Senses of Landscape

Senses of Landscape

by John Sallis


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Beginning with the assertion that earth is the elemental place that grants an abode to humans and to other living things, in Senses of Landscape the philosopher John Sallis turns to landscapes, and in particular to their representation in painting, to present a power­ful synthetic work.

Senses of Landscape proffers three kinds of analyses, which, though distinct, continually intersect in the course of the book. The first consists of extended analyses of distinctive landscapes from four exemplary painters, Paul Cezanne, Caspar David Friedrich, Paul Klee, and Guo Xi. Sallis then turns to these art­ists’ own writings—treatises, essays, and letters—about art in general and landscape painting in particular, and he sets them into a philosophical context. The third kind of analysis draws both on Sallis’s theoretical writings and on the canonical texts in the philosophy of art (Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and Heidegger). These analyses present for a wide audience a profound sense of landscape and of the earthly abode of the human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810131095
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 07/09/2015
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

JOHN SALLIS is Frederick J. Adelmann Professor of Philosophy at Boston College. His works include Logic of Imagination: The Expanse of the Elemental (2012), Light Traces (2014), and Klee’s Mirror (2014).

Read an Excerpt

Senses of Landscape

By John Sallis

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3109-5


The Bounds of Landscape

Experience will always have run on ahead, stretching us beyond ourselves, setting us at a distance from ourselves that will never be simply traversed and annulled. Borne beyond into the thick of things, we will have gained a sense (in every sense) of the scene of appearances long before we come — even silently — to interrogate it. We will have witnessed the parade of things coming to pass amidst the elements, will have learned, even if largely in silence, how they come to pass. It is only for this reason that interrogation is not simply ruled out by the paradox of ignorance. It is only because one has always already outdistanced oneself that questioning can actually commence rather than being halted in its tracks before it has even begun. It is only because one will always already have been drawn out toward what can become questionable that questioning can be determinate, that it can be launched in a certain direction and guided by a sense of what is to be interrogated.

Thus, long before one brings thinking as such to bear on those exemplary scenes of appearance that we call landscapes, one will already have experienced them in their beauty, their magnificence, their vastness, their ominousness. The yieldings of such experience can be taken up in incalculably many ways. Yet, coming, as we do, from the West, we are highly prone to take up the store of experience in a way that interrupts both its uniform continuance and its un- abated acceptance. We take distance from it, draw back toward ourselves, interrogating almost as if there were no expanse of experience on which to draw. We question by putting into question, as if we had never until this moment set eyes on a landscape, as if it were only in posing the question that our eyes could first be opened to the sense of landscape.

The detached aperture of such questioning is characteristic of much of the thinking that since the Greeks has been called philosophy. It assumes its most insistent — though not necessarily its most productive — form in interrogations that are initiated and to an extent sustained by exercise of doubt or suspension of common belief. Today there are signs offering assurance that this form of thinking has run its course, that it has reached the extreme point where the only options that remain are sheer cessation or else a new opening beyond. Yet its force — or at least its shadow — will no doubt persist, and it will remain imperative that one diligently resist its hold, that one resolutely endeavor to twist free of its confinement.

The sense of landscape is not, then, to be interrogated by projecting a certain meaning or signification. Even if cast merely as a hypothesis (in the Greek sense) and only as a basis from which to return to the concrete sense of landscape and perhaps even to the pertinent store of experience, its projection is inseparably allied with the withdrawal in advance toward oneself. Locating the sense of landscape in a meaning set beyond it is the positive counterpart of putting that sense into question, of submitting it to doubt, suspending it, relieving it. Yet, if its interrogation is to forgo these means, if questioning is to eschew the retreat that commences by bifurcating the sense of sense, then it must be addressed to the sense of landscape as this shows — and has enduringly shown — itself. Its question must be: How do such scenes of appearance themselves appear? How do such scenes — and indeed any scenes — on which things come to pass or come to stand show themselves? How are such scenes of things amidst the elements manifest?

Whatever the scene may be and whatever guise things may assume, they show themselves always within the expanse of the elemental. In the most encompassing form, this expanse consists in the enchorial space delimited by earth and sky. It is upon the earth, on or near its surface, and beneath the sky, open to all that comes from it, that things — terrestrial things, as we say, expressing this very point — come to pass and show themselves as they are there in this expanse. Within this space other elementals come and go, encompassing things in a more limited reach, letting them come to light in the way proper to each element. Dark clouds and heavy rain obscure the landscape, rendering distant things indistinct or even no longer visible. Gusts of wind sweep across the land, giving voice to things otherwise mute. Fog and mist come to enshroud things. Elemental time also has its expanse: in measured alternation day and night spread throughout the entire enchorial space bounded by earth and sky. Vast forests and soaring mountains, enduring all but the most cataclysmic events or the most monstrous intervention, offer refuge for the wild things that flourish by guarding their exposure.

Thus, within the manifold spacings of the elements, places open in and from which things show themselves. Even what does not belong among terrestrial things, the cosmos beyond as modern astronomy has made it known, shows itself at the limit of the enchorial space, that is, in and from the sky. And yet, in order for things to show themselves within the spacings of the elementals, from the places thus opened, the elementals must themselves show themselves; they must indeed be sustained in an anterior manifestness that would already be in play when things come to shine forth. The operative manifestness is thus differentiated from that of things: in their encompassing character the elements have a depth quite other than the perspectival depth of things. Furthermore, elementals do not themselves share a common mode of self-showing; rather, some show themselves quite differently from others. One hears and feels the wind yet sees only its effects, not the wind itself. The diurnal sky, on the other hand, is eminently visible, even if only in the form of cloud cover. If there are no clouds, then it shows itself as unlimited color, as pure shining devoid of all perspectivity of any sort. It appears so open, so unlimited, that, while it is no mere surface, it is also absolved from depth; it is sheer recession.

The manifestness of earth is utterly different. Earth shows itself as resistant in manifold ways that nonetheless cohere. It is resistant to penetration, and its solidity and stability are what render it capable of providing support for virtually all things. It has been termed the primal ark, for it is upon the earth that humans and most other animate creatures build their shelters and have their abode. Yet it is, consequently, resistant in another sense: it is closed off in such fashion that it resists showing itself except on its surface. Forcefully removing the surface down to a certain depth only reveals another surface below which, again, it is closed off. And yet, earth never shows itself simply as surface and nothing more, but always as surface over a closed-off depth. Its elemental manifestation consists in showing itself precisely as also closed off from showing itself; it shows itself as also not showing itself, so that its withdrawal from the light of manifestness comes to be displayed as withdrawal without thereby being violated as such. The darkness of earth is not, like that of the night, a darkness that with the coming of day will give way to the light. Earth remains ever dark, and only its surface is open to the light of day; yet, even in the most brilliant light of day, the darkness of earth is announced as darkness, is disclosed in a way that, at once, leaves its obscurity intact. Such disclosure of its nondisclosedness belongs to the very manifestness of earth.

The sense of landscape is intimately connected to the manner in which earth shows itself. To this self-showing there belongs not only the indication of a sealed-off depth that does not come to light but also a distinctive boundedness. Except from an extraterrestrial viewpoint, which effaces its elementality, earth always shows itself only within certain bounds; in any particular instance it lets only a bounded portion of its surface be seen, even though, in its way of appearing, there is an indication that beyond the bounds of the particular area seen there lie further expanses. Although reference to such bounded areas does not entirely suffice to define the sense of landscape, it is from this point of reference that the defining move must commence.

In this regard it is imperative that bounds and bounding be understood concretely, that they retain the sense that will have been gathered from witnessing disjunctions amidst appearances. Nothing is further removed from this sense than the geometrical concept of a bound or border as a line or other linear figure separating two areas. For, in rigorous geometrical terms, a linear figure has extension in only one dimension; it has no width whatsoever. In the very strictest sense, such a single-dimensional figure is invisible and thus could never show itself to sense except as the common edge of two adjacent areas. Yet, the typical bounds of landscapes are eminently visible as such, for instance, a row of trees bounding a field or a range of mountains bounding a valley. Thus, the bounds that pertain to the composition of a landscape also belong to the landscape and are not to be construed as mere abstract figures detachable from it.

Landscapes can be bounded in various ways; they can display quite different kinds of bounds. The composition of a landscape is determined to an extent by the way in which it is bounded, by the character of its bounds. In some instances a landscape stretches to the horizon, which is the most unstable, unbounded bound; for its very character is such that, were one to approach it in order to fix it, it would recede at the same rate as the approach. In such instances, it could, then, be said with equal appropriateness that the landscape is bordered only by the sky, or, more precisely, by a bound that consists of the common edge where the two elementals, earth and sky, come together. There are also instances where a landscape is bounded by the sea, where it gives way to a seascape that itself stretches on to the horizon where sea meets sky.

Landscapes often are bounded in ways that are less spectacular and less reliant on concurrences of earth with other elementals. A mere stand of trees may serve to bound an agrarian landscape; or a rock formation may serve this purpose, even if it does not entirely mark off the area but by its presence merely indicates where the undrawn line would run. The bounds of a landscape are not necessarily formed by natural things or elements. Human fabrications can also serve to bound landscapes and very often do so near populated areas. Fences are prototypical bounds, but almost any sufficiently large structure can serve this purpose, even if only by indicating through its presence an otherwise unmarked bound.

Yet perhaps nothing borders landscapes so intrinsically and insistently as do mountains. They constitute intrinsic bounds because, while bounding an area where earth becomes manifest, they are themselves preeminent forms in which earth comes to show itself. Indeed it is in the form of mountains, along with the land gathered around them, that — at least within nature, short of art — earth shows itself most manifestly as earth. As massive protrusions of earth, mountains share its elemental character: they exceed, gigantically, the dimensions of natural things and of humans and human concerns. In the form of mountains earth is most concentrated and displayed in its manifest presence. In the shape of mountains earth no longer merely, inconspicuously underlies but thrusts upward into the open air and light. The higher the mountains, the more devoid of natural things, of trees and other vegetation, the more barren their peaks — the more purely and directly, then, they display earth.

The insistence with which mountains can bound landscape — that is, their capacity to seal off an area from what lies beyond — is attested by the common awareness that crossings are strenuous and perilous. Examples abound of mountains that form a bound so impassible that virtually no exchange has taken place linguistically or culturally between the lands thus separated.

Yet mountains not only can bound a landscape but also are capable of providing a focal point, a locus of orientation for the landscape. It is not a matter of rendering the landscape less vibrantly visible nor even of simply distracting vision from the landscape. Rather, the bounding mountains exercise a certain attraction across the landscape, and their effect is to draw the landscape, in its configuration as such, up into the upward thrust of the mountains. The landscape yields to the upward draft and, without relinquishing in the least its own visibility, lets its force be concentrated in the face of the mountains, lets itself be gathered up into the ascendancy. Mountains can thus bound a landscape in such a way as also to determine its very deployment as a landscape.

The gathering power that mountains can exercise upon a landscape is a secret known chiefly to painters. It is perhaps only through their works, in the recastings of landscape carried out by them, that we, too, can catch a glimpse of this remarkable phenomenon.

Though it belongs to their sense that landscapes are bounded, boundedness alone does not suffice to determine their sense. For mere boundedness says little as regards what landscapes are. To the extent that we — coming, as we do, from the West — are engaged in advance by a certain manner of interrogation, we cannot but come around eventually, if not at the very outset, to posing the question: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ...? Whatever the reservations now prompted, however resolutely open we remain to mutations of this manner of interrogation, there is a point where it will be said: to interrogate something is to ask what it is, to ask about the what that makes it what it is, that constitutes its being. If, in turn, one would ask about the what, about what it is, then there is little recourse other than to take up the determination that was carried out at the time, in Greek thought, when the question, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ...?, first came into its own. According to this determination, the question asks about the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Hence, taking up the interrogation launched by this question requires setting out in search of the one idea (retaining the Greek sense of the word) that makes the phenomena that are being interrogated be what they are. Thus, rigorous interrogation — as we are, in advance, engaged by it, prone to it — is to be addressed to the theme of landscape by going in search of the one idea that, exemplified by all landscapes, makes them what they are as landscapes. Or rather — to resist from the outset a certain tendency — it is to attend to what in the store of experience of landscapes emerges as the constitutive idea.

Yet, almost as soon as the anterior sense of landscape is brought into play, the limitation of the question, construed in this manner, becomes apparent, and its dismantlement commences. For, instead of a single overarching idea emerging, it turns out that there are three determinations that are pertinent, three ways in which the phenomenon that we call and recognize as landscape can be properly characterized. This plurality displaces the sense of the question, sets it spinning away from its origin; it disrupts the unity of the what and detaches it from the idea. Thinking the sense of landscape will be compelled to assume a guise other than that originally bestowed upon it.

It is evident that landscape has, first of all, a terrestrial sense. It is primarily as landscape and, in any case, in connection with landscape (as with bounding mountains) that earth becomes manifest. Through and as landscape, earth displays its surface, yet it does so in such a way as also to intimate the sealed-off depth that is withheld from the light. As a bounded surface, earth is gathered into a surveyable display, one that can be apprehended as a whole, perhaps not in a single glance, but at least through a certain sweep of vision across it. Furthermore, as displaying primarily the surface of the earth, a landscape also engages other elementals in various ways. Its visibility requires receptiveness to light and hence a certain openness to the sky. Landscapes are also receptive to rain, fog, mist, and snow. It is above a landscape that lightning flashes, even if it strikes only in the remote distance or not at all; and it is across a landscape that the roll of thunder is heard. Wind, too, will sweep across the landscape, perhaps in the guise of a gentle summer breeze, perhaps with the howling fury of a winter storm.


Excerpted from Senses of Landscape by John Sallis. Copyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures,
1 The Bounds of Landscape,
2 The Density of Landscape,
3 The Tragedy of Landscape,
4 The Resonance of Landscape,
5 The Effacement of Landscape,

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