All posts by Laurence Coupe

Leonard Cohen’s Zen Vision

Leonard Cohen’s Zen Vision


Laurence Coupe



Laurence Coupe, Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (Manchester: MUP, 2007), pp 182-9

This discussion of Cohen’s work comes about halfway through  the final chapter of the book: ‘ “Eco-Zen”, or “a heaven in a wild flower”: from Gary Snyder to Nick Drake’.

The term ‘Eco-Zen’ was coined by Alan Watts, who is the subject of the first chapter of the book.

The book was obviously written long before Cohen’s death; however, I have not changed present tense to past for the purposes of this extract.




We have used the phrase ‘Eco-Zen’ to characterise [Gary] Snyder; we are testing how far it might apply to certain songwriters, while simultaneously glossing it with Blake’s hope of seeing ‘a heaven in a wild flower’, and the tensions involved in such a prospect. [Jim] Morrison and [Joni] Mitchell speak in defence of nature, and of those cultures which revere it. They see nature itself as sacred. With our third songwriter, the ecological emphasis is not so insistent: rather, we may infer a broadly reverential view of nature informed by both mythology and mysticism. There again, he is notoriously difficult to categorise, and it would be advisable not to try. I am referring to Leonard Cohen.


Superficially, his kind of art seems to form a contrast with the Beats, given his taste for formality and ironic restraint. His work, however, must be of interest to those who take seriously the ideas we have explored throughout this book. In particular, I would emphasise his ability to bring to bear on his spiritual interests the power of Zen. It is this more than anything that links him with Snyder. That said, Cohen’s approach to Zen is very much his own.


Cohen is a Canadian poet and novelist who extended his talents to songwriting in the late sixties, for which he has been mainly known ever since. When his Poems1956-1968 appeared, Kenneth Rexroth, the poet admired by all the Beats and the man who gave his blessing to the Beat movement in the mid-fifties, wrote: ‘Leonard Cohen’s poetry and song constitute a big breakthrough … This is certainly the future of poetry… It is the voice of a new civilization.’[i] Moreover, Cohen began his career reciting poetry to a jazz accompaniment in Montreal in the fifties, inspired by the example of Jack Kerouac; he subsequently moved to New York, where he made sure to attend all the Beat performances he could.[ii]


Inevitably, Cohen was touched by the Beat Zen phenomenon. It was through the Beats that he became interested in gaining an eastern perspective on the faith of his childhood, namely Judaism. That said, he was equally preoccupied with, even obsessed by, the figure of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, his approach to Christianity was in terms of myth: his first volume of poetry was called Let Us Compare Mythologies, a title which gives us a flavour of his spirit of sincere but scrupulous enquiry. His preoccupation only deepened during the sixties. Towards the end of that decade Cohen declared: ‘Our natural vocabulary is Judeo-­Christian. That is our blood myth… We have to rediscover the crucifixion. [It] will again be understood as a universal symbol… It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where man is at. On the cross.’[iii]


One cannot accuse Cohen of having only a passing interest in this subject. Twenty years later, he reflected on his view of Jesus: ‘He may be the most beautiful guy who ever walked the face of this earth. Any guy who said “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek” has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness.’[iv] What is intriguing is that he seems to think of Jesus in terms similar to Kerouac’s, identifying him implicitly with the fellaheen [the dispossessed of the given civilization, who are the true spiritual visionaries: see Chapter 2]. Again, there is the preoccupation with pain, and the appeal to the example of Jesus as a means of comprehending it. However, the difference between Cohen’s fascination with Jesus and Kerouac’s is twofold. For Kerouac, it comes out of his Christian upbringing and is associated with his idea of himself as a ‘crazy Catholic mystic’, whereas Cohen is interested in trans-cultural iconography. For Kerouac, the figure of Jesus becomes more and more important as he himself turns away from Zen, whereas for Cohen, Jesus remains a constant referent, which he finds to be wholly compatible with his interest in Zen. For him, Zen is the perfect way of realizing the potential he early on finds in Judaeo-Christianity. There is, then, an obvious affinity with Snyder, namely Zen itself; but there is also a contrast, since Snyder consistently associates Biblical faith with the oppression of indigenous communities and the exploitation of the earth.


That does not mean that Cohen is unaware of such associations. His second novel, Beautiful Losers (1966), an ambitious work of metafiction which moves between different times and places, and which employs multiple narration, centres on the historical figure of Catherine Tekakwitha (1656-80).[v] She was the daughter of a Christian Algonquin woman who had been captured by the Iroquois and then married a Mohawk chief. An epidemic of smallpox left Catherine orphaned; the disease also left her face severely scarred and badly affected her eyesight. Baptized at the age of twenty by Father Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit missionary, she was ostracized by her fellow-Indians. She fled, wandering 200 miles by foot to a Native American village in Canada which had adopted the Christian faith. Taking a vow of chastity, she acquired a reputation for asceticism and also for an ability to perform miracles. As she was dying, her scars miraculously vanished. After her death, her grave became a site of pilgrimage; she was regarded by many as a saint, and was subsequently beatified (thought not canonized) by the Catholic church.


Cohen’s choice of main character gives him, then, plenty of opportunity to explore the connection between Christian myth and Native American myth, and to investigate the way in which the values of a civilization may be internalized – but also intensified – by a colonized people. The unnamed ‘I’ of the novel is, by no coincidence, an anthropologist with a special interest in Native Americans: we learn a good deal about their myths, rituals and beliefs, which are given just as much status as the Catholic doctrines which are also explicated. Interestingly, the historical Catherine is known as the (unofficial) patron saint of ecologists, of people in exile and of people persecuted for their beliefs. Cohen in his fictionalized account gives full reign to the possibilities opened up thereby.


Returning to the question of myth, we note that in Beautiful Losers there is a comprehensive attempt to ‘compare mythologies’. Apart from the allusions to Indian and Christian myths, the novel makes an implicit identification between Catherine and the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility, Isis, who was believed to have control over both the health of the earth and the fate of the soul in the afterlife. Isis it was who restored her husband, Osiris, after he had been dismembered, and ensured his annual revival in parallel with the cycle of vegetation. Catherine too is credited with a capacity to restore earth, body and soul to a state of harmony. A more obvious association is made between Catherine and the Virgin Mary: surrendering herself to God’s will, she is granted mystical insight.


The very title of the novel is worth dwelling on. The ‘beautiful losers’ are those who achieve that spiritual beauty known as beatitude by surrendering the whole idea of a separate self; in the perspective of materialism, they are absurd, but under the aspect of eternity they are saintly. They voluntarily become victims or scapegoats, suffering on behalf of others so that they too may be granted spiritual release. In this sense, the most obvious ‘beautiful loser’ is Jesus Christ, crucified and buried as a criminal but bringing redemption by way of his resurrection. Extending the idea, we may remind ourselves that the figure who is beaten down by civilization is for the Beat writers the one who is most likely to attain, and show the way towards, the beatific vision. We sense this in the paradoxical titles of some of Kerouac’s novels, which Cohen’s Beautiful Losers neatly mirrors: The Dharma Bums, for example, or Desolation Angels. We might think also of that key phrase from [Allen] Ginsberg’s poem, ‘Howl’: ‘angelheaded hipsters’.


The paradox contained in such phrases and titles takes us to the heart of Zen itself. The Zen lunatic, the holy fool who abandons all material security to wander on ‘the Way’, is the model for all such figures. One must give up the idea of ‘I’ in order to have access to the reality of ‘the One’. This idea clearly fascinates Cohen, and his fascination only gets more intense as he proceeds. The manifestation of the sacred in the profane is his primary concern, and his major songs articulate this possibility in their various ways.


Though we have stated that Cohen’s devotion to Zen is an implicit constant, we should take account of his increasingly explicit association with ‘official’ Zen. We can trace this quite simply, from his meeting in the early 1970s with a monk called Joshu Sasaki Roshi, with whom he began studying, to his financing of the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, near Los Angeles, and finally to his ordination as a Zen monk in 1996. Cohen has always denied, however, that his dedication to Zen practice has meant commitment to a new kind of faith, quite other than Judaism or Christianity: ‘I never really felt I was studying something called Zen. I never thought I was looking for a new religion. The religion I had was fine. So it was something else’ (1993). Again: ‘There are Jewish practitioners in the Zen movement. I don’t think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive, depending on your position. As I have received it from my teacher, there is no conflict because there is no prayerful worship and there is no discussion of a deity in Zen’ (1994). Or again: ‘I’ve never been interested in a new religion… I just know that [Roshi] has provided a space for me to do the kind of dance with the Lord that I couldn’t find in other places’ (1994).[vi]


It is probably fair to say, then, that no matter which period of Cohen’s work we choose, we find evidence of his Zen instinct, if by that we mean the urge to celebrate the here and now as if it were infinity and eternity. Take the first song on his first album, Leonard Cohen (1968). ‘Suzanne’ begins as a celebration of an artistic, eccentric woman that Cohen knew and admired during his young adulthood in Montreal: she had an apartment by the St Lawrence River, near to the chapel of Our Lady of the Harbour, which is dedicated to sailors. These anecdotal circumstances make the account of visiting her and being served tea by her all the more vivid. But the central idea of the song only becomes evident in the second verse, which refers to Jesus as a ‘sailor’ who waited watching on his ‘lonely wooden tower’ (his cross, presumably) before addressing ‘only drowning men’ (those in acute spiritual need). Suzanne and Jesus each offers a sacred gift: a capacity for revelation. The world refuses it: as Cohen points out to Jesus, ‘You sank beneath their wisdom like a stone.’ But the potential for revelation remains. The third verse has Suzanne as a guide around the harbour, showing us ‘where to look among the garbage and the flowers’, and alerting us to the ‘heroes in the seaweed’. The song, then, is a classic instance of the manifestation of the sacred in the profane: it is one of the most powerful instances of the beatific vision for which one could ask.[vii]


The fact that the imagery of the song is insistently Biblical does not detract from its Zen quality. Rather, it intensifies it, Jesus being the archetypal ‘beautiful loser’ who obtains beatitude precisely by immersing himself in the suffering of this world and thereby sanctifying it. Again, in a later song from Various Positions (1984), ‘If It Be Your Will’, Cohen prays to the God of the Jews and the Christians. He seems to be espousing an orthodox monotheism, the basis of a doctrine of salvation for the righteous; but the imagery simultaneously celebrates the suffering sinners. He speaks for all those ‘on this broken hill’, dressed in ‘our rags of light’; and asks that ‘all these burning hearts in hell’ be made ‘well’ at last.[viii] A plea for mercy from a God of justice, the song dwells chiefly on the frailty of humanity; but paradoxically, this frailty is the very source of its spirituality. Only in the depths of the profane does the sacred need to be made manifest. The subtlety of such a vision has been preferred by more than one commentator to the more explicit, extensive ruminations of a Ginsberg. Here is one such judgement:

[U]nlike many Jews who found refuge in Buddhism (e.g. Allen Ginsberg), [Cohen] never lost his monotheistic convictions; indeed, they appear to have become stronger over the years… Ginsberg’s dependencies were more often than not drug-induced and escapist. Suffice it here to note that [Cohen] did not force monotheistic (i.e. one­-god) doctrines; he did not command theistic (i.e. personal-god) beliefs; nevertheless, those with ears to hear — and many without — could not fail to catch the point, ‘directly and immediately’; not out of contrivance or slick devising, but honestly — so that ‘everybody knows what’s going on.’ It was only through that ‘gateway’ that he could enter, and emerge: with a meaningful word. The songs are ‘mystical’; parabolic in their ability to say things at different levels: the sacred and the secular, the human and the divine; projecting the heavenly by means of promoting the earthly; ‘passionate romance’ and spiritual truth: an alpha and an omega – ‘understanding’ now at its peak.[ix]



Another commentator celebrates Cohen’s ability to use Biblical language while articulating a beatific vision that transcends religious categorization:

[M]uch of his life has been spent with his nose in the scriptures, whether they be Hebrew, Christian or Eastern, and has conducted his creativ­ity in the form of a meditation, a search for metaphysical meaning, whatever the implications of his more earth-bound predilections. … Cohen’s recent compositions may well be, as Bob Dylan so shrewdly observed, ‘like prayers’, but the truth is that Cohen’s songs have been painted with a Judaeo-ecclesiastical patina throughout his musical evolution. Across the panoply of his hundred songs, from ‘Story of Isaac’ to ‘Anthem’, via ‘Who By Fire’ and ‘The Law’, there are many more direct examples of his use of the nominally religious form. [x]


This same commentator is impressed by Cohen’s capacity for finding the sacred in the profane: ‘It is Cohen’s ability to locate the redemptive and the spiri­tually profound within prosaic and sometimes visceral lyrical contexts that gives his work the poignant astringency in which his fans revel and at which his detractors balk.’[xi]


One of the songs mentioned above is worth quoting briefly: ‘Anthem’, from The Future (1992). But first we should consider the significance of that title. The OED defines ‘anthem’ as follows: ‘an elaborate choral composition usually based on a passage of scripture for church use’. Cohen would seem to be deliberately subverting that idea, for his song is non-scriptural and non-liturgical; it is, indeed, modest and reflective. It does not make pronouncements in justification of a religious doctrine. Rather, it looks to the minor beauties of this world for revelation: ‘The birds they sang at the break of day/ Start again, I heard them say.’ Having then proceeded to address the horrors of the world – wars, corrupt governments, and so forth – it laments, in language derived from Christian iconography, but not confined to it, that the ‘holy dove’ will always be ‘caught’ and ‘bought and sold’ again. However, the refrain of the song tells us that, despite this, there remains the possibility of spiritual freedom if only we can learn to value profane time and space as if they were sacred, and not torture ourselves in the pursuit of a distant, abstract perfection: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring./ Forget your perfect offering./ There is a crack in everything./ That’s how the light gets in.’[xii] This is pure Zen, comprehending in its simplicity all the subtleties of Judaism and Christianity. We understand now what Cohen meant in the interview quoted, when he said: ‘I’ve never been interested in a new religion… I just know that [Roshi] has provided a space for me to do the kind of dance with the Lord that I couldn’t find in other places’ (1994).[xiii][p 40]


‘Dance with the Lord’ is a neat phrase by which to indicate Cohen’s wish to honour the monotheism of his own culture, while being open to the non-theist freedom of Zen. He implies no confinement to any given religion; nor does he imply a spirituality that is entirely without roots. It is a matter of wearing one’s beliefs lightly, and being able to let go of those that obscure the manifestation of the sacred. Always the reality which must be faced is that of the profane realm, in which we are born, we live and we die. There is no escape from this obligation. Indeed, according to Zen, enlightenment involves complete acceptance of reality. As Watts would remind us: ‘This is IT.’


Finally, then, it is worth pointing to a more recent song whose very title echoes this same idea. ‘Here It Is’, from Ten New Songs (2001), is one of Cohen’s most economical presentations of the mystical paradox that is common to Zen and to Blake alike, that ‘Everything that lives is Holy.’ Understanding this involves being able to affirm even the most degraded and demeaning of experiences, being able to grant their validity. One’s ‘love for all things’ necessarily must include ‘your drunken fall’, ‘your cardboard and piss’, ‘your bed and your pan’. The chorus sums up the Buddhist theme of impermanence with startling clarity: ‘May everyone live,/ And may everyone die./ Hello, my love,/ And my love, goodbye.’ But every word of the song – scarcely any of them longer than two syllables – brings home with great economy the meaning of ‘samsara’ (the wheel of existence, the cycle of living and dying): for example, ‘here is your death/ in the heart of your son’. Finally, we are struck by Cohen’s impulse to bring Jesus, the ‘beautiful loser’, into the picture. Cohen invokes him in the course of inviting us to embrace pain and mortality, and in so doing to know ‘nirvana’ (the extinction of ego): ‘Here is your cross,/ Your nails and your hill;/ And here is the love/ That lists where it will.’[xiv] The Biblical vocabulary is informed by Eastern wisdom. The beatific vision could hardly be made more simple (though not, we should add, simplistic).  Cohen’s instinct that Zen complements rather than contradicts Western religion is borne out by his own work. By that I mean that, right through his career, you can see a wholly consistent attempt to articulate the beatific vision in accessible and compelling language. Though Cohen is a very different writer in many ways from Snyder, they concur on essentials; and the essence is Zen. Nor should his interest in mythology and Native American lore be overlooked.


Whether one would apply the phrase ‘Eco-Zen’ to Cohen’s work is another matter: he certainly celebrates nature in a spiritual, indeed mystical, perspective; but his is not an ostensibly ‘green’ Buddhism.  However, his affirmation of the human potential to find meaning ‘among the garbage and the flowers’ is a nicely ambiguous echo of Blake’s dictum. At the very least, we may say that Cohen’s vision complements that of Morrison and that of Mitchell; and all three seem to make more and more sense as we explore their affinities with Snyder.  Taken together, all four endorse and extend what we have understood by the term ‘Beat’.


[i] Kenneth Rexroth quoted by Loranne S. Dorman and Clive L. Rawlins, Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart (London: Omnibus Press, 1990), p 213.


[ii] See David Boucher, Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll (New York: Continuum Press, 2004), pp. 15-17.


[iii] Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words ed. Jim Devlin (London: Omnibus Press, 1998), p 11.


[iv] Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words, p. 11.


[v] Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers (London: Panther Books, 1972).

[vi] Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words, p. 40.

[vii] Cohen, ‘Suzanne’, Stranger Music, pp. 95-6.


[viii] Cohen, ‘If It Be Your Will’, Stranger Music, pp. 343-4.

[ix] Dorman and Rawlins, Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart, p. 301.


[x] David Sheppard, Leonard Cohen (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2000), p 115.


[xi]  Sheppard, Leonard Cohen, p. 116.

[xii] Cohen, ‘Anthem’, Stranger Music, pp. 373-4.


[xiii] Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words, p. 40.

[xiv] Leonard Cohen, ‘Here It Is’, [accessed 3rd January 2006].



‘Mr Tambourine Man’

Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ as Beat poem     

 Laurence Coupe

 From: Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (Manchester: MUP, 2007)

Note: This discussion of the song comes towards the end of the chapter on Dylan, in which I demonstrate his debt to the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

In the earlier chapter on Kerouac, I outline his understanding of the term ‘Beat’, which was shared by Ginsberg.

Beat Sound, Beat Vision, pp 56-7

[Kerouac’s] reinvigoration of literary culture by drawing on possibilities previously ignored in popular culture, both as a writer and a man, is inseparable from his spiritual quest.  To understand this, we need to be alert to the connotations of the word ‘Beat’. We have already addressed these briefly in the Introduction; now we must examine them in detail. Our main task, then, is to consider carefully in turn the following three aspects of Kerouac’s work, showing how the third proceeds logically from the first two:

1.His development of a new style of writing inspired by jazz – particularly ‘bebop’ – and blues. This is ‘beat’ in the musical sense.

2.His fascination with the oppressed and dispossessed, with the figure of the hobo, tramp or bum. This is ‘beat’ in the sense of weary or worn down.

3.His conviction of a new kind of spiritual revelation, made possible by the first two dimensions. This is ‘beat’ in the sense of ‘beatific’.


In my chapter on Dylan, I precede my discussion of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ with a reference to two others of his mid-60s songs, ‘Gates of Eden’ and ‘Visions of Joanna’.

Beat Sound, Beat Vision, pp 112-17

‘Gates of Eden’ is a song about our fallen world, as understood by contrast with the earthly paradise which, according to the Book of Genesis, we have lost. The Blakean twist of thought which Dylan adds is the proviso that paradise is by its very nature lost, since it is impossible for fallen humanity to conceive of it, except as the contrary state to the fallen world. The sacred may only be understood in dialectical relationship with the profane. Hence the litany of negatives which bring each verse to its climax: for example, there are ‘no kings inside the Gates of Eden’, and ‘no truths outside the Gates of Eden.’ Outside those gates, the world is populated by deluded souls: for example, the ‘savage soldier’ who ‘sticks his head in sand and then complains’, the ‘paupers’ who each wish ‘for what the other has got’, and the ‘princess’ and ‘prince’ who endlessly discuss ‘what’s real and what is not.’ Moreover, the ‘kingdoms of Experience’ [sic] which rot in the wind are dominated by spiritual manipulators, such as the ‘utopian monks’ who sit ‘sidesaddle on the Golden Calf’ making false ‘promises of paradise’, and by material oppressors, such as the ‘motorcycle black Madonna / Two-wheel gypsy queen’ who causes the ‘grey-flannel dwarf to scream’ (p. 175).

That last description, as we have seen, is decidedly Beat in idiom, being worthy of a Kerouac or a Ginsberg; but then, the whole song is an interesting ‘take’ on the beatific vision. It presents beatitude simultaneously from the perspective of both the earthly paradise (the life of innocence) and the wilderness of this world (the life of experience). It is deeply indebted to Blake. Robert Shelton, too, has noted this debt:

In 1793 Blake issued a series of pictorial emblems titled The Gates of Paradise.  In 1818, he reworked many of plates and added a text called ‘The Keys of the Gates’. The emblems traced man from cradle to grave, through various states of the soul’s desire and mortal frustration. To Blake the grave was not a place of death, but of spiritual mystery, echoing the Bible, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Swedenborg. Is ‘Gates of Eden’ both a Blakean song of innocence and of experience?[i]

It is a rhetorical question, surely. Dylan is demonstrating that he can revisit the visionary landscape of Blake just as productively as can Ginsberg. Moreover, as Shelton intuits here, Dylan is fully aware of the dialectic which informs Blake’s imagination — innocence and experience being ‘contrary states’, not opposed realms.

Another song from this period which manages to articulate the need for redemption from the depths of experience is one of the most striking achievements of the double-album, Blonde on Blonde (1966). ‘Visions of Johanna’ depicts life in the modern metropolis as alienated and fragmentary (‘We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it’), where even art offers no solace but rather a confirmation of disillusionment (‘Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues – you can tell by the way she smiles’). While ‘Louise and her lover’ lie ‘entwined’ in a warehouse apartment, the solitary figure who stands by and who narrates such story as the song contains can only hope for his visions of Johanna to be fulfilled. We note that she is referred to also as ‘Madonna’ — a word which seems to be used here with its full spiritual association, unlike the ironic allusion in ‘Gates of Eden’ (pp. 223-4). Echoing Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, Dylan’s song would seem to be about the hunger for beatific experience – the hope that the sacred realm might yet be glimpsed within the profane. Johanna, like Gerard, represents the salvation that comes out of suffering. But unlike Kerouac, Dylan depicts this possibility as tauntingly remote – a cause of suffering in itself. Thus, ‘Visions of Johanna’ is one of his major ‘songs of experience’, along with ‘Gates of Eden’.

As we have acknowledged, the Blakean dialectic makes no sense unless we understand that innocence and experience imply each other: innocence is shadowed by experience, just as experience gestures towards innocence. Ultimately, Blake would see a renewed innocence, stronger and more coherent than pre-lapsarian innocence, emerging out of experience; but meanwhile the poet’s task is to keep the dialectic of innocence and experience, sacred and profane, alive.  We need, then, to remind ourselves of this possibility, by way of return to the key album, Bringing It All Back Home, in order to consider the song which, more than any other of Dylan’s, celebrates the infinite potential of vision. I refer, of course, to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (pp. 172-3).

Unfortunately, the glib consensus over the years has been that its subject-matter is drugs. Besides the fact that Dylan himself has denied this hotly, it must be said that to interpret the figure of the tambourine man as a drug dealer is offensively reductive. To do so is to cut oneself off from the imaginative and spiritual potential of a great poem. In referring to the song as a poem, I am endorsing Ginsberg’s judgement, bearing in mind that Dylan’s is a poetry of performance rather than of the printed page. Relevant here is the fact that, though ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is featured on the first album of Dylan’s electric phase, the song itself is sung chiefly to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar (as with the earlier work). It seems to invite us to ponder the lyrics in depth, all of which are articulated with precision by the singer-songwriter. If we pre-empt their meaning by simply ‘ticking off’ any possible allusions to drugs, we are hardly doing the song justice.

So, having decided to take this work of art seriously, we have to ask ourselves who we think the ‘Tambourine Man’ of the title really is. Here we could do worse than to consult the text that Dylan has previously drawn upon, namely the Bible. In the Judaic scriptures, the playing of a tambourine is frequently associated with spiritual ecstasy. Thus: ‘Some of the people of Israel were playing music on small harps…and on tambourines… [King] David and the others were happy, and they danced for the Lord with all their might’ (2 Samuel 6:5). Dylan’s central symbol would seem, then, to be that of transcendence – or at least the desire for transcendence.  In other words, the quest is for an apprehension of holiness, for a sense of the sacred. But his song is not conventionally religious, so perhaps it is indebted as much to Blake as to the Bible. That is, the aim is to cleanse ‘the doors of perception’, to experience ‘Eternity in an hour’, in defiance of the dead weight of conformist consumerism. Here again we note the ‘Beat’ connection, for the tambourine man is the bearer of the ‘beatific’ vision, even while the singer indicates a state of being ‘beat’. Specifically, he asks him to ‘play a song for me’ at the moment when ‘My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet…’

The figure invoked, then is no more a religious teacher than he is a drug dealer: rather, he is the spirit of poetry or music. It is he who has the visionary power to transport the singer ‘upon your magic swirling ship’ and to ‘cast your dancing spell my way’. In this light, we might be tempted to see him as the traditional figure of the Muse; but we need to bear in mind both that the Muse has always been thought of as feminine, and that the function of the Muse is to inspire poets rather than to actually create poetry. Though we might want to say that Dylan is the poet/singer seeking inspiration, his own song is an appeal to some superior force to create the ultimate ‘song of songs’. Thus, the tambourine man is a personification of the power of poetry – poetry being understood, in traditional terms, as inseparable from music.

While the singer’s initial request to the tambourine man is that he ‘play a song for me’ in order that he can be followed in the ‘jingle jangle morning’ – a morning brought alive by the sound of the tambourine – the figure addressed is more than a mere fellow-practitioner. He represents the force of art itself, which transcends time even while those who are touched by it necessarily remain in time. For if ‘evening’s empire has returned into sand’ – the sand of an hourglass? the sand of the circus ring referred to later in the song? both simultaneously? – then we know that, so long as we live and breathe, we are part of the cycle of daily existence, during which evening and morning are endlessly repeated. The paradox is that, though time may appear to be the enemy of imagination – ‘the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming’ – it is only in time that one may choose to surrender to the ‘dancing spell’. In that moment, profane time is experienced as sacred time.

We can get closer to the heart of this paradox if we are open to the rich ambiguity of a line such as the following: ‘And but for the sky there are no fences facing.’ Now, the endless sky is an image of total freedom, but Dylan’s song reminds us that, though we have a great more spiritual potential than our society allows for, we are all of us necessarily constrained by the need to articulate our yearning for eternity and infinity in time and space. Hence the singer advises the tambourine man that, if he hears ‘vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme / To your tambourine in time,’ he should remind himself that it is only ‘a ragged clown’ or ‘shadow’ in pursuit. Poetry itself – this very poem, which calls out for another poem (‘play a song for me’) – works through certain agreed principles, such as ‘rhyme’. Even the ‘tambourine’ must be played ‘in time’. The ‘ragged clown’ who follows ‘behind’, as a ‘shadow’, knows this, even as he celebrates the vision of eternity which he attributes to the elusive figure whom he invokes and pursues. As Blake tells us: ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time.’[ii] Or, as Spengler suggests, the macrocosm is manifest in the microcosm. If the poet is he who can reveal eternity to us, he does so by means of the ‘skipping reels of rhyme’: in one aspect, they are what keep us where we are (as in the act of skipping); in another aspect, they are what makes possible the vision of eternity. The tambourine man would not exist in our imagination if some ‘shadow’ such as the singer of this song had not invoked him through the incantatory power of language.

So it is that the song concludes with the ‘ragged clown’ (he who is, we might say, ‘beaten down’ by time) knowing himself to be part of the ‘dance’ which the tambourine man creates (the ‘beatific’ vision, as it were). After the singer’s situation has been described in a series of negatives (‘there is no place I’m going to … I have no one to meet … my hands can’t feel to grip’), we come to the moment of affirmation: ‘Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free…’ Here the sky represents eternity, but we are not intended to forget that the very image of eternal freedom is one that involves temporal movement.

After all, ‘to dance beneath the diamond sky’ is a moment of illumination that the singer hopes for rather than one he claims to have had. If he were ever to reach a state ‘far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow’, he would have to be taken ‘Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves, / The haunted frightened trees…’ That is, the imagination would have to comprehend all the trials and tribulations of human experience. Even then, on the ‘windy beach’ he would be ‘silhouetted by the sea’ and ‘circled by the circus sands’. Such images are deeply ambiguous. The sea might represent death just as much as dream, oblivion just as much as the infinite potential of the unconscious mind. The ‘circus sands’ might represent the absurd cycle of time – referring back to the image of ‘evening’s empire’ returning ‘into sand’ — just as much as the play of art which produces vision.

The affirmation stands, however, by virtue of the paradoxical relationship between time and eternity, between rhyme and vision, which the song revisits. The singer is entitled to feel that ‘memory and fate’ – past and future – have been ‘driven deep beneath the waves’, and that he can ‘forget about today until tomorrow’; but he knows that there is going to be a tomorrow, in which today will have become yesterday. Again, when he dances to the tune played by the tambourine man, he has ‘one hand waving free’: this is an image of constraint and abandonment simultaneously. But then, that is the very nature of imagination: it works through the dialectic between form and improvisation, between what one receives and what one gives.

It might be worth ending this account of the song with Dylan’s response to another question which he was asked at about this time: did he think of himself primarily as a singer or as a poet? He replied that he thought of himself ‘more as a song and dance man’.[iii] No doubt intended to undermine the more pompous claims made on his behalf, such as ‘spokesperson for a generation’, his choice of words is nonetheless revealing. His song, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, is a celebration of the power of the ‘song’ which is also a ‘dance’: one that releases us from the burden of time even as it follows the rhythm of time. Thus, perhaps ultimately the tambourine man represents that potential within ourselves to ‘cleanse the doors of perception’ and ‘to hold infinity in the palm of your hand’. The ‘ragged clown’ will always be ‘circled by the circus sands’, but in his capacity as ‘song and dance man’ he will surely find a way to ‘see a World in a grain of sand’. In the terms we have used from the outset, we might say that ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is a classic example of the beatific vision: it pursues the possibility of spiritual freedom to the point of mystical transcendence, but remains faithful to the obligation of art to celebrate the profane world even as it makes manifest the sacred.


Please note that the full references are given in my book.

[i] Shelton, No Direction Home, p. 276.

 [ii] Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in Complete Poetry and Prose, p. 36.

[iii] Dylan, Bob Dylan In His Own Words, p. 73.




Laurence Coupe

Article 2333, Academia Letters (2021)


‘Suzanne’, Parasites of Heaven (1966); Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)


Apart from ‘Hallelujah’, this is probably Leonard Cohen’s most famous song. It is reassuringly familiar: we hear the first few gentle sounds of Cohen’s acoustic guitar and we anticipate that opening line: ‘Suzanne takes you down …’, and maybe mouth the words along with the singer. But it is precisely because it is so widely known that it needs looking into more deeply, to see if there are hidden meanings that familiarity tends to prevent us exploring.

What I want to do, then, is take up a few significant words and phrases from the song, roughly in the order in which they occur, and follow them through as far as we can go. Cohen was an artist of great intelligence and learning, who made his reputation as poet, novelist and singer-songwriter. In many cases, he would take an existing poem of his and turn it into a song. ‘Suzanne’ is a good example. Were we analysing it as poetry, it would be expected that we trace cultural allusions, religious references and so forth. For some reason, many critics hesitate to be equally thorough when it comes to interpreting song, as it is assumed to be an inferior medium. Cohen’s work consistently reminds us that the distinction is fallacious.

Before proceeding, however, I need to address an issue that inevitably arises in the reading of songs, as of poems: whose voice is it we hear? Because it is never possible with any song to state that the person who speaks – or, rather, sings – in it is an actual person, it is always best to refer to this figure as the ‘persona’. Certainly, s/he is not necessarily to be identified with either the songwriter or the singer. For example: the persona of ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ is an unemployed veteran of the First World War, waiting for a food handout; he is neither E. Y. Harburg nor Bing Crosby. For example: the persona of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is a convict who is guilty of murder; he is not Johnny Cash.

Even when the persona and songwriter seem to be close, you have to be careful not to make assumptions. For example: the persona of ‘Blue’ is a woman desperate for real affection in a counterculture which seems to be all about love but which is really all about self-indulgence and exploitation; she is not necessarily Joni Mitchell. For example: the persona of ‘Graceland’ is a divorced man travelling to Memphis, Tennessee to visit the home of Elvis Presley in the hope of finding redemption; he is not necessarily Paul Simon. In both these cases – Mitchell and Simon – we may suspect that the persona does come pretty close to the songwriter, but that still does not permit us to make wild biographical speculations.

With Cohen, we need to be more careful than usual: after all, he has been too often taken to be merely giving vent to a mood of gloom (hence the sarcastic nickname, ‘Laughing Lenny’) rather than composing a subtly interconnected work of art.




‘Suzanne takes you down’

The general consensus is that the original Suzanne was Suzanne Verdal (married name, Vaillincourt). Certainly, it cannot refer to Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Cohen’s children, Adam and Lorca. Alberto Manzana reports that Cohen himself stated that she was married to a sculptor friend of his in Montreal. He commented further: ‘She had a lot of courage, and in such a repressed society she used her courage to express what she wanted. She was a ballerina and on one occasion she invited me to eat oranges by the river.’

However, just as we have to be careful in matching up the ‘persona’ of the song with the songwriter, we have to be careful in matching up characters from songs with real people. Ultimately, the details of Suzanne Verdal’s way of life, and the nature of Cohen’s relationship with her, do not matter: they merely serve as starting points for an imaginative exploration of what it means for a person to achieve and maintain one’s vision.

‘The river … the boats’

In the mid-1960s Suzanne Verdal lived in an apartment by the St Lawrence River in Montreal. Nearby was the chapel of ‘Our Lady of Good Hope’, with a statue of the Virgin Mary facing onto the water, as if blessing the sailors setting off on their sea-voyages. This fact can help explain some details of the song, but we need to go beyond them in order to understand the song as a whole.

‘Half crazy’

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Theseus declares that ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact’ (V.i.7-8). The duke’s own position is sceptical: he means to demean both love and poetry. However, their association with madness has usually been positively celebrated – particularly by poets since the Romantic era of William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others. This song is no exception. Suzanne comes across as an eccentric, bohemian, artistic figure, who might be dismissed as ‘half crazy’ by more conventional people, but who has certainly cast her spell over her male visitor.

Moreover, whether we insist on associating that visitor with Cohen or not, this particular ‘poet’ is using his ‘imagination’ to celebrate Suzanne both as a particular person and as an archetypal woman. In this context, Carl Jung would call her the positive ‘anima’: that is, the female ‘soul’ who stands as an ideal for the male ego in its quest to become a centred, spiritual ‘Self’. We might think also of the figure of Beatrice, whom Dante celebrates as the inspiration for his visionary journey from Hell, through Purgatory, and thence to Heaven.

It is interesting that Duke Theseus goes on to elaborate on his insight as follows: ‘And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name’ (V.i.14-17). Reading this in a positive, Romantic perspective, we can say that Cohen manages to capture ‘airy nothing’, that is, the indefinable, elusive quality of the kind of woman he admires. He does so by providing circumstantial details about her way of life that convince us that she really exists: he gives her both ‘a local habitation’ and ‘a name’. We come to know and like Suzanne – know and like her sufficiently to ‘want to travel with her’.

‘Tea and oranges’

Most students of Cohen concur that Suzanne Verdal served a tea known as ‘Constant Comment’, a blend of tea-leaves and orange rind. But we do not have to think of a real person or a real event to register the rich sense of detail in the song. This particular detail is charged with significance, though it is not immediately obvious. Suzanne is very exact in her choice of beverage and the manner in which she prepares and provides it. We are reminded, surely, of the Japanese tea ceremony, the purpose of which is to make us realise that everyday actions such as eating and drinking, if carried out attentively, can be a source of religious awakening. Now the basis of such a ritual is Zen Buddhism, which derived originally from China – the place from where, the song tells us, Suzanne’s tea comes. By giving us the details of her ‘local habitation’, her way of life, Cohen simultaneously alerts us to its spiritual dimension.

‘Perfect body … mind’

The relationship between male and female in the song seems to be Platonic: that is, spiritual rather than physical. But the refrain of each verse serves to query the distinction between mind and body, spirit and flesh. Putting this another way, we may say that the song assumes that we know the difference between what we call the ‘sacred’ and what we call the ‘profane’, and then takes us to the point where we realise they are ultimately one.

The standard definition of ‘sacred’ is ‘dedicated to a deity or religious purpose; relating to or used in religious worship’. ‘Profane’, on the other hand, means ‘showing disrespect for God, any deity, or religion; not connected with or used for religious matters; not initiated into sacred or secret rites’. What Cohen does in the song is deliberately to subvert the distinction: to reveal the sacred in the profane. In doing so, he is following the example of such visionary poets as Blake, for example, who famously declared it possible ‘To see the world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour’.

‘Jesus was a sailor’

It is typical of Cohen to talk of one sphere of existence in terms of another. That is partly why he effortlessly moves from the figure of Suzanne in the first verse to that of Jesus in the second. The transition to Jesus works particularly well because Cohen has already set up this association, with his stress on the river and the boats. But there is more to say about the idea of Jesus as ‘sailor’.

Cohen, brought up as a Jew in Montreal, was early on introduced to Christianity by his Catholic nanny, who instilled in him a lifelong fascination with the figure of the crucified Jesus. In 1968, the year of the release of this album, we find him reflecting as follows: ‘Our natural vocabulary is Judaeo-­Christian. That is our blood myth. … We have to rediscover the crucifixion. … It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where man is at. On the cross.’ [Leonard Cohen in His Own Words (ed. Robert Dimery, Omnibus Press, 1988, p 10]

Though the reality of the crucifixion is never far away from Cohen’s mind, the specific event which he evokes here is one of Jesus’s many miracles. We may recall that his disciples were instructed to take a ship out to sea in order to meet him after he had spent time praying on a mountain on the other side. However, a storm began to blow, and they became afraid. Just then they saw Jesus walking across the water towards them.

It is clear that Jesus’s purpose in walking on the water is not only to calm the fears of his disciples but also to demonstrate his divine powers. Moreover, his miracle has symbolic force. In the first chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Judaeo-Christian Bible, we are told that ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1: 2). That is, the establishment of the cosmos involves conquest over chaos, here represented by ‘the deep’. Jesus’s action echoes the act of creation. It echoes too the episode in the Book of Exodus, in which Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, where they have been held captive as slaves, thanks to God miraculously parting the waters of the Red Sea. Life comes out of death; freedom comes out of slavery.

How does Cohen use the story, and what does he add to it? He dwells on the human aspect of the character of Jesus, depicting him as waiting patiently before attempting to walk on the water, calculating that this will have most impact when his disciples are at their most vulnerable. It is then that his promise to liberate humanity from their enslavement, their immersion in the waters of death, will be most effective. Brilliantly, Cohen then immediately brings onto the horizon that other event, the crucifixion. Despite Jesus’s triumph, he knew he would have to fall: he would have to be ‘broken’ on the cross, condemned by the ‘wisdom’ of this world (Roman rule, or whatever forms it has taken in our supposedly less barbaric era). But then again, it is precisely when Jesus sinks beneath the weight of worldly authority that he is, for Cohen, most glorious. As the innocent victim, tortured and killed, he is the scapegoat who takes upon himself the burden of all our sins, from which he thereby releases us. His very defeat is his victory. We would be best abandoning our certainties in order to ‘travel blind’ and to ‘trust him’.

Finally, it is worth bearing in mind the title of Cohen’s second novel: Beautiful Losers (1966). It is a telling phrase, and it indicates Cohen’s love of paradox, which is the key to his worldview. Jesus is for him precisely a ‘loser’ in terms of our selfish, materialistic civilisation; but it is this very fact that makes him ‘beautiful’, for he offers a vision that lifts us beyond the terms of that civilisation. As Cohen himself has declared: ‘I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who ever walked the face of this earth. Any guy who said “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek” has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness.’ [Leonard Cohen in His Own Words, p 11]  As with Suzanne, we may know that he’s ‘half crazy’, but that is why we want to be with him.

There are other instances of a phrase or reference in ‘Suzanne‘ which merit further commentary, but that would result in an article almost twice as long. ‘Our lady of the harbour’ is certainly one, as is ‘Suzanne holds the mirror’. I’ll have to leave those for other readers to explore, but I hope that I’ve made a valid case for Cohen as an artist of complexity and depth.

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.