Landscape

This is the first in a series of posts about the role landscape has played in my life and in that of others. It begins with a piece by a friend and co-author, Eve Garrard, which gives a wonderfully accurate and evocative account of a certain kind of experience that many have when looking at, and indeed when actually walking in and absorbed in landscape. Since she rejects the Platonist and Religious explanations, she is left puzzled by her reaction. For what she experiences must be an illusion. I, however, have much less difficulty in taking the experience to be of something real and transcendent.

Landscape junkies

Landscape - mountains, seas, moors, valleys - evokes markedly different responses in different people. Some find it all totally uninteresting: just so many tons of rock, gallons of cold salt water, acres of wild or domesticated vegetables. This is not an unreasonable response, since landscape clearly is these things. The question is whether it’s more than that, and a second group of people, perhaps more aesthetically alert, think it is. To them it offers an abundance of sensory and associative pleasures: they find in it beautiful shapes and colours; pleasing intimations of childhood; images of the land of their forefathers; or romantic stories about adventures in the wild. This response is also not unreasonable, since aesthetic features are worth responding to, and such associations are indeed present, as literature and history constantly show us. But there’s also a third group of people, whose response to landscape is rather different, and really much stranger. For this group, landscape is much more than a source of pleasing aesthetic or nostalgic experiences; as one of its most famous, and longwinded, representatives noted , it’s a haunting passion, it’s something which shapes a whole life. For these people, every natural scene, every fall of land or changing colour of the sea, speaks its own unique, intense, significant word - as they keep telling us, at frankly tedious length. The word in question seems always to be in a foreign language whose translation manual we’ve permanently mislaid, but nonetheless this unknown language seems to be experienced by landscape devotees as being utterly, overwhelmingly, filled with meaning and beauty, of a kind which induces an intense and nameless longing for who knows what. Now really this response isn’t reasonable at all, especially not for people of a sceptical, rationalist, materialist cast of mind - as I am myself. How can the impersonal physical world possibly breathe forth meaning, in the way in which these fruitcakes insist it does? There’s no decent secular sense to be made of this at all, as far as I can see. The best we can do is look for some plausible socio-biological explanation, in terms of adaptive value, of how this response might have arisen.

However in spite of my believing all the above to be true, and to my considerable chagrin, I find myself irrevocably part of this third group of people, the ones who bore on about the transient sunlight on the shoulder of the hill, the beauty of the cold upland plateau, the remote loveliness of the island on the horizon. Like the rest of this bunch of junkies, I’m helplessly moved by, and addicted to, such scenes (especially the ones in Scotland, where I come from: the whole world is beautiful, but some beauties are more equal than others.) And I can’t for the life of me see why I feel like this. What on earth is going on here? Why does it all seem so significant?

Not that we can assume that all of us junkies share exactly the same kind of experience of landscape. For some, so I’m told, it’s the particular scene itself, in all its individual beauty, which is the terminus of contemplation; and this is a source of delight and comfort, since the fact that this miserable world contains features of such superb surface beauty helps counter-balance its more depressing aspects. But for others the particular display of natural beauty, though absolutely irreplaceable, is not the end of the matter. The experience of landscape is one not only of delight but also of intense longing, and that cries out for further explanation. What is it we’re longing for? We already have the landscape there in front of us, what else is it we want?

Sometimes the longing is reflexive: what we long for is actually to feel the longing itself more strongly, since it often seems to us that we felt it more strongly in the past, and that our receptivity to these experiences has faded over time. Wordsworth is the most famous chronicler of this experience:

‘There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream……
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?’

But many of us know it intimately – I remember standing in the middle of dark Glencoe, surrounded by those great glowering heights, thinking sadly to myself that beautiful though it undoubtedly was, I wasn’t responding to it as keenly as I had done the previous year. I was all of 16 at the time!

It’s a real puzzle why we long to feel the longing itself, why this bittersweet pain is one that we actively seek out. But whatever is the answer to that bit of the puzzle, it’s clear that there must be something else going on: we may long to feel the longing more intensely, but what is the object of that longing which we desire to experience? Since we can’t long for something we already have, it seems that there must be something else we want lying behind the immediate experience of landscape, something of which the beautiful land or sea in front of us is a reminder, or a premonition, or some kind of introduction or echo or faint or faded copy, which speaks to us most urgently of its great original, whatever that is. That is, the phenomenology, for at least some of us landscape junkies, is thoroughly Platonist: it’s shot through and through with intimations of something beyond the scene present to our contemplation, something even more beautiful and compelling, even more itself, than the particular wave or mountain or glowing sunset. It’s that which we long for, it’s that which explains how ready we are to say that a scene is ‘so beautiful it would break your heart’. (Break your heart? What can this possibly be about? Why should inanimate beauty be heart-breaking, and if it is, why on earth would we go looking for it? It’s just ridiculous!)

The experience seems Platonist in spirit (though for some reason which I totally fail to understand Plato himself didn’t actually spend much time, or indeed any time, on the subject of landscape and the romantic longing it produces). Its spirit is Platonist because one way of accounting for the experience would be to say that the particular scene in all its beauty reminds us of the great Form of which it is a faded copy. Through the transient empirical phenomenon we catch a glimpse, so to speak, of the timeless universal which it exemplifies. And it’s that which we long for, whose splendour draws us to itself. The remote mountains of the far northwest of Scotland, with their beautiful names – Suilven, Canisp, Quinag, An-Teallach - are all poor and partial copies of the great Form of the Mountain, in all its abstract and unimaginable beauty. And it’s that which explains the unassuageable longing, and also the heartbreak – never in all our days will we be able to see the Form itself; the closest we’ll ever come is to gaze upon its instantiations, and, in hopeless desire, be reminded of just what it is that’s so inadequately realised in front of us.

Now I do not believe one word of this, not one single word. The whole story of the Forms is wonderful literature but hopeless metaphysics, as far as I’m concerned; the history of philosophy is chock-a-block with criticisms of Plato’s views, and quite right too. But as far as the phenomenology goes – that is, when I consider what the experience of landscape is actually like - then the Platonic approach seems to me to be streets ahead of any of the competition. And one splendid feature of a Platonist account is that it needn’t be restricted to the experience of sublime landscape – other similar experiences are ripe for the same treatment too. It isn’t just great mountains and illimitable oceans that we’re talking about here: a line of poplars on the flat horizon, a quiet pool in a small wood; a branch of cherry-blossom against a blue sky; dusk falling on a field of snow – all of these can be seen with the same visionary intensity. Even arable farmland is more than its mundane sublunary self: for Traherne, ‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting.’ (We’re told by C.S.Lewis that those who are really sensitive can see even cabbages in this transforming way, but I can’t speak from personal experience about that.) The appeal to the Forms will cover all of that, and more.

At this point, however, we sometimes have to fend off vulgar Freudian accounts adverting to displaced sexual urges. Fortunately this kind of explanation is fairly discredited these days, so much so that it’s often inverted – think of the feminist insistence that rape is really about power, with sex being viewed as the appearance rather than the reality. We’re now quite ready to believe that some of the time sex is a displacement activity expressing drives whose origin is elsewhere than in our gonads. And it really isn’t plausible to suppose that landscape appreciation is a substitute for sex – for a start, why doesn’t the longing for mountains and the sea disappear when our sex lives are going well? The Freudian story, in its vulgar version at any rate, is remarkably weak and crude compared to Plato’s metaphysical profundities.

Nonetheless, maybe saying that Platonism is way ahead of any of the competition is too strong. There is one other putative explanation of this unaccountable pain and longing that saves the phenomena as well as or better than Plato does, and that’s the explicitly religious one. Each of the infinitely diverse and wonderful landscapes to which we respond so intensely shows us one of the infinitely varied aspects of God, on this account. The Creation is beautiful because it reflects its divine Creator, and it induces in us an intense longing because we long to have that which we were made for, union with God. The green earth itself provides us with intimations of immortality: the longing it generates, though hopeless in this world, is not for the theist ultimately unsatisfiable, because this world reflects a better one, and we weren’t made for this world alone.

Well, this is another wonderful story. But I don’t believe a word of it either, and neither do many of my fellow landscape junkies. Some find theism and Platonism equally implausible on metaphysical grounds, while for others of us it’s the problem of evil that rules out belief in a benevolent Creator, of the kind needed to make the religious account of our response to landscape actually work. But the remarkable thing is that none of this theoretical inadequacy in any way erodes the nature of the experience that so resists rational explanation. It remains in all its intensity, perhaps in even greater intensity (especially in Scotland), in spite of the fact that what it delivers seems to flatly contradict what I actually believe about the world we all live in. When I first learned about visual illusions, I slowly ceased to be deceived by them, and even when (as with the Muller-Lyer illusion) the illusory perception remains, I give no credence to it. But my persistent scepticism and materialism just make no difference at all to my experience of landscape – it continues to haunt and shape me, to provide some of the most significant aspects of my life, and to prompt me to bore my friends and acquaintances with lengthy and tedious descriptions of what to many of them are at best pleasant views, at worst incomprehensible wastelands of unreclaimed northern peat-bog.

Not that I’d really want things to be any different, of course. Who would willingly give up the ability to see how transcendentally beautiful the moonlight is on the far northern waters of the Atlantic, how breathtaking the severe austerity of the high desolate moors, how forbidding the dark heights of the mountain massif, and so on and on and on and on…

Eve Garrard
Centre for Professional Ethics
Keele University
October 2005