Pub. Date:
University of Georgia Press
Pub. Date:
University of Georgia Press
As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art / Edition 1

As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art / Edition 1

by Rebecca Solnit Rebecca Solnit


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To Rebecca Solnit, the word "landscape" implies not only literal places, but also the ground on which we invent our lives and confront our innermost troubles and desires. The organic world, to Solnit, gives rise to the social, political, and philosophical landscapes we inhabit. As Eve Said to the Serpent skillfully weaves the natural world with the realm of art—its history, techniques, and criticism—to offer a remarkable compendium of Solnit's research and ruminations.

The nineteen pieces in this book range from the intellectual formality of traditional art criticism to highly personal, lyrical meditations. All are distinguished by Solnit's vivid, original style that blends imaginative associations with penetrating insights. These thoughts produce quirky, intelligent, and wryly humorous content as Solnit ranges across disciplines to explore nuclear test sites, the meaning of national borders, deserts, clouds, and caves—as well as ideas of the feminine and the sublime as they relate to our physical and psychological terrains.

Sixty images throughout the book display the work of the contemporary artists under discussion, including landscape photographers, performance artists, sculptors, and installation artists. Alongside her text, Solnit's gallery of images provides a vivid excursion into new ways of perceiving landscape, bodies, and art. Animals and the human body appear together with space and terra firma as Solnit reconfigures the blurred lines that define nature.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780820324937
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Publication date: 03/17/2003
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 8.00(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

REBECCA SOLNIT, who lives in San Francisco, is the best-selling author of Wanderlust, Savage Dreams, and several other books. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA Fellowship for Literature. She is a contributing editor for Art Issues and Creative Camera magazines.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Lise Meitner's Walking Shoes

[Though much of this essay is set in Europe, the background that is the subject of the first half of my 1994 book Savage Dreams, from which this is taken, is the remote desert Nevada Test Site. At the site, where the United States has detonated more than a thousand nuclear bombs, thousands of antinuclear activists, myself included, have converged in protest.]

* * *

A sentence, or a story, is a kind of path. In April 1851, five years after his night in jail and a century before the nuclear explosions in Nevada, Thoreau gave a talk in which he took his audience down a path that few had trod before. The talk was called "Walking," as was the rambling essay published eleven years later, in the midst of the Civil War and just after its author's death. It still stands as a kind of manifesto for wilderness and as Thoreau's most quoted piece—the place where he says, among other things, "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

    Thoreau's "Walking" really has three subjects: walking, wildness, and the West. "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness," he begins, but somewhere along the way his words run away with him, and he loses sight of his original destination, or lack of destination. In the beginning, he says a word for wildness and many more in praise of walking, not as a way of getting anywhere but as a way of being somewhere—in the wild. Every walk is a sort of pilgrimage, he says, and suggeststhat in nature one has already reached a holy land, rather than that the landscape is an obstacle course one must pass through on the way to some built-up shrine or other. The landscape, any landscape, is itself holy land enough, and so paradise is here on earth ("one world at a time," he said on his deathbed). And if paradise is nothing more elusive than countryside, then one need go no further than the nearest field or forest to have arrived.

    He praises what walking can do for thinking. Walking is nearly alone among all our human activities in its poise between doing something and doing nothing; it is not idleness, and yet as the legs move and the eyes gaze, the mind can roam with a kind of discipline and scope hardly possible in an armchair. As the rhythm of the walk is interrupted by the surprises and irregularities of the landscape, so ideas arise from lengthy concentration interrupted by epiphanies. That is, new ideas often arrive as though from outside, seeming more like discoveries than creations, but it is only long work that takes one to them, as the walk takes one to the landscape. And in walking in the woods, one is, as Thoreau says, "an inhabitant of nature, rather than a member of society," part of a world of larger scope. And so Thoreau speaks, a few pages later, against "all man's improvements," which "simply deform the landscape." He tells a fable of a miser who digs a posthole in the midst of paradise as the angels move around him, and whose land surveyor is the Prince of Darkness.

    The miser's drama takes place on the unsettled prairie of the American Midwest in the 1850s. And thus Thoreau takes up the subject of the West, the direction he himself always chooses to walk. "The future lies that way to me," says the tour guide of "Walking," "and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.... Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free. Thither no business leads me. It is hard for me to believe that I shall find lair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. I should not lay so much stress on this fact, if I did not believe that something like this is the prevailing tendency of nay countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west."

    As one may reach the crest of a mountain in what looks to be wilderness and see a city on the other side, so Thoreau in his rhapsody about the wild and free suddenly joins forces with the march of progress that will spread cities, railroads, mines, and military bases across his vision of the West. It may demonstrate the power of the jingoism of the time that even so obstinately independent a citizen as Thoreau falls under its sway. Halfway through the essay, the guide who has set out to show us the glory that is absolute wildness is taking us on a tour of the marvels of progress, cultural and geographical. In fact, in the spirit of his time, he conflates the two in one tide of advancing civilization, one celebration of the westerly ascent of European Man in America.

    The citizens of the United States had labored under a mighty inferiority complex when they looked back at Europe. The European landscape was given meaning by the long history that could be read in its names and ruins and monuments. The American landscape lacked all that to its newcomers. Over the decades, a new Yankee credo arose, in which the landmarks of Europe were evidence that the place was weary, spent, used, soiled almost; the supposed newness of the United States demonstrated that it was fresh, young, pure, a child of promise with its history all laid out before it, a tabula rasa on which a heroic history would be inscribed. (Thoreau proclaims that his is the heroic age itself.) In 1835 the godfather of American landscape painting, Thomas Cole, laid out the thesis. "I will now venture a few remarks on what has been considered a grand defect in American scenery," he began as disarmingly as Thoreau did, "the want of associations such as arise amid the scenes of the old world.... But American scenes are not so much of the past as of the present and the future. And in looking over the yet uncultivated scene, the mind's eye may see far into futurity. Where the wolf roams, the plough shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower—mighty deeds shall be done in the now pathless wilderness; and poets yet unborn shall sanctify the soil."

    Thoreau chimed in from his podium in 1851. He suggested even that the sky was higher and the stars brighter in the Americas, the Mississippi was preferable to the Rhine, for its heroic age had just begun, while Europe's was exhausted, as was its mythology: "As a true patriot, I should be ashamed to think that Adam in paradise was more favorably situated on the whole than the backwoodsman in this country." The Old-World mythology of Adam didn't trip up Thoreau, and Adam was the key figure in this new American credo. Not the Indian but the backwoodsman clearing the forests of paradise is his hero, his Adam in this swampy midsection of "Walking"—the New World wasn't new enough to its natives. He doesn't note that with the backwoodsman swinging his axe and the nation heading toward Oregon the forests might not long stretch toward the setting sun. Nineteenth-century Americans had a hard time thinking of the continent as less than boundless. In this world that was just beginning, in which the pioneer was a new Adam, memory was of no use. The past was so much burden to be dumped—Thoreau calls the Atlantic a river of Lethe, forgetfulness—to be crossed in this march toward a higher civilization under a higher sky. He proposes a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance. And he proposes a Gospel According to This Moment, and gives us the credo of this religion, which supplants that of the Bible: "I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows." And then, Thoreau seems to forget his own strange detour and finds his way again, against the American grain and the war with Mexico and in favor of undeveloped landscapes.

    The United States of America has, ever since this strange upwelling of nationalistic optimism, been distinguished by its amnesias, its sense of prodigious destiny—its looking ever forward and never back—and its frenzied transformation of landscape into real estate. Not Thoreau but Thomas Cole traced the impetus braided of these three strands to its logical conclusion. In 1836 he created a five-painting cycle called The Course of Empire, which traces a single landscape through aeons of human history. The first big panel is titled Savage State, and in it half-nude figures rush across a tumultuous, misty landscape. This savagery is succeeded by Pastoral State, in which the deer hunters and spear chuckers have become contemplative shepherds. It is this, rather than the next panel, Consummation, that seems to represent Cole's ideal, for in Consummation, the landscape but for a mountaintop has been obscured by a fairyland version of imperial Rome, whose splendor is a little repellant. Consummation leads to Destruction, and the dubious figures of the previous scene begin to lay waste to the fairy city and to one another. Desolation concludes the Course of Empire: the landscape has returned, and a few ruins grace it. The people seem to have succeeded in extinguishing themselves, for the landscape that has emerged from the buildings is uninhabited.

* * *

Three years after the end of World War II, the poet W. H. Auden wrote an essay called "Dingley Dell and the Fleet" in which he proposed Arcadia and Utopia as categories of belief. Arcadians believe that Paradise was in the past; propose that we return to a simpler state, a lost state of grace; and distrust government, technology, progress, and anything that tends to uproot or supplant the country with the city, the simple with the complex. Utopians reach for their shimmering vision of a perfectible future with all the authority and technology within their grasp. In "Walking" Thoreau is an arcadian who briefly lapses into the utopianism of his time. In The Course of Empire Cole interrupts his utopian visions for the American landscape with a little pessimistic arcadianism. Probably the most perfect example of the two philosophies come into conflict today is in the confrontations between antinuclear activists and nuclear physicists.

    Arcadia is a place, a mountainous region on the Peloponnesus peninsula of Greece. It was old when Theocritus set the first pastoral poems there before Christ was born, and its inhabitants claimed to be of a lineage older than the moon. When Roman Virgil took up Theocritus's pastoral mode, Arcady was no longer a rough backward part of Greece renowned for its singing, but an ideal. Virgil's Arcadian world was a refuge from the strife and intrigue of Rome, and he established the pastoral as a celebration of the simple over the complex and the rural over the urban. Another pastoral poet, Sir Philip Sidney, summed up the setting of the pastoral as "a civil wilderness, and a companionable solitude," a paradoxical ideal. Pastoral comes from pastor—shepherd—and the pastoral is a poem or painting in which pensive shepherds converse of love and loss; the pastoral's principal themes are time and nature. Shepherding served the pastoral poets as walking served Thoreau.

    The nature writer and Sierra Club founder John Muir—who took the thousand-mile walks Thoreau only talked of—spent his first summer in the Sierra among shepherds, and he was appalled by the brutish minds of his companions and their indifference to the glories around them. Still, you can't imagine Marie Antoinette playing at being a turnip-gatherer or a goose-girl rather than the shepherdess role she favored. The aristocracy of Europe kept up this involvement with the pastoral, and Virgil's pastoral poems were taught in high schools until sometime in the twentieth century. Virgil's shepherds are less true images of rural labor than counterimages to the city: ideals of an uncorrupted, natural intelligence. So in some sense the pastoral is not about the country but about what the country means to the city and what the past means to the present. The pastoral celebrates a paradise lost, less that of Eden than the secular paradises of the Golden Age, on which a later age overlaid the classical past, the world from Plato to Virgil or so; and the Romantics, who were adamant arcadians, added childhood, the last paradise lost for all of us. Arcadia is the land of a universal childhood in which the earth brings forth her fruits without toil, a generous mother to her blameless children. Though pastoral poetry has been out of vogue for a century, its themes were taken up by children's literature—The Wind in the Willows is a superb example—and by landscape novels, from the exotics of W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions to the bucolics of Thomas Hardy's Wessex countryside.

    Utopianism is of a more recent genesis than arcadianism. Until the seventeenth century, the New Jerusalem stood at the end of history as Eden stood at its beginning (though humanity was still moving from a garden to a city). Only divine intervention could undo the Fall, and all the time between these paradisal landmarks was essentially static, or in mild decline. The seventeenth century was the century of Descartes, Bacon, and Newton, who brought us scientific method and a vision of secular progress though technological achievement—that is, through the control of nature. Earlier visions of improvement emphasized social rather than technological change, but the two gradually ran together in the utopic visions of a rationally ordered society. (The word utopia was coined earlier by Thomas More, who cobbled it together out of Greek—ou, and topos, meaning "no place"—and had mixed feelings about utopias.) Most contemporary historians of science declare that the modern era began with one of those three men, and the scientist rather than the capitalist or the land developer serves them as the very type of the manipulative utopian.

    For example, Francis Bacon proposed that the purpose of knowledge was utilitarian—the domination of nature—as it still is to us, but to his predecessors knowledge was primarily for spiritual improvement. Bacon most audaciously suggested that "man by his fall fell at the same time from his state of innocency and domination over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired ... the latter by the arts and sciences." In his model of knowledge, what had previously been considered a sacrilegious prying into the mysteries of creation was reconfigured as a morally neutral, even innocent act. The sciences he described were those of empirical knowledge and scientific experiment, the idea of containing and manipulating something to discover its secrets. Bacon is often credited with establishing the scientific method, as well as the pattern for scientific purpose. And he wrote a utopian novel about a technocratic society.

    Descartes, who was as much younger than Bacon—about forty years—as Newton was younger than Descartes, was equally radical. He abandoned the whole edifice of classical knowledge to begin over again, and he established reason and mathematics as a new foundation for knowledge. Descartes tore a whole cosmos apart with his Discourse on Method. And by asserting that such eternal verities as mathematics governed the universe, he displaced God as an active participant. The earth was no longer the way it was because of providence—divine intervention—but because of the laws of nature. "God sets up mathematical laws in nature as a king sets up laws in his kingdom," he wrote, but it was the laws, not the king, he found, and the universe he described resembled the great wonder of his age: clockwork. The universe was a clock wound up by a God who was no longer involved. And having driven away God and the ancients, Descartes proceeded to drive the mind out of the body: the body becomes another machine, and machines are controlled from without. Thus derives a cosmos in which the divine and the creation are separate, as are the mind and the body and, since mind is a quality of human beings alone, the mind and nature. And nature—this distinct, soulless thing—is the subject of the new science. The nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg commented that Descartes differed fundamentally from the ancients in that they endeavored to understand things through connections and affinities, Descartes through isolations and divisions.

    Newton is significant here as the man who realized much of what Bacon and Descartes proposed. He laid down the principles of classical physics, describing the laws of the universe—the design of the clockwork—with a mathematical certainty that had never before been attained and has hardly since been exceeded. Like them, he asked a fundamentally different kind of question of the universe than theologians and alchemists had: not why, but how, things were. And with such questions asked and others unspoken, Bacon's vision of the moral neutrality of science was established. In the work of these three men the vision of progress was born—a vision in which knowledge allowed rational man to exert increasing control over the earth.

    As means, the scientific methods they established are of unquestionable value; as an end, they are more dubious. The desire to know is as often motivated by love as by hate. Lovers and interrogators have curiosity in common, and they have differences: the desire to understand the universe is not the same as the desire to control it. But the definition of progress came to mean not understanding but control, and not spiritual or social improvement but the advancement of power—which meant geographical manifest destiny in the America of Thoreau's age, and means technological manifest destiny in our own.

    Those antiseptic scenarios of optimistic science fiction—rational men and women dressed in rational uniforms, living in highly artificial circumstances and probing further into the cosmos—are the logical outcome of this vision. Like Bacon's and More's utopias, they seem cultures in which children, dreams, poetry, idleness, and mystery have no place, and even the intimacy of the landscape itself has disappeared in a more efficiently human-oriented life-support system. Freudians might say that theirs is a world that does not acknowledge the unconscious; mystics, the soul. It is Cole's Course of Empire painting Consummation, without the capstone of Destruction, a destruction wrought by the urges that fester unacknowledged in a utopian regime. For the arcadians, nature is good enough, and paradise is at least a memory; for utopians, paradise is a supernatural ideal waiting to be realized on the earth by men. Nature and the past are problems to be overcome.

    Thus, arcadians and utopians.


The Rebel as Poet


Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. All rights reserved.

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