THE RADICAL ECOLOGY OF THE SHELLEYS: EROS AND ENVIRONMENT by Colin Carman, Reviewed by Seth T. Reno
 

THE RADICAL ECOLOGY OF THE SHELLEYS: EROS AND ENVIRONMENT
By Colin Carman
(Routledge, 2019) xv + 204 pp.
Reviewed by Seth T. Reno on 2019-04-17.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

Mary and Percy Shelley often wrote about the natural world and sexuality, and they often challenged the dominant cultural and political ideologies of their time. This is nothing new to scholars and students of Romanticism. Surprisingly, though, Colin Carman's monograph is the first book-length study that applies queer ecology to the Shelleys' writings. While the reasons for this neglect are numerous, as Carman explains throughout the book, it is mainly due to the dominance of heteronormative and masculinist approaches to Romanticism in general, and to the Shelleys in particular. Like critics of the early nineteenth century after Percy Shelley's death, many contemporary scholars hesitate to link the poet to queer sexuality. Yet as Carman argues, we miss an important element of both Shelleys' work when we relegate queer sexuality to the margins of scholarly discourse.

Enter queer ecology, a relatively new interdisciplinary field situated at the intersections of queer studies, ecocriticism, and feminist theory. Ever since Timothy Morton defined the field in a PMLA article of 2010, numerous essays and books have further defined queer ecology and applied it to a variety of texts. Challenging hierarchies in both the natural world and gender, exponents of queer ecology claim that biodiversity and sexual diversity are essential to ecosystems.

Since the writings of the Shelleys often blend ecological and sexual valences, their work prompts an investigation guided by queer ecology. By combining Morton's theory of this field with Michel Foucault's work on sexuality, Carman sheds surprising new light on the Shelleys and their work.

At its core, this book shows how the ecological is always-already erotic, and how the Shelleys' writings exemplify this fact. The book's central text is Percy Shelley's Discourse on the Manners of the Antient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love, written in 1819 and intended as a preface to Shelley's translation of Plato's Symposium, but not published at all in his lifetime and not in its entirety until the twentieth century. In the Discourse, Carman argues, Shelley attempts to naturalize same-sex desire, and this queer thinking permeates much of the poet's most important writings. But since the Discourse was one of only two Romantic-era writings explaining and defending the Greek practice of sodomy, it was censored when first published after Shelley's death. Given the scandalous status of sodomy in Shelley's time, Carman argues, Shelley himself often "coded" his references to it for fear of persecution and backlash. For example, he regularly uses gender-neutral pronouns and often refers to Platonic eros, whose immediate connotations were radically erotic and homosexual. Just as other aspects of Shelley's social and political thinking challenge conventional assumptions, he challenges and rejects the dominance of heterosexual eros by foregrounding instead the queer nature of eros discussed in Plato's Symposium.

Shelley's fascination with queer eros permeates his writings on nature. Showing how the two develop at the same time, Carman claims that "proto-ecological theories in Romantic-era England cannot be understood separately from discourses related to married/family life, and the texts considered demonstrate the comingling of earthly and erotic enjoyment" (p. 1). The novelty of this claim may be questioned. As Carman acknowledges in the introduction, "queer" tends to be a catch-all term including everything that is not orderly, structured, and/or part of a culture's dominant gender ideology. As a result, many of Carman's claims and statements initially seem like old news: nature is chaotic, open-ended, weird, and strange, just as sexuality varies and opposes culture-specific boundaries; the nature/culture divide is false; there is no "natural" because "nature" itself is a cultural construct; and so on. Since ecocriticism has not only established these points but also assimilated Morton's approach to them, classifying them as "queer ecology" seems redundant.

Nevertheless, scholars unfamiliar with ecocriticism will find Carman's arguments persuasive and accessible. He is particularly cogent in showing how queer ecology illuminates the Shelleys' "anti-homophobic and earthly commitments" (p. 1). Indeed, one of Carman's most important contributions to Shelley scholarship is demonstrating that rather than being simply idealist, detached, and ethereal (as often alleged), his writings are deeply rooted in the physical body and the physical Earth. Queer ecology illuminates this important point.

In Chapter 1, "Queer Ecology and its Romantic Roots," Carman links both queerness and sexual liberation to the radical politics of the 1790s after the French Revolution, when the British government facilitated a crackdown on various freedoms including sexuality, which it policed throughout the nineteenth century. Radical politics and radical sexuality emerged together. As a result, radical writers outwitted the tyranny of the state by "coding" their references to sexuality. While seldom endorsing queerness explicitly, writers such as the Shelleys often allude to it, cryptically or otherwise. In developing this point, Carman also lays the groundwork for theory and terminology used throughout the book, with an enlightening section on how both ecocriticism and queer studies emerge from the countercultural movements of the 1960s in a parallel to 1790s England.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Percy Shelley. In the second chapter, Carman claims that Shelley is "an early gay rights crusader" (p. 45). This is the most provocative claim in the book, and intentionally so. Unlike scholars who acknowledge the radicalism of Shelley's sexual ideas (most often "free love") but stop short of linking him to gay rights, Carman unpacks coded moments in Shelley's writings that reveal his defense and naturalization of same-sex erotic relationships. For instance, when Shelley seems to express disgust and dismissiveness about sodomy in the Discourse and elsewhere, he is said to be taking "necessary precautions" in England's homophobic culture (p. 46). The problem, Carman argues, is that we forget how cautious writers had to be, how much they had to obscure and disguise their defenses of homosexuality. Since many of Shelley's anti-homophobic sentiments aim to challenge England's repressive culture and politics, they endangered both himself and his potential publishers.

In the second half of the chapter, Carman tries to elicit a case for gay rights from a close reading of Julian and Maddalo and its "ecotones," a scientific term denoting a transitional space that blends multiple ecosystems. According to Carman, the physical ecotones through which the titular characters travel--the places where sea and land and earth blend together--parallel Shelley's treatment of his love/friendship/rivalry with Lord Byron. In other words, their relationship is a kind of ecotone that defies traditional boundaries. But does Julian and Maddalo thereby make an argument for gay rights? While Shelley's poem may well portray his relationship to Byron as homoplatonic--a term Carman prefers as it "stresses...loving friendships" that are "romantic" but not necessarily sexual (p. 44)--it chiefly exemplifies the ecological side of queer ecology.

Chapter 3 blends queerness and ecology more effectively. Foregrounding queer nature in the plant world, notably in Romantic-era botany, Carman tracks the influence of Linnaeus, Erasmus Darwin, and Edmund Burke on Shelley's The Sensitive Plant, showing how it treats sexual diversity as vital to healthy ecosystems. In a shorter reading of The Witch of Atlas, Carman highlights the hermaphroditic witch: just as the sensitive plant exemplifies queer nature in the plant world, the witch exemplifies queer nature in the human world; both traverse a sexual continuum rather than staying put within a fixed heteronormative hierarchy. The plant and the witch also demonstrate "the lack of gender fixity" at the heart of Shelley's conception of the natural world.

Chapters 4 and 5 turn to Mary Shelley and her novels. Chapter 4 places Maurice and Valperga within the contexts of queer familial and ecological communities: like Shelley's own extended family, the families in her novels defy traditional constructions. This is what Carman calls the "communal ecologies" at the heart of most of Shelley's novels. Their focus on community and family distinguishes Mary's queer ecology from that of Percy. As Carman writes, "Central to Shelley's conception of the ideal human community, and to her environmental advocacy, is a strong sense of place and one's attachment to the wider ecosystem" (p. 120). Shelley naturalizes alternative family structures, which are often same-sex families, much as Percy naturalizes male erotic relationships, and she roots these families in specific places, most often a cottage (a perennial feature of Romantic literature). Cottages are central "homes" in nearly every one of Shelley's novels, serving as representative examples of communal ecology.

In Chapter 5, Carman investigates same-sex families and relationships in Shelley's The Last Man and Lodore. At the end of The Last Man, where Lionel and Adrian reunite, Lionel wants desperately to embrace and kiss Adrian, but as the last few survivors stare at him with wonder and potential reproach, he suppresses his feelings and kisses the earth instead. Even at the end of the world, Carman stresses, male eros is still frowned upon. Earth-kissing thus displaces same-sex kissing as well as exemplifying the eco-eroticism of the broader culture: "Romantic-era women, and men," writes Carman, "were hypersensitized, even erotically so, to their ecosystems" (p. 155). Among other instances of earth-kissing in both The Last Man and Lodore, Carman particularly examines scenes in which characters feel the climate and their environments in erotic ways (p. 167). While Lionel is commonly read biographically, as a version of Mary herself, Carman argues that such an approach neglects the radical queerness of the erotic relationship between Lionel and Adrian. "The Lionel-Adrian bond in The Last Man," Carman concludes, "is Shelley's boldest, and most sustained, romanticization of same-sex love and an enduring symbol of her support for same-sex eros" (p. 164). Similarly, Carman suggests that female romantic relationships in Lodore are Sapphic, and that the novel reveals the same kind of hypersensitivity to climate as The Last Man. But this second half of the chapter is less compelling than the first, perhaps because The Last Man is more climate-centered than Lodore.

In his brief conclusion, Carman analyzes a group of words that regularly inhabit the Shelleys' work: "tangled, "interfused," "interpenetrated," "intercrossed," and "interassimilated." The words, he argues, show queer ecology at work in their writing and thinking. The Shelleyan imagery of melting and mingling bodies and natures parallels Morton's well-known concept of the ecological "mesh," as well as a queering of the boundaries between bodies, thereby revealing the queer nature of sexuality and ecology in the Shelleys' writings. Though this ecocritical argument risks repackaging established readings of Romantic ecology, it's an important one to make. Unlike the idealized, transcendent vision of nature that many scholars and readers used to (and still do) identify as Romantic, Romantic nature is often weird, strange, dark, messy, and, as Carman argues, queer.

Carman's account of its queerness makes The Radical Ecology of the Shelleys a really interesting, important contribution to Shelley studies and to Romantic ecocriticism. While the strangeness of the natural world is well-established in Romantic scholarship, the strangeness of human sexuality is less established, and the strength of Carman's book lies in his synthesis of the two.

Seth T. Reno is Associate Professor of English at Auburn University Montgomery.


Leave a comment on Seth T. Reno's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org
Loading