Firmament of Time
“Man . . . is at heart a listener and a searcher for some transcendent realm beyond himself . . . . he searches as the single living cell in the beginning must have sought the ghostly creature it was to serve (L. Eiseley 1978. The Hidden Teacher, ed. The Star Thrower by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. p.121).
For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
with the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
and dumb enchantment. – Keats.
Loren Corey Eiseley (1907-1977) was the distinguished anthropologist, who caused W. H. Auden breaking the latter’s principle “Thou shalt not sit/ With statisticians nor commit/ A social science.” for this one and only exception. Now we see that not just the great poet appreciated Eiseley’s breathtaking combination of a razor-sharp scientific mind and a Muse-milked poetic tongue. It’s scarce what we know among the application-like details of the man’s everyday life (born, married, labored, deceased in God), but a fully armored squadron of his writings mirrors to our perception a humanist – not a prayer, but a pantheist, not a dry as dust bench science, but an inspired by analytical keen and richly experienced thinker. All the mentioned qualities are vividly exposed in Loren Eiseley’s widely known work “The Firmament of Time” – the work discussed in the present essay.
It was on the very late stage of a straight-line progression from the bipedal apes through Homo habilis, Homo erectus and the Neanderthals to us, Homo sapiens, that “we have learned a great deal about secondary causes, about the how of things” (ch. I, p. 1). In the exquisitely arranged chain of essays, originally organized in 1959 in the format of lecture course at the University of Cincinnati, the author proves the “bigness of a deal” by tracing the history of science in the 18th and 19th centuries. He eliminates the impact of scientific discoveries done empirically and theoretically. Moral, psychological and aesthetical background is also richly depicted.
The research is divided into 5 chapters, the first being How The World Became Natural, in which the author ponders over the human being inhibited features, namely romantic and mystified cognition, catastrophic psychology and short relatively to the surroundings’ tempo life-period. Juxtaposing the theological perceptional approach to the ideas of Newton and Laplace and the Scottish scientist James Hutton, Eiseley traces the science evolution at the example of historical geology.
In the second section How Death Became Natural the authority discussed the nature of the extinction knowledge referring to comparative anatomy, paleontology and ethnology. Drawing the line from Hutton’s concept of the earth as a living organism Jean Lamarck’s opening for the geological doctrine of catastrophism Eisley through summarizing other natural scientists’ views comes to the How Life Became Natural analyses. The history of organic revolution and natural selection are traced in details.
Chapters How Man Became Natural and How Human is Man the teller builds a precisely arranged stair case from prehistoric to contemporary human types, arrowing at the point of science suppleness not able to a full extent answer the question “why do we exist”. A human being “is both pragmatist and mystic. He has been so since the beginning, and it may well be that the quality of his inquiring and perceptive intellect will cause him to remain so till the end” – underlying the researcher and nut-shells the book with the discourse on How natural is “natural”, for the climaxing effect choosing universe “edged with the dark wall of hills on one side and the waspish drone of motors farther out”, thus dwelled by wild creatures as an arena for counterbalancing the humans dwelled world.
Though arranged in a poetically worded list of theories and instruments-of-cognition strata (which is explained by the original format of lectures), Eiseley’s work suggests his personified scientific views, appreciative for discussion. The most bloodcurdling scenario for him was the born of a new human creature type: Homo syntaeticus, so to say, blackpainted in the last chapter of the book. “Outward projection of attention, along with the rise of a science whose powers and creations seem awe-inspiringly remote, as if above both man and nature, has come dangerously close to bringing into existence a type of man who is not human”, – laments Eisley.
A flesh-and-bone creature, protruding its energy outwards, thus meaning conquering the surroundings, has gone too far from the predecessors, were they apes or extraterrestrial forms of life. It is a widely discussed question lately whether the human civilization as we take it for granted nowadays will have to cease to some alternative structure, protruding inwards. On the physiological level it’s the reduction of body vitals through the 20th century generations of human species (generally 6 inches), on the abstract level – the intensifying of large information capacities on within-palpable media (e.g. Internet).
Such tendency could end either with finding alternative forms of natural and “natural” (taking the definition, which Eiseley assimilates from Thoreau’s “we all occupy the region of common sense, but in the prospect of the future we are, by instinct, transcendentalists” statement and formulates as “the man who makes nature ‘natural’ [ ] stands at the point where the miraculous comes into being, and after the event he calls it “natural”) forms of co-existence.
It’s quite to the point to mention here the noosphere theory primarily developed by the Russian scientist A. Vernadsky. Eiseley’s belief that “Progress secularized, progress which pursues only the next invention, progress which pulls thought out of the mind and replaces it with idle slogans, is not progress at all” calls to the Vernadsky’s opinion that nature as a scope of systems react to the presence of humans as a living being. Let never time comes when a Homo species would utter “I can’t help myself.” “It is the final exteriorization of man’s moral predicament, of his loss of authority over himself” – the recognized American anthropologist is convicted.
The author traces the human race development at the scenery of geological and organic life evolution. From “a man, a Neanderthal man, once labeled by the Darwinian proponents of struggle as a ferocious ancestral beast” to the spiritual men of today, seeking the garden of Eden – that is the gallery of Eiseley’s heroes. Homothermous vs. Crustaceous, observed in a museum by occasionally locked there scientist, give us a vast ground for thoughts: whether we stick to the single ossified theory (e.g. Divine construction of the Planet, geology of catastrophes, extraterrestrial intrusion) or to integrate the elements into something “supernatural” – instinctively sensed, grasped by imagination and introduced into material or cognitive world by the means given in the process of natural evolution and, which is the most important, fitted into the humanistic moral and ethical scheme.
Nothing better than Kierkegaard’s “concluding wisdom” as Eiseley puts it – “Through the eternal, we can conquer the future” – comes to make coda for this paper. In the book the frightening idea that “[ ] we are not playing on the center stage [ ], the Great Spectacle has no terminus and no meaning [ ] and the play [ ] is a shabby repeat performance in an echoing vacuity” is not ascertained by the author. Through tracing the geological periods, too long for a brief human life, Loren Eiseley manages to prove the idea that term “firmament of time” – evolution as far as can be assumed, the space and time under which laws we exist – is derived not from “firm”, agglutinated, but from the nature’s stability notion say “that stability of forces in the ripples impressed in stone, or the rain marks on a long-vanished beach, or the unchanging laws of light in the eye of a four-hundred-million-year-old trilobite”.
L. Eisley 1999, Univ. Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NB.
 Auden, W. H. “Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times,” Nones. New York: Random House, 1950.