Romantic Circles Blog

Outlandish Dwelling: “The Raven,” Part Last

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Returning from the flurry of the start of the semester, I want to consider the close of Coleridge’s “The Raven” (much as Tim has now brought to a close his wonderful readings of “The Rime”).  When we last left our bird, he’d returned to the oak—now “grown a tall oak tree”—and brought along with him a “She.”  The pair built themselves “a nest in the topmost bough, / And young ones they had, and were happy enow.”  But avian tragedy ensues in full, dramatic measure:

But soon came a Woodman in leathern guise,
His brow, like a pent-house, hung over his eyes.
He’d an axe in his hand, not a word he spoke,
But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke,
At length he brought down the poor Raven’s own oak.
His young ones were killed; for they could not depart,
And their mother did die of a broken heart.

Many a reader of Thoreau’s Walden will halt (“Pause, Dweller!”) at the text’s mention of the Woodman’s brow, pendulous “like a pent-house.” Coleridge may have adapted this simile of a slant-roofed forehead from Dryden’s description of “pent-house eye-brows” (King Arthur III.i.30).  But the relation to dwelling, in this context of a woodman cutting down a tree that will be transformed into a ship, suggests more than appearance.  The Woodman uncannily conveys lean-to houseness with him in his human bearing and attitudes: human ecology (conceptualized dwelling, houseness, the [un]heimlich) trumps and destroys an avian ecosystem and its dwellers.  The Woodman’s “guise” moreover suggests something less than authentic, as if he were playing a role as an actor or agent of transformative dwelling: my dwelling from yours.  So the poem’s vision of eco-nomy seems to go.  The Raven’s “own oak,” dwelt in but not of course “owned” in human terms of commerce and property rights, is “brought down,” and the young birds, unable yet to fly, are “killed” by the Woodman’s action.  This scene is obviously conveyed with a good deal of anthropomorphism.  Even the word “own” smacks of human possession.  And then there’s the sentimental mother raven’s death from “a broken heart.”  Pathetic fallacy, anyone?

Yet I can’t help but recall a memory from my youth.  Goose hunting one early morning on a reedy lake in Washington state (USA), I listened to a lone goose forlornly calling as he or she circled and circled round our boat.  My father and I both surmised that the bird was calling for its missing mate, who likely had been shot down by some other hunter.  Was that goose’s heart “broken”?  Who can say?  That it called and called, and that its vocalizations conveyed a sense of mournful loss—well, those were my burdensome impressions then (and, however sentimental and erroneous, no doubt later played a part in my becoming a vegetarian).  Emotional suffering is not the sole domain of humankind.

Now comes the transformation, perhaps along the lines of what Ashton Nichols heralds as “urbanature,” whereby nature is converted not into Hegelian-Emersonian culture but into that nature forged by human animals as another—“green” or not-so-green--portion of the world.  Beavers use trees to make dams; humans use them to build houses and ships (and poems):

The boughs from the trunk the woodman did sever;
And they floated it down on the course of the river.
They sawed it in planks, and its bark they did strip,
And with this tree and others they made a good ship.

Now for the ironic close, whereby human mastery is thwarted.  Poetic justice or just bad luck?  Or is this finale best read allegorically, for instance regarding late eighteenth-century British politics?  Certainly the poem (composed circa 1798) alludes to many a past shipwreck, and also eerily foreshadows, at least to my eyes, the wreck of John Wordsworth’s ship in 1805:

The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land
Such a storm there did rise as no ship would withstand.
It bulged on a rock, and the waves rush’d in fast;
Round and round flew the Raven, and cawed to the blast.
He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls–
See! see! o’er the topmast the mad water rolls!

Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,

And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank’d him again and again for this treat:

They had taken his all, and REVENGE IT WAS SWEET

All the mariners drown in the shipwreck, and the ship itself vanishes beneath the waves.  With this disaster comes the poem’s anthropomorphic, almost surreal, zinger: the raven feels “right glad” and indeed grateful for this shipwreck--so much so that he repeatedly thanks a home-bound, dwelling-aimed “Death” on his pale cloud.  “They,” human landlubbers and mariners alike, “had taken his all,” his young ones and wife, and so “revenge” tasted “sweet.”  A bird feel (and taste) revenge? Surely this point is where the poem slips off the rails of all verisimilitude, if it ever rode them at all.  And of course all along the poem has operated as a fable with stock figures: “Woodman,” “Raven,” “Oak,” etc.  Yet if Coleridge and Wordsworth could elsewhere ponder emotional-neuronal connections and correspondences between humans and animals (notably birds) regarding joy or happiness, why not less appealing emotions, as well?  Who is to say that revenge has no animal analog or source?  Outlandish as this fable becomes in terms of the distraught Raven’s tracking of the oak’s journey and material transformation, and of the bird’s own grief and anger—outlandish as these things are, they give me pause.  For that out-land of distinction, of distance, is a “natural” separation we rely on very much: our difference from birds and all animals, even the most “intelligent” of animals.  There’s much here to ponder, “though inland far we be.”

Like Coleridge’s “Rime,” his “Raven” risks being too simply reduced to an eco-morality tale, where destructive human actions are justly decried.  The poem soon becomes a plea for habitat preservation--or to be destroyed at our peril. But of course the poem doesn’t make this moral so easy, anymore than does “The Rime.”  The bird does not quite exact his revenge (he doesn’t cause the storm), but he fully enjoys the ship’s and mariners’ destruction.  Morality play then becomes revenge play. Revenge seems to be a feeling that is outlandishly our own: a form of feeling policed and cathartically controlled since at least Homer’s Iliad.  Revenge is socially toxic, transforming men into beasts (of war), and it is thus also quintessentially “human.”  Along with grief and sex, the feeling of vengeance is one of the key driving forces behind art—at least behind ancient-heroic art.  In Coleridge’s forged fable vengeance is not like an animal emotion, it IS one.  The fable arguably views all emotions as natural, with the difference between animal and human a matter more of degree than kind, however much we may prefer to see it differently.  Our houses, our furniture and culture, come from other animals’ dwellings or dwelling places, as parts of a larger, global transformation not of nature into culture so much as of dwelling into dwelling, with a dash of the unheimlich, of an unhomely, uncanny sense of loss and lurking revenge, to discomfort us under our roofs and penthouse brows.  (More to come.)

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Eco-apocalypse

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Hi again. Why am I not in favor of ecological apocalypticism (or in fact of any form apocalypticism)?

It's just not good for ecological being-together. If your view is that the world is ending (and soon), then why worry, why bother?

I think it also marshals the masochism and sadism we sublimate in elegy: in ecological apocalypticism, we witness our deaths, from an impossible future vantage point.

Frank Zappa's words about religious war could also apply to ecological disaster, and the long-term, no-gratifiation energy it will take to deal with it:

You can't run a race without no feet, and pretty soon there won't be no street for joggers to jog on and doggies to dog on. Religious fanatics can make it be all gone. It won't blow up and disappear, it'll just look ugly for a thousand years.
“Dumb All Over,” You Are What You Is

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(Th)e(c)ology

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Quotation of the week from my man Thomas Merton.

This is apopros of Sarah Palin, Pentacostalism, and the prospect of another end times apocalypticist in control of the planet.

This is where the ecological rubber meets the road folks! Are you registered to vote yet?

Here is my favorite part of a favorite essay, called “The Moral Theology of the Devil”:

as might be expected, the moral theology of the devil grants an altogether unusual amount of importance to … the devil. Indeed one soon comes to find out that he is the very center of the whole system. That he is behind everything. That he is moving everybody in the world except ourselves. That he is out to get even with us. And that there is every chance of his doing so because, it now appears, his power is equal to that of God, or even perhaps superior to it …

In one word, the theology of the devil is purely and simply that the devil is god.

New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972), 90–7

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The ecological thought—ecologocentric insert

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Hi again.

School starts soon (quarter system). I returned from the retreats. And I'm finishing an essay called “Ecologocentrism: Unworking Animals,” for SubStance.

All feeble excuses for my not yet posting my final thoughts on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

They're about the sheer “thereness” of existence, its density—what “world” subsumes and half erases. And its relation to intimacy.

I've been getting some excellent feedback on my first draft of The Ecological Thought.

The SubStance essay is a study of Solaris, the incredible science fiction story of a psychologist's encounter with a radically other mind.

It claims that just as Derrida argues that logocentrism underlies Western philosophy's attempt to ground meaning in an essential form, I hold that ecologocentrism underpins most environmentalist philosophy, preventing access to the full scope of interconnectedness.

Thinking, even environmentalist thinking, has set up “Nature” as a reified thing in the distance, “over there,” under the sidewalk, on the other side where the grass is always greener, preferably in the mountains, in the wild.  This “Nature” accords with Walter Benjamin's proposition about the aura: it is a function of distance.  Benjamin uses an image from “Nature”—or from the picturesque?  But that is my and his point—to describe the aura: “We define the aura . . . as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close [the object] may be.  If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.”

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Romantic Ecomorphism

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Global warming may be the first environmental crisis to affect all life on earth at the same time, in equally dramatic ways. The Romans apparently raised the level of airborne lead-and subsequently the lead level in soil and waterways-because of the amount of lead smelting they practiced. But before global warming, every earlier environmental crisis had an impact on relatively small groups of creatures or species in relatively small geographic areas. Think Love Canal or Three Mile Island. Think even of DDT or PCBs whose threats are widespread but whose Superfund sites are always relatively concentrated. As ecocatastrophic threats have increased in their ranges, so has our sense of our own links to the areas so affected. Out of an ever warmer world we will increasingly find new ways to recognize our dependence on other species and their dependence on us. We are all getting warmer together. The impact of increased global temperature on microorganisms-bacteria, fungi, and viruses-will be directly related to the impact of those same temperatures on humans.

The lure of ecomorphism, of our desire to describe ourselves and our world in ecological terms, is probably at the root of our culture's current preoccupation with aliens. The possibility of life on other planets-whether fossilized unicellular organisms trapped in rocks on Mars or humanoid "Grays," the alien beings that are encountered by so many insomniacs-is a function of our thinking about the ultimate ecosystem. Since the cosmos is our largest natural home, the rules of physics and of ecological balance must reach far beyond earthly limits. Indeed, science now reports that the apparent "laws" of nature actually alter once we cover great enough distances, travel fast enough, or alter our perspective form a binocular humanized vantage point. Those who worry about these matters now suspect that alien life will turn out to be either an invader from far beyond or the potential source of all life on earth. Some serious thinkers are now speculating about what we might call "cosmic ecology," about life as universal in the literal sense, life throughout the entire universe, terrestrial life itself as fundamentally extraterrestrial. Science fiction will become science fact if and when it turns out that earthly life was transplanted here by spores, or some other source, from outer space. Stay tuned, Trekkies.

Our greatest modern fears can be likewise linked to an ecocentrism born of anxiety. What has been so terrifying to recent generations about "the Bomb"-the atomic A-Bomb and the hydrogen H-Bomb-has been our fear that we might have the capacity to destroy ourselves and all life on earth, except perhaps cockroaches, horseshoe crabs, a few sharks, and the bacteria. But what would life have meant after we had destroyed it? Would the end of things make any difference? In a comparable image, if the planet was to be knocked out of its orbit by an asteroid tonight, what difference would that make beyond the difference it would make to humans? What does our life in nature mean? Finally, consider Steven J. Gould's claim that invisible organisms, such as bacteria and viruses, are actually the most successful of all life forms, since they are far more wide-ranging and extensive, in untold masses stretching miles upon miles toward the deep rocky center of the planet, than the total weight of all the mega-fauna. The total of all the life on our planet that is invisible to the human eye may far surpass the visible biotic mass, from every ant to every blue whale, every slime mold to every sequoia. If Gould is right, and he usually was, life on earth looks more like bacteria than it looks like human beings.

Our own era is not only afraid that aliens or nuclear bombs or bacteria will beat us in the end. We currently fear ecotastrophies of many kinds: ozone holes and global climate change, scourging influenzas and viral pandemics. Most likely of all these fears is a fear that is also a form of optimism: artificial life-not like Frankenstein's monstrous wretch-but rather intelligent computers, A.I. (artificial intelligence) in robots, androgynous androids dreaming of electric sheep. Computers will soon know more than we know. Silicone implants will soon supplant our memories and enhance our sex lives. Scariest of all of these scenarios is the most likely, since it is already underway: genetic manipulation of the heredity of peaches, drosophila, and pigs, not to mention genetic and reproductive manipulation of our mothers and fathers, the eggs and sperm and genes that make you into you and me into me. Nonhuman genes implanted into human fetuses, fecund fertility clinics, sperm banks and amniocentesis: in all such cases we see wild reproductive nature transformed in our bedrooms and bio-labs and cities, yet another version of urbanature.

We can now describe the important details of human biology in terms of our connection to dust mites and deer ticks, maggots and mushrooms, flowering trees and fiddlehead ferns, white-tailed deer and bowhead whales. Unlike those early Romantic naturalists-Erasmus Darwin, William Bartram, Gilbert White-we are now interested not only in the large visible creatures around us, mega-fauna, but in a wide panoply of nonhuman events: the sun-cycle and wind-cycle, the rain and gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, plant reproduction, animal population balance, the food supply, the big picture, the whole environmental enchilada. These wide-ranging concerns point toward another major paradigm shift in our new century, toward a new ethic that is not just about preserving wild spaces and wild places.

The new ethic needs to see skyscrapers, superhighways, jumbo-jets, and genetic research labs as parts of our "new" nature, no less natural because they were crafted by members of the human species. The skyscraper is made of sand (for glass), bauxite (for aluminum), and iron (for steel). The jet burns fossil-fuels or bio-fuels and flies on aerodynamic principles. Natural laws and natural materials allow us to create and to control every skyscraper and every jet, so how are the skyscraper and the jet unnatural? Our new nature will not be the mysterious nature that our ancestors once feared (wolves and thunder and winter) nor will it be the nature that the Romantics taught us to love (nightingales and daffodils and springtime). Out of ecomorphism comes another new idea, urbanature. As I have written elsewhere, urbanature is the essential version of all nature that keeps us closer to each other and closer to organic, as well as inorganic, matter.

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Little fly

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Okay--I'm on this silent retreat and I shouldn't even be writing this, but what the hey.

So I'm sitting in the meditation hall today and this small house fly lands on my hand. It puts its little proboscis down onto me. I can feel it going a little into my flesh. Yuck. And ouch! So after a few seconds I wave it off.

Of course everything I've said about the neighbor comes flooding into my mind. Not to mention Ash's post on Blake's fly. And lo, my thoughtless hand has indeed brushed it away...

So luckily this fly doesn't take no for an answer and back it comes. Same procedure. Ouch! This time I just let her or him get on with it. Suck away, fly. I mean after all I'm in a Buddhist retreat for goodness' sakes.

So then this fly just rests on my hand for about ten minutes, washing her or his little head with those front legs. I frightened her or him off when I rubbed my nose with my other hand.

Just a little interspecies contact for you.

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“Let it be”

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I'm posting a miniaturized critique of Heidegger on my other blog, Ecology without Nature. I also posted recently on wind farms, and solar power.

Meanwhile, there's a very groovy discussion of nostalgia going on on the comments page of a very recent post by Ron Broglio. Thank you Ron. Very valuable stuff.

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Question up for comments: Ecology and Nostalgia

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I'm hoping blog readers might be willing to post their take on this basic issue haunting ecological criticism: how susceptible is ecocriticism to the critique that it is a nostalgia? Follow up: in what ways might ecocriticism work outside of nostalgia?

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Ecomorphism and Ecoromanticism

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Ecomorphism is the antithesis of anthropomorphism. Instead of seeing myself at the center of my world, I can now see my human activity—and yours—in terms of our connectedness to nonhuman life. For centuries the poets have said, “that mourning dove is singing a song as sad as I am sad” or “that cloud looks as happy the way I am happy as it skitters across the sky.” Now we need to reconsider both the tenor and the vehicle of such anthropomorphic metaphors. The vehicle is the subject—humans—from which the characteristic (sadness or happiness) is taken. The tenor is the natural subject (bird or cloud) to which the human characteristic is given. Poets and other imaginative creators should now consider reversing this metaphoric order in the interest of ecocentrism. No longer should we just imagine ants as resembling humans. We now need to point out that humans often act like ants, or birds, or even clouds. A bird does not build a house the way I build a house, but I can roost just the way a bird roosts: ecomorphism.

This difference between anthropomorphism and ecomorphism is subtle but significant. Science has revealed to us that ant-colonies are like human communities, but equally important is the idea that human colonies are like ant colonies. Both are adaptive responses to specific social conditions. Likewise, butterflies do not use mimicry and thereby make themselves disguised the way humans use disguises. Humans use forms mimicry, derived from mimicry in butterflies and other “lower” creatures, to accomplish similar goals. Humans gather and store food the way squirrels do, not vice versa. Humans seek mates like the rest of sexually-selecting nature does. We are more like them than they are like us.

If it ever made sense to describe the nonhuman world as human, it no longer makes sense to talk about the “melancholy mourning dove” or the “anxious anteater”. It now makes much more practical and poetic sense to describe ourselves in relation to the rest of nature than it does to humanize the nonhuman. If we want to keep thinking of ourselves as special—as superior to ants, and wasps, and birds—that is fine, but we should also recognize that we derive directly from, and are thus always linked to, the rest of wild nature. They came first. We arose out of them in the first place. We were not self-generated. Our humanity is deeply intertwined with and invested in all of the creatures that predate us on the evolutionary scale. Our own special status—when it exists—derives directly from our self-interest, nothing more, nothing less, but so does a chimpanzee’s special status.

Ecomorphism sees human activity as dependent upon—and interdependent with—all ecological interactions on earth. At the same time, human activity plays an increasingly important role in all ecological systems. Human fires pump countless tons of airborne waste products into an ecosystem that has always produced its own “destructive” elements: volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. Now, however, the three-pound blob of our human brain is always the self-conscious definer of the problem. Destruction only makes sense from a human point of view. No dinosaur worried about rapid climate change on the planet. No trilobite was troubled by alterations in ocean temperature. Even from our human perspective, the flood that brings death and destruction to the Nile or the Mississippi deltas also brings moisture, and nutrients, and life.

Our brain not only creates the sense of what we have to fear; it also reconnects us to the wider world around us. Ecomorphism emphasizes this need to see ourselves as determined by—while existing within—a world that lies beyond the illusory border of our bodies. The complex fact of consciousness is the condition that allows us to appreciate this central truth about our surroundings. We are a part of every environment we inhabit. There is no absolute separation between a world outside (nature) and a world inside (the mind). Our own self-consciousness—as writers from Shelley and Keats to Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry have reminded us—can give way to forms of unselfconsciousness that allow for fleeting unification between individuals and the wider world. Mystics from every cultural tradition have also known this truth. Such unselfconsciousness may best be described as environmental ambience. Ambience describes the unification of every element in a set of natural circumstances with the conscious mind that perceives those surroundings. In an ambient unity of self and surroundings lies one hope for an ecocentric ecology. As Tim Morton—one of the architects of ecoambience—puts the problem, “Ecology may [now] be without nature. But it is not without us” (205).

In recent years, ecocritics have described the progression from several millennia of Judeo-Christian thinking about the dominion of humans over animals, through Romantic empathy in the writings of authors like Blake, Shelley and Keats, toward our current willingness to emphasize our dependence on, not our dominion over, our natural surroundings. This development began in Genesis 1:28, when “God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Once God told us to subdue the earth, and offered us dominion over creation, humans had to decide how to use their new powers. They often misused them. The history of this misuse is recorded in centuries of environmental degradation, culminating in the ravages of twentieth-century industrialization, and in untold suffering of sentient beings, from captive creatures to more widespread animal cruelty.

Progress toward a new view began with an emphasis on pristine nature and natural law during the Enlightenment and the centuries since. This new view can be seen in gendered terms. Monotheistic and patriarchal dominion gave way, by the late eighteenth century, to mostly masculine articulations of Romantic empathy toward animals. Locke and Rousseau, among others, described a pristine natural state out of which we had all emerged. Keats and Shelley praised the birds and the beasts. In the twentieth-century, Romantic empathy merges with environmentalism, from Rachel Carson’s silent spring to Al Gore’s inconvenient truth. This modern ecoempathy has also evolved into what Carol Gilligan calls an “ethic of care.” But an ethic of caring also needs an ethic of sharing. We need to share both the world we did not create—which we call “nature”—and the world we have created—which we call “culture.” The two worlds are really one. From men with dominion, we have become humans who need to recognize our interdependence. From the illusion of arbitrary control we have moved toward an emphasis on symbiosis. In the process, we have reached our current desire to see the biosphere as a continuum of all life and all living process. From Jaweh’s monotheological rod of control, we have made our way through Keats’s anthropomorphic nightingale toward modern versions of ecocentrism and ecofeminism. The romanticist Nandita Batra has described this history as a long—often painful—progression from dominion to empathy to symbiosis (ISLE 3:2 Fall 1996). We might now want to call this sequence progress.

Blake’s point-of-view in his lyric “The Fly,” to choose just one example of ecoromanticism, puts us into an ecomorphic mindset by forcing us to ask, to what—or to whom—might I appear to be a fly?

Little Fly
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me? (ll. 1-8)

Such a dream of contact across the species line is not only the basis of all anthropomorphic thinking but also of all ecomorphism. A fly might be like you or me and, if he is, what might that say about us? Species boundary-crossing is not simply a metaphor; it is a scientific reality in the modern world. All species are connected. They can be metaphorically linked or literally linked. We have hinted at these metaphoric links since Aesop said that the ant was industrious, the fox was sly, and the tortoise patient. Now we know that there are literal links. We share genetic material with chimpanzee and crustaceans. We can transplant animal organs into humans. We can insert human genes into other species. We derive from and depend upon other species in countless ways. Ecoromanticism reminds of us these links from Blake's fly and Burns's mouse to Shelley's skylark and Mary Shelley's monster.

--Ashton Nichols

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T e co ogi al th ght—g e f sh g

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I'm in Crestone, in way southern Colorado, on a retreat. Just appreciation with no reason. Wilding my mind (thanks Ash!).

I'll be back to think some more ecological thoughts with you anon.

Happy trails!

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