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Post-Apocalypse: Culture and Nature in Gundega Repše’s and Cormac McCarthy’s Works

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The paper focuses on nature and culture in a post-apocalyptic world, which becomes devoid of life and culture and poses a question of further existence of nature in the world. The works of the Latvian writer Gundega Repše and the American writer Cormac McCarthy are analysed in a comparative way to see how nature, set on a bleak stage with the only decoration of empty houses, can give a promise of further existence. Do the two works make it possible to answer the question of existence at its turning point: ‘How many people does this world need to be a fully natural and cultural place to inhabit?’ The paper tackles this issue from the perspective of ecofeminism and ecocriticism.
INTERLI E RIA 2015, 20/2: 71–78
Post-Apocalypse: Culture and Nature in Gundega Repšes
and Cormac McCarthy’s Works
INESE VIČAKA
Abstract. The paper focuses on nature and culture in a post-apocalyptic world, which
becomes devoid of life and culture and poses a question of further existence of nature
in the world. The works of the Latvian writer Gundega Ree and the American
writer Cormac McCarthy are analysed in a comparative way to see how nature, set on
a bleak stage with the only decoration of empty houses, can give a promise of further
existence. Do the two works make it possible to answer the question of existence
at its turning point: ‘How many people does this world need to be a fully natural
and cultural place to inhabit?’ The paper tackles this issue from the perspective of
ecofeminism and ecocriticism.
Keywords: ecocriticism, ecofeminism, post-apocalypse, nature, culture
The recent post-apocalyptic narratives of the American writer Cormac
McCarthy and the Latvian writer Gundega Ree attempt to raise our aware-
ness of environmental issues and therefore both serve as an applicable subject
for an ecocritical study. One of the motivations for a comparative study of
the two contemporary authors was recent work done by Estonian researchers
Maris Sõrmus and Julia Tofantšuk who carried out an ecocritical study
of seemingly two different novels: Graham Swifts Tomorrow and Andrus
Kivirähks Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu (The Man Who Spoke Snakish).
1
Their
study explored environmental issues topical in the 21
st
century, which is also
the case with current research. Initially, McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and
Repšes Stigma (2007) could as well appear rather dissimilar, but, taking a
closer look at both literary texts one cannot deny that there is more common
ground than might be expected. Though in many literary texts nature works as
a representative agent of the authors national identity, in McCarthys narrative
The Road (2006) and Ree’s Stigma it essentially serves as a mediator, as a
provider of understanding of post-apocalyptic drama on a more global scale,
1
See Sõrmus, Tofantšuk 2013.
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12697/IL.2015.20.2.7
72
VIČA
where the non-human environment speaks of nothing but destruction caused
by an unnamed global cataclysm.
The change of the environment imagined in both works expresses a break
in the former deep unity of the land, humans and culture, be it rural or urban.
Both texts have their own way of dealing with the issues of apocalypse and post-
apocalypse, which makes it worth inspecting the interplay between the human
and nonhuman nature in both texts on the metaphoric and symbolic levels.
In what follows, first, a theoretical framework of ecocriticism is provided, and
then the analysis of the ecological issues manifest in both literary texts from an
ecocritical standpoint is offered.
Ecocriticism was born in the United States when in the late 1970s William
Rueckert coined the term (Buell 2009: 13) in his essay “Literature and Ecology”
to refer to “the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of
literature” (Dobie 2011: 238). Rueckerts essay initially did not get enough
support from the mainstream literary theorists, only in the nineties with the
establishment of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment
(ASLE, 1992) and the publication of the anthology Ecocritcism Reader
(1996) produced by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, “ecocriticism was
effectively introduced to a broader scholarly audience” (Witschi
2011: 369).
More and more critics turned their attention to the study which urged the
reader to explore the relationship of literature and nature to renew the reader’s
awareness of the nonhuman world and his/her responsibility to sustain it. At
present literary ecocriticism has grown into a broad and mature field and has
become more diversified (Mayers 2006, Buell 2009, Fromm 2009, Witschi
2011). Greg Garrard with his new work, The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism
(2014), has pronounced ecocriticism to have come of age as a movement, as
witnessed by the massive proliferation of anthologies on ecocriticism. There-
fore, ecocriticism has already changed the landscape of literary studies,
positioning itself in the mainstream. These positive indicators have contributed
to the exploration of the issue of ecocriticism in American and Latvian liter-
atures. Besides, as the ecocritic Greg Garrard has postulated in his book
Ecocriticism,apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the
contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal” (2004: 93), which
makes the two chosen environmentally canonical works worth exploring from
the perspective of ecocriticism.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Latvian literary oeuvre naturally
differs from the American one, the works of the author of the Western canon
Cormac McCarthy and Latvian writer Gundega Repše still share similarities,
which makes the exploration consistent from the perspective of ecocriticism.
Almost simultaneously (in the years 2006 and 2007) both writers decided to
73
Post-Apocalypse: Culture and Nature in Gundega Repše’s and Cormac McCarthys Works
devote their literary careers to producing work on the apocalyptic vision of
an environmental catastrophe which turns out to be their first bold step in
approaching climate change. Both literary texts explore particular instances of
apocalyptic damage, combining ecological, social and individual perspectives
on the symbolic and metaphorical levels. Both novels tell about an unspecified
catastrophe that has abruptly destroyed the earths ecosystem and show
largely through the lens of the omniscient narrator what would happen if the
world should lose its biosphere and the only survivors were just a dozen of
humans. Neither author is interested in the immediate circumstances of the
apocalyptic events themselves; instead, each text gives the aftermath of the
end, which is highly similar: it produces fear, chaos, violence, loss of morality,
yet hope for redemption. Environmental rhetoric dominates both works that
elegies to lost nature, expressing grief and mourning. Moral depression and
the justifiable surrender of humans are seemingly at one with the damage done
to the environment. There is no chance of a long-term survival in the world
that is devoid of clean nature. Both texts share a confusing combination of
the hopeless starkness of the post-apocalyptic reality and divine hope in the
continued dialogue with God.
In more detail, McCarthys novel The Road narrates the journey of a father
and son through the post-apocalyptic wasteland of what was the former U.S.,
while the novel Stigma narrates the travels of nine young people around Europe
on the threshold of the apocalypse and later through the post-apocalyptic
ruins of the deserted landscape and cities. While McCarthys novel imagines
Americas return to wilderness with almost all marks of civilization removed,
where “humans become marked as beasts – the frightening animalistic inhab-
itants of a jungle as they steal, kill and cannibalize each another (Estes 2013:
48), Stigma makes an issue of the death of the entire human culture. Naturally,
neither writer has consciously taken up the ecocritical sword but both texts
feature the issues important in ecocritical studies. There is no doubting the
ecocritical value of McCarthys and Repše’s texts when considering “how
humans would fare in the face of the total collapse of the biosphere and in the
absence of redemptive divine intervention” (Westling 2013: 213).
The vision of apocalypse in both works emerges almost in the first pages
withmist becoming uniform and impenetrable” (Repše
2007: 85, tulk. Inese
Vaka) and “darkness like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away
the world” (McCarthy 2006: 3). The beginning of both texts brings their
readers to an unknown catastrophe that has caused damage to nature and the
environment not only at the local but at the global level, the end of the world is
in the air. Later the readers are made aware that “even more efficient and deadly
technology in combination with radical flaws of human nature will spell doom
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VIČA
for the natural world” (Rehill 2009: 55). Nature and culture are intertwined in
Repše’s work:
Houses, plants, warehouses, military bases, schools and shops – past – past –
past – high-voltage power lines have helplessly spread their infantile, dry
tentacles; thousands of cars on the roadsides, at the gas stations, on the high-
ways and on the flowery, bewitched meadows. Trucks, freezers, buses, cars
and motorcycles scattered all around like discharged cartridge cases as far as
the horizon goes, then disappear to appear again hours later again scattered in
front of one’s eyes like stiff, tinted dices (2007: 63, transl. Inese Vaka).
A similar vision of the damage caused by radical flaws of human nature and
the effect of deadly technology is envisioned in McCarthys text:The city was
mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything
covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge.” (McCarthy 2006:
10).
When reading both novels, multitudes of questions have to be scrutinized
and considered in the light of Teresa Heffernan’s work Post-apocalyptic Culture.
Is the post-apocalypse redemptive or traumatic? What does the world that has
abandoned ‘a sense of an ending’ look like? What does it mean to try to “pass
beyond the man”? (Heffernan 2008: 23).
This post-apocalyptic fiction, from an ecocritical perspective, “reconfigures
the conditions under which humans live and demands that humans rethink
their premises for peaceful living together” (Curtis 2010: 5), above all in the
light of how nature and the environment are treated. The landscape in Repše’s
text is seen as bereft of the purity that once was taken for granted:
They drive day and night. Light changes, roads change, turn follows turn, fuel
drips and at times women’s tears; borders and empty checkpoints; a trivial,
unnerving landscape and an azure sky, church towers and cemetery crosses,
unemptied recycle bins and pigeon droppings, sliding, empty boats without
wind. (2007: 72)
A very similar vision of the landscape can be found in McCarthy’s text,
where, to speak in ecocritical terms borrowed from Lawrence Buell (2009),
the nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a
presence, where it speaks of total devastation and destruction:
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Post-Apocalypse: Culture and Nature in Gundega Repše’s and Cormac McCarthys Works
The wreckage of buildings strewn over the landscape and skeins of wire from
the roadside poles garbled like knitting...The road was littered with debris and
it was work to get the cart through. Finally, they just sat by the side of the road
and stared at what was before them. Roofs of houses, the trunks of trees, a boat.
The open sky beyond. (McCarthy 2006: 231)
The nonhuman environment becomes a meaningful presence which clearly
serves as a warning for the readers to take further steps in their care for nature
and the surrounding environment as it is the key to life on Earth.
From an ecocritical standpoint, nature in both texts has become tran-
scendental, and at the same time it is, as Timothy Morton in his book Ecology
without Nature states, “sandwiched between terms such as God and matter”
(Morton 2007: 15). The characters, encapsulated in the harsh environment,
curse and at the same time plead for mercy or for an answer from God. The
omniscient narrator himself knows the answer to their pleas and, supposedly,
readers have also been led to the new awareness of their responsibility for their
environment: “Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle
you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul?” (McCarthy
2006: 10) Repše brings into her text the same awareness that one may question
the presence of God in post-apocalyptic nature: “Oh, High Companion, why
should we praise and honour you, when you feast your eyes upon our weeping
faces and flesh chasend by fear?” (Repše 2007: 61) From an ecocritical stand-
point The Road and Stigma are texts that can be called “without nature” in
the sense that is used by Morton in his book. The sun in The Road is obscure,
almost unseen against the bleak landscape, bereft of signs of natural life: “Cold
and growing colderThe track of the dull sun moving unseen beyond the
murk.” (McCarthy 2006: 12) Likewise, the sun in Stigma veils itself behind
a transparent cobweb; the earth is dying beneath the sun that is wreathed in a
cobweb, where the wind gives no sign of tenacity: “The morning is filled with
flat, ringing light. The sun is round, like circled with a compass, wreathed
around with fine, transparent hairs of the cobweb, which is imperceptibly
quivering in the absent wind.” (Repše 2007: 58)
Characters in both texts are tested against the harsh environment;
the metaphors of nature speak about the harm done to the surroundings,
highlighting the relationships between the human and the non-human worlds.
This last relationship has been explored by Cheryll Glotfelty, Harold Fromm,
Lawrence Buell, Pramod Nayar and Timothy Clark. The agency of nature is
present in McCarthys and Repše’s texts, following the stipulation expressed
by Lawrence Buell that in environmental literary texts “the nonhuman
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VIČA
environment must be envisaged not merely as a framing device but as an active
presence” (2009: 25). This allows one to think of The Road and Stigma as
inherently ecofiction, and thus suited for ecocritical analysis, bearing in mind
Jim Dwyers stipulation that “most texts can be analysed ecocritically, [but]
some are more inherently ecological than others, including many works of
contemporary fiction” (Dwyer 2010: 2). Ecofiction is “a composite subgenre
made up of many styles, primarily modernism, postmodernism, realism and
magic realism, and can be found in many genres” (ibid. 3). Ecofiction is also
a component of two related literary phenomena that the ecocritic Patrick
Murphy callsnature-oriented literature” and “environmental literature. This
nature-oriented literature “is limited to having either nature itself as the subject,
character or major component of the setting, or to a text that says something
about human-nonhuman interaction” (Murphy 2000: 4), which very much fits
the texts by McCarthy and Repše.
Ecocriticism deals with the phenomena of apocalypse and post-apocalypse.
Greg Garrard in his most recent book, The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism,
has stated that “a crucial factor for ecocriticism is the extent to which the
apocalyptic plot is combined with elements of literary realism, giving us char-
acters and events that seem consistent with real possibility” (Garrard 2014:
372). From this ecocritical perspective, it can be well seen that in both texts the
apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenario is more than real, it is not tentative.
Garrard himself does not see the description of the post-apocalypse in
McCarthys The Road as plausible:[T]he novel’s dreadful scenario, in which
an unspecified catastrophe has abruptly destroyed the earths ecosystem,
killing plant-life and animal-life but not human-life, does not conform to any
scientifically conceivable possibility.” (Ibid. 374.) Still, one cannot reject the
dreadfulness of the scene, not only in The Road, but also in Stigma, which take
the readers to the utmost point of feeling the breath of reality. Matthew Carbery
in his essay “Darker Woods Beyond has supported the idea that McCarthy’s
text is highly similar to the possible reality of the post-apocalyptic vision. “It is
difficult to read The Road without feeling the overwhelming cumulative force
of the novels desolation, and this desolation is most prominently present in
the landscape McCarthy portrays.” (Carbery 2009: 20) The same feeling of
overwhelming desolation is in the landscapes Repše presents. This common
vision of the desolate landscape and alienated characters in both narratives
makes the reader reassess the relationship of humans and their environment.
The environment is indifferent to humanity that is responsible for the damage
done to it. Damage for Carbery is man-made, the result of our negligent attitude
towards nature. From the perspective of ecocriticism it is a response to our
worlds contemporary problem which threatens our existence or to put it more
77
Post-Apocalypse: Culture and Nature in Gundega Repše’s and Cormac McCarthys Works
ecologically correctly, the world and our place in it. Our negligent attitude is
definitely present in Repše’s novel.
McCarthys and Repše’s works tackle not only the issue of ecocriticism but
also the issue of ecofeminism. Their women – the wife of the father’s son in
McCarthys text and Asja in Repše’s – are victims of the oppressive and violent
culture. In both texts women try to escape from the physical power that can
subjugate them to pain and death.
McCarthy and Repše do not end their narratives with a negative vision. On
the metaphorical level they both offer a possibility of redemption, a possibility
of change that brings a hope, yet distant, that humans have at their disposal a
tool that can bring back nature, if not in its original, so-called David Thoreau’s
state described in Walden, then in a state that does not pose any threat to their
further existence. Despite the fact that life on Earth appears to be on its last
legs, the unnamed boy in McCarthys novel lastly finds the so-called good guys
who will help: “A soft, unsound fog protrudes its hand. Little John calls out:
Footprints! Someone has recently walked with wide, confident steps – around
the house, the bathhouse, at the cattle-shed and the threshing barn.” (2006:
241) In Stigma Victory’s little son, returning home, accidentally finds fresh
footprints left by an unknown human, bringing hope that civilization is not
totally extinct. McCarthys and Repše’s novels offer a promise of redemption
when humans realize that nature has to be saved to prevent extinction on a
global scale.
Inese Vičaka
advos@inbox.lv
Visvalža ielā 4a
LV-1050 Rīga
LATVIJA
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American Literature 73.1 (2001) 219-220 In his new book, Patrick Murphy takes American ecocritics to task for limiting their focus to nonfiction prose essays on nature in the manner of Thoreau, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez. Murphy argues that ecocritics have ignored other forms of “nature-oriented literature,” like the novel, that are more fictional or poetic than nature writing in the realist tradition yet equally viable. These other forms refuse to honor the overly drastic distinction between nature and culture on which realist nature writing is premised. Their broader purview makes them more congenial to multicultural—especially indigenous and ecofeminist—writers, and they resist the American and masculine biases that make some ecocritical work in the realist tradition seem unduly celebratory, culturally blinkered, and prescriptive. As opening gambits in what may be a second phase of development in ecocritical practice, and a first phase in the development of ecocritical theory worthy of the name, Murphy’s comments in the early chapters of Farther Afield are welcome. However, readers may be disappointed by the book’s second half, in which Murphy offers readings of work by Native American, Chicano/a, and other writers who are “visibly” different from the writers most ecocritics celebrate. These readings seem sketchy and overly deferential. Murphy insists that many of the writers he discusses work out of “oral” as opposed to “literate” traditions and thus require a more trusting critical approach. But this approach reintroduces a version, albeit a watery one, of the realism he rejects earlier in the book, as does his argument on behalf of a more sensuous “sensibility.” Murphy’s readings also tend to focus on issues, particularly in regard to gender, that seem much more “cultural” than “natural,” despite his impatience with the distinction. Clearly, it still makes a difference. The biggest shortcoming of Murphy’s book is his entirely metaphorical use of the term “ecology.” For him, ecology means “an awareness of existence as interanimation, interdependency, and systemic processes, which is always multifaceted and multivariable.” This definition indicates only a certain predisposition of mind, and it lacks any reference to distinctly biological phenomena and to the science of ecology (whose theories have moved well beyond the cybernetic emphasis on “systemic processes” of forty years ago). Although he insists on the importance of “environmental” perspectives informed by “inhabitation” and broadly conversant with natural history, Murphy spends most of his time discussing affirmative attitudes toward nature couched in vague generalities about place. He says he is hostile to science, objectivity, and the Enlightenment, yet his arguments depend for their force on the validity of scientific warnings about global environmental crisis and loss of biological diversity: an oversight as typical of ecocriticism as is its reheated realism, which is solely of the literary variety. That Murphy commits this oversight suggests that he may not have moved that much “farther afield in the study of nature-oriented literature” after all. Dana PhillipsBrown University
The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination
  • L Buell
Buell, L. 2009. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.