Messages from Scholars about History and Culture
Today’s fears of global environmental disaster, climate change, dwindling resources and most recently an impotent economy that seems utterly ungrounded in any natural worth, make environmentalism a necessary, if not easy, lesson to learn. While incipient industrialism and the boon of technology found us intemperate in our lust for progress, this present anxiety promotes and encourages a more urgent deference to nature’s gifts. “A Harder lesson,” according to Spenser’s opening lines of Book II (The Book of Temperance), Canto 6; “to learne Continence / In iouyous pleasure, then in grievous paine.” Plainly, the “joyous pleasure” of modern advances in science and technology proved too much of a good thing when, in the opinion of a growing number of dissatisfied people, the incontinent pursuit of life, liberty and happiness returned an over-heated, over-polluted and over-burdened global ecology. While Spenser’s Faerie Queene precedes the concept of going green, his allegory of temperance challenges the modern ideology that poses economic welfare as the enemy of environmental conscientiousness.
Environmentalism today, at least in the public consciousness, rather than being progressive, often yearns nostalgically for a lost Eden, a by-gone symbiosis between humans and their environment—a simpler time, untouched by the intemperate mechanical rape of Mother Earth. For some, that Eden represents a time before artificial sweeteners, before polyester, before plastics—a time when man and everything manmade did not substitute, maim, or otherwise oppose nature but instead communed with nature and allowed nature to be more itself. Others look forward to a time when the indulgences of the past (and present) can be overcome by the advances of more ecologically sensitive technology, i.e., renewable energy, paper alternatives, refillable water bottles, electric cars, etc. The resistance to either movement is not only due to the lack of belief or solution, but it is the condition of modern society. Civilization itself is the resistance to the whims and changes of the environment, the natural cycles of nature.
Civilization is our statement of permanence: indoor plumbing, canned food, skyscrapers, levees, Viagra, fame, religion, literature. Insofar as society recognizes that its permanence is bound up with the environment, we respond with civilized advancements like reforestation and recycling. Still, however, the modern priority remains the status quo; and economic success is status—the ability to stand when others have to hunt and gather. What lies between today and a safer, greener world is this modern Tower of Babel, which we have been building higher and wider since the rebirth of classical learning and the rise of nations. Spenser provides us not a rulebook for proper interaction with nature, but rather a fossil, or an ice core, in which we can see the evidence of elemental cracks in the relationship between nascent modernism and the natural environment—the beginning of society’s reckless flight from nature.
Whether our prodigal society can return to Mother earth—or whether our Tower can be integrated into the environment—in time to regain a mutually beneficial relationship depends somewhat on our ability to stem the consequences of our industrial and technological progress. Some would argue we already have the means—more important is the will, the reestablishment of a moral order, the cultural discovery of moral obligation to the environment—a re-familiarization with a responsible environmental consciousness. Studying works like the Faerie Queene allows us to trace our cultural apathy toward and ignorance of our physical surroundings. In the Book of Temperance, Spenser diagnoses the problem of modernity and highlights, way before its time, the anxiety of a post-modern world. In this sense, Spenser’s work is perhaps more relevant today, as we begin to lose faith in modernity, than it was in the four centuries following its publication.
Spenser’s depiction of temperance does not in itself claim any particularly environmental ground; Guyon is not immediately the green champion, and the most we can expect from either a literal or allegorical reading of the Book of Temperance is that a temperate knight must be temperate in all things—in governing the passions as well as in managing natural resources. However, there seems to be an underlying concern—throughout the Faerie Queene, but especially in the Book of Temperance—to describe, if not define, the apparent opposition of art and nature, i.e., imitation.
As C. S. Lewis explains, art is often conceived in the Faerie Queene as the false decoration, imitation or otherwise perversion of true nature. In Canto vi, the description of the Phaedria’s island of mirth and pleasure seems to fit this idea as Spenser is careful to qualify the natural appearance of the island: “As if it had by Natures cunning hand, / Bene choycely picked out from all the rest” (2.6.11) [emphasis mine]. Phaedria’s island provides a vain imitation of natural delight; it is literally too good to be natural and too unnatural to be good. As the opening stanza warns us, temperance must be shown in all things, good and bad: “For sweetnesse doth allure the weaker sence / So strongly, that uneathes it can refraine / From that, which feeble nature covets faine.” Though pleasure is life-affirming, and thus suited to nature, too much of it constitutes a vicious danger, capable of stripping one’s wit (cf. Cymochles in 6.13).
The difficulty with accepting Lewis’s judgment of art, or even simply artifice, arises because one recognizes that Spenser himself is an artist, that the Faerie Queene is not only art, but contains numerous examples of ecphrasis and even a reference to the author’s own literary ego, Colin Clout. Furthermore, this apparent sabotage of the author’s own work cannot be merely glossed by a cursory distinction between good and bad quality of art. Spenser’s language in canto vi nearly parallels Philip Sidney’s in the Defense of Poesy, but whereas Sidney celebrates the “delight” of poetry for its ability to accommodate teaching, Spenser denigrates it, focusing on its capacity to mislead. Rather than teach, delight saps Cymochles of all care and fills him “With false delights” and “pleasures vayn” (6.14). Phaedria’s “charm”, far from the virtue-affirming delight that Sidney claims, leaves Cymochles defenseless, unconscious, and slothful. Everything about Phaedria’s island and her Idle Lake moves the active knight to passivity and apathy—all under the guise of Nature (6.15-16).
It would seem, from a Platonic perspective, that Spenser remains suspicious of art simply on the basis that it is not the real—that it is the imitation—that it is an unnatural lie. But never in canto six does Spenser refer pejoratively to the imitative character of Phaedria’s delights. “As if”, for the critics who support Lewis’s theory, carries almost too much of the burden of proof. Nowhere does Spenser pointedly say that Phaedria’s “false” delights are any less delightful than those of nature; his issue with Phaedria’s false delights, especially if we are to take the first stanza as the structuring and revealing introduction to the episode, is not one of kind, or nature, but one of degree. What matters is not the art of nature, or the nature of art, but rather to what extent and to what end that art—or that nature—is pursued.
Thus, Spenser demonstrates the same opinion as Sidney, who argues that poetry should not be judged because some poets and some readers have taken delight too far and abused its power— “But what, shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious?” (236). Rather, poetry should be used with temperance, not to escape the everyday pains of life, but as the fair and timely interacting with both pleasure and toil. Unlike the flowers, that according to Phaedria rely passively on Mother Nature (6.16), our relationship with nature should not be too easy or too pleasant. Temperance involves effort, work, activity; and in Book II of The Faerie Queene, Spenser describes the efforts of Guyon, knight of Temperance, to live in this world. Granted, this world for Guyon is an allegorical one, a moral landscape of metaphorical virtues and vices: Guyon’s adventures are not in the Amazon rainforest confronting loggers or on the seas waving signs at whale hunters. And neither does Spenser offer anything like advice to save the planet; he is interested rather in the world. However, Spenser’s world is the world we make—the ideas, governments, and identities that we, in our interactions with nature, mold and model. Guyon, the knight of temperance learns and displays responsibility in the world of change: Book Two of The Faerie Queene is Spenser’s ‘how to live in the world.’
I wonder if our failure with environmentalism to date is that we are trying to save the planet when we should be trying to save the world. […]
Some people will say the way to avoid writer’s block is through preparation; if you write what you know, you will always know what to write. Clever. Except that in academic writing, we often use writing as a means to know. An essay, by its original definition, is a trial. By writing (and this includes all stages of a writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising), we organize observations and data into coherent patterns, allowing us to move from vague notions of how things work to clear and specific arguments and theories. On the path from not knowing to knowing, there are bound to be some apparent obstacles. Writing is that path. So how do we navigate those troubled waters?
I wrote the essay excerpted here for a graduate seminar on Edmund Spenser and a Literature and Law conference hosted by John Jay University. Both of those audiences determined how and what I was going to write; on the one hand, I was writing to my professor and classmates as part of our collaborative study of The Faerie Queene, and on the other, I was writing to an audience of scholars interested in the intersections of literature and law but who probably had little to no knowledge of Spenser’s poetry. Such duality of audience is common to interdisciplinary studies like comparative literature; it’s kind of the whole point: take two seemingly unrelated things, throw them in a room together, and see what happens.
In this case, those two unrelated things were Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and environmental policy. Spenser’s pastoral poetry might be better suited to a “get-back-to-nature” advocacy, but in Book II of Faerie Queene, I found some sympathetic vibrations. My thoughts drifted toward the contest between art and nature and what that has to do with world-making (or worlds falling apart). Guyon, the knight of temperance, has to destroy a garden near the end of the book, and gardens lead logically into a discussion of art and nature and so to a pairing of temperance and environmental policy. So far so good—that’s the SparkNotes version; the whole story is far messier.
All my life I have believed that writing brings things to life. I still do. But now I know also that writing is murder. Anyone who tells you otherwise is tricking you into getting your homework done or has never written anything that didn’t fit on a Post-it note. I can think of no other socially acceptable activity more violent than taking a sparkling intuition, reducing it to a thesis, and cramming it into an essay; a surgeon sawing through a human breastbone to transplant a heart perpetrates less violence than an author revising a first draft.
See, what I love about comparative literature is also what thwarts my writing process. It’s like going on a road trip with two of your best friends who have not met each other; it might be a disaster of conflicting personalities and controversial politics, but it will certainly also draw out aspects of your friends you could not previously see. This is what I love about comparative studies—the associations, analogies, resonances sparking into a constellation of curiosities, each one revealing a new perspective of an old text, each text becoming the Rosetta Stone for the next series of interpretations. It’s also what I hate about writing.
To write an essay, you have to move from the many to the one; you have to let go of all the wonders of discovery and focus on a single purpose. Thrift and focus are essential to academic writing, but in my experience, finding your essay’s Zen-like single purpose rarely comes from a “keep it simple” starting point. For me, thrift comes only by hacking away at the excesses of a prodigal brain. At the beginning of a writing project, I am a dog visiting Petco gleefully exploring all the new smells. Literally everything is interesting to me at this stage; my mind, in brainstorming mode, is like Whitman in Leaves of Grass— “I contain multitudes.” I relish these expansive, curious moments.
Then the cutting comes.
It feels like a dressing-down scene from The Devil Wears Prada. It feels like Lear must have felt when he showed up to Regan’s with his entourage of 100 men, only to be told he was an old man and couldn’t keep any of them. It feels like the last seat on the last lifeboat in the last moments of the Titanic. Somehow you have to go from that feeling of loss and abandonment to writing confidently about the one last idea you chose to keep. Somehow you have to not think about the ghosts of all those other aborted ideas, which all end up in your head personified as that ancient Templar knight in The Last Crusade, telling you that you’ve chosen poorly, that you are an impostor, that no one will ever love you, that this essay will lead to your rapid and complete aging and decay.
Maybe I’m given to an Eeyoresque hyperbole, but like a dreamer, I’m not the only one. Writer’s block is real for most of us. And usually, if we manage to get through it, we’re so harrowed by the experience, we can’t bear to investigate it. So, we don’t figure out what causes it or how to manage when it reoccurs. And it will. I’m not going to offer any foolproof remedies; I don’t have any—none that work without a lot of endurance and effort on your part, which is a bit of stone-soup recipe. The best advice I can give is this: learn to accept reality. Do it without bargaining, without hedging that romantic vision of an ideal writing process. Write with an attitude of adventure and curiosity. True curiosity is as content with wandering into a dead end as it is with discovering a field of flowers.
A cliché applies here: trust the process. But make sure that process is one that you’ve developed through experience—or through experiments. We learn best through a combination of successes and failures not simply because we know what works and what doesn’t work, but because we know we’ve survived both. People like to say that madness is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, and if you’ve ever tried to play golf, you probably know: ‘tis common, this madness. But there is another kind of madness—a smug and arrogant sort—that comes from doing the same thing over and over expecting the same results. What learning can there be if we can predict the outcomes of every essay?
If, like me, you need the exuberance and idealism of the brainstorming phase to keep moving forward, chances are your writing process is going to falter. If you need your writing task to progress upwards and onwards according to your best laid plans, you’re probably going to give up.
Before my final thesis for this paper ultimately found its one thing by framing temperance as care for nature, I wandered far and wide through a network of possibilities. I wanted to write about King Lear and how Spenser’s version of an old king and his three daughters, which he situates within the allegory of temperance, helps us see Shakespeare’s play as a consideration of personal government. I wanted to write about delight—the word being key to Spenser’s repudiation of the false Bower of Bliss and Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, in which the courtier argues the purpose of poetry is “to teach and delight.” I wanted to write about Plato banning poets from the ideal society and relate it to Guyon’s destruction of Acrasia’s garden. I wanted to write about Ovid’s Metamorphoses and how the changeable cycles of nature imply the need for temperance. Each of these associations seemed precious to me, but as the saying goes, less is more; I had to prune. I had to sacrifice foliage for fruit.
Such sacrifices can play havoc with a writer’s confidence; it is too easy to waste energy looking back wistfully at what might have been. Those aborted ideas occur in moments of epiphany; letting them go bruises the places of hope and inspiration and leaves one feeling stuck. It’s like that classic chocolate experiment where, depending on your group, you are asked to choose either one of six or one of 30 chocolates and then rate your satisfaction: it’s hard not to think about those 29 left behind.
Eventually—hopefully—you’ll find a deeper joy in the precision of your single idea, but in my experience, that doesn’t happen without struggle, regret, and doubt. The trick is to get through the disillusionment inherent in moving from many ideas to just one. And the trick to breaking down the wall of writer’s blocks is that there is no trick—not that I know of anyway—which is why it is so crucial to have and know your process. Mine involves writing a zero draft, which means getting all my baby ideas on paper. Sometimes that means I write in circles like a vulture flying over a dead antelope; it can be tedious and feel out of control, but because I know it is only a step in the process, I know I don’t have to be an eagle diving instantly towards my prey.
You cannot always trust your feelings to be buoyant and confident, and so you must develop a process that carries you through the times of doubt. Trusting the process develops resilience. That’s why the process works—not because it avoids stress but because it frames real labor. Writing is work. And because it is work, it allows you to develop the mental muscles and the emotional fortitude necessary for doing that work again and again.
I’d be remiss if I ended an essay like this without disclaiming my negativity. I am not exaggerating about the depression that invariably hits me after the initial brainstorm, but I do love writing. That’s the whole riddle—how to integrate those two realities. I suspect others experience a similar disillusionment when they write and, like me, wish they could avoid that discomfort. But acknowledging this feeling of failure is the dark and loamy soil of hope. For those who hit that pit of despair and think the pain means “I can’t write” or “I’m doing this wrong,” I’m here to tell you no, you’re not. If it hurts, you’re probably on the right path. Writing takes effort, and sometimes that effort feels like torture.
Even when it feels like being strapped to The Machine and Count Rugen is telling you “I’ve just sucked one year of your life away,” you must learn to cope. Not all of us have a Miracle Max to make us a chocolate-coated pill to bring us back to life. So what do we do when we feel paralyzed by our fear of getting it all wrong? It’s simple: have fun storming the castle!
(Also, if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, I can’t help you.)
Iyengar, Sheena S., and Mark R. Lepper. “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 79, no. 6, American Psychological Association, 2000, pp. 995–1006, doi:10.1037/0022 3518.104.22.1685.
Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. New York: Oxford UP, 1958.
Sydney, Philip. The Defence of Poesy. The Major Works, edited by Frank Kermode, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 212-251.
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. London: Pearson, 2007.
- A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2000 found that too many choices (involving jam, chocolate, and college essays) inhibited participant motivation, performance, and satisfaction. For the full analysis, see Iyengar and Lepper (2000). ↵