The Siren’s call: A Roman recovered

Born more than 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet Lucretius really belongs to our day.

How’s that?

Well, when you look closely at his great work, “On the Nature of Things” (W.W. Norton: 177 pp., $15.95 paper), you find him writing about a world that sounds much like our own.

There he speaks of tiny, indivisible bits called atoms (“all/are sundered into particles of matter”) and something that even sounds like a description of DNA (“each thing has but one substance/marked and designed to bring it into being”). And how about this cautionary attitude to religion: “More commonly/religion has prompted vile and vicious acts.” His viewpoint, unfortunately, is all too familiar to us.

W.W. Norton has reissued Frank O. Copley’s translation of this wondrous poem to coincide with Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” (W.W. Norton: 356 pp., $26.95), an equally wondrous book about how this classic was nearly lost and why Western civilization would be much poorer if that had happened.

Nominated for this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction, “The Swerve” has a subtitle claiming a vast subject area, but Greenblatt wisely concentrates his focus upon Lucretius’ marvelous work and the adventures of Poggio Bracciolini. Bracciolini was a 15th Century papal emissary and bookhunter who rescued Lucretius’ work from a German monastery shelf where dampness was guaranteed to destroy it if the bookworms — called “the teeth of time” — didn’t feast on it first.


“The prime hunting grounds for Poggio and his fellow book hunters were the libraries of old monasteries, for good reason,” Greenblatt explains. “For long centuries monasteries had been virtually the only institutions that cared about books.”

Such hunters risked beatings by the monks — if they tried to steal the monasteries’ books — and often they used gold and flattery to win over a stern abbot and receive permission to make a copy. A monastery’s books, Greenblatt explains, were valuable in other ways: The calfskin upon which the monks copied ancient texts was a precious commodity in pre-printing-press days and could be reused by scratching off what was there. (Can you imagine what was lost?)

This interest in the classical past, Greenblatt notes, was fueled by far more than money. There was a growing fascination with antiquity, and collectors paid fabulous sums for old objects overlooked as junk. People were eager to enter the mindset of the past, and a text like Lucretius’ provided a luminous doorway into a glorious, distant world. This growing cultural attitude was unexpected and signaled the coming of the Renaissance — Lucretius referred to unpredictable changes with the word “clinamen,” which Greenblatt says refers to “a swerve” (also “slope” or “incline,” though hardly as vivid for a book title).

For Poggio, however, part of the reason for his bookhunting did involve money. His years of maneuvering as a secular member in the Roman Curia amounted to nothing. He rose to become apostolic secretary to the wily, corrupt Pope John XXIII, who was deposed in 1415 (his name was erased from the books until Giuseppe Roncalli, the architect of Vatican II, claimed it for himself in 1958). Out of a job, Poggio turned to bookhunting and began recovering invaluable works, like those by the Roman rhetorician Quintilian.

Soon his friends were hailing him as the great “restorer of antiquity” and, on a journey to a German monastery (believed to be the Abbey of Fulda), he retrieved Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things” though he couldn’t know then what he was preserving: “a book that would help in time to dismantle his entire world.”

As he did in “Will in the World,” his 2004 study of Shakespeare, Greenblatt writes with great charm and cinematic flair as much about the times as about Lucretius and Bracciolini.

He introduces us to weary monastic scribes who spent long hours copying books (and sometimes complaining of their weariness in the margins). We learn about the avid collectors Petrarch and Niccolo Niccoli; the hypocrisy and obscenity of the papal court; and the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whom Lucretius championed.

“Epicurean” has long been used to describe anyone who indulges in sensual pleasures. But as Greenblatt points out, this was an exaggeration by Christian writers — one of the earliest smear campaigns, perhaps? — who wanted to steer attention away from Epicurus’ godless view of nature, a view that Lucretius explores in his poem.

What Epicurus, and Lucretius, argued for wasn’t freedom from God, Greenblatt explains, but freedom from fear. They opposed the notion of a lightning-bolt-wielding judge hovering over our heads, demanding supplication and worship. It wasn’t that either thinker denied the existence of the gods: Instead they believed that the gods would be “utterly indifferent to the doings of any beings other than themselves.…" This might alarm die-hard believers, but, as Greenblatt points out, it also encouraged artists and thinkers to shake off fears of eternal torment and approach the natural world with a renewed sense of wonder.

Without a divine overseer protecting each person’s destiny, though, Lucretius knew the fate of his own work was uncertain. That may be why, early in “On the Nature of Things,” he makes a very theistic-sounding appeal to the goddess Venus to watch over what he has written: magis aeternum da dictis, diva. In Copley’s translation, the line is “Grant then to my words, Lady, a deathless charm.” (“Deathless charm” is a gorgeous invention.)

Considering the turmoil after the Roman Empire crumbled, Lucretius needed more than just “deathless charm” to guarantee the survival of his words.

He needed Poggio to find them.



The best part of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Eldritch Tales: A Miscellany of the Macabre” edited by Stephen Jones (Trafalgar Square/Gollancz: 539 pp., $34.95) isn’t a story at all, it’s an essay — a long one that Lovecraft wrote in 1927 about storytelling and what makes for the best horror stories.

“Supernatural Horror in Literature” describes how storytelling, dating to the earliest times, has always been infused with fear and phantoms. Lovecraft says this has created “a fertile soil” that has “nourished types and characters of sombre myth and legend which persist in weird literature to this day, more or less disguised or altered by modern technique.”

His heroes include William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen (check out “The White People and Other Weird Stories” new from Penguin), Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood and M.R. James, whom Lovecraft calls “gifted with an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life.” I couldn’t agree more: There’s nothing better than rereading James’ “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” or “Casting the Runes” as we are approaching All Hallow’s Eve. And there’s nothing more surprising than James’ own reaction to Lovecraft’s praise. As editor S.T. Joshi has noted elsewhere, James was quite frosty about it, belittling his devotee’s own writing style as “offensive.” It’s too bad he didn’t appreciate Lovecraft’s enthusiasm or the new readers it brought him. Then again, James probably didn’t care.

Great fiction writers are usually better at showing than at telling. But in the case of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” in this lovely edition, it’s intriguing to see Lovecraft set aside all the tentacled, menacing visions of his fiction to give us the straight business on what he liked about horror writing.



Margaret Atwood does the same, shifting from novelist to critic in “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 259 pp., $24.95), in which she discusses her lifelong relationship with fantasy and science fiction. (She dedicates the book to the superb Ursula Le Guin, author of the “Earthsea” stories and so much more).

To call “In Other Worlds” a defense of science fiction isn’t accurate. Yes, there’s a thread of self-justification here. She does address how a serious novelist with a world-wide reputation would spend her time in genres regarded by the monolithic, anonymous literati as shallow and escapist. In her words:

“Why did I jump the tracks, as it were, from realistic novels to dystopias? Was I slumming, as some ‘literary’ writers are accused of doing when they write science fiction or detective stories?” asks the Toronto-based author in her essay “Dire Cartographies.”

And she does include, as an appendix, her letter to a school district board in San Antonio, Texas, after it banned her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” (a decision since reversed) for its strong sexual content. “I would like to thank those who have dedicated themselves so energetically to the banning of my novel,” she begins. “It’s encouraging to know that the written word is still taken so seriously.”

But in between these two statements, there is much more — deeply thoughtful, deftly argued, sometimes unexpected — that shows readers how science fiction fits into a long, venerable tradition.

Atwood gives readers a bracing, provocative tour of the writers and books she admires (like Le Guin and H. Rider Haggard’s “She), her interest in ustopia (a mix of utopia and dystopia) in her fiction, as well as some autobiography. (As a child, she explains early on, “I wasn’t much interested in ‘Dick and Jane'…Several-headed man-eating marine life seemed more likely to me, somehow, than Spot and Puff.”)

Not all sci-fi stories offer pure escapism, she argues. The genre fits into a continuum dating to the world’s oldest myths and continuing today with authors who use the genre to examine social ills, not run away from them. Examples here include Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and her own works, such as “Handmaid” and “Oryx and Crake.”

“High hopes have been dashed, time and time again.…Does that mean we should never try to rectify our mistakes…?” Atwood asks of such ustopian stories, even though she knows the answer. Of course not.

We should always try to improve our fate, but, as the best socially-minded sci-fi stories caution us, she adds, “we should probably not try to make things perfect, especially not ourselves, for that path leads to mass graves.”