Heroism, Marine Ecology, and Literary Culture

Here’s a few bits from an essay that will introduce a section of the forthcoming volume, Fluid Frontiers: New Currents in Marine Environmental History.  The book originated in this great conference, about which I blogged here. I’m introducing a cluster of essays on Steinbeck, Hemingway, and American Maritime Revivalism.

What makes an ecological hero? Can heroic self-assertion ever be compatible with ecological interconnectedness? These three essays on maritime literature and historical ecology suggest ways to bring the special insights of literary culture to bear on these questions. In a broad sense, the problem of the hero is the problem of human-centered thinking. All human heroes, by virtue of being human, exacerbate the problem of anthropocentrism. To the extent that humans want to see examples of ecological heroism in people like us, we resist the full force of the ecological thought that de-centers the merely human.  But literature, to a degree, may be flexible enough to respond to this dilemma. Literary works both reflect and modify existing ideas about what human beings are and how we interact with large-scale natural systems. The massive surge of ecocritical readings of literature since the 1990s suggests that the human-nature relationship has become an essential topic of literary interest in the present. Literary culture may help unravel, or at least illuminate, the conflict between the cultural force of anthropocentric narratives and the counter-pressure of ecosystemic thinking.

The problem of the hero remains potent for all strains of ecological thinking, but perhaps especially so in the blue oceans of maritime ecocriticism. While the green world of traditional environmental studies has always had room for the humans who till the soil and tend pastures, the oceanic world is less hospitable and, in human terms at least, less sustainable. The ocean is not really a home for people. But despite or perhaps because of the difficulties of living in or near the great waters, the sea has always been one of the most fecund sites of literary invention. To explore blue voyages instead of green kingdoms requires imagining ways for humans to endure hostile, changeable ecologies. The heroes we need, as I have argued elsewhere, are swimmers and sailors, not warriors or conquerors. These oceanic heroes, who exert themselves in intimate and dangerous contact with the fluid element, may provide models for surviving the present era of ecological crisis and disruption. Humans crave both heroes and ecological order, and it may be that we cannot have both, at least not in either’s current form. This cluster of essays suggests new currents of maritime ecological thinking that can do justice to the mind-challenging world ocean and find ways for humans to thrive in contact with salt water.

As both scientists and literary scholars know, ecology represents a system of relations in which no single part takes precedence over the inter-relating whole. To embrace ecological thinking entails refusing singularity, attempting insofar as it is possible to think outside solitary human perspectives. Heroism works in the opposite way. The hero, the example of human greatness, invites attention and focus, so that the heroic body itself becomes a vessel for transcendent values. The history of art provides probably our clearest examples of how heroism becomes embodied. Michelangelo’s famous sixteenth-century sculpture of  David, poised nude just before his combat with Goliath, visually presents the singularity and physical force of human heroism. The hero, the shepherd boy about to slay the Philistine giant, stands out from the crowd. Rather than being defined by relations, the hero exceeds them. Imagining this figure as just a participant in an all-encompassing network seems difficult, and perhaps undesirable. The tension between the human desire for exemplary heroism and an opposed but also strong penchant for harmonious exchange marks the field of ecological literary criticism. Literary scholars have no easy answer for this dilemma – we want both sides of this coin also – but literary culture contains a host of figures who try, and at times do not entirely fail, to combine these value systems.

It is tempting to answer these questions with some names from recent ecological activism: Rachel Carson. Bill McKibbon. Aldo Leopold. Sylvia Earle. Al Gore.  These and others combine in different ways human heroism and ecological insight. But the search for heroic models, for exemplary humans, on a basic level works in tension with ecological ideas that de-center human primacy and advance inter-relation rather than solitary exemplarity. To be heroic, to stand out from and dominate a crowd, on some fundamental level is a non-ecological act. Heroism, the human desire for power and display, may be part of what got our watery planet into its current ecological mess. Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, in an ecological light, tells a story of human ambition in doomed conflict with the boundless sea. At the close of Melville’s novel, the waters close over Ahab and his whaleship and “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” A collective body drowns heroes. Only the philosophical Ishmael, who represents a different kind of heroism, poetic and speculative rather than epic and violent, survives to tell the tale. In Melville’s literary model, oceanic forces frustrate or reshape human ambitions. But in our age of climate change and ocean acidification, it no longer seems clear that the sea itself can remain what it has been.


  1. Great stuff. In writing my eco-themed stone book I’ve been thinking a lot about the place of the WRITER (or in the terms you are using here, the literary critic). As I read your post I experimented with substituting “writer” (or (“critic”) for “hero” — to see if you are also getting at a mode of ecological analysis as well as an purview. You are.

  2. That’s a helpful move, Jeffrey. One of the subtexts of this short piece, as I imagine is semi-clear, is arguing for the place of the literary humanities in a book/conference full of historians, not all of whom are comfortable with high theory. I’m certainly splashing my way toward a way to re-think egotistical individualism / assertion too.

    Now, back to the O-Zone piece. But first, I’ll comment on ITM, to keep things throughly intermixed.

  3. Rob Barrett says:

    Steve, have you read China Miéville’s The Scar with its floating pirate city of Armada and its deliberately caustic attitude toward heroism and quests? (I’m sure you have, but just in case you haven’t I wanted to mention it here.)

    • I have, Rob. I actually taught it — after reading it first! — in a maritime lit class some years back. I gave students 3 choices for contemporary (-ish) novels about the sea: any Patrick O’Brian, *The Scar*, and *The Shipping News*. Some interesting discussions!

  4. Three tree points:


    Their understand Begins to swell ;
    and the approaching tide
    Will shortly fill the reasonable shore
    That now lies foul and muddy. Not one of them
    That yet looks on me, or would know me. – Ariel,
    Fetch me the hat and rapier in my cell ;

    I will discase me, and myself present
    As I was sometime Milan : quickly, spirit ;
    Thou shalt ere long be free.

    Where the bee sucks, there suck I ;
    In the cowslip’s bell I lie :
    There I couch when owls do cry.
    On the bat’s back I do fly
    After summer merrily :
    Merrily, merrily shall I live now,
    Under the blossom that hang on the bough.

    (Shakespeare: The Tempest, extracts from act V.)



    ecological situation on the planet Tellus 2012

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