- The Wild That Attracts Us: New Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers ed. by ShaunAnne Tangney
Ezra Pound once defined culture as a few people who really know something together in a room, having a discussion. Under this definition, The Wild That Attracts Us is a very civilized book about the often-neglected-but-not-quite-forgotten poet, Robinson Jeffers.
In the introduction, ShaunAnne Tangney notes the omission of Jeffers from the latest edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, collateral damage of attempts by 21st century editors and publishers to include more diverse voices in the canon. Not only does Jeffers’s skin color and gender leave him vulnerable to canon exclusion, but his uncompromising, iconoclastic unconventionality makes him difficult to place in the dominant historical narratives that college instructors love to tell. Thus, in addition to elucidating Jeffers’s poetry, poetics, and philosophical commitments, this volume seeks to demonstrate the poet’s lasting importance as a major figure while bringing “Jeffers scholarship into the twenty-first century,” as Tangney puts it.
In “Robinson Jeffers and the Contemplation of Consciousness,” Robert Damien considers Jeffers’s poems as “artifacts of consciousness” and [End Page 178] seeks to investigate how the poems lead to a reconsideration of “the claims that contemporary science makes about the machinery of consciousness.” Damien argues that, while Jeffers tends to see human consciousness as alienating humans from the natural world, he simultaneously holds a sacramental view of the natural world that, with the help of myth, finds consciousness in that world.
The second essay of the book, “The Neurasthenic Logic of Robinson Jeffers’s Antiurbanism,” also explores Jeffers’s psychological ideas. J. Bradford Campbell argues that what has often been called Jeffers’s romantic reaction against urbanism and industrialization is actually “neurasthenia,” a social/psychological state often asserted in the early part of the twentieth century but little regarded today. Basically, neurasthenia is the sense of fragmentation and psychological distress brought on by the modern world, and Jeffers’s solution to the disease is immersion in the natural world.
Tim Hunt, however, would problematize any easy association between the ideas of Jeffers’s speakers and the poet. While many have construed Jeffers as a kind of prophet and his bitter poems as Jeremiads, “Constructed Witness: The Drama of Presence in Jeffers’s Lyric Voice” contends that the visions portrayed in the poems are mediated through their speakers; the poems subtly question the truth of the visions presented even as the speakers assert them as transcendent truth.
Robert Zaller’s “Jeffers, Pessimism, and Time,” is, in some ways, the most substantial piece in the work—certainly so, at least, in terms of length. Defining pessimism as a kind of skepticism that calls into question an optimistic theodicy that purports to explain everything, Zaller links, extensively, Jeffers’s pessimism with Nietzschean ideas. He goes on to argue that, while Nietzsche finally argues for a relativism that asserts that the value of the world is only what we credit it with, Jeffers conversely portrays a significant universe in which humans are “neither the privileged source nor the ultimate measure.”
Immediately after Zaller’s cogent argument for Jeffers’s Nietzschean leanings, Anthony Lioi, in “Knocking Our Heads to Pieces against the Night: Going Cosmic with Robinson Jeffers,” dismisses such an interpretation, arguing that what is often called Nietzschean is actual a kind of stoicism that is particularly amenable to ecocriticism.
Subsequently Tangney offers yet another take on Inhumanism (at least the fourth in the book) in “‘The mould to break away from’: An Ecofeminist Reading of Roan Stallion.” Taking a feminist ecocritcal approach, she contends that The Roan Stallion critiques Western binaries and patriarchal assumptions. Nonetheless, she goes on to argue, the end of the poem reifies [End Page 179] the ideology it hitherto resisted: when California rids herself of her oppressors violently, the poem in effect endorses the violent myths it otherwise would seek to undermine.
Continuing the ecocritical theme in “Praxis, Gnosis, Poesis: Inhabitation as...