- Climate Change and the Individual Talent:Eliotic Ecopoetics
Contemporary climate change emerges as an unexpected interaction of nonhuman natural processes and collective human practices. Yet as natural and cultural agencies operate at terrestrial and global scales, beyond immediate experience, they destabilize many of the paradigms on which the notion of writing as the creation of an individual personality is based, making them problematic to articulate. I will argue here that T. S. Eliot’s landmark 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” dealing as it does with relations between writer and collective cultural agency, can be productively reconsidered given the way climate change complicates those relations. For Eliot, this collective agency is tradition; for my purposes it is climate, “collective” inasmuch as it comprises multiple phenomena—including human activity—to a problematically indeterminate degree. Because climate change demands that we write and think in new ways, as the previously disregarded consequences of our past actions make themselves apparent, we must now create and criticize with the understanding that culture is no longer what we thought it was: “the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show,” as Eliot says (1975, 39).
This modified understanding simultaneously identifies a previously unrecognized “tradition” of human activity—greenhouse gas generation—and assimilates it into creative practice. Texts of the past, such as “Tradition and the Individual Talent” itself, then become liable to Eliot’s famous assertion that “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it” (1975, 38): anthropogenic climate change can be thought of as just such a transformative artifact of human endeavor, one that forces us to revisit and revise Eliot’s ideas in ways that ecologize his critical concerns. Eliot’s essay does not suddenly become an articulation of green concerns by swapping “tradition” for “climate change,” as my title might suggest. However, by allowing Eliot’s analysis a fuller scope than he himself does, I intend to show that, at its hub, it still offers a point around which human–environmental relations can be [End Page 83] articulated. After assessing what the implications of this are for “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” I will examine how we might then reread The Waste Land, before suggesting how these deconstructive reassessments of Eliot’s principles can inform a contemporary poetics of climate change.
The Eliotic ecopoetics I outline here helps work through the critical implications of climate change; it recognizes with J. Scott Bryson that “an ecopoet, in order to continue to write poems of nature, must necessarily alter his or her poetics” (2002, 5). Bryson continues: “while adhering to certain conventions of romanticism, [ecopoetry] also advances beyond that tradition and takes on distinctly contemporary problems and issues” (5); Eliot’s formulation that “the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously” (1975, 38) is similar to an extent, but where Bryson talks of “advanc[ing] beyond…tradition” and the “distinctly contemporary,” Eliot realizes that we are distinctive by being part of a tradition rather than by simply advancing beyond it. We should consider, then, the tradition from which ecopoetics emerges. According to Bryson, “drastic changes in the way Westerners envisioned themselves and the world around them” in the nineteenth century meant that “anything resembling romantic nature poetry was rarely written, and if it was, it was even more rarely taken seriously” (2002, 2) in the early twentieth; yet it was to the romantic paradigm that the first ecocritics turned nearly a century later, “taking seriously” romantic nature poetry and leaving modernist responses to the nineteenth century in its shadow. When Jonathan Bate, one such early ecocritic, declares, “Histories, theories, political systems are all enframings” and “Ecopoetics renounces the mastery of enframing knowledge and listens instead to the voice of art” (2000, 268-9, emphasis in original), he might seem to resist a position like Eliot’s, concerned as it is with “Histories [and] theories” of art. As such, Bate’s...