Guy Butler's Political Ecology: History, Appropriation, Alienation, Belonging

By Thurman, Christopher | Journal of Literary Studies, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Guy Butler's Political Ecology: History, Appropriation, Alienation, Belonging


Thurman, Christopher, Journal of Literary Studies


Summary

This article explores various aspects of Guy Butler's "ecowriting" and "ecocriticism". The first section considers his evocation of the relationship (or the rift) between natural history and human history. The second section addresses the problematic processes of "naming and taming"--subduing, controlling and claiming ownership of the land--and the ways in which these inform and are informed by conquest and colonisation. The third section weighs Butler's shifting responses to the (in)hospitable African climate and landscape. In the fourth section, the ecological imperative driving much of Butler's work is shown to complement his efforts to overcome racial and cultural divides in South Africa.

Opsomming

Hierdie artikel verken verskillende aspekte van Guy Butler se "ekogeskrifte" en "ekokritiek". In die eerste deel word sy evokasie van die verhouding (of skeuring) tussen die natuurgeskiedenis en die menslike geskiedenis onder die loep geneem. In die tweede deel word die problematiese prosesse van "naamgewing en temming"--die onderwerping, beheer en toeeiening van grond--en die wyses waarop dit deur oorwinning en kolonisasie veroorsaak word en dit ook veroorsaak--van naderby bekyk. In die derde deel word Butler se verskuiwende response op die (on)herbergsame klimaat en landskap van Afrika in oenskou geneem. In die vierde deel word daar getoon hoe die ekologiese imperatief war die stukrag agter die meeste van Butler se werk vorm, sy pogings aanvul om rasse- en kulturele verdelings in Suid-Afrika te bowe te kom.

1 "The Breach between Man and Nature"

Guy Butler was a substantial public figure in South Africa over the second half of the twentieth century, as a performer of chameleon literary roles (professor, poet, playwright, autobiographer), as a cultural politician and as an opponent of apartheid legislation. Nevertheless, his is not a familiar name to the majority of South Africans, and where he is known, Butler remains a problematic figure. On the one hand, he has been criticised for expressing dated or even "colonial" ideas, or for lacking radical political conviction (see, for instance, Kirkwood 1976; and Williams 1989); on the other hand, he is often seen as a "grand old man" in South African literature rather than as a writer for a new generation of readers. (1) These views do not take into account those facets of Butler's writing that were (and still are) subversive, intellectually compelling and of enduring literary value. Moreover, they ignore two fundamental aspects of Butler's career that are of particular relevance in post-apartheid South Africa: his work as a historian, and his work as an ecologist.

Butler is typically associated with the history of English and "the English" in South Africa, specifically the historical record of the 1820 Settlers and the Eastern Cape frontier. This association is in some respects unfortunate, as his approach to history was a catholic one, incorporating both Africa and Europe, both ancient and modern, and giving priority to "history with a small "h": not "generalities about economics or class or race"--for this is History, "made or experienced by Man"--but "named individuals", "men, women and children ... living in particular times" and particular places (Butler 1991: 243). It may seem strange that I am giving such weight to Butler-as-historian in an article on Butler-as-ecologist. Reverence for the natural world (what might be called Butler's "environmentalism") is, after all, a definitive and not a secondary characteristic of his work. Yet, as J.M. Coetzee comments in White Writing, "Butler treats the relation of the poet to his landscape historically" (1988: 169). Reciprocally, human history and natural history form the axes against which Butler's activities and interests as a historian may be plotted.

In his poem "On Seeing a Rock Drawing in 1941", these axes intersect; the rock art might be thousands of years old, but the anonymous artist's work merely overlays patterns carved out by natural processes long before the drawing itself was made:

   the surface of the stone
   . … 

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