“Beyond the Wasteland: An Ecocritical Reading of Modernist Trauma Literature.”  Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2016.

handbook ecocriticism.jpgThere is a certain polite reluctance between studies of modernism and ecocriticism. After all, an urban focus and technological fascination runs through modernist liter-ature and corresponding research alike. Relevant handbooks (such as Whitworth’s [2007] Modernism) accordingly offer chapters on urbanism or gender, but one is hard pressed to find a similar focus on nature. Raymond Williams (2011) thus defines the city as the modernists’ typical haunt in his monograph The Country and the City, and the anguished consciousness, fragmented experience, and disruptive forms of modernist literature seem to support this urban bias.

A closer look at such seminal modernist texts as James Joyce’s Ulysses, American works by Faulkner or Hemingway, or the texts by Virginia Woolf, however, reveals motifs of nature in modernist literature which challenge any such preconceived notions. Modernism, as Bonnie Kime Scott (2012, 1) puts it, is “greening.” On the one hand this means re-defining the relation between nature and the city, as the modernists’ landscapes are rarely the unspoiled wildernesses of a romantic imagination. It is the parks, rivers and coastlines that come into view and transgress the material and conceptual boundaries between nature and the city, or, to mention an even more basic binary that ecocriticism challenges, between nature and culture. On the other hand, though, modernist literature not only integrates trauma into human experience, but also makes it an integral part of the natural world.

This essay extends ecocritical research on trauma and Virginia Woolf in order to define the role of nature in modernist trauma literature. An ecocritical reading takes modernist literary landscapes beyond the wasteland and uncovers their generative energy. These organic narrative patterns and tropes establish potentials of meaning and cultural energy, but their effect is far from therapeutic. Rather, it is disruptive, at times almost violent, but because nature still retains its cyclic properties, it offers a space which integrates traumatic collapse and creative renewal simultaneously.Therefore, an ecocritical reading of Woolf’s texts challenges a controversial premise of trauma studies, namely the notion that trauma lead to a “breakage of verse” (Felman), when it emphasizes the epistemological possibilities and metaphoric potentials which natural elements bring to the texts. This essay thus aims to contribute to the definition of an ecology of violence in aesthetic as well as in ethical terms.

The alleged wastelands of modernist literature therefore become the starting point for innovations in language and knowledge in literary texts. This also pertains to questions of how to establish literature as a form of life knowledge that is multidimensional and symbolic from an ecocritical point of view. In between metaphor and materiality emerges a textual creativity linked to nature, which is vital when it takes literature beyond the paralysis of trauma.

 

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