Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Cosmopolitanism and Environmental Ethics in Mary Butts's Dorset

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Cosmopolitanism and Environmental Ethics in Mary Butts's Dorset

Article excerpt

A trackless, sheep-wandered land, savage with thistles; bird-flown, sea-hammered, a desolation of loveliness whose "visible Pan" has not yet found its real name.

--Mary Butts, The Death of Felicity Taverner

The work of the Dorset writer Mary Butts expresses a complex, and often ambivalent or contradictory, relationship with place. It is marked by a quintessentially modernist tension, the struggle to reconcile a deep sense of attachment to a regional English home with the intellectual and experiential allure of cosmopolitan modernity. As Marshall Berman explains, to be modern is "to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world--and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are" (2010, 15). For Butts, this tension generates a distinctive relationship with the Dorset landscape: the adventure and power promised by cosmopolitan modernity inform her attempts to articulate what can be called a posthuman relationship with rural place. As Cary Wolfe argues, posthumanism calls for the acknowledgment of "a new reality: that the human occupies a new place in the universe, a universe now populated by ... nonhuman subjects" (2010, 47). In Butts's work, 1 argue, Berman's understanding of modernity is not challenged but expanded to incorporate recognition of such subjects. While critics such as Ian Patterson (1998) and Rochelle Rives (2008/2009) have noted the marginalization of the human in her texts, this essay emphasizes how such marginalization supports a posthuman ethical position by expressing a particular mode of coexistence and interrelation between human and nonhuman entities. It provides a concrete articulation of human activity's inextricable linkages to supposedly inanimate phenomena, thus exemplifying ideas found in the work of contemporary thinkers such as Jane Bennett. This is a world in which humans occupy an equivalent ethical plane to these other phenomena, by virtue of our mutual entanglement. Consequently, Butts explores a mode of engagement with landscape that moves beyond anthropocentrism and has significance for environmentalist ethics--although certain tensions and contradictions in her work impede attempts to derive a coherent ethical position from it.

In the first section of this essay I trace the influence in Butts's work of cosmopolitan and metropolitan experience upon her distinctive evocations of rural Dorset, suggesting links between such experience and her use of modernist techniques, including paratactic syntax and free indirect discourse. Defamiliarization and the use of multiple perspectives emerge from this relationship as tools with which a posthuman, environmental ethics can be explored; that is, one that incorporates what Wolfe calls the "vigilance, responsibility and humility" that arise from a recognition of our interrelation with nonhuman subjects (2010, 47). By "defamiliarization," I mean to suggest that Butts's characters express distinctive perspectives upon landscapes, objects, and phenomena as a result of their peripatetic experiences, shuttling between sites associated with rural tradition and urban, cosmopolitan modernity. For such characters, the landscape emanates a vibrant, intense strangeness that suggests a heightened awareness of human-nonhuman entanglement. This has an ethical dimension for Butts, insofar as this recognition also entails an understanding of our interdependency with nonhuman objects and processes. In the second section I look at these ethical implications in more detail, examining some of the tensions and contradictions that arise as a result of certain reactionary or conservative instincts evident in Butts's work. Despite her intuitive awareness of the nonhuman energies that permeate human society and culture, her work also betrays an elitist resistance to the idea that people across all sociocultural groupings can or should be admitted into her notions of English community. …

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