Saturday, February 17, 2024

On How the Transcendentalists Searched in Nature What They Could Not Locate and Find in Themselves

View from of green and trees from an old cabin window
One of the main features of American transcendentalism was its quest for and refuge in nature. Both Emerson and Thoreau purposely as well as spiritually and physically turned their respective backs on what was shaping up to become an urban lifestyle and instead decided to search for peace and quiet in and within nature. Mind you we are talking about the 19th century before the advent of the noisy hustle and bustle of traffic and way before the clutter of the Internet, smartphones, and Artificial Intelligence. Their technology looked puny and rudimentary in comparison to today and to be honest, there was hardly much to speak of in that regard, as there was no television and not even radio.

And yet, these thought leaders felt the push and pull to move away from even relatively small crowds, partly because they could; they had the means and the choice and opportunity to do so. In the wild expansive nature of the North American continent, which was still largely unexplored and undeveloped, they still had pristine places to roam and delve into, unlike the much more restricted and relatively set geographical areas of Europe, for instance.

Let us also not forget that they had the means to live and survive in the wilderness. In fact, it is more often those who possess at least a moderate amount of income who would even dare and contemplate such a crazy idea, to begin with, namely, to seek a different and more minimal and austere lifestyle away from the comfort of one’s home. In the somewhat paraphrased words of the French singer-songwriter Soan, I’d like to sleep under the moon but only when it is my choice. Unlike many wanderers, nomads, and homeless people, both Emerson and Thoreau had a home to return to in case things went south, i.e. if they encountered dangers, ran out of food, or simply did not enjoy the experience anymore. People less fortunate would not have a backup plan to fall back on.

But such ideas do not come out of nowhere and are not created in a vacuum or on a sporadic whim. In fact, French thinker and philosopher Rousseau was quite influential in propagating this idea of a type of return to nature and the (supposedly and allegedly) simple rural life of peace and tranquility. In certain ways, they are also echoes of Jefferson’s dilemma regarding the American spirit, should the nation embrace a rural life and lifestyle or bend towards an industrialized urban life of workers and factories?

This was driven by a general dissatisfaction with the status quo of the rapidly growing and changing cities and it seemed like a viable option or a kind of refuge from the madness to venture far from the madding crowd and into the arms of Mother Nature.

On the other hand, this ideology was also expressed in the work of Spinoza and became a quasi-religion. Nature was regarded as a pantheistic phenomenon with an apparent return to more “primitive” and original beliefs of spirits living in trees and blades of grass. Although Spinoza stressed reason and rationality, he made it all part and parcel of nature, which was seen as a type of Mother goddess, the origin and pinnacle of creation, and the continuous ever-flowing source of nourishment and subsistence.

These views hearken back to a collective experience we all have and which psychoanalyst Otto Rank talks about in his books and writings ever since his quintessential and revolutionary publication of The Trauma of Birth a hundred years ago. It is the dreamlike and fantastical prenatal world and experience of the womb. In a certain sense, the turn to nature represents a return to the maternal womb, the place where one felt still, at ease, sustained, fed, nourished, and at peace. This longing has driven us from the world of crowds to the stillness that nature embodies or at least that we imagine and presume it (or she) does.

That said, it is not only an idealistic view of nature but a very romantic one and perhaps even dangerously so. The romantics who stressed feeling and all things emotional over the rational and logical embraced the natural world but failed to see it in its entirety, which included not only beauty and grace but also the power to destroy alongside other destructive forces.

This idealization of the natural world is a dangerous human fallacy that ended up costing various lives and it can be illustrated by two real-life stories depicted in two forms of art, a movie as well as a documentary. First off, we have the insightful and moving documentary Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog where self-proclaimed American environmentalist Timothy Treadwell dissatisfied with his own life and struggling with mental health issues decides to go to the Alaskan wilderness to live with bears.

He preferred their company over their human counterparts and was perhaps inspired by his affection for his cute and cuddly teddy bears in his childhood. In other words, he denied these furry animals their wild and beastly qualities and saw and idealized them as peaceful and loving beings and not as bears that would be driven more by instinct and less by reason.

That said, some humans may seem wilder and more unpredictable than animals but that is a different story, which leads us to the sad story of another nature-enthused individual who is cinematically depicted in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

This idealistic but depressed young individual Chris McCandless who also went by the pseudonym “Alexander Supertramp” decides to take a deep dive and plunge into the wilderness by (apparently) rejecting the materialism and consumerism of his time and era. At the same time, despite being good at school and having the opportunity (and means) to study at a prestigious university, he throws all potential and caution into the wind, burns cash, drives to live in nature, and eventually dies there due to accidental food poisoning.

Again, this seeking of nature is less a going-to-somewhere but rather a running-from-something. The same may be said of all the individuals mentioned here whether it is Thoreau (whose philosophy of civil disobedience ended up influencing Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.) or Emerson (whom Nietzsche considered “the most gifted of the Americans”) as they had their own motives to move away from traditional society, religion, and thinking.

At the same time, the transcendentalists served as the inspiration and role model to young idealistic but tormented individuals like Chris McCandless to embark upon a recklessly dangerous trip while using their books as a guide, source of inspiration, and motivation throughout the journey. They build upon Rousseau’s apparent dialectic between what is human-made and what is natural and organic and that the latter is what one should and needs to always ideally strive for.

In such dualism, we may overlook various segments of life where both can interact for the benefit of us all. This is very clear in the case of science, in particular, medicine and medicinal advances that have helped us survive the various onslaughts of naturally occurring diseases and circumstances. In that sense, a full and unprepared return to nature as in the above cases could and should be construed as foolish and misguided and certainly not beneficial to the body, mind, and spirit of all and any of those involved.

As mentioned earlier, they all had the means and the luxury to renounce a comfortable life for a lifestyle of unease and unpredictability. At times, it may feel not so much as a form of liberation but perhaps a kind of self-punishment stemming from one’s feeling of enslavement when faced with pain and trauma that one wishes to numb or escape from. Be it as it may, the notion that they are free in the wild and can howl like wolves or run around naked without necessary consequences comes from a romantic past and heritage. And yet, it is fraught with danger and each of them would have to wrestle with their own demons sooner or later.

This is not to say that the rich and wealthy cannot have insights; they can and indeed have, and it is perhaps best demonstrated in Siddhartha Gautama who gave up and sacrificed a life of comfort for his spiritual endeavors. However, I find it rather interesting to contrast the Buddha, a wealthy and privileged prince to Jesus who was born in a manger next to farm animals, rode a donkey, and died with few if any possessions, which I believe is food for thought for another and different kind of post.

Yet this does underscore that although it is important to embrace nature whose majestic beauty we do not appreciate enough, we should not use it as an excuse for not facing our troubles and personal issues. Though being in a retreat or a monastery may provide temporary relief and shelter and serve as a potential incentive for peace and calm inside of us, true peace and happiness await us and come from the inside and that could transform any place and dwelling to make us feel at home by even turning a simple nutshell into a luxurious palace.

No comments: