Release Date: February 10, 2016
BUFFALO, N.Y. – There is a thread of environmental anxiety present in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc” and though the art of his 19th-century ode doesn’t accurately predict the reality of 21st-century environmental conditions, the poem remains a prescient mirror image of humanity’s ecological course 200 years after it was written, according to Judith Goldman, an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo’s Department of English.
That poem is the inspiration for Goldman’s forthcoming book, “________Mt. [blank mount]” and her presentation by the same name, which opens the UB Humanities Institute’s 2016 Scholars@Hallwalls series on Feb. 12 at 4 p.m. at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Ave. in Buffalo. All Scholars@Hallwalls events are free and open to the public.
“Scholars@Hallwalls is a great opportunity for UB faculty and graduate students, along with other curious Western New Yorkers, to hear about the latest humanities research,” says Erik Seeman, director of the Humanities Institute. “The talks are designed with non-specialists in mind, so even those with little background in the field will find the presentations intellectually stimulating.”
Goldman’s calls “________Mt. [blank mount]” a form of creative scholarship that blends techniques of literary criticism and experimental poetics to explore scientific inquiry.
The talk is both explanatory and poetic.
“Of course all scholarship requires creative imagination to think about problems in new ways and to find new avenues of research,” she says. “The sense in which I’m calling this creative scholarship points to how it’s not only a work of poetry, but scholarly and research-based poetry.”
Shelley wrote “Mont Blanc” in the summer of 1816 during a visit to the Mont Blanc massif, a mountain range in the French Alps. At the same time he was writing letters back home that expressed his fear that the world would freeze over.
A possible global freeze was a popular theory of the day that appeared particularly relevant in 1816, which became known as the “Year without a Summer” because of a massive volcanic eruption the year prior. Dust and volcanic ash from Mont Tambora, one of the most powerful eruptions in human history, lingered in the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and contributing to crop failures and erratic weather.
Although today’s scientific consensus points to a warming Earth rather than a cooling Earth, Goldman says Shelley’s sense of potential natural catastrophe nonetheless rhymes with humanity’s contemporary environmental concerns.
“________Mt. [blank mount]” addresses those concerns of climate change and questions of glaciers and their disappearance.
Some of those concerns have encouraged drastic measures, like whitewashing mountains.
In Peru, where a cycle of glacial growth and retreat is responsible for much needed hydropower, some mountains have lost 1,600 years of ice in the last 25 years. The whitewash is an attempt to replace the reflective properties of the vanishing ice and snow with an eco-friendly paint that will reflect the sun’s warmth as the Andean glaciers once did.
Goldman replays scenes from “Alice in Wonderland” where playing cards paint roses, along with Tom Sawyer’s clever fence ploy, as she discusses the index of desperation raised by the whitewash project.
All told, “________Mt. [blank mount]” is a work of philosophy, ecology, aesthetics and poetic technique, using Shelley’s insights and modern scientific research, with “Mont Blanc,” and its history as an enduring focus of imagination and exploration, as the creative intersection of those disciplines.
“Judith Goldman was selected as one of this year’s two OVPRED/HI faculty fellows, because her project especially well represents the interdisciplinary mission of both the Humanities Institute and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development,” says Seeman. “She uses history, literary scholarship and climate science to unpack and reimagine Shelley’s iconic poem.”
Part of Goldman’s creative work has involved a generative art collaboration with a computer science and visual artist that is driven by ice core data. She has also reviewed a great deal of the scientific literature on climate change, not only studying conclusions, but also searching for language within them that could be turned into poetry.
“I’m interested in finding unintended rhythmic patterns or rhymes and reorganizing these phases into sound poems,” she says.
It’s a form of innovative research that lends new levels of awareness of issues.
“Art historian Tim Clark has said the humanities have to change in the sense that they take stock of current events and situations by working with the disciplines that are more directly interfacing with these phenomena” says Goldman. “At the same time science needs to be open to the kind of critical, patient and considered sense of arguing through different angles and perspectives.”