Jan 02 2010

Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination

An ecocritical reading of Melville:

Consider the case of Herman Melville. His sensitivity to physical environment was acute, even when one might least expect it, as in the heavily allegorical Mardi and the psychologically involuted Pierre. Moby-Dick comes closer than any other novel of its day to making a nonhuman creature a plausible major character and to developing the theme of human ferocity against animal nature. Yet Melville’s interest in whales was subordinate to his interest in whaling, and  his interest in the material reality of both was constrained by his preoccupation with their social and cosmic symbolism. Thus we should not be surprised between the almost concurrent encounters of Melville and Charles Darwin with the Galapagos Islands (Buell 4,5)

Buell argues that Melville’s Moby-Dick moves away from anthropocentric literature by developing an animal (the whale) as a “plausible major character.” Melville’s characterization does, however, have its limitations. Buell argues Melville is less interested in the whale itself than in whaling and the symbolism the whale could provide. Thus, the text still has its anthropocentric aspects. Buell then looks at Darwin’s and Melville’s encounters in the Galapagos to further illustrate how Melville was still very much anthropocentric in his observations.

Melville, Darwin, and the Galapagos:

Darwin’s visit in the 1830s as nautralist of the HMS Beagle was an astoningishingly rich imaginitive event. His discovery of large numbers of unique but related species on the different individual islands marked the beginning of his discovery of the theory of natural slection. Melville, visiting the islands during his wanderings in the South Pacific a few years later, was equally impressed by them, but as an area of starkness and desolation that he turned to symbolic use in The Encantadas, a series of ironically titled sketched about the islands, and in his late poem Clarel, which likens the deserts of Palestine to the Galapagos. Melville’s environmental imagination was too homocentric to allow him to respond as Darwin did (Buell 5).

According to Buell, Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos provides a “rich imaginitive event” from which he observes these animals and is later able to formualte his theory of natural selection. Buell’s language, I find, especially intriguing–the connection between a naturalist and imaginitive writing. Melville, in a trip some years later, is similarly inspired by his trip, , according to Buell, but it is a homocentric inspiration. He uses the environment symbolically in The Encantadas and Clarel.

Question: Buell seems to be implying that Melville’s “homocentric” use of the landscape in his writing is an inherently negative thing, while Darwin’s animal-centric reading is inherently superior. I have two questions to posit: A. Is this act even really “homocentric?” Is depicting a landscape in literature inherenlty a human-centered act? B. And even if it is, is there anything wrong with this? And wouldn’t this make all literature that depicts humans and their interaction with the environment inherently homo-centric? I don’t really think this matters, honestly. There, I said it. I guess my stance here on the whole “anthrocentric” issue is pretty clear.

Conclusion: I think Buell here is missing the point. The fact that Melville travels to the Galapagos after Darwin’s famous trip is, to me, what is so intriguing, not that his writing is homocentric or not. Additionally, I find it equally exciting  that Darwin, a naturalist, visits an environment, observes it, and is writes about it makes Darwin. In this sense, Darwin sounds very much like Charles Brockden Brown, who Bryan Waterman argues, as a “man of informaiton and observation,” thought it was his duty to record and document his surroundings in novel form.

Despite my problems with Buells argument in this particular case, he does come up with some useful theoretical ideas, case in point, the notion an Environmental Text.

Buell devises “a rough checklist of some of the ingredients that might be said to comprise an environmentally oriented work” (7):

1. “The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history (Buell 7).”

2. “The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest” (Buell 7).

3. “Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation” (Buell 7).

4. “Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in this text” (Buell 8).

“I deliberately keep this list short,” Buell concludes, ” wanting chiefly to give a flavor of how potentially inclusive and exclusive the category of “environmental” is, in my apprehension of it. By these criteria, few works fail to qualify at least marginally, but few qualify unequivocally and consistently. Most of the clearest cases are so-called nonfictional works, hence my special concetration on them here” (Buell 8).

While I may not agree with Buell’s “checklist,” I do appreciate his desire to push for readings of environmental non-fiction in literary studies.

The Politics of Reading Non-Fiction in Literary Studies

This part of Buell’s discussion is, I think, probably the most useful for me as I think about the larger impact my work could or should have in the ever politicized world of academia.

Some wise, and even humorous observations Buell makes:

Apart from Walden and a few other works by Thoreau, for practical purposes nonfictional writing about nature scarcely exists from the standpoint of American literary studies, even though by any measure it has flourished for more than a century and has burgeoned vigorously in the nuclear age (Buell 8).

Environmental nonfiction, however, gets studied chiefly in expository writing programs and in “special topics” courses offered as the humanities’ tithe to environmental studies programs or to indulge a colleague’s idiosyncrasies, rather than as bona fide additions to th literature curriculim (Buell 9).

Hmm, this is something for me to really thing about. I plan on devoting a lot of my attention to Charles Brockden Brown’s annotated translation of Constantin Volney’s naturalist work. Will I get pegged as the “idiosyncratic colleague?” Is this why I’m shy away from calling myself an ecocritic, even though I read environmental non-fiction? I don’t know, this is a possibility.


One response so far | Categories: 19th Century Sciences,Ecocriticism,Herman Melville,imagination

One Response to “Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination”

  1. Luella Garies on 12 Feb 2010 at 11:37 pm

    I wrote a lengthy response to the part about anthropocentrism, but it was kind of rambling, so I will just say this: I find the case for something called anthropocentrism here problematic… a most obvious reason being that human babies cannot participate in environmental discourse, yet the term “anthropocentric” would seem to include them. If we are going to speak of collectivities as the center of discourse, it seems more fitting to refer to society rather than (human) species. However, even this may be problematic. I won’t go into that possibility right now.

    Hello, by the way. I saw this post when you had your blog up in CNDLS today, and I thought I should come back and read it. :P

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.