Annual Matheson Lecture: "Toward an Ecological History of World Literature"

Professor Walter Cohen (University of Michigan)

This talk makes a claim for the significant causal force of environmental catastrophes in the shaping of world literary history.

 The literary constellation around such catastrophes has a distinctive structure, both thematic and formal, both in antecedents and in effects. An analogy is provided by the history of mass extinctions. We are currently in the midst of the sixth of these, the first caused by humans. Characteristically, the aftermath of such extinctions enables previously marginal life-forms to develop and thrive in unimagined fashion: the rise of mammals in the wake of the elimination of large dinosaurs is only the most familiar example. But mass extinctions may not constitute a mere analogy. Rather, the commonality of environmental catastrophe across species extinction and, say, the birth and death of genres suggests that literary history may in this respect be seen as a local instance of far larger forces not limited to their impact on humans.

The discussion focuses on the transformation of already-existent and successful literary languages, only touching on related materials, and so does not represent a universalizing hypothesis. Further, most of the evidence is taken from the literary history of the West over the past two millennia (most notably, the Black Death and the Little Ice Age)—partly because information is often inadequate for earlier eras and other regions. Still, considerable attention is paid to the Ancient Near East and to China, where the correlation of ecological crisis and the fall of dynasties is particularly prominent. The survey ends by considering the status of contemporary post-apocalyptic literature: in other words, the response to ecological crisis avant la lettre.

The conclusion has three purposes. First, it briefly locates the preceding discussion in relation to dominant strains in ecological literary study, from which it for the most part diverges. Second, it attempts to distinguish environmental calamity from other comparable major forms of social disruption—war and conquest, revolution, and state collapse. Finally, it reflects on the weaknesses and limitations of the proposed model.