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  • Olive Schreiner's Pagan Animism:An Underlying Unity
  • Ruth Knechtel

"A unity underlying all nature"1

—Olive Schreiner

In the midst of nineteenth-century social discourses that had scientifically "proven" that woman is essentially different from man, dangerously unwomanly if she shirks her maternal duties, inverted if she deviates from her proper sphere, Olive Schreiner's fiction offers complex and effective modes of resistance. Throughout several of her works, Schreiner strives to represent a unity or cohesion of the natural and social organism rooted in creativity, both artistic and maternal. In emphasizing unity and connection, her ideal is often one of androgynous sameness, yet her concept of healing is rooted in images of nurturing, creation, and maternity, emphasizing difference. In considering The Story of An African Farm (1883), From Man to Man (1926) and "A Dream of Wild Bees" (1890), this article analyzes the ways in which Schreiner works through evolutionary and scientific discourses, as well as gender norms, while striving towards an animist ideal of human, animal, plant, and spiritual connectedness.

Schreiner's amalgamation of idealist and materialist aspects is purposeful and complex. Borrowing from several schools of thought (notably Transcendentalism and social Darwinism), she crafts a type of feminist humanism that develops to include animism—the doctrine that all living entities have souls.2 Her unique philosophy foregrounds the fluid boundaries between human, fauna, and flora in an attempt to transform conventional binary models of relationships, particularly as they involve sex and gender. While critics such as Joyce Avrech Berkman have outlined Schreiner's struggles with an "integration of spiritual and material,"3 Schreiner's approach ultimately surpasses a fusion of these categories. By strategically invoking maternal, androgynous, and pantheistic (at times, pagan)4 concepts and using them [End Page 259] for her own purposes, Schreiner's combinatorial rhetoric goes beyond a reconciliation of duality. It offers, instead, a dissolution of such hierarchies, celebrating multiplicity and producing the tension necessary for social change. As such, Schreiner's open-ended fusion refuses simply to "resist exploitative hierarchies only to promote the reversal of those hierarchies."5 The ethos that Schreiner envisions emphasizes a unity among all beings in order to promote equality; yet she also accentuates the maternal, thereby highlighting the generative power of what she calls "mother-love."6

The term "animism" became popular in the nineteenth century through the work of Edward Tyler's Primitive Culture (1871). His use of the term, which he derived from the Latin animus (soul), was primarily negative, referring to those primitive cultures that mistakenly believed in souls or spirits. Graham Harvey refers to this understanding of the term as "old animism," one that considers its presence "a sign of primitive stupidity."7 There is, however, a "new animism" that, instead of referring to God as the unity among all beings or understanding the world through dualisms, works to prove "boundaries are permeable and putative 'opposites' are necessarily engaged in various ways."8 Animists "celebrate plurality, multiplicity, the many, and their entwined passionate entanglements."9 Val Plumwood suggests that in order to overcome certain spiritually based pantheistic theories that often rely on dualisms, "we need a concept of the other as interconnected with self, but also as a separate being in their own right.… Feminist theory can help here because it has developed logical and philosophical frameworks based on maintaining the tension between Same and Different."10 That is, a framework that allows sameness and difference to exist simultaneously would successfully advocate an animist perspective that goes beyond the hierarchies still inherent in humanist perspectives. Schreiner's breakdown of boundaries between humans, animals, and even vegetation undermines many of the binaries that deemed women inferior. By undoing the dualisms of masculinity/femininity, human/animal, and even animal/vegetable, Schreiner plays with connection and unity, celebrating multiplicity, yet she also retains a sense of difference, emphasizing the generative aspect of maternity.

Much of Schreiner's emphasis on the connection of all things in nature can be allied with the Transcendentalist philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Schreiner once told Arthur Symons that Emerson "'has never said not even a half sentence that [I don't] absolutely agree with and feel.'"11 Outlining his philosophy...


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