Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Against Nature

Nature is regarded as a respite, a solace, a source of man’s power and a reflection of his inner being, as in the notion of the pathetic fallacy. But what if nature is inimical to man, dissonant with man’s inner being? The beauty of the natural wonders of the world has the power to ennoble. But these wonders can just as easily alienate when they conflict with the inner sensibility of the perceiver. It is truly horrible to schlep all the way to the Grand Canyon and find nothing but tourists mouthing off meaningless hosannas of “Wow!” “Awesome!” “Spectacular!” Such hyperbole makes it impossible to objectively reconcile the inner our outer circumstances of existence.

Or take the sea. Much has been made of the sea, the waves, the salt water out of which life itself is supposed to have emerged. Yet the sea is also full of riptides, undertows, and ferocious gales. It erodes shorelines and its sandy beaches have increasingly become the repository for shards of glass, due to the resurgence in popularity of the long-neck beer bottle

Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote a book called Against Nature. It is a novel about a cosmopolitan, a dandy, a lover of the culture of the mind, with a penchant for the perverse. It is also an invaluable antidote to the unrealistic overvaluation of the natural, particularly as it relates to sexuality (an alternate translation of the French title, A rebours, is Against the Grain).

It’s not that nature should be destroyed, the seas polluted, the forests leveled, the fish and cattle killed (not to mention the rodents and reptiles). No, the equanimity of the ecosystem hinges on a more pacifist attitude towards nature. Removing greenhouse gases and preventing a meltdown of the polar ice caps is an obvious priority. No sense in turning polar bears into refugees or leaving seals in a sweat.

But nature is a little like government. Nature doesn’t always have the individual’s best interests at heart. Nature is not necessarily an ally. What is the story of Noah but the first attempt in the history of literature to describe man’s efforts to take up arms against nature? Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was another depiction of the battle between man and a supposedly accommodating habitat. The lack of realism about man’s relationship with nature and beauty borders on the criminal, and in this case it is not a victimless crime.

Let’s face it: nature is overrated. The admiration of nature is purchased at the price of self love. Nature is like the kid who figures out the Rubik’s Cube. Most people just can’t keep up with him. The sublime beauty of the deserted factory may be the best testament to man’s place in the universe. Nature is a con artist creating the impression of mystery, of possessing something that others don’t have. Nature is like the soul who seems to have a monopoly on self-possession. Nature has driven men to suicide, and even murder, when the ugly imperfections of human existence stare them mockingly in the face.


  1. This post in undermined by a blurry definintion of nature. You are wielding an extremely general term haphazardly. The conciet of this post is that somehow industrial buildings or humans themselves are not natural. Is a beaver dam natural?

    Is your qualm with a more specific entity, say, naturalists or treehuggers?

    Or is it the cruel nature of existence itself that you are seeking to illuminate?


    The ocean can also smooth jagged beer bottle shards into sea glass.

  2. I am equating nature with beauty essentially and beauty is something which is dystonic to me. It's a rebuke since it doesn't correspond to my turbulent inner states. Of course there is factitious beuuty, but I am talking here of the kind of beauty that sun worshippers revel in. Francis

  3. But isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder?


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