Living within Nature’s means: Some further thoughts on the Anthropocene novel

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One of the more striking images for Moby-Dick that I’ve come across; it seems to be as much about the novel’s ideas about the interaction between humans and Nature as about its central action. Source

As I worked toward a conclusion in my previous post, it occurred to me that some things yet remain to be said about the implications of using Naturalism’s presuppositions about the world and our place in it as a foundation on which to build the Anthropocene novel.  To point the reader toward Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and say “Here is something like a template for what those presuppositions would look like” is to say, in effect, that such novels would be dark indeed.

Well, many of them, yes.  But perhaps not all, or at least all the time.  But because Nature, in these novels, will Matter, such novels’ respective zeitgeists will be situated in such a way that human concerns and hopes and fears cannot but be depicted as direct responses to Nature–whether in accord with or defiance of Nature, no matter, but never independent of it, never with Nature as a passive backdrop or submissive setting, but always with it having an unmistakable bearing on the resolution of the narrative, usually “winning” or at least bending people to its will (whatever those might look like given Nature’s fearsome indifference), and yet itself remaining inscrutable.  In other words: if we’re looking at American literature for examples of what we might call proto-Anthropocene novels, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, canny as they occasionally are, through Natty Bumppo, about what we would now call sustainability, would not be models for Anthropocene novels; they are ultimately about human choices in dialogue with other human choices, but not in dialogue with Nature–at least, that latter dialogue seems not to rise to the level of narrative.  On the other hand, I’d nominate Melville’s Moby-Dick as a fine candidate for an Anthropocene novel (no “proto-” about it, come to think of it): the central activity of the novel, whaling, is an activity which God, speaking out of the whirlwind to Job, taunts Job (and the reader/listener) as something humans are supposed to be incapable of doing (recall that one of the novel’s Extracts is from Job); Ahab sees Nature, as embodied by the whale, as a malevolence he must try to overcome so as to understand his place in the cosmos; in contrast to Ahab, Ishmael’s post-Pequod musings on whale-ness end in the whale’s nature (and Nature itself) remaining inscrutable, as unreadable as those scars on some whales’ outer skin that resembles writing; Nature “wins.”  (And as I write this, I begin to realize there is much, much more to say about Moby-Dick within this context than I can here.)

Anyway.  Below the fold are some fairly knee-jerk, broad-stroke speculations regarding what Anthropocene novels might look like, along with some uninformed musing, combined with heavy reliance on John Berger and a shout-out to Dan Barber, about what an Anthropocene aesthetics arising from Nature might look like.

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Summer reading and writing

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The memorial at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, commemorating the final defeat of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1521.  The last three lines of text read: “It was neither triumph nor defeat; it was the painful birth of the mestizo people that is today’s Mexico.”

Last week was my college’s Finals Week, so now the summer has arrived.  This academically-oriented to-do list for this summer that follows is, as the list progresses down the page, admittedly more aspirational in nature than anything else, seeing as well off even the margins of this particular list lie new-baby-oriented and puttering-around-the-house to-do lists.  But list-make we must.

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“Some old compass in the blood”: a rationale for Flint Hills Studies

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The Chase County courthouse, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, the oldest state building in continuous use in Kansas.

This is the version that the curriculum committee and/or the Board of Trustees won’t see, but it will be the truer version:

It has been so long ago now, I no longer remember whether it was my first or second commencement as a member of Butler Community College (then still known as Butler County Community College–something I will return to later).  It was long ago enough, though, that I still felt myself to be a recent arrival here.  Nor was it the moment when I had an epiphany about the value of offering a course or courses on various aspects of this distinct region of the nation; that would come much, much later.  Still, it has stuck with me all this time, and in thinking about it now, it clearly is, indirectly, one of the reasons I think such a program of study would be valuable to offer to our students.

Whoever the commencement speaker was, he began by noting something I’d known since at least junior high school: that we were only a couple of hours to the southwest of the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states.  I instantly began writing the rest of his address in my head–the version I wanted him to give, at least: I’d been at Butler long enough to know that many of my students thought of themselves as living in the middle of nowhere, and so I became hopeful that, by using his geographical nugget as a kind of metaphor, he’d turn their nihilism on its head: “You’re not in the middle of nowhere–you’re at the center of everything!”

Of course, that address, whatever its eventual theme was, wasn’t the one I’d hoped for.  As I think back on that day, however, I am more and more persuaded, for various reasons, that our students need to hear something like the address I had imagined, and for this reason: We equip our students pretty well for the task of making their chosen way in world; however, though it’s true most of our graduates stick around here, I’m not sure that what we do actually gives them a reason (apart from family or work) to stay.  (Much) more existentially, many of my students also lack a sense of place, by which I mean “a sense of at least being from somewhere, if not a sense of connectedness to where they happen to be living now.”  I think that coursework whose subject is the Flint Hills would give them a context and intellectual tools that would help them find what William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth describes as “some old compass in the blood”–and if not for the Flint Hills, then for whatever place in which they happen to find themselves.

I think that such courses would also provide my college with a version of that compass.

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