Modernist Ecology: Modernism and the Reimagination of Nature
Saunders, Paul Richard
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Countering the trend in contemporary ecocriticism to advance realism as an environmentally responsible mode of representation, this essay argues that the anti-realist aesthetics of literary modernism were implicitly “ecological.” In order to make this argument I distinguish between contemporary and modernist ecological culture (both of which I differentiate in turn from ecological science); while the former is concerned primarily with the practical reform characteristic of what we now call “environmentalism,” the latter demanded an all-encompassing reimagination of the relationship between humanity and nature. “Modernist ecology,” as I call it, attempted to envision this change, which would be ontological or metaphysical rather than simply social, through thematically and formally experimental works of art. Its radical vision, suggestive in some ways of today’s “deep” ecology, repudiated modern accounts of nature as a congeries of inert objects to be manipulated by a sovereign subject, and instead foregrounded the chiasmic intertexture of the subject/object relationship. In aesthetic modernism we encounter not “objective” nature, but “nature-being” – a blank substratum beneath the solid contours of what philosopher Kate Soper calls “lay nature” – the revelation of which shatters historical constructions of nature and alone allows for radical alternatives. This essay looks specifically at modernist ecology as it appears in the works of W. B. Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, and Samuel Beckett, detailing their attempts to envision revolutionary new ecologies, but also their struggles with the limited capacity of esoteric modernist art to effect significant ecological change on a collective level.