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.
Wilson places the five writers considered in the book – Emerson, Fuller, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman – within the tradition of dialectical proto-ecological thinking via an impressive, expansive intellectual history reminiscent of the work of Laurence Buell. Wilson’s writers sit “almost exactly in the middle” of that tradition which, as he argues, encompasses the early Gnostics and the Greek Philosophers (Thales, Heraclitus, Ovid), European Romantic philosophers such as Goethe and Coleridge, Nietzsche and Heidegger, and a host of contemporary theorists including Serres, Lyotard, and Deleuze and Guattari (8). Having placed the American Romantics within this history of ideas he then connects them thematically to emergent, contemporaneous scientific ideas – electromagnetic waves, atomism, evolution, energy physics – that were to shape ecological science. So, for example, Emerson is seen, in opposition to “traditional readings,” as representing a notion of the “physical sublime” that arose from the science of Davy and Faraday and would replace its equivalent, the “transcendentalist sublime” (xxi). What Wilson also gives us, however, is a notion of how literature per se might articulate, and help us understand, ecological nature.