From early 1980s EnglishLit to LockdownLit in 2020 via Ecocriticism and Dominic Cummings’s Blog
Janet Mackinnon (English, 1980)
Lenin said that sometimes decades pass in weeks, but for me it’s been millennia. During a moment of Coronavirus lockdown mania, I committed myself to writing a very brief history of major ecological discourses in narrative literature from Gilgamesh to contemporary DoomerLit. I had the idea for a short ecocritical odyssey from the middle ages to the modern period earlier in the year but had not anticipated undertaking this for a while. Then on a longer lockdown walk, I recalled a useful classification of environmentalism in the Encyclopaedia Britannia and thought this could be applied to five literary ages, including works from the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, as follows:
- Apocalyptic environmentalism in the ancient world
- Redemptive nature in European medieval poetry
- Animal kingdoms in early modern English fiction
- Transcendent ecology in the late modern novel
- Anthropocene narratives in contemporary genres
I’m currently grappling with the middle ages and early modern period and felt integrating a blog into the writing process might help me with the bigger task.
So what’s the motivation for this somewhat eccentric project one might ask. It derives in part from a sort of internalised Bakhtinian discourse – or polyphony -between Lorraine Elliott’s five types of environmentalism in the Encyclopaedia Britannia. These are:
Biocentric school of thought
Psychologically and in my literary preferences, I incline towards a more apocalyptic worldview, but my professional background is in spatial planning and this shifts me towards emancipatory – even utopian! – and managerialist environmentalism. Then again, philosophically I’m attracted to deep ecology and other biocentric perspectives.
Another issue which has been a source of self-questioning since completing my Oxford English degree concerns the role of the humanities in major ecological discourses. During the mid-1980s, I didn’t feel one could be a fully-fledged environmentalist without studying a “relevant” subject. At the time, a master’s in urban and regional planning fulfilled this requirement but, having wrestled with the shortcomings of planning systems over the decades, I’ve lately felt a need to return to my humanities’ roots. An introduction to the study of ancient religions provided a missing link in early literature and opened up an historical perspective on environmentalism of which I had hitherto been uninformed. I also discovered modern ecocriticism and the so-called environmental humanities. Neither existed during my Hertford days but if they had I might have pursued a different life path. As it is, the lockdown has provided an opportunity to rediscover some texts from the early 1980s and revisit the joys of narrative literature with a new ecocritical perspective.
However, I have to confess that another impetus for my little lofty enterprise is Dominic Cummings’s blog; recently deconstructed by a Cambridge English professor in an article even longer than a post by the prime minister’s chief adviser. As is widely known, Mr Cummings is contemptuous about the suitability of Oxbridge English graduates for key roles in government which he proposes should be occupied by technocrats. Meanwhile, he reminds me of the techno-optimists in C S Lewis’s The Cosmic Trilogy. For anyone seeking LockdownLit, I would strongly recommend the final book: That Hideous Strength. The novel’s action revolves around the establishment of a “National Institute for Controlled Experiments” (or NICE) in a historic English university town. The No 10 adviser’s motto is apparently “Get Brexit done, then ARPA” or Advanced Research Projects Agency. As I don’t want to deliver a plot spoiler for Lewis’s “Modern Fairy-story for Grown-Ups”, let’s just say that all does not go well with NICE. Similarly, the Cambridge professor writes of Cummings’ blog: “A striking further aspect of (his) worldview is a lively conviction that total disaster for humanity may be right around the corner: as he says darkly, “it’s just a matter of when.””
Whilst I’d appreciate an exchange with Mr Cummings – who studied Ancient and Modern History at Oxford – concerning discourses (literary and otherwise) between apocalyptic environmentalism and techno-optimism, I fear his prejudice against English graduates may prevent this. Along with its other motivations, therefore, my very brief history of major ecological discourses in narrative literature may be a displacement activity for big conversations about the future absent from the contemporary public realm. The good – or bad! – news is that these are very much happening in “present day” DoomerLit. Last year saw the publication by Robert Harris – a Cambridge English graduate – of a brilliant essay entitled Apocalypse.com alongside his novel The Second Sleep. Both deal with the theme of global systemic collapse and the fictional work is set in a future England which has reverted to pre-modern dark pastoral where monotheistic religion is once again the dominant ideology. Like all good storytellers, Harris captures a certain zeitgeist which been described as collapsitarian or collapsologist.
The Second Sleep received mixed reviews with critics extending praise and some general readers clearly finding its genre bending Anthropocene gothic unsettling. Conversely, That Hideous Strength’s rich mix of genres, including a magical realism unusual in mid-20th century British novels, divided critics but remains popular outside the Academy, especially amongst those interested in C S Lewis’s transcendent ecology. What Lewis and great writers from earlier periods, like Jonathan Swift and Geoffrey Chaucer, bring to ecological discourses is a striking, and often discomforting, combination of moral purpose, irony, and creative ingenuity. Disentangling these provides one of the great benefits of reading their work, inviting engagement with the essential ambiguity of a human condition that modern ecocriticism describes as fractured. One of the learnings I most value from my literary studies is the assistance these provide when dealing with ambiguity. I may be prejudiced but, in my experience, people with some background in literature – whether academic or through personal reading of the cannon – are generally better equipped to disentangle fact and fantasy in the so-called real world.