The Individual and Nature

Judith Reeve, “A Morning in March”, oil, 16″ x 32″.

I recently read an essay by John Fowles called The Tree. Fowles is best know as a British novelist who wrote The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) which was later turned into a film starring Meryl Streep. The Tree is the first work of his that I have read. What intrigued me about this essay was Fowles desire to locate our disenfranchisement from nature- our detachment, our lack of integration in our environment. Fowles attempts a journey from within to find an answer to this pressing question- How did we become so removed from nature and what is the true relationship, that should be, between the human person and his or her environment? And where does art fit into this relationship?

Fowles sees the dilemma arising from our contemporary relationship with science. Fowles uses the naturalist, Carl Linneaus who formalized modern nomenclature of organisms, to describe this beginning of our disconnect to the natural world. Fowles states, “The Linnean mentality, which fussed endlessly to make nature seem categorical, serves in turn to introduce us to the differing approaches of science and ‘the kind of experience or knowledge we loosely define as art.’ Science pounces on chaos- on ‘unphilosophical, irrational, uncontrollable, incalculable’ nature. Art perceives no threat, no great evil in unlimited chaos; the engagement with nature is personal, intimate, and without objective.”(p. xiv)

This really is the clear difference between art and science. Art can live with great unknowns, with what Keats called ‘negative capability– the willingness to live and be satisfied with not knowing- “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Art needs to dwell in this place, in this atmosphere of doubt because real insight, the intuitive grasp of beauty in the moment, flees from rational and calculated analysis. “Beauty is truth and truth beauty, that is all/ Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Beauty can only reside within the equilibrium provided by the mysterious unknown.

The artist participates in nature in a very personal and individual way. But this individual lived experience in many ways cannot be described by any art. Fowles, the writer, believes that even his experience, “…whose deepest value (of nature) lies in the fact that it cannot be directly described by any art….including that of words.” (p.32) Fowles tries to reconcile this inability to describe a deep experience of nature by tapping into the eighteenth-century attitude which, “…viewed nature as a mirror for philosophers, as an evoker of emotion, as a pleasure, a poem, (and) was forgotten.” (p.33) In eighteenth-century writing, man/woman exists as a whole being, both artist, writer, believer, and individual in all his/her complexities. It is this ability to remain in this state of ‘complexities’ that allows us, according to Fowles, to fully participate in nature.

“Ordinary experience is …highly synthetic…and made of a complexity of strands, past memories and present perceptions, times and places, private and public history, hopelessly beyond science’s powers to analyze. It is quintessentially ‘wild’…and corresponds…with wild nature. Almost all the richness of our personal existence derives from this synthetic and eternally present ‘confused’ consciousness of both internal and external reality, and not least because we know it is beyond the analytical, or destructive, capacity of science.” (p.36-37)

One’s experience in the world is so elastic, multifaceted and complex. If I use an analogy of a ‘confluence‘- one can observe a smaller stream meeting a larger river at their intersection, but once that stream enters the flow of the larger river, one can no longer separate the two. They in fact, become one flow, one experience. So, it is with man and his immersion in nature. What science picks apart, experience reveals a sensory wholeness, an inward and outward unity.

“What is irreplaceable in any object of art is never, in the final analysis, its technique or craft, but the personality of the artist, the expression of his or her unique and individual feeling.” (p.42) One can only experience nature as an individual through creative self-expression and self-discovery. There is no art or writing or science that can connect us to nature- it relies on the individual alone- to live that experience fully in the moment. I believe that the artist just happens to be that individual that is highly receptive to this creative immersion, to this heightened awareness. Fowles manages to describe that state of being, that inherent creativity, that position of intent, that the artist must possess inherently. It becomes a ‘new’ way of knowing that is unique to each person and which the artist himself is uniquely possessed. Although, Fowler seeks not to raise up the qualities of the artist, but seeks to suggest that these experiences of nature are singular and in a sense, can never be fully shared through art.

What role does art play since nature can only be reached and experienced by each individual, alone, through their own creative self-discovery? Fowler uses the word ‘art’ in a looser way to describe a way of knowing and experiencing, “…that is internally rather than externally creative, that leaves very little public trace; and yet which for those very reasons is almost wholly concentrated in its own creative process. It is really only the qualified…artist who can escape from the interiority and constant now-ness, the green chaos of this experience, by making some aspect of it exterior and so fixing it in past time, or known knowledge.” (p.49) The artist through the artwork itself, can create some kind of a bridge to this experience of nature, but the art itself can never fully describe the interior self-discovery that transpires. It can only hint at such manifestations.

Nature takes us “…into a place always a complexity beyond daily reality, never fully comprehensible or explicable, always more potential than realized; yet where no one will ever penetrate as far as we have. It is our passage, our mystery alone…The artist’s experience here is only a special- unusually prolonged and self-conscious- case of the universal individual one.” (p.76). And this brings us back to Keats. The great mystery of experience must remain an unfathomable mystery that we must live with “… without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

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Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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