Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Stephen Greenblatt's Swerve is Not as Accurate as One Might Wish

It's annoying, if you've spent a lot of time and effort carefully writing something, if a reviewer comments in a way which makes it clear that the reviewer has either not read your work at all carefully, or has not read it all. It's happened to me a few times. I don't like it at all.

The Recognitions, by William Gaddis,

is now generally regarded as one of the finest novels ever written by an American. But when it was published in 1955, and for some years after that, it was not generally so regarded. In 1962, a man who, under the pseudonym jack green, wrote and published an "underground" periodical called newspaper, presented in that publication his assessment of the first 55 reviews of The Recognitions. The title of the piece was green's suggestion about what should happen with these book critics: "fire the bastards!"

When green took on Gaddis' critics, he had an enormous advantage over almost all of them: he had actually read The Recognitions, carefully and all the way through. In almost half of the 55 reviews green pointed out mistaken assertions about what happened in the plot; he was even able to prove that one review had been stolen from another. "fire the bastards!" also shows that green considered The Recognitions to be a masterpiece.

In 2017, after both Gaddis and green have been dead for decades, Gaddis' reputation as a writer is as high as it can be, and green's is not bad. I would warn against taking this as proof that many people have actually read either Gaddis or green. I would not assume, necessarily, that most of the copies of their works which have been printed, have also been read. Still, however well-founded or unfounded they may be, their current high reputations are well-deserved, so, good.

The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt,

was published in 2011 and won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. It the story of how in the early 15th century, the Italian humanist and discoverer of lost ancient texts Poggio Bracciolini -- usually referred to today by his first name only, like Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Prince Rogers Nelson and Madonna Ciccone -- discovered a manuscript of de rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), the book of Epicurean philosophy written in the 1st century BC by the Roman poet Lucretius.

Someone online -- I don't remember exactly who or where or when. It may have been on Facebook, and it may have been shortly after the book was published -- recommended The Swerve to me in rapturous tones. His description of it made me suspicious: he told me that the book told the story of how the re-discovery of Lucretius ushered in the modern age. My first reaction was that that story was a bit cuckoo-bananas. Not that I had anything against Lucretius or Poggio. On the contrary, Lucretius was and is one of my favorite authors, and Poggio was known to me as a prominent Renaissance humanist.

But I also knew that Lucretius was just one of many brilliant Classical authors, Poggio just one of the many brilliant Classical scholars of the Renaissance, and that Poggio coming across that manuscript of Lucretius was just one of many important finds of Classical literature made in the 15th century, as well as before and since.

And for some reason, just lately I started to think about Greenblatt's book again, and I searched for reviews of it, and found one layman after another, apparently trusting that Greenblatt was an authority on these matters, and astonished at how one discovery of a manuscript had changed the whole world. Let me not forget to point out that, in situations like this, when people refer to "the whole world," they mean the Western European world and its colonizing outposts.

But I hastened to remind myself that I hadn't read Greenblatt's book yet, and to ask myself whether Greenblatt had actually said anything like what these reviewers said he said.

So next I searched for reactions to The Swerve by Classicists, by the experts in the field of ancient Latin, and I found that most of those reactions were negative.

Often polite and negative, as Classicists often are when referring to written work they don't like: for example, in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Diana Robin, reviewing Gerard Passannante's book The Lucretian Renaissance, says that it "provides a counter- weight to The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt’s new and breezy but factually challenged account of the rediscovery of the De rerum natura." If there's one way in which one wouldn't want a book of history to be challenged, I think it would be factually.

Anthony Grafton, reviewing The Swerve in the New York Review of Books, politely laments: “The Swerve is not always as accurate as one would wish.”

In his review of The Swerve, the blogger known as Baerista notes that remark by Grafton, and adds: "From a world-class scholar like Grafton, who is widely known as an extremely generous man, always careful to wrap even the faintest criticism in a wadding of praise, such clear-cut words can be taken as the verbal equivalent to a bitchslap." Baerista himself is less restrained,
summing up his account of The Swerve by calling it "garbage."

Tim O'Neill's review -- not overly polite -- accuses Greenblatt of wanting to have his cake and eat it too. It contains rather more and lengthier quotations from The Swerve than any of the other reviews I've read so far, and shows how Greenblatt gives lay people those silly notions about one discovery of one ancient author changing "the whole world" (that is, Western civilization), but then claims that he never intended to spread such mistaken notions. O'Neill charges: "Greenblatt's book is full of this kind of thing. After pages and pages of making a point, often more by broad assertion, generalisation or even insinuation, he will slip in a brief 'escape clause' sentence which shows that he knows what he is saying can be challenged or which even undermines what he has just presented completely. But he does so very quietly and many or even most general readers would not notice or understand the import of these asides. Certainly few of his reviewers did so."

After reading O'Neill's review, I concluded, with very little enthusiasm, that I needed to read The Swerve myself and see if, perhaps, it was a little better than its detractors said. Which would mean that that National Book Award and that Pulitzer Prize wouldn't be so much of a joke.

It's just as bad as its detractors say.

But there's a hint of a book which might have been good: The Swerve opens with a moving account of how Greenblatt, as a student, found a copy of an English translation of de rerum natura in a campus co-op, and how its Epicurian message that there is nothing to fear in death was so transformative for Greenblatt and some of his loved ones.

Greenblatt loves Lucretius. And there's nothing wrong with love. Love is great, love is good, love is a huge positive force.

Could there have been a good book here, if Greenblatt stayed focused on his own personal story, and the importance of Lucretius in that story, instead of making silly claims about Lucretius transforming "the world" and Poggio's discovery of Lucretius miraculously saving his poem from being lost forever -- only to cover his ass again and again, just as O'Neill accuses him of doing, so that he can claim that he never meant to give all of those erroneous notions to all of those laypeople (which didn't prevent those erroneous notions from spreading)?

Some of Greenblatt's harshest critics -- Catholic clergymen in some cases -- accuse him of painting a ridiculously negative view of the Middle Ages, only to err themselves a bit by painting a too positive view. The Middle Ages were a mixed bag. Some individual people did embody the superstitious hostility to everything non-Christian which Greenblatt emphasizes in his portrayal of Poggio's view of the Middle Ages -- one of the 'escape clauses' derided by O'Neill is that Greenblatt can claim that he only said that Poggio thought that the Middle Ages were horrible and superstitious, not that he agreed with Poggio -- and some Medieval individuals exemplify the sophisticated scholarship which, according to apologists, was the essence of Medieval Christianity.

But to get away from the sweeping generalizations which have caused so much praise and so much condemnation of The Swerve, to more specific statements, the book gets low marks. Greenblatt really does completely miss much of the Classical scholarship which thrived in the Middle Ages, along with his unrelenting emphasis on the Inquisition and the flagellants. But of course, the Inquisition and the brilliant scholarship both existed, just as people were tried and burnt as witches during the same Renaissance which produced all of those famous Italian geniuses, just as today there are cultured geniuses alongside ignorant fanatics.

To Poggio and his fellow Renaissance humanists, the most important ancient writer of Latin, far more important than Vergil, who came in second there, was not Lucretius, it was Cicero. Cicero was so highly thought of that the ridiculous notion spread among Renaissance scholars that the best way to write Latin was to consciously imitate Cicero. This was the mainstream view among Poggio's contemporaries. This recent collection of letters and polemics published by the i tatti Renaissance Library, Ciceronian Controversies, with the original 15th-, 16th- and 17th-century Latin texts on the left and English translations on the facing right-hand pages,

shows how far ahead Cicero was than all the other ancients in the general opinion of Renaissance Classicists, and what an uphill battle any of them had who thought that imitating Cicero was not the best of all possible ways to write.

If Lucretius was as central to Machiavelli's work as Greenblatt claims, why did Machiavelli write an entire book about Livy and none about Lucretius? If you asked Greenblatt this, I think he might well answer that Lucretius was dangerous, so that his influence had to be hidden. Which is ridiculous, both in general and in the specific case of Machiavelli, who was anything but bashful in his writing.

Speaking of Livy, Greenblatt claims that Livy's entire work was gathered together by Petrarch (1304-74). Does Greenblatt even realize that 106.9 of the 142 books of Livy's work, ab urbe condita, a history of Rome, are missing today? Or that 5 of the books we have today were missing until 1527? Or that Petrarch, although he was a great editor of Livy, had no need to gather Livy's works together, because they -- the 30 books known at the time -- were all quite well-known? One thing's certain: laypeople won't learn any of that by reading Greenblatt.

Speaking of editing, does Greenblatt have any idea that one of the most stupendous acts of Classical editing was performed with the manuscripts of -- you guessed it -- Lucretius, in the mid-19th century, when Bernays and Lachmann proved, on the basis of the existing manuscripts of Lucretius, that they all stemmed from one 5th-century manuscript written in all caps?

Speaking of manuscripts: in another of O'Neill's "escape clauses," Greenblatt admits that he knows that two manuscripts of Lucretius' entire poem, plus additional fragments, were written in the 9th century. But did he give any thought as to why they were written then? It was because Charlemagne (742-814) began a huge program of preserving and copying Classical manuscripts. Yes, there was a huge 9th-century surge in Classical studies. It's sometimes referred to as the Carolingian Renaissance. There was another surge in the 12th century. (My theory -- supported by no-one else that I know of -- is that this 12th-century revival of Classical learning in Western Europe, also sometimes referred to as a Renaissance, occurred in part because a lot of the most pious types were far away in the Crusades, allowing those back at home much more freedom to do what they felt like, whether it was study Classical Latin or sing bawdy troubador songs or play chess, to name three things sometimes frowned upon by the more intolerant Christians.) Is Greenblatt entirely quiet about these Medieval surges in Classical scholarship because they don't fit comfortably into his narrative, or merely because he's never heard of them? [PS, 22 November 2017: I was wrong, Greenblatt does mention the Carolingian Renaissance: "In addition to the fifteenth-century Renaissance, there had been other moments of intense interest in antiquity, both throughout medieval Italy and in the kingdoms of the north, including the great Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century" (p 116). Great, Greenblatt calls it -- but not great enough that Greenblatt describes it in any further detail. It only gets one other mention in the book, entirely in passing: "the time of Charlemagne, when there was a crucial burst of interest in ancient books" (p 12). "Moments." "a burst." Greenblatt implies that these times of interest in ancient Latin were so brief that if you blinked you might have missed them, the way that I missed Greenblatt's reference to the Carolingian Renaissance in my first reading of his book because, frankly, I was bored.]

The manuscript of Lucretius which Poggio found in 1417 has been proven -- by the Classical scholars who don't think much of Greenblatt -- to have been copied from a copy of O, one of those 9th-century manuscripts which still survive today. The manuscript Poggio found has disappeared. We don't know how many other Medieval manuscripts of Lucretius there may have been. I don't know how, in the face of these manuscripts, Greenblatt can say (p 209 of the 2011 Norton hardcover edition of The Swerve) that, in the 15th century, and all because of Poggio, "On the Nature of Things slowly made its way again into the hands of readers, about a thousand years after it had dropped out of sight." About a thousand years. How can he say that, when people today can literally hold some 9th-century evidence directly to the contrary in their hands, evidence which Greenblatt mentions in the same book? I don't know. Maybe this book was actually written by a committee, and the various members didn't read each other's work. Maybe Greenblatt thinks it was "about a thousand years" from the 9th century to the 15th. Maybe he thinks that no Medieval manuscript of Lucretius was read before 1417, that the Medieval copies were without exception simply copied and then immediately put onto shelves for rotting purposes. (He not only doesn't equate copying a manuscript with reading its text, he actually claims that it was better if scribes paid no attention to what they were copying.) You know what, I don't want to know how Greenblatt could have said that.

Speaking of things Greenblatt may or may not have heard of -- Horace, well-known throughout the Middle Ages, was an Epicurean. This significantly undercuts Greenblatt's thesis that Lucretius re-introduced Epicurianism to "the world." Cicero, overly well-known from his day to the present, if you ask me, (I don't like Cicero. Would I like him more if he weren't so ridiculously overpraised in comparison to many other ancient Latin writers? Well, that's an alternate-universe type question which may never be answered, like the one about whether Greenblatt's book might have been better if he had been more personal.) discussed Epicureanism, albeit negatively.

Oh, and just one more thing: on p 111 of Scribes & Scholars by L D Reynolds & N G Wilson, 2nd ed, 1974, it sez:

"Lovato knew Lucretius and Valerius Flaccus a century and a half before they were discovered by Poggio."

Lovato Lovati. 1241-1309.

Just because you never heard of something before you stumble across it doesn't necessarily mean you really discovered it. Boom, I'm out.


  1. Steven, I'm not a classicist by trade, but have a reasonable grounding in many of the surrounding topics and history. Though there may certainly be inaccuracies, I wish your review had pointed to those particulars in greater detail. Instead it seems you're relying on additional other reviews while only making cosmetic aspersions. I'll have to take a look at your references and the other reviews to judge more fully what is going on when I have some time. Thanks for compiling the alternate viewpoints though.

    My short review took Greenblatt to task on some of the details he didn't provide and which I find glaring. I suspect that if he does anything with his text, it'll be to bring a spark of imagination to people who otherwise might not delve into the topic at the level of a masters or even Ph.D. thesis, but who might be encouraged to engage more closely with the humanities in the future. I suspect that this goal was fully realized based on the broader non-specialist reception his book has gotten.

    (Comment originally posted at http://boffosocko.com/2014/07/09/brief-review-the-swerve-how-the-world-became-modern-by-stephen-greenblatt/#comment-38594

    1. "Though there may certainly be inaccuracies, I wish your review had pointed to those particulars in greater detail."

      The Swerve is rife with inaccuracies, there's no maybe about it. My approach here was to point to some of these inaccuracies which were not already covered by the reviews I linked.

      There's no doubt that Greenblatt has made a lot of people interested in Lucretius who had never heard of him before. But it wasn't necessary to give all of those people so many erroneous ideas about Classical literature and the Renaissance in order to arouse such an interest. And by putting such a ridiculous over-emphasis on Lucretius and Poggio, Greenblatt may actually have discouraged some people from learning about many other people involved in the transmission of Classical texts. To name just one example, there's Cassiodorus, who, unlike Poggio, may actually have singlehandedly saved some Classical texts from oblivion in the 6th century, when, unlike in later eras as alleged by Greenblatt, many Classical texts actually did disappear which haven't been recovered since.

    2. PS: You may already be familiar with 2 excellent books on the subject of the textual transmission of the Classics: Scribes and Scholars by L D Reynolds and N G Wilson, which gives an overview of how some ancient Greek and Latin literature has managed to survive to the present day; and Texts and Transmission, ed by Reynolds, which examines the cases of 134 ancient Latin authors and anonymous texts, and goes into great detail about what was known about the most important manuscripts at the time of publication (1983). Scribes and Scholars has gone through several paperback editions, and cheap used copies can be found; Texts and Transmission, as far as I know, is only available as a ridiculously-expensive hardcover. Aside from the price, both books provide a good introduction to the topic of textual transmission. The Introduction to Texts and Transmission, pp xiii-xliii, is particularly brilliant at presenting fact, facts and more facts, plus cautious and sober conjecture based on those facts.