Awesome and Terrifying

Awesome and Terrifying

Andrew McMurry
Ecosublime: Environmental Awe and Terror from New World to Oddworld.
Lee Rozelle
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.

In his review of Lee Rozelle’s Ecosublime, Andrew McMurry offers a contrasting understanding of the sublime as a term describing our
closure to nature, not our openness.

Lori Emerson:

McMurray’s own integration of systems theory into ecocriticism in Environmental Rennaisance is discussed in a review by Stephen Docherty.


William James tells us that every metaphysics seeks nomenclature that will order the cosmos: “the universe has always appeared to the natural mind as a kind of enigma, of which the key must be sought in the shape of some illuminating or power-bringing word or name. That word names the universe’s principle, and to possess it is after a fashion to possess the universe itself” (26). For the Romantics, “sublime” was one such god-term. For them, it expressed the fear and puniness the individual feels before evidence of the universe’s power and vastness. But - for certain gifted souls capable of great feats of imagination - it further expressed connectedness and consubstantiality with the universe’s greatness. Lee Rozelle’s titular concept “ecosublime” is not meant to be such a power-bringing word. What ecosublime is meant to name, by contrast, is “the awe and terror that occurs when literary figures experience the infinite complexity and contingency of place. This aesthetic moment prompts responsible engagements with natural spaces, and it recalls crucial links between human subject and nonhuman world” (1). The ecosublime is not a moment when power is conferred but rather when power is deferred to an environment. In a sense, then, the ecosublime registers the moment when a figure is put in his place.

Rozelle argues that such moments of aesthetic transcendence can better effect “responsible engagements with natural spaces” and prompt “crucial links between human subject and nonhuman world” (1). Ecosublimity is good medicine, aesthetic shock treatment appropriate in this imperiled world. A representative anecdote is worth quoting in full:

My own ecosublime moment occurred in 1991 when I was a cook in the first Persian Gulf conflict. My unit was providing medical support for the Seventh Corps, and I was sent to Kuwait City just after the Iraqi retreat and ensuing massacre. In the desert I hadn’t seen images of “ambush alley” and the oil fires until I saw Kuwait City for myself. As we walked along the line of twisted cars, charred human body parts, unused weaponry, and scattered clothing I was shocked by the click of an E-8’s camera as he focused on a piece of human flesh in the sand. The towering oil fires stretching across the desert left me, a nineteen-year-old Alabama bubba, with a strange new attention to my material and political situation. (viii)

Rozelle’s encounter with the ecosublime models (or is retrospectively modeled by) his analysis of a variety of similarly intense encounters portrayed in books, films, television and even video games. Typically the artifacts he culls for the ecosublime already have standing as canonical enviro-texts - for example, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, White Noise, and The Monkey Wrench Gang - but not always. Miss Lonelyhearts, Paterson, the video game Oddworld have had less attention, if any, from ecocriticism. A strength of the book is that its key concept is traced across such a broad range of materials and periods. In each case, Rozelle seeks those moments of oceanic awareness when, to put it crudely, a bubba (the anthropocentric subject) has been troubled into an ecologically-aware, “energized consciousness” from an encounter with a place (4).

The ecosublime experience can take many forms. For Isabella Bird, in an epiphany in the remote high valleys of the Rocky mountains circa 1870; for a character in Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman, in a hybridization of his slave identity with a depleted ecosystem; and for the characters in Octavia Butler’s science fiction novel, The Parable of the Sower, in their discovery of the potency of place even after ecocidal events. In one of his most impressive readings, Rozelle discusses obstacles to the ecosublime in the works of Edward Abbey, the Unabomber, and the “green rage” school of thought in general. Is the ecosublime engaged by the radical activist? Rarely, because “[t]heir actions generate the terror in realizing tentativeness and incalculable uncertainty (comprehension), but they fail to trigger the awe of ecological integration (apprehension). Ecotage, both literary and literal, obscures at-risk ecologies and creates a green carnival that more often than not alienates potential allies” (92). We remember Rozelle’s own peak moment in the Gulf when he calls for an ecosublime that stays on the side of non-violence: “Proponents of an ecological worldview must infiltrate rather than annihilate.” In effect, Abbey does the most good when he has his characters pondering the “reemergence of a buried tortoise, calling attention to why the activist persists,” rather than when he has the same gang burning down billboards or firebombing earth-moving vehicles. Needless to say, whatever ecosublime moments Theodore Kaczynski hoped to produce through postal terrorism are obliterated along with his victims. The ecosublime might indeed speak to the death-cult of the Industrial Machine and its media minions but it can do so only from the position of life, for “any human-made explosion or grotesquerie that enters the simulative becomes digested into the system it seeks to attack, forming a positive feedback loop of heteroglossia and synthesis. This process means that explosive plots make any future capture of media space contingent on even larger explosions, stronger rhetoric, and more fanatical displays” (89).

Where I want to quibble with Rozelle is in his take on the way that the ecosublime helps us frame the debate between realism and constructivism as it pertains to green texts. Rozelle claims that the sublime is “itself a system, one that morphs and adapts to each period’s critical caprice” (5). While I believe that stretches the definition of system, I am well-persuaded that the ecosublime is, as he argues, an efficient term for describing an alertness to holism often found in contemporary represented or mediated environments. Less so am I convinced, however, that the sublime or the ecosublime bodes much for non-fictional worlds, i.e., our own. Rozelle argues that “there is no effective difference between the natural sublime and the rhetorical ecosublime; both have the power to bring the viewer, reader, or player to heightened awareness of real natural environments. Both can promote advocacy” (3). In his view, the “energized consciousness” that the ecosublime engages is equally triggered by “mountain peaks, ozone holes, books, DVDs, advertisements, and even video games.” Representations of the ecosublime, if I am not misreading Rozelle, can stir us to recognize the ecosublime in the real world. For Rozelle, that kind of awareness is properly ecological, in that it amounts to a connected but humbled subject position within nature’ complexity. Once again, no argument from me. But I wonder if the leap from linguistic-based simulations to real-world engagements is a true departure from the sublime moment as traditionally configured which, as Rozelle himself knows full-well, features a self-possessed subject using nature as imaginative fodder. That stance is unrepentantly anthropocentric. His ecocentric rebuttal quotes Thoreau’s famous “Contact! Contact!” epiphany on Ktaadn, about which he writes, “Thoreau’s words beckon the fearful American into the awe and terror of the real, to imbue our simulated lives with connections that leave us forever changed. These permeations of the cultural self offer transcendent contacts with an ecosublime world and the recognition of message in rocks, trees, and wind” (112). My concern lies in what Rozelle wants the ecosublime - here voiced by Thoreau - to inspire us to conceive: effectively, that we can cross the boundary between the language-based system - whether literary or psychological - and that system’s outside, in other words, the environment. We can make contact and we can carry messages back. I would respond by asserting “you can’t get there from here.” The volubility of us and the silence of nature: that is a difference that makes all the difference.

This is not simply an issue of a reinscription of anthropocentrism back into the non-human, non-communicating side of the boundary (I mean, that sort of reinscription goes without saying, and in a choice between Rozelle’s ecosublime and Kant’s “anthropo-sublime,” there is no contest - I will take the ecosublime any day). No, the problem is one of epistemology - and this is where a true systems approach may pay dividends in helping put down the dangerous cultural solipsism that Rozelle rightly fears and thinks the ecosublime can mitigate. Under a systems approach, “solipsism” is actually a vital principle of social systems - it will not go away unless the system itself dissipates. To make sense of this navel-gazing feature, we require an ecocritical theory that does not seek to reform self-reference, make it go away by chastening individuals and societies to think like mountains, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold. Better to consider why solipsism or self-centeredness is the organizing principle of systems in the first place, and so too about the ways we might steer them productively - if steerage is possible.

A way to frame the sublime along the lines I have just described has been offered in a recent article by Louise Economides. She argues that the social systems approach of Niklas Luhmann can help square radical constructivist accounts that leave out the eco-referent with retrograde realist accounts that act as if the linguistic turn never happened. Like Rozelle, Economides looks to the early 19th century as a singular moment when modernity had to start coming to terms with its failure to produce language commensurate with its world-grasping imperiousness. But where Rozelle reads Poe and Isabella Bird, Economides sticks with those touchstones of the sublime, Wordsworth on Simplon Pass and Percy Shelley on Mont Blanc.

As Rozelle shows us, Poe’s The Journal of Julius Rodman never reaches a moment of ecosublimity (perhaps because it was never completed), but Bird’s memoir does, in a typically high-altitude “high” in Colorado’s front range:

In her [Bird’s] most zealous attempt to explain the ecosublime experience, she embellishes the notorious Mountain Jim as he falls sway to the dawn: “Suddenly, as a dazzling streak at first, but enlarging rapidly into a dazzling sphere, the sun wheeled above the grey line, a light and glory as when it was first created. ‘Jim’ involuntarily and reverently uncovered his head, and exclaimed, ‘I believe there is a God!’…Surely ‘the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands!’ For a full hour those Plains simulated the ocean, down to whose limitless expanse of purple, cliff, rocks, and promontories swept down.”[…] Mountain Jim, the archetypal hero of the Virgin Land, collapses within the limitless oceanic terrain. His orgiastic articulation of the word “God” in relation to the land is the most exalted form of representation available, his experience represented as one that cannot be adequately captured with words. (21-22)

For Rozelle, the last point is crucial: overcome beyond words, Bird’s ecosublime moment occurs when she is seized by the “supersensible feeling” of being “part of an ecological whole.” It is then that she is afforded “the opportunity to be human” in what is for her “the most essential and sacred sense of the word.” (22). Rozelle reads Mountain Jim’s and Bird’s articulations of the vista as inadequate to that to which they attempt to bridge: God-in-nature, which Rozelle here glosses as simply a power-bringing name for the ecological whole. But their words’ failure to bridge the gap between mind and nature is not really a failure. In fact, where the words stop, the ecosublime begins. For Rozelle, the ecosublime is precisely that point d’appui between rightly dumbfounded literary figures and the nature that always exceeds them. In a way, you could not even begin to cross that bridge unless you shut up or, rather, were made to shut up. An openness to the oceanic is predicated on emptying your head of the symbolic.

By contrast, Economides’ readings of peak moments in Romantic poetry produce different conclusions. She locates similar failures to signify nature in those who, more so than Bird and Mountain Jim, are as well-equipped to limn with words the vastness of nature as anyone before or since. But even in Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s well-known and articulate renderings of their experiences in the mountains, Economides reveals the sublime to be not a transcendence of the nature/subject rift but rather an early registration of a systemic communicative closure: “Within the permanent barrier of language, the sublime can articulate the horizon between communication systems and world as material presence outside communication systems, or what might be called the ‘sublimity of materiality’ ” (90). Furthermore, “Unlike the anthropocentric sublime, this form of communication does not seek to unify mind and nature under the sign of a subject who transcends materiality but rather delineates the mystery of materiality itself, what Shelley calls ‘the naked countenance of the earth’ embodied in [the poem “Mont Blanc” ‘s] ‘primaeval mountains.’” Economides argues that the failure of Shelley and the Romantics to delineate that materiality “on a symbolic level is, from an ecological perspective, ironically successful in the sense that it communicates a materiality as a surplus of meaning potential that cannot be exhausted by linguistic performance.” Silence here, as in Rozelle, is prized, but for different reasons. It is not prized because it humbles us, throws us into nature and out of our own heads, but because it keeps us in our heads. More precisely, it reminds us of the autonomy of subjects, which, like the social system itself, operate on the basis of distinctions between themselves and their environments. Thus, the true “subject” of the Romantic sublime is art itself, whose nascent autonomy is prefigured in the autonomy of the mountains with respect to the poets who observe them. The poet may think the sublime is a bridge - but that bridge ends in the ether above the abyss. Poetry bridges to nothing but more poetry.

Economides writes, “The vital question facing us today is not whether we can revive communication like the sublime as a way to unify what are in fact incommensurate physical and linguistic domains. Rather, it is the question of how societies that are functionally and epistemologically fragmented can cope with ecological problems, such as global warming, that are universal in scope and impact” (98-99). To answer that question, Economides suggests we should “acknowledge the full extent to which material nature is only partially the product of our social constructions, in contrast to increasingly prevalent claims in ‘postmodern’ environmental theory that it is impossible and/or counterproductive to distinguish between cultural discourse and physical ecosystems” (99). I suspect Rozelle would agree. He might also agree that silence before nature is not something to be filled with language, like an awkward conversation in which one party lags. Rather, such silence is golden. It reminds us of the distinction we have with our environments. In fact, silence may be understood as just that distinction. We communicate; nature does not. On that distinction hinges our world, and to ask for its dissolution is to ask the impossible. So Rozelle might not agree with the social systems approach that Economides and I have been describing, because to do so he would have to view the ecosublime as evidence of our closure to nature, not our openness.

And that he would not do. For Rozelle, the communicative closure that the ecosublime frames must give way to a more integrative theory of system-and-environment, and to a self-in-nature who is more connected to his environment than those literary figures who experienced the anthropocentric sublime of the 19th century or the real-life eco-terrorists who promote an ecocidal sublime in our own era. In his fine, precisely written book, Rozelle imagines an ecotopian future at least partly ushered in by such literary and cultural works that manage to activate our dormant potential to respond positively, powerfully, to an ecological whole. He believes that “An awesome and terrifying jolt to the heart and soul has historically overwhelmed even the most rigid and dazed Western mind to awareness and action” (112). He concludes, not questioningly but assertively, “Isn’t it pretty to think so” (113). It is, and we must all hope that such a jolt comes soon.

Works Cited

Economides, Louise. “ ‘Mont Blanc’ and the Sublimity of Materiality.” Cultural Critique 61 (Fall 2005): 87-114.

James, William. Pragmatism. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Rozelle, Lee. Ecosublime: Environmental Awe and Terror from New World to Oddworld. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.