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Literature and the Crime against Nature: Book Review

What is this crime against nature? Keith Sagar, author and editor of over twenty books on literature, including studies of the creative works and lives of D. H. Lawrence and Ted Hughes, in his recently published "Literature and the Crime against Nature," answers this question through an insightful, probing examination of a common theme expressing itself in the works of Shakespeare, Ted Hughes, D. H. Lawrence, Whitman and many other great writers.

The thesis of Sagar's "Literature and the Crime Against Nature" is that literature has a crucial contribution to make in helping us to recognize and reaffirm our relationship with nature, showing us that in a deep and primal way, our emotional well-being depends on our willingness to embrace the earth-bound, natural part of ourselves. The crime against nature is committed when our instinctual senses and bodily passions, when the procreative female aspects of our nature, are cut off and denied, with the result that our alienated self becomes transformed into a feared and destructive force.

Sagar makes the case that the sundering of man from nature, mind from body, can be traced back 2500 years, when monotheism and a rational attitude to living took hold, leading to the splitting apart of spirit and flesh. Sagar is squarely on the side of D. H. Lawrence in his condemnation of Plato, whom Lawrence holds accountable for the "crucifixion" of the procreative body. Sagar supports the view of those writers who view Christian ideology as having been instrumental in fomenting the rift between the spirit and body, man and nature, with all things evil becoming consigned to the flesh and the natural impulses, and all things good conferred on the spirit. Drawing on the writings of various artists and other evidence, Sagar reveals in a compelling way how the spurning of the sensual, physical world and the schism between the spirit and the natural world contributed to the deadening of Coleridge's imaginative powers, and in similar ways diminished the creative imagination of Wordsworth, Blake and others.

In separate chapters, Sagar examines the writings of Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Euripides, Coleridge, Conrad, Golding, and Hughes, as well as others, bringing to the surface the recurring theme running through their work, namely, how our relationship with nature can have a critical determining impact on our emotional well-being. His essays are thoughtful, and replete with examples. He guides us through an inner territory that is not always self-evident, placing demands on our own imagination, but does so in an approachable way, never alienating us with abstruse academic jargon. In addition to providing us with insights into the mind of the writers whose work he examines, Sagar frequently draws on the ideas of other thinkers in various fields, including Huxley, Jung, Nietzsche, Koestler and Emerson to enrich our understanding. He handles with aplomb notions of hubris, salvation, and atonement. Sagar's familiarity with myth and the ancient language of symbol gives his analyses depth. He shows how the imaginative literature of metaphor and symbol taps into the deepest aspects of our being. In his chapter on Whitman, Sagar shows how his poetry exemplifies a healthy connectedness of spirit and body.

In the foreword, Sagar makes the surprising revelation that the publication of the book was delayed for many years, since until recently sterile, anti-literary forces in the academic world, and the "tyranny of post-modern critical theory," had taken English departments hostage. One hopes that this suppressive wave is receding into obscurity.

It is a sad irony that those who might benefit most from exposure to the timeless message in Sagar's book will not be inclined to read it. "Literature and the Crime Against Nature" deserves a wider readership than students fulfilling a course requirement. Anyone who loves literature and seeks a deeper appreciation of the great literary works and their place in our lives, or who has a curiosity about their own instinctual nature and their relationship with the natural world will be enriched by this book.

For those interested in learning more about Keith Sagar or reading some of his essays on various topics, you can visit his website here.

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