FORESTS: The Shadow of Civilization by Robert Pogue Harrison

FORESTS: The Shadow of Civilization

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A thoughtful consideration by Harrison (French and Italian Literature/Stanford) of the role that forests have played in the cultural imagination of the West. Though avowedly ""selective""--""I wanted to avoid at all costs a mere encyclopedic catalog of the forest theme""--Harrison's inquiry ranges wide, from Dionysus through Dante and Descartes to Thoreau, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Samuel Beckett--whose bleak essentialism, the author says, better reflects our depleted times than does James Joyce's ""luxuriant forest of prose."" Beginning with 18th-century Italian theorist Giovanni Battista Vico's imagining that the origin of human thought and institutions began with forest-dwelling giants, Harrison shows how the founding legends of Rome looked back to the forest, as the opposite of city and civilization, with a paradoxical mix of reverence and hostility that continues today. Reaching further back, to the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, Harrison points out its hero's destructive impulse toward the forest in response to an agonizing consciousness of death; later, the author ingeniously identifies the Greek goddess Artemis with the related roots of the words for matter, wood, forest, and mother. From the Christian analogy of forests with darkness, bestiality, and perdition, he gets to the Grimm brothers' nostalgic ""philological mystification"" of German forests in their association with a lost cultural and national unity. As for current concerns about deforestation and ecology, the author demonstrates that these attitudes, ""which we do not fully understand,"" have extensive buried and tangled roots. Harrison's original and perspicacious excavation brings cultural resonance and suggestive thought to today's ecological issues.

Pub Date: April 22nd, 1992
ISBN: 0226318079
Page count: 296pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago Press