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Passing Strange and Wonderful
Aesthetics, Nature, and Culture
By Yi-Fu Tuan
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1993 Island Press
All rights reserved.
The Aesthetic in Life and Culture
I wake up, open the curtains, and am confronted by a landscape lit by the early-morning sun. Soon the sound of birds, the cool touch and fragrance of morning air envelop me. The bright and dewy presence of the world makes it seem newly created, and makes me feel good to be alive. That phase quickly passes. Practical demands take over. The first port of call is the bathroom—the locale for transforming animal into person, body into social being, nature into art. Arranging that wilderness of hair into some semblance of order is the original meaning of cosmos or cosmetics. Next stop is the kitchen. I wipe the kitchen counter clean, but note that some coffee grounds have wedged themselves into cracks and would be difficult to remove. On the blue-rimmed china plate is an egg sunny-side up, a golden orb in the field of white, which I break reluctantly with a fork and then quickly eat to remove the evidence of an offense against perfection.
At the office, too, my mind takes in, at some level, the physical environment: the books on the shelves, their brightly colored jackets in the light at different times of the day; the ill-fitting elevator door; the lukewarm water from the cooler. Much of my time and the time of my coworkers is spent in performing—and also judging—social rituals. The penalty for poor performance is not a dock in pay or social ostracism, but rather the nagging feeling of having missed a cue—of a certain awkwardness in one's bearing and conduct toward others that reflects adversely on one's image of oneself. We are all on stage, for at some level. of consciousness I also judge other people's facial expressions, gestures, and behavior.
Four colleagues fail to turn up at a scheduled meeting, leaving gaps around the oval table that make communication a little more difficult. The gaps seem to me like missing teeth in an open mouth. One man, I observe, makes a point succinctly and eloquently; another offers a rambling, interminable commentary. Exchanges sometimes soar; more often they crawl. The sparks of wit relieve the drowsy stolidity pervading the room.
Lunch is arranged in honor of a colleague who is about to take a two-year leave. After it, we rise from the table, shake his hand, wish him well, and tease him about having to surrender his coveted parking space. We give him a final pat on the back. In a film, the scene fades at this point. In real life, however, we make our way to the coatrack, pick up our many paraphernalia for protecting ourselves against the winter cold, and straggle to the elevator, where we meet again, this time unplanned, and wait awkwardly in each other's presence without a prepared script, until one person has the wit to say, "Such ragged endings are the stuff of real life." By making this remark he has saved the appearance; he has transformed life into art.
As the vignette suggests, culture has a variety of meanings. Culture is a physical process that changes nature. I rearrange my unkempt hair into a semblance of order; I break an egg to cook sunny-side up. On another scale, pioneer settlers clear forests to create farms.
Culture is perception. I see the beauty of dawn, savor the fragrance of morning air, and note with annoyance the ill-fitting door of the office elevator. On another level of sophistication, I recognize (with the help of Impressionist painters) the beauty of dappled sunlight on the facade of a cathedral.
Culture is speech. Humans use language not so much to convey factual information as to construct worlds, illuminating certain facets of reality while throwing others into the shade, and calling up images that demand appraisal and sometimes action. A story well told—even if it relates a scientific experiment or a business venture—is successful rhetoric, an artful arrangement and articulation of words that strike their listeners as convincing. Speech, moreover, affects its material environment: a dull, interminable speech can make even the room's furniture seem drab, whereas a witty remark lightens the air, imparting an extra sparkle to the common water glass.
Culture is performance—facial expression, gesture, and social ballet. Image and show permeate our society as they have all others, in different ways depending on time and place. Moralists see this ubiquitous urge to present the self as a sort of disease, a fall from a state of grace, a loss of some mythic golden age when people were, in some unspecified sense, genuine, when they did not put on an act. And yet it was not a twentieth-century public relations expert who produced the words "All the world's a stage." The theatrical model of human reality is deeply ingrained in Western thought. And if this model is not as strongly and persistently stressed in other cultures and civilizations, it may be simply because it has been found too obvious to need to be put forward overtly.
The Aesthetic, Consciousness, and Emotion
The aesthetic impulse, understood as the "senses come to life," directs attention to its roots in nature. But though rooted in nature (biology), it is directed and colored by culture. Indeed, the ability to appreciate beauty is commonly understood as a specialized cultural competence, which varies from individual to individual and from group to group. How do the meanings of nature, culture, and the aesthetic differ, and, in particular, what is there about the aesthetic that makes it deeply a part of nature and culture and yet also endowed with traits uniquely its own?
Most societies distinguish between nature and culture and consider that distinction important. In general, wherever the distinction is recognized, the biological, the raw and the instinctive, the unconscious and the primordial are attributed to nature; and form and order, consciousness and deliberation, the developed and achieved ideal are attributed to culture. Although the distinction is clear at a conceptual level, nature and culture so interpenetrate that it is often hard to say of an object or behavior whether it is more the one than the other. Culture, through habitude, easily becomes second nature—like the graceful gesture that feels natural, always there, rather than chosen or constructed. Stable customs and institutions, too, often fade into the background of consciousness, like the unvarying cycles of nature.
The level of consciousness, then, is an indicator of that which distinguishes not only between nature and culture but also between culture and the aesthetic. Cultural activity is, in varying degrees, conscious activity. At the beginning of any new project, consciousness is at its peak: people have to envisage actively what is functional, right, and appropriate, as against what is dysfunctional, wrong, unnecessary, and ugly. When there are frequent pauses for appraisal and appreciation, cultural activity is also aesthetic activity. Most practical cultural activities sooner or later become routine, however, and then people are barely aware of what they do. If the task is complicated, pauses may be necessary to consider the next step; but such pauses are part of a goal-oriented action, merely to permit practical thinking. But if people use the pauses to savor what they do and envisage the "perfection" that is yet to come, they are being actively cultural—cultural in the aesthetic mode.
For the aesthetic mode to occur requires a certain distancing from the flow of life, the embeddedness of nature, the routines of culture. It is a mood, a feeling, an emotion. But these cannot take extreme forms: violent emotion (such as rage or lust) destroys the requisite psychological distancing; drowsiness plunges one back into the enveloping bosom—the embeddedness—of nature. What are these extremes, why do we reject them, and which emotions lie within the range of true aesthetic experience?
SLEEP, DROWSY INDOLENCE, DREAM
Consciousness is opposed to oblivion, as aesthesia is opposed to anesthesia. In sound sleep one is oblivious not only of the world but of sleep. Sleep itself cannot be savored and thus is not an aesthetic experience. When a young, healthy person stretches her arms and smiles into the morning sun, claiming to have enjoyed a good night's sleep, she is savoring the effects of sleep—the sense of well-being and rest-edness—and not sleep itself. The moment before one enters sleep's oblivion can also be enjoyed. Montaigne found the silk-smooth slide into unconsciousness so rewarding that he asked his valet to wake him early so that, realizing that it was still early, he could repeat the experience.
But the voluptuous sense of drifting into sleep cannot properly be called an aesthetic feeling, because the enjoyment experienced is not of something external to the self: it is not a state of being that can be learned and perfected under the aegis of art and culture. The same exclusion applies to the state celebrated in Keats's remarkable "Ode on Indolence":
Ripe was the drowsy hour;
The blissful cloud of summer-indolence
Benumb'd my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;
Pain had no sting, and pleasure's wreath no flower:
0, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense
Unhaunted quite of all but—nothingness?
In a state of drowsy indolence, one is still alert enough to enjoy all kinds of soothing, happy sensations, to feel the warmth of the sun and the fragrance of the flowers. Only the visual world is curtailed. "Steep'd in honied indolence" (as Keats puts it elsewhere), a man is not sufficiently removed from his immediate environs to appreciate a view "out there." Perceptions are blurred, have become "soft." Not only has pain "no sting," but pleasure's wreath has "no flower"—no image of an external reality. Out there is "nothingness."
The American writer Paul Goodman offers another picture of indolence. Confronted by the foreignness of Italy, he feels slightly uncomfortable with the unfamiliar place and language. "But when the whirlpools of the wake turn after my dripping oars, and I lie down in the belly of my rowboat in the sun, I am as much at home as on Lake Seneca, a citizen of nowhere but an animal of the world. I am lucky to be able to come so far and end up in the same place." There is no scenery to be appreciated from the belly of a rowboat. There is only that sense of animal well-being, which is placeless, below culture and aesthetics.
Certainly, sound sleep is oblivion. But is a pleasant dream during sleep an aesthetic experience? The dreamer's "landscape" is often a mood, induced eerily by a particular feature (house, tree stump, dead bird) rather than by a topography. Even when the dreamscape seems to have a distinctive topographic character, the dreamer lacks the ability mentally to remove the self. Awake, one can easily achieve a sufficient distance to say, "Life is like a dream," but in a dream one is not free to say, "It is like being awake." In a dream, one lacks the power to think even at an elementary level—to say, for instance, that although one is here, one could be elsewhere, and that although the sun is shining now, it could rain next week. In short, dream is immersion: the dreamer is a captive of the milieu and time in which she finds herself. This bondage to the immediate environment is especially unyielding in a nightmare. Its singular horror consists in the tight grip of events, the subjection to a world of palpitating evil that does not allow for any redeeming, normal moment, such as noting from the corner of the eye a man sweeping up leaves.
RAGE AND HATE
At the other extreme, powerful emotions obliterate the distance between self and other. They overflow boundaries and destroy reality's freestanding existence. Anger is volcanic or explosive; rage is a torrent, directed perhaps at an individual but destructive to all who happen to stand in its way; sexual lust is all-consuming, violent, and indiscriminate. Strong human emotions are readily likened to forces of nature. The heroes of Homeric Greece, for example, were likened in epics to nature on the rampage—roaring like thunder or a lion and sweeping all before them as in a torrential flood. Heroes were proudly mad. "Fighting madness," writes classicist Jasper Griffin, "is no mere figure of speech. Impelled by Zeus in an outburst of irresistible fury, Hector foams at the mouth, his eyes flash, and his helmet shakes terrifyingly as he fights. The word used of the raging hero is often the word used of the madness of a mad dog." In the Homeric world, cannibalism and the eating of raw animal flesh are permissible reversions to primitive nature. Achilles says to the dying Hector, "Would that my passionate heart would incite me to chop up your flesh and eat it raw." Hecuba in her turn longs to devour Achilles' liver in revenge for Hector's death. These practices have parallels in Germanic culture and were, according to Griffin, "genuinely ancient Indo-European ideas of the ways terrible heroes behaved."
Outbursts of anger remained socially acceptable in Western culture until modern times. They were not considered a serious disruption of life even in good society. One's face might be distorted in wrath, but call it righteous wrath and it would be deemed justified, indeed commendable. During the eighteenth century, displays of anger became somewhat less acceptable in the home; the word tantrum came into use, and the word temper took on a negative meaning. In the Victorian period the repression of anger began in earnest: the family, in particular, was regarded as a haven of peace, and anger among family members was to be avoided at all cost.
Rage and other forms of violence are beyond the pale of the aesthetic. A cultural history of the West can be written as the story of the refinement of manners, the progressive control of strong emotions, and the eschewal of displays of visceral or animal violence. Delay is a key to the refinement of manners—the cooked rather than the raw, the exploration of a roast with a knife and fork rather than the plunge into it with bare teeth and hands. Pause is a key to the control of emotion: the tide of feeling is momentarily stayed so that it can be channeled into more artful, if just as deadly, ways—the dismissive look rather than the shout of rage, the cold steely eye rather than the foaming mouth.
Hate differs from rage and lust in that it is directed to a specific object in the external world. Hate is not just a swooning or explosive emotion, and perhaps for that reason it may be characterized as "cold." Simone Weil provides an example: Suppose I hate a man; as he approaches, something hateful—a loathsome quality—approaches me. "If he is a blond, it is a hateful blondness, and if he has brown hair, it is a hateful brownness." A color can acquire a hideous vividness through the lens of hate. Hate attends to detail in a way disturbingly like that of love. John Updike shows how hate can call into play the discrimination and refinement of an aesthete.
And he would hate him—hate his appearance, his form, his manner, his pretensions—with an avidity of detail he had never known in love. The tiny details of his roommate's physical existence—the wrinkles flickering beside his mouth, the slightly withered look about his hands, the complacently polished creases of his leather shoes—seemed poisonous food Orson could not stop eating. His eczema worsened alarmingly.
Hate, nevertheless, is not an aesthetic emotion, and the reason becomes clear when we contrast it with love.
SEXUAL DESIRE, LOVE, EROTICISM
Susan Sontag characterizes sexual desire as "one of the demonic forces in human consciousness—pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one's consciousness, for death itself." At a certain level of intensity, sexual passion surges beyond the aesthetic. Below that level, when passion tempers to desire or longing, eroticism energizes the feeling for beauty, giving the loved object a glow—a palpable warmth—that is its life-stirring power.
Eroticism, moreover, vastly expands the range of objects that can exert a riveting appeal. Human beauty is inescapably tinged by eroticism, if it is genuinely felt and not a response dictated by convention. A baby's shape, its milky fragrance, the softness of its skin, the gurgling music of its attempted speech, all make it an irresistible target for adult admiration. Almost all parts of the human body can have enormous aesthetic-sexual appeal. Women's eyes and hair have evoked paeans from Western poets for millennia. But one can also be drawn to one's "mistress's eyebrows," to a semitranslucent earlobe, slightly tipped nose, sculptural lips, strong masculine fingers, and even the feet. A lover sees details invisible or totally uninteresting to the profane eye. A character in John Osborne's play A Patriot for Me declares: "I tell you this: you'll never know that body like I know it. The lines beneath his eyes. Do you know how many there are, do you know one has less than the other? And the scar behind his ear, and the hairs in his nostrils, which has the most, what colour they are in what light?"
Excerpted from Passing Strange and Wonderful by Yi-Fu Tuan. Copyright © 1993 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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