Friends of the earth
LITERARY CRITICISM: Out of the Earth: Ecocritical Readings of Irish Texts Edited by Christine Cusick Cork University Press, 269pp. €39ECOLOGICAL APPROACHES to the arts have been developing worldwide since the 1960s, although ecocriticism, an umbrella term, was coined only 15 years ago.
A recent exhibition, at the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar, of disturbingly beautiful images that had won the Prix Pictet – Earth competition gave harrowing visual evidence of the havoc man is capable of wreaking upon Earth. The publication of prize-winning novels by Barbara Kingsolver, JM Coetzee and Ian McEwan provides familiar literary examples on environmentalist themes. In the academy, Mary Immaculate College in Limerick recently hosted an ecocriticism conference. Thus this volume of critical essays on Irish texts, written almost exclusively by academics at American universities, is part of a thickening strand of responses to the interaction between culture and nature. The ecocritic views this connection as it specifically relates to man’s stewardship of Earth past and present, although some would quibble with the implications of the term stewardship, as it privileges humankind above all else in nature.
The writers under consideration are either of the late 19th or 20th century, and a single essay concentrates on visual images. Some of the choices are more obvious than others. Irish readers would expect to find essays on Lady Morgan, that quintessential rambling man JM Synge and the poets Michael Longley and Richard Murphy, whose poetry often thrills with minutely observed flora and fauna.
More intriguingly, one also finds in these pages Martin McDonagh and Roddy Doyle. The Cripple of Inishmaanis evaluated in the light of its comic subtext – a lacerating treatment of Robert Flaherty’s manipulation of the human, animal and botanical ecology of the Aran Islands in his film Man of Aran. Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Hais viewed as a critique of unplanned urban sprawl and its demoralising effect on those forced to live with the detritus. Rather than centring exclusively on bucolic regions or texts, ecocriticism can show us how deracination can come in newer guises: “There were fields past the Corporation houses but they were too far away now. Past the Corporation houses. Somewhere else.”
The beam shone on these works occasions a thought for a mystifying omission from this collection, and a genuine lost opportunity. Derek Mahon’s body of work, more than that of any other living Irish fiction writer, addresses the global and historical implications of the destructive material excesses of modernisation. He is unusual in that this is one of his declared subjects, yet there is no perspective on his work in this volume. Also missing is any sustained look at Seamus Heaney’s bog poems, in which humans and the earth metaphorically or literally share organic substance.
Other ecocritical approaches explored here can be harder for the general reader to accommodate and include the zoomorphic treatment of women in the work of Edna O’Brien and Paula Meehan, which situates them in closer relation to nature and in opposition to patriarchal hierarchies. The connection of land and the self in both Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction and non-fiction is essential to the extent that she believed that, when missing, the result was stunted personality, and a failure to thrive.
Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination, one of the bibles of ecocriticism, is applied to the work of Michael Longley, linking his nature poetry to the historical and political reality in which he lives. Such writing “relies on the nonhuman environment not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history”.
The Romantic origins of ecocriticism are visible to the reader in the black-and-white reproductions of commercially sponsored travel posters of the postwar era, most of which feature the tame and surprisingly 19th-century views of lakes and mountains, contrasted with Dunluce Castle sublimely perched high above a tumultuous sea.
The botanically named John Elder (who lives, appropriately enough, in the Green Mountains of Vermont) provides a brief introduction to ecocritical thought, explaining that this undertaking is part of its second ideological wave and moves beyond aesthetic response to ethical concerns.
The volume concludes with an interview with the pioneering cultural cartographer Tim Robinson by its editor, Christina Cusick. Robinson, who seems wary of incursions from the academy, leaves us with the firm suggestion that literary critics should enter into environmental studies only in “muddy boots”. At the very least the contributors to Out of the Earthseem to have put their wellies on.
Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry