|“Ecocriticism,” Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, 1/29/10
It’s an honor to speak at this MEMSI lecture. MEMSI through Prof. Cohen’s work has become a place of real national stature and beyond. Like Groucho Marx I must question how I was admitted. But for a long time there have not been many people working in ecocriticism in medieval studies. Now that’s changing and I unworthily need to work harder. So I’d like to start with a brief introduction to ecocriticism or environmental literary studies, followed by examples hopefully suggesting how it can be applied to early English poetry, ending with thoughts about the value of a new field in ecocriticism called ecosemiotics.
Lawrence Buell defines ecocriticism, which first emerged in the 1970s, as in effect foregrounding the background of textual narrative. In other words, he said, if you take a simplified Artistotelian view of literary study as examining plot, character, theme and setting, ecocriticism focuses on setting, which often has been the most neglected element in modern Western literary interpretation. Buell defines a text that encourages an ecologically centered reading in four ways: It is one that first features a “nonhuman environment” as a presence that suggests “human history is implicated in natural history,” and second does so in a setting in which “the human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest,” while third “human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation,” and fourth, does so with “some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant.” I’m going to expand on Buell’s definition today in relation to the new field of ecosemiotics, or the study of the relation of culture and nature through signs. I’ll try to suggest that even though Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may not seem to us much like an environmental text today—not a Walden Pond or Monkeywrench Gang or Avatar—it does offer entry into an important culture of nature in the archipelago that we today tend to call the British Isles, a culture of nature that I’ll call an environmental semiosphere.
First, it’s easy to see how reading for setting can be extended to context, in terms of cultural landscape. In fact, the text can be seen itself as a type of landscape or map, when turned inside-out in ecocritical reading. In such reading the premodern text as cultural landscape can engage both social and physical environments more easily. When Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in their 2004 polemic The Death of Environmentalism concluded that “environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be,” they could have been issuing a manifesto for medieval ecocriticism. Much of my work has involved texts associated with the environment of the early Irish Sea, and a different way of seeing the British Isles and its early literatures together environmentally as an archipelago with a dynamic interplay of water, land and atmosphere at its center, rather than with just London as its social focus or the Continent off-stage as its foundation. For this I’m in debt to Prof. Cohen’s work in developing archipelagic studies.
Let’s take up a familiar example from The Canterbury Tales, namely its opening:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve course yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open eye,
So priketh hem nature in hir corages,
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sundry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyr for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Now, here we have nature in motion and a text that is a map of a journey. Yet it is very different from the motion and journey of that other great medieval pilgrimage poem, Dante’s Commedia, written a few generations earlier in Italy. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the landscape is less allegorical and less virtual, and also, taking the work as a whole, seemingly incomplete, ever in process. It is nonetheless an overlay landscape draped across the physical geography of countryside from commercial London to a supposedly spiritual Canterbury that however is never reached, the journey ending, apparently, in the Parson’s Tale and perhaps Chaucer’s retraction. We can trace the route of the pilgrims along an old Roman road that goes from the center of English metropolitan commerce in the waning days of the Anglo-Norman feudal regime, into a province and provincial seat whose names derive from an old Celtic British people, the Cantii who left their name to Kent and Canterbury, to which the papal mission from St. Gregory the Dialogist came in the days before the Norman Conquest and found remnants of earlier British Christianity. There is already an anti-colonial movement celebratory of natural landscape and language implicit in the map of the story, added to its invocation of Thomas Beckett as an icon of the claims of the spiritual against the state. And the landscape, unlike that of Dante’s great work, is not all about Chaucer. Rather it is about a rollicking muti-logue of many voices, including the non-human, in which Chaucer’s persona is one among many to be parodied for the foolishness of subjectivity.
So the psychology of the poem also arguably projects an environmental experience, out-of-text and into multiple contexts. A. Kent Hieatt some time ago wrote of what he called Chaucer’s mythopoesis, of the poet’s use of fable to experientially engage or entrap the reader in a kind of empathy aimed against objectification of others or of one’s self. We see this in the following rogue’s gallery of figures in the General Prologue and their tales. But I would argue that The Canterbury Tales as experiential landscape can also be read as ecopoesis, as a shaping of environment that enables a transpersonal engagement of the human with the physical environment, an empathy in line with current work in mind science on the way human beings develop more ecologically than in a unitary discreet individual way.
Let us consider the world as described in these opening lines. We have the cycle of seasons and stars, the time of nature. We have the social time and cycles of mortality and festival of human beings. We have the created eternity of the saints. And we have in the pricking of corages by Nature an intimation poetically of the movement of theophanies and divine energies or manifestations in the physical world that are everlasting and beyond even eternity, as in a familiar example to medievals of how the hearts of Jesus’ students burned within them when taught by His unknown resurrected person on the road to Emmaus. For Chaucer, as mentioned in the Parlement of Fowles, Nature is the vicar of the Almightie Lord, a figure whom Spenser developed in emulation of Chaucer in The Faerie Queene as shining forth divine energies, perhaps also influenced as Harold Weatherby suggests by Spenser’s patristic studies at Cambridge. One modern translation in fact renders “so priketh hem nature in hir corages,” as “thus nature sparkles in them so,” reminiscent of the Romanian scholar Dimitru Staniloaeu’s description of the divine energies in nature in non-Augustinian Christian theology as the sparkle of creation. It is notable that modern editors have so misunderstood the cosmology behind this line that, as Sarah Stanbury has noted, until recently that particular phrase in the prologue tended to be placed in parentheses in many editions and translations, because modern scholars assumed and wanted to apply it more to the birds in particular than to the overall moving landscape of beings in the Prologue as a whole.
Here poetically we have the four modes of time and non-time of patristic asceticism, embodied in early literary monasticism around the Irish Sea, in league with indigenous non-Christian traditions, rather than the eternal present of Augustinian-derived Scholasticism seen in Dante’s work. All of these modes are entwined in the landscape of the text on the road to Canterbury, in a cloud of overlapping stories and voices ending in ascetic repentance with The Parson’s Tale, not a singular and triumphal completed passage from hell to heaven.
In this the pilgrimage to Canterbury, a journey that never reaches the interior of a cathedral nor the cosmic interiorized consummation of Dante’s flight, in the energy of its very overlay of imaginative Otherworld and familiar deeply layered physical geography, rejects the strongly hierarchical and abstracted sense of environment of the Scholasticism of the high Middle Ages and the feudalism that attended it. And it does so interestingly by reaching back to adapt traditions deeply entwined with an archipelagic perspective of life, traditions familiar from the early Irish Sea zone, rejecting ultimately the monumentality of the metropolitan center, whether of London, mainland Europe or the high-medieval church.
Chaucer’s reference to Nature in the opening lines here again evokes the figure of Nature in his Parlement of Fowles, negotiating the comic cacophanies of Valentine lover birds in a spring beyond hierarchies, echoed back by Chaucer’s greatest fan Spenser in the latter’s figure of Nature shining in sparkling energies in the Mutabilitie Cantos that climax the overlay landscape of his likewise dynamically incomplete Faerie Queene, in what by then had become a tradition of green-world literature in English. The landscape tradition that Chaucer’s work navigates itself became known as fairyland, even as it draws on what scholars much later would call the earlier Celtic Otherworld, to which Chaucer makes specific reference in The Canterbury Tales and draws on through its very structure, to form a literary landscape or world entwined with geography and the life of the earth. We also see those earlier traditions re-emerge in early English in a famous contemporary poem to The Canterbury Tales, the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in a different type of story to some extent but arguably with a similar sense of overlay landscape. In that poem, Sir Gawain’s travels are across a mapped geography of Britain, into Wales and ultimately to a Green Chapel that scholars link to folklore about locations near the poet’s probable location in the Chester area, and so we also have this overlay of imaginative fantasy with actual terrain and an accompanying subversion of idealized individuality, in the case of the Gawain poet in terms of the deconstruction of Gawain’s knightly character in dialogue with the Otherworld.
While the convention of the changing seasons seen in Chaucer’s opening is a commonplace, he as usual reworks sources, including probably an Italian text on the Destruction of Troy, and, in structure, Boccacio’s Decameron. But the geographic mix stands distinctively within a storytelling mode of archipelago. He is operating within a tradition native to his environment, so to speak, and one that in turn helps shape that environment through story, with a kind of flat hierarchy of energized landscape rather than Scholastic analogy. Unlike the likely source about Troy, spring ends in Chaucer not in war but in redemption in an actual countryside of which the audience forms a physical part. Thus so too at the end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, we move into larger contexts that triangulate between the spiritual and physical geography of earth and the perspective of Chaucer’s time, as Troilus as a deconstructed medieval knight looks down on the plains of war and laughs, putting all in a dynamic perspective akin to the combined punning of the dynamic Sabbaoth Lord of hosts and Sabbath rest at the end of Spenser’s Faerie Queene.
That Chaucer operates in a tradition of landscape narration shaped by the environment of his archipelago is suggested also by his use of a central motif of early Irish Otherworld stories, namely the Sovereignty goddess or fairy queen of the land’s green world, in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, which occupies a key place in the Ellesmere manuscript as a kind of linchpin to the response of the so-called marriage tales to both the satirized chivalry of The Knight’s Tale and the excesses of the so-called bawdy tales. It follows The Man of Law’s Tale in this, which itself highlights an early pre-Norman Christianity associated with a legendary holiness of the age of saints and scholars in islands then heavily influenced by Irish culture. The motif of a fairy queen presiding over an overlay green world landscape emerges in the self-satirizing Tale of Sir Thopas, and early Irish Sea traditions of magical overlay landscape appear also in The Franklin’s Tale with its associations with archipelago-related traditions of Brittany. Rory McTurk in a recent study of analogues to Chaucer’s work in Celtic and Norse language literatures, suggests that the Irish Acallach na Senorach, with its itinerary of St. Patrick’s interactions with Fenian heroes in the Irish landscape, derivative of earlier Otherworld narrative structure, plausibly could have been a primary influence in the framing of The Canterbury Tales, given Chaucer’s likely time in Ulster during his years of unknown provenance as a young man in the service of the Earl of Ulster. And of course an important anonymous poem roughly contemporary to The Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, affords a version of this overlay landscape too, suggesting the motif’s appeal in formative English poetry after the Black Death and crumbling of Anglo-Norman feudalism, as an alternative model for reimagining the nature of things in poesis figuring itself as native.
But to get back to the General Prologue, the mention of the zodiac in particular, the Ram in his half course, together with the juices of spring that seem to be flowing through all, both highlight Prof. Cohen’s comparison of medieval notions of astrology and the bodily humors as premodern examples of “bodies without organs.” That term, meaning non-organismic bodies, comes from the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and involves virtual realities that embody a kind of ecological connectivity spanning physical immanence and cultural effects, in ecocritical terms potentially a kind of ecosystem or culture of nature. The archipelago itself could be considered a kind of “body without organs.” In his essay “Desert Islands,” Deleuze discusses how the geological “double movement” of islands, both pulling away and recreating themselves, parallels human involvement with them imaginatively. A collective cultural imagination in Deleuze’s view, through rites and mythology, could produce imaginary identity with islands in a way that “geography and the imagination would be one.” Later he and Guattari discussed how Europe’s Atlantic archipelago in particular involved “a plane of immanence as a movable and moving ground… an archipelagian world where [inhabitants] are happy to pitch their tents from island to island and over the sea… nomadizing the old Greek earth, broken up, fractalized, and extended to the entire universe.” In such a geo-cultural archipelago, they said, the landscape sees, much as early iconography reflected in the art and culture of the early Irish Sea zone looks out on us rather than allowing us to internalize and objectify them.
Such a body without organs can involve in Deleuzean terms a rhizomic or entwined grass-root sense of symbiotic eco-region and culture-region or atmosphere, such as the archipelago itself. Indeed, the contemporary philosopher Peter Hallward sees a theophany or emanation of the divine in nature in Deleuze-Guattarian geophilosophy, which he claims to be akin to the early medieval Irish writer John Scottus Eriugena’s early Irish Sea philosophy, in which divine energies manifest as fantasy clouds of theophany in which the human entwines with the cosmic. In Otherworld narratives of the early archipelago, the environmental theophany in which humans participate looks out as a “seeing landscape,” a melding of sea, sky, earth and spiritual realms, as if some elemental rewriting of Martin Heidegger’s mystical fourfold. This landscape emerged in narratives of desert asceticism that came to the islands in search of a desert that was spiritual sea, an archipelago that in the post-Roman period was constituted culturally as both deserted by Rome and a monastic desert, and thus oddly paralleled Deleuze’s sense of desert islands as well. Adomnán’s late-eighth-century Hiberno-Latin Vita S. Columbae, for example, refers to a spiritual pilgrim wishing to find a desertum in the ocean off Scotland.” Examples of such earlier melding of geography and imagination include the Otherworld voyage story of Immram Brain, the early Irish tropes of the colors of the winds and colors of martyrdom, Eriugena’s image of the sea as theophanic, and early Ireland’s de-centered social and ecclesiastical networks.
For Eriugena, Nature consisted of both being and non-being, the hidden and the appearing. Later in Scholasticism, developing from tendencies in Augustine and the Latin language, non-being came to be identified with evil. As Robert Bartlett outlines, evil in Scholasticism came to be labeled as natural but then necessarily an illusory parallel to essential nature. So any sense of overlay landscape become demonized, and narrative storytelling was not able to accommodate dynamic notions of nature. The supernatural good became more and more a separate if constrained category of reality apart from the natural. Miracles came to be considered, in the view of Aquinas and others, not results from rational occurrences, but from supernatural archetypes in God’s essence, removed from creation. It was the beginning of what Max Weber later called the disenchantment of nature.
European tradition involves two prominent archipelagic complexes of cultures. Both Greek and Atlantic islands expressed in formative post-Roman periods an ascetic cosmology formed in the fluid nature-cultures of the deserts of Egypt, Sinai and Palestine as well as the rugged remote terrain of Cappadocia. In such places, nomadic routes were like tracks in a sea in which ascetics immersed themselves while moving through various stages of exile from the world of empire or everyday human society. This is the type of medieval cultural map of itineraries that David Wallace focuses on in his project mapping connections such as the route between Mount Athos and Muscovy. In such mapping of pilgrimages like Chaucer’s writ large, all Europe becomes, as it actually is, an archipelago, and indeed the whole world really is an archipelago, as highlighted by the iconic moon photos of the late 1960s that helped stimulate late-twentieth-century environmentalism. The itinerary or line of flight of cosmological narrative we’re following here, linking the eastern deserts and Europe’s biggest Atlantic island chain, influenced and was adapted by early Irish biblical exegetes culminating in Eriugena, as well as monastic mapping of foundational native landscapes through written stories, just as Greek icons are spoken of as being written. In physical environment this cultural overlay landscape formed what I call an environmental semiosphere, an environmental narrative atmosphere, which became an enduring influence and partially appropriated element of Middle English and Elizabethan writing.
What I mean by environmental semiosphere is similar to the use of the term culture of nature by Stanford University’s new Environmental Humanities Project, namely a kind of environmental atmosphere of human adaptation in symbiotic entwinement with a physical ecosystem. This is akin to the already mentioned Deleuzean body without organs, only complexly writ large as a regional environmental cultural narrative tradition. The term semiosphere also takes us into the currently evolving new fields of biosemiotics and ecosemiotics, most actively identified with Tartu University in Estonia and its fabled semiotics program, which is now headed by the biologist Kalevi Kull. It was at Tartu that the semiotician Juri Lotman coined the term semiosphere to describe a composite envelope of individual organisms’ subjective environments that shape a meaningful environment of life. Lotman in this was following the work of the early 20th century Baltic German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who coined the term Umwelt to describe an organism’s species-centered atmosphere of meaning. Biosemiotics, based on such concepts, embraces a kind of biological version of the old medieval pansemiotic view of nature as a world of symbols. Biosemiotics argues that semiosis, or the making of meaning from various kinds of signs, defines life itself, and that human linguistics plays only a small role in the totality of semiotics, such as flowers emitting a certain kind of smell or color to which bees or birds respond symbiotically. Following biosemiotics, Ecosemiotics today develops study of the semiotic relationship of nature and culture, arguing against binarizing the two.
So how could we define in environmental literary studies the Insular tradition of a narrative overlay landscape, exemplified in The Canterbury Tales, as an environmental cultural atmosphere, as an environmental semiosphere? How can we connect this twenty-first-century approach meaningfully back to early English poetry as it developed in the waning days of the Anglo-Norman regime, between the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses? Let me sketch four parameters for tracing an environmental semiosphere in early texts such as Chaucer’s poetry, expanding on Buell’s earlier mentioned four aspects of an ecocentric text. This process of definition is a process of our reading today, but cued strongly by certain types of premodern narrative traditions and their relations to the physical world.
First of the four elements is a sense of how an environmental semiosphere like that exemplified in The Canterbury Tales articulates a triadic or three-way structure of semiotics, or the making of meaning through signs. The nineteenth-century semiotician Charles S. Peirce articulated a relavant three-way pattern of signs, which differs from the conventional modern Western dyadic or two-part structure described by his more famous contemporary Ferdinand de Saussure. Peirce’s parallel triad of sign, object, and interpretant form the basis for the current study of biosemiotics. Following his triadic analysis, we have text, physical geography, and imaginary overlay experience. In effect this introduces a potential environmental component into the unpacking of signs. By contrast Saussure, following in many ways Augustine’s lead in emphasizing the arbitariness of signs, stressed the internal human-centered relation of signified and signifier. The Irish Sea Otherworld illustrates Peirce’s triad as a structure of meaning, with a culturally imagined overlay landscape highlighting its relation to both text and geography. In our ecocritical reading, the sign would be The Canterbury Tales, the object the countryside of the passage to Canterbury, and the interpretant the many-voiced atmosphere of the imaginary cloud of stories engaging reader, characters, poet, society, geography, and intergenerational audiences in landscape tradition.
Again this triadic style of landscape on the islands again stretches not only back into the Otherworld of Irish Sea cultures, but forward into the later derivative “green world” of late medieval and Elizabethan English literature defined by Northrop Frye as putting together two worlds (in effect the human and a naturally supernatural earth) and making each seem real in light of the other. Frye’s examples included Le Morte D’Arthur, The Faerie Queene, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the latter transposing Greek figures into English countryside folklore with native roots. Frye said the Englsh “green world” in literature exemplified a distinctive fourth type of Western comedy, beyond Greek Old and New Comedy and the kind of high medieval Christian comedy exemplified by Dante’s Commedia. Going beyond Frye, we’ve seen that this was not just a discrete English development but related to geography of the archipelago and to early Insular tradition that itself was connected to the Eastern Mediterranean. And in the roots of that tradition something more than what Frye outlined is going on: the rhythmic back-and- forth movement between worlds can make each world actually seem real by light of the other, in the sense of realizing the place-between them in story as a kind of ecological reality, and thus preventing objectification of either world while encouraging an imaginative environmental empathy.
Now the difference between this kind of triadic emphasis in narrative landscape and
Dante’s more dyadic allegorical emphasis, which does not emphasize a mapping relation of fantasy and physical geography, not surprisingly reflects different medieval theological patterns of landscape and human personhood. In the early medieval heyday of Irish Sea literary culture articulation of the Trinity tended toward a triadic rather than a dyadic structure. The Son was begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father. Such triadic theological emphasis can be found in the non-Augustinian Trinity of Eriugena, the early Irish Stowe Missal’s original text, and in ascetic practice and cosmology of the desert fathers and the Byzantines. It integrally relates to doctrines of the divine energies flowing through nature, expressed in Eriugena’s cosmology and Spenser’s Nature.
The psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva described this triadic Christian theology evident in the early Irish Sea pattern as a cosmic semiosis or making of meaning involving what she called “the openly sexual fusion with the Thing at the limits of the nameable.” In Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach to semiotics, the realms of the Real, Imaginary and the Symbolic themselves mirror in secular contexts the symbolic triadic flow of the early Trinity. Thus the Real can be associated with the Father, the Imaginary with the Son, and the Symbolic with the Holy Spirit. Kristeva argued that in early Trinitarian cosmic semiosis, the Symbolic “merges with the two other centers and, by the same token, endows them, beyond their value as distinct identities or authorities, with an abyssal, breathtaking, and certainly also sexual depth, where the psychological experience of loss and ecstasy finds its place.” Following her model, in Chaucer’s text the Real could be thought of as the countryside on the route to Canterbury, the Imaginary as the textual image, and the symbolic interpretant or overlay cloud of entwined voices and stories and landscape. Kristeva argues that poetic energies emerge from such triadic semiosis, but we can also see its environmental aspects in textual overlay landscape. In such a process the Real (or looming larger contexts), the Imaginary (or sign), and the Symbolic (or biosemiotic life) for Kristeva encompass and entwine what she calls the phenotext (a work’s textual surface and geography) with genotext (a deep structure of text constituting its overlay landscape). Triadic “environmental semiosis” can be defined (in terms of biosemiotics at Tartu) as involving an Umwelt or subjective environment that functions as sign of the organism, while the organism reciprocally functions as the sign of the Umwelt, the two being related by a third element, a larger code or ecology preceding the organism’s existence, also called a meaning-plan. In this scheme, the cultural experience of the Irish Otherworld as overlay landscape can be a “meaning-plan” or interpretation that involves a larger ecology of life incorporating a cosmic spiritual realm. But the Otherworld involves also a sign or symbolism of natural landscape, and, in overlay geography, metonymically becomes identified with actual landscape as object or environment. If the organism in this case is the ecosystem of the countryside, it becomes a sign of the subjective environment or Umwelt of the human audience, which in the text is the green or Otherworld, while that Umwelt also becomes a sign of the countryside.
But different cultures can shape different emphases for this interaction. What became the dominant Trinitarian mode in the Latin West by the time of the High Middle Ages was paradoxically a dyadic Triity. It emerged from development of Augustine’s semiotic theology, by which ideas in the divine Mind became juxtaposed dyadically with arbitrary created signs or theophanies, as later reflected in Dante’s allegorical approach. This limited any relation to the physical environment. It also involved a sense of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son together, by what was called the filioque doctrine. The Father and Son were in effect fused, while the Holy Spirit, prime manifester of divine symbolism in the world, became their instrumental object. This Scholastic dyad of archetype and analogy became the template for subject-object and mind-body binaries of a continental-based Western European culture as it emerged first among the Anglo-Saxon and Frankish realms and then later in cultural terms swallowed the archipelago so to speak in the era of the Norman Conquests, the Crusades, and the heyday of the papacy. Chaucer and the Gawain poet at least in the wake of the Black Death and the crumbling of the old order found it poetically beneficial to adapt an older structure of archipelagic literatures into a new English literary trope with its own after-life as England began to reorient itself as an Atlantic rather than a continental empire.
I’ll try to be merciful here and pass more briefly over my suggested three other parameters for reading an environmental semiosphere. The second aspect of an environmental semiosphere could be called, in tribute to the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, a dialogical materialism. This involves a sense of personal dialogue with nature inherent in a culture, in which the emphasis is placed more on external interactions, rather than individual human interiority familiar to us from Augustinian and Lockean models. In ecosemiotic terms, this involves an Umwelt or subjective human reality that comes to encompass an overlap between what Kalevi Kull calls Zero Nature or raw physicality, and the Innenwelt or inner world of the individual. That overlap could be called a Lebenswelt or living world, with which what Kull calls Third Nature or virtual cultural reality becomes identified. By contrast in other cultural systems such as that of the mainstream modern West, Innenwelt and Umwelt in effect became identified with one another, and Third Nature forms in opposition with its constructed Other of the physical world.
The third element in reading an environmental semiosphere involves tracing its metonymic structure. Following Kull’s work, environmental Object acts upon Subject in Merkwelt or First Nature, such as the way in which seasons affect human agricultural life, and Subject upon the Object in Wirkwelt or Second Nature, as in the way human engineering affects rivers, for example. A close reciprocal relation between those processes suggests a metonymic symbolism. Thus, for example, the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath,” “wind” or “spirit,” takes on both a bodily and a transpersonal dimension at once, or likewise early Irish uses of terms for desert mean both monastic life and island or wilderness environments, or in early Christianity the term logos at once means word, harmony and incarnational image of God that is God. These kinds of metonyms involve physically intense metaphors that suggest in rhetorical and lingustic terms the type of structure of landscape narrative with which we’re dealing. Owen Barfield, paralleling Ernst Cassirer, called this process a “holophrase” of concrete meaning, encompassing a meaning beyond the sum of the components of the metonym, rather than a dyadic analogue of archetype and object. And of course one aspect of the metonymic is a personalizing process of naming or in this case putting a face on the nonhuman. Enviromental metonym suggests a dynamic life to the physical world by its intensified contrast of matter and language. It thus functions differently from conventional Western psychoanalytic definitions of metonym as lack. It relates to notions of desire that in deep ecological terms and in Deleuze-Guattarian “ecosophy” shape semiotic structures rather than psychological universals. Thus, for example, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argued that while Western culture has come to define desire as based on linguistic lack (following Augustinian and Scholastic views and derivative psychoanalytic theory), other cultural structures such as Taoism in particular shape desire as an energized relation creative of the real. And behind the environmental semiosphere that we’re discussing here in the Irish Sea lies a similar shaping of desire and metonym, I would argue, to that which Deleuze and Guattari articulate in Taoism, but in a Western literary context.
Finally, the fourth paramater of an eco-semiosphere is Iconographic time. This has already been discussed in relation to the four modes of temporality and non-temporality in patristic and early insular traditions, reflected in the opening of the General Prologue.
Experience of multiple modes of existence at once encourages experience of non-human perspectives and development of environmental empathy, and involves a kind of self-emptying or kenosis in which setting becomes relational, looking out at popping out at us like traditional Byzantine iconography or images from the Book of Kells.
Now to return this discussion of the parameters of environmental semiospheres to the text at hand, I would argue that literary insular green worlds such as The Canterbury Tales are a kind of locally adapted equivalent to the philosophy of the ancient Greek archipelago and to the emergence and sustenance there in medieval times of hesychasm. Literature as eco-semiosphere has a therapeutic function for human beings particularly in the Western world. Getting the mind into the heart, becoming a luminous eye as it were, the transpersonality of deep ecology, these all can be cued by a literary green world. In such narratives we can reach the environmental empathy of the ecopoetic mind science described by Evan Thompson, who argues that the human mind develops in environment and not inside the brain, in environmental empathy. Thus Chaucer’s comedic Tale of Sir Thopas with its fluffed-up chivalric fairy queen melds into the redemptive forgiveness of his persona’s The Tale of Melibee. C.S. Lewis claimed that within the greenworld effect in Spenser’s Faerie Queene evokes “our bodily, no less than our mental, health is refreshed by reading him.” Its therapy is related to archipelagic landscape: “There is a real affinity between [Spenser’s] Faerie Queene,” Lewis wrote, “a poem of quests and wanderings and inextinguishable desires, and Ireland itself—the soft, wet air, the loneliness, the muffled shapes of the hills, the heart-rending sunsets.” Even the Spenserian stanza for Lewis reflects a sense of the triadic flow of experiencing overlay landscape, “labyrinthine and meditative, turning back upon itself in the centre when the two rhymes meet, and then pausing again, either for recapitulation, or thundering defiance, or for a dying fall in the final alexandrine…the effect of a wave falling on a beach.” Lewis argued that this green world resisted a growing dualism in European culture, in which, “The world was emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies and antipathies finally of her colours, smells, and tastes…..The mind, on whose ideal constructions the whole method depended, stood over against its object in ever sharper dissimilarity.” We see this process described already in the longest and first of Chaucer’s stories, The Knight’s Tale, in its account of the destruction of the grove and the building of the amphitheatre, which relates the follies of ideal knighthood to environmental hubris, in which a holocaust of the green world relates to needless human death and suffering. In this, the scene-setting story for the Tales shows affinities to Sir Gawain’s humbling in the green world by its sovereignty goddess or figure of Nature Morgan Le Fay, shadowing the incarnational Mother of God associated with the earth in early Insular performance of landscape.
Why did Chaucer’s poetry in particular engage in insular traditions of overlay landscape, and how did those traditions get transmitted to English literature from early Irish literature, if that was the path? To take the latter question first, John Carey’s work on the spread of early Irish motifs to Wales and Brittany, including important core elements of the Welsh Taliesin poems, the Mabinogi, and the grail stories, all associated with this complex of Otherworld narratives that morphed into the English green world, illustrate how this web of transmission between islands and mainland worked earlier. And the 14th century marked a heyday of Welsh poetry influenced by those earlier transmissions and embodied in the work of Dafydd ap Gwilym, a contemporary of Chaucer. Apparently both the Gawain poet and Chaucer, as noted before, had some exposure to story themes originating from the Irish Sea.
In terms of the particularities of Chaucer, his biography suggests how he was formed in the wake of the Black Death in a society that was undergoing great change, in which he often found himself negotiating a middle point as a poet. Chaucer’s dominant iambic pentameter verse in his cycle itself carries the ghost of the two beats of older Anglo-Saxon poetry evident also in the archaic alliterative verse of the Gawain poet, just as some linguists recently have posited that the ghost of earlier native British Celtic language structures reemerged literarily in Middle English. Chaucer’s own social contexts and his adoption of a native-language poetics made the Otherworld tradition a natural path of poetic subversion of old hierarchies and social identities, feudal forms nonetheless linked to an emerging commercial modernity. Such poetic response involved a rebellion against a culture that had equated non-being with evil in effect, and thus had constrained the meaning of both nature and being in ways that were no longer sustainable in the wake of the Black Death, itself a cultural-environmental catastrophe, and other social upheavals of the late fourteenth century.
In such contexts, ecological writing in The Canterbury Tales and many other texts can be viewed in light as a re-translation of our neologism ecology itself. Eco, a root from a Greek term for household, and ology from the Greek root logos, one meaning of which can be story. If we consider ecology as the story of home, we then perhaps can see more clearly the operation of environmental semiospheres in literary traditions, and how Chaucer’s cycle itself was an effort in his time (parallel to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) to craft a new story of home, an English-language ecopoesis if you will, from materials at hand. In our current post-financial crash era, in which many assumptions of capitalist globalization are in question, such a reading of ecology itself becomes even more important. Against an emphasis on corporate personhood evident in recent news, this sense of ecology stands for the importance of personal human storytelling within networks of traditions and families and specific ecosystems. It also suggests the importance of premodern cultural studies in recovering such a sense of ecology in our culture today. The most successful movie of all time, Avatar, currently features what its creator calls an environmental parable. However, it does so on another planet and in a virtual reality of both the cinema and within the plot, reminiscent of our contemporary scientific myths of space colonization as the answer to environmental destruction of earth—a reworking of old imperialistic narratives inherently associated with environmental destruction. The ecocritic Ursula Heise makes a good case for the importance of an ethos of cocosmopolitanism to overcome potential fascist tendencies in bioregionalism. But approaches such as the environmental semiosphere also offer ecocriticism a way to recognize both ecological particularity and the boundless environmental dynamic of Deleuzean bodies without organs, without perpetuating myths of global capitalism. Modern examples of such fantasy ecology if you will, such as the landscapes of Tolkien, Lewis, and earlier in America James Fenimore Cooper, draw on green-world traditions and had an effect on popular imagination about the environment.
If there’s one thing I hope to convey today, it’s that ecology is much more than recycling or the biology of things out there. Even more, it’s how we tell and perform stories that shape our world and ourselves, and how those stories shape us and our relationships with each other. The archipelagic environmental narrative tradition that I have tried to outline is in one sense crucially relevant to our current global environmental predicaments. It is so in terms of ultimately helping us imaginatively and empathetically appreciate the earth as archipelago itself, in which neither eastern Atlantic nor Greek islands, nor any other region or particular earthly outlook, can or should be privileged. In our global ecology air and atmosphere and signs of all kinds in addition to water and land shape the multi-elemental archipelago in which we are immersed. Reading this particular narrative tradition environmentally provides us with ways to understand global cultural phenomena such as environmental semiospheres, and realize how medieval Europe itself can be mapped as a fractal archipelago comprising fluid lines of flight of environmental imagination, such as that from deserts of the Near East and rocky caves of Athos and Cappadocia, to great and small islands and coasts of the east Atlantic, all entwined again with the larger archipelagic earth.