Kathryn St. Ours, Where Science and Literature Meet: The Earthy Writing of Jean-Loup Trassard

Kathryn St. Ours, Where Science and Literature Meet: The Earthy Writing of Jean-Loup Trassard, (Oxford: Trueheart Academic, 2014), 200pp. £50.00 Hb, £7.99 E-Book. ISBN: 978-0-9573017-4-0

Kathryn St. Ours’s study of the work of Jean-Loup Trassard presents a scientifically-informed analysis of his fiction, nonfiction, and photography. This short book ambitiously pursues the receptivity of Trassard’s ‘earthy’ or ecologically engaged works to science from a wide range of perspectives, examining his output through ecopsychological, biosemiotic, ethological, and cosmological lenses. Aiming to uncover the latent ‘convergences’ with ‘biological and physical sciences’ (8) in Trassard’s approach to the material and cultural landscapes of rural France, St. Ours sets out to break new ground not only in Trassard scholarship but also in ecocritical approaches to French literature. In doing so, the book is also intended more broadly to contribute towards and develop upon the study of literature and science within the field of ecocriticism.

St. Ours begins by outlining the literary and theoretical background to the study. Starting with the former, Trassard’s work is introduced through its focus upon the agrarian traditions of the Mayenne region and situated within the broader turn towards the rural or ‘return to the terroir’ in contemporary France. St. Ours draws upon sociologist Michel Maffesoli’s ‘ecologization of the social’ to explicate the dynamic and reciprocal understanding of place and the interconnected senses of ‘local’ and ‘global’, or to use Maffesoli’s term, ‘glocal’ (5), that informs the reaffirmation of the importance of place underway here. In terms of the latter, St. Ours gives a brief overview of ecocriticism, recalling Cheryll (erroneously referred to in the Introduction as ‘Sharon’) Glotfelty’s and Harold Fromm’s influential definition of ecocriticism as ‘the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment’ in order to emphasize its potential to act as a ‘bridge’ (2) between the disciplines. The study of literature and science is identified as one of its three key methodologies - the other two being ecopoetics and the social, political, and historical implications of human-natural interactions - and St. Ours stresses the critical potential of bringing science to bear upon literary study whilst maintaining the fundamental differences in scope and approach between the two modes of thought. Trassard’s work is located on the same temporal scale as the emergence of ecocriticism, and on account of its interdisciplinarity in form and approach and the interdisciplinary mode of study to which it lends itself here, is both paralleled with and shown to be receptive to ecocritical analysis. Trassard’s work is introduced as a holistic way of viewing, representing, and understanding the world, and this study sets out to offer a holistic method of ecocriticism that seeks to ‘enrich’ (11) the reading of literature through attention to science.

The second chapter addresses the ‘coalescence’ (9) of literature and science in Trassard’s work directly through what St. Ours terms his ‘ecopsychological ethnology’ (15), that is, the way that his ethnological photography and writings at once represent and engender ecopsychological connections between people and place. Beginning by outlining the theoretical principles of ecopsychology, St. Ours draws on evolutionary biology as well as the concepts of biophilia and topophilia to interpret the human-natural interconnectivity represented in Trassard’s work. In a series of brief analyses, these ideas are brought to bear on works including Trassard’s agrarian photographs, ‘The Destruction of the Bocage’, and the neolithic novel Dormancy, among others. St. Ours argues that this ‘dual approach’ (20) to Trassard’s work effectively uncovers the ways that both these landscapes and their ecopsychological effects are shown to be the product of enmeshed human and natural forces, representative of the mutual and interconnected evolution of people and place.

The following chapter moves on to develop these ecopsychological connections or ‘human/vegetal relations’ on another scale: the semiotic. Continuing the same structural format, the chapter begins with a brief overview of biosemiotics and ecosemiotics, defined as the ‘semiotic activity of the vegetative realm’ and the shaping (semiotic) interactions of the human and the vegetal, respectively (35). The chapter continues by examining Trassard’s uses of narrative experimentation in order to access modes of communication and understanding outside of human consciousness, from the use of the fantastic in the story ‘The Vegetal Heart’ to the nonhuman narrator of ‘Reconnoitering of a Forest Inside and Out’. Drawing on the work of semioticians including Timo Maran and Jakob von Uexküll, St Ours uncovers an ecosemiotic understanding of nature beyond referent or object in the interdependent human-natural ecologies of Trassard’s experimental writings.

The fourth chapter, ‘human/nonhuman animal intertwining’, explores Trassard’s experimentation with nonhuman perspectives further by presenting an ethologically-informed analysis of his representations of animal agency. St. Ours returns to Dormancy alongside The Hedgerow Man and Pests, finding a challenge to anthropomorphism in Trassard’s experiments in non-human narration. Trassard’s approach is compared to a series of theoretical approaches to animal agency, including Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘becoming animal’ (53), that St. Ours connects back to von Uexküll’s sense of ‘intertwined’ human and nonhuman agencies. The chapter then turns towards contemporary neuroscience to interpret the ‘interanimality’ (61) of Trassard’s environments further, drawing on the concept of ‘mirror neurons’ to explore human-nature relations in the stories ‘Taurus’, ‘Hell’s Riders’ and ‘Moth’.

The final chapter turns to quantum physics to address Trassard’s sense of the cosmological, working through David Bohm’s concept of ‘wholeness’ (71) to develop the notion of interrelation pursued throughout the book, this time at the levels of the universal and the quantum. These levels of perception and understanding are then explored in Trassard’s ‘Spiral Echo’ and ‘Tidemarks’; the chapter closes with an examination of Trassard’s creative practices as means of environmental engagement that extend towards the ‘inexhaustible’ scale of reality.

The study ends with a reflection upon literature and science. St. Ours argues that the ‘holistic worldview’ of ‘postmodern science’ advances a call to ‘cross disciplines’ (93) that may begin to be answered by a version of ecocriticism that takes advantage of both literary and scientific approaches. Reiterating the respective qualities of the two, St. Ours posits that a complementary approach may offer a means to begin to represent and interrogate ‘the ecological problems that our planet faces’ (93).

St. Ours’s study offers a provoking introduction both to the possibilities of scientifically-informed literary criticism and to the work of Jean-Loup Trassard. Owing to its breadth, the attention given to its science and literature is often brief, and its overview of ecocriticism, particularly in relation to the contemporary flourishing of scientific approaches, is somewhat light. The scope of the study, however, signals towards the potential for further work in these areas, and presents a fascinating series of insights into the ways that literature and science can be seen to meet in Trassard’s work.

Deborah Lilley, Royal Holloway, University of London