How Lush and Lusty the Grass Looks! Wonder and the Colonial Experience in America

One of the tropes we’re looking at in class this week is the experience of wonder.  Especially, we are concerned with colonial wonder, or the experience of confronting a landscape that represents many new possibilities:  the chance to start over, the change for rejuvenation and redemption, and the opportunity to set up a society according to new rules.  Wonder is an underlying current that has always shaped American attitudes toward the landscape, yet these attitudes began in Europe.  One of the best scenes of this dynamic is in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Shakespeare dramatizes the anxiousness about the human role in nature with a comical interludeThe recently-shipwrecked party–Gonzalo, Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and two of their lords–appear in “[a]nother part of the island,” separate from Prospero and Miranda, and are immediately confronted with conflicting sensations about their new environs.  From one vantage point–Antonio’s–the island “seem[s] to be desert” (2.1.35).  Most of the party expresses fear for this uncertain landscape, but Gonzolo allows a different kind of wonderment to possess him.  He recognizes the new landscape as a place where everything is “advantageous to life” (2.1.48).  The difference between these perspectives encapsulates the ambivalence felt by New World explorers and their societies.  Because Gonzolo’s exuberance is juxtaposed with Antonio’s tentativeness, their conversation reads as a bombastic caricature of the European colonizer.  It is a conversation that features two distinct perspectives, yet  Gonzolo’s excitement renders him unable to accept Antonio’s cynical appraisal of the island:

Gonzalo: How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!
Antonio: The ground indeed tawny.
Sebastian: With an eye of green in’t.
Antonio: He misses not much.
Sebastian: No, he doth but mistake the truth totally. (2.1.52-55)

Leo Marx categorizes this sequence as fit for a play composed at the cusp of English colonialism, and he reads the communication breakdown between Gonzolo and his peers as Shakespeare’s “comic vision of the efforts to reconcile conflicting attitudes toward the New World” (46-47).  For Marx, this vision should for Shakespeare’s audience dispel any notions that the fecund, Edenic commonwealth that comprises Gonzolo’s fantasy could ever exist.

However, Marx points out, the audience shouldn’t dismiss Gonzolo’s misguided excitement as dramatic irony that serves a didactic purpose; rather, in Gonzolo’s vision “a genuine sense of the terrain–its palpable presence–comes through” (47).  In other words, beneath the veneer of Gonzolo’s pastoral fantasy lies a deep-seated impulse to reconstitute his societies’ relationship to the natural world.  His New World “plantation” can be described as a cultural and ecological utopia:

I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of the land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty– (2.1.143-53)

It seems that all of these desires are triggered in Gonzolo’s mind when he sees the lush and lusty green grass that surrounds him.  But is Gonzolo’s perception just a hyperbolic expression of green desire?  To him the grass “looks” green, but for Antonio, “The ground indeed is tawny” (2.1.53).  There’s a disjuncture here that has something to say about the larger tensions and contradictions that The Tempest, like most other early modern pastorals, tries to reconcile.  Stephen Greenblatt categorizes this crisis of representation in his book, Marvelous Possessions:  The Wonder of the New World.  Greenblatt suggests that these representations aren’t completely lies that originate from a place of malice, but rather reflect a range of complicated desires about living on earth.

So do we see this same thing happening when Americans encounter our national parks? Certainly in some instances, the sensation or experience of wonder is what we use to value the physical place itself.

Yellowstone National Park has almost always been referred to as “Wonderland.”  See the homepage of a group called Windows into Wonderland, a collection of “electronic field trips” of the park.  Then there is this collection of brochures from the Northern Pacific Railway in the late 1800s that touts the American West and Yellowstone as a “wonderland.”  Clearly these industries wanted to preserve not just the physical space of national parks, but also the sensation of awe and possibility that is associated with them.  We should always keep in mind the genesis of wonder as a framing device for thinking about the New World and the national parks that are preserved in this world.

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