PhD project (completed)

Project title: Nature, Culture, and Activism: an Analysis of Environmental Literature from Iceland and Norway

PD Dr. Thomas Fechner-Smarsly

(Institute for German Studies, Department of Scandinavian Studies, University of Bonn, Germany)


Does literature contribute to environmental awareness and to the solution of ecological problems? What characterizes an environmental text? Which ethical arguments referring to environmental questions are used in such texts? What is the relationship between these texts and contemporary environmental movements as well as the ecological ideas drawn upon by such movements? And, finally: What is the relation of the local, the national and the global to each other in environmental literature?

In order to answer these questions, I am combining approaches from three disciplines of the environmental humanities. The first is ecocriticism, a subfield of literary and cultural studies which addresses environmental questions. The second is environmental history, which not only researches past environmental conditions and interrelationships between humans and non-human nature, but also the history of ecological ideas and of environmental movements. The third discipline is environmental ethics, which’s theories allow a differentiated analysis of ethical arguments drawn upon in environmental literary texts. Methodologically, I use Hubert Zapf’s model of literature as cultural ecology, according to which literary texts have a triadic structure: They function as a cultural-critical metadiscourse, as an imaginative counterdiscourse and as a reintegrative interdiscourse. I connect this model with a more neutral definition of cultural criticism (Kulturkritik) developed by Georg Bollenbeck. In this way it becomes possible to define more closely the characteristics of environmental literature and to comprehensively take into account the historical and cultural contexts of such literary texts. The contrasting comparison of Icelandic and Norwegian environmental literature shows that perceptions of environmental questions are to a very high degree culturally shaped, and that in particular ideas of national identity have considerable influence on the characteristics of the respective ‘environmental imagination’.

My sources are works by five Icelandic and five Norwegian writers, published between 1970 and 2013. The Icelandic texts are the essay „Hernaðurinn gegn landinu“ („The War Against the Land“, 1970) by Halldór Laxness; the novel Gunnlaðar saga („The Tale of Gunnlöð“, 1986) by Svava Jakobsdóttir; the trilogy Skurðir í rigningu („Trenches in the Rain“, 1996), Sumarið bakvið brekkuna („The Summer Behind the Hill“, 1997) and Birtan á fjöllunum („The Light on the Mountains“, 1999) by Jón Kalman Stefánsson; the non-classifiable book Draumalandið. Sjálfshjálparbók handa hræddri þjóð („Dreamland. A Self-Help Book for a Frightened Nation“, 2006) by Andri Snær Magnason; and the diary novel Jarðnæði („Land Tenure“, 2011) by Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir.The texts from Norway are Erik Dammann‘s essayistic book Fremtiden i våre hender („The Future in Our Hands“, 1972), Knut Faldbakken‘s two-part novel Uår – Aftenlandet („Bad Years – the Occident“, 1974) and Uår – Sweetwater („Bad Years – Sweetwater“, 1976), Sidsel Mørck‘s documentary novels Stumtjenere („Silent Servant“, 1978) and Ikke til salgs! („Not for Sale!“, 1983), Gert Nygårdshaug‘s novels Mengele Zoo (1989) and Chimera (2011) as well as Jostein Gaarder‘s young-adult novel Anna. En fabel om klodens klima og miljø („Anna. A Fable about the Planet‘s Climate and Environment“, 2013).

Support: This project was supported by the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation through a PhD scholarship .

The PhD thesis was submitted at the University of Bonn in January 2014. The thesis defense took place in April 2014. The thesis was published in October 2014 under the title Umwelt-engagierte Literatur aus Island und Norwegen. Ein interdisziplinärer Beitrag zu den environmental humanities in the series Texte und Untersuchungen zur Germanistik und Skandinavistik.

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