This Week in Geniuses: Stephen Greenblatt and Lucretius.

My review of THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton: 2011) appeared in The Boston Globe's Sunday Books section on September 25, 2011:

At the center of Stephen Greenblatt’s dazzling new book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,’’ is a hero: Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459 CE), “[a] short, genial, cannily alert man [who] reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied.’’ It may not sound heroic, but “behind that one moment was the arrest and imprisonment of a pope, the burning of heretics, and a great culturewide explosion of interest in pagan antiquity . . . if he had had an intimation of the forces he was unleashing, he might have thought twice about drawing so explosive a work out of the darkness in which it slept.’’

The work in question was a remote German monastery’s copy of “On the Nature of Things,’’ the epic philosophical poem written by Lucretius ca. 50 BCE . Extravagant as it sounds, Greenblatt argues that Lucretius’s poem is the forgotten keystone in the foundation of western civilization, helping to inspire an entire culture’s rebellion “against the constraints that centuries had constructed against curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, [and] the claims of the body.’’ Lucretius, in other words, helped create modernity. By the end of this erudite and entertaining book - no, by the second chapter - he will have you convinced that it’s true.

Greenblatt has written an intellectually invigorating, nonfiction version of a Dan Brown-like mystery-in-the-archives thriller, right down to the suppression of a great work of radical art by the early Christian church. In the first chapter, titled “The Book Hunter,’’ we’re introduced to our detective, Poggio. He’s on the trail of lost knowledge, following clues and his intuition to find the book that “changed the landscape of the world.’’ In its gumshoe mode, “The Swerve’’ races through the inner sanctums of corrupt popes, crumbling monasteries, and a shockingly violent gathering of Catholic bishops at the 1413 Council of Constance. Once the manuscript is discovered, Greenblatt explores all the ways Lucretius’s poem influenced the modern world. As Poggio departs center stage, “The Swerve’’ leaves the mystery genre behind and becomes a vibrant history of ideas, tracing Lucretian thought from the Renaissance through the Declaration of Independence, Darwinism, and Einsteinian physics.

But still there remains a deep mystery to be solved. How exactly does culture change? Specifically, how was it possible “for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing’’ and then, centuries later, turn back again? Much has been written (and disputed) about just how dark the so-called Dark Ages were, but in Greenblatt’s view they were very dark indeed. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Greenblatt writes, the Christian church undertook “the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural - the ordinary impulses of all sentient creatures - seem like the enemy of the truth.’’ In contrast to Lucretius’s Epicurean-inspired assertion that the highest goal of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, Christians “understood that pleasure is a code name for vice.’’ Yet by the 15th century a few educated Florentines began to look around at the ruins of ancient Rome - the crumbling yet still functional aqueducts, the Forum, which was now used for grazing sheep - and wondered what had gone wrong. “The spectacle of the world,’’ Poggio lamented: “how is it fallen! . . . How defaced!’’ A thousand years of Christianity had not improved life on earth. Then again, it hadn’t really tried. After all, redemption was only available after death in heaven, if you were lucky enough to get in. For a humanist like Poggio, who had already been exposed to life-affirming classical philosophies, that was too long to wait.

Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things’’ offered something radically different. The “Lucretian challenge,’’ as Greenblatt calls it, rests on a basic principle known as atomism, one of the foundations of Epicurean philosophy. Man was not formed in the image of his Creator: There is no Creator. Instead, everything, including man, is made of tiny particles called atoms, “the seeds of things,’’ Lucretius explained, which are eternal, indestructible, and infinite. They come together in infinite varieties, with a natural balance between creation and destruction, which goes on forever. Two thousand years later the philosopher George Santayana would call this “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon.’’ While gods may exist, they do not control or even care about the lives of humans. “[T]he fact that it is not all about us and our fate . . . is, Lucretius insisted, the good news.’’ Free of superstition, man could fix his efforts on that which he could actually control: the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Of course Lucretius knew nothing of Darwinian evolution nor of molecular biology nor of quantum physics. Astoundingly, all these modern scientific theories would prove him right.

“The Swerve’’ is the story of Poggio’s heroic rediscovery of a book that has shaped human consciousness for over 2,000 years. It is a thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization. Although Lucretius was neither an atheist nor a hedonist, his views were anathema to Christian leaders so they were censored and nearly forgotten. But thanks to the subversive and strenuous efforts of one determined 15th-century scholar, Lucretius’s gift to humanity was saved. Greenblatt reminds us that Thomas Jefferson, who owned eight copies of Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,’’ described himself as “an Epicurean,’’ someone who rejected superstition in favor of “sensation, of matter and motion, [on which] we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.’’ “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’’ certainly reflects an Epicurean philosophy; perhaps, thanks to Greenblatt’s heroic rediscovery, Lucretius can lead us into the light of reason once again.

Too Big to... you know the rest.

(Photo credit: The great O. Winston Link, "NW 1103-Hot Shot Eastbound, Laeger, West Virginia, 1956")

My review of Richard White's RAILROADED: Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (W.W. Norton, May 2011) appeared in the Boston Globe on 5 June 2011. You can read it there or just keep looking down... there it is.

RAILROADED by Richard White

“Overbuilt, prone to bankruptcy and receivership, wretchedly managed, politically corrupt, environmentally harmful, and financially wasteful, these corporations nonetheless helped create a world where private success often came from luck, fortunate timing, and state intervention. Profit arose more from financial markets and insider contracts than from” [505] — can you guess the final word in this sentence? “Financial products,” perhaps, a la Lehman Brothers? “Mortgage-backed securities,” as in the case of AIG? Or is this all about Enron and its fraudulent energy business? No, the final word in this sentence is “transportation:” we’re talking about the transcontinental railroads of the late nineteenth century. [505] Welcome to a scathing and wonderful new book about American business and its crimes over a hundred years ago: Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. Stanford University professor Richard White, one of our country’s greatest historians, has written a book that will entertain and outrage its readers with scenes of corporate greed and mismanagement and the federal bailouts that enabled them. Even as the railroads went bankrupt, their owners grew rich — all subsidized by the United States government. Think of Railroaded as Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker, set in a Gilded Age just as fantastically sick as the bond-trading offices of Salomon Brothers in the newly-deregulated 1980s.

White’s argument is simple yet surprising. It was not the success of the transcontinental railroads that transformed America: it was their failure. These railroads - which, incidentally, were not even transcontinental (they stopped at the Missouri River and let the existing railroads take over from there to the Atlantic), were poorly conceived and often terribly executed. When they failed - and almost all eventually did — they brought the entire economy down with them, as in the case of the Panic (and resulting multi-year depression) of 1873 which was, in White’s words, “Above all… a railroad depression.” [83] The sources of their failure — incompetence and greed — were obscured from the public. The Central Pacific Railroad’s Annual Report for 1873 assured its investors that its prospects were “never brighter” even as it decided to pay its debts with money earmarked for taxes and workers’ wages. [86] White is straightforward in his assessment of the Central Pacific’s policy: “everyone agreed to lie.” [86]

White is not arguing that transcontinental railroads should never have been built; instead he asks, “Why were so many of these railroads built at at a time when there was so little need of them?” [xxiv] Yes, building railroads through land not yet settled by Euro-Americans (though long home to Native Americans) did bring new American farms and towns into existence, but many of those settlements lay in climate zones good for railroads but terrible for farmers. Thousands of bankruptcies and broken dreams followed. White uses the two Dakotas, North and South, as a case study of how the American West might have developed without federally-subsidized railroads. The subsidized transcontinentals ran only through North Dakota, where the railroad corporations were given public lands for free as a “right of way” and then charged settlers to live on them. In South Dakota, “the government aided settlers, not railroads, while securing a more efficient railroad network and denser settlement… Farmers paid less for land [in South Dakota], settled the better lands more quickly, and avoided marginal arid lands.” [486] That’s how capitalism is supposed to work, isn’t it: business emerges to meet demand? Not when it came to the transcontinentals. White doesn’t disagree with the idea that “railroads defined the age” [xxii] of an emerging modern America, but he has a different explanation for that belief: They were, like so much in the Gilded Age, corrupt.

Don’t pick up Railroaded expecting a romance of steam engines, lonesome whistles blowing, or poetic vistas glimpsed from the sliding doors of a boxcar. This is a story about the dark arts of accounting and the seemingly paradoxical fact that the transcontinental railroads were simultaneously “unsuccessful and powerful.” [505] Don’t look for a Darwinian model of business, either. White demonstrates “how the unsuccessful and the incompetent not only survived but prospered and became powerful… it was the triumph of the unfit, whose survival demanded the intervention of the state, which the corporations themselves corrupted.” [505]

The phrase “Too big to fail” irked most Americans when we heard it used to explain why taxpayers had to pay for the greed and incompetence of Wall Street in the early 2000s. “What were the results of a world dominated by large, inept, but powerful failures whose influence could not be avoided?” [505] White asks. In Railroaded, he provides answers to the nineteenth-century version of the same problem that plagues us today. Yet here we are again.

Don't you just adore Scotland?

I do. I visited Edinburgh with my father a long time ago, when I was in fifth grade. What I remember most: Edinburgh Castle; eating baked apples; the story of Greyfriar's Bobby (a cute and heroically loyal little Skye Terrier - hey! I was in fifth grade!)... you get the picture. I loved the trip and still have the kilt my dad bought for me way back then.

Today I was reminded of just how much I love Scotland when I read this review of my book on the ScotGen genealogy blog. Oh, Scotland, you had me at Greyfriar's Bobby... and now this?

Charles Darwin: 3 Quotes & 3 Reasons to Love Him.

1. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars. - C.D.

2. It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change. - C.D.

3. We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universes, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act. - C.D.

All my movies, Sweded.

If the title of this post means nothing to you, please find two hours to watch the criminally underrated film, Be Kind, Rewind. Directed by Michel "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" Gondry and starring Mos Def and Jack Black, the movie is... beautiful.

"Sweded," incidentally, is a term coined in the film referring to the "remaking" of films using the lowest of budgets and techniques. What karaoke is to commercial music, Sweding is to feature film.

Be Kind, Rewind inspired an entire Sweding culture. Check it out here at SwededMovies.org. If you thought Memento was hard to follow the first time, try the Sweded version. Its directors admit they've never actually seen the original.