Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mary Beard and Stephen Greenblatt

This has been bothering me ever since I first held in my hands a copy of The Swerve, the hugely-acclaimed book by Stephen Greenblatt about the ancient Roman Epicurian philosopher Lucretius and his book-length poem de rerum natura, and Poggio, the 15th-century scribe who stumbled across a copy of it, and noticed one of the blurbs on the dust jacket.

I do not know very much about Mary Beard. She is Professor of Classics at Cambridge, Professor of Ancient Literature at the Royal Academy, and the Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Many of her fellow Classicists revere and positively adore her.

On the other hand -- if we may believe the dust jacket of The Swerve --



-- she is the person who wrote:

“A wonderfully engaging book starring two often forgotten heroes of Western culture: the Roman poet Lucretius, who argued that the world was made up of atoms and that fear of death was foolish, and Poggio Bracciolini, whose rediscovery of Lucretius's great poem launched all kinds of radical intellectual inquiry into the modern world. Another triumph for Stephen Greenblatt."

Alright: Lucretius, often forgotten? Onward.

I have long known that not every blurb on every dust jacket was written by someone who actually read the book in question. In the past several years I have had to accept the fact that such mendacity is perpetrated not only by hack book reviewers in mainstream media, but also occasionally by academics whom I greatly respect. In Robinson Jeffer's words: "Be angry at the sun for setting/If these things anger you."

I do get angry at the sun for setting, now and then. I wonder whether Jeffers sometimes did too.

I'm sure that Mary Beard is not the only Classicist ever to have accorded The Swerve more than very faint praise -- in fact, I have a feeling that if I continue to carry on in this manner, I may hear directly from some others -- but she is the only one I can think of, and I have looked around a bit.

The problem is, I'm not sure which should upset me more: that Professor Beard would write such a thing about a book she hadn't read, or that she would write such a thing about The Swerve after actually having read it.

No, that's a lie: the latter would upset me much, much more. It would be a great relief to learn that Beard had not read The Swerve, that compendium of completely misleading assertions about Epicurism, atomism, Lucretius, Poggio, textual transmission and many other things, at the time when the above blurb was written. Or that she had authorized someone else to write the blurb in her name, and then forgot about the matter entirely.

It was with tremendous reluctance, after years' worth of acquaintances telling me all sorts of absurd things which they had "learned" from The Swerve -- Lucretius and Poggio ushered in the Renaissance?! De rerum natura came within a hair's breadth of being lost forever?! -- that I finally read it myself. I really ought to read an entire book or two by Beard before I diss her -- but that blurb on Greenblatt's book makes me really, really not want to.

There are -- how any? hundreds of thousands? millions? of people running around loose today, who believe that Epicurus came up with the theory of atoms, that Epicurian philosophy would have been forgotten without Lucretius, that atomism would have been forgotten without Lucretius, that the ancient Classics were not studied in the Middle Ages, that Lucretius's book went unread for a thousand years, that it would be unknown today except for Poggio, that it only just barely survived, and other things which are completely, 100% untrue, all because of that one God-damned, best-selling, hugely-awarded book by Greenblatt, with that blurb on its dust jacket by perhaps the single pre-eminent Classical scholar living today.

I am angry at the sun. I am angry at the world and the way that it is.

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