Thursday, February 5, 2015

Emerson's Deep Aesthetics of Nature

Emerson's book Nature, his first, published in 1836, continues to be a source of inspiration and provoking thought.  If we are looking for an aesthetics of nature which is not committed to an objectivist or physicalist view of nature but rather sees the relation between man an nature as intimate and laden with meaning, then this is a good place to start.  Even in the short "Introduction" Emerson observes that every man's condition is already the solution to the puzzles posed by nature since he acts this solution "in life" before he understands it "as truth."  But what is investigated when we investigate nature?  Emerson sees it in two senses, first as everything that is not me, and second, in the common sense of "essences unchanged by man." These essences are not Platonic Forms, however.  Rather, they include "space, the air, the river, the leaf."  Nonetheless the difference between the two senses of nature is of little importance since he believes that the things that are changed by man (through Art, as in a house, a canal, a statue or a picture) and hence are not nature in the second sense, are matters of simply mixing man's will with the things of nature, i.e. through various activities.  In the end he is hoping to get a true "theory of nature" which will explain all phenomena, especially things like "language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex" under the general heading of creative change.  This is speculative thinking, but hopefully not unsound or frivolous.

The next chapter, titled "Nature," is perhaps the most famous.  The dominant metaphor here, as in the chapter on beauty, is the ball.  It is important to tease out the overall meaning of this metaphor throughout Emerson's thought.  First he speaks of a special sort of solitude that happens in apprehension of the stars at night.  "One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime."  These stars are seen in a poetic way, as being not only "envoys of beauty" but also providing light "with their admonishing smile." He anthropomorphizes them.  He compares them to the "city of God."  But it is not just the stars:  all natural objects impress us in a similar way if we are open ourselves to this possibility.  Thus, "Nature never wears a mean appearance."  This idea is what philosophers now call positive aesthetics of nature.  However, this is not a cognitivist theory.  Clearly what is in mind is something more poetic.   He is not speaking of the "stick of timber" but the "tree of the poet." What is perceived in this poetic sense is "the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects."  That is, "the whole" is at issue.  The perceived whole has its own unique quality.  

Where the first ball was the firmament of the stars, the second is the landscape.  As Emerson looks over a landscape of farms in the morning he claims that no one owns it, even though there are owners aplenty of farms and woods: "There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts."  So, it is the ball of our perceptual field with its horizon and which, when perceived aesthetically, is integrated.  This is not nature distinct from man, but neither is it a mere projection of our imagination onto nature.  We will discover that the aesthetic ideal of Emerson involves a fusion of the two.  In order to get at the uniqueness of this vision, which is different not only from that of the wood-cutter qua wood-cutter but from that of the scientist-qua-scientist, Emerson calls on us to see nature as an infant would.  The sun, for example, is only deeply seen when it "shines into the eye and the heart of the child."  Otherwise it just illuminates things.  "The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood."  This lover gets a "wild delight" from nature even when suffering from sorrow (although this point is modified or perhaps contradicted at the end of the chapter).  Moreover, "every hour and season yields its tribute of delight" although these can be tied to different states of mind ranging from the breathless to the grim.  Each change of nature "authorizes a different state of mind."  But it is the exhilarating moment that stands out the most:  "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."  Haven't we all?  And aren't experiences like this really why we are nature lovers?  Earlier, Emerson had mentions the experience of the sublime before the starry heavens:  here he speaks of gladness "to the brink of fear."  It is this kind of experience which religious thinkers draw on when they think of their God.  Emerson himself is a religious thinker, but strangely can express his feelings about nature in ways that can inspire an atheist, as least one that allows that the world-as-experienced can have a spiritual aspect, and does, at its best.  Emerson sees his egotism vanish when he looks up into the infinite having taken the stance of the child.  He says that  "In the woods, we return to reason and faith" by which he means that we return to the capacity for mind to grasp and actualize this spiritual aspect of existence.  "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God."  And this all has to do with being a lover of "uncontained and immortal beauty," something he believes can be realized more in the wilderness than in the city streets.  Beauty happens especially in the "distant line of the horizon."  I take it he is referring to the experience of looking out onto a calm sea or lake from the shore. 

Indeed, Emerson argues, there is in nature (fields and woods) an "occult relation between man and the vegetable."  Don't get too wrapped up in the idea of "occult."  This simply means that in one's experienced world it seems as though the trees recognize me as I do them.  Don't think he means this literally.  He says:  "this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both."  It lies in the harmony, and because of this necessary aspect or our contribution to the experience of nature, we need to bear in mind that when we experience some calamity it is natural for us to feel contempt for the landscape.  

For a discussion of the chapter "Beauty."  See here.

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