Reading for the Wormholes:
Micro-periods from the Future

Linda Charnes

 

Mistress Quickly (played by Judi Dench) recalls Falstaff's last moments
in Kenneth Branagh's film production of Henry V

 

     1. Whatever we literary scholars call ourselves today, most of us have been trained as good historicists: we recognize the need to try to understand the past in its own context even as we acknowledge that our ability to read the past is inflected by our current perspectives. With the recent shift in literary studies away from the dominant paradigm of the new historicism toward a re-evaluation of the importance of the present, scholars are now debating the relative value of studies weighted at either side of the temporal scale: the "then" versus the "now." While "presentism" may seem to be the next new thing in literary studies, its agenda looks a good deal like that of the cultural materialism, largely British, of two decades ago. If anything, presentism seems a more urgently re-launched version of cultural materialism, perhaps even more important now in a globalized, post-911 world than it was twenty years go, when it spoke most pointedly against the Thatcher regime. There are certainly genuine methodological concerns at stake in the current debates; but there are also institutional and professional politics. Irrespective of where we stand on the need to "always historicize," as university administrations reduce humanities programs, as verbal literacy rates drop and visual technologies rise, as presses publish fewer scholarly books and privilege those that reach wider audiences, we will simply have to make the texts we teach and write about relevant to the lives of our students and readers in the present. If we do not, we are at risk, especially those of us who work on the earlier periods, of having increasingly less impact on the world in which we live, at a time when our voices may be needed more than ever -- a time in which the repetitions of history may be harder to discern and therefore even harder to avoid.

     2. The difficulty, of course, is that we cannot, nor would we want to, abandon the important project of understanding how people lived in times before ours -- what they experienced in their own cultural present. The texts we work on as "early modernists" require us to have this understanding. The challenge arises, in my view, when we believe that we can frame vast syntagmatic signifying networks within boxes of time that have beginning and end points -- no matter how flexibly we may articulate those limits. At this stage, however, we do not yet know what a different epistemology might look like, or how we might create stories of history that do not involve standardized chronological frames. And even if we did, how would we teach such an approach? Without strictly limited temporal boundaries to guide us, how would we identify the paradigms that do seem to arise out of particular eras in the past? How are we to find ways to detect the strangely recursive trends that "bend" history and interfere with our efforts to narrate progressive linear "periods"? Is it possible to create a transmissible methodology out of reading for temporal "wormholes"?

     3. Although the answer still eludes us, it seems important to keep pressing the question -- to acknowledge the inherent limitations of the cognitive framework that continues to organize our ideological relationship to time. The very notion of "historicizing" adds a political dimension to a natural process which is in and of itself completely neutral-that is to say, ideologically content free. "Temporality" has a politics; time does not. The former involves how we use time and what we use it to do; the latter has nothing to do with us. The biggest challenge we face is to realize the fact that different cultures may have entirely different relationships to time and to temporality, and that consequently history, as we understand the term, has more meanings than are dreamt of in our chronology. As an example, in a recent article in the journal Cognitive Science, researchers described an Andean culture that speaks an Indian dialect called "Aymara," a language whose speakers "think differently than just about everyone else in the world. They see the future as behind them and the past ahead of them."1 The researchers who conducted the study, cognitive scientist Rafael Nunez and linguist Eve Sweetser, discovered that for the Aymara, the spatial and physically embodied dimension of time that Westerners take for granted is reversed by their language. For the Aymara, the future is called "qhipa pacha/timmppu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time." The reason for this reversal is that Aymaran speakers regard what they can know as "what you see in front of you, with your own eyes. The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. . . . The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can't see it."

     4. The cognitive and linguistic alignment of past and future with the placement of the eyes in one's head means that the Aymara literally look at, or see, time differently than we do ("Nayra, or 'past,' also means eye and sight, as well as front."2 For this Andean tribe, the past is never behind them -- rather, it is always directly ahead, where they can see and know it. What they cannot see and know is their future, which therefore is understood literally to be behind them. As James Gorman points out in his article on the Aymara, such a world view presents a syncretic fusion of time, knowledge, vision and history that is nearly incomprehensible from the perspective of the West. Aymaran culture graphically reminds us that historical time as we know it is not "reality" or a "given" but rather a function of a particular disposition toward knowledge and the language we use: a function of how, and where, we look.

     5. The very notion that time -- ineluctable force and fact of nature -- has a "politics" may strike us as counterintuitive: whereas politics is a human construction, capable of infinite manipulation by its human creators, time is something over which we exert no control. No other force renders us as helpless, as incapable of influence; even gravity has been overcome by technological ingenuity. As physical creatures who are born, grow, age, and die, our experience of time convinces us that it moves in only one direction: forward. As creatures with highly developed cognition and memory, however, our experience of time is vastly more complicated. If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it is that memory and affect do not obey the dictates of chronology; only rarely do we "process" or complete our relationship to the past in a way that lets us tell ourselves, confidently, "that was then, and this is now." Despite this experiential fact, certain scholarly disciplines have built a methodological church out of a limited biological truth, founding on its porous rock an edifice that comes no closer to representing "reality" than the dreamwork we undertake each night as we sleep. If there is any truth to the cliché that "history repeats itself," it is not just because if we fail to remember the past we are doomed to repeat it. We are doomed to repeat it, in one way or another, no matter what we remember; for despite our positivist fantasies of progress or "modernity," human history, like time itself, unfolds in all directions simultaneously.

     6. Obviously the dilemma here is hermeneutical. Our epistemology is not set up to operate from the reverse direction; we are accustomed to looking for origins, building foundations, and moving forward from there. But what happens if we untether our sense of "historical context" from time constraints and regard it instead more as a conceptual organism with a "genetic" code vastly more difficult to unravel, a code that has constant mutations operating behind the scenes that manifest differently along multiple continuums of time? Cultures do not, after all, advance across all areas in lockstep; certain aspects move forward, others fall back. A culture is a pulsing organism that exists in as complicated a relationship to time as we do as individuals. Historian Tom Nairn puts it very well in his analysis of the persistence of nationalism:

We know now how little genetics has to do with it, but the societal equivalent of DNA is another matter. There is a long-range transmission of community from one age into another, through a myriad of idioms and altering channels, which is too little understood. This can be seen as a cultural blood-stream too, sometimes blind or disguised in its impact, liable to assume unforeseeable shapes or even flow in reverse, and capable of rising to the surface when least expected.3

This "long range transmission of community from one age into another" is more readily legible in those "temporal anomalies" from the past that reappear in the present. Temporal anomalies from the future, however, sometimes land on the surface of a text not prepared for their arrival. In keeping with Margreta de Grazia's only slightly tongue-in-cheek command to "always anachronize," I would like to take time in the opposite direction, to see if it is possible to detect the future in texts that "historicism" seeks temporally to estrange.4

     7. For the sake of speculation, let us imagine a textual circumstance or event that we'll call a "wormhole," in which we can detect an idea whose time arrives in advance of its historical "context." Lacan, and Zizek after him, have argued that for the individual subject, the truth of the past always arrives from the future, that history is always constructed retroactively. I would extend this logic further and say that the collective future always arrives in advance of its "past" -- that is to say, the future "show ups" up in bursts, fits and starts, ahead of our ability to recognize it as "the future." To put it still differently, future ideas must in some way be "embedded" in the texts of the past in order for us to discern their emergence from the position of hindsight. Such ideas might appear inexplicably as odd blips on the textual radar only to recede without further ado. Or they might crash onto a textual scene, sending up clouds of smoke that demand that attention be paid. The way to read for them is by looking for what seem to be mysterious crash sites: anachronistic ideas and depictions the causality of which remain indeterminate. Temporal anomalies from the future can be detected, but we need to find ways to decode their black boxes.

     8. Textual moments that are rife with affective peculiarities, that seem to represent strange emotional or psychic disruptions, are especially good places to look for such anomalies. There are two kinds of affect that are inextricably bound up with fantasies about time: the first is nostalgia, and the second is sentimentalism. In a recent talk at Indiana University, Kevis Goodman traced a history of sentimentalism that reached its apex in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the coinage of the term nostalgia, in 1688, by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer. Originally the word nostalgia designated a category of illness in which the afflicted person suffered

Quite continuous vibration of the animal spirits through those fibers of the middle brain in which impressed traces of ideas of the Fatherland still cling. . . . These traces are actually impressed more vigorously by frequent contemplations of the Fatherland . . . and thus raise up constantly the image of the Fatherland . . . [Nostalgia] brings back the animal spirits as though fixed or rather directed always toward the same motion.5

Later in the eighteenth century, it was thought that the medical ailment then called "nostalgia" was triggered by excessive time spent away from home, most usually on board ships and during the lengthy sea voyages necessitated by wars and the establishment of foreign colonies and commerce.

     9. Writing one hundred years after Hofer, Erasmus Darwin, in his 1796 text Zoonomia, defined nostalgia as

An unconquerable desire of returning to one's native country, frequent in long voyages, in which the patients become so insane as to throw themselves into the sea, mistaking it for green fields or meadows.6

This is an oddly precise epidemiology for a disease that manifested itself in the emotions and freakish actions of the afflicted. Unlike scurvy, for instance, or gout, skin rashes or the pox, nostalgia was initially understood as a brain disease diagnosable by a fixation on home (the Fatherland), one triggered by a spatial rather than a temporal dislocation. It expressed itself as "an unconquerable desire of returning to one's native country," brought about by "long voyages," and an experience of exile.

     10. The gradual transformation of the meaning of nostalgia from an emotional disease involving a traumatized relationship to place into a sentimentalized relationship to time, expressed by a longing for an idealized past, must be understood in the context in which these disorders were observed, named, and catalogued in the medical literature. Goodman argues that it is no accident that such an affliction becomes epidemic over the course of the two centuries during which the British were building an empire on which the "sun never set." With so many Englishmen deployed for long periods of time at sea and in foreign colonies, British imperialism generated the conditions that fused a sentimental attachment to "home" with a longing for the past and a belief that it was something that could be returned to. Keeping both these meanings of "nostalgia" in mind then-first, a brain disease which caused people to fling themselves off boats, mistaking the water for green fields, and second an affliction that, a century later, caused them to pine for a halcyon past -- we can regard nostalgia as a primary symptom of what Goodman calls "the disturbing disease of historicity."7

     11. Using this bi-fold diagnosis of nostalgia as our "code" for reading a textual black box, I would like briefly to look at a notorious editorial crux in Shakespeare's Henry V: the episode, in Act Two, scene three, in which the Hostess, the former Mistress Quickly, relates the story of Falstaff's dying moments. The Folio text famously gives the following:

For after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play
with the flowers, and smile upon his fingers' ends,
I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp
as a pen and a Table of green fields (2.3.13-17).

Katherine Maus, in her textual note to the play for the Norton complete works, simply says that "the text is corrupt at this point, reading 'a Table of green fields,' and was corrected by the eighteenth-century editor Louis Theobald in a famous emendation."8 The brevity of Maus's gloss, and her use of the word "corrected," signals her agreement with the emendation. Admittedly, it is not so easy to make a case for "a Table of green fields," and I do not intend to try. There is, however, some other condition in Shakespeare's text, and especially in Falstaff's deathbed scenario, that makes it particularly amenable (or vulnerable) to the predations of a micro-period from the future: something "in the air" of the play that invites Theobald to overdetermine this textual crux for future readers. That it is the eighteenth-century editor Theobald who offers "a'babbled of green fields" suggests that Johannes Hofer's (and perhaps even Erasmus Darwin's later) definition of nostalgia as a physical affliction, in which the suffering voyager obsesses over the Fatherland and hallucinates "green fields," was no longer limited to the confines of medical discourse. My point here is not that the emendation does not work, or that we should scrap it, but that it literally appropriates a textual misprint for a sensibility that will only fully emerge later, in the eighteenth century.

     12. That Theobald's "correction" makes so much sense as to go relatively unchallenged to this day reveals less about Falstaff than it does about how his character has been read by successive centuries. Theobald's emendation takes the text's (or the Hostess's) otherwise incomprehensible words, usually assumed to be a compositor's error, and rewrites them through the signifying lens of a disease only identified in the eighteenth century. Retroactively, of course, the "correction" works perfectly: the textual wreckage of "A Table of green fields" cleans up nicely when dressed in the affective psychology of someone who "a'babbled of green fields." With eighteenth-century hindsight, the conditions that make the emendation so persuasive are easy to spot: cruelly repudiated by King Henry V at the end of 2 Henry IV, Falstaff is sent away, figuratively exiled, banished from the Fatherland that he had imagined would be his as Hal's erstwhile substitute father, as due spoils of his friendship with (and perverse mentorship of) the errant prince. And although Falstaff is not on a sea voyage, death has long been allegorized, most famously by Hamlet, as a voyage from whose unseen bourne no traveler returns.

     13. Falstaff's death is reported to the audience second hand, which generates a doubled nostalgia, a further sentimentalizing of an already sentimental moment. At this important juncture in the Henriad -- the story of the death of Falstaff -- the words "a-babbled of green fields" supply the play with exactly the kind of sentimentalism that nation-building in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries will both manufacture and feed upon. Theobald's emendation seems natural to us because, although the Henriad's chronology predates the British empire, the political stragegy of its concluding play, Henry V, is so clearly one of nation-building: Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"(3.1.34).9 For Theobald, Falstaff's babbling of green fields would have had the added stamp of medical authority. For successive generations of editors, for whom nostalgia has now become second nature, the emendation fits nicely with the audience's desire to sentimentalize Falstaff's exit from the Henriad. Wrapped in nostalgia's fuzzy embrace, Falstaff is retroactively enshrined as the source of joie de vivre, bonhommie, and liberal largesse. No longer Falstaff the thief, glutton, coward, braggart, corpse-mangler, liar, drunkard, and lecher, Theobald's Falstaff becomes an icon of all that is most worth celebrating about "the human." Through the eyes of nostalgia, as we gaze backward from a modern world shaped by imperialisms (British, French, and American), we see Harold Bloom's Falstaff -- midwived by Theobald -- being born well in advance of Bloom's own historical moment.10

     14. With the patheticizing of Falstaff, we bid a fond farewell to the England of boyish hijinx and journey, via France, to the new England that Harry's nation-building will epitomize. In his St. Crispian's day speech, King Harry offers his men a brilliant ideological fantasy: nostalgia on credit:

He that shall see this day and live old age
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day (4.3.44-51).

Harry weaves nostalgia from the future about the past into the present, promising his men the future good old days, while Falstaff is relegated to the old "good old days," sacrificed by King Harry in his effort to unite, through confrontation with a "common" enemy France, the bickering factions of Welsh, Irish, and Scots of all classes into his "band of brothers," the "noble English." Although the Hostess and Bardolph's descriptions of Falstaff's death offer little to sentimentalize-he cries out for sack and rails against women -- Theobald's emendation makes Falstaff not only nostalgic in himself but the cause of nostalgia in others. If Lacan is right that a letter always reaches its destination, then the famous textual corruption that needs Theobald's correction in order to "make sense" is in fact a wormhole for the appearance of a mode of literary and historical sensibility that will burst into full bloom in the sentimental poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, before decaying into the mawkishness of bad sentimental fiction.

     15. None of the above is meant to suggest that the phenonemon of nostalgia as we understand it today -- a longing for an idealized past -- did not exist prior to the term's coinage by Johannes Hofer; it surely did, as any medieval and early modern epic illustrates. Rather, it is to say that nostalgia's eighteenth-century meaning, emerging as it does in the context of empire-building, authorizes and standardizes Theobald's emendation of an otherwise indeterminate textual corruption, turning his mere syntactical substitution of a few words into an emotional and ideological lynchpin of the Henriad, as well as a primer for future generations on how to read Falstaff's character. Positioned in his dying moments like an Aymaran speaker, Theobald's Falstaff has a nostalgic future behind him, where he could not possibly see it because it has not yet come to pass.

     16. I would be the first to admit that Theobald's emendation might not be so interesting had it not left so hefty a legacy: if this seemingly innocent emotion -- nostalgia -- were not foundational to the ways in which nations always misrecognize the harsh realities they impose on others in the name of an idealized nationalism. Nostalgia from England's future crashes into Falstaff's past through a wormhole created by an eighteenth-century editor who is, after all, only trying to make sense out of a few words of nonsense. Nonetheless, it helps to provide the Lacanian "quilting point" for the ideological fantasy that makes Henry V such a triumphantly effective play, one that provokes patriotism in us in spite of ourselves. Although Shakespeare shows us all the contradictions and cynical disjunctions between the Chorus's mechanism of grand interpellation and what we see at "ground zero," between Harry's lofty speeches and the doubts that footsoldiers such as Nym, Bardolph, Bates and Williams harbor in their hearts, the play still banks upon the overwhelming sentimental and ideological power of one emotion: nostalgia, and the "imaginative glue" it provides.11

     17. Whether one throws oneself overboard while "a'babbling of green fields," or once more into the breach, nostalgia is the most "disturbing disease of historicity." Kevis Goodman's haunting phrase suggests that there may be something within the drive to historicize that is itself tinged with nostalgia: a compulsion, perhaps, to abandon the ship of the present in order to satisfy longings that may have little to do with how the past "really was." Again, this is not to say that we should stop trying to understand how people lived and what they experienced in the past. History, we can all agree, matters. But it is to wonder whether or not something pathological emerges when a responsibility to understand the past is overtaken by a zealous mandate to "always historicize!" For to only "historicize" is to fixate on looking backward, an activity that can turn into a disordered relationship both to time and to place. Theobald's Falstaff exhibits just such a disorder; and the emendation is Theobald's own effort to historicize a textual anomoly in Shakespeare's play through the logic of his own temporal moment. By doing so, he creates a temporal anomoly, through which nostalgia from the future delivers to Shakespeare's Henriad a foreshadowing of what will, two centuries later, become England's colonial past. Until the eighteenth century, however -- that is, until it is a'babbled by Theobald -- that past will remain A Tabled.

 

 

 Go to Jonathan Gil Harris' response. Send EMC your comments on this essay. 
Go to this issue's index. Go to The Electronic Seminar. 

 

 

Notes

1 James Gorman, "Side Effects," in The New York Times, June 27, 2006: D3. Gorman's article appeared in the Science section of the NYT, and all references in this essay to the research from the journal Cognitive Science, as well as quotes from the researchers, are taken from Gorman's article.

2 Ibid: D3.

3 Tom Nairn, After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland (London, Granta, 2000): 200.

4 "Always Anachronize!" is the title of a talk delivered by Margreta de Grazia at the 2005 MLA Convention, in Washington, D.C., on a panel, organized by Crystal Bartolovich, entitled "Temporal Anomolies." My essay also began as a talk for Bartolovich's panel, and my references to temporal anomolies are inspired by her session title.

5 Johannes Hofer, Dissertatio Medica de nostalgia (Basel, 1688); English translation by Carolyn Kiser Anspach in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine 2 (1934), 376-91: 381. I am indebted to Kevis Goodman for this reference, as well as to the Erasmus Darwin reference that follows.

6 Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia, of the Laws of Organic Life (London, 1794-96)2:367.

7 Kevis Goodman used this memorable phrase in a wonderful talk she gave at Indiana University in 2005. Her context -- the scientific and poetic history of emotions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries -- was different than the one I establish here, and she is therefore not responsible for the direction in which I take her phrase. Her work on nostalgia was, however, the inspiration for my essay; and I am much indebted to her for letting me cite it in advance of its publication. Her essay, "'The Science of the Feelings': Poetry, Nostalgia, and the History in Motion[s]" is now forthcoming in The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry, eds. James Chandler and Maureen N. McLane, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

8 Cf. Kathleen Maus, The Complete Oxford Edition of Shakespeare, 1997: 1471.

9 This passage is from the Arden Shakespeare, Henry V, ed. T.W. Craik, Routledge, 1998, as is the St. Crispian's day passage that follows in the text.

10 I refer here to Harold Bloom's "celebration" of Falstaff in his enormous book Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

11 The phrase "imaginative glue" is Andrew Murphy's. See "Revising Criticism: Ireland and the British Model," in British Identities and English Renaissance Literature, ed. David J. Baker and Willy Maley (Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2002): 73.

 

 

Form copyright © 2007 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2007 Linda Charnes.