8 Great Passages From Loren Eiseley’s “The Firmament Of Time”

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Loren Eiseley's The Firmament Of Time

Loren Eiseley’s The Firmament Of Time

As of this writing, the science writer/philosopher Loren Eiseley is one of the 3 or 4 biggest influences on my style of fiction. He was ‘there’ when, as a college student, I first discovered what makes good prose good, and what, by contrast, is mere subterfuge. He was there when, running out of large, over-the-top subjects to discuss, I first noticed what might happen when the discussion turns inward, and upon things that don’t ordinarily get illumined. And, of course, he was there when I was writing my first two novels, as I’d hunt for words, phrasings, and sentences to re-fashion into my own, and will continue to be there for subsequent books as I continue to work on what Loren Eiseley had started.

This is because Loren Eiseley was one of the first writers to hit upon and solve an ancient dilemma, a dilemma that’s implicit human progress: namely, how do you write on things that matter now, in a field — science — that is always going out-of-date, yet still remain relevant for centuries, way past said field’s natural expiration? The answer was simple, really. You transcend the genre, and push against the boundaries that have held things still by mere tradition. In this way, essays can become bigger, richer, more expansive; poetry and prose can morph and meld; things like ‘narrative’ can come apply to the world at large, as opposed to smaller texts. Of course, all this got Eiseley into trouble by scientists who did not buy into his approach, preferring, as they did, pure information over wisdom, and Eiseley had to juggle ‘standard’ research (he was a paleontologist, after all) and physical discovery with deeper observations, often straying from pure science into artistic and philosophic realms.

Yet time doesn’t really give a damn about science-drones, because, despite their importance, there are millions of them, most are doing the same exact thing, and if one scientist or theoretician dies, there’s another to take his place with near-identical ideas. It is a menial, mostly thankless job, and it is unfair, I guess, that only its communicators — the people who can transmute this information into wisdom — can get fame. But this is simply the mind’s own blueprint, not a social ill, and an expression of the specifics of human cares.

Last week, Dan Schneider conducted a 2½ hour video interview with the Loren Eiseley Society. Bing Chen (president) and Tom Lynch (vice president) discussed the man’s work and historical import, while Schneider, as per his style, prodded the men for answers for deeper queries. And, in celebration of this dialogue, I’ve decided to type out some of my favorite passages from one of Loren Eiseley’s lesser books: The Firmament Of Time. Yet as Eiseley goes on to show, even his lesser books have greatness in them, with much that is memorable, quotable, and representative of his work as a whole. Just look at how much he does with science, with discoveries that any competent technician could have made, but only Loren Eiseley articulated:

1.

Yet into this world of the machine — this mechanical disturbance surrounded by desert silences — a ghost has come, a ghost whose step must have been as light and imperceptible as the first scurry of a mouse in Cheops’ tomb. Musing over the Archean strata, one can hear and see it in the subcellars of the mind itself, a little green in a fulminating spring, some strange objects floundering and helpless in the ooze on the tide line, something beating, beating, like a heart until a mounting thunder goes up through the towering strata, until no drum that ever was can produce its rhythm, until no mind can contain it, until it rises, wet and seaweed-crowned, an apparition from marsh and tide pool, gross with matter, gurgling and inarticulate, ape and man-ape, grisly and rang-scarred, until the thunder is in oneself and is passing — to the ages beyond — to a world unknown, yet forever being born…

Since the first human eye saw a leaf in Devonian sandstone and a puzzled finger reached to touch it, sadness has lain over the heart of man. By this tenuous thread of living protoplasm, stretching backward into time, we are linked forever to lost beaches whose sands have long since hardened into stone. The stars that caught our blind amphibian stare have shifted far or vanished in their courses, but still that naked, glistening thread winds onward. No one knows the secret of its beginning or its ends. Its forms are phantoms. The thread alone is real; the thread is life.

2.

The world of geological prophecy has vanished. There is only this vast uneasy river of life spreading into every possible niche, dreaming its way toward every possible form. Since the beginning there have been no breaks in that river. The immaterial blueprints were an illusion generated by physical descent. The lime in our bones, the salt in our blood were not from the direct hand of the Craftsman. They were, instead, part of our heritage from an ancient and forgotten sea.

Yet for all this flood of change, movement and destruction, there is an enormous stability about the morphological plans which are built into the great phyla — the major divisions of life. They have all, or most of them, survived since the first fossil records. They do not vanish. The species alter, one might say, but the Form, that greater animal which stretches across millennia, survives. There is a curious comfort in the discovery. In some parts of the world, if one were to go out into the woods, one would find many versions of oneself, with fur and grimaces, surveying one’s activities from behind leaves and thickets. It is almost as though somewhere outside, somewhere beyond the illusions, the several might be one.

3.

Three years ago, in a symposium on the hundredth anniversary of the discovery of Neanderthal man, I made these remarks: “When we consider this creature of ‘brute benightedness’ and ‘gorilloid ferocity,’ as most of those who peered into that dark skull vault chose to interpret what they saw there, let us remember what was finally revealed at the little French cave near La Chappelle-aux-Saints in 1908. Here, across millennia of time, we can observe a very moving spectacle. For these men whose brains were locked in a skull foreshadowing the ape, these men whom scientists contended to possess no thoughts beyond those of the brute, had laid down their dead in grief.

“Massive flint-hardened hands had shaped a sepulcher and placed flat stones to guard the dead man’s head. A haunch of meat had been left to help the dead man’s journey. Worked flints, a little treasure of the human dawn, had been poured lovingly into the grave. And down the untold centuries the message had come without words: ‘We too were human, we too suffered, we too believed that the grave is not the end. We too, whose faces affright you now, knew human agony and human love.’

“It is important to consider,” I said then, “that across fifty thousand years nothing has changed or altered in that act. It is the human gesture by which we know a man, though he looks out upon us under a brow reminiscent of the ape.”

4.

“This is a true observation, because on the more simple levels of life, monotony is a necessity for survival. The life in pond and thicket is not equipped for the storms that shake the human world. Its small domain is frequently confined to a splinter of sunlight, or the hole under a root. What life does under such circumstances, how it meets the precarious future (for even here the future can be precarious), is written into its substance by the obscure mechanisms of nature. The snail recoils into his house, the dissembling caterpillar who does not know he dissembles, thrusts stiffly, like a budding twig, from his branch. The enemy is known, the contingency prepared for. But still the dreaming comes from below, from somewhere in the molecular substance. It is as if nature in a thousand forms played games against herself, but the games were each one known, the rules ancient and observed.

It is with the coming of man that a vast hole seems to open in nature, a vast black whirlpool spinning faster and faster, consuming flesh, stones, soil, minerals, sucking down the lightning, wrenching power from the atom, until the ancient sounds of nature are drowned in the cacophony of something which is no longer nature, something instead which is loose and knocking at the world’s heart, something demonic and no longer planned — escaped, it may be — spewed out of nature, contending in a final giant’s game against its master.”

5.

“I am an animal,” man considered. It was a fair judgment, an outside judgment. Man went into the torrent along with the steel of the first ironclads and a new slogan, “the survival of the fittest.” There would be one more human retreat when, in the twentieth century, human values themselves would fall under the scrutiny and be judged relative, shifting, and uncertain. It is the way of the torrent — everything touched by it begins to circle without direction…

[O]nce launched on this road, there is no retreat. The whirlpool can be conquered, but only by placing it in proper perspective. As it grows, we must learn to cultivate that which must never be permitted to enter the maelstrom — ourselves. We must never accept utility as the sole reason for education. If all knowledge is of the outside, if none is turned inward, if self-awareness fades into the blind acquiescence of the mass man, then the personal responsibility by which democracy lives will fade also.

Schoolrooms are not and should not be the place where man learns only scientific techniques. They are the place where selfhood, what has been called “the supreme instrument of knowledge,” is created. Only such deep inner knowledge truly expands horizons and makes use of technology, not for power, but for human happiness. As the capacity for self-awareness is intensified, so will return that sense of personal responsibility which has been well-nigh lost in the eager yearning for aggrandizement of the asphalt man. The group may abstractly desire an ethic, theologians may preach an ethic, but no group ethic ever could, or should, replace the personal ethic of individual, responsible men. Yet it is this which the Marxist countries are seeking to destroy; and we, in a vague, good-natured indifference, are furthering its destruction by our concentration upon material enjoyment and our expressed contempt for the man who thinks, to our mind, unnecessarily.

Let it be admitted that the world’s problems are many and wearing, and that the whirlpool runs fast. If we are to build a stable cultural structure above that which threatens to engulf us by changing our lives more rapidly than we can adjust our habits, it will only be by flinging over the torrent a structure as taut and flexible as a spider’s web, a human society deeply self-conscious and undeceived by the waters that race beneath it, a society more literate, more appreciative of human worth than any society that has previously existed. That is the sole prescription, not for survival — which is meaningless — but for a society worthy to survive.

6.

Not long ago, I became aware of another world perhaps equally natural and real, which man is beginning to forget. My thinking began in New England under a boat dock…As I sat there one sunny morning when the water was peculiarly translucent, I saw a dark shadow moving swiftly over the bottom. It was the first sign of life I had seen in this lake, whose shores seemed to yield little but washed-in beer cans.  By and by the gliding shadow ceased to scurry from stone to stone over the bottom. Unexpectedly, it headed almost directly for me. A furry nose with gray whiskers broke the surface. Below the whiskers green water foliage trailed out in an inverted V as long as his body. A muskrat still lived in the lake. He was bringing in his breakfast.

I sat very still in the strips of sunlight under the pier. To my surprise the muskrat came almost to my feet with his little breakfast of greens. He was young, and it rapidly became obvious to me that he was laboring under an illusion of his own, and that he thought animals and men were still living in the Garden of Eden. He gave me a friendly glance from time to time as he nibbled his greens. He had not, it seemed, heard very much about men. I shuddered. Only the evening before I had heard a man describe with triumphant enthusiasm how he had killed a rat in the garden because the creature had dared to nibble his petunias. He had even showed me the murder weapon, a sharp-edged brick.

On this pleasant shore a war existed and would go on until nothing remained but man. Yet this creature with the gray, appealing face wanted very little: a strip of shore to coast up and down, sunlight and moonlight, some weeds from the deep water. He was an edge-of-the-world dweller, caught between a vanishing forest and a deep lake pre-empted by unpredictable machines full of chopping blades. He eyed me nearsightedly, a green leaf poised in his mouth. Plainly he had come with some poorly instructed memory about the lion and the lamb.

“You had better run away now,” I said softly, making no movement in the shafts of light. “You are in the wrong universe and must not make this mistake again. I am really a very terrible and cunning beast. I an throw stones.” With this I dropped a little pebble at his feet.

He looked at me half blindly, with eyes much better adjusted to the wavering shadows of his lake bottom than to sight in the open air. He made almost as if to take the pebble up into his forepaws. Then a thought seemed to cross his mind — a thought perhaps telepathically received, as Freud once hinted, in the dark world below and before man, a whisper of ancient disaster heard in the depths of a burrow. Perhaps after all this was not Eden. His nose twitched carefully; he edged toward the water.

As he vanished in an oncoming wave, there went with him a natural world, distinct from the world of girls and motorboats, distinct from the world of the professor holding to reality by some great snow-show effort in his study. My muskrat’s shore-line universe was edged with the dark wall of hills on one side and the waspish drone of motors farther out, but it was a world of sunlight he had taken down into the water weeds. It hovered there, waiting for my disappearance. I walked away, obscurely pleased that darkness had not gained on life by any act of mine. In so many worlds, I thought, how natural is ‘natural’ — and is there anything we can call a natural world at all?

7.

I suppose that nothing living had moved among those great stones for centuries. They lay toppled against each other like fallen dolmens. The huge stones were beasts, I used to think, of a kind man ordinarily lived too fast to understand. They seemed inanimate because the tempo of the life in them was slow. They lived ages in one place and moved only when man was not looking. Sometimes at night I would hear a low rumble as one drew itself into a new position and subsided again. Sometimes I found their tracks ground deeply into the hillsides…

8.

Man’s quest for certainty is, in the last analysis, a quest for meaning. But the meaning lies buried within himself rather than in the void he has vainly searched for portents since antiquity. Perhaps the first act in its unfolding was taken by a raw beast with a fearsome head who dreamed some difficult and unimaginable thing denied his fellows. Perhaps the flashes of beauty and insight which trouble us so deeply are no less prophetic of what the race might achieve. All that prevents us is doubt — the power to make everything natural without the accompanying gift to see, beyond the natural, to that inexpressible realm in which the words ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ cease to have meaning.

Man, at last, is face to face with himself in natural guise. “What we make natural, we destroy,” said Pascal. He knew, with superlative insight, man’s complete necessity to transcend the worldly image that this word connotes. It is not the outward powers of man the toolmaker that threaten us. It is a growing danger which has already afflicted vast areas of the world — the danger that we have created an unbearable last idol for our worship. That idol, that uncreate and ruined visage which confronts us daily, is no less than man made natural. Beyond this replica of ourselves, this countenance already grown so distantly inhuman that it terrifies us, still beckons the lonely figure of man’s dreams. It is a nature, not of this age, but of the becoming — the light once glimpsed by a creature just over the threshold from a beast, a despairing cry from the dark shadow of a cross on Golgotha long ago.

Man is not totally compounded of the nature we profess to understand. Man is always partly of the future, and the future he possesses a power to shape. “Natural” is a magician’s word — and like all such entities, it should be used sparingly lest there arise from it, as now, some unglimpsed, unintended world, some monstrous caricature called into being by the indiscreet articulation of worn syllables. Perhaps, if we are wise, we will prefer to stand like those forgotten humble creatures who poured little gifts of flints into a grave. Perhaps there may come to us then, in some such moment, a ghostly sense that an invisible doorway has been opened — a doorway which, widening out, will take man beyond the nature that he knows.

7 Comments 8 Great Passages From Loren Eiseley’s “The Firmament Of Time”

  1. John Erganian

    Thanks for this. I plucked this from my bookshelf to read on the train last weekend. Decided to google a bit and landed here. Nice to have these excellent passages in one place for reference.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Loren Eiseley’s Prescriptive for Our Times – Jan Johnsen

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