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Toward an Ecological Sublime

Author(s): Christopher Hitt


Source: New Literary History, Vol. 30, No. 3, Ecocriticism (Summer, 1999), pp. 603-623
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Toward an Ecological
Christopher

Sublime

Hitt

I
his recent
essay "The Trouble with Wilderness,"
William Cronon
a
of
to
the
inclination
provocative
critique
contemporary
idealize wild nature, an inclination
that, as he righdy notes, is largely
to the aesthetic
indebted
of the sublime popularized
by European
into
Romanticism.1
the "habits of thinking
that flow
Calling
question

In

offers

from this complex


cultural construction
called wilderness"
(TW 81),
in
nature comes to represent
Cronon
that
the
sublime
tradition
suggests
an enticing
"flight from history": "the false hope of an escape from
the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of
responsibility,
our past and return to the tabula rasa that
existed before we
supposedly
our
on
to
leave
the
marks
The
world.
dream
of an unworked
began
natural

is very much
the fantasy of people who have never
landscape
themselves had to work the land to make a living" (TW 80). For Cronon,
the fundamental
is that
problem with the concept of sublime wilderness
on and reinscribes
it depends
the notion of nature's otherness,
of the

separation

between

the

human

and

nonhuman

realms.

Cronon
supposes his environmentally-conscious
Although
readership
will find his view "heretical" (TW 69), his impulse to critique the sublime
is hardly new. Indeed, it has been the
overwhelming
tendency of literary
criticism over the past few decades
to evaluate
the aesthetic
of the
sublime
between
female,

primarily
human

as an expression
and

conqueror

nature,
and

self

oppressed.

of asymmetrical
and

other,
Thus,

reader

power
and

relationships:
text,

historically-oriented

male

and
critics

such as Laura Doyle and Sara Suleri have posited a


between
relationship
the ideology of the sublime and eighteenth-century
British imperialism;
the Marxist Terry Eagle ton has exposed
the sublime as an instrument of
the bourgeois
and
feminist
critics such as Patricia Yaeger, Anne
subject;
and
Barbara
Claire
Freeman
have indicted
the sublime for its
Mellor,
of masculine
endorsement
power.2 Even those writing from less overtly
political
operated
against

perspectives
to confirm
a
threatening

New Literary History,

that the discourse of the sublime has


and autonomy
of a subject over and
other. Paul de Man, though his eventual aim is to

acknowledge
the authority

1999, 30: 603-623

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604

NEW

LITERARY

HISTORY

are a function of their


show how such descriptions
linguistic structures,
notes that in Kant's formulation
of the sublime, the imagination
"takes
on

the

nature

of

form

of which

writing

in

the

the direct

threat

tradition

of)

makes

Ferguson

mastery,

reconquered

similar

reconquered

over

superiority

is overcome."3 Responding
to (but also
this deconstructionist
Frances
reading,

observation:

"the

she

sublime,"

declares,

"establishes nature as the instrument


for the production
of individual
an
in
Neil
And
informed
concludes
Hertz,
essay
ity."4
by psychoanalysis,
of the sublime can be seen as a "strateg[y] designed
that the experience
a reassuringly
to consolidate
notion of the self."5 This brief
operative
from
far
is generally
of
while
exhaustive,
represen
scholarship,
sampling
tative of the tenor of recent literary criticism on the sublime.
of environ
Still, as a sustained critique of sublimity from a position
has
few
mental
Cronon's
advocacy,
analysis
precedents.
Perhaps the only
some
to
at
and
consider
critic
literary
explicitly
length the relationship
the ideology of the sublime and our conception
between
of the natural
eco
is Donald
in the mid-1980s,
environment
before
Pease, writing
to crystallize
had begun
into a coherent
field. His essay
criticism
in
"Sublime Politics" argues in part that the sublime as itwas understood
a policy of
the nineteenth-century
States served to authorize
United
the subtle turns of the American
environmental
devastation:
"Through
axe
to the virgin land could,
in
and
the
liberal
hammer
sublime,
taking
of
that only through destruction
with childlike
innocence,
proclaim
as if he
Nature's bounty could he feel by doing what nature commanded
were truly in touch with nature's will."6 If we accept Cronon's
premise
to inform our
aesthetic
of the sublime continues
that the Romantic
present-day
seem
would

professes

generally
studies)

conceptions
all
the

of

the

natural

more

essential

(along

with,

a self-conscious

for
in

interest

world,
to

like
critiques
a discourse

then

ecocriticism,

to

"real"

that

and Marxist

feminist

example,

its relevance

Pease's

contemporary

issues.

political
as
even
also identify
themselves
Yet ecocritics,
those
(few) who
have had surprisingly
little to say about
scholars of British Romanticism,
the sublime. Jonathan Bate makes virtually no mention
of it in his book
Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental
Tradition;7 likewise
in his Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and
Karl Kroeber,
to register his
the Biology ofMind,
entirely
ignores the sublime except
that

complaint
receives:

me

critics'

it is undeserving
"fascination"

with

of

the generous

it, he

muses

critical

attention

in a footnote,

"seems

it
to

in its
of the Cold War mentality,
manifestation
particularly
This
of
the
of
dismissal
serious
consideration
beauty."8
excluding
a
more
that
is
sublime is in fact consistent with Cronon's
stance,
point
to the claims of these en
clear in Kroeber's
that, "[c]ontrary
protest
another

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TOWARD

AN

ECOLOGICAL

of

'the

thusiasts
seekers

an

after

ets of nihilism"

605

SUBLIME

romantic

sublime,'
unattainable

(ELC2).
of whether

poets

at

their
nor

transcendence

best.

. .were

neither

anxiety-ridden

proph

we

association
of
accept Kroeber's
apparent
and world-denying
"nihilism," the
polemicism
to engage
reluctance of ecocritics
of the sublime
literary representations
seems even more
like a shortcoming
when we consider
the centrality of
Regardless
sublimity with Cold War

nature's

in

role

these

Nature,

representations.

indeed,

seems

inextrica

into the fabric of the sublime as presented


bly woven
by its two most
influential eighteenth-century
theorists, Edmund Burke and Immanuel
in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the
Kant. Burke,
Sublime and Beautiful,
the sublime experience
in terms of
describes
us
it
in
natural
"comes
the
upon
imagery:
predominantly
gloomy forest,
in the howling wilderness,
in the form of the lion, the tiger, the panther,
or rhinoceros."9
Kant's Critique of Judgment goes one step further by
to the
the necessity
of nature
(or representations
thereof)
stipulating
art
can
a
sublime experience,
that
evoke
of
the
sublime
granting
feeling
of the sublime,
nature.10 At the moment
only insofar as it recapitulates
Kant

we

writes,

nature":

"Bold,

"measure

ourselves

overhanging,

and,

as

against
it were,

the

apparent

threatening

almightiness
rocks,

of

thunder

clouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals,
in all their violence of destruction,
volcanoes
hurricanes
leaving desola
ocean rising with rebellious
tion in their track, the boundless
force, the
some
our
of
waterfall
and
make
the
river,
like,
high
power of
mighty
resistance of trifling moment
Thus both Burke and Kant

in comparison
with their might"
(CJ110).
or
envision
the sublime as a disorienting
a
confrontation
with
natural
It
is
version
this
of
overwhelming
object.
the sublime, involving a dialectic between
self and nature, which ismost
visible in the Romantic
sublime exemplified
by the poetry ofWordsworth,
and which Cronon
has in mind when he traces the
of our
genealogy
modern
notions of wilderness.
It seems, then, that there has been a scholarly
neglect on the part of
to interrogate
ecocriticism
the discourse
of the sublime.
If critics are
right?if
has

in fact the sublime

functioned

to

reinforce

encounter
or

ratify

with
our

the wild otherness


estrangement

from

of nature
it?then

it is important
that we try to understand
than merely
why. More
that
I want to argue
that we would
be
however,
redressing
neglect,
to dismiss wholesale
the aesthetic of sublimity that we have
premature
inherited. For although
the sublime is not without
its ideological
freight,
I am far from convinced
that this ideology isfundamentally
or intrinsically
maleficent.
On the contrary, I believe
the concept of the sublime offers
a unique
for the realization
of a new, more
opportunity
responsible
on our
with
the
natural
It is
environment.
perspective
relationship
surely

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606

NEW

especially
renouncing
the notion

of wilderness

other

I also

think

that

as

a world

to me

he

hand,"

nature

it is no

reasons

nonhuman

is dangerous
because
and ultimately
superiority

from,

separateness
the

HISTORY

at moments
his essay but
that even Cronon,
throughout
in the following
his
ambivalence
about
passage,
betrays
the ideal of sublime nature: "On the one hand," he begins,

revealing

"On

LITERARY

we

it underwrites

humans'

the natural

over,

world.

continues,

less

crucial

did

not

for being

as

us

for
create,

it is. The

to recognize
a world
with

autonomy
to human

an
corrective
indispensable
us remember?as
that helps
wilderness
are not
to those
of people
identical
necessarily
to foster
itself
is likely
behavior.
earth
responsible
to be

at nature

and

honor
own

its

nonhuman
independent,
nature
seems

of nonhuman
arrogance.
Any
to do?that
tends

of

way

the

looking
interests

or of the
creature
of every other
To
that wilderness
the extent

as an

for articulating
values
vehicle
deep moral
regarding
important
to the nonhuman
not want
to
I would
and responsibilities
world,
obligations
to our
has made
about
the
contributions
it
culture's
of
ways
thinking
jettison
has

served

our

nature.
What

(TW 87; italics in original)


are

we

to make

of

this

rather

starding

concession?

own

Cronon's

answer is essentially
to qualify (or clarify) his original claim: "Wilderness
us
of wonder
that this experience
into
trouble
only if we imagine
gets
is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it
and otherness
on
somehow depends
landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit"
pristine
on both theoretical
answer
and
But
this
(TW 88).
appears vulnerable
seem "heretical" to
in
that
it
does
indeed
theoretical,
practical grounds:
to do) that a tree in a garden be
recommend
(as Cronon
proceeds
a tree in an ancient forest. This sounds to me like
to
status
granted equal
an open door
to unlimited
in that it seems
Practical,
clear-cutting.
extremely
inspiring
could.
forest

unlikely
sense
the

that

a man-made

of wonder,

awe,

could
garden
and
otherness

ever

be

that

an

capable

of

old-growth

as instantiating a
is best understood
Rather, I think Cronon's vacillation
that
characterized
the structure of
has
fundamental
always
incongruity
at least in its conventional
the
versions.
the sublime,
Crudely
put,
of the sublime is that it has tended to include both humbling
contradiction
for the perceiving
validation
fear and ennobling
subject. Ever since the
alike
readers
have
critics
and
century,
generally paid more
eighteenth
to the latter than to the former. But humility before nature has
attention
been an elementary part of the natural sublime. Kant writes
consistendy
"our faculty of resistance as
the sublime we perceive
that in experiencing
with
small
in
[nature's] might,"11
recalling
comparison
insignificandy
Burke's

statement

that

"we

shrink

into

the minuteness

of

our

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own

nature,

AN

TOWARD

ECOLOGICAL

607

SUBLIME

and are, in a manner,


annihilated"
(PE 68). Kant adds that "the irresistibil
nature
of
of
the
forces
of our physical
upon us the recognition
ity
might
as
of
Part
nature"
of
the
sublime
111).
beings
helplessness
(CJ
experience,
in other words, is the realization
that we are mortal creatures,
"beings of
on forces greater than we are.
nature" whose lives are entirely dependent
The mere

fact that humility?which


Kant calls a "sublime temper of
we
and
which
could
of
(CJ 114),
justly call the cornerstone
as
a
environmental
ethic?is
to
cited
the
sublime
any
prerequisite
of the current
would, perhaps, by itself suffice to justify a r??valuation
stance. That wonder
to
ecocritical
and awe are also part of the package,
the mind"

"admiration" and "respect" cited by both


say nothing of the consequent
Burke
and
Kant
the possibility
that
(PE 57)
(CJ 91), can only enhance
the sublime may, after all, be worth saving. My starting point, that is, for
a reconfigured
version
of the sublime12?an
proposing
"ecological
the recognition
sublime"?is
that the traditional natural sublime, for all
its problems,
involves what
look to us like ecocentric
In
principles.
an
these (and
sublime, we would need to preserve
imagining
ecological
sublime while identifying
any other) positive aspects of the conventional
to do so, however,
and critiquing
its negative
In order
it is
aspects.
to
confront head-on
the problem
necessary
posed by its contradictory
structure.

II

of the sublime from Longinus13 onward have conceived


Theorists
of
in oxymoronic
terms. Burke had ample precedent
the sublime
in
as
most
horror"
"the
test
truest
and
effect,
classifying "delightful
genuine
of the sublime" (PE 73), as did Kant in defining
the sublime as "at once
... and a
a feeling of displeasure
awakened
simultaneously
pleasure"
(CJ
it is Kant who offers what is
106). Of the eighteenth-century
theorists,
the most
of
(if deeply problematic)
perhaps
illuminating
explanation
this modulation,
and it is instructive for us to examine
his "Analytic of
in The Critique ofJudgment
the Sublime"
In a well-known
passage, Kant
that the sublime is "brought about by the feeling of a momentary
to the vital forces followed
at once by a discharge
all the more
account
This
use
his
of the word
powerful"
(CJ 91).
implies
(against

writes
check

"simultaneously"

ment

above)

that

the

experience

is diachronic?a

"move

of

the mind"
than an
it, rather
(CJ 121), as he later puts
instantaneous
reaction. De Man has commented
on the artificiality of
Kant's
the Critique to narrativize
the sublime
tendency
throughout

moment

in this way;14 yet artificial

or not,

this temporal model

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provides

608

NEW

LITERARY

HISTORY

a useful heuristic device for a consideration


of the paradoxical
character
of sublimity.
on the
In his study The Romantic Sublime, Thomas Weiskel
elaborates
as it is mapped
out by Kant by
transcendence"
"structure of Romantic
the sublime moment
into three "phases or economic
states": a
dividing
in
"the
which
mind
is in a
normal,
stage
essentially
pre-sublime
to the object"; then a sort of rupture in which a
relation
determinate
is introduced;
between mind
and object
and finally a
disequilibrium
is restored.15 Reading Kant with
"reactive phase" in which equilibrium
in
this structure
in mind
of peripety
helps us to isolate the moment
moment
when
the "disequilibrium"
Kant's narrative?the
of humility
gives

to a

way

In effect,

reaction-formation.

compensatory

us

it allows

to

salvage a good part of Kant's analytic, to avoid throwing out the Kantian
to the Critique, the sublime
the bathwater.16 According
baby with
the
with
the
of a natural object which
begins
apprehension
experience
a
to
The
result
of
is
is
unable
kind
grasp.
imagination
cognitive
a rift between
and conception.
This rift is then
dissonance,
perception
overcome

finally,

by

our

the

of

emergence

triumphant

over nature"

"pre-eminence

reason,

revealing

to

us,

("Ueberlegenheit ?ber die Natur")

(qui).
In Kant,
it turns

we

therefore,
out,

is characteristic

see

general

of

trajectory

nineteenth-century

of

the

sublime

that,

as

representa

literary

The Prelude, for example,


tions of sublimity. In Wordsworth's
the poet
to have grown up "Fostered
alike by beauty and by fear,"17
claims
and
of fear, / By pleasure
"By the impressive
discipline
learning
In this way, he says, his sublime
(P 1.631-32).
repeated
happiness"
the
his "ministry" (P 1.494-5).18 What
"Haunting" by nature becomes
learns, however, by the end of The Prelude is "how the
poet ultimately
man
than the
times more
beautiful
mind
of
becomes
/ A thousand
.
.
.
more
of
fabric
divine" (P 13.446
earth / On which he dwells
[and]
of what Keats
52). This is exemplary
(despite having never seen The
to call Wordsworth's
sublime."19 A
Prelude) was famously
"egotistical
a
text
movement
the
in
similar
is evident
that reflects
remarkably
transatlantic

reach

of

Romanticism,

Emerson's

Nature.

In

one

of

the

in American

most famous passages


literature, Emerson reports "[c]rossing
a bare common"
he is
and feeling "glad to the brink of fear." Suddenly
a
in his tracks and experiences
(to borrow Kant's phrase)
stopped
mean
I
check to the vital forces": "all
egotism vanishes.
"momentary
a transparent
I am nothing."
This moment
of self
eyeball;
see all;
"I
for
Emerson
is
short-lived,
continues,
however,
abnegation,
am
I
the currents of the Universal
circulate
me;
part or
through
Being
into
is
transformed
of
thus
God."20
self-apotheosis,
Humility
particle
over the nonhuman
the individual's dominion
world: "Nature
validating
become

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TOWARD

AN

ECOLOGICAL

SUBLIME

609

to serve. It receives
It ismade
the dominion
of
is thoroughly mediate.
as the ass on which
man as meekly
the saviour rode. It offers all its
to man as the raw material which he may mould
into what is
kingdoms
useful"
(AT50-51).
as a temporal
three examples all depict the sublime experience
These
to the aggrandizement
movement
from the diminution
of the subject.
toWeiskel's model, we can isolate
Breaking down this process according
to the ecocritic?the
the third stage as being of concern
stage when, as
the ideas of
into insignificance
before
"sink[s]
puts it, nature
. .
reason" ("dieNatur als gegen die Ideen der Vernunft.
verschwindlet]")
(CJ
to say that in imagining an ecological
it is not sufficient
105). However,
were
this stage. For if the experience
sublime we could simply eliminate

Kant

of "transcendence,"
there would be no
prior to the moment
no
would
have called
(what
"lifting up"
joyful
Longinus
epiphany,
me
seems
to
to
the
it
that
of
And
the
sublime of
subject.
deprive
hypsous)
some kind of revelatory experience
would be to water it down, to dim its
in continuing
to use
luster. I am not even sure that we would be justified
the word "sublime" in such a case. Ideally, then, an ecological
sublime
would
offer a new kind of transcendence
resist the
which would
derailed

of humankind's
traditional
supremacy over nature. But I
reinscription
am getting ahead of myself. My point is that we can afford to remain
formulation
of the sublime through its
fairly faithful to the conventional
first

two

stages.

one of my
here is that
implying,
principal assumptions
a retooled version of an old aesthetic
if
is
that
the
concept,
goal, would
more
to
root
be more
take
the
it
I
resembled
its
precursor.
likely
closely
have already indicated my agreement
with William
Cronon's
view that
the contemporary
attitudes of Western
culture toward the natural world
are indebted
to the concept of the sublime,
Weiskel's
notwithstanding
our
assertion
that it is a "moribund aesthetic"
If
(RS 6).
project is to be
one of reconfiguration
rather than of mere renaming, we must concede
that the sublime, as elusive and protean a concept as it is, has finally an
structure which must provide
essential
the framework
for an updated
we are doing nothing more
model. Otherwise
than putting an old word
on an entirely new idea. This is not to deny the
historicity of the sublime
or to
we
it
in
that
could
its
historical
reproduce
imply
specificity if we so
as a literary or aesthetic
wished. Obviously,
it
is mediated
term,
by
of
discourse?cultural,
historical,
impenetrable
layers
linguistic. Yet our
to know
us from
it perfectly
does not preclude
inability
trying to
it better.
understand
In any case, I consider
the sublime to be a particular
cultural and/or
As I have been

of something
that is indeed universal: human beings'
literary expression
encounters
with a nonhuman
world whose power ultimately
exceeds

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610

NEW

LITERARY

HISTORY

theirs. The basic structural similarity of the accounts of Kant, Wordsworth,


is important
and Emerson
of literary
less as a record
influence
never
read The Critique ofJudgment, and Emerson
had not
(Wordsworth
in the way
yet read The Prelude) than as a sign of a certain consistency
"canonical" writers
and of a
(all of course white, male, Euro-American,
economic
have had, for
class)?who
particular
on
strongest impact
hegemonic
culture?responded
this universal
These
three texts are
experience.
artifacts that helped define and refine a tradition
still has relevance
today.
The legacy of this tradition tends to be especially

better or worse,
the
to and represented
the cultural
among
of the sublime which

evident in contempo
Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek2? for
toWordsworth's
Prelude22 in that both docu
example, bears comparison
an individual's process of self-discovery
ment
through an evolving rela
of
"in
which
unfolds
with
eddies
nature,
separation and reunion"
tionship
its
for
Dillard
The
reaches
(RS 6).
"separation"
peak in the chapter
can
context
in
be
of the Kantian
entided
which
read
the
"Fecundity,"
the math
sublime. Kant divides the sublime into two main
categories:
rary American

nature writing.

which stupefies with the seeming infinitude of number; and the


with sheer physical presence.
The math
dynamic, which overwhelms
in "Fecundity," as when the speaker contem
ematical
sublime abounds
a "million
plates the number of "flecks of skin" that must be shed by
ematical,

million"
rock barnacle larvae: "My brain is full of numbers;
they swell and
a
the
shell"
But
where
sublime is
would
skull
like
(PTC 170).
split my
and horror, as Burke
there is a fine line between astonishment
concerned
observes23 and as Dillard demonstrates.
Noting nature's "infinite variety of
"In this repetition
of
of forms," she writes,
and the multiplicity
an
must
that
fixedness
be
imbecilic
taken
individuals is a mindless
stutter,
all this fecundity
is a terrible
into account. The driving force behind
must
the
I
birth
and
of
also
the
consider,
pressure
pressure
growth,
trees
out
and
the
bark
of
shoots
that
that
seeds,
squeezes
pressure
splits
detail

out

and lusts and drives the


the egg and bursts the pupa, that hungers
creature relentiessly
toward its own death" (PTC 164).
This sublime moment
prompts her to see the world in a new light?or,
to

be

more

accurate,

in

a new

darkness.

Suddenly,

"the

shadows

are

takes on a sinister, wastrel air" (PTC 183). Think


deeper. Extravagance
the
million"
barnacle
"million
about
larvae, she writes: "Can I fancy
ing
if God
human
infants are more real? What
that a million million million
I
know
if
each
don't
has the same affectionate
for
barnacles?
disregard
as
or
are
if
and special,
barnacle
larva is unique
essentially
people
as
bricks" (PTC 170). She is faced with the unsetding
interchangeable
realization
And

that human

although

she herself

beings may not be at the center of the universe.


is in no physical danger, she comes face to face

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AN

TOWARD

ECOLOGICAL

611

SUBLIME

"Imyself am not one, but legion. And we are all


with her own mortality:
to
die"
(PTC
162).
going
our
of the Kantian
This
is a classic example
between
rupture
our
to
and
the
failure
of
of
get a
phenomena
imagination
perception
on

in the context
of the ecological
it. But its significance
a
is that it ultimately
As the
yields
understanding.
heightened
saw
down
Dillard
"I
how
freedom
winds
writes,
grew beauty and
chapter
the familiar
line that reprises
horror from the same live branch"?a
structure
of
she
the
sublime.24
Continuing,
oxymoronic
acknowledges
of the
that her own death and the death of a jellyfish are "two branches
handle

sublime

same creek, the creek that waters the world.


Its source is freedom
and
a
now
its network of branches
is infinite." Seeing
from
broader,
things
she accepts that death is simply the price we pay for
holistic perspective,
life. And to be part of life is to be part of a "network" of interrelations:
"The graceful mockingbird
that falls drinks there and sips in the same
a
waters
its
that
eyes and a death that fledges and flies. The
beauty
drop
petals of tulips are flaps of the
in the ichneumon's
hatches
gut"
be tempted by the third stage of
an example
of a text that gets
sublimity.
We must

be careful,
and

mortality,

dependence

before

however,
as

same doomed
water
that swells and
refusal to
(PTC 184). In her apparent
the sublime, Dillard provides us with
us closer
to a model
of ecological

either

a sense

embracing

our

for

panacea

of humility,

environmental

or as the defining
of an ecological
element
sublime. The
predicament
is that the consistent
of Western
civilization
response
difficulty
(espe
to this
of the seventeenth
cially since the scientific revolution
century)
of vulnerability
has not been
eventual
but
recognition
acceptance,
dogged

and
Hence

resistance.

the idea
we

devise

The

that we
ways

unfathomable

are somehow
to circumvent,

otherness

part of
deny,

of

nature

this alien

escape,

or

unnerves

entity
overcome

us,

shocks

us.

it. Such

the story of the conventional


sublime?a
efforts, indeed, constitute
story
an act of
which
describes
the validation
of the individual
through
in which the external world is domesticated,
transcendence
conquered,
or erased. One of Kant's few concise definitions
of the sublime provides
an instructive
this
example. He writes, "The sublime may be described
the representation
of which determines
(of nature)
way: It is an object
to regard
our reach as
the mind
of nature
the elevation
beyond
a
to
a description
of
ideas"
Such
119).
equivalent
presentation
(CJ
the
effective
of
dissolution
into
the domain
implies
phenomenal
reality
of the ideal. As Weiskel
the Kantian
sublime
comments,
"implies the
conversion
of the outer world
into a symbol for the mind's
relation to
a
to
itself
is
use Kant's
to
Nature
reduced
"mere
(RS 85).
nothing,"
the
in
self
all
its
phrase,25 leaving only
glory.

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612

NEW

LITERARY

HISTORY

III
one may be tempted
this problem,
Pondering
sublime is not worth the risk. After all, it depends
a

alienation,

hyperbolic

sense

of

the

inexorable

to conclude
that the
on an
of
experience
otherness

nature.

of

to begin with? Environmental


Isn't such an attitude dangerous
philoso
us
not the
that estrangement
from nature is the problem,
phy teaches
we
those concepts which
foster harmony
endorse
solution. Shouldn't
with the natural world? My response
is that we most certainly should, as
a rule, strive to recognize
our kinship with nature. At the same time,
it is my belief that we will never be able fully to realize this
however,
as

ideal?not

as

long

are mountains

there

over

tower

that

us,

oceans

that

that could kill us. On an even more basic level, as


separate us, hurricanes
an
as
is
will always be an "other." Even if we could
there
there
"I,"
long
seems
to me unconscionable
it
that we might want
this
situation,
change
to neutralize

nature's

completely

otherness.

"sublime"

from a perspective
in which
the
ecocritics,
indeed, are working
even
nature
status
and
assumed
Scott
for
of
is
endorsed.
Slovic,
separate
Awareness
in
American
Nature
in
his
book
Seeking
Writing,
example,
even
condemns
the "facile sense of harmony,
identity, with one's
to rhapsodic nature writing."26 He
that is "often ascribed
surroundings"
Some

writes:

"By

face-to-face

confronting

the

of

realm

separate

nature,

by

more
the writer
of its otherness,
implicitly becomes
becoming
or her own dimensions,
aware
form
of
and
his
limitations
of
deeply
... It is
of
with
the
unknown.
and
processes
grappling
understanding,
of self against an outside medium
(such
only by testing the boundaries
aware

as nature)

that many

writers

manage

to

realize

who

are

they

and

what's

to me;
what in the world"
(4). Slovic's general
impulse seems sensible
about a critical approach
and yet I cannot help feeling apprehensive
the division of subject and
that appears to accept with such acquiescence
as the tide of his
seems
which
unabashedly
egocentric,
object?one
book reflects. I think it isworth asking whether nature's otherness might
in a way which
somehow
avoids this hierarchical
be theorized
binary
opposition.
has already
of environmental
the discourse
As it happens,
philosophy
The
Social
Creation of
to
Neil
Evernden's
book
ask
this
question.
begun
to answering
it. In Evernden's
Nature makes an important
contribution
of the physical world can
culture's traditional conception
view, Western
be

divided

object,"

into
and

two

general

"nature-as-self."27

ing humankind

as being

environment,

which

meanwhile,

is along

exists

categories,
The
former

in control
as

an

the lines of

two

"rival
is

manifestly

of and responsible
entirely

the Deep

"nature-as

Natures":

dualistic,

posit

for the physical

separate

entity.

Ecology

position:

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The

latter,

once

we

TOWARD

AN

ECOLOGICAL

613

SUBLIME

in the existence of all beings, then


realize that we are "literal participants
we will realize that to harm nature is to harm ourselves. Nature
is, then,
an extended
to the same concern
as any other
self, and is entided
(SC 101).
person"
on the grounds
Evernden
that they "are not
rejects both alternatives
as different as they may seem"?for
both rely on a dualism
in which "the
of the perceiving
human
(SC 101-2).
centrality
subject is apparent"
a different
in the final section of his book Evernden
Thus,
proposes
the subject and
approach. He suggests an oudook which would decenter
as an
"liberate" nature,
the domain of mind?neither
leaving it outside
a
as
nor
a
as
self
but
"wider
alien
"divine
chaos"
(SC
object
mysterious,
move

involve seeing nature


of any
independent
to
"take
's
conceptual
categories,
seriously Merleau-Ponty
adage: To
return to things themselves
is to return to that world which precedes
our everyday perception
of phenomena
(SC 110). Whereas
knowledge'"
is governed
strictures
of
the
and
if nature
is
reason,
by
language
as
a
in
its
our
and
event,
full individuality,
unique
"accepted
astonishing
encounter
and is perhaps fundamentally
is entirely different,
religious
120).

in

This

the

would

sense.

nonecclesiastical

Rudolf

Otto

In

such

instances,

we

what

experience

called

the 'wholly other':


'that which
is quite beyond
the
the
of
the
the
and
which
therefore
usual,
familiar,
sphere
intelligible,
falls quite outside
the limits of the "canny," and is contrasted with it,
and astonishment'"
(SC 117). Peter
filling the mind with blank wonder
in his essay "Man Apart: An Alternative
to the Self-Realization
Reed,
also appeals to Otto's
idea of the "wholly other" (with its
Approach,"28
pun

on

the

word

"holy")

as

favorable

alternative

to

our

more

of nature.
In the face of the holy, Reed writes,
traditional
conceptions
an
"we stand dumb, overcome
encounter
with something
that is so
by
our
to
in
words"
(MA 58). Like
obviously
beyond
ability
capture
Reed seeks to explain how we might accomplish
what would
Evernden,
a
neat
be
trick:
the
radical
nature
of
while
surely
preserving
alterity
or
its
on
reification.
He
to
oudine
the
objectification
goes
resisting
of
this
ethical
its
that
realization
implications
perspective,
contending
would pave the way for human beings' acceptance
of the intrinsic value
of nature
(MA 61-63).
We may well find this third way appealing?not
only as a new way of
our
the
with
natural
world, but also as the final,
imagining
relationship
crucial piece of the puzzle in our formulation
of an ecological
sublime.
in
it
both
use
Evernden
and
Reed
words
that
Indeed,
describing
literary
as
critics will recognize
to the lexicon
of the sublime:
belonging
"wonder,"

bling

"awe,"

questions

fundamentally

"mystery,"

remain.
different

"chaos,"

"astonishment."

Nevertheless,

trou

First, how is the notion of the "wholly other"


from the kind of alienation
we have seen in

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614

NEW

LITERARY

HISTORY

that is possible
Kant? The answer appears to lie in its status as something
outside
the
of
realm
Reed
that in
only
emphasizes
conceptualization.
with nature "there is no room, no time, for reflection. We
such an encounter
are seized by the relationship;
we cannot think about it as we would an
object. It is here, now, and while it lasts, there is only now. Since we have
no time to ourselves
to think about the relationship,
there is never any
...
its reality.
[It] is outside the thinker, not inside
question of doubting
her or his own consciousness"
Evernden
(MA 57; italics in original).
would

seem

be
It might
astonishment

to

fair

that

generates
Otto
religious.
different
namely,

agree:

to say that the


of radical
otherness
experience
or awe, all "numinous"
It is that
experience.
of mystery
the acknowledgment
that we
suggests

from
on

can

absolute
in

very

sublime
of what

emergence

dualism

"in

that
form.

plainly

calls

there

envision,
is a

conceptual

(SC

a matter

of
In

"reason."

can be no

All

the

glorious

examples

117)

by the

and object mandated

of subject
as

as

quite
something
in rational
concepts,
on
the
transcends
thought,

non-rational
sense."

recognition
characterize

rendered

exhaustively
wondrousness

in this

can

of all

of

on

it relies

be

its pure,

depends,
Kant

resort

last

the

the estrangement

By contrast,

Evernden

that

anything
the sheer

mysterium,
presented
from nature
speak

Kantian

that

is at the base
shock

the

subject

on

course,
scenario

or object,

logos?on
that Reed

since

the
and

this very

construction.

We have long been conditioned


theory to be skeptical
by structuralist
that we
that an unmediated
of the notion
experience
might be possible,
the
the
Yet
discourse
of the
outside
of
confines
step
language.
might
on something
like this possibility. The
sublime seems to be predicated
nature
in that space in which phenomenal
sublime for Kant occurs
or cognitive
at
that
exceeds
the capacity of our sensible
faculties,
moment
of apprehension
when
"with the advance
comprehension
becomes more difficult at every step and soon attains itsmaximum"
(CJ
in which conceptualization
is a moment
of blockage
fails;
99) P There
we are temporarily
and
loose from our linguistic moorings,
jarred
our sense of self, it, too, is threatened
at this
because
these define
moment.

This,

at

any

rate,

the

constitutes

second

phase

of

the

Kantian

to
third phase. It might be accurate
the compensatory
sublime, before
as an unmediated
of
nature?unmedi
describe
this moment
experience
rational concepts, and thus also by a sense
ated, at least, by conventional
of "subject" and "object."
seems
to offer a
in other words,
The discourse
of the sublime,
for the Reed-Evernden
precedent
actual "nature"
rability between

the incommensu
by theorizing
to
that which
logos would purport

model
and

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AN

TOWARD

ECOLOGICAL

and

define

To

contain.

615

SUBLIME

Otto's

repeat

words

it

above,

on

"relies

some

that can be exhaustively


in
rendered
thing quite different from anything
rational concepts." The symbolic order, after all, is a limited human
that never fully accounted
construction
for the wholeness
of "reality" in
seem to adumbrate
the first place. The sublime would
the ontological
of the nonhuman
this limitation.
autonomy
by forcing us to recognize

IV
I am

What

is perhaps most
sublime
ecological
fully
the
best-known
"Ktaadn,"
essay from his collec
tion The Maine Woods.
"Ktaadn" isThoreau's
tale of his trip to the New
and ascent up mile-high
Mount Katahdin.
England wilderness
Surpris
climax of the narrative occurs not with the author's
ingly, the emotional
summit, but on his way down?
conquest of the mountain's
triumphant
after failing even to make
it to the top. Traversing downhill
through the
illustrated

"Burnt

Lands"

What

is it to be
with

compared
I stand

in awe

strange

to me.

might,?but

of

region

which

epiphany

I fear

shown

some

body,
not

this matter

bodies,

actual

Thoreau's

woods,

to see

star's

surface,

the

common

of
myriad
particular
things,
some hard matter
in its home!
I am

them.

What

of our

sensel

bound

I am

of which

life

trees,

it?rocks,

an

experiences

lines:

to which

spirits,
ghosts,
to meet
I tremble

of mysteries!?Think
in contact
with

world!

speaker

in these famous

to a museum,

admitted
being
of my
I fear

the

the

culminates

of me? Talk
possession
to come
shown matter,
solid earth!

the

calling
in Thoreau's

Contac?

has

is this Titan
in

wind
Contac?

my
body
that has

nature,?daily
on our cheeks!
Who

so

become

one,?that

are we?

to be
the
where

are we? (K 150)


To understand

this passage

it is essential
that we return to the
better,
on
Katahdin's
are
for
the two episodes
speaker's disappointment
ridge,
a
The
related.
ascent
is
classic
of
the
intimately
solitary
example
Burkean sublime, as Ronald Wesley Hoag shows in an essay on "Ktaadn."31
a quick overview of the natural
For our purposes
imagery of the scene
will suffice to make
this point:
there is "the deep and narrow ravine,
thickets" of vegetation,
the
sloping up to the clouds," the "impenetrable
mountainside

"a

giant's

stairway,"

the

"masses

of

bare

rock,"

the

"bleak

sky," a "dark and cavernous


region," and everything
by the
enveloped
"hostile ranks of clouds"
Thoreau
as
describes
the
trek
(K 139-40).
less
arduous
than
Satan's
Chaos"
"scarcely
(K 140);
anciently
through
the landscape
(K
"savage and dreary," "wildly rough," and "desolate"
inhuman"
141); and nature "Vast, Titanic,
(K 144).

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616

NEW

HISTORY

LITERARY

and for us, is not so much


the
the salient point for Thoreau,
rawness
in
its
of
all
but
otherness
the
the
of
terrain
nature,
very
difficulty
and brutality. "I cannot pity nor fondle thee here," he imagines nature
to where
I am
drive thee hence
telling him, "but forever relendessly
renders him overwhelmed,
kind" (K 144). As he tells it, the experience
from the nature he
and profoundly
humbled,
bewildered,
estranged
sense of the sublime persists, at least latendy,
this
And
he
knew.
thought
the "Burnt
writes upon entering
into the later passage. As Thoreau
was
that
this
I
most
realized
Lands," "Perhaps
primeval, untamed,
fully
else men call it" (K 149).
and forever un tameable Nature, or whatever
But

The

word

is a "collapse"

the result

res and

between

a familiar

once

"nature,"

of

is the

"It

verba.

the

no

concept,

"linguistic

Evernden

apply;

a disjunction

apparatus,"32

unfamiliar,"

to

seems

longer

"that

says,

shakes

us doubt

the adequacy of conventional


and makes
[our] complacency
vocabularies"
(SC 132). Faced with the limitations of language, Thoreau
the scene before him in terms of its denial of human
"can only describe
is,

categories"33?that

but

garden,
and

nor

woodland,
surface

nor
of

lea,

the

it

what

saying

the unhandselled

natural

mead,

by

globe.
nor

nor

arable,

no

was

"Here

man's

nor

lawn, nor pasture,


It was

waste-land.

. . Man
.

Earth

planet

not

is

It was not

was

to be

not

the

fresh

associated

Earth that we have


his Mother
with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific,?not
. ." (K149).
heard of.
recurrent use of the word
that Thoreau's
observes
David Robinson
is "beyond the
in that it suggests something which
"Matter" is important
or
I
add that
would
to
control"
mind
of
220).
(TK
project
power
in

"Matter,"

its

relative

about

the best Thoreau

"solid

earth,"

can do with
"actual

recalcitrant

the

and

generality

as

neutrality

semiotic

to denote

language

that

world"

he

term,

is

the ineffable
The

perceives.34

the realm of
is wholly
the world
with
beyond
in The Idea ofWilderness, writes
language, reason, logos.Max Oelschlaeger,
"denies the unquestioned
that in "Ktaadn," Thoreau
validity of conven
tional categories, which ostensibly define the forest, animals, and all wild
he insists, is rooted in the
of the wilderness,
nature. The true meaning
to that
human consciousness
of
relation
nature
in
the
of
and
living
spirit
"contact"

world,

he makes

not

in

human

or

categorization

use

of

both.

. . . Thoreau

is

of
concealed
description
by language."35 Thoreau's
revealing a presence
of "Contact!" with nature suggests a new way of imagining
the moment
"transcendence."

For

this

is a kind

of

transcendence?but

not

transcen

of
the threshold
Rather,
by crossing
Thoreau's
transcends
the
discursive
logos.
speaker
conceptualization,
of the problem
redefinition
thus points us toward a potential
narrative
In a sense, "Ktaadn" turns Critique of
atic third phase of the sublime.
of reason
the discovery
in Kant
on its head: for whereas
Judgment
dence

of

the physical

world.

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AN

TOWARD

the natural

abrogates
gates

seems

reason.

To

be

617

SUBLIME

ECOLOGICAL

in Thoreau

world,
more

precise,

the discovery

of nature

encounter

sublime

abro
nature

with

out of a perspective
the power to jolt us momentarily
a
reason
and
that, in modern
language,
perspective
by

to have

constructed
Western

has

culture,

nature

rendered

mute.

a broader
of the sublime
in
level, Thoreau's
reconception
in
it
underscores
criticism
that
"Ktaadn" is relevant to ecological
literary
to questions
of
that is attentive
the value of a theoretical
approach
On

in The
that Lawrence
and representation?questions
Buell,
language
in
his
considers
Environmental
entitled
chapter
Imagination,
"Represent
to
Buell weighs
the various options
available
ing the Environment."
the
of
in
of linguistic depictions
ecocritics
nature,
confronting
problem
cannot be other than
of environment
given that "our reconstructions
skewed and partial" (?784). On the one hand, Buell notes, an ecocentric
the "realness" of the world
criticism would naturally want to emphasize
as opposed
to its constructedness?a
that seems to invite the
position
or mimetic
a
of
"realistic"
form
On the
of
representation.
privileging
other hand,
"mimesis itself threatens nature by tempting us to accept
copies for the real thing" (?7103). Buell's solution is a kind of
cozening
he

ecocriticism,

compromise:

to matter

should

suggests,

insist

on

a "dual

account

and to discursive mentation"


(?792), which might entail
of Mary Austin)
how
(as he himself does in a discussion
can
the
reader
closer,
actually bring
stylization
imagina

ability
demonstrating
and
distortion
to
the
tively,
"thing

itself."
he understates
claim is convincing;
the
yet I believe
a
more
ecocriticism
benefit
from
and
might
rigorous
sustained engagement
with critical theories that focus on the instability,
and opacity of language. He is correct in observing
that
indeterminacy,
a
has
to
been
the
idea
of
literature
devoted
"literary theory
making
seem
the
factical
environment
All
untheoretical.
recuperating
quaintiy

Buell's main
to which
extent

strains of contemporary
major
literary
theory have marginalized
dimension"
in explaining
literature's
referential
(?7 86). However,
as
a
to
ecocritics'
resistance
backlash
this cli
theory
general
against
seems

mate?"it

to me

more

urgent,

being

more

to

scandalous

current

to stress writerly
interest in fidelity to the world of
orthodoxy,
seems
to
too easily. I
let
them off the hook
(?7 463)?Buell
objects"
believe
that ecocriticism
would
its
base
theoretical
(not to
strengthen
more
its professional
mention
that
legitimacy) by including
approaches
critical

the

highlight
language.
"Ktaadn"

To

symbolic,
the extent

(or, I would

referentiality

against

tropological,
that literary

and

discursive

dimensions

of

such

of
as

portrayals
sublimity
"Mont Blanc") imply the limits of
argue, Shelley's
the solidity of the real world,
such a
they demand

methodology.

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618

NEW

LITERARY

HISTORY

on the world has


impact of technology
only
the sublime. In an age
the need to reconsider
its moments
of hubris,
that it can
imagines
means?that
it will
through
technological
war
more
its
sublime
win
with
nature?the
is
relevant
than
ultimately
ever before. The situation has changed
since
the
time
of
dramatically
The

rapidly increasing
the urgency of
heightened
in which humankind,
in
ensure
its own survival

when

Romanticism,

nature

was

seen

often

as an

emblem

life. A passage
transience
of human
against
celebrations
Harold's Pilgrimage, which
intersperses
tations on the ruins of human
cultures,
nicely
the

In an

ence.36

to

apostrophe

the

draws a contrast

sublime," Byron
an "image of Eternity"
who

upon

marks

Man

the

Stops with
The wrecks
A

shadow

His
Are

steps
not a

And

shake

For

Earth's

Spurning
And
send'st
And

earth

not

spoil
him

with

ruin?his

from

him

howling,

from

ravage,

thee;
thou

control

save

his

the

. . .

own,

fields
arise

vile

strength
all despise,
to the skies?

he wields

dost

thy bosom
in thy
shivering
playful
. . .
to his Gods,

him

and

the watery
plain
nor doth
remain

upon
thy paths,?thy
for him,?thou
dost

destruction

"boundless,

this differ
endless,

themselves:

shore;?upon
are all
thy deed,

are

illustrates

the durability of the ocean?


of human beings,
the mortality

the

of man's

as

permanence

between

(IV. 183)?and

destruction

wreak

hailed

ocean,

of

from Byron's
Childe
of nature with medi

spray

(IV. 179-80)
regard Byron as being ahead of his time in noting
to
I find this passage most
"Earth's destruction,"
effect
capacity
an era of acid rain and
In
of
its
sentiment.
for
the
obsolescence
striking
oil spills, man's ruin no longer "Stops with the shore." Inasmuch as these
it is indeed a "moribund
the old Romantic
lines represent
sublime,

Although
humans'

we might

aesthetic."

in large part by its


sublimity has traditionally been defined
its
the
decline
of this
then
its
permanence,
inviolability,
sovereignty,
the
version of the sublime should be cause for concern. Undoubtedly,
advances we do have more control over
fact that through technological
to the antiquation
of the
nature
has contributed
than ever before
to altering funda
in addition
traditional natural sublime. Furthermore,
If nature's

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TOWARD

AN

ECOLOGICAL

619

SUBLIME

our relationship
has as
with
the natural world,
technology
mentally
sumed an integral role in the ideology of the sublime as it informs that
The sublime is not disappearing
along with the disappear
relationship.
are merely
ance of wild nature;
its grounds
shifting. This shift is the
subject of Jonathan Bordo's essay "Ecological Peril, Modern Technology,
on Jean-Fran?ois
and the Postmodern
Sublime."37 Drawing
Lyotard's
in
The Postmodern Condition, Bordo notes that if the
theory of the sublime
of being overwhelmed
is the condition
by the
effects of technology,
then ecological
bewildering
a new source of the
becomes
(as the result of technology)
catastrophe
sublime. That is, the sublime in this case is evoked not by natural objects
a humbling
but by their devastation.
Human
still experience
beings
"postmodern

sense

of

sublime"

and

threatening

fear

and

awe

tion to conventional
making. And worse,

before

nature,

in

but

this

case?in

accounts

of the sublime?the
is all too real.38
the danger

contradistinc

is of their own

threat

That
the threat of ecocatastrophe
could be a new version
of the
one
sublime may at first seem an innocuous
If
point.
anything,
might
argue, surely it is a good thing that we might be so affected by the gravity
of the environmental
crisis to imagine
that it poses a threat to us
to
This
the
is
similar
in
line
of
Buell pursues
personally.
reasoning
a
we
can
environmental
rhetoric
of
if
be
advocating
apocalypticism:
to imagine
such a cataclysm,
then we might
made
be scared
into
the
the
real
Yet
the
of
sublime
preventing
thing (?7280-308).
ideology
to ecocatastrophe,
Bordo
presents an obstacle to this solution. Referring
writes,

"It

is a grave

and

ironic

that

paradox

its

'management'

has

come

to fall within
the province
of its cause, technology"
(EP 172). In other
words, we fancy that the situation can be controlled
by the very thing
that caused it to spiral out of control
in the first place.
In this scenario, technology
plays the role that reason plays for Kant in
The Critique ofJudgment: both are called in to save us, in deus ex machina
fashion,
scribes
threatening

from a threatening,
of
this as a process
other

is converted

unfathomable

external
force. Kant de
in which
the power of the

"subreption"
into

our

own

power.

Of

course,

what

we

to us all along: the source of


did not realize was that the power belonged
the sublime was ultimately
the same thing that allowed us to emerge
victorious from the skirmish. Thus our reliance on technology
to deliver
us from crisis is the familiar third stage of the sublime in a new
guise, a
a
to
is
we
which
end
in
So
wait, secure
stage
supposed
glorious conquest.
in the notion that a happy ending
is guaranteed.
As Bordo observes, our
trust in technology
thus takes the form of denial,
the vague "assurance
that actions are already being taken" (EP 175). And in the meantime,
things are only getting worse.
The

technological

solution

is ultimately

a dead

end because,

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contrary

620

NEW

reason

to Kant,

never

can

our

and

knowledge,
sublime would
ecological
the inaccessibility
wonder,
and

commodification,

nature.

master

nature

There

will

LITERARY

HISTORY

be

always

to

limits

An
always be, finally,
impenetrable.
remind us of this lesson by restoring
the
of wild nature.
In an age of exploitation,
will

we

domination

need

awe,

and

envelopment,

to be confronted
We need, at least occasionally,
transcendence.
with
wild otherness
of nature and to be astonished,
humbled
enchanted,
it is time?while
it. Perhaps
there is still some wild nature left?that
discover an ecological
sublime.

the
by
we

of Oregon

University
NOTES
1 William

Cronon,
in Uncommon

Nature,"

"The

(New York,
1996), pp. 69-90;
"The Racial
2 Laura Doyle,
1834,

ed. Alan

Richardson

with Wilderness;
theHuman
Rethinking

Trouble

Ground:

hereafter
Sublime,"
and Sonia

cited

or,
Place

Getting
in Nature,

to

Back

ed. William

the Wrong
Cronon

in text as TW.

in Romanticism,
Race,
Hofkosh
(Bloomington,

and Imperial

Culture, 1780
Sara
pp. 15-39;
The Ideology of the
in Gender and Theory,

1996),

India
The Rhetoric of English
Suleri,
1992); Terry Eagleton,
(Chicago,
"Toward a Female
Aesthetic (Oxford,
Sublime,"
1990); Patricia Yaeger,
Anne
ed. Linda Kauffman
K. Mellor,
(New York,
1989), pp. 191-212;

Romanticism

and

The Feminine
Claire Freeman,
Sublime: Gender and
1993); and Barbara
(New York,
Excess in Women's Fiction
1995).
(Berkeley,
in The Textual
in Kant,"
3 Paul de Man,
and Materiality
Sublime:
"Phenomenality
and Its Differences,
and Gary E. Aylesworth
ed. Hugh
Deconstruction
(Albany,
J. Silverman
1990), p. 103.
Gender

Solitude and the Sublime (New York,


1992), p. 130.
Ferguson,
in his The End
in the Literature
of the Sublime,"
"The Notion
of Blockage
Hertz,
on
and the Sublime (New York,
1985), p. 53.
Psychoanalysis
of the Line: Essays
in The American Sublime, ed. Mary Arensberg
6 Donald
"Sublime Politics,"
Pease,
(Albany,
1986), p. 46.
4

Frances

Neil

and the Environmental


Tradition
Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth
(New York,
Jonathan
1991).
and the Biology of Mind
8 Karl Kroeber,
Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic
Imagining
cited in text as ELC.
hereafter
(New York,
1994), pp. 173-74n9;
Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and
A Philosophical
9 Edmund
Burke,
Enquiry
7

cited in
Ind., 1986), p. 66; hereafter
(Notre Dame,
sublime?to
part 5 of his treatise to the rhetorical
is relatively brief and,
of "Words." But this section?which

(1759), ed. James T. Boulton


Beautiful
text as PE. It is true that Burke devotes
the sublime

effect

(and affect)
like an
rather

in nature;
all of
also anchored
virtually
afterthought?is
scenes and images from the natural world.
literature describe
of sublime
examples
tr. James Creed Meredith
Immanuel
10
Kant, The Critique ofJudgment
(Oxford,
(1790),
to the second
book of
section
in text as CJ. In the introductory
cited
1992); hereafter
to the
our
in
the
first
instance
"we
confine
attention
here
Kant
writes,
Critique ofJudgment,

indeed,
Burke's

reads

of an
of nature,
in Objects
(that of art being
always restricted
by the conditions
. . . hier zuv?rderst
nur
das
"wir
The
reads:
with
nature)"
original
agreement
(p. 91).
immer
an
in Betrachtung
Erhabene
ziehen,
(da? der Kunst wird n?mlich
Naturobjecten
sublime

auf die Bedingungen

der Uebereinstimmung

mit

der Natur

eingeschr?nkt)."

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TOWARD AN ECOLOGICAL SUBLIME


I quote
11
here from an alternate
in Critical Theory Since Plato,
Bernard,
390.
12

Other

621
of The Critique of Judgment,
that of J. H.
2nd rev. ed. (New York, 1992), p.

translation
ed. Hazard

Adams,

from a feminist
those writing
especially
a
of "imagining]
this project
reconfigured
in the words
notions
of sublimity,"
traditional

have
recently
perspective,
sublime
by
metaphysics"
of Laura Doyle
("The Racial

critics,

embarked

upon

"deconstructing
to Yaeger,
and Mellor
Freeman,
Sublime,"
p. 17). In addition
a Maternal
of Blood': Toward
"The Language
Sublime,"
Yaeger's
5-24.

see also
(see n. 2 above),
Genre, 25 (Spring 1992),

in this paper,
in part because
its
Peri Hypsous
almost entirely
ignored Longinus's
on the rhetorical
and in part
rather than the natural
is (at least overtly)
sublime;
to what became
his contribution
the "traditional"
his role was seminal,
because,
although
13

I have

focus

In taking
is largely subsumed
poets.
by Kant, Burke, and the Romantic
on the sublime:
set by earlier criticism
I am following
Samuel
the precedent
The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century
(New York,
England
Mountain
Gloom, Mountain
1959). For
1935), and Marjorie
Glory (Ithaca,
Hope Nicolson's
in the
an account
the "Longinian
tradition"
that differs markedly
from these and privileges
sublime

Romantic

this position
Holt Monk's

discourse
eighteenth-century
in British Eighteenth-Century

of the sublime,

see

1996); as well as de
(Cambridge,
and the Subject (London,
Aesthetics
on the text
focuses more
closely

to The Sublime: A Reader

the introduction

Theory, ed. Peter


The Discourse
Bolla's

Aesthetic

de

Bolla

and

Andrew

Ashfield

in History,
of the Sublime: Readings
For a discussion
which
pp. 32-40.

1989),
especially
of Peri Hypsous
"A Reading
of
itself, see Neil Hertz,
579-96.
Critical Inquiry, 9 (1983),
Longinus,"
is less a "tight analytical
14 De Man posits
than a
that The Critique ofJudgment
argument"
scene of the mind
in action"
in
and Materiality
"story, a dramatized
("Phenomenality
to anthropomorphize
Kant's
of "imagina
the faculties
104). Noting
tendency
"We are clearly not dealing with mental
"reason," de Man concludes,
categories
but with
tropes and the story Kant tells us is an allegorical
fairy tale" (pp. 104-5).
in the Structure
and Psychology
15 Thomas
The Romantic
Sublime: Studies
Weiskel,
of
cited in text as RS.
Transcendence
1976), pp. 23-24; hereafter
(Baltimore,

Kant,"

p.
tion" and

on
to Kant's emphasis
I have no particular
from an ecocritical
16
objection,
perspective,
over ontology.
I find plausible
Frances
view that "though
the
Ferguson's
epistemology
seen as an escapist
to
has repeatedly
Kantian
of the aesthetic
been
attempt
separation
to me
make
that the Kantian
boundaries
achieve
the
reality less real, it seems
precisely
of Kantian
effect"
discussion
(Solitude and the Sublime, p. 3). For a concise
opposite
see Murray
a
the context
of ecological
within
ethics
"Toward
Bookchin,
philosophy
The Bases for an Ecological
in Deep Ecology, ed. Michael
of Nature:
Ethics,"
Philosophy
Tobias
(San Diego,
1985), pp. 213-39.
The Prelude
17 William
Wordsworth,
(1805 ed., bk. 1, 1.306) in The Prelude:
1799, 1805,
M. H. Abrams,
and Steven Gill
1850, ed. Jonathan
Wordsworth,
1979).
(New York,
cited in text as P by book and line number.
Hereafter
18

For a delineation

Prelude,
Context

see Eve Walsh


of the Kantian

of some

of the similarities

Stoddard,
Sublime,"
to Richard

"Flashes

in Wordsworth

19 John Keats,
letter
Woodhouse,
(New York,
1951),
John Keats, ed. Lionel Trilling
ed. Jaroslav
20
Emerson,
Nature,
Ralph Waldo
cited in text as N.
21

Annie

22
Dillard

between

Kant's

of the Invisible World:


Circle, 16.1
27 October
p. 152.
Pelikan

sublime

and Wordsworth's

The Pr?lude
Reading
32-37.

in the

(1985),
1818,

(Boston,

in The Selected Letters

1985),

p.

13; hereafter

cited in text as PTC.


Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York, 1974); hereafter
Humble
The Space Between: Literary Epiphany
in the Work of Annie
Johnson's
and Kent,
features
occasional
between
Oh.,
(London
1992)
comparisons

Sandra

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of

NEW LITERARY HISTORY

622

epiphanic
"spots of time" and Dillard's
epiphanies
at Tinker Creek and Holy theFirm. Johnson
considers
the experience
of five "types" of "illuminated
four being
the other
moments,"
the epiphany"
(p. 6).
is that state of the

the conversion,
the vision, and
Burke writes,
"astonishment
23
with
suspended,
24 Wordsworth

Again
Scott

represents
of book

Slovic, Seeking Awareness


cited in text.

Neil

the

soul,

"the mystical

in which

all

experience,
are

its motions

(A Philosophical
Enquiry, p. 57).
as a series of antinomies
sublime

translation

of The Critique

in American

Nature

The Social Creation

Evernden,
in text as SC.

cited

of horror"

and peace";
I quote
from Bernard's

hereafter
27

also

passage
Gorge"
Pass (6.556-72):

Simpl?n
"Tumult

26

degree

Pilgrim
to be one

of the sublime

in the

famous

6 of The Prelude, which


follows
the speaker's
of
crossing
never to be decayed";
the speaker
the "woods decaying,
imagines
"the darkness
and the light."

"Gondo

25

some

as

in such works

Wordsworth's

ofNature

Writing

(Baltimore,

p. 389.
ofJudgment,
(Salt Lake City, 1992),
1992),

pp.

99-101;

to the Self-Realization
"Man Apart: An Alternative
28
Peter Reed,
Approach,"
mental Ethics,
11.1 (1989), 53-69; hereafter
cited in text as MA.
defines
29
her "feminine
Proceeding
along these lines, Barbara Claire Freeman
as "an encounter

with

a notion

hereafter
Environ
sublime"

to representation."
Such
alterity that remains unassimilable
a
as that which
of the unrepresentable
concept
implies
"general
and culture"
order of language
(The Feminine Sublime, p. 11).
radical

of alterity
the symbolic
The Maine
30 Henry
David
Thoreau,
"Ktaadn,"
Howarth
Writings
byHenry David Thoreau, ed. William
exceeds

p. 4;

Woods,

in Thoreau

(New York,

1982);

in

the Mountains:

hereafter

cited

in

text as K.
31

Ronald

Texas

Studies

Wesley Hoag,
in Literature

on

"The Mark

and Language,
"'Ktaadn': Thoreau

the Wilderness:

Thoreau's

23-46.
(1982),
in the Wilderness

24.1

Contact with Ktaadn,"


pp. 33-35.
especially
of Words,"
of the
ESQ: AJournal
that at this moment
"[l]anguage
See

32 John Tallmadge,
31.3 (1985),
146. Tallmadge
remarks
American Renaissance,
seems to be failing" Thoreau,
aware of his "acute awareness
and we are made
of the world
as conceived
as it is versus
It was Thomas
and described
the world
(145).
by language"
in explicitly
it to "the
semiotic
Weiskel
who first theorized
the sublime
terms, attributing
and signified"
of word
and thing, or signifier
fission
Sublime, p. 20); see
(The Romantic
pp. 16-18 and 26-28.
especially
33

David

Circles,

Robinson,
Robert

ed.

hereafter

cited

"Thoreau's

'Ktaadn'
and Wesley

Burkholder

and

for Experience,"
the Quest
T. Mott
(Rochester,
1997),

in Emersonian
pp.

217-18;

in text as TK.

to
As Tallmadge
fails, and he is forced
puts it, Thoreau's
'"redemptive
imagination'
in the Wilderness
of
unmediated
fall back on direct,
("'Ktaadn': Thoreau
experience"
is
"matter" as a pun on the Latin mater, which
also regard
Words,"
145). We might
is returning
to something
with the idea that Thoreau
primal and, indeed, pre
compatible
34

linguistic.
35 Max

In The
The Idea of Wilderness
1991),
(New Haven,
pp. 150-51.
Oelschlaeger,
and the Formation
Culture
Environmental
Thoreau, Nature Writing
of American
Imagination:
a
Buell registers
cited in text as El, Lawrence
Mass.,
1995), hereafter
degree
(Cambridge,
of "Ktaadn." Thoreau's
rather celebratory
of skepticism
about Oelschlaeger's
reading
in keeping with
in romantic
he declares,
is "a studious exercise
literary sublimity,
as
a
for
that
mark
it
other
'Ktaadn'
designed
throughout
piece
stylizations
a favorite kind
of other romantic
travel narratives,
in the company
periodical
publication
that "even literary
fare" (p. 12). He concedes,
of nineteenth-century
however,
magazine
narrative,
the many

Thoreauvians

would

confrontation

with

hardly
an actual

deny

that

landscape

the passage
refers back
as more
that struck Thoreau

to an
primal

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of
experience
than anything

TOWARD AN ECOLOGICAL SUBLIME 623


he had met
one

either

before"
(pp.
at the expense

Buell's
is that both are valid, and
12-13).
point
of the other would
be reductive.
This distinction

that

to insist on

his
anticipates
to matter
and to

of a "dual accountability
later in his book,
endorsement,
developed
I discuss below.
to the distinction
mentation"
It is also analogous
(p. 92), which
one refers to the act of
to
between
the "rhetorical"
and "natural" sublimes:
attempting
an
to
create or re-create,
the
effect
the
other
of
refers
the
through
language,
experience;
discursive

experience
disappear
that may

itself. This

becomes
difference,
however,
(if it does not
blurry
exceptionally
when we are dealing with literary representations
of an experience
In conceding
have "actually happened."
Buell's
then, I would
point,

altogether)
or may not
add that even

on one
critics do put emphasis
side or the other,
the
is said to be experienced
is represented
and what
is never as
the critic or the writer pretends.
sharp as either
36 George
Lord Byron, Childe Harolds
Gordon,
(1812,1818),
Byron 'sPoetry, ed.
Pilgrimage
Frank D. McConnell
cited
in text by canto
and stanza
(New York,
1978); hereafter

merely
distinction

between

when

what

number.
and the Postmodern
Sub
Peril, Modern
Bordo,
Jonathan
"Ecological
Technology
and Religion,
ed. Philippa
and
Andrew
lime," in Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism
Berry
Wernick
cited in text as EP.
1992), pp. 165-78; hereafter
(London,
37

38

Both

sublime,
imminent
Burke,

Kant
stipulate

and Burke,
along with several other
of the sublime
that at the moment

See Kant,
danger.
physical
A Philosophical
Enquiry, p. 40.

The Critique

eighteenth-century
the subject cannot

of Judgment,

pp.

theorists
be

112-13

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All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

of

the

in any actual
and 121; and