BMCR 2020.11.05

Lectures de Lucrèce

, Lectures de Lucrèce. Histoire des idées et critique littéraire, 502. Genève: Librairie Droz, 2019. Pp. 472. ISBN 9782600059367 €55,92 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The volume under review is the latest in a spate of recent monographs and edited volumes investigating aspects of the reception of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.  Given the early modern succès de scandale of the DRN and its importance for theorists from Gassendi to Deleuze, the topic has an inherent interest. Despite the work of scholars like Alison Brown, Liza Blake, Jacques Lezra, and Ryan Johnson, much of Lucretius’ reception history remains to be written.  Lectures de Lucrèce, a capacious and wide-ranging collection, promises to fill in many of the blanks on this map.[1]

Where the contributions fulfil this promise, they teach us important things about how past readers interpreted a text that, surprisingly, seemed less modern to them than it does now to many of us.  Where they fall short, they fail in ways that highlight some of the inherent difficulties of interdisciplinary reception studies.  All the pieces in this volume at least construct points of contact (interests, topics, et al.) between modern writers and Lucretius.  One may debate the value of that exercise, but most scholars working in classical reception also try to trace the implications of these contacts for our, or for the receiving author’s, reading of an ancient text.  That is, however, a standard that many chapters in Lectures de Lucrèce do not meet, leaving one to wonder how, or whether, these modern receptions of Lucretius matter.

Sylvie Ballestra-Puech’s editorial introduction (7-52) provides a useful overview of recent reception scholarship on Lucretius across a range of languages and national traditions.  We see that, while much has been written on Early Modern and Enlightenment receptions of the DRN, the ninetenth century remains underexamined.  This period is the focus of the volume’s first and most valuable section, “La science enchantée.”  The volume’s remaining two sections are more loosely organized.  “Déclinaisons de l’Épicurisme” traces the postclassical reception of Lucretian ethics, while “Poésie de la nature et nature de la poésie” explores the utility of Lucretius for constructing a modernist or postmodernist aesthetics.

The originary role of Lucretius for modern science has been emphasized by much existing scholarship (and dramatically overstated in popularizations like Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve).  The essays contained in “La science enchantée” provide a salutary counterbalance to this consensus. Although this section also contains treatments of medieval and early modern texts, its most outstanding contributions all address Lucretius’ ambiguous position in the thought-world of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century science.  Jean D’Hombres begins this sequence with a stimulating study of Lucretius’ passage out of the scientific mainstream at the end of the Enlightenment (123-125).  New methodological commitments to determinism, quantification and experiment made Lucretius’ brilliant deductions seem increasingly passé, not to say useless for investigators working within the bounds of normal science.  D’Hombres outlines a new consensus devaluing Lucretius as a scientist, in light of which we have to re-interpret some apparently complimentary references to Lucretius in post-enlightenment scientific discourse.  D’Hombres illustrates that latter task by example, concluding his essay with the suggestion that D’Alembert’s comparison of the naturalist Buffon to “Platon et Lucrèce” should be understood, not as praise, but as a subtle dig at Buffon’s failure to set zoology on the kind of mathematical footing that was becoming de rigueur in the other nascent disciplines.

The picture D’Hombres paints of Lucretius’ declining reputation in an age of science is one that the two essays following his also confirm.  Hugues Marchal’s contribution (127-159), a study of nineteenth-century French scientific poetry that combines close and distant reading techniques, begins with a question raised by the philosopher Elme-Marie Caro: how can we combine Lucretius with Newton?  Newton stands here for the type of experimentally-derived and mathematically-formalized determinism that nineteenth-century readers were beginning to perceive as missing from the De rerum natura. The answer at which Marchal arrives is that the split between Newton and Lucretius tended to widen during the 1900s despite the best efforts of poets to cross it.  In their works, Lucretian intertexts offer a kind of rest and relaxation from more technical, didactic passages;  as a source of scientific knowledge the older poet has gone by the wayside, and poetry finds itself in an increasingly ancillary position vis-à-vis its scientific contents.  By the end of the century, the didactic project has largely been ceded to prose.

These two essays tell the final chapter in the long story of the transformation of the DRN from natural philosophy into literature.  Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond’s contribution, “Les atomes de Lucrèce, vingt siècles après” (161-179), highlights the magnitude of the shift.  Lévy-Leblond, a working physicist, speaks with clarity and authority on the disjunction between Lucretian and modern atomic theories, two theories that students (and sometimes teachers) of Lucretius’ DRN are all too eager to conflate.  Most strikingly, Lévy-Leblond points out that touch, the paradigm for sensory experience as for atomic interactions in the DRN, is effectively not possible according to the world-picture of modern physics. By virtue of its interest in re-estranging the seemingly familiar atomic theory of Lucretius, this essay might thus make a useful addition to undergraduate DRN syllabi.

The next section, “Déclinaisons de l’Épicurisme,” contains a series of essays focusing on the reception of Lucretius as an Epicurean philosopher.  Of these, two—one by Jonathan Pollock on Shakespeare (237-253), and another by Aurelie Moioli on Ugo Foscolo (255-277)—strike me as having real value for specialists in those authors.  The first, which develops ideas set forth in earlier essays by Pollock on the same topic, explores Shakespeare’s complex use of Lucretius in Lear and Measure for Measure to question the possibility of consolation in a godless universe.  Pollock concludes that, when it comes to Lucretius, allusion is not endorsement: Shakespeare treats the DRN as a blueprint for hell.   Moioli elucidates Foscolo’s use of Lucretius by way of a different, more biographical methodology that tracks that poet’s youthful engagement with (and subsequent turn away from) the pessimism of the DRN.

Many of the essays in this section (and elsewhere in the volume) deal with figures from contemporary French culture who are, in many cases, new to this reviewer.  Of those essays, many—for example, Ondine Bréaud-Holland’s “Clément Rosset lecteur de Lucrèce” (291-303)—demonstrate the value of reception studies by reconstructing a conversation between modern writer and ancient intertext in a way that illuminates one or both.  Bréaud-Holland makes a convincing case that the gradual disappearance of Lucretius from Rosset’s philosophical writings is symptomatic of a progressive “relativization” of materialist science in Rosset’s philosophy.  By following the traces of Lucretius in Rosset’s philosophical writings, we recognize a tendency in Rosset’s intellectual development that would otherwise have been difficult to spot.

Other contributions take a different, less interpretive approach.  Some, like Françoise Sylvan-Renucci’s essay on the singer-songwriter H.F. Thiéfaine (211-234), amount to enumerations of surface parallels that shed little light on the modern artist’s methods for using antiquity.  Some of these parallels—as between Lucretius’ flos flammai and Thiéfaine’s “fleur de flame” (232) suggest a fruitful engagement with Lucretius’ language on Thiéfaine’s part.  But does Thiéfaine’s evocation of a “danse des neutrons” (229) do any such thing, especially against the background of modern atomism?  Supposing we do count something so tenuous as a reception of the DRN, what does a heap of such receptions amount to?  A demonstration, says Sylvan-Renucci, that Thiéfaine possesses a “connaissance approfondie du De rerum natura” (234), and that his lyrics project the Lucretian project in a reduced form.  This may be true; however, one wants to know not only that Thiéfaine uses Lucretian language and ideas, but also how and why he uses them.

Not every attempt to answer such questions succeeds.  Évrard Delbey’s “Pascal Quignard et André Comte-Sponville, lecteurs divergents de Lucrèce? Le sexe et l’éthique” (305-334) highlights the bibliographical and research difficulties inherent in reception studies.  The author contends that a reading of Lucretius via Quignard reveals a “caecum signum” (332) at the heart of Lucretius’ enlightenment program: conception and birth remain obscure and invisible, a prenatal mystery that humans are constitutionally unable to solve.  That argument is grounded in a reading of DRN 4, but is substantially undermined by passages in DRN 3 and 5 that treat conception and birth using the Lucretian vocabulary of atomism.[2]  Delbey might have produced a more nuanced argument by engaging with the substantial secondary literature on Lucretius’ difficult relationship to sexual pleasure,[3] none of which[4] is cited here.  The author’s unfamiliarity with the DRN and its associated specialist bibliography thus vitiates a promising line of comparison.

Is it possible to write well about classical reception without knowing the classics at least as thoroughly as the modern authors you’re treating?  One may doubt it, but, if such a thing were to be attempted, one would want to follow the model proposed by part three of this volume.  “Poésie de la nature et nature de la poésie” consists of essays aiming to expose a “Lucretian aesthetic” at work in various modern poets and artists.  The approach is a promising one, especially as aesthetics remains an understudied aspect of Lucretius’ thought.  Here too, the contributions are of mixed quality.  Some, again, proceed by a kind of compare-and-contrast methodology that does little to illuminate either a specifically Lucretian aesthetics or its modern inheritors.  We gain little, for instance, by noticing casual similarities between Stephane Mallarmé’s and Lucretius’ views on chance (as in Pierre Ouellet’s contribution (349-365) and, with an additional focus on Pierre Reverdy, that of Philippe Marty (367-377)).  Do Mallarmé’s ideas stem from a reading of Lucretius?  Are Lucretius’ poetics aleatoric in a way that anticipates modernism?  Such questions remain unasked and unanswered in favor of a merely attitudinal juxtaposition.

By contrast, Bénédicte Gorillot’s essay, “De terre surgiraient des arbres” (Lucrèce): trente-deux dessins à la plume de Christine Chamson,” (403-411) deserves special mention for its careful exploration of Chamson’s drawings as a form of exegesis of the DRN.  Chamson interprets the DRN as a poem of leaps and bounds, a reading that appears to inform a series of tree drawings which Gorillot subjects to careful and incisive analysis.  The cover illustration for the volume is one of these, but more figures would have been useful; I was able to understand Gorillot’s essay only with the aid of a google image search.

In general, the volume is well-formatted.  The editor has provided an index and a general bibliography, the latter certainly a desideratum in a volume of this range and size.  Occasional typos do not interfere with the sense of the French text, though Latin quotations sometimes contain significant errors.[5]  Scholars concerned with Lucretius’ place in the history of science will find this volume an important resource, as will those with an interest in the particular modern authors whose engagement with Lucretius this volume is the first to highlight.

Table of Contents

Sylvie Ballestra-Puech “Lucrèce tel qu’en lui-même ses lecteurs le changent” (7-52)

Alice Lamy, “Lucrèce et les mystères du monde à la période médiévale: la réception épique de savoirs inspirants” (55-77)
Hélène Casanova-Robin, “Giovanni Pontano lecteur de Lucrèce : volupté poétique et savoir philosophique” (79-102)
Jean D’Hombres, “Usages de Lucrèce dans le débat scientifique du xviiie siècle sur la nécessité des lois de la nature et le déterminisme” (103-125)
Hugues Marchal, “Hommages et contournements: Lucrèce dans la poésie scientifique française au xixe siècle” (127-159)
Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, “Les atomes de Lucrèce, vingt siècles après” (161-190)
Sylvie Ballestra-Puech, “Un neuf De rerum natura ? Jacques Réda, lecteur de Lucrèce dans La Physique amusante” (191-210)
Françoise Salvan-Renucci, “«Dans le tumultueux chaos des particules»: l’empreinte du De rerum natura dans le discours poétique des chansons de H. F. Thiéfaine” (211-234)

Jonathan Pollock, “Shakespeare lecteur de Lucrèce” (237-254)
Aurélie Moioli, “Une lecture inquiète du De rerum natura” (255-277)
Arnaud Villani, “Tournants et césures dans l’oeuvre de Lucrèce” (279-290)
Ondine Bréaud-Holland, “Clément Rosset lecteur de Lucrèce” (291-303)
Évrard Delbey, “Pascal Quignard et André Comte‑Sponville, lecteurs divergents de Lucrèce? Le sexe et l’éthique” (305-334)


José Kany-Turpin, “Figurer toute la nature des choses. Lucrèce, inventeur d’une poétique ?” (337-348)
Pierre Ouellet, “Séismes de la langue: Phusis et Poïèsis” (349-365)
Philippe Marty, “Clinamen – naissance du poème (Lucrèce-Reverdy)” (367-378)
Jean-Philippe Gagnon, “De Rerum Fabula: La Fable du monde de Jules Supervielle” (379-401)
Bénédicte Gorrillot, “«De terre surgiraient des arbres» (Lucrèce): trente-deux dessins à la plume de Christine Chamson” (403-412)
Marie-Marie Philipart, “Turbulence des foules: Lucrèce au miroir de la chorégraphe Maguy Marin” (413-429)



[1] Brown, A. (2010). The return of Lucretius to renaissance Florence. Harvard University Press; Lezra, J., & Blake, L. (2016). Lucretius and Modernity. London: Palgrave Macmillan; Johnson, R. J. (2016); The Deleuze-Lucretius Encounter. Edinburgh University Press.

[2] 3.445-450, 742-783; 5.222-226, 821-877, 958-960, 1012-1027.

[3] Inter alia, Fitzgerald, W. (1984). “Lucretius’ Cure for Love in the ‘De Rerum Natura’” in Classical World, 78 (2), 73-86; Nussbaum, M. (1989). “Beyond Obsession and Disgust: Lucretius’s Genealogy of Love” in Apeiron, 22(1).

[4] With the exception of a 1946 volume by a psychiatrist which diagnoses Lucretius with anxiety on the basis of his poem.

[5] As, e.g., at 387 n31: “frontem propter amonum” for “fontem propter amoenum.”