07 March 2011

Ancient Pastoral and Ecocriticism

Our guest blogger is Ricardo Apostol of Case Western Reserve University, with the first part of an essay on ancient pastoral poetry and modern environmentalism. He believes that Classics has important things to say to other disciplines (and much to learn from them, too!).

"There is nothing more natural than nature." Sounds straightforward, but it’s not. “Nature” is first and foremost a concept, and so there is nothing particularly “natural” about it. As a specialist in ancient pastoral literature, I’m hyper-aware of this fact, since the prevailing notion is that pastoral has about as much to do with “real nature” as Marie Antoinette’s country excursions did with real milkmaids and shepherds. Once you start to unravel the cultural constructs that underlie this dismissal, though, you can see that the “modern, scientific” discourse about nature has a role beyond marginalizing the pre-industrial ideas of antiquity. Its broad dismissive sweep shunts aside all traditional and alternative views of nature, including those of people in developing countries today. Paradoxically, this makes classical literature a “fellow traveler” in the contemporary struggle over the environment. All that from the study of classical pastoral, you ask? Or, in other words… 

I What’s Pastoral Got to Do (Got to Do) with It?
Simone Martini, frontispiece to 1366 edition of Vergil
According to traditional ecocriticism, nothing. But I might be getting a little ahead of myself; first of all, a quick-and-dirty introduction to ecocriticism, also known as green criticism in the UK. Ecocriticism is to the ecological movement what feminist lit-crit and post-colonialist lit-crit are to their respective social movements, i.e. a literary branch concerned with a) investigating literature with an eye to uncovering the relevant themes, and b) advocating for texts in accord with the movement’s political values. Although these literary branches can sprout off in their own directions, they tend to at least share basic values, concerns, and goals with the political movements from which they sprang.

Ecocrit is no different, except that it’s even more self-conscious about this relationship; this is because ecocrit is a later development. Somebody woke up one day and noticed that most social movements of the 60’s had resulted in lit-crit branches, but that somehow the ecological movement (a very active part of the same Zeitgeist) had missed the boat; so they decided to make up that lack.

So what values did ecocriticism draw from the environmentalists of the 60’s and 70’s? It boils down to the exaltation of Nature as an end unto itself. Exemplary Ecocritical texts should foreground the natural environment, not simply use it as a framing device; should support the interests of pure Nature as opposed to human interests, and make humans accountable to Nature; they should also display a suitably enlightened understanding of Nature as a process, and not an eternally unchanging given. When you combine this set of values with the fact that most practitioners of ecocriticism reside in modern language departments (and tend to study modern/contemporary literature within them to boot), you end up with a dismissal of older styles of literature involving nature. The big one is, of course, what is described as “classical pastoral”, a category in which a recent introductory ecocrit text lumps all pastoral before the Romantic period, the more efficiently to dismiss it all en masse.
So, what’s classical pastoral got to do with it? Not much; or maybe it’s a poster child for environmentally unsophisticated thinking. Take your pick.

Watteau's Indifferent lover of nature

Now, as a Vergil scholar (quick summary: he was the ancient Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid, but also the Eclogues, probably the key text in the development of the pastoral tradition), this breaks my achy breaky little heart. Sure, I could go on and on about how the descriptions of “classical pastoral” in ecocrit and other modern sources are shallow and uninformed (and how could they not be, when they lump 2000 years of literature from all over Europe and the Mediterranean together as if they were the same thing?). But the real target, as usual, should be the underlying premises that ecocrit inherited from the American ecological movement of a particular time.  This means that I’ve got allies in this argument. Tons of them, in fact.

Some folks are even talking about a “post-environmental movement.” This isn’t a right-wing thing; in fact, a big impetus for the challenge has to do with what many see as the inadequacy of the old movement to deal successfully with new environmental challenges as they must be dealt with, that is, on a global scale. So, yes, to a great extent this is about global warming, and how you might convince countries like the United States, China, Bolivia, etc. to all come to an agreement. Hint: It’s not by telling them that they owe it to Nature to exalt and respect Her for Her own sake.

So authentic... so natural

Major charges against the nationally-based environmental movements include: elitism; excessive ecocentrism; that they uncritically subscribe to a Romantic “Nature Myth”; and that, because their claims are ethical rather than pragmatic, they fail to respect local conditions when making policy recommendations. All of these are closely intertwined. You start by positing an abstract, pure entity, “Nature”, that is, by definition, not-human, not-touched, not-used; and then endow this entity with a kind of spiritual, quasi-living existence, and hence a set of basic rights. Never mind whether humans might be considered animals/part of nature, or whether “pristine” nature really can or does exist. You then center your movement on the rights of this entity, which should ethically and unconditionally override the rights of encroaching humans. This means no local exceptions, and a call to “shared” sacrifice, which is an easy and convenient position for you to maintain since, hey, you’re a (relatively) affluent member of a developed nation.

Stay tuned for our second installment, where we build an alternate set of values for ecocriticism, and show how developing societies ancient and contemporary make natural common cause against “developed” societies’ attempts to marginalize them through myths of modernity and progress. You can get in touch with Ricardo at ricardo.apostol (at) cwru.edu

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