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Nature in a Box: Ecocriticism, Goethe’s Ironic Werther, and Unbalanced Nature

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Abstract:

Ecocriticism emphasizes how our bodily and ecological boundaries are just as porous,inter-penetrable, and open as are our cultural and linguistic realms. As individual bodiesand communities, we are fully immersed in our material environment and participating inconstant exchanges of matter and energy. In this essay, I nevertheless advocate for acautious approach to the ecocritical question of contested boundaries. After all, someboundaries and membranes are necessary to maintain living organisms. RegardingTimothy Morton’s assertion that we are “radically open,” I note the need for stable andhealthy membranes to sustain life, such as our porous yet enclosed intestines. I proposea multi-pronged perspective using the literary model of Goethe’s famously sentimentalWerther, who longs to merge with nature and become an insect, in juxtaposition with hisdeeply ironic Triumph of Sentimentality, which satirizes the Werther-like figure, PrinceOronaro, who wants to keep nature safely in a box. From the relationship of these twotexts emerges an “ironic Werther,” a model for ecocriticism. Werther’s and Morton’s“openness” are juxtaposed with Oronaro’s boxes, allowing for an open/closedperspective that resonates with “unbalanced nature” more broadly. Ecologicallyspeaking, all boundaries fade in the long-term, cosmic view; yet short-term boundariesallow a steady-state existence far from equilibrium, that is, they allow life to exist.Nature’s long term unbalance brings change and evolution, even as short-term bodieslive, reproduce, die, and continue the process. This essay rejects the notion ofharmonious nature and proposes instead a dynamic, multi-pronged view both ironic andserious, both literary and scientific, both open and closed; above all, it suggests thatthinking “nature in a box” might remind us that we, too, are nature and need some limitsas we hubristically alter our world.

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