Monday, November 28, 2011

Normal avant-garde intellectuals

Stephen Greenblatt, in The Swerve, a book about Lucretius's classic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) emphasizes, according to Anthony Grafton in the New York Review of Books
... the curial humanists' spite and jealousy, which found expression in everything from vicious written attacks on one another to actual scuffles.  After one of these, George of Trebizond, a fellow scholar, wrote to Poggio [Bracciolini, a 15th-century book-hunter and scholar who found the text of Lucretius's poem]: "I could have bitten off the fingers you stuck in my mouth; I did not.  Since I was seated and you were standing, I thought of squeezing your testicles with both hands and thus lay you out: I did not do it."  Greenblatt finds these quarrels "grotesque," evidence of "something rotten" in the humanists' lives. To me, these grumpy scholars look like normal avant-garde intellectuals, caught in a pressure-cooker environment that forced them to spend time together even as they fought to reach their patrons' ear trumpets: not so unlike the young playwrights of Elizabethan London, or, for that matter, the young New York writers of a few generations ago, who resorted to knives as well as fists at the sort of party where, in John Berryman's words, "Somebody slapped / Somebody's second wife somewhere."
-- NYRB, December 8, 2011

Check out Ben Jonson's horribly corroded edition of De rerum along with other rare delights in this post at the Houghton Library blog!

Pictured: A few good old-fashioned intellectuals on the title page of De rerum...