Gary Snyder and the Literature of Energy
The way up [culture] and down [nature] is one and the same. (75)
The grand necessity, then, for our bodies, is to keep warm, to keep the vital heat in us . . . .
, is nearly synonymous with the expression,
. . . (734)
Energy, most familiar to us as the essential heat of life that Thoreau speaks of, and upon
which his “economy” at Walden Pond is based, pervades the bodies of all living things. Thus
it also pervades Environmental Science as something more than a mere “subject” to be
studied. Every life form, human or non-human, depends on the steady, constant, continuous
inflow (and outflow) of energy, most obviously embodied in the acts of breathing and eating;
without this, all living organisms will first become weakened and then, in the end, extinct.
As “life” writing, the literature of energy crosses boundaries, traversing or transversing
(like transverse waves) the human and natural sciences.
If we think of it in terms of Marx’s
forces and relations of production, we might say that energy is what “drives” whole societies,
whole cultures, although especially as it has been harnessed by the instruments of capitalism
in recent centuries, these are also forces which destroy nature in transforming it. For Freud we
think first of libido, the “sexual energy” (in the widest sense) of the unconscious, and indeed
for Freud “civilization is repression”; on the other hand, “countries have attained a high level
of civilization if we find that in them everything which can assist in the exploitation of the
earth by man and in his protection against the forces of nature—everything, in short, which is
of use to him—is attended to and effectively carried out” (
Civilization and Its Discontent
In other words, more clearly in Freud—who had the advantage of living in the 20
century—than in Marx or Nietzsche (whose “will to power” also comes to mind in the context
of an all-pervading “life-energy”), the thriving of human technology and of a
technology-based society and culture depend on finding energy sources and using them, and
this in turn means the denaturalization of nature.
In this paper I will attempt to elucidate Gary Snyder’s observation that a “culture of
wilderness” is still needed. More radical in his critique of civilization than Freud, of course,
I want to express my deep gratitude to Prof. Scott Slovic, because my title is inspired by the talk he
gave on “The Literature of Energy” at Tamkang University in 2006. Special thanks also go to Prof.
Anthony Hunt, who taught a summer seminar on Gary Snyder’s
Mountains and Rivers without End
Tamkang University in April 2002.