The body swerve

I’m not sure where the the title phrase originated. In its Scots use, “tae gie something the body swerve”, it means to avoid or evade anything from a dish on a menu to a man or are woman you don’t fancy. The image may arise from football, rugby, ballroom dancing, wrestling, or the Cheltenham Young Ladies’ Guide to Preserving Bodily Integrity on the Tube.

img_0147But maybe, just maybe, it was carried into modern speech by the Scottiish tradition of classical studies from the great Latin poet Lucretius. As all readers of his epic poem “De Rerum Natura” / “On the Nature of Things” will be aware, Lucretius wrote of how the universe is composed of atoms, and everything in the universe of combinations of atoms. But he notes that if the motion of atoms was completely regular they would fall separately through space and never collide with each other, so that nothing complex would exist. He therefore posits an irregular motion that moves atoms from a regulat path, and calls it “the swerve” (clinamen in Latin). This allows some indeterminancy into what would otherwise have been a completely determined and unproductive universe. If we are tempted to laugh at this notion we should remember that modern physicists have postulated a similar force which they call “inflation” to explain how the perfectly regular outward explosion of energy from the Big Bang produced the irregular clumps of energy which became stars and galaxies and bloggers.

Of course,  in Lucretius the body swerve produces rather than avoids collisions, but his delicate phrase might have been coarsened over the years of its journey through Scottish culture.

The interesting thing is that most ancient and modern conceptions of the universe recognise order, limit, regularity, and law as observable properties of the universe, enabling human beings to make accurate predictions about its behaviour, while also recognising that complete predictability leaves no room for the novelty which is also observable. So the ancient Epicurean model of the universe requires a swerve, particle physics requires the indeterminancy of fundamental particles, and cosmology requires “inflation.”

The biblical account of creation in Genesis shows how the forces of chaos, the primeval ocean and the darkness are not abolished but incorporated into the world in partnership with their opposites dry land and light, as sea and earth, day and night. The wise creator does not try to obliterate his  enemies but invites their cooperation. This builds a creative chaos into the order of creation, which amongst other things permits the freewill of human beings and all the trouble that brings  with it. This is the Bible’s version  of Lucretius’ swerve. Without the risk of disorder, there can be no order that permits its constituent bodies any room for manoevre, any initiative.

The swerve of thought

In the biblical account this permissiveness of the creator allows human lawlessness  and evil, which almost drive the creator to abandon his orderliness and let the forces of chaos destroy creation (The Great Flood). When this tactic fails, God is shown to have learned his lesson: if he wants a universe with a “swerve” that permits life, he must work by persuasion rather than power, which in turn means starting with one person, namely Abraham. The Christian story admits that without the swerve and the evil, there would be no Jesus. That leads the medieval carol writer to say, “Blissid be the time that apple taken was” which theologians called the doctrine of the Felix Culpa, the fortunate fault.

There are days when I wish there was no swerve, no indeterminancy, no disorder, no freewill, no evil. One of my dear ones is again afflicted by acute psychological illness, friends struggle with frailty,  Donald Trump is ahead in the USA election. I would certainly like to give all of that the body  swerve, but I am reminded by my foray into Lucretius and  Genesis, that my own ability to think, judge, decide and act are dependent on the fundamental indeterminancy that Lucretius calls “the swerve,” and the Bible depicts as God’s partnership with chaos. Perhaps the Latin poet can have the last word today:

Quo magis in dubiis hominem spectare periclis
convenit adversisque in rebus noscere qui sit;
nam verae voces tum demum pectore ab imo
eliciuntur et eripitur persona, manet res.
So it is more useful to watch a man in times of peril, and in adversity to discern what kind of man he is; for when at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains.

Book III, line 55–58.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s