Sharpe and the Progress of Ecological Thinking

In a class dedicated to understanding, and defining, ecological knowledge – that is, knowledge that encompasses the tangled systems of interconnectedness in which we live – I found Christina Sharpe’s essay “In the Wake” to be one of the more crucial pieces we have read in this class. It critically observed the systems in which we live rather than simply reproducing the systems in novel form. In using an autobiographical form, Sharpe was able to prod at social, cultural and historical systems with a vigor that the novels that we have read so far do not achieve. That is not to say the novels we have read are not mind-blowing examples of complex, ecological thinking, but I did find that this essay in conjunction with The Woodlanders and even Middlemarch critically advances the project of understanding and defining ecological knowledge of systems.

While reading this essay, I kept thinking about the difference between the experience of reading an autobiographical piece and a purely fictional piece like The Woodlanders, or the other novels we’ve read this semester. Sharpe quotes Saidiya Hartman to explain why she uses her personal history in her argument: “the ‘autobiographical example…is not a personal story that folds into itself; it is not about navel gazing, it’s really about trying to look at historical and social process and one’s own formation as a window onto social and historical processes, as an examples of them.’ Like Hartman, I include the personal here, ‘to tell a story capable of engaging and countering the violence of abstraction’” (p. 8). While the Victorian novel does not necessarily commit acts of ‘violent abstraction,’ without the element of autobiography perhaps they inevitably become less politically or socially active. In other words, while reading this piece I was struck by the difference between a political passive work like The Woodlanders – that is, a work that might observe and reproduces politics, functioning or otherwise, into novel form – and a politically active piece like Sharpe’s essay that uses small flickers of stories to light a complete picture of a world built on faulty, unstable systems of oppression.

The social, political and cultural systems we have discussed and observed in the novels we have read this semester have been mostly stable – at the very least, they are self-sufficient, but in most cases, political uprising is still a distant whisper and the novels themselves do not seem to take political stances on one side of any particular argument. Granted, many of the novels we’ve read look at the rumbling progress of enfranchisement across classes, agency fought for by laborers in an increasingly industrial world, women’s rights becoming a more foregrounded issue; but even in a novel like Middlemarch, Eliot resigns somewhat to the idea that in this world there will be as many “unhistorical acts,” as many Saint Teresa’s, in the future as there are in the past and we owe the world we live in to those Teresa’s. She resigns, in some measure, to the system itself, using the novel to recreate that system and present it for any observation, critical or simply voyeuristic. Sharpe, on the other hand, presents a specific set of stories that articulate the ways she and her family exists in a system that does not work for them. Sharpe writes, “Wake; the state of wakefulness; consciousness. It was with this sense of wakefulness as consciousness that most of my family lived in an awareness of itself…and in the wake of the unfinished project of emancipation” (p. 5). Sharpe points out that she and members of her family are not allowed to be high functioning cogs in the machine of social systems, but rather destined to be smothered by the system itself; therefore, in this autobiographical presentation of political and social systems, Sharpe insists that in learning about our ecological web of interconnectedness we do not miss the ways that the web itself is misrepresented in culture or even oppressively designed by culture; that perhaps connections themselves ought to be interrogated for artificiality just as artificial separations are interrogated in this school of ecological thought.

 

The Woodlanders and Ecological Form

Looking back, this large quote from the first chapter of The Woodlanders situates for me the whole: “From this self-contained place rose in stealthy silence tall stems of smoke, which the eye of imagination could trace downward to their root on quiet hearthstones, festooned overhead with hams and flitches. It was one of the sequestered spots outside the gates of the world where may usually be found more meditation than action, and more listlessness than meditation; where reasoning proceeds on narrow premisses, and results in inferences wildly imaginative; yet where, from time to time, no less than in other places, dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean are enacted in the real, by virtue of the concentrated passions and closely-knit interdependence of the lives therein” (8).

Throughout I was often struck by the delicately connected events of the story’s progression. Many times, if one had not been so impulsively prideful, or reticent with what should have been said because of what they’d mistaken for truth, or coincidentally sharing a mysterious history, it seemed the novel’s events could just as easily have veered in a multitude of invisible directions. For me, the recurrence rose the question of the purpose for writing and reading such a story; and the reading I gave the above quote on my first pass-by would not reconcile with the apparent precariousness of the string of events to form an answer. The range of my own experiences in reading would not find its singularity, though animated (by the quote) with the setting’s Faerie-like existence in relation to the ‘real’ world, and characters’ imaginations unbound by the matrices of ‘worldly’ thought.

The vocabulary of Aaron Rosenberg’s “Infinitesimal Lives”: Thomas Hardy’s Scale Effects helped bring these attempts at understanding to a point. The chapter starts from Hardy’s journal entry: “A woeful fact—that the human race is too extremely developed for its corporeal conditions, the nerves being evolved to an activity abnormal in such an environment” (182). From this point of view, the Woodland society of Little Hintock, hardly yet understanding any need to read a newspaper, is quite contrary to both the ’developed’ environment and the conceptual excess which presses on the author’s consciousness at the time. Rosenberg then connects Hardy’s “efforts to orient the lives of individuals with … his ‘personal construction of an astronomical-literary cosmology’ dramatize an epistemological crisis: how to regard the categorical significance of ‘the human’” with the general-societal “challenge for late Victorians who, in the wake of evolutionary theory, began looking for ‘a scale that will be neither unrealistically grandiose, nor debilitatingly reductive…” (183). Crucially, the chapter then proposes to build upon our understanding of the latter challenge by recognizing the deep formal problems the same circumstances create for representation. The conceptual excess, the power of Darwinian injection into consciousness, likewise offers the narrative an excess which would disrupt the inherited ‘novel’ conventions, which limits its reader’s imagination for use, risking failure in its duty to received. In this way, a duty of Hardy’s writing would be to find a balance neither “unrealistically grandiose” nor “debilitatingly reductive” – a singularity which would provide answers to what he recognized in London, to what late Victorian (could not articulate they) sought, to what appeared to waver for me between grandiose situating and reductionist actualization.

The Cider Press

The action of the cider making, a grinding, gnashing violence followed by intense pressure to squeeze or wring out the essence of the apple serves as a metaphor for the mental torture suffered by Grace and Giles throughout their shared experiences. The mechanism of the press involves of slow turning screw which “wrings down the pomace, which sweet juice gushed forth into tubs and pails. (174). The quality of Giles is in his connection to the land, which It was the cider country, which met the woodland district on the axis of this hill. Over the vale the air was blue as sapphire—such a blue as outside that apple-valley was never seen.” (140) In seeing him later, after his suffering and fall from prospects and her own sufferings in a increasingly love less marriage, Grace begins to see the juice strained from the press

“[Giles’s] homeliness no longer offended her acquired tastes; his comparative want of so-called culture did not now jar on her intellect; his country dress even pleased her eye; his exterior roughness fascinated her. Having discovered by marriage how much that was humanly not great could co-exist with attainments of an exceptional order, there was a revulsion in her sentiments from all that she had formerly clung to in this kind: honesty, goodness, manliness, tenderness, devotion, for her only existed in their purity now in the breasts of unvarnished men; and here was one who had manifested them towards her from his youth up.”. (219)

Grace’s restriction to Fitzpiers becomes described in increasingly constrictive and pressure laden diction, “I am tied and bound to another by law, as tightly as I am to you by your arm” as the rotation of the seasons revolves like the screw on the cider press. (256) Grace claims she feels used up and wrung dry by the process in her exclamation to Giles: “Affliction has taken all that out of me.” (280) She has been reduced from her “proud damsel” and “dainty” ways into the essence of the woodlander woman. (280)

Giles’s final act of love, a tortuous experience of physical self sacrifice reveals “the purity of his nature, his freedom from the grosser passions, his scrupulous delicacy” in a destructive way similar to the apple press. (314) His body, like the apple, is left a discarded shell but his essence remains with those around him like the cider.

 

Marty as truth

Throughout The Woodlanders, the only women who are praised for their “female devotion” (268, 315) are Ms. Charmond and Mrs. Fitzpiers, but the main woman who was devoted to a solitary character throughout the novel was Marty. Her devotion to Giles Winterborne is greatly understated by everyone in the narrative, so much so that it seemed rather disrespectful after Winterborne’s death for Grace to carry on saying that they both loved him in an equal fashion. I wonder what Hardy’s odd placements of Marty infers? Is she an example of unfortunate yet realistic circumstance?

Towards the beginning to the middle of the narrative I honestly thought she was a bit weird because she would always come in at the most random times with the most significant pieces of information. Her small interjections of thought, feeling, and action stir most of the controversy that is found in Volumes II and III. Her hair which was placed on Ms. Charmond’s head, the letter she wrote regarding that hair, her mentioning to Fitzpiers that Grace and Giles stayed apart – she is not only devoted to Winterborne, but perhaps more notably she is devoted to the truth.

She sees things as they are and connects to nature in both forms of human nature and the physical landscape like no other.  Her final description as “a being who had rejected with indifference he attribute of sex for the loftier quality of abstract humanism” insists on her existence as otherworldly and a bit supernatural. According the the Notes: “Marty is a symbol of humanity at its morally highest level” (414). Even though everyone agreed that Winterborne was the best fellow they ever met, it is actually Marty who is Hardy’s moral anchor for the narrative. I suppose I have answered my own question – Marty’s female devotion is not focused upon nor mentioned because she transcends such a seemingly ridiculous construct. She is only selfish in the end when she claims Winterborne as being her love because Grace has forgotten about him; and even this selfishness is expressed as her not forgetting him as she continues his work.

Abstraction

One of the parallels that stood out to be between The Woodlanders and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being was the discomfort that comes with abstraction. In The Woodlanders, Grace’s “position fretted her, it’s abstract features rousing an aversion which was greater than her aversion to the personality of him who had caused it” (278). Although the promise of a “new law” which could potentially painlessly transform her life into what she wanted it to be (or “what it used to be,” in her mind) brought her hope and comfort, she still felt uneasy due to her circumstances. “Him she could forget: her circumstances she had always with her” (278). Grace is able to deal with the tangible; she feels capable of confronting the concrete issue, or in this case, person, who is making her life difficult. However, she is not able to come to grips with the abstract set of features that construct her situation, making her feel “undignified,” and perhaps powerless. The tangible, in this case, Fitzpiers, is easy to point to as “the wrongdoer”and it is possible to underline exactly what he did wrong to hurt Grace. However, there is nothing she can do immediately to change her circumstances — circumstances dictated largely by her gender, to rid herself of the unease she feels. 

In In the Wake Christina Sharpe quotes Saidiya Hartman to explain why she includes personal anecdotes in her writing: “to tell a story capable of engaging and countering the violence of abstraction” (8). Violence is the word Sharpe uses to describe abstraction — the nonspecific and the broad. She tells personal stories not with the mere intent of pushing out a human interest story, but rather to convince readers to avoid the comfort and complacency that comes with repetition. This complacency, this comfort with the continual cruel treatment of black people in America is violent. She shares stories of her family member’s deaths to place a specific face, relationship, and life in at the forefront of the “cumulative deaths” (7) and inequality, to prevent the dangerous possibility of the acceptance that comes with repetition of an instance. Sharpe touches on a topic we have discussed before, deciding whether an individual represents a cumulation or an instance. Sharpe says both. 

For both Sharpe and Grace, the abstract brings about great discomfort because they refuse to to take comfort in its vagueness. Grace realizes her lack of power in her situation. Although she is not particularly upset by her husband’s actions, that does not take away from the humiliation and frustration that accompany her position — a position she acquired through no particular fault of her own. Similarly, Sharpe fights the abstraction placed over the unfair treatment of black people in America, once again, through no fault of their own. Both Grace and many of the family members Sharpe describes in her work suffer because of some unchanging aspect of their identity, whether that be gender or race. Both Sharpe and Hardy allow us to ruminate on the individual, but as part of the larger, still disturbing picture.

Sharpe: Circumstances and Opportunity

In her book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe writes about herself and her family’s identity as black, middle-class people. She gives a brief history of her situation growing up, telling the audience about how her parents moved from Philadelphia to Wayne, Pennsylvania in 1948. She describes the opportunity that her parents saw this Black neighborhood called Mt. Pleasant as offering, especially for their children. She states that “my parents moved to the suburbs for opportunity” (3). While reading this piece, I found this idea of “opportunity,” to be very rich and interesting to explore. Sharpe expands on it, saying that by moving to the suburbs (as opposed to living in the city of Philadelphia), there would be “space for [her parents] children to grow,” “a yard large enough to have fruit trees and a vegetable garden,” and “easier access to good educations for their children” (3).  

In my blog post for the last class, I wrote about “circumstances” and ideas of nature and nurture, situation, and more (specifically in The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy, and On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin). I found this topic to be prevalent in both texts, while also relating to the Introduction of Sharpe’s book, specifically with the idea of “opportunity” explored in the paragraph above. As such, in my last post I wrote about “the theme of nature, and how it in a way performs what takes place in human life”. Sharpe’s idea of “opportunity” that she introduces in the beginning of her Introduction is largely centered around the opportunity for the health and prosperity of her and her siblings, which her parents believe is found in the suburbs as opposed to the city.

A page later, Sharpe illustrates the fluidity of circumstance and opportunity in the United States, and how much it relies on one’s wealth.  Sharpe states how when her father died, her family “slid from lower-middle-class straightened circumstances into straight-up working poor” (4). This line in particular made me reflect on how out of control one is of their life- of their circumstances, and whatever happens to them to a certain extent. One event, such as the death of the main supporter of the household, can completely alter and change the life paths of those involved under their protection.  Again, this reminds me of the example I used from The Woodlanders in my last blog post, of the “city slum” where a “deformed” leaf lay, “crippled” (52). Additionally, of the ivy “strang[ling] to death the promising sapling” (52). The latter image in particular brings me back to Sharpe’s situation. She, as many others are, are akin to the “promising” sapling, but due to their placement in the world (whether it be what family they are born into, where they live, where the metaphorical seed is planted) they are restricted and faced with hardship of which they can grow up against and overcome, or of which could destroy them.

Sharpe’s “Weather” and “Wake”

Both of Christina Sharpe’s pieces that we read for this week delivered quite striking messages that I had not yet thought of in the context of our class. We have been focused on a person and their environment in a largely white context, and Sharpe brings in another side that has vastly different experiences which she describes through definitions of “wake.” She says that “living in the wake on a global level means living the disastrous time and effects of continued marked migrations…Living in the wake means living the history and present of terror, from slavery to the present, as the ground of our everyday Black existence; living the historically and geographically dis/continuous but always present and endlessly reinvigorated brutality,” (Sharpe, 15). In a lot of our texts this semester the characters have been shaped and supported by the land and history around them, but Sharpe makes a point to show how Black lives have not had the luxury or opportunity to exist in such a way. Their environments are constantly shifting— like how Sharpe had to switch schools so many times as a child— because of their identities and how they have historically been treated. They live in “the wake” by having to constantly re-experience the brutality and migration felt by their enslaved ancestors. 

In “The Weather,” Sharpe expands her point by describing how her use of the word “weather” is the “totality of our environments…and that climate is anti-black,” (Sharpe, 1985). When thinking about this in terms of the environment created by living in “the wake,” she helps us see how continual existence in such an environment is more than a struggle, and it requires a life long endurance. In “the wake” and “the weather” Sharpe says there are “death, disaster, and possibility,” which are themes we have encountered all semester in our novels. Death was reoccurring in Wuthering Heights, personal disasters plagued Middlemarch, and possibility was wished for throughout The Woodlanders. None of these texts compare to the large scale at which all three permeate Black lives throughout history. Is it fair then to study ecologies and environments without dedicating more time to these experiences? Sharpe says that some of the “calamities and catastrophes” that most affected black lives outside of slavery and incarceration are “occupation, colonialism, imperialism,[and] tourism,” which are devices we have read about all semester.

Male Power Dynamics

I am interested in examining the different power dynamics that occur within The Woodlanders, specifically as they relate to the main three male characters of the novel. Fitzpiers, Giles, and Melbury all represent different kinds of power and masculinity. Fitzpiers could be perceived as the alpha male with both men and women seeming to shrink before him, but lacks what one would describe as typical masculine traits. Giles is soft and well-natured, but apparently weak in every other sense despite him bearing traits that would commonly be seen as “macho”. Melbury sits squarely in the middle of the two others, feeling power over Giles but hesitant in the face of Fitzpiers and his mistreatment of Grace, all the while portraying both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits. Fitzpiers shares none of Giles’ rugged charm or dedication to hard work, but his higher standing garners him the respect and thus authority over the community. Even during his relationship with Felice Charmond, the owner of the greatest estate in Hintock, she is powerless to disobey him or stand against him, “I cannot give him up until he chooses to give me” (241). I struggle to understand how Fitzpiers wields this type of dominance, seemingly through only his educational history, in the face of other, like Melbury, who I think could endeavor to see themselves as equals, especially given the fact that Fitzpiers achieves very little success.

Giles, the most masculine character of the novel, is one of the most powerless and hardly ever chooses to stand up for himself. The only instance where we see him going for something that he wants is the brief moment with Grace when he, “gave way to the temptation… deciding once in his life to clasp in his arms her he had watched over and loved so long” (291). However, this instance of autonomy only serves to make me more disappointed that he did not try and fight harder for Grace earlier on in the novel. The acts of chivalry and the principles which he stands for are what eventually leads to his death, leaving me wishing that he could have stepped into the powerful role I believe he could have easily filled. Finally, we have Melbury who stands idly by exerting his power of Grace, but refusing to stand up for her for some time after he discovers his wrongdoings. After coming so close to telling Fitzpiers off multiple times, we readers belatedly get a show of power from Melbury after Fitzpiers had gone too far in his insults of Grace. The victory is short-lived though because Fitzpiers still remains with Grace by the end of the novel, rendering both Melbury’s as well as Giles’ brief imitations of power as impermanent.

It’s very interesting to understand how so much of the community’s power lies with the man whose behavior is the most dainty or “ladylike” while the women of the Hintock are not given the same level of distinction. While most other men in the community are involved in the harvesting of trees, Fitzpiers fills the role of doctor, but specifically a failing doctor. He is stereotypically masculine in that he clearly garners lots of female attention, but his general pursuits and values rather seem to represent a kind of stereotypical femininity stemming from his emotional and sometimes sensitive attitudes and thus weaknesses.

Applied to the Natural World

“In the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present.” (pg. 9) 

 

While Christina Sharpe’s argument concerning Black subjection relies heavily on socially manufactured structures, her thoughts on the importance of the past and present lend themselves directly to natural, ecological formations with respect to longevity and an unwavering presence. The above quote is a cogent representation of this idea. Sharpe uses the quote to explain how conditions of the past directly inform the present situation of her ill brother. This situation can be explained in ecological terms, by way of an organism’s relation to its physical surroundings. Her brother contracted an extremely rare illness from the physical surroundings he was exposed to. However, on a more macro level, the quote can lend itself to environmental damage, and how in terms of physicality, past wounds cannot be reversed, whether it be damage to a person’s lungs, or damage to the world’s oxygen supply. Or, as Sharpe clearly implies, the past is always informing the present. The past and the present are mutually inclusive. Sharpe’s use of the words immanent and imminent (pg. 13) further the idea that not only does the past inform the present, but they inform the future as well. Sharpe’s desire to create a methodology that is aware of forgotten histories, “myriad silences and ruptures in time” (pg. 12) can be more widespread than the narrative she is focusing on. This desire relates immediately to Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts, and broadly highlights the point of view from which history is told and the problems with that process. 

Sharpe’s primary point on being in the wake, brings up an interesting point about recognizing your place in time and its spatial relations. Sharpe states that, “to be/in the wake is to occupy that time/space/place/construction,” (pg. 16) and to be conscious of your societal position and how it was historically constructed, or, know what brought people to a place. Aside from racial and social sentiments, this is largely the case for a lot of what we have discussed with respect to ecological relationships and being aware of temporal forces. While this transference and application of Sharpe’s idea to the natural world may seem like a pathetic fallacy, there is an importance to understanding temporal order and avoiding jumbled mix-ups to understand our environments history, as Sharpe wants to change the way the history of Black subjection is studied, learned, and told. 

The Silence of Ourselves

There is a quote on the second page of Sharps paper which reads, “There are silences in my family.” Christina uses the metaphor of silence to describe the distances between herself and her other family members. However, this silence caused me to reflect on the relationships within the Woodlanders. Primarily, those lived in the quiet minds of the individual characters. Each character seems to be keeping themselves secreted from the people around them. Individuals build their relationships with each other in the silence. This is most prevalently seen in Grace, through her inability to voice her own thoughts or feelings to her childhood lover, her husband, or her father. While others force an image of her to materialize, Graces real form is only recognized in her own mind. The quiet around her acts as both a shield from pain, and a barrier to real human connection. 

For everyone, there are versions of ourselves which live in the minds of others, and outside of our control. What we see ourselves to be, maybe divergent to how others sees us. This breakage causes there to be mutable variations of self to exist. It raises the question, are we who others say we are, or are we who we think we are? For a character like Grace, the version of herself formed by others is completely separate to the person she thinks she is. To the three most important men in her life, Giles, Melbury, and Fitzpier, she is a completely different person for each. 

To Giles, she is perfection personified. Even in her lowest moment, he sees her as a shining example of femininity and worth. Even as Grace grows through the novel, from seemingly snotty to more level headed, Giles imposes his own story onto her. It is a story of her elitism and haughtiness. He uses a version of her opinion, though never truly spoken, to inform his efforts to win her heart, and to later explain her rejections. Grace in this form is a perfect being, beyond human reproach. 

To her father, Grace is a young woman of class and distinction. In his version, she is a delicate flower who needs constant grooming in order to properly grow. She exists to live out his fantasy of class. When she fails to become a cultivated charm, through the unfaithfulness of her husband, he creates another reality. He places the blame not his own meddling, but instead looks to again intervene on her behalf. She is his flower, despite her constant vocalization to allow her to pursue her own path, he refuses to let her live as herself, instead of the version of his daughter which lives in his head. 

For Fitzpier, Grace a prize to be won. She is a gem against the backdrop of the rough woodlanders. Her beauty shines brighter at their expense. It is around Fitzpiers Graces silence is most prominent, yet in some ways she is the most able to be herself. Fitzpiers cares too strongly about forming his own story, to create one for her as well. She is nothing more than a prize, and after she is won, her worth is diminished.