Ecocriticism

Eric Wilson, Romantic Turbulence: Chaos, Ecology and American Space

Eric Wilson, Romantic Turbulence: Chaos, Ecology and American Space. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. xxii. + 169 pp. $49. 95 (Hdbk; ISBN 0-312-22882-1).

Reviewed by
John Parham
Thames Valley University, UK

Eric Wilson’s Romantic Turbulence is a helpful addition to ecocritical work, offering not only a new perspective on American Romanticism but, more generally, a sophisticated, dialectical understanding of the ecology articulated out of that tradition.

Wilson’s primary argument is founded upon a detailed acquaintance with both contemporary ecological science and critical cultural theory. Drawing from these currents of thought, the conceptual paradigm that undergirds this book is a new organicism of “agitated processes,” which eschews the (still) prevailing notions in ecological science of balance or harmony (4). Wilson defines this as a conception of nature shaped by antagonistic forces of chaos and order, the interaction of which equates with life. Without order nature “would dissolve into a formless mass,” without chance “the second law of thermodynamics would run the universe down to heat death,” an interesting argument he develops from C. S. Pierce and Prigogine and Stengers (142). This paradigm of dialectical ecology is not new, even to ecocriticism. It dominates recent, second generation work such as Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism (2004), and the attempt to establish a trajectory of ecological thinking around the Romantics is also a familiar one. What is distinctive, however, is the combination of the two and, in this, the book does what all good historical ecocriticism ought to do: it legitimates ecological thinking as part of a longer, alternative tradition in western literature, culture and philosophy that exists, and has value, independently of concerns about (say) global warming.

Noah Heringman, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology

Noah Heringman, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004.  xix +304 pp. $49.95 (Hdbk; ISBN-13: 978-0-8014-4127-1).

Reviewed by
Kate Rigby
Monash University

Noah Heringman is one of a small but growing band of Romanticists and other literary scholars whose work is located in the liminal zone between the terrain of the natural sciences and that of the humanities and social sciences. As is the case with such interstitial spaces in the physical environment, so, too, in the world of scholarship, this often proves to be fertile ground. This is certainly the case with Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology, which reframes current understandings of both Romantic aesthetics and geological science through a detailed examination of their historical interconnections.

Kevin Hutchings, Imagining Nature: Blake's Environmental Poetics

Kevin Hutchings, Imagining Nature: Blake's Environmental Poetics. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002. xiv + 256 pp. $75.00/£57.00. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-7735-2342-1).

Reviewed by
Dennis M. Welch
Virginia Tech

Because scholars since Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry (1947) have generally considered Blake an adversary of nature, he has largely been avoided in the recent emergence of eco-criticism among Romanticists.[1] Kevin Hutchings's book changes this situation and deserves much respect for doing so.

Imagining Nature seeks to delineate a "distinctively Blakean view of the relationship between humanity and nature," a view challenging "the traditional Western notion that humans should exercise a hierarchical and narrowly anthropocentric 'dominion'" over the non-human world (3). Hutchings's strategy involves a double focus, in which he finds Blake distinguishing between nature itself and Enlightenment discourses about it, opposing and critiquing mostly the latter instead of the former. Deeply aware of discursive ideological renderings of nature, Blake shows that Enlightenment philosophy, science, and religion colonize it with anthropocentric systems of thought.

James C. McKusick, Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology

James C. McKusick, Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, 2000. x + 261pp. $49.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-23448-1).

Reviewed by
Kevin Hutchings
University of Northern British Columbia

James C. McKusick is one of the pioneers of Green Romanticism, an emerging critical movement investigating Romantic literature in relation to the histories of ecological thought and environmental activism. His most recent book, entitled Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology, is among the important contributions McKusick has made to literary scholarship as an author of ecocritical articles, a guest editor of special periodical issues on Romanticism and Ecology, and co-editor of a significant new anthology of nature writing. What sets McKusick's work apart from that of Jonathan Bate and Karl Kroeber, the earliest and most widely cited advocates of English Green Romanticism, is its avoidance of an overtly polemical basis for the establishment of ecological literary criticism. This difference in critical approach is a crucial one, for Bate's and Kroeber's heated dismissals of New Historicist and poststructuralist critical perspectives have arguably done as much to impede the cause of Romantic ecocriticism as to encourage its advancement. By rejecting the ground-breaking insights of Alan Liu, Jerome McGann, Marjorie Levinson, Marilyn Butler, and other socially minded Romantic scholars, Bate and Kroeber have not only helped to consolidate the view that contemporary literary theory and ecocriticism are dichotomously opposed and irreconcilable; whether deservedly or not, they have helped to perpetuate the stereotype that environmental studies scholars are reactionary anti-intellectuals whose work is idealistically naive and dangerously misanthropic (because somehow disengaged from fundamental issues of social justice). In an era wherein the editorial board of a mainstream journal no less important than PMLA has by its own admission unfairly characterized environmental criticism as critically "soft" "hug-the-tree stuff," Green Romanticism needs more advocates like McKusick, whose arguments are persuasive without being needlessly polemical, succeeding not by virtue of a negatively reasoned attack upon the established views of others, but on the solid constructive basis of their own intellectual rigor and critical merit.

Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth

Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. xiv + 335pp. Illus.: 15 halftones. $31.50/£21.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-674-00168-0).

Reviewed by
James C. McKusick
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

In The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate ponders some fundamental questions about the purpose of literary criticism, and of imaginative literature itself, in a time of ever-increasing environmental crisis. He asks: "What are poets for?" (243). Is poetry the authentic representation of reality, or merely the decoration of life? Does it help us to remember our origins, or does it enable us to remain oblivious of the bleak future? Does poetry distract the reader with the soothing sound of Nero's fiddle while Rome burns?

These questions are squarely within the domain of poetics, as that discipline was conceived by Aristotle. In The Song of the Earth, Bate's extended meditation on these questions leads him to a new kind of poetics with an ecological inflection--an ecopoetics, as Bate terms it (thereby coining a useful term for contemporary literary production and critical analysis). In an era of impending ecological doom, the emerging discipline of ecopoetics is engaged in a vital re-vision of the fundamental task of poetry. At the present historical moment, ecocriticism has become more than just a marginal mode of literary analysis, because nature is more than just a passive backdrop or setting for the human drama of literature. Bate provocatively argues that the pastoral theme, because it raises the perennial question of the relationship between humankind and the natural world, "is, in fact, the only poetic theme, that it is poetry itself" (74).

Mark S. Lussier, Romantic Dynamics: The Poetics of Physicality

Mark S. Lussier, Romantic Dynamics: The Poetics of Physicality. Romanticism in Perspective Series. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 2000. ix + 220pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22671-3).

Reviewed by
Alan Bewell
University of Toronto

In this book, Mark S. Lussier announces "physical criticism," a theoretical perspective that seeks to illuminate the productive interchange between literature and science, particularly the ways in which physical theory and poetic expression share similar models in their representation of the mind and physical world. Lussier's goal is to take criticism beyond the mechanistic and dualistic models of mind and universe that continue to influence contemporary thought—the world of Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and Newton—toward a theoretical perspective that responds to the far more complex and dynamic models of the mind in relation to the physical world that emerged with Romanticism and are now being renewed in contemporary science, especially in biology, ecology, and theoretical physics. Quantum theory has undercut the Newtonian absolutes of space and time. The stabilities of matter in the Newtonian cosmos have been replaced by indeterminacies and relativity, and the meaning of time, always a flexible concept, has been transformed. Since Heisenberg it has been difficult for scientists to employ naively the Lockean model of experience, in which the mind passively registers the sensory data supplied to it by the outside world. Scientists can no longer be said to be removed what from they observe, something that has not been lost on social constructivists. Ecological criticism has insisted even more powerfully upon the crucial necessity for human beings to recognize that they exist in nature and that they need to develop new, less destructive ways of interacting with it. Lussier's "physical criticism" synthesizes ecology and physics in order to provide an alternative to the cultural legacy of mechanistic philosophy. He uses the term "dynamics" to describe this more complex and holistic conception of the interaction of the mind and the physical world. In his view, Romantic poetry not only anticipates these developments, but has played an important role in providing "physical criticism" with the language and metaphors needed for representing this new world.

Alan Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease

Alan Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease. Medicine and Culture Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xviii + 374pp. illus: 17 line drawings, 2 halftones. $45.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8018-6225-6).

Reviewed by
Timothy Morton
University of Colorado at Boulder

"As a study of the geographical dimension of disease during the Romantic period, Romanticism and Colonial Disease examines the role played in the making and unmaking of national identities by ideas about the geographical distribution of diseases and what kind of people were susceptible to them" (17). This is a modestly stated plan. But Alan Bewell's project, while posed as the recovery of empirical information, has a grander view than this: it is a strong work of ecocriticism.

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