Situating Rousseau’s Eco-Philosophy in Select Contemporary North East Indian English Writings
Nandini Choudhury is Associate Professor at the Department of English, J. B. College, Jorhat, Assam.
The North East of India is an ecologically sensitive region, even as it celebrates its rich ecological heritage, it also negotiates the pitfalls and travails of unplanned development and unchecked resource exploitation. As a thematic concern, literary representations of nature in the North East also touch upon this aspect of the life and experiences of the people of the region. This article attempts to trace the ecological philosophy in the Western discourse, particularly that of the Enlightenment thinker, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and how his works may also be used as a frame for the ecocritical engagement with texts from the North East.
Keywords: Jean Jacques Rousseau, Ecocritical Perspectives, North
Environmental studies today form an important branch of discourse that has risen in response to the growing awareness about the ill effects of the mindless development affecting the ecological balance. Expressed in literary figurations this critical approach is termed ecocriticism and it analyses the relation between literature and environment. (Glotfelty 122) Scholars, critics and writers from all parts of the world underline the significance of literary discourses in moulding our social values and world vision and stress on the urgency of the application of ecocriticism. Ecocriticism functions as a tool that draws the attention of the world to crucial environmental issues in the form of literary discourses. It upholds the voice of the ‘non-human other’
While it is true that the Ecocritical Literary Discourse is of very recent origin (the late 1970’s), it is to be noted that the rudiments of Ecocriticism may be traced back to the 18th century, in the works of the philosopher and one of the best known figures of the Enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Well known for his theories of social contract, inequality, liberty and education his contribution in the understanding of the natural sciences and environment is equally important. Contemporary critics such as Gilbert LaFreniere and Joseph Lane have justly recognized Rousseau as one of the first pre-environmentalists of the modern era and one of the founders of the Green Movement.
In the contemporary literary scenario of North East India two important eco voices are those of Monalisa Changkija and Temsula Ao, both of whom belong to the Ao Naga Community.
Deeply disturbed by the increasing deforestation and environmental degradation that has harmed the rich biodiversity of the North East they show a deep awareness of the environmental problems through their writings. A close reading of their texts reflect important ecocritical elements in their work, elements which can be traced to the insights provided by Jean Jacques Rousseau way back in 18th century. The objective of the present paper will be to situate the eco philosophy of Rousseau in the selected works of these two writers and examine the man / nature interactions. The paper will also examine an alternate conceptual framework which may be helpful in finding solutions to the ever increasing problem of environmental degradation. The methodology will be analytical in nature and secondary sources will be consulted for the purpose.
Rousseau’s ‘The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts’ which is also referred to as ‘The First Discourse ‘lays the conceptual premise in formulating his ecological stance. This treatise may be appropriated from the viewpoint of Animal Studies and the author’s sensibility can be termed as truly ecological. Animal Studies constitute one of the key tropes in ecocritical studies, scholars dealing with animal studies oppose anthropocentric morality and are unanimous in upholding the Utilitarian ‘principle of equality’. The utilitarian philosophy upholds that everyone is entitled to equal moral considerations which is irrespective of family, race, nation or species (Garrard 147). Peter Singer’s work, Animal Liberation (1975) gave new impetus to the animal rights issue. Singer drew upon heavily from utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who said that cruelty to animals was analogous to slavery. He claimed that the capacity to feel pain endowed any being to moral considerations. Singer coines the phrase ‘speciesism’ to the irrational prejudice that makes us treat animals differently from humans. Singer states that just as women and Africans have been discriminated on the grounds of morally irrelevant physiological differences so too animals suffer because they are considered inferior.
Mary Midgley’s book Animals and Why They Matter (1983) serves as an excellent introduction to promote animal welfare. She too endorses the principle of equality but in contrast to the radical stance adopted by Singer she argues that we are sometimes right to prefer the interests of humankind (Garrard 147) All the three philosophers namely Bentham, Singer and Midgley all oppose the Descartian ‘hyper separative’ theory that distinguishes reason from emotion, mind from body. In the Cartesian Descartian theory it is the reasoning power that separates humankind from the non human and assigns the human race a higher realm. Descates claimed that animals were merely effectively complex machines thus justifying the claim for mankind to slaughter and kill for their own selfish needs. Philosopher Jacques Derrida’s (1930-2004) contribution to animal studies is also quite significant. His essay titled ‘The Animal that Iam’ deliberately plays with Descartes’s assertion, ‘I think therefore I am’. This essay is a sustained study on the role of the ‘animal’. He aims to deconstruct the human -animal opposition that has been part of the Western tradition and aims at making animal studies a more critical enterprise. (Garrard 150). It may be mentioned that in addition to the human- driven habitat loss in the last four decades and extinction of species, a huge number of animals are still used today for exhibition, recreation, science, labour, consumption etc. In other words they are commodified for their usefulness.
A close reading of Rousseau’s Philosophical works namely ‘the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts’ usually referred to as ‘The First Discourse ’and ‘the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men’ known as ‘The Second Discourse’ reveals Rousseau as one of the earliest practitioners of the environmental movement. His theory of mankind sharing ancestral origin with other species is an important contribution in the field of Animal Studies. In the Second Discourse the author makes numerous remarks which seek to draw a comparison of man with other animal species.
When I strip that being, thus constituted, of all the supernatural gifts he could have received and of all the artificial faculties, he could have acquired only through long progress; when I consider him, in a word, as he must have left the hands of nature, I see an animal less strong than some, less agile than others, but all in all, the most advantageously organized of all. (Rousseau 40)
The above passage from ‘The Second Discourse’ illustrates Rousseau’s definition of man very clearly. He is defined as “an animal” “less strong than some” who after a “long process” characterized by a number of successive developments obtained “artificial faculties” exclusive to his species. This theory suggests a comparison with other animal species and states that man may share a common origin with other life forms. Rousseau comes remarkably close to recognizing that man belongs to the family of primates as indicated by his extensive reference to the existence of human like traits in apes and his hypothesis that originally man was a quadruped in the first part of ‘The Second Discourse’. By establishing the scientific analysis that the qualities in non-human species are common to mankind Rousseau disrupts the preconceived assumption of man’s superiority over the non-human world. (Zambianchi 39) This may be regarded as the first step that Rousseau takes in refuting the claim of mankind as being superior to the natural world and its non- human entities.
Rousseau goes on to assert his forceful claim for animal sentience and animal rights by an analysis of his theory of the amour de soi. It is by this principle that Rousseau makes his claim for animal rights .Amour de soi as expounded in the Second Discourse may be defined as the principle of pity . Pity is representative of the most evident proof of man’s natural goodness. In the natural state the feeling of love that is termed amour de soi is instinctively projected in the form of pity and suffering for other living beings. In this context it will be wise to examine Rousseau’s concept of the state of nature or the natural state. The state of nature is the hypothetical, prehistoric place where human beings resided before the formation of organized societies. The author is of the view that man in this natural state was essentially good and corruption was socially induced rather than naturally born. Man living in the natural state feels no desire to inflict physical harm on others but is rather moved by sympathy and compassion for his fellow beings. Pity is thus that encompassing feeling that deters man from wanting to impose his will through violent acts and brings about a state of peaceful co-existence.
Pity is what, in the state of nature, takes the place of laws, mores and virtue, with the advantage that no one is tempted to disobey its sweet voice. Pity is what will prevent every robust savage from robbing a weak child or infim old man of his hard earned subsistence, if he himself expects to be able to find his own someplace (Rousseau 55)
The above quoted passage makes it clear that pity according to Rousseau is all powerful because it is “universal and useful” to all men. The important point to be noted here is that though Rousseau states that pity is a human quality he also recognizes this feeling in all living beings. Pity is a “fitting disposition” not only in men, but also in other “beings that are as weak and as subject to ills as we are. (Rousseau 53). Pity is such a fundamental trait that “even animals show noticeable signs of it” (Rousseau 53). The author mentions several animals in which the feeling of pity is clearly seen:
…one daily observes the repugnance that horses have for trampling a living body with their hooves. An animal does not go undisturbed past a living body of its own species. There are animals that give them a kind of sepulchre; and the mournful lowing of cattle entering a slaughterhouse voices the impression they receive of the horrible spectacle that strikes them (Rousseau 54)
The above passage makes it clear that animals are seen as complex living organisms that are capable of feelings like sympathy and compassion. As such they share traits that are common to human beings. In their ability to comprehend abstract ideas of danger and death they are endowed with varying degrees of understanding. Rousseau also mentions in ‘The Second Discourse’ certain behaviours in the animal kingdom such as the practice of burying the dead which also makes them similar to human beings. Thus by portraying animals as creatures similar and closer to man Rousseau is going against the mainstream Christian doctrine of man’s superiority over animals. The non- human entities are therefore to be treated in a just and egalitarian manner. He is against the anthropocentric attitude which emphasises the superiority of mankind and justifies their exploitation.
By asserting that even animals are equally endowed by the important primordial drive of amour de soi, Rousseau makes a salient case for his hypothesis of a common natural origin from where all living organisms develop. According to Rousseau amour de soi is a “natural sentiment’ that prompts not only man in the natural state but also every animal to watch over his preservation and which therefore regulates human life and animal life in the same manner. In this sense animals are “ingenious machines” not unlike man as they are endowed with complex natural drives: “ In every animal I see nothing but an ingenious machine to which nature has given senses in order to renew its strength and protect itself…(Rousseau 44). Comparing man with animals Rousseau says that they differ from the beast “only in degree” (45), mankind shares with animals the same fundamental ability to organize ideas in order produce logical thought. In this manner the author emphasizes on certain animal species as sentinent beings deserving rights, protection and preservation. It is thus evident that Rousseau is making a strong claim for the rights of animals and proves himself to be a staunch supporter of animal rights.
‘The Hunter’s Story’ by Monalisa Changkija and ‘Death of a Hunter’ by Temsula Ao can be discussed in this paper to situate Rousseau’s eco philosophy in these two texts. The contest between man and animal for land has been a perpetual one since their existence from the beginning of time. In this struggle, hunting and killing is quite legitimate when there is danger to human lives and property. Hunting for sport and gratification of pleasure is what is objectionable to the ecocritic. ‘The Hunter’s Story’ by Monalisa Changkija is a fable centring around Chuba, considered the best hunter of his village Aoyim. The author describes him as a famed hunter who had ‘great patience and endurance, necessary to wait for preys for many hours, in the most uncomfortable and insect ridden forests of Mokokchung district’ (Changkija 249). He was a popular hunter because he would share his hunt with the villagers and never forgot to present the head of whatever he hunted to the chief of the village which was a custom of the Naga tribe. After every successful hunt Chuba would sit with his fellow villagers around a fire in the open field of his village and start describing about his exploits to the admiring audience. He would colour his tales with a lot of exaggeration and the dwellers of the forest- the animals, the birds and the reptiles and the insects would hear him too and tremble with fear and apprehension.
The denizens of the forest were in a terrible state- in the last few years their near and dear ones had been shot dead. In the fear of being hunted they had confined themselves to a small area and they dared not venture into the vast area for food. They felt imprisoned and trapped in their own homes. After much discussion led by the snowy- white rabbit, a plan was chalked to tackle Chuba the hunter and the inhabitants of the forest waited for Chuba’s next hunt. After a few days, Chuba confidently walked into the deep forest for his next hunt unaware of the plan laid by the denizens of the forest. What struck him first was the unusual silence of the forest, he could not hear a single sound “except that of his footsteps and the rustling of dried leaves as he walked over them”(251). The whole day passed with Chuba still in search of his prey. As the day drew to an end Chuba reached a beautiful spot, a kidney shaped lake amidst the most elegant grass he had ever seen and surrounded by the greenest and largest pine trees. Captivated by this charming scene he rushed towards the lake and kneeling by the lake scooped water from it and with both hands rinsed his tired and dirty face.
As planned by the inhabitants of the forest, all of them slowly and silently surrounded him and as Chuba looked around he saw that he was surrounded by the inhabitants of the forest- from the huge elephants and the proud lions to the birds like the pelican, the crows and around his feet were the vipers, ants along with the bees, flies, mosquitoes to name a few. Instead of him gazing at them it was now they who had directed their gaze towards him. He was now the object, the prey and not the subject, the predator. He knew it was useless to fire his gun, there were too many of them to shoot:
Chuba sat helplessly on the ground. Chuba finally understood what it felt like to be stalked, hunted and trapped. Chuba finally knew what it felt like to be the prey, the victim- totally defenceless and vulnerable what it was to be stalked, hunted and trapped.(Changkija 252)
Chuba spent that whole night shivering in fear and early morning after just one hour or so of sleep he was addressed by the king of the forest, the lion. Speaking on behalf on the denizens of the forest the lion stated that this was a preconceived plan to force Chuba the hunter experience the feelings of a stalked prey . In this situation then the roles have been reversed. His words of wisdom make Chuba cringe in shame and embarrassment:
But we do not believe in violence and revenge. We too can hurt and kill, but we know that we were not created to cause pain and death. We know that we have been created to maintain the balance of nature and contribute to the well being of this planet. We cause pain and kill when we are attacked, in self-defence.(Changkija 253)
The lion implores the hunter to live in a state of peaceful co- existence, emphasizing the need of dependence of every organism on each other. He says, “Come and enjoy the beauty and wealth of the forest, it belongs to all of us, but don’t come to kill and destroy because all of us need each other to survive and live with dignity” (253). This incident changes Chuba’s mentality for good and he returns home a changed man.
‘Death of a Hunter’ by Temsula Ao is a similar story based on the hunting experiences of the character named Imchanok. The story is structured around three hunts and each hunt prove to be significant milestones in enhancing the reputation of the hunter and more significantly awakening his conscience, shame and regret at his deed. The first encounter is that of the shooting of a rouge elephant which was in response to an order issued by the Deputy Commissioner with a reward in the offing. Unlike the other past encounters where Imchanok had the freedom to choose and kill whatever came across him this one was now ‘allotted’ to him. For the first time in his life he finds himself acknowledging the intelligence of his adversary and though he accomplishes the task this experience awakens the first stirrings of unease in his mind. The second incident revolved around the killing of a monkey and here too though the skilled hunter achieves his target the image of the dead monkey with its hands raised as though in surrender comes to haunt him for a long time.
The third encounter is that with a wild boar in that part of the forest considered haunted by the villagers. Imchanok found himself face to face with a beast that did not look even like a creature of this world. What was even more baffling for the hunter was that the carcass of the boar was not found for a long time. Eventually it was Imchanok who found it many days later. He began to spend sleepless nights after this incident and the brave hunter was now reduced to a whimpering child, tottering and struggling with his conscience. It is only later as suggested by his wife when he offers the ghost of the hunted animal a tuft of his hair as forgiveness that he gets back his peace of mind. The story ends with Imchanok burying not only his gun but also the hunter in him.
It is clear that both the two stories deal with the trope of animal studies which is an important aspect of the Ecocritical Discourse. The stories illustrate the psychological and ethical connections of mankind’s dealing with the animal world. The first story by Changkijia makes a direct plea for exhibiting compassion and pity in mankind’s dealings for these are universal feelings that are present in animals too. Animal Studies’ Scholars oppose anthropocentric morality and are unanimous in upholding the Utilitarian ‘principle of equality’. The utilitarian philosophy states that everyone is entitled to equal moral considerations which is irrespective of family, race, nation or species (Garrard 147). The second story by Temsula Ao deals with the psychological impact of fear that detachment from the natural world brings in. Imchanok is unable to escape from the element of fear- fear of the unknown, the dark, sinister and unfamiliar aspect of nature- a condition which may be compared with Coleridge’s the ancient mariner’s senseless killing of the albatross.
It is clear from the above discussion that the eco critical ideology governing both the stories seems to have been influenced by Rousseau’s eco philosophy in mankind’s dealing with the non-human entities. In their mindless killing for fun and gratification the two hunters clearly reveal the anthropocentric attitude of mankind that regards the non- human entities as inferior. Both Temsula Ao and Changkija are unanimous in asserting that an ecocentric vision is the need of the hour. They echo Rousseau’s belief in animals sentience and granting them equal rights It is worth quoting, in this context, Critic Lynn White, Jr who in the eassay, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis’ states that “Especially in its Western Form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen” (White 43).
White contends that the victory of Christianity over paganism was one of the greatest psychic revolutions in the history of Western culture. By putting an end to pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feeling of natural objects. It is when the two hunters are faced with a situation of role reversal that they realize the implication of their deeds. The two hunters namely Chuba and Imchanok in the initial stages of the story resemble the wandering detached individual who thrive in a society that is based on value dualisms. Some frequently used examples of these organized value dualisms are reason/ emotion, mind/body, culture/ nature, human/ animals and man/ woman dichotomies. These theorists argue that whatever is historically associated with emotion, body, nature, animals and women is regarded as inferior and that which is associated with reason, mind, culture, human (male) and men is considered as superior. It provided the philosophical justification for mankind to exploit and use the non- human entities for their own selfish needs.
It is to be noted that an analogy may be drawn with the ancient pagan traditions and the Ao Naga ones in their proximity and closeness to the natural world. Both Changkijia and Temsula Ao belong to the Ao Naga tribe, one of the major tribes of the Naga group of people. The Ao Naga culture, in the past, like many other tribal communities of the North East, shared a close and intimate relationship with the natural world. This relationship is manifested in different forms of rituals including the worship of trees and stones. However the encounter with the Christian missionaries in the Colonial period made deep inroads in the Ao Naga way of life and the twin forces of Christianity and Westernization resulted in the displacement of the indigenous cultural norms that privileged both nature and natural forces. The spiritual oneness with the natural elements that was part of the Ao Naga culture was replaced by an indifference to nature that allowed mass scale destruction of the rich eco biodiversity of the North East. Ao’s poem ‘The Blood of Other Days’ (Songs From the Other Life ) portrays the conflict between Christianity and her own tribal religion. She makes a scathing attack on Christianity for denouncing their religion as pagan which has resulted in the loss of connection with the natural world. She says –
This ‘tribe of Strangers’came with a
Book and promises of a land called ‘Heaven’
Declaring that our trees and Mountains
Rocks and Rivers were no Gods
And that our songs and stories
Nothing but tedious primitive nonsense
(‘Blood of Other Days’ SFTOL :66)
To sum up, it may be said that Ao’s works in particular exemplify an attempt to reclaim her indigenous tribal culture by filtering out the elements that have permeated her culture. Her poems speak of a yearning for a culture that is earth friendly based on a spiritual closeness that renews hope of regaining the blissful world of the environment. It urges the reader to take a political stance of environmental activism to restore to the earth all that has been lost. She points out the agents of change and cultural processes that has changed the landscape into an urbanized, industrialized one. Poems like ‘The Bald Giant’, ‘Lament for the Earth’, ‘Lesson of the Mountain’ are all expressions of this sentiment. Christianity with its disregard for the spirituality that lies embedded in the tribal cultures of the region is also in a way responsible for this. By reclaiming the tribal,indigenous way of life which is based on equanimity rather than on value dualisms Ao offers a conceptual framework that will perhaps be helpful in fostering the salvation of the universe.
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