Abundance and the Human Imagination
How we think about nature makes a big difference to how we make art. Consider how ancient Greek polytheism led to a profusion of visual images, while ancient Hebrew monotheism led to a worship of the word instead. Or we could reflect on how medieval transcendental theology gave us paintings in which the figures in the background—the Virgin Mary, the risen Christ, God the Father, the saints—are larger than the sinners, patrons and other mortals in the foreground; while the Renaissance theology of God’s presence within us and within nature gave us visual perspective, in which close objects are large and distant ones small. A geocentric universe implies one kind of art; a heliocentric one, another; a centerless universe, yet a third.
If our view of nature is skewed, our art may become so, too, even to the extent that it loses touch with our own human nature and our natural means of experience, knowledge and vital action. Some cultural traditions may have reached a sort of enclosing limit where they could no longer discover new things about nature because of their ideology. Something of the kind may have happened during the development of modernism.
Modernism emerged out of a profound reversal of our ideas about nature, which paralleled a great transformation in our means of acquiring livelihood and wealth. The traditional agrarian societies of the old world made their living and became rich—to the extent that they ever did—through the cultivation of the land. The very words nature and physical reflect our ancient views. Nature comes from the Latin natura, from natus, to be born (natal and nativity are from the same root). Physical comes from the ancient Greek phuein, to bring forth, to make grow. The natural state, then, was for everything to be giving birth and making new things grow, and living reproduction was the paradigm of nature. Even the metals were thought to have been hatched or gestated within the womb of the earth. Nature was abundance, whose excess nurtured us and whose cultivation and “husbanding” could give us the surpluses that made us rich.
As more mechanistic, reductive and deterministic views of the world emerged in the Enlightenment, and deductive reason became the model of the physical world, our view of nature changed. Deduction is literally a subtractive process, and it aims at a single inevitable result. Scientific experimental method required the isolation of processes in which a single, clear and repeatable outcome could be described and measured, and in which one-way, one-line cause and effect could be reliably identified. What was, was what was knowable; what was knowable was what was predictable; what was predictable was what was uniquely caused. Everything else was mess or illusion or insufficiently investigated.
These limitations on what could be studied, and on how a fact could legitimately be proved, indeed resulted in splendid discoveries, the mathematization of science and a huge increase in human knowledge and well-being. But a net with a one-foot mesh will never catch six-inch fish, and if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This early kind of science could only study certain kinds of things, the kinds that begin in a state of instability and end up in a single state of rest: a ball on an inclined plane, which will roll until it is stopped and comes to rest where it can go no further; a chemical reaction that comes to a halt when the energy level of its constituents has reached equilibrium at its lowest state; a coiled spring that relaxes until its initial tension is spent; a metal bar or a volume of gas, heated at one end, that redistributes its heat until the whole is at an even temperature; a lens that focuses light to a single final spot at a small cost of heat to its medium. Even in the biological sciences, the adaptation of animals and plants was closed-ended: each living thing in its development and maturation could reach only the point of its perfect function (limited by the contingencies of its situation) as a member of a fixed species, and then it would decay and die. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, interpreted as the inevitable exhaustion of usable order over time throughout the universe, was the final epitome of this phase of science. The inanimate became the paradigm of nature, as opposed to the animate; in a sense, all that science could discover was death.
Our economy became, as a result, an extractive one. Basically, to create wealth and get a living, we dug things up and burned them. We mined the earth for metals and wore them out or used them up; we dug up coal and burned it to run our engines (based upon the Second Law); we mined the topsoil for its fertility, the strength and youth of the workers for their profit, the purity of the air and water for their waste-disposal services. We even mined money—the very medium of human obligation and exchange—with interest-yielding financial instruments; and time itself, with leases and long-term contracts.
To repeat: this change resulted in enormous benefits for the human species, and it would be futile decadence at best, and genocidal madness at worst, to seek to reverse it. The Industrial Revolution gave life, freedom and dignity to billions, lengthened our lives, relieved untold pain and suffering. And nature, as we shall see, is not fragile and is very forgiving. But the deep distortions in our knowing that lie at the bottom of the modern project have got us into much trouble, mostly self-inflicted. The labor theory of value, which measured wealth by toil and exhaustion, was one result. As it came to dominate economics, it placed individuals, classes, and races in a struggle with each other for control of limited resources. Thus were born some of the monstrous ideologies of the last two centuries—Social Darwinism, Communism, National Socialism.
The arts took note of this basic change in our knowledge and use of the world. If the physical world was a diminishing stockpile of usable energies and structures, fought over by the fittest users of it, the artistic world was likewise a stockpile of scarce resources, and art was the race to exploit its raw materials—ideas, techniques, worldviews, material resources and socio-cultural opportunities. Artists were praised for “breaking new ground.” What they produced with laborious struggle was their “work.” Ideas and traditions became “exhausted.” Bad art was “tired.” An artist “mined” his “lode” of talent or the “resources” of his medium. “Make it new,” said Ezra Pound. T.S. Eliot talked about an “outworn poetical fashion.” Artists were “fuelled” by their genius or their drinking habit, and finally “burned out” when their talent was “squandered.” Special experiences—even self-destructive ones—were sought out as potential “material” to be exploited. A new artistic movement resulted in the “death” of an old one, and indeed death itself became the great goal and metaphor of the arts. “Death is the mother of beauty,” said Wallace Stevens. Leo Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych, Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past, Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus—all explore the strange aesthetic landscapes of sickness and death. T. S. Eliot, in The Waste Land, looks at Western civilization and declares “these fragments I have shored against my ruin.”
This theme of discovery, exploitation, enslavement, expenditure, exhaustion and decay was not without its counter-currents. In some respects, Romanticism was a first strike against the reductiveness of Enlightenment science and its privileging of the inanimate. William Blake railed against the atomism of Rousseau, Voltaire and Newton. Coleridge argued that “we murder to dissect.” Though Keats was, he confessed, “half in love with easeful death,” he feared lest he would “cease to be” before his pen had “gleaned” his “teeming brain.” The image here is of the imagination as an abundant and inexhaustible crop, a birth-giving that yields fortyfold or a hundredfold, and of the artist as a gleaner who is richly provided by the very leavings of the harvest. Keats’s poetry recalls the ancient agricultural and horticultural imagery of the Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi, the alms obligations of Leviticus, the parables of Jesus, where value is grown, not mined and burned. Wordsworth regretted and did not celebrate the new processes of value-making. A sonnet published in 1807 begins: “The world is too much with us: late and soon,/ Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” The poem ends with a fertile image of Proteus, the sea-god of change, and old Triton blowing his wreathéd horn—the horn of ancient plenty.
Tennyson’s In Memoriam likewise mourns the death of nature:
‘The stars,’ she whispers, ‘blindly run;
A web is wov’n across the sky;
From out waste places comes a cry,
And murmurs from the dying sun:
‘And all the phantom, Nature, stands
With all the music in her tone,
A hollow echo of my own—
A hollow form with empty hands.’
Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” has the same vision; the sea itself, once the image of natural fecundity, now becomes one of meaningless, decaying materiality:
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Yeats, too, recognized the deathliness of modernity. We see him struggling with, and correcting himself on, the meaning of tradition as he takes his imaginary voyage to his ideal city in “Sailing to Byzantium.” At first he bids farewell to the land of natural fecundity:
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
He imagines himself as a perfect and deathless (but also lifeless) mechanism, and invokes the sages of the great tradition:
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling…
But eventually, in “Byzantium,” he recognizes that the classical tradition is one of life and regeneration and abundant innovation:
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
These mysterious words seem at first to imply that the emperor’s Byzantine world of art—his smithies and his dancing floor—defy or “break” the “flood” of natural creative fecundity. But the poem ends with those very images of complexity, regenerativeness, torment and life that the emperor has banished and that the poet rejected at the beginning of his journey. Life goes on. In another late poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” Yeats recognized that his “artifice of eternity” was just a place of “stilted boys,” “circus animals” and “that burnished chariot,” and that he must finally “lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” That is, he must accept nature and his own human nature as the source of creativity. Yeats’s own technical practice confirms his loyalty to nature. Unlike many poets of his time, he never abandoned the organic, self-organizing forms of meter and rhyme, that “second nature” of crafted prosody that is so ancient a part of our human inheritance, for the mechanical precision of the typewriter.
The same struggle between natural organic abundance and mechanical control—between growing and burning—can be found in the other arts. Bauhaus, with its forms drawn from inanimate physics, replaces Art Nouveau, with its prolific and generative biomorphic curves. Cubism and constructivism, with their linear geometry, replace the lushness of Impressionism. Abstraction and conceptual art abandon nature altogether as their model. The mechanistic order of the twelve-tone row replaces the melodic fecundity of the old tonal tradition of European music. All this is not to imply that great work was not done by modernist artists. Paradoxically, modernism, with its extraordinary inventiveness and wild variety of innovation, was itself a tribute to the very fecundity of the human imagination whose natural foundations it renounced. It was such a tribute even when its goal was to burn, demolish and lay waste those ancient gardens of culture where modern artists felt themselves trapped and smothered, and to use the wreckage as fuel to drive its engines of desire and power.
But a different story has now begun. Artists rejected the fecundity and abundance of nature partly because, so it seemed, science had shown it to be a fraud and a cause of delusive hope. If the universe is on the whole a spring that is relaxing, an engine that is running down, a fire that is burning itself out, then the richness of living creativity is merely an eddy in the general current, a chance and temporary reversal in the fated descent into decay and mortality. But suppose the universe were not, in fact, running down?
The new sciences that have been emerging in the last few decades seem to confirm the validity of this question. Nonlinear dynamical systems can and do create new forms of order and organization. Entropy has been entirely reconceived by information science. It now appears not to be a measure of decay and death, but rather a natural explorativeness of possible information-states that is happily used by living and non-living systems as a free computational device. Evolution uses entropy to explore possible new life-forms, just as markets use it to construct a pricing system and explore the viability of new technologies. Information—the stuff of our lives and experiences—does not die when it rushes away from us in the form of dead skin DNA, sound waves, gravitational vibrations and light; it is still there, fleeing outwards from the planet, to be collected perhaps by some black hole and preserved at the surface of its event-horizon until Brahman blinks, Gabriel blows his horn, the black hole evaporates and it all begins again.
What, then, if the wild profusion of new natural forms generated by evolution were not the exception but the rule? What if the universe were not one of scarcity and loss but abundance and recuperation? When evolution was discovered in the nineteenth century, its interpreters made the characteristically modern mistake of seeing it in subtractive, reductive terms: as a struggle for existence in which the weaker go to the wall, or as the overwhelming of available resources by overpopulation. What they missed was the miracle—the astonishing exponential power of reproduction, the even more amazing conserving power of heredity, that keeps almost intact over billions of years the most sophisticated biochemical structures, and the yet more astonishing result of the combined operations of variation, selection and reproduction, that is, the production of a torrent of new species and ecosystems. For nature, species are not precious irreplaceable inheritances whose loss is a disaster, but temporary and expendable guises for its protean and intelligent vitality. Life is cheap. Extinct species outnumber currently existing ones by billions to one. Nature is unimaginably more wasteful than we are, and it can afford to be.
Current astronomy now shows that the universe is full of Earth-type environments, planets and moons where water flows, and the odds are that millions of green worlds teeming with unimaginable life-forms lie within reach of the next generation of our telescopes. If we are worried about running out of oil and gas, there are planets and moons in our solar system made mostly out of good-quality hydrocarbon fuels. If we are worried about where we are all going to live, there is a limitless amount of real estate out there. And we have only scratched the surface of the inanimate abundance of the world. New kinds of materials are being discovered or synthesized every year. Organic chemistry is literally unlimited in the number of different molecules it can make. And now that we can construct quantum dots and tune them so that they exactly resemble the atoms of matter but without nuclei, we will soon be able to custom-design a limitless variety of artificial matter.
In economics, we are recognizing the exponential power of markets to generate wealth. Now that we have a global economy, the wealth of the average individual person on this planet doubles every twenty years or so, and our average life-expectancy is now doubling every century. As old languages are forgotten, new ones are being created every year. The old metaphors of growth, birth, fecundity and abundance now seem to make more sense. The world is not a zero-sum game, but rather a great cascade of gifts; if we lack for anything it is because of a lack of knowledge, not an unavailability of goods. Our problems are those of cash flow, scheduling, bottlenecks and distribution, so to speak, not of the basic health of the balance sheet. We are threatened not by scarcity but glut. If we did not get in each others’ way by bad and over-controlling governments and ideas, we would all be rich.
Even on the psychological level, abundance rules. Our brains are orders of magnitude more complex in their connectivity than any other structure in the known universe. We were evolved to do politics, among other things, which involves interpreting the infinite hall of mirrors we confront when we try to predict what another equally intelligent being will do in response to what we do in response to him. This gives us a superabundance of imaginative power, whose constant rush of new unconscious psychic material we glimpse briefly in dreams. Much of our waking life is devoted to the suppression of our imaginations, to the practical requirements of survival. Our individuality is compounded by the uniqueness of our life-histories; everybody is radically original, and nobody should fear being “derivative” (another modernist term).
Suppose, then, that it is abundance, not scarcity and exhaustion, that is the master-theme. What would the arts look like if we took it seriously? Here are a few suggestions, but, of course, artists and lovers of art will have their own ideas—the field is open. Oddly enough, with all the new stuff bursting out all over, constraints and limits and rules would become valued and sought-after. The new combinations that the universe throws up at every level—physical, biological, technological, psychological—only survive if they fit some “strange attractor,” some pre-existent dynamic form that occupies a sweet spot in its environment. Traditions and technical skills that guide us toward the discovery of such attractors and sweet spots would be reverenced. Since we could not perfectly imitate to save our lives, we would be much more relaxed about sounding or looking like someone or something else. In fact, the closest we have come to real stereotypical uniformity is in the strained modernist and postmodernist attempt to be new and original.
We might find a recommitment to the spiritual and the essential—to those attractors within the glorious cacophonous chaos of nature’s creative exuberance that draw out some special, beautiful, harmonious excellence. No fear lest we run out of melodies, stories, beautiful images, beautiful forms of sculptural and choreographic and architectural space.
How very different such art might be from the anxious, paranoid, copyrighted, meticulously curated, sedulously “untraditional” self-devouring stuff we see in so many contemporary galleries and architectural projects, and hear in so many “serious” concerts, performances and poetry readings. And how wide open are the opportunities of this coming era of abundance.