The Swerve: deviating from oblivion

It occurs to me that I don’t often give enough credit to the voice talent of the books I review. After all, this is a site that reviews audiobooks, and while I’m not sure that a narrator’s performance can actually make or break a book, he or she can make the experience more enjoyable. Exactly how the narrator can do this is perhaps the topic of a separate post, but I believe an excellent example of it occurs in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (Recorded Books, 2011) read by Edoardo Ballerini.

I had to look Mr. Ballerini up on Wikipedia, where I learned that, among his acting credits was a role on “The Sopranos.” However, since I’ve seen about two total episodes of that program, I certainly didn’t remember him. In any event, he was a good choice to read The Swerve. Not only is his overall delivery excellent, he can pull off all the Italian references to people and place names with commendable authenticity, probably because he’s half Italian and bilingual. The book was a joy to listen to in large part because of Ballerini’s work.

Of course, the subject matter itself was fascinating. It involves the famous discovery (rediscovery?) of a poetic manuscript by Lucretius (ca. 99 BCE – ca. 55 BCE), De Rerum Natura (usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things) by the 15th century humanist, scholar, church employee and book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini. The story is less about that actual discovery—in fact, it’s not really clear to me where exactly Bracciolini found the Lucretius manuscript—than about the extraordinary unlikeness of that discovery when it happened (the book “hung by a thread” Greenblatt says in an interview, and faced threats to its re-emergence ranging from bookworms—that is, real worms that ate books—to volcanic eruptions) and the poem’s impact on culture, science, religion and our overall intellectual history. Did I mention that The Swerve won a 2011 National Book Award?

We get quite a bit in the book about Bracciolini’s life and career, much of which was spent as a papal secretary. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but apparently the position was highly coveted. This was the pre-Gutenberg era and guys (it was mostly guys) with good penmanship ruled, as much as any non-noble or cleric below the rank of, say, cardinal, could be said to rule. Fortunately, this position essentially allowed Bracciolini to pursue his true passion of hunting for Greek and Roman classics hidden away in monasteries.

While Bracciolini’s story is moderately interesting, the real story, of course, is how On The Nature of Things contributed to the igniting of the Renaissance. On The Nature of Things expounds the philosophy of Epicurus, which includes the theory of atoms earlier proposed by Democritus (okay, is that enough classical references for you?). The “swerve” Greenblatt refers to in his title represents the motion of atoms in their endless journey through the universe as they divert into other atoms and create the phenomenological world. Gee, I think I have that right.

As one can imagine, 15th century church fathers were not thrilled with the implications of “atomism.” Indeed, Lucretius goes beyond implications to affirm boldly that, since everything is composed of the same constituent material (materialism is the key here, obviously), there are essentially no qualitative differences between forms that atoms take. He rejects the concept of the soul and the afterlife and contends that, whereas gods may or may not exist, they are indifferent to the activities of humans.

The brains behind the Inquisition, unfortunately, were not indifferent. Nor were they amused. The Swerve discusses the Church’s efforts to suppress the ideas behind On the Nature of Things(with very unfortunate results for some, including the great Giordano Bruno, to whose monument on the site of his torching in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome I make a pilgrimage on at least an annual basis).

Statue of Giordano Bruno in the Campo de' Fiori in Rome

Ultimately, of course, these efforts were unsuccessful, although in the extremely unlikely event that someone like, say, Rick Santorum gets elected president, we could see Inquisition 2.0. That would definitely be a swerve in the wrong direction. In fact, that would be the equivalent of jumping the median with your basic semi. Gee, maybe Santorum could re-institute self-flagellation, too (one of the Church’s reactions to Lucretius’s assertion that the point of human existence was pleasure).

The Swerve is a tribute to one man’s ingenuity in snatching one of history’s great ideas from the obscurity partially imposed upon it by the terrorism of the Catholic Church. If for no other reason, it is worth listening to the book to celebrate that almost miraculous event.


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