From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Introduction: Developing French Ecocriticism (Daniel A. Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus)
- Part I Early Modern Economies and Ecologies
- Through a Glass Darkly: Dominion and the French Wars of Religion (Jeff Persels)
- The Vanity of Ecology: Expenditure in Montaigne’s Vision of the New World (Pauline Goul)
- Part II Romanticism and Nature; Naturalism and Animality
- Victor Hugo and the Politics of Ecopoetics (Karen F. Quandt)
- Fauves in the Faubourg: Animal Aesthetics in Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (Claire Nettleton)
- Part III Nineteenth-Century Ecopoetics
- Ecopoetic Adventures in Rimbaud’s ‘Sensation’ and ‘Ma Bohème’ (Daniel A. Finch-Race)
- Towards an Ecopoetics of French Free Verse: Marie Krysinska’s Rythmes pittoresques (David E. Evans)
- Part IV Twentieth-Century Ecological Thought
- Marguerite Yourcenar’s Ecological Thinking: Wilderness, Place-Connectedness, Biocentrism, and an Ethic of Care (Teófilo Sanz)
- Michel Serres: From Restricted to General Ecology (Christopher Watkin)
- Part V Millennial Bodies, Origins and Becoming-Milieu
- Ecoerotica in Stéphane Audeguy’s La Théorie des nuages (Jonathan Krell)
- The Individual as Environment: Watching Jean-Claude Rousseau’s La Vallée close with Lucretius and Simondon (Nikolaj Lübecker)
- Part VI Twenty-First-Century Natural Limits
- Writing (on) Environmental Catastrophes: The End of the World in Éric Chevillard’s Sans l’orang-outan and Michel Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d’une île (Anaïs Boulard)
- On the Meaning of Being Alone with Nature: Sylvain Tesson’s Ecocritical Sincerity and Ecopoetic Sensuality in Dans les forêts de Sibérie (Hannes De Vriese)
- Part VII Horizons and Prospects
- Engaging with Cultural Differences: The Strange Case of French écocritique (Stephanie Posthumus)
- Notes on Contributors
Thanks go to Prof. Michael Moriarty, Prof. Emma Wilson, Dr Martin Crowley, and Ms Esther Palmer of the Department of French at the University of Cambridge; the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Cambridge; the French Embassy in London; the Society of French Studies; Dr Jean Khalfa, Sir Gregory Winter, the Fellows and the staff of Trinity College in Cambridge for having supported the proceedings of ‘French ecocriticism’ that took place in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre on Friday 8 May 2015. ← 7 | 8 →
Daniel A. Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus
Introduction: Developing French Ecocriticism
This volume expounds fruitful ways of analysing matters of ecology, environments, nature, and the non-human world in a broad spectrum of material in French. Scholars from Canada, France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States outline new directions for French ecocriticism by exploring a variety of aesthetic, literary, socio-historical, and ethical questions:
- How are concerns about land management expressed in early modern polemical and political writings?
- How is ecological sentiment given expression and form in nineteenth-century French poetry, as opposed to experimental French contemporary film?
- In what ways do Romanticism and Naturalism in France give voice to elements of the non-human world?
- To what extent do French contemporary texts reject the separation of nature and the natural world from the realm of culture, literature and the arts?
- How does post-apocalyptic French fiction reveal the problematic tone and form of predictions about environmental and ecological issues?
- What new ontologies, cosmologies and epistemologies does contemporary French theory make available for rethinking relations between humans and the non-human world?
The diverse responses in this volume signal a common desire to bring together form and content, politics and aesthetics, theory and practice, all under the aegis of the environmental humanities.
Whereas ecocriticism has rapidly grown in the anglophone world since the 1990s (alongside politically oriented approaches in feminist studies, postcolonial studies, gender studies, and animal studies), its implementation in France has been slower. Rather than enumerate the multifarious reasons for this delay (thereby running the risk of reifying difference), we prefer to identify a more general suspicion in France about politically driven cultural studies that are perceived as glossing over the aesthetic, formal and stylistic elements of cultural production. Whether the perception of ecocriticism as less attuned to poetics and literary form ← 9 | 10 → is true or not,1 it has been the basis for repeated objections. This volume illustrates that ecocriticism does not ignore questions of form and structure: the following chapters pay careful attention to aesthetics and poetics in terms of formal aspects such as versification, filming techniques and genre conventions.
The chapters in this volume reveal that an ecopolitical approach does not exist in isolation from an ecopoetic reading of a text’s formal aesthetics. Both approaches adopt the prefix eco- in the sense of habitat or home, invoking place not as some abstract, imaginary construct, but as embedded in the material, physical world. In addition, they are steeped in the tradition of critique and interpretation, attentive to problematic assumptions about nature and ecology, and to issues of representation, mimesis and aesthetics. Rather than territorialise ecocriticism and ecopoetics, this volume works to underscore their confluences and convergences.
French Ecocriticism responds to the call for more ecocritical work in non-anglophone areas of cultural studies. Since the early 2000s, ecocritics have been aware of the problematic linguistic homogeneity of their field of study.2 The current volume works to diversify ecocriticism by illustrating the wide range of French cultural periods and histories that can be considered from an ecocritical perspective. For those unfamiliar with French literature, this volume offers an excellent introduction. For curious scholars in French Studies who have yet to see how ecocriticism can be used in their particular area of expertise, this volume provides numerous examples. The timeliness of this collection is attested by the growing number of publications that analyse the intersection of ecocriticism and French Studies, including Alain Suberchicot’s Littérature et environnement (2012), Douglas Boudreau and Marnie Sullivan’s edited volume Ecocritical Approaches to Literature in French (2015), and Stephanie Posthumus’s forthcoming French ‘Écocritique’.3 In addition to growing numbers of francocentric articles in ← 10 | 11 → Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment4 (the official journal of ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) and Green Letters5 (the official journal of ASLE-UKI, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment in the United Kingdom and Ireland), several journals have devoted special issues to ecological matters: L’Esprit créateur (2006); Écologie & Politique (2008); Dix-Neuf (2015).6 This volume complements these publications, and investigates the extent to which the specificities of French material necessitate their own ecocritical framework.
The title of this volume merits elaboration. What do we mean when we refer to ‘French ecocriticism’? First, we could respond that the objects of study under consideration in the volume are French, in the sense of being published or produced in France, but a closer examination reveals the limitations of this general assertion. During the early modern period, France was increasing its territories to become the modern nation-state of today, and French as a language was just beginning to be standardised as a common ground for many people accustomed to diverse dialects. Cultural production of the early modern period thus undoes a static, essentialist notion of ‘French’. A similar issue arises in considering the example of Marguerite Yourcenar (1903–87), who is often cited as an author exemplifying the ideals of French literature. She won several French literary prizes, including the Grand Prix de l’Académie française (1977) and the Erasmus Prize ← 11 | 12 → (1983); in 1980, she was the first woman elected to the Académie française [French Academy] – the venerable institution that has overseen matters relating to the French language since 1635. However, Yourcenar was born in Belgium, moved to the USA in 1939, and often cited the considerable influence of the North American landscape on her understanding of nature and ecology. Speaking of her work as ‘French’ raises the question of how other associations and identities are being co-opted by French cultural history.
Second, we could respond that the scholars whose research has been brought together in this volume are connected by their work in ‘French Studies’. However, almost all of them work in French departments outside France. This points to an interesting characteristic of French ecocriticism as it emerges from different geographical locations around the world: it understands ecocriticism in a crosscultural way.7 Moreover, many of our contributors work and publish in English and French, breaking down the idea of ‘French ecocriticism’ as something that is written, spoken and published solely in French. Although this volume is chiefly expressed in English, original French quotations are included throughout, highlighting the work involved in translation. The demands of code-switching between English and French encourage slow reading, and we hope that readers will take the time to compare the nuances of each translation. We have privileged the original text in French as a way of countering our tendency to treat language (particularly the English language) as a transparent medium. A more conscious practice of reading is required in cases such as a sentence in which a subject pronoun in English is followed by a quotation involving a conjugated French verb. From our perspective, bilingual behaviour is an inherent element of the hybrid field of French ecocriticism.
One final word about the volume’s title: we are wary of the political work that the term ‘French’ is made to do, and of how ‘French’ can reductively refer to a set of ← 12 | 13 → unchanging characteristics and attitudes. Part of the challenge in this volume has been to preclude assumptions about what is considered ‘French’. Textual material is an excellent starting point for challenging such assumptions because its use of language often subverts notions of nation and culture. Although the chapters in this volume do not critique the notion of French nationalism, they analyse the use of language, revealing the ambiguity and polysemy that trouble a unitary meaning of ‘French’.
It is useful to outline two terms that frequently appear in the following chapters. While ‘ecology’ and ‘environment’ have different semantic fields, the adjectives ‘ecological’ and ‘environmental’ are often used interchangeably in English. For the purposes of this volume, it is worth teasing out the etymological threads of the two terms in French. Whereas ‘ecology’ dates to Ernst Haeckel’s definition in 1866 of the German word ‘Oecologie’ as the scientific study of an organism’s relations to its milieu,8 ‘environment’ has a much longer history. In Old French, environemenz meant ‘the action of surrounding’, with the underlying assumption of something in the middle. It is only recently that the word has taken on a more politicised meaning, corresponding to the emergence during the 1960s of USA-based grassroots movements concerned about the destruction of the natural world. For some French speakers, referring to environmental activism as environnementalisme [environmentalism] is still considered to be an anglicism; écologisme [ecologism] is preferred. As for écologie [ecology] and écologique [ecological], both terms initially referred to the science of ecology, but have been taken up by theories of political ecology to articulate relations to the non-human world in the polis. Even if language is constantly evolving under the influence of cultural exchanges, there is an important distinction in the use of these terms: environnemental [environmental] refers to an attitude of activism with regard to the need to save nature, and to preserve natural environments; écologique [ecological] refers to a view of the world based on the principle of human and non-human interrelatedness.
Heeding these linguistic distinctions, the contributions in French Ecocriticism attend to the ways in which the meanings of ‘ecological’ and ‘environmental’ are ← 13 | 14 → inscribed within socio-historical contexts. In terms of early modern writing about land management, we can ask how the notion of environment is being used to refer to ‘surroundings’, and what this means in terms of humans posited at the centre. How does early modern anthropocentredness differ from today’s advanced capitalist anthropocentrism? Paraphrasing a point made by Louisa Mackenzie in relation to the French Renaissance,9 this line of enquiry allows us to establish what the early modern period can bring to ecocriticism, as well as what an ecocritical perspective can bring to the early modern period. In attending to expressions of ecological matters, it is crucial for us to bear in mind the linguistic, socio-historical, geographical, and cultural realities of the era in question. By including analysis of texts from the early modern period to the twenty-first century, French Ecocriticism signals the possibility of socio-historically comparative understandings of ecology and environment.
The chapters in this volume are organised chronologically to provide a sense of historical perspective. The range of texts includes well-known names (Michel Houellebecq; Victor Hugo; Michel de Montaigne; Arthur Rimbaud; Michel Serres; Marguerite Yourcenar; Émile Zola) and lesser known authors, poets and artists (Stéphane Audeguy; Éric Chevillard; Marie Krysinska; Jean-Claude Rousseau; Sylvain Tesson). This variety offers a much needed introduction to the fruitful possibilities of French ecocriticism, as well as to important genres, periods and movements in French culture: the early modern period’s political, polemical and philosophical essays; the nineteenth century’s Romantic and Naturalist movements, and experiments with poetry; the twentieth century’s diversification into historical fiction, experimental film and relational ontologies; the twenty-first century’s engagement with ecological imaginings ranging from the erotic to the post-apocalyptic, from the sincere to the ironic.
Certain periods are regrettably absent from this sample of five hundred years of French literature and culture. We offer these lacunae as invitations to set about an ecocritical analysis of a piece of cultural production dear to the reader’s heart, such as Madame de La Fayette’s La Princesse de Clèves [The Princess of Cleves] (1678), René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Astérix series (1959–2009), Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables (1668–94), Voltaire’s Candide (1759), Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Oscar-winning underwater documentary Le Monde du silence [The Silent World] (1956), André Breton and Philippe Soupault’s surrealist écriture automatique ← 14 | 15 → [automatic writing] in Les Champs magnétiques [The Magnetic Fields] (1920), or Yves Bonnefoy’s poetics of presence in Hier régnant désert [Yesterday Reigning Desert] (1958).10 The chapters in this volume demonstrate that French ecocriticism is not a passe-partout approach; it is a tool for examining the ways in which cultural production unsettles, imagines and renders palpable our relations to the non-human world.
If we accept that modernism, industrialisation, and the rise of capitalism have largely sundered economy and ecology, writings from the early modern period illustrate the ways in which the management of land and household intersect. In ‘Through a Glass Darkly: Dominion and the French Wars of Religion’, Jeff Persels takes up the historicist task of analysing polemical and political writings from sixteenth-century France. He argues that these texts can be ecocritically read as 1) records of a sovereign’s wealth and goods, portraying the physical realities of the time, and 2) critiques of (mis)management of the land, revealing the import of an ideal sovereign capable of controlling his domain and French dominions. The subsequent chapter about early modern material, Pauline Goul’s ‘The Vanity of Ecology: Expenditure in Montaigne’s Vision of the New World’, examines a different relationship between ecology and economy – one of excess and luxury, rather than management and dominion. Paralleling new readings of Montaigne in light of the ‘animal question’,11 Goul adopts an ecocritical perspective to analyse Montaigne’s essays about the New World. Through a close reading of key expressions, Goul reveals a paradoxical relationship to expenditure – one that critiques the wasting of the land, and admires excesses of luxury. Asserting that Montaigne’s relationship to expenditure prefigures Georges Bataille’s postmodern ← 15 | 16 → economic theorisations, Goul points to the rewards of ‘queer[ing] time’12 in our approach to Renaissance texts.
With the end of le siècle des Lumières [the Century of Enlightenment] (1715–89), the advent of the Age of Revolution (1789–1848), and the onset of industrialisation (1815–60), the French landscape underwent important changes. State supervision of forested areas collapsed, leaving French peasants and the timber industry to clear forests at will, and the land became a casualty of transformations in governing structures in France. The political and social turmoil preceding the transition to the Third Republic (1870–1940) left its mark on rural and urban regions.
Cultural production responded to environmental, social and political changes in the nineteenth century by giving birth to Romanticism and Naturalism – the former emphasising nature’s grandeur and a return to subjective sentiment, the latter immersing itself in the harsh reality of everyday conflicts between humans and the non-human world. The two chapters in the second part of the volume evoke how Victor Hugo and Émile Zola, figureheads of the respective movements, express a powerful aesthetics with regard to the non-human world. In ‘Victor Hugo and the Politics of Ecopoetics’, Karen Quandt shows Hugo’s Romanticism to be embedded in a politics of nature that is pragmatic rather than escapist, and outward- rather than inward-facing. Breaking down categories of genre, Quandt reads passages from Hugo’s novel Les Misérables [The Wretched] (1862) as examples of ecopoetry in prose. In ‘Fauves in the Faubourg: Animal Aesthetics in Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin’, Claire Nettleton offers an insightful eco- and zoopoetic reading of Zola’s Naturalism. Taking note of Darwin’s influence on the author of Thérèse Raquin, Nettleton examines human animality as not only a violent, sexual drive, but also a pulsing, creative force. Her critique of human/animal and nature/art oppositions succeeds in demonstrating the worth of French ecocriticism as a way of enhancing animal studies.
The two chapters in the third part of this collection similarly refute the alignment of art with artifice in opposition to nature. Through a focus on works from the later years of the nineteenth century, an argument is made for reading poetry as a way of reconnecting with embodied and embedded experience. In ‘Ecopoetic Adventures in Rimbaud’s “Sensation” and “Ma Bohème”’, Daniel Finch-Race analyses the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, renowned as one of France’s poètes maudits, and an important precursor to surrealism. Finch-Race demonstrates that Rimbaud’s early poems engage with the material world, conveying the changing reality of ← 16 | 17 → rural landscapes by way of their distinctive versification as much as their environmentally oriented content. In ‘Towards an Ecopoetics of French Free Verse: Marie Krysinska’s Rythmes pittoresques’, David Evans argues that free verse challenges highly codified representations of nature. Tackling the hermeneutic instability of Marie Krysinska’s poems, Evans brings to light a ‘negative ecopoetics’ that aims to maintain the multiple, productive gaps between language and the world.13 French free verse is shown to offer an invaluable contribution to ecocriticism because of the reading practices that it engenders beyond matters of environmental politics.
It is unsurprising that the majority of the chapters in this volume analyse pieces of cultural production from the last two centuries. Ecocriticism tends to focus on the last two hundred years because they constitute a period of radical change in terms of how humans live on the planet. As Michel Serres explains, the process of hominisation – becoming human – has undergone three major shifts since the 1850s: 1) longer human life spans, and reduced infant mortality rates (relation to self); 2) the movement from rural to largely urban centres (relation to the physical world); 3) the emergence of new forms of social communication (relation to others).14 Serres breaks these tectonic shifts into micro-moments that make up the complex, networked, global reality of today’s contemporary society. Whether we choose to call this reality the ‘Anthropocene’ depends in part on how much patience we have for the idea of the human and its relatively short legacy in comparison to the geological age of our planet.
The first two chapters about contemporary texts reveal different directions that can be taken in thinking about the place of humans in the global world: a familiar environmental critique emerges from Marguerite Yourcenar’s body of work, whereas a broad éco-pensée is articulated in Michel Serres’s recent works. In ‘Marguerite Yourcenar’s Ecological Thinking: Wilderness, Place-Connectedness, Biocentrism, and an Ethic of Care’, Teófilo Sanz highlights environmental themes in Yourcenar’s work that reflect multiple eco-cultural influences. Sanz links Yourcenar’s place-connectedness to the North American ideal of wilderness, as well as to the writer’s attachment to her Belgian ancestors’ land, illustrating a cross-cultural perspective that is key to analysing evolving attitudes towards nature and environment. In ‘Michel Serres: From Restricted to General Ecology’, Chris Watkin argues for a mode of eco-thinking that moves beyond environmental concerns, ← 17 | 18 → radically breaking down nature/culture dualism. Taking up Serres’s analysis of practices as different as birdsong and billboard advertising, Watkin shows that pollution – without being condoned – can be reconceptualised in terms of eco-relations between organisms and their milieu. As Watkin carefully explains, Serres seeks to develop less parasitic, more symbiotic relationships between humans and the non-human world, with a view to the establishment of a fulfilling cosmocracy.
Although most contributions to this volume focus on written texts – reflecting the tendency of ecocriticism to align with literary studies – the subsequent two chapters raise the important question of image-text relations. In ‘Ecoerotica in Stéphane Audeguy’s La Théorie des nuages’, Jonathan Krell illuminates the intersection of photography and historical fiction. In contrast to the notion of ecophobia (an inherent fear of nature), which has recently come into the spotlight in ecocritical theory,15 Krell argues for a model of ecoerotica – a strong attraction to nature as (sexual) body, or to the (sexual) body as landscape. His analysis of Audeguy’s fictionalisation of the history of cloud typology productively brings together geography and meteorology as tools for exploring our relationship with nature. Nikolaj Lübecker’s ‘The Individual as Environment: Watching Jean-Claude Rousseau’s La Vallée close with Lucretius and Simondon’ chimes with a non-dualist perspective on nature-culture and human-landscape. Drawing on Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy, Lübecker not only articulates Jean-Claude Rousseau’s filmmaking as a mode of worldmaking through which the director experiences individuation, but also makes a compelling case for ecological concepts embedded in ontologies of relation and becoming.
The (im)possibility of encountering and recounting nature in light of today’s global socioeconomic and ecological issues is a central concern in the next two chapters. In ‘Writing (on) Environmental Catastrophes: The End of the World in Éric Chevillard’s Sans l’orang-outan and Michel Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d’une île’, Anaïs Boulard focusses on a pair of contemporary novels in which familiar tropes of post-apocalyptic futures are framed by distinctive narrative and aesthetic techniques. Her analysis of novels by Éric Chevillard and Michel Houellebecq exemplifies an ecocritical method that reads genres and traditions comparatively, paying equal attention to content and form. Similarly, Hannes De Vriese brings together ecopoetics and ecocriticism in ‘On the Meaning of Being Alone with Nature: Sylvain Tesson’s Ecocritical Sincerity and Ecopoetic Sensuality in Dans les forêts de Sibérie’, highlighting the productive tension in Sylvain Tesson’s lucid ← 18 | 19 → (and occasionally ironic) desire to experience nature outside culture. De Vriese notes that Tesson’s attempt to live in a cabin in the woods ultimately provides the author with an experience of writing, as opposed to harmonious co-existence with nature.16
The collection concludes with a standalone chapter that returns to the question of what ‘French ecocriticism’ can mean. In ‘Engaging with Cultural Differences: The Strange Case of French écocritique’, Stephanie Posthumus acknowledges the ‘duplicity of culture’17 when cultural differences are used to construct borders, and to police boundaries. Drawing on comparative studies and ethnography, Posthumus argues for an articulation of culture in terms of linguistic and literary particularities. Dealing with the micro-level of individual texts and images, Posthumus presents culture as a kaleidoscope of colourful, moving pieces that a reader experiences through a cognitive and embodied lens. For Posthumus, this micro-level resists macro-level definitions of culture that end up stereotyping attitudes towards nature and environment. She shows that French ecocriticism, by working at the level of the text, identifies possible narratives and figures for imagining our relations to the non-human world. Channelling Bruno Latour, Posthumus points out the non-existence of an already constituted common world that we co-inhabit (despite the massive effects of globalisation); instead, she argues, there is a common world that is constantly being made through processes of ‘la composition, cette alternative à la modernisation [composition, that alternative to modernisation]’.18
Collaborative and constructive practices are at the heart of French Ecocriticism – our gathering on 8 May 2015 at Trinity College in Cambridge has given rise to a rich variety of exchanges and outcomes. The present volume unites human and non-human matters: we two editors – in common with all of our expert contributors – have relied on non-human, technical material to facilitate communication during the year-long orchestration of this volume. It will be you, dear reader, who ← 19 | 20 → continues the work of creation and composition, developing your own resonances with regard to the ideas and themes presented in this volume.
Arbel, Benjamin, ‘The Renaissance Transformation of Animal Meaning: From Petrarch to Montaigne’, in Making Animal Meaning, ed. by L. Kalof and G. M. Montgomery (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 59–80
Bergthaller, Hannes, ‘The Canon of East Asian Ecocriticism and the Duplicity of Culture’, CLCWeb 16.6 (2014), 9 pages, <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol16/iss6/6> [accessed 30 May 2016]
Blanc, Nathalie, Denis Chartier and Thomas Pughe, ‘Littérature & écologie: vers une écopoétique’, Écologie & Politique 36 (2008), 17–28
Boudreau, Douglas L., and Marnie M. Sullivan, eds, Ecocritical Approaches to Literature in French (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2015)
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- French literature Nature poetics Ecological aesthetics Environments Landscapes Non-humanity
- Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 296 pp.