Renaissance Quarterly Review: Passannante. The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition

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Reviewed work(s): Gerard Passannante. The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. 250 pp. $45. ISBN: 978–0–226–64849–1.
Jonathan Goldberg
Emory University
The Lucretian Renaissance is a somewhat elusive book, and this is the source of much of its strength. Eschewing Poggio Bracciolini’s rediscovery of the manuscript of De rerum natura as key to the Lucretian Renaissance “one might expect” since it is “the starting point of so many narratives” (17), Passannante performs his own swerve, beginning much earlier in order to make the stunning point that Lucretius was not lost to the Renaissance: Virgil transmitted him to Petrarch. This is the topic of the long first chapter of the book, “Extra Destinatum,” which moves in sympathy with a Petrarch drawn past his intentions into the orbit of Lucretius. This unexpected path recalls the plague that ends De rerum natura: “we discover in the shadow of Petrarch’s moving pen . . . an idea of contamination that silently undoes the figure of imitative control” (31). Passannante works “in the shadow” (itself a Lucretian trope) toward a silent undoing: tracing out what is elusive, he seeks what cannot be seen, the atomic particles that, for Lucretius, are the basis for everything. Passannante tropes these material substances as textual substance — a trope found over and again in Lucretius — insisting that the atomic order is a matter of elements, the same word in Latin for the letters that make up words. The troping contamination that undoes the trope of control is, by the chapter’s end, itself a figure for imitation. The plague in Lucretius figures the movement from Virgil to Petrarch, a movement “extra destinatum” since its passage is hardly a straightforward narrative, but one, as Passannante tells it, that passes through Macrobius, Gellius, Servius, and on to Poliziano, with whom the chapter ends.

Passannante’s path is philological, as his subtitle indicates: he follows movements from text to text, but not to endorse a story of a self-conscious making of tradition. Rather, contamination becomes the conveyor of tradition. The tradition Passannante has in mind is not Lucretian, however, but humanistic. Here too Passannante disclaims any interest in retelling a familiar story — “the question of atheism or impiety that has haunted Lucretius since antiquity” (9) — and his tale is not one of humanism versus Lucretius but of humanism haunted by Lucretius, a literary incorporation. Figurative contamination emerges finally as “The Pervasive Influence,” to cite the title of the final chapter (on Spenser, Gassendi, and Henry More). The phrase comes from Edwin Greenlaw’s early twentieth-century attempts to assess the influence of Lucretius on Spenser; Passannante faults Greenlaw only for trying too hard to pin down an influence, suggesting instead (but this is argued throughout, no matter the text) that we look “not so much on the surface of the poem as in the play of its simulacra” (163). The Latin term is drawn from Lucretius, who uses it to explain the limits of what we see, and, at the same time, how the visible can lead us to the invisible. Passannante looks to Lucretius for a model of influence, and specifically as a model for how texts come to be. As he tells it, they come from a starting point — call it Homer — difficult to locate, and pass through texts difficult to establish. The editorial dream of restoration to an original is replaced by the swerves. In Passannante’s account, we only find Montaigne after Lucretius’s text passes through the hands of several Renaissance editors (this is the subject of the book’s second chapter); Montaigne gets “Lucretius wrong,” but, if so, “one could say, Montaigne ironically captures something of the poet’s critical spirit” (115). Capturing textual instability is Montaigne’s method, Passannante’s too: like Bacon anatomizing Homer (the focus of chapter three), Passannante weaves his textual film through small-scale recognitions of tenuous Lucretian echoes. The destination of these endeavors is a redefinition in the name of Lucretius, whose name functions as a trope for continuity. If early in the book Lucretius stands for ruin and contamination, by the end Passanante grasps that Lucretian matter, however elusive, is all there is, and is inexhaustible. Material permanence is no guarantee that what continues will look the same.
In his epilogue, which, in its by now familiar method of unexpected swerves, starts with Newton, backtracks to Ralph Cudworth, and ends with Einstein, Passannante pauses for a moment to recall the work of one of his critical models, Thomas Greene, noting Derrida’s pun on the word dérive, which means both drift and derivation. The punning brings the two together in the kind of conservation Derrida himself practiced when he turned mischance into his own chance (mes chances). Passannante, ever alert to ironies and overturnings, brings things together that drive apart: his witty text offers a serio ludi that he calls the Lucretian Renaissance, but which might as easily be hailed as a renovated humanist philology.

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