Arts, Culture & Media

Steven Greenblatt wins Pulitzer for non-fiction

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Stephen Greenblatt is an American author, theorist and the Harry Levin Professor of Literature at Harvard University. (Photo courtesy of Peripitus via Wikimedia Commons.)

The 2012 Pulitzer Prize award winners were announced Monday and among them was Harvard literature Professor and author Stephen Greenblatt.

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Greenblatt's book, "The Swerve" begins some time in the middle of the first century B.C., when Roman poet Lucretius wrote "On the Nature of Things," a visionary and modern interpretation of the universe.

In "On the Nature of Things," Lucretius explored the idea of the atom, proposed that life does not serve a divine purpose and dispelled the idea of intelligent design. Over 2,000 years his radical poem has been destroyed, hidden, translated, and this year given new life by Greenblatt.

Greenblatt said he came upon Lucretius' writing spontaneously when he was a student hunting for summer reading.

"Many, many years ago when I was a student I used to rummage around in the bins of used books at the end of the year at Yale," Greenblatt said. "One day I turned up a book, a paperback, for 10 cents, called "On the Nature of Things." I was attracted to it because it had a weird slightly off-color image on the cover. When at some point over the summer I started to read it, I was amazed."

Greenblatt was moved by both the style and content of Lucretius' writing.

"It's extraordinarily beautiful. It's got absolutely remarkable, passionate visions of Venus and Mars, of dreams of pleasure, of accounts of sacrifice, of chilling descriptions of plague," Greenblatt said. "But more importantly than that, I was amazed to discover that it articulated many of the core principles of the universe I thought hadn't been secured until the 19th and 20th centuries."

In his writing, Lucretius expounded on principles of physics, Epicurean philosophy, and pushed the idea that the soul is made out of the same atoms as the body. 

According to Greenblatt, Lucretius' provocative poem fell out of favor and out of circulation for centuries, until it was discovered in the early 15th century by the Italian writer Poggio Bracciolini.  Bracciolini found "On the Nature of Things" at a German Monastery and began to quietly circulate it to likeminded scholars in Florence. 

Lucretius' writing stood in stark contrast to the dominant Christian beliefs of early 15th century Europe, Greenblatt said.  The power of the church kept readers of Lucretius from vocalizing their support for his ideas, but the text continued to gain popularity, particularly after the advent of the printing press.

The subtitle of Greenblatt's book "How the World Became Modern," points to the idea that Lucretius' poem played a significant role in the modernization of thought during the Renaissance. 

"There are currents from this book that pass like electric currents through some of the figures most important to us in the Renaissance," Greenblatt said. "Through Machiavelli, Botticelli. There are odd traces of it in Shakespeare. It is circulating in a careful, canny, disturbing way."

Greenblatt said Lucretius' writing assisted in spreading the tenets of secular belief in the late 15th century.

"The idea that the meaning of life doesn't depend on the afterlife. The idea that humans are free. That we live in a universe in which we can pursue pleasure. These were ideas that were not shared in the religious culture to which this text returned," Greenblatt said.

Lucretius' ideas have survived for two thousand years and were able togain traction during a period when Christian thought was dominant. Goldblatt attributed the longevity of Lucretius' text to its beauty.

"Even Lucetius himself says 'why am I writing this as a poem? Because the poetry will be like the honey that a physician smears around a cup to make the patient drink something with pleasure that might otherwise taste too bitter.' And that seems to have worked," Greenblatt said. "How can you get people to accept ideas that seem at first difficult or painful? Lucretius thought that the answer was to use the power of art to trigger people's sense of deep wonder."

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