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]