19 March 2011

Ancient Pastoral and Ecocriticism, Part II

Guest blogger Ricardo Apostol of Case Western Reserve University send the second part of his essay on ancient pastoral poetry and modern environmentalism. Catch the first part here!
III You Don’t Win Friends with Salad

As the Simpsons have taught us, it doesn’t do any good to serve a wholesome vegetarian salad if it causes everyone to skip out for a pig roast.  Aside from the untenable and arbitrary nature of the Romantic Nature Myth, pragmatic considerations make it clear that however leafy and green it might be, it is politically unpalatable on the international stage (and arguably even on the American political scene) and must be replaced.  A post-environmental set of values might then be formed in response to the criticisms of the current environmental movement presented in the first part of this article. 

You don't win friends with salad!

Instead of the Nature Myth as the lynchpin of the entire structure, we could recognize a diverse spectrum of landscapes with varying degrees of human presence as acceptable. If Nature no longer has to be pristine or exist in a vacuum, we could shift from a purely ecocentric ethics to the recognition of many valid ethical objects (humans, animals, plants) or even a primarily anthropocentric ethic that takes into account the fact that humans don’t exist in a vacuum any more than nature does. These changes in turn will help create a dialogue that can accommodate locally-based needs, both human and environmental. This makes environmentalism less of an elitist imposition of an inflexible agenda “from above” by wealthy developed nations or special interest groups.

Since ecocriticism is built on the framework of environmental ethics, a change in the political agenda would necessitate a change in the literary approach.  A place is thus opened for texts that embody our new, more global values.  Under this new canon, an good ecocritical text could show many kinds of landscapes and situations where humans interact successfully and sustainably with their environment to fulfill their needs. It would not shy away from showing the larger local frameworks within which these interactions are articulated, such as the economic and political contexts of  characters' lives, ownership, and production. It could focus on, or at least be sympathetic to, the struggles of non-elite players in the environmental drama. And it would not offer up universalizing cookie-cutter solutions, but rather respect the many pragmatic approaches available, as it were, “on the ground.”

This last point is very important – we’re not talking about Soviet realist literature here.  So what are we talking about?  I thought you’d never ask…

IV Making Friends with Vergil

OK, call me self-indulgent; it’s obviously not only Vergil that meets these criteria, but he’s what I know best.  Vergil’s Eclogues are exemplary ecocritical texts.  His collection of 10 short poems offers vignettes of herdsmen, farmers, hikers, and other figures, mostly working people, against a varied background that includes everything from towns and farms to pristine mountain glades. There is no  environmental metanarrative or agenda, besides  the need to live in harmony with the environment, broadly conceived (including distant cities and political players).  Are the characters “realistic” through and through?  Of course not, there are literary conventions at play; but they are not allegories or caricatures, and they are usually placed in very concrete situations and surroundings, which is what really matters here.  For instance, the first Eclogue deals with the politically-motivated dispossession of rural folk after a civil war, with a great deal of attention to the details of landscape and agrarian production.  Everywhere you turn in these poems, you see that the fate of human beings and nature are  intertwined, a notion that many traditional practitioners of ecocrit have dismissed as the “pathetic fallacy”; what’s truly pathetic is the belief that one element of the system can be (even conceptually) singled out.
Some shepherds chilling, from a late antique copy of the Eclogues.

As exciting as such readings might be for Vergil scholars, though, this piece would hardly pack much punch if that was all it came to; sure, I hope people make friends “with” good ol’, dead Vergil, but better to re-interpret our little “with”: that is, not to make Vergil a friend, but to make friends through Vergil (in the same sense as one hopes to make friends “with” salad).

Coming as they do from far outside mainstream theory, classical scholars can question the assumptions of academics who take it for granted that modern ideas are simply “the truth”, and not constructs with a particular intellectual pedigree and political spin.  Being so close to the material, and so involved in a debate that takes its premises for granted, makes it hard to see these assumptions in historical context. Though classics tends to get lumped in with “Western Civ”, antiquity is actually quite a different cultural animal.  Its material basis is also often far more akin to that of developing societies than modern Europe.

If you think that diverse perspectives are essential to maintaining healthy scholarly debate, then the research of classicists is essential.  In particular, those who have taken seriously the warnings of cultural critics like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno about the repressive effects of the totalizing discourse of modernity will see the need for the kind of “reality check” that could be provided through the natural alliance between scholars of the pre-modern world and members of developing societies.  Our little environmental reading is just one piece of evidence that not only can one make friends with Vergil (and, by implication, other classical authors), one can even hope to make friends with sweet, sweet benefits.    

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