Biophilia and Ecophobia
Biophilia is a term first used by philosopher-psychologist Erich Fromm to describe the sense of vital connection and attraction human beings feel toward all other living things. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson developed the concept further by suggesting biophilia is an unconscious force built into human biology. He has argued that biophilia is what drives us toward deeper interconnection with nature.
Ecophobia is a term first introduced into academic circles by scholar Simon Estok and is defined by him as an “irrational and groundless hatred of the natural world, as present and subtle in our daily lives and literature as homophobia, racism, and sexism.”
The Ecogothic genre acknowledges that both philias and phobias (both attraction and aversion) are always at work in human relationships with the natural world.
In Hilary Scharper’s literary fiction, nature is also understood to have its own, unique kinds of biophilia and ecophobia—that is, attraction to and fear of humans.
Biophilia in the novel “Perdita”
Perdita is Latin for “the lost one”
In the novel, an orphaned child named Perdita is said to have brought biophilia to humans. Purportedly, she is first mentioned in the works of Hesiod (c. 650-750 BCE), a Greek poet who provided one of the earliest histories of the gods. In Hesiod’s “original” account, Perdita accompanies Prometheus after he has stolen fire from the gods and escapes with him to Earth where she gives four kinds of love to human beings. (There is the suggestion that Perdita’s four loves are deeply entangled and thus work together as a “bundle.”) These are:
1. Philia—affection and friendship.
2. Eros—passion and physical desire.
3. Agape—unconditional love.
4. Biophilia—love between all forms of life.
Thus it is a mythological figure (a child named Perdita) who brings biophilia to humans.
Perdita’s story, however, has been “lost” within the western tradition for two reasons. First: emphasis is placed on Prometheus and what he brings to humanity (fire and the promise of mastery over nature). Second, emphasis is given to human-to-human kinds of love (philia, eros and agape) while biophilia is largely ignored. In Hesiod’s so-called “original” account, Perdita is abandoned and rescued by shepherds. She remains largely invisible within (and thus forgotten to) the western tradition—that is, except to those who are open to discovering and appreciating her gift of biophilia.
Perdita’s bundle and the Fates
The novel casts Perdita as an orphaned child once hidden among the Fates—the three sisters in Ancient mythology who determine how long a mortal will live. The metaphor connecting the sisters is “the thread of life.”
Clotho (pictured on the right) is the youngest sister: she spins the “thread of life” from her distaff onto a spindle.
Her sister, Lachesis (on the left) then measures out the amount that is a person’s allotted lifetime.
It is the third sister, Atropos (seated in the background and whose name means “inexorable one”) who cuts the thread and ends a person’s life. Atropos is said to determine both the timing and manner of a mortal’s death.
The Fates may seem rather grim company for a small child, but they have a unique place within Greek mythology. In many accounts, the Fates are depicted as independent entities who ensure that the immutable laws of destiny unfold without interference.
In the novel’s account, however, the Fates occasionally become distracted in their work and make “mistakes.” (The painting by John Strudwick seems to capture a sense of this: Atropos looks thoroughly bored.) The results of their distraction are pieces of “thread” that cannot be accounted for—or in other words, “loose ends.”
The extra pieces of thread are hidden under Lachesis’s robe and it is the lost child, Perdita, who gathers these up and makes bundles out of them.
The Perdita character in William Shakespeare’s play “The Winter’s Tale” is also an abandoned child. King Leontes thinks that his wife (Queen Hermione) has had a child by her lover. The King orders the child’s death but Perdita (the lost one) is rescued by shepherds. (Detail of a painting by A. F. Sandys 1829-1904.)
Gathered in Perdita’s bundle, then, are the “loose ends” associated with all the different forms of love: friendship (philia), erotic love (eros), unselfish love (agape), and biophilia, the love connecting humans and the natural world.
What are particularly important to Perdita are the loose ends of love relationships—for example: romances foiled by circumstance, love that isn’t returned, or love that isn’t acknowledged or even “seen.” Perdita keeps these loose ends (“lost threads” or in Latin fila perdita) because they are never completely dormant. Loose ends are important to mortals because they always offer the possibility of redemption, reconciliation and greater understanding. So Perdita’s gift to humans is an extraordinary one—the possibility of love. It is therefore just as remarkable as Prometheus’s gift of fire (see below).
Perdita’s birth in Greek mythology
In the (so-called) original text of Hesiod’s epic poem, events involving Hephaestus, Pandora and Prometheus unfold in a very different way than in conventional versions. Both the events themselves and their sequence is different in the original, uncensored version (in the novel it is Garth and Clare who discover it). (For a quick review and who’s who of the relevant mythological figures mentioned below, go here.)
A cosmological “love child”
Hephaestus in his forge (detail of painting by Diego Valesquez, 1640)
Even before chaining him to a mountain top, Zeus is very angry with Prometheus for his many tricks. Zeus is also jealous of Prometheus’ friendship for mortals and so Zeus orders his son Hephaestus to make a “beautiful maiden”—a female human (Pandora) who will become the vehicle of Zeus’ revenge. Pandora’s extraordinary beauty is meant to hide what she is really bringing in her “box” to humans: the spirits of pestilence, disease, jealousy, greed, etc. Hephaestus obeys, begins work and creates Pandora.
Pandora peeping in her box—J. W. Waterhouse, 1896
In most stories, Pandora cannot resist looking inside her box (as depicted in Waterhouse’s painting). In Hesiod’s “original text,” however, something else happens: Hephaestus unexpectedly falls in love with Pandora. He doesn’t intend to and initially he resists his impulses, but is ultimately unsuccessful. Perdita is the result of his eventual union with Pandora. She is therefore born without Zeus’s knowledge or approval.
Perdita’s escape with Prometheus
Prometheus steals fire from Zeus (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1916)
Hephaestus and Pandora conceal their “love-child,” but Zeus eventually hears about Perdita and demands that she be handed over to him. The two lovers initially hide her among the Fates and it is here that Perdita is given the task of saving all the “loose ends” of existence. But Perdita is not safe among the Fates: Zeus plans to steal her and so the Fates give her to Prometheus.
Prometheus agrees to hide the child among mortals. Taking her with him while he steals fire from the gods, he gives both Perdita and fire to humans. Humans seize upon fire and begin to use it‚ but they forget about Perdita (and her gift of the fourth love biophilia), and eventually abandon her. Thus she remains lost to humanity, but also always potentially found—the fourth thread (and thus the fullness of her interconnected bundle) always potentially recoverable.
© Hilary Scharper