A couple of weeks ago, I heard Lawrence Buell, ecocritc extraordinaire, give a talk on what he calls “environmental memory” in literature. The argument is still developing (unlike some “big names,” he didn’t just read from an already-published book), and is sort of perspectival and descriptive, rather than anaylitical and critical. In any event, it seemed to me that “memory” was being used as a kind of ahistorical, psychologized category – an individualized version of history.
That’s a consummately American approach. Europeans can see history for the succession of tragedies that it is (b/c it has been more so, over there). Americans need to boil history down for their own personal use. If Europeans philosophize, Americans psychologize. This tendency is especially problematic for environmental discourse, as there is already a penchant for organicist tropes (and essentialist thinking).
I asked what to me was the obvious question: What is history? He was obviously quite tired (halfway through a two-week intensive graduate seminar), and the response kind of rambled, but I think he understood what I was getting at. I do hope that he thinks some more re: the relation of history to memory (and how each gets represented). That’s crucial.
I also hope that he branches out generically. “Literature” meant “novels.” This conflation is typical, esp. amongst Americanists. Moreover, he did not talk about the form or structure of novels – that is, how the shape and texture of the text might interact with the way it represents memory or the environment.
The grand theories of American literature from the 50s and 60s dealt with motifs in novels. Those were the days of structuralism and psychologistic readings. Nowadays, not many people presume to account for all of American lit – and increasingly, monographs limit themselves to one or two genres (in the titles, even). But Buell is the generation just after the Theories of American Literature (Novel) crowd, and while he has branched out in dramatically new directions, this basic assumption – and approach – remains in place. It is a criticism that takes “content” for granted.
It is a pivotal assumption, since, it seems to me, the nature of representations of nature is what is at stake – not simply the semantic, hypotactic meanings, but the syntactic, material nature of the text as well.
I recommend that Prof. Buell read poets who deal with memory and history: Susan Howe, Adrienne Rich, Charles Olson, Nathaniel Mackey, et al. They may or may not deal with the environment as well. But one needs to think about the medium in order to understand the message. And to do that, one cannot accept genres as natural phenomena. To do so means to misunderstand “nature.”
Sonnet 81 - Pendulous blooms, & crepuscular; for the hour, it verges on nighttime. The garden lurks among copses and benches stuck under fountains… Oh, mid-evening rha...
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