Romantic Circles Blog

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I’m sitting here recalling my conversation last night with an old friend about our many hikes in Washington State’s wilderness areas and national forests--set aside by legislation for their environmental value, including for hikers like us. My location in eco-critical thought and work is surely influenced by my decades of experiences as a city boy backpacking in those Washington wilds.  “Let ‘em be,” I say, for the critters, the trees, the hikers, and the tourists.  Does this view simply fall into the trap of seeing nature as something apart from, and as best purified of, human being?  “Only if one ignores the park signs, the required permits, and the maintained trails,” one might quip.  As I love to say to my students, “There’s nothing more cultural than ‘Nature,’” and yet, although our conceptions of nature, like our basic conceptions of time and space, etc., are culturally and linguistically shaped, that doesn’t mean there is no nature; only that what we find is always already something we’ve conceived and delimited.  Humans have divided, protected, exploited, named, studied, and mythologized the natural world we behold as “outside” human civilization and settlement—with “protecting” vs. “exploiting” nature being to some extent two sides of the same eco-coin—although our concoction of “nature” might be news to the deer, marmots, and bears living in Washington’s North Cascades.  As a way of pondering these matters more, in this my last entry in Romantic Circles’ eco-blog, I’d like both to circle back to some ideas from my first blog entry and to consider a few of the many thought-provoking ideas and observations of my two fellow bloggers, Tim Morton and Ashton Nichols.  Let me say what a pleasure it has been to participate in this eco-critical triumvirate, and let me extend my thanks to Ron Broglio for so kindly inviting me into the blog.

As this eco-blog’s inspiring entries by Tim and Ashton amply attest, eco-criticism is doing very much what it should in thinking more deeply and broadly about the conceptions—including the economics, politics, and metaphysics—of “nature” and “preservation” as well as about notions of “green” or less green discourses.  But that doesn’t mean all that such eco-criticism discovers or articulates will be useful to ameliorating the current global crises of habitat preservation, climate change, limiting waste of many kinds, and so forth.  New, radical conceptions like “ecology without nature,” “urbanature,” the “material sublime,” and (much further down the long list) “outlandish dwelling” may just as easily, and may very easily, become tools for opponents of land and species preservation.  “We’re nature, so we can do as we like!”  “Extinction IS nature.”  “To hell with biodiversity.  Cities are nature, too, and the world’s purpose is to be transformed!”  Narrow-minded views, no doubt, and far afield, one may say, of the theories offered on and off this blog.  But more generally, will our deconstructing of the nature/culture, animal/human opposition lead to more or to less respect for other species and their encroached-upon habitats?  Perhaps seeing ourselves as animals will diminish our sense of entitled hegemony.  But might it also lessen our sense of responsibility and of a (problem-fraught) feeling of stewardship?   It all reminds me of non- or even anti-vegetarian acquaintances of mine who opine, like Ben Franklin, “Animals eat animals, and I’m an animal.”  The modus ponens logic (or carnologocentrism?) feels inescapable yet sorely limited.

“We are more like them [animals] than they are like us,” Ashton holds.  I’m sympathetic to that provocative view, as I also am to Elizabeth Bennett’s implicit query, “What are men to rocks and mountains”?  But from what vantages are such conclusions reached?  Human language may ultimately derive, as Freud suspected, from animal utterances, but that doesn’t mean we cross the expanse when we surmise that original fact.  What does it mean for humans to be, genetically, 98% chimpanzee?  Precious little, Richard Marks has argued, given our complex human culture, our language, etc.  Scientists “find” such human-animal connections and analogies—common genes as well as common social or psychological “memes”— and market the species similarities to broaden the audience and attract funding.  But we’re not chimps, nor are we snails or amoeba, whatever the genetic commonalities.  We must therefore proceed cautiously down such paths toward human/animal similarity and (human-animal) origins, even or especially when they’re our “own.”  We’re not not animals, and yet we’re also not quite fully animals, either, chiefly because it is we who define “animal” and who wield such conceptual and technological power. A dose of Lacan or Derrida goes a long way here, with salutary effect.

“Beyond concept, Nature is,” Tim states, only to reject this Yoda-sounding phrase as “the ultimate chastity.”  Yet, to some extent, is not nature (à la the material or immaterial sublime) indeed that which is beyond conceptualization, however much that “nature” is always already conceptualized?  The Other is always beyond, and (or as) that which survives me.  Perhaps we need, then, to devise (chart) a course between “chastity” and profligacy: between preserving only to preserve and viewing the natural world as mere material to be transformed to Geist or to dust or sublimity.  Do wilderness areas repeat a phobia of intimacy, whereby one is commanded to leave no mark and to think of nature as that which is without a human trace or face?  Such chastity speaks to our separation, as symptom and as ethical outcome, from the natural world and from ourselves as a species (qua resemblance?) in that world.   That doesn’t mean we must make the natural world make room for us.  Quite the opposite.  “Where are the asphalt walks and the RV hook-ups?  People are animals, too!”  Is this vantage an outcome of a naïve, photo-op “love” of nature rather than of a more sober, more interdependent, and more cooperative, cohabitative ecology?   Ashton provocatively remarks, “The new [ecological] 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.”  But when all is “natural” there is no “nature,” not even “urbanature”—and perhaps not even “ecology”--eh?

At this end, I remain convinced that the concept of nature, for all its concocted status and its distortions, is still useful as a way of locating and preserving what is wild (and less wild).  Respect, and even eco-utility, requires a concept, a “looking back,” regard.  “Nature” arises from a false opposition, but that doesn’t mean the opposition isn’t still useful or that, within our oppositional thinking, it has no validity as a domain where thought meets its limits (sublime or otherwise) and where the human finds itself challenged.  Better, perhaps, to employ an oppositional term one knows to be a metaphor and to entail effects and risks, than to supplant it with a newer and truer one?  Here I find myself more a Wordsworthian than a Blakean (Blake never hiked), although I’d also point out that Blake sees the imprint of the animal on the human, not just the human on or within the animal.  And who’s to say that that radical idealist wouldn’t hold up a sign calling to clean up the Thames or to preserve a wilderness, even-, or because, he knew that place to be one humanly conceived and abused?  As Tim declares, “Ecology may be without nature. But it is not without us.”  True enough, with or without a “nature” beyond our ecological conceiving and dreams.

Thanks again Tim, Ashton, and Ron.

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Thoreau and Urbanature: a Final Thought

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"Wildness" much more than "wilderness" was the key concept sought by America's greatest Romantic "nature" writer. His goal was psychological as much as it was ecological. Seen in this light, the activity of the human mind always has powerful consequences in our treatment of the nonhuman world. Thoreau's life in nature, like yours or mine, is entirely a function of the actions and reactions of his mind. What he chooses to describe has more to do with his own thinking and the desires of his heart than with any objective state of affairs in the external world. He does not want us to go live in the wilderness so much as he wants each of us to wild our own minds, to turn away from society toward the wildness that is within us. The result of such wilding will be a closer link between the human and the nonhuman worlds.

Charles D. G. Roberts, the famous Victorian Canadian man of letters, says that Thoreau went through "Nature" to reach his goal. The goal was not nature itself, but rather freedom. Robert Louis Stevenson, as Roberts also notes, said that the cabin on Walden Pond was "a station on man's underground railway from slavery to freedom." The freedom that Thoreau sought at Walden was freedom of thought but also of action. This idea of freedom emerged from his abolitionist childhood, perhaps, but expanded as an adult far beyond the pressing need to free American slaves from their bondage. Thoreau's mind sought to free human beings all over the world from political restrictions of every kind and also from enslavement to narrow-minded ways of thinking.

He resented organized religions of all kinds because each religion told a distinct group of human beings that one way of understanding the cosmos was the only right way. Once Thoreau had read the Bhagavad-Gita and the Vedas, which he got from Emerson's library, it became hard for him ever again to see Judaic or Christian scripture as the only source of divine wisdom. He resented the rampant religion of materialism that he saw around himself in Concord and Boston, because of the way it imprisoned its practitioners and devotees rather than liberating them. The townspeople around him carried their possessions on their backs like burdens they could not lay down. Thoreau's response was explicit: "Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul."

Thoreau's battle cry for this liberating kind of freedom, his anti-materialism, and his sense of a surging energy at the center of the nonhuman world, all contributed to a sensibility that has resonated throughout America, and beyond, over the past two centuries. Even today his widespread influence continues. He is quoted by politicians and songwriters. His wisdom appears from state houses and college classes to t-shirts and bumper stickers. In his naturalistic individualism, in his devotion to history and to classical texts, in his belief in nonviolent resistance to unjust laws, Thoreau put into play central tenets of Ralph Waldo Emerson's thinking-and of a wider American Transcendentalism-in ways that continue to shape our politics, populism, and popular culture. At the same time, his effect on the tradition of nature writing and the wider environmental movement has been incalculable. He is a nineteenth-century thinker for the twenty-first century. He is a secular high-priest for our time, perhaps for all time.

I would like to end my ecocritical blog-posts by recalling that a locomotive ran along the edge of Walden Pond every day that Thoreau lived there between 1845 and 1847. Thoreau could hear the wheels against steel rails. He could smell the smoke from the coal-fired smokestack. He walked into town along its right-of-way. The freight car workers often nodded to him like old friends. The locomotive's whistle was, to Thoreau, like the "scream of a hawk." The steam emerging from the engine's smokestack was like a "downy cloud [. . .] high in the heavens." Thoreau does not even mind the commerce that is associated with this rumbling rail line. He only complains about the human tendency to substitute the value of these transported goods for the human values that these goods are meant to serve: relieving hunger, clothing the needy, warming the cold. Here, in the metaphoric center of American nature writing, with a rail line running through pristine wilderness, we once again find an interpenetration of natural and urban, of wild and human. For Thoreau, our nonhuman, natural house is the same place as our fully human, cultural home: urbanature.

--A.N.

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The nature of the economy

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Luckily this is all going down in an election year.

We the people are figuring out that we, the people are—the people.

Not just little individuals in our cul de sacs with big old govt. intruding and doing it wrong, and/or protecting our nation (whatever that is). No: we are the nation.

We have the power. We hold the purse strings.

It's our choice what we want to see on Wall St. and it's our choice to pay, and how to pay.

"The economy" has suddenly ceased being this weird thing happening "over there" like a mountain range.

It's in your wallet. It's in your debts. It's in your bills. It's just like ecology without nature: when you realize everything is connected, nature withers away. “Ecology may be without nature. But it is not without us.” (Last sentence of Ecology without Nature.)

What a wonderful learning curve we're on! It feels good to be alive.

Blink Charlie! Blink! It'll moisten your eyes.

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Romantic Circles Poets on Poets

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Romantic Circles is pleased to announce the latest installment of its Poets on Poets archive of audio files, with contemporary poets choosing and reading Romantic-period poems . This grouping includes Ken Cormier performing Blake's "The Fly," Douglas Kearney reading Blake's "A Poison Tree," Molly Peacock reading Wordsworth's "Nuns fret not" sonnet, Joshua Kryah reading John Clare's "Where she told her love," and Erica Wright reading Wordsworth's "Elegaic Stanzas."   As always, the audio files (in MP3 format) or readings, accompanied by bios of the contemporary poets and texts of the poems, can be listened to and downloaded for free from this address:

http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/poets/toc.html

The files are also available via automated subscription using our RSS feed or directly from iTunes (search in podcasts for "Romantic Circles").

_________

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The Ambient President

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2001: 9/11 (Bush on holiday with dossier that says “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in Mainland USA”)

2003– Iraq (“Stuff happens”)

2005 Hurricane Katrina

2008 Wall Street implodes

Anyone see a pattern here?

Apres moi le deluge needs to be updated to “Simultaneously with moi, le deluge”—no?

Capitalism is reactive. The environmental crisis demands proactive attention (as does everything else on this list...).

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Creationism in a New Key

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Richard Keynes—the British physiologist and a direct descendant of Charles Darwin—has recently noted that it was actually mockingbirds rather than the finches that led to Darwin’s earliest intuitions about the mutability of species. Darwin's ornithological notes first point out that Spanish sailors can tell you the precise island that any tortoise comes from based entirely on the shape and size of its saddle-shaped carapace ("galápago" in Spanish). Darwin then adds, of his own recently collected specimens of mockingbird, that each "kin" (species, type) is found "exclusively" on only one island. If each of these islands has a different tortoise, and each a different mockingbird, then these different species must have gotten here somehow. Since they could not have all traveled here via water, some creatures must have been "created" here. They must have taken shape here. They must have evolved. In the next sentence, Darwin drops the scientific bombshell that will send shock waves shuddering through the next two centuries. The facts that Darwin has recorded, he says, a few simple observations about tortoises and mockingbirds, might—here he almost pauses in his own syntax—"undermine the stability of Species." God did not make every type of creature in a fixed and unalterable way in seven days, or seven eons. The laws of nature have generated creatures since the beginning of life on earth, and those laws continue to make new creatures today. Creation is happening right now.

All plants and animals on the Galápagos Islands are aboriginal, native and indigenous. Even today many are still found nowhere else on earth. All of these creatures, however, "show a marked relationship" (Darwin's diction) with their distant relatives on the mainland. Darwin could not say "their genetic relatives" because genetics would have to wait half a century for Gregor Mendel to start breeding and cross-breeding his peapods in clay pots. But Charles Darwin soon understood, as his grandfather Erasmus’s poetic description of evolution had implied, that all the giant tortoises on Albemarle Island (later called Isabella) had a kinship with their much smaller relatives back in Guayaquil on the South American mainland. These might all be aboriginal creatures, but they were all also linked to similar species on each of these islands and, even more remarkably, to their mainland relatives. Darwin called the Galápagos archipelago "a little world within itself." The idea behind his metaphor suggests that our entire planet might also be small enough to be covered with creatures that are all, in complex ways, related. He was right, of course, and the truth about that set of relationships is precisely the truth that his "Origin of Species" would confirm in 1859, more than two decades after the Beagle voyage ended.

The Galápagos Islands on which Darwin landed in 1835 were not the desirable destination of today’s eco-tourists. Herman Melville, writing two decades after Darwin’s visit, called them "heaps of cinder" in an isolated expanse of ocean, more desolate than any spot on the planet. Darwin himself called them beautiful, but he was referring only to the symmetry of their volcanic craters, a geologist’s paradise. A page later he says that no landscape could be less inviting than one’s first sight of the Galápagos island then called Chatam, now called San Cristobal. We can draw directly on Darwin’s own diction to give the full effect of this first sight. The lava looks like waves, he says, broken by great cracks and fissures, the whole scene covered with sunburned and stunted scrub-wood. There are almost no signs of life. The surface is parched and dry. The atmosphere is sultry and close. You feel as though you are standing next to a burning stove. The bushes literally stink. Even this greatest of all specimen collectors found it hard to collect here. On that famous first day ashore he had collected only a few wretched little weeds that seemed as though they should have come from an arctic landscape, not from the sunny equator. The shrubs looked as leafless as in winter, but in fact their tiny leaves were fully out, and even their flowers were in bloom. He had to get magnifier-close before he could see this indistinct detail of natural history. The tiny flowerets and leaves were almost invisible, a good lesson for any nature watcher. Only after a season of heavy rain were these islands even partially green. The same is true today. Not a very likely tourist destination, perhaps, but then it is Darwin’s own writing that has changed all of that a century and a half later. Luxury ecotouristic yacht trip, anyone?

--A.N.

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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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