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Ecocriticism and Literature: The Ecopoetics of Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, and Ali Smith

Ecocriticism was first introduced to British Academia in 1997, after the publication of “Swampy’s Smart Set” by Jennifer Wallace in the Times Higher Education Supplement. This field of research can be divided into two parts: the First Wave (the 1970s-1980s) celebrated nature and took inspiration from environmental activism; the Second Wave of Ecocriticism is more complex than the previous one, and its connections to science and politics are harder to define. The author Buell (2005) explains that, in this case, “The discourses of science and literature must be read both with and against each other”. For instance, the latest manifestations of Second Wave Ecocriticism (queer, deconstructionist and postcolonial ecocriticism) can be very judgmental of environmentalism because of its implications in gender politics; the destruction of the environment may also be related, in multiple cases, to the colonization of a country (Garrard, 2013).

Furthermore, Buell (2005) specifies that some of the currents of the First Wave are still present and that, despite its peculiarity, Second Wave Ecocriticism has been largely inspired by its predecessor. The latter adopts a scientific approach to oppose critical subjectivism and cultural relativism, whereas the former criticizes the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of “bio-power”. This notion is described as “the entry of life into history, that is, the entry of phenomena peculiar to the life of the human species into the order of knowledge and power, into the sphere of political science” (Buell, 2005). Ecocritics also diverge from Foucault’s opinion because they do not share his exclusive interest for the human animal: their analysis goes beyond their species. Still, what is remarkable about Foucault’s theory is that ecology and environmentalism are considered the product of institutions and political histories.

According to Foucault, cited by Garrard (2013), politics, biology and history are interrelated. That is why he promotes a historical approach in the study of this discipline. In his book, Garrard goes back to medieval British literature to investigate the development of ecocriticism. On the contrary, most researchers start from Romanticism because of its particular vision of the human-nature relationship. Unfortunately, this historical inquiry may cause a misleading, anthropocentric view in which the role of humanity is exaggerated at the expense of the environment. The author himself admits: “It is true that what we call “nature” is often a forgotten or pastoralized remnant of human culture”, but equally, there can be no exclusively human history […] all history is environmental” (Garrard, 2013). The French sociologist Bruno Latour (2004) suggests two possibilities concerning the political dimension of ecology in Politics of Nature. How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy: It is possible to distinguish between questions of nature or questions of politics but also to treat those “two sets of questions as a single issue that arises for all collectives”. The sciences mediate between the two as they allow humans to know the world. This leads to a fundamental aspect of ecology: access to nature is never direct but constructed through “networks of instruments, […] interventions of professions, disciplines, and protocols; […] databases; […] arguments through the intermediary of learned societies” (Latour, 2004). This intermediation clarifies the process through which humankind experiences the external world. In the words of the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1978):

Our most immediate experience of things… is […] an experience of reciprocal encounter – of tension, of communication, and commingling. From within the depth of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor – as a dynamic presence that confronts us and draws us into relation. We conceptually immobilize or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation […]

In literature, this translates to the questioning of language and the way it conceptualizes human knowledge of the external world. Modernist writer Virginia Woolf and contemporary writers Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith reflect on the uses of language and reverse them to get to a different view of reality. Trexler, a researcher of the representation of climate change in Anglophone fiction (Trexler and Johns-Putra, 2011), affirms that scientists' and novelists’ mediation can help ecocritics “elicit things rather than obscuring them”.

Figure 1: "The Junction of the Thames and the Medway" (Turner, 1807).

Writers have always questioned the relationship between humans and the environment, adopting views specific to their times or diverging from them. Their lessons often inspired the following generations as well. The case of Modernism is particularly interesting because it is not usually regarded as an environmentally active movement. On the contrary, modernists question nature through a position that the British philosopher Kate Soper (1995) defines “nature-skeptical”.

For instance, American critic and poet Monroe (1912) viewed nature parks as a symbol of modernity because they served as preservation sites. Poetry was similar to nature, for it was the “refuge… where Beauty may plant her gardens”. Plus, Modernism was interested in the role of technology too. Those writers assert that art must conform to its time, that is why they advocate for its renewal. This translates into a refusal of Romanticism and Realism, the first for worshipping Nature and the second for imitating it. Instead, they scrutinize how nature is affected by technology. In this case, modernists' behavior is similar to Romantics' in that they both reject the objectification of nature through it.

The overcoming of Romanticism is clear in Woolf’s works, where the Romantic artist who finds refuge and consolation in Nature, is replaced by multiple narrative voices to convey different perspectives. Those voices also try to negotiate with each other and are aware that every living being or natural element participates in the same flux of information. By doing so, language becomes the distinctive feature of the natural world, not just humans. Justyna Kostkowska (2013), the author of Ecocriticism and Women Writers, highlights the implications of language as follows:

The way we use language must be carefully scrutinized and reformed to eliminate old hegemonic patterns and to promote modes of linguistic expression that foster connectivity instead of separation.

A remarkable example of this is Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931). In this experimental book, the author overcomes her distinctive use of the stream of consciousness in favor of the spoken monologue. Thus, characters express their thoughts out loud to be heard and reach out to others.

Each … tense means differently. There is an order in this world; there are distinctions, there are differences in this world, upon whose verge I step”

Words can also express communality with nature: “I think I am the field”, says one of the main characters, Susan (Woolf, 1931).

Figure 2: Jeanette Winterson (Du Toit, 2019).

Contemporary writers Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith can be considered the inheritors of Woolf’s lesson. The ecological component may be even more evident in their works, as they published in recent times; still, Woolf’s influence is clear, nonetheless: their prose is innovative, their language breaks the rules of convention, and nature is portrayed unrealistically. A central topic that the three share is the “transformative value of art” (Kostkowska, 2013). Art transforms our belief system, leading to a more conscious behavior towards the planet and its inhabitants. The reader is made to think of the fictional work from a more careful, distant perspective through alienating writing techniques. Significantly, none of these authors uses the traditional hegemonic master narrative (one omniscient narrator) in favor of a more pluralistic narration. For example, Smith introduces multiple narrators who live the same situations, while Winterson introduces ungendered narrators (Kostkowska, 2013). Additionally, they subvert linear time to restore our perception of a cyclic time where every action is connected, and endings are open. The following example is a passage from The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson (2007):

Emerson said that the rarest thing on the planet is a truly individual action – but I’d set the bar at a story told. It’s why the nineteenth-century writers favoured such long and satisfyingly plotted novels. Some of them – like George Eliot – really believed there was something to tell and that we could tell it. Dickens knew very well that we could not, but he told it anyway, glittering and bravura. It’s one way of defying chaos – the kind of Chaos, with a capital C, that can’t be avoided; the exuberant, unfolding, unpredictable universe, expanding when it should be contracting, made largely of something that is not something but nothing – dark energy, anti-matter. A thing unconfined. What to say when the certainties fail? Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.

Similarly, Smith does not limit her characters' lives. The character Hannah, who lives in France, helps the Jews to escape to Switzerland. To do so, she uses the names of those who died young and gives their identities to those in need.

The dead name takes the new person on, and a live person takes the dead name on. Life happens for someone whose life will otherwise end. Life enters, graciously, with respect, the unlived life.

The three writers analyzed, Woolf, Winterson, and Smith reflect on the relationship between humans and the environment in their works. Despite their novels being published at different times, they believe in the redemptive and transformative power of art in a devastated world. The introductory explanation to this article allowed us to understand why the term “ecocriticism” is not anachronistic when applied to Woolf’s production, as Modernists have long tried to redefine the interaction between nature and art, modernity and language. From this perspective, Winterson and Smith can be considered their successors. Yet, they apply this vision of art to the environmental consciousness that is specific to their epoch. In fact, such topics are becoming more frequent in contemporary literature, and so is the field of research in ecocriticism. However, if the representation of the environment has acquired a specific connotation in recent times, literature has always investigated the interaction between humankind and the planet. Thus, an analysis of works published in different periods, like the one conducted before, can help better understand the transformation of the human perception of the world.

Bibliographical References

Buell, L. (2005). The future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Garrard, G. (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kostkowska, J. (2013). Ecocriticism and Women Writers. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Latour, B. (2004). Politics of Nature. How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP

Monroe, H. (1912). Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. Edited by Harriet Monroe.

Smith, A. (2020). Summer. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Soper, K. (1995). What Is Nature?: Culture, Politics, and the Non-Human. Oxford: Blackwell.

Trexler, A., JOHNS PUTRA, A. (2011). “Climate Change in Literature and Literary Criticism.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change no. 2 (2): 185–200. doi: 10.1002/ wcc.105

Winterson, J. (2007). The Stone Gods. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Woolf, V. (1931). The Waves. London: Hogarth Press.

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Debora Ricci

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