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Stephen Greenblatt
Associated Press/Photo by Michael Dwyer
Stephen Greenblatt

Treadmill swerve

Books | When insanity wins awards

Issue: "The new urban frontier," March 9, 2013

Guy Condon, a friend and a visionary pro-life leader in the 1980s and 1990s, once talked with me about his fear of nonexistence, which he felt strongly since he almost died before birth. Guy did die in an auto accident on Nov. 11, 2000. It’s important to me that he still exists. It’s important to me that I will still exist after death. 

Existence, though, is apparently unimportant to Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve (Norton, 2011), which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Greenblatt also gained praise from an NPR reviewer who called The Swerve “a wonder” and a Los Angeles Times critic who called it “wondrous.” Many other reviewers also went ape over the book, which left Boston Globe critic Buzzy Jackson “inspired.” 

I reviewed The Swerve in 2011, before it gained such encomia, and was unimpressed. I don’t recall previously burdening long-suffering WORLD readers with two reviews of the same book, but I wanted to look again: Why would this book about an ancient book buzz Buzzy Jackson and panels of prize-givers? Was I wrong to pan it?

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I’ve concluded, to quote Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, “Either I’m dead right, or I’m crazy.” (To which Senator MacPherson replies, “You wouldn’t care to put that to a vote, would you?”) I might with fear and trembling put that to a vote of WORLD readers but I wouldn’t submit to a Pulitzer panel, because with my submission would come a suggestion—derived from Walker Percy, who won a National Book Award a half-century ago—that latter-day awardee Greenblatt is both dead wrong and crazy. 

Greenblatt, an atheist, praises the ancient atheist writer Lucretius, who purportedly made it possible “to live an ethical life without reference to postmortem rewards and punishments; to contemplate without trembling the death of the soul.” Here’s Greenblatt’s catechism: “If you can hold on to and repeat to yourself the simplest fact of existence—atoms and void and nothing else, atoms and void and nothing else, atoms and void and nothing else—your life will change.”

Lucretius, Greenblatt writes, was so wise that he mocked those dying and saddened by the thought that “never again will your dear children race for the prize of your first kisses and touch your heart with pleasure too profound for words.” Lucretius offered these words of supposed comfort: “You will not care, because you will not exist.” Greenblatt argues that contemporary atheism is great because “the fear of some horrendous punishment waiting for one in a realm beyond the grave no longer weighs heavily on most modern men and women.” Really? Isn’t nonexistence punishment?

Greenblatt does quote one ancient Roman opponent of such thinking, Cicero, who wrote about “the dread of perishing. … To be told that one perishes completely and forever, soul as well as body, is hardly a consolation.” But Greenblatt never comes to grips with that, and merely praises the dying Epicurus for (according to his followers) “achieving serenity of spirit by recalling all of the pleasures he had experienced in his life.” That wouldn’t have made Guy Condon serene, and it wouldn’t work on me—think of all the endless wonders I’d be missing!

And that brings me to Walker Percy’s worth-repeating note about insanity: “The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion how he got here, a world in which he … grows old, gets sick, and dies, and is quite content to have it so … as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying off by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him in no time at all.”

Lucretius and Greenblatt want us to be serene as we’re heading toward a cliff (far worse than the fiscal one) at 200 mph and no brakes. That’s crazy. Happily, God gives us an alternative.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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