The answer, Lucretius thought, had to do with the power of the imagination. Though they are finite and mortal, humans are gripped by illusions of the infinite—infinite pleasure and infinite pain. The fantasy of infinite pain helps to account for their proneness to religion: in the misguided belief that their souls are immortal and hence potentially subject to an eternity of suffering, humans imagine that they can somehow negotiate with the gods for a better outcome, an eternity of pleasure in paradise. The fantasy of infinite pleasure helps to account for their proneness to romantic love: in the misguided belief that their happiness depends upon the absolute possession of some single object of limitless desire, humans are seized by a feverish, unappeasable hunger and thirst that can only bring anguish instead of happiness.
An ancient poem was rediscovered–and the world swerved.
The recovery of “On the Nature of Things” is a story of how the world swerved in a new direction. The agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall on an unknown continent. When it occurred, nearly six hundred years ago, the key event was muffled and almost invisible, tucked away behind walls in a remote place. A short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a shelf, and saw with excitement what he had discovered. That was all; but it was enough.
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Throughout the many medieval and Renaissance accounts of these voices or apparitions of the dead, there is a fairly standard pattern. The ghost generally appears shortly after death, while the memory of the deceased, usually a close relative or friend of the living person to whom the vision manifests itself, is still fresh. Ghostly apparitions, then, are quite distinct from the persistence of the dead through fame; hauntings are not about the dream of occupying a place in the memories of future generations, not about the longing to escape from the limitations of one’s own narrow life-world, not even about the craving for persistence that leads men to engrave their names on stone tablets. The spectral voice is not for strangers; it is for those who awake at midnight and think about the dead person whom they have loves, and wonder with mingled fear and hope about the fate of that person’s soul.
“Fifty years ago this fall, undergraduates were assigned their first Norton Anthology, often the only required text for a college freshman’s survey of English literature. Here, M. H. Abrams, the founding general editor, and Stephen Greenblatt, the current general editor, discuss the history of the anthology, the challenges facing English literature survey courses and the enduring question, Why study literature?”
Very cool, Abrams and Greenblatt on anthologies. [I’m not sure how to punctuate that sentence (.) (!) (?)]
While reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, I realized that an older book, one I had encountered in the past and debated in younger days, was groping its way out of my memory. The book whose specter had been raised by The Swerve was Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966). But why was the one book calling to the other? This question remained with me for weeks.