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Nature as a metaphor

A new, transformed picture of nature emerges in literature, out of the amalgamation of social, psychological, linguistic factors

Nature as a metaphor

Literature has typically been defined in relation to society or individual.  The assumption that ‘literature mirrors social and economic reality’ has been the central theme of sociological and Marxist schools of criticism. On the other hand modernist critics have regarded literature as a means of exploring, defining and transliterating mysteries of individual self.

Although proponents of these critical views have engaged in the never-ending debate, often refuting each other, they share an unchallenged belief that literature can’t go beyond the reality created by humans. Their concept of human-made reality seems confined to social and psychological aspects, deplorably suppressing the role of biology and environment.

At least in the critical writings of the above mentioned schools of criticism, the social and psychological spheres appear functioning in some hollow, ethereal world, absolutely devoid of biological basis.

Interestingly, the words of environment, nature in English or mahol, fitrat and faza in Urdu have been employed all along, but they have been regarded as metaphors of social or political habitat. Sahir Ludhianvi says:


[Don’t sing a song of love now. Environment of life is not pleasant yet.]

By resorting to popular Marxist reasoning here Hayat ka Mahol Sazgar Nahi has been interpreted as disagreeable surroundings of social life, notwithstanding Hayat ka Mahol that seems to be signifying the overall, natural and social, environment of total life.

Similarly in one of Zafar Iqbal’s couplets the word of surrounding or faza is used in wider perspective:


[In my (inner) surroundings order of universe is something different. Not surprisingly your moon might appear star to me.]
Creativity doesn’t believe in just mirroring but in building and constructing. There might be only two invariable constants in the realm of creativity.

It has traditionally been understood as the inner order of poet’s or narrator’s self, disregarding the fact that in order for human experience to become meaningful it might have to conglomerate around the universe. What a wonderful couplet Mohammad Izhar ul Haq has offered that testifies our viewpoint:


[Our foundation is laid on water and our bodies are made of clay.]

In classical Urdu poetry, too, we find an array of representations of nature, ranging from the manifold imagery of gulistan (garden) to birds and animals: gul, bulbul, bahar, khazan,saba, naseem,sahar, sham, patay, bootay, mah, aftab, and deer and lion and many more. All these words were deemed symbols, i.e., representing something other than their denotative purport. In modern poetry, the natural world was thought to have a stronger symbolic significance. Desert, river, ocean, clouds, mountains, snow, rain, flowers, wolf, dog and a number of other things of nature were employed by modernist writers to signify metaphysical and historical dimensions or the dark sides of human experience. Aftab Husain, a relatively younger postmodern poet, says:


[While crossing desert of my own self, the orchard of your body springs in mind.]

Urdu criticism has been keen to expound these words from the world of nature as an arbitrary representation of some intricate parts, aspects or facets of human experience. It has least addressed the question: why were these words from nature selected by creative writers to represent their real or imagined experience? Just to endorse that poetry is essentially a metaphoric process? Or to show the postulate that literature is the reflection of human-made reality and is nothing more than a myth? May it not be that these creative writers have been making us believe, though in some esoteric way, that nature forms an essential part of perception of reality, and social and psychological beings are not inherently separated from nature?

These questions have rarely caught the attention of our critics. Ecocriticsim has provided us with a new perspective to look, in a challenging way, at the concept of human-made reality reflected in literature.

Ecocriticism, since its inception in early 1990s, has brought the convoluted relation of literature and ecology into mainstream critical discourse. Inspired by the disastrous effects of overpopulation and never-ending technological advancements over nature, ecocriticism has tried to see the probabilities of creative imagination in combating the biggest challenge of saving the environment.

For this purpose the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) was founded in 1992 in the US. In the beginning it had only 54 members who were mostly writers and organisations working for the environment, belonging to Europe and Asia, but by 2012 the number of members reached 1,000. A kind of activism, almost the same we have observed in the movements of feminism and post colonialism, can be seen right from the beginning of ecocriticism. It might be called a movement of resistance against the colonisation of the nature. A large number of anthologies of ecocriticism have been complied in English and some Western countries have established chairs of environmental studies of literature.

Unfortunately no Pakistani University has yet even felt the importance of institutionalising the relation of literature and natural environment.

Saving and serving nature through literature might be termed as the motto of ecocriticism, at least in its initial stages. But it has gone through many stages of development, revising its initial postulates and broadening its scope and tackling epistemological issues which were overlooked in the beginning.

Some critics have studied nature writings relying on a kind of naïve realism, seeing literature as a true picture of nature. In this regard, one can quote examples from Mir Taqi Mir’s Masnavis and Nazeer Akbar Abadi’s and Akhtar Sheerani’s poems. But this kind of study takes things for granted, and it is done at the cost of concealing or mutilating some basic epistemological question. Being essentially a literary and analytical activity, ecocriticism cannot afford to overlook a basic epistemological question — of how outside reality is perceived by a creative mind, and what kind of role language and discourses or narratives of time play in the formation of reality.

In reality, creative imagination dissolves, dissipates and melts existing concepts and things into new ones. Nature and narratives, outside and inside worlds, both are questioned, metamorphosed and symbolised by a creative mind. Creativity doesn’t believe in just mirroring but in building and constructing. There might be only two invariable constants in the realm of creativity: metamorphosing and empathy. In simple terms, literature may aim at reflecting the true picture of nature but it cannot. A rupture, a break, a split remains always there between a word and a thing or concept.

In actuality, we come across a new, transformed picture of nature in literature borne out of the amalgamation of social, psychological, linguistic factors. Desert of self is neither real desert nor imaginary nor a hollow metaphorical one but a blend of both.

Empathy might be termed as a second constitutive characteristic of creative mind. Empathy with people, with one’s own self and with nature has been present in all creative writings. No doubt, belief in some particular literary theory might influence the degree of empathy but can’t erase it completely. We can say that employing nature in a symbolic meaning will keep the nature functioning. In this regard Majeed Amjid’s Tousee i Shahr (Extension of city) can be quoted written in the backdrop of cutting trees standing along a canal to extend the city of Sahiwal.

بIt doesn’t require elaborating that empathy with carcasses of trees is at its height in these lines. Plight of nature has turned into the plight of humans. Destruction of nature heralds annihilation of human being. Social, psychological and natural realities are intertwined. Realms of matter and metaphor, body and mind, thing and concept have been glued together by empathy.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar

Dr-Nasir-Abbas-Nayyar copy
The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel e Jadid (criticism) and Farishta Nahi Aya (short stories).

One comment

  • A very good analysis.

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