Allen MacDuffie, Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination

Allen MacDuffie, Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).  ix + 305 pp. Hb £60.00, PDF $76.00 ISBN: 9781107064379 

The problems relating to energy production and ecological sustainability which we face as a global community are, according to Allen MacDuffie, both material and representational. Nature itself imposes material limits on our capacity for the generation of energy, as our vital resources not only exist in finite quantities, but their intensive use causes severe and potentially irreparable environmental damage. Social and cultural representations of energy production, use, waste, and exhaustion, however, variously problematize and obscure their ecological impact to such an extent that the very word ‘energy’ is ambiguously deployed in the cultural imaginary as both a limited material resource and an unlimited, metaphorical, generally human, power. It is the failure to differentiate between these two uses of the word that, MacDuffie argues, has been “an ongoing source of misprision and fuzzy thinking about resource consumption” (2) since the first nineteenth-century attempts to articulate and to understand the implications of energy generation and pollution in the context of a rapidly industrialising, modernising society. In an expansive and wide-ranging analysis of Victorian thermodynamic discourse alongside fictional explorations of urban-industrial development and the workings of energy, Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination deftly exposes a complex and often contradictory history of fictional, biological, and theological narratives about energy, and insists that we must confront the mythologies generated by such stories in order to demystify and to fully understand the historical and contemporary conditions of our ongoing energy crisis. Of interest to environmental historians and philosophers, it makes a compelling case for the importance of literature to exploring and defining our past and present ecological imaginary.

MacDuffie begins by tracing Victorian constructions of energy and urban consumption across science writing, natural theology, and industrial practices in the wake of the publication of W.S. Jevons’s influential treatise on The Coal Question (1865) and the establishment of the second law of thermodynamics. There is, he shows, a strange ‘blending of industrialisation and theology’ (30) apparent in the works of thinkers as diverse as T.H. Huxley and Charles Babbage, which founders on a frequent slippage between energy as an indestructible force of both external nature and the human spirit, and energy as a limited material resource. This forms part of a broader tendency throughout the century, evidenced in Carlyle, Spencer, William Thompson, and Marx, to transform resource expenditure into ‘a necessary component of some sort of overarching teleological narrative’ (32) in which technology and human ingenuity supplant divine providence as agents of rejuvenation.

The need for a master narrative that makes sense of the modern city’s ever increasing energy expenditure gives rise to a host of unstable signifiers that become ecologically problematic. Narratives about the heat death of the sun, for example, entailed the selective application of deeply anthropomorphic metaphors to the realm of the non-human, and came to function as terrifying symbols of the natural and inevitable fate of a cosmos in thrall to the laws of thermodynamics, as well as hyperbolic representations of the environmental degradation caused by the industrial world and its unsustainable development. As cosmic theological narratives staked a claim for techno-scientific development as a force for good within a universe of inevitable waste, and writers such as Huxley expounded a materialist position with regard to human life while nonetheless reserving a special, cosmically significant place for human intelligence, human industry emerges as at once the cause of and the solution to the depletion of energy resources in the larger narrative of human progress.

Having established the significance of the metaphors employed in this emergent discourse of waste and sustainability, MacDuffie turns to ‘Unsustainable Fictions’, and offers very compelling close readings of the ways in which energy was fictionalised in the works of Dickens, Ruskin, Stevenson, Conrad, and Wells. The Court of Chancery sits at the heart of a vast network of resource extraction and dispersal in Bleak House, and the individual stories of energy expenditure that unfold around it demonstrate the inevitable personal and environmental costs of utilising energy. At the outset of the novel, the undifferentiated multitude of humanity is held to be inextricably bound up with waste and universally responsible for environmental degradation; however, a gradual shift in Dickens’s representation of energy throughout leads to the more reassuring conclusion that the energy expended by the characters can be separated into wasteful and non-wasteful varieties. Our Mutual Friend, appearing ten years later, explores the possible reclamation of the waste products found in the dust heaps and the River Thames, while revealing the ways in which these wasted energy forms drain even more energy from the bodies struggling to salvage them. For Dickens, collective fantasies of urban recycling and energy transformation ultimately obscure the ‘stubborn, unregenerate materiality of pollution’ (130). While Dickens is intent on connecting London to the ‘entropic underside’ (144) it would otherwise conceal or deny, Ruskin’s works are more radically thermodynamic in drawing on a complex network of relationships that extends beyond any local centre of order to include the ‘entire economic organisation of the nation’ (145).

Robert Louis Stevenson offers an individual case study of thermodynamic transformation in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the two alter egos are differentiated as distinct forms of energy, and transformation between the two exacts a mounting psychic, social, and physical toll upon both. Joseph Conrad employs the language of resource depletion in an imperialist context in which the concepts of energy and capital are conflated so that the energetic modern city exploits the wealth and resources of apparently wasteful and indolent Third World economies in a ‘relationship of dependency characterized by rapacity and exhaustion’ (222). The dynamics of exploitation and energy loss are expounded by H.G. Wells in the context of the evolutionary future in story of the Morlocks and Eloi in The Time Machine, before the decline of the species is once again aligned with the death of the sun and the end of the cosmos at the end of the novel. Such thermodynamic narratives, MacDuffie makes clear, are a timely testament not to a linear narrative of demystification and the perfect apprehension of resource waste and energy loss throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but rather to the continual prism of perspectives through which the realities of energy consumption and exploitation were, as they are now, both revealed and obscured.

Melissa Dickson, St Anne’s College, Oxford