Every human being is sensually touched and addressed by other people, phenomena in nature, things or artistic forms of expression. Through these encounters he experiences himself and the world again and again. By allowing himself to be seduced, seized, but also unsettled by the complexity of life and the diversity of the world, he distinguishes himself as a human being.
Hardly anything in the outside world fascinates us as much as a landscape. However, landscape only comes into being where our imagination is at work, the German-Italian philosopher Ernesto Grassi explains in his writing “The Power of Imagination”. The common that exists between nature and human conditions, and which transforms nature into landscape through a metaphorical transformation, is a work of the imagination, of the free possibility of interpretation. However, the isolated ego, as soon as it approaches the object of landscape, faces an interpretive dilemma. It is confronted with the fear that the meaning it has created is not relevant and cannot stand up to objective interpretation. In this experience of uncertainty, Grassi sees an essential prerequisite for the individual to become a human being: “The same object acquires different meanings, depending on the tension, or human situation (of fear, hope, envy, etc.) in which one stands. Or, to put it another way, a language expresses the essence of an object only when it defines it in terms of the situation at hand.” When immersed in the landscape, a “resurrection of the ego” takes place, writes the German literary theorist Walter Benjamin. Where just a moment ago there was merely external nature, it now becomes the landscape of the ego seeking its destiny. Time and space are introduced as coordinates; past and future are placed in relation to the ego. Landscape appears to Benjamin as a prophecy of childhood, which we encounter again and again. Out of the need to relate landscape to our inner image of it, landscape painting emerged at the beginning of the 19th century. Landscape became a place of longing, above all in Italy and France. Between 1800 and 1830, 550 artists from Germany lived in Rome.
For the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the awakening ego becomes the “colorist” of things. It gives color and meaning to things. The world is created before our eyes in a continuous process of determination. It has become world through our thinking, our intellect. “That which we now call the world,” Nietzsche writes, “is the result of a multitude of errors and fantasies….The painting — that which is now called life and experience to us human beings — has gradually become [author’s emphasis].” This treasure, Nietzsche argues, constitutes the very value of being human. Human existence, in this sense, is linked to the striving to give meaning to things. This is particularly evident in our relationship to things of material culture. The things with which we surround ourselves are “the silent witnesses of our existence” as the French writer Gaston Bachelard puts it. They are the things we first touched and felt, then found and arranged; they are the things we were surprised by, the things that seemed ephemeral, the things that helped us bridge a difficult time, the things that enabled us to recollect the past and at the same time overcome the nightmare of times past. They all embody a heritage that bears the signature of the future. But often their meanings are revealed only in retrospect. It is as if some things stand for a key whose lock we have not yet found, because we do not know to which door of our interior this key fits.
This dilemma was already encountered by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne: “It is rather that we do not have enough spirit to develop properly the things that take place before our eyes, to give them their right value and to judge them vividly.” In his opinion, however, “from the most unusual, banal and well-known things, if one knows how to put them in the right light, one can derive the greatest marvels of nature”. This thought gave rise to the self-confidence with which Montaigne attributed value to his own experiences and his view of things. In this context, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theses on the non-rational, pictorial character of early languages are also instructive. According to this, the language of the first humans was “a language of poets […] for one did not begin by reasoning, but by feeling.” And Rousseau continues: “Figurative language was the first: the real sense was found last (…). First one spoke in pictures, and one began to resonate only later.” Even for René Descartes, who is usually received as a rationalist, wonder is the compass of the drive for knowledge: “If an object surprises us when we first encounter it, and we judge that it is new and very different from anything we knew before, or from what we supposed it should be, this causes us to wonder and be astonished at it. But since this must occur before we even realize whether this object is pleasant to us or not, it follows for me that wonder is the first of all passions.” The often overlooked and crucial idea of the Enlightenment is the assumption that everybody, on the basis of his or her experience, is able to express transcendent truths through language. In this way the individual could free itself from the prevailing interpretive framework of ecclesiastical and lordly authority. The grasping of reality is guided by subjective sensations and reason alike and thus broadens the view of the world.
Of great importance to the development of the human psyche are emotional modes of response to cultural manifestations. In this context, the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke makes a conceptual distinction between the “beautiful” and the “sublime” in the mid-18th century. In contrast to the “beautiful”, which tends to refer to smaller things, such as a flower, a vase, or a drawing, the “sublime” is mostly characterized by an overwhelming size and vastness, which we are most likely to find in nature. But the presentation of a piece of music that collectively inspires a large crowd through a special performance can also have a sublime effect. Burke describes the mental state produced by an encounter with the sublime: “The great, sublime of nature produces, when these forces are particularly potent, passionate wonder; and in this condition the soul stands still, not without a measure of terror.”
Interestingly, recent psychological studies have been devoted to the question of what effect phenomena associated with wonder or awe have on our subjective well-being. Experiments have shown that experiences involving great awe reduce the number of inflammatory proteins that regulate the immune system, while excessive numbers can lead to serious illness. The experience of an impressive landscape, as well as the encounter with a person distinguished by a special moral authority, may be of outstanding importance for human well-being. Experiences of this kind, however, can also generate ambivalent feelings. They tend to make us feel insecure and to question our own identity. Insofar as we see this uncertainty as a challenge to realign our inner compass, however, it can give us strength and energy to counteract self-focus and narcissism. German physicist Albert Einstein put it extremely succinctly: “To whom the feeling of being astonished or seized with awe is foreign, he is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
But are we at all capable of keeping our eyes and ears open to the manifold, sometimes life-threatening events with which we are confronted on all sides? Are we psychologically capable of easily processing the climate crisis, the Corona pandemic, armed conflicts, natural disasters or terrorist attacks — to name just a few current events? Terms such as “sensory overload,” “media overkill” or “burnout” signal that the challenges and demands resulting from the complexity of the world are pushing many people to the limits of their psychological resilience. The huge media response in January 2023 to the surprising resignation of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was massively confronted with all the aforementioned crisis phenomena, illustrates this fact. The fact that Ardern declared that “her tank was empty” and therefore resigned earned her the highest sympathy ratings from most commentators in the press. What is unusual about Ardern’s decision and the positive reaction to it is that here someone in a leadership role admits to a weakness and is generally reacted to with respect and high regard. Showing weakness in a position of responsibility is otherwise less accepted in societies characterized by pressure to perform. Ardern’s resignation statement says: “After six years of great challenges, I remain a human being. Politicians are human beings. We give all we can for as long as we can and then it’s time (to go)…I hope that in return I can leave behind the conviction that one can be loving, but strong. Empathic, but firm. Optimistic, but focused. That you can be your own kind of leader. One who knows when it’s time to go.” She seems to have succeeded in what the Chinese poet Lao Tzu, in his writing Daodejin from about 400 B.C., gives as a recommended course of action on how to behave toward people and events in daily life: “To propagate weakness rather than harshness, to make connections and not to show dominance”. What distinguishes a course of action in the sense of Lao Tzu, explains the American sinologist and historian Michael Duett, “is the ability to create a microcosm in which everyone feels comfortable. This is achieved not by tactics, but by creating a different reality.” The more we understand the world as interconnected, the more we are able to effectively change the circumstances that caused the conflict and to encounter ourselves and others anew under changed conditions, and to remain human in the process.
This essay is written complementary to Thesis #5 of our paper 48 Theses — How we can live together better, that you can find at https://48thesen.de/en/. This series will be continued. Further information about the author on my LinkedIn profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-udo-g%C3%B6%C3%9Fwald-077a711a7/.