Art and ecology discussed in a fundamental way


First published in 1972, but still highly relevant, ’The Comedy of Survival’ by Joseph W Meeker does not fit ‘comfortably’ within the normal pattern of books on nature and the environment. In fact its main thrust is within the arts and in particular literature. What the author is aiming to do is point in the direction of a synthesis between art and ecological engagement and philosophy. I have not come across another book which tackles this complex and difficult subject area, for which it must be a seminal text. Meeker, however, touches on deep aspects of our attitude to and understanding of nature and the environment as he tries to develop what he sees as an explanation of our fundamental attitudes to the more than human world through artistic conventions. Along the way, his thoughts certainly challenge the reader’s preconceptions about how we understand and relate to nature.

Two central themes developed in the book aim to strike at the heart of the way humans explain to themselves their relations with the natural world. 

Firstly Meeker explores the relationship between literary tragedy and what he describes as the ecological catastrophe of current human activity. He then develops an argument that the comic mode is more aligned to the ecological sphere than the tragic. The references to tragedy and comedy cut deeper, perhaps, than our normal day-to-day understanding and usage of these terms entails. 

Secondly he draws a distinction between the ‘pastoral’ and ‘picaresque’ sensibilities, as they have emerged essentially from the Romantic genre, suggesting, again, that it is the picaresque mode that most closely defines the human place in the world at large and suggests how we should engage with the natural world. 

This is a book of beginnings, rather than full explanations, but it opens up questions about what our real attitudes to nature and our environment are, in a way that compliments Deep Ecology theorising.

It sets out on such an original path, that it is not always an easy read, but certainly has sufficient depth to justify a second reading. 

In Meeker’s own words:

“There is much within human culture that has encouraged congenial and cooperative integration of humanity with natural environments. lt is my purpose to identify some of those patterns within human art and thought which hold most promise for a fully developed human cultural and artistic life consistent with a diverse and stable natural ecology. The way out of environmental crisis does not lead back to the supposed simplicity of the cave or the farm, but toward a more intricate form of living guided by a complex  human mind seeking to find its appropriate place upon a complex earth.”

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