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the nature of nature

In one of his last essays, 'The Nature of Nature' (1995), John Fowles returned to the theme of 'The Tree', the importance of nature in his life and work, as well as for all humanity, to remind them of their own nature.

Fowles recommends reading this "tangled nest of memories and thoughts" in association with 'The Tree', and this indeed makes his dense, free-flowing prose easier to follow. For he covers a lot of ground here, ranging from a re-evaluation of 'The Two Cultures' debate - the hostility between science and the humanities, and between what he calls the two modes of knowing and feeling - to a discussion of the cosmic forces he sees as governing our existence: sideros, keraunos, eleutheria, or "iron necessity, lightning hazard, freedom". (Familiar concepts for readers of 'The Magus', whose working title was 'The Godgame'.)

But central, again, is his attempt to put into words the value of nature, which ultimately lies in the fact that it has no value - and hence might be regarded as a very subtle form of the pathetic fallacy.

As in 'The Tree', Fowles realizes all too well that analysis of his subject threatens to annihilate it, somewhat like the act of observation in quantum physics. Or as Virginia Woolf summed up the problem in her novel 'Orlando':

Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.

In spite of this, and defiantly so, a highlight of the essay is his description of "beingness, existingness", of the essential equivalence of nature and our own nature. It represents the culmination of a patient, wandering exploration - of nature, in letters - started in 'The Tree'. Describing a period of convalescence after a stroke, Fowles writes:

What has struck me about the acutely rich sensation of beingness is how fleeting is its apprehension. It's almost as transient, as fugitive, as some particles in atomic physics: the more you would capture it, the less likely that you will. It refuses all attempts at willed or conscious evocation, it is deaf to pure intelligence alone, it envelops you in a double or twinned feeling. One is of intense nowness, the other of realizing that you (oneself) alone, in your individuality, are infinitely fortunate to experience it, perhaps in nothing so much as its seeming to fall from something whole and unindividual on your separateness. It is being, being, being ... a perpetual miracle, so vivid and vital that ordinarily we cannot bear it; always rare enough to be a shock, no similes or metaphors can convey it; like a sudden nakedness, a knowing of oneself laid bare before a different reality.

(Note the frequency of paradox - "no similes... like", "perpetual... rare", "envelops... nakedness", "a feeling... a knowing" - which is perhaps the best defense letters can mount against being torn to pieces...)

'The Nature of Nature' can be found in the essay collection 'Wormholes'. It is also included in some editions of 'The Tree'.

the tree

...an experience whose deepest value lies in the fact that it cannot be directly described by any art... including that of words.

In his long essay 'The Tree' (1979), John Fowles attempts to describe something for which by his own admission he has no words: his experience of nature, of wilderness, and specifically of woods and trees. It is a sensory experience that can't be reduced to anything else, or reproduced in images or words. It only exists in the immediacy of the experience, always more than the sum of its perceived parts. It might be compared to the experience of art, both for the artist and the audience, though as Fowles notes, art is made, it is an artefact, while nature remakes itself continuously, fleetingly and impossible to capture in artefact.

In contrast to this kind of experience stands our modern, and in Fowles' view overly dominant habit of definition, classification and scientific explanation. Everything must have its use and purpose - while the essence of nature, and of art, lies precisely in its uselessness. Fowles takes this a step further by stating that in our modern world man, too, must have his use and purpose, even if the deepest - and most confusing - experience of being human is more akin to the "green chaos" of a wood.

It's certainly a relevant theme in an age that has made economic utility a supreme virtue, and which finds lovers of both nature and art at a loss to defend the value of the 'useless'. Fowles develops timeless arguments against this trend, making 'The Tree' a thoughtful manifesto for the intrinsic value of nature and wilderness.

Fowles is best known for his novels, including 'The Collector' (1963), 'The Magus' (1966) and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' (1969), which have been characterized as the link between Thomas Hardy and David Mitchell. But when it comes to the role of nature and landscape in his work, he seems to be closer to the 19th than 21st century English novelists. In 'The French Lieutenant's Woman', for instance, the lush jungle of the Undercliff at Lyme Regis, where Fowles long had his home, plays a crucial role as a sanctuary for tightly corseted Victorians. The stark and cruel landscape of a Greek island in 'The Magus' is equally important in evoking a mythical atmosphere for its trickster plot.

'The Tree' culminates in a description of the mysterious Wistman's Wood, hidden in a valley of the barren Dartmoor, with its strange, twisted, moss-draped dwarf oaks. These fairytalish trees also aptly symbolize 'The Tree' itself, where Fowles doesn't proceed linearly but his prose is searching, tentative and patiently exploring an environment that shrugs off interpretation. Of woods he writes:

Nowhere are the two great contemporary modes of reproducing reality, the word and the camera, more at a loss; less able to capture the sound (or soundlessness) and the scents, the temperatures and moods, the all-roundness, the different levels of being in the vertical ascent from ground to tree-top, in the range of different forms of life and the subtlety of their inter-relationships. In a way woods are like the sea, sensorially far too various and immense for anything but surfaces or glimpses to be captured. They defeat view-finder, drawing-paper, canvas, they cannot be framed; and words are as futile, hopelessly too laborious and used to capture reality.

Along the way Fowles discusses many other trees, both autobiographical - like his father's closely pruned fruit trees and the neatly classified garden of Carl Linnaeus - and cultural, drawing from the woods in English mythology and folklore and tracing the development of natural, realistic representation in painting. And he uses woods as a metaphor for the creative, meaning-producing processes that take place in our subconscious minds, and which writers and artists attempt to report on.

Anticipating his later essay 'The Nature of Nature' (1995), where he would revisit the dichotomy between science and nature, knowing and feeling, words and experience, Fowles describes what is both the experience of nature and the nature of experience.

There is something in the nature of nature, in its presentness, its seeming transience, its creative ferment and hidden potential, that corresponds very closely with the wild, or green man, in our psyches; and it is a something that disappears as soon as it is relegated to an automatic pastness, a status of merely classifiable thing, image taken then. 'Thing' and 'then' attract each other. If it is a thing, it was then; if it was then, it is a thing. We lack trust in the present, this moment, this actual seeing, because our culture tells us to trust only the reported back, the publicly framed, the edited, the thing set in the clearly artistic or the clearly scientific angle of perspective.

This notion of our "trust(ing) only the reported back" curiously fits our current age of media saturation and vicarious screen experiences. In fact, one area where this preoccupation with "the publicly framed" reveals itself is in nature, which these days tends to include signs, or screens, identifying it as nature and explaining its uniqueness. And of course many of its visitors can be seen carrying a small screen to guide their every step.

But as Fowles reminds us, this habit of reducing everything to a "merely classifiable thing" - conveniently shrunk to fit on our screens - makes us imperceptive of the unclassifiable immediacy of nature.

One of the deepest lessons we have to learn is that nature, of its nature, resists this. It waits to be seen otherwise, in its individual presentness and from our individual presentness.

loophole for all

If you ever need to do some offshoring - and as homo calculus inc. you know you'd better - 'Loophole for All' by Italian artist Paolo Cirio makes this available as a cheap, easy and pretty much legal service.

Loophole for All is a service to democratize offshore business for people who don't want to pay for their riches. It empowers everyone to evade taxes, hide money and debt, and get away with anything by stealing the identities of real offshore companies.

As in earlier projects, Cirio throws light on one of the more pernicious problems of our time by hijacking a failing system, following its globalized, neoliberal logic ad absurdum.

In this case, multinational companies paying little or no taxes by using elaborate offshore constructions (along with, say, a double Irish with a Dutch sandwich) are the root cause of many current problems, including starved governments, improbable politics and growing inequality, both in developing and developed countries. Ultimately, its unfairness - and seeming insolubility - can be viewed as a symptom of liquid modernity and the rapid evaporation of power from nation states into the global unaccountable cloud.

Anyway, here are '10 reasons we should tax corporations', some more reasons and a sensible solution. The 'Loophole for All' website also collects a wealth of info and statistics.

'Loophole for All' is part of 'The Value of Nothing' at Tent, Rotterdam.

views of holland

In 'Along the Road' (1925) a young Aldous Huxley collected 'Notes and Essays of a Tourist', which contains a rather charming description of a visit to the lowlands.

Overall, his arm's-length irony (the book's opening chapter is on 'Why Not Stay at Home?') prevented him from describing much in the way of real travel experiences, expounding instead on the art treasures he finds on his class-prescribed Italian tour. But in an unexpected detour Huxley offers his 'Views of Holland', whose sheer flatness inspires him to great metaphysical heights.

A tour in Holland is like a tour through the first books of Euclid. Over a country that is the ideal plane surface of the geometry books, the roads and the canals trace out the shortest distances between point and point. In the interminable polders, the road-topped dykes and gleaming ditches intersect one another at right angles, a criss-cross of perfect parallels. Each rectangle of juicy meadowland contained between the intersecting dykes has identically the same area. Five kilometres long, three deep -- the figures record themselves on the clock face of the cyclometer. Five by three by -- how many? The demon of calculation possesses the mind.

(...)

And all the time, as one advances the huge geometrical landscape spreads out on either side of the car like an opening fan. Along the level sky-line a score of windmills wave their arms like dancers in a geometrical ballet. Ineluctably, the laws of perspective lead away the long roads and shining waters to a misty vanishing point. Here and there -- mere real irrelevancies in the midst of this ideal plain -- a few black and white cows out of a picture by Cuyp browse indefatigably in the lush green grass or, remembering Paul Potter, mirror themselves like so many ruminating Narcissi, in the waters of a canal. Sometimes one passes a few human beings, deplorably out of place, but doing their best, generally, to make up for their ungeometrical appearance by mounting bicycles. The circular wheels suggest a variety of new theorems and a new task for the demon of calculation.

(...)

Delightful landscape! I know of no country that it is more mentally exhilarating to travel in. No wonder Descartes preferred the Dutch to any other scene. It is the rationalist's paradise. One feels as one flies along in the teeth of one's own forty-mile-an-hour wind like a Cartesian Encyclopaedist -- flushed with mental intoxication, convinced that Euclid is absolute reality, that God is a mathematician, that the universe is a simple affair that can be explained in terms of physics and mechanics, that all men are equally endowed with reason and that it is only a question of putting the right arguments before them to make them see the error of their ways and to inaugurate the reign of justice and common sense. Those were noble and touching dreams, commendable inebriations! We are soberer now. We have learnt that nothing is simple and rational except what we ourselves have invented; that God thinks neither in terms of Euclid nor of Riemann; that science has 'explained' nothing; that the more we know the more fantastic the world becomes and the profounder the surrounding darkness; that reason is unequally distributed; that instinct is the sole source of action; that prejudice is incomparably stronger than argument and that even in the twentieth century men behave as they did in the caves of Altamira and in the lake dwellings of Glastonbury. And symbolically one makes the same discoveries in Holland. For the polders are not unending, nor all the canals straight, nor every house a wedded cube and pyramid, nor even the fundamental plane surface invariably plane. That delightful 'Last Ride Together' feeling that fills one, as one rolls along the brick-topped dykes between the canals is deceptive. The present is not eternal; the 'Last Ride' through plane geometry comes to a sudden end -- in a town, in forests, in the sea coast, in a winding river or great estuary.

He goes on to trace his tour of Rotterdam, "crowded with the traffic of a metropolis", The Hague, Delft, Haarlem, Hoorn, Volendam, Amsterdam with its "enormous courtesans" and "trick cyclists", the dunes of Schoorl like miniature Alps, and what he nominates as "the grandest sight in non-geometrical Holland": Zaandam.

In the streets are men in wooden shoes, smoking. Dogs drawing carts with brass pots in them. Innumerable bicycles. It is the real and not the ideal geometrical Holland, crowded, confusing, various, odd, charming.... But I sighed as we entered the town. The 'Last Ride Together' was over; the dear paralogisms of rationalism were left behind.

(Huxley, who mentions elsewhere that he travels in a Citroën, but nowhere names his travel companion, surely doesn't intend to invoke that other interpretation of Browning's exhilirating poem.)

'Along the Road' is all but unreadable online, so best go back to an old Chatto & Windus edition with an appropriately musty highbrow air.

Update: Here's a readable version of the full chapter, 'Views of Holland' (pdf). I'm not sure this is public domain yet, so should be taken as a preview.

a most wanted man

It's no more than fitting that most reviews of 'A Most Wanted Man', Anton Corbijn's slow-burning adaptation of John le Carré's novel, have centered on Philip Seymour Hoffman's swan song performance as a dogged, whisky-fueled German spy in a world where the rules have changed, or rather been thrown out.

However, arguably the film's greatest strength, faithfully transposed from the 2008 book, is the way it delivers its scathing political message purely through its plot. It is a masterful demonstration of 'show don't tell', embodied in the film by Hoffman's role as Günther Bachmann.

A Most Wanted Man - 1

Warning: book & film spoilers ahead.

In the panicky post-9/11 spy world - especially in Hamburg, where the attacks were partly hatched - Bachmann's patient, follow-the-money efforts to infiltrate a global terrorist network are deemed old-fashioned. His German superiors, with the Americans breathing down their neck, demand quick and spectacular results, and the whole intricate story builds up to a collision between Bachmann's long view and the American need for action.

As Le Carré synopsized in retrospect:

Bachmann’s self-devised mission is to put the score straight: not by way of snatch teams, waterboards and extrajudicial killings, but by the artful penetration of spies, by espousal, by using the enemy’s own weight to bring him down, and the consequent disarming of jihadism from within.

But times have changed. When the clash comes, in an explosive final scene, its dramatic effect is as thwartingly disillusioning for Bachmann as it is for the audience - like a chess game whose every careful move we've followed, suddenly destroyed by a tantrum-throwing toddler.

A Most Wanted Man - 2

The film then ends on a prolonged stunned silence, leaving the audience to conclude that this was not how chess is played, with collateral damage clearing the entire board. (Or more melancholy, that Bachmann and his fishing game had simply become outdated, his classic tradecraft an anachronism, which would make 'A Most Wanted Man' as much Le Carré's swan song as Hoffman's.)

But Le Carré's novel carried more political punch, as damning of modern state power as his earlier 'The Constant Gardener' was of corporate power.

At the very end of the book he permitted himself a short epilogue voicing what has happened. It is the only time the political dimension is made explicit, beyond the suggestion that the American intervention was just bad tradecraft.

'Where have you taken him?' Bachmann asked.
'Abdullah? Who gives a shit? Some hole in the desert, for all I know. Justice has been rendered, man. We can all go home.'
(...)
'Rendered?' [Bachmann] repeated stupidly. 'What's rendered? What justice are you talking about?'
'American justice, asshole. Whose do you think? Justice from the fucking hip, man. No-crap justice, that kind of justice! Justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you never heard of extraordinary rendition? Time you Krauts had a word for it.'

Even if the film omitted this exchange, its culture shock is there, in subtext, and in Bachmann's final outburst of furious frustration.

one must in english

One still has to count one's summers, pass
one's sentence, snow one's winter

one still has to get the shopping done before
dark asks the way, black candles for the cellar

one still has to give the sons a pep talk, measure the daughters
for their suits of armor, teach ice water to boil

one still has to show the photographer the pool of blood
get unused to one's house, change one's typewriter ribbon

one still has to dig a pit for a butterfly
trade the moment for one's father's watch –

- Gerrit Kouwenaar

Translation by Lloyd Haft. Dutch version 'Men moet' posted here years ago.

r.u.r.: rossum's universal robots

DOMIN: What sort of worker do you think is the best from a practical point of view?

HELENA: Perhaps the one who is most honest and hardworking.

DOMIN: No; the one that is the cheapest. The one whose requirements are the smallest. Young Rossum invented a worker with the minimum amount of requirements. He had to simplify him. He rejected everything that did not contribute directly to the progress of work - everything that makes man more expensive. In fact, he rejected man and made the Robot. My dear Miss Glory, the Robots are not people. Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul.

HELENA: How do you know they've no soul?

DOMIN: Have you ever seen what a Robot looks like inside?

HELENA: No.

DOMIN: Very neat, very simple. Really, a beautiful piece of work. Not much in it, but everything in flawless order. The product of an engineer is technically at a higher pitch of perfection than a product of nature.

HELENA: But man is supposed to be the product of God.

DOMIN: All the worse. God hasn't the least notion of modern engineering.

Karel Čapek's 1920 play 'R.U.R.', or 'Rossum's Universal Robots', famously introduced the word 'robot' in English (from Czech 'robota', drudgery, forced labour). Its dark satire also explored a range of themes that today are staples of science fiction, and some that may soon become reality.

Čapek's robots are actually artifical people, androids rather than what we today view as robots, and they are created in an alchemistic process reminiscent of Frankenstein or the Golem. Soulless and efficient, they are perfect artificial workers who are rapidly rendering humans superfluous.

Set on an island production facility, the play describes a robot revolution that threatens to make mankind extinct. But before that happens, the factory engineers and managers explain - with very familiar-sounding hubris - the advantages of their robots to a visitor, Helena, who wants to bestow human rights on the robots.

Consider the grand vision of Domin, the plant's director, whose rhetoric echoes almost verbatim in contemporary rhapsodies on the advent of, say, self-driving cars or delivery drones.

DOMIN: ...in ten years Rossum's Universal Robots will produce so much corn, so much cloth, so much everything, that things will be practically without price. There will be no poverty. All work will be done by living machines. Everybody will be free from worry and liberated from the degradation of labor. Everybody will live only to perfect himself.

HELENA: Will he?

DOMIN: Of course. It's bound to happen. But then the servitude of man to man and the enslavement of man to matter will cease. Of course, terrible things may happen at first, but that simply can't be avoided. Nobody will get bread at the price of life and hatred. The Robots will wash the feet of the beggar and prepare a bed for him in his house.

ALQUIST: Domin, Domin. What you say sounds too much like Paradise. There was something good in service and something great in humility. There was some kind of virtue in toil and weariness.

DOMIN: Perhaps. But we cannot reckon with what is lost when we start out to transform the world. Man shall be free and supreme; he shall have no other aim, no other labor, no other care than to perfect himself. He shall serve neither matter nor man. He will not be a machine and a device for production. He will be Lord of creation.

We just have to wait for the beggar's-feet-washing robots to arrive...

(Quoted from the translation (pdf) by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair.)

dutch skies

The summer exhibition 'Sky! - in Dutch Art since 1850' in De Hallen, Haarlem, brings together paintings along with photography, sculpture and video work, all dealing with the sky above the lowlands, and its artists below trying to capture it.

It's a very eclectic selection, ranging from classic polder views to Carel Willink's magical-realist landscapes to Guido van der Werve's 'The Day I Didn't Turn with the World', and there's even a cornered Mondrian. With its thematical rather than chronological presentation, the exhibition seems to overstretch itself at times, but it still includes quite a few rewarding works.

Here are three favorites, spanning almost the entire timeframe of the exhibition.

J.H. Weissenbruch - Windmills in a Polder Landscape - Molens in een polderlandschap

A great patch of far-off light, which is as close as a flat landscape comes to mystery, in 'Windmills in a Polder Landscape' ('Molens in een polderlandschap') by J.H. Weissenbruch, who observed, "The sky and the light are the great magicians. The sky determines a painting. Painters can never observe the sky enough."

Leo Gestel - Autumn - Herfst

An almost perfect balance of mosaic and landscape, flat and vast, sunburst and overclouded land, in Leo Gestel's post-impressionist, luminist 'Autumn' ('Herfst', 1909).

Wout Berger - When I Open My Eyes

The only horizonless image from Wout Berger's photo series of the IJsselmeer, 'When I Open My Eyes' (2010-12), so technically it's only from the rest of the series of 60, which all have the horizon about centered in the image, that the sky can be inferred here.

klever reichswald

Klever Reichswald - 1

Klever Reichswald - 2

Klever Reichswald - 3

Klever Reichswald - 4

The Klever Reichswald, a great stretch of dark beechwood between Nijmegen and Kleef, where the Dutch LAW 6 ends and the path continues as the European E8.

verity

Verity - Damien Hirst - 1

Verity - Damien Hirst - 2

A strange sight, the allegorical bronze sculpture called 'Verity' by Damien Hirst looking out to sea in the North-Devon coastal town of Ilfracombe. Standing on law books and holding the traditional attributes of Justice, sword and scales (though hidden behind her back and off-balance), this symbol of truth is also very pregnant. A perhaps unintended effect of her placement is that the westering sun hides the controversial anatomy lesson of her exposed right side.

Verity - Damien Hirst - 3

Verity - Damien Hirst - 4