Earlier this month I had the pleasure to tell you about the Chronologium Academicus, a remarkable poster that a man named Guy Cutrufo has devised in the hopes of helping to restore academic knowledge to its rightful place against the onslaught of mindless celebrity culture—“An Antidote for Trivia,” it says. Well, now Guy has done us all the favor of sending a review copy so I can examine it more closely and report back to KtB-land.
First things first: make room. This heavy-stock, fully-laminated poster is big. I already stated the dimensions, 53.25″ x 73.25″, but many of you probably not quite aware of how much room that will really take on your wall. A lot. Fortunately, the poster comes complete with sheet on “suggestions for mounting,” which include wood lattice, Styrocore, framing, and double-sided tape methods (for me, 45 1-inch pieces of single-sided Scotch tape failed to suffice). Until you get your Chronologium Academicus mounted on a wall, with the top no more than a foot above eye-level, you won’t be able to get much of anything out of it.
Once mounted, stand back, and observe the sheer vastness of human accomplishment; then, come close, and prepare for an onslaught of knowledge.
The main body of the poster consists of 14 separate columns of chronologically-arranged milestones in almost microscopic text, each column belonging to a particular discipline. The columns all list something like 400 dated milestones. Milestones are for the most part events (“Earliest known use of zero was made in India … 876 B.C.”) and influential works (“Troeltsch: The Idea of German Freedom … 1916″). So that’s in the neighborhood of 5,600 milestones total. As if that weren’t enough to take in, surrounding the columns are 700 portraits of the people mentioned therein. Yes, the vast, vast majority are white men, but just when you think that’s all there are in a given patch, you’ll be delighted to discover an admirable (almost certainly white) woman among them. Along the bottom, in small print—though no smaller than the rest—are image credits for the entire roster of them. Just looking at the thing and thinking about the exactitude that went into it can make one dizzy. For this reason I recommend leaving at least half an hour after a meal before looking at your Chronologium Academicus, just in case.
The columns are not only chronological; they’re synchronized. Across all 14, a given year is at approximately the same level. That means it’s quite easy to discover that during the reign of the Mogul emperor Akbar in India (1556-1605), Montaigne was writing his essays, Michaelangelo’s dome at St. Peter’s was underway, religious wars against the French Hugenots were being fought, and Mayan civilization was first being discovered in the Yucatan by the Spaniards. It’s quite astonishing, since in some cases these momentous, world-historical things were happening without being aware of each other. Only a Chronologium Academicus can bring them together, it seems.
Since this is Killing the Buddha, let’s pay special attention to the column on religion. It begins, dated c. 40,000 B.C., with “Belief in the supernatural sprang from fear of the unknown.” Of course this is a very particular view, one closest to the views of Victorian English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, and it has weathered more than a century of criticism since. But fair enough—it was so long ago that nobody really cares. The list that follows does a good job of catching the founders of major religions, from Zoroaster to Mary Baker Eddy. It may seem like an affront to some that Jesus is simply the “founder of Christianity,” while Mohammad is both the “founder of Islam” and the “Prophet.” Two entries among them give exact dates: Luther’s big coming-out in Wittenberg and the Nazis’ proclamation of the persecution of the Jews. The vast majority, though, cite the authors and titles of works, some of which you’ll know and most of which you probably won’t. At the bottom—naturally the densest century is the most recent one—there is a pretty diverse selection of the most abstruse titles by theologians, philosophers, and scholars of religion. Lots of Tillich. These are confined almost entirely to Europe and North America, of course. The column ends, as they all do, just before 1990, making the Chronologium Academicus an entirely pre-Cold War and, most importantly, pre-internet joint.
It is hard, after all, not to look at this and ask whether it isn’t a task better handled by a website. As far as goes plain ease of use, yes, I would say, certainly. It’s hard to get very far with it anyway without breaking out Wikipedia in order to look up some title or other (the entries are so many and specialized it is doubtful that any print encyclopedia ever created would suffice). This creature craves hyperlinks and the ability to arrange the information in a variety of different ways. How wonderful it would be, too, if the portraits could be linked up to the corresponding milestones.
But what the internet lets us forget is the power of an object, an enormous, meticulous work of physicality that fills up a New York City apartment like an elephant. It is, Guy should be gratified to know, the only thing on our walls that remotely competes in scale with my roommates’ poster of Jackie Chan (shirtless) that hangs over the living room sofa. This is the first time that, size-wise at least, academia has been a real contender in our home against the infiltration of crass popular culture. And I’m grateful for that.
Learn more and purchase your very own Chronologium Academicus at ChronAca.com.
Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.