The green world and the written word
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March 27, 2012—
Dr. Scott Slovic, professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, introduced the academic field of “ecocriticism” in a lecture and seminar hosted March 21-22 by the Graduate Program in Comparative Literature at the Department of Humanities, LAU Beirut.
Slovic, himself a seminal figure in the field, offered several definitions of ecocriticism (short for environmental literary criticism) in the first part of his lecture, beginning broadly with “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical world.”
A literary movement that emerged in the mid-1990s and rose to some prominence since, ecocriticism takes an interdisciplinary approach to literary texts, often combining traditional aesthetic interpretation with philosophy and formal training in the natural sciences. It is typically characterized by a strong ethical stance regarding the intrinsic value of the natural world.
Slovic stressed that the domain of ecocriticism is not limited to “explicitly environmental texts.” Crucially, he said, it includes “the scrutiny of ecological implications and human-nature relations in any literary text — even texts that seem, at first glance, oblivious of the nonhuman world.”
Indeed, while the field’s pioneers tended to be scholars of the British Romantic poets or American transcendentalists — 19th-century writers whose central subject was in fact nature — major ecocritical studies have since been published on literature ranging from Shakespeare to modern urban poetry.
In opening remarks introducing Slovic, Dr. Philippe Frossard, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, described the rise of ecocriticism as representative of a broader intellectual shift he heartily welcomed, away from “over-specialization” and toward interdisciplinarity and holistic thinking.
“This shift is the legacy of the end of the twentieth century, and ecocriticism is a perfect example of it,” Frossard said, going on to cite genomics as an example from his own field, medicine. Practitioners in these new fields “are in the position of classical or medieval scholars, navigating several disciplines at once.”
Describing ecocriticism as representing a “challenge to the humanities to become more empirical,” Slovic turned to “Spring Pools,” by the American poet Robert Frost, to demonstrate how the approach can alter our experience of even a well-known work of literature. Addressed to snow-fed seasonal ponds — a familiar feature of the New England landscape, they appear and disappear rapidly — Frost’s poem is traditionally read as a lament about the ephemerality of experience.
Pointing out that such pools merely reflect fluctuations of the underlying water table, Slovic argued that the poem’s emotional tone of regret is balanced by an aesthetic understanding of nature’s cyclicality.
“If you know ecology, you know the water is there, but you just can’t see it,” Slovic said.
Slovic maintained that approaching literature in this way encourages “thinking beyond the text,” driving readers to seek out and cultivate “visceral, experiential knowledge.”
The lecture and the roundtable seminar the following day were heavily attended by faculty and graduate students, and discussion was lively and involved at both events.
Dr. Vahid Behmardi, associate professor of Arabic and Persian literature and chair of the humanities department, expressed appreciation for insights made possible by ecocriticism, but wondered if the approach — especially when brought to bear on classical texts — carried the risk of anachronism.
“Is this faithful to the concepts that were in the mind of the poet when the poem was in fact composed?”
Dr. Samira Aghacy, professor of English and comparative literature, approached the question of anachronism from a different angle, suggesting that someone like William Wordsworth, a 19th-century British poet who wrote extensively about “the mind of man vis-à-vis external nature,” might be regarded not merely as a subject for ecocritics but an ecocritic himself.
Slovic concluded his talk by urging fellow academics to not talk merely “to ourselves and with each other” — to move, that is not only between disciplines but also beyond them.
“It’s not just people in the university — in literature, in the sciences — who ‘own’ the knowledge,” he concluded. “People who live in close, daily contact with the natural world often have a deep wisdom that we need to learn from.”
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