Friday, October 26, 2012

Stephen Greenblatt's Marxism (No, Really)

"Je suis Marxist.  Tendance Groucho," a wise man once said.  I herewith offer a fresh reading of this old saw, rooted in my own reading of The Swerve, Stephen Greenblant's account of the Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius and his reception in the Renaissance.

Bear with me, this has nothing to do with class struggle or cigars.  But for starters, perhaps I should have said "accounts," plural; Greenblatt's project is really at least four projects, overlapping but separate.  Perhaps the least successful (except as marketing) is the elevator-pitch project embodied in the title: the notion that the Renaissance, and by extension all of modernity, owes its provenance to the rediscovery of one ancient manuscript by one ancient (and otherwise, entirely unknown) poet.  It's an elegant conceit and Greenblatt serves up an elegant performance in presenting it.  But it's ultimately unpersuasive: there are just too many threads in the tapestry of the Renaissance; the best you can say of Lucretius is that he is somewhere threaded into the fabric.

But there are at least three other separable narratives.  Perhaps the least elegant but potentially most useful is Greenblatt's outline-summary of the poem itself.  Lucretius is a notoriously difficult poet in English and even more in Latin; any student would say a quiet prayer of thanks   to receive guidance from so adept a cicerone.

Second is a delightful biography of Poggio the book-mad penman, B-list humanist and alert student of the main chance, who recovered this unique link to the ancients.  Pitch it to a publisher on his own and he'd likely move on to the next offering but stapled into the larger project, it is an unalloyed pleasure.

Finally and perhaps most impressive, Greenblatt offers up a history of nothing less than the transition from paganism to Christianity.  It's short--not much longer than an ambitious piece of longform journalism--but I don't know presentation that offer the story with more conviction.

So what we have here is a formidable array of material inside the covers of a high-end trade paperback.  Which raises the question: how does anybody produce a book like this that offers so much,so well presented--and for so modest an audience?

For the answer, I go back to Groucho and his brothers.  Remember how the boys came to the movie business: they made it to Hollywood only after years of hoofing in which they tried anything and kept only the stuff that worked.  Every single (worthwhile) item in every one of the pictures has a prehistory and nothing stays unless it is audience-approved as funny.

You know what?  It seems to me the professor who becomes an author likely works in exactly the same way.  He's had seasons, maybe decades in the classroom with the most demanding of all audiences: one that really doesn't much care whether he succeeds or fails might actually rather see him fail because the spectacle of failure would be more entertaining.  You don't survive that kind of a gauntlet without nerves of steel and (at least some of the time) a pretty good product to show for it.  So here's to Greenblatt and the new Marxism.  It might not be Night at the Opera, but it might be something just as good.

1 comment:

Rachel Cholst said...

Interesting reading of Swerve. I think the fact that there were those four disparate threads annoyed me. I never actually finished reading it. I was disappointed that I didn't like it, because Greenblatt's academic writing is nothing short of astonishing -- elegant ideas delivered accessibly, which is something both Marxes would approve of.