Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Nature and the "Dark Pastoral" in Goethe's Werther

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Nature and the "Dark Pastoral" in Goethe's Werther

Article excerpt

Introduction: The Dark Pastoral in Relation to Dark Ecology and the Anthropocene

CELEBRATING THE NATURAL HARMONY of the stream, grasses, and the beautiful wellspring where the peasant girls come to fetch water in Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774), Goethe's epony- mous hero embraces pastoral nature with a passion. He partakes in a traditional pastoral setting of rustic, idyllic landscapes rife with "simple" peasant folk, happy children, and agricultural pursuits far from the complexities of urban or courtly life-at least in the first part of the novel. This idealized pastoral framework with its peaceful green hills and valleys appears isolated from-or, more precisely, abstracted from-the urban sites where the authors of such poems and tales inevitably write and where, apparently, corrupted wealthy sophisticates rage political and economic battles. Yet according to ecocriticTerry Gifford, the pastoral trope is actually not so one-sided and simplistic; this literary form encompasses complex, often ironic tensions, including the primary oppositions between the (gritty) urban and the (garden-like) rural, between the always already lost "Golden Age" and a messier present time, between myth and history, and between an overtly artificial "utopia" and concrete "realism," as well as the intentional acknowledgment that the green vision is hyperbolic yet precisely therefore able to provide a social critique through artifice.1 Even the pastoral's common insistence on avoiding all mention of politics can function as a form of critique, with its utopian, conflict-free zone inevitably suggesting the opposite, much in the way that a utopia can describe a "no-place" that critiques what actually is. The pastoral tensions in these polarities resonate all the more powerfully because they cannot be bridged; their mythic nostalgia can reveal stark contrasts in social, political, chronological, and, most significantly for ecocriticism, ecological terms.

However, the pastoral's capaciousness may not be broad enough to encompass the rupture documented in Goethe's novel through Werther's radical shift from a foundation of agrarian harmony to the unstable grounds of destructive storms and flooding. This shift parallels the text's move out of Werther's solipsistic letters and into a multiplicity of voices describing his downfall. One might thus abandon the pastoral's inherently dualistic artifice altogether and seek to define some kind of "postpastoral" taking place in the novel; instead, I propose here the "dark pastoral." The dark pastoral builds on Timothy Morton's idea of "dark ecology," which shatters traditional notions of nature as an aesthetic and isolated green site to visit or ignore and replaces this outdated vision of nature with a more ecological and postmodern understanding that engages us in every location, regardless of its color or number of trees, with a physical, bodily inevitability as part of the "mesh" of the world that includes us. Morton writes:

I explore the possibility of a new ecological aesthetics: dark ecology. Dark ecology puts hesitation, uncertainty, irony, and thoughtfulness back into ecological thinking. . . . There is no metaposition from which we can make ecological pronouncements. Ironically, this applies in particular to the sunny, affirmative rhetoric of environmental ideology. A more honest ecological art would lin- ger in the shadowy world of irony and difference. With dark ecology, we can explore all kinds of art forms as ecological: not just ones that are about lions and mountains, not just journal writing and sublimity. The ecological thought includes negativity and irony, ugliness and horror.2

Dark ecology thus opens up nature to include the full spectrum of the bodily materiality in which every living being exists, and it encompasses also the human discursive and cultural elements as well. There is no outside of this realm; it includes the biosphere, but Morton sees it as also expanding out into the cosmos and, from a more earthly perspective, as embracing cyborg or even robotic, mechanistic "beings"; he uses Ridley Scott's androids in Blade Runner as exemplary for the other-than-human. …

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