11 The Worship of Nature

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"For almost a thousand years the chief creative force in western civilization was Christianity. Then, in about the year 1725, it suddenly declined and in intellectual society practically disappeared. Of course it left a vacuum. People couldn't get on without a belief in something outside themselves, and during the next hundred years they concocted a new belief which, however irrational it may seem to us, has added a good deal to our civilisation : a belief in the divinity of nature."

"The first stage of this new direction of the human mind was very largely achieved in England - and perhaps it was no accident that England was the first country in which the Christian faith had collapsed." p 269

haywaine
John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821, The National Gallery, London

 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau said he became completely at one with  nature, lost consciousness of an independent self, all memories and anxieties about the future everything except the sense of being. 'I realized that our existence is nothing but a succession of moments perceived through the senses.'

"I feel therefore I am. A curious discovery to have been made in the middle of the Age of Reason.  Hume had reached the same conclusion by logical means.  It was an intellectual time-bomb, which after sizzling  away for almost two hundred years has just gone off, whether to the advantage of civilisation seems rather doubtful." p 274

Rousseau believed that natural man was virtuous, and he expanded his ideas into a philosophy in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. He sent a copy to Voltaire, who replied in a letter : 'No one has ever used so much intelligence to persuade us to be stupid. After reading your book one feels one ought to walk on all fours. Unfortunately during the last sixty years I have lost the habit.'

I completely agree with Voltaire, but the terminal silliness of Rousseau not only spread (he was a hero of the French revolutionaries) but endures, a version now forms the foundation of modern liberalism, is the driving force of the Democratic party and pervades the U.S. education system from kindergarten through graduate school.  A time-bomb indeed : if a student is unable to learn math, we will change math, fire the teacher, and close the school : no individual shall feel victimized by an institution. 

Although the premise of the virtuous natural man is certainly false, nature as a subject for art is another story.

"Color was considered immoral - perhaps rightly, because it is an immediate sensation and makes it effect independently of those ordered memories which are the basis of morality. Turner, like Rousseau, used his optical sensations to discover the truth. 'I feel therefore I am.' It's a fact you can verify by looking at Turner's pictures in the Tate Gallery : the less defined the more purely colouristic they are, the more vividly do they convey a total sense of truth to  nature. Turner declared the independence of colour and thereby added a new faculty to the human mind. " p 284

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    Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Waves Breaking on a Shore', c.1835, Tate, London

"The enraptured vision that first induced Rousseau to live in a world of sensation had one more triumph in the nineteenth century. Curiously enough, it also came from looking at ripples - the sun sparkling on water and the quavering reflection of masts. It took  place in 1869, when Monet and Renoir used to met at a riverside cafe called La Grenouillère. Before that meeting they had both followed the ordinary naturalist style. But when they came to those ripples and reflections, patient naturalism was defeated." p 289

 

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir,  La Grenouillère, 1869, National Museum of Fine Arts,  Stockholm

 

"Light is the principle person in the picture."- Monet

"In the two rooms of the Nympheas in Paris in Monet expands his sensations into one continuous form, like a symphonic poem. This poem takes its point of departure from experience, but the stream of sensation becomes a stream of consciousness. By a knowledge of each effect so complete that it becomes instinctive, and every movement of the brush is not only a record but also a self-revealing gesture." p 290

monet 

 

"Total  immersion : this is the ultimate reason why the love of nature has been for so long accepted as a religion. It is a means by which we can lose our identity in the whole and gain thereby a more intense consciousness of being." p 291


12. The Fallacies of Hope                       Contents