Carla Sassi

The Underworld Ecologies of John Burnside and Robert Macfarlane

Two among the most environmentally committed writers in Britain, both Burnside and Macfarlane have often engaged with local and transnational landscapes. John Burnside’s dystopian novel Glister (2008) and Robert Macfarlane’s travelogue-essay Underland (2019) both engage with the apocalyptic vision of environmental collapse. Burnside sets his narrative in a bleak, isolated fictional region, devastated by a chemical plant which has spawned human fatalities and engendered new, strange forms of life. Macfarlane undertakes a long spatio-temporal journey across the history and below the surface of the planet in search of evidence of the depth of Anthropocene impact. While the texts under consideration may be seen as distinct from each other in terms of creative approach and style, they display a similar deployment of the transcultural and transtemporal myth of the descent into the underworld as a search of knowledge and/or a path to resurrection. Their haunting journeys down into the realm of the dead, into an invisible region where secret worlds and truths are locked in labyrinthine darkness, collapse all borders — those separating the visible form the invisible, past from present, death from life, local from global — promoting a radical posthuman subjectivity, as well as an ‘entangled’ redefinition of the local.

Carla Sassi, University of Verona, Italy