Department of European Languages and Cultures

Encounters with Nature and Animals in 20th-century Literature

About the round-table and discussion

The round-table will start with very short presentations (10 minutes each) centred on the role of nature and the animals in the works of André Breton, W. G. Sebald and Peter Matthiessen. The animals that populate their work seem to act as agents of transformation, undermining the foundations of Western philosophy, and challenging the sovereignty of the rational mind over art, history, and the self.  

These short talks will introduce an open discussion with the audience in which the attendees are actively encouraged to participate, debate the issues and share their ideas on our modes of thinking “the animal” and the integration of humankind in the natural environment. The round-table will be facilitated by Dr. Simon Cooke.

Take me to Eventbrite to book my ticket

If you encounter issues when booking, contact Ana Calvete.

The three short talks will focus on the following:

Encounters with Lianas and Butterflies: André Breton Experiencing Nature (1941)

Kristoffer Noheden

In 1941, having fled France, surrealism’s founder André Breton arrived in Martinique. In Martinique: Snake Charmer (1948), he describes his awe when faced with the cannas and lianas on the Caribbean island, whose landscape seemed more similar to surrealist paintings than to European nature. Later that year, when he had travelled on to New York, Breton spoke of his ongoing “initiation” into American butterflies, before dismissing science and taxonomy, instead lauding Hegel’s much-maligned Philosophy of Nature. I will discuss how Breton’s experiences of nature in 1941 prompt him to think of surrealism as at once invested in nature’s external forms and dependent on unconscious, non-rational apprehensions, an approach with a potential for a more ecological relation with the world.

Kristoffer Noheden is a researcher in the Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University, and Visiting Research Fellow at IASH, University of Edinburgh. His research concerns ecology and nature in surrealism.

Meaningful Animal Life and Joyful Ego Destruction in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (1978)

Ana Calvete

In The Snow Leopard (1978), Peter Matthiessen narrates the expedition to the Himalayas that he joined after the death of his wife, in hope of seeing the elusive eponymous animal. The narrative circles around the unseen leopard and pays close attention to the minute life of the mountains -- lichens, lizards, fossils – framed by Matthiessen’s zen buddhism. Applying a “science of the concrete”, to use Lévi-Strauss’ terms, Matthiessen experiment with a way of knowing the world based on the observation of sensible and particular elements of nature. Following this thread, I will argue that the animals crystallise Matthiessen’s attempt to go beyond the Cartesian and rational modes of thinking which apprehend animals in terms of taxonomy and stewardship.

Ana Calvete is in the third year of her PhD at the University of Helsinki, Finland, in cotutelle with the université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès, France. Her research focuses on the construction of authenticity in contemporary travel narratives, and she is currently on a research visit at the University of Edinburgh.

Natural History and the Silk Moths of Ruin in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995)

Angus Sutherland

W. G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995) evades fiction categorisation. It blends a walking tour of Suffolk with historical digressions and musings on cultural memory. I will start by summarising Sebald’s conception of natural history, or Naturgeschichte, which is closely linked to his conception of human history. I will then suggest that the silk moths, which act as a leitmotiv in the book, can be read as a peculiar sort of ruin – after the fashion of Walter Benjamin’s description of the ruin in his analysis of German tragedy Origin of the German Trauerspiel (1928).

Angus Sutherland is a fourth-year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh as well as a tutor and an advisor at Edinburgh Napier University. His research is centred on natural history and the encounters between human and animal in the works of W.G. Sebald.


Nov 13 2019 -

Encounters with Nature and Animals in 20th-century Literature

Organised by Ana Calvete, visiting researcher at Edinburgh University, with the support of Cultural Encounters/Dialogues and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

IASH - The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities
The University of Edinburgh
2 Hope Park Square