Remembering Romanticism, Negating Negativity: on Kate Rigby’s Ecopoetics

by Stuart Cooke

© all rights reserved

Despite its Western European focus, Kate Rigby’s Topographies of the Sacred is a crucial book for those interested in the Antipodean regions of the Ecological Humanities. By outlining the extent to which Western thinking about the environment is tied inextricably to romantic ideology, the book goes a long way to providing Australian ecocritics with a rich sense of context for their work. For the reader, romanticism becomes, as Rigby hints in her preface, a shadow behind contemporary Australian environmentalism. Importantly, Topographies is the first book to cover both English and German romanticism, thereby expanding the reach of already influential books such as Jonathan Bate’sThe Song of the Earth (2000). Following Bate, Rigby rejects earlier New Critical and deconstructionist readings of the romantics, and shifts focus from the transcendental qualities of their work back to discussion of their lived, bodily experiences within nature and history. It is the complex relationship between writer and world, rather than reader and poem, which is of interest here.

Topographies not only provides a historical context for contemporary ecocriticism, but also explores some of the frictions inherent in the practice, and how those frictions have legacies of at least two hundred years. Beginning with the work of German writers such as Friedrich Schelling and Goethe, Rigby broadens the discussion of their work to relate it to figures better-known in the English-speaking world such as Wordsworth, Shelley and John Clare. This is exciting, compelling intellectual history, finely written and well-paced.

Personally, it was a tremendously informative experience to learn something of the relationship between recent trends in deep ecological thinking – which I had assumed were largely of the twentieth century – and the romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For it was in the romantic period, I read, rather than with the dawn of post-modernity, that nature was reconceptualised in European thought as dynamic and self-generative, an animate, diverse whole of which humans are but a small part. Hinting at what would later become so crucial a piece of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical structure, in the late 1700s Schelling passionately resisted the prioritization of the human subject’s self-conscious I. By overthrowing mind-matter dualism he reinforced the formative influence of nature on the subject, thereby destroying its previously reduced status as a passive screen for human self-projection.

It is with such keen hindsight, then, that Rigby invites us to consider the relevance of European romanticism to contemporary understandings of place and ecology. ‘Although the romantics undoubtedly turned toward the earth with a new appreciation of its autopoeitic integrity, unfolding beauty, and underlying holiness,’ she writes, two of its darker tendencies ‘continue to resonate, banefully, in the present.’ First, there is what Rigby calls the ‘Promethean temptation’. Goethe’s Prometheus is ‘man the maker’, who accepts nothing as given precisely because it is merely given, and values only what he has made himself. The temptation, then, is to restore humanity to a mythical Eden. In turn, by transforming the landscape with technology and attempting to colonise other planets we indulge romantically in ideas of worlds other than this one. Moreover, the transcendentalism Rigby identifies in writers like Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff continues to inspire contemporary forms of spiritual thought, ‘according to which the physical fate of the earth is less important than the search for an often purely personal spiritual salvation’ (p. 259). Here, again, we see that what may appear to be new, exciting and innovative ideas about our future are actually mutated versions of other, very old ones.

It is in light of the great value of Topographies that I want to problematise some of its broader, underlying themes. The following, brief discussion is a very preliminary attempt to initiate a debate that always keeps in mind the high quality of Rigby’s scholarship. For it is because of the clever construction of the text that Rigby’s (admittedly tentative) conclusions are clearly distinguishable from her enlightened analysis of the primary sources.

At the conclusion of the fourth chapter, Rigby asks if we will ever learn to ‘dwell ecstatically amid the elemental, the uninhabitable, and the incomprehensible’ (p. 172). It is a timely and provocative question. Rigby asserts that much of the breathing, more-than-human world around us is ‘incomprehensible’ because there are always other parts of it beyond our understanding. We can never describe such a world, she says, because it is always to some degree withheld from us. This is a reasonable claim with very powerful implications: in the face of that which is incomprehensible, we must reassess the very foundations of our own ways of knowing and seeing.

Nevertheless, to say that parts of the world are ‘incomprehensible’ subtly neglects the direct interaction of our own bodies with this world. One might ask, ‘If we can dwell in the incomprehensible then how is it that we can dwell?’ If we were indeed dwelling in what was truly incomprehensible then our bodies would not fit in it; when we walked into it we would not know what to do in it, or how to leave it. It is not that the world is incomprehensible, I would contend, because we can see, hear and respond to it.

Rather, the world could be indefinable because it is forever revealing and withholding itself from us. Consequently, much of what we categorise and rationalise within language changes, and forces us to re-evaluate our epistemology. Parts of the body, however – those sensory faculties which enable us to perceive and understand change, however instinctively – are always thoroughly intertwined with the world. To say that a place is incomprehensible and, by extension, uninhabitable can neglect the fact that we are, at all times, whether we are aware of it or not, always most thoroughly in the world. As David Abram reminds us, whenever we attempt to explain the world conceptually we seem to forget our active participation in it.

Consequently, there is an unresolved tension in Topographies – and, perhaps, in much ecological thinking – between a basic premise that we are unavoidably part of the world (and are, therefore, unavoidably responsible for it), and a desire to re-connect ourselves to this same world. Rigby herself articulates it best in the book’s closing pages:

In departing from romanticism, the challenge that faces us now, the challenge of ecosocial reconciliation, cannot be answered by any simplistic return to nature. For one thing, as global warming demonstrates so powerfully, we never really left it behind. Like our premodern forbears, we continue to live in a complex of networks of relationship to the natural world… The main difference, however, is that it is far more difficult for modern city dwellers… to perceive their dependence and impact on the earth. In part, then, the challenge is to disclose that dependence and reduce its negative impact (p. 261).

Clearly, the emphasis needs to be not on a paradoxical re-inhabitation of an uninhabitable world, but on recovering our sensitive perception of the way the world is inhabited.

Finally, perhaps at the very pinnacle of the book’s argument is a conception of an ecological poetics of negativity. Rigby writes, ‘at a time when the beauty, wonder, and strangeness of first nature is at risk of being utterly eclipsed by a tamed and simulacralized second nature’ we are in need of a hermeneutics that resists embracing landscape art as a substitute for the embodied experience of the land. ‘Such a hermeneutics would need to be able to demonstrate how the work of art always, inevitably, fails to convey the experience of which it is a trace’ (p. 119). It is here, unfortunately, that I departed from the journey of Topographies, and now wish to strike up a most fervent opposition. For while it is indeed the case that the modern subject needs to recover his or her inextricable connection to the natural world, an ecopoetics of negativity is actually in danger of maintaining the illusion that this connection is severed.

Any artwork, just like any tree or animal or landscape, is within the world. The artwork is not defined only by the traces it carries of other things; it is, first and foremost, itself.Certainly, to experience a painting or a poem is often to recall experiences of other places and times (the very fabric of the artwork – the inks, paints and papers – come from other places). However, the experience is also, and more powerfully, an experience of that artistic object, that piece of matter sitting there in the world, as an object in itself.When I look at a scribbly gum I do not insist that it is only a trace of, and therefore fails to replicate, a Norfolk Island pine.

As Rigby herself mentions a number of times, the poem – just like the natural world around us – discloses some things while keeping others hidden. Its intent is not merely to replicate the world, but to create a [slightly] new one, to exist in and of itself. It is little more than a truism to say that within poetic language ‘[non-human] nature. is never fully present’ (p. 121), for what thing, I must ask, is ever ‘fully present’ in something else? We perceive demarcation and difference between various parts of the world because different forms exhibit different properties. This is not to deny the flow of energy between these forms, which implicates them in larger cycles of growth and decay.

Taking Topographies of the Sacred as our foundation, could we not, thanks to the author’s extensive groundwork, work towards a different model of ecopoetics? It would not create arbitrary divisions between human and non-human product, but might instead show how land and art are in effect different aspects of the same world, and that parts of each medium are to be found in the other. Can we not cherish art for what it can give us, rather than concentrate on what it cannot?

I make this point so ardently because an ecopoetics of negativity not only creates demarcation in an attempt to unify, but by emphasising the supposed failures of artistic practice Rigby places far too much strain on an already strained set of media. In a time when the need for ecological action is so pressing, when the need for poetic, intuitive forms of thinking is conversely related to the pitiful levels of attention such thinking receives in the wider public sphere, we should not be singling out something so precious (and precarious) as art and discussing its failures. If an ecological poetics is to mean anything then the place of art must be protected: it is within art – in poem, painting or performance – that dwelling places can be most readily, and often most powerfully, created.


Stuart Cooke
Fenner School of Environment and Society
Australian National University

Kate Rigby Topographies of the Sacred: the poetics of place in European Romanticism, (Charlottesville VA : University of Virginia Press, 2004). 324 pp., ISBN 0-8139-2275-5 (PB), $US 22.50

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]