Friday, January 6, 2023

Noah Heringman's "Deep Time: A Literary History"

Noah Heringman is Curators’ Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Missouri. He is the author of Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology and Sciences of Antiquity: Romantic Antiquarianism, Natural History, and Knowledge Work.

Heringman applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Deep Time: A Literary History, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Deep Time: A Literary History is the first full page of a section entitled “Mammoths and Other Giants,” about halfway through a chapter on the French naturalist Buffon (1707-1788). Coincidentally or not, it is one of my favorite pages in the book, because the mammoth and its relatives enter onto the stage here in quite a dramatic fashion. I think it’s safe to say that a story about deep time would be incomplete without the mammoth. This is not because the mammoth is a particularly ancient life form. What the mammoth lacks in antiquity, it makes up for in charisma. The mystique of the mammoth owes something to its strong association with human prehistory. This was much less clear to Buffon in 1778, who only knew the mammoth and the mastodon from fossil bones, but he drew important conclusions from the differences between mammoths and modern elephants—conclusions relating to climate change and continental drift—and was the first to declare that the mastodon or “Ohio animal” must be extinct.

By stating here that “the mammoth is arguably the main actor in Buffon’s Epochs of Nature,” I am only adding emphasis to a point made by Claudine Cohen among others, but my contribution is to show how the megafauna and even earlier fossil species come into contact with ancestral humans in the geological imagination. My argument about deep time in the book is that it depends on this area of uncertainty between geological time and human prehistory. In Buffon this connection happens through a synthesis of elements we might refer to today as science and superstition: myths of human giants, for Buffon, refer to ancient hominins whose enormous size was of a piece with the size of the ancient “elephants,” tropical plants, giant ammonites, and other fossils. “Nature was then in her primitive vigour,” says Buffon. This heat may also account for Buffon’s use of a term translated as “roasted ivory” to describe the fossilized mammoth bones.

My book is not a study of the Elephantidae, but page 99 happens to express a mythical quality of these large mammals, perhaps the same quality that is captured so memorably by the muppet Snuffleupagus. When Buffon writes of the “elephants” left behind when human giants first migrated across the Isthmus of Panama to South America, because they were too unwieldy, I imagine the tears of the Snuffleupagus.
Learn more about Deep Time: A Literary History at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue