The Swerve

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

I picked up The Swerve to get closer to the Epicurean ideas of Lucretius. I expected an intellectual history. But Stephen Greenblatt’s book is not that. Or, it is not only that. It tells a very earthy story of how the one surviving book of an ancient Roman anticipated, and even helped create, the modern world. As he says in the closing pages, it is about a book that “survived because a succession of people, in a range of places and times and for reasons that seem largely accidental, encountered the material object–the papyrus or parchment or paper, with its inky marks attributed to Titus Lucretius Carus–and then sat down to make copies of their own.” [260] The emphasis in the parenthetical is purposeful. Greenblatt’s book tells a material history as well as one of ideas. Appropriately so, for Lucretius’s ideas are shaped around materialism–humans, despite their “illusions of the infinite” [197] are composed of atoms, invisible and indivisible particles which will rearrange and persist after the individual’s life is gone. And Lucretian Epicureanism commends pleasure as a positive good.



The central character in Greenblatt’s narrative–the pivotal figure in the succession of people who encountered Lucretius’s text–is Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. Appropriately, too, Poggio is a paragon of earthy intellectualism and bookish cupidity. The sources tell so much more of Poggio than of Lucretius, so it makes sense that we learn more about him than the author of the book he recovered. Yet it takes time to understand Greenblatt’s larger purpose for focusing on a lay papal secretary, obsessed with finding lost works of antiquity.




The medieval sources are only fractionally less sparse than the ancient ones, so Greenblatt displays rare feats of historianship to fill out the scenes. When the specific events are not knowable, he draws on his widest of wide reading to fill in the gaps. Which was the monastery where Poggio discovered the lost Lucretius? Greenblatt’s sleuthing leads him to identify Fulda as the most likely place, but he acknowledges that he cannot know for sure. So we read sentences like, “If it was Fulda he approached…” [44] as he goes on to limn the geography of the abbey. Greenblatt combines research, both deep and broad, with impressive historical imagination to make an undocumented event richly and convincingly detailed: “If he had not already taken it in, Poggio would certainly have realized, as he entered the transept and walked down the stairs into the dark, vaulted crypt, that Fulda’s pilgrimage church seemed strangely familiar: it was directly modeled after Rome’s fourth-century basilica of St. Peter’s,” [46] Or, on the next page: “Such, in any case, was Poggio’s ardent hope, in Fulda or wherever he found himself, and his pulse must have quickened when at last he would have been led by the monastery’s chief librarian into a large vaulted room and shown a volume attached by a chain to the librarian’s own desk.” [47]



Poggio’s life and times form the subject of several chapters in the book. In them, we see the classical scholar and the conniving bureaucrat residing comfortably side-by-side within him. He lusts for women almost as much as he does for books. (He fathered fourteen (!) children with his (one?!) mistress.) His expensive book-hunting habit was underwritten by his work for a series of popes. He had to scheme and connive to get these posts, but he eventually grew wealthy and even married late in late middle age to a young woman thirty-eight years his junior. (She bore him six children.) Always, though, his deepest pleasure came from his books. Greenblatt notes his habit of writing to his friends, “Let us spend our leisure with our books….” They alone provided the necessary escape from the tribulations of the bureaucratic world he inhabited.


Between hunting for lost works of classical literature, reading them, and scribing for popes, Poggio found time to write what Greenblatt calls “the best known jokebook of its age,” Facetiae, full of bawdy tales that would have made Chaucer or Boccaccio proud. One, Greenblatt tells us, is about a woman who says she has “two cunts.” Another tells about a priest perplexed by confessions of wives who all say they are faithful and of men who confess infidelity. Then there is the man who dreams he has put his finger in a ring and wakes to find it in his wife’s vagina. [143-144] And on it goes.


Greenblatt is as adept at synthesizing the broader sweep of intellectual history as he is at filling out thinly documented scenes and events. He sums up several hundred years of early Christian history in a tidy four paragraphs ending: “Through the telling of these [renunciation] stories, [Christians] acted out, as in a dream, the abandonment of the rich cultural soil in which they, their parents, and their grandparents were nurtured, until one day they awoke to find that they actually had abandoned [that pagan cultural soil].” [96] Greenblatt may be oversimplifying. The proposition can hardly be confirmed or denied conclusively. Yet, what other writer gives us quite so much to consider–in so few words!–about the mysterious, otherwise unfathomable transition from the pagan ancient world to the medieval Christian one?



On the next page, Greenblatt provides more insight on the meaning and feeling of that transition. In the initial century after Constantine, Christians no longer had to fear overt oppression, yet Greenblatt finds defensiveness and insecurity evident in their writings: “The threat was not persecution–the official religion of the empire by this time was Christian–but ridicule. A fate no doubt preferable to being thrown to the lions, laughter in the ancient world nonetheless had very sharp teeth.” [97] A religion that prided itself on the humble origins of its founder and the often uneducated backgrounds of its adherents was, quite literally, laughable in the Greco-Roman context from which it emerged.


Greenblatt needs just a few more pages of quotations from Tertullian and other early church fathers before he can conclude, pithily, “In one of the great cultural transformations in the history of the West, the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure.” [103] [Some reviewers think Greenblatt over-generalized, over-simplified, and simply ignored facts. At the time, while reading, I did wonder how he could hold up an ascendant Medieval asceticism in the fourth chapter after having Poggio critique monks as lazy and venal in the first. Worse, he has been accused of Whiggish history.]

What of Lucretius himself, or, rather, his recovered book, De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things? The reader has to wait until the eighth chapter. Greenblatt reduces a three-hundred-page text to twenty annotated bullet points. These include: “The elementary particles of matter…are eternal,” “All particles are in motion in an infinite void,” “Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve,” “The universe was not created for or about human beings,” “Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival,” “All organized religions are superstitious delusions,” “The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion,” and “Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.” Greenblatt’s subtitle, “How the World Became Modern,” comes into focus as one hears echoes of Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Freud, and even Edward Lorenz and Richard Dawkins.


Greenblatt saved the best for last with his explanation of delusion’s deleteriousness: “Human insignificance–the fact that it is not all about us and our fate–is, Lucretius said, the good news.” Greenblatt continues: “The origin of philosophy, it was often said in the ancient world, was wonder: surprise and bafflement led to a desire to know, and knowledge in turn laid the wonder to rest. But in Lucretius’ account the process is something like the reverse: it is knowing the way things are that awakens the deepest wonder.” [199] I nodded my head at every word.


In Poggio, I saw myself as the classicist/historian who finds meaning in books from and about the past even to the point of escapism. Yet, as I am no schemer, with no connections to the levers of power, I have, in fact, less to escape than Poggio did. It is also true that my explorations of the past are always and everywhere guided by a quest to see things as they are. I search for universal truths in the particulars, and perhaps the most important one is the Lucretian idea that all is change. Even Epicurean ideas aren’t universally true.



Still, in Lucretius, I do see my way of viewing the world. With every one of twenty bullet points I say yes, and yes, and yes, again, while recognizing that the skeptical outlook requires its own dose of skepticism. Doubt itself is doubtful. Greenblatt reminds us that Montaigne‘s skeptical temperament “kept him from the dogmatic certainty of Epicureanism.” [245-246] The French philosophe understood the too-human “restless striving for fame, power, and riches,” as Lucretius had, and he, too, “cherished his own withdrawal from the world into the privacy of his book-lined study in the tower of his chateau.” Nevertheless, Greenblatt explains, “the withdrawal seems only to have intensified [Montaigne’s] awareness of the perpetual motion, the instability of forms, the plurality of worlds, the random swerves to which he himself was as fully prone as everyone else.” Exactly.


In Greenblatt, I found a historical writer to emulate. I can never duplicate his erudition nor the sheer volume of his reading, but I do, as a habit, aim to read as widely I am able, to understand the context of the story I am researching, to try to figure out how it might have felt then and how we can better understand it now. For bringing to life the world of Poggio Bracciolini and for resuscitating the ideas of Lucretius for a culture, modern or not, which has forgotten them (again), Stephen Greenblatt surely earned his National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.


Source: Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

Cicada Haiku

posted in: Personal | 0

Rip Van Winkles from

our remembered past, link to

an unsure future;


prime number of years

separating us from what

has been and will be.


Predictable: no

arcane algorithm, just

layman’s addition.

A city composed

of those who remember and

those who wish they did.



of memory and ignorance

collide, fold together.

“Just how bad, again?”

“Shut-your-door-fast-or-else bad,

in Eighty-seven.”


Headlines, talking heads

succumb to a gratifying



“Invasion Coming!”

“Emergency Plans Made for

Insect Emergence!”

Cicada expert

and biology professor

from Mount St. Joseph’s,



Dr. Kritsky calms

us with facts and data: his

fifteen days of fame.


The Old Farmer’s Almanac

Soil temperature

reaches sixty-five, soaking

rain softens the earth;


we wait, hold our breaths;

scan tree trunks for trackless dark

shadows, quivering;

crane our ears out car

windows for the first clicky

whines of the cycle.


Nothing…on nothing.

Official emergence be

damned!  What a let-down!

But they finally come,

trickle out silent in the night,

silent the next day,


a trail of outgrown

husks dangling from leaf stems or

scattered ‘round tree trunks.


Here and not here, they

hide in treetops, stretching wings,

adjusting to air.

The chorus begins:

pulsating, rhythmic; surging

and receding like


waves on a night beach,

constant as a waterfall

breaking over rocks.


May-June companions,

we share world and worries with

these red-eyed drummers.


Only vaguely there

in low pressure: spluttering

among the raindrops

Insistent in sun:

announcing virility

and desperation.


A thrilling, swarming

cacophony beneath the

shaken yellow ash.

Lined up on trunk and

limb like black-gold hearses

on an L.A. freeway.


Two-headed creatures

making good on the promise

of seventeen years;


Kamikaze bugs

dive-bombing the innocent:

a hit-and-run strike;


hitchhikers on shirt sleeve or

lawn mower rip cord;


clumsy fliers, bouncing

off misplaced stalks, sputter out

mid-road, rest too long.


Fallen bodies litter

road and sidewalk: organic



leg-up cadavers:

latest casualties from the

sky of attrition.


Sometimes it is hard to tell the living from the dead.

I pick one up, lightly pinch its wings to its abdomen;

no sound or movement, so I drop it on the ground.

Another: protests feebly, a few sporadic clicks.

Between my thumb and forefinger, I turn her

(it is a her—she clicked, after all) to face me.

Her red eyes, less red than I remembered from

the emergence, absolutely expressionless,

not a hint of pleading or even desire.  Before

it’s too late, I toss her in the air.

The ol’ wings—not old at all, of course—

fail her and she lands up-turned in the grass,

the six forelegs that pulled her so faithfully

up and down tree roots for seventeen years and,

ultimately, into the light grasp ineffectually at air.

A body breaks down.

Nature has passed on its genes

and the body is free to break down: Go ahead.


Why am I so sad for this being who feels no pain,

who doesn’t know her last hours will be spent circling

a blade of grass, staring up at an uncaring sky?

Now: birds sing sweetly

an air conditioner hums—

deafening absence.


by Andrew Speno

June 2004

Ecstatic Coda to a Cyclical Existence

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Ceding seclusion,

They escape their dank caves

        of seventeen years,

Scrape and dig unaided skyward,

Seek the shady side of leaf or stick,

Stick there upside-down all day,

Squeeze achingly, red eyes wide,

Discarding nymph’s husk:

A sacred rite of passage.


Sixty-eight discarded shells

On the honeysuckle bush,

Sixty-eight adults scattered

In the shadows: skulking, silent;

Soon to screech and drone—

A psychotic cadence—in the

Scorching heat of summer days,

Seeking their scheduled date

to mate:

Ecstatic coda to a

Cyclical existence.


–Andrew Speno

May 2004

This Is Not a History Book

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0




So the publisher announces on the back of Jason Reynolds’ and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped. Jacqueline Woodson blurbs: “Stamped is the book I wish I had as a young person and am so grateful my own children have now.” Renée Watson concurs: “This is the history book I needed as a teen.”

As a white man, I cannot say that I needed it as a young person. I can say that when I turned it over and thumbed its pages, it seemed like the book I needed (or wanted) right then. I had heard more than a few commentators on my weekly podcasts lament the strawman of “traditional history” that we are all supposedly taught. I chafed at these remarks because it seems only natural–a phenomenon repeated always and everywhere–that we discover the world is more complex than we had thought. It’s called growing up. But here was a book that purported to get it right, to set the record straight on the most intractable issue in our history, the R-word: race. Stamped is a book, not a curriculum. Yet it has an ambitious air about it: Its publisher provides a 20-page educator guide on the web site. This book is changing, and will continue to change, the way race is taught in America. I read it in one sitting, or at least in one day.

Even in the best history classrooms, learners graduate with a simplified understanding of events. By definition. Their brains are not fully formed; their experience is limited (more limited than most of us adults’). Reynolds, adapting Kendi’s adult book of a similar name, acknowledges this by adopting a colloquial style and writing a readable book, equal parts entertaining, moving, and enraging. He simplifies the story.

In the introduction, Kendi simplifies his own work that he developed in Stamped from the Beginning (which I have not read). He condenses his framework on racism to a few tight sentences: “The assimilationists believe that Black people as a group can be changed for the better, and segregationists do not. …The antiracists say there is nothing wrong or right about Black people and everything wrong with racism. …The anti-racists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people.” [xiii] These are words and ideas that young people can understand, and his model is an extremely useful tool for all of us, as long as we remember that it is a model, not necessarily reality itself. There is a danger in reducing complex people to categories that define them as good, bad, or just ok.

The authors counter this essentialist critique directly, stating outright that people are not usually one thing but more often a mix, not usually consistent but more likely to change over time. (I can’t find the quote that I’m convinced I remember reading!) Moreover, their non-history history abounds with figures who exemplify change and contradiction. No less an icon than Barack Obama changed positions from anti-racist to assimilationist, in their view. They show him splashing on the scene in 2004, countering Bill Cosby’s “personal responsibility” message–before showing him hammering Cosby-like tropes during his presidency. As Reynolds writes, “Obama fell in line with the likes of Lincoln, DuBois, Washington, Douglass, and many others, who had flashes–true moments–of antiracist thought, but always seemed to assimilate under pressure.” [241] He was in good company, in other words. And like so many other icons of racial progress in America (see above), he is not beyond critique. This is powerful stuff for young readers, though some may struggle against the disillusionment.

W. E. B. DuBois went in the other direction. After decades of Talented Tenth and moral suasion thinking (with periodic flashes of antiracism), DuBois finally saw the folly in asking black people to live up to white ideals. Instead, writes Reynolds, “He just wanted Black people to be self-sufficient. To be Black. And for that to be enough.” [150] Though his earlier advocacy had been assimilationist, the authors aver, “Ultimately, he was arguing what he’d been arguing in various different ways, and what Fredrick Douglass [mostly assimilationist], Sojourner Truth [antiracist], Booker T. Washington [assimilationist], Ida B. Wells Barnett [antiracist], Marcus Garvey [antiracist], and many others before him had argued ad nauseum: that Black people were human.” The emphasis on black humanity, good and bad, echoed Kendi’s words from the foreword: “There are lazy, hardworking, wise, unwise, harmless, and  harmful individuals of every race, but no racial group is better or worse than another racial group in any way.” [xv] Here he makes antiracism sound easy. Much of the rest of the book emphasizes how difficult it is to achieve in practice. (See: Douglass, Lincoln, and Obama).

Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned “All men are created equal,” couldn’t live it, that’s for sure. Reynolds portrays him over the course of several chapters as a farrago of internal contradictions. His final words, describing Jefferson on his deathbed, rise to the level of poetry, not for the first or last time in the book. They are both affecting and effective:

He knew slavery was wrong, but not wrong enough to free his own slaves. He knew as a child that Black people were people, but never fully treated them as such. Saw them as “friends” but never saw them. …He knew that all men are created equal. He wrote it. But couldn’t rewrite his own racist ideas. And the irony in that is now his life had come full circle. In his earliest childhood memory and in his final lucid moment, Jefferson lay there dying–death being the ultimate equalizer–in the comfort of slavery. Surrounded by a comfort those slaves never felt. [78]

One of the strong points of the book for me, and one potentially appealing to young readers, is the author’s discussion of race in popular culture. I grew up with Tarzan, Planet of the Apes, and Rocky but lacked the critical ability to perceive their racist underpinnings. Did they assert their pernicious influence on my still-forming mind? Hard to say. I grew up at a time–the 1970s–when blacks were allegedly perceived (once again) to be newly empowered and a threat to white American culture/society. Tarzan evokes white colonialist fears more than domestic American ones, so it seems less directly relevant. Planet of the Apes both enthralled and terrified me. Was this a racist terror, at heart? I suspect not. From my suburban upbringing, I had no experience of so-called “ghetto” blacks (other than the comic strip Quincy, which made 1970’s Harlem feel charming), so talking apes were unlikely to evoke them, even subconsciously. But I do remember Apollo Creed in Rocky. By then I think I even had the critical ability to think, vaguely, “Can they do that? Make a black man so obviously the villain?”


These three cultural touchpoints may be less familiar to Reynolds’ and Kendi’s readers (or not, what with You Tube and digital reproductions of old film and TV). Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Birth of a Nation, however, are likely to be black boxes. So Reynolds gives the Cliff’s Notes of the Cliff’s Notes version.

“Here’s the basic plot,” Reynolds writes before reducing Birth of a Nation, a three-hour, 12-reel film, to four bullet-points (three if you don’t count “The end”). Only the ugly climactic events of the final 20 minutes, are included. [136] There is more than enough cringe-worthy racism to decry in the other eleven reels, but they would only complicate the story (that Reynolds is trying to tell). Does his simplification bring out a larger truth, or is truth sacrificed when built on misrepresentation or over-simplification? It is a question I couldn’t avoid asking myself.

Summarizing Uncle Tom, Reynolds uses a full ten bullet items but hardly captures the breadth of an admittedly long book. He elides the first, Kentucky section of the book entirely and covers the final, Simon Legree section in two bullet points. His main interest is with Tom and Little Eva in New Orleans because that is where the author’s assimilationist message comes through mostly clearly. “The moral of the story:” Reynolds explains pithily after “listing” Tom’s martyrdom (#10), “We all must be slaves…to God. And since docile Black people made the best slaves (to man), they made the best Christians. And since domineering Whites made the worst slaves, they made the worst Christians. So, slavery, though a brutal attack on Black humanity, was really just proof that White people were bad believers in Jesus.” [96] Well, maybe. Reynolds’ (and perhaps Kendi’s) analysis is astute, but a dismissive tone creeps in that feels counterproductive. “I know,” Reynolds writes, “But, hey, it didn’t have to make too much sense.” Really? He has just spent a page and a half showing that, in fact, Stowe made very clear assimilationist sense. As a reader, I ended up feeling more defensive of Stowe than enlightened or empowered by their critique. I’ve read her book. As a critical-thinking, middle-aged adult.

Telling young readers what to think about a book they haven’t read seems unfair to me, especially when it’s done so cavalierly. Reynolds and Kendi instigate so much critical thought it is a shame that they shut some down by hammering their message too insistently. They have achieved their own impressive insight after years of living and reading and thinking, yet, in their eagerness to provide the book they wish they had had at that age, they may be packaging it up too-neatly for their readers. Questions will add mileage to their wise answers.

Reynolds opens the afterword with a question, a good one: “How do you feel?” He might have used the rest of the paragraph or the entire page to acknowledge feelings he imagines readers would have. He might have explained that no one feeling is the right one in reaction the book. He might have nudged readers toward possible next steps to take in response to their feelings. Instead he writes, without pausing, “I mean, I hope after reading this not history history book, you’re left with some answers.” No questions?

Reynolds does ask his readers another question on the book’s final page: “…the question of whether you, reader, want to be a segregationist (a hater), an assimilationist (a coward), or an antiracist (someone who truly loves).” [147] But that sounds and feels an awful lot like an essentialist rhetorical question.

This is a powerful book. It is easy to imagine it will be one many readers, black and white, need at the time they pick it up. Yet it is possible to imagine other readers, too, perhaps fewer in number but, still, both black and white, whose reactions will be more ambivalent. Years later these readers may well pick up a different book that provides a new synthesis on racial issues, a book they might say they wished they had had when they were that age.

Time’s arrow; time’s cycle.


Reynolds, Jason and Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020.