Here, in several parts, is the talk I gave at the And Now Literary Festival at the University of California, San Diego, on October 13, 2011.
“Landscape as Activity in The End of America Poems”
The conventional narrative assumption about landscape: events happen on it. Landscape, surroundings, environment, milieu–interactions and differences between these terms included—become both background to the foregrounded action and the frame inside which differences between characters play out. Fiction, and poetry with elements of narrative, differ little here: Description of landscape comes first, or at least early, and comes up again, at well-timed intervals, to fill in around the action. Description doesn’t merely set the stage on which the action will occur. Descriptive language is the stage itself.
Given the human ability to assign meaning (or, say, the human determination to impose meaning on whatever exists, human-created or otherwise), frequently it turns out that descriptions of landscape are not only frames on which meaning takes place, but meaningful frames that determine the significance of whatever happens on them.
In much of western culture’s pastoral literature, description creates a rural, natural, supposedly timeless source of virtue in which humans find solace and steadfast grounding among the flux and chaos of human societies with all their circulations and interactions and cage-like enclosures, a flux and chaos which becomes the essence of the urban landscape (the urban stage). While characters are supposedly the crux of the action, in fact in the pastoral and its permutations, the primary struggle often occurs between the rural and urban stages themselves, with the characters becoming examples (if sometimes nuanced ones) of those stages.
Or consider the post-apocalyptic landscape: that stage on which human life has come close to destroying itself because of its power, corruption and contradictions, a stage on which all social contracts have been demolished and people are attempting to re-create them or exploit their absence. Oddly enough, the post-apocalyptic is still pastoral in its implications, though post-social rather than pre-, with the natural world polluted by layers of human-created (urban-created) debris.
While pastoral narratives might seem to imply that landscape shapes character, it is not landscape in these narratives so much as human assumptions about the meaning of landscape that shapes character. The idea that nature brings virtue, or that urban life breeds corruption and immorality, doesn’t question and explore the effect that landscape might have on character, but assigns that value in advance, limiting itself to playing out the interaction of pre-determined values, though admittedly often with intriguing turns.
Whatever the power of landscape in pastoral narratives and the meaning assigned to it, the action focuses primarily on the characters and their interactions with each other. The landscape, often inert and passive, occasionally disrupting or impeding through thunderstorms or nuclear fallout, remains background to what the key characters do and realize about what they do.
I don’t feel the need to rehearse here a long history of cultural and literary theory, Marxist and much else, that questions the centrality of character and subjectivity over environment and history, and shows how history and cultural and the physical opportunities available in specific geographical environments (the focus for instance of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel) shape people’s behavior, possibilities, thoughts and feelings. Instead I want to ask, what might a work of literature look like if, instead of keeping landscape as background, or pre-determining its value, one thought of both landscape and character/subjectivity as questions and mutual interactions, person-in-flux and landscape-in-flux, that dynamically dissolve, or reassert, or otherwise unsettle distinctions so that there is no stable ground or clear center of action, but only multiple shifting points of contact?
End of Part One