Academic journal article Spatial Practices

Environmental Criticism and Cormac McCarthy

Academic journal article Spatial Practices

Environmental Criticism and Cormac McCarthy

Article excerpt

When I look forth at dawning, pool,

Field, flock, and lonely tree,

All seem to gaze at me

Like chastened children sitting silent in a school;

. . .

Upon them stirs in lippings mere

(As if once clear in call,

But now scarce breathed at all) -

"We wonder, ever wonder, why we find us here!"

Has some Vast Imbecility,

Mighty to build and blend,

But impotent to tend,

Framed us in jest, and left us now to hazardry?"

(from "Nature's Questioning" by Thomas Hardy)

This chapter will discuss some major ideas in the field of environmental criticism and show how they can be helpful in reading McCarthy's fiction. The chapter is organized around a series of binaries; they are meant as key terms of ecocritical enquiry and not as neat oppositions. They are: 1 environmental criticism/ecocriticism, 2 machine/garden, 3 nature/culture, 4 biocentrism/anthropocentrism, 5 space/place and 6 wilderness/civilization. Environmental criticism offers a set of tools which open up McCarthy's texts and help assess the author's place in debates about American spaces - debates that begin with notions of good and evil but which lead to a more complex analysis of how humans interact with(in) their environments. This chapter will further define the methodological positions given in outline in the introduction.

1.1. Environmental Criticism/Ecocriticism

The discipline variously known as environmental criticism, ecocriticism or green studies emerged in the U.S. in the late 80's and early 90 's.1 It is essentially scholarship that in some way focuses on the relationship between literature and the environment. The most often quoted of the ecocritics is Lawrence Buell, whose The Future of Environmental Criticism aims to be both a handbook to practical criticism (a glossary of selected terms is appended) and a call to a more theorized version of the study of literature and the environment.

Buell describes what he calls first and second wave ecocriticism which are roughly distinguished by chronology but with much overlap. In the former, criticism tends to deal mainly with texts about nature, hence the prominence of writers such as Thoreau, Emerson and Fuller. It appraises the effects of culture upon nature and more or less assumes that the two can be clearly delineated. It is an overtly political and activist enterprise. Some of its problematic assumptions are that writing should be mimetic (this defies the poststructuralist critique of representation) and that writing should communicate a message on behalf of the environment (this goes against modern notions of the author as separate from political and social discourses). In contrast to all this, the latter questions the foundations of conceiving environment and environmentalism and emphasizes the extent to which natural and built environments imbricate.

Due to this divergent theoretical orientation, various other texts are considered in second wave criticism: nature 'writ large' is no longer the only focus; urban and degraded environments here play a much larger role. Buell argues that, for himself and other second wave critics, environmentality should be considered a property of any text.2

There are three reasons for Buell's preference of the term environmental criticism. Though ecocriticism is more commonly used and grammatically more flexible, it has many negative connotations which have been stuck to it, fairly or not, over the years. "Ecocriticism", argues Buell, "still invokes in some quarters the cartoon image of a club of intellectually shallow nature worshipers" (2005: viii). Today's environmental critics have clear methodologies that go far beyond simple moralizing about the virtues of pristine wilderness. Secondly, modern critics no longer consider 'pure nature', if such a thing exists, to be their subject matter but also focus on, for example, metropolitan, suburban or 'toxic' landscapes. Indeed, the prefix eco connotes a holistic concept of nature, as if it were possible to clearly delineate between the natural and constructed environments. …

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