Fearghal Duffy: Creative Ecocriticism

My research takes an ecocritical approach to medieval Irish literature. The most basic definition of ecocriticism is that it is the study of the relationship between literature and the environment. It seeks to make the category of nature as central to the humanities as class, race, and gender are at present. Ecocriticism does not simply involve documenting and discussing nature imagery as an object of study and placing it in a historical or thematic context. Rather, it interrogates how a literary text might elicit a reading which engages with ecological issues to effect a change in how we relate to nature.  In other words, it applies an ecologically informed approach to how nature is represented in literature and questions cultural constructions of nature.

But what is nature? That may seem like a very simple question and if anyone were asked it they would most likely answer by describing nature as the birds, the bees, the rivers and lakes and trees. Nature is also used synonymously with words like ‘environment’, ‘landscape’ and ‘wilderness’. In that sense nature is understood spatially. It is imagined as a place which we can visit. We often hear of people talking about ‘going out into nature’. They are understood to be going out from the civilized world and away from humanity. Nature is therefore also understood as that which is non-human; that which has not been created by humans; and that which exists outside the sphere of ‘civilized’ human activities with the implication being that humans are apart from nature and not a part of nature, that culture and nature are two separate entities. This contributes to the sense of alienation from nature perceived by many people in today’s modern societies. But it is a very old distinction and the opposition between culture and nature can be seen in some of the world’s earliest mythologies, for example, the ancient Mesopotamian ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ (written c. 2150–1400 BCE)  represents what is outside the walls of the city of Uruk as nature, and that which is inside is the realm of human culture. The two categories are divided by the massive walls of Uruk. These walls are not only physical walls that create a division between two spaces but they become mental walls in our minds which condition us to set nature apart from human culture. This nature-culture dyad reappears again and again throughout Western literature and it is the job of the ecocritic to question the interaction between these dualities in any given text. This is essentially what I am doing with medieval Irish literature.

Ecocritics also like to look to the past and to other traditions and cultures to find alternative ways to help us rethink our ideas of nature. It is useful to go back to the pre-Socratic notion of ‘nature’, what they called phusis, from which we get the modern word ‘physics’. When we look to the pre-Socratic Greeks we see that nature wasn’t understood spatially; they understood it temporally. Thought of in temporal terms, nature is a process of birth, growth, and decay, an endless creative process where everything is ever coming into being and out of being. This was the concept of nature held by Heraclitus, who imagined nature like a stream. Nature is an ever-changing phenomenon, constantly in a state of metamorphosis.

The exciting thing for me about being part of the Metamorphosis project is that it actually provides the sort of collaboration that ecocriticism needs if it is to be in anyway useful or applicable for helping to change attitudes towards nature. Academic research is limited in its reach and influence. I would like to think though that as researchers we are part of a process that in some way corresponds to the pre-Socratic notion of phusis, that the research contributes to the birth of some new creative process  for re-imagining nature, which is then brought to fruition by the artist’s creative gifts. It is a creative ecological connection and interaction between researchers and artists. We need this collaboration between researchers, thinkers, and artists if we are to bring about new ways of thinking about nature, to restore us to an ecological sensibility, and to help dissolve the mental walls of Uruk that continue to separate us from our true home, the earth. As a researcher I can merely hope that I can at least help provide some useful material for the artist to interpret in this process.

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