the insatiable desire to swerve
February 28, 2024 3:29 PM   Subscribe

'After not one but two positive reviews a day apart in The New York Times – “a warm, intimate book, a volume of apple-cheeked popular intellectual history” – and an excerpt in The New Yorker, the book vaulted into the NYT bestseller list. It went on to reel in a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. While The Swerve picked up these laurels in the non-fiction category, [...] Greenblatt, in essence, took a small truth and made of it a big falsehood; one that many people, given The Swerve’s critical and commercial success, are inclined to believe.' In a 2023 essay 'The Italian Job', Luke Slattery attempts to set the swerved record straight.
posted by mittens (13 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating, thank you for sharing this. I thought the Renaissance was born of a re-discovery of Aristotle and really hadn't heard anyone attribute it to Lucretius, which seems like madness.
posted by bbrown at 3:47 PM on February 28

So, when I was a callow youth, our Shakespeare professor let a grad student give part of a lecture, in which they referred to "Greenblatt" without any explanation whatsoever of who this Greenblatt was. We eventually figured out what Renaissance Self-Fashioning was, but nonetheless when bad or weird things inexplicably happened to us, we would attribute them to Greenblatt. "Goddamnit, Greenblatt just cut us off!"

Anyway, the problem with this kind of premodern cultural history, as appealing as it can be, is that it is almost unfalsifiable. You have access to so little, and there's no formal theoretical underpinning of your analysis (any one that is proposed is inevitably inadequate or tendentious). Whatever dream you dream up harmonizing all the elements in tension in the culture you're studying is inevitably idiosyncratic and quasi-independent of evidence. So it's interesting to see a rebuttal based on apparently superior (?) knowledge of the ms. tradition.
posted by praemunire at 3:58 PM on February 28 [7 favorites]

The proposition that Poggio sparked a Lucretian counterculture, which somehow became the dominant culture, is about as plausible as Dan Brown’s Jesus bloodline theory. In fact, the two bear an uncanny resemblance.

posted by Literaryhero at 4:10 PM on February 28 [10 favorites]

I was going to say zing, but ouch works too.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 4:14 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

Next you're going to tell me that the Irish didn't save civilization and the lack of a single nail didn't doom Napoleon.
posted by clawsoon at 4:48 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]

When the Renaissance becomes fact, print the Renaissance....
posted by drewbage1847 at 5:03 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

i’m glad the linked piece quotes ada palmer (better known outside of academia for her blog and for that totally exquisite sci-fi series she wrote which when i first read it i was gobsmacked to find so many thoughts in it that i thought were idiosyncratic to the inside of my own personal head but presented more eloquently and argued more brilliantly than i’ve yet been able to, you know, that sci-fi series that i’ve more than low-key ripped off in this latest iteration of my Internet persona) because the book she made from her dissertation contains all the meticulous textual research on this subject that people here appear to be clamoring for and is very comprehensive.

it’s not a light tripping read — lots of careful citation, lots of analysis of different manuscript versions of texts, a minimum of literary/stylistic pyrotechnics, very much a book that was originally a dissertation — but if you’re interested in this topic, really really interested, i recommend putting down the greenblatt and picking up palmer’s book instead. it’s, like, magisterial.
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 5:17 PM on February 28 [14 favorites]

And just today I was listening to Ada Palmer hold court in her podcast, taking about the many shifting conceptions of the Florentine rennessaince... Including some discussion of Poggio.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:21 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

This was well overdue. I recall reading 'The Swerve' and thought it was in many ways glib and amateurish. When I saw all the fawning reviews come in, I thought perhaps it was just me. That I had become too critical.

I can only guess that its because of Greenblatt's credentials. But its just that that allows him to get away with all this nonsense and sketchy scholarship. See also: Steven Pinker.
posted by vacapinta at 2:14 AM on February 29 [1 favorite]

bombastic lowercase pronouncements thanks for those Ada Palmer links they are keeping me warm
posted by toodleydoodley at 2:24 PM on February 29 [1 favorite]

Here's a similar rebuttal from the LA Review of Books in 2012 -- including the note that it wasn't the only copy. I had to look this up because I remember this being a common view of the book back then.
posted by john hadron collider at 4:06 PM on February 29

From Slattery's "Italian Job" article:

Greenblatt is never able to identify an influential Renaissance champion, let alone champions, of Lucretius. And despite more than a decade of truffling in the manuscript tradition by his acolytes, there is no convincing evidence of a Lucretian stamp of any kind on the Italian Renaissance. The dominant historical school of the Quattrocento, established and maintained under Medici patronage, was a kind of Christianised Neoplatonism. The proposition that Poggio sparked a Lucretian counterculture, which somehow became the dominant culture, is about as plausible as Dan Brown’s Jesus bloodline theory. In fact, the two bear an uncanny resemblance.

Then Slatterly lists other sources at the end of his essay, including Alison Brown's 2010 book, The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence. From the description:

In this first comprehensive study of the effect of Lucretius's De rerum natura on Florentine thought in the Renaissance, Alison Brown demonstrates how Lucretius was used by Florentine thinkers―earlier and more widely than has been supposed―to provide a radical critique of prevailing orthodoxies.... The humanists' challenge to established beliefs encouraged the growth of a "Lucretian network" of younger, politically disaffected Florentines. Brown thus adds a missing dimension to our understanding of the "revolution" in sixteenth-century political thinking, as she enriches our definition of the Renaissance in a context of newly discovered worlds and new social networks.
posted by Brian B. at 1:35 PM on March 1 [2 favorites]

"In terms of cognitive impairment being a billionaire is probably like being kicked in the head by a horse every day" is kind of true of being a Harvard professor too: lots of fawning deference, less editing and peer review than is probably good for you. For folks who came there from somewhere else, my experience is that you're often going to get more from the books they wrote in order to get the Harvard offer than the books they wrote after arriving. Indeed, Greenblatt has a department colleague who perfected this dynamic by moving to Harvard from another elite American institution and celebrating his success by not publishing anything for the next twenty-five years.
posted by sy at 7:39 PM on March 2

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