Explorations in Disanthropy: The Absence of Human Community

The December 2020 issue of The New Yorker[1] magazine features an evolutionary tree comprised of make-believe creatures. A disgruntled octopus-toad, a sleepy sheep-lion with a rat’s tail, and a fanged and striped cow-moose are some of the bizarre evolutionary stepping-stones that never were. Imagined by artist Edward Steed, the motivation for the design was ‘to remind people that things might have turned out differently. The world might have been a place where humans never existed’.[2] Steed’s creation of evolutionary possibilities illustrates how one of the consequences of Covid-19 is imagining a world without people. Under the threat of a global pandemic, contemplation of a world devoid of humanity seems closer to reality than possibility.


So, what would the world be like without people? How does this absence make us feel? Apocalyptic imaginings have been a morbid fascination of humans for centuries. Ecocritic Greg Garrard extends the apocalyptic concept with his term, ‘disanthropy’, which describes the wish for total human absence that can result in ‘a particular beauty’.[3] American poet Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) may have agreed. In 1906, after observing a Jean-Charles Cazin painting, Departure of Night,[1] Stevens recorded in his journal that he liked the sense of ‘the abandoned air of the world at that hour, that is, abandoned of humans’, and that one could ‘imagine the dewy air and the quiet’.[4] In the painting, Stevens found beauty in the silence of a disanthropic imagining. The particular appeal of a quiet world is connected to a lack of human noise, which, in light of Covid-19, is something we can empathise with. As noted by scientists, one of the most prevalent effects of lockdowns during the pandemic has been the reduction of noise pollution.[5] The absence of human noise is a defining characteristic of a disanthropic world, and it is in the abandoned air that the world begins to sing for itself again.


Fig. 1: Trees in Snow (image: author's own)

Human noise can encompass a range of sounds. From human speech and exclamation, both physically present or disembodied through media and the sounds of human movement (walking, cycling, driving, trains, boats and planes), to other activities related to human life, like the low hums from energy generators and electricity pylons, it is clear that human noise permeates the entire world.

However, during the pandemic, silence has played a significant role in our experience of a changing world where lockdowns, bubbles, and masks have been weaved into a reformed normality. Globally, parks, entertainment venues, roads, and skies have been emptied. Those at home looked out upon a quiet world with a front seat view of what the earth could sound like without the hustle and bustle of human communities. The Guardian newspaper illustrated this effect in a Before and After[6] photo series, allowing readers to slide between two photographs of the same location before and during the second lockdown in England. With a swipe to the left, the Shambles in York is wiped of people, the clogged M25 is merely dotted with cars and, in Shrewsbury, the statue of Robert Clive is alone in a deserted square. The effect is disconcerting. In one click, our communities are absconded alarmingly quickly. Yet even more strangely, the emptiness is peaceful and echoes Stevens’s attraction to the silence of disanthropy. Is it possible that ‘apocalypse has turned out to be not so bad after all?’ [7]

Fig. 2: Close-up of snow (image: author's own)

Fifteen years after observing the silent beauty of the Cazin painting, Stevens created his own disanthropic world in his well-loved and anthologised winter poem, ‘The Snow Man’ (1921).[8] Snow, like silence, is a double-edged sword. The physical alteration of the environment under a heavy snowfall muffles objects and sounds, making a familiar space feel unfamiliar. The effect of this is at once sinister and peaceful with the snow softening sounds and objects into indistinct entities. Stevens’ use of the natural masking effects of snow places readers in a blank environment where, aside from the figure of the snow man, human connection is scarce. This is disconcerting because the figure of a snow man is generally representative of communal effort and creation and memories of building snow men during childhood are filled with joyous noise and laughter. Yet, in Stevens’ poem, the snow man becomes a cold reflection of humanity situated in the ‘nothingness’ of a quiet world.[9]

The simultaneous unsettlement and curiosity inspired by the poem’s frozen world is accentuated by depictions of the ‘junipers shagged with ice’ and ‘spruces rough in the distant glitter’.[10] While the imagery of vegetation initially offers a sense of softness, the adjectives, ‘shagged’ and ‘rough’, sharpen the images and syntactically accentuate the inhospitality of the environment. Contrasts between soft and sharp echo the fluctuation of feeling invited by disanthropic imagining between peace and foreboding. While the icy junipers and glittering spruces are beautiful, their frozen stillness parallels that of the snow man and contributes to feelings of unsettlement.

Fig. 3: Iced stems (image: author's own)

One of the most striking aspects of ‘The Snow Man’ is its single sentence form. Despite the continuous sentence, Stevens creates structured pockets of silence through enjambment, repetition, and subordinate clauses, such as ‘And have’, ‘Of the’, ‘Which is’.[11] Each line lingers into the next, gradually pulling the reader onward into the ‘nothing that is not there’ but pausing for just long enough for the words to freeze into images of a bare and wintry world; the ‘nothing that is.’[12] Reading is therefore disjointed, and echoes the unsettlement and tension formed from a disanthropic environment.


The speaker of the poem instructs us ‘not to think | Of any misery in the sound of the wind, | In the sound of a few leaves’.[13] In a disanthropic world, the sounds of leaves cracking in the wind are the main source of noise in a world devoid of people. As gloomy as this may seem, the speaker is keen to encourage readers to consider this quiet world without despair. In other words, the lack of human noise allows the ‘sound of the land’ to quietly blow through.[14] Stevens exposes the sound of the non-human world through a halting poetic form which requires quiet and attentive reading. The poem shows us that a disanthropic world can give rise to the muted sounds that lie beneath the hum of human communities and provide an opportunity for the silenced world to speak. Contemplation of disanthropy is unsettling, yet as Steed, Garrard, and Stevens have shown, thinking about a world without humans can be fascinating. When we take a pause and attune ourselves to the beauty of silence, it is possible to discover the layers of sound underneath the human world that would otherwise remain inert and unnoticed.


Domonique Davies is a PhD student at the University of Reading. Her project focuses on the work of Wallace Stevens in the context of ecocriticsm, aiming to show how Stevens was moving towards a form of ecopoetry.


Keywords: disanthropy, Covid-19, silence, snow, environment, poetry, ecopoetry


References:

[1] Francoise Mouly, ‘Edward Steed’s “Tree of Life”’, New Yorker, 7 December 2020 <https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cover-story/cover-story-2020-12-14> [accessed: 16 December 2020].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Greg Garrard, ‘Worlds Without Us: Some Types of Disanthropy’, SubStance, 41:1 (2012), pp. 40-60, <http://www.jstor.com/stable/23261102>, [accessed: 8 December 2020].

[4] Wallace Stevens, ‘110. From His Journal, February 27 1906’, Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. by Holly Stevens (Berkley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1996), p. 88.

[5] Zambrano-Monserrate, Manuel A., Maria Alejandra Ruano, and Luis Sanches-Alcalde, ‘Indirect effects of Covid-19 on the environment’, Science of The Total Environment, 728 (2020), pp. 1-4, <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138813>, [accessed: 16 December 2020].

[6] Guardian, ‘Before and After’, 11 November 2020 <https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/nov/11/before-and-after-the-start-of-englands-second-lockdown-in-pictures> [accessed: 8 December 2020].

[7] Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (London: Virgin, 2008), p. 214, cited in Greg Garrard, ‘Worlds Without Us: Some Types of Disanthropy’, SubStance, 41:1 (2012), pp. 40-60 <http://www.jstor.com/stable/23261102> [accessed: 8 December 2020].

[8] Wallace Stevens, ‘The Snow Man’, Poetry Foundation (1921) <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45235/the-snow-man-56d224a6d4e90> [accessed: 8 December 2020].

[9] Stevens, l. 15.

[10] Stevens, ll. 5, 6.

[11] Stevens, ll. 4, 7, 10.

[12] Stevens, l. 15.

[13] Stevens, ll. 8, 9.

[14] Stevens, l. 10.

Images in Figures [1] to [3] are the author’s own.

[1] Stevens viewed the painting at the American Art Gallery in the United States, as noted in his journal. The correct location of the Gallery cannot be confirmed.

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