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Deep Time and Process Philosophy in the Charles Olson and Robert Duncan Correspondence

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2014
pp. 336-368 | 10.1353/cli.2014.0011

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As the Earth’s global mean temperature rises, and as a staggering number of species go extinct, adjustments to philosophical, ethical, and literary thought are required for new and difficult sociopolitical realities. Arne Naess has been analyzing ecological catastrophe for twenty-five years, outlining his philosophy of “deep ecology” and advocating restrictions on population growth and industrialization. The first of Naess’s eight points for deep ecology opens up an important ethical debate: “The flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth has inherent value. The value of nonhuman life-forms is independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes” (111). Naess’s proposition involves rethinking humanity’s relations to the planet and to other species; it also implies what Lawrence Buell terms deep ecology’s “bottom-line prescriptions,” which Buell notes are “inviting target[s]” for critics (103). “Considered as ontology or aesthetics first,” he continues, “rather than as a recipe for ethics or practice, deep ecology looks more persuasive.” Buell applauds deep ecology’s philosophical “ecocentrism,” which corrects “modern culture’s underrepresentation of the degree to which humanness is ecosystemically imbricated.” In the context of environmental theory, a particularly productive form of deep ecology acknowledges how texts represent the interconnectedness of organisms and environments. To register species-level relations, environmental criticism has also assessed writing through the lens of a companion term, “deep time,” which Wai-Chee Dimock highlights in her 2008 book Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time: “What would happen if we go beyond 1776 and 1620, if we trace the threads of relation to the world that antedate these allegedly founding moments? What would American literature look like then, restored to a longue durée, a scale enlargement along the temporal axis that also enlarges its spatial compass?” (4).

Throughout her study, Dimock associates “deep time” with environmental ethics, arguing, “our kinship network goes back and branches out on a scale that makes us second and third cousins to every other species on the planet” (170). To chart a longue durée is to chronicle the relationships between species, a fundamental concept in Naess’s deep ecology as well: “in the ecological movement, there is the need to think not only in terms of days and years, but also in terms of generations,” he writes (104). For Dimock, American literature, read as a subset of world literature, best represents deep time. Alternate temporal systems prominently appear in the largely unpublished correspondence between two midcentury American poets, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, whom Dimock does not discuss. While their larger projects are well-known, particularly Olson’s “Projective Verse” (1950), his Maximus Poems, and Duncan’s Opening of the Field, their unpublished correspondence, located at the University of Connecticut, reveals that the two poets’ epistolary exchanges shaped their poetics into an engagement with principles akin to deep ecology and deep time, particularly the ideas that humans and nonhumans exist in a codependent environment and that knowledge of a longue durée enhances human society’s sense of this ecological codependence. From 1953 until Olson’s death in 1970, Duncan and Olson collaborated through correspondence, discussing non-Western temporalities and histories while also mutually conceptualizing how projective verse could employ heterogeneous historical, cultural, and ecological materials to illuminate the present.

Though Olson and Duncan’s correspondence highlights nonstandard temporalities, it indicates that mutual conceptual operations shaped their respective creative processes as well. In the spirit of genetic criticism founded by Louis Hay, my reading explores the work of writing behind Olson’s and Duncan’s poetics. Hay outlined the principles of genetic criticism in 1979, noting that its subject was “the production of writings, especially of literary texts” (18). Following his emphasis on analyzing the creative process, rather than the final text, critics Catherine Viollet and Jean-Michel Rabaté wrote studies of Proust’s and Joyce’s manuscripts, respectively. Genetic analysis focuses on avant-textes, “before-texts” that “offer privileged access to the logic hidden beneath [the] apparent arbitrariness” of a text’s structure, as Rabaté argues (135). While genetic criticism does not supplant theoretical approaches to interpretation, it enhances textual explication by examining an author’s creative process and precise influences...


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