Table of contents
2. Dreams ofRivers and Seas
Nature, with equal mind,
Sees all her sons at play,
Sees man control the wind,
The wind sweep man away.
Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna (1909: 107).
Nature [...] goes steadily her own way, and what to us appears the exception, is in reality done according to the rule.
Johann W. von Goethe, Conversations with Goethe (Goethe and Eckermann 1839: 119).
Hurricane sandy, which raged over the Eastern United States last autumn and caused widespread damage and claimed the lives of over hundred people, was a reminder of how relevant the first quote still is. And Goethe was also right in writing that nature goes its own way. His last sentence, however, is not true anymore. Humanity influences nature, causes these exceptions, and is affected by the results. In this paper, I am going to examine Tim Parks" novels Dreams of Rivers and Seas and Rapids from this point of view. In both novels the protagonists try to gain control over nature and to overcome the hardships which it imposes upon them, but finally have to recognize that it has not only prevailed, but has also altered them and their lives profoundly. As nature has a wide-ranging meaning in literature, the term needs to be narrowed down at first. While the lexical definition is understandable, describing it as "the phenomena of the physical world collectively" (OED 2013), the debate in philosophy is more complex, discussing whether nature exists in reality or only as a social construction in our heads. Dingler (2005: 29-30) concludes that in modern thinking humans consider nature to be a "Teil der Realität [...] der vom Menschen unabhängig ist." Only through knowledge is it possible to acknowledge the reality of nature. This theory is based on the Cartesian dualism, which distinguishes between the sphere of nature and the sphere of culture (31). As humans we live in the sphere of culture, yet we are also inhabitants of nature, and existed in it before we even developed a noteworthy culture. Humans are considered as being born wild and egoistically, and only through cultural influences such as education and norms do we develop the ability to live together (Borghini 2013).
Nature as a literary topic has a multitude of meanings during the centuries. The slogan "Back to nature," whose meaning was perceived by French philosopher Rousseau during his stay in England, was a sign of the tendency of reversion to nature of English renaissance literature, of people who were fed up with the "Unehrlichkeit der Zivilisation, des Hofes, der Stadtkultur und seiner Gesellschaft" (Erlebach 2011: 38). In English classicism, nature was seen as a partner from which the good character traits of humans emanated, the "natural affection" (58). In the Gothic novel "wurden Natur und das Naturerlebnis [...] dabei vielfach zu dem grossen Pendant des Menschen, zum Generator seiner edlen und sublimen Gefühle und zum beseelten Innenleben der Protagonisten“ (66).
Also noteworthy is the symbolism of rivers, which play a big role in both novels. For McMillin (2011: 88) the flow of a river is a metaphor for a certain direction "from birth to death, from the past to the present, from order to chaos" and often "from the known to the unknown." She (89) describes the use of the river narrative by stating that down-the-river texts often "connect primary and secondary meanings to form foundational theories on the creation or formation of the world itself as well as on the place of humans in that world." In American literature rivers often serve as a way of either escaping something and/or escaping to something. They can also be means "to discover something, to understand a place or people, or to find the self." Following the river is regarded as a journey away from the artificial world of work "towards the truth" (95). Edward Abbey even sees the process of going downriver as "a voyage deeper into Eden," as a "rebirth backward in time and into [...] the only paradise we ever need" (96).
There are several theories describing where humans, as a part of nature, are located in it. Based on these theories the research question can also be considered as a comparison between anthropocentrism and personified nature. Anthropocentrism puts the human being in the centre of nature and considers him the most important thing in the world (Moore 2008: 29). The protagonists who strive to control nature, could be seen as anthropocentric. Anthropocentrism refers to the Old Testament, where God is described as having handed over control over nature and animal kingdom to humans. Opponents of this theory, such as the Italian philosopher Vico, describe the downside of anthropocentrism, citing personifications such as the "brow and shoulders of a hill" as an example for our megalomania, "a consequence of our axiom that man in his ignorance makes himself the rule of the universe, [...] has made of himself an entire world" (Vico 1968: 129 as quoted in Moore 2008: 33). The contrasting theory, Ecocentrism, places man among the other life forms on earth, and asks for respect and good treatment of flora and fauna (Moore 2008: 5). Moore (196) points out that in Ecocentrism "wild nature exists [...] for its own „reasons," independent of humans." Yet he also claims that "humanity, a part of nature, also needs wilderness for its own needs." As an exemplary proponent of this theory he cites the American philosopher Thoreau, who had called nature "the „raw material of life" essential for our own elevation as a species, for imagination, renewal, recreation, and escape" (Thoreau 2007: 204 as quoted in Moore 2008: 197).
In the course of this paper I am now going to work out which different approaches to nature the protagonists have, and how they are related to it. Additionally, I will discuss the effects which the contact with nature has on the development of the protagonists. I am also going to identify different motifs which Parks employed in the novels, and analyze them in consideration of their relation to nature and the actions of the protagonists. Given the fact that nature is a literary topic since thousands of years, I will also contextualize and compare Park's novels with other literary writings of different origins and epochs.
2. DreamsofRivers andSeas
John's work in the UK-based laboratory is a recurring topic in the novel. In his lab, John tries to gain control over nature. In India, nature takes control of him. Thoughts of his work follow him around the globe. Admitting that his mother "at least changed people's lives day by day with her diagnoses and medicines" (Parks 2008: 16), he tries to find sense in his own work: "Breaking down the smallest particles and isolating even smaller ones, to manipulate them, even the most unimaginably tiny coils of DNA, RNA [...] that was the way to put new drugs in the hands of people like his mother" (17). His mother's generalist approach to control nature is completely different from his. While he is examining natural phenomena in detail, a research process where even the "tiniest step forward takes a lifetime", she sees the results of her work every day. Metaphorically speaking, John's research is an arduous journey; he puts one foot in front of the other without even seeing the horizon. By stressing that "there's no time to fool around," he emphasizes how every delay or problem increases the long time span which his research is taking. Unknowingly, he admits that the nature which he tries to control eats away his lifetime in the course of time (14).
John's interest in lab work derives from his interest "in the purely technical challenge [...] to isolate the tiniest particles welded to each other in the most complex ways" (31). Just as Goethe's Doktor Faust he is looking for one thing: "Dass ich erkenne, was die Welt//Im Innersten zusammenhält" (Goethe 1808: 34). In order to develop a drug which keeps it from reactivating, John researches how a tuberculosis bacterium is able to survive in its dormant state. He is aware how complicated the matter of controlling nature is. He admits that the process of research has become too complicated for even the people involved to fully oversee it. "Nobody even tries," John says, as "it would be like trying to hold the world in your mind" (33). While his work is to control nature, he has to control his own nature as well in order to be a good scientist, an effort that he enjoys, just as "he would enjoy bending his mind to metabolic pathways, to hydrocarburic chains" (205). Parks" use of this metaphorical language depicts John's mind as an entity, that he is able to form and bend by his sheer will.
By altering the nature of tuberculosis RNA, which involves "tricking the ribosomes into some unnatural behaviour so that the disease could never reproduce again" (73), John seems to play God, as he tries to change the tiniest parts of microorganisms to force them to behave as he pleases. This image is intensified by the personification Parks uses: ribosomes are equated with persons, who can be tricked to behave in a certain way. Even worse, they become some sort of sterilised persons, who will never be able to reproduce anymore. John is reminded of his professor, who had also likened cells to persons, and who had come up with his own personified theory of stopping harmful cells from reproducing. He had considered his research as a weapon which was to be used against nature; where one could find "a set of targets to attack the cells we wish to destroy, to tell each cell it is only one, one life is enough" (74). Having arrived in India, however, John, struck by diarrhoea, has lost his former control over microorganisms. Confined to the toilet he has to spend the whole day in his room. Throughout his stay John is constantly dyspeptic, punished by Parks with "a stomach poisoned by the endless bacteria in this filthy country" (203). During another attack of diarrhoea John finds himself faced with the world's most terrible toilet. Far from being able to control nature, he realises that "instead of working out how to trick a ribosome into sterility he himself had been tricked into a situation that was quite grotesque, and certainly not sterile." Unable to hold it any longer he enters, and is met by a pungent stench. Parks personifies John's inners: "His bowels won't hold. They had accepted to wait on the understanding that it was a matter of minutes, then of seconds. They have convinced themselves release is imminent" (290). The constant loss of control over nature, which has begun with John's arrival, now cumulates and ends in this anus mundi, John's personal Heart of Darkness. Alone and helpless, he is thrown back to the most primal human fears which nature holds ready for humans; the fear of drowning in shit, the fear of suffocating from the stench, of being devoured by rats, of darkness.
Parks description of nature is likewise vivid, when he depicts the storm which had forced John into the restaurant with the awful toilet. He visualizes the dust, which "came thickly in sharp dry gusts, then swirled and sifted like dark snow" (284), mixes the elements, in this case water and soil, and heightens the surreal atmosphere with the oxymoron of dark snow, a simile which reminds one of Robert Frost's poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."
- Quote paper
- MA Urs Endhardt (Author), 2013, Into the wild - Nature in Dreams of Rivers and Seas and Rapids by Tim Parks, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/213705