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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Byron the elementalist : exploring Byronic eco-ethics for the late Anthropocene in Manfred Nanayakkara, Shalini Poornima Madushani


In a world becoming increasingly “postnormal” (Sardar 435), I aim to investigate how human-nature relations in Lord Byron’s 1817 dramatic poem Manfred provide an unconventional but enlightening environmental ethics in the late Anthropocene. Questioning existing perceptions of Byron as a purely socio-political writer in the vein of emerging eco-Byron scholars, I consider how an ecological reading of this intensely Byronic text can provide critical lessons to accept negative emotions, identify hypocrisy, and investigate why, with simultaneous sympathy and judgement, systemic change is so difficult to enact even as global ecocatastrophe ensues. Byron’s perceived and potential positions in Romantic nature poetry will be considered in the context of current inefficacies of reading nature in positive and moralistic modes, as individuals experience what is now called eco-anxiety (Ray 6). To understand how Manfred ironizes “green thinking,” close readings will be presented of the titular hero’s disastrous attempts to exploit the elemental Seven Spirits through the lens of elemental ecocriticism and philosophy (Cohen & Duckert; Macauley). Manfred complicates critical tenets of elemental thinking in its depictions of human and elemental subjects as fundamentally incompatible. Byron's contempt for hypocrisy unexpectedly complements Indigenous critique of capitalism (L. Simpson 76-77), pointing towards where some critical Indigenous perspectives and Byronic contrariness align in critiquing the limitedness of Western environmentalism. Manfred’s self-perception as an elemental conflict of “lightning” spirit and “clay” body (Byron 1.1.155; 157) and his quest for “self-oblivion” (1.1.145) will be explored as a grim blueprint for what I call the “a/Anthropocentric individual” – those in the late Anthropocene who experience eco-anxiety from the conflicted understanding that everyday life contributes to a “web” of unethical relations between human and nonhuman entities (Barad 384). This thesis will posit that Manfred reflects the ethical conundrum of living in the Anthropocene, but that the text cannot present solutions. Reading Manfred ecologically through Byronic understanding of constant self-evaluation and criticism signifies the gaps between Indigenous, academic and public understandings of human-nature relations that enables the mainstream perception that the environment is ultimately "supplementary" (Rajan) to the prosperity of human beings.

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