All posts by Laurence Coupe

GREEN STUDIES READER Introduction extracts

THE GREEN STUDIES READER: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (London & New York: Routledge, 2000)

‘General Introduction’

Please note that the references have been removed from the two extracts provided here.


#Extract 1 (pp 1-2)

An early follower of the Zen school of Buddhism reflected on his understanding of nature as follows:

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters.  When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters.  But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest.  For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

At first Ching-yuan had naively taken nature for granted. Later it occurred to him that in effect nature existed inside his mind, in that it only found its shape and significance as he made sense of it.  But now he understands that it is equally mistaken to take nature for granted and to try and subsume it within his own mental operations.  The point is to learn from nature, to enter into its spirit, and to stop trying to impose upon it the arbitrary constraints which result from our belief in our own importance.  This wisdom may remind us of  William Wordsworth’s invitation to ‘Come forth into the light of things’, made in his poem ‘The Tables Turned’.  Far from assuming that whatever lies outside human consciousness is chaos, to which that consciousness gives order, he implies that human beings discover meaning – are illuminated – when they suspend the ‘meddling intellect’ which ‘misshapes the beauteous forms of things’ and attune themselves with a larger enlightenment, which includes mountains and waters as well as minds. As John G. Rudy explains:

To encounter ‘the light of things’ themselves, one must shed the notion of light as emerging from a separate source.  Indeed, one must relinquish the idea of separateness itself.  To come into the light of things, one must become the things themselves, must see through things as things.

Beyond duality, beyond the opposition of mind and matter, subject and object, thinker and thing, there is the possibility to ‘realise’ nature.  Rudy suggests that the word ‘realise’ may be read simultaneously as ‘actualise’ and ‘understand’: our ability to perceive things means that they  ‘realise’ (actualise) themselves in us, and this in turn is the only way we can ‘realise’ (understand) the fact that those things are realising themselves in us.  But of course, though reality needs human minds to achieve ‘self-realisation’, and though at that moment all notions of separation appear redundant, the process implies that something is already there, asking to be actualised or understood.

Over the past quarter of a century, much critical theory seems to have been dedicated to repudiating any such ‘realisation’.  In various schools –  formalist, psychoanalytic, new historicist, deconstructionist, even Marxist – the common assumption has been that what we call ‘nature’ exists primarily as a term within a cultural discourse, apart from which it has no being or meaning.  That is to say, it is a sign within a signifying system, and the question of reference must always be placed in emphatic parentheses.  To declare that  there is ‘no such thing as nature’ has become almost obligatory within literary and cultural studies.  The great fear has been to be discovered committing what might be called ‘the referential fallacy’.  On the one hand, the scepticism of theory has proved salutary: too often previous critics assumed that their preferred works of literature told the ‘truth’ about the world.  On the other hand, it has encouraged a heavy-handed culturalism, whereby suspicion of ‘truth’ has entailed the denial of non-textual existence. It is a mistake easily made, perhaps, once one has recognised the crucial role language plays in human sense-making.  But it should still be pointed out that, in failing to move beyond the linguistic turn, theory has been stuck at Ching-yuan’s second stage of enlightenment. In seeking to avoid naivete, it has committed what might be called ‘the semiotic fallacy’.  In other words, it has assumed that because mountains and waters are human at the point of delivery, they exist only as signified within human culture. Thus they have no intrinsic merit, no value and no rights.  One function of green studies must be to resist this disastrous error: it belongs, whatever the claims of the theorist to reject the legacy of western ‘Man’, to ‘the arrogance of humanism’.    As Bill McKibben puts it in his lament over the subordination of the non-human world by the human: ‘Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.’


#Extract 2 (pp 3-4)

So green studies does not challenge the notion that human beings make sense of the world through language, but rather the self-serving inference that nature is nothing more than a linguistic construct. Kate Soper, who is well-represented in this reader, makes the point dramatically: ‘In short, it is not language which has a hole in its ozone layer; and the real thing continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our deconstructive insights at the level of the signifier.’   More modestly, we may say that green studies negotiates what ‘the real thing’ might involve. It is no easy task.  For, as Raymond Williams has famously observed: ‘Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.’  It might be no exaggeration to say that green studies as a discipline hinges on the recognition of the complexity of that word and of our relation to whatever it denotes.

Here it is worth bearing in mind Jhan Hochman’s differentiation between ‘Nature’ and ‘nature’.  While the former is a rhetorically useful principle, it has often been associated with ‘the highly suspect realms of the otherworldly or transcendental’.  The latter is to be preferred in that it is more ‘worldly’: it denotes no more – but certainly no less – than the collective name for ‘individual plants, nonhuman animals, and elements’.  However, such careful differentiation should not become a rigid distinction: ‘For example, how classify apparently sensible, universal, N/natural patterns?  Is number nature or Nature?  Are life and death nature or Nature?’  Moreover, the main aim should be kept in mind: to differentiate between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, so that ‘culture does not easily confuse itself with nature or Nature, or claim to know nature as a rationale for replacing [it] with itself and its constructions.’  Let me illustrate Hochman’s twofold differentiation by pointing out that, while it is necessary to see the medieval ‘chain of being’ as an idealist construction of Nature which served the interests of feudalism, it does not follow that nature has no existence apart from culture. Indeed, such a conclusion has been used to sanction, for example, largescale deforestation in the short-term interests of the ‘fast food’ culture of  corporate capitalism.

It should be clear from this last observation that, if we may be said to entering ‘the ecocritical age’, we must understood that epithet in its fullest sense.  While I prefer the more inclusive term, ‘green studies’, the more specific term, ‘ecocriticism’, has the advantage of reminding us to register the ‘critical’ quality of these times.  For we are not only concerned with the status of the referent and the need to do it justice, in the sense of taking it seriously as something more than linguistic; we are also concerned with the larger question of justice, of the rights of our fellow-creatures, of forests and rivers,  and ultimately of the biosphere itself.  That is to say, green studies is much more than a revival of mimesis: it is a new kind of pragmatics. While carefully addressing the ‘nature’ of criticism, in the sense of  examining how ‘nature’ is referred to by critics, it seeks to go further: to use nature as a ‘critical’ concept.

It does this in two related senses.  Firstly, in invoking nature, it challenges the logic of industrialism, which assumes that nothing matters beyond technological progress. Thus, it offers a radical alternative to both ‘right’ and ‘left’ political positions, both of which assume that the means of production must always be developed, no matter what the cost.  Secondly, in insisting that the non-human world matters, it challenges the complacent culturalism which renders other species, as well as flora and fauna, subordinate to the human capacity for signification.  Thus, it queries the validity of  treating nature as something which is ‘produced’ by language.  Denying both assumptions, industrialism and culturalism, it sees planetary life as being in a ‘critical’ condition; and it is to this sense of ‘crisis’ that it offers a response.  If green studies does not have an effect on this way of thinking, does not change behaviour, does not encourage resistance to planetary pollution and degradation, it cannot be called fully ‘ecocritical’.

Myth and ‘Victimage’

Myth and ‘Victimage’

An Extract from

Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology

(Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press, 2013), pp 128-138


Please note:

(1) No references are provided in this extract. See the book for full documentation.

(2) Where a book by Burke is quoted, abbreviated titles are given: eg, LSA = Language as Symbolic Action. Again, see the book for full documentation.



Burke’s chapter on Genesis [in The Rhetoric of Religion] confirms our intuition that his attitude to religious myth is consistently respectful, even if not always reverential. He is genuinely interested in what we may learn from it: “The Bible, with its profound and beautiful exemplifying of the sacrificial principle, teaches us that tragedy is ever in the offing. Let us, in the spirit of solemn comedy, listen to its lesson. Let us be on guard ever, as regards the subtleties of sacrifice, in their fundamental relationship to governance” (RR 235).

This vow to refuse the excesses of victimage, informed by respect for the most influential narration of the sacrificial motive, that of the Judaeo-Christian Bible, makes full sense only if we already know Burke’s previous thinking. If we have to confront a “tragic” situation, then our best device is the “comic” frame or perspective. The epithet “solemn” reminds us that comedy is not the same as mere humor: it comprehends the full range of human emotions, while committing itself to an outcome favorable to human well being. It is tolerant, eager not “to waste the world’s rich store of error” (ATH 172). As such, of course, it has much in common with the message of the New Testament: it is a secular equivalent of the symbolic act of redemption.

But if the comic vision is the promise held out by Burke, it is a perspective which permits few illusions. In a later volume, Language as Symbolic Action (1966), he offers a sobering “Definition of Man” which sums up many of those aspects of humanity which he has been documenting. Indeed, four of these aspects are listed in the first chapter of The Rhetoric of Religion, though without elaboration (RR 40). Here each “clause” is expanded, a “final codicil” added and the whole definition placed in italics to emphasize its importance for Burke:

Man is

the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal

inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)

separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making

goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)

and rotten with perfection.(LSA 16)

The first four clauses confirm what we have understood from Burke’s earlier speculations on dramatism and his more recent speculations on logology. What distinguishes the human being from the world of mere motion is symbolicity. Human symbols inevitably build up into more and more complex systems, predicated upon notions of order, dominion, obedience, and so forth –   culminating in the idea of an absolute symbol, or “Word.” Burke here justifies his addition of the last clause, or codicil, in two stages, one which endorses the word “perfection” and one which explains why he has had, regretfully, to include the word “rotten.”

First, he affirms that the “principle of perfection” is “central to the nature of language as motive.” For the very desire to “name something by its ‘proper’ name, or to state one’s needs so that one in effect “defines” the situation one is in, is “intrinsically ‘perfectionist’.” Here he invokes again the Aristotelian principle of “entelechy,” the notion that “each being aims at the perfection natural to its kind (or, etymologically, is marked by a ‘possession of telos within’).” Burke’s  only divergence from Aristotle is that he confines the term to the realm of “action” (the human tendency towards perfection by virtue of the nature of symbolicity) rather than “motion” (the tendency of non-human entities, such as trees, to grow and so fufill their potential) (LSA 16-17).

Second, with regard to the word “rotten,” Burke refers to the dangers of perfectionism, as derived from the culminative nature of symbol-making:

Thus, the principle of drama is implicit in the idea of action, and the principle of victimage is implicit in the nature of drama. The negative helps radically to define the elements to be victimized. And inasmuch as substitution is a prime resource of symbol systems, the conditions are set for catharsis by scapegoat (including the “natural” invitation to “project” upon the enemy any troublesome traits of our own that we would negate). And the unresolved problems of “pride” that are intrinsic to privilege also bring the motive of hierarchy to bear here; for many kinds of guilt, resentment, and fear tend to cluster about the hierarchical psychosis, with its corresponding search for a sacrificial principle such as can become embodied in a political scapegoat. (LSA 18-19)

Given that the cultural perils of perfectionism would seem to outweigh the natural pleasures of fulfillment, it is imperative that the symbol-making animal learns how to prevent symbolic thoroughness manifesting itself in social persecution. The scapegoat ritual must be acknowledged as a process implicit in language itself, but it must also be watched, checked, and corrected. Once again, the choice of paradigm comes down to a literary genre: should one live life as a tragedy or as a comedy? In a footnote included almost casually at the end of the essay, Burke gives his answer. His reflections on “victimage” have led him to think of global catastrophes such as the Nazi attempt at genocide, and also of the growth of weapons of mass destruction. These would seem to confirm a tragic view of human existence, but Burke declares his own choice of paradigm. As so often in his writings, it is the parenthetical remark which carries the weight of his thought:

In his Parts of Animals, Chapter X, Aristotle mentions the definition of man as the “laughing animal,” but he does not consider it adequate. Though I would hasten to agree, I obviously have a big investment in it, owing to my conviction that mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy. (The cult of tragedy is too eager to help out with the holocaust. And in the last analysis, it is too pretentious to allow for the proper recognition of our animality.) Also, I’d file “risibility” under “symbolicity.” Insofar as man’s laughter is to be distinguished from that of the Hyena, the difference derives from ideas of incongruity that are in turn derived from principles of congruity necessarily implicit in any given symbol system. (LSA 20)

We are back once again with the need for “perspective by incongruity,” by which we are saved from the excesses of our own “piety.” But now it is clear that the overriding direction is that of the “comic corrective.” A cult of tragedy may have the advantage of having “victimage” as its focus, but the danger is that the expectation of tragic violence may turn into the encouragement of tragic violence. In perpetrating the scapegoat ritual, one would, after all, simply be confirming one’s own worst suspicions. Hence the gloomy self-importance of those who act on the dubious imperatives of the “final solution.” By contrast, a cult of comedy, while shrewdly realistic, would prevent such excesses by being more humane in acknowledging one’s own folly and in forgiving that of others. The comic vision is, in short, integral, where the tragic vision is divisive. Ideally, the one contains and corrects the other.




We may have noted the phrase “catharsis by scapegoat,” used above by Burke in his elaboration upon the final codicil of his “Definition of Man.” Again, it would seem to be Aristotle he has in mind, for it was he who famously defended tragic drama because of its beneficial effects: “Tragedy is the representation of an action that is worthy of serious attention … portraying incidents which arouse pity and fear, so that such emotions are purged by the performance.” Burke is fascinated by this contract of catharsis, by which the audience of tragedy agrees to acknowledge its hidden instincts, only to have them purified. Elsewhere in Language as Symbolic Action, he uses the Aristotelian principle of purgation in his account of Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia. He is concerned with how the three plays work on the level of formal “entelechy” by drawing on religious rites in order to resolve civic tensions. Here Burke’s work follows on, wittingly or unwittingly,  from that of the “Cambridge Ritualists” on myth and ritual.  True, his insights are less  historically specific, but they are also less burdened by the influence of Frazer.

To appreciate his analysis of the trilogy, we will need to remind ourselves of the plot. The first play, Agamemnon, shows us Agamemnon returning victoriously to Argos after the Trojan War, only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. The second play, The Libation Bearers, centers on the act of revenge carried out by his son and daughter, Orestes and Elektra: they murder Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. In the third play, The Eumenides, we see the Furies in pursuit of Orestes, who is eventually put on trial; he is freed, however, when Athena, goddess of wisdom, casts her vote in his favor. Moreover, he is no longer pursued, once Athena has reconciled the Furies to the new law of forgiveness and reconciliation. They themselves assume a new identity, that of the Kindly Ones, who bless the land and its inhabitants.

Burke’s “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia” is a piece of work written in rather odd, strained language, consisting mainly of a report upon what he wrote on the Oresteia in a now abandoned book. Nevertheless, the essay seems to make sufficient sense as an independent speculation.  Regarding the use of myth, Burke writes:

We were here generally concerned with stylistic resources whereby the important social relations involving superiority and inferiority could be translated into a set of “mythic” equivalents. Disorders within the polis could automatically attain tragic scope and dignity by translation into a corresponding “supernatural” terminology of motives. Hence, any civic issue could be reflected in a mythic idiom that transcended the political or social order, even if it did not have reference to the political or social order (and to the corresponding disorders). (LSA 126)

This is an insight which very much anticipates the “structural” reading of Greek mythology developed by Vernant, whereby the “cunning intelligence” of the myth is seen at work on certain contradictions within Greek society.

But what precisely is it that is being resolved? Burke next explains the form of the trilogy as being “persecutional” in direction: “a network of expectancies and fulfillments” which “can be summed up dramatically in such terms as Law, Right, Fate, Justice, Necessity” (LSA 127). These “Great Persecutional Words” provide the clue to the formal resolution. The process is analogous to that of the use of myth:

Whatever the social origins of such motives may be, once they are converted into the fullness of tragedy they have become cosmologized. Whereupon an almost terrifying thoroughness of human honesty is demanded of us, as audience. For now we are in our very essence persecuted, and there can be no comfort until we have disclosed and appropriately transfigured every important motive still unresolved within us. That is, one the irresolutions of the body, of personal relations, and of social relations have been heroically transmogrified by identification with the Great Persecutional Words, which are in turn identified with the vastness of Nature and the mystery of Super-Nature, no pleasantly pluralistic dissipation of outlook is any longer tolerable. (LSA 127)

The formal and the mythic aspects are brought together in the conclusion to the essay, where we read:

Incidentally, we have elsewhere in our text observed how well the use of the traditional “myth” in tragedy contributed to simplicity of design. For whatever the complexities of a unique situation may be, the myth reduces these to a few basic relationships. In this sense, the tragic playwright’s use of myth enabled him to get, in his medium, the kind of functional simplifications that we have learnt to associate with Greek sculpture at its best. (LSA 137).

All told, the perfection of form, derived from myth, effects a catharsis of the sacrificial motive. The audience feels that the correct ritual has been enacted, that the gods have been given their due, and that humanity has been purged of its violent tendencies. Burke approves, as is evident from the epigraph to his Grammar of Motives (1945): “Ad bellum purificandum” (“towards the purification of war”). Aeschylus’ tragedy manages, as it were, the scapegoating impulse: it purifies it by giving it complete dramatic expression. As Burke explains toward the end of that substantial volume, the need for war might be purged by encouraging “tolerance by speculation” or “Neo-Stoic resignation,” which is by no means akin to a “cult of tragedy.” Avoiding fatality and fanaticism alike, human beings would learn to acknowledge victimage, as a first step to coming to terms with it: “To an extent, perhaps, it will be like an attitude of hypochondriasis: the attitude of a patient who makes peace with his symptoms by becoming interested in them” (GM 442-3). The desire to sacrifice others will not go away, but the fact it will not go away makes it worthy of interest, if confined to the sphere of symbolicity. As William Rueckert puts it: “Purification by victimage is … best effected … in symbolic action generally, and poetic symbolic action specifically, for there actual victims can be replaced by symbolic ones, and actual physical violence can be replaced by verbal violence.  This idea is the basis of Burke’s theory of art as catharsis.”

But the tragic form, no matter how effective, still does not take us beyond  the “persecutional” logic mentioned above. Hence, Burke concludes his essay on Aeschylus by reminding us what normally follows a tragic trilogy, namely the “satyr” play:

The satyr play that rounded out this particular trilogy is missing. From our point of view, the loss to those who would systematically lurk, and would piously spy on great texts, is perhaps the greatest in all human history. For though we do know that the satyr plays were burlesques of the very characters who were treated solemnly in the tragedies, we would like to think that, in the great days, the same characters were finally burlesqued who had been treated heroically in the tragic trilogy. Such an arrangement would be very civilized. It would complete the completing. (LSA 137-8)

For no matter what benefits may be derived from the catharsis of tragedy, Burke remains convinced that only “mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy.” Such a cult is surely implicit in his advocacy of “tolerance by speculation” in the Grammar.

Perhaps we might let C. Allen Carter sum up the Burkean case for comedy as the preferred paradigm:

Comedy, according to Burke, encourages us to reassess our notions of infallibility. Given the dialectical permutations of language, culture, and personality, Burke recommends that we hold our beliefs tentatively and that we consider those who hold other views, not as irredemiably evil or malicious, but as misguided souls who are actually our partners in the building of knowledge. … He finds the most dangerous temptation of language to be a temptation towards victimage. The comic approach deflects overly passionate linguistic dynamics, specifically the tendency to deify allies and demonize opponents … Specializing in incongruity is offered by Burke as an antidote to the desire to adopt a final attitude towards self and society.

Timothy Curtius would seem to agree, but for him Burke goes so far as to identify tragedy with victimage and to see comedy as the cure for both. While this might seem to contradict Burke’s own praise for the catharsis effected by the Oresteia, Curtius is no doubt correct to see the comic frame as intrinsic to the art of living that Burke espouses:

Burke advocates comedy because he believes he has good reason to fear that history has a tragic denouement, a “repetition compulsion” requiring an endless line of victims that, short of eliminating the symbol-using animal entirely, can never absolve or cleanse. We begin to understand why comedy was necessary for Burke’s praxis, why he insists that “criticism had best be comic.” His valuing of comedy over tragedy, which inverts the traditional genre hierarchy, is neither perverse nor quixotic: Rather the comic perspective and much of Burke’s praxis as a whole is designed to do one thing primarily, break the spell tragedy has over human motivation and create a comic persuasion as powerfully appealing as the mimesis of sacrifice itself.

There is, of course, a biblical case for seeing the comic perspective as the resolution of tragic contradictions. True, the Greek tragedians managed to find the perfect form, derived from myth and presented as ritual, by which to achieve the necessary catharsis. Moreover, the culture was sophisticated enough to see the necessity for the tragic trilogy to be rounded out by the satyr play. But in the biblical, specifically Christian, tradition, comedy is more than humor: indeed, it is the divine answer to the riddle of history. The tragedy of sin and suffering culminates in a comic vision of the “good news” of the Messiah and of “a new heaven and a new earth” issued in with the apocalypse. To be more accurate, two tragedies are contained by a comedy. The fall of Adam and Eve, which we may see as a tragedy, necessitates the crucifixion of God’s son, Jesus, which is yet another tragedy; but this terrible event in turn allows for the resurrection of the one true Christ and the salvation of all humanity, which we may see, strictly speaking, as a comedy. Of course, the inference need not be drawn that Burke’s comedy is Christian in character. However, his repeated declarations of respect for religious myth and ritual should remind us that his whole philosophy of logology is founded on the theological dialectic of words and Word. Certainly, his fascination with “the Logos” is a constant trait in his later work.

When Permanence and Change was reprinted in 1954, Burke used the occasion to write an appendix which was largely devoted to distinguishing between the sacred and the secular aspects of victimage. Quoting from Coleridge’s Aids to Reflexion —  “The two great moments of the Christian Religion are, Original Sin and Redemption; that the ground, this the superstructure of our faith” – Burke elaborates as follows:

Basically, the pattern proclaims a principle of absolute “guilt,” matched by a principle that is designed for the corresponding absolute cancellation of such guilt. And this cancellation is contrived by victimage, by the choice of a sacrificial offering that is correspondingly absolute in the perfection of its fitness. We assume that, insofar as the “guilt” were but “fragmentary,” a victim correspondingly “fragmentary” would be adequate for the redeeming of such a debt, except insofar as “fragmentation” itself becomes an “absolute” condition. (PC 284).

The problem of modern, secular society is that it favors “fragmentation.” This condition can itself become so pervasive as to demand purgation: “Fragmentation makes for triviality. And though there are curative aspects in triviality … they can add up to a kind of organized inanity that is socially morbid.” Burke reflects that “if people were truly devout in the full religious sense of the term, there would be no difficulty here. For in the pious contemplation of a perfect sacrificial universal god, there might be elements of wholeness needed to correct the morbidities of fragmentation” (PC 287). Hence the advantage of Christianity, where the scapegoat is the son of an all-encompassing deity.

Burke’s position here is pragmatic: he is concerned with what works. Religion has the advantage in this respect. Yet, as we read on, we realize that there is something about the Christian myth which he finds deeply inspiring. Typically, he makes this admission indirectly, in parenthesis, in the course of declaring that he is not “pleading for religion.” He is making a distinction between the kind of victimage appropriate to the century in which he writes, where hostility has become global, and where two world wars have been witnessed, and the sacrificial motive which is symbolically perfected in the realm of Christian myth: “In referring to the curative totality of the perfect sacrifice, as modified by the predominantly secular nature of modern civilization, we would suggest that the kind of victimage most ‘natural’ to such a situation would be some variant of the Hitlerite emphasis (which puts the stress upon the idea of a total cathartic enemy rather than upon the idea of a total cathartic friend)” (PC 288). One who willingly lays down one’s life for others represents a more complete scale of values than the nation which seeks out a people to blame and persecute as an “enemy.” The motive of the Christian myth transcends the divisions which fuel the continuation of victimage. Moreover, the healing, inclusive power of the story remains as an inspiration to resist the material manifestations of the scapegoat mechanism, such as Nazi genocide.

Burke’s approach to Christianity, to myth, and to sacrifice in many ways anticipates that of the French theorist Rene Girard. In his Violence and the Sacred (1972) Girard argues that religion arises from the repression of violence. Its chief impulse is the sacrifice of a human scapegoat, which allows the community to achieve unity by attributing the violence to the victim. Violence is thus at once denied and affirmed in a ritual act. Violence originates in “mimetic desire”, the drive to imitate the model that one both admires and fears. It is the basis of a dilemma. The model seemingly exists to be imitated; but to imitate the model completely would be to have and be what the model has and is, and so to displace one’s rival entirely. Mimetic desire would, if fulfilled, result in the collapse of the social order, with chronic aggression being the norm. Again, that is where the scapegoat figure serves its central purpose: the sacrifice of the scapegoat restores order and unity. The “impure” violence of resentment is purged by the “pure” violence of ritual. Myth is the narrative arising from the ritual, its function being to camouflage what is really going on, to lie about the violent basis of society.

In Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1978) and in The Scapegoat (1982, translated 1986), Girard refines this argument that “Mimetic violence is at the heart of the system.”  Myths are disguised texts of persecution. What in the ritual is the arbitrary persecution of a victim becomes in the myth the just punishment of a crime. This pattern of crime and punishment is the basis for social order. As for religion: the victim having been chosen at random and slain, is deified and is thought to have been resurrected. In worshiping the god, one is worshiping the power, or rationalized violence, of the establishment. However, there is a scapegoat narrative which does not function in this way: that of Christianity. For what Christ represents is the repudiation of violent myth. As the willing victim who sacrifices himself for all humanity, he puts an end to the scapegoat mechanism. The Gospels proclaim love and demonstrate the futility of hatred. Christianity is a “revelation” rather than a religion, given that religion is tainted by violence: it opens our eyes to the “foolish genesis of bloodstained idols and the false gods of religion.” That is, it raises awareness rather than encouraging blind hatred.

The continuities between Burke and Girard should be obvious, but it is worth comparing and contrasting them in order to make sure we have understood Burke correctly. We may grant that both seek to explain the connection between religion and violence; both refer myth back to ritual; both see the scapegoat ritual as the most important; and both are interested in how Jesus Christ’s crucifixion illuminates the nature of sacrificial suffering. But note the following:

1.Burke starts from the “symbol-using animal”; Girard starts from “mimetic desire.”

2.Burke sees “guilt” as arising from “order”; Girard sees “mimetic violence,” the result of “mimetic desire,” as leading to social disturbance.

3.Burke understands the law – the “thou-shalt-not” – to be primary; Girard sees the scapegoat as primary.

4.Burke stresses the power of language to affect our attitudes to others and ourselves; Girard stresses the power of imitative behavior to affect language.

5.Burke sees victimage as inescapable, given the capacity of human language for negation; Girard sees language as a mere medium through which violence is expressed.

6.Burke sees Christianity as mythic but gives it a special place as a symbolic narrative which demonstrates how the impulse toward victimage might be contained or corrected; Girard sees Christianity as signifying the end of myth and of the scapegoating mechanism alike.

7.Burke advocates the restricting of victimage to the realm of symbolic action, rather than letting it spill over into society; Girard sees persecution as pervasive, but trusts that it may be overcome by means of religious faith.

The contrast may outweigh the comparison, but the influence is indubitable. Indeed, Girard has explicitly acknowledged his debt in an interview included at the end of his volume of essays, To Double Business Bound (1978):

Kenneth Burke acknowledges a “principle of victimage” that is at work in human culture and, to me at least, this is an extraordinary achievement. … [But] Burke sees victimage as a product of language rather than language as a product of victimage (indirectly at least, through the medium of ritual and prohibitions). He shares to some extent in what I would call the linguistic idealism of much recent French theory, but he does not push this idealism to some heights of absurdity.

This is qualified praise, but it is obviously given by someone who knows that his own work would not have developed without such an ambitious theoretical example. This is clear when Girard concludes his acknowledgment by regretting that Burke has never been translated into French and that he remains marginal in Europe, then looks forward to the day when “Kenneth Burke will be acknowledged as the great man he really is.”

Perhaps the charge of “linguistic idealism” will be seen to be less illuminating than Girard’s statement of indebtedness. We have already quoted Robert Wess, who speaks of Burke’s “rhetorical realism,” radically opposed to the “rhetorical idealism” of the deconstructionists. And it is this notion of language’s reference to something outside itself that will prove important, as we come to consider Burke’s views on nature, and to consider how he relates myth to ecology.



The Semiotic Fallacy, Twenty Years On

The Semiotic Fallacy, Twenty Years On

Laurence Coupe

Academia Letters, Article 89, December 2020


It is twenty years since my Green Studies Reader was published by Routledge. In the general introduction, I addressed some of the assumptions of cultural and literary theory, suggesting that it was time to challenge  them.  I wrote:

In various schools – formalist, psychoanalytic, new historicist, deconstructionist, even Marxist – the common assumption has been that what we call ‘nature’ exists primarily as a term within a cultural discourse, apart from which it has no being or meaning.  That is to say, it is a sign within a signifying system, and the question of reference must always be placed in emphatic parentheses.  To declare that  there is ‘no such thing as nature’ has become almost obligatory within literary and cultural studies.  The great fear has been to be discovered committing what might be called ‘the referential fallacy’.  On the one hand, the scepticism of theory has proved salutary: too often previous critics assumed that their preferred works of literature told the ‘truth’ about the world.  On the other hand, it has encouraged a heavy-handed culturalism, whereby suspicion of ‘truth’ has entailed the denial of non-textual existence. It is a mistake easily made, perhaps, once one has recognised the crucial role language plays in human sense-making.  But it should still be pointed out that, in failing to move beyond the linguistic turn … [and in] seeking to avoid naivete, [theory] has committed what might be called ‘the semiotic fallacy’. (1)


I returned to this theme later in the introduction:

So green studies does not challenge the notion that human beings make sense of the world through language, but rather the self-serving inference that nature is nothing more than a linguistic construct. Kate Soper … makes the point dramatically: ‘In short, it is not language which has a hole in its ozone layer; and the real thing continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our deconstructive insights at the level of the signifier.’(2) [‘Coupe, ‘Intro’, GSR, p. 3]

I should also mention that, in subsequently addressing the question of vocabulary, I acknowledged the complexity of the concept of ‘Nature’, and I stressed the need to be careful in using the term. I summarised my position as succinctly as I could: ‘green studies debates “Nature” in order to defend nature.’ [‘Coupe, ‘Intro’, GSR, p. 7]


When I wrote that introduction, I anticipated a negative reaction from the more dogmatic ‘culturalists’, and even mockery of my own stance as sheer simplification. However, my formulation of ‘the semiotic fallacy’ seems to have passed into the critical lexicon without much fuss.  Oddly, as I now realise, I’ve never sought to expand on my initial formulation of that principle – despite the fact that nearly all my books address the theme of ecology. However, in the course of reviewing a remarkable work by Robert Macfarlane, namely Landmarks (2015), I instinctively felt that the principle was exactly apposite. I began by quoting a line from a song by The Smiths, a British band that dominated the pop culture of the 1980s:  ‘Nature is a language – can’t you read?’ I continued:

What their lyricist Morrissey offers here is a way out of what I call ‘the semiotic fallacy’: the bizarrely widespread assumption that, because human words give human shape and significance to the non-human world, the latter is otherwise inarticulate.

We could never accuse Robert Macfarlane of committing that error. Over the past decade or so he has produced a series of books that really does help us ‘read’ the natural world. Now, in Landmarks, he gives himself scope to be extensively explicit about the way that human language can complement an already vocal landscape. …

Looking back over Macfarlane’s writing career, it occurs to me that for him etymology and ecology have always been inseparable. Now, with Landmarks, the potential of the English language to counter what he calls the ‘desecration’ of nature and to promote its ‘re-enchantment’ is richly demonstrated. (3)

Let me say that I still stand by my judgement of that book, and I still think that the principle of ‘the semiotic fallacy’ helps us appreciate its importance. Moreover, I hope that it’s a phrase that expresses what a lot of ecological citizens have been thinking, without using that exact wording. Whether that is the case or not, I hope that readers will understand my desire to come to terms, as it were, with my own terminology. We all agree, I’m sure, that language merits our constant attention!


(1)Laurence Coupe, ‘General Introduction’, The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (2000), p. 2. [Further references given in parenthesis after the quotation.]

(2)Kate Soper, What is Nature?, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, p. 151.

(3)Laurence Coupe, Review of Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks(Hamish Hamilton, 2015), Times Higher Education, 26 February 2015.

For full review see: 



Thoughts on Jack Kerouac

Thoughts on Jack Kerouac

Ringing Roger, August 2015


Like many other young people in the late 1960s, I was attracted by the danger that hovered round the very name of Jack Kerouac. Carrying a copy of On the Road, I hoped it might suggest to my peers that I was ‘hip’.  It didn’t take me long to realise, however, that ‘digging’ Kerouac as the wild man of American letters is just as much an insult to his memory as dismissing him for the same reason.

True, as everyone knows, Kerouac was an advocate of what he called ‘spontaneous prose’. But he also coined the phrase ‘Mind is shapely, Art is shapely.’ That is: discipline the mind, nurture the soul, and then speak from the heart. Ultimately his work is not about unbridled self-expression but about honouring the holiness of existence.

The term ‘Beat’ is bandied about a good deal, but what did this most famous of ‘Beat’ writers actually meant by the term? Yes, he was referring to the ‘beat’ of music, particularly the bebop of Charlie Parker, which gave him a model of how to improvise on a theme, taking the notes – or words – to dizzy new heights. Yes, he was also referring to the state of being ‘dead beat’, of having no investment in the shiny world of modern materialism. But these for him were really just means of attaining ‘Beat’ in the sense that mattered most to him: ‘beatitude’, or, as he once explained, being ‘like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practising endurance, kindness’ and ‘practising a little solitude’. His novel The Dharma Bums conveys what this might involve.

The fact that Kerouac himself, in submitting to alcoholism, chose death rather than life by no means disqualifies his art. Visions of Gerard is a meditation on the fact that being alive implies suffering and transience, and on the need to face these without fear while maintaining compassion for other living-dying creatures. He was no irresponsible hedonist; he was a religious visionary.

As to his influence, I see it most clearly in the songs of Bob Dylan, who once famously told us: ‘He not busy being born is busy dying.’ Dylan it was who visited Kerouac’s grave with Allen Ginsberg, and told him that it was reading Kerouac’s volume of poetry Mexico City Blues that first showed him how to write in a living language one, he might have added, that can comprehend death as well as life. Dylan, too, has used such a language to speak memorably of mortality and the search for spiritual truth.

Laurence Coupe

Gary Snyder and‘Eco-Zen’

Gary Snyder and Eco-Zen


This is the opening section of Chapter 5 of my book BEAT SOUND, BEAT VISION (MUP, 2007): “ ‘Eco-Zen’, or ‘a heaven in a wild flower’: from Gary Snyder to Nick Drake”.


In his celebrated critique of the Beats, made in the days before his canonisation by the counterculture, Alan Watts exempted one writer in particular from the charge of misappropriating Buddhism. That was the poet Gary Snyder:

Whatever may be said of Kerouac himself and of a few other characters in the story, it would be difficult indeed to fit Snyder into any stereotype of the Bohemian underworld. He has spent a year of Zen study in Kyoto, and has recently (1959) returned for another session, perhaps for two years this time.[i]

Snyder, that is, represented Zen proper, not what Watts then saw as the affectation – or ‘fuss’ – of the Beat cult of Zen. Certainly, Snyder has ever since had the reputation of being a serious, committed Buddhist who has managed to infuse his poetry with religious knowledge and spiritual insight. Kerouac, as we know, became early on disillusioned with Zen, and finally moved away from Buddhism and back to Christianity. Ginsberg, having flirted with both Hinduism and Zen throughout the sixties, finally became a Tibetan Buddhist in the early seventies. But Snyder has stayed true to Zen for over half a century.

This dedication has resulted in some beautifully precise evocations of nature, very much in the spirit of Zen haiku, though not confined to that particular format. For example: ‘Down valley a smoke haze / Three days heat, after five days rain / Pitch glows on the fir-cones / Across rocks and meadows / Swarms of new flies.’[ii] What is particularly interesting about Snyder’s dedication to Zen, however, is that it has gone hand in hand with ecological activism. More than any other Beat, he has demonstrated that spirituality does really go with political engagement – though not of the conventional, philosophically materialist kind. Where a Marxist, say, would want to refer all political issues to the conflict which takes place in a purely human context, Snyder has always seen the defence of nature itself as crucial to the maintenance of our human integrity and dignity.

Thus, in ‘Front Lines’ he speaks for the land — with which both the Native Americans and the creatures who inhabit it have existed in harmony — against the rapacious logic of ‘development’: ‘A bulldozer grinding and slobbering/ Sideslipping and belching on top of/ The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes/ In the pay of a man/ From town.’ This outrage against the environment is seen for what it is in the context of the earth’s beauty and intrinsic value: ‘Behind is a forest that goes to the Arctic/ And a desert that still belongs to the Piute/ And here we must draw/ Our line.[iii] Such a stance might accurately be described, to adopt a  used by Alan Watts in another context, as ‘Eco-Zen’. This was the title of one of a series which Watts gave in the late Sixties, entitled The Philosophies of Asia, in which he explained to his North American audience the necessity of breaking out of the illusion of being an isolated individual set over against a hostile nature. To find out who you are you have to wake up to your identity with the environment, with the whole. That is what Zen is all about. Ecological awareness is the same as mystical awareness: all is One. The most obvious, practical consequence of this awareness for Americans would be the realization that ‘using technology as a method of fighting the world will succeed only in destroying the world, as we are doing.’ They would then stop ‘turning everything into a junk heap’.[iv]

As Snyder says, then: ‘here we must draw / Our line.’ Patrick D. Murphy, one of his most astute commentators, has read this poem as an intervention rather than simply an indictment. It is a call to action:

In ‘Front Lines’ the individual working the bulldozer is not treated as the ‘enemy.’ Here, rather, Snyder’s wrath is reserved for the man from the city, who is engineering this destruction without having any direct contact with the environment that he is having razed for financial gain. Snyder demands of himself and readers that they take a stand, here and now, against further devastation of the natural world. For Snyder, defense of the forests is both a planetary issue, in relation to the decimation of the rain forests and their potential impact on the greenhouse effect, and a local one. His area of California borders the Tahoe National Forest, and that part of the country has been badly damaged in the past by both hydraulic gold mining and clear-cutting of forests. The poem, then, reflects not only a general political stance but also a specific one speaking to the local defense of nature in which he and his neighbors have been engaged.[v]

Snyder’s Buddhism is emphatically not a form of quietism; it is not a rationale for passivity.

Another commentator on his work has inferred from his fusion of Zen and ecology that Snyder’s concern is to extend the implications of the vow which all Buddhists take: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.’ We know the first two of those terms, but might not be familiar with the third. ‘Sangha’ refers to the community of those engaged in practising the dharma and seeking to follow the path of the Buddha, with a view to waking up to their Buddha-nature.  Snyder’s whole endeavour – as poet, as essayist, as activist — effectively interprets ‘sangha’ in the widest possible sense. For example, in the poem ‘O Waters’ Snyder invokes ‘great/ earth/ sangha’.  ‘Sangha’ is the Buddhist term for the community of those committed to the practice of the dharma. So what is the exact significance of Snyder’s implicit usage?

Traditionally, ‘sangha’ refers to the community of monks, people who have devoted their lives to spiritual practice separated from normal society. Snyder has clearly departed from that notion here: the ‘sangha’ is the ecosphere of the planet. In this one image is suggested two fundamental characteristics of his thought: a creative extension of both Buddhism and ecology by seeing each in terms of the other, and an overriding concern with community.[vi]

For every Buddhist, this recognition of the interconnectedness of all beings is a suitable subject for contemplation. For Snyder, it becomes also a suitable inspiration for intervention on behalf of all other beings.

We have just quoted from Snyder’s ecologically polemical poetry; but we have also previously indicated, in relation to Watts, his willingness to challenge institutional Buddhism itself, where he suspects it may collude with corrupt, environmentally irresponsible regimes. We referred in particular to his poem ‘Mother Earth: Her Whales’ and to his essay, ‘Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture’. Perhaps here it might be appropriate to state explicitly that, in advocating a ‘planetary culture’ — one in which humanity would know and love its place in the great web of interbeing — against the assaults of an irresponsible, destructive, soulless ‘civilisation’, Snyder represents the ‘counterculture’ at its most principled and uncompromising.[vii]   

Snyder’s dedication to the cause of ecology goes hand in hand not only with his Buddhism but also with his absorption in the legacy of mythology. An early volume of poetry is entitled Myths and Texts (1960). According to Murphy, Snyder’s dual premiss is that espoused in his undergraduate thesis, written nearly ten years earlier: that myth is a ‘reality lived’ and that reality is ‘a myth lived’. As Murphy explains: ‘Myth, then, places people in a cultural and physical matrix, providing them with a coherent sense of presence in place and time.’[viii] For Snyder, the mythopoeic poet – constantly revitalising that body of stories which tell us where we are and who we are — has a crucial function: ‘The poet would not only be creating private mythologies for his readers, but moving toward the formation of a new social mythology.’[ix] 

There is, of course, the body of Judaeo-Christian mythology to draw upon; but Snyder sees this as something to be corrected, even countered, so that the pre-Biblical mythology of the ancient world and also the native mythology of North America, might be given its due. The epigraph to Myths and Texts is a passage from the Christian New Testament, which gives us an indication of the kind of high-handed attitude to pagan myth and ritual which he  opposes: ‘the temple of the Goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and all the world worshippeth’ (Acts 19: 27). Again, in the course of the sequence which opens the volume, entitled ‘Logging’, we are reminded of the aggressive stance taken by the Hebrews against the supposed idolatry of the fertility myths and rituals which were flourishing at the time they were seeking their own promised land: ‘But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves’ (Exodus 34:13).[x]

‘Logging 1’ might be taken as representative. Here Snyder invokes the goddess worship which was suppressed by Judaeo-Christianity: he refers to the origin of the ‘May Queen’ in fertility ritual, and he mentions by name Venus (the Roman version of Aphrodite, a deity associated with fertility) and Io (mother of Dionysus, a god associated both with fertility and ecstasy). Not only that: he simultaneously invokes Native American mythology: ‘The year spins/ Pleiades sing to their rest/ at San Francisco/ dream dream…’[xi] Patrick Murphy surmises: ‘the myth pertaining to the setting of the Pleiades has to do with beliefs of Native peoples who lived in what is now the San Francisco area, while the invocation to “dream / dream” places the dreamer in that city as well. The invocation suggests the sensory realm of the collective unconscious, the locus for mythic vision.’[xii]

The myths and rituals of the American Indians are frequent referents in this volume, and in Snyder’s work generally. For him they make perfect sense in the context of ecology and also in the context of Buddhist thinking.  ‘Logging 12’ refers to the Sioux chief, Crazy Horse, who was a leading figure in the resistance to white settlement on American Indian land – tragically being defeated and murdered by General Custer in 1877.[xiii] Quoting from the poem, Patrick D. Murphy surmises:

[I]t becomes clear that the mythic vision of native and ancient peoples is not merely of historical interest or a dream time psychic salve, but an opening into an alternative culture by which humans, in league with ‘the four-legged people, the creeping people, / The standing people and the flying people,’ could live in this world at this time.[xiv]

If we are alert to what is being described in the lines quoted by Murphy, we recognise that this alternative culture includes shamanism. In Native American lore, the shaman is the tribal ‘medicine man’, at the very least; at the height of his powers, he is the visionary who mediates between the tribe and the gods. He has the capacity to enter sacred time and sacred place on behalf of his community, ensuring that it does not lose touch with the realm of spirit. From American Indian shamanism to Zen is not such a large step for Snyder. Each is a standing refutation of the values of western civilisation.

As we have had a good deal to say about Zen in this book, and as we will be returning to the subject shortly, it might be appropriate to end our account of Snyder by stressing that, of all the Beats, it is Snyder who has most consistently realized Kerouac’s intimation in On the Road that ‘the earth is an Indian thing.’ An important strain in a genuinely North American counterculture must be an identity with, and defence of, the Native American way of life – intimately connected as it has been to the environment. Snyder’s interest in that way of life has been as consistent as his adherence to Zen. The poem we quoted earlier, Front Lines’, comes from a volume entitled Turtle Island(1974). If we absorb the full weight of this title, we can only confirm that Snyder’s interest in ecology is simultaneously an interest in mythology. He offers the following definition in the introduction to the volume – a statement sufficiently important for him to merit repetition a later volume of polemical prose:

Turtle Island – the old-new name for the continent, based on many creation myths of the people who have been living here for millennia, and reapplied by some of them to ‘North America’ in recent years. Also, an idea found worldwide, of the earth, of cosmos even, sustained by a great turtle or serpent-of-eternity. … The poems speak of place, and the energy pathways that sustain life. Each living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a ‘song’. The land, the planet itself, is also a living being – at another pace. Anglos, black people, Chicanos, and others beached up on these shores all share such views at the deepest levels of their old cultural traditions. Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island.[xv]

From Zen to ecology via mythology and shamanism: Snyder’s work extends the possibilities of ‘Beat’. Essentially, he makes us realise how deeply the beatific vision is concerned with nature, and with the relationship between spirituality and nature. Blake had declared that one could see ‘a heaven in a wild flower’; the Beats concurred with this. But, as with Blake himself, they were capable of constantly shifting emphasis: between the idea that the natural world is sacred in itself and the idea that its sacredness is something human beings discover once they have cleansed the ‘doors of perception’. Snyder would seem to adhere more or less constantly to the former emphasis; Kerouac and Ginsberg would seem to veer towards the latter (though neither of them are notable for consistency, it has to be admitted).

In what follows, we shall be exploring the beatific vision, as exemplified by a small group of songwriters who are clearly indebted to the Beat movement. Given that we have previously discussed Dylan in connection with Kerouac and Ginsberg, and the Beatles in connection with Ginsberg, it might be illuminating now to situate these songwriters in the context which Snyder has provided. The intention is not to provide a taxonomy of parallel themes, but simply to take our cue from his ‘green’ Buddhism – or what we are calling ‘Eco-Zen’ – and see where it leads us. One songwriter might seem to tend largely to the ‘Zen’ side of the equation, another to the ‘Eco’. It is just as likely that one or two will seem to veer in neither direction, but draw on the natural environment for the appropriate imagery with which to express their vision – perhaps offering the outline of what we might call ‘nature mysticism’.

Please read the rest of this chapter, and a wider discussion of ‘The Beat Spirit and Popular Song’, in my book BEAT SOUND, BEAT VISION (MUP, 2007). Details are on the ‘Books’ page.


[i] Alan Watts, ‘Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen’, This is IT and other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (London: Rider & Co Ltd, 1960; 1978), p. 100.

[ii] Gary Snyder, ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’, No Nature: New and Selected Poems (NY: Pantheon Books, 1992), p 4.

[iii] Snyder, ‘Front Lines’, No Nature, p 218.

[iv] Alan Watts, The Philosophies of Asia (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1995), pp. 41, 57.

[v] Patrick D. Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring: The Poetry and Prose of Gary Snyder (Corvalis: Oregon State UP, 2000), p. 108.

[vi] David Landis Barnhill, ‘Great Earth Sangha: Gary Snyder’s View of Nature as Community’, in Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams (eds), Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard UP, 1997), p. 187.

[vii] For the context of Snyder’s ecological activism, see Laurence Coupe (ed.), The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 1-8, 119-22.

[viii]  Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring, p. 21.

[ix]  Snyder quoted in Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring, p. 21.

[x] Snyder, ‘Logging 2’, Myths and Texts, in No Nature, p. 35.

[xi] Snyder, ‘Logging 1’, Myths and Texts, p. 34.

[xii] Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring, p. 23.

[xiii]  Snyder, ‘Logging 12’, Myths and Texts, pp. 41-2.                

[xiv] Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring, p. 28.

[xv] Gary Snyder, ‘The Rediscovery of Turtle Island’, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press, 1995), pp. 243-4.

Kenneth Burke — Pioneer of Ecocriticism


Journal of American Studies, 3 (2001), pp 413-431.

‘Kenneth Burke — Pioneer of Ecocriticism’

Laurence Coupe

 Please note:

1.I have here taken the opportunity of revising the first paragraph.

2.As presented here, the footnote numbers are given in brackets and in normal font after the given reference.




Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of the planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole. (1)

Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (1937)

Burke’s reputation


Nearly every handbook of critical theory acknowledges Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) to be the twentieth-century North American critic who was most ahead of his time. Yet he seems to have been so ambitious that we still do not know how to place him. Indeed, it would require the space of a whole book to trace the extensive but barely acknowledged impact which he has had. Concepts for which many other critics became famous may be traced back to him: ‘the rhetoric of fiction’ (Booth), ‘blindness and insight’ (De Man); ‘narrative as a socially symbolic act’ (Jameson); ‘the anxiety of influence’ (Bloom). Indeed, it may well be that very anxiety which has led so many contemporary critics to repress his memory. But there is a change in the critical climate, corresponding to the global. This article is written in the hope that Burke will shortly be recognised as the first critical theorist systematically to analyse culture and literature from an ecological perspective. As the dating of our epigraph indicates, he began this project over half a century before the rise of what is sometimes called ‘ecocriticism’ and sometimes called ‘green studies’ – the latter term having the advantage of being more comprehensive, and so more Burkean. Moreover, this was no passing phase for him: his whole career may be understood as a pioneering project – an adventure in green thinking.

But before we pursue Burke’s ecological trajectory, perhaps we ought to consider first how his contribution has been understood, where proper attention has been paid prior to the emergence of a green theory. For convenience, I will single out two laudatory accounts by two important critics, both of whom seek to enlist a neglected genius for their causes. The first occurs in a chapter of Geoffrey Hartman’s Criticism in the Wilderness (1981), where Burke is celebrated for his resistance to the ‘model of transcendence’. Despite having influenced Northrop Frye, Burke is praised in particular for offering an alternative to Frye’s tendency to translate literature into the terms of religious vision, to move smoothly from ‘words’ to ‘Word’. That is, whereas Frye regards all texts under the aspect of the one, inclusive ‘sacred book’, subsuming secular diversity under sacred unity, Burke wishes to ‘demystify spiritual concepts by a “thinking of the body” that does not devalue them.’ Instead of imposing order, he engages with ‘the duplicity of words’; he does not strive for ‘final synthesis, conversion, or its scientific equivalent: a postulate, like Frye’s, separating the study of art from the immediate experience of art’. For Burke, writing criticism is itself ‘a way of establishing an immediate relation to words: the words of others, which remain words about words, the words in oneself, which also remain words about words.’ Indeed, Hartman wishes to go beyond the illustrative contrast with Frye to claim that Burke’s whole enterprise constitutes ‘a critique of pure thinking as well as of pure poetry’. Order must be open to irony. For the urge towards purification is a ‘visionary disease’, the cure for which is demonstrated by Burke’s careful attention to ‘the peculiarly human tools called symbols, of which the “verbal principle” is recognized even in religion by the term “Logos”.’ (2)

Hartman’s is a useful, succinct summation. However, in order to enlist Burke for his own secular hermeneutics, he perhaps lays too much stress on his hostility to the transcendental impulse: as we shall see, Burke’s dialectic involves a constant play of immanence and transcendence. Moreover, despite arguing against pure poetry, he in effect commends Burke as a purely literary critic, thus missing the full extent of his radicalism. By contrast, Frank Lentricchia attempts in his Criticism and Social Change (1983) to effect a wholesale political recuperation of his achievement. If this has the disadvantage of converting Burke’s highly independent way of thinking too readily into Marxist terms, it has the advantage of situating his contribution to North American theory in a wider context. For example, while acknowledging that a disposition towards irony, together with a stress on linguistic performance, might suggest an anticipation of the New Criticism, and while detecting evidence of ‘formalism’, he demonstrates that a consistently social concern redeems the early Burke’s apparent aestheticism. This allows Lentricchia to argue that Burke’s overall importance is as a model of political insight:

The real force of his thinking is to lay bare, more candidly than any writer I know who works in theory, the socially and politically enmeshed character of the intellectual. To put it that way is to say that Burke more even than Gramsci carries through the project on intellectuals implied by parts of the German Ideology. (3)

This explicit association with Marx will perhaps turn out to have been misplaced, once we look at Burke’s thinking in more detail. But the emphasis on his sense of historical situation, and of literature as a strategy for engaging with that situation, is well made. For Lentricchia goes on to propose, persuasively, that this kind of responsible criticism, unorthodox in its day, has found itself almost entirely marginalised with the triumph of deconstruction in the United States. To illustrate his point, he contrasts Burke with one highly representative theorist, Paul de Man. This is particularly interesting because, as indicated above, the former bequeathed the concept around which he built a critical career. As Lentricchia implies, when Burke speaks of ‘blindness and insight’, he does so in a context which is more than literary, whereas for de Man it provides a way of sealing off the text from the vulgarity of non-literary existence. What the two theorists have in common is irony; what separates them is the function they see it serving. For Burke it is a strategy of engagement; for de Man it is a rationalisation of evasion. Burke’s ‘exemplary effort’ as a ‘humanist intellectual’ is the ‘linkage’ of ‘the theoretical, the philosophical, and, in the broadest sense, the literary’ with ‘the political process’. In de Man Lentricchia sees ‘something like an attempt at the ultimate subversion of what Burke stands for’. The ‘insidious’ effect of his work, with its tone of ‘resignation and ivory tower despair’, is ‘the paralysis of praxis itself’. That is, de Man represents the dead-end of the formalism sponsored by the New Critics. Burke, on the other hand, knows from the outset the limits of the aesthetic dimension even as he seems to espouse it; and his work as a whole is a testimony to the importance of historical ‘intervention’. (4)  We may or may not agree with Lentricchia’s own political agenda, but his account of how the principles of a manifestly engaged critic came to be neglected, even while his name remained resonant, may clarify for us the complex fate of Burke’s legacy.

If de Man had come to represent North American critical orthodoxy by the time Criticism and Social Change was written, then Burke was bound to find himself excluded from meta-critical debate. But since then, we have witnessed a ‘greening of the humanities’ which has made de Man’s mandarin textualism seem rather irrelevant. The ‘paralysis of praxis’ is one thing; putting the planet in parenthesis is another. Yet that is what de Man may well be remembered for, now that an ecologically orientated theory has challenged his assumption that the one poetic theme is the power of the human imagination to refuse the claims of nature. (5) If this is the case, then Lentricchia is right that de Man and Burke are diametrically opposed. As we shall see, Burke it is who denies the possibility of ever making such a refusal, and whose career represents the first major environmental turn in North American theory. For, from his early to his very last writings, his view of literature as a mode of participation in both culture and nature informs his critique of ‘technological psychosis’. We still have much to learn from him.

How much has yet to be agreed. For it is a source of some wonderment that, if the conventional treatment of Burke has been to acknowledge him but rewrite him, American ecocriticism has scarcely begun to recognise him. Here we might refer briefly to Lawrence Buell’s monumental work, The Environmental Imagination, whose 560 pages of text contain not one reference to Burke. Perhaps we can understand why if we consider the general drift of the book’s argument. Buell is concerned mainly with the question of mimesis, of how nature is represented in ‘environmental nonfiction’ (or ‘nature writing’). This is not Burke’s concern, as green theorist: he foregrounds the question of praxis, of how human beings act in relation to the natural world. Buell regards the main challenge as the legacy of anthropocentrism: while accepting that this legacy must be negotiated rather than negated, he wants to propose a transition from the ‘egological self’ to the ‘ecological self’, by way of an ‘aesthetics of relinquishment’ (an approach to art that forgoes the privilege of human priority).  (6)  Burke accepts that a human view of the world will inevitably be anthropocentric, but argues that human beings have the ability and the responsibility to become as critical as possible of their own motives, insofar as they conflict with the planet’s. If Buell is asking that people rethink how they regard nature, Burke’s concern is with how they behave towards or within it. Hence he finds drama to be the most useful literary model, since it is about interaction. It is, of course, mimetic in origin, and Burke does not deny the importance of representation; but his own emphasis is, as I say, pragmatic, being concerned with effect, consequence, impact. The two orientations are not incompatible, and it is worth noting how far his and Buell’s interests converge. After all, Buell’s own definition of ecocriticism might be applied to Burke’s enterprise as well as his own: ‘the study of the relation between literature and environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis’. (7)  But it is worth insisting that it is Burke more than anyone who has demonstrated what such a relation, such a commitment and such a praxis might involve. This is not surprising, given the extraordinary length of his career, as compared with the recent phenomenon of environmental humanities courses. Perhaps once that discipline has become fully established, his ambitious, exploratory work will be recognised. Then there might be the opportunity to trace in detail the continuity between Burke and Buell. For a missing name will have been restored to the syllabus.

There is an indirect indication of the need for Burke’s influence to be recognised in a pertinent but general observation made by Cheryll Glotfelty, struggling to consolidate ecocriticism in the States in the mid-1990s:

If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were the hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth’s life support systems were under stress. Indeed, you might never know there was an earth at all. In contrast, if you were to scan the newspaper headlines of the same period, you would learn of oil spills, lead and asbestos poisoning, toxic waste contaminations, extinction of species at an unprecedented rate… (8)

Her list goes on tellingly for the duration of a sizeable paragraph; but here her point may assume to have been made. Nor should its relevance to our discussion be lost. For, though Burke has been cited in many articles written from post-colonial, Marxist and feminist perspectives, it may yet be acknowledged that his most important contribution lay in his foregrounding the earth itself as the ultimate setting of critical activity. In short, his ultimate significance is as a pioneer of green thinking.

Which brings us, by way of an extensive but necessary prologue, to our central task. Given that Burke seems so seldom to be studied, the rest of this article will consist of what might be called corrective exposition: the record has to be set straight. As our epigraph indicates, Burke started using the word ‘ecology’ in 1937, in his Attitudes Toward History. That is one fact that cannot be emphasised enough. However, if we are to be accurate, we should also note that Burke himself points out in his afterword to the third edition of the book (1984) that when he first began using the phrase ‘ecological balance’ he did so ‘figuratively’, applying it to the workings of culture while seeking to bear in mind the wider context of the relationship between culture and nature. (9)  Thus, in proclaiming Burke as a pioneer of ecocriticism – or, better still, green studies – I am not simply saying he was one of the first to suggest that literary theory ought to be aware of ecology; I am also saying that his value lies in the example he sets of a consistent willingness to cross boundaries and to challenge assumptions in pursuit of a new understanding of humanity’s place on the planet. If he has a ‘lesson’ for us, William Rueckert has suggested, it is twofold: ‘everything implies everything else, and everything is more complicated than it seems.’ (10)


To get our bearings, we should establish the context in which his very earliest speculations on the relationship between art and nature were made. His first critical work, Counter-Statement (1931), might seem at first glance (in the light of Lentricchia’s misgivings) to be advocating a pure aestheticism, in line with certain modernist tendencies and in anticipation of the formalism of the New Criticism. Situating the book historically, however, one realises that it is more appropriately regarded as a riposte to the rise of fascism: that is, it repudiates the attempt to identify nature with ‘blood and soil’, with racial purity, with the triumph of the will. Thus, we should note the pointed phrasing of his ‘Program’ for a projected ‘Art Party’: ‘Experimentalism, curiosity, risk, dislike of propaganda, dislike of certainty…’(11) However, Burke’s case for aesthetic resistance to contemporary totalitarianism may be seen to merge with the wider paradigm of art which he is trying to establish, and upon which he will elaborate throughout his critical career. Thus, though he probably has contemporary right-wing ideology in mind when he further pronounces that ‘art may be of value purely through preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly itself,’ he is tentatively positing a general principle. (12) That is, what remains constant in Burke is the refusal of dogmatism; what fascinates the reader is his tireless attempt to decide what that involves: to decide, that is, how exactly ‘certainty’ and ‘propaganda’ are to be countered without surrendering to a chaos of individualistic impulses.

Between espousing a literary programme that might resist totalitarian views of nature and of society, and taking up the term ‘ecology’, Burke wrote the book that may be regarded as his seminal statement: Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (1935). It might be said to stand in relation to the rest of his work as does Being and Time to the rest of Martin Heidegger’s. (13)  Indeed, the very terms of the title invite comparison: ‘permanence’ is to ‘Being’ as ‘change’ is to ‘time’. Moreover, just as Heidegger might be misunderstood, his terms being taken to form a stark opposition, so Burke has over the years been accused of an essentialism which simply affirms ‘permanence’ and denies ‘change’. (14)  In fact, here as elsewhere, he is concerned with the inextricable relation between the two. The human ‘purpose’ which the book anatomises is one that proceeds dialectically.

In order to think at all, Burke suggests, we human beings must have an initial ‘orientation’, and this will necessarily involve a paradoxical mixture of ‘insight’ and ‘blindness’: in other words, a ‘way of seeing’ which is simultaneously ‘a way of not seeing’. An orientation will imply a reverence for certain principles, without which it could not function – what Burke calls ‘piety’. If this position is not to lead to dogmatism, it needs to be challenged by a process of ‘disorientation’ – what he calls ‘impiety’ or, more specifically, ‘perspective by incongruity’. (15) This opens up possibilities which the initial orientation excludes, forcing us to conceive that there might be other ways of looking at the world. Only then may we achieve ‘reorientation’, a chastened wisdom offering the basis of a new, richer ‘simplification’: this involves a ‘poetry of action’, an ‘ethical universe-building’ informed by a spirit of cooperation. (16)

Thus abstractly put, the Burkean dialectic might seem to offer only a footnote to the Hegelian. But – and here is the crucial point – the triad of orientation, disorientation and reorientation is designed to explain cultural life without entailing a heavily schematic historicism. For we are to understand that such a process is something in which the human species is continually involved. There is ‘change’ in Burke’s model, but there is no telos, no closure, no end that does not imply a new beginning. As for ‘permanence’: he sees his ‘science of symbolism’ as leading back to ‘a concern with “the Way”, the old notion of Tao, the conviction that there is one fundamental course of human satisfaction, forever being glimpsed and lost again, and forever being restated in the changing terms of reference that correspond with the changes of historic texture’. (17)

Here again, the charge of essentialism, or even idealism, might be made; nor would detailed repudiation be easy. By way of reply, and in anticipation of my later argument, I would simply point out here that for Burke thinking is always and necessarily attitudinal, and that the invocation of an ancient Chinese principle of fidelity to nature is at least as legitimate methodologically as Marx and Engels’ reliance on the hypothesis of ‘primitive communism’. Moreover, the circumspect manner in which Burke invokes the Tao should warn us against a facile debunking of his position. When he makes his case for a ‘philosophy of being’ as opposed to a ‘philosophy of becoming’, he is anxious that it will not be conveniently dismissed as a naïve reaction against historical thinking. As he explains: ‘In subscribing to a philosophy of being, as here conceived, one may hold that certain historically conditioned institutions interfere with the establishment of decent social or communicative relationships, and thereby affront the permanent biologic norms.’ (18) Thus, the air may be full of talk of social reform, but this will prove narrow and futile unless there is a sense of the wider relation between human society itself and its non-human context:

… for always the Eternal Enigma is there, right on the edge of our metropolitan bickerings, stretching outward to interstellar infinity and inward to the depth of the mind. And in this staggering disproportion between man and no-man, there is no place for purely human boasts of grandeur, or for forgetting that men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss. (19)


Nor should we assume that Burke’s appeal to ‘permanent biologic norms’ and ‘the Eternal Enigma’ is evasive: he really is trying to provide a basis for situating and studying cultural life which might avoid empty progressivism. Though he is not afraid to call this ‘nature’, at this stage he often resorts to feigned inarticulateness, as when, in the introduction to Attitudes Toward History, seeking to persuade his readers that the most important task ahead is to help forestall ‘the most idiotic tragedy conceivable: the wilful ultimate poisoning of this lovely planet’, he appeals to them to ‘give thanks to Something or Other not of man’s making’. (20) Seeking to prevent such a tragedy and to promote such a sense of gratitude, Burke propounds a new discipline, ‘metabiology’, which will study the human organism in relation to its environment. (21)  Though Burke here, in Permanence and Change (1935), has not yet taken explicit note of the science of ecology, he is no longer distracted by the fascist ‘blood and soil’ from trying to gain an overview on the relation between culture and nature. Indeed, he is proposing here what he will spell out subsequently, that human beings are ‘bodies that learn language’; he is exploring what language adds to bodily life, what culture adds to nature, without opposing the two and without privileging the former and denigrating the latter. Nature, perceived in human terms as non-language, is necessarily the context or referent of the orientation, disorientation and reorientation which are the elements of his ‘dialectical biologism’. In particular, he is trying to get some purchase on that ‘technological psychosis’ which is the reduction to absurdity of ‘trained incapacity’: for it rests on the assumption that there is only one way of perceiving nature, and that is as an object to be exploited.


The comic frame

Attitudes Toward History may not seem a very promising title for the those interested in the natural environment. But even though Burke is being largely ‘figurative’ in his application of ecological principles, as he himself admits, the book does extend the insights of Permanence and Change into the dialectic of nature and culture, of biological energy and its symbolic expression. Indeed, his overriding aim is to affirm the physical, animal basis of all symbolisation. Above all, Attitudes offers a more detailed account of what is involved in human beings’ obsession with ‘becoming’ at the expense of ’being’: that is, it explores what happens when the non-human environment is not only subordinated to the claims of human autonomy but also treated as raw material for human ambition.

The book’s premise is that each literary genre implies a ‘frame’, whether of ‘acceptance’ (epic, tragedy, comedy), or of ‘rejection’ (elegy, satire, burlesque); either way, the frame implies an act of ‘transcendence’, the attainment of a stance beyond contingency. This is, of course, impossible to maintain, which is precisely Burke’s point. Similarly, each age has its dominant ‘attitude’, some spiritual ‘motive’ which offers to contain and inform historical experience. This might be conceived as a ‘collective poem’, a work of ‘folk art’; as such, it is open to ‘folk criticism’, a ‘collective philosophy of motivation’. For the ‘attitude of attitudes’ is a ‘comic frame’ that takes up all the implications and complications of the genre of comedy, as evident in social existence: it offers ‘the methodic view of human antics as a comedy, albeit a comedy ever on the verge of the most disastrous tragedy’. (22)  Here ‘tragedy’ refers to non-generic, material disasters, such as war and pollution; but Burke is also trying to alert us to the symbiotic relationship of the two literary forms. Hence, when he expands on his use of comedy as a model, he refers to its complementary genre:

Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity. … The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy. (23)


Having coined the phrase that de Man will appropriate for other ends, he goes on to draw his conclusions and make his commendations:

… the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would ‘transcend’ himself by noting his own foibles. …[It] considers human life as a project in ‘composition’, where the poet works with the materials of social relationships. Composition, translation, also ‘revision’, hence offering maximum opportunity for the resources of criticism. (24)

According to Burke, human beings have to be particularly careful when they put their principles into practice. Critical alertness is necessary if ‘the bureaucratization of the imaginative’, the attempt to ‘translate some pure aim or vision into terms of its corresponding material embodiment’, is not simply to replace the living spirit with the dead letter (as might be evinced by comparing the message of Jesus with the established church, or Marx’s early writings with Stalinist totalitarianism). Only by subjecting cultural activity to what Burke has already proposed in Permanence and Change, namely ‘perspective by incongruity’ (a perspective implicit in the very phrase ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’), may an ‘ecological balance’ be effected between the ideal ends and the material means, between the spiritual potential and the mundane actualisation, between the dream and the routine. (25)

The phrase ‘ecological balance’ is certainly pertinent. In his 1984 afterword to Attitudes Toward History, Burke stresses that his project, even in these earlier writings, is to warn against the current mental construction of the non-human world, which amounts in effect to its material destruction. A superficial reading might infer that his position is anti-technological: that he is, in short, the Luddite of caricature. But as one ponders his position more carefully, one discovers that his object of attack is a particular ‘attitude’, one of naïve faith in the capacity of unbridled ‘industrialism’ to save humanity even as it wastes and pollutes humanity’s earthly household. Thus, if the modern era dismissed the ‘Super-Nature’ of previous, more ‘superstitious’ times, then the task of the modern ‘folk critic’ is to challenge the monstrous ‘Counter-Nature’, the product or expression of the ‘technological psychosis’, which replaced it. (26)   In both cases, a framework of ideas is implied as well as an observable world.

For, just as the ‘comic frame’ of ‘folk criticism’ may draw attention to what human beings are up to, and (to persist in this appropriately colloquial idiom) where they are coming from, it can also remind them what they have missed out. All ‘attitudes’ imply the remorseless completion of a model: this was true of medieval theology, which sought to situate everything in nature as pointing towards the perfection of God; but nature is far more threatened by the modern ‘attitude’, which attributes absolute status to technology and which reduces everything to the level of ‘instrumentality’ in the name of this new, streamlined perfection, whose full realisation would necessitate the wholesale destruction of the planet. The dogmas of ‘hyper-technologism’ are to be countered by the ‘comic corrective’, the reminder that human life is a project continually in ‘composition’. For ‘the comic frame’, in making people ‘observers of themselves’, will demonstrate that, whatever ‘attitude’ is adopted, it is likely to offer as much ‘blindness’ as ‘insight’. One strikes an ‘ecological balance’ when one acknowledges what has been excluded, draws the appropriate conclusions and begins to take the appropriate remedial action.

 Marxism, technology and ‘logology’


Phrases such as ‘folk criticism’ and ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’ have encouraged some commentators to view Burke chiefly as a left-wing political thinker. We have referred to Frank Lentricchia’s valiant effort to recuperate Burke’s enterprise for a neo-Marxist theory that might resist the formalism of de Man’s deconstruction. Certainly, if Burke’s thinking is incipiently green, it is not to be confused with that kind of ecological speculation which denies the claims of society, revering nature to the detriment of culture. However, what needs to be emphasised in any just estimate of Burke’s own socially-oriented criticism is his willingness to suspect the ‘piety’ of Marxism, and in particular his mistrust of its ‘technological psychosis’.

Let us go back to the sentence quoted earlier from Permanence and Change concerning the need to maintain a ‘philosophy of being’ in order to criticise ‘certain historically conditioned institutions’ which ‘interfere with the establishment of decent social or communicative relationships, and thereby affront the permanent biologic norms’. Now let us note briefly how that particular argument develops: ‘[One] may further hold that certain groups or classes of persons are mainly responsible for the retention of these socially dangerous institutions.’ For a ‘philosophy of being’ may commit one to ‘open conflict with any persons or class of persons who would use their power to uphold institutions serving an anti-social function’. (27)  If Burke is here providing encouragement for a Marxist critique of capitalism, he is also indicating that Marxism runs the risk of confining itself to the presuppositions of capitalism. Sharply distinguishing his ‘philosophy of being’ from a ‘philosophy of passivity, or acquiescence’, he argues that it has an advantage over Marxist historicism, since it allows for a more radical perspective on modernity:

Our antihistoric position does not in the least imply surrender to historic textures through failure to consider their importance. On the contrary, we believe that in many respects it is the historical point of view which leads to such surrender on the grounds that one must adjust to temporal conditions as he finds them (teaching himself, for example, to accept more and more mechanization simply because the trend of history points in this direction). (28)

Thus Cary Wolfe is surely right to justify Burke’s challenge to Marxism as follows:

What Burke is getting at is that the full critical act must take into account a double dialectical relationship … The politically engaged critic must now confront not only the dialectic of human history and sociality itself, but also the dialectic between that realm and the environment which gets its nature or meaning from the demands we make of it. (29)


Burke trusts that his ‘metabiology’ offers the grounds for a more complete and more complex dialectic than afforded by Marxism, which seems unable to break with the ‘piety’ of capitalism in order to gain ‘perspective by incongruity’. As he himself puts it:

The Marxian perspective presents a point of view outside the accepted circle of contingencies. Or, more accurately stated: the Marxian perspective is partially outside this circle. It is outside as regards the basic tenets of capitalistic enterprise. It is inside as regards the belief in the ultimate values of industrialism. (30)

But this ‘rephrasing of the interactive principle (known in the language of Marxists as dialectical materialism)’ in terms of ‘dialectical biologism’ is meant to extend, not deny, its potential for critique: the common emphasis is on ‘the need of manipulating objective material factors as an essential ingredient to spiritual welfare’. The Marxist industrial model falls short in that, like Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’, it is ‘insufficiently methodical’. (31) The latter resting content with viewing nature as a jungle, and the former resting content with viewing nature as so much raw stuff to be processed, they both have an impoverished sense of ‘spiritual welfare’.

If ‘dialectical biologism’ is to be preferred to ‘dialectical materialism’, it is because its understanding of the culture-nature relationship is more comprehensive. Much hinges on the definition of the human species. In Attitudes Toward History Burke explicitly states his preference, in traditional Aristotelian terms, for ‘talking animal’ over ‘tool-making animal’; but the term he offers of his own is ‘symbol-using animal’. Put starkly, his argument is that if you define human beings by technology, you are unnecessarily exaggerating their rights and underestimating their responsibilities in relation to the planet. If you define human beings by terminology, you are allowing for the permanent possibility of self-critique, since there can be no system, attitude, orientation or frame that does not proceed from the capacity for language. Nearly thirty years after Attitudes Toward History, we can still find Burke working at his linguistic definition. Here he sets it out line by line, phrase by phrase:

the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal

inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)

separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making

goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)

and rotten with perfection. (32)  [Italics as in original.]

We will return to this striking catalogue of human attributes; but meanwhile, we obviously cannot let that final, provocative phrase pass without comment. Burke is at once acknowledging that the urge towards completion, fulfilment or ‘perfection’ is in itself a cause for celebration: after all, it has produced, to use the convenient ‘desert island’ conjunction, the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. But his concern is to prevent this urge from spoiling, or even destroying, human and non-human life in the course of its ‘bureaucratization’. Specifically, the task of the ‘folk critic’ in our day is to resist arrogant perfectionism by countering it with a method which is alert to those implications and complications ignored by ‘technological psychosis’ – perfectionism gone mad, as it were.

In denying excessive claims for technology, Burke rejects any account of
humanity which accepts rampant ‘industrialism’ as its highest achievement. Querying the definition of the human being in terms of labour and advocating a definition in terms of language, Burke early on opposes the Marxist tendency (not evident in the early Marx) towards the unquestioning acceptance of technology, in the name of the discipline he calls ‘logology’. His argument is that if we confine human expectations to the level of production, we will inevitably underplay other possibilities of human culture and overlook the disastrous consequences for non-human life. Marxism for Burke has become too restrictive a vision of temporal fulfilment. What he proposes instead, since we cannot avoid following things through to ‘the end of the line’, is a sense of the future that is genuinely open while remaining responsible to human and non-human needs:

…no political order has yet been envisaged, even on paper, adequate to control the instrumental powers of Technology. Even if you granted, for the sake of the argument, that (‘come the Revolution’) the utopia of a classless society becomes transformed from an ideality to a reality, there would remain the ever-mounting purely instrumental problems intrinsic to the realm of Counter-Nature as ‘progressively’ developed by the symbol-guided ‘creativity’ of technological prowess itself. (33)

‘Logology’ – literally, ‘words about words’ – allows Burke that provisional, sceptical transcendence which he elsewhere refers to as ‘the comic frame’. Thus, the Marxist ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’ stands in need of a meditative overview which can comprehend the ‘unintended by-products’ of technological progress.

The tragic ritual


In seeking to find and develop a ‘method’ adequate to all the implications and complications of being a ‘symbol-using animal’, Burke constantly returns us to the question of literary genre. As I have already indicated, all Burke’s speculations, no matter how wild and wonderful they may seem, are the ‘matters arising’ from his account of comedy and tragedy, of their connections and connotations. We have already considered his case for the ‘comic frame’; now, finally, we must acknowledge what is involved in the ‘tragic ritual’.

The earlier Burke speaks vaguely of the ‘collective poem’; the later Burke is much more precise about society as a drama. His theory of ‘dramatism’ complements his ‘logology’: it pursues the practical implications of the definition of humanity offered earlier, in particular the phrases ‘inventor of the negative’ and ‘goaded by the spirit of hierarchy’. Burke argues, no doubt following Hegel, Bergson and others, that human language introduces the capacity for negation into nature. This capacity is not just a matter of saying ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’, or ‘it is not’ as well as ‘it is’. Such denotative usage is far less significant than the ‘hortatory’ – that which offers strong advice about conduct. Moreover, within the language of exhortation, he is especially interested in what follows once ‘thou shalt not’ is understood as the dialectical accompaniment to ‘thou shalt’. ‘Dramatism’ analyses how a society, in being ‘moved by a sense of order’, will be ‘moralized by the negative’. In other words, in seeking the reassurance of ‘hierarchy’, human beings need some explanation when order is not maintained. The explanation tacitly accepted is the inability to keep the collective commandments (‘thou shalt not’). The device for simultaneously alleviating the consequent remorse and purging the error is the discovery of a ‘scapegoat’ to stand in for the group and take away its sense of pollution. Thus, the genre of tragedy, while no doubt being derived from a founding social ritual, is the key to a continuing social ritual:

…a dramatistic analysis shows how the negativistic principle of guilt implicit in the nature of order combines with the principles of thoroughness (or ‘perfection’) and substitution that are characteristic of symbol systems in such a way that the sacrificial principle of victimage (the ‘scapegoat’) is intrinsic to human congregation. The intricate line of exposition might be summed up thus: If order, then guilt; if guilt, then need for redemption; but any such ‘payment’ is victimage. Or: If action, then drama; if drama, then conflict; if conflict, then victimage. … Dramatism, as so conceived, asks not how the sacrificial motives revealed in the institutions of magic and religion might be ‘eliminated’ in a ‘scientific’ culture, but what new forms they might take. (34)



For the later Burke, it is no longer a difficulty to move from the figurative to the literal sense of ecology; indeed, it is inevitable. Thus, he proceeds, within the scope of the same page, to reflect as follows:

This view of vicarious victimage extends the range of those manifestations far beyond the areas ordinarily so labeled. Besides extreme instances like Hitlerite genocide, or the symbolic ‘cleansings’ sought in wars, uprisings and heated political campaigns, ‘victimage’ would include …the ‘bulldozer mentality’ that rips into natural conditions without qualms, the many enterprises that keep men busy destroying in the name of progress or profit the ecological balance on which, in the last analysis, our eventual well-being depends, and so on. (35)

Thus, the tragic ritual turns out to be the key to that ‘technological psychosis’ which Burke seeks to diagnose, once a ‘dramatistic’ philosophy of human motives is brought to bear upon it. Firstly, we have to recognise that the ritual of ‘congregation by segregation’ involves ‘identification’ of members of the group by finding their common cause against ‘the enemy, who serves a unifying function as scapegoat’.  (36) Secondly, we have to understand where ‘victimage’ ends:

It would be much better for us, in the long run, if we ‘identified ourselves’ rather with the natural things that we are progressively destroying – our trees, our rivers, our land, even our air, all of which we are a lowly ecological part of. For here, in the long run, a pious ‘loyalty to the sources of our being’ (Santayana) would pay off best, even in the grossly materialistic sense. For it would better help preserve the kinds of natural balance on which, in the last analysis, mankind’s prosperity, and even our mere existence, depend. But too often, in such matters, our attitudes are wholly segregational, as we rip up things that we are not – and thus can congratulate ourselves upon having evolved a way of life able to exhaust in decades a treasure of natural wealth that had been here for thousands of years. (37)



In his final years Burke became preoccupied with this logic, which he increasingly understood was the theme implicit in his earlier work. In a retrospective article written in 1972 he reflects:

…in studying the nature of order, I became more and more involved in the conviction that order places strong demands upon a sacrificial principle (involving related motives of victimage and catharsis). Thus, while still opting for comedy, I became fascinated by the symbolism of ritual pollution in tragedy. But during the last couple of years my engrossment has shifted to the evidence of material pragmatic pollution in technology. I loathe the subject, even as I persist in wondering what can possibly be done about it. Men victimize nature, and in so doing they victimize themselves. This, I fear, is the ultimate impasse. (38)


At which point we could bring our account of Burke to a close, acknowledging him to be a prophet of environmental doom. However, he was always a resilient thinker. Significantly, only two years after his acknowledgement of ‘the ultimate impasse’, he made his case for the power of literature to not only reflect but also resist the insane logic of ‘hyper-technologism’. It is worth considering here briefly for the way it deepens and extends the earlier view of the form and function of literature in the face of imminent catastrophe.

‘Why Satire, with a Plan for Writing One’ is a defence of the literary genre associated with ‘rejection’ rather than ‘acceptance’. Here what is to be rejected is the world we now have, with its implications for the world that we might shortly have. If the human mind always wishes to takes projects through to ‘the end of the line’, and if it proves impervious to ‘perspective by incongruity’, then it will not rest until technology realises its full potential, even at the expense of the complete pollution and degradation of the planet. Burke’s proposed ecological satire would expose the unacknowledged agenda of our ‘culture of waste’: in its bid to create a technological heaven on earth, it will inevitably produce a hell. The dystopia would hence be called ‘Helhaven’. It would be a variant upon the traditional apocalyptic vision, as may be encountered in the Book of Revelation and in Dante’s Divine Comedy, with an appropriate shift of emphasis from sacred to secular. The saved would be the rich: that is, the very people whose material enterprises were responsible for the destruction of the earth would be the only ones able to separate themselves from its effects, by inhabiting a luxurious ‘culture bubble’ on the moon. The damned would be the poor, who would be forced to stay for the duration of the terminal phase of the planet’s life. Burke gets no further than sketching the vision of ‘Helhaven’, though he does find space to give ironic praise to Walt Whitman, whose pioneer spirit and meliorism would prove to be the inspiration behind the declarations of ‘the Master’ presiding over the demonic paradise. What is interesting is that he advocates satire as the appropriate genre for our age not only because there is so much that needs rejecting but also because it too goes to ‘the end of the line’, imaginatively, exaggerating what is already the case so that we might be alerted to its consequences: its terminological ambition parallels and parodies the technological. (39)

If both comedy and tragedy are ‘frames of acceptance’, then satire, according to Burke’s model of literary creation, arises from radical disaffection. Yet, dedicated as it is to ‘rejection’, it cannot in our time retain its traditional privilege of superior wisdom: ecological catastrophe implicates us all. The very idea that those who had profited from pollution might yet survive its effects, idling their time away in a ‘haven’ or ‘heaven’ built from the rewards of building a ‘hell’ on earth, is close enough to the existing situation (in which the rich have their rural retreats away from the urban noise and squalor they create) to be momentarily credible, but is absurd enough to remind us that that the future will most likely be inclusively infernal. Thus, the satire is intended to provoke us into the ‘collectivist’ spirit which his earliest writings had commended. As such, it gestures, paradoxically and painfully, beyond tragic resignation and towards the potential of the ‘comic frame’.

For, if tragedy is a way of accepting ‘some natural sorrow, loss, or pain’, in Wordsworth’s phrase, and ultimately death itself, it should not be allowed to countenance systematic oppression. In the face of such a challenge, the comic sense of incongruity is the preferable mode; it reminds us of the value of what tragic resignation might exclude from the picture. Satire, in Burke’s sketch for a dystopia, might serve as a reminder of the radical power of the comic attitude, even or especially when it is informed by anger. Certainly, despondent as he became in his later years, he never finally abandoned his central statement of preference, which he had once provided, typically, in the form of a footnote (nearly half of which is in parenthesis), in the course of talking about other things:

… Aristotle mentions the definition of man as the ‘laughing animal’, but he does not consider it adequate. Though I would hasten to agree, I obviously have a big investment in it, owing to my conviction that mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy. (The cult of tragedy is too eager to help out with the holocaust. And in the last analysis, it is too pretentious to allow for proper recognition of our animality.) (40)


In the light of our previous discussion, we may take ‘comedy’ to comprehend ‘tragedy’ and to imply a sense of ‘ecological balance’, to which ‘the cult of comedy’ would be dedicated. We may then see ‘the cult of tragedy’ as a way of conniving in wilful imbalance. But of course, if we take the full force of the reference to ‘the holocaust’, that way of putting it seems rather too weak. The writer and analyst James Hillman takes the Nazi programme of extermination to be emblematic of all the ‘devastating enormities’ of our era, of the ‘vast displays of totalitarianism’: ‘burning cities, burning forests, homelessness and hunger. Gargantuan consumerism. Garbage barges, garbage dumps, dead fish, dead skies, and ageless species extinguished en masse.’  (41) In such a context, we may conclude that it is not only exponents of ecocriticism and green studies who should take very seriously indeed the ‘comic corrective’ of Kenneth Burke, as a demonstration of how the ‘victimization’ of both people and planet might be resisted.



1 Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (1937; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 150.

2 Geoffrey Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 91, 92, 94,

3 Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1983), pp. 62, 38.

4 Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change, p. 40

5 See Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 7, 104.

6 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of  American Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 143ff.

7 Buell, The Environmental Imagination, p. 430.

8 Cheryll Glotfelty, ‘Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis’, The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, eds Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm (Athens & London: University of Georgia Press, 1996), p. xvi.

9 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, p. 411.

10 William H. Rueckert, Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations (1963; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 267.

11 Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement (1931; B erkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 112.

12 Burke, Counter-Statement, p 105.

13 For a comparison of the two thinkers, see Samuel B. Southwell, Kenneth Burke and Martin Heidegger (Gainseville: University of Florida Press, 1987).

14 For a sophisticated version of this charge, as applied to the early work, see Robert Wess, Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1987).

15 Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (1935; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 69, 74.

16 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 167.

17 Burke, Permanence and Change, pp. 183-4.

18 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 271.

19 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 272.

20 Burke, ‘Introduction’, Attitudes Toward History (no page given).

21 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 232.

22 Burke, ‘Introduction’, Attitudes Toward History (no page given).

23 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, p. 41.

24 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, pp. 171, 173.

25 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, pp. 225-9.

26 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, pp. 378-9.

27 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 271-2.

28 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 271.

29 Cary Wolfe, ‘Nature as Critical Concept: Kenneth Burke, the Frankfurt School, and “Metabiology”’, Cultural Critique 18 (1991), p. 77.

30 Burke, Permanence and Change, p. 224.

31 Burke, Permanence and Change, pp. 229-30, 235.

32 Kenneth Burke, ‘Definition of Man’, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p.16.

33 Burke, Attitudes Toward History, pp. 424-5.

34 Kenneth Burke, ‘Dramatism’, Communication: Concepts and Perspectives, ed. Lee Thayer (Washington: Spartan Books, 1967), p. 342.

35 Burke, ‘Dramatism’, p. 342.

36 Kenneth Burke, ‘Poetics and Communication’, Perspectives in Education, Religion and the Arts, eds. Howard E. Keifer & Milton K. Munitz (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1970), p. 413.

37 Burke, ‘Poetics and Communication’, pp. 413-4.

38 Kenneth Burke’, As I Was Saying’, Michigan Quarterly Review, 11 (1972), p. 26.

39 Kenneth Burke, ‘Why Satire, with a Plan for Writing One’, Michigan Quarterly Review 13 (1974), pp. 307-37.

40 Burke, ‘Definition of Man’, p. 20.

41 James Hillman, ‘And Huge is Ugly’, Resurgence, no. 134 (May-June 1989), p. 4.

Hughes and Myth

Terry Gifford (ed.), Ted Hughes: New Casebook (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp 13-24


Hughes and Myth

Laurence Coupe



Though it is widely acknowledged that Ted Hughes’s work is ‘mythic’ in its breadth and depth, confusion may arise as to what exactly we mean by that word. This chapter sets out to clarify Hughes’s own understanding of mythology, to demonstrate his prowess as an interpreter of specific mythic forms, and to explore the connection he makes between myth and literature.

‘Blueprints for imagination’

The word ‘myth’ comes from the ancient Greek mythos, meaning ‘story’. A myth is a traditional story that is handed on over the years – sometimes centuries, sometimes millennia – and keeps being retold. It is a narrative that helps human beings to make sense of themselves and their relation to one another, to the natural world and to the spiritual realm. It is a founding narrative, an essential plot, which cannot be credited to any one individual but rather belongs to the whole community. Myths combine together to form a mythology, a body of stories that define a culture. This collective narrative is not to be assessed on grounds of truth or falsity: the point is whether it has power for its community.

Perhaps Hughes’s most straightforward statement on myth comes in the course of his extensive account of the mythology underlying the work of the most famous of English writers. Early on in his Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, he draws attention to the strongly ‘mythic’ strain in both the poems and the major plays. In doing so, he pauses to explain that the same word is applicable also to such diverse works as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, William Blake’s prophetic books, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, W.B. Yeats’s Wanderings of Oisin and T.S. Eliot’s poetry generally, ranging from ‘The Death of St Narcissus’ to The Waste Land:

In each of those poems listed, the whole subject matter is the image of a subjective event of visionary intensity […] It is only when the image opens inwardly towards what we recognise as a first-hand as-of religious experience, or mystical revelation, that we call it ‘visionary’, and when ‘personalities’ or creatures are involved, we call it ‘mythic’. (SGCP 35-6)[1]

In this light, we might say that ‘mythic’ for Hughes implies, firstly, vision, that is, the capacity to imagine that the world is charged with sacred grandeur, and secondly, a narrative unfolding of that vision.

As for Shakespeare’s ‘mythic’ interest, Hughes is not primarily interested in the use of myth as a standard mode of allusion. What interests him is the way we can trace a dual narrative lying hidden beneath his total oeuvre:

[he] strips the myth[s] of all identifiably mythic features, and secretes its mechanism within his plot[s], as he does with the two myths – of the Great Goddess and of the Goddess-destroying god – which are the theme of my argument here. (SGCB 2)[2]

Myth, for Hughes, is a mediation between the external and internal worlds, and between the material and spiritual dimensions, though often not recognisable at first reading. For Hughes, this is the basis and mode of operation of much of the greatest literature. Gods and goddesses may come in disguise, but their presence and power will always be felt.

So consistent was Hughes’s interest in myth and his conviction of its importance that he wrote two essays entitled ‘Myth and Education’. In the second of these, published in 1976, he argues forcefully that children should be introduced to their culture’s mythology as early as possible because myths are our ‘blueprints for imagination’ (WP 151). A blueprint is a plan of action; a myth, then, is not just some dusty old text, but the indispensable format for those symbolic acts by which we keep in touch with the sources of life. For Ted Hughes the works of art which we call ‘great’ are those in which that contact is felt most compellingly. Myth, as blueprint for imagination, has a healing power. Whenever the inner world has become divorced from the outer we experience ‘a place of demons’. Then myths demand retelling by the poets, whose function is far more than entertainment or diversion, but an imaginative reconciliation of both outer and inner worlds in a creative narrative (WP 151).

Kinds of myth

By my reckoning, there are four broadly different kinds of myth. They are sometimes hard to separate, but it is as well to bear them in mind as they each tell us something important. They are: creation myth, which tells us where we come from; fertility myth, which tells us how we relate to the natural cycle; deliverance myth, which tells us where we are going; and hero myth, which tells us what human qualities we value.[3] It is not to be expected that any one poet will consistently refer by name to the four categories of traditional plots just listed. For one thing, each of them has variant titles: for example, creation myth might also be known as ‘myth of origins’, or even ‘paradise myth’; again, deliverance myth might also be known as ‘salvation history’. But what I want to demonstrate here is that Hughes’s use of myth is comprehensive, and that each of the four kinds which I’ve listed does figure in his own theory of myth, which will help us understand their enactment in his poetic work.

Hughes and creation myth

Creation myth tells us how everything began. According to the late historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, humanity has been driven by the impulse of ‘eternal return’: we tell ourselves stories about how things were in the beginning, when the gods were in close contact with humanity. Given that it seems to be a universal conviction that the newly created world was in the beginning idyllic, human beings have always felt a deep ‘nostalgia for paradise’. In other words, myth is about the regaining of ‘sacred time’, known to the ancient Greeks as the Golden Age; in complementary fashion, it is also about the regaining of ‘sacred space’, known to the Greeks as Arcadia.[4] Hughes conveys the power and beauty of this vision of the newly created world in the opening poem of his translation of Metamorphoses, written by the ancient Roman poet Ovid (see CP 865-79).

Hughes’s writing on myth returns again and again to the biblical creation narrative and its momentous influence on English culture: the creation of the cosmos in six days and the serpent’s role in the temptation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall from the Garden of Eden. In his study of Shakespeare, he is particularly interested in the way the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the subsequent rise of Puritanism in the seventeenth, drew on the idea of a righteously omnipotent God who was not slow to take revenge on those who flouted his law. Repudiating what they saw as the pagan goddess-worship of Catholicism – with its reverence for the figure of Our Lady, mother of God, also known as the Virgin Mary – fundamentalist reformers and dissenters appealed to the masculine might of Jehovah. He was a transcendent figure whom they took to be ‘far removed from the sensational, dramatic adventure of what is thought of as “myth”’ (SGCP 13). And yet, Hughes reminds us, their God was in many ways reminiscent of Marduk, the mythic sky warrior of the Babylonians, who had defeated and destroyed the primordial goddess of the waters, Tiamat, thereby establishing cosmos and overcoming chaos.  Given that the Babylonian creation myth casts its shadow over the Hebrew, Hughes surmises, ‘Shakespeare was aware of the feelings behind this myth through the Bible’ (SGCP 16). It is a bold chain of association which Hughes is forging: from the Babylonian Marduk, to the Hebrew Jehovah, and to the aggressively fundamentalist Puritan religion of the early modern world, and so to the greatest writer of that or of any other era who responds to this goddess-destroying lineage in his plays. One does not read Hughes on myth if one wants a conventionally comfortable guide. But it does offer an insight into the function of myth in his own work, where goddess-denial can lead to trouble, for example.

In offering a new perspective on the imaginative logic of Genesis, and in justifying the rough and ready approach to scriptural authority and religious orthodoxy of the protagonist of his most famous mythic volume, Crow, Hughes draws on an alternative mythic tradition, that of the ‘trickster’ tale. The mischievous male, usually priapic, protagonist of this kind of story participates in the creation of the world, but is also associated with all the disasters which plague human existence. He straddles the boundary between cosmos and chaos. Thus many of these tales feature a marginal creature who survives against the odds on the fringes of human culture: for example, crow, coyote, wolf, fox. The mythology of the Haida people of the northwestern coast of North America features the exploits of ‘Raven’, a figure who is constantly causing trouble in his endless search for food, but whose very persistence enables him to lay out the land, establish the clan and bring light to both – all by accident. A parallel trickster is the West African (and then Caribbean) figure of ‘Anansi’: taking the form of a great spider, he is usually out to cause trouble but, as in all trickster myths, he inadvertently brings about the natural order of things.

Hughes is always very clear that he regards trickster mythology as a necessary corrective to the biblical narrative, which seems to present us with a thoroughly tamed nature. In his essay on his poem ‘Crow on the Beach’ he explains the background to his Crow volume and he presents the trickster as the agent of the energetic and unpredictable life-force (‘his high spirits and trajectory are constant’) that tests our cultural constructions to destruction (‘Cultures blossom round his head and fall to bits under his feet’), and so wholly appropriate to any attempt to revitalise the mythology of our civilisation (WP 240-1).

Hughes and fertility myth

Creation myth is implicitly cyclical. It suggests that humanity cannot help but dream of a return to the beginning, when a perfect creation emerged out of chaos. Both Hebrew and Babylonian myths are the source of ‘nostalgia for paradise’. (As we shall see in due course, later books of the Bible bring a more progressive pattern into play, but Genesis certainly encourages a desire for a return to Eden.) With fertility myth, the cyclical model is emphatic, as is the role of the female deity. This kind of narrative is particularly associated with the invention of agriculture, about 12,000 years ago. Before then, there had indeed been an idea of the earth as a nurturing mother, from which human beings emerged and to which they returned at death. However, it was with the practice of sowing and reaping crops that there developed a myth based on the cycle of vegetation, with the goddess at its heart.

The pattern is as follows. The fertility goddess is immortal, but her male consort, the fertility god, has to die annually in order to ensure the renewal of the cycle. He is killed in his prime, by order of the goddess; his body is dismembered and the parts scattered across the land; he is then born again in order to fertilise the goddess once more, thus ensuring that the crops flourish for another year. This pattern persisted with the rise of urban civilisations, the goddess and god taking on different forms throughout the ancient world: Isis and Osiris (Egypt), Inanna and Thammuz (Mesopotamia, Babylonia), Aphrodite/Venus and Adonis (Greece/Rome). The very title of Hughes’s second collection, Lupercal, refers to a Roman fertility festival, and perhaps its most celebrated lyric is ‘Hawk Roosting’ – a poem which Hughes has related to the Egyptian myth of Isis, the implication being that the hawk is Horus, the son and successor of Osiris the dying god.[5]

The fertility goddess, representing the essential power of nature, necessarily has a dual identity. As the source of both life and death, light and dark, spring and winter, fruition and drought, she may be seen as both a benign and a malign force, as both lover and destroyer, both mother and murderer. This double part is well understood by those with an investment in the myth, the natural cycle making little sense to them otherwise. Hughes, we might add, was early on inspired by the poet Robert Graves’s account of the complex nature of this female deity in The White Goddess.[6] Gaudete is a poetic narrative offering a variation on fertility myth, with the dying and reviving god played by one Nicholas Lumb in the village where he is vicar. Lumb is abducted into the underworld where he is asked to revive a dying goddess. The substitute wooden vicar back in the village has a rather literal idea of spreading the gospel of Love and in a comic parody gradually turns the Women’s Institute into a kind of coven. The original Reverend Lumb was mistaken for shamanic healer when he was abducted (not the role of a Church of England vicar, apparently), but when he merges in the west of Ireland he has acquired shamanic wisdom and insight, as revealed in the book of poems he has brought with him – the closing lyrics of the ‘Epilogue’ addressed to the elusive goddess.

The fertility god’s death guarantees the continuity of the natural cycle, ensuring that the community survives. But also, according to Sir James Frazer in his classic work of myth theory, The Golden Bough, he functions as a ‘scapegoat’. That is to say, by departing and disappearing into the realm of death he serves to carry off all traces of disease, corruption and pollution that might otherwise blight that community.[7]

In seeking to situate the underlying mythology of Shakespeare’s body of work, Hughes is particularly interested in the Graeco-Roman version of fertility myth, given that it is the subject of one of Shakespeare’s early poems. In an early rehearsal for the full-length study, namely the Introduction to his Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, Hughes expounds the significance of ‘Venus and Adonis’, which he relates to another long poem, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. Here we might pause to summarise these two works before seeing what Hughes makes of them. ‘Venus and Adonis’ retells the Roman (originally Greek) myth of the fertility goddess falling in love with a beautiful youth, who resists her advances, fleeing from her only to be savaged to death by a wild boar – this creature being the incarnation of Persephone, Venus’s shadow-self, her underworld other. ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ is Shakespeare’s version of another ancient Roman tale (not strictly mythic, but becoming so by association in this context). It concerns the sexual assault made by Prince Tarquin upon the chaste wife of his fellow-commander in the Roman army. Lucrece (or Lucretia) kills herself; Tarquin is banished, and the Roman monarchy comes to an end.

Hughes argues that the two texts provide the basis for the mythic ‘equation’ that runs through the major plays. He calls the four characters of these poems, Lucrece, Venus, Tarquin and Adonis, Shakespeare’s ‘four poles of energy’ that provide the focus for the stages of Shakespeare’s complete narrative cycle. Venus confronts Adonis, whereupon Adonis is killed by boar and is reborn, through a flower death, as Tarquin, whereupon Tarquin destroys Lucrece, and in doing so destroys himself and all order (WP 116). Hughes argues that Shakespeare’s plays explore these ‘poles of energy’ in all sorts of combinations, ultimately attempting to resist the deaths of Adonis and Lucrece.

The mythic equation is also the ‘tragic’ equation; and the tragedy is the result of the competing myths which were acted out in Shakespeare’s era. Tarquin represents the Jehovah-worshipping Puritan, whose creation myth tells him that it the transcendent, omnipotent God who is in charge, not the pagan goddess of nature. In his zeal he sets out to destroy her and the plays gradually tell the agonising story of the gradual defeat of Venus and her boar. But the shifting protean puritan forces through the plays (as through the whole nation in Shakespeare’s time, suggests Hughes) are ultimately self-destructive. Shakespeare’s tragic hero, the puritan Adonis, is possessed by the demon he rejects. He struggles to reconcile in himself the tensions between the four principles represented by himself, Tarquin, Venus and Lucrece and is inevitably torn apart (WP 116). We are not here interested in the details of Hughes’s account of Shakespeare’s mythic project; we are chiefly concerned with Hughes’s own preoccupation with the nature of myth, and with the myth of nature. His focus is on the way the male believer in the absolute male God seeks to destroy the female principle which, according to the model of fertility, informs the whole of the natural world.

Hughes and deliverance myth

Here we need to focus mainly on the Bible, as the kind of deliverance myth relevant to Hughes’s work is almost exclusively Judaeo-Christian in form and meaning. While creation and fertility myths honour the cyclical conception of time, deliverance myth offers a linear, progressive view. Jehovah may punish Adam and Eve by expelling them from the garden, and leave them to make their way through the wilderness, but he has a grand plan for their salvation. What we know as ‘the fall’ is only the beginning of a long collective adventure. In a later book of the Bible, namely Exodus, we read how Moses, guided by God, leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, where they have been enslaved, and guides them towards a ‘promised land’. The Christian Gospels of the ‘New Testament’ extend this deliverance myth by presenting Jesus as the fulfilment of the Exodus story: through his crucifixion and resurrection he frees all humanity from the constraints of sin and death. Hughes’s poem sequence Adam and the Sacred Nine is a moving version of the paradise/fall myth, with Adam learning from various birds how to love, and finally to be at home on, the earth.

True, some theorists of myth see Christianity as having associations with fertility myth. Jesus may be seen as a dying and reviving god, born in the winter (Christmas), sacrificed and reborn in the spring (Easter). The parallel is not coincidental: Christianity clearly has roots in some sort of nature cult. But the difference also needs emphasising: the resurrection of Jesus is once and for all, and the result is not merely that the vegetation cycle succeeds (though we can see the link to this pagan model in various festivals of the Christian calendar), but rather that humanity is ‘delivered’ into the safety of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, as described in the final book of the Bible, namely Revelation. In other words, the Jesus story in its entirety belongs to that category of deliverance myth which we call ‘apocalyptic’ (from the Greek word for ‘revelation’).

Hughes throughout his work shows himself to be deeply suspicious of the biblical idea of salvation as coming about through history rather than through a renewal of our contract with nature and the goddess. If he may be said to subscribe to his own ‘fall’ myth, the Judaeo-Christian project is very much part of it, together with the modern cult of progress, which for him is only a secular variant of the myth of deliverance (though one that does not know itself to be mythic). In this case, a crucial moment in the protracted fall from what Hughes calls ‘complete being’ is that of the Reformation. For it was the fundamentalist reading of apocalypse which inspired the Protestant reformers, and still more dramatically, their Puritan heirs to wage total war against the goddess.  In support of Hughes’s thesis, we might remind ourselves of the main scenario of the Book of Revelation. Most of the earth is laid waste, in preparation for the establishment of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, which is built out of gold and other precious materials and which is lit neither by sunlight nor moonlight but by the light of God. Though we are told that the ‘tree of life’ and the ‘river of life’ will flourish, it is quite clear that these have a strictly symbolic existence, serving chiefly to represent the spiritual transformation of the earthly paradise depicted in the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Natural trees and rivers will have disappeared, or been transformed beyond recognition: ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea […]’ (Revelation 21:1). With a fundamentalist reading of this text, the way was open for the legitimisation of a fiercely other-worldly faith, and with it that ruthless manipulation and exploitation of the earth which climaxes in modernity. So it is no surprise to find that there are several parodies of Genesis in Crow (‘Lineage’, ‘A Horrible Religious Error’, ‘Apple Tragedy’, ‘Snake Hymn’). There are also ironic meditations on the crucifixion (‘The Contender’) and on the apocalypse (‘Notes for a Little Play’, ‘Crow’s Account of the Battle’, ‘Crow’s Last Stand’). Interspersed with these are reflections on our abusive relationship with the great goddess (‘Crow and Mama’, ‘Revenge Fable’).

It is in the Shakespeare study that Hughes makes his case against the myth of deliverance, though not named as such. Being clear about Christianity’s debt to fertility myth, he is clear also that ultimately it represents a severing of our bond with nature. It is the destruction of the goddess, first by Jehovah to preside in Heaven, then by his and her son, the Puritan Christ, that sets in train the essential tragedy of Shakespeare’s narrative cycle: ‘What Shakespeare goes on to reveal is that in destroying her he destroys himself and brings down Heaven and Earth in ruins’ (SGCG 18). Christianity in this context may be seen as a religion rooted in fertility myth which eventually became divorced from those roots and began a long process of dissociation from the natural world, spurred on by an increasingly literal interpretation of its founding text, the Bible.

Hughes, then, repudiates what we are calling the myth of deliverance, and in particular its impact within modernity – early on with the Reformation and later on with the cult of progress, with unrestrained industrialisation, and what is euphemistically called ‘development’. His definitive statement is ‘The Environmental Revolution’, his review of Max Nicholson’s book of the same name. It is here that we see how his knowledge of myth and his passion for ecology inform each other. Hughes suggests that Western Civilization is still dominated by Old Testament notions that ‘the earth is a heap of raw materials given to man by God for his exclusive profit and use’. Because man is alienated from Mother Nature, the goddess, he is also alienated from his own inner nature. While Hughes uses the word ‘quest’ to describe the basic myth of the ideal life (WP 129), and while ‘quest’ is a word we would normally associate with hero myth – of which more very shortly – he is thinking primarily of that violent and destructive journey undertaken by God’s chosen people, with no sense of reconciliation or return, that we have referred to as the myth of deliverance.

There is hope, however. The artist – or, by analogy, the poet – may see something else, and guide us to it, whether in images that remind us of Eden, or the world of animals, or Pan, or nature’s force for regeneration even in the face of being poisoned by human activities (WP 130). All Hughes’s writing, whether directly or indirectly related to myth, is dedicated to ensuring that the germ of nature’s life not only survives but also flourishes. River is his celebration of the fertile natural world as the paradise (continually restored by death) that we thought we had lost – a vision of the given world as our one and only Eden.

Hughes and hero myth

I have left this category of narrative to the last because it is the most ambiguous: while it has a very specific, historically determined meaning, it can also be applied to a whole range of stories from different eras. On the one hand, then, it may be narrowly defined as that kind of myth which celebrates the rise of a warrior class in the later years of the second millennium BC. It represents the human ideal of that class, that culture. A male hero sets out on a quest, facing terrifying obstacles on the way, and proves his courage in combat, eventually returning home. Ancient Greece affords us many such tales: for instance, that of Perseus, slayer of Medusa, the Gorgon; or again, that of Hercules (or Herakles), famous for undertaking twelve labours, which included slaughtering not only the fabulous many-headed monster, the Hydra, but also a ferocious lion and a dangerous boar for good measure. Thus does a male hero prove himself in a patriarchal culture. More complex is the figure of Prometheus, the Titan who befriends humanity and steals fire from the gods on their behalf, thus facilitating human culture. As a punishment, Zeus has him chained to a rock, where he is perpetually tormented by a giant eagle tearing at his liver. His heroism lies in his refusal to give in or show signs of weakness. Hughes’s poem sequence Prometheus on his Crag is a visceral retelling of the famous myth, with the emphasis on not only what the hero endures but also on what he learns about the natural order.

On the other hand, however, hero myth is the most general kind of narrative we could possibly imagine. After all, every myth that has ever been narrated has one or more central characters who we might describe neutrally as ‘heroes’. Creation, fertility and deliverance myth: all are ‘heroic’, in that some figure, whether divine or human, achieves something. Thus, in the previous section we have noted Hughes’s  account of  ‘the Quest’, which may imply hero myth but which the poet can legitimately use to refer to that collective and progressive project which derives from the biblical myth of deliverance.

Less legitimate might appear Hughes’s application of the quest structure to that crucial role of every North American tribe, that of the shaman. Here again, though, he is strictly speaking accurate. For it is the shaman’s function to adventure in the spirit world – the dangerous flight of the imagination – to return with the healing gift of stories and poems and songs, and thereby restore the balance between culture and nature. In so doing, he may have affinity with the fertility god, but he may also be celebrated as the archetypal hero, the soothsayer of his tribe. This, Hughes, argued, was the basic experience of the poetic temperament we call ‘romantic’ and would, in a shamanizing society, give the role of shaman to the authors of Venus and Adonis, some of Keats’s longer poems, W.B. Yeats’ The Wanderings of Oisin and T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. The shamanic flight also ‘lies perceptibly behind’ many of the best fairy tales and behind myths – Hughes singles out those of Orpheus and Herakles – and behind such poetic epics as those of Gilgamesh and Odysseus (WP 58).

Moreover, if the shaman makes sense in terms of hero myth as well as fertility myth, the trickster makes sense in terms of hero as well as creation myth. Indeed, the trickster’s endless adventures, whether in aiding the construction of the world or in wreaking havoc, seem to Hughes to conform to the pattern of the hero’s journey. Taking up his idea that this is a character which represents the life force itself, Hughes concludes that the quest of the trickster is like ‘a master plan, a deep biological imprint, and one of our most useful pieces of kit’. Hughes sees trickster tales as a form of Tragicomedy in which this ‘demon of phallic energy’, carrying the spirit of the sperm, suffers for his misunderstandings, but is also capable of experiencing tragic joy (WP 241). It is not that Hughes is confusing categories of myth and blurring different mythic roles. Rather, he is demonstrating that mythology is a complex web of stories – as complex as that great web of being that we call ‘nature’.

Moreover, Hughes is writing as someone who has understood that we are living in extraordinary times, having lost our bond with the earth and our sense of the sacred. Hence, any mythmaking poet has, as it were, to start from scratch, building up the mythic connections as best he can. In the interview given on the occasion of the publication of Crow, he explained that he believed that Eliot, Joyce and Beckett were suffering and portraying the last phase of the disintegration of Christian civilization. After them came some writers who did not seem to belong spiritually to Christian civilization at all:

In their world Christianity is just another provisional myth of man’s relation­ship with the creator and the world of spirit. Their world is a continuation or a re-emergence of the pre-Christian world . . . it is the world of the little pagan religions and cults, the primitive religions from which of course Christianity itself grew.[8]

Cave Birds is an extension of the Crow myth, and a revision of the dying and reviving god featured in fertility myth, with the hero on a quest which involves the necessary disintegration of his ego before his reintegration in ‘Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days’ and his rebirth as a falcon. Thus it is that, in coming to write Crow and its extension Cave Birds – what we might call Hughes’s gesture towards the kind of myth that might be appropriate for our desolate, disconnected state of soul – he finds it appropriate to redefine what we mean by ‘hero’. The arrogance of the ancient warrior class, the fundamentalist conviction of the reforming Christian, the triumphalism of the modern progressive mind: these no longer suffice. Our hero must be the stripped-down figure of a creature with nothing left to lose. And finally there remains the question of whether the myth will be understood in its full healing potential. Will the newly humble, powerful, transfigured falcon, for whom ‘the dirt becomes God’, connect with and empower readers? ‘But when will he land / On a man’s wrist’ (CP 440). Here Hughes the reader of myth becomes inseparable from Hughes the writer of myth; but in both capacities, he makes us see how much myth matters because there is always a need for a retelling, a new version, an unanswered question about the mystery of the universe: ‘At the end of the ritual / up comes a goblin’ (CP 440).


[1] The second revised, paperback, edition of SGCB (1993) is quoted in this chapter.

[2] In quotations from Hughes throughout this essay I have respected his capitalisation, even where it may seem inconsistent.

[3] For a fuller discussion of these categories, see Laurence Coupe, Myth, 2nd edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

[4] See Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Reality, trans. Philip Mairet (London: Fontana, 1968); Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (San Diego: Harcourt, 1959).

[5] Egbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Presss, 1980): 199.

[6] See Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, 2nd edn (London: Faber & Faber, 1999).

[7] For a comprehensive account of the role of the fertility god, including his sacrificial function, see Sir James George Frazer, The Illustrated Golden Bough, ed. Sabine McCormack (London: Macmillan, 1978).

[8]Faas, Ted Hughes: 205.


‘What are you reading?’ column

Contributions to the Times Higher Education ‘What are you reading?’ column, in which regular reviewers report on books they are currently interested in …


Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, edited by Scott L. Newstok (Parlor Press, 2007)

9 July 2009

Concentrating mainly on the tragedies, Burke demonstrates how they work as symbolic acts that force us to recognise and reconsider the motives of sacrifice, scapegoating and social hierarchy. For the sheer range of ideas, together with his capacity for audacious insight, he can be matched only by Coleridge. The introduction is one of the best short overviews of his thinking that I’ve read.


The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Three Rivers Press, 1999)

29 April 2010

I’ve been prompted by the recent death of Thomas Berry, the Christian ecologist who described himself as a ‘geologian’ rather than a theologian, to re-read The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Three Rivers Press, 1999). Here he guides us into the ‘Ecozoic Era’, during which we will take our modest and respectful place within the Earth community after centuries of destructive arrogance. The keys to our transformation will be not only imagination but also the rediscovery of ancient and native wisdoms. His chapter on the function of the university should be compulsory reading for vice-chancellors everywhere.


Steven Heine, Bargainin’ for Salvation: Bob Dylan, A Zen Master? (Continuum, 2009)

29 July 2010

Heine’s central idea is that for most of his career, Dylan has oscillated between two radically different world views: one based on duality, the other on non-duality. The latter is reminiscent of Zen – hence the subtitle – but Heine doesn’t want to leave things there. He demonstrates that in his more recent work, Dylan has found a ‘middle way’ that brings him closer to Zen than ever. This book could have been reductive, but I’m pleased to report that it is genuinely enlightening.


Rosaleen Duffy, Nature Crime: How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong (Yale University Press, 2010)

4 November 2010

This is not an easy read. I don’t mean it’s difficult to follow the argument; I mean the argument is deeply disturbing. Attempts to deal with wildlife extinction by focusing on poachers and small traders are doomed, says Duffy, because the problem is Western consumerism. And it’s no use trying to salve our consciences with eco-tourism: that’s part of the problem, too. Everyone who cares about conservation should read this to discover an alternative model.


John Parham, Green Man Hopkins: Poetry and the Victorian Ecological Imagination (Rodopi, 2010)

23 December 2010

Amazingly, this is the first sustained study of Hopkins’ work from an eco-critical perspective. Parham’s general argument is that, if we are to confront the ecological challenge of our own age, we must stop fixating so much on Romantic ecology and start taking into account Victorian ecology, especially the ideas of Ruskin and Morris. He contends that Hopkins’ work is so complex and vital that it comprehends different strains of ecological thought with which we’re still coming to terms. A thoughtful and thought-provoking book.


David Ingram, The Jukebox in the Garden: Ecocriticism and American Popular Music Since 1960 (Rodopi, 2010)

17 March 2011

Leo Marx, in The Machine in the Garden distinguished between ‘popular and sentimental’ pastoral on the one hand, and the ‘imaginative and complex’ pastoral on the other. Ingram queries this distinction, and is certainly loath to make it within ‘pop’ itself. For instance, he refuses to dismiss the apparently naïve nostalgia for a rural past which informs the harmonies of folk, of country and of country rock, even while drawing our attention to the more discordant, and potentially more ecologically challenging, sounds of avant-garde dystopian rock, of indie music and of hip-hop. This book works both as survey and speculation. As such, it invites us to rethink music that is all too often taken for granted.


Patrick Curry, Ecological Ethics: An Introduction (Polity, 2011)

25 August 2011

This significantly expanded second edition is more helpful than ever. It demonstrates that without addressing the question of human overpopulation, without educating ourselves in traditional ecological wisdom and without developing a ‘post-secular’ spirituality, we’re likely to produce only more and more hot air (pun intended). Ultimately, it all comes down to whether we accept the intrinsic worth of non-human nature, and how we need to behave once we do. Indispensable.


Faye Hammill, Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History (Liverpool University Press, 2010)

29 September 2011

From Jane Austen to Sofia Coppola, Hammill traces the shifting meanings of an elusive quality. I’ve been impressed by her astute discussion of the paradoxes involved in the attempt to live artfully, not least the way artifice implies authenticity and vice versa. Relating her theme to topics as various as sensibility, pastoral, nostalgia, decadence, glamour and camp, she has made me realise just what an unsophisticated notion of ‘sophistication’ I had.


Ecocritical Theory: New European Approaches, edited by Axel Goodbody and Kate Rigby (University of Virginia Press, 2011)

24 Nov 2011

Ecocriticism is often regarded as something that Americans do best. But in Europe, ‘green studies’ is becoming much more confident, and conscious of its rich tradition. This useful and significant volume reminds us how much we still have to learn from European Romanticism: a point made by Kate Soper with her usual clarity. It also makes some fascinating connections: for instance, between Blake and Deleuze, and between D.H. Lawrence and Heidegger. With material both by and on Irigaray, plus musings on Bakhtin, we have here a useful and significant volume.


David Blakesley, The Elements of Dramatism (Longman, 2002)

26 July 2012

Kenneth Burke is the only literary theorist I’ve read who has transformed my way of looking at the world. His central theory of ‘dramatism’, which treats language as ‘symbolic action’ and literature as ‘equipment for living’, is presented here in clear prose with a range of thought-provoking examples. I return to this book regularly: it’s the most accessible exposition of Burke’s ‘comic corrective’ to human folly which I know.


Grevel Lindop, A Literary Guide to the Lake District (Sigma, 2005)

9 August 2012

Visiting this area is so much more interesting when you think, for instance, about Coleridge’s moonlight walk over Helvellyn to read Christabel to the Wordsworths at Grasmere … or Dickens and Wilkie Collins’ ascent of Carrock Fell (Collins managing to sprain his ankle) … or Ruskin’s purchase of Brantwood without having seen it because he loved Coniston Water so much. Both erudite and entertaining, poet Grevel Lindop makes an ideal travelling companion.


Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (Souvenir Press, 2009)

23 August 2012

I always go back to Watts with a sense of relief, and I always come away with a sense of wonder. Way ahead of his time (the book was first published in 1966), he moves with ease between Eastern religion and Western science in order to convey what it might be like to see through the ‘hallucination’ that one is ‘a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin’. Writing without jargon and wearing his learning very lightly, he is a joy to read.


Susan Rowland, The Ecocritical Psyche: Literature, Evolutionary Complexity and Jung (Routledge, 2012)

20 September 2012

The author contributes to the greening of literary theory by showing how Jung’s ideas can help us celebrate the human imagination as an aspect of the endless creativity of more-than-human nature. Exploring works as diverse as The Tempest, Wuthering Heights and The Secret Garden, she reveals how literature may serve to keep us in vital connection with the body and the unconscious, and so with the Earth itself. A fascinating book, it is also beautifully written.


Peter Barry, Literature in Contexts (MUP, 2007)

18 October 2012

The author challenges a prevailing tendency in recent literary theory: to reduce the ‘text’ to a ‘context’ of historical associations which takes one further and further away from the imaginative challenge of the work itself. This ‘contextualism’, by subordinating the intrinsic merit of the text to endlessly extrinsic speculation, ends up missing the point of what is being studied. Barry demonstrates his alternative: to focus on the text, while bringing in contexts which are genuinely literary. A bracing argument, well sustained.


Jeffrey Wainwright, The Reasoner (Carcanet, 2012)

16 May 2013

I’m not one for self-consciously intellectual verse, but this isn’t that. Rooted in the everyday stuff of existence, it’s a series of meditations on the discrepancy between words and world which revitalises our most common clichés and in doing so offers a sustained defamiliarisation of experience. Like King Lear, Wainwright’s ‘reasoner’ is someone driven to take upon himself the mystery of things, and the result is deeply affecting. This is a volume which I’d recommend to the very people who might be put off by its title.


Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method (University of California Press, 1966)

3 October 2013

In these essays, Burke offers his most accessible account of the way human beings use words to cope with situations, and how they so often abuse them in their attempt to subdue nature, to maintain hierarchy and to pursue perfection – with literature usually, but not always, offering the necessary corrective.


John Hughes, Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960s (Ashgate, 2013)

14 November 2013

Hughes rejects the familiar idea of a Dylan who adopts a series of ‘masks’, behind which he hides his true motives. Rather, we are told, the singer enacts a continual sense of indeterminacy and contingency, so that in refusing all identity he challenges our own. His creativity is a form of radical evasion, by which self and substance are deconstructed. In this light, Hughes offers an intriguing account of the key albums of Dylan’s first and most fruitful decade of invention.


Philip D. Beidler, Scriptures for a Generation: What We Were Reading in the 60s (Georgia UP, 1994)

12 December 2013

I wish I’d discovered this fascinating handbook before I wrote Beat Sound, Beat Vision, my study of the influence of the Beat movement on songwriters of the 1960s. It would have, firstly, assured me that I was on the right track with the Beat connection (there are entries on Kerouac, Ginsberg & co) and, secondly, confirmed my instinct that the ‘counterculture’ owed a great deal to that visionary tradition which, including the Beats, goes back to William Blake.


John Williams, Stoner (Vintage, 2012)

7 March 2014

This novel made little impact when it was first published in 1965, but deservedly it is now a best-seller. Never has the malice, hypocrisy and pettiness of the academic world been more painstakingly delineated; but never has the importance of reading, learning and teaching been more powerfully conveyed. Though many of us find it increasingly hard to function in the current university system, Williams’ celebration of a decent, dedicated lecturer makes it seem worthwhile.


Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton, 2012)

20 March 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about the poet Edward Thomas lately, trying to come to terms with his subtle, intriguing insight into the relationship between humankind and the natural world. Macfarlane’s book about walking is also a book about Thomas, and it captures his spirit more vividly than a conventional critical study could do. An absorbing meditation on how we make contact with the landscape, it deserves to be read alongside Thomas’s own nature writing, which in turn deserves to be read alongside Thomas’s verse.


Nicholas Royle, First Novel (Jonathan Cape, 2012)

April 2014

Having only just finished reading this book, I feel as though I ought to go back through it to make sure I’ve not missed a trick. This is an absorbing tale which mixes metafiction, mystery and murder. It’s certainly a gripping read, but it also arouses critical curiosity. Though I don’t usually like novels about writing novels, I was hooked by this one.


Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World (Cornell UP, 1981)

30 October 2014

It’s thirty years since I read this, and if anything it seems more relevant than ever. Berman outlines the ‘disenchantment’ which set in with ‘the Cartesian paradigm’ and which has only deepened since – separating mind from body, humanity from nature, knower from known. We need, he argues, to rediscover the holistic vision of animism, the earliest form of religion. But ‘reenchantment’ cannot be a simple return, and Berman makes a convincing case for ecology as the unifying model for our era.


Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Abacus, 2013)

9 April 2015

Initially put off by the sheer length of this novel, I soon realised that it was going to be as rewarding as my favourite monuments of fiction, whether by Dickens or by Dostoevsky. The title alludes to a 17th-century painting of a beautiful bird chained to its perch: a work of art that dignifies, illuminates and redeems the life of such a fragile, suffering creature. The novel does likewise in recounting the struggle of a contemporary American teenager to survive amid the chaos and cruelty of circumstance. Stunning.


Tim Lott, The Last Summer of the Water Strider (Scribner, 2015)

20 August 2015

Set in the early 1970s, the story concerns a 17-year old, significantly called Adam, who is forced to enter the world of experience when he witnesses his mother’s death. He is then sent to stay with his uncle Henry Templeton – a character whom Lott bases on the self-proclaimed ‘spiritual entertainer’ of the hippie era, Alan Watts. Despite being deeply flawed, Henry helps Adam awaken to a whole new way of seeing the world. An absorbing and atmospheric read.


David Shields and Shane Salerno, Salinger (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

27 August 2015

This study is unconventional in format, consisting as it does of a vast variety of anecdotes and assessments of the fiction writer J.D. Salinger, most famous for The Catcher in the Rye. About 200 interviews have been conducted, and together they paint a much more complex picture of the man than a conventional biography might manage. His traumatic wartime experiences, his absorption in the philosophy of Vedanta, his unwitting influence on Mark Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon: it’s all here, but with no forced coherence.


Martin Amis, Experience (Jonathan Cape, 2000)

28 January 2016

This unconventional autobiography essentially consists of three alternating narratives. The first is a remarkably good-humoured account of the author’s dental ordeals, which the press took so much pleasure in misreporting. The second concerns his troubled, often embarrassing, relationship with his famous father. The third is a commemoration of the short life of his favourite cousin, who was murdered by the diabolical Fred West. The way that the author moves between these interspersed stories without misjudging the tone is remarkable.





Reading and Writing

Robert A. Segal & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds), A Vocabulary for the Study of Religion, Volume 3 (Leiden & Boston: Brill Press, 2015), pp 196-202.


Reading and Writing



This article offers an overview of the relationship between writer and reader, as understood from the ancient world to the present day. It traces this relationship through Greek philosophy, Elizabethan poetics, eighteenth-century criticism, and so to Romanticism and its legacy. It then addresses the twentieth-century attempt to put the writer and reader in their place, before commending the contribution of one particular thinker—a Christian philosopher—to the debate. 


The relationship between reading and writing might seem natural and inevitable: writers write so that readers can read. Over the centuries, however, secular literary theory in the West has returned again and again to the issue of what that relationship involves and, more specifically, what effect the writer’s efforts have on the reader.

Early Views

Our starting point must be ancient Greece, and the radical disagreement between the philosopher Plato and his pupil Aristotle. One of the reasons that Plato banished poets from his ideal republic was that their works encouraged indulgence in emotions rather than a state of contemplative reason. Aristotle’s response was his theory of “catharsis”, which he formulated in the course of his account of the structure and function of tragic drama. Tragedy, he proposed, necessarily aroused two main emotions—“pity” (for the suffering protagonist) and “fear” (of the power of the gods who administered his or her punishment)—but with the very purpose of purging the audience of those emotions by the end of the play. Even though the events performed on stage were illusory (an actor playing a king in a story that may never have happened, for example), the result had a healing effect on the lives of those who witnessed them. This impact was succinctly summarised in the words of the English poet John Milton, who produced his own Christian version of classical tragedy in Samson Agonistes (1671): the desired state was “calm of mind, all passion spent.”

It might be said that the whole history of literary theory goes back to the disagreement between Plato and his pupil. Certainly, Aristotle’s defence of literature on the grounds that it has a beneficial impact on the reader has been repeatedly invoked in various forms over the millennia. The Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney may have been conveying the wisdom of his own age when, in his Defence of Poesy (1595), he stated that the point of poetry was “both to delight and to teach” (Sidney 1968: 9); but he was also invoking classical authority, given that his statement was based on sentiments uttered in the ancient world by the poets Ovid and Horace, themselves very much aware of Aristotle’s thesis.

Of course, the very claim that literature improves readers by presenting them with an inspiring illusion only begs the question of how far literature tells the truth about reality. We are not here directly concerned with this issue of “mimesis”, or representation, but it relates to the reader’s dilemma: How much trust should she or he place in the author’s words? Sidney believed that that trust should be absolute, for the poet improves upon the reality we know: “Nature never set forth the earth in so rich a tapestry as divers poets have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden” (Sidney 1968: 7). Hence it will be a foolish reader who looks to the writer for factual, as opposed to imaginative truth: “Now, for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth” (Sidney 1968: 733).

The principle at which Sidney is hinting here is what he refers to elsewhere in his Defence as “feigning”. That this was a popular notion of the period is evident from the fact that four years later, Shakespeare had one of his comic fools, Touchstone, declare: “the truest poetry is the most feigning” (As You Like It, III.iii.15). That creative writers ‘feign,’ that is, invent or pretend, means that their works have to be taken on faith by the reader, with the hope that the benefits will be sufficient to make the act of reading worthwhile. In the words of the Romantic poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose admiration of Shakespeare’s art knew no bounds, it is necessary to adopt “that willing suspension of disbelief … which constitutes poetic faith” (Coleridge 1971: 248).

Before the Romantics, however, English criticism of the earlier eighteenth century—what we often refer to as the neo-classical period—had produced its own model of literature, rather more measured and sober than Sidney’s. “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it”: so wrote Samuel Johnson, the great spokesman for critical common sense in that period (Johnson 1984: 536). His own preoccupation being endurance rather than enjoyment, Johnson famously objected to Shakespeare on the grounds that he did not offer improvement for his readers: in short, that his plays lacked “moral purpose”. This in turn prompted Johnson to state what he took to be a general truth: “It is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent of time or place” (Johnson 1968: 71). Through those words we can intuit the confidence which the neo-classical period had in the idea of a culture of shared values, a public sphere of agreed assumptions—what Johnson encapsulated in his famous phrase, “the common reader.”

However, there being in most cases a considerable distance between the author sitting down to write and the reader sitting down to read—in some cases, several centuries—the problem had to be addressed of how far the reader’s interpretation may legitimately depart from the author’s text. Writing not long before Johnson, the poet Alexander Pope gave the following advice in his versified “Essay on Criticism”: “In every work, regard the writer’s end / Since none can compass more than they intend” (Pope 1963: 152). It sounds eminently reasonable to say that readers should not, for example, read Milton’s Paradise Lost in order to find out about gardening (though the descriptions of the garden of Eden might please them); but is the reader always to be constrained by what he or she knows of “the writer’s end”?


The era of Romanticism, which departed so radically from the critical assumptions of the earlier decades of the eighteenth century, was if anything even more preoccupied with the notion of the ‘authority’ of the author than the neo-classical era had been. This in turn had implications for the way the reader should regard him or her. With the Romantics, the idea of the author as solitary genius came to the fore; and with it, the idea of the reader as initiate worshipping at the shrine of creativity. The poet and painter William Blake famously declared to a correspondent in 1799: “You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas. But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men” (Blake 1988: 702). Only those of strong disposition, who are willing to make the effort to follow the trajectory of the author’s majestic imagination, need apply for the role of reader.

How far that imagination should follow its own laws is another matter. If it is given total freedom, the result may be confused and obscure; if it is constrained too much by form and decorum, the result may be dull and obvious. The Romantic poets pondered this dilemma at some length. When William Wordsworth joined with his friend Coleridge to produce a volume called Lyrical Ballads in 1798, it met with incomprehension. This was due to their refusal to imitate the “poetic diction” of their predecessors, and their desire to celebrate the earthy, passionate life of rural folk. Their audacious decision to explore the psychological depths of their subjects, and of themselves, produced some unsettling verse which was received badly by the critics. Wordsworth felt obliged to set out the two authors’ intentions in his preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, which appeared two years later. In doing so, he developed his ideas about the relationship between writing and reading.

It is in this preface that Wordsworth famously defines the poet as “a man speaking to men.” This definition in itself would hardly have offended Pope and Johnson. However, he has no sooner offered it than he qualifies it significantly: “He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than one supposed to be common among mankind …” (Foakes 1968: 35). What Wordsworth is trying to do is reconcile a model of linguistic communication, whereby the writer addresses the reader directly as an equal, with a model of imaginative consummation, whereby the writer’s genius moves him or her to use language in a way that the reader never could. The import of the latter model is that, if that reader is prepared to surrender to the writer’s spell, she or he may catch something of that “spirit of life” which informs the poem.

Imaginative consummation is what Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge came to believe was the more important characteristic of poetry. Indeed, the figure of the “man speaking to men” did not feature significantly in the latter’s extensive speculations in the years following Lyrical Ballads. His preoccupation in Biographia Literaria (1817) is with the very name and nature of ‘imagination.’ What he meant by it may be briefly conveyed by a phrase from one of his most famous poems “Dejection: An Ode,” which he wrote fifteen years earlier. Here he laments the decline in his own loss of formative creativity, even while seeking to define that power: Every moment of despair that he experiences “Suspends what Nature gave me at my birth, / My shaping spirit of Imagination” (Coleridge 1971: 107).

The idea that great poetry works according to a quasi-divine force (“Nature” for Coleridge being a sacred totality), which enables us to find pattern and meaning in our experience, is at odds with Wordsworth’s more modest claim. Wordsworth may regard the writer as possessing superior faculties, but he assumes that he has a duty to speak as directly as possible to the reader. Coleridge may believe that all human beings are capable of imagination, but he does not believe that the poet’s privileged access to the “shaping spirit” should be compromised due to an assumed demand for immediate sense. Hence his two most famous poems, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”, are celebrated not for their communicative power so much as for their elusive and haunting beauty. The reader of these poems must not expect an easy journey or a conveniently packaged message. For the poet’s obligation is to his “shaping spirit,” which moves in a mysterious way, not to the casual reader seeking diversion.

Coleridge’s “shaping spirit” and Wordsworth’s “man speaking to men” each fostered a strain of nineteenth-century thinking about literature. The “shaping spirit” led ultimately to the aesthete who practises “art for art’s sake.” The “man speaking to men” led to the Victorian sage who offers moral advice to his age. The poet and critic Matthew Arnold united both strains. In “The Study of Poetry” (1880), he argued that the decline of religious faith meant that literature itself was filling the void, both as moral guide and as aesthetic refuge: “More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.” (Arnold 1964: 47). There could not be a more explicit case for the idea that the writings of great minds had a beneficial effect on its readers.

The Twentieth Century

The relationship between writers and readers, far from being hereafter taken for granted, was debated at length in the twentieth century. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), the Anglo-American poet and critic T.S. Eliot suggested that the “individual talent” meant nothing without the “tradition” to which it belonged, even while that talent might extend that tradition, or else help us appreciate it anew. On this basis, he advocated a doctrine of “impersonality”, which stated that the person who writes the poem should be of no interest to the reader. Speculation about the state of mind, heart or soul of the author was futile: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” (Eliot 1975: 43). Effectively, Eliot had offered a rebuke to the Romantic manifesto articulated by Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. Eliot was also implicitly querying Arnold’s idealistic claims for the impact of poetry, even though he himself revered “tradition” in a quasi-religious manner.

By the time we get to the North American movement of the mid-twentieth century known as the New Criticism, all talk of the writer’s aims in writing and of the reader’s benefits in reading was becoming suspect. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley produced two uncompromising essays: “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946) and “The Affective Fallacy” (1949). The first of these argues that the intention of the author is “neither available nor desirable” as a standard for judging the success of a work of literature. The work should be read objectively, in its own right, and should be assessed only on intrinsic grounds (see Wimsatt 1954: 3-20). If the author’s life is banished from his own poem in that first essay, the second essay banishes the reader’s life from the act of reading: to equate the meaning of the poem with its psychological impact on the reader is to surrender to “impressionism and relativism.” It does not matter what various people of different times and places have discovered in a poem; what matters is the poem itself (see Wimsatt 1954: 21-39).

Though New Criticism was based in the USA, it had been anticipated in England by such works as I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism (1929), which resulted from Richards’ experience of seeking responses from his Cambridge students to poems that were provided without attribution of author, or even date. Richards had been shocked by a general failure to understand what the poems were about, let alone recognise the importance of tone, imagery, and so forth. He set himself the task of outlining a proper method for analysing literature, which this and other books of his laid out. A younger Cambridge academic, F.R. Leavis, was initially much influenced by Richards’ “practical criticism,” but subsequently recuperated the Romantic idea of the great author. The genius who expressed his or her affirmation of ‘life’ (a word Leavis never tired of using), would thereby encourage in the reader a parallel affirmation. Taking his career as a whole, we may say that Leavis owed far more to Arnold than he ever did to Richards.

Leavis died in the 1970s, at about the time when French literary theory had begun to encroach upon English academic criticism. No doubt due to an entrenched empiricism, the latter had been slow to respond to structuralism, which offered a highly abstract key to all possible sign-systems. It saw all language, including the literary use of it, as a self-perpetuating system of signification rather than as a means of individual expression. Roland Barthes, who had early on been an exponent of structuralism, did not begin to have any impact in England or the United States until he took the structuralist approach to its limit, thus indirectly providing a manifesto for what became known as post-structuralism. In his essay “The Death of the Author” (1968), he might seem to be simply restating the New Critical orthodoxy that the writer is not a legitimate reference point for the reader who wishes to understand the writer’s work. Again, to demonstrate how an individual author relies on the collective code of language was already acceptable structuralist practice. However, here Barthes is going much further.

Echoing the “deconstruction” of Jacques Derrida, which challenges the idea of a fixed meaning, and anticipating the “reader-response theory” of Stanley Fish, which challenges the idea of a fixed text, he subverts simultaneously the idea of fixity and the idea of authority, which he sees as synonymous. As the writer disappears from view, readers are free to engage with the language of the text in any way they choose; there are no constraints, because there is no author/authority. Instead of a stable text, the product of the writer’s mind, we are dealing with unstable ‘texture’ – with ‘writing,’ a tissue of signs which has no hidden ‘secret’ to reveal: “To give a text an Author [sic] is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” The reader, by contrast, is a far less predictable entity, and so a more promising figure altogether  — one who may reconstruct the text just as he or she wants. Thus: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Newton 1988: 157).

If we no longer feel obliged to “regard the writer’s end,” in Pope’s words, then an obvious danger is an anarchy of interpretation; Barthes was fully prepared to run that risk. Anglo-American criticism was not prepared to go all the way with Barthes, however. In Structuralist Poetics (1975), Jonathan Culler seemed to concede a good deal to post-structuralism by focusing on the reader, but he did so only in order to seek a new sense of order: the need, as he saw it, to delineate the nature of “literary competence”, which meant formulating the legitimate “conventions” by which readers made sense of texts (Culler 1975: 258). However, Culler’s assumption was that these readers were affiliated to an existing, stable institution, namely a university, in which consensus was essential to the well-being of the academic community. In his later work, Culler made much more allowance for the variety of interpretation, and the fact that readers of different times and places would read the same text differently.


Ricoeur’s Discourse Theory

Legitimacy and variety of interpretation are issues that have long since been addressed in the study of the Bible, but rather than provide a lengthy overview of the development of biblical study in relation to secular literary theory, it might be useful to look briefly at one particular contribution to secular literary theory which is informed both by scriptural scholarship and religious faith. I am referring to the work of the Christian philosopher, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). Ricoeur more than anyone addressed the relationship between the writer and the reader, and the status of the text which lies, as it were, between them.

Reacting against the structuralist model of language as system and linguistic unit as word, Ricoeur opts for that of discourse theory, which sees language as event and linguistic unit as sentence. As he reminds us, “the first and fundamental feature of disourse” is that “it is constituted by a series of sentences whereby someone says something to someone about something” (Ricoeur 1991: 82-83). This function is not radically altered when we turn from spoken communication to literary communication; but of course, the place and function of the text has to be addressed—and Ricoeur duly does so.

As we have seen, Romanticism gave us the idea of the writer as genius, with whom the reader seeks to empathise, hoping to experience the world in the same way, albeit at a lesser intensity. But New Criticism reminded us that it is only the author’s work, and not the author’s state of mind, that is available to us; and structuralism raised the question of whether language is a mode of individual expression at all. Thereafter post-structuralism gave full approval for the reader to respond to the text with complete disregard for any authority, authorial or otherwise. Ricoeur may be seen as comprehending these issues by addressing “the very historicity of human experience,” which involves “communication in and through distance” (Ricoeur 1991: 76). Hence he articulates the dialectic between “participation” and “distanciation”, between “understanding” and “objectification”, between the response to the event of “saying” and the recognition of the fixity of the “said”—a fixity which in literature is known as the text (Ricoeur 1991: 78).

When discourse passes from speaking to writing, we find that meaning becomes much more problematical but also much more promising. As Ricoeur reminds us: “writing renders the text autonomous with regard to the intention of the author. What the text signifies no longer coincides with what the author meant …” (Ricoeur 1991: 83). To recognise this, however, is not necessarily to abandon any notion of reference, to confine ourselves to an arid description of the language of the text, or to surrender to interpretative chaos. Ricoeur, drawing on his knowledge of hermeneutics, or theory of interpretation, asks to us to take as our focus “the world of the text”. It is this notion that permits us to attribute referential meaning to literary works. For “there is no discourse so fictional that it does not connect up with reality” (Ricoeur 1991: 85). But such discourse refers not to the first-order reference that we get in spoken discourse, when the speaker is able to point to a reality which is common to both him and the listener. Rather, we are dealing with a second-order reference which offers a much richer sense of reality.

Essentially, what is at stake here is a new model of the reader: one which must be clearly distinguished from the freewheeling and high-handed figure celebrated by Barthes. Consider Ricoeur’s own, very careful formulation of what is involved in the act of ‘appropriation’ which the reader performs. Despite the connotations of this term, what Ricoeur envisages is as far from interpreting the text just as one pleases as it is from expending all one’s energies on locating the supposed meaning of the author. “Ultimately, what I [as reader] appropriate is a proposed world” (Ricoeur 1991: 87-88). This is “not behind the text, as a hidden intention would be, but in front of it, as that which the work unfolds, discovers, reveals. Henceforth, to understand is to understand oneself in front of the text.” Though the reader is destabilised, the point is that it is the text which is doing the destabilising: “It is not a question of imposing upon the text our finite capacity for understanding, but of exposing ourselves to the text and receiving from it an enlarged self, which would be the proposed existence corresponding in the most suitable way to the world proposed” (Ricoeur 1991: 88).  To apprehend such an existence demands a risk, or wager, of interpretation on the part of the reader: “just as the world of the text is real only insofar as it is imaginary, so too it must be said that the subjectivity of the reader comes to itself only as it is placed in suspense, unrealized, potentialized. In other words, if fiction is a fundamental dimension of the reference of the text, it is no less a fundamental dimension of the subjectivity of the reader. As a reader, I find myself only by losing myself” (Ricoeur 1991: 88).

Most people consulting the present volume will no doubt catch the allusion in that last statement to the Gospels. It is no coincidence. Ricoeur’s model of interpretation for secular texts works just as well for sacred texts. For in both cases, the goal of the reader is not to recover an authorial meaning that precedes the act of writing. Rather, it is to enter into the “world” of the text and to allow the realm of the “possible” to enter one’s life. In short, the end of the act of reading is revelation, which Ricoeur would have us conceive in the fullest sense, with all the Biblical connotations in play.

But even if one wishes to refuse the spiritual aspect of interpretation, one can still  agree that Ricoeur offers a most satisfying account of the relationship between writing and reading, event and understanding, even taking into account the brief history of that relationship which we have here provided.



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