story, but that is about the extent of the internal consistency among the topics he selects. To a degree he relies on his own anecdotal experiences in the places he writes about. Holding these stories together is the main, though briefly stated, idea of the book – that 1493 marks the inception of what he calls the Homogenocene, a new biological era in which biota have mixed globally into a homogeneity. Biologist John Curnutt coined the term in 2000 to capture the unprecedented extent to which biological exchange has altered the biosphere. Biology was not the only science to start thinking this way. The same year atmospher ic chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen came up with the term Anthropocene to designate the geological aeon we currently inhabit in which the principal changes to the physical earth are the product of human activity. Anthropocene and Homogenocene are vivid signs of the rethinking that natural scientists are doing about the cumulative effects of Alfred Crosby’s Columbian exchange. They are also warnings. Mann is happy to celebrate the stunning diversity of what the Columbian exchange has ushered in – he calls the promiscuous mixing of peoples and cultures in the Americas ‘crazy soup’ – but he recognises that the breakdown of biological isolation favours blights and diseases as much as crops and communities. The Columbian
Th e He i r s o f L u c r e t i u s THE SWERVE: HOW THE RENAISSANCE BEGAN
By Stephen Greenblatt (Bodley Head 356pp £20)
THROUGHOUT THE 1980S and 1990s, S t ephen Greenblatt wrote a series of dazzling books that changed not just the face of Shakespeare studies, but our entire approach to the European Renaissance. Many students, myself included, chose an academic career in sixteenthcentury literature and history because of Greenblatt’s exciting New Historicism, a combination of anthropology, psychoanalysis and post-structuralism that seemed to offer a way out of the arid formalism of prevailing literar y cr iticism, and which provided a new way of understanding the relations between literature and its historical context. Greenblatt wrote of the ‘circulation of social energy’ in Renaissance England, and of how the theatre in particular defined – as much as it reacted to – pressing issues of the time such as political absolutism, colonisation, sexuality, witchcraft and fear s exchange must eventually complete itself, he warns, ‘taking away what it once gave’. Mann’s ecological umbrella shelters an enormous array of historical material stretching from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, an approach not unlike ‘crazy soup’ itself. Whatever is at hand goes into the pot, and as new things turn up, they go in as well. Some readers enjoy feisty incoherence and tumultuous variety, though when too many flavours are served up, it is sometimes hard to taste anything. Half of knowing what material to include in a popular history is deciding what to leave out. Rather than rely on his own persona as the unifying device, the author might have stinted on a few ingredients and given us a broth with a more distinctive taste – but that would not have been this book.
Credit is still due. Charles Mann gives us the version of the Columbian outcome that our era calls for. The straight line we used to draw from 1492 to a triumphant Western present now meanders through a great many places with no obvious single destination and no clear moral when we get there. With this change in plan has come the dizzying realisation that the only sound way to understand who and what we are is to absorb the history of the entire globe and think again. To order this book for £20, see LR bookshop on page 20
surrounding strangers or aliens such as Jews, Turks, and American Indians. Thanks in part to Greenblatt, these issues are now central to the teaching of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
As well as offer ing definitive interpretations of key works such as More’s Utopia, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, and most of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Greenblatt’s work stressed two things. First, the self was historically conditioned: the sixteenth century offered a particularly acute moment when writers and public figures struggled to ‘fashion’ their identity and sustain the illusions that they were its principal makers. He concluded from this that there could be no appeal to genius as the sole origin of great art or literature. Secondly, Greenblatt rejected the traditional understanding of the Renaissance as the disinterested pursuit of beauty and a glorious flowering of the individual will. He embraced the use of ‘early modern’ to descr ibe the per iod from 1400 to 1600: rather than looking backwards to the rebirth of classical values, this was an era that anticipated the emergence of modernity. Greenblatt argued that a resolutely dialectical change took place: individuality was celebrated, but also subject to increased state surveillance and restr ictions; social mobility was on the rise, but the strictures placed on the family were greater than ever; art became more innovative, but was also subject to prescriptive patronage and censorship.
Thanks to scholars like Greenblatt, biographical celeb r a t i ons o f t he per s onal i t i e s and g l o r i e s o f t he
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011