Consider the Romantic narrative of the solitary wanderer. As the story goes, the poet-genius rambles off into the woods or high up along the ridge of a mountain and, along the way, encounters the divine.
The narrative is a powerful one, not least because so many of us have had just such an encounter with divinity by way of nature.
Growing up in the Hudson Valley of New York, I recall many times when I faced the beauty of the brook or the sublimity of the towering pines. The book of nature opens the human imagination to the mind of God.
Further reflection reveals not only the pervasiveness of this Romantic narrative, but also the unintended consequences of such ideas for our living in the world. I recently read an illuminating passage on Romantic literature and the power of nature in the new Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment (2014). The passage reminded me why the Romantic movement is so often connected with the environmental movement and explains why Romantic narratives of nature are frequently, if not inherently, religious claims (and claims that necessarily require criticism).
Axel Goodbody, writing on the Romantic roots of some contemporary ecocritical theory, explains that Romantic writers such as Rousseau, Goethe, Blake, and Wordsworth rightly drew attention to the relationship between the individual and nature. The common narrative of the solitary individual who proceeds into idealized nature and discovers the self in the encounter (or in a period of reflection later) represents only one strand of Romantic thinking. Still, the narrative elicited a powerful response to the perceived sterility of the world in many popular, physico-theological surveys of nature. Romantic authors, as Goodbody explains, right criticized flawed conceptions of human interactions with the environment: both external concerns of pollution due to industrialization as well as the internal “fragmentation of the personality” that modern labor practices can inculcate among workers. For this reason, as the essay notes, Romantic writers are often regarded as a historical source for ecocritical thinking today. Yet, in the process, moderns have inherited several misguided beliefs about human living in relation to the natural world.
Goodbody points to the contributions of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess as a source of critical engagement with Romanticism. Naess, known for his theorizing on “deep ecology,” criticized the Romantic legacy in terms that I considered inherently religious and profoundly resonant with Christian theological concerns:
[Naess] argued that we should see ourselves not as atomistic individuals, treating the world as a resource for consumption and self-assertion, but as part of a greater living community. Human demands must therefore be weighed against the needs of other species and the integrity of place. Deep ecology thus distances itself from the anthropocentrism and individualism inherent in romantic ecology’s aesthetic consumption of landscapes by solitary individuals. Its very understanding of “nature” as essentially places unaffected by human activity, however, paradoxically perpetuates a dualistic world view, in which humanity is condemned to denaturalize and destroy an exoticized natural “other” (64).
Several insights are tightly packed in this quote:
- We live in a network of relations—not only among other people but also within a wider environment of living things.
- Human needs should be assessed in terms of these relations and with a respect for the distinctions of “place.”
- Some Romantic tendencies towards anthropocentrism and individualism encourage theoretical constructions of the self that may be at odds with the connectivity and relationality of creation.
- Dualism results when nature is either destroyed or revered in subjection to human living.
These claims, albeit drawn secondhand from a survey of ecocritical literature, parallel Christian theological concerns about true humanity and belong to a larger conversation on the environment and the social capacity of literature. In short, the denial of interconnectedness and the relational order of creation in favor of either individual dominance or self-isolation amounts to disordered human living in the world. Romantic literature helped bring the connection between humans and environment into new perspective, but the idea of the solitary wanderer encountering nature and retreating for reflection may well have diminished (however inadvertently) the communal element of personhood—especially in the popular imagination—and consequently distorted the idea of “place” in our thinking about life in nature.
For now, I think I’ll go take a walk with my son.