For Nature (with apologies to Huysmans)
Sunday, January 13, 2013 3:26:27 PM
I admire Huysmans to a point that borders on reverence, but there are some questions on which I am not entirely in sympathy with him. Here is, I think, a fairly famous passage from A Rebours:
Artifice, besides, seemed to Des Esseintes the final distinctive mark of man's genius.
Nature had had her day, as he put it. By the disgusting sameness of her landscapes and skies, she had once for all wearied the considerate patience of asthetes. Really, what dullness! the dullness of the specialist confined to his narrow work. What manners! the manners of the tradesman offering one particular ware to the exclusion of all others. What a monotonous storehouse of fields and trees! What a banal agency of mountains and seas!
There is not one of her inventions, no matter how subtle or imposing it may be, which human genius cannot create; no Fontainebleau forest, no moonlight which a scenic setting flooded with electricity cannot produce; no waterfall which hydraulics cannot imitate to perfection; no rock which pasteboard cannot be made to resemble; no flower which taffetas and delicately painted papers cannot simulate.
There can be no doubt about it: this eternal, driveling, old woman is no longer admired by true artists, and the moment has come to replace her by artifice.
It would be easy to counter with the monotony with the British high street, the monotony of MacDonalds and so on. Let's be honest, how convincingly does even CGI reproduce nature?
This is not exactly the point I want to make, although it's related. Huysmans made a valuable statement about the beauty and potential of artifice. What I want to say, however, is that I don't believe nature has had her day, and I don't even wish for such a state of affairs. Certainly nature is suffering considerable depredations on planet Earth at present, but I want to explain here why I wish nature to survive, and not merely as a tamed or genetically managed garden.
Huysmans is making a distinction between the human and the natural. It's a distinction that is - rightly - being questioned today, but let's stick to it for the moment. What is the difference between humanity and nature? I would say that nature contains humanity, but humanity is only a small part of nature. Which part? The self-aware part. But, actually, we don't even know that human self-awareness is the only self-awareness in existence, so let us say that nature is everything that remains opaque (and therefore 'other') to human consciousness.
People who dislike nature (within which we are contained) give varying reasons, and I'm sure I can't cover them all here. Some talk of the savagery of nature - the law of the jungle and all that. We've also seen Huysmans' objections, which a great many would agree with. However, this is why I hope that humanity continues to respect nature: because nature offers us freedom.
Ah, some people may say, that's not right: nature traps us in physical bodies, and in an environment where we have to fight to survive. This is true, and I also chafe at the bonds of nature for these reasons. However, I would say that nature gives us freedom from the power conflicts that are ubiquitous in human society. But, comes the counter-argument, power conflicts are precisely what we have inherited from nature. Social Darwinism. Alpha males. Etc. Yes, this is also true, but only in a physical sense. Where we differ from nature, I suggest, is that we have taken this same power struggle over into the conceptual realm.
When I walk between trees in a wooded river valley - for instance - I feel relatively free. Relatively? Well, yes, humans are still with me in my thoughts, and to that extent, I am not free, but I am aware of the absence of humans and of the physical culture of humans, and this feels good. The flowers I pass do not produce blossoms with adverts for Coca Cola and Nike trainers. The wind in the leaves does not say to me, "You are not properly following the Dao; you'd better get a think on!" The butterflies I pass do not care whether I have an ego or not. The heron in the stream is not asking me to vote for it. The ivy is not selling me a book that tells me how to think for myself. The black ants are not urging me to unite with them against the red ants. The deadly nightshade does not condemn me to hell for unnatural desires. And so on.
It seems to me that the human mind largely works by accumulating, sifting, piecing together, and so on, what might be called 'possessive finitudes' - 'this belongs to me' or 'I belong to this'. Don't get me wrong. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with these. Unlike some people, I have never been sufficiently convinced of the evil of the ego that I condemn the mere existence of the ego in anyone at all. In fact, I tend to believe that the ego makes the world a more interesting place by far, especially as it is specifically the ego that is capable of being interested. Problems, I believe, arise when there is nothing but ego.
To explain what I mean by possessive finitudes a bit further - let's say that St.Paul tried to explain something about the infinity beyond the ego. In doing so, he helped found a church (which has become many churches), which is a possessive finitude. It is finite because it is smaller than the cosmos in which it exists, and it is possessive because people belong to it or not, identify with it or not. Other possessive finitudes are commercial companies, governments, nations, manufactured objects, races, genders, and so on. Anything, in fact, that a human can conceptualise with a sense of belonging.
Eckhart Tolle, by the way, in an apparent attempt to circumvent what I am calling possessive finitudes, avoids using the word 'God' to describe connection with that which is beyond possessive finitudes. He uses, instead, the word 'being', because, he has said, "no one owns being". This is a fine sentiment, but do you not - I do - get the feeling that 'being' is now something like an Eckhart Tolle registered trademark? Even 'now' is pretty much a Tolleism now. This, sadly, seems to be the tendency of the human mind. How can it be avoided? It's not enough to make up new words, because these become possessive finitudes soon enough.
I would suggest that nature is the gateway to a sense of infinity/eternity that is the antidote to possessive finitudes, because the conceptual power struggle does not exist there - only the physical one. It is in our minds that we must be free. It is in our minds - nowhere else - that we must kill the Buddha. Let me reiterate - I don't think there is anything wrong with possessive finitudes in themselves. It is quite possible that they are not only necessary, in any self-aware species, but also desirable. I do, however, think there is a danger of them blotting out everything else the way that city lights blot out the stars in the night sky.
By the way - here's a little case study of how infinity and possessive finitudes can co-exist: In the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, much or most of the attraction, I would say, comes from the sense of infinity, which is referred to sometimes as his "cosmicism". His possessive finitudes show up in the racism that makes most of his undesirable humans people of colour. Bad example? Lovecraft is unhealthy? Perhaps so, but only from the point of view of such possessive finitudes as 'mental health', 'political correctness' and so on. If Lovecraft took a walk in the woods, he could conceivably be attacked by a she-bear if she thought he was an immediate threat to her offspring. But I dare say the grass beneath his feet could not care less whether it was trampled by someone who was racist or enlightened. This is infinity. As Betjeman puts it:
Here where the cliffs alone prevail
I stand exultant, neutral, free,
And from the cushion of the gale
Behold a huge consoling sea.
All of this I write because I believe we are at a point in human history where technology - which is built on possessive finitudes - may cut off the vista of free infinity forever. If the transhumanists get their way, we will all have internalised the technologies that are branches of the possessive finitudes of whoever happens to have most power and money at that time. How do nature, spirit and creativity meet? I would suggest - in dream. Unless the transhumans are thwarted, I fear, even our dreams will not be our own. Our dreams, like everything else, will be engineered for us. Our access to infinity will cease.