Monday, April 18, 2011

Natural Beauty

My last post, on the natural sublime, contained two images: one was a photograph by Ansel Adams, the other a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe. Both were of the same subject -- a leaf -- but the difference between the two shows that there can be no "objective" view of even an ordinary object. Of course, we all recognize that a leaf is being represented. To that extent, we all possess (as Kant might say) a common cognitive apparatus. The representation, however -- the photograph or the painting -- is evidence of the artist's "distinctive soul" (as Roger Scruton says, in his book Beauty). All of us, likewise, when viewing nature, see something different. Thus, according to Kant, the subjective aspect of our view of nature or of art. As Scruton notes, for Kant the appreciation of arts became a "secondary exercise of aesthetic interest." It is our appreciation of nature -- even the most utilitarian people respond to their surroundings -- that is the "primary exercise of judgment."

The lovely image at the top is of a species of butterfly, Kallima inachus, that mimics dry leaves for camouflage.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Natural Sublime

I have occasionally read articles by Roger Scruton over the years, but recently my friend Maureen Mullarkey posted an item on her blog about his book Beauty. Maureen has great taste in writing and in artists, so I immediately acquired the book. Scruton writes the clearest, most accessible prose, breaking down really big ideas into portion athat non-philosophical minds (like mine can grasp. Herewith an example, from the chapter "Natural Beauty," in which he distinguishes our experience of, say, the songs of birds and the colors or shapes of flowers from works of art:

"Works of art are expressly presented as objects of contemplation. They are framed on a wall, contained between the covers of a book, installed in the museum or reverently performed in the concert hall. To change them without the artist's consent is to violate a fundamental aesthetic propriety. Works of art stand as the eternal receptacles of intensely intended messages. ... Nature, by contrast, is generous, content to mean only herself, uncontained, without an external frame, and changing from day to day."

I also like his use of the term "apartness" to speak of natural phenomena, "their capacity to show that the world contains things other than us, which are just as interesting as we are."

Now, it was in the 18th century that people discovered nature as an object of aesthetic interest. Starting with the English critic John Dennis and then expanded on by Joseph Addison, the experience of the natural sublime was practically synonymous with an encounter with grand mountains (and also with the starry skies above and so on). In the essay I am writing on Bodmer, I have posed this question: Why in none of his treatises on poetry did Bodmer consider natural experience or natural beauties as potential poetic subjects? Surrounded his entire life long (1698-1783) by the mountains of Switzerland, about which otherwise so much ink was spilled in the 18th century, he never even mentions them when writing of "the Great" in nature, a notion he took over from Addison. Bodmer never uses the term "sublime" in reference to nature's effects. "Sublime" is reserved for the portrayal of noble and grand actions. Even the actions of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost can be described as sublime, exceeding as they do in evil. When speaking of the grand in nature he resorts to stock formulas that are repeated by almost every writer on the sublime in the 18th century -- mountain gorges and abysses, violent storms, shipwrecks -- all drawn from literary accounts. The real world of nature does not interest him.

Bodmer's late essay on the sublime of 1746 indicates that he was aware of the connection that was being made between the sublime and personal encounters with nature. Reading Scruton, I seem to see that Bodmer's conventional references to nature, whether of natural beauty or of grandeur, are attempts to "frame" nature, to place it in a poetic world of its own, where the imagination can, as Scruton writes, "wander freely, with our own interests and desires in abeyance." Thus, his literary examples came from Homer and Virgil and even from some early 18th-century German poets (e.g., Brockes). Whether it is scenes of nature or of human action, the works of those poets, as Scruton writes, "come to us soaked in thought." Art is thus "freed from the contingencies of everyday life."

Scruton doesn't mention it, but it may be that freedom "from the contingencies of everyday life" is what attracts us to nature, whether to walks in the country or, in my case, kayaking on the river in the summer. (Kayak season starts in exactly one month, when the water temperature reaches 55 degrees.) Just being lazy, without any purpose.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Aesthetic Impressions

The essay on Bodmer and the sublime ("Where Are the Mountains?") is reaching a conclusion. I had hoped to finish it by the end of January, and here we are in April. Well, this week I am working on the footnotes, so that must mean I will soon be finished, right?

I was going through Ernst Cassirer's The Philosophy of the Enlightenment this morning, trying to locate a reference he had made to Bodmer's "Lockean sensualism." I haven't found it yet, but I came across this gem: "The observation of an object under the microscope may reveal to the naturalist its composition and thereby its real objective nature, but its aesthetic imrpession becomes a total loss." This comes up in the section on Alexander Baumgarten and "the new science of aesthetics," which, as Cassirer writes, "abandons itself to sensory appearance, without attempting to go beyond it to something entirely different, to the grounds of all appearance." For example, a geologist could tell us about the composition of a landscape, from which we would gain much "scientific insight," but "not the slightest trace of the beauty of the landscape would be preserved."

Cassirer quotes a very early poem by Goethe (from his Leipzig student days), which gives poetic expression to the difference between scientific observation and aesthetic impression:

Fluttering the fountain nigh
The iridescent dragonfly
An hour mine eye has dwelt upon;
Now dark, now light alternately
Like the chameleon;
Now red, now blue,
Now blue, now green:
How would its hues appear
If one could but come near!

It flits and hovers, resting not --
Hush! on a willow bough it lights;
I have it in my fingers caught,
And now I seek its colors true
And find a melancholy blue --

Such is thy lot, dissector of delights!

Wherever one looks, Goethe is always there!

Photo credit: Butterfly blogspot