Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The (harrowing, frightening) Aesthetics of Nature

Fun fact, this is a watered down and heavily re-written version of an essay I submitted at university! As such, I am drawing heavily from the lectures of Dr Tom Greaves, and the work of the philosopher R.W. Hepburn. All the Nietzsche is from The Birth of Tragedy. Further, the tone may be a bit uneven, as some of this was written before I found my 'blog-voice.'

I also promise to never use the expression 'blog-voice' again.

I am very lucky.

Literally half-an-hour from my house
I live very close to the South Downs, an extensive and deeply beautiful landscape of hills, fields, little towns, rivers and less picturesque signs of modernity (i.e. pylons and antennae). I enjoy the view literally daily, and go walking on it as often as possible, at least weekly. As such, I do not think that it is bold of me to say that I have cultivated a taste for the aesthetic of nature. This does not translate into a knowledge of it in a scientific or geographical sense (the only trees I can confidently identify are 'silver birch' and 'weeping willow'), but I do certainly appreciate the view, the feeling of the wind, the way the landscape changes over the year. This comes from frequent exposure and contemplation, and is not, in that respect, different from learning to appreciate, for example, an unfamiliar genre of music.

But, the aesthetic of nature is very different from the aesthetic of a painting in an art gallery- not 'better,' of course, merely different. How so? In several ways, the most important being that there is a clear line of demarcation between the piece of art (painting, sculpture etc.) on display, and the spectator observing and (hopefully) enjoying it. Now, there's no reason why art cannot play around with this boundary, challenge it, render it ambiguous or even obsolete entirely, but it is still present in a way that it isn't when we consider the spectator in nature. When I go for a walk on the Downs, I am a part of the environment I am enjoying; my passage through changes it in a literal sense, and also in a more philosophical sense in that my passage through the landscape allows it reveal itself to me in ways that would remain otherwise hidden. Which is a grand way of saying: my presence allows the landscape to show itself as a landscape, my experiencing of it allows it be something experienced and interacted with. This is a constantly changing flow as I pass through it, the view changes, the experiencing shifting as I, say, depart from my usual pathway and climb up a hill I've never been up before.

Naturally, the art piece in the gallery still needs an observer there to render it an object of observation, but there is still that boundary between observer and observed that is rendered essentially obsolete in the experience of the natural landscape. What us more, it is clear where the 'art' stops and the 'gallery' (or museum or whatever) begins, where the object of aesthetic contemplation is present and where it is not. Again, this is something that art can (and I imagine does) challenge, but this is also something that is very different in the experience of nature. It is not clear where the aesthetic object begins and ends when we are considering nature. Hepburn observes that a passing train whistle cannot become a part of the symphony it intrudes on, but it certainly can become part of the experience we are having of the natural landscape, and add to our experience of it.

R.W. Hepburn suggests that the primary way we experience the aesthetic of nature is as a relationship with a perceived unity. Hepburn gives us four examples of this experiential unity: 
  1. Movement from the isolated particular to greater, contextual unity. Consider- you are observing a tree. You allow your gaze to wander down the tree trunk to its roots, and then you consider the soil, the grass, the insect life moving about and then the other trees moving up from it. You comprehension of the single tree is cast into a new light by the realisation that it is not solitary, but rather is on the outskirts of a forest. You might object that it would be a funny kind of walker who doesn't notice that they are approaching a forest, but that is not the point. The point that they did not notice its significance. The nature of this mode of unity is the realisation not of the unity of the subject with the object, but rather the recognition that the 'isolated particular' appears in a context of unity with other things, and that it is not isolated at all: it occurs within a web of other things, without which it could not be as it is.
  2. The second form, that of the ‘humanising’ or ‘spiritualising’ of nature is only noted, and not discussed, by Hepburn. I will thus follow his lead and leave this form of unity to one side, and merely use it as a stepping stone to a third form, the more distinct and definite form of ‘humanising’ nature which he discusses at length. 
  3. The ‘humanising’ of nature blends with the ‘naturising’ of the human. That is, it is the breakdown of strong distinctions between human qualities and ‘natural’ qualities. One example that Hepburn gives is the ‘reading into’ nature of our emotional vocabulary- describing a solitary tree on a hill as ‘lonely,’ for instance. We feel, oddly, a kind of empathy with the object of our aesthetic contemplation. Hepburn goes on to say that we notice similarities between the patterns on a leaf and our own blood vessels; in this mode of unifying experience, we begin to realise that the boundaries between us and the natural scene are not as definitive as they first appeared to be. We feel ourselves transformed by the experience.
  4. The fourth form of unity is rather odd; it is the experience of the cessation of conflict with nature. One no longer stands against nature, but rather with and within nature. We are reconciled with nature in its otherness. 
It should go without saying that these 'modes' are not intended to be read as definitive and distinct from one another, the blur together and mesh with one another. Rather, these are intended to be read as broad currents found within the aesthetic contemplation of nature. Now, I don't think Hepburn intends this list to be read as exhaustive, he is merely attempting to delineate grounds for conversation and experience. As such, I am going to propose I am going to propose a further 'mode' of unity- the loss of 'self' in the face of nature.

I dub this, 'the traumatic feeling of unity.'

The following is a recount of an aesthetic experience I have had myself: I was walking along the coast, going along a concrete esplanade beneath a cliff. It was night time, no one else was around and no direct light was illuminating my journey, only the ambient glow of street lights and traffic from the main road above me. The sea seemed more like an abyss or void than a large occupied space, and a strong wind was blowing in from it. I have a feeling I might have been listening to Joy Division.

Quite suddenly, only half-aware of what I was doing, I felt the need to stop and raise my arms up. I simply wanted to feel the wind rushing over me, to feel part of it, but more than that: I wanted to have my sense of self obliterated in the force of the wind; I wanted to be lost to it and to be defeated by it. I felt subordinated to the force of it and lost in it. I had what one might describe to be an experience of unity with the wind, but a unity which I can only liken to the Dionysian experience of Nietzsche. It was not happy, nor was it comfortable. The only aesthetic analogies I can draw are comparisons with being lost in particularly potent forms of music.

That being said, it was very important that this was not an experience of the Dionysian ecstasy of music, it was one born out of experiencing nature. The abyss of the ocean was not rationally reminding me or forming a symbolic image of the mystery of existence, rather it was that very mystery. The power and force of the wind did not stimulate me on an intellectual level to consider the 'frailty of my humanity before the forces of nature,' it was the very fact of my frailty made clear to me. Interestingly, a similar note to this can be found in Heidegger, where when discussing the nature of the work of art, he puts it that ‘[the statue of a god] is not a portrait whose purpose is to make it easier to realize how the god looks; rather, it is a work that lets the god himself be present and thus is the god himself.’ ['The Origin of the Work of Art'] Further, we see in this more of Hepburn’s ideas of the ‘reading in to’ nature, but rather than this being the usage of natural phenomena as a kind of symbol or stand-in for human emotions, it is the very manifestation of those emotions, manifesting in that I am no longer distinct from nature. In that, I felt both a kind of ‘cease-fire’, a ‘letting be’ of nature, but more than that I felt myself swamped and lost in it. As I felt the weight of the wind I felt the illusory barriers between myself as a subject and nature as an object dissolve. This was not a case of the humanising of nature, it was nature transforming my sense of self specifically qua my relationship with nature at that very instant. More than that also, my feeling of myself as a self was lost in it, I felt that kind of ‘mystical oneness’ with nature Nietzsche comments on and Hepburn suggests, but it bore far more of the violence and trauma of the Dionysian than of Hepburn’s gentle considerations of the idyllic scene. I felt baffled, confused, even frightened by it. I felt reason breakdown before the experience of pure sensation, I felt the loss of the principium individuationis. Hepburn does not speak of these things, but they are important aspects of the feeling of unity with nature, and the message ought to be clear: the feeling of unity with nature does not come without cost. Indeed, Nietzsche speaks of the Apollinian as being ‘the inevitable products of a glance into the terrible depths of nature: light-patches, we might say, to heal the gaze seared by terrible night.’

This isn't to deny that it can be beautiful...

It's just to say that beauty can be haunting, even disturbing...

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