Early Modern Times – deep time

Early Modern Times - deep time

Dear readers,

You may be gratified to know that you don’t have to disassemble your TARDIS to contemplate the time vortex. As you gaze at the image above of a watercolour print by James Hutton (from the 1802 Theory of the Earth and photographed here), you are peering into ‘deep time’. This BBC Travel piece by David Cox describes his journey to Siccar Point, east of Edinburgh, where he retraced James Hutton’s realisation of the earth’s long and dynamic history. This Scottish Enlightenment thinker was educated in classics, medicine, and chemistry before turning to the practice and study of agriculture on his farms near the border with England. Observing soil erosion led him to consider the constant changes occurring on the surface of the earth. He travelled around Scotland seeking confirmation of his hypothesis that the earth was shaped by processes far older than the timescale based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. At Siccar Point in 1788, Hutton observed ‘unconformities’ exposing vastly different geological eras, from greywracke rock (now known to have been formed some 435 million years ago) to the hardening of sandstone on top of the rock 65 million years later. His friend John Playfair (a most impartial fellow) memorably remarked of this phenomenon that ‘The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time.’

Although Hutton first introduced his ideas in 1785 to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and in subsequent (reportedly ‘impenetrable’) lectures, it was only after his death in 1797 (at the age of 70) that his theory was popularised for a wider audience–by his friend Playfair (who published the 1802 summary of Hutton’s theory), and later by Charles Lyell (another father of geology who came upon a treasure-trove of fossils in Joggins, NS in the 1840s). Hutton’s discovery of ‘deep time’ would in turn influence an obscure natural historian named Charles Darwin. Although we may now ‘recover’ Hutton as a ‘rock star’ of natural history, he was clearly an ‘unconformist’ in more than one sense. One gathers that we was not the easiest man to get along with, given his ‘changeable’ nature: in certain ‘periods’ in his life, he must have been ‘crusty’, and then rather ‘magma-nimous’ at other times.

In our classes this coming week: Laura Penny bids ‘goodnight’ to Novalis in EMSP 2000, and turns to Goethe’s Faust Part One, where her students will meet that hard-bargaining real-estate agent from Hell, ‘My-first-offer-lease’. But if you don’t want to ‘Goethe’ hell but prefer the cut-and-thrust of politics, Kathryn Morris traces early 19th-century German voting preferences in EMSP 3000’s examination of his novel Electoral Affinities. Her Witchcraft class, meanwhile, ponders the ways in which certain ship’s officers neglect witches waiting in line-ups on board, known as ‘witch purser-queue-shuns’.  And her course on ‘The Body in Early Modern Europe’ considers reproductive instincts and desires arising from caffeinated beverages brewed in narrow passageways using three pairs of foot coverings, ‘six-shoe-alley-tea’.

In her course on ‘The Renaissance Print & Cross-Cultural Exchange’, Jannette Vusich’s students will gaze upon electron micrographs of German Flu in her class on ‘”Viral Images”: Prints and the Protestant Reformation’. Those studying Leonardo Da Vinci: Between Art and Science will consider Leonardo’s designs for self-propelled jewellery worn on one’s lobes, and thus his innovations in ‘engine-earring’. In my Pirate & Piracy course, we address 19th-century pirate narratives, including Lord Byron’s infamous poem about a sublime piratical racing rabbit, ‘The Course-Hare’–who was both cybernetic and Socratic, and thus a ‘Bironic’ hero. My EMSP 4000 students will discuss Mary Wollstonecraft’s posthumous novel, The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria, not to be confused with her musical reflections (co-written with Leonard Cohen), The So Longs of Woman; or, Marianne; or her discourse on the best ways to handle sweet ground almond paste, The Tongs of Woman; or, Marzipan; or her controversial endorsement of feminist pot-smoking, The Bongs of Woman; or, Marijuana.

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Studies Program

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