the chance swerve: visions of madness

One curious statement about Lucretius appears, not in any contemporary or near-contemporary writer, but in the Christian chronicle of Saint-Jerome: that he was driven mad by a love philter administered by his wife, wrote his famous poem, The Nature of Things, in his lucid intervals, and committed suicide.

A distinguished English poet who had affinities with both Virgil and Lucretius, Alfred Tennyson, accepted this statement and converted it into a remarkable dramatic monologue called Lucretius- a soliloquy of great power and passion spoken by a thinker who finds himself struggling against the terrible visions of madness. We have no way of judging whether it is true or not: love philters were often used by Roman women, sometimes with dire effects. And certainly there is both in the fourth book of Lucretius’s poem and in Tennyson’s recreation of his troubled mind, an unusual, un-Roman, unphilosophical interest in sex and its aberrations.

Jan Steen.—Spinoza’s universe is generally taken as well-ordered; he urges human beings to an intellect unified with the whole of nature; and he writes the opposite of poetry, such as the dry and mathematically-arranged Ethics. We may push the contrast even further: for Spinoza, doubt – along with error and wonder – is fundamentally a privation of knowledge, signifying something that must be actively overcome through the intellect to achieve a better understanding. On the contrary, Lucretius urges us to doubt (and wonder, though not so much to err) so that we might see for ourselves the truth of things in our very doubting, or to discover something about the nature of human beings. In his great poem De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things) Lucretius writes: “It is more effective to gauge a person in times of doubt and danger, and to learn what they are like in adversity. —Read More:

In Book IV is a passage which looks as though it had been developed from Epicurus’s simple warning, “Sexual intercourse has never done anyone any good and may well have done harm,” into the idea that sexual activity was either a disagreeable routine, or a dangerous form of insanity, or … and again Lucretius drifts inconclusively away.

If we were to read the poem without knowledge of Jerome’s report, we might reach a similar, but simpler, conclusion. A poet who vacillates between lofty confidence in reason and feverish fascination with decay and death, whose arguments are often compulsively repetitive and sometimes trail away into half-comprehensible reveries, and whose final lines describe, with gruesome intensity, mania and death- was he not endeavoring, through meditation upon those doctrines which with great technical and linguistic skill he turned from hard Greek prose into rich Latin poetry, to liberate, not Memmius or his other readers, but himself, from the horror of great darkness? And did he succeed, or fail?

Pierre Bonnard painting.—Lucretius’ poem deals with at least two kinds of chance. The first is a cosmological ‘principle of creation’, without which “nature never would have created anything” (II 224). This principle is the clinamen, or chance swerve. The clinamen denotes when something moves just slightly off a determined course to create something else – in the original case, the universe. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Lucretius’ poem is the relationship between the swerve and human activity, and freedom. What is the relationship between the chance motions of the universe and human action? —Read More: image:


Meanwhile, Levi Bryant has a great post up on reading Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’). My favorite passage in this post (one which I entirely agree with) is his last:

With Lucretius, by contrast, we get nature as absolute interactive immanence where whatever comes to be is but one of the possibilities of nature. Within this nature there is no outside or other (there is no culture, for example, that is something “other” than nature), but rather there is just The Wild. Culture too is a part or manifestation of the wilderness. One cannot travel to the wilderness or wild because wherever one is they are already in the wild or wilderness. Our building of houses is no more unnatural than beavers building damns. And this conception of nature, without teleology or divinely decreed ought is the condition and mark of any genuinely emancipatory project.Read More:

Related Posts

This entry was posted in Art History/Antiquity/Anthropology, Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Literature/poetry/spoken word and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>