Civilisation

Sir Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’: Part XI

This week we descend further into the modern world. As the Age of Enlightenment progressed, belief in a transcendent God began to fade and was replaced by belief in the divinity of nature. This outlook, Clark argues in The Worship of Nature, usurped Christianity’s 1000-year reign as the chief creative force in Western civilization and ushered in the Romantic Movement. Central to this momentous shift was the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose optimism about nature Clark contrasts with the brutal pessimism of the Marquis de Sade. In the realm of art, Clark discusses the landscape paintings of Turner and Constable and visits Tintern Abbey and the Alps.

The Eclipse of Christianity … According to Clark:

For almost 1000 years the chief creative force in Western Civilisation was Christianity. Then, beginning in England in about the year 1725, it suddenly declined and in intellectual society practically disappeared.

… and the Divinization of Nature In the cultural and spiritual vacuum that followed, and over the next century, Europeans “concocted a new belief … a belief in the divinity of Nature.”

Romanticism: This new faith found expression in Romanticism, one of the most important shifts in the consciousness of Western Civilisation. It was a visceral reaction to the Age of Religious Wars, the Industrial Revolution, and the onset of Modernity. It was characterized by a glorification of Nature, a fascination with the ‘pre-social self’, primal emotions, individual genius, spontaneity, authenticity, and the medieval past. The Romantic era flourished from c.1780 to c.1850, and found expression throughout art, literature, music, philosophy, and culture generally. It remains profoundly influential.

Revelation in the Ruins: It was a very specific sort of Romantic nature however, one found around ruined ancient buildings. As Clark observes, commentators noted the ruin of the old religion, while the new religion lurked in its physical ruins — for those with eyes to see!

Those eyes belonged initially to “minor poets and provincial painters,” but also to local historians, and antiquarians who came to love derelict churches, monasteries, castles, and other ruined remnants of a mythic medieval past. It was amongst such evocative ruins that the Romantics found their new religion.

The English Style: This vision found vivid expression in the ‘English Style’ of garden, the artistic inspiration for which came from the Baroque artist, Claude Lorrain. Here there were meandering streams, artificial lakes, gently rolling lawns, twisting paths, variegated groves of trees, classical temples, simulated Gothic ruins, bridges, follies (left), and other devices meant to surprise and transport the wanderer into an idyllic pastoral world. It contrasted starkly with the exactitude of the ‘French Style’ with its preference for strict symmetry and carefully tended and regulated garden beds and avenues.

Rousseau: The decisive intellectual rationale for Romanticism, affecting every area of culture, came  from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (right), one of the most influential philosophers, novelists and writers of all time. His major works include, Emile, or On Education; The Confessions; Discourse on Inequality; The Social Contract; and Dreams of a Solitary Walker.

Genius & Outsider: Born in Geneva in 1712, Rousseau lost his mother at his birth and his father deserted when he was 10. He then endured a lifetime of complex and exploitative personal relationships, which he later described in excruciating detail in his Confessions. It became clear that,

Rousseau was a genius, one of the most original minds of any age and a writer of incomparable prose.

But he was also a very difficult person, “solitary and suspicious,” intensely introspective, neurotic, and possessed by odd desires. He was a lifelong outsider, invariably falling out with the many people who befriended and tried to help him.

Nature, the Antithesis of Civilization: Rousseau developed an extremely exalted view of Nature and of ‘Natural Man’, i.e., human beings as they are in their full authenticity in the ‘State of Nature’, before they were corrupted and ensnared by civilisation. He declared:

Man was born free; but is everywhere in chains!

In his view it is the artificiality of civilization that commits this entrapment.

The Authentic Self:  In his writings, Rousseau described what human beings lost when they surrendered their ‘natural’ state of freedom in return for the (allegedly doubtful) benefits of civilization. He believed that humans possess an authentic self, but that this is solitary and pre-social and has been repressed by civilization, covered over, and distorted by a lifetime of social conditioning.  Nevertheless, he claimed we still retain this true and natural self, somewhere deep down, if only we can learn to get back in touch with it. As a first step towards this, he insisted that people should live according to the impulses of their true inner self and refuse to acknowledge the claims of other people upon them. We must also learn to distrust excessive reliance on reason and learn to live more spontaneously and according to our feelings. This brought him into sharp conflict with the other philosophes of the Enlightenment and exposed him to charges of irrationalism.

Oneness with Nature Unsurprisingly, Rousseau was persecuted by government and church authorities and he spent much of his life moving about seeking places of refuge. One of these was St. Peter’s Island in the Lake of Bienne (above). It was there in 1765 that Rousseau lay floating in a little boat on the lake and had

… an experience so intense that one can say it caused a revolution in human feeling. Listening to the flux and reflux of the waves, he became completely at one with nature, lost all consciousness of an independent self, all painful memories of the past or anxieties about the future, everything except the raw sense of being.

The Cult of Sensibility: ‘I realised,’ claimed Rousseau, ‘that our existence is nothing but a succession of moments perceived through the senses.’Observes Clark

I feel, therefore I am — a curious discovery to have made in the middle of the Age of Reason.

Be that as it may, it gave shape at the time to the new ‘Cult of Sensibility,’ which sought out sensations and experiences for their own sake. This emerged as part of the Romantic Movement and then lay dormant as “an intellectual time-bomb,” that exploded, Clark claimed, 200 years later in the 1960s (right) — “whether to the advantage of civilisation seems rather doubtful.”

The Marquis de Sade: Clark contrasts Rousseau’s benign view of nature to the malevolent view held  by his contemporary, the infamous Marquis de Sade (left). De Sade was a French nobleman and sexual libertine who became notorious for his debauched behaviour, pornographic novels, and inflammatory writings. These included: Philosophy in the Bedroom; The 120 Days of Sodom; Justine, or Good Conduct Well-Chastised; and Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded. They pushed the case that human beings are cruel, violent creatures, driven by lusts, and that the world is an unjust jungle where the strong reign supreme and consume the weak. He spent much of his life in an asylum, but he was also elected to the National Convention during the French Revolution. Clark quotes the Marquis:

‘Nature averse to crime! I tell you that nature lives and breathes by it, hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, yearns with all her heart for the furtherance of cruelty.’

The terms sadism and sadist are derived from his name.

‘The Noble Savage’ The views of the Marquis and the bloody experiences of the Revolution only intensified the welcome that Rousseau’s ideas received. As Clark observes, during the high-tide of Romanticism

belief in the superiority of natural man became one of the motive powers of the next half-century

In literature and art this found expression in the figure of the ‘Noble Savage’, the idealized concept of uncivilized man, symbolizing the innate goodness of humans before they were exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization.

Tahiti vs Europe: This notion appeared to have been confirmed by the discoveries of the French and English explorers, Bougainville and Cook, who visited Tahiti in 1767 and 1769, respectively. Bougainville was a devotee of Rousseau and “found in the Tahitians all the qualities of the Noble Savage.” Even Cook, who was much more sceptical,

couldn’t help comparing the happy and harmonious life that he had discovered in Tahiti with the squalor and brutality of Europe.

The impact was immense:

Soon the brightest wits of Paris and London were beginning to ask whether the word civilization was not more appropriate to the uncorrupted islanders of the South Seas than to the exceptionally corrupt society of 18th Century Europe.

The Bounty Mutiny: The lure of the Tahitian lifestyle was a factor in the mutiny on the HMS Bounty in 1789. The mutineers had grown much attached to their Tahitian consorts and the lives they could live on the island, and they became loath to return to the Royal Navy or to England.

Goethe & Friedrich: Clark notes the work of the great German writer, Goethe, and his view that Nature “strives for fuller development through an infinitely long process of adaptation,” partly anticipating Darwin’s theory of evolution. A German artist, Casper David Friedrich, gave expression to the Romantic fascination with Nature, considered as a powerful and mysterious force that opens a portal into another realm (e.g., Monastery Graveyard in the Snow, 1819 (below).

‘Legislators of the World’: A massive cultural impact was achieved by the Romantic poets, e.g., Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and others. They were ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, as Shelley observed.

Truth lies in Nature: They tended to follow the key Romantic notion that Truth lies in Nature — that ultimately they are identical — and that both are utterly opposed to the ways of civilization, as Rousseau also insisted. Clark quotes Wordsworth’s declaration:

I now affirm of Nature and of Truth
That their Divinity
Revolts offended at the ways of men.

Disillusionment: Both Coleridge (left) and Wordsworth (right) lived through the dazzling excitement of the French Revolution, when such grand claims might have seemed true; but they also witnessed the hideous excesses of the Revolution and the disappointment and reaction that followed, and their poetry and writings reflects this sad journey of realization.

From Revolution to Despair: Wordsworth had been politically active in France during the Revolution and barely escaped with his life, leaving behind both his lover and their daughter. He settled in the Lake District with his sister, Dorothy, who was a great inspiration and with whom he shared a very strong affection. Later, this relationship overwhelmed them, bringing creative decline and mental illness.

Despair: Despairing at the world, Wordsworth, “wrote poems without a glimmer of comfort or hope … utterly crushed by man’s inhumanity to man.” He walked vast distances as he struggled with his thoughts. (Clark reminds us that this generation of artists and writers were inveterate walkers, immersed in nature in all her moods. “They thought nothing of walking 25 kilometres after dinner to post a letter,” and it was calculated that during his lifetime Wordsworth walked some 300,000 kilometres!)

Tintern Abbey: Finally, one day in August 1793, out walking, he came upon Tintern Abbey where, like Rousseau, “he recognized that only total absorption in nature could heal and restore his spirit.” Five years later he wrote “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey”, recalling the experience when

For nature then
To me was all in all.

Turner & Constable: In art, the English Romantic giants were J. M. W. Turner and John Constable, both masters of landscape painting, although in very contrasting styles. Turner’s works were ethereal and became ever more so, until they approached almost complete abstraction. Constable’s were far more traditional and realistic.

Creative Kinship Turner painted Buttermere in the Lakes District around the time Wordsworth moved there. However, as Clark says, the poet’s “real kinship was with Constable,” and works like the Hay Wain (below) and The Corn Field. Notes Clarke

Both were countrymen, with strong appetites rigidly controlled. They both grasped nature with the same physical passion.

Moral Grandeur: For Constable, nature was the visible physical world,

exactly as they presented themselves to the senses.” And, like Wordsworth, he knew “instinctively that by dwelling with absolute truth on natural objects he would reveal something of the moral grandeur of the universe.

The Simple Life: The danger was that this approach would produce trivial and uninteresting pictures (and poems). On the other hand, both artists and poets were firm in the belief that it was it was in the rustic engagement of people with nature in the simple business of living that the truth of existence lay.

Massive Shift: This implied a massive mental shift away from the grandeur of civilization to something much more modest in its demands on the world:

The simple life: it was a necessary part of the new religion of Nature, and one in strong contrast to earlier aspirations. Civilisation, which for so long had been dependent on great monasteries and palaces, or well-furnished salons, could now emanate from a cottage.

Colour and Light: Turner turned away from this rustic vision towards the mystical. His art ventured into another realm altogether, one far more ethereal, even otherworldly. As his career unfolded he perfected

an entirely new approach to painting that was only recognized in our own day. It consisted of transforming everything into pure colour, light rendered as colour, feelings about life rendered as colour.

This was revolutionary because hitherto “objects were thought to be real because they were solid.” Moreover, “colour was considered immoral, because it is an immediate sensation” that bypasses any moral sense. Turner broke both these rules and his art derived from immediate sensations. Like Rousseau, Turner

used his optical sensations to discover the truth; ‘I feel therefore I am’

Looking Back & Forward: On one hand Turner looked back to Goethe and his theories of colour; and on the other hand, he looked forward to the Impressionist school and particularly to Monet who remarked that ‘light is the principal person in the picture.’

Total Immersion: this is the ultimate reason why the love of nature has been for so long accepted as a religion. It is a means by which we can lose our identity in the whole and gain thereby a more intense consciousness of being.

Next week, we begin to see where this aspiration to negate the self in the whole could take civilisation.

4 comments
  • Stephen Due

    Fabulous ‘episode’ thank you Mervyn – a beautifully clear synopsis! Those marvelous Turners and Constables are not only masterpieces but also have perennial popular appeal. I visited the Turners in the Tate Gallery on the day of the Royal Wedding in 2011. The streets round about were blocked by the police, but I was able to get there by ferry, and had the whole place to myself. Going way back in time, I still remember going to visit the Val d’Aosta for the first time, when it was purchased by the NGV in 1973. Such paintings are the companions of a lifetime.

  • Ian MacDougall

    ‘The Hay Wain’ is rightly regarded as a priceless classic. Before the Romantics, art was dominated by themes derived solely from history and religion. Then came such as William Blake:
    “To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour.”
    Arguably, the Romantics were on a track that had been blazed by the Buddhists and Taoists centuries before, and by sages in India before them..

  • padraic

    I echo Stephen’s gratitude, Mervyn, for showing us and discussing those wonderful paintings by Constable and Turner. I have to admit to preferring Constable’s paintings. I had not realised how productive was Turner until some years back when I found myself in Edinburgh on a freezing winter’s day with about 4 hours to kill before catching the train back to London. I went to the station but there did not appear to be a warm waiting room, so I walked over to the gallery not far from the station and spent the time in its warmth until it was time to leave and catch the train. They had a marvellous selection of works of famous painters, including the Dutch masters and Turner and others. Patrons were allowed to visit the basement storage where I found an incredible number of Turners that could not be displayed because of lack of wall space upstairs. They were just stacked around willy-nilly and I thought that some of our Australian galleries would give an arm and a leg just to have some of those Turners languishing in the basement.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Living in Canberra, access to the ANG is easy, so I’ve been able to see some spectacular visiting exhibitions. Betty Churcher arranged some brilliant blockbusters, something that subsequent directors have not quite emulated. One of those included some of the most famous Turners and Constables, including “The Hay Wain” and “Salisbury Cathedral” and others I can no longer recall. Wonderful priceless works.

Post a comment