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Reviewed by:
  • Early Modern Écologies: Beyond English Ecocriticism ed. by Pauline Goul and Phillip John Usher
  • Giulia Pacini
Early Modern Écologies: Beyond English Ecocriticism. Pauline Goul and Phillip John Usher, eds. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020. Pp. 309. € 99.

This volume engages a captivating question first raised by Louisa Mackenzie during an MLA roundtable: “What can early modern French literature do for contemporary ecocriticism?” In response, eleven essays, well framed by the editors’ introduction and an excellent epilogue in which Mackenzie reexamines this initial question, all highlight the ecocritical thinking of authors such as François Rabelais, Pierre de Ronsard, Michel de Montaigne, and Jean Bodin. Early Modern Écologies puts this literary corpus into productive dialogue with that of contemporary theorists Tim Morton, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze, Jane Bennett, and Michael Marder, looking for both conceptual alignments and theoretical challenges that might open up new ways for us to understand ecological thought today. Given the predominance of modern and contemporary British models in this critical field, focusing on early modern French texts represents a most welcome move.

Through its many close readings, the volume demonstrates that early modern ecological thinking was much more than a simple meditation on environmental issues. Yes, Ronsard lamented the destruction of the Gâtine forest and miners’ violent plundering of the earth, and in their different ways Rabelais, Montaigne, and Olivier de Serres can certainly show us how being ecological in the early modern period meant thinking in sustainable terms. The volume also offers an apt critique of zoocentric thought as it addresses early modern representations of vegetal life: it considers the materiality of Ronsard’s rose; traces the cultural significance of weeds in Joachim du Bellay; and reflects upon the ethical dimensions of Montaigne’s plant philosophy. More [End Page 170] important, however, these ecologies encourage us to rethink our relationship to a vibrant world of matter in which both texts and authors are ultimately embedded. More generally, it demonstrates how early modern writers had already worked with “messily enmeshed” metaphors (the term is Jennifer Oliver’s), often evoking notions of a nature-culture web or an outside-within. This literary corpus is rife with figures that connect the local with the cosmic and the human with the nonhuman—at times in beautiful pastoral scenes and at times in darker modes. Early modern ecological thinking also expressed itself through strangely disorienting scale-shifting and perspectival alterations. It questioned the tidy logic of linear causality and explored the dynamics of mutually-constitutive relationships along with their potentially weird feedback loops.

Equally intriguing is the volume’s contention that texts themselves can be ecological actants. Kat Addis’s study of Ronsard’s Franciade suggests that ecological thought is a rhetorically-governed practice that encourages us to connect our present to other times and places. Along similar lines, the editors remind us that literary criticism requires a respect for the ever-shifting otherness of a text even as we search for possibilities of meaningful contact and understanding. As a result, Hassan Melehy proposes, studying these early modern works may be in and of itself a practice of humility that can teach us “greater intellectual sensitivity to other ecological phenomena” (26). This is fascinating material.

Giulia Pacini
William & Mary


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pp. 170-171
Launched on MUSE
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