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J U L I A M A R T I N University ofthe Western Cape PractisingEmptiness: GarySnyder’sPlayfulEcologicalWork “Beyond, the ultimate void is this ” (Snyder, TRW 21).' “Our standard ofliving keeps going up, but the quality oflife goes down. ” —an ecologist, Taipei, 1990 I recently attended a conference in Taiwan, where for several days we discussed the role of “transcendence”in the work ofsome contempo­ rary poets.2 Outside the conference rooms, the air in Taipei was so polluted that many people wore surgical masks in the street. In the wake of “miraculous” economic development, 30% of the staple rice was being contaminated with heavy metals, the forests and their inhabitants were being destroyed, and plans were going ahead for another unsafe nuclear reactor (Bello and Rosenfeld 125-132). There was much, it might seem, to transcend, but for many of us the concept was problem­ atic. My paper dealt with poetry by Gary Snyder. In his work the lan­ guage of transcendence, to the extent that it implies a denial of our material interdependence in this world, this ecosystem, is seen to be dangerously misleading. It is “a delusion and an obstruction: it diverts us from seeing what is before our eyes: plain thusness” (Wild 103), and this implies a diseased relation to our environment. This characteristic point ofview appears in his important recent collection ofessays, ThePracticeof the Wild (1990). Snyder gave me a copy at the conference, and so my sense of these issues was informed both by our discussions and by what I was reading in the essays, their concerns poignantly relevant to the environmental degradation before our eyes in Taiwan. What follows is a rewriting of the paper I delivered, with reference to material in the new collection. Snyder’s attitude towards transcendent metaphysics was informed 4 Western American Literature by the experience of growing up in a family that was highly critical of Christianity, and had a long tradition of political resistance. As an adult, he has continued to assert the “outsider” status that this upbringing founded, taking the position ofa marginal voice, one that stands outside the dominant discourse—whether it is the language of American capi­ talism, Western metaphysics, or even orthodox Zen tradition. In doing so, he identifies with that which the dominant order defines as its binary opposite, in particular, that “wildness” which the ideology of “civiliza­ tion” requires to be “other” in order to confirm its own pre-eminent “selfhood.”With an extraordinary assurance Snyder questions this ideol­ ogy, claiming that his position, although at present perceived to be marginal, is “in line with the big flow” (Chan n.pag.), and that modern civilization is a recent aberration, dangerously alienated from what is in fact its material “ground,”namely wild nature. Speaking then as what he has called “a voice from the Wilderness, my constituency” (TI 106), his work seeks to subvert the binary thinking which entrenches this alien­ ation, offering a directive towards wholeness and healing in its place. My interpretation of this project arises no doubt from my experi­ ence of living in apartheid South Africa, where for many years the principle of binary separation has been entrenched as a cornerstone of the ruling ideology, and the whole package sanctioned by the doctrines of a paranoid religious tribalism. Like many of us, although in this case the situation is perhaps more acutely obvious, I live within a system which depends on the exploitation of what is other: a society founded on the exploitation of people according to race, class and gender, and fueled by the exploitation of the natural environment. So I want to do something, to be able to “speak back” to a powerful and oppressive discourse, but without in the process becoming its mirror-image, with­ out reproducing in my own language another totalizing system, another painful, exploitative dualism. I’m not sure whether such a language is possible, but I think Snyder’s writing shows an intriguing approach to the problem, and some sneaky coyote-ways around it. 1. Gone beyond Most people who have heard of Gary Snyder usually know some­ thing about the fact that he’s a “wilderness poet.” Certainly there are...


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