Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Emerson on Beauty Again

This post will be on "The Nature of Beauty" a selection from Emerson's Nature: Addresses and Lectures (1849) which appears in Carlson and Lintott's textbook Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism.  I had posted before on Emerson on beauty here.  

What interests me most about Emerson is seeing his vision as a kind of foil for the most commonly held view concerning the aesthetics of the natural environment, scientific cognitivism.  This passage from Emerson ironically appears at the beginning of a textbook compiled by aestheticians who favor scientific cognitivism.  

An interesting feature of Emerson's approach to nature not shared by contemporary aestheticians of nature is stress on the idea of return to childhood:  "few adult persons can see nature."  For example we may see the sun but we do so, as adults, only in a superficial way:  "The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child."  So the lover of nature becomes as a child.  Emerson speaks of this in terms of of a harmony of inward and outward senses.  This is achieved only when the adult "has retained the spirit of infancy."  When this happens there is "a wild delight" that "runs through the man" and makes all his sorrows and griefs seem small.  This leads to appreciation of all seasons of nature, not just the summer:  "every hour and change corresponds to an authorizes a different state of mind."  One of my favorite lines is the following: "Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.  I am glad to the bring of fear." This is something we can all relate to, even atheists.  Emerson connects this to becoming a child once again.  In the very next sentence he writes, "In the woods too, a man casts off his years...and at what period soever of life, is always a child."  The response to nature of becoming like a child is not discussed in the aesthetics of nature literature I know.  Even Kant, who talks about the free play of imagination and understanding in aesthetic experience, does not associate this play with child-likeness.  Scientific cognitivism as a position in the aesthetics of nature could not accept this stance since scientific cognition is a matter for adults, not children or the child-in-us.  For Emerson, this childlikeness is even a moment of a kind of pleasant false belief:  in the woods "I feel that nothing can befall me in life...which nature cannot repair."  I feel "uplifted into infinite space" and my sense of ego vanishes.  Emerson then writes, famously, "I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."  Whether an atheist can have these same feelings is open to question.  But he or she can certainly get part of the way there, for example in becoming like a child and in feeling as if one's ego as dissolved.   For Emerson, immortal beauty can only be found in the the wilderness: "In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages."  But I wonder why such feelings cannot be had in urban settings as well. 

In my earlier post on this topic I discussed Emerson's view of the eye as the "best of artists."  He also speaks in the same paragraph of light as "the first of painters."  Indeed, "there is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful."  It can give the sense  "a sort of infinitude" which makes "all matter gay."  I think of the experience of walking through my neighborhood at sunset or at sunset and seeing everything in a golden glow of light, so that even the uglier homes are beautiful.  The opposite of this is certain gray days when everything seems tawdry.  

Emerson says "almost all the individual forms [of nature] are agreeable to the eye, as is proved by our endless imitations of them, as the acorn, the grape, the pine-cone...."   This makes me think of the works of my artist friend Judith Miller who captures the spirit of Emerson by taking little hand-sized pieces of nature and incorporating their images into her paintings.

Emerson stresses that city inhabitants only favor the country half the year, and yet every season has its beauties.  We today do not have a problem with this idea.  He goes further to stress that "each moment of the year has its own beauty" to the attentive eye, and further that such an eye could even notice the different unique beauties at different hours of the day, for example as different insects come out.  It is therefore implied that some people are better appreciators of nature than others, those who attend to these changes. We should bear in mind that Emerson is not talking necessarily about untrammeled or pristine nature.  He sees beauties as changing in the countryside based on changing agricultural conditions:  "The state of the crop in the surrounding farms alters the expression of the earth from week to week."   Emerson has special admiration for the river which is a "perpetual gala" which art cannot rival.  However, he then expresses the puzzling view that "this beauty of Nature which is seen and felt as beauty, is the least part" and that if these beauties are sought out consciously, "eagerly hunted," then they will be "mere shows" and will "mock us with their unreality."  The moon will be "mere tinsel" unless viewed when it "shines upon your necessary journey."  His idea seems to be that only when we observe these things in the course of practical activity are they beautiful, or perhaps that it is better to be caught unawares by beauty than to seek it out. But perhaps this talk about beauty as mere tinsel when not related to human action is a lead in to the higher, spiritual element to beauty, which is "essential to its perfection."  This higher type of beauty is "combined with the human will" and especially virtue and "natural action."  Here follows one my favorite quotes:  "Every heroic act is also decent, and causes the place and the bystanders to shine."  Contemporary aestheticians of nature do not make this distinction or discuss it at all, and yet it is arguable that there is a deeper form of natural beauty, one that is connected to human action. 

Another favorite passage is "To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone.  The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again.  In their eternal calm, he finds himself.  The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon."  Would that we could have this experience so immediately today.  And yet, when I pull myself away from my study and take a walk, I head where I can see greater distances.

Emerson does not leave art out of analysis entirely.  He writes "The creation of beauty is Art" and "The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity.  A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world.  It is the result or expression of nature, in miniature."  Works of nature cannot be counted and all all different, and "what is common to them all, that perfectness and harmony, is beauty."  So "the standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms, the totality of nature" and nothing is beautiful alone, individual objects being beautiful only insofar as they suggest universal beauty.  "The poet, the painter...seek each to concentrate this radiance of the world on one point, and each in his several work to satisfy the love of beauty..."  So Art is nature passed through man.  

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