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Keith Sagar: Literature and the Crime Against Nature

This page offers additional information on Keith Sagar's Literature and the Crime Against Nature.

Literature and the Crime Against Nature

Summary

At the beginning of a new millennium, one problem towers above all others: how are we (as a species living what we think of as a civilized life) to survive? How, that is, are we to continue to live in an overcrowded world whose finite resources are being rapidly exhausted and whose biological life-support systems are close to breakdown? There is a widespread and fast-growing belief that tinkering with economics (»sustainable development«) and local conservation measures (always too little and too late) are not enough; that what is needed is a revolution in our consciousness regarding our place in the natural world and our responsibilities towards it. These concerns span many subjects, from science to religion; but there is little mention, in all the writing and debate, of literature, least of all from academic literary critics.

Yet, as Ted Hughes has argued, the creative imagination is an essential part of our biological survival gear, to be ignored at our peril. The imagination has access to depths and connections, warning and healing truths, closed to intelligence alone. Great imaginative literature, of any age, already embodies the holistic, biocentric vision now being advocated by deep ecology.

My central argument is that most of the world's ills through history, but especially the long, now critical, ecological disaster, are the result of what the Greeks called hubris – a kind of pride which drives men, both as a race and as individuals, to regard themselves, in consequence of intelligence and technology, as outside of and superior to the natural world. I argue that imagination is the only human faculty capable of a wider and deeper vision than the anthropocentric, being capable of breaking through the hard shell of ego (whether the ego of species, race, sex, nation, culture or individual) and releasing a vision of the sacredness and miracle of the created world, the ecosystem upon which mankind wholly depends; and that nearly all the great works of imaginative, especially poetic, art, have testified to this.

We are all criminals against Nature. Western civilization has set itself to complete its subjugation of Nature. Dualism is so deeply rooted in our language and culture that we can barely think in non-dualistic, that is holistic, terms. The difference between the imaginative artist and the rest of us is that, hauled into the dock by his own imagination, he must acknowledge his own guilt and submit himself to the correction and, if he is lucky, the healing power, of that imaginative atonement. His work consists of provisional bulletins on this process, and, perhaps, glimpses of the saving vision.

The characteristic language of poetry is a language developed specifically to express and communicate relationships, connections, patterns, systems, wholes (as opposed to the analytical language of almost all other modern discourse). A formal, rhetorical, crafted language is likely to allow the ego to reassert itself. The best style is therefore styleless, transparent.

Imaginative literature has a central and essential part to play in the transformation of our consciousness from anthropocentric to biocentric which will be necessary if we are to survive far into the new millennium. The only justification for the existence of professional critics lies in their ability to assist as interpreters, teachers, enthusiasts, and publicists.

This argument is not presented theoretically (the book being opposed to theory), but by cumulative examples drawn from sixteen of the greatest writers of the Western tradition from Homer to Hughes.

Contents

  1. Foreword
  2. Rebels against the Gods
    [The Prometheus myth; Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound; Homer: The Odyssey]
  3. Aeschylus: The Oresteia and the Superannuation of the Gods
  4. The Curse of the Sphinx – the Theban Plays of Sophocles
    [Ted Hughes wrote of this chapter: »You are able to make deep openings very simply. ... This chapter on the Sphinx makes it very clear – an ideal drama for our day would be those Greek dramas up-dated. Not translated, but totally re-imagined. Your chapter is a meaty synthesis – grandly moulded and inclusive, to my mind. But so timely.«]
  5. Nature Strikes Back – The Bacchae of Euripides
    [Peter Redgrove wrote of chapters 4, 5 and 6: »It is very kind of you to let me have a look at these very informative, well-structured and concise essays, in which, I agree, you are breaking new ground. The stage is full of mechanisms of the right hand through which you elegantly thread your way, as guide. As we come to the Natural or left hand side of the stage, in the essays you have showed me so far, everything is clearer, greener, and less populated. The women of The Bacchae are about their natural communion with nature, which will of course include the sensitivities of their menstrual cycle and its varying access to the psyche and the gods and goddesses there. Thank you for these invigorating essays.«]
  6. Sir Gawain and the Green Girdle
    [Sir Gawain and the Green Knight]
  7. Shakespeare's Marriage of Heaven and Hell
    [A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Merry Wives of Windsor]
  8. Shakespeare 2: The Victimization of Venus
    [»Venus and Adonis«; Love's Labours Lost; Hamlet; Troilus and Cressida; Othello; Measure for Measure; Macbeth; Antony and Cleopatra]
  9. Shakespeare 3: The Crime Against Caliban
    [The Winter's Tale; The Tempest] [Barry Unsworth (author of the Booker Prize winning novel Sacred Hunger) wrote: »I read the chapter with great interest and enjoyment. In particular I found your insight into Prospero's »humanisation« as an agent of reconciliation very illuminating. I look forward very much to reading your book when it is in print.«]
  10. Swift – The Gulling of Gulliver
    [Gulliver's Travels]
  11. Wordsworth – Nature's Priest or Nature's Prisoner?
  12. Coleridge – The Curse of the Albatross
  13. Emily Brontė – The Crime Against Heathcliff
    [Wuthering Heights]
  14. Whitman and the Voice of Nature
    [Ted Hughes wrote: »Your Whitman piece struck me as one of your best flights. And it brought Whitman's poetry to life – your approach seemed both new and yet spot on. By bringing his poetry to life what I mean is – you isolated the most vital element, which is so startling, so naked and stirring.«]
  15. Hopkins and the Religion of the Diamond Body
  16. Conrad – The Case of the Missing Elephants
    [The Heart of Darkness] [Lindsay Clarke (author of The Chymical Wedding, which won the Whitbread prize) wrote: I liked your paper on Heart of Darkness very much indeed. It's amazing how often one can read a loved book with great care and attention and yet only begin to see the obvious when it is pointed out by someone more alert. I'm truly grateful for it.«]
  17. Lawrence and the Resurrection of Pan
  18. Golding and the Crime of Being Human
    [Professor Mark Kinkead-Weekes, the leading authority on Golding, wrote of chapters 17 and 18: » I read the Golding chapter with great interest, almost entire agreement, and admiration at your power to deal with an oeuvre so economically and concentratedly. I thought both were triumphs of compression, and very illuminating.«]
  19. Hughes – From World of Blood to World of Light
    [This is a shorter version of the final chapter of The Laughter of Foxes]
  20. Afterword
  21. Bibliography
  22. Index

© Keith Sagar

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