Ecocriticism and the Decolonisation of Nature: A Discussion, by Mayan Godmaire

Ecocriticism and the Decolonisation of Nature: A Discussion, by Mayan Godmaire

About the Author:

I was in the Literature Profile until I graduated in Fall 2021. This essaytreats a subject that I feel very passionate about: the respect of nature and of our fellow humans. The freedom allotted to me in Lorne Roberts’ Literary Theory and Criticism course was essential for the creation of this essay. It was fun to experiment with a strange and humouristic style of essay writing. I will attend Concordia University in the fall, and I hope to find therein some of the same freedoms that I learned to treasure at Dawson.

Mayan Godmaire

Prof. Lorne Roberts

English 312: Literary Theory and Criticism

Ecocriticism and the Colonisation of Nature: A Discussion

Yvon and Yuri, the famous reality-travellers, stroll through the county of Wessex.

Yvon: The literary theory of Ecocriticism emerged in the 1960s, so it makes historical sense that Postcolonialism, which emerged in the 1980s, follows a related train of thought.

Yuri: Yes, if you mean that, unlike theories that came before, these two theories focus very much on the real world, instead of viewing our whole universe as constructed by language. Like the famed ecocritic Kate Sopher so rightly said: “it isn’t language which has a hole in its ozone layer!” (What is Nature? 151). And, if I may add: It isn’t language which is marginalized!

Yvon, chuckling: Indeed. And, both theories focus on something that is othered, to borrow the postcolonial critic Edward Said’s marvellous term. As Peter Barry says, “nature really exists, out there beyond ourselves” (250).

Yuri: Astute! I believe that the othering of nature is the basal cause of the environmental issues of today.

Yvon: I think so as well. And colonizers othering peoples is the cause of racism and harmful stereotypes! So, Yuri, if we bring all this together: what do you think about modern culture being the colonizer of nature?

Yuri and Yvon walk through the town of Marlott.

Yuri: Well, first of all, we’d have to look at modern culture’s relationship to nature. Harold Fromm, in his essay “From Transcendence to Obsolescence,” argues that as society and technology advanced, humanity’s relationship to nature changed. Before, nature was something to be transcended because of its hardships, and the belief in God and the afterlife provided a way to transcend. However, as modernity came to being, nature became something that humans began to believe could be “tamed or bent to [their] own will” (Fromm 543).

Yvon, pointing: Why, there is Tess Durbeyfield herself, working in the fields! When she meets Alec d’Urberville, she can only imagine that “a family name came by nature”; however, his father before him, by some trick of modernity, asserted dominance over the natural course of things by choosing a new name for his family (Hardy 61).

Yuri: Not only that, but the milk from Talbothay’s dairy is shipped by train to distant London, where it is consumed by city-folks and “babies who have never seen a cow” (Hardy 196). This shows that modernity, represented by the train, distances and alienates humans from nature.

Yvon: Yes. In addition, both Tess and Angel Clare are of the generation which witnesses much of the shifting of the tides— recall, Tess and her mother are separated by “a gap of two hundred years” (Hardy 46). Neither are traditionally religious, which would fit Fromm’s argument.

Yvon and Yuri don their work-clothes and pull turnips with Tess.

Yuri: So, Yvon, you think that humanity’s domination of nature can be paralleled to colonization?

Yvon: I do. However, first, we should discuss postcolonialism and the parallel between the othering of nature and the othering of cultures.

Yuri, brushing dirt off a turnip: You are absolutely correct. I know postcolonialists focus on deconstructing Eurocentrism in canonical works such as Hardy’s (he lowers his voice) Tess of the D’urbervilles. Postcolonialists would argue, and rightly so, that Tess does not depict “fundamental, universal aspects of the human condition” (Barry 194).

Yvon: Precisely. And although Ecocriticism does not deal in deconstruction, it is concerned with the anthropocentric view of the world and its effects.

Yuri: As a result of something-centric views, anything that is not the center of focus is othered. As Edward Said points out in his book Orientalism, the East is perceived as “Other and inferior to the West” (Barry 195).

Yvon: Which reminds me, the engineer that appears in Hardy’s novel does not care at all for the “scenes around him” (Hardy 318). The man, the embodiment of modernity, is described as having a “strange” accent, and he is alienated from the workfolk who Hardy describes as “aborigines,” “natives,” and “autochtonous” (318-9). The engineer is also “in the agricultural world, but not of it”; this man resides in a space above nature (318). His blasé attitude is proof of that.

Yuri: So, he sees both nature and foreign peoples as inferior and other to himself. In Hardy’s novel, the engineer doesn’t represent modernity exactly; instead, he symbolizes the culture that attaches itself to the machine. Man cannot be wholly apart from nature like the machine is because Man is nature.

Yvon: Even then, Yuri, some would argue that the machine cannot be wholly apart from nature either, since it cannot be created from ‘unnatural’ materials. However, nature is to the machine and modern culture what the East was to the Western mind.

Yvon and Yuri leave Tess and head out of Blackmoor Vale.

Yuri: Modern culture is the colonizer of nature because its mindset is one that allows nature to be seen as lesser and as something that lies “beyond” culture (Barry 250).

Yvon: Yes, colonial powers and modern culture are linked by their domineering ideologies. They are both creators of hegemony.

Yuri: Because of modern culture’s mindset, modern man’s awareness of his relation to nature and other animals is “thickly veiled” (Fromm 544). This places him in a near-godlike position, where he “feels he is lord of all he surveys” (Fromm 547).

Yvon: Yes! In this, he is just like the colonizer “who takes himself as the norm of civilization,” and so believes it is his right, for example, to make profit from “slave labour” (Barry 202).

Yuri: You make an important point. Is nature not enslaved by modern culture? Man’s connection with nature “has been artfully concealed by modern tech” (Fromm 545-6). Nature is reduced to ‘natural resources,’ a term that is problematic due to its connotation that everything is for the taking. Viewing nature as something off of which to profit is “putting Nature in a cage” (Fromm 248).

Yvon: The enslavement of nature, as you say, is rather vague. Not only does modern man harvest the earth’s ‘natural resources’ such as petrol, wood, and natural gas, impudently, he also enslaves animals as ‘livestock,’ and he enslaves his fellow man for labour in fields and factories.

Yuri: This take-all and give-none attitude is very harmful to all life on earth. Everything would benefit from the deconstruction of the current colonizing mindset of modern culture.

Yvon and Yuri meander through the hillocks of the countryside bathed in warm, beneficent sunlight.

Yvon: I tire of this topic. Imagine how marvellous the world would be if “the sense of awe in the presence of nature” were restored (Garrard 455).

Yuri, laughing: It would be sublime. I wonder if humans will have time to decolonize their view of nature before their mistreatment of it becomes fatal (Barry 250).

Yvon: So do I. However, the mistreatment of nature comes with the perceived power to control the world. Power, once gained, is not easily relinquished. Atheism is ever-growing in modern culture, perhaps due to the subconscious perception of man’s power as godlike.

Yuri: Ah, what an age…

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Fourth Edition, UP, 2017.

Fromm, Harold. “From Transcendence to Obsolescence: A Route Map.” The Georgia Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, Georgia Review, 1978, pp. 543-552.

Garrard, Greg. “Radical Pastoral?” Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 35, No. 3, John Hopkins UP, 1996, pp. 449-465.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles: An Authoritative Text (Norton Critical Editions, 2nd Edition), edited by Scott Elledge, W.W. Norton, 1990.

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