Hard truths and honey: A mythic master class with Stephen Greenblatt

Primavera (detail), Botticeli (1482)

Primavera (detail), Botticeli (1482)

When you look at Botticelli’s painting Primavera (detail,  above), what do you notice?

Scantily-clad ladies dancing like they’re at Woodstock?

Images of the Eternal Feminine?

Zephyrus wearing a creepy gray bogeyman costume?

Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World and The Swerve, notices something else entirely.

For him, the painting contains a kind of survival.

greenblatt“What you see here is a ‘xenograft,’ ” he told an audience last week at Claremont McKenna College. An image of Primavera was projected on a screen behind him. “What this painting contains is a grafting of one thing into another in order to keep it alive.”

The “thing” in question is the pagan worldview nearly smothered by the Holy Mother Church for centuries. His prize-winning The Swerve tells the story of how  the Latin poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius — a stunning exemplar of that view — was nearly lost in that climate of intolerance, forgotten on a shelf in a German monastery … until the book hunter Poggio Bracciolini came along and rediscovered it in the 15th century.

Greenblatt’s visit was nothing less than a master class. If he was using notes, I sure didn’t see them. He moved easily between references to antiquity and the present day — and so easily around the actual stage, too — that I couldn’t help thinking, Man, this is how it’s done.

Greenblatt also moved nimbly from that epic poem’s shocking revelations — that God doesn’t exist, the natural world is built from atoms, nature is in constant flux and full of mutations, organized religion is brutal, our souls will come apart when we do — to a very simple question:

“How,” he asked, “did stuff like this manage to survive? How was the intolerable tolerated?”

The answer: Because it was wrapped up as poetry.

Or, as Lucretius himself explains, near the beginning of Book IV:

For just as doctors, who must give vile wormwood
with sweet and golden honey: thus the child,
young and unknowing, is tricked and brought to set
the cup to his lip; meanwhile, he swallows the bitter
wormwood, and though deceived is not infected,
but by this trick grows well and strong again:
so now, since my philosophy often seems
a little grim to beginners … I wished to tell
my tale in sweet Pierian song for you,
to paint it with the honey of the Muses….

(from a translation by Frank O. Copley, published by W.W. Norton)

Greenblatt went on to explain other reasons why the poem was copied and not destroyed, but the power of art was the one reason that stayed with me long after Greenblatt’s speech was over.

My friends, this was really inspiring to me. It’s what I wanted to share with you. Here’s another reason why we write and try to create other forms of art. Because art stands a greater chance of survival thanks to the fact that people often tend to revere what they don’t understand.

Which is why Botticelli could employ pagan imagery or Shakespeare give atomic views to Mercutio (his Queen Mab speech) with some measure of impunity. The world treats art and dogma differently.

Hard truths, in other words, are much easier to swallow with a bit of honey.

Wait a minute, does that mean that Mary Poppins read De Rerum Natura? That 1964 film just might be another version of Lucretian survival! Move over Botticelli!

Mary-Poppins

Such a cute pagan!

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7 responses

  1. Great piece, very interesting, about both the painting and the poem. -the first I know well, the second hardly at all, so that was especially interesting.

    Speaking of Botticelli’s work, do you see how the “gaps” between the trees, are full of the silhouette of leaves and branches, and how these shapes seem to form an almost abstract, semi-geometric pattern? It looks strange to me, highly distinctive and therefore possibly, possibly, significant.

    anyway, thank you for a very interesting piece.
    regards- Arran.

  2. I didn’t see it until you pointed it out Arran. Very cool and intriguing. I agree with you that they must mean something: I doubt that Botticelli left anything to random chance. Nice hearing from you.

  3. It’s pretty amazing to be in the presence of such a shimmering mind. To borrow my son’s phrase: sometimes my brain feels like it’s stuck behind a titanium door that’s closed.

    I also think that there are always individuals “in the system” who may buy in to banning or destruction incompletely, knowing in their hearts that works of art should be allowed to exist for the sake of existence. So they hide the works and their hopes for some distant future.

  4. I like your thinking, Jil: maybe those monks did realize that even heretical works of art shouldn’t be destroyed. So they’re conveniently forgotten on a shelf instead. I think Greenblatt would appreciate that. I like your son’s line. I think I felt the same titanium door as I watched the sublime Professor G talk as casually about the antique past as I do about a meal I just ate.

  5. Pingback: Second only to Paris … 700 years ago, that is | Call of the Siren

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