Scrupulous Greenness

Author: William Kupinse (University of Puget Sound)


Eco-Joyce: The Environmental Imagination of James Joyce. Edited by Robert Brazeau and Derek Gladwin. Cork: Cork University Press, 2014, xviii + 329 pp.

The oft-quoted opening of Richard Ellmann’s 1959 biography of Joyce—“We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries”—has held surprising staying power, as the successive waves of New Criticism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, gender studies, postcolonial studies, and queer theory have shown.[i] As each of these paradigms engaged and energized Joycean criticism, in some cases germinating from within, scholars were struck by the uncanny experience that Joyce had long anticipated our belated arrival.

Such is not the case with ecocriticism—the study of how texts signify along environmental lines—at least not overtly. A quintessentially urban writer, Joyce and his oeuvre are latecomers to a critical movement that found its roots in the study of British Romanticism and literature of the American West. This fact does not minimize the value of an ecocritical study of Joyce; to the contrary, texts without an apparent ecological orientation often have much to reveal about how culture understands our relationship to the natural world, as attested by the essays in Robert Brazeau and Derek Gladwin’s provocative and groundbreaking collection, Eco-Joyce: The Environmental Imagination of James Joyce.

Indeed, it’s Joyce’s resistance to Romantic renderings of nature that allow the ecocritical study of his writing to offer uncanny insight today, while our culture continues to wrestle with Romanticism’s legacy. In this regard, the fourteen essays in Eco-Joyce are very much of our own ecocritical moment, in which “dark” ecological perspectives focusing on waste, contamination, and abjection predominate; “dark ecology” theorizer Timothy Morton makes an official appearance in four essays and the introduction, most often in the form of references to his 2007 book Ecology without Nature, but the spirit of what we might call “de-natured nature” pervades the volume as a whole. The other critical thread that runs through the volume is provided by Tim Wenzell’s assertion that the Great Famine resulted in a national disconnection from the land that put Ireland on the path to becoming a “paved civilization.”[ii]

While the front matter of many scholarly collections may be profitably skipped, readers of Eco-Joyce will do well to pay attention to Anne Fogarty’s foreword, which succinctly sets out what’s at stake in the critical undertaking at hand, and Brazeau and Gladwin’s useful introduction, which offers a summary of ecocriticism’s history, an assessment of the emerging field of Irish ecocriticism, and an overview of the existing corpus of ecocritical Joyce scholarship.

Of less importance, I would suggest, is the organizing principle suggested by the collection’s tripartite divisions: “Nature and Environmental Consciousness in Joyce’s Fiction,” “Joyce and the Urban Environment,” and “Joyce, Somatic Ecology and the Body.” While the desire to impose some kind of order on such a substantial undertaking as this collection is understandable, the first two subheadings in particular are more heuristic than they are definitive: many of the “Nature and Environmental Consciousness” essays warn against the anachronistic construction of a “green” Joyce, and the rubrics of these two sections could easily be reversed. The rationale for the third section is solider—the essays in the “Somatic Ecology and the Body” grouping demonstrate an especially intense focus on the body—but it’s worth remembering that like Stephen Dedalus, who prefers Aristotelian corporeality to the Platonic spume, Joyce’s engagement with the natural world is almost always grounded in the body. 

While I’m reconsidering the order of the collection, I’m going to suggest that readers unfamiliar with Joycean ecocriticism—which, for such a nascent field, is most readers—begin with the final essay, Garry Leonard’s “Ineluctable Modality of the Visible: ‘Nature’ and Spectacle in ‘Proteus.’” (The first essay in the collection, Fiona Becket’s article on climate change, makes an important intervention in modernist ecocriticism, but for reasons I’ll explain below, it functions best as call for future work.) More so than any other contribution, Leonard’s essay establishes both the limits and the ultimate validity of environmental readings of Joyce. Voicing his wish to “avoid setting Joyce up as an ecologist,” Leonard instead asserts that Joyce “is ‘green’ in a profoundly radical way: Nature is what your body smashes up against if you persist long enough in self-serving, self-delusion.” Leonard sees in the myth of Daedalus and Icarus an anticipation of ecocritical caution of the risks inherent in investing unquestioned faith in technology’s ability to trump the laws of nature: “fly too high, the wings will melt, the machine will fail, and the Nature you imagined you transcended will kill you. Or, burn fossil fuels without respite, [. . .] raise the earth’s temperature, and the Nature you imagined you controlled will kill you” (248). Focusing on scenes from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, Leonard explores the uncanny ways in which “Cartesian perspectivalism” and “Baconian empiricism”—the underpinnings of modernity’s “scientific modality” (254)—conspire to animate a psychic consumerism that leads Stephen Dedalus to invest his energies in trying to transcend nature, rather than engage productively with it. Although it does not state so explicitly, Leonard’s essay draws a through-line from scholarship focusing on consumerism that figured so prominently in Joyce studies of the 1980s and 1990s to the present interest in ecocriticism, revealing a continuity that might otherwise go unremarked. Most important in Leonard’s argument is the clarity with which it demonstrates the necessity that we recognize environmental problems as originating in problems of human desire, desire being an entity that literary studies excels in parsing. 

If we understand Leonard’s essay as metacritical in that it interrogates the interface of environmental-as-discourse and environment-as-reality (a quality it shares with Becket’s essay), several of the most interesting pieces in the collection engage historical context to elucidate the environmental dimensions of Joyce’s writing. Beginning from the observation that Joyce promoted his own writing for its malodorous whiff of authenticity, Cheryl Temple Herr’s “Joyce and the Everynight” seeks to explore the question: more so than Portrait or Ulysses, is Finnegans Wake “an ecologically progressive text?” (47). In response, Herr offers a suggestive reading of two passages from Finnegans Wake: a long paragraph concerning “nightsoil” in III.15 (FW 540.13-545.23) and the famous catalog of rivers in ALP’s chapter I.8 (FW 196.1-216.5). Drawing on materials previously recognized as sources for the Wake—such as B. Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty (1902)—Herr brings additional texts into the conversation, among them Pare Lorentz’s 1937 film The River, revealing in the process how the nightsoil and riverine sections connect ecological discussions with issues of class and colonialism. Ultimately, for Herr, the Wake evinces recuperative strategies on the level of source and syntax in a way that anticipates Morton’s “dark ecology.”

Like Herr’s article, Greg Winston’s “‘Aquacities of Thought and Language’: The Political Ecology of Water in Ulysses” responds to Michael Rubenstein’s Public Works (2010), which connects the utilities of water, sewage, and electric power to the formation of postcolonial subjectivity. Rubenstein’s book has been justly praised for its brilliance, but those interested in the Vartry Water scheme and the South Dublin Guardians affair referenced in “Ithaca” will find an even fuller account of its historical dimensions in Winston’s essay, which is the result of the author’s diligent research. Addressing everything from the diameter of inlet pipe in the Guardians workhouse (which turns out to be of central importance) to the outdoor urination of Bloom and Stephen (a continuation of the water cycle), Winston makes a strong case for the centrality of “blue ecology” to present-day ecocriticism (137).

Another historical approach is that offered by Yi-Peng Lai’s “The Tree Wedding and the (Eco)Politics of Irish Forestry in ‘Cyclops’: History, Language and the Viconian Politics of the Forest”—a methodology we might term historical poetics. While we’re used to thinking of Giambattista Vico’s The New Science as the foundational text for Finnegans Wake, critics have long noted moments of the Italian philosopher’s influence in Ulysses, and it is from the equation of the Viconian giants with the giganticism of “Cyclops” that Lai’s essay proceeds. Building upon Vico’s claim that the word lucus in the phrase “every giant had his lucus”[iii] originally signified an agricultural clearing in the forest—a metaphoric singular “eye,” that by the time of Homer’s Odyssey would be corrupted into anatomic one—Lai adroitly connects afforestation and affiancement, shedding new light on the tree wedding interpolation in “Cyclops.” When read for its eco-political dimension, the tree wedding uncovers the intersection of Irish nationalism and early environmentalism and elicits a substantive subtext from what has been too often disregarded as primarily a comic interlude. Taken together, these historically grounded essays reveal that such seemingly mundane topics as sewage treatment, water service, and forest management serve not only as raw material for Joyce’s fiction, but also as the grist for his critical engagement with issues of colonialism, economic class, and political subject formation.

Perhaps more than any other discipline, ecocriticism encourages—if not demands—interdisciplinary perspectives, and the value of such approaches is very much on display in Eco-Joyce. One of the richest essays in this regard is Erin Walsh’s “Word and World: The Ecology of the Pun in Finnegans Wake,” which addresses the interplay of biological and linguistic substance via the discipline of cybernetics—that is, the study of informational systems, including biological, mechanical, and cultural systems. Working from Gregory Bateson’s understanding of ecology as, in her words, “co-evolving systems whose boundaries are blurred through their interaction,” Walsh explores how the Wake’s punning problematizes the notion of separating ecological account from historical narrative, of disentangling “organism from environment” (72, 81). This cybernetic ecological formulation bears political import since, in Walsh’s rendering, recognizing this mutual entanglement “supplants the fiction of nation as unitary organic whole” (70). No matter how interdisciplinary its investments, a theoretical approach is only as productive as the readings it engenders, and it’s here that Walsh’s essay shines, with its juxtaposed analyses of tree passages in Darwin and the Wake, as well as the glimmers of insight it elicits in attending to ecology of tree and river in ALP’s closing monologue.

If cybernetics itself is inherently interdisciplinary, other essays in the collection negotiate their own boundary crossings. In “‘Clacking Along the Concrete Pavement’: Economic Isolation and Bricolage of Place in James Joyce’s Dubliners,” Christine Cusick turns to the social ecology of Murray Bookchin as she explores the formation of urban subjectivity in situ. Her analyses of “Eveline” and “A Little Cloud” identify telling moments in which characters’ encounters with place are inflected by issues of economic class. Co-editor Robert Brazeau draws from an unexpected extraliterary source in his contribution to the volume, “Environment and Embodiment in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’”: wayfinding, the process by which humans create mental maps of the areas they encounter and inhabit. The ability to negotiate place successfully—to be able to locate and return to areas rich in hunting or foraging possibilities—has been an essential skill for human survival, and it turns out to be a capacity that is rooted biologically. Exploring “The Dead” as enacting a tension between Gabriel’s biological desire and his at times fragile superimposed rationality, Brazeau’s essay demonstrates not only the ways in which cognitive science can enlighten a text whose interpretation we thought we had long ago mastered, but also that literary studies have as much to contribute the study of the brain’s workings as do the sciences. So too does ecocriticism reveal how emotional states—often seen as the province of psychology—may be deftly limned by thoughtful literary scholarship. Inspired by Stacy Alaimo’s theory of trans-corporeality—which investigates the permeability of bodies and environments (and which, like cybernetics, is notable for its disciplinary inclusivity)—James Fairhall investigates the resonant experience of shame in Finnegans Wake. Beginning from the observation that while bodily functions in Ulysses are often the occasion for humor, in the Wake they are almost always associated with shame. “‘Sunflawered’ Humanity in Finnegans Wake: Nature, Existential Shame and Transcendence” examines a number of attempts in the Wake to overcome this seemingly universal psychological state. “Sunflawered,” a portmanteau taken from the passage on Oscar Wilde, the “Lhugewhite Cadderpollard” (FW 350.10-11), encapsulates perfectly Fairhall’s take on what we might term the Wake’s “grounded transcendence”; rooted in the earth (and by extension, the body, with its messy processes, needs, and desires), the human subject is nevertheless heliotropic, orienting itself to the nearest star. Refusing the idea that art might offer an escape from biology, Joyce’s writing insists instead on the interpenetration of organism and environment, of spirit and body.

While metacriticism, historical criticism, and interdisciplinary scholarship inform variously the majority of essays in this collection, a few strong essays don’t fit neatly into any of these categories. Among these is co-editor Derek Gladwin’s “Joyce the Travel Writer: Space, Place and the Environment in James Joyce’s Nonfiction.” The only essay in the collection not oriented toward Joyce’s fiction, Gladwin’s contribution reads two of Joyce’s articles for the Italian newspaper Il Piccolo della Serra according to the ecocritical paradigm of “place-attachment,” a concept popularized by Lawrence Buell.[iv] On an eco-rhetorical level, Joyce’s self-conscious representation of Galway and the Aran Islands to a European audience makes for fascinating analysis. Gladwin deftly explores Joyce’s negotiation of poles of exoticism and familiarity, observing how he avoids Revival stereotypes of Ireland’s West as its reservoir of authenticity while constructing a sense of place that retains its particularly within a cosmopolitan framework.

No first collection in an emerging field of study can hope to be comprehensive, no matter how carefully planned and how expansive the volume. Eco-Joyce does as good a job of delineating the field as could be imagined, and in particular strikes a fine balance between the voices of newer Joyce scholars and those of established critics. Still, when viewed as a whole, the collection evinces patterns that reveal opportunities for future investigation. In particular, one surprise of Eco-Joyce is how much attention Finnegans Wake receives: five of the fourteen essays focus primarily on it. By contrast, Dubliners and Ulysses inform three and a half essays apiece, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man an essay and a half, and Joyce’s non-fiction a single essay; the poems and Exiles receive no mention. (Despite taking place indoors, Exiles is ripe for ecocritical analysis). Similar opportunities exist in terms of topical approaches; while “dark ecology” and “trans-corporeality” garner ample consideration, other current ecocritical topics receive glancing mention: queer ecology; animal studies; environmental justice; posthumanism.

These openings for future scholars notwithstanding, I hope that I’ve managed to convey how engaging and fecund a collection Eco-Joyce is—as well as how evident each contribution’s commitment is to the idea that when it comes to environmental issues, texts matter. In this regard, Fiona Becket’s provocative opening essay, “James Joyce, Climate Change and the Threat to our ‘Natural Substance,’” sets a high bar for both Joycean ecocriticism and modernist studies generally by asking us to consider the relationship between high modernism’s representational practices and the pressing threat of ecological collapse. Becket’s point is not so much to convict modernism for its privileging of discursivity at the expense of what Žižek terms our “natural substance”[v] (which must return to disrupt the symbolic, to our eventual peril), but to ask how modernism might contribute to a re-evaluation of our collective scholarly enterprise: “What ethics of reading, if any, is proposed by the fact of climate change and, no less relevant, to what extent is it desirable that ecocriticism remains a critical practice confined to a number, even a significant number, of university departments with almost no political significance beyond them?” (25). Whether we accept Becket’s claim that ecocriticism makes nothing happen—or at least hasn’t yet much to show for itself—we would do well to receive her call for the development of a politically resonant ecopoesis with the same urgency that characterizes its global ecological stakes. Taken as a whole, the fourteen essays in Brazeau and Gladwin’s Eco-Joyce offer an important foray into limning that ecopoesis—a undertaking which has crucial implications not only for Joyce criticism and modernist studies, but for the enterprise of understanding imaginative literature’s role in our environmental future. With any luck, we’ll survive long enough to experience another collective round of Joycean inquiry.

[i] Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1959; rev. 1982), 3.

[ii] Tim Wenzell, Emerald Green: An Ecocritical Study of Irish Literature (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2009), 2.

[iii] Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico; unabridged translation of the third edition (1744) with the addition of ‘Practic of the New Science’, trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fish (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984), 203.

[iv] Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 72.

[v] Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London: Verso, 2012), 860.