Anno Lucis, Anno Domini, Current Era: Knowing when you are vs. where you are

Human identity seems similar to other animals’ identity in that it pays attention to places and things and especially other living things, and of living things the most, those one loves and is loved by.  Our three brother cats know where their siblings are, more or less, at all times, and if they have been outside alone or sleeping, they often will notice where their brothers are.  Laura and I are also fairly scrupulous about attending to each others’ locations, and to the cats’, but we also operate in the context of time with respect to one another.  We both are, according to what our parents and friends have told us, completing our sixty-seventh year of life on Earth, though hard evidence about the earliest years is spotty, and therefore curiously precious to us.

Big Time matters a great deal to modern humans, that sense of where we are in the Universe’s history, but there, too, we encounter a lot of spotty record keeping about the early durations, and we disagree, sometimes violently, about how to measure or name those durations.  What are “years” when the planet’s circum-solar orbit did not exist?  Now that gravity waves have been detected and measured, our flexible space-time may start to seem even more unstable and harder to use to locate ourselves in a shared “when.”

This zone of thought was brought to my mind last Saturday (2/21/2016 CE) when L and I spied a carved stone at the base of the B&O Railroad bridge that crosses Main Street (AKA “Old Frederick Road”) in Ellicott City, our home town of twenth-six years, by some measurements, at least.  We walk under the bridge many times each month for exercise, but for some reason we had not noticed until very recently the two carved stones that were part of the northern buttress of the bridge.  The first, a literal “mile stone,” stood out from the base far enough that I finally observed and photographed it a year ago this past fall to use for my last semester teaching a literary survey course.  It was a literal representative of the need for “milestone” literary works which, though somewhat arbitrary in their choice, are valuable in a survey course because they help us orient ourselves to a series of works in time. This particular milestone tells travelers they are ten miles from Baltimore, which by inference one would reach by following the tracks in the direction of the buttress below which the stone was placed.

Milestone 10 image 1


For an example of a literary milestone, I often used Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.   The play, probably written late in CM’s sixteenth-century career and obviously before his violent and tragic death on May 30, 1593, bridges some stylistic gaps between the older, more abstract theater of the medieval moralities and mystery plays and the later, historically mimetic theater we identify as “Elizabethan.”  Marlowe includes, but mocks, an allegorical drama of the “Seven Deadly Sins” with which Lucifer distracts Faustus when the doctor is on the verge of renouncing his soul-destroying pact.  Marlowe’s audiences apparently knew and loved these stiffly formulaic dramas, and we can see, in the doctor’s bawdy banter with the demons playing the Sins, that theater-goers probably were expected to shout criticisms and jokes to the actors as part of the performance, very Rocky Horror for those who know the midnight movie tradition.  Marlowe also uses an “angelus” or “messenger” to announce place and time between some acts that are separated by many years or miles in their locations.  He apparently does not entirely trust his audience to be able to follow these leaps in space and time without explicit guidance.  In a decade or so, these ancient trappings of medieval theater would be largely gone from London-produced theater because audiences had relegated formulaic theater to pantomimes and were used to flying through history and geography to follow authors’ whims.  The play thus serves to mark an approximate era in which audiences’ minds changed and the theater left some conventions behind to change with them.  The “tragical history” formula Marlowe also points forward in time, which is why it makes a nifty milestone work.  This shadowing forth of some kind of historical event which the author enables us to imaginatively participate in, which Marlowe uses for the play’s main action, remains with us to this day in stage drama, novels, and video productions, like Hilary Mantel’s modern dramatization of Thomas Cromwell’s sixteenth-century political career in (so far) Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.  He’s not the first English author to dramatize history–More’s Richard III might be a candidate, or even Chaucer’s tales of Canterbury–nor the last to use allegories, but like the ten-mile marker, it’s a useful event in time to help us understand where drama came from and where it was going.

When I employed that “sixteenth-century” locution above to locate Marlowe in time, I called up a cultural norm that I expect my audiences to share, but which is entirely dependent upon some debatable assumptions about how to measure time which we all generally know about but agree to ignore so that we can get on our way discussing people, places, and things rather than the time-space they move in.  That was brought home to me by the second stone inscription we just discovered under that bridge, like the milestone a silent presence for a quarter of a century of my life (did it again!) but standing there to surprise me on our walk this past weekend:

Bridge Cornerstone 1829-5829

Even non-Christians are used to the “Anno Domini” dating that suggests this bridge was built 1829 years after the birth of a God in whose “years” Christians are living.  Fewer of us are used to living in the “Anno Lucis” or “Year of Light,” a Masonic dating system which uses some version of Bishop Ussher’s calculation of the date of Creation by adding up the ages of the Patriarchs in Genesis.  From this process, which I confess I have not performed, myself, one apparently can date “Fiat lux” to four thousand some odd years before the infant God’s first wails.  All that is implicit in the stone, carved by some reverent mason (or Mason) roughly one-hundred-eighty-seven years before I typed this blog entry.  Nevertheless, it has been still the same “now” for all of us.

Small, atomic-level time is something we all share whether we like it or not, because the Internet is governed by International Atomic Time (known as TAI, after its French acronym), the averaged vibrations of caesium atoms in hundreds of atomic clocks in dozens of laboratories around the world.  Without its agreed-upon and relentlessly recalculated accuracy (one second’s uncertainty in 30 million years?), networked computers could not communicate with each other, GPS satellites would not work, and the digital world as we have come to know it would cease to exist.  (Shouldn’t it scare us that we are, most of us, mostly, totally unaware of all this going on while we sleep and eat and drink our occasional Merlot?)  But Big Time has yet to be governed by any such device or system.  I suspect that, if Big Time ever gets its “Clock,” those who live by it will view us as we now view Neanderthals, beings to whom we are distantly related but, alas, barely sentient lugs, or at least sadly under-informed.  For now, let us enjoy our time.  Please spend a bit of it just feeling the stuff all around you.  You might discover something great.


Did you, too, miss the anniversary of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom (2/17/1600)

Now that I am no longer riding the academic calendar, I miss some things that I used to pay attention to annually as a sort of intellectual and spiritual discipline, like Chaucer’s death day (October 25, 1400), the day Petrarch first saw Laura (April 6, 1327 or 1328), and the day the Church burned Giordano Bruno (2/17/1600).  This last is particularly vexing to lovers of free speech, open-minded speculation about the nature of the universe and religious doctrine, and generally tolerant attitudes toward prickly but smart people who really cannot help getting into quarrels (Jeff!).  But I digress.  Look him up if you have never heard of him.  This is an interesting place to start:  Ingrid Rowland’s Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic (2009) is a good modern biography that gets at the known facts and sorts out some of the fables from what likely guesses tell us:

The statue on the cover was paid for by left-wing Italian student and labor organizers.  It stands in the Roman square where he was burned and seems to glare in the general direction of the Vatican.  Think of this: he believed in the infinity of the universe, that it contained infinite worlds, and that those worlds were populated with beings.  They probably burned him for refusing to recant some Church doctrine or other, ideas that are likely to seem as quaint as mummification or astrology in five hundred more years, but his wide-ranging mind was the real target.  Such human beings give us a glimpse of what we, too, ought to be thinking in our time.  Strive to be worthy of such persecution by idiots!  But don’t let them lure you to the stake.

Tentative start; permanent stop?

I am a recently (May 2015) retired English literature professor who taught early British literature (ca. 600-1800 CE) and literary theory at a small liberal arts college.  Like many recently retired academics, I miss teaching, especially one-on-one discussions with students doing research, trying to form theses to explain their research results, and trying to write coherently to explain those theses.  If you are a colleague in a similar situation and would like to compare notes, or if you are a student working on a problem, I would be happy to talk/write.  I do not engage in Internet “flame-wars” and will ignore trolls.  I do not ghost-write papers for anyone, nor do I tell students “the answers,” if only because “the answers” are rarely fixed and knowable without the “answerer”‘s active construction of the question and the rules by which it may be answered.  If all of that sounds crazy to you, I still might be able to explain it more clearly if you ask, but I also still will not tell you the answers.

This first blog post is an admission that my career has ended, such as it was in the arena of private liberal arts teaching.  The field seems to be vanishing, in any event, except for members of the cultural elites for whom, originally, the concept was invented and will continue under the protection of the Ivy League schools’ billion dollar endowments.  We have come full circle and can, over the millennia, see our Roman ancestors facing the same basic cultural truths.  The elites, for whom Horace and Virgil and Tacitus wrote, thought of it as their well-deserved entertainment and (occasionally) useful instruction.  The poor learned trades, crafts, all noble pursuits but nothing that would enable them to comprehend a Supreme Court case’s arguments, decide which candidate ought to lead the world’s largest and most unstable nuclear power, or fund specific proposals to conduct humanistic or scientific research.  For that, one needs a broad and deep cultural training, one which includes the sciences and arts and humanities, and once again one which only can be afforded by and might only be necessary to a tiny minority of young learners.  The rest want calculable rewards for each and every credit hour and year in school.  Look at the emphasis on first-year or even lifetime earnings for various undergraduate degree holders.  The masses chase the lucre, not knowing what it is worth or what the chase wastes and destroys.  We can probably see the most powerful early results of the failure of “higher education” for the masses in the incoherence of this year’s presidential race.  Like the melting Arctic ice sheets and the gigantic El Niño scream “global climate change” into the deaf ears of the power brokers, the crude inanity of this election’s political debate tells us who we are becoming.  There is the future of our republic plainly written for any with the eyes to see.

Those few young learners who can resist the common wisdom may still have their shot at some form of the “bachelor of arts and/or sciences” education of twentieth-century America and (to some degree) Europe, thanks to governmental funding for our frantic Cold War cultural competition.  But those students have to be willing to manufacture much of the curriculum themselves since it is being dismantled by the institutions who used to deliver it.  Bits and pieces remain.  Most of them on the Internet are slowly eroding due to “link rot” and server crashes.  Soon all that will be left will be those which were safely archived against the coming darkness.

My course Web sites still (2/17/16) seem to function on a server that was declared obsolete and “unstable” by the administrators a year after they promised to maintain them as part of my twenty-seven years of teaching and research for the college.  You can see a list of links here and are welcome to use them as long as they survive–but paste the link into your browser window because WordPress won’t let this Web address work properly as a live hyperlink, a perfect example of the Internet’s instability as a knowledge platform:’s%20Faculty%20Web%20Page.htm

They might be a useful starting place for questions or research if you are a student.  When they cease to function, I may attempt to migrate them to the Internet Archive, but the process is enormously time consuming.  As a fall-back strategy, using the Wayback Machine can give you access to many of them in fairly recent form:

For now, on the day when I have requested my mother’s doctor to declare her incapable of handling her own affairs, I bid you hail and farewell.  Or maybe we can talk later.  You know where I live.