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Eric Wilson, Romantic Turbulence: Chaos, Ecology and American Space

Monday, November 23, 2009 - 01:55
Eric Wilson, Romantic Turbulence: Chaos, Ecology and American Space. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. xxii. + 169 pp. $49. 95 (Hdbk; ISBN 0-312-22882-1).

Reviewed by
John Parham
Thames Valley University, UK

Eric Wilson’s Romantic Turbulence is a helpful addition to ecocritical work, offering not only a new perspective on American Romanticism but, more generally, a sophisticated, dialectical understanding of the ecology articulated out of that tradition.

Wilson’s primary argument is founded upon a detailed acquaintance with both contemporary ecological science and critical cultural theory. Drawing from these currents of thought, the conceptual paradigm that undergirds this book is a new organicism of “agitated processes,” which eschews the (still) prevailing notions in ecological science of balance or harmony (4). Wilson defines this as a conception of nature shaped by antagonistic forces of chaos and order, the interaction of which equates with life. Without order nature “would dissolve into a formless mass,” without chance “the second law of thermodynamics would run the universe down to heat death,” an interesting argument he develops from C. S. Pierce and Prigogine and Stengers (142). This paradigm of dialectical ecology is not new, even to ecocriticism. It dominates recent, second generation work such as Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism (2004), and the attempt to establish a trajectory of ecological thinking around the Romantics is also a familiar one. What is distinctive, however, is the combination of the two and, in this, the book does what all good historical ecocriticism ought to do: it legitimates ecological thinking as part of a longer, alternative tradition in western literature, culture and philosophy that exists, and has value, independently of concerns about (say) global warming.

Wilson places the five writers considered in the book – Emerson, Fuller, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman – within the tradition of dialectical proto-ecological thinking via an impressive, expansive intellectual history reminiscent of the work of Laurence Buell. Wilson’s writers sit “almost exactly in the middle” of that tradition which, as he argues, encompasses the early Gnostics and the Greek Philosophers (Thales, Heraclitus, Ovid), European Romantic philosophers such as Goethe and Coleridge, Nietzsche and Heidegger, and a host of contemporary theorists including Serres, Lyotard, and Deleuze and Guattari (8). Having placed the American Romantics within this history of ideas he then connects them thematically to emergent, contemporaneous scientific ideas – electromagnetic waves, atomism, evolution, energy physics – that were to shape ecological science. So, for example, Emerson is seen, in opposition to “traditional readings,” as representing a notion of the “physical sublime” that arose from the science of Davy and Faraday and would replace its equivalent, the “transcendentalist sublime” (xxi). What Wilson also gives us, however, is a notion of how literature per se might articulate, and help us understand, ecological nature.

“Chaos ‘re-enchants’ human perspectives on the cosmos” (7) - but to articulate such enchantment requires what Heidegger, in Being and Time, called “rich thinking.” This is a notion similar to long-standing arguments about poetry – the view, for example, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, that “poetry has tasked the highest powers of man’s mind”1 – that has been repeated more recently by Heideggerian critics such as Jonathan Bate who, in The Song of the Earth, draws upon Gary Snyder’s analogy of art and the climax ecosystem to suggest that poetry expresses “the richest thoughts and feelings of a community.”2 Counselling us to “recall that Goethe claimed that denotative language was entirely inadequate to limn the teeming energies of life,” Wilson applies these ideas to the prose of his writers through Schiller’s notion of a “play drive” (19).

Schiller’s “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man” (1795), Wilson reports, had argued “that man achieves his fullest potential as thinker and artist by placing his sense drive (Stofftrieb) (his impulse toward nature, the finite, change) and his formal drive (Formtrieb) (his desire for spirit, the infinite, stasis) into conversation. The result is the play drive (Spieltrieb), the artistic impulse” (64). Wilson suggests that American Romantic writers combined “the rigor of positivistic science with the play of poetry” (132-3) in works that “essay[ed] to inspire an experience of ecological seeing, to be the currents of nature” (19). Consistent with this sentiment, the bulk of this book is designed to demonstrate, through chapters on individual authors, how a “hidden current of the Romantic Age, the neglected ‘unground’ of organicism” was conveyed in both senses: thematically, and by means of the rhythm, structure, and sound of the work itself (22).

With each of his canonical writers representing what Wilson calls a “diversity as unity,” the thematic articulation of an organicism of “agitated processes” takes various forms (xxxi). Emerson, we learn, is emblematic of Lyotard’s notion of a “paralogical” writer possessed of sublime energies beyond reason and logic, and drew upon these energies to posit a dialectical nature that was “one thing and the other thing, in the same moment” (36). Fuller, correspondingly, judges what Wilson contentiously describes as Goethe’s belief that nature is too unruly to be governed by a single form against the observations from her 1843 Western tour documented in Summer on the Lakes. He reads Moby Dick in the light of what Stephen Jay Gould has identified as a chaotic dimension to natural selection, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass by means of an ecological rendering of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome. A “living image of the living world,” Wilson describes this in more detail as “a subterranean, horizontal stem possessing no central root, growing several directions at once” that gives rise, in turn, to the central principles of “turbulence”: a “connection and heterogeneity” that agglomerates rather than unifies; multiplicity and equality; rupture and renewal (121).

The interest of these writers in the scientific ideas from which there arose a new, more dialectical, organicism brought about a writing, Wilson argues, that was designed to embody and literally to “be the currents of nature.” This includes Emerson’s interests in etymology, clustered around the idea that words originate out of nature and natural processes and so carry the sense of a nature that is never stable, which Wilson finds exemplified by Thoreau’s fluid argument in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that “The world is made out of water [and] Word is made out of world” (117). It is most evident, however, in Whitman’s deployment of grass to articulate rhizomatic nature in the poem later entitled “Song of Myself.” This Wilson explains as follows:

Whitman’s poem, in content and form, is literally a rhizomatic, nomadic field of grass, a sprawling, evolving ecosystem in which parts and whole enter into perpetual and unpredictable conversation. Its parts (cells and organs; tropes and figures) suddenly swerve into new combinations that alter the living currents of the whole (the abyss of life; the overall composition); this fresh whole in turn affects the dispositions of the parts, forcing them to leap into further novel forms that will again change the whole. (119)

The two main aspects of Wilson’s study – the establishment of American Romanticism as central to a historical trajectory of ecological consciousness, and the indication of those literary forms that might embody such an understanding – are augmented by two subsidiary arguments that extend the ecocritical compass of the book. The first is an understanding of landscape as an influence both on how we view nature and on the development of an appropriate aesthetic. Throughout the book Wilson describes American Romanticism as having emerged from the “cultural emptiness of the American Wild” – empty, that is to say, of “Western visions of nature” (xv). It is this, he suggests, that led to an intrinsic understanding of the wildness of nature best illustrated by Whitman’s rhizomatic poetry. The second is contained in the argument that Thoreau’s ecological thinking went further than that of the three preceding writers, and that Whitman’s, in turn, went furthest of all. This reminds us of another, often neglected, point about ecocriticism: that while these writers might have been “discovering scientific truth long before scientists got around to it” we nevertheless cannot divorce ecological thinking from the development of scientific ideas (129). There is, in other words, a trajectory of thinking that might guide us in seeking out those literary contexts that could most usefully shape our own ecological thinking (such as the developments in the UK of the perspectives of “romantic ecology” by later Victorian writers).

For all that, there are minor irritations and one substantial point that undermine a crucial element of the book. The minor irritants include occasional misprints. These can be humorous – such as Fuller “claming that the oppression of women is arbitrary” (56) – but also more serious, as when Wilson, in noting common ground between Goethe, Darwin and Nietzsche suggests that these connections “cannot be pushed too far.” He means, in fact, that they can (84). Secondly, the use of the male subject to describe the “gnostic ecologist” could be put down to anachronistic conventionalism, but not when Wilson chooses to illustrate the play between order and chaos through the analogy of a woman. Sentences like “As the woman, so the cosmos: a web of differentiated beings, some more conscious and complex than others” seem outmoded, insensitive, even ridiculous in the wake of ecofeminist criticism of the tendency to essentialize woman as nature (13).

My biggest complaint, however, is that Wilson’s eagerness to map a detailed intellectual history ultimately occurs at the expense of a corresponding literary exposition. The chapter on Fuller contains, for example, long sections on Ovid and German Romanticism, that on Melville, Early Greek thinking and Darwinism. This gives the book a somewhat dry character but, crucially, also undermines a fundamental element of his argument. Wilson claims, as we have seen, that Whitman’s "Song of Myself" is “literally […] rhizomatic” and has passages that “suddenly swerve into new combinations that alter the living currents of the whole.” Yet this is not substantiated by the sparse quotations he offers. There is no quotation of more than five lines and, therefore, no evidence as to how far the “turbulence” of “agitated processes” actually did permeate or construct the texts. We are denied the opportunity to respond to the rhizomatic nature that is, we are told, presented by Whitman.

Wilson convincingly elaborates and illuminates the deep connection between the American Romantics and a tradition of dialectical ecological thinking, a connection that he valuably asserts in the face of a continued temptation to embrace outmoded notions of balance or harmony. But it is a shame that we never get to see the moments at which this “leaps” from the page and sings to the reader. For that, surely, is the point of reading and enjoying Romantic literature.

1Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Humphry House and Graham Storey (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 85.
2Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000), 246-7.