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MILTON WILSON The Way the World Ends: The Scientism of Catastrophic Imagery in the English Eighteenth Century Today's environmentally self-conscious age is, of course, not the first to be much concerned with devastating natural catastrophes, with the ways in which our physical world can get changed decisively for the worse and even brought to an end. When people today find themselves looking back on past environmental disasters and anticipating even greater (and perhaps ultimate) ones in the future, they are following a long-established tradition, religious and scientific. But the specificcontext for such fears and speculations has varied a good deal from one age to another. This article's main historical emphasis will be on the English Restoration and eighteenth century - roughly speaking, on the Newton-and-after era - and its main intellectual focus will be on areas where works of natural philosophy or natural history with some scientific pretensions (primarily for what we now caU physics, geology, chemistry, and physiology) merge with other kinds of writing. These other kinds include Christianbiblical commentary, popular science and religion, and that hard-to-define field which we still like to call literature. I shall quote from a good many poems. Indeed, I think of this article as much less concerned with the history of science or the history of religion than with the wide-ranging use for various purposes of some fascinating and insistent images of potentially world-ending catastrophe. In my discussion the concept of 'world' will, however, following the loose and shifty practice of the period itself, be used very casually, moving between universe, galaxy, earth, life, and humankind indiscriminately and without warning. I shall also discuss two positive (creative rather than destructive) topics with naturalistic aspects and scientific relations - topics that Christians liked to involve in such a catastrophe: the physical formation of an earthly millennium and (before the last judgment) the resurrection of the body. As a very limited topic, which can anticipate, but not too elaborately, some of my later concerns, in particular the role of atomic physics, the latter will provide a convenient introductory section. A famous poem that imaginesbodies about to be resurrected and joined with their souls is a sormet by DOlU1e, written well before my chosen period: 'arise I From death, you numberlesse infinities I Of soules, and to UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 69, NUMBER 2, SPRING 2000 THE SCIENTISM OF CATASTROPHIC IMAGERY 561 your scatter'd bodies goe' (340),1 'Scatter'd' is normally, and perhaps properly, taken by critics to refer to the separated places occupied by individual bodies. Whatever the specific cause of death, it is somehow whole bodies, or maybe Pauline seeds of whole bodies, that are scattered, one from another, over the face of the 'round earth.' But I suspect that I am not the only reader of Donne's sonnet who has at moments found himself reading 'scatter'd bodies' quite differently, and imagining the scattered parts of each single body coming together to meet its soul in recovered physiological unity, a bone from here, a lung from there, an eye from somewhere else. Certainly many persons in the Christian centuries before Donne would have found such an interpretation commonplace. As context they could, of course, have invoked the assembly of bodily parts in Ezekiel's valley of dry bones. The subtleties of that standard source, 1 Corinthians 15, with its 'spiritual body' and its minimizing of 'flesh and blood,' did not prevent sophisticated theologians from asserting the literal reuniting of dispersed ingredients/ including (for Aquinas) not only essential units like bones, blood, and entrails, but also accidental ones like hair and nails (2893-95). And what I have supposed for the 'scatter'd bodies' of Donne's poem, we get quite specifically from my chosen period in Edward Young's poem The Last Day, where 'scattered limbs' Self-mov'd advance; the neck perhaps to meet The distant head; the distant legs the feet. Fragments of bodies in confusion fly, To distant regions; journeying there to claim Deserted members, and complete the frame. (12) But the rediscovery of atomic physics in the seventeenth century - the line that runs through Galileo and Gassendi and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 561-586
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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