Thursday, March 8, 2012

"all things arise from a swerve"

"Books. They have an almost alarming corporeality. Stephen Greenblatt, esteemed Harvard professor and founder of New Historicism, tells us that between the eras of papyrus and paper, books were often made of the pumice-smoothed skins of sheep, goats, deer, or, most luxuriously, of an aborted calf.
     The act of writing required rulers, awls, fine pens, and weights to keep the surfaces flat. Ink was a mix of soot, water, and tree gum; it was revised with knives, razors, brushes, rags, and page-restoring mixtures of milk, cheese, and lime. Squirming black creatures called bookworms liked to eat these pages, along with wool blankets and cream cheese. In the silence of monastery libraries, even the books’ contents were indicated by bodily gestures. Monks copying pagan books requested them by scratching their ears like dogs with fleas, or, if the book were particularly offensive, shoving two fingers in their mouths, as if gagging. In Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, these objects, offensive or sacred, are the primary players. [...]
     The book’s central character is a six-volume, two-millennia-old poem, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, that imagines a world made of crashing, combining atoms, denies life after death, prescribes the pursuit of pleasure as the rational goal of individuals and societies, and suggests that all things arise from a swerve — a slight and random deviation from course. [...]
     On the Nature of Things was, and is, brilliant. Lucretius, who intended the poetry to be the coat of sugar on the medicine of his philosophy, writes with astonishing grace about a world made of atoms, the ordinariness of humans, and the delusion of religion. Despite being a fundamentally atheistic text — Lucretius only allows a god or gods who couldn’t care less for people and our lonely prayers and sins — the text imagines the world as a poem to Venus. Lucretius imagines all those couplings and decouplings of atoms, as endlessly and wonderfully erotic. [...]"
— Swati Pandey, Los Angeles Review of Books

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