American Literary History 18.1 (2006) 129-143
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Is Nature Necessary?
A mind that opened itself fully to nature without sentimental preconception would be glutted by nature's coarse materialism, its relentless superfluity. An apple tree laden with fruit: how peaceful, how picturesque. But remove the rosy filter of humanism from our gaze and look again. See nature spuming and frothing, its mad spermatic bubbles endlessly spilling out and smashing in that inhuman round of waste, rot and carnage. From the jammed glassy cells of sea roe to the feathery spores poured into the air from bursting green pods, nature is a festering hornet's nest of aggression and overkill. Nature is the seething excess of being.
Nothing holds American literary criticism together more impressively than the fight for territory, whether this means an office space land rush in the English department or contests over certain American landscapes and the texts written about them. In both cases, the struggle keeps the strugglers distracted and happy. And in both cases, the turf points up any ideological tensions we want it to, whether we mean the divide between cubicles (adjuncts) and suites (endowed chairs), or we mean to decide which examples of nature writing (Spanish, British, or Native American) make up the canon and thus determine the shape of the nation. But unlike a good old committee squabble over desk space, so forceful in its farce, so gratifying in filling empty university rooms with meaning, the fight to settle which landscapes came first in the national canon has, finally, the touch of the void. No matter what this fight sponsors, no matter what the opponents claim is at stake, no matter what arguments come into view, it is a land without qualities. Its positions seldom exceed the level of special pleading. It is, as the mathematicians say, not even wrong. For as we seek the first instance of nature in American literature, we flounder out of history. On the other hand, as we enfold our landscapes in history, nature is made merely into a proposition. Between essences and ideas lurk the dark fields of the republic. [End Page 129]
And so we beat on. The problem is that in sizing up American landscapes, our critical solipsism dictates that we seldom even know what we mean by nature. Here are some of the ways American nature is currently misread:
- Nature is a construct.
- Nature is tragic.
- Nature is in good taste.
I will discuss each of these. For purposes of this essay, I mean "nature" primarily as American landscapes and wilderness. I also bring into play the broader philosophical sense of the word, as in everything-but-man-and-art, but only advisedly.
Along the way, it is worth noticing a few corollaries to current questions of American land and landscape, such as what drives the effort to find out whether Spain or Great Britain prevails in the inauguration of New World nature writing (which is what most critical inquiries about the American canon boil down to). If we knew the answer to that, goes the logic, then it would expiate us from the American imperial present. Other questions arise from the insistence that we simply Hispanicize the canon, and further, that we always confer special expertise over nature onto Native Americans. In general, the critical mood is Marxist tingling combined with Romantic tears—a mix considered to be especially germane to the case of nature, because it results in a recent, but already lifeless, school of criticism. Who would fardels bear but for the dread of something worse...