by Ayten Tartici
Published by University of California Press, 2008 | 320 pages
A poppy seed if you touch it will roll
downhill exactly the way that water will.
Lucretius’s poppy seed is so smooth its rolling is a trickling. It is so dryly, lightly compact that it can be set in motion with a fingertip. His lines’ caressing liquid consonants make this cluster of qualities seem self-evident. Lucretius’s aim here is to make you feel your granularity and fragmentation. It is also to make you love this fragmentation more than the hooks and walls you create to prevent yourself from spilling over your desired limits.
The Roman poet-philosopher’s basic premise in The Nature of Things, one he takes pains to derive from Epicurus and to distinguish from the claims of other pre-Socratics, is that the world is made of infinite space and of loosely moving tiny atoms that alternately bunch together and fly apart. There is no purpose to their motion beyond mere accident. No purpose—most emphatically, no anthropocentric purpose—is also inherent in the increasingly complex living things these atoms sometimes cluster into.
Nothing came into existence in order that we might use it,
but rather those things created the use to which we put them.
You’ll admit that before there were eyes, there could not have been sight.
There was no speaking of words before there were any tongues.
The tongues came first, and these we learned to use to form
It is not that we have eyes because a higher power or a principle of harmony required us to see. Rather, that we see is the corollary of what were at first accidental atomic collisions. These movements eventually constellated into forms whose properties include the capacity to keep refueling and perpetuating themselves. It is this capacity for self-replenishment in the face of your continued fragmentation that Lucretius calls life.
If we only consider who we are through this innate urge to preserve ourselves, we lock our lives in fear and suffering. The restlessness of the particles we are made of seems to conflict with our deepest goals and to keep pushing us toward death as our bodily forms’ final failure. Lucretius’s (and Epicurus’) insight is that another perspective exists from which our instability becomes a source of joy and wonder rather than of suffering. It is possible, says Lucretius, to see yourself not as a single form that time whittles away at but as a series of forms that move through random cycles of incipience, shifting, and collapsing. These forms’ metamorphoses—and even their final breakdown and scattering in death—are not negations of who we are but our changing, miraculously reemerging expressions and fulfillments. Once we adopt this view the atoms we despair we cannot hold together start to pace out the rhythm of our personal purpose and history. This history is only the series of accidents in and out of which we have been falling. But these accidents are suddenly enough to make us make sense to ourselves, enough precisely because we no longer pretend we should be made of more stable stuff. In rejecting such pretenses we suddenly fall into ourselves with a precision and acceptance we had not known before—and this precision and acceptance, this harmony in and with our fragmentation, is now sufficient to hold us and to stay our fear of losing ourselves (here Stephen Greenblatt is right—and I look forward to seeing how his most recent book, The Swerve, will complicate the following sketch of Lucretius’s atomism).
Thus, Lucretius mocks infatuated lovers whose surging blood makes them see their beloveds as divine and their virtues as unchanging. But he admires the persistent humility of a love that gradually comes to understand and build bridges between two persons’ shifting imperfections; a love that understands itself as a changing of shape rather than as a revelation of perfect shapeliness:
Love arises from that habituation: a blow,
however slight, if it’s struck over and over again,
will have its effect, as drops of water will wear away
over the months and years the most perdurable stone.
Love is only one among Lucretius’ many subjects. The Nature of Things, like its sprawling title, roams everywhere. Lucretius expounds on principles of physics and of affection; on death and the formation of thunderbolts. Out of a chaos of associations hypotheses emerge that leave the reader alternately amused and dazzled. Lucretius sounds like the ancient Greek philosopher we expect him to be—then like a mythmaker—then like a twentieth-century physicist. His focus is not on individuals but on types, genres, and cyclical phases of material motion as well as of plant, animal, and human life.
All this sounds like a humanist individualism out of Montaigne or even out of Proust. The Nature of Things is not quite that—if only because its focus is on the genus and not the individual, and the best kind of understanding it propounds is radically universal rather than radically particular. For Lucretius we have the power to relate in better or worse fashion to the phases of life we fall into, but not significantly to change these phases from their human norm. We acquire wisdom and happiness by recognizing that we are all made of the same kinds of shifts in tiny matter—not by latching onto special details of our lives that would be equivalent to Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine. But many of Proust’s and Montaigne’s later celebrations of human uniqueness are indeed incipient in Lucretius’s amused, relieved equanimity—so that it is not surprising, and definitely right, that it is in Lucretius that scholars such as Stephen Greenblatt seek the roots and genealogies of these later positive philosophies of life’s disorder. It is also not surprising that one can find Lucretius’s universalizing, philosophic tone some of the starkest but also most soothing acknowledgements of the finality and fragmentation of death. Perhaps it takes this slightly more detached, genus-driven love of our lives’ rushing and meandering—more detached for example than Proust’s neurotic sensibility—to make a full awareness of its chaotic movements give you more pleasure than pain.
The lines quoted above are all taken from David R. Slavitt’s most recent translation of The Nature of Things. His translation is also the immediate occasion for this review. Slavitt goes against several prior scholars in choosing to translate Lucretius into verse rather than into prose—to mirror for his non-Latinate readers, he explains, not just Lucretius’s content but also the formal experience of interacting with his philosophy as with an epic poem. In addition to preserving Lucretius’s form, Slavitt claims to follow all his vacillations and excesses of style—from the raunchiest to the most incantatory. At times you can sense Slavitt strain against this twin requirement of variety and meter. Alongside pellucid lines he lets remain ones that seem cluttered with adverbs and relative clauses (even the second of the two lines about poppy seeds suffers slightly from this cluttering). While some of Slavitt’s slang in Lucretius’s bawdy passages will make you smile, at other times its recently-outdated range leaves you uncomfortable. But overall Slavitt’s delivery is sharp and clear, and his control of both Lucretius’s flourish and his concepts is admirable. For a first introduction to The Nature of Things, one could hardly do better than this book.
Marta Figlerowicz is a graduate student in English at the University of California, Berkeley. Her criticism and creative writing have appeared in, among others, New Literary History, Dix-huitieme siecle, Prooftexts, The Harvard Advocate, and The Harvard Book Review.