Chapter 2 of Mentz’s book is quite different from what I had expected it to be! And it’s all the better for that! For a while now, I’ve been thinking through Poseidon’s (and Juno’s) agency in epic as something akin to the environmental and geologic forces that “we” have become in the Anthropocene. This past semester, in the “Gods and Giants” course taught at Harvard, there were frequent occasions for close readings of passages in which one or the other of the gods caused the winds and the seas to rise up—usually for some petty and vengeful reason. The topic will be at the heart of various writing to come. Mentz’s chapter is similar, but different, for the focus is here not on classical deities, but on early modern Christianity. He thus studies a number of “theo-ecological encounter[s]” (25) to approach just such questions, i.e. how the sea is (and is not) under divine control, as specifically captured in the image showing a “Providentialist view of shipwreck” (49) in A Token for Mariners. The various texts studied here are approached as instances of “tehomic theology” (tehom, the sea) a term that Mentz borrows from Catherine Keller (28). This turn to the ocean and its relationship to angry gods is a welcome one and constitutes a challenge to the anthropocentric focus of much that has been and is written about early modern voyages—Mentz gives as an example of this the title page of Dickinson’s God’s Protecting Providence, which alludes to both “the devouring Waves of the Sea” and “the inhumane CANNIBALS OF FLORIDA” (41). Indeed, in early modern travel accounts the trend has been to see and to be interested in only the humans, and in human cultural exchanges, rather than to pay attention to the non-human environment. In Errance et cohérence, I looked briefly at Léry’s Histoire d’un voyage faict en la terre du Brésil, drawing attention to a similar imbalance, namely the fact that Léry is, almost universally, read as Lévi-Strauss’s ancestor rather than as a someone aware of the material world: “Alors que, dans la partie centrale, brésilienne et ethnographique, l’exposition de la nature et du peuple de la Terra Brasilis privilégie […] le fait particulier et l’absolue altérité de la langue tupie, chacune des deux narrations de traversées atlantiques est l’occasion d’une réflexion sur l’immensité du monde et sur la possibilité (ou peut-être l’impossibilité) de comprendre le lieu où l’on est par rapport à un plan plus général” (Whereas, in the central part [of his text], which is focused on Brazil and ethnographic in nature, the representation of nature and of Brazil’s inhabitants privileges […] the particular and the absolute otherness of the Tupi language, the two narratives of Atlantic crossing become the occasion for a reflection on the immensity of the world and on the possibility (or perhaps impossibility) of understanding the place one is in relationship to the whole). I’m not sure I realized what such a sentence meant when I wrote it over five years ago. In any case: Mentz’s chapter is a good one and a useful one, teaching us finally that the sea is theo-ecological and that, in texts that represent it, we must seek out and understand tehomic theology.
Project THE HUMANIST anthropocene
is a thought archive and workspace of Phillip John Usher (NYU) at the crossroads of early modern humanism and the problems and insights of the Anthropocene. Main Research Page.
ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment)
Environmental Humanities (journal)
Resilience (A Journal of the Environmental Humanities)
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