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chapter 14

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THE DARK ECOLOGY OF ELEGY
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timothy morton

The woods are lovely dark and deep . . . Robert Frost, ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’

E C O - E L E G Y,

OR WHERE

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Pastoral is about the past, and thus foregrounds the reality that all art is about the past—we look at what photons did to a photographic plate, we read what someone wrote five seconds or five centuries ago. As much as this is inescapable, however, ecological elegy is also about the future, and this future has two distinct modes. In the first mode, there is nothing left for elegy at all. In the second, there is no end to the work of mourning. More strangely still, each mode may appear simultaneously in any given text. Elegy appears to be a quintessential mode of ecological writing. One can read books about the ravages of agribusiness on traditional farming techniques, with titles like Epitaph for a Peach. Or consider the first sentence of the Dalai Lama’s preface to a collection of essays on Buddhism and ecology: ‘The earth, our mother, is dying’ (1990: v). Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a criticism of the pesticide industry, uses

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ubi sunt tropes, elegiac figures that mourn the absence of things. Carson titles a chapter on lawn pesticides after a line in Keats’s moody ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’: ‘And no birds sing’ (2002: 103–27). There are plenty of elegies for the environment. So many are the ecological elegies within and outside the literary canon that it would be tedious to list them and almost impossible to account for their varieties of subject matter, tone, ideological scope, and form. Consider Percy Shelley’s laments over the scorched earth policies of tyrants (among them, Queen Mab and ‘Ozymandias’). Then there is Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Binsey Poplars’ with its lament over those who ‘Hack and rack the growing green’ (l. 11). Philip Larkin’s ‘The Trees’ hauntingly evokes plant growth and decay: ‘The recent buds relax and spread, j Their greenness is a kind of grief ’ (ll. 3–4). Moreover, humans have entered a historical moment at which the consequences of past and present actions on the Earth are becoming increasingly evident. Since this is the case, we might expect elegy to be a significant mode of contemporary ecological writing. If ecology is often elegiac, elegy is also ecological. Whether or not it is explicitly ecological, elegy’s formal topics and tropes are environmental. When Orpheus weeps for Eurydice, animals and trees listen. Mountains and streams echo back the tears and cries of the protagonist or the narrator. The ‘affective fallacy’ enjoys a second lease of life in ecological poetics (Cavell 1988: 61). But even if the earth does not reply in kind, it may echo back our cries. Echoes are ecological in the precise sense that they render to us a sense of the surrounding world, just as the echolocation of bats provides them with a sense of space and distance: ‘She is walking in the meadow, j And the woodland echo rings’ (Tennyson, ‘Maud,’ 4.37–8). If echoes are ecological, however, they also trouble our ideas about what ‘ecology’ and ‘the environment’ mean. We usually think of these words as denoting an essential ‘nature’ that exists somewhere ‘out there’ in an authentic ‘world’ that is either unhuman, nonhuman, or ‘more-than-human,’ or possibly even inhuman. This is because the form of the echo gets in the way of a stable concept of what is natural. Echoes are literally how poetry, as sheer writing or as sheer voice, carries on after our own, or the Poet’s, or the protagonist’s, voice has died away. They are the earth of poetry, the weeds of writing growing up out of the cracks of significance. Weeds are flowers in the wrong place, and in this instance, the echo is a rhetorical flower in the wrong place, making a mockery of exactly who the narrator is and exactly where she is ‘placed’. Renaissance poetry thematizes this when echoes ironically amplify, refute or challenge the stanza after which they come, when a syllable resounds in sonic and graphic space, undermining the coherence of what was just said. With their mechanical repetition, echoes trouble the idea that ecological writing has to animate the world. So on a very basic level, poetic language is not on the side of a reified concept of ‘life’. Consider what Walter Benjamin says about echoes and the sensuality of sheer language (Tragic Drama 1977: 210). This sensuality impedes access to the concept of nature as an independent thing that is decisively ‘yonder,’ ‘over there’. At the smallest scale, the form of elegy interrupts the functioning of concepts of nature. Ecological language might appear to be intrinsically elegiac. In a sense, nature is the ultimate lost object. It is the never-arriving terminus of a metonymic series: birds,

then. which detaches our grief from us and makes it bearable by negating it (Sacks 1985: 24–5). Scholarship has asserted that the reverberation of nature is the way in which elegy imagines how grief is brought into language. It is worse than losing our mother. humoral theory viewed melancholy. Normally. mourning for something we never lost because we never had it. a rigorous and relentless distinction of the subject from its identifications (2001: 40–57). produced by black bile. What happens when this backdrop becomes the foreground? This chapter assumes melancholy to be an irreducible element of subjectivity. with its ‘voluminous form. We have lost the objective correlative for loss itself. It often imagines those relationships as ‘natural’ in themselves. In ecological thinking.the dark ecology of elegy 253 flowers. . turns out to be the most radical possible content of an elegy: the very environment that is used as a backdrop for expressions of grief. What seems like a poetical analogy. because we are it. So ecological discourse holds out the possibility of a mourning without end. . because we will all be dead. 83). In elegy.) I mention this because. Before psychoanalysis. (In another context George Haggerty (1999) has argued that elegy. a primordial relationship to objects rather than one emotion among others. Ultimately. which finds an appropriate way of . as the humor that brought humans closest to the earth (Benjamin 1977: 153). imagine the very air we breathe vanishing—we will literally not be able to have any more elegies. however. the natural world provides a sounding board. and thus paradoxically loses a sense of the troubled and troubling intimacy that is the basis of relationship. mountains . What happens. as we shall see. a political project that may be self-destructive—valuably so—precisely because it is a moment in the unfolding of what Alain Badiou calls a truth process. This ecological fidelity is the core of what I call dark ecology (see Morton 2007: 140–205). an echo chamber for the narrator’s cries of loss. Just as for Butler ‘the “truest” gay male melancholic is the strictly straight man’ (1997: 147). Environmental elegy is caught on the horns of a dilemma. The ecological threat. ecological writing is often deceptive about the affective relationships it stages between conscious beings and nature. This proximity suggests that melancholy may provide the basis for an ecological fidelity to objects. It is strictly impossible for us to mourn this absolute. 138–40). even a form of kitsch (the affective fallacy). while the environment disappears around us. the fear is that we will go on living.’ is particularly useful for staging and hiding same sex desire. since the elegiac convention is that the scenery is itself the analogue for what has been lost (p. Nature becomes an analogue for the objectifying process of writing. It resembles the heterosexist melancholy Judith Butler brilliantly outlines in her essay on how the foreclosure of homosexual attachment makes it impossible to mourn for it (1997: 4. the person departs and the environment echoes our woe. We thus part company with current revisionist approaches to melancholy that situate it within a broad history of affect precisely as just another emotion. and have slipped away from mourning. however. We cannot mourn for the environment because we are so deeply attached to it— we are it. radical loss. when this sounding board itself becomes the object of lamentation? There is no ‘objective correlative’ for this loss. must provide forms that undermine a sense of closure. is quite the reverse of elegy. nature. so the truest ecological human is a melancholy dualist. Ecological elegy.

as we look back upon ourselves from the vantage point of the imagined future perfect. Ecological apocalypticism warns against either total destruction. The future perfect hollows out time. asserting that humans have already lost the connection with Mother Earth. All that is solid. yet dogged. It puts the reader in a decidedly unecological subject position. weeping for a lost Edenic oneness between humanity and nature. ecological rhetoric struggles to posit the ecological crisis as an event— since things only happen when one looks back at them having happened (see Koselleck 1985: 105–15). but the subject position is passive enjoyment. Ecological elegy weeps for that which will have passed given a continuation of the current state of affairs. The content may be lamentation. the ‘here and now’. a future anterior. in the time of reading. the very literariness of his Shakespearean allusion has an elegiac ring (Marx and Engels 1977: 224). and reading the elegy. the Trauerspiel (literally. We touched on the contemporary relevance of ecological elegy at the beginning of the chapter. Environmental language. looking back on the present. Leo Marx asserted a long time ago that elegies what Schiller says about naı for the lost garden were predicated on the age of the machine. Ecological apocalypticism is like what Marxists call triumphalism. deep green idea goes even further. undermines this weeping at the very moment of weeping itself. something strange happens to elegy’s usual organization of time. back into melancholia. a time when there was no Cartesian subject-object distinction. The essays that appear in British newspapers such as the Guardian and Independent on the subject of global warming are a case in point (see Monbiot 2004). The double position reproduces dualism. sitting back and letting the other take care of business. something resembling ¨ve poetry. We have moved from the work of mourning to the work of sheer suffering. They fuse elegy and prophecy. it is as though the lamentation play were a landscape in which each character is a stranded fragment or ruin’ (Sacks 1985: 79). From this imaginary vantage point.254 timothy morton symbolising loss. for Martin Heidegger. endurance . given the loss of species. elegies about events that have not yet (fully) happened. Consider the Dalai Lama’s words: ‘the earth is dying’. . becoming elegies for the future. . Ecological elegy asks us to mourn for something that has not completely passed. that perhaps has not even passed yet. Traditionally. much as a digging machine reveals the . Thus the elegy. In both instances. As readers of ecological elegy. putting this radical loss in the past. however. of habitats. An elegiac mode is appropriate. consciousness goes on—we always imagine total destruction from some impossible imaginary vantage point. the German baroque lamentation play) that Benjamin described as ‘neither tragic revelation nor consolatory grace but rather an image of hopeless. as Karl Marx said of capitalism. of old forms of life—‘old’ here standing in for anything that happened earlier than last week. speaks elegies for an incomplete process. just as. or against (or perversely. or the death of us. melts into air. poetry reveals the earth (his technical term for the ontic essence of things) through technological openings of language. which has no way of redressing woe. we have to occupy two places at once: projecting through imagination into the future. The fundamentalist. In ecological elegy. in favor of) life going on without us: against total death. elegies weep for that which has already passed.

in as deep a way as possible. This narcissistic panic fails fully to account for the actual loss of actually existing species and environments. will not cut it. We could refuse to swallow the planet. on the other hand. It would seem. metaphorically as well as literally. perhaps. are we to arrive at this stage? Is it possible to think what I call the ecological thought right now. in the language of sexual identity politics. Its form actually busies itself with ‘getting rid of ’ nature before full destruction occurs. there remains no environment in which we can wonder whether we have lost anything or not. The reader confronts the paradox that ecological writing kills nature for a second time. This caveat is directed not at the content of ecological rhetoric. Nothing is determined yet. Deep green elegy. Perhaps the future of ecological poetry is that it will cease to play with the idea of nature. right now. But the unseemly rhetorical rush is at best unhelpfully paradoxical. hypothetically at least. something ‘over there. or go through it. and at worst implicated in the aggression towards the biosphere with which its content tries to frighten us. A radical loss is too hastily mourned. our love of nature is based on a capacity for devouring it. about the form of nature poetry that resembles what Freud says about mourning and melancholia.the dark ecology of elegy 255 earth by cutting into it (Leo Marx 1964. but at its form. as if we were in the midst of a slow motion nuclear explosion. then. in Husserlian language. philosophically. Since according to this rhetoric we have lost both Innenweltand Umwelt. It might appear as a kind of absolute melancholy. ecological thinking could allow the object to stick in the throat and vomit it back up. then. we are just beginning . It would be an attunement. There is something. Instead of ‘getting over nature. to resemble admitting to the excessive contingency of desire. We will lose nature. thinking how all beings are interconnected. In a twisted move derived from consumerism. How. a necrophilic holding on to the corpse of nature. faces a dilemma at the formal level. the idea of nature. even more scientific. or must we still hang on to nature? Perhaps we must approach this subject in a paradoxical way. the kind of desire that the word ‘nature lover’ seems almost to ignore or silence. This is not meant to suggest that there are not beings who are dying. look like coming out.’ perhaps we need to get under it. but gain ecology. Attention to form would open a space for a politicized melancholy—a presence to the idea that something is happening.’ the ultimate lost object as this chapter claims. Perhaps a kind of philosophical and poetic judo is required. an allowing of the object to stick in our throats—an acknowledgement that ‘nature’ is not lost. in the precise sense that it would open up a philosophical and aesthetic space for the arrival of non-identity. A Hamlet-like lingering in melancholy would be more appropriate. precisely because it presupposes the very loss it wants to prevent. It is not hard to detect in it the sadism of the elegiac mode. Just like Lewis Carroll’s Walrus and Carpenter. before it has fully happened for the first time. Since ecology is. Heidegger 1971: 46–9). right now. Ecological poetry must thus transcend the elegiac mode. not at some impossible future date. What would this passage look like? It would. coral reefs (70 per cent are gone).

. Despite their content..... and. performing the sadism that we will need for proper digestion to work. There are................. My example appears during the Romantic E L E G Y A N D E N V I RO N M E N TA L E X I S T E N C E : T H E S Y M P TO M W O R D S WO RT H . as a rule. and the predominantly contemplative mode of its narration. burying her so that she does not come back to haunt us. because it brings the unconscious into consciousness........ Elegy aids mourning by weeping for the lost one on our behalf. These extremes provide limit cases that challenge our ideas about what elegy can do....... Elegy works as much against ecology as for it. then........ this is what ecological Jeremiads are mourning at the formal level of narrative position. Freud himself inserts a very suggestive sentence: ‘It is a work of culture [reclamation]. Straight after this pithy maxim... There is no definitive pastoral elegiac form. and as the final words of the lecture.. To adapt the words of Freud (‘Where id was. there shall ego be’)... we are ready to examine some of the extreme forms that elegiac pastoral has taken..... another thing that is vanishing is our habitual point of view... undigested..... Having considered the paradoxes and ironies of elegy and ecology.. eminently suitable for conveying ecological awareness.. The silence after this sentence says everything: replacing nature with ecology is disappointing..... there shall ecology be. Encoded into this drainage work. in a manner that threatens the comfortable way in which humans appear in the foreground and everything else is in the background.. ...... There is a symptomatic text that will help explain many others.... if only by its extraordinarily experimental relationship with elegiac tradition: Percy Shelley’s poem Alastor...... automating mourning for us on the page....... Instead of providing the poetic equivalent of canned laughter.... Along with the coral...... The really difficult elegiac work would consist in bringing into full consciousness the reality of human and nonhuman interdependence....... unique examples of how poetry before our age of definitive ecological panic set out agenda from which poetics can still learn. where nature was. however.. not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee’ (1989: 100).... The text kills the lost one symbolically. Psychoanalysis itself uses an ecological metaphor to describe the process of becoming aware of the Id. Environmental elegy must hang out in melancholia and refuse to work through mourning to the (illusory) other side. progressive ecological elegy must mobilise some kind of choke or shudder in the reader that causes the environmental loss to stick in her throat. This habitual view is one of distance: we are here and nature is ‘yonder’.. in the words of one psychoanalyst.... and about what nature is. ‘consciousness sucks’. is a painful work of mourning..256 timothy morton to include nonhuman beings in our politics..... and trying to provide a scheme that would fit everything is a Procrustean task. despite the overwhelmingly environmental quality of elegiac tropes...

the Poet? This il y a. is a key to this interconnectedness. 50–4) . like Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad ‘There was a boy’ or Coleridge’s ‘It is an Ancient Mariner’ (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 2004 . until a dream sends him on a quest deeper and deeper into nature in a search for the ideal beloved. right away: There was a Poet whose untimely tomb No human hands with pious reverence reared. excessive openness towards the opacity of other beings. the concepts we hold about sentience. therefore. 1). is the genre of the other mind. the ‘there’ of ‘Being-there. l. If lyric. unsung. Intimacy involves closeness with beings who may or may not be sentient—and how. the boy. this other mind (Grossman and Halliday 1992: 211). From where do we glimpse his passage and death if not from some impossible point of view? As the stranger. in short. then elegy in this sense is deeply ecological. and the age of industry and technology. about being with other beings (sentient or not. can we ever tell? One of the structural markers of sentience. and how can we tell for sure?).the dark ecology of elegy 257 period. Alastor suggests that ‘nature writing’ must break with the solipsism of which it is all too capable.’ No wonder then.’ begins the third verse paragraph (Shelley 2002: l. Shelley broaches the existential isness of the Poet. to be intimate with. It is an elegy for a fictional Poet. will turn out to be the kernel of the poem Alastor ´ vinas imagines at its zero degree as the environmental itself. of sentience itself. then elegy is the genre of mourning the radical inability to know. a nothingness Le creepiness of the night. the Poet stages the fundamental ecological problem: the fact of sentient beings. the sense of what Emmanuel ´ vinas calls the ‘There is’ (il y a). (ll. this opaque nothingness. What is the ‘it’ that rains in the phrase ‘It is Le raining’? What is the ‘it’ or the ‘there’ that is the Ancient Mariner. finally. one who perhaps stands for a real poet. The Poet’s sheer existence is in play: ‘There was a Poet. unknown in both death and life (Shelley 2002: ll. is the very opacity that the ‘other’ presents to me: I cannot know whether she is sentient. a nonviolent vegetarian who wanders through the wilderness alone. The Poet is radically attuned to nature. at the very beginning of the moment variously defined as capitalism. but that this break involves a frightening. 50). The principal topic of Alastor is intimacy. Intimacy is also a fundamental category of ecological thinking. Since ecology is profoundly about intimacy. He is a stranger Poet: our encounter with him is an encounter with the radically unknown. It is the sheer existential quality of Heideggerian Da-Sein. What I call the ecological thought is the thinking of the interconnectedness of all beings. whether she is even a ‘she’ or an ‘it’. But the charmed eddies of autumnal winds Built o’er his mouldering bones a pyramid Of mouldering leaves in the waste wilderness. Intimacy. and with it. The Poet is unmourned. The elegiac occasion of Alastor could not be more strange and powerful. that Shelley names the tomb and its environs. modernity. 50–66). as Allen Grossman observes. in the most profound possible way.

Like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. a mere sounding board for a form of subjectivity that is finally nothing more than narcissism. writing degrades into paper. this inertia that we mistakenly hypostasise as nature. depicting a Poet protagonist who goes in search of an ideal vision. and a disturbing one—as we read the poem. . the ‘mouldering leaves’ are surely figures for figures (Shelley elsewhere uses dead leaves as a figure for his writing). or even more minimally. 1).258 timothy morton Poet and environment are imagined together as a world of death. then. And it is an unseen archive. with the space of inscription (the ‘leaf ’ of paper rather than the flower of rhetoric). adding layer upon palimpsestic layer of sheer scrawl to the initial image. or is it an infinite garbage heap? The poem announces itself as a critical commentary on another great pastoral elegist. delving further into a nature that removes him from humanity and isolates him in a suicidal quest for the absolute. in which a single. deconstructive mode of poetic textuality that undermines all solid-seeming views of what being a subject. or celebrating it? Is nature really a cycling. a library where the books and shelves have reverted to their raw materials. for instance. This is an illegible archive. this demonic opaque isness. [Wordsworth] is a slave’ (Mary Shelley 1987: 25). Alastor is thus highly suitable for close examination: it is a text that scrutinizes other texts. we watch poetic writing itself (the Poet’s own writing?) biodegrade. Alastor becomes its subject. might mean. mouldering leaves’ equates the corpse of the Poet with the dead letter. consist in moments of elusive or even failed contact between . It is as if.’ an ironic statement about the nullity of tyranny. recycling the waste. solid nature ‘out there’ is constantly challenged by a vertiginous. The zeugma of ‘mouldering bones . are we recuperating. and Mary Shelley noted that he was ‘Much disappointed. something to do with the place from which we view the wreckage—a no man’s land. spiraling. in the Cartesian sense of matter and space as extension. The image of the pyramid in the wilderness anticipates the ruined statute in the desert in ‘Ozymandias. like all ‘waste’ (recyclable or not) in a place that is defined as ‘wild’ precisely because it is the place of abandonment. holistic system. Or does it? A careful reading of Wordsworth makes clear that his poetics was also written in a critical pastoral mode. leaving behind the actually existing social situation (presented in miniature as a young woman who tends to his needs). paper degrades back into the stuff of trees. . Shelley had been reading Wordsworth’s magnum opus. for a moment. In both cases. abandoned. Since tropes are flowers. the process of accretion and erasure. has reified nature. Wordsworth. something seems to have gone awry. a sonnet addressed to Wordsworth. The Excursion. says Alastor. The rest of the poem exfoliates these dead leaves. Poetry degrades into (mere) writing. and being nature. The most heightened moments of the Wordsworthian sublime. then the leaves are writing. Alastor elaborates on the sonnet’s claims. Since flowers are traditionally tropes (the ‘flowers of rhetoric’). It is a fascinatingly ecological image. not so much ‘fleshing it out’ as extending it. Shelley laments the political and aesthetic decline from a radical avant garde of the person he calls ‘Poet of Nature’ (l. In a companion poem. turning it into an abstract thing set apart from human relations. independent. finding them wanting precisely at those moments at which concepts of nature are at stake. William Wordsworth.

when we glimpse the Poet as already dead. live unfruitful lives. Like fingernails and hair. We could claim that Shelley never read the texts from which he might have derived a different Wordsworth. and an undecipherable one at that (Morton 2004). specifically to think the vexed relationship between elegy and ecology. Why write the poem at all. we are left with some troubling questions. making the wild his home. we become what we have condemned. but by huge waves of blank verse that continue to break upon the shore of the page long after he has died. There is a hint of this at the beginning. not only by nature in its radical otherness. a significant side effect in a poem whose title is the Greek for ‘avenging demon’. 149–91). Wordsworth’s pastoral oeuvre challenges Shelley’s own critique of it. and then through the eyes of an antelope. the Poet is distinguished from the common herd by his high level of civilization (he is ‘pure and tender-hearted’). . the one passage most proximate to Alastor.’ In this. in a figure that narratology calls focalization—that is. Wordsworthian nature is wonderfully evasive and anti-essential. the poem itself goes on after its hero’s death. or does the poem actually fall below the mark? The way Alastor poses itself as a critique makes it startlingly fresh. The closer the reader gets to it. miniature lyrical forms. the Poet is overwhelmed. or it is deceptively simple. But this evades the question of the ‘Ruined Cottage’ section of The Excursion. open up these sorts of questions. I will return to this specific theme later. The argument seems to want us to say. The Preface seems to want us to think that the Poet protagonist is a miserable failure who cannot identify with others properly: ‘Those who love not their fellow-beings.the dark ecology of elegy 259 the human and the nonhuman or inhuman. Shelley’s Preface to Alastor is either too simple. It is therefore a superb poem to think with. and prepare for their old age a miserable grave. Is Shelley’s Alastor thus in fact hyper-Wordsworthian. But this does not exhaust one’s puzzlement. rather than anti-Wordsworthian— furthermore. for instance. which with its double frame surely provides Shelley with something like a model for sophisticated ecopoetic composition. the reader finds herself in the position not of a vengeful humanity. the more it looks like a text. shifting game of interpretation and counterinterpretation to which there might be no end. Yet in condemning the Poet in this way. if a straightforward Preface would have sufficed? One feels a professional obligation to generate new readings. For now. for it engages the reader in a deceptive. Even in non-blank verse. only to fall back into the throng of the ‘morally dead’ (Shelley 2002: 73). It cannot just be straightforward—or can it? It has teased generations of readers. ‘That Poet had it coming.’ Indeed. Many have declared their distaste for the Poet’s ignoring of his actually existing female companion in favor of a masturbatory dream. Unlike in most elegies. Is this really happening? Is this really happening to me? What does that mean? The famous ‘spots of time’ in The Prelude. is Alastor about finishing the job Wordsworth started. the way narrative can convince us that we are viewing a scene from the particular point of view of one of the actors in the scene: he would linger long In lonesome vales. but the ‘impossible’ one of nature itself. a dream that starts him on his journey (ll.

Animals become contemplative. And the wild antelope. but from simply listening. out of their lairs and nests. perhaps. 8). But retroactively. Compassion implies asymmetry and distance. 1). not from fear. shriek seemed small inside their hearts. exemplifying the vegetarian republican view of the other. according to which nature consists in a fraternity of equal beings. That is the beauty of untagged indirect speech. we remain in touch with the Poet. that they were so quiet in themselves. ‘quiet in themselves’ (l. ‘a temple deep inside their hearing’ (l. whether or not Orpheus’ singing induces it. as Jane Austen (the pioneer) knew. Is it in fact the antelope who thinks something like ‘This form is more graceful than my own’? We will never know. 14). however. an irreducible distance that we try to get rid of at our peril. Shelley remarkably accomplishes a critique of sensibility that leaves us with no other option. and it was not from any dullness. a ‘beloved brotherhood’ (l. We glimpse the possibility that the nonhuman world is not impersonal. which suggests that they have this capacity. that makes humans human (non-animal). Something remarkably similar happens in Rilke’s first sonnet to Orpheus: Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright unbound forest. with an entryway that shuddered in the wind — you built a temple deep inside their hearing. suspend Her timid steps to gaze upon a form More graceful than her own. looking back from the end of the poem. We could go further and assert that the antelope is capable of aesthetic contemplation—of appreciation for no reason. Bellow. And where there had been just a makeshift hut to receive the music. in Kantian terms.260 timothy morton Until the doves and squirrels would partake From his innocuous hand his bloodless food. exist within the sadistic gaze of nature that overflows the Poet at the end. a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing. This is the view established in the first verse paragraph. Lured by the gentle meaning of his looks. that starts whene’er The dry leaf rustles in the brake. This is a profound suggestion. who already holds a profound ecological view. roar. (5–14) Orpheus enables an intimacy to open up within and around the listening animals. It is indeed a decentering image. the very lines just quoted. perhaps the thing. for this unknowing opens up the space of the ‘other mind’ (Grossman’s phrase 1992: 211). in other words. than the regular ways of posing the question of animal sentience and consciousness. despite its retroactive corrosion of the republican-chaste-proper . (98–106) It would be an ecological commonplace to claim that Shelley is here giving us access to a decisively nonhuman point of view. more profound. The Orphic Poet—fit subject for elegy—charms the animals: he awakens in them an innate capacity for contemplation. Even in this position. of one of the things.

If no bright bird. with its ‘voice of living beings. and recompense the boon with mine. republican narrator who frames the story as a healthy moral lesson. but about the subject position from which nature is known and viewed. Note the modesty of the negatives: ‘If no bright bird . ocean. air. The ‘dear’ quality of the ‘voluptuous . We occupy the view of the necrophiliac narrator who oozes out of the poem’s beginning. and odorous noon. So does the second. . There are two poetic introductions before the introduction of the Poet proper (‘There was a Poet . like a second head growing out of the apparently sober. beloved brethren. relishing the flood of gorgeous. 16–17). but still loved And cherished these my kindred. beloved brotherhood! If our great Mother has imbued my soul With aught of natural piety to feel Your love. If dewy morn. ‘withdraw j No portion of your wonted favour’ (ll. Scholars generally agree that there are at least two people in the poem. This narrator is chaste. I argue that there are at least three.the dark ecology of elegy 261 view. Oscillating between eros and philos. 48–9). 13–14). The polite voice picks up on a Wordsworthian strain: ‘grey grass. The reader goes along with nature’s continuation. . ecologically fraternal. I consciously have injured’ (ll. have been dear to me. insect. and the deep heart of man’ (ll. and woven hymns j of night and day. ’. and even. and writing’s continuation. And solemn midnight’s tingling silentness. But Shelley makes it clear that despite himself. It is an exemplary imprecation. . If spring’s voluptuous pantings when she breathes Her first sweet kisses. Tilottama Rajan has argued that the doubling of the narrative generates a ‘phantasmic’ quality that suspends the truth-value of the tale (1994: 41). And winder robing with pure snow and crowns Of starry ice the grey grass and bare boughs. We identify with the Poet’s dead body. the Poet wants something. when the narrator drops eros and philos and heads for family love. but always remaining within the bounds of propriety. hyperreal nature imagery.’ ‘bare boughs’. the opening verse paragraph is a consummate performance of ecological awareness. nonviolent: Earth. There is only one somewhat ambiguous moment. a roughly contemporaneous figure in the oeuvre of his partner Mary. chaste. Like Victor Frankenstein. With sunset and its gorgeous ministers. The first evokes the ‘universal brotherhood’ of nature in a prayer that the narrator has not sinned against natural propriety. It appears that there are two narrators. . and withdraw No portion of your wonted favour now! (1–17) This is not just about nature. or gentle beast I consciously have injured. If autumn’s hollow sighs in the sere wood. Shelley’s genius is in seeing that the Poet’s very abstention from desire is in fact saturated with desire. then forgive This boast. Shelley’s Poet is the pinnacle of his culture. see Crucefyx 1983).

and thee only. 2a. And twilight phantasms. And motions of the forests and the sea. Hoping to still these obstinate questionings Of thee and thine. until strange tears Uniting with those breathless kisses. Thy messenger. to render up the tale Of what we are. this passage differs dramatically from the opening. Like an inspired and desperate alchymist Staking his very life on some dark hope. evoking perhaps the fond Oedipal gaze of a father and daughter by using ‘dear’ in the sense of ‘held in deep and tender esteem’ (OED adj. I have made my bed In charnels and on coffins. Enough from incommunicable dream. This is the poetry of presence rather than absence. and woven hymns Of night and day. where black death Keeps record of the trophies won from thee. which Shelley read in its Excursion form in preparation for Alastor (see Morton 2007: 146–7): Mother of this unfathomable world! Favour my solemn song. and deep noonday thought.’ But which poet? The second voice yearns for incestuous contact with the corpse of mother nature. ‘Dear’ implies a chaste. as a long-forgotten lyre Suspended in the solitary dome Of some mysterious and deserted fane. a de Cottage. ‘Mother of this unfathomable world!’ Shelley sets this passage off in a fresh verse paragraph. and the darkness of thy steps. which accompanies Alastor in the Alastor volume. is a critique of the ‘Poet of Nature. I wait thy breath. by forcing some lone ghost. made Such magic as compels the charmed night To render up thy charge: . that my strain May modulate with murmurs of the air. Has shone within me. and. . that serenely now And moveless. . though ne’er yet Thou hast unveiled thy inmost sanctuary. the incestuous charge is there in its absence. Shelley’s sonnet to Wordsworth. for I have loved Thee ever. of horror rather than doubt. Have I mixed awful talk and asking looks With my most innocent love. 11–12) just skirts the ‘right’ side of eroticism. It is as if the poem is ´ ja ` -vu like technique reminiscent of the double frame of The Ruined restarting. In lone and silent hours. We shall return to this in a moment. And my heart ever gazes on the depth Of thy deep mysteries. and the deep heart of man. I have watched Thy shadow. When night makes a weird sound of its own stillness. . Great Parent.262 timothy morton pantings’ (ll.). Nevertheless. And voice of living beings. almost aesthetic distance rather than sexual involvement. (18–49) In establishing its subject position.

In Darwinian evolution. in its lurid perverse intensity.the dark ecology of elegy 263 The blatant address to the mother cuts across the paternal and fraternal language of the first verse paragraph. jars with the chaste vegetarianism of the first introduction and. The realization that the narrator of Alastor includes death. with the Poet himself. the necrophiliac narrator calls the rhetorical shots. and environment. and thus remains within the second narrator’s orbit. Disgust is what falls out of the aesthetic dimension (Gigante 2005: 1–21). the charnel ground hinted at in the image of the Poet covered in mouldering leaves. Or necrophilia is really the obscene underside of the republican view—and so on. which is perhaps even more horrifying. That is the whole point.479–90 (the Angel Michael’s depiction of a ‘lazar house’) that was very compelling to the vegetarian Shelley: . 30) is an amazing image of the incessancy of writing. the vomit into which language threatens to collapse (Derrida 1981). Conservation is predicated on the idea of protecting endangered species from extinction. ‘Alastor’s’ necroecological celebration is a nightmare form of eco-vomit. traversed by ‘unnatural’ pre-Oedipal desires. Or chastity is suffused with desire. continues even after the description of the Poet’s death. The second narrator seethes with pre-Oedipal violence. Despite the consistent Wordsworthianism. he or she distinguishes himself or herself as consciously chaste. suffused with sadistic vegetarian enjoyment. able to hang motionless like an Aeolian harp. within the frantic and frenetic activity of sadistic rendering and peering. there is no stable nature but only a proliferation of genetic mutations and haphazard cell divisions. we are dealing with very different personas. casts a shadow over this supposedly happy view of sheer life and its preservation. Is this second voice latent within the first one: inside every chaste nature-lover is an incestuous necrophiliac just waiting to burst out? Or is it entirely different? As the poem proceeds. The narrative doubling is not only phantasmatic. and even a sexualized desire for death. Kantian aesthetics maintains its coherence by excluding an unassimilable substance. which in this strange elegy. both inside and outside the poem. Nature here is the infinite garbage dump. Efforts to avoid global warming are in effect attempts to maintain the current state of affairs— namely. alluding to a passage from Paradise Lost 11. The narrator himself becomes a recording or monitoring device. or with the violence of the murderous dissecting scientist. 28). and very different natures. with its connotations of rending meat. one in which humans are still alive. And yet the language is no less ‘faithful’ to nature than the first—perhaps more so. as Rajan argues. The passage is enough to make ecocriticism recoil in disgust. The night that ‘makes a weird sound of its own stillness’ (l. Notions of life permeate ecological thinking. It speaks with the voice of a child. This sort of language is precisely what we find in the rest of the poem. but also mutagenic. and an unchaste Freudian child at that—a child with an all too human psyche. The outrageous use of ‘render’ (l. ‘long-forgotten’ in ‘some mysterious and deserted fane’ (ll. It is as if. later. 42–4). Vegetarianism enjoins us not to eat dead animals. Even if the first narrator is different from the second one. there is an all too passive being. It is as if the ‘restarted’ poem includes an idea of the unnatural within nature itself. This narrator is both sadistic and masochistic.

Or if it is. In contrast. in which we do not love our fellow men. This ‘sinthomic’ writing is charged with enjoyment. Our nose is rubbed in death as the writing writhes around the Poet. the supposed inner life of the author) from ‘Wordsworth’ (the actual texts that bear that signature). with a person who might not even be a person. and as the formal distance towards this content which we assume . from the red field Of slaughter. (609–18) Yet by forcing us towards identification with the disgusting. Alastor’s companion text. opens with Victor as a republican. Alastor performs a similar operation on Wordsworth. and achieves something like Wordsworth (as language) without the subject Wordsworth. Kristeva 1982: 1–31). This is not Wordsworth. from the reeking hospital. says the Preface. In his late writing. the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan suggested that the therapeutic process was not about being cured of symptoms. the snowy bed Of innocence. in this form of analysis what is dissolved is not the symptom but the subject for whom the symptom exists. bringing us closer to the earth. Instead. The verse literally humiliates us. luxuriant blank verse that sprouts up even as he becomes a mere skeleton. nature and so on. colossal Skeleton. Even if animals can do it—even if it is an animal trait. that. the narrator breaks down the aestheticization that reinforces the dualism of subject and object. which we could describe both as the set of ideas and beliefs about language. Thus Alastor starts as radically ecological. The patriot’s sacred couch. The second narrator gets rid of the subjective distance towards the traumatic symptom of sheer writing without end. Living it has to do with coexisting with the ‘other mind’ in extremis. the scaffold and the throne. Art king of this frail world. as a self-regarding virtuous vegetarian is killed off by the incessancy of his search. since Shelley appears to disambiguate ‘Wordsworth’ (as the horizon of all the things his writing means. storm of death! Whose sightless speed divides this sullen night: And thou. allegorizes a predominant state of mind. the poem takes us on a perverse journey that compels us to enjoy the Poet’s death. it is Wordsworth left in the fridge for too long. it was about being cured of the pathological subjective relationship to those symptoms—where in earlier analysis the object was to get rid of the symptom. surely an analogue for the incessant. But his disgusting creature poses the difference between imagining fraternity and living it.264 timothy morton —O. In the same way Frankenstein. and to the Poet. and between subject and abject (the psychic remainder of the mother’s body. and the dualism between subject and subject. not a distinctly human one—aesthetic contemplation still presupposes distance. then pushes even its own radical envelope. We are dealing here not with the dead but with undead. This is a significant way of putting it. seen as a coded message about some kind of subjective deadlock that the patient could overcome. Alastor. still Guiding its irresistible career In thy devastating omnipotence. A mighty voice invokes thee.

.... and sheer stuff.. and far below.... We thus identify with our symptom. the parasites.. The ash and the acacia floating hang Tremulous and pale. or mightier Death.. Even here..... we discover a new way of doing elegy... Her cradle and his sepulchre. for a background that constitutes a human foreground.. It is not so bad for ecology after all. threatening to our need for coherence........ clothed In rainbow and in fire..... We move from chaste.. our necrophiliac enjoyment of sheer nature.. even in vengeful elegy... Starred with ten thousand blossoms.. as.. a poetry that is at once ‘discourse’ (the record of a mind) as Anthony Easthope argued in his book on blank verse (1983).. and most innocent wiles. oozing with tendrils and roots.... undead Wordsworth. or god..... radically different. or a mirror that reflects us gratifyingly. while the explicitness of the second narrator impedes it.... by filling the blanks in the text with meaningfulness............. With gentle meanings. Fold their beams round the hearts of those that love.... Embraces the light beech. Only a substantial quotation will capture the way in which this oozing poetic spreads out over the temporal experience of eyes drifting down a page in silent reading. Expanding its immense and knotty arms.the dark ecology of elegy 265 to be an ‘attitude’ or ‘personality’ of some kind.... More dark And dark the shades accumulate. E L E G Y A N D T H E I N H U M A N : F RO M D E E P TO D A R K E C O LO G Y . flow around The gray trunks... led By love. in an existential acknowledgement of our difference from the sort of people who do not identify with others....... He sought in Nature’s dearest haunt some bank...... we are able to stay with whatever is inadequately signified by ‘nature.. or dream..’ Shelley introduces an analogue for it in the astonishing description of the overgrown lawn that the Poet encounters.. The oak. writhing writing: The meeting boughs and implicated leaves Wove twilight o’er the Poet’s path..... irreducibly strange. Like restless serpents...... In so doing........... living Wordsworth to rotten. Like clouds suspended in an emerald sky... We should recall in passing that Wordsworth’s highly metonymic style invites this kind of filling in. teeming and rotting.. . The pyramids Of the tall cedar overarching frame Most solemn domes within..... and. Can we mourn for a monster? Nature is no longer unhuman but inhuman.. It becomes necessary consciously to choose this mode among others. as gamesome infants’ eyes......

Through the dell Silence and Twilight here. the imaginary real. It is as if in losing the desired thing. What we encounter here is not nature. Or painted bird. Images all the woven boughs above. It is as if we have moved from the genre of elegy to that of horror. disturbing rather than soothing. the fantasy object becomes more existentially real than one had expected or even desired. keep Their noonday watch. beyond. it is the drive. Like vaporous shapes half-seen. a well. Nor aught else in the liquid mirror laves Its portraiture. ere yet his wings Have spread their glories to the gaze of noon. One darkest glen Sends from its woods of musk-rose twined with jasmine A soul-dissolving odor to invite To some more lovely mystery. Between one foliaged lattice twinkling fair. to a surging. and of most translucent wave. the woven leaves Make network of the dark blue light of day And the night’s noontide clearness. . Fragrant with perfumed herbs. since whatever Shelley is evoking is charged with psychic energy. a hyperWordsworth that is mutating into something else. ‘life’. (426–68) Shelley here achieves an astonishing intensification of Wordsworth. We move from objet a to È. and every speck Of azure sky darting between their chasms. and eyed with blooms Minute yet beautiful. lurid and lugubrious—one is tempted to say psychedelic. Dark. too close. sleeping beneath the moon. the more it keeps sprouting around him ever more violently and erotically.266 timothy morton These twine their tendrils with the wedded boughs. and death-in-life. at least not pre-psychoanalytic nature. twin-sisters. destructive play of sheer matter: what we have lost is in fact a distance towards this traumatic spurt of livingness—I hesitate to use that more domesticated word. It is as if he discovers a threatening excess within the chastity of Wordsworthian language. mutable As shapes in the weird clouds. Or gorgeous insect floating motionless. Unconscious of the day. And each depending leaf. gleaming. Ironically. we come close. What the Poet is chasing in the form of the vision is the fantasy object as what Lacan calls objet petit a. as a ‘nonpresence’ that can only be glimpsed anamorphically. In psychoanalytic language. an image that is so intense that it becomes toxic. and sail among the shades. far from being gone. Uniting their close union. Soft mossy lawns Beneath these canopies extend their swells. And yet. the relentless pulsation of life and death. but some inconstant star. the more the Poet plunges through nature qua that which is ‘never enough’ (objet petit a par excellence). from obliquity and absence and mourning to full frontal flesh: from life and death to animation and reanimation—which turn out to be the same thing.

It would be to fall in love with the dead. are echoed in the choice to maintain the painful awareness of being alive—of having a mind that differs from our body and from itself. cool distance. the more we try to vivify matter. indeed lust. because it eschews the dead in favor of the living. By erasing the difference between consciousness and the world. Rather than reading the Poet’s journey into death in the Caucasus as an allegory of failure. but stepping into it. The thought this scratching exfoliates goes like this. as inorganic form. Deep ecology is not deep enough. Since Alastor is part of Shelley’s critique of Wordsworth for betraying his revolutionary principles. We remain unable to slip into elegiac mourning. the reader delights in death even while eschewing it—a double view that powerfully encapsulates the compassionate–sadistic identifications of the vegetarian Shelley. would be to love what is least subjective about it. The collapse of distance dissolves barriers separating subject. the more we find ourselves back where we started. for nature. But this chastity perversely conceals a particular desire. but what Alastor enacts is a kind of enlightened Cartesianism. somewhat perversely. not as a mirror of our mind. disgusting abject things whose abjection is essential to the formation of the subject-object dualism. 82): he is ‘shadowing’ nature not distantly but very closely. The result is not assuming an ideological distance towards this disgusting incessant enjoyment object. Remaining with the dying in the present moment. and accepting the fact of our own death. but as sheer otherness. But close up. then. Surely the Cartesian idea of a pure res extensa. This is implicit in the slavish connotation of the narrator’s following nature ‘like [a] shadow’ (l. the more we try to escape the dreaded Cartesian dualism (bugbear of ecological thought). intimately. simple extension. most readers.the dark ecology of elegy 267 Love of nature is unable to maintain a chaste. Like many vegetarian writers. There is a bump in the record. But like Alice trying to get away from the Looking Glass House. While waves of iambic pentameter wash over the Poet’s corpse. right at the point where the ideological needle slides into the next cut. We need to live up to the truth of our desire to animate the dead. or between subject and object. Alastor is no exception. deep ecology hopes that it will make ecological social practices inevitable. Truly to love nature. not to do to the Poet what the Preface states is the cause of his woes—exclude him. as a form of ecological awareness. Furthermore. This is blasphemy in most ecological discourse. To be fully ethical. Shelley himself was fascinated by horrific imagery of blood and gore. playing it against its grain. it may not feel like that. is the most radically different one we can think of—poetically it is ‘dead matter’. the less regard we pay to it as matter—that is. have assumed that the necrophilia is part of the problem and that the militant vegetarian chastity of the first narrator and the young Poet is what we are after (see Morton 1994: 99–110). since the narrator has planted love. is to admit to the perversity of our desire. It is as if the narrator is scratching the groove of the work of mourning. The hyperreal images of reflections are juxtaposed with images of ultimate opacity. we might decide. object and abject. Melancholia (letting the dead stick in our throat) is more ethically refined than mourning (allowing them to be digested). . including me.

We cannot get out. man becomes the living sepulchre of himself. the waters. Shelley’s poem astonishingly enriches and problematises the idea of loving people established in its Preface. almost disturbing quality.268 timothy morton We are caught in a bind. and the sky. Percy and Mary Shelley were both sensitive to the way in which melancholic aloneness could inspire feelings of connectedness. instead we fall further and further into its gravitational field. the Wordsworthian language: ‘blue air. he deserved to die. . or in that deserted state when we are surrounded by human beings. So we return to Descartes. (2002: 504) Even separation induces a feeling of connection. there is then found a secret correspondence with our heart. and whose dystopian qualities include letting other beings suffer while soothing background music bathes us in an ambient aquarium of sound. There is eloquence in the tongueless wind and a melody in the flowing brooks and the rustling of the reeds beside them which by their inconceivable relation to something within the soul. in which we admit to the contingency of our desire rather than chastening it into invisibility. he wrote in the essay ‘On Love’ that: in solitude. any ‘really deep’ ecological approach would linger with this difference for as long as possible. Notice. we will always fall back down. Like Frankenstein. Notice. and yet they sympathize not with us. Alastor enjoins us to love people even if they are not people. Alastor is a poem with which we can rethink ecological poetics. the stranger. In the motion of the very leaves of spring. Instead of trying to read to win. incidentally. thus reproducing the sadistic distance. however. Alastor offers the possibility of a noir ecology. By realizing our implication in the phenomenal world. how about we read like losers (see Bull 2000)? It gets worse. and what yet survives is the mere husk of what once he was. Once we have decided that despising the Poet maintains the sadistic distance. To read the poem ‘ecologically. and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes like the enthusiasm of patriotic success or the voice of one beloved singing to you alone. .’ ‘enthusiasm’. feelings that they both associated with the ecological thought—the idea of interconnectedness in all its ramifications.’ we must enjoy killing off the Poet. I am superior to him’—is this what we are supposed to be walking away with? A Nietzschean mastery that would spell death to nature? How to overcome Nietzsche? If we keep thinking like that. In fact.’ the whipping boy of all ecological discourse. we are empowered to feel superior all over again. Metasadism is sadism. So soon as this want or power is dead. a chiastic logic according to which the ‘flowing brooks and the . So committed was Percy Shelley to this idea. ‘I hate that stupid Poet. To love the earth properly would entail acknowledging the very artificiality and otherness which ecological discourse tries to negate. awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture. we love the flowers. Some scholars have sometimes approved of this (see for example Roberts 1997: 150–3). we do not abolish the difference between subject and object too quickly. in the blue air. and the so-called ‘Cartesian dualism. Alastor is about how to relate to the fact of narcissism—the utopian edge of which are the oceanic poetics of absorption into Nature beloved by ecological thinking. Sterne says that if he were in a desart he would love some cypress. The poem does not achieve escape velocity from an earth that is also bound up with a certain sadism (the mother we are sucking). . the grass.

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