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Sangster, DeLillo, Nature and God
What is the opposite of Nature? There are a number of different answers we could give in playing the game of finding an antonym. We are accustomed to speaking of "nature vs. nurture," but "nature" here is a shorthand for the phrase "human nature." In referring to Nature in its environmental sense, we are more likely to speak of "nature vs. culture" or "nature vs. art" -- environment is defined as something which stands apart from human habitation or cultivation. In this sense, it is paradoxical to approach the subject of nature in a work of art -- the fact of its being art serves to remove us in some way from the realm of Nature. I would like to examine the treatment of Nature as a concept in two very different works: the nineteenth-century Canadian poem "The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay" by Charles Sangster, and the twentieth-century American novel White Noise by Don DeLillo, in order to highlight a paradox. If, in some sense, a work of art is already conceptually in opposition to any idea of Nature, then in some way the work must express a sense of alienation. I will argue that alienation, and the potential remedy for it, is the subject that both Sangster and DeLillo have in common -- the only difference is how that alienation is conceived.
Sangster's poem is quite obviously intended to be a tribute to Nature, and in particular to the sublime scenery of Canada's two eastern rivers. To some extent, the poem is structured as a sort of travelogue, with interspersed lyrics, and with an overarching and symbolic love-story told. But Sangster's purpose is not accurate natural description: the reader will finish "The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay" with no substantial descriptions of the types and behavior of wildlife in and around the rivers. It is true that the poet manages to slip in an elk or two, but the landscape is not being described photographically. Sangster's purpose is to use the Natural landscape to express various feelings, ranging from the erotic to the religious. In other words, the idea of Nature as being something free from art makes it the perfect object for the poet's contemplation -- Nature itself can be understood as having an unmediated relationship with God, and therefore the poet's apprehension of Nature can, in some way, be seen as an approach to God. It is worth noting that, at certain points in the poem, Sangster manages to evoke religion simply by using the place names of this region of Canada: the poem itself is structured around a voyage away from and back towards a place of particular natural grandeur known as "Trinity Rock." And this is by no means the only religiously suggestive place name in the poem. To examine one example more closely, we may look towards the poem's final sections, where Sangster describes another place with a religiously suggestive name, "Cape Eternity":
Nature has here put on her royalest dress,
And CAPE ETERNITY looms grandly up,
Like a God reigning in the Wilderness
Holding communion with the distant cope,
Interpreting the stars' dreams, as they ope
Their silver gates, where stand his regal kind.
Oh! For some special gift! To give full scope
To earth some portion of the fire that burns within.
A deep and overpowering solitude
Reigns undisturbed along the varied scene.
A wilderness of Beauty, stern and rude,
In undulating swells of wavy green;
Soft, airy slopes, bold, massive and serene;
Rich in wild beauty and sublimity,
From the far summits in their piney sheen,
Down to the shadows thrown by rock and tree
Along the dark, deep wave, that slumbers placidly.
It is worth noticing the way in which the poetic imagery builds up a specific concept of Nature which puts it on a different, superior level to the poet himself. Nature is personified here as female, along the lines of the traditional poeticism of "Mother Nature." But this is no ordinary female, but a majestic female presence -- quite literally in the word "royalest." The sense is of dressing up for a grand occasion, and the next lines make it more obviously a religious occasion: the place that is literally being described already has a poetically religious name, "Cape Eternity," but Sangster goes further in making the religious element explicit: the landscape is described as being "like a God reigning in the Wilderness / holding communion." But what kind of communion can we expect. The religious concept of communion is meant to signify the unity of a congregation with each other and with God. But here nature serves the mediatory function of bringing the poet closer to his beloved, and also ultimately to God: the paradox is further deepened when the next stanza begins by highlighting "a deep and overpowering solitude." It is the profound solitude of nature itself -- free from the influence of humans -- that makes it possible for nature to serve this transcendent function in Sangster's imagination, of being the means to draw closer to his beloved and to God as well.
If we look a little later in the poem, we can see that these paradoxes identified persist in the text. By stanzas 100-101, Sangster is explaining the transcendent power of Nature by illustrating how it works on the soul -- it causes the poet to "kneel" like a worshipper, even as the ultimate effect of this piety is to bring the poet closer to his beloved, and also closer to God:
Is there a soul so dead to nature's charms,
That thrills not here in this divine retreat?
Love lures me evermore to Woman's arms,
But here I kneel at Nature's hallowed feet!
Love fills my being with a calm, replete,
But regal Nature sets my spirit free
With grateful praises to God's Mercy seat.
Yet nature binds me closer, love, to thee:
Ev'n as this dreamy Bay, in sweet felicity
Woods both the sun's light, and the cool shade
Of the umbrageous woods to its embrace.
What deep imaginings of Peace pervade
Its heavenly repose, as Nature's face
Peers down, in mild, unutterable grace,
Like a calm student seeking Pearls of Thought
In some fair Beauty's mind, where he can trace
Through her warm slumber, how her soul is fraught
With pure deep Love, by heavenly inspiration taught.
Again there seem to be four elements of this equation: Nature, God, the poet, and his beloved. Since the beloved is constructed somewhat allegorically, we may even understand her as the poet's muse. Certainly the logic is that Nature is created by God, and this is why the various attributes of God can be discovered in the landscape of eastern Canada: both contain lofty contradictions, as when the landscape is praised for its occasional violence and "sublimity" but then becomes (by stanza 101) the perfect image of a peaceful retreat. Perhaps the paradoxes and contradictions of Nature need something that transcends logic in order to be resolved -- that is why Sangster's poem ultimately resolves into a fairly conventional statement of religious belief.
We must undergo a sort of paradigm-shift in moving from Sangster to the American novelist Don DeLillo. Here paradoxes are lovingly and satirically examined, but there is no conventional expression of wholesome piety. When DeLillo uses the word "nature" is almost always in reference to human nature. But in a very chilly ironic and ultimately disquieting novel, it is the references to "nature' in Sangster's sense of the term that may be the most disturbing. The novel itself is full of linguistic euphemism and evasion: the protagonist Jack Gladney is a professor of "Hitler Studies" at an American College, and his life is devoted to bland academic study of the "life and work" of Hitler, despite the fact that (as we learn) he does not even speak German (DeLillo 4). With a similar sense of linguistic evasion, the major occurrence in the plot is referred to as an "Airborne Toxic Event" -- whether chemical or nuclear is never specified, as this information is withheld from the reader as surely as the American government in the novel seems to be withholding it from the characters (DeLillo 107). We are in a world where catastrophe itself is domesticated, and this similar domestication seems to apply to nature itself. Buell criticizes DeLillo for not fully exploring the ecological ramifications of the disaster that occurs, arguing that "the traditional protocols of protagonist-centered fiction prevent ecodiscourse from becoming much more than a plot function and symbolic character marker, significant in the long run chiefly as a symbolic reminiscence of the Holocaust that Professor Gladney's way of defining his field has until now repressed." (Buell 663). But this is surely the point: any meaningful "ecodiscourse" is impossible when nature itself has been redefined in the terms of contemporary mass-media. The first reference to nature in the environmental sense comes when we are told in Chapter 31…[continue]
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