Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Noah's Arkive

by J J Cohen

Below you'll find an essay in progress on Noah's Flood and the stories we tell about climate change. It's a draft, and already too long for the forum in which it will appear (a massive anti-keywords in ecotheory project that I will blog about eventually, and in which it will likely bear the title "Drown"). I have delivered various bits and pieces of the essay this spring at GWU, Washington and Jefferson College, and Emory University, and I'm grateful for the audience feedback at each of these forums. I realize this could easily become a book project, and I am attempting to resist that siren's call. 

Let me know what you think. 

We are experts at imagining end times [1]. After four millennia of practice, crafting narratives of worldly obliteration comes easily. The Epic of Gilgamesh is (in Dan Brayton's wet words) “a text haunted by rising waters and disaster” [2]. The Book of Revelation promises sudden global warming, a flood of flame. Millenarianism springs eternal, from the long enduring “Fifteen Signs Before Doomsday” tradition to the “Left Behind” series.[3] Never out of print since its publication in 1960, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is only one of many imaginings of the long aftermath of nuclear winter. A genre recently dubbed CliFi envisions the drenched vagaries of life in the Anthropocene. Venerable in its plotline and conventions, apocalypse is familiar, almost comforting. If the world must terminate in fire or flood, the ecological devastation we foster through every car trip, meal and vacation ceases to trouble. But whereas catastrophe used to arrive in the thunder of heavenly revelation, the radiant unveiling of a divine plan for human destiny, the ruin of the Earth is now typically born of anthropogenic climate change, ice melt, greenhouse heat, tempest, sea rise. Secular apocalypse is, in the words of Lawrence Buell, “the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal.”[4] We cannot not think in catastrophic terms. But as we brace for denouement in storm and tempest, what does our apocalyptic imagination unveil about the limits of our environmental frames, the limits of the stories that we tell?

World catastrophe seems fitting punishment for our profligacy: heat, drought, hurricane, glacier retreat, ocean acidification, and species loss as nature’s remonstrance, the wages for our carbon release. We are sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia, carbon offsets a modern version of indulgences. There’s no theology here, we tell ourselves, only the cold science of global weirding, the yield that unbridled capitalism brings. We long ago smashed the idols, ruptured the bond between human and the divine. Nowadays we can even borrow our apocalypse from nonbiblical sources – maybe place our end times within an imagined version of the Mayan calendar, as in the film 2012 (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2009). Publicity featured a sudden crack in the Sistine Chapel so that God no longer touches Adam, and the toppling into the sea of the giant statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. Appropriation of a non-Christian time frame, it seems, enables an escape from inherited frames, rendering doomsday secular. Or not. As anyone who has seen the film knows, when the world is ending and no god is coming, to survive the Earth’s obliteration by floods of neutrinos, destabilization of the mantle, and oceanic outpouring we must … build some arks. As Everest sinks beneath the sea, these marvels of technology preserve a small selection of the human population, including anyone who possesses the billion dollars necessary to purchase a ticket. Queen Elizabeth is shown boarding an ark with her corgis. In other films we launch space ships to sail to distant stars (Interstellar) or get very clever and set Noah’s ark on a train that circles a planet drowned in ice (Snowpiercer).
To imagine future catastrophe’s unfolding we deploy familiar frames, especially those provided by the story of Noah’s Flood. This chapter contributes to a long history of meditating upon the world left behind when we suppose a watery end inevitable, when we preserve the world for small community – a tradition that crosses centuries and might be called, in homage to Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage. We exclude mightily when we build an ark, or erect a gated community, or construct a wall along a nation’s border, three versions of the same story, as if we could like Noah construct a protective chest in which to dwell, some arkitecture of shelter and exclusion to hold against waves of water or of climate refugees, against violence swift or slow.[5] We imagine those barred from ark or enclave to be humans (albeit ones whom we refuse to call “fellow”). Missing from many contemporary accounts of enarkment is consideration of the preservability and companionship of not just the animals that arrive two by two in most versions of the Noah story but the trees, vines, insects, microbes, birds, earth, air, whales, fish and other nonhumans without which we have no ecology, no environmentality, nothing but an ethically impoverished Anthropocene that includes only us.
In the wake of catastrophe suffering is unequally distributed. The failures of our care are vast.

Make Thee an Ark
When we imagine ecocatastrophe we quietly return to those biblical frames we thought we had surpassed. The world is ending through the melting of polar ice and the rising of the seas, and so Noah’s Flood, a disaster God promised never to send again, surges anew. We know already the contours of this narrative’s unfolding: the Deluge is coming, get ready to drown. Yet in that resignation to submergence, to biblical replay in a proleptic yet scientific mode, we lose sight of the actual complexity of the Noah story in Genesis as well as its vigorous afterlife. Climate change requires more and better stories than the ones we have been telling. The Genesis account of Noah and its retellings in the long centuries that followed offer a diverse and enduring arkive, a source for counter-narratives that do not make of a coming Flood untroubled waters. We typically take from Genesis the narrative’s barest elements (command, ark, animals, dove, rainbow) and its most dangerous affect, an acquiescence to sinking things below the waters, a resignation that sometimes threatens to become a joy. We submit too easily to imagining a world in which global warming will render the view from St Paul’s in London difficult to tell from the vistas of its former colonies, as Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones envision in an image (“St Paul’s Monkeys”) from their climate change awareness project “Postcards from the Future.” Simians perch serenely at the top of the church, surveying flooded streets, as if England were India or Gibraltar. As the oceans rise, a global connectedness that already binds us becomes materially palpable. In other pictures from the same series, Graves and Madoc-Jones place rice paddies in front of the houses of Parliament, and shanties around Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square. But think for a minute about point of view in such images. Who is the assumed viewer of this world in which monkeys, beasts of burden, laborers in rice paddies, shanty and souk dwellers are decorative signifiers of climate indifference, of a world altered environmentally and offered as marvel? Monkeys, oxen, rice pickers and the global poor go about doing what they do, only they are here now, in London, in our space. But pause for a moment over that first person plural possessive. In the wake of catastrophe suffering is unequally distributed. The flood makes evident a lack of affective connection already present, the everyday inability of sympathy to cross boundaries of nation, race, species, class.

All the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the flood gates of heaven were open. It’s irresistible: projecting ourselves into the future, imagining we can view below us the topography of cities drowned in rising seas. The blogger Burrito Justice famously created such a map for San Francisco, detailing the transformation of its hills into islands, streets in ocean floor. Inspired by this post-deluge cartography, the urban planner Jeffrey Linn fashioned a series of beautiful maps that with seeming accuracy demonstrate the inundation of familiar metropolises in the wake of ice sheet melt. Linn’s Manhattan suffers one hundred feet of searise: Brooklyn Heights become Brooklyn Depths, Midtown rendered Middrown. Nearby are Central Shark, Hell’s Quicksand, and the Upper East Tide. And the waters increased. At 240 feet of sea level change, Seattle becomes an archipelago. On Linn’s map the outlines of submerged streets are discernable beneath vivid blue ocean, a reminder of what is lost as the Emerald City becomes Atlantis. And the waters prevailed beyond measure upon the earth: and all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. Portland illustrates 250 feet of flood, the city is transformed into a series of artisanally molded islands, with the Columbia Gorge an inlet and the Willamette River a new sea. Think of all the hand crafted blueberry basil bourbon doughnuts floating like tiny life rings. And he destroyed all the substance that was upon the earth, from man to beast, and the creeping things and fowls of the air: and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained, and they that were with him in the ark.
Thomas Burnet, Sacred Theory of the Earth

To return once more to point of view: these maps of sinking cities enact what Donna Harawayhas called “the god trick,” assuming a perspective that serenely floats about observed facts. At such critical distance truth (disembodied, viewable only from an outside) appears. Catastrophe becomes conceptual and foregone, something we witness approach as we peer down from the clouds. But what about on the ground, entangled knowledge? Distant perspective abstracts us from forging (in Stacy Alaimo’s words) “more complex epistemological, ontological, ethical and political perspectives in which the human can no longer retreat into separation and denial or proceed as if it were possible to secure an inert, discrete, externalized this or that.”[6] In the midst of things knowing the world is muddy, messy and uncomfortable. You’ll get soaked. You might get stuck. You may even drown. But environmentality is a mode of material and ethical saturation, promising no dry heaven from which to view in safety what unfolds during cataclysm. When we imagine that we can behold the world from a distance, we render ourselves divine. As in the famous illustration of Noah’s ark afloat upon an inundated globe that Thomas Burnet created for his Sacred Theory of the Earth (1690), perspective recedes so far from anything palpable, from anything sensible, that submerged expanses cease to trouble. As peaceful as it may be to imagine ourselves the spirit of God moving over the waters, this perspective deprives us of community not just with fellow humans, but with the nonhuman world.

To create their “Postcards from the Future,” Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones digitally manipulate images to portray what climate change brings: everything from drought and tropical incursion to the return of Frost Fairs on a frozen Thames. Many of their pictures portray a sinking metropolis. In the most breathtaking, the Thames barrier has failed and London becomes Venice: the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey radiant in the sunset, encircling streets now shimmering water; the London Eye barely above flood; Southwark yearning for boats. Graves and Madoc-Jones participate in a long history of submerging the city. J. G. Ballard’s Drowned World (1962), a forerunner of CliFi, imagines a tropical London in which only skyscrapers remain above the waves after massive ice melt. The London Magazine in 1899 printed an altered photograph of the city in which the streets are canals, gondolas gliding their serene expanses. Entitled “If London Were Like Venice: Oh! That It Were,”the image was created in the days when drowning a city could seem fun. Or maybe it still is. The following descriptive text appears on the “Postcards from the Future” website, describing the “London as Venice” image:
Like a modern day Canaletto, this disturbing yet strangely peaceful aerial view of a flooded Thames was inspired by shots of New Orleans submerged under the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. Curious to know how London would appear under similar conditions, Graves and Madoc-Jones transposed projection of a 7.2 metre flooded river on to their digital 3D model of London and aligned with a photograph of the Thames shot by Jason Hawkes. 7.2 metres is the level at which flood waters would breach the Thames Barrier. The low light of the photograph creates an evocative sense of dimension to the view, forming the impression that we are looking at a partially submerged stage-set.
Graves and Madoc-Jones sink London to render the city at once troubling, placid and alluring, an aesthetic masterpiece, a stage-set, a painting. Yet when hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levees protecting New Orleans, beneath the surging waters of the Mississippi were people who lost their lives, people left to drown. In the wake of catastrophe suffering is unequally distributed. Do you remember how tourists boarded buses to view in air conditioned comfort the devastation of that hurricane? Do you remember that Katrina revealed the swift violence of ecological catastrophe as well as the slow violence of persistent, racialized inequality? What would watery London look like if beheld not through the god trick of celestial and disembodied view, not through the windows of a tall bus or some other ark that floats over suffering, but from the midst of the sea swell, through the eyes of those in peril in the waters, those left to suffocate in the surge of the sea?

Noah’s Arkive
Most of us know the story of Noah and the engulfing flood not from Genesis, where the narrative is complicated, at times impenetrable, but from simplified retellings, such as children’s bibles. A righteous Noah builds a large boat during sinful times. Animals happily enter two by two, lions mingling with zebras. Rain falls and Noah’s family is snug against the storm. The story ends with a raven, a dove, an olive branch and a rainbow, celebration of a cleansed world. Omitted from this version of the Flood is the strange reference to giants (Nephilim) dwelling on the earth and the oblique suggestion of a primal miscegenation behind their arrival. In Genesis only unclean beasts were taken in pairs into the ark. The waters prevail for 150 days and then only gradually recede, ensuring that Noah is arkbound for more than a year. When the family emerges after long sojourn, they sacrifice some animals and eat others. After Noah and his kin become the first carnivores and devour what had been their ark-mates, animals and humans henceforth struggle against each other. The rainbow in the sky as sign against future cataclysm is an actual bow, a weapon that shoots a lethal arrow, a suspended promise-threat. Shortly after he reclaims the world Noah becomes so drunk on wine that he passes out. When Cham laughs at his father’s nakedness, Noah curses his descendants to eternal slavery.
Etymologically related to the root that also gives us archive, an ark is not a ship but a chest (a place for keeping records and stories safe, and a source of authority). Not all of the stories collected in Noah’s arkive cohere: sons of God and daughters of men, giants, inebriated nudity, a threat within a promise, a patriarch who does not argue, a movement from cross-species companionship to animal sacrifice and consumption. Nor is Noah’s vessel necessarily the gated community it becomes through translation into Latin arca. The Hebrew word תֵּבָה [tebah] seems to mean a box, boat or basket. It is used only in one other time in Torah, to describe the floating reeds upon which Moses as a baby is conveyed from death. Noah’s arkive is a whirlpool of heterogeneous narratives, filled with dissonance and counter-stories, a word or chest or basket preserving all kinds of forgotten tales and alterna-stories. My crazy idea is that if we realized better the complexity of the Noah narrative and its long history of augmentation and reinvention, we might not be so resigned to climate change, o allowing the world to drown: an ark not as container but generative spur, arkiving as story-forging and future-making.

Noah was obedient to God. Commanded to build an ark, he constructed the vessel to precise specifications. Medieval Christian tradition for the most part praises his obedience and speaks of his perfection. Islamic and Jewish interpreters could be more ambivalent. Rashi, for example, held that “in relation to his generation [Noah] was righteous, but had he been in Abraham's generation, he wouldn't have been regarded as anything” and the Zohar suggests that Noah is culpable for the flood because “because he did not appeal for mercy on the world's behalf.”[7] When God declares the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in a flood of fire, Abraham demands: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Recalling the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses on Mount Sinai refuses to allow an angry deity to destroy the wayward Israelites and start again. Yet Noah is told to build an ark against flood and complies, leaving the earth to drown.
BL Harley 4381 f. 12
Medieval depictions of Noah and the ark surface the intricacies and possibilities of the Genesis narrative. In Hebrew and Christian manuscripts as well as sculpture, theark is rendered in so many ways that its status as ship on the waters is not always certain. Some medieval arks are castles or cathedrals, while others might be a longboat, house, rectangular box, or floating orb with portals. Animals and people often share facial expressions, and even fish might have the same look of oceanic peace as they swim below the ark. Survival is for the determined, and those on board are in it together, a community of men, women, horses, owls, deer, and the occasional unicorn. The ark itself is often lively, with a zoomorphic prow or rudder. Such lush depiction gets at the vibrancy of objects in medieval art.[8] Noah’s ark was often read as an allegory, a prefiguring of Christ’s resurrection and the founding of a new order, with the Flood a kind of universal baptism. A thirteenth century English manuscript of Peter ofPoitiers’ Compendium Historiae in Genealogia Christi features an ark that looks to be a gothic cathedral of the sea. But even as allegory burgeons the natural world continues to exert its material presence. The dark green waters beneath the cathedral-ark are nearly opaque, but an observer can glimpse fish below the boat: a dynamic world rather than a sea of death, submarine life going on as it always has. The illustration stresses the intimacy of humans and animals, their shared affect as ark-mates.
BL Royal 14 B IX
Stories remain alive by mutating into new forms, drawing to themselves roiling subplots and strange characters, taking unexpected detours. An illustration of Noah’s ark from the Queen Mary Psalter features transparent waters that reveal the devil making a secret escape from the boat’s bottom. He pulls the tail of the snake behind him to close the small hole he has bored through the its planks. Above him humans and animals swim, founder, die. Intent on his business with the dove, Noah does not look at the water -- just as in the upper left corner a raven is intent on its business with the flesh of a dead horse. Noah thinks that through obedience to God he has cleansed the world, but the devil’s underwater flight suggests otherwise. 
BL Royal 2 B VII f. 7 Noah and the Ark
A possibility this illustration raises is that Noah might have come to fuller and more sober knowledge of the postdiluvian world were he only to look down, were he to behold the devil he has himself sheltered, were he to witness the men, women and animals excluded from the ark and about to perish in the sea.
BL Add MS 47682
The Holkham Bible is a manual for instructing priests how to teach biblical stories. The manuscript depicts Noah in his ark releasing a raven and dove (ff. 7v.8). Below him swirl aquamarine waves, beautifully transparent. The corpses of a man, woman, and ox are suspended in the waters, while a dead horse rests upon a protruding rock – food for the raven. The human and animal bodies drifting through the ocean are in positions never possible on land, a gravity-less underwater dance. When through the sea drift sensually entwined corpses, elegant in their aqueous suspension, while Noah looks resolutely forward, enraptured in avian business, what exactly does the image teach priests to teach their parishioners? In the wake of catastrophe suffering is unequally distributed. Noah is serene as he tends the birds and assesses the livability of the flooded world for those he has preserved. But we are forced to look below the waters, to linger on the submerged. Think for a moment of the words of Abraham to God at the promised destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Was everyone at the bottom of the sea wicked? The ox? The horse? Are we allowed to tarry over such questions? We could bear in mind that in both Jewish tradition and the Chester Play of Noah’s Flood, Noah takes one hundred and twenty years to complete the ark, hoping that if he stretches the labor over so long a period some of the doomed might repent.[9] The Chester Play’s Noah reveals a sympathy not often seen in the figure, a man usually content to dream of olive branches while the vault of heaven and the abyss pour forth their waters.
BNF, Manuscrits, français 28, f. 66v
In a fifteenth century manuscript of Augustine’s Decivitate dei from Rouen, the ark offers room enough for Noah’s peaceful family, some devils, and a unicorn. The boat is at the front of the picture, the oceanic background vast and vibrantly blue. Behind the ark a water wheel spins uselessly. Swimmers seek security in home, church and castle, sinking structures once built against the elements, architectures that used to preserve. The water is full of detritus: a floating corpse is fresh, another has gone grey. An uprooted tree possesses leaves, another is a kind of arboreal cadaver. An ox swims; a dog drowns. Yet within this mesh of shared immiseration crows, ducks, and swans swim as they always do. Blunt rocks indifferently protrude. The deep blues of the scene are stunning. It is hard to say if we are supposed to feel the peace within the ark, the frustration of the swimmers who seek a place of rest, the inevitability of bodies and trees becoming flotsam. Something changes, perhaps, when we notice that just above Noah’s boat and to the left is a cradle that floats like a little ark, empty of its occupant. Is it possible to see that cradle and not fill it with a story of loss?
Flood, William de Brailes

My punishment is greater than I can bear. These are the words of Cain, the first in a long line of complainers against God’s justice. Cain’s declaration might also translate as “My sin is greater than I can bear” – and maybe he means both, that killing his highly favored brother and being exiled from community are unbearable. Either way he protests his state to God and receives in return a mark that will preserve him. Cain is the first builder of cities, of those homes and churches and castles that in this illustration are overwhelmed by the waters on which Noah, his kin, and the animals float in peace. Drown. That would seem the command hurled against those not wanted on the ark, an imperative that Noah does not protest when directed at those who are not his family. It is an injunction we repeat ritualistically as we envision climate change. A lively world is stilled into death, corpses below churning sea, while an ark of the saved floats in safety. In a lush and harrowing thirteenth-century illustration of the deluge by William de Brailes, however, no ark appears and thereby not much hope (Walters Art Museum W.106). Scalding waters pour from the heavens. Layers of the dead accumulate like sediments: the land animals, the beasts of the air, men and women. The exterminated demand examination: piles of faces, human and animal, layered but not separate. No god trick here. This illustration makes insistently visible what happens when we surrender the world to submergence. It refuses to hide what unfolds beneath that blue-green sea. No escape to a transcendent point of view, just immersion in waters that do not cease to flood. William provides no peace, no refuge, no floating vessel. Anarky. He provides what’s missing from those pictures of a submerged London, Seattle, New York as seen from the sky. In the wake of catastrophe suffering is unequally distributed. This suffering binds humans to hares, falcons, pigs, ravens, dogs. The figures on top reach for those below, their bodies aligned in a downward vector, a postmortem embrace that is strangely touching, difficult to receive as mere allegory, difficult not to feel. Something here crosses the ages.
John Wilkins, An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (London, 1668)
Truth can be a little colder when viewed from above the ark – or even from within. Accepting the literal factuality of the Bible, John Wilkins in 1668 attempted to map how so much animal diversity could have been preserved inside a single boat. Wilkins converted every animal collected by Noah into an equivalent number of cows (beasts feeding on hay), sheep (beasts feeding on fruit, roots, insects) or wolves (carnivores). Humans are not part of his tally, but it is interesting to note that if they were they would enter the ark as sheep and depart as wolves. To accomplish his animal calculus, Wilkins thought through the effects of both fair accommodation (in which each animal is lodged comfortably) versus granting animals only the minimal space required to sustain life during the voyage. He created a massive floor plan for the ark to demonstrate scientifically how Noah preserved the animals during the Flood. Wilkins does not wonder about those left outside. He could not have known that his ark also offered (as LaurieShannon has argued) the blueprint for ships in which humans are reduced to livestock, enabling a trans-Atlantic slave trade in which some of those on board hurled themselves into the sea rather than remain in confinement. Another future for this arkitecture is a landlocked one, the factory farm.
Vienna Genesis, ark
We like to think that people in the Middle Ages or before the Enlightenment were nothing like us. As an inheritance of the flood story we want strong moments of demarcation, secure punctuation of change. Entanglement is difficult. Despite an abiding love in literary and cultural history for sharp periodizations and catastrophism, an affective relationship of viewer to the drowned has always been possible. Inthe first illustrated bible we possess (6th C), those who have not been admitted to a pyramid-shaped ark struggle against the rising waters and cling to what stone has not yet been swallowed. We cannot always be sure if we are supposed to feel a sympathetic inclination towards those who struggle against the waters, or take pleasure in the divine justice enacted. Maybe both. But what matters about such immersive illustrations is that a potential for compassion, of suffering-with, exists – even if as affective misreading. Sympathy is connection that overleaps resignation to loss, affirming other futures to forge. A bulwark against fatalism, sympathy renders grim and reflexive bracing for catastrophe difficult to take seriously in its endless iterations. Apocalypse begins to operate (as Greg Garrard has shown) in a comic mode, in a mode that exults in the fact that even cataclysm fails to offer an obliterating totality, an imperative without exception, a story not to be modified. Complacency and resignation are discarded for endurance, struggle, strange community, the surfacing of hope.

Noah was obedient to God. He built the ark and never questioned that the waters must arrive, that all outside must drown. He believed that the world unfolds in a downward turning, a drownward turning, better things arriving only after a foundational apocalypse wipes away what has been. Catastrophe is, quite literally, that downward turn (kata- ‘down’ + strophē ‘turning,’ from strephein ‘to turn’). But can we turn catastrophe down? Or can we at least not be resigned to stories about small communities safe inside their arks? We must embrace the fact that we have become post-sustainable. No doubt we must desist in attempting to abstract ourselves or float above the drowning world – must learn immersion, must learn (as Steve Mentz has argued) how to swim. That’s life in the waterlogged Anthropocene. But swimming can seem too heroic, masculine: (it’s how Beowulf proves himself in youth worthy of great destiny) – as well as too solitary an endeavor, every man for himself, an embrace of a waterworld in which it is impossible to keep anyone but yourself afloat. It’s possible even to love that inundation as a kind of rebirth, the Anthropocene as return to swampy, amniotic prehistory. J. G. Ballard’s Drowned World, the first work of science fiction to imagine climate catastrophe driven by ice melt, delights in obliterative individualism. But Beowulf was heroic not for swimming best, nor for being at sea alone, but because he refused to abandon his competitor to drown during a storm. Only rough waters could part them.
What about those who cannot swim? What about those barred from the ark? What about a community of the unrelated, or at least affinities that exceed near family? In the Chester Play of Noah’s Flood, a late medieval drama that re-enacts the Flood story for a city audience, Noah’s wife refuses to board the boat and imagines an affective gathering of those about to drown. She knows that what is demanded of women in the ark is not necessarily a way of life to be preserved. She remains with her drinking buddies, the good gossips, as the waters rise. The song of these women as the waves engulf them resounds as powerfully as the holy hymn sung later on the ark as it lifts above their drowned bodies. Sinken or swimmen. We might take some solace from the fact that swim in Middle English means to float and to glide the waves. Swim describes what boats, humans, dolphins and ducks do in the water. If they all swim in fellowship, in unexpected togetherness, what communities might then arise?
Geneva Bible, ark
I don’t know what the future holds, but I suspect the frameworks we have internalized from our meager version of the biblical Flood are not serving us well in imagining the contours of life – all life -- in the Anthropocene. Let’s open the arkive. Let’s cease to be resigned to allowing people or animals or even olive trees and rocks to drown. Let’s keep in mind that a future of submerged cities is a future of unequally distributed suffering, of environmental injustice. Katrina and New Orleans taught us that. So does the Noah story in its fullness. By not embracing resignation we can turn down catastrophe -- even if we cannot escape watery perturbations. An ark’s value may not in in its walls so much as in their breaching, in their ability even as flotsam to enable as wide a collective as possible not to drown. So, build an ark if you must, but keep in mind that its fellowship will gather a community of humans and nonhumans alike, an arkive of the diverse that offers little stability. Let your ark have many windows. Let its occupants go for the occasional swim, mingle with the sea. And if a giant riding a unicorn decides to join you – hey, that’s OK too. The world is always wider than we expect.
Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, 1919

[1] On the long history of dreaming the apocalypse in the West, see Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 93-116). Garrad writes perceptively of what he calls the “secular apocalypse.”
[2] Dan Brayton, “Writ in Water: Far Tortuga and the Crisis of the Marine Environment,” PMLA 127.3 (2012): 565-71 (at 570). For a consideration of the long history of imagining the world ending in flood, see Norman Cohn, Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), especially 1-21.
[3] On the enduring tradition of the signs that will betray the world’s end (most of which are environmental changes such as earthquakes, fore and flood), see William W. Heist’s classic study The Fifteen Signs Before Doomsday (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1952). A portal to the Left Behind media industry may be found at http://www.leftbehind.com/
[4] The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995) 285.
[5] Cf. Rob Nixon: “Neoliberalism’s proliferating walls concretize a short-term psychology of denial: the delusion that we can survive long term in a world whose resources are increasingly unshared. The wall, read in terms of neoliberalism and environmental slow justice, materializes temporal as well as spatial denial through a literal concretizing of out of sight out of mind” (Slow Violence 20). Cf. 265, on walled communities.
[6] “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures,” PMLA 127.3 (2012):558-64, at 563.
[7] For a convenient collation of sources see http://www.chabad.org/parshah/in-depth/plainBody_cdo/AID/2599 and http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Parashah/Summaries/Noach/Noah_and_Tradition/noah_and_tradition.html
[8] See Anne F. Harris and Karen Eileen Overbey on Lush Ethics (“Field Change / Discipline
Change”) http://punctumbooks.com/titles/burn-after-reading/ 
[9] That Noah warned of the Flood for 120 years, hoping some would repent, is a story also told in Midrash. See Norman Cohn, Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press 1996) 33.


Karl Steel said...

Great stuff! Just about everything I was going to suggest, you hit (the 'reversion narrative' in Ballard, for example). The only thing I see missing in your self-admitted already swollen piece is specific reference to the mystical commentary tradition the ark (for example, Hugh). Insofar as I know this tradition -- which isn't very insofar! -- the odd thing is that the crucifixeral interpretation turns the ark into an only human thing. Its wood is for us, its salvation is for us, it alone will rescue us: the commentary tradition does this narrowing of the apocalyptic tradition that your essay tries to shift away from, a narrowing that's already there in the 12th century (at least!). But maybe more can be done with it!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for that Karl. As you can guess I'm not overly interested in reading the ark as a prefigurement of the Church but of course that is its main medieval function. I'll point to Hugh in a footnote ... and also to the tradition of reading the ark as a prefigurement of the Holy Sepulcher. There is a great, very early painting in the Roman catacombs showing Jesus emerging from an ark that is a box.

Karl Steel said...

I guess my interest in the allegorical treatment of the ark is exactly in the way that it occludes the real richness of the Noah story by radically narrowing what is worth saving - alternately, I wonder what the mystical tradition does with the animals? There are of course practical treatments of the Noah animals in, for example, Augustine, who observes that Noah wouldn't have needed to bring vermin, because they would have spontaneously generated anyway. But what does the mystical tradition do with nonhumans? Or is it interested only in the wood?

yonah said...

You skirt Jewish understandings, which is unfortunate considering your stated intention, and the fact that the Noah story is given in Hebrew and accompanied by a rich tradition of midrash and peirush. You incorrectly quote Rashi, who quotes both rabbinical angles; and I believe that there are more classical sources for the perspective you ascribe to the Zohar. Also, "tevah" can mean "word"--which you can imagine leads to a host of interesting avenues for interpretation, among many others in the oral tradition.

It would be a shame if you recapitulated the assumptions of your medieval sources, namely that the story is an image for universal consumption rather than a particular text in a particular language, that can be mistranslated and misappropriated. If there is an ecological core to hermeneutics, often sinned against, it is this recognition of the soil that is the language, in which the organism that is the text may truly thrive and put down roots. This too might be part of Noah and his animals, "translated" into a coop, preserved for a universal audience, but suffering for it.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for your comments, yonah. You are right, I do not spend much time at all on Jewish understandings --- mostly since this project is about mainstream Western (that is Christian) reception of the Noah story and the ways thereby it has shaped the dominant narratives of climate change. Really this is a book project in which I need to have a substantial chapters on Christianity, Judaism and Islam (each of which offers a heterogeneous tradition), but for the time being the essay is a 5000 word contribution to an edited collection and I am already over my word limit. I'll go back and double check my quotes (this was admittedly the draft of an essay in progress so as you can see it has almost no footnotes and needs deeper research in some places). I want to think a lot more about how *word" conveys (in every sense of that word, convey), so thanks for that spur.

A quiet subtext of this project is as well the sharing of stories across lines that medievalists often assume did not get crossed, between Christian and Jew -- eg, the Chester Play of Noah's Flood states that Noah took 120 years to finish the ark, and idea that appeared centuries earlier in Jewish tradition (and you obviously know that tradition with a depth I do not possess).

Many thanks for what you wrote: it is very helpful. And I can see that this project is turning into a longterm one for me.