Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Lithic Time

by J J Cohen

Writing lockdown continues (today is day seven). But I realize I could use some feedback on this portion of my "Time" chapter, which makes some claims I'm a little bit uncertain about. Let me know what you think.

Lithic Time
In his Latin poem Vox clamantis (“The Voice Crying Out”), the polyglot English poet John Gower states that Scripture veteris capiunt exempla futuri, “old writings contain examples for the future” (1.Prol.1). Two centuries later, when William Shakespeare brought the fourteenth-century poet back from the dead in the prologue to Pericles, he has “ancient Gower” declare Et bonum quo antiquius, eo melius, “The older a good thing, the better.” This chapter explores a space between these two Gowerian declarations, wondering how far back “old writings” might through stone’s storied matter extend; probing whether writing necessitates words, or if lithic architectures and other nonverbal petroglyphs (including the fossilized remains of various life forms) might convey messages across vast sweeps of time; and tracing the temporal knot formed whenever distant history is imagined, since to place the past into narrative forms addresses the present moment and calls into being possible futures. Neither abstract nor simply given, time is a challenge relentlessly posed by stone’s aeonic materiality, inviting a geologic contemplation of history, and extension of temporal scale far beyond human durations.[i] Thus the Parisian philosopher Jean Buridan wondered in the fourteenth century why through erosion every mountain had not yet been flattened, why engulfing water had not rendered the earth a smooth and aqueous sphere.[ii] His solution was to imagine that as rock diminishes on some parts of the earth mountains rise above the ocean on the other, an intricate global balancing of lithic weight that grants to stone its ceaseless motion. This world in its immense geographical and temporal frame Buridan does not imagine as existing for a human observer. It simply exists, and thereby triggers dynamic narrative.
For Christian writers like John Gower, ancient writings buttress the religious certainty of believers. Yet stone also opens alternate modalities, rocky paths along which the world unburdens itself from reduction into human contours. Whether its invitation is to contemplate a temporal extension of thousands or millions of years, eternity or infinity, the lithic offers a sharp reminder of the mundane heterogeneity that inhabits all segments of the temporal scale: brief humans and perdurable elements admixed. In mingling Genesis with petrogenesis, biblical with geological epochality, this chapter goes against an impressive critical literature arguing that the discovery of geological time in the eighteenth century engendered a decisive epistemological break, with modernity arriving on its nearer side. Thinking the earth in spans of millions to billions of years is utterly disorienting, and the difficulty of comprehending ecological activity over immense durations and spatial extensions is likely behind our severe troubles in discussing climate change and the arrival of the Anthropocene, the geological era in which human activity is readable in through the imprint its has made on stone. Yet the millennial spans into which medieval writers divided the past do not exactly hold comfort. Such eras are neither as securely apprehensible nor as tidily diminutive as has often been implied by those who argue for sharp historical periodizations, for a decisive entry into modernity propelled by recent geology. Medieval texts are just as capable of epochal foundering and the envisioning of lost worlds. Their stories of stone and time are not our own (our stones are composed of atoms not elements; divine eternity has been replaced by cosmological infinity), but their genre and structure have often been quietly absorbed into contemporary techniques of narrating the distant past.
For both medieval and modern thinkers, stone’s temporal extensiveness unsettles narration, stretching materiality inhumanly forwards and backwards, limning history with catastrophe. Because of its exceptional endurance stone is time’s most tangible, reliable, and elemental conveyor. Stone hurts, and not just because rocks so easily become hurled weapons. Geologic scale diminishes the human. Yet temporal expansiveness is paradoxically almost impossible to comprehend without arrangement along a human calendar: disanthropocentrism requires a measure of anthropomorphism. The Book of Genesis translates creation into the tidy progression of a seven day week. Carl Sagan famously condensed cosmic history into a solar year, with the Big Bang on the first day of January, the Milky Way arriving May 1, earth’s oldest rocks October 2, and dinosaurs thundering across the continents on Christmas Eve to depart four days later. Modern humans make their belated appearance on New Year’s Eve, with mere minutes separating the Crusades (all of them) from the first manned flight to the moon.[iii] To perceive time’s challenge requires the measurement of abyssal depths in familiar terms. We parcel eons into generation-like segments, as if nonhuman immensity could be expressed in the life-units of mere organisms. Science, religion and myth humanize time through reduction into accustomed spans. When the biblical Methuselah endures for an extraordinary 969 years, almost to the Flood against which his grandson builds an ark, he becomes a figure for impossible longevity, subsuming temporal extensiveness into a human frame. Yet Methuselah dies just short of the thousand year mark. Despite translation into myth and metaphor (techniques as central to the geologist's narration of the primordial as to medieval imaginings of the distant past), rendering the millennium a conceivable unit of measure is not all that easier than parceling geology’s million year spans into apprehensible units. Exceeding a human lifespan, centuries are difficult enough. Millennia are easier to grasp only in relation to the procession of epochs that form what geologists call deep time, “the unimaginable magnitudes of the prehuman or prehistoric time scale.”[iv] The Cambrian era is remarkable for its proliferation of multicellular creatures, but its watery lifefields did not contain anything like human beings, so we have trouble thinking of the period as distinguishable from the Permian, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Painting a caveman into our portraits of dinosaurs is nearly irresistible, even though we know such creatures never coexisted. Although temporal extension is better measured through the lives of rocks than of animals, we yearn to insert a familiar observer to make their depths more intimate, to render time a persisting, living and knowable impingement rather than a distant and dissociated realm. We employ whatever conceptual tools we have at hand in this process of fashioning a convergence for human and inhuman scales, inevitably finding ourselves challenged by time’s profundity to the invention of new story, a frustrated but relentless geologic embrace.
To touch stone is to place a hand upon a substance alien to human duration. Medieval writers trained in the study of the bible knew this fact with the same certainty as contemporary scientists and philosophers. The thirteenth-century philosophical synthesizer of petric lore Albertus Magnus considered stones to be mortal, in that they could perish when viewed within their indigenous temporality. Because lithic time proceeds so much more slowly than that of living beings a great many years must pass before a human will realize a stone has lost its vitality:
For minerals in their own way suffer death just as animals do; but the loss of their essential being is not noticed unless the change is very great. For a ‘dead’ saphirus still retains its colour, transparency and shape just like a ‘live’ one … but after a long-draw-out change it grows dull and begins to disintegrate … And the same terms, ‘live’ and ‘dead, are applicable to gold, silver, and other minerals.[v]
Geologists tell us that stone was the earth’s first solid, the planet’s most venerable denizen – but none of that primordial rock remains, having met its death through forces like subduction, the drowning of stone in sea and fire as the earth’s plates grind over each other. In the Hebrew bible dry earth appears on the third day of creation, humans arrive on the sixth. After their expulsion from perfect Eden, these ambulatory latecomers will take some time to overspread their new terrain. They are compelled to begin their colonization anew after the purging Flood.[vi] The story is ancient: history is allied with the restless, noisy and often ruinous flux of water and fire. Stone, however, is the only material that sometimes endures: not indifferent to cataclysm but marked by its force, carrying narrative through perilous spans of time.[vii] Recent volcanic creations aside, stone’s origins stretch back hundreds of millions of years according to cosmological reckoning. An origin date of 4004 BCE for the earth is the most famous calculation based on the Genesis narrative, but this was the number derived by James Ussher in the seventeenth century. The biblical literalism associated with Protestant fundamentalism is not a widespread medieval technique for interpreting scripture; most medieval exegetes stressed the symbolic, the allegorical, and the typological. Medieval reckonings of the earth’s age therefore varied widely. The fourteenth century poem Piers Plowman has creation take place “seuene thousand” years ago, while the Middle English Gospel of Nicodemus places the span at 5500 years. Bede calculated the time between Adam and Jesus as 3852 years; Eusebius and Jerome placed the number at 5198. Nor was it necessarily the case that the seven days of creation were interpreted as human days, especially because three of these days preceded the creation of the sun, and divine time was unlikely to coincide with mortal reckonings. Though Genesis was the primary narrative through which the writers of the Middle Ages understood their earliest history, a coexisting tradition deriving from Hesiod and Boethius described a Golden or Former Age. Like Eden, it was both better than the current era and irremediably lost. Some Aristotelians like Jean Buridan in the fourteenth century conceptualized the earth, like heaven, as eternal rather than finite.[viii]
Scholarship on deep time and geohistory takes as a founding assumption that the nineteenth-century discovery of the vast prehuman periods that were to be measured in stone rather than flesh marks a “time revolution.”[ix] On one side of this chasm stand those whose relation to prehistory is comfortably mediated by myth. On the other are the moderns whose awareness of temporal extension alienates them from history, troubles their relationship to the world they inhabit, and activates their imaginations. Thus Martin J. S. Rudwick, the foremost historian of the mapping of deep time, stresses that in the discovery of geohistory science and religion were complicated partners. Yet he provides as his illustration for life before geological time’s challenge to human self-assurance a moment in the seventeenth century when Thomas Browne nonchalantly declares that “’Time we may comprehend, ‘tis but five days elder than ourselves.’” Rudwick contrasts Browne’s glib assertion of time’s brevity to a prehistory that we now know stretches almost infinitely backwards. Our imaginations are strained as we are called upon to envision remote epochs filled with extinct monsters, the vagrancy of continents, and an oxygen-deprived world in which “comets or asteroids crashed catastrophically into our planet” (Bursting the Limits of Time 2). Although Rudwick does not observe this, science cannot describe the deep past without a narrative structure and a vocabulary derived from biblical myth and, as we shall see, medieval romance. Yet science also seems confident that everything changed once the truth of fossils was revealed as dinosaurs, once secular facts explosively replaced biblical dreams. Though irresistibly quotable, Thomas Browne’s incurious flippancy is unusual and cannot stand for preceding history. Contrary to any “rupture narrative” (as Kellie Robertson labels overly enthusiastic and impossibly tidy historical periodizations), medieval conceptions of prehistory were never so casual, never so unperturbed.[x] Temporal frames may have stretched back thousands of years rather than eons, but the primeval was envisioned through rich and multiplex narratives filled with lively, often startling content. Time’s vastness was capable of taxing the medieval imagination in ways anxious, innovative, and uncannily familiar. Every historical period works with the conceptual tools it inherits but is never bound by that heritage to mere replication of that which is already known. Living before the scientific and social revolutions Rudwick details, medieval people did not populate their prehistory with pterosaurs and mammoths, but they knew well through these creatures’ bones the archaic lives of dragons and giants. The author of the Book of John Mandeville writes of the port of Jaffa in the Holy Land:
And ye shal understonde that hit [it] is the yldest toun [oldest town] of the worlde, for hit was makyd byfore Noeis floode [made before Noah’s flood]. And ther beth [are] bones of gyauntes [giants] sides that ben [are] fourty foot long.[xi]
Medieval authors may not have imagined extinction by asteroid-propelled fire, but they were enraptured by the watery cataclysm of the Deluge and an apocalypse of flame to come. Noah’s flood was still readable in the fossil record, replete with the bones of those giants that Genesis asserted had walked the early earth.[xii] Even the universalizing and supposedly short chronological framework of the Genesis story has its textual strata, fossils, provocations to dreaming the inhuman, and unexpected depths.[xiii]
Geology and Genesis differ profoundly in their historical scales. They do not offer two versions of the same story, even though the former has absorbed much of its narrative structure from the latter. One is cut from restless infinity, the other bounded by eternity’s stillness. Both, however, share deep affinities, including inassimilable temporal vastness and arrangement around punctuated catastrophe. Both convey the primordiality of stone and its astonishing perseverance. Something potentially combustive therefore unfolds within both frames at the moment of contact between mortal flesh and lithic materiality: the advent of a disorienting realization, no matter how inchoate or dimly perceived, that stone’s time is not ours, that the world is not for us. We grasp the antediluvian, figuratively or literally, and realize that we are fleeting, that this place supposed to be a home is too ancient and enduring for comfortable domestication. The earthly residence of many stones extends, according to geologists, to billions of years. Medieval writers, too, saw in lithic depths a glimpse of the earliest moments of creation. Albertus Magnus writes that “stones are not far removed from the elements” and their materiality has “very little altered” (Books of Minerals 1.1.5). To palm a rock is to press flesh against the first moments of time. Albert therefore associates the production of stones with cold, and espies in their primeval purity a frozen elementality. In a simple gem is condensed inestimable temporal protraction. For a medieval author, a ruby or emerald might compact a history that stretches to Eden. The Sloane Lapidary describes emerald with the sentence “It is greene & it cometh from the Streame of Paridis” (English Mediaeval Lapidaries 121). For most readers of this book, diamonds and amethysts compress an epochality that demands the imagination of prodigious monsters and migratory continents indifferent to apes to come. Biblically derived and geologic temporalities share an inhuman immensity of scale.
As solitary years accrete into eras, the still earth becomes vibrant, inhabited by impressive materialities that are also forces that move and create. That which was static springs into life. Rock slides, seeps, grinds, infiltrates, engulfs, transforms. Rising as mountains, gliding as continents, stone accrues into aeonic strata, tumbles with glaciers, plunges deep under the sea in sheets and ascends later as peaks veined with marine souvenirs. Mineralizing what had been organic life, compressing traces of multiple times into heterogeneous aggregates or metamorphic novelties, rock also bends like plastic so that ephemeral humans may sculpt a lithic whorl or devise a temple of a thousand years’ duration. Such durable building projects are possible only through human-lithic alliance, which intensify the architectures that geological forces fashion on their own. The baleful Green Chapel of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may or may not be the work of human hands. Perhaps a decrepit church or ruined shrine, its description also suggests a pre-Christian holy place, possibly Thor’s Cave, a limestone cavern in Staffordshire used in the late Neolithic for burials, or Lud’s Church, a mossy gorge that also possesses a long human history.[xiv] In a way it does not matter if human builders or geology fabricated the haunting structure since humans and rocks have a habit of imitating each others' work, of creating homologous and shared spaces. All stonework is a collaboration between human hands and inhuman forces. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem obsessed with landscapes, animals, and other manifestations of the nonhuman. No wonder then that the Green Chapel is at once a dire mound or hillock where the grinding of a lethal axe echoes, a crag or cave where red blood trickles onto white snow, and the climactic locale where terror at the prospect of impending death yields to an invitation to celebration and the affirmation of humane connection. “Make merry in my house!” Bertilak declares once Gawain has completed his testing (2468), and the verdant half-giant reveals himself also to be an ordinary man.

[i] Jonathan Gil Harris gets at the provocation posed by time as active force and matter as agential when he observes “relations between matter and temporality have been largely occluded in recent scholarship on objects, which has tended to transform the ‘material’ of material culture into a synonym for ‘physical’ – thereby freezing not just the object in time but also time in the object” (Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare 7).
[ii] On Buridan and his Aristotelian bent (enabling him to think about the world and infinity together), see Joel Kaye, “The (Re)Balance of Nature” (95). Robert Bartlett examines the problem a spherical earth composed of four elements of differing weights caused for some other writers, who likewise had to struggle with the possibility of globe covered by water as the earth’s natural state in The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages 44-50.
[iii] This “Cosmic Calendar” was famously calculated by Carl Sagan in his book The Dragons of Eden, 13-16.
[iv] Martin J. S. Rudwick takes the phrase “deep time” from John McPhee’s Basin and Range, remarking upon its analogy to astronomical deep space (Scenes from Deep Time 255). He also employs the earth science term geohistory, “the immensely long and complex history of the earth, including the life on its surface (biohistory), as distinct from the extremely brief recent history that can be based on human records, or even the somewhat longer preliterate ‘prehistory’ of our species” (Bursting the Limits of Time 2).
[v] Albertus Magnus, Meteora 4.4.7, as quoted in Mineralia trans. Dorothy Wyckoff 2.1.4 n7.
[vi] The best recent account of the work of the Flood myth in the Middle Ages is Daniel Anlezark, Water and Fire. Anlezark empathizes the intimacy of mythic modes to dreaming prehistory and their adaptability over time. He argues that the Flood serves as an “archetype of the human experience of catastrophe,” mixing a hope of human endurance with “the fear of collective extinction” (7). Anlezark also demonstrates the parallels among and ultimate medieval convergence of classical, early Germanic and biblical flood stories.
[vii] For a contemporary version of water and fire conveying time’s restless, garrulous multiplicity while stone endures in silence, see Michel Serres’s provocative account of elemental, auditory fury and the challenges posed by such sensuous disorder in his book Genesis.
[viii] See Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain 22; Stephen A. Barney, The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman volume 5, p. 69; Martin J. S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time 116-17; Joel Kaye, “The (Re)Balance of Nature” 95.
[ix] “Time revolution” is the phrase used by Shryock and Smail in Deep History to describe the abandonment during the 1860s of a biblical “short chronology … in which history and geology are coeval” (Deep History 5-6).
[x] Kellie Robertson, “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto” 108. Robertson is speaking specifically of the chasm that is supposed to separate the Middle Ages from the early modern period, but her rich essay is generalizable beyond this specific focus. See also the work of Daniel Lord Smail, who traces how the Middle Ages and the Paleolithic are both put to work to maintain such unnecessary gaps.
[xi] Ed. Kohanski and Benson, 32. Most versions of the “Defective” text contain a paradoxical assertion that Joppa is antediluvian and yet founded by Japheth, a son of Noah. The giants’ bones are no doubt to be associated with the Flood itself.
[xii] Not that medieval authors alone found stories of the flood in the fossilized remains of giants: see David R. Montgomery, The Rocks Don’t Lie 82-88.
[xiii] As Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail point out, these short chronologies are also not true to the bible itself, which does not contain calendar dates. Later interpreters “retroactively imposed” such a frame to harness the narrative to differently organized contemporary chronicles, giving the Genesis story a “brittle precision” that snapped in the nineteenth century (“Introduction,” Deep History 6).
[xiv] See Ralph Elliott, “Landscape and Geography” 116. Elliott writes that the cave was once called Thurse Cave, “the giant’s cave.” The poem does not locate its action precisely, however, suggesting that the location is a composite of several architectures and landscapes.


dan remein said...


I think one should stress that it is a particular medieval Christian and a particular type of modern Christian reading of gen 1 and 2 that would find it bound by eternity.

That is, the narrative of creation ex nihilo is not a doctrine consistently extracted from gen by Christians or Jews, of all sorts. Many see the parallel in the tale of he face of deep, and the primeval chaos as very much positing a previous order that may or may not want to be reordered by the double named god in that stitched together story. Many would want to point out the borrowing from other ancient near east creation stories which posit the creation of the earth out of the body of a dead water god of be sort or another.

Anyways, I guess against medieval Christian orthodoxy, yes...but I think we need to note that plenty of others in the Middle Ages and now are reading that text with a very different history of temprorality attached to it.

Augustine, in particular, I think is to blame for much.

Otherwise, I like this argument. And will read it through again and think about whether I have something actually substantial and not hobby horsey to say...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks Dan, as always. On the one hand, I have these lines a little later: "Augustine's philosophical ambit is both capacious and fairly impermeable. The tooth [he finds in Utica, a mammoth's tooth most likely] could no more be recognized as a message from paleontology’s deep time as could a knowledge arrive that the divinities YHWH and El might have fused to form a single god in the course of the composition of the Jewish scriptures, or that the bible offers three distinct versions of the creation story, or that the Book of Genesis seems to have had multiple authors with incongruous agendas."

BUT then later:

"The bishop of Hippo lived in a world where the veneration of Isis coexisted with the worship of the Christian triune God, where the immortality of the soul described by Plato offered a different version of time from the Book of Genesis, with its in principio and ordered six day narrative of creation’s unfolding. Examining the bones of giants that may for us be the bodies of primeval monsters, fingering a tooth that might have belonged to a fossil mammoth or aquatic carnivore, Augustine could not have dreamt dinosaurs. Yet he did not have to fold these lithic leavings back so quickly into a story of diminished humans."

Meaning, I want to give biblical sedimentedness its ability to activate alternatives, while showing how Augustine tends to shut those other stories down.

I have some Jewish references for things like water pre-existing creation and its impact (ie previous orders being obliterated?); do you ahve any specific medieval Christian ones? I would LOVE to have those.

Unknown said...

Beautiful stuff and I anxiously await the book itself. It's been fun and educational following your work on the book. Thanks for being so generous in sharing your journey with us.