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Gerard Passannante

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Associate Professor, English

(301) 405-9661

2116c Tawes Hall
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Research Expertise

Comparative Literature
Literature and Science
Medieval and Renaissance
Textual and Digital Studies

As Paul Valéry once wrote: “The operations of the mind can serve our purpose of analysis only while they are moving, unresolved, still at the mercy of the moment.” I am a scholar of Renaissance literature. I have a special interest in how ideas travel, the central role of literature in the story of intellectual change, and the function of images and metaphors as both vehicles and catalysts for thought. My first book, The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition (Chicago, 2011), follows the afterlife of the ancient scientific poet Lucretius from the fourteenth through and seventeenth century, showing how the physics of atoms and the void came to inspire or infect the imaginations of scholars who were putting ancient texts back together again. I also explain how this pervasive influence mattered to philosophers like Michel de Montaigne and poets like Edmund Spenser as they reflected on their relationship to tradition. Long before the scientific revolution, I argue, atomism reemerged in the Renaissance as a story about reading and letters—a story that materialized in texts, in their physical composition, and in their scattering. This book was the winner of the Harry Levin Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association in 2013.

My second book, Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster (Chicago, 2019), traces the history of the mind's conjuring up of disaster in the early modern period, showing how a seemingly bad habit was a spur to some of the period’s most daring conceptual innovations. It also explores how the history of this style of thought might help us see our own propensity for thinking the worst in another light. My inquiry encompasses a wide range of materials—from the writings and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci to the commentaries of humanist readers, from the cheap print of sixteenth-century astrologers to the works of Shakespeare and John Donne, from Robert Hooke’s thinking on microscopes and earthquakes to the “before and after” of the Lisbon earthquake and the writings of Immanuel Kant. This book was the winner of the 2020 book prize from the British Society for Literature and Science and has been shortlisted for Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award for literary criticism.

I teach a range of classes from large lectures on Renaissance drama to smaller seminars on literature, philosophy, and science such as “Leonardo, Montaigne, and Shakespeare,” and “Early Modern Literature and Disaster.” With Josh Weiner, I have co-taught two graduate seminars on poiesis: “Mind Over Matter: Acts of Knowing and the Actions of Poetry,” and “Eco-poetics.” My work has been supported by the American Academy in Rome, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the National Humanities Center, the Bogliasco Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. In 2019 I was awarded an ACLS fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship to support my new book project, "God is in the Detail," which follows the concept of scale in early modernity as it moves between the realm of empirical observation and the realm of intuition—from the seemingly tangible evidence of cosmic order to the unconscious feeling that much resides in little.

 

Awards & Grants

Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award Shortlist

Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

Shortlist of Phi Beta Kappa.

British Society for Literature and Science book prize, 2019

Awarded for "Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster."

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:
Inaugurated in 2007, the annual British Society for Literature and Science book prize is awarded for the best book in the field of literature and science published that year.

American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship

CLS invites applications from scholars pursuing research on topics grounded in any time period, world region, or humanistic methodology.

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

ACLS invites research proposals from scholars in all disciplines of the humanities and related social sciences. Given the disproportionate effect the current economic downturn has on emerging, independent, and untenured scholars, in the 2020-21 competition year the awards are designated solely for untenured scholars who have earned the PhD within the past eight years. ACLS welcomes applications from scholars without faculty appointments and scholars off the tenure track.

Civitella Ranieri Foundation

Director’s Guest

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates: -

Three-week residency, Summer 2019

Guggenheim Fellowship 2019-2020

My Guggenheim project, “God is in the Detail,” follows the concept of scale in early modernity as it moves between the realm of empirical observation and the intuitive realm of sense—from the seemingly tangible evidence of cosmic order to the unconscious

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

After exploring a variety of literary and philosophical cases—for example, ancient arguments about cosmic order, Hamlet’s “bad dreams,” and the discovery of calculus—this project seeks to understand how our own contemporary patterns of thinking about scale bear the imprint of largely forgotten theological and philosophical controversy.

Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers Fellowship

New York Public Library

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

The New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers has selected its sixteenth class of Fellows: fifteen extraordinarily talented independent scholars, academics, and creative writers whose work will benefit directly from access to the collections at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship

Six-week residency, Fall 2013

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

Bogliasco Fellowships are awarded to gifted individuals working in all the disciplines of the Arts and Humanities without regard to nationality, age, race, religion or gender.

Harry Levin Prize

The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

American Comparative Literature Association co-winner for best first book in Comparative Literature, 2013 for The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition

National Humanities Center Fellowship

National Humanities Center, 2010-2011

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates: -

Each year, the National Humanities Center welcomes up to forty scholars from across the humanities and all over the world.

During their time in residence, Fellows are given the freedom to work on their projects while benefiting from the exceptional services of the Center.

Folger Shakespeare Library

Short-term Fellowship Sept.-Nov. 2009

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates: -

The Fellowships Program has grown through the continued generosity of organizations such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council on Learned Societies. Folger fellowships also draw from dedicated endowments built up over decades of support.

Publications

Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster

When we catastrophize, we think the worst.

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:
We make too much of too little, or something of nothing. Yet what looks simply like a bad habit, Gerard Passannante argues, was also a spur to some of the daring conceptual innovations and feats of imagination that defined the intellectual and cultural history of the early modern period. Reaching back to the time between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Passannante traces a history of catastrophizing through literary and philosophical encounters with materialism—the view that the world is composed of nothing but matter. As artists, poets, philosophers, and scholars pondered the physical causes and material stuff of the cosmos, they conjured up disasters out of thin air and responded as though to events that were befalling them. From Leonardo da Vinci’s imaginative experiments with nature’s destructive forces to the fevered fantasies of doomsday astrologers, from the self-fulfilling prophecies of Shakespeare’s tragic characters to the mental earthquakes that guided Kant toward his theory of the sublime, Passannante shows how and why the early moderns reached for disaster when they ventured beyond the limits of the sensible. He goes on to explore both the danger and the critical potential of thinking catastrophically in our own time.

"Burning Lucretius: On Ficino's Lost Commentary"

Sometime in the late 1450s the Platonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino wrote a "little commentary" on Lucretius's De rerum natura—a commentary he said he eventually burned as Plato once burned his own juvenilia.

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

Scholars have read this text as an expression of a "religious crisis," and they have described the event of its destruction as a critical turn both in Ficino's thought and in Renaissance intellectual history. This essay explores an alternative explanation for Ficino's early engagement with the poetry of the ancient atomist, revisiting a number of familiar problems in the scholarship, including the philosopher's ideas about the uses of poetry, the story of his intellectual development, and the influence of Lucretius in the Quattrocento. As Ficino sought to revive Plato in Latin, I argue, he may have been drawn to the author of De rerum natura as a model of philosophical and poetic transmission.

"On Catastrophic Materialism"

Looking at a variety of cases from the early modern period—from debates around astrology to the essays of Michel de Montaigne to the poetry and prose of John Donne and the philosophical fictions of Margaret Cavendish.

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

This essay explores the encounter with materialist thought as an experience of catastrophe. Against the explicit aims of materialist philosophers like Epicurus to encourage peace of mind, early modern authors discovered in materialism a style of thought that felt at once enticing and alarming, even disastrous. “Catastrophic materialism” helps us understand how a much-maligned philosophy captured the imagination, as well as the critical function it served.

Review of David Norbrook, Stephen Harrison and Philip Hardie

Lucretius and the Early Modern.

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

International Journal of the Classical Tradition 23 (2016): 1-3.

"Making 'Anything of Anything' in the Age of Shakespeare."

Throughout the history of interpretation readers have been accused of making “anything of anything”: “quidlibet ex quolibet,” or “whatever you like out of whatever you like.”

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

Looking at a variety of cases--from Montaigne’s descriptions of bad reading in the Essais to Shakespeare’s portrayals of characters who make much of little--I show how and why, in early modern culture, the habit of making “anything of anything” calls questions of ontology to mind.

“Reading for Pleasure: Disaster and Digression in the First Renaissance Commentary on Lucretius”

Dynamic Reading

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

Brooke Holmes and W.H. Shearin, eds. Dynamic Reading, Oxford, 2012.

The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition

With The Lucretian Renaissance, Gerard Passannante offers a radical rethinking of a familiar narrative: the rise of materialism in early modern Europe.

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

With The Lucretian Renaissance, Gerard Passannante offers a radical rethinking of a familiar narrative: the rise of materialism in early modern Europe. Passannante begins by taking up the ancient philosophical notion that the world is composed of two fundamental opposites: atoms, as the philosopher Epicurus theorized, intrinsically unchangeable and moving about the void; and the void itself, or nothingness. Passannante considers the fact that this strain of ancient Greek philosophy survived and was transmitted to the Renaissance primarily by means of a poem that had seemingly been lost—a poem insisting that the letters of the alphabet are like the atoms that make up the universe.

By tracing this elemental analogy through the fortunes of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, Passannante argues that, long before it took on its familiar shape during the Scientific Revolution, the philosophy of atoms and the void reemerged in the Renaissance as a story about reading and letters—a story that materialized in texts, in their physical recomposition, and in their scattering.

From the works of Virgil and Macrobius to those of Petrarch, Poliziano, Lambin, Montaigne, Bacon, Spenser, Gassendi, Henry More, and Newton, The Lucretian Renaissance recovers a forgotten history of materialism in humanist thought and scholarly practice and asks us to reconsider one of the most enduring questions of the period: what does it mean for a text, a poem, and philosophy to be “reborn”?

Read more at the publisher's website.

Review of Alison Brown, The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence. Renaissance Quarterly

63.4

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

(2010): 1247-1248.

“Homer Atomized: Francis Bacon and the Matter of Tradition"

ELH 76

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

(2009): 1015-1047.

“The Art of Reading Earthquakes: On Harvey’s Wit, Ramus’s Method, and the Renaissance of Lucretius.”

Renaissance Quarterly

English

Lead: Gerard Passannante
Dates:

61.3 (2008): 792-832.