The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Environment

The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Environment, edited by Louise Westling (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Green Letters November 2014

Readers who know Louise Westling’s major ecocritical work, The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender and American Fiction (1996), will not be disappointed by this selection of essays which she has commissioned.

In her usefully provocative introduction, she offers an overview of how nature has been represented and understood over the centuries, by way of situating the growth of green theory. In doing so, she casts some doubt on Romanticism as an ecocritical touchstone. She reminds us that ‘Romantic ecology’ was founded on a sense of privilege which was a product of the wealth created by ‘environmental domestication at home’ and by ‘conquest abroad’ (3).

My curiosity roused by this, I made a point of looking out for further references to Romanticism throughout the volume. There were several, but I was most struck by Axel Goodbody’s comprehensive account of European ecocritical theory in relation to the Romantic legacy. While he finds that Arne Naess’s deep ecology comes close in spirit to Romantic holism, with its invitation to identify oneself with the totality of nature, Goodbody is more interested in tracing how diverse were the attempts of modern thinkers – notably Heidegger, Adorno and Merleau-Ponty – to bear testimony to nature’s wonder while seeking to overcome the anxiety of Romanticism’s powerful influence. Goodbody is careful not to produce a reductive conclusion, but my inference from reading this chapter is that such crucial theorists never quite managed to overcome that anxiety.

More in keeping with Westling’s introductory speculation is Timothy Clark’s challenging essay, ‘Nature, Post Nature’, in which he characterises the ecocritical celebration of Wordsworth by Jonathan Bate as perpetuating the ‘Romantic humanism’ which Wordsworth himself exemplified, with his celebration of ‘engagement with the wild … as the recuperation of some supposed natural part of a human identity seen as suppressed by the effects of abstraction, instrumentalist rationality, urban culture, and so forth’ (78). Nor does Lawrence Buell’s celebration of Thoreau escape censure by Clark; and this stance is echoed in another essay by Leo Mellor, ‘The Lure of Wilderness’. Here he uses the phrase ‘romantic fallacy’(112) in relation to the idea of masculinity being tested and/or discovered in the encounter with suitably rugged landscapes. By way of balance, though, we might mention Terry Gifford’s succinct essay, ‘Pastoral, Anti-Pastoral, and Post-Pastoral’, which reminds us that poetry, Romantic or otherwise, is capable of reconciling contrary perspectives on the natural world and our relationship with it.

Returning to Westling’s introduction, we find another stimulating proposal. With Romanticism put in its place, she proceeds to affirm that the more decisive shift, for green thinking, was the view of natural processes afforded by Darwin’s theory of evolution. We have, she says, a far more complex understanding of the natural order, once we perceive it as an evolving biosphere, unknown to earlier ages. Again, it is Clark who provides the main substantiation of this introductory conjecture: for him, green theory is going to have to come to terms more and more methodically with the implications of the momentous move into the ‘Anthropocene’, defined as ‘that era in the planet’s natural history in which humanity becomes a decisive geological and climatalogical force’ (79). The point is, of course, that nature becomes increasingly unpredictable and threatening as the very consequence of human activity. The term ‘Anthropocene’ resonates throughout this volume. While there are many scientists who do not accept the existence of such an epoch, this volume demonstrates its validity and usefulness as an ecocritical perspective – most notably in Joni Adamson’s ‘Environmental Justice, Cosmopolitics, and Climate Change’.

A related, recurrent theme of many essays – hinted at by Westling in her introduction – is the need to avoid falling back into a facile dualism, with nature conceived as a quite distinct, separate and alien realm, which human culture can choose how to represent and/or rule, how to depict and/or dominate, and how to celebrate and/or contaminate. At the same time, very few of the contributors to the volume fall into the all-too-common trap of contemporary critical theory: that is, assuming that the biosphere has been so thoroughly humanised that it makes no sense to see ‘nature’ as anything more than a cultural construction.

Particularly impressive in this context is Wendy Wheeler’s essay on ‘biosemiotics’, which follows up Gregory Bateson’s work on ‘the ecology of mind’, inviting us to see nature as a complex system of communication and interpretation. In this light, Wheeler sets out with great precision the way that cultural signification is informed by – indeed, dependent upon – natural signification. It is thus, she argues, that the traditional notion of ‘the Book of Nature’ is given a whole new meaning (129). It’s interesting to relate Wheeler’s theorising to Alfred Siewers’ specific reading of the ‘green otherworlds’ of early medieval literature, by means of which natural phenomena take the form of an ‘overlay landscape’ (31), articulated in a ‘nature-text’(34). Such works, says Siewers, may continue to serve as ’sources of imaginative hope in our struggles with massive global environmental challenge today’(42).

If I had to single out one more essay, from a volume that never failed to impress me, it would have to be Kate Rigby’s ‘Confronting Catastrophe: Ecocriticism in a Warming World’. Climate change being the one issue that all ecocritics agree upon, Rigby ponders why it has not featured more in recent ecocritical works. Here (along with Adamson) she redresses the balance, in the course of a discussion of Mary Shelley’s neglected masterpiece, The Last Man. In doing so, she implicitly demonstrates that ‘Romantic ecology’ still may have something to teach us.

Despite Westling’s introductory words of warning, I doubt if she disagrees with Rigby. To invite us to query a received wisdom – that Romanticism is the pure source of ecocriticism – is by no means the same as wanting to exclude it from our green canon. After all, it’s not really the purpose of this volume to tell the reader what to read and what not to read. Rather, it’s to demonstrate how to read with a sense of ecological responsibility. It fulfils that purpose admirably.

Laurence Coupe