British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe

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There’s a Planet Outside the Text—Notes toward a Deep Historicism

In the first of our Romantic Climates blog posts, Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood (Illinois) reflects on Deep Time and the humanities.


In Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1833-48), geological Deep Time signifies a pitiless Nature and the subjugation of all species, humans included, to the logic of extinction:

From scarpèd cliff and quarried stone
She cries, “A thousand types are gone;
I care for nothing, all shall go. (56: 2-4)

1830s texts by Charles Lyell and Tennyson revealed the trendlines of the intellectual elite, but the true popularization of Deep Time—which Stephen Jay Gould has called the most momentous epistemological revolution since Galileo—would wait until the 1860s. Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, followed by Lyell’s The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863) and John Lubbock’s Pre-Historic Times (1865) imprinted a new, abyssal figure of time on the popular imagination. Deep Time applied not only to Theories of the Earth, but to the Descent of Man also. For generations of English professors, the “darkling plain” of Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem “Dover Beach” has stood for the theological upheaval and heartbreak of the 1860s. Thank God for “Dover Beach”! It condenses the decades-long intellectual “roar” over Deep Time theory into a satisfying 37-line lyric, eminently teachable in a single 50-minute class.

So goes the familiar history of the Victorians, Evolutionary Theory, and Deep Time. But what has happened since—in academia, at least—is less easy, or comfortable, to describe. The Victorians discovered Deep Time, but we, as cultural historians of the period, while enshrining that discovery, have excused ourselves from its true implications. Historiography was the first emergent discipline to feel the shuddering impact of the Deep Time revolution of the 1860s. Sacred history must be abandoned, but what to replace it with? Professional historians of the late nineteenth century, faced with their own extinction, responded with truly Darwinian ingenuity. The biblical timescale of 6,000 years would be preserved by substituting the creation of the Earth with a refurbished chronology called “the birth of civilization,” with the Mediterranean as its “cradle.” The geography—ancient Mesopotamia—remained intact—with only minor adjustments: Genesis and the Garden of Eden gave way to the ziggurats and tablets of Sumer. Shored up against the abyss of Deep Time, human history was stabilized within a bible-deep chronology, only with writing and mathematics, the rule of law, and building of cities as the new narrative of origins, replacing Original Sin.

150 years since “Dover Beach,” a century since the secularization of Biblical chronology, and the Deep Time revolution has yet to reach the academic humanities. Scholars in the twentieth century combined ingenuity with simple denial to keep at bay the intellectual revolution that continues to define and drive the modern bio-physical sciences. Evolution’s bastard intellectual offspring—eugenics and social Darwinism—brought Deep Time theory into toxic proximity with institutional racism. For an academic historiography committed to modern nation-state narratives and cultural identity formation, Deep Time and evolution signified an insidiously deterministic counter-narrative, at odds with the consensus Hegelian model of progress, agency, and self-realization.

From century’s beginning to end, therefore, the practice of history (and its sibling literary and cultural historiographies) was defined by almost exclusively by the study of writing: by the accumulation of textual primary sources for general information, and by the “close reading” of select texts for the discovery of more subtle intentions and ideologies extrapolated to represent the age. Visual objects—paintings, architecture, landscapes, fashions—might be included, to be interpreted as “texts.” With nineteenth-century intellectual history in mind, the hegemony of writing in twentieth-century historiography appears on a continuum with the “shallow” timeline mandated by scriptural chronology and its secularized offspring. Scripto-centrism in the humanities since Victorian times has prevailed at the direct expense of Deep Time theory, to the point where our estrangement from the natural and physical sciences, of which Deep Time is the founding, enabling principle, is absolute.

Wait a minute! you say: twentieth-century critical theory has destroyed precisely that “grand narrative” paradigm of teleological history I just described! No respectable scholar today champions a triumphalist “History of Western Civilization” model beginning in the Mediterranean 5,000 years ago. Yes, indeed, but the problem of shallow historiography has only gotten worse with the rise of techno-industrial and postcolonial narratives of modernity, which radically foreshorten history’s timeline to the period of European industrialization and global expansion since 1750. Where once the period before Sumer and the invention of writing was cast into the oblivion of “pre-history,” now a post-1750 modernity narrative reigns supreme, with scholars of the Renaissance forced to fight for their lives (and tenure lines) as Early Modernists, and medievalists voted off the island entirely. [Of the five trained medievalists in my department, one teaches comic books; another lectures on Tolkien and Game of Thrones; while two others have ridden off into the sunset of the Deanery]. We are left with specialists and sub-specialists of “modern” European imperialism and its aftermath of subaltern rising. The work in this field is often brilliant and revelatory, but it belongs, nevertheless, to a larger, suffocating hegemony of ideas: what Daniel Smail has called “the sterile presentism that grips the historical community.” I know the phenomenon all too well. As a career Romanticist I am no less a product of the dominant shallow time methodology than any humanist working in the Academy today. Even now, as an advocate of Deep Time scholarship, I don’t feel truly comfortable making a pronouncement on anything that has ever occurred outside the 1810s.

So, the intellectually restless Victorians excavated Deep Time, but we have managed, in the 150 years since, to reinter it, quietly but determinedly. The crimes of “modernity” teach us that we are not merely mortal, but that human experience, and cultural imagination, is radically temporally constrained. Short memories and brutish, short-term goals. A shallow life. All reflected in our historiography. The Victorians felt the shock of an Earth’s history stretching billions of years, but we have, through a consensus of silence on the subject, become immured to that shock. Like the first generation of professional historians in the late nineteenth century, we compartmentalize and consign. Modernity, glittering, savage, and sublime, is our sole preoccupation; what predates it is forever, irredeemably, pre-modern. The Ancients and Elizabethans retain vestiges of their charm, but as for Deep Time—that Victorian intellectual revolution might as well not have happened.

What’s the remedy? How can nineteenth-centuryists, and other period scholars, escape the fetish-logic that drives the triumph of modernity and history-as-text?

In one sense, the emergence of the Anthropocenic model might appear just another ingenious academic iteration of modernity’s sacred timeline: history truly begins only with the first fossil-fuel dependent technologies of the late eighteenth century. For professional humanists, the status quo is preserved, with a fashionable environmentalist inflection to supplement the prevailing techno-industrial and postcolonial models that sacralize the post-1750 period. Not only that, but the word itself betrays the bias that gave rise to the very crisis the Anthropocene names, that is, a dedication to the human story at the expense of everything non-human. Certainly, for the Romanticist, the rise of the Anthropocene can seem like Christmas come early. We are no longer curators of a few brief, tumultuous decades at the turn of the nineteenth century, but are reinvigorated as scholars indispensable to a newly created episteme: the “Birth of the Anthropocene.” Dissertations will be written, symposiums convened, and careers made.

This said, I contend there are more reasons for optimism than cynicism in the rise of Anthropocene studies. Because the transdisciplinary debate over the Anthropocene began among, and is hosted by, eminent geologists, in order to engage the discourse of the Anthropocene humanists cannot avoid the subject of Deep Time. To define the Anthropocene, one must first be conversant with the scientific basis for demarcating the greater geological epoch of the Holocene—that period since the last Ice Age from which the Anthropocene, it is proposed, should be carved off. The cultural historian of modernity is quickly dizzy and disoriented. The mere mention of the Holocene transports us back 10,000 years, and even that is only the most recent of the standard geological periodizations, a mere babe-in-arms compared to the Cambrian of 500 million years antiquity, and beyond, to the billion year timescales of Earth’s formation and the origin of life. Like Byron’s narrator of the scandalous tale of Don Juan, the Anthropocenic humanist might soon feel “sorry that I e’er begun.”

But having written four books centered on the sinisterly narrow timeframe of the 1810s, I can bear witness that conventional period scholarship and Anthropocene studies are compatible, given the right topic. My recent book—Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (Princeton, 2014)—described the global environmental and social impacts of the major eruption of an East Indies volcano in 1815. The book wedded accounts of the eruption’s aftermath—on the microscales of days and months—with the deep time histories of the volcano itself, and climate change in the Holocene. I accumulated all the written sources I could find related to the event—notes, journals, newspapers, poems—and paired these with a voluminous scientific literature on Tambora that was almost wholly non-textual in its methodologies and data content (geological sediments, ice cores, climate models, etc.). The 1815 Tambora eruption functioned as a kind of time portal, if you will, to travel across millennia. It likewise enabled me to traverse global spaces entirely outside the well-worn routes of postcolonial and nation-state historiography. Volcanic climate change is no respecter of human borders. Tambora dropped me into Deep Time. It also whisked me to India, China, and the Arctic. The argument implicit in Tambora is that the twenty-first-century humanist—the environmental humanist, in particular—can embrace geological timeframes while remaining a period scholar of modernity. He or she can integrate traditional archival, text-based research, with the material scope, data-mining powers, and interpretive reach of multiple scientific disciplines.

To live in the Anthropocene is to breathe in wonder and power, while breathing out failure and helplessness. As citizen-subjects of the Anthropocene, we hurry to commit to our all-powerful geological agency in the world—as better stewards, as ethical environmental managers—even as Deep Time sucks us into Tennyson’s opposite conclusion: that we are nothing . . . it is all hopeless. To give narrative shape to this dilemma, to write the geological human, is the work of Deep Time scholarship—which belongs to the greater project of Anthropocene studies.

It’s never too late for Deep Time.


Gillen D’Arcy Wood is the Andrew and Susan Langan Professor of Environmental Humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His book Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World is available from Princeton University Press. Professor Wood will be speaking at the Mediating Climate Change conference at Leeds in July 2017.

This entry was posted in Romantic Climates.

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