Robinson Jeffers’ Inhumanism: The Ecological Thought or The Misanthropic Rebuke?

by Liam Heneghan

I have been rereading poems by Pittsburgh born Robinson Jeffers (1887 – 1962) with my seminar class recently.  Jeffers has had a perennial appeal for environmentally-inclined readers, with his wilderness inflected meditations on his adopted home on the California coast.  The poems that I know (I am a Jeffers amateur) are sturdy rather than pretty, and charged with solid thought rather than airy abstractions.  Though there has been some discussion among the critics about his influences (was Schopenhauer as important to him as Nietzsche?) what strikes me are the thematic resonances with on the one hand American environmental writers both before and after him and, on the other, with themes from the Upanishads (which I am reading with another class).
The influence of the Upanishads, philosophical texts in the Hindu tradition, on Emerson and Thoreau is pretty well known.  The Upanishads were also famously a source for Schopenhauer (and Schopenhauer, of course, exerted a substantial influence on Nietzsche). Finally, these texts also influenced W B Yeats, whom Jeffers admired (see this post).  The Upanishads rest at the intersection therefore of many of Jeffers’ more important inspirations.  From this influence Jeffers can create striking things.  In The Answer (1935), for example, he writes:
“A severed hand/ is an ugly thing, and a man dissevered from the earth and the stars and his history…for contemplation or in fact… /Often appears atrociously ugly.  Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is/ Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe.
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2 Comments

Filed under Poets and Poems

2 responses to “Robinson Jeffers’ Inhumanism: The Ecological Thought or The Misanthropic Rebuke?

  1. newacademy

    Well, beauty as wholeness? I’m thinking that’s only half of it (if that). Considering this from the perspective of the ideas about values we’ve been working with—the idea that beauty begins in the experience of shame, which arises from apprehension of the imperfect, flawed and limited—the beauty Jeffers celebrates leaves out most of our experience, and arguably pretty much all of creation, which is constantly dying. Beauty, perhaps, lies beyond the pretty flower in its perfection, and in our apprehension of its demise. Think of the commonplace tropes for “beauty”: sunsets, flowers, snowflakes, youthful vigor, the performing arts, which are constantly passing away, the plum blossoms in a haiku. Aren’t they all effective as tropes precisely because of their evanescence?

    And think of Leonard Cohen’s lovely lines:

    Ring the bells that still can ring.
    Forget your perfect offering.
    There’s a crack in everything,
    That’s where the light comes through…

    I don’t know Jeffers work at all well. But is he, despite the tough-guy stuff, basically a sentimentalist?

    Is “a man dissevered from the earth” (think of the early outer-space scenes in “2001,” the space station, a man drifting in space) “an ugly thing?”

    Or a poignant, frail, questing thing?

    Bill Jordan III

  2. Christine Skolnik

    Reviewing this post I’m reminded of my default objection to detachment. I wonder what trauma precedes this attitude, and then what trauma precedes my own. In the past I’ve linked meaning to attachment, so I quip that the purpose of detachment discourse is . . . attachment. (Not yet addressing your post . . . )

    I do think it’s possibly to be human and engage the inhuman also. Apart from precedents in any number of accounts of humanity’s dual nature . . . (damn, the coyotes are close and very loud tonight all of a sudden) . . . I think the paradox also relates to all sort of gender trouble. Donna Haraway again . . .

    http://www.amazon.com/Simians-Cyborgs-Women-Reinvention-Nature/dp/0415903874/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1324078800&sr=8-2

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