Stephen Greenblatt is perhaps one of the most skillful and entertaining writers of history that I have come across. His lively, engaging style makes hStephen Greenblatt is perhaps one of the most skillful and entertaining writers of history that I have come across. His lively, engaging style makes historical events and ideas accessible to the average reader, but is at the same time stimulating in its expression of complex ideas and raising of deep questions.
The Swerve is an imaginative re-telling of the humanist "book-hunter" Poggio Bracciolini's discovery of Lucretius' ancient manuscript, On the Nature of Things, a highly stylized, poetic account of Lucretius' materialist philosophy. Taking his primary cue from Epicurus, Lucretius is an ancient "atomist," that is, he believed that the universe was composed of tiny, indivisible particles which move at random and comprise the fabric of the natural world. He controversially suggests that the gods of Ancient Rome play a less active role in nature than what was popularly believed in his time, and that the soul itself--being composed of material atoms like everything else--is not, in fact, immortal, but will perish along with everything else in nature which follows the cycle of birth, disintegration and re-birth. The resignation to this fundamental transiency and mortality is the heart of Lucretius' philosophy; the ultimate realization that "death is nothing to us" is the source of the kind of philosophic tranquility (and, as Greenblatt interprets, pleasure) which is the substance of what he believed to be the best way of life. Greenblatt points out the tension which this philosophy confronts in an inherently religious culture, and dramatizes the challenges which the manuscript underwent in order to survive the host of obstacles to its promulgation in Christian, Medieval society.
Greenblatt has an almost magical way of awakening the kind of aesthetic "wonder" which he prizes as a New Historicist in his storytelling. The Swerve takes us through the libraries of ancient Rome where philosophically-minded friends would gather and discuss questions of the meaning of life and the nature of the universe, through the closed-off, quiet monastic rooms where scribes labored to copy ancient manuscripts, through the tumult and intrigue of Medieval society, and briefly into the modern world. Each of these stages is charmingly and vividly represented, with an emphasis on marginal objects and persons that make the distant times and places appear alive and present to the reader. One grows more historically informed when reading Greenblatt without the sense of laboring through a dry textbook; his delightful rhetoric seems to embody for the reader the kind of Epicurean pleasure about which he writes.
It's possible that this delight is created at the expense of historical objectivity and fairness, however. One problem with this particular brand of history book is that the rhetorical flourishes that make it so entertaining necessarily close off one side of the story. This kind of artistry, though pleasant to read, involves some form of selectivity on the part of the author; someone has to be the bad guy, and unfortunately in this case the rich Christian heritage of learning and intellectual life is downplayed and even villanized in the story in order to valorize the counter-cultural pagan thought. There are lengthy portions of the book where Greenblatt abandons Lucretius and Poggio and it feels as if the author were devoted not to the story of the manuscript's discovery, but to the representation of the Roman Church as the ultimate enemy of learning and curious inquiry. He dwells on the vicious, acquisitive, violent and bawdy details of the Roman Curia, seizing on the title of a contemporary satire which dubbed it "The Lie Factory," and the malice and oppression of the Vatican and its attempt to squelch the life of the mind and secure its own power.
It would be unhistorical to deny the horrors of the Inquisition and the violent measures taken by the Church to protect itself during those times, and it's undeniable that there were forces, many of them Christian, which did work to wipe out the treasury of pagan literature. These realities, however, are only one side of the story. Greenblatt selectively leaves out other factors which tried to obliterate the artifacts of ancient cultural heritage, such as the various barbaric invasions of Rome, in order to make the Church appear totally and completely hostile to the life of the mind, and the one force opposing the promulgation of the ancient texts. Moreover, he glosses over the Christian origins of the Humanist movement which began the recovery of the texts in the first place, and the fact that we owe the existence of these texts to their preservation by the scribes in Christian monasteries. He accounts for this latter fact as a function of the monks' compulsory need to follow seemingly arbitrary rules, in this case the rule of reading. Greenblatt writes,
"The high walls that hedged about the mental life of the monks--the imposition of silence, the prohibition of questioning, the punishing of debate with slaps or blows of the whip--were all meant to affirm unambiguously that these pious communities were the opposite of the philosophical academies of Greece or Rome, places that had thrived upon the spirit of contradiction and cultivated a restless, wide-ranging curiosity" (The Swerve, 28).
If these monks were, in fact, so totally opposed to learning and study--"the opposite of the philosophical academies" of the ancients-- as Greenblatt would have us believe, then the monastic practice of regularly reading these ancient texts aloud and dutifully preserving them would seem senseless. Greenblatt does not address this. He simply concludes that the monastic rule of obedience is absolutely opposed to philosophic inquiry, which appears to be a narrow-mindedly sweeping suggestion in light of the fact that the whole idea behind the monastic life was a devotion to contemplation.
Greenblatt's treatment of Christian Humanism is no less cursory and selective. He represents the humanist book-hunters with self-interested motives, vying for fame and repute, or with lustful appetites for forbidden texts. While he grants that Humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More were able to"think seriously about how to integrate elements of Epicureanism with Christian faith" (The Swerve, 252), he dismisses their attempts to reconcile pagan texts with the Christian culture as futile and fruitless. He devotes a segment to interpreting More's Utopia as an imagination of a society built on Epicurean principles which fails on account of More's inability to exclude the belief in Providence from the society.
But once again, Greenblatt's exposition does not capture the entirety of More's attitude toward the study of ancient texts, which was not politico-centric, but primarily intellectual and moral. Rather than attempting a total reconciliation of the two belief-systems and the ways of life they each entail, More is concerned with how the ancient texts can be beneficial in themselves. In response to an attack on the study of Greek literature, More writes in a letter to Oxford University:
"What is it but sloth, when one is in the habit or denouncing rather than of learning that of which one is ignorant? And what is it but hatred, when one defames those who know what one deprecates but does not comprehend? And what is it but supreme pride, when he wishes no kind of knowledge to be prized save what he has falsely persuaded himself that he knows, and when he even--not from modesty, as might be the case with other people--arrogates more praise to himself for his ignorance than for his knowledge? Now as to the question of humanistic education (that is to say, the study of the classics) being secular. No one has ever claimed that a man needed Greek and Latin, or indeed any education in order to be saved. Still, this education which he calls secular does train the soul in virtue. In any event, few will question that humanistic education is the chief, almost the sole reason why men come to Oxford; children can receive a good education at home from their mothers, all except cultivation and book learning. Moreover, even if men come to Oxford to study theology, they do not start with that discipline. They must first study the laws of human nature and conduct, a thing not useless to theologians; without such study they might possibly preach a sermon acceptable to an academic group, without it they would certainly fail to reach the common man. And from whom could they acquire such skill better than from the poets, orators, and historians?" (Taken from A Thomas More Source Book, edited by Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith, [Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2004] pp. 207-208)
The open-minded attitude here is reminiscent of the Socratic intellectual humility that is the basis for real inquiry into the truth of things. More argues that the insight offered by the pagans into nature can function as the basis for theological study, which builds from the basic knowledge of the way things are. That knowledge can be morally edifying in and of itself. In other words, More articulates the principle of harmony between faith and reason that is, in fact, the heart of the Christian intellectual attitude which Greenblatt misrepresents.
On the basis of this same principle I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed Greenblatt's book, despite the qualifications outlined above. It seems that most texts are best enjoyed with the understanding that there are two sides to every story, and that the full picture is possible if you read with perhaps a more open mind than the author would immediately allow, and search out the truth for yourself rather than simply accepting his perspective as a given. Many of Greenblatt's "unambiguous" conclusions are based on his own formulated speculations, which seem to be colored by a rhetorical purpose - to make the story interesting and pleasant to read. Greenblatt admits as much in Resonance and Wonder when he writes that his New Historicism is not without value judgments:
"I believe that my values...are pervasive: in the textual and visual traces I choose to analyze, in the stories I choose to tell, in the cultural conjunctions I attempt to make, in my syntax, adjectives, pronouns. 'The new historicism,' someone has written in a lively critique, 'needs at every point to be more overtly self-conscious of its methods and theoretical assumptions, since what one discovers about the historical place and function of literary texts is in large measure a function of the angle from which one looks and the assumptions that enable the investigation' " (taken from the excerpt from Stephen Greenblatt's Resonance and Wonder in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, et al. [New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010], p. 2156).
Greenblatt goes on to say that he sees no need for such overt, methodological self-consciousness. Perhaps he has a point; the story would certainly be less entertaining if it were littered with expostulations and disclaimers of his own opinions and clarifications of his theories. All this means is that careful readers ought to remember that delightful reading may come at the cost of veracity. In a perfect world full of open-minded readers who are hungry for the truth, this would be no deterrent, but as it stands, Greenblatt's representation of the Christian perspective is potentially subversive, which is why I felt compelled to qualify my praise of the book with these conditions. Take them or leave them, but remember that there are two sides to every story. ...more
An excellent critique of modern culture, on the same par with Allan Bloom. It's lucid and accessible to the average reader, which is a good thing beca An excellent critique of modern culture, on the same par with Allan Bloom. It's lucid and accessible to the average reader, which is a good thing because its incredibly eye-opening. This book helped me to understand myself as a modern person, and pointed out important problems in the modern disposition. Neil Postman is apparently very learned; he includes historical examples at every turn and from every period you can imagine. There appears to be no subject he's unacquainted with. This makes his argument very convincing. There's a lot of wisdom in this little book. Everyone should read it, and even though it's short there's plenty of material here for extended reflection. ...more
I fell in love with this book. One of the best history books I've read. A little hard to get through the archaic language, but once you get used to itI fell in love with this book. One of the best history books I've read. A little hard to get through the archaic language, but once you get used to it, the things More is doing are brilliant. ...more
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A very good, clear and accessible expression of Mamet's philosophy on filmmaking. Although it gets a little repetitive, he does leave the reader withA very good, clear and accessible expression of Mamet's philosophy on filmmaking. Although it gets a little repetitive, he does leave the reader with a good understanding of the thought process behind the composition of the shots in a film. Even though I don't completely agree with his theories on dramatic form, they are thought-provoking and interesting, and I felt that I gained a few skills that will enhance the way I watch a film, which is probably the most important thing. The dialogues were interesting and engaging, and the narration was down-to-earth and friendly. Overall, a pleasure to read. ...more