The basis of the Renaissance movement lay in the ‘discovery’ and absorption of natural sciences, mathematics and philosophy, in the 12th and 13th centuries AD in Italy. Onto this was added, in the 15th and 16th c.AD, the question of the true nature of ‘The Word’, and the relative positions of Church and Man to it. The answer to the question was a cultural efflorescence that dazzled the Western world, shook Abrahamic religions out of a millennial stupor, and culminated in the next phase of human evolution – the industrial revolution. To set a key, central date around which these five centuries swung, seems more self-defeating than an infinity of Sisyphean strivings; and yet, there is a date, after which the impetus for a new learning, a new enlightenment, and a new style of trade, gained critical momentum – 1453 AD, the fall of Constantinople. The rush, indeed a veritable, permanent exodus of scholars – predominantly lettered in classical Greek – from the clutches of Osman’s dreams, turned into a wave, as they fled from the only refuge they had ever known for centuries, to the closest ports of salvation that their awareness touched: Naples, Siena, Florence, Venice and the many other smaller, mercantile kingdoms that then made up the Italian peninsula.
Into this mélange must we now fit a man – Poggio Bracciolini, and one of the texts he unearthed: Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, written almost 1400 years earlier. A poem, that speaks of free will swerving unrestrained thru time, much as the author’s theorized elemental particles which constituted the Atomists’ universe he drew. As a physical theory, it was neither original, nor demonstrably Roman in origin; but as a subservient constituent of a wider tableau, it served both as firmament and analogy, for the poet’s invocation of a way of life; in fact, to use a tired, defining turn of phrase – a secular way of life, filled with contentment. Perhaps, in a region beset by devastating, periodic outbreaks of the deadly plague, such new paths to happiness might have provided the perfect, and timely, ameliorative ingredient to the mixtures that soothed ‘death anxiety’. And into this backdrop, must we now posit a query: whether, the discovery by Bracciolini of Lucretius’s poem, and its further dissemination, was the central spur to the return of vitality into various spheres of life – or not? Or, is the question itself, as the heavy texts that weigh upon the past that is our racial memory, a thin line between velleity and aporia? A most natural dilemma, since, an answer to that unexpected clinamen, is a little-accepted truth: when it comes to history, the author is as much under scrutiny as the subject he dissects.
Stephen Greenblatt is a Harvard Professor in the Humanities department, and self-styled progenitor of the literary school called New Historicism. It has its roots in Marxism, and draws for intellectual sustenance upon a number of strands of thought; it submits every text to test, for under-usage, for having been ignored, even to see if it had been willfully sidelined – the epitome of subaltern studies. It permits the generation of new, insulated avenues of historiography – the art of writing history with a priori, or predetermined views. At a philosophical level, it draws upon the best that post-war Existentialism has to offer, and with every page, indirectly pays tribute to the hoary, much-maligned souls of Sartre and Camus. And, at the narrative level, it uses as literary tools, the chunky new script that fills the alphabet of Post-Modernism; for them, in the words of their founding father Jacques Derrida, there is truly, nothing but the text. To many, these multiple, often-differing, at-times-conflicting, strands, have finally anastomosed in the post-Soviet era into the next stage of human intellectual evolution. Naturally then, for Greenblatt, the urge to tell a tale – and one told well in his book, “The Swerve” – is bolstered by a need to conform with the new enlightenment he subscribes to, while simultaneously bowing at the altar of innocent, unintentional revisionism. You see, he is a believer.
Poggio Bracciolini was not the sole promoter of the movement now called ‘Renaissance Humanism’ – a delightful phrase describing a centuries’-long movement, which took the grammar out of ‘The Book’ and into vocational curricula. There were others, some just as famous, some even more – Petrarch, Boccaccio, Bruni…the list is literally endless. He was not even the first. Similarly, the poem by Lucretius, however inspiring, was not the sole guide for the return of individualism into humanity. To believe so, is to forget facts, to forget history. Already by the time of Bracciolini’s magnificent discovery in 1417, Dante’s Infernohad made more inroads into the vacuum of thought than any other work; now, to classify the impact of one text over another, to seek justification for that in a diatribe of silence, and to ‘paper-over’ other, equally significant works, is to press an agenda. That is where this reviewer is first forced to cross swords with the author: does a work have to gain significance only by the suppression of another, especially when no extant data may precisely describe either the temporal or geographical spread of De Rerum Natura’s influence? And why force this unsubstantial view? On whom?
History is written by data and re-written by courage; rarely does the established view change in our century, without the emergence of new corroborative evidence for the new standpoint. Still, courage has shown its timid head frequently – in Marxist Historiography, in both sides of the War on Terror, in exceptionalism, majoritarianism, and post-colonial studies. If Nietzsche asked whether God was dead, the answer was National Socialism; if Salafist groups prepped victimhood for motivation, the echo was the search for weapons of mass destruction; if religion was truly the opiate of the masses, then surely, that is what gave Saloth Sar the strength to walk his killing fields. In each case, the revisionist tendency served an insular, insulated purpose. Thus, the question is forced: what is Prof. Greenblatt’s agenda? One may only surmise: an academic nihilism that seeks to shine a lonely, brighter light on one self? Or, the furthering of alternative histories, a la Post-Modernistic trends? It is difficult to say; for just as easily, he may only be interested in telling a tale – one which obviously had an impact indirectly on his childhood. Certainly, whatever his agenda, he is passionate with his subject matter, infusing it with exactly the vitality he believes Lucretius gifted Europe. His narrative is engaging, and he does well to turn fact into readable tale; sadly, he may have cast his net too wide, for while the work of facts reads with the pace of a novel, it sets is basic premise in fiction.
Venu Gopal Narayanan
When he is not writing unpublishable novels, short stories, reviews and poems; when he is not at the wheel of his SUV, away, lost alone somewhere in the wilderness beside architectural marvels, on another one of his road trips; when he is not frothing at the mouth over political statements made by his pet bugbears, ‘the left-liberal-anarchist-loonie crowd’; when twenty-two men in white step off the battlefield, and the world begins to exist once more; then, you can find him at his workstation consulting on the development of oil or gas reservoirs. Thankfully, the latter part happens only rarely.