Friday, July 7, 2017

The Aesthetics of Alienation

Asher Brown Durand, Progress (1853). Observing its similarities to Cole's
Mount Holyoke (below) helps to clarify the paintings' shared "message."

I recently finished reading Rochelle Johnson's Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America's Aesthetics of Alienation (2009). I was remiss in not tackling it in earnest months earlier: I didn't even need to read past the title to surmise its relevance to matters I've had on my mind lately. I did Professor Johnson and myself a disservice by sitting on it for so long.

Johnson's thesis is that most of the major nineteenth-century American writers, artists, and culterati who ostensibly celebrated the wild splendor of their (usurped) New World homeland actually exacerbated Americans' estrangement from "nature." She examines three figures in particular: Hudson River School prime mover Thomas Cole (whose gorgeous paintings subtly but decidedly celebrate the European-American "taming" of the continent), landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing (whom affluent suburbanites may well have to thank for the social pressures compelling them to maintain "tasteful" lawns and front-yard garden beds), and the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who called nature "the incarnation of a thought" and declared "the world is the mind precipitated," boldly epitomizing the latent doctrine of anthropocentrism). As contrarian voices, Johnson names Susan Fenimore Cooper and Henry David Thoreau, who questioned the contradictions in their contemporaries' views and practices, but were in many cases no less constrained by the dominant assumptions of the cultural moment.

I'd like to reproduce a long passage here, one that introduces the penultimate chapter—"Passion for Nature Beyond Metaphor"—which deals primarily with Thoreau, especially his unfinished and long-unpublished post-Walden work. It very cleanly encapsulates much of Passions for Nature's argument, including the proposition that nature's "truth" lies in its very physicality. The fact that this idea—that the world's nonhuman constituents have meaning and value simply by virtue of their material/temporal existence—has become so difficult to articulate and assert within the framework of Western thought testifies to how far we've allowed ourselves to drift in our insulated self-importance.

(Certain lines boldfaced by me for emphasis. Apologies for any typos I might have made in the transcription.)
[Thoreau] believes that natural phenomenon hold a "meaning" that humans generally fail to recognize. Thoreau's understanding of nature's "inexpressible meaning" invites us to think beyond our common uses of the term "meaning," which we typically associate with the specific significance that human beings ascribe to something. Key to our common use of the word "meaning" is the fact that we generally think of this "specific significance" as something generated by human beings; that is, we presume that human minds determine the significance of things, thereby determining their meaning. Because we humans are the meaning-makers, we can typically articulate the meanings we create. We make meaning, and then we name it in language. As Thoreau suggests here, however, his particular understanding of nature's meaning centers on its being——a being beyond human expression. As he says, this sort of meaning resists conventional representation in language but is, instead, "the language that is" (emphasis added). In spite of Thoreau's use of the word "language" here, the notion of "meaning" that he employs resists language because it presumes that existence is significance, or that being brings along with it a value——even if that value is "inexpressible."

Such a notion of meaning also subverts the idea that humans determine meaning. If, as Thoreau argues, meaning resides in the existence of things, in the particularity of forms and phenomena, then the significance of the natural world is beyond the powers of human expression. This is because, according to this view, the significance of nature (its meaning) is its physicality, and physicality evades expression——except, of course, by means of its very physicality. For Thoreau, nature's meaning is its being, the mysterious presence of its particularity, and his own humility and wonder in the face of its multiple phenomena. In this view, perhaps the closest humans can come to experiencing this aspect of the natural world——"the language that is"——is to study natural phenomena closely, attentively, and humbly, to revel in nature's physicality.

Thoreau's pursuit of nature's meaning was lifelong, involving countless rural walks, several ambitious journeys into wild places, innumerable moments of close observation of natural phenomena, and thousands of written pages. His quest for knowledge of nature also entailed a sensitive and probing analysis of how language works on nature's behalf. Reviewing Thoreau's decade-long analyses of language could occupy a scholar for a lifetime, but two passages in his writings provide us with an introduction to two points central to his theory of language and nature.

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts,
after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow

We begin with Thoreau's enigmatic remark about "the inexpressible meaning that is in all things & every where," found in his journal entry of August 23, 1845, which provides the first key to Thoreau's understanding of nature: human language, as it was commonly used, failed to communicate the natural world. As he had written in 1845, the "meaning that is in all things" could not be conveyed by conventional language, since a language "of the tongue" eluded that meaning. Thoreau believed that through their very existence, natural events and phenomena had a meaning which most of human society remained ignorant, and he sought a way to communicate this meaning. ....

The second key to Thoreau's sense of the limitations inherent in language is a found in a section of Walden. This passage represents a reworking of the August 23, 1845, journal entry. (Such reworkings were common for Thoreau; he revisited journal writings and revised them for publication.) In his revision of the journal passage for Walden, Thoreau insists, amid a discussion of language, reading, and listening to nature, that "all things and events" speak a language. This claims echoes directly the language of the earlier journal passage. However, in Walden he elaborates on the "inexpressible meaning" that he had named in his journal by describing it as a language "without metaphor." In naming "metaphor," Thoreau calls attention to that tool of language that frequently appeared in his culture's discourse concerning the natural world. Metaphor, he wrote in this key section of Walden, had become "copious and standard"——so much so that men remained "in danger of forgetting the language" that things "spoke" without metaphor. That is, metaphor had become so pervasive in cultural discourse that few people realized that it obscured and limited their vision. Metaphor, Thoreau suggests here, had become a limiting habit of thought——a way of perceiving the world that seemed as natural as nature itself but that prevented thorough understanding.

Thoreau's decision to revise his 1845 journal passage to include a specific discussion of metaphor suggests that he believed that in his immediate circle in Concord and, perhaps, more generally in his culture, metaphor was overwhelming language and the human ability to understand the natural world. As we have seen, metaphor informed how nature was understood in Thoreau's era: his contemporaries employed metaphors for nature in various cultural pursuits, and Susan Fenimore Cooper struggled with those metaphors. However, as far as I know, few people directly discussed this tendency to see nature through metaphor and, thereby, to create distance from nature. Yet Thoreau does. In this way, he was unlike Cooper, whose writings acknowledge and resist the dominant metaphors for nature but do so only implicitly. Cooper challenges the tendency to see nature as a metaphor by suggesting that nature's truth emerges through the facts of natural history, observation, and a humble approach to phenomena; her works thus demonstrate both the power of metaphors for nature within her culture and her own consequent desire to learn nature's more authentic, historicized, material meanings. Nonetheless, Cooper's disruption of these metaphors remains subtle. Thoreau, on the contrary, cites metaphor overtly as a problematic aspect of the ways in which, as he describes it, "our lives are domestic in more senses than we think."

While Thoreau was certainly familiar with the techniques and influence of landscape painting, with the popularity of shaping landscapes to exhibit good taste, and with the Emersonian faith in the powers of reason, he grappled less with the specific metaphors for nature upon which these aesthetics were based and more with one significant effect of such approaches to nature: their abstraction of the physical environment. Thoreau wrestles with the fundamental issue of the role that language plays in the human relationship to nature and, more specifically, with metaphor as an overwhelming force in conventional language and thought. He struggles ultimately with humanity's tendencies toward anthropocentrism and abstraction.

Precisely because the metaphors for nature that informed landscape painting, landscape design, and Emersonian philosophy obscured "the inexpressible meaning that is in all things," they served as powerful instruments in shaping cultural understandings of nature. Just how they did this warrants some explanation. The ways in which literary and artistic aesthetics shape cultural understanding is a slippery subject that has been explored by many scholars——though definitively by none. Still, most scholars agree that, although most artistic productions tend not to be direct instruments of power over people, they do give expression to currents of thought in a society and, thereby, participate in cultural change by means of giving specific expression to ideas circulating within society. Consider, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which did not literally start the Civil War but was widely credited with giving voice to widespread concerns and, thereby, inspiring people to act. Such works of art are agents of change. Cole's, Downing's, and Emerson's works are manifestations of a set of historical circumstances that made it possible, and perhaps even probable, that people would increasingly understand nature in anthropocentric terms. This set of historical circumstances includes the growth of industry and resource extraction that accompanied the rise of capitalism, and that increasingly led to the commodification of nature; the felt need to "tame" the landscape so that it was suitable for productive, healthy living; and the anxiety accompanying the desire for American cultural independence at this time. Also relevant is the phenomenon that Lance Newman has recently described as central to understanding romanticism: the "changes in the balance of class forces in New England in the 1830s and 1840s" that accompanied the industrialization of the northeastern United States. The metaphors for nature employed by Cole, Downing, and Emerson (progress, refinement, and reason) did not themselves colonize the minds and language of innocent Americans and alienate them from the physical world. Rather, the metaphors employed by these figures grew organically out of their cultural moment, reinforcing attitudes toward the natural world that already had a place in cultural discourse.

Editor: Andrew Jackson Downing

These metaphors enable an aesthetics of alienation not because the particular men I examine here were startlingly "new" in their approach to nature, but because they helped perpetuate the distance from nature already present in discourses of nature. In doing so, they engaged what Michel Foucault calls the discourse of "practices" of a period. As Foucault explains, "[A] change in the order of discourse does not presuppose 'new ideas,' a little invention and creativity, a different mentality, but transformations in a practice, perhaps also in neighbouring practices, and in their common articulation." The metaphors for nature that we find in the works of Cole, Downing, and Emerson were particularly formative representations of nature——"neighbouring practices"——from this period when discourse concerning nature was undergoing such a "transformation." Drawing on their individual interests, concerns, and artistic talents, as well as on the ways of thinking about the natural world that were available to them at the time, each communicated part of what Jane Tompkins (following Foucault) has called "nodes within a network," or expression of "what lay in the minds of many or most of their contemporaries." Of course, the particular forms that these men's aesthetic expressions took were "original"; yet some of the assumptions that informed their aesthetics drew from the currents of thought circulating in their society. The same currents of thought about the role that nature would play in America enabled Cole to express concern for the diminishing American wilderness, Downing to seek to capture a sort of wilderness through landscape design, Emerson to imagine a new relation to nature through his philosophy, and Cooper and Thoreau to be concerned about certain aspects of their contemporaries' representations of nature. Clearly, some Americans were thinking about how to understand——and represent——the natural world in mid-nineteenth-century America. How these figures engaged and pursued those currents of thought, however, differed notably.

Through our consideration of these three metaphors for nature——progress, refinement, and reason——we have glimpsed part of a transformation in a discourse practice: how expressions of passions for nature can become expressions of passion for something other than the physical world. In each of the three cases examined in the preceding chapters, passion for nature grew to be a passion for some aspect of humanity. Each metaphor became a way of conceptualizing the physical realities of the natural world in service to some humanly constructed vision——whether it be a vision of progress, refinement, or reason. For instance, we have seen that a concern about the nation's course could transform a desire to celebrate the landscape into an ardent expression of national progress. Similarly, we have seen that an inquiry into the capacities of human reason could shape a supposed passion for nature into a celebration of the intellectual powers of humanity. These metaphors suggest a troubling aspect of mid-nineteenth-century American culture: through certain cultural productions (landscape painting, landscape design, and Emersonian philosophy), the nation's proclaimed love for its physical environment became embedded in abstraction. Through these metaphorical understandings of nature, artists and writers revealed the nation's growing alienation from the natural settings that it purportedly loved so passionately.


  1. You really should just bite the bullet and go to grad school already -- you totally have the mind of an academic.

    1. I think that ship has sailed.

      About a year after getting my bachelor's I applied to a bunch of creative writing MFA programs. My portfolio kind of sucked; I didn't get accepted anywhere. Now it's almost a decade later and I haven't spoken to the profs who wrote my letters of recommendation in about as long. (I did speak to one about two years ago, hoping he would convince me to try again. His answering the question "what can I definitely expect to get out of a creative writing MFA program?" with "you can expect to get a creative writing MFA" didn't exactly compel me to start composing a new statement of purpose.)

      I'm not sure how I'd benefit from an English MA either. From what I can tell, academic gigs are in short supply. Dipping out of the workforce for a couple of years, amassing a huge pile of debt, and then not being able to find a job better/less painful/less stultifying than what I've got now is a risk I'm not willing to take.

      If I do go back to school, it'd probably be get a bachelor's in something like conservation biology. I'm beginning to think I belong in a state/national park more than I do in a museum or at the academy.

    2. You do seem like you'd be good at something research oriented. I would have assumed something like Psychology or Sociology or even Political Science more than English if you did go back, given your writing. Probably could leverage your blog too.

      Not that I'm advising one way or the other. Jobs and debt are a real concern, as is the politics and in-fighting that goes with getting published and finding work for a PhD. It just seems like the kind of writing that makes you happy, and a world that you'd probably thrive in.

    3. Maybe. But I have no formal background whatsoever in sociology, psychology, or political science. I doubt any respectable master's program would be eager to sign on a mere dabbler, even a fairly competent one.

      The kind of writing that makes me REALLY happy is fiction. I just never post it here. A blog like this is a lousy venue for it.

      Getting it published is, well, hit-or-miss, and much more often miss than hit. What rankles me is that even if an MFA program didn't actually improve my writing, just being able to mention in a cover letter that I'm a graduate of such-and-such program and know such-and-such people would drastically improve my chances of having my work accepted. Sigh.

  2. You probably won't be able to snag a tenure-track academic gig with an MA, yeah. But there are plenty of opportunities out there if you forego the academy for industry. Some that are even pretty lucrative--private school teaching, test prep companies, &c. And I wouldn't be worried about being a decade or so out of college; the ages of students in Master's programs vary so much.

    Also, do you have an e-mail I could hit you up at? I've got some adoring and annoying Zeroes fanboy questions.