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Modernist studies has been somewhat late to the ecocritical party. In fact, with the possible exception of some chapters in Raymond Williams's still-impressive The Country and the City (1973), the first wave of literary ecocriticism (from the seventies until the early nineties) largely bypassed modernism altogether. Even scholars identified with the "new" modernist studies—with orientations toward technology, comparative media, gender and sexuality, urbanization, globalization, and empire—were largely uninterested in questions of the natural, nonhuman world. Now, in arguably the third (or possibly even fourth!) wave of ecocriticism, driven by the planetary context of the Anthropocene, the limits of the human, and the many interfaces between literature and science, considerations of the environment's importance to modernism are becoming ever more urgent. Kelly Sultzbach's Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination: Forster, Woolf, and Auden, provides perhaps the best example of the relevance of new, materialist approaches to ecocriticism for these three central figures of English modernism. Sultzbach's nuanced treatment of these writers is framed by a theoretical context that has moved away from an imperative to see in nature any foundation for moral, aesthetic, or spiritual transcendence. Sultzbach instead looks to theorists who fit under the capacious rubric of "ecomaterialism," including Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann, and Stacy Alaimo. Though these thinkers come variously from physics, biology, and literary criticism, Sultzbach sees a common emphasis on the embodied immanence of the human within the mesh of nonhuman materialities (an optic that harkens back to the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, another touchstone figure for this study). Sultzbach's materialist approach avoids, on the one hand, the celebration of proto-environmentalist, green sensibilities within the aforementioned writers, and on the other, a purely ideological critique of "nature" as false consciousness. Rather, Sultzbach shifts the focus toward the question of how writers engage the nonhuman world on fundamental, perceptual levels, "showing how modernist literature revises environment-as-object to acknowledge environment-as-being" (13).
As Sultzbach points out, the recent awareness of human effects on the very geology of the planet—which we now name as the Anthropocene epoch—casts new light on the period from the late nineteenth century to World War II. From an ecological perspective, the period saw new levels of planetary connection, the increasing globalization of capital, an acceleration in the extraction of resources, and the dawning possibility of species-wide annihilation. If we consider this period as an "emergent" Anthropocene, then it stands to reason that modernist literary, artistic, and cultural artifacts will engage these myriad challenges and concerns, whether directly or obliquely. Sultzbach wisely approaches these questions from the local instances of modernist texts, moving outward to gather in increasing scales and realms of concern with nonhuman ecologies. Beginning from Marlow's recognition, in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, of the agency and power of the African environment he cannot fully understand or explain, Sultzbach sets out to examine how modernists "imagin[ed] that nonhuman agencies within individual perspectives existed" (3). The fissures, fragments, and aporias that have been textbook traits of modernist aesthetics are recast as the fault lines where recognizably human experience registers awareness of agencies that are vital yet not anthropomorphic, essential yet external to human notions of individual and cultural identity.
Among the range of modernist writers—indeed, it is hard to find one that does not thematize the fuzzy boundaries between human and nonhuman—Sultzbach elects to focus on three: E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and W. H. Auden. One could wish for a more inclusive survey that considers other modernist figures who obviously engage with the nonhuman world, but Sultzbach's deeper examination of three figures is, I think, a wise approach. First of all, the three authors in question come from a common background and context of Englishness, which places them outside many ecocritical orientations that are explicitly or implicitly America-centered. England has its own island mythology, as well as its own long history of territorial imperialism, which gives a common...