Category Archives: New on the Shelf

New on the Shelf: Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”

Adam Kirsch reviews Stephen Greenblatt’s new book on the Roman Epicurean philosopher Lucretius’ seven-and-a-half thousand line poem, De rerum natura, in which he claims that its rediscovery made the world “modern.”

Kirsch observes:

When Lucretius was rediscovered—ironically enough, in a monastery library—in 1417, by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini, Greenblatt imagines the moment as the birth of the Renaissance: “There were no heroic gestures, no observers keenly recording the great event for posterity, no signs in heaven or on earth that everything had changed forever. A short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That was all; but it was enough.”

In fact, of course, it was not nearly enough. Greenblatt knows that any such claim for De rerum natura is absurdly overblown—“one poem by itself was certainly not responsible for an entire intellectual, moral, and social transformation,” he grants early on. Yet the subtitle of the book is “How the World Became Modern,” and the implied answer is that it became modern by reading Lucretius and learning to think like him. Greenblatt’s brief final chapter, “Afterlives,” does show that De rerum natura influenced on some seminal modern writers, including Montaigne, whose annotated copy of the poem was discovered in 1989. More often, however, what Greenblatt finds is not so much direct influence as a general similarity of outlook—as when he associates Lucretius’s materialism with Galileo’s, or his rational hedonism with Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness.” To say that “the atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence” seems at best poetic license.

A more important problem with The Swerve is that Greenblatt’s account of Epicureanism makes it sound rather more consoling than it really is. Greenblatt dwells at length on the way Lucretius’s thoroughgoing materialism cleanses the human conscience of specters like “religious fanaticism” and “ascetic self-denial” and “dreams of limitless power.” “In short,” he writes, “it became possible—never easy, but possible—in the poet Auden’s phrase to find the mortal world enough.” Yet this is not only not easy. The worldview Lucretius proposes—atoms and void and nothing else—is the very one that has driven many other modern writers to despair and rebellion. From Leopardi to Kierkegaard to Camus, modern literature can be seen as a document of what happens when humanity is liberated into a void. It is not nearly as pretty a picture as Greenblatt optimistically suggests.

Frye makes a comment on Lucretius in “On the Bible and Human Culture” that is consistent with this observation:

The dilemma faced by pagans in trying to get their gods to behave decently, and thereby including them in a growing sense of order and coherence in both society and nature, is much more complex. For the Epicureans, including Lucretius, the gods can preserve their integrity only by not soiling their hands with human affairs. Stoics and Neoplatonists took less easy ways out…. (CW 4, 226)

Jonathan Locke Hart on Greenblatt and Frye here (bottom of the page and the page following).

New on the Shelf: Harold Bloom’s “The Anatomy of Influence”

I have just read Harold Bloom’s most recent book, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (2011). This is Bloom at his finest. In many ways, it is the last statement of a living giant – a characterization he in fact makes a point of relaying to the reader who may not already know this. Bloom opens his book by acknowledging Frye’s influence on him:

I do not recall reading any literary criticism, as opposed to literary biography, until I was an undergraduate. At seventeen I purchased Northrop Frye’s study of William Blake,Fearful Symmetry, soon after its publication. What Hart Crane was to me at ten, Frye became at seventeen: an overwhelming experience. Frye’s influence on me lasted twenty years but came to an abrupt halt on my thirty-seventh birthday, July 11, 1967, when I awakened from a nightmare and then passed the entire day composing a dithyramb, “The Covering Cherub; or, Poetic Influence.” Six years later that had evolved into The Anxiety of Influence, a book Frye rightly rejected from his Christian Platonist stance. Now, in my eightieth year, I would not have the patience to reread anything by Frye, but I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory, recite much of it daily, and continue to teach him. (3)

As readers here likely already know, I have published an article on Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom’s relationship and how they react to one another. In my article, I demonstrate how Bloom was theorising influence through a series of letters to Northrop Frye. However, unlike earlier critics of the relationship, I also argue that Frye was influenced by Bloom. and that we must now begin to think about what it means to have influence, in other words: the anxiety of influencing.

Professor Bloom is at his most interesting in this volume, particularly the first section as he comes to terms with his entire project of influence:

More than any other I have written, this book is a critical self-portrait, a sustained mediation on the writings and readings that have shaped me as a person and a critic. Now in my eightieth year, I remained gripped by particular questions. Why has influence been my obsessive concern? How have my own reading experiences shaped my thinking? Why have some poets found me and not others? What is the end of a literary life? (30)

This is an interesting observation from a critic reflecting on his lifelong obsession with influence. Bloom takes account of the situation of literature and the academy in the twenty-first century, and while he now seems like something of a relic, there is still much to be said about the ways that we teach literature. What are our roles as teachers of literature? Bloom offers a tentative answer:

All literary influence is labyrinthine. Belated authors wander the maze as if an exit could be found, until the strong among them realize that the windings of the labyrinth are all internal. No critic, however generously motivated, can help a deep reader escape from the labyrinth of influence. I have learned that my function is to help you get lost. (31)

Frye’s readers will surely find Bloom’s book of particular interest, not merely because of the relation between the two, but because it is positioned as a final statement on the problem of influence. And, in many ways, Bloom returns to the powerful critic he once was and evidently continues to be.