Once upon a time were we ever premodern?
In a now famous formulation, Bruno Latour declares "we have never been modern." His logic stems from the conviction that "then" cannot be clinically severed from "now." Moreover, to create a "Great Divide" between "then" and "now," Latour writes, entails grave ecological consequences. As ecocritic Ursula Heise observes, invocations of the "premodern" risk linking temporal descriptions to a nostalgic view of a cultural past and of difference (racial, geographic, more-than-human). What, then, is at stake when we refer to "premodern" literature?
This paper explores the role that narrative perspective plays in our construction of the "premodern." Following the lead of Amitav Ghosh, it investigates how the invocation of the impossible within early romance might offer more than a nostalgic, or possibly naïve, mode of story-telling. Might recourse to the fantastic forge a greater resilience to catastrophe and climate crisis? As a case study, I turn to the Newberry's strong collection of 16th and 17th-century English romance or prose fiction, popular as well as canonical, to ask: how do the multiple, often seemingly impossible, world crossings integral to the romance plot the emergence of planetary pathways? How do representations of a vital sentient and agentive more-than-human realm complicate our understanding of character? Finally, how might our habits for classifying books as generic objects (premodern romances, modern novels) recapitulate, but also inform, our relationship to the natural world?
By exploring a select range of English romances, I highlight a looping circularity that forecloses a teleological modernity as separate-and somehow superior-to what came before.