Tuesday, February 11, 2014

More on John Muir and the Aesthetics of Nature

John Muir can be taken as a guide to the aesthetics of nature, one that would point us in a somewhat different direction than is predominant today.  In a Hegelian fashion, I propose Muir as providing a dialectical synthesis between the antithetical positions of an art-centered approach to aesthetics and a science-based approach.  Actually, I would go beyond this artificially triadic way of looking at it an include two other approaches that synthesize well in Muir's thought:  the religious or transcendentalist and the somaesthetic.  In my last post I argued that Muir took an art-based approach to appreciation of nature as often as he took a science-based approach.  Sometimes in the past I have argued for pluralism in this regard.  Now I think that something more than pluralism is needed:  that what we need is an approach that synthesizes the best of the various traditions of nature appreciation.  Muir, and in particular his "A Near View of the High Sierras," is my model for this synthesis.  Thus, whereas most contemporary aestheticians of nature take some form of cognitivism as their touchstone, scientific cognitivism being the most widely accepted view currently, I will take Muir's synthesis of the art-based approach, the scientific, the transcendentalist and the somaesthetic, as the touchstone. 

Since the somaesthetic dimension is the least discussed I will comment on that first.  (Richard Shusterman first developed the idea of somaesthetics and has elaborated it in his many books and articles.) There is an aesthetic of mountaineering and an embodied activity and this has a lot to do with paying very close attention the relationship between one's body (particularly the hands and feet) and the immediate environment.  It also means being highly aware of where one's body is in relation to massive natural phenomena.  Muir writes:  "All my first day was pure pleasure; simply mountaineering indulgence, crossing the dry pathways of the ancient glaciers, tracing happy streams...."  The emphasis here is with what he is doing...crossing, tracing, and so forth.  Muir speaks of "groping my way, and dealing instinctively with every obstacle as it presented itself."  This is somaesthetic engagement with the natural environment.  Another passage that stresses the somaesthetic dimension is:  "After gazing spellbound, I began instinctively to scrutinize every notch and gorge and weathered buttress of the mountain, with reference to making the ascent."  This may seem to many to be a practical matter having nothing to do with aesthetics, but I think of it as part of his "pleasure of mountaineering."  This is why the very next sentence (after this seemingly purely practical passage) is put in evocative images:  "The entire front above the glacier appeared as one tremendous precipice, slightly receding at the top, and bristling with spires and pinnacles set above one another in formidable array."  Muir is still concerned here with the physical task ahead of him, but he puts it in terms that are evocative of the sublime.  Once again, the arts-based approach to aesthetic experience is evident here in his references to architecture, for example in his talk of spires and then latter of "massive lichen-stained battlements" and "crumbling buttresses" (70).  This way of looking at things is lasting for Muir as he brings it up again when he says, "I thus made my way into a wilderness of crumbling spires and battlements, built together in bewildering combination, and glazed in many places with a thing coating of ice, which I had to hammer off with stones."  Here the somaesthetic experience is synthesized with imaginative viewing of the landscape as though it were art.

The religious or transcendental dimension of Muir's aesthetics of nature is often disregarded by contemporary aestheticians.  I think that they are worried about seeming to be mystical or religious.  Noel Carroll in his "On Being Moved by Nature:  Between Religion and Natural History" (also found in Carlson and Lintott's text) takes  great pains, for example, to distinguish between his secular sense of "being moved" and a religious perspective.  Readers of this blog can refer back to my entries on aesthetic atheism to get an idea about my views on religion.  In short, I am an atheist but also believe that religious experience can be immensely valuable:  I see it as a kind of aesthetic experience.  Carroll is worried about reducing being moved by nature to "a residue of religious feeling" or what T. J. Diffey refers to as "a refuge of displaced religious emotions."   Carroll thinks that the emotions aroused "can be fully secular and have no call to be demystified as displaced religious sentiment." (171)  Talking about religious sentiment as "displaced" or as "residue" in this case does sound pretty negative.  Let us turn again to Muir for illumination.

Muir, writing in 1894, is not squeamish about talking about God.  He may actually have believed in God.  His accounts of natural beauty are immensely moving, but cannot (to use the term against Carroll) be reduced to something that has no religious dimension at all.  The religious language is also often incorporated into the poetic description as a series of religious metaphors.  Notice the terms "evangel" and "redemption" in the following description of the cassiope:

"I met cassiope, growing in fringes among the battered rocks.  Her blossoms had faded long ago, but they were still clinging with happy memories to the evergreen sprays, and still so beautiful as to thrill every fiber of one's being.  Winter and summer, you may hear her voice, the low, sweet melody of her purple bells.  No evangel among all the mountain plants speaks Nature's love more plainly than cassiope.  Where she dwells, the redemption of the coldest solitude is complete.  The rocks and glaciers seem to feel her presence, and become imbued with her own fountain sweetness...I strode on exhilarated, as if never more to feel fatigue, limbs moving of themselves, every sense unfolding like the thawing flowers, to take part in the new day harmony."

This is a fine example of the synthesis of perspectives I have been talking about.  The arts-based perspective is found in the evocation of music in the "sweet melody" and the reference to bells.  The somaesthetic can be found in the exhilaration in which one feels no fatigue (Shusterman writes about various somaesthetic practices that can turn body functioning into such an art.)  The imaginative dimension (which I had not brought up earlier) is found in the happy memories; the religious in the reference to Nature's love and to redemption; and the scientific in accurate description of the flower.  

Another passage that does much of this is, "How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!  To behold this alone is worth the pains of any excursion a thousand times over.  The highest peaks burned like islands in a sea of liquid shade.  Then the lower peaks and spires caught the glow, the long lances of light, streaming through many a notch and pass, fell thick on the frozen meadows.  The majestic form of Ritter was full in sight..." (69)

I cannot leave this post without mentioning the most dramatic somatic moment in this writing by Muir.  While climbing Mt. Ritter, he comes to a point where he cannot find a hold and seems stuck and ready to fall, and is naturally terrified.  He then writes, "But this terrible eclipse [his moment of terror] lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness.  I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense.  The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel, - call it what you will, - came forward and assumed control.  Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock as seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision which I seemed to have nothing at all to do."  (72)  Muir describes here an experience that is at once mystical (but without any specific ontological or theological commitment), somatic, and aesthetic.  This was clearly a profound moment in his life and certainly the climax of the story.  

At this point when one turns to the Carroll and his concern with whether the sentence "The Grand Tetons are majestic" can be appropriate, correct and true, one thinks that perhaps something is being missed here.  Carroll writes: "we may be emotionally moved by a natural expanse - excited, for instance, by a towering waterfall.  All things being equal, being excited by the grandeur of something that one believes to be of a large scale is an appropriate emotional response."  Sure, but what about what happened to Muir during that moment on Mt. Ritter:  is that an "appropriate emotional response" or is it too religious for Carroll's taste?  I do not disagree with Carroll that "many of our emotional responses to nature have a straightforwardly secular basis," and I am sure we will find good evolutionary explanations for the kind of experience Muir has described.  I just would not want to limit a non-religious or secular perspective to one that cannot give honor to this kind of experience.  

With respect to evolutionary explanation, Carroll explains our survival interest in certain landscape by saying "open vistas give us a sense of security insofar as we can see there is no threat approaching."  Perhaps, and yet there is nothing in Muir's descriptions of the landscape views from Mt. Ritter that indicates he was motivated in the least by concern for approaching threats.  If someone says, "Your quasi-mystical experience is explained in secular terms by a great ancestor of yours feeling more secure when looking out on a landscape from a great height" this does not tell us much, even if true, about the aesthetic nature of that experience.  On the other hand, Carroll also gives an evolutionary explanation of another type of aesthetic experience:  at one point he found himself in an arbor "carpeted by layers of decaying foliage and moss" and he "imagined that in such a situation we might feel a sense of solace, repose, and homeyness."  He thinks this might be caused "by our tacit recognition of refuge potential"  (184) holding that his emotional response is causally triggered by the usefulness as a refuge.  This feeling, he argues is not residual mysticism but "instinctually grounded."  Carroll is certainly right that being aroused by nature is not always a matter of repressed religious response.  This may be a case here.  Muir himself describes a similar experience, but his description seems to have no religious dimension:  "I made my bed in a nook of the pine-thicket....These are the best bedchambers the high mountains afford - snug as squirrel-nests, well ventilated, full of spicy odors, and with plenty of wind-played needles to sing one to sleep." (68-9).  Here the inspiration is more related to the everyday aesthetics of the home than to transcendent religious experience.

I will close with Muir's description of "the most exciting pieces of pure wilderness...I ever discovered in all my mountaineering."  This is the highest point of nature aesthetics, on my Muirian view (note that he refers to all of this as a picture...he truly is an advocate of the picturesque, but in this case as synthesized with the sublime!):  "There, immediately in front, loomed the majestic mass of Mount Ritter, with a glacier swooping down its face nearly to my feet, then curving westward and pouring its frozen flood into a dark blue lake...the glacier separated the massive picture from everything else.  I could see only the one sublime mountain, the one glacier, the one lake; the whole veiled with one blue shadow."  It is right after this that he goes into the scrutinizing I earlier described as introducing a somaesthetic element to his experience.


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