Monday, September 17, 2007

Augustine, a giant's tooth, and particles of alterity

I want to explain a certain cryptic turn of phrase I used in a comment to this post, and give those words some better context. Much of this material gets at the heart of a project of long gestation, bits and pieces of which have ended up on this blog over the past year. First, the comment:
Though I was dealing with the history of pictures, the bigger question is one better addressed to texts: could it happen in the middle ages that a knowledge of the bible's "particles of alterity" (I don't know a better way of phrasing it -- I mean, things like creation via sea monster, or nonanthropocentric creation more generally, or an intimation that there are multiple ways and incompatible ways of narrating prehistory) -- is there a way that these challenges to a monolithic and unperturbed reading of the deep past can surface and be known, or are they destined to be folded back into the dominating story?
Now, some context.

I've been working on a nexus of questions that I've used the shorthand The Weight of the Past to describe. Now I'm trying to pull much of this material together for the Holloway Lecture at McDaniel College in November -- in fact, "The Weight of the Past: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages" is the title of my talk. Here's my short version of that lecture:
The medieval landscape included, just as it does today, intrusions of the ancient past: fossils of prehistoric animals and structures like Stonehenge. This lecture explores the stories medieval people dreamed to give meaning to these strange remnants of a prehistoric world. It will raise and attempt to answer a series of related questions: How did medieval people understand the inhuman gap of time that separated them from fossils, megaliths, and the origins of their worlds? Can the past communicate in a language of its own? Or can the past be heard only in the the listener's language, so that we can never know what structures like Stonehenge or stories like tales of Merlin meant to their authors? How do we treat time capsules like Stonehenge, Avebury, or bodies recovered in bogs? As quarries for ordinary uses? As museum exhibits? What is sacred about the past, or does reverence impede an understanding history? Is a body buried with artifacts a message to the future, a letter to an uncertain receiver, or a gift sent to lost gods never to be opened by human hands? What of a text describing a vanished life? Can the past speak to us, like a living thing, or does it require a mediator, a necromancer? Must the past end like the wizard Merlin does: entombed forever in silent stone, the victim of his own inability to understand the world? Or is there a way for the past to retain a life in death that is more than a revenant's graveyard existence?
The long version of the lecture, yet to be written, is my current obsession.

Lately I've been thinking about Augustine wandering the beach at Utica and discovering a giant's tooth. The bishop of Hippo narrates the encounter as a fifth century version of "Dover Beach," one in which the sea of faith is brimming while the pagan past ebbs ... or ossifies:
And if in the more recent times [human bodies were larger than they are today], how much more in the ages before the world-renowned deluge? But the large size of the primitive human body is often proved to the incredulous by the exposure of sepulchres, either through the wear of time or the violence of torrents or some accident, and in which bones of incredible size have been found or have rolled out. I myself, along with some others, saw on the shore at Utica a man's molar tooth of such a size, that if it were cut down into teeth such as we have, a hundred, I fancy, could have been made out of it. But that, I believe, belonged to some giant. For though the bodies of ordinary men were then larger than ours, the giants surpassed all in stature. (City of God 15.9)
Augustine knew from Vergil, Homer and Pliny that fossilized bones had been found throughout history. Like these classical writers he understood these mineralized remnants of once living bodies to be human remains, irrefutable evidence that people had once been much larger in size. He therefore speaks of graves unearthed by inhuman forces, revealing messages sent from a distant past to an incredulous present. In these passages, he seems to be meditating as much upon the translation of authority from pagan authors to scripture as he is upon bodies and bones.

Whereas we will likely discern in that giant’s tooth at Utica beach the leavings of a mammoth or a marine dinosaur, Augustine used the history available to him to interpret the bone as having originated in a body that predated Noah’s flood, an antediluvian postcard that announced that contemporary humans were diminished and weakened things, dwellers at the world’s twilight and not its Edenic morning. Augustine at the edge of the sea examines a fossil tooth and memorializes the passing of time: the age of the patriarchs has ended, the age of the Greeks and Romans is fading, the ocean that once “round earth's shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd” now gives off a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating.”

My question is: could Augustine have seen the tooth in any other way? Could it -- like the bible itself, with its sedimentation of multiple authors and multiple stories and alternative realities -- have somehow broken through a monolithic conception of the world as it was, as it ever had to be, and offered some other narrative, some other possibility? Or was it impossible for the tooth to offer anything to Augustine other than the confirmation of his own system of thinking?

I'm no expert on Augustinian theology, but it seems to me that the most likely and direct answer is that Augustine's system is fairly impermeable. and the tooth could no more be realized as a message from deep time as could a knowledge that the divinities YHWH and El might have fused to form a single god. Augustine conceived of time as something we humans live within and are entrapped by. (Merlin's entombment is horrific because for a while he lives outside of time, but time passes around him all the same.) God, on the other hand, is wholly outside of the temporal. Only humans perceive the progress of the ages, illusory as that movement is: it is our fate as fallen and mortal creatures to order into sequences that which for god is not a historical chain.

That must mean that for Augustine any notion of prehistory must stop at Eden; really, the antediluvian world is as close as he can get to "deep time." No object can contain a story that isn't collapsible into that shallow past. The same therefore with ancient architectures -- stone circles, dolmens: they cannot tell a story other than the theologically brief one Augustine sets out. The genre of romance must be invented before we can have true alternate worlds.


[my sincere thanks to Jehangir Malegam, who allowed me to hijack lunch conversation last week and talk some serious Augustine]


Philip said...

And yet Augustine's antidiluvian world seems like a genuinely alternate one; romantic, even...

I mean, giants!

Karl Steel said...

The genre of romance must be invented before we can have true alternate worlds.

I think I have to agree with you. My one hesitation would be precisely on this issue of giants. I'd like to examine commentaries on the nephilim. There's so much wonder and strangeness in that bit of Genesis, "gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis postquam enim ingressi sunt filii Dei ad filias hominum illaeque genuerunt isti sunt potentes a saeculo viri famosi." This gets folded into historiographical romances like Des Grantz Geanz, but I wonder what, for instance, the rabbinic commentators might have said about this? I think Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews would be a good place to start.

Rick said...

You raise some interesting questions that I'm also grappling with at the moment. You write: "Can the past communicate in a language of its own? Or can the past be heard only in the the listener's language[?]" I feel a little like the listener here, and sometimes I wonder lately if I can hear about someone else's project without putting into the language of my dissertation, so forgive me for bringing your question to my project...

The questions you are raising seem to me to be very important in a text like St. Erkenwald. Can the pagan tomb found in St. Paul's be understood in anything other than Christian terms? The language on the tomb is unintelligible, and so a miracle must occur to allow the pagan corpse and Bishop Erkenwlad. To me, the poem points to the impossibility of completely appropriating and understanding the past. The poem dramatizes the listener's inability to hear the past in its own language. But the need for translating into the language of the present inevitably creates slippage and surplus.

So to answer your question, I also think I agree that Augustine couldn't read a fossil in terms other than what his reading of time would allow. I think the same thing goes for pagan antiquity. Even though there are complex and varying ways of understanding the past, at the end of the day, the Christian views of time and history determine the reading of an archaeological find like, say, the tomb in St. Erkenwald.

dan remein said...

A couple of questions:

If Augustine had been an Anglo Saxon (before that Other Augustine came with Christianity), or a Ancient Palestinian worshipping El or Ashera or Y--H before the coming of Hellenism, I would more easily (but not so much more easily) consent that this sense of Deep time was "limited" in some way by going back only to Eden, and that his a bility to appropraite the past was, as ours forever will be (I think, thankfully) incomplete.

But Augustine has so many available doctrines of the immortality of the soul--and I am thinking of Plato on Socrates here, in which the soul is both Beofre and After mortal life and death--that I am not sure how much I want to limit his sense of Deep Time, Christian or not in an interpretation of the Eden stories (in era of exegesis readily willing to allegorize these creation texts, and with a serious propensity to betray an anxiety concerning the presence of tehom in the now-called P narrative before the act of Creation (those folks being unfamiliar with enuma elish and gilgamesh)).

Augustine himself, being so concerned with time--he is so distubed by an absolute begining and by the eternal present of God's temporality that even if he claims he believes this things strongly, he sure goes on an on about them to reassure himself)--seems to me quite capable of imagining time as if not a deep structure, as least a confusing one.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I've been ruminating on the pair made by your most recent posts, JJC (and reading too much Bede, apparently, in the meanwhile), and I'm intrigued by the possibilities of the "particles of alterity" you're identifying. If I'm following (and this is more for me to sort out my own muddled thought process as I fight my way out of the endless circles of my now-completed exams): Romance, as a genre, allows for the exploration of possible alternate worlds in a way that previous genres do not because it offers a way of actually building/exploring a world as it could be Otherwise? Whereas, in contrast, previous genres simply recouped the particles of alterity into a dominating textual narrative, into which all things could be written because all things had, in effect, been Written (or more simply is written -- Augustinian time considerations also makes me wonder about the sufficiency of our tense systems).

It seems like what's at stake here is the conception of history - Augustine's, certainly, but I wonder if it isn't also our own. In "Augustine's Philosophy of History" (from The Augustinian Tradition, ed. Gareth Matthews), Rudiger Bittner has a really interesting formulation of the problem, for me, of Augustine's relationship to the past --

"Christ's coming, the first and the second, are within this age of mutability the only events that have significance. It is not that there are two histories, sacred and secular, or two strands of history. The point is that in the one history of the world there is so little that counts: creation, fall, redemption, judgment, that is all. The rest is waste. Moreover, the the central event of history, the pivot on which the whole structure turns, is the appearance of what is not in history, which promises the elimination of change as far as this is possible for temporal creatures. What Nietzsche's Zarathustra says about man is Augustine's view about history: it is something that must be overcome." (Bittner 336)

So I guess why I'm quoting Bittner at such length is that I'm curious about your final comment: That must mean that for Augustine any notion of prehistory must stop at Eden; really, the antediluvian world is as close as he can get to "deep time." No object can contain a story that isn't collapsible into that shallow past. The same therefore with ancient architectures -- stone circles, dolmens: they cannot tell a story other than the theologically brief one Augustine sets out. The genre of romance must be invented before we can have true alternate worlds.

I have an interesting reaction to the final comment -- my first thought is "But Old English must have had alternate worlds!" Call it the Anglo-Saxonist in me feeling left out of all the fun. But more precisely, I wonder if there's a certain taciturn-ness in the face of these particles that precedes, as you have it, the invention of the genre of romance. There are moments, for example, in the Old English Wonders, where a given creature is merely observed and described, with no sense of the vantage point from which it is viewed, no sense of its story other than its presence, its withdrawal from the scene, or the danger it poses to the human who encounters it too closely (this is a part of a longer argument I'm working on about dangerous knowing, but that's a side matter).

I've no idea if it's a question worth asking, but for the sake of it, here's what I would ask: I wonder if, as Karl points out with the nephilim, there aren't moments in certain pre-romance texts that point to "alternate worlds" (or maybe I mean alternative ways of seeing, ways of being-in-the-world Otherwise) without necessarily entering or attempting to narrate them? I guess I want there to be a possibility beyond Augustine's sense of the story of the world already being written by the highest Auctor (and so everything needing to fit into that story). Whether or not there is, is another matter entirely.

Hope some of that makes sense -- I'm out of practice with blogging, and need to start being more routine about it!

Nicola Masciandaro said...

That must mean that for Augustine any notion of prehistory must stop at Eden; really, the antediluvian world is as close as he can get to "deep time." No object can contain a story that isn't collapsible into that shallow past.

At least imaginatively, conceptually, theoretically the question of the eternity of the world, which Augustine addresses right before the six day creation in book 11 of the City of God and which I assume becomes an issue in the thirteeth century, certainly offered a place to explore "deep time," though perhaps not in the kind of material, embodied detail you are interested in. He also mentions Epicurus's infinite universes. So, in pinning Augustine or the Middle Ages more generally to 'shallow,' biblical concept of the past it is probably a good idea to keep in mind their awareness of alternative possibilities, their consciousness of _questions_ like where is universe? what is time? and so forth, which certainly exceed your average contemporary persons awareness of the cosmic uncertainties of place, boundary, duration. And weren't there some medieval heresies that believed in teh world's eternity? (Where is Karl's memory for sources when you need it?) Wouldn't it be lovely if some medieval dude somewhere peopled this heretical infinite past with objects, beings, history?

Liza said...

It seems to me that the first part of this, the sketch of your talk, doesn't quite match up with your reflection on Augustine -- they're asking different questions, and I can't decide which to address!

In the first part, you seem to be asking about what kind of access we have to the past: whether we can know the past, whether any attempt to know it will necessarily violate it and misunderstand it, whether the fear of misunderstanding the past will be the breaking point that keeps us from ever understanding it/our relation to us. And so on ad infinitum (I'm becoming a lot more attentive to time phrases these days).

The second section seems less about the past and more about Augustine's temporality: you seem to be asking not whether there was any possibility for Augustine's encounter with the tooth to give him access not to a past moment (filled with dinosaurs, or giants), but whether it could give him access to a new sense of temporality, a sense of time stretching out longer than Biblical time might have allowed. (Expanding his "shallow" sense of time.)

I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with the distinction, but I feel it's important somehow. Maybe it's a way to relate the two together more. What if we see things like Stonehenge, bodies, and fossils (as you talk about in the first section) not as messages or letters from the past, which will always disappoint when they fail to speak or tell, but as, well, particles of alterity: affective/effective fragments that don't communicate except in the sense of a communicative disease.

It doesn't seem like a mournful thing to me that Augustine isn't affected by the fossil in the same way we might be today, with sciences and carbon dating emphasizing the awesome and sometimes seemingly insurmountable amount of time the object entails (as Nicola points out). Fossils communicate long time and "deep" history to us today, but Augustine could equally have looked at us and our reaction to the tooth and mourned our "shallow" understanding of the body (look at the quality and possibilities of the expanding and shrinking human form the tooth opens up for him). It's not, for him, a message sent from deep time (from the sounds of what you write) -- but that doesn't rule it out as a particle of alterity. It may not change his temporal sense, but it changes something (his sense of bodies).

I think the other comments indicate that the temporal sense doesn't necessarily need to be expanded: Augustine's past, even if shallow, could still hold a respectable number of alternate worlds, couldn't it? (And, as MKH points out, what we might call alternate worlds can be found in other medieval texts, including/especially Anglo-Saxon ones.) Or maybe what you're asking hinges on the definition of "true" alternate worlds: that the tooth fails to open alternate worlds for Augustine because it fails to jolt him out of his comfortable Christian world-view? His possible alternate worlds filled with giants and larger men is not alternate because it fits, in the end, with his?

Karl Steel said...

Augustine's past, even if shallow, could still hold a respectable number of alternate worlds, couldn't it?

Maybe. I like your approach Liza, but I wonder about Augustine's thoughts about the antipodes in City of God 16.9:

"But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible. And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other: hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be inhabited. But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled. For Scripture, which proves the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, gives no false information; and it is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man. "

J J Cohen said...

These are fabulous comments. Thank you, everyone, for your labor in composing them -- and for jarring me out of some of my assumptions. I truly appreciate the thinking that ahs gone into this conversation.

Karl and Philip get at something pivotal with their comment on the giants (Nephilim) of Genesis 6. I'd identify the passage as one of the bible's many alternative histories -- the little dissonant pieces that got sedimented into but not fully incorporated by a bigger narrative as it hardened -- other possibilities or alien fragments that can be glimpsed but often were not in fact seen. My pronouncement about the Middle Ages having to wait for romance to arrive before alternative worlds could be dreamed is, like every Big Pronouncement about the medieval, lacking in nuance and, when it comes down to it, simply wrong. The Nephilim are a good example: these giants born of the congress between the sons of God and the daughters of men catalyzed alternative visions of history at least from the time of the Book of Enoch (3rd C BC?) onwards. Romance was addicted to the tradition of dark angels having sex with human women that the obscure Genesis story implied, making of it an origin myth for the ubiquitous giants of the genre, and aligning them with the incubi. Even Merlin became connected, as these on of a demon and a nun. So here we see a "particle of alterity" actually getting activated, and generating all kinds of unanticipated narratives.

MKH, flog me with an Anglo-Saxon psalter next time you see me. You are right: to imagine an insular history in which the works of men (or the work of giants) tumble one after another -- and to know that these histories can be mourned, dreamed, poetically reinhabited -- is to imagine alternate worlds. To connect the theme to our demons and angels, why not locate such a portal at the swampbound tumulus St Guthlac defends from airborne fiends? As Eileen has proven here repeatedly, works like Wonders of the East also provide such doorways.

Rick, thanks for bringing up Erkenwald, another text that's been on my mind as I think about these issues. What's fascinating about that narrative is that it patently grapples with these very questions! I'd say that in doing so, it at least raises the possibility that the past will remain out of joint with (rather than be subsumable by) the future, and that the past will have desires that aren't easy to enfold within the present that receives its messages.

Dan and Nicola, I agree that Augustine inhabited a world of possibilities, especially when it came to theology -- everything from Platonism to Isis worship. But what's interesting to me is that he chose to write in a well demarcated system that excluded many of these alternatives, or enfolded them into a bigger system in which they lost their viability. Let me also say that when I describe Augustine's conception of time as shallow I don't mean that pejoratively; I just mean that for him you can't go back very far -- that is, you stay moored in a very human reckoning by generations. Deep time is obviated by an atemporal Eternity that renders it beside the point. Time is a human problem to which God has little to say.

Liza, I have a hard time seeing the separation for which you are arguing. Can those two strands really be disentangled? Doesn't one encounter mandate -- or at least strongly suggest! -- the other? For me, though, the salient question has less to do with temporality per se (that is, both Augustine and physicists argue that temporality can have an outside where tense ceases to matter). At the heart of the matter is instead the question of, within the Big Temporality that Augustine posits, is there room for heterogeneity? For times and places and narratives out of sync with the dominating story of decline and fall and redemption? I think you put it best in your closing paragraph, Liza:
Or maybe what you're asking hinges on the definition of "true" alternate worlds: that the tooth fails to open alternate worlds for Augustine because it fails to jolt him out of his comfortable Christian world-view? His possible alternate worlds filled with giants and larger men is not alternate because it fits, in the end, with his?
An alternate world that comfortably buttresses a pre-existing worldview isn't much of an alternative. Augustine could not have dreamed dinosaurs, but he didn't have to fold the tooth back into a story of the dwindled state of post-Edenic humans ... did he?

Rick said...

jjc, Exactly! At least, I hope so because that's where my argument goes in my chapter on it. There is definitely the desire to subsume the past, but some of it always remains out of joint, as you put it. The unreadable language on the tomb points to this, but a similar anxiety is voiced in that the pagan judge saw the Harrowing of Hell yet did not get saved. He is living (living dead?) proof that not all of the past can be recouped so easily. And even when he's baptized, he never gives up his name, but the importance of that will maybe need to wait for another post.

The tomb, the language, the judge himself, are all particles of alterity. While I said above that Augustine couldn't read something outside of, as you put it, the Big Temporality, that doesn't mean that all of time and history is intelligible to him. The particles of alterity are perhaps evidence less of alternative worlds that would exist outside of a Christian context, but rather alternative worlds within it. This doesn't diminish their unknowability however.

To me it's like the labyrinth: with the right perspective point, it's intelligible. But from within it, you get lost.

Eileen Joy said...

In my mind, this is one of the best conversations that has ever unfolded here. I've been a bit silent lately because I have been so snowed under, or however you want to put it, with writing an NEH grant, which just about killed me, but I have been reading here at ITM all along, and I really love this thread, as it gets at the heart of what I think are some of the most important questions in our field right now, especially as regards the so-called "alterity" of the past, or more pointedly, what it is we think we should be "doing" with the artifacts of the past that have somehow survived into our present era.

I know I've said this before, but I just don't see how there's any way to break [if that's the right word] with the usual way of "doing history"--where, similar to Augustine, we might find a tooth on the beach and then we plug that tooth in to what we think we already know about the past, shallow or deep--other than to try to see that each and every artifact of the past that is with us today [whether Stonehenge or the Beowulf manuscript] is really *with us* in the here and now: it can't help but be changed from the all the ways in which [to steal from JJC's Afterword to BABEL's Palgrave book] it has been striated by its passage through time. Can we somehow have a more presentist medieval studies that takes better account of this fact [and I'm not talking about "studies in medievalism"--that's different]. Obviously, as medievalists, we have to try to, on some level, "honor" [or however you want to put it] the remains of the past [to try, however possible, to "re-locate" or "re-situate" those remains in their earlier contexts], but seriously, everyone: won't that *always* be a game with diminishing returns? Alway, always, always?

In my M.A. seminar on "Writing, Race, and the English Nation" [ripped off, don't forget, from JJC], we were reading Bede the other week, and I don't know exactly how we got on the subject, but my students were wondering, partly because I had been explaining to them some of the ways in which Bede was not a 100% reliable narrator and we were also talking about how archaeologists of A-S England, like Catherine Hills, do their job, and I had shared with them Richard Hodges' quote, "archaeology is the driest dust that blows," how we could never really know anything definitive about the past. One of my students imagined a scenario where those in future would think our CDs were jewelry, and I shared with them how I have always been troubled with the full-sized replica of the Acropolis that exists in Nashville, TN. What would someone in the future think about a culture that produced Graceland and the Acropolis within 200 or so miles of each other [if, say, the original one in Greece no longer existed]?

Well, we could play these kinds of thought experiments all day. I just think that, somehow, we can't be Augustine on the beach, thinking that tooth belonged to a giant, but we can't blame him, either. He was at least using his imagination. We, too, need to use our imagination, to be creative with what might be called our "uses" of the past: we won't plug things into an already existing sacred narrative, let's say, but we could create new narratives. In the end, it's all art. Even Augustine.

Karl Steel said...

Nice comment EJ. I've nothing similar to offer this morning.

I'm just wondering, Jeffrey: do you know/have you read Oscar Cullmann's classic Christ and Time? Seems relevant at least for a footnote.

J J Cohen said...

Thanks for that, Karl. For those of you collecting bibliography, also essential is R A Markus, Saeculum: history and society in the theology of St. Augustine

J J Cohen said...

One more thing: thank you, Eileen, for foregrounding art. I agree, Augustine is an artist -- a consummate one. His prose and his imagery can bring tears to my eyes.

But just as important as being an artist oneself, one has to be open to the possibility that art can come from the outside and derail you, that art can have an estranging -- maybe even inhuman -- effect. Augustine walking the beach misses the art for the natural history.

J J Cohen said...

Last night I had a bout of insomnia, most likely in anticipation of leading my first faculty meeting of the year (I never sleep well the night before classes begin either). Somehow the fact that I'd done injustice to Augustine planted itself in my mind at 3:07 AM. There was something way too dismissive about that last comment.

Augustine was far more open to the world in all its complexity than I made him out to be. He weaves into the City of God strands of varying length, texture, color -- that is, he works with history in all of its heterogeneity. He's trying to create something that emplaces order within and catalyzes beauty from these strands, a task he accomplishes not through calling into being some monolithic and doctrinaire text but through a question-field engagement with the world he inhabits and the past he inherits.

That's a better account of Augustine. May he let me sleep tonight.

Eileen Joy said...

It's somehow comforting to know that JJC can be disturbed in the middle of the night by thinking he may not have fairly described the thought and writings of someone who has been dead for about 1,500 years. Somehow the world is a better place. I had my own bout of insomnia last night, having to do with seeing my beloved 3-year-old cat Huck run over by a car in front of my house and then holding him while he died, almost instantly. Some things can't be theorized nor accounted for. To each his or her own griefs, or night-troubles.

Karl Steel said...

Oh, Eileen: how terrible! How very, very sad.

J J Cohen said...

Eileen, I am so very sorry to hear about Huck.

Eileen Joy said...

Thank you, Karl and Jeffrey, for your kind thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Eileen, I am very sorry to hear about Huck. May he rest in peace.