By Sébastian Thiltges
Ce qui a lieu aims to open up the new critical field of “écopoétique” which must not to be conflated with ecocriticism, the latter struggling to gain a foothold in France, partly because of the scepticism towards national, lyrical and militant approaches. Écopoétique is described as the study of the relationship between literature and the environment as perceived by the senses. It is defined not by a literary topic, nor by a conceptual turn, but rather is seen as the contextual result of an increasing concern for the environment.
The cornerstone of Schoentjes’ écopoétique is his reading of French writer Pierre Gascar: “The sensual appetite for the world defines Gascar: it is the intimate experience of nature that helps the writer to imagine the real. Without this intimate experience, mythology, history, ethnology and natural sciences are not able to describe the real world”. Along with the rejection of positivism, anthropomorphic symbolism, and moralism, literature’s aesthetic unveiling of place encourages the reader to rethink the relationship between reality and imagination. This onto-geographic bond is best illustrated by the book’s title, Ce qui a lieu, which suggests – as does the English expression “taking place” – that everything that happens is locally situated. This “poetic paradigm” shows how literature changes the way we look conceptually and phenomenologically at places and landscapes. All in all, whereas ecocriticism in its first iteration focuses on nature writing, écopoétique is about the writing of place (“lieu”) and a particular European literary “sense of place” which is always “situated historically and geographically” (Heise 2008: 8).
Schoentjes describes his book as an “essai” (attempt) to combine the reader’s curiosity and pleasure with theoretical ambitions. He thus emphasizes the relationship between ecocriticism and postmodernism, the theoretical attempt to escape localism and regionalism through irony and cosmopolitanism, and the tension between reality and imagination. His commentary on (and translations of) the American tradition of nature writing and Anglophone ecocriticism provides French-speaking researchers on literature and the environment with a better insight into the field and possibly enable them to develop their own orientation(s). Schoentjes indeed regrets that, even if ecocriticism has developed internationally, the “French cultural and literary reality” has not been a field of interest, but stays at the same time surprisingly elusive on the French and European contexts and how they have adopted ecocriticism.
In order to show that nature is in perpetual transformation, the book proposes a typology of natural places, which, especially in the French context, does include domesticated territories: Planet Earth “and beyond”, spectacular landscapes (inherited from romanticism), rural nature facing urbanisation and being rediscovered by contemporary writers such as Jean-Loup Trassard, urban nature and, last but not least, wilderness. The latter receives particular attention from the author. Wilderness has been rightfully described as a concept rooted in a US American cultural tradition, which cannot be easily applied to other geographical and cultural contexts. However, with reference to the work of Hubert Mingarelli and André Bucher, two well-known readers of nature writing, Schoentjes insists that texts do travel and that the fascination with wilderness has become a global phenomenon.
Ce qui a lieu proves that the multidimensionality of place experience manifests itself by way of distinctive themes like pollution, aesthetic figures such as anthropomorphism and analogy, and cultural concepts, first of all polarities. It gives birth to a range of different genres, including both traditional literary forms (pastoral, fable, utopia, exempla) and more recent ones, such as science fiction. This heterogeneity of the primary texts which Ce qui a lieu addresses, as well as the multiplicity of approaches and theoretical frameworks on which it draws, take its readers on a journey that unsettles many of the assumptions ecocritics tend to take for granted. It is for good reasons that in the book’s conclusion, Schoentjes speaks of “les écopoétiques” in the plural, suggesting the need for a further diversification of the field.
A more elaborate review of Schoentjes’ book, with all the references, can be found in the ecocriticism journal Ecozona@, Vol 7, No 1 (Spring 2016).