Lucretius would mean to the modern world and, as a Christian, may not have liked to know. Poggio died when Italy was still fairly medieval, before the Nature of Things had worked its swerve in the minds of Galileo, Machiavelli, Botticelli, and Da Vinci. 

On the Nature of Things was, and is, brilliant. Lucretius, who intended the poetry to be the coat of sugar on the medicine of his philosophy, writes with astonishing grace about a world made of atoms, the ordinariness of humans, and the delusion of religion. Despite being a fundamentally atheistic text — Lucretius only allows a god or gods who couldn't care less for people and our lonely prayers and sins — the text imagines the world as a poem to Venus. Lucretius imagines all those couplings and decouplings of atoms, as endlessly and wonderfully erotic. (For the record, Lucretius is not for pleasure-seeking in the sybaritic or libertine sense: his is a mild and moral philosophy, Epicurean not hedonistic. But he does describe sex keenly and notes that "a dash of gentle pleasure soothes the sting" of desire.) Lucretius and Greenblatt both begin their texts with a hymn to Venus; Greenblatt also resurrects it late in his book, in a translation by the poet John Dryden, who failed to translate Lucretius's entire work, but rendered parts of it with particular beauty:

Delight of humankind and gods above, 
Parent of Rome, propitious Queen of Love, 
Whose vital power, air, earth, and sea supplies, 
And breeds whate'er is born beneath the rolling skies; 
For every kind, by thy prolific might, 
Springs and beholds the regions of the light:
Thee, Goddess, thee, the clouds and tempests fear,
And at thy pleasing presence disappear;
For thee the land in fragrant flowers is dressed,
For thee the ocean smiles and smooths her wavy breast,
And heaven itself with more serene and purer light is blessed.

Every reader of Greenblatt — who recounts his own discovery of Lucretius, and that hymn to Venus, at the Yale bookstore — will likely want to buy an old-fashioned tactile version of On the Nature of Things, or at least to find it on Google Books (available as a free ebook, though not in Greenblatt's preferred translation by Martin Ferguson Smith). Thanks to Poggio, and now to Greenblatt, Lucretius has survived in libraries and online, in seeming fulfillment of Ovid's proclamation: "The verses of sublime Lucretius are destined to perish only when a single day will consign the world to destruction." 

Lucretius didn't want fame, and perhaps he didn't really get it, as even Ovid ascribes immortality not to the man but to the verses. The man isn't much remembered. History has obscured and manipulated his story. But books are survivors, no matter their material fragility, their consignment to forgotten shelves, or the work of deconstructionists. They say what they say, on pages or screens, in various languages, across millennia. Even if Greenblatt doubts that data will survive as long as papyrus, our new digital libraries, like Google Books and Project Gutenberg, will surely do more to preserve what books say than any monastery or bibliophile ever could. 

Indeed, as Greenblatt teasingly and fearfully notes, Lucretius's verses may have endured thanks to something he himself didn't believe in: a miracle. The work of many of Lucretius's contemporaries simply vanished. What will survive over the next few millennia, if humans make it? Greenblatt hints at the question, but doesn't ask. The Swerve is haunted by an alternate history of absence, in which everything might have vanished, and by a fear that everything could vanish in some future. It is the fear, perhaps, of anyone who loves the book. It is the fear that the passing of the material body means the death of the soul, of some crucial part of our culture. But books have shown remarkable resilience, miraculously dodging the oblivion that we mortals may await.

LARB Contributor

Swati Pandey is a writer based in Los Angeles.


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