Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern



In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt sets himself a formidable task—to make the discovery of an obscure manuscript in a German monastery  in 1417 into an event of epochal significance. He doesn’t quite make good on this attempt, but his historical excavations result in a narrative of surprising interest just the same.

Few today have heard of Poggio Bracciolini, the man who made the discovery in question; he was probably not a household name even in his own time, though he distinguished himself as a high-ranking papal secretary and later served as chancellor of Florence.  Among his fellow humanists Poggio was certainly well-known, carrying on a running correspondence for decades with Niccolo Niccoli, for example, and engaging in a highly publicized dispute with Lorenzo Valla. But nothing that he wrote has proven interesting or significant enough to hold the attention of later generations beyond a small circle of academic experts. For example, in his landmark 400-page History of the Renaissance in Italy, Jacob Burckhardt mentions Poggio only in passing, with reference to an essay on nobility. Popular modern anthologies of the era contain essays by Valla, Pico, Manetti, Telesio, and other more or less obscure figures, but Poggio is not among those considered worthy of inclusion.

Poggio’s outstanding claim to fame for us is that he came across a copy of The Nature of Things by Lucretius moldering on a dusty shelf—a poem that was widely referred to and admired in ancient times but was entirely lost during the Dark Ages.

Among the several virtues of Greenblatt’s book is that he fleshes out the world of the early Renaissance—the in-fighting among members of the papal curia, the high-strung literary correspondence between humanists describing their latest bibliographic finds and projects, the responsibilities and excesses of the Florentine municipal administration, and the hermetic world of monastic life, where piety was too often a smokescreen for ambition, perversity, and sloth.

Shifting gears from chapter to chapter, Greenblatt also does an excellent job of describing the impact made by Lucretius’s book-length poem on cultivated Romans fifteen hundred years earlier, and contrasts those very modern-sounding atomic, if not Darwinian, theories—which Lucretius derived from the theories of Epicurus and Democritus—against the generally polytheistic mind-set of those times.

As luck would have it, among the five Popes whom Poggio served was John XXIII (now classified by the Catholic Church as an anti-Pope) who fled the Council of Constance before he was formally deposed along with two other claimants to the seat. In describing this string of events, which also includes the burning of the Czech protestant Jan Hus at the stake, Greenblatt once again fleshes out a time very different from our own—or maybe not.

Greenburg’s vivid description of such events, which are usually described in academic texts fairly cursorily and by means of cliché, is worth the price of the book.  But there are two important issues with which he finds it more difficult to deal adequately. These are

a) To what degree did Poggio’s discovery of The Nature of Things really “transform” the world, and

b) To what degree is this a good as opposed to a bad thing.

The implicit assumption is that the world-view described by Lucretius is not only more modern, but also more accurate, than the one provided by the Catholic Church. And it is further suggested, or at least implied,  that were it not for the serendipitous discovery of a unique manuscript in some unnamed German monastery, the Epicurean vision would have remained a mystery to us all.

Both of these notions are more than a little far-fetched.

In his defense of the idea that Poggio’s discovery was monumental, Greenblatt quotes a few lines from Romeo and Juliet that could have been lifted from Lucretius. Yet Shakespeare’s favorite and most often-quoted poet by far was Ovid. And it's interesting to note that in an overview of the period such as E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, neither Epicurus nor Lucretius is mentioned at all. That being the case, it comes as no surprise to find that Poggio doesn't merit mention either.

Greenblatt also highlights a few passages in which Montaigne seems to lean heavily on Lucretius, and here he is on firmer ground. One scholar determined that Montaigne quotes Lucretius 149 times in his essay, more than any other Roman poet. But Horace comes in a close second at 148. Both men were Epicurians. This seems to suggest that The Nature of Things Lucretius provided Montaigne—and the modern world—with more attractive ways to express things that were already widely accessible from other sources.

Greenblatt brings his book to a close by observing that Thomas Jefferson owned copies of The Nature of Things in five languages, and sometimes described himself as an Epicurean. But that doesn’t tell us much about where he got his political views. (Epicurus was explicitly apolitical.) One historian of the religious views of the Founding Fathers writes:
In his youth, Jefferson studied the philosophers of clas­sical antiquity. And just as the Greek and Roman style shaped his architectural preferences in designing Monticello, the ra­tionality and balance of Socrates, Seneca, Cicero, and Epicurus appealed to his desire for a life disciplined by inward harmony and self-control.
Then again, Jefferson also edited the Gospels to excise all the parts he didn’t like. In this scheme of influences and inspirations Lucretius was undoubtedly present, but certainly not essential.

One final but very important issue clouds the appeal of The Swerve: Greenblatt seems to think that the vision offered by Epicurus, through the medium of the golden poetry of Lucretius, offers a better vision of life than the one offered by the Christian program that dominated European life following the collapse of Rome. But he never provides any convincing proof to that effect. He makes the mistake of equating the genius of Christianity with the dogmas of the Catholic Church, and he too often confuses the hedone that Epicurus considered the ultimate end of human life with bodily pleasure  pure and simple. If we were to go into the matter of Epicureanism at any greater length, we would be doing more than Greenblatt has done. Suffice it to say that Epicureanism is a philosophy of the healthy and the well-off. Its impulses are quietistic. Christianity, for all its faults, is rooted in the peculiar sanctity of the human individual—a creature capable of reflection, conscience, genius, loyalty, sacrifice. These are social virtues. The Epicurean philosophy of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain will never be of much use to those for whom physical pain is endemic, yet who are inspired to pursue something more broadly meaningful in the midst of that pain.

But if Greenblatt overstates the case for the significance Poggio’s discovery, it doesn’t matter much. His book holds our interest due largely to his colorful rendering of fifteenth-century Humanism, thriving in the midst of a world of mostly hide-bound Catholic orthodoxy and largely venal religious institutions. It’s a book about people who loved books and believed the elevated Latin of Roman times had more power to express things fully and freely than did either the scholarly Latin or the local dialects of their own day.

It’s an attractive vision, and I was inspired, after finishing The Swerve, to pull my own copy of The Nature of Things off the shelf. I’m sorry to report that I didn’t get far before putting it down again.

A rotten translation? Perhaps. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Arbor Barbers


I suspect that in a former life I was an arborist. Or maybe a lumberjack. I like trees—the character of the individual species, the shape of the growth, their growth and decay.

Pruning trees is a rugged art. Maybe editing books is the next best thing. You're removing things to heighten the focus and bring out the beauty. But when you're pruning trees, each cut is irrevocable.

You can imagine how excited I was when I saw a truck pull up in front of the house the other day  hauling a trailer carrying a mobile cherry-picking pod. On the door of the truck it said Arbor Barbers. Before long there were four trucks lined up in the street.  A couple of guys were looking up over their heads, and it occurred to me I ought to go out and make sure they weren't planning to go to work on any of our trees.

"Oh, no," the guy said. "We've got a couple of jobs down the street. You can't park right where you're working." Of course.


"Hey, I've got an idea," I said. "I've got three walnut trees on the side of the house." I pointed. "Volunteers. Maybe you could cut down the one furthest from the street. As long as you're already here.  They aren't big, about the size of your arm. How much would that cost?"

In the course of my request I'd mumbled something about "fifty bucks" and I was surprised when the guy said, "I could cut it down and remove it for $40. We'll be here all day." OK.

A client stopped over an hour later, though he had some trouble finding the house with all the trucks scattered along the street. I told him I was having the tree guys cut down a walnut in the side yard.

"That's a great idea," he replied. "We had one cut down. Every fall the fruit fell off and dented the car, and the husks stained the driveway."

I'd never considered that element, and I began to wonder if I should see about having all three trees cut down. All morning long I could hear the intermittent grind of the chain saw, and later the noise of a hydraulic lift depositing debris into the back of a truck. By early afternoon I was beginning to wonder if they'd ever get around to my little project, but by that time I was figuring I could probably do it myself with a hand saw, and then I could keep the wood. I imagined myself hooking up a few ropes to make sure the tree didn't fall on the house or the neighbor's garage, then cutting the notch, hoping all the while that the neighbors didn't come home just as the tree was descending on their driveway.

But a thirty-foot tree weighs a lot more than you think. Did I have any rope of that quality?

Things were getting quiet. I was taking a nap on the floor in the den with the sun on my face, dreaming about firewood, when I heard a chainsaw start up, maybe a little closer this time. When I returned to the office I heard someone clumping on the roof above my head. I saw a cloud of sawdust fly past the window. A thick chunk of wood landed on the frozen ground with a thump. 

Then I saw the guy climbing down the tree through the window. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door.

"Well, I cut down the tree," the man said. "But my brother says we've got another job to do today. Do you have a firepit?"

I told him I did. And a fireplace. And a Jøtul stove.

"Well, why don't you just pay me $20 and clean it up yourself."

I handed him a double sawbuck and thanked him for his trouble.



  

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Les Forts de Latour


I feel a little silly with an empty bottle of wine sitting right here next to the computer. I will definitely remove it the next time a client stops by to work on a book. But I like to be reminded of the remarkable taste, and more than that, the remarkable bouquet that the bottle once contained.

When you attempt to write about wine, you ought to be aware that you're exploring an experience that no one can describe and few can afford. Oh, there are plenty of decent wines available at every price point. Often wines that cost $25 aren't "twice as good" as those that cost $12.50, but it's likely they offer nuances of flavor that make them worth the extra expense from time to time. The same could be said of those $12 bottles, when compared to Trader Joe's "Reserve" Chardonnay at $6.

But the other day I had an experience from the upper end of the wine trough. I opened a bottle of Les Fort de Latour 1999 that had been sitting in increasing isolation in my basement "cellar" for years. The cellar stock has been dwindling because I gave up buying wines for aging. Why? Worthy bottles were becoming absurdly expensive and the wines themselves, when I opened them years later, were often mediocre. 

My standard explanation was that I was storing the wines right next to the furnace, but if I'd really believed that I would have moved them. The more likely explanation is that when you hunt for "deals" in the upper reaches of the wine world you're likely to end up with off-years, badly handled wines, famous varietals from fly-by-night producers—in a word, clinkers.

I wouldn't say that the quest was useless. There were usually hints of great breeding, elusive wisps of remarkable complexity, though now showing a little fatigue, like the last few films of Jean Renoir or Howard Hawks. I could probably mention fifteen or twenty classed growth from Bordeaux that I've enjoyed over the years, often as a guest of my friend Tim, who maintains a more active interest in this important field of study.

In any case, this particular wine was different. It may not be the best wine I ever drank, but I can say with confidence it's the best wine I can remember drinking. 

How to describe the bouquet? No point taking about melons, blackberries, or leather. It was as if a hundred feather-light purple pixies were dancing in my nose. Was it a foxtrot or a gavotte? Hard to tell. It was the olfactory equivalent of listening to the first movement of Ravel's Gaspar de la Nuit, after having drunk a bottle of wine. Diaphanous, sweet, rich, complex, and rather static, worthy of contemplation in and of itself. The act of drinking the wine came almost as an afterthought.

I will say no more about that evening of bliss. It did not commemorate a birthday, anniversary,  promotion, or retirement. But it will remain memorable long after I remove the empty bottle from the desk here. 

And it makes me wonder if it might be worthwhile rebuilding my stock of better-than-average wines just a little. The kind that might benefit from twenty years in the cellar. We'll be getting a nice property tax refund in the mail soon. Surdyk's is having a sale... 

But twenty years is a long time to age any wine. Maybe we should shoot for ten.