"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Review of Stephen Greenblatt's SWERVE

Swerving toward Limbo: 

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern

by Gideon Rappaport

[originally published in Washington Independent Review--now no longer available there]

            In Inferno Canto IV Dante meets the souls of virtuous pagans, who suffer no punishment but hopeless sighing.  Their placement in limbo allegorizes the eternal condition of those who choose to believe that the human intellect is the sole vehicle of truth and that pleasure is man’s highest good.  In a note translator Dorothy Sayers writes: 

It is the weakness of Humanism to fall short in the imagination of ecstasy; at its best it is noble, reasonable, and cold, and however optimistic about a balanced happiness in this world, pessimistic about a rapturous eternity. 

            In The Swerve Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt records that in 1417, Poggio Bracciolini, papal secretary and seeker of manuscripts of lost classical works, discovered in a German monastery the long poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius (c.96–c.55 B.C.).  Lacing facts (about ancient Rome, Herculaneum, the Renaissance papacy, and manuscript copying) together with conjecture—within one page of text we find “must have known,” “perhaps feeling,” “evidently,” “probably,” “seems to have,” “would not have known”—Greenblatt argues that Poggio’s discovery contributed significantly to Western Civilization’s “swerve” from religion to secular pragmatism.  He celebrates that “swerve.”  His purpose is to confirm in the minds of the “circle of those likely to be reading [his] words” the truth of Lucretius’ vision of reality:  the very atheistic humanism against whose spiritual limitations Dante’s limbo was meant to warn us. 

            In the chapter called  “The Way Things Are,” Greenblatt culls from Lucretius’ long and complex poem the following teachings :

Everything is made of invisible particles, which are eternal, infinite in number, limited in shape and size, and moving in an infinite void.

The universe has no creator or designer; everything comes into being as a result of an unexplained and minute but presumably natural “swerve” of the particles from the path of mere falling, the swerve being the source of free will.

Nature ceaselessly experiments, but the universe was not created for human beings, who are not unique, whose beginning was not a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty but a primitive battle for survival, and whose souls die without afterlife.

Death is nothing to us.

The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain, achieved by the avoidance of superstitious delusions such as organized religions, which are invariably cruel.

Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

The list is worded to make Lucretius the articulator of precisely the modern secular humanist’s vision of life—atheistic, pragmatic, and cocksure. 

            Everyone is entitled to his opinion about the essential mysteries, but Greenblatt’s embrace of Lucretius’ vision is exasperating in three particular ways:  It is self-contradictory, prejudiced, and condescending.

The contradictions include these: 

Greenblatt informs us that Lucretius ends his poem with a hymn to Venus, the source of all things.  This worship of a divine underlying reality represented by Venus (or, as Greenblatt calls her, sex) bespeaks a religious belief as faithfully held as the Christian’s. 

He praises Lucretius for believing ahead of his time (i.e., agreeing with us) that atoms of irreducible matter are the foundation of all things including the human soul.  In doing so, he ignores the actual physics of our time, which finds that there are no irreducible particles of matter but rather patterns of energy that invisibly incarnate information for which no material substance can account. 

Greenblatt asserts that “all attempts to fashion a life worth living . . . must start and end with a comprehension of . . . atoms and the void and nothing else.”  But to measure the worth of anything is to measure it in relation to something else known to be valuable.  If all values are merely “atoms and the void,” the phrase “worth living” is nugatory.  Similarly “trial and error” applied to nature’s “long, complex process” implies an end aimed at.  If all is matter and void, no one end can have more significance than another.  “Trial and error” is another nugatory phrase. 

Skeptical about the faith of others, Greenblatt, following Lucretius, is not nearly skeptical enough about his own, which flies in the face of the testimony of human beings in all places throughout human history.  His certainty that “all organized religions are superstitious delusions” is itself a breathtaking act of faith. 

Greenblatt writes, “Humans do not occupy the privileged place in existence they imagine for themselves” for “many of the most intense and poignant experiences of our lives are not exclusive to our species.”  It is of course true that like plants we grow and like animals we feel pleasure and pain.  But who but a human being would write a book to convince other beings to think as he does?  Greenblatt’s Lucretian principles are paradoxically contradicted by the human nature they discount, for as writer and scholar Greenblatt evidences precisely the human privilege he takes pleasure in denying.  To be human is above all to seek meaning in the “nature of things.”  It is what drives us to write and study poems and histories.  Can Greenblatt seriously believe that his own soul’s passion for Shakespeare and Lucretius is accounted for by “atoms and the void and nothing else”?  Talk about cognitive dissonance!

To reinforce his polemic, Greenblatt prejudicially slants history and literature.  To judge from The Swerve one would think that the Medieval period were an age of nothing but darkness, filth, and self-interest and that Christianity were nothing but a fear-ridden swamp of venality and oppression.  Certainly the Catholic Church has much crime to answer for.  But Greenblatt seems blind to the historical influence of Christianity in promoting kindness, patience, humility, brotherly love, self-sacrifice, justice, political responsibility, and the value of the individual he implicitly holds dear—he implies Jefferson was nothing but an Epicurean—let alone the art of the great cathedrals, of Rembrandt, and of that monumental Commedia our civilization has rightly called “Divine.”

On the basis of one use of the word “atomies” and limited reference to the afterlife in Romeo and Juliet, Greenblatt gives the impression that Shakespeare too was an Epicurean and no Christian, to believe which requires that we ignore the themes and many speeches of Henry V, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.  To defend the principle that “Religions are invariably cruel,” he imports the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, ignoring the story’s establishment of the principle that man is to serve God with a faithful will rather than the sacrifice of children.  To Greenblatt Christianity and Judaism, “Religious cults originating in far-off places like Persia, Syria, and Palestine,” do nothing but “arouse wild fears and expectations, particularly among the plebs.”

            Then there is Greenblatt’s tone.  Though he would not burn anyone at the stake for misbelief, he sneers as self-righteously as the inquisitors of the Catholic Church at heretical disbelievers in his religion of atheistic atomism.  He presumes “ritual” and “conversation about the meaning of life” to be antithetical (preferring, of course, the latter).  He identifies himself and his enlightened readers with that ancient Epicurean elite who, being neither “insecure” nor “of a pious disposition,” “would have regarded [the prophecies of Christ] as the overheated fantasies of a sect of stiff-necked Jews.”  (Why disapprove of the enjoyment of piety and overheated fantasy if they too are products of the merely natural swerving of atoms?)
            The best thing about The Swerve is Greenblatt’s honesty about the psychological reason for his being moved by the vision of Lucretius.  In an important preface, Greenblatt tells us that he grew up terrorized by his mother’s “brooding obsessively on the imminence of her end” as a way “to compel attention and demand love. . . . [M]y dread of her dying had become entwined with a painful perception that she had blighted much of her life—and cast a shadow on my own—in the service of her obsessive fear.”  When he reads in Lucretius that “to spend your existence in the grip of anxiety about death . . . is mere folly,” he realizes that “to inflict this anxiety on others is manipulative and cruel.”

            Following his own method of conjecture, we may reasonably conclude that Greenblatt’s denial of any spiritual authenticity to organized religion is a way of breaking the emotional bonds of his mother’s obsession.  Instead of having to reject his mother, he projects her fear of death and cruel manipulation onto the convenient scapegoat of organized religion and rejects it instead.  The greatest value of this book may thus be to raise the question whether the modern world’s “swerve” away from God and toward Epicurean pleasure worship is similarly rooted in the longing to escape the fear of death.  Whether that fear can be escaped by denying the significance of death is another question it raises.  The reader will decide which is the more precious antidote:  Lucretius to the delusion of religion or Dante’s limbo to the delusion of Epicurean humanism.

            Finally, arguing that “the gods quite literally could not care less” about human beings, Greenblatt asserts that “the serious issue is that false beliefs and observances inevitably lead to human mischief.”  This is certainly a true statement.  As applied to organized religion, it is now a cliché.  But Greenblatt chooses to ignore the human mischief to which his own Epicurean beliefs have led in our enlightened and rational age:  the torture and murder of countless millions effected by those who have been sure that there is no God, no divine justice, no afterlife, only atoms and the void.  If cruelty and oppression are the measure of a doctrine’s value, Greenblatt’s has far more to answer for than that of Mother Theresa.