Not me and the landscape, but a kind of oneness (Maitland 2009)
We are almost overwhelmed with data showing a world under threat and becoming increasingly threatening (a contemporary re-telling of Burke’s Sublime?). But science and its knowledges are failing to move us, to jolt us into feeling the true fragility of the planet in which we all live, despite the apparent clarity of the evidence and the increasing baldness of its language. Science and hysteria are not comfortable bedfellows, but seem increasingly within sniffing distance of one another.
This two-day symposium draws together artists and thinkers from a wide range of disciplines to explore ways in which landscape –– and the ways we represent it –– connects deeply to our lives and underpins our relationship to the world. The contemporary array of narratives of landscape expose how we feel about (and how we become estranged from) this astounding place we all share. As we contemplate the fragility of our planet fearful narratives confound our complex and worried entanglements with the world around us.
The dark complexity of the post-enlightenment concept of the Sublime (in which ‘the dominant feature is the presence or idea of transcendental immensity or greatness [and which]…inspires awe and reverence, or possibly fear’ (Bell, Lyall 2002)), and the comparative gaiety of the Picturesque were spurs to reshape (literally and metaphorically) the ways in which we saw and lived in the world. Of late dismissed and subsumed by the technocratic tendencies of modernism, Romantic notions of landscape and nature have felt somewhat risible: perhaps it is time to re-kindle the romantic as we begin to understand the need to grieve for what we have already lost and reclaim beauty for an alienated modern world?
The philosophical romanticism of Burke, Poussin and others, and the expression of the sublime through poetry and painting that followed it profoundly shaped our thinking and feeling about landscape and about the natural world. The Americans (Thoreau, Emerson) embraced wilderness, not surprisingly perhaps given the vastness and emptiness of their world; here in Europe the focus seems smaller, tamed, shaped, idealised, if no less numinous. What we perceive as natural ideal landscapes have typically been shaped through deliberate aesthetic design intervention and/or the exigencies of farming and agriculture. It was the ‘epiphanic’ sense of landscape (Wylie) – the revealing of beauty from coming upon it – that gave birth to a newly-romanticised and idealised view of what had until that time been largely ignored as the ‘thing around us’. But the heady days of the Romantics, the Picturesque and the Sublime in both visual and written language created another moment in time from which we have looked at the world around us in a different way.
So what of today? Is our relationship with the natural world and our ability to understand the threats weighing upon it now being transformed: through a still emergent (new romantic perhaps) writing, through other forms of representation such as Hockney’s rich exploration of his birthland? Notions of the Sublime helped the Romantics elicit an entirely new set of emotions, rekindling an areligious numinism, awe and sense of mystery and the unknowable in our connection to the natural world. Perhaps we cannot live without this in our lives. Despite decades of rejection, dismissal and even small shudders of revulsion, is it time to re-embrace our love for and fear of the Sublime and in so doing find deeper and more engaged pathways, byways and languages to love the world around us?
I walked to Rydale after tea, which we drank by the kitchen fire. The evening very dull ; a terrible kind of threatening brightness at sunset above Easedale. The sloe-thorn beautiful in the hedges, and in the wild spots higher up among the hawthorns. (Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal, 1802.