The Swerve

I once went to book sale.  It was at a local library.  I searched through the boxes and was immediately drawn to the old covers – you know the ones I mean, gold printing, leather bound, and that unmistakable smell of ‘age.’    It’s the best I can do to be that ‘explorer’ that I really wanted to be.  No ancient tombs for me, no digs, no adventures for me.   The name of the book is NEW CAESAR WITH VOCABULARY by Allen and Grenough.  It was a secondary education book, when Latin was a requirement (can you believe it?)  The editors of the book point out that special attention has been given to indirect discourse, the ‘bugbear’ (anyone know what a bugbear is?) of LATIN education.  The spine is shredded.  At one time it was the property of the Oakdale School Board.  Inside are the signatures of two owners.  One, ‘Capt. R.E. Lytle’ and the other is Harry F. Baumann, at 1013 Pear Avenue, in Pittsburg.

The copyright is 1886 and throughout the book are the best illustrated maps and drawings of the ancient world I have ever seen.

Gallia Antiqua is a map on the first couple of pages.  The map is a gorgeous piece of artwork, frame-able (I would like to frame it, but I can’t bring myself to destroy a book).   It’s the type of map that makes you feel a thousand years closer to that ancient world, even though the point of reference when it was drawn was only a hundred and fifty years  ago – more or less.   There are additional maps of the campaigns of Caesar with a red line showing his movements through Gaul and Britain.

What can I say, I’m a romantic.

And so – I believe – is Poggio Bracciolini.   In the year of 1487 there was an unemployed papal secretary that was hunting for books.  This is the true adventurer, and his story is told by Stephen Greenblatt in his book THE SWERVE.

You have to imagine a world where knowledge is held by monasteries or only by the very rich.  In this world the writings of Cicero, Plautus, and Epicurius are hidden in basements, in lock boxes and behind high walls.  Now, think about it, the knowledge of the ancients is slowly disappearing, mold and bugs are the enemies of paper, as well as the occasional fire.   The lack of instruction and education takes out from society the desire for reading.  Church doctrine and the suspicious of ‘pagan’ rites, including ignorance, make the keeping of pagan writings unimportant, and paper itself is valuable and tales of gods and observations by pagan philosophers are overwritten by the righteous and the holy.

And soon you have this man in 1487 riding through Germany in the time of kingdoms, where travel is dangerous (robbers, brigands, and wars running back and forth across the countryside) and people look upon strangers with suspicion.  Poggio was a man with a hidden mission, to discover ancient writings.  Forget the DaVinchi Code, this is made up adventuring, let’s look at the Poggio Code, a man who actually in a time of suspicion and contempt for knowledge searched out to discover the forgotten knowledge of a people who lived thousands of years before.    This is the stuff of legends.  Forget the fictional crap, Poggio is a 14 century Indiana Jones that actually lived.

The basis of Green blatt’s book is the finding of a manuscript by Lucretius called ON THE NATURE OF THINGS.  A poem – of all things – that oddly has the subject of science:

“Nothing ever springs miraculously from nothing…”

“Matter exists in the form of invisible particles…”

Atoms? Note* I believe the term he used were ‘seeds.’

“All atoms are in constant motion…”

“Time has no independent existence; rather from events themselves is derived a sense of what has occurred in time past, of what is happening at the present, and of what is to follow in the future.”

It is a book of ‘ancient physics’ and how the ancients saw the world.   And for something that was written by a people that only had a technology that employed geometry, mathematics and the blood of slaves, it is almost mind boggling that they were able to conceive the existence of the atom and such things as “…the universe is infinite, there can be no center…”

Imagine Poggio translating this.  Imagine how his pen must have hesitated in copying each line.  An adventure in the waiting…”What’s this?  What’s this?”

The Swerve is a national book award winner.  Greenblatt is an descriptive writer, that gives you the context to understand the importance of Poggio’s contribution.

Stephen Greenblatt gives us a unique perspective of the world of the 14th century and how the thoughts of the 1st and 2nd were saved from oblivion.

Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it’s not kings, celebrities or politicians that change ‘The Nature of Things’ (De Rerum Natura).  Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it is the quiet guy, with his stylus and his octopi ink writing out his manuscript from his thoughts and observations of the world about him – unimpeded by superstition or fear.  Maybe it’s even the guy pondering the face of the universe as his piece of chalk moves across the black graphite on a Sunday morning with the windows open to feel the spring breeze on his back.  Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it is the geeky looking guy in his parent’s garage outback tinkering with computer boards that unleashes an industry that changes how we work and see the world.  Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it’s simply the book hunter on a back of a donkey going from monastery to monastery in search of the past.

I hope so.

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