Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt

A few thoughts about Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began.

This book is about Lucretius' two-thousand year old poem 'On the Nature of Things' (De rerum natura); a poem which follows and develops the philosophy of Epicurus.  Greenblatt charts how Epicurus' philosophy fell to wasteland as the intolerant rise of monotheism squashed the more tolerant and freethinking intellectual pursuits of scholars (Greenblatt's description of the flaying alive of Hypatia, keeper of the Museum at Alexandria, makes for grisly reading.)  In the Renaissance, book hunters, known as humanists, such as Poggio Bracciolini, scoured monasteries hoping to discover copies of ancient texts.  In 1429, papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, after a convoluted process of discovering Lucretius and then lending him without first reading, finally reads on 'The Nature of Things'.

Greenblatt begins with a framing narrative of how as an undergraduate he first found his copy of Lucretius at a university book sale and how his childhood was shaped by his overbearing, death-obsessed mother. 'How the Renaissance began' begins with how the Renaissance began for Greenblatt. In fact, the book doesn't deliver a satisfying answering to the question of the Renaissance's origin. Greenblatt's pitches his book at the general reader--nothing wrong in that--but the quest narrative of Poggio hunting for his book and the whole notion that one text 'started' the Renaissance is, well, a little contrived and I have to wonder why this book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2012. (Does the courtier have friends at court?)  Greenblatt's a fine storyteller but I'm not convinced by the simplicity of his tale.  The shining hook of the title is a bit of a swizz.

Here are some of the key ideas--Greenblatt rightly calls them 'challenges'--in Lucretius:

* Everything is made of invisible particles.

* The elementary particles of matter--the 'seeds of things'--are eternal.

* The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.

* All particles are in motion in an infinite void.

* Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve. (Swerve means a small unpredictable shift in movement; a tiny deviation.)

* The swerve is the source of free will.

* Nature ceaselessly experiments.

* The universe was not created for or about humans.

* Humans are not unique.

* Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival. 

* The soul dies.

* There is no afterlife.

* Death is nothing to us.

* All organized religions are superstitious delusions.

* Religions are invariably cruel.

* There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.

* The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

* The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.

* Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

Where Greenblatt's book does succeed is in its understatement and implications.  With none of the bombastic tub-thumping of Dawkins, Greenblatt's story raises the probing question of the cost of religious orthodoxy; what's the cost to us of following religious creeds and believing in an afterlife? What's the cost of thinking that the world is but a plaything for us humans?  If 'understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder' then Greenblatt has tapped into a key line of thought in our culture: we did not always unquestioningly believe in God or the divine right of humans.  Such questioning and love of free thought, along with the belief that there is but one life, although we are in some sense broken down and recirculated, is not an entirely modern invention. Such ideas and values have deep, powerful intellectual roots and have been already been potent forces in our history: the ending of the book at Thomas Jefferson is a masterstroke.  This could be considered a fragment of the untold intellectual history of America.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Lou Reed: The Biography. Victor Bockris

A few words about

Lou Reed: The Biography. Victor Bockris

A friend lent me this book. We we're listening to Reed's 'Kill Your Sons' and he told me that the song’s descriptions of electro-shock therapy were biographical. I had no idea.  Bockris begins with a vivid account of the young 16 year old Reed undergoing EST, supposedly forced on him by his family to help him deal with his sexual 'confusion' and wild mood swings. But the details behind the treatment are fuzzy.  Yet in other areas Bockris provides plenty of detail: Reed wanted to be a short story writer and a formative relationship for Lewis was with the  poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz, whose addictions were destroying him from the inside.

There's no doubt that the great svengali of high consumerist post-modernism, Andy Warhol, was a great focal point of the 60s and 70s. Unlike the hippies, Warhol rejected all forms of romanticism. He embraced consumerism, capitalism and the corporation: celebrity was a product; identity was a product. There was no other mission than the abolition of depth and feeling--the violence of the commodity.  Warhol’s work is an odd mirror and the end of the modernist project.  Looking back on all this self-fashioning and emptiness, you have to wonder about it's culpability and self-loathing. The image of the young junkie burning out says it all.  Bockris wallows in the squalor but fails to adequately acknowledge that this was a massive reaction to American hypocrisy; the drive for a new bohemia would be own which rejected the values of the 50s. Reed's songwriting has a brutality and power that deserves more recognition.

Bockris can't get away from his repugnance of Reed. His view of Reed is so twisted that we can't even pretend that this is a balanced biography. Here's a typically outrageous passage. Not only can Bockris read Lou's mind, he's convinced that Reed is best described as a blood-thirsty monster. Talk about 'over the top':

"The struggle to conquer and control was much more important to him than the possession, just as being a voyeur was becoming more important to him than natural sex.  Basically, Lou was incapable of maintaining any kind of normal, nuturing relationship. Like a shark, he had an urge to poke at bodies until he found a live one, then devour it as ferociously and completely as he could, letting the blood run down his chin." (66)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Call for submissions – JAAM 31: the 2013 issue

Call for submissions – JAAM 31: the 2013 issue

Submissions are now open for issue 31 of JAAM literary journal: The 2013 Issue.  This is an open-themed JAAM.  We want to hear what The 2013 Issue is for you.

JAAM considers poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, essays, photography and other artwork.
We are delighted to announce that JAAM 31 will be jointly edited by first-time guest editor, poet and teacher Harvey Molloy, along with JAAM‘s co-managing editor Clare Needham, who has previously been the prose editor for JAAM 24 and JAAM 28.

Harvey’s poetry has appeared in various literary journals. His first book of poems, Moonshot, was published by Steele Roberts in 2008.  He says: ‘This is an open issue, so there is no set theme.  That said, I do have a particular interest in the year 2013 as a set of simple questions: What is special about where we are now?  What are our choices and our values?  These questions are to encourage rather than deter. I’m really just looking for poems which are well-crafted and engaging.’

Clare is excited to edit the prose for JAAM 31 and to discover what issues are occupying the minds of writers in 2013. Clare is particularly interested in receiving creative non-fiction submissions, including essays. She says: ‘If you’re a new writer and hoping for first time publication, JAAM is a great place to submit. We believe in nurturing new writing and showcasing it alongside the work of more established artists.’
JAAM prefers emailed submissions. Send to, using ‘JAAM submission’ (or similar) in your subject line, so we know it’s not spam. Include your submission(s) in the body of your email. If you have particular formatting, you can also include your submissions in an attachment (.doc, .rtf, .pdf or any image file type is ok for images). If you don’t have email, you can post submissions to:

PO Box 25239
Wellington 6146
New Zealand

Make sure you include a stamped self-addressed envelope for reply.
The deadline for submissions is 31 March 2013, and JAAM 31 will be published in or around September 2013.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Death-Ray. Daniel Clowes

A rushed note on Daniel Clowes.

A great discovery for me this year in my reading has been the graphic novel art of Daniel Clowes. One of my favourite books of the year was the brilliant, funny, depressing and shocking character portrait of Wilson.  I've just read Clowes’ The Death Ray. It’s a short, powerful comic which re-works a number of conventional comic book elements: the superhero vigilante, the 'secret identity', the enacting of revenge.  What’s different here is the absolute believability of the story--all of which shows the brutality, injustice and feeling of inadequacy at work in the superhero myth.  Make no mistake: this very short work explores the psychology of the superhero with more conviction that Alan Moore’s Watchmen.  I can't say too much without spoiling the story but this book asks you to consider what you would do if you had the ability to zap people out of existence. It’s scary, creepy, brilliant. Daniel Clowes is my must read author of the year.

There's an interview with Daniel Clowes over at The A.V Club.