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Forests: The Shadow of Civilization

Forests: The Shadow of Civilization

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by Robert Pogue Harrison

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In this wide-ranging exploration of the role of forests in Western thought, Robert Pogue Harrison enriches our understanding not only of the forest's place in the cultural imagination of the West, but also of the ecological dilemmas that now confront us so urgently. Consistently insightful and beautifully written, this work is especially compelling at a time when the


In this wide-ranging exploration of the role of forests in Western thought, Robert Pogue Harrison enriches our understanding not only of the forest's place in the cultural imagination of the West, but also of the ecological dilemmas that now confront us so urgently. Consistently insightful and beautifully written, this work is especially compelling at a time when the forest, as a source of wonder, respect, and meaning, disappears daily from the earth.

"Forests is one of the most remarkable essays on the human place in nature I have ever read, and belongs on the small shelf that includes Raymond Williams' masterpiece, The Country and the City. Elegantly conceived, beautifully written, and powerfully argued, [Forests] is a model of scholarship at its passionate best. No one who cares about cultural history, about the human place in nature, or about the future of our earthly home, should miss it.—William Cronon, Yale Review

"Forests is, among other things, a work of scholarship, and one of immense value . . . one that we have needed. It can be read and reread, added to and commented on for some time to come."—John Haines, The New York Times Book Review

Editorial Reviews

Pogue does not recount a merely empirical history about how civilization has encroached upon the forests, exploited them, cultivated them, managed them, or simply devastated them. He tells the more elusive story of the role forests have played in the cultural imagination of the West--a role filled with enchantment, terror, irony, and enigma. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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The Shadow of Civilization

By Robert Pogue Harrison

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-31807-3



IT IS NOT ONLY IN THE MODERN IMAGINATION THAT FORESTS cast their shadow of primeval antiquity; from the beginning they appeared to our ancestors as archaic, as antecedent to the human world. We gather from mythology that their vast and somber wilderness was there before, like a precondition or matrix of civilization, or that—as the epigraph to this book suggests—the forests were first. Such myths, which everywhere look back to a forested earth, no doubt recall the prehistoric landscape of the West, yet this by itself does not explain why human societies, once they emerged from the gloom of origins, preserved such fabulous recollections of the forests' antecedence. Why, for example, should the founding legends of the greatest of ancient cities declare that Rome had a sylvan origin? When Aeneas travels up the Tiber and comes to the site of the future imperial city, he finds himself in a wondrous forest. His host, Evander, explains to him:

These woodland places
Once were homes of local fauns and nymphs
Together with a race of men that came
From tree trunks, from hard oak: they had no way
Of settled life, no arts of life, no skill
At yoking oxen, gathering provisions,
Practising husbandry, but got their food
From oaken bough and wild game hunted down.
In that first time, out of Olympian heaven,
Saturn came here in flight from Jove in arms,
An exile from a kingdom lost; he brought
These unschooled men together from the hills
Where they were scattered, gave them laws, and chose
The name of Latium, from his latency
Or safe concealment in this countryside. (Aeneid 8.415–29)

Virgil's Roman contemporaries might have read such a passage more naively than we do. They might have recalled how the hills of the imperial city were not so long ago still forested, and in their minds two images—forest and city—might have fused together to create an uncanny psychological effect. Evander's description of an Arcadianlike forest, where aboriginal men were born from the oaks, would have helped them not only to imagine a forest in their minds but also to feel in their veins, as it were, a genealogical affiliation with the wooded world of nature. They would have felt the affiliation as something lost or ruptured, to be sure, but to liberate such feelings of loss is the peculiar function of myths of origin, which so invariably speak to our nostalgias.

We will have more to say about the sylvan prehistory of Rome later in this chapter, as well as the paradoxical attitude of reverence and hostility toward origins which characterizes not only the founding legends of Rome but so many of the myths that look back to the forests. For however implicated they may be in civilization's prehistory, the mythic forests of antiquity stand opposed to the city in some fundamental way. We will find that Rome can become Rome only by overcoming, or effacing, the forests of its origins. Yet in the long run the city is overcome in turn by what it subdued: in the forests to the north Rome's doom awaited its time. Tacitus saw prefigurations of it in the German forests whose hardy tribes offered a contrast to Rome's moral and civic decadence. Likewise when Dionysos appears at the city of Thebes and leads the maddened citizens into the forests of the Cithaeron mountain, the king who opposes Dionysos in the name of civic law brings about the downfall of the house of Cadmus.

What is that antagonism, however imaginary, all about? Why does the law of civilization define itself from the outset over against the forests? For what obscure religious reasons is our humanity, in its traditional alienation from the animal kingdom, incompatible with that aboriginal environment? How is it that forests represent an abomination? These are questions that ask about the psychic origins of antiquity's founding institutions. They ask about the most archaic religious conceptions that first traumatized the relation between humanity and nature, indeed, that established the relation as a trauma. Questions such as these cannot be pursued merely empirically but rather by way of a genetic psychology of the earliest myths and fables, which preserve in their figures the hieroglyphs of that enigmatic psychic history from which empirical history derives its inspiration.

We have a remarkable starting point from which to pursue a psychology of this sort. In the eighteenth century an Italian theorist from Naples, Giambattista Vico, set out to recover the earliest modes of thought of the "gentile peoples." In his New Science (1744) he applied to ancient myths a genetic psychology that led him deep into the forests of prehistory in search of the origins of what he called the three "universal institutions" of humanity—religion, matrimony, and burial of the dead. Like most theories that have aged, Vico's too becomes a fable in retrospect, but since psychic origins are in any case never factual but fabulous, the New Science offers the sort of imaginative insight that makes its theory irrevocable, even long after it has become a fable. Indeed, it is precisely as a fable that it provides its most essential insights, which is one of several reasons why the present chapter gets underway in Vico's landscape of origins.

With Vico we also are introduced to the logic of tragedy which the present chapter goes on to explore in the myths of antiquity relevant to our theme. Tragedy reveals itself in this context as a fatal collision between divergent laws. This extreme edge, where opposing laws strive against one another and where the more primordial one wins out, is the boundary at which the city meets the forest. But again, what is this boundary all about? Where and when was it drawn?

Vico's Giants

Dispersed throughout those primeval forests that spread across the earth after the flood, Noah's descendants gradually lost their humanity over the generations and became solitary, nefarious creatures living under the cover of branches and leaves. They became bestial "giants." Abandoned early on by their mothers, they grew up without families or consciousness, feeding on fruits and searching for water. They were shy, brutal, restless, incestuous, and lacked any notion of a higher law than their own instincts and desires. They copulated on sight, aggressively and shamelessly, exercising no restraint whatsoever over their bodily motions, and they roamed the forests incessantly. This is what Vico calls the giant's "bestial freedom"—a freedom from terror and authority, a freedom from fathers.

Wandering through forests grown extremely dense from the flood, the giants could not have suspected that beyond the canopies that shielded them there was such a thing as the sky. What is the sky, after all, if not the prodigious emptiness of an abstraction we have come to take for granted? But one day, some two centuries after Noah's time, the earth had dried up enough to send up exhalations or matter igniting in the air. On that occasion the sky burst with thunder and flashed with lightning for the first time since the great flood. Vico writes:

Thereupon a few giants, who must have been the most robust, and who were dispersed through the forests on the mountain heights where the strongest beasts have their dens, were frightened and astonished by the great effect whose cause they did not know, and raised their eyes and became aware of the sky. And because in such a case the nature of the human mind leads it to attribute its own nature to the effect, and because in that state their nature was that of men all robust bodily strength, who expressed their very violent passions by shouting and grumbling, they pictured the sky to themselves as a great animated body, which in that aspect they called Jove, the first god of the so-called greater gentes, who meant to tell them something by the hiss of his bolts and clap of his thunder. (New Science, §377)

Thunder rolls, lightning flashes, the giants, terrified, raise their eyes and become aware of the sky. But what did the giants see when they raised their eyes? What does one see vertically or laterally in a dense forest? The mute closure of foliage. The boundless oblivion of the dormant mind. What, then, did the giants see when they raised their eyes? They saw nothing: a sudden illumination of nothingness. They heard the "hiss of his bolts and clap of his thunder," but precisely because they saw nothing, or at least nothing definite, they had to "picture the sky to themselves" in the aspect of a huge animated body: a body not seen but imagined as there beyond the treetops.

This act of picturing an image within the mind marks, for Vico, the first humanizing event in prehistory. The giants produce an image in the empty space of their minds—a space as empty and abysmal as the sky itself. In this manner the first human idea was born: that of Jove, father of the world, hurling the lightning bolt from his abode in the sky. In the guise of Jupiter and Zeus, this deity will later reign supreme among the gods of antiquity.

To this first bolt of lightning Vico traces the primitive origins of the Age of Enlightenment, in which humanity comes to perfection. Awoken from its stupor by the lightning bolt, the human mind laboriously created the civic world and eventually attained its greatest achievements, namely science, metaphysics, and the institutions of human justice. When that first bolt struck over the heads of the giants, it announced an unearthly imperative beyond the closure of the forest. Only by the power of its terror could it ignite the first spark of human consciousness in the dull minds of the giants and thus force them to restrain their bestial urges.

From the moment the giants took cognizance of Jove's divine authority, the forests could no longer contain their consciousness, for the latter originated in its submission to something external—to a father who communicated by means of celestial signs. All of nature turned uncanny for the giants, for they now believed "that Jove commanded by signs, that such signs were real words, and that nature was the language of Jove" (§379). Thus at the origin of the first universal institution of humanity, that is, religion, was a disclosure of logos, or horizon of sense. The world suddenly became meaningful. It became phenomenal. It became, precisely, a world—and no longer a mere habitat.

The trauma of this awakening lies in the fact that Jove, at the very moment of his revelation, concealed himself. In his concealment he communicated his will through signs. Henceforth he would play a game of hide-and-seek with the disoriented giants, obliging them to scrutinize the auspices in order to divine his hidden intentions. Vico insists that the celestial auspices—signs in the sky, such as the lightning or the flight of birds—were the first of all languages, preceding even human phonetic language. The auspices were literally the language of god (theo-logia), and literacy in this divine language was later called "divination." Thus the first of all human ideas, the idea of divinity, implied an idea of providence: the intentional, meaningful, and nonrandom character of events.

Do we understand what this means? With the idea of a provident divinity in their minds, the giants were projected into the dreadful future of time. But what is the future? What is this dimension that is neither present nor absent? The future for the giants was an indefinite possibility that they sought to render definite by means of their divinatory theology. Divination was the science by which they hoped to secure signs of an insecure future. Jove, who opened time, also obscured its destiny—that was his ultimate power. To allay the anxieties of destiny the first giants provided for their families; that is to say, they "looked forward" (pro-videre) into the future by interpreting the auspices.

Given the supremacy of this law of the auspices, the forests became profane for a simple reason: they obstructed the communication of Jove's intentions. In other words, their canopies concealed an open view of the sky. We find here in Vico's text a fabulous insight, for the abomination of forests in Western history derives above all from the fact that, since Greek and Roman times at least, we have been a civilization of sky-worshippers, children of a celestial father. Where divinity has been identified with the sky, or with the eternal geometry of the stars, or with cosmic infinity, or with "heaven," the forests become monstrous, for they hide the prospect of god.

The second universal institution of humanity, matrimony, is also by nature hostile to the forest environment. Vico speculates that the first sign from Jove—the thunder and lightning—must have surprised some of the giants in the act of copulating. In their terror they took this sign as a command to eternalize the sexual union, or to become monogamous and so establish the institution of matrimony, with its linear family genealogy. But matrimony could not institute itself in the forests, for the forests encouraged dispersion, independence, lawlessness, polygamy, and even incest between father and daughter, mother and son. Folding time within its promiscuous matrix, the forests would have promptly disoriented the line of genealogical succession. In short, for the family to establish itself as a divine institution under the open sky, it had to clear a space for itself in the forest's midst. Only within the clearing could the family maintain its cohesion and guard its genealogy against the "infamous promiscuity" of the wilderness.

Or one could think of it in this way: where a primeval forest has already colonized the earth, the first human families had to clear the oak trees in order to plant another kind of tree: the genealogical tree. To burn out a clearing in the forest and to claim it as the sacred ground of the family—that, according to Vico, was the original deed of appropriation that first opened the space of civil society. It was the first decisive act, religiously motivated, which would lead to the founding of cities, nations, and empire.

Merely clearing the forest, however, was not in itself sufficient to ground the family in its clearing. In order to plant the genealogical tree and secure the place of residence under the auspices of god, burial ceremonies were necessary. Burial guaranteed the full appropriation of ground and its ultimate sacralization. Through burial of the dead the family defined the boundary of its place of belonging, rooting itself quite literally in the soil, or humus, where ancestral fathers lived underground. Humanity is bound to these funeral rites. The humus grounds the human. Burial preserves in its soil the essence of humanity. So while the universal institutions of humanity derive their law from the sky, they must ultimately take root in the ground. This is a paradox indeed, for by turning toward the openness of the sky humanity commits its essence to the enclosure of the earth.

By virtue of the burial of their dead, the giants could now claim that they belonged to a noble family "born of the earth," or born of ancestors lying in the ground. Vico writes:

Thus by the graves of their buried dead the giants showed their dominion over their lands ... With truth they could pronounce these heroic phrases: we are sons of this earth, we are born from these oaks. Indeed, the heads of families among the Latins called themselves stirpes and stipites, stems or stocks, and their progeny were called propagines, slips or shoots. In Italian such families were called legnaggi, lineages. And the most noble houses of Europe and almost all its reigning families take their names from the land over which they rule. (§531)

The giants in their respective clearings claim dominion over the land by demonstration: We are sons of this earth, we are born from these oaks. Which earth? Which oaks? They point: this earth here, where the wooden graveposts mark the presence of our ancestors in the ground. These posts are the oaks from which we are born. We belong to this place, for our tree has been planted here. These oaks, or these graveposts, have sprung up under the auspices of god. The family tree supplants the oak tree and thereby grounds the universal institutions of humanity: religion, matrimony, and burial of the dead.

We have here the fabulous origins of a phenomenon that we will encounter again and again throughout this study, namely the appropriation of the forest as a metaphor for human institutions. Human beings have by no means exploited the forest only materially; they have also plundered its trees in order to forge their fundamental etymologies, symbols, analogies, structures of thought, emblems of identity, concepts of continuity, and notions of system. From the family tree to the tree of knowledge, from the tree of life to the tree of memory, forests have provided an indispensable resource of symbolization in the cultural evolution of humankind, so much so that the rise of modern scientific thinking remains quite unthinkable apart from the prehistory of such metaphorical borrowings. Even the concept of the circle, we are told, comes from the internal concentric rings laid bare by the felling of trees (Bechmann, 258–63).


Excerpted from Forests by Robert Pogue Harrison. Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert Pogue Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chairs the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University. He is the author of The Body of Beatrice, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, The Dominion of the Dead, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, and Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, the latter three published by the University of Chicago Press. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also host of the radio program Entitled Opinions on Stanford's station KZSU 90.1.

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