Return of Nature

We can not return to nature – I once read words to that effect in Nietzsche’s works, which struck me. In the Seventies (when I grew up) ‘return to nature’ was a popular slogan in hippie circles. It tried to call a halt to the rapid invasion of technology in every aspect of human life. It turned against leading lives in concrete buildings, doing administrative jobs in airconditioned atmospheres, eating tasteless food which was grown in glasshouses. Although I was sympathetic to the search for a good life, and saw the flaws of much of modern life, I mistrusted the belief of many hippies that they could leave them behind. I sought to critically examine the whole matter first, and a first call to do so came from Nietzsche’s words.

Nietzsche’s thought has been controversial ever since German fascism tried to provide itself with philosophical ornament by twisting it’s words to sustain it’s ‘Blut und Boden’ ideology. Nietzsche’s texts do not defend any ideology, however. When one has learned to undergo their tactics of throwing you in different directions whenever you thought you found ‘truth’, it might dawn that his method is like that of the Buddhist master: learning to distrust any truth as possibly being dressed-up ideology. So, we can not return to nature – this was Nietzsche’s reaction to Rousseau’s naive (and dangerous) idea of the original good man, which he unmasked to be ideological. The importance of this reaction lies in the discovery that one should not naively turn against any so-called unnatural life style without investigating the political forces at work in it’s criticism.

I have returned to the theme of nature (and humanity’s relationship to it) over and over – somehow intuiting that it touches on the greatest questions/problems of our present world. An author who challenged me to probe further however was not a professional philosopher, but one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century: Victor Klemperer. A writer who reflected deeply on his times, as he survived in the lion’s den (being a critical professor and a jew in nazi Germany), writing down it’s inner developments day by day. Some fifteen years ago, when reading his Curriculum Vitae (the autobiography he wrote when teaching and doing research was interdicted to him), I got stuck on a passage which was the most beautiful and horrific that I had ever read. When describing his first trip to the country in his teenage years, he lets the chroniqueur be interrupted by the professor in him, who voices his distrust of images of nature in literature for their superficiality – and then the victim of nazism in him interrupts the professor by reminding him of the misuse of ‘nature’ in the present time, to be finally interrupted once more by the writer of the text himself. In my translation it’s conclusion reads: ‘And at the profoundest level I am so suspicious, since every emphasis of experiencing nature almost inevitably turns into emphasizing the connectedness to nature. In the name of this connectedness however, and the ‘return to nature’, all the bestiality has been unchained, that – but I am writing ahead of my Curriculum for many chapters now, only to escape the poisonous gases of the present times.’

This passage has troubled me for years and years, for it leaves the question behind how one could (should) describe the enjoyment of nature, which Klemperer obviously has experienced deeply and often, in such a way that it does not fall into the political/ideological trap of nazism and other cruel movements. Only recently I found some clues, while reading Klemperer’s diaries (1933-1945). First he notes down, on the 19th of July 1937 why ‘return to nature is the greatest unnaturalness’, when it refers to the farmer as leading the natural life: ‘No human activity as such is closer or more distant to nature as any other.’ On the 19th of February 1938 he then writes down his unbelief in the evolutionary direction of ‘vegetative unconsciousness, instinctive life, conscious life’. He rather sees a circle: ‘unconscious, conscious and again unconscious, for the highest aspect of the spiritual is inspiration, which is just as unconscious as the growing of one’s hair. Which doesn’t say anything against reason. […] Without the unconscious, feeling, inspiration, naturalness, etc. etc. art turns into babbling and unart, life into arbitrariness, destruction, guillotine.’ And finally he concludes on the 10th of January 1939: ‘the return to nature proves itself a thousand times as going against nature, because development is according to nature and its repression against it.’

It is not easy to make sense of these remarks, not because they are inconsistent, but because of the deep sense of humanity they transfer, a sense still uncommon in discourse on this subject. Klemperer warns against the ideological newspeak of his days which disguises it’s murderous intentions behind images of a mythological, natural past. A true understanding of nature should not feed on the opposition of reason and feeling. Nature is not hate against certain people, groups, ‘races’, but the enjoyment and development of the richness of life. One should almost say (but that is a rare word in Klemperer’s cautious language): It is love.

Victor Klemperer lived from 1881-1960. He was a professor of French literature, who survived the genocidal politics of nazi Germany protected by his marriage to his ‘Aryan’ wife Eva. Only in the mid-nineties of the twentieth century his autobiography as well as his diaries were published and became a literary hit.

My translations are from the German editions of his Curriculum Vitae (Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag 1996) and his Diaries 1933-1945 (Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten, Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag 1995 – revised edition 1999). In 2005 I published a philosophy of nature in my Terugkeer van de natuur (see ‘All books’ in the sidebar) – it’s title (as is the title of this post) is an expression of my mistrust in the idea of the return to nature.

  1. Lee said:

    It is significant, I think, that the Bible story starts with humanity living in simplicity in a garden, and after all the conflict and evil of the biblical narrative, it ends, not in a garden, but in a resplendent city! Though I don’t believe the new Jerusalem described in the final two chapters of the Bible is meant to be taken as a literal city, as a visual image I picture it as a garden city–meaning a mix of urban, suburban, and rural buildings, parklands, farms, and forests, all existing within its more than ample walls. This image gained life for me some years ago when I saw a photo of a farmer driving his tractor in his field . . . which happened to be just inside of the Berlin Wall during the Communist era.

    I wrote a brief piece about the size and meaning of the New Jerusalem: “How Big is the New Jerusalem?

    • Thanks, Lee, for your bringing the world of images to the theme. Actually I was brought to touch on this theme by viewing a meeting of indigenous leaders speaking before the UN on how to rescue the earth. One of them said: we should put the modern knowledge and our knowledge together. Yes, it is a beautiful vision to think that will happen…

  2. Rosaliedewildt said:

    Dag Angela,

    Denk niet dat ik je teksten en overpeinzingen niet lees! Integendeel, ik lees je graag en zie hoe vrij je aan het denken bent. En dat alles nog onderbouwd door die of gene die tot nu toe aan mijn aandacht ontsnapt was, waarschijnlijk door overmatige luiheid. Heb je nog steeds dat leuke groepje waar je de dingen des levens mee bespreekt? De komende tijd heb ik zin in dergelijke bezigheden dus ik hou me aanbevolen als er ruimte en zin in een vreemde eend in de bijt is.

    Tot spoedig, liefs van mij,


    Verstuurd vanaf mijn iPad

    Op 1 aug. 2013 om 14:06 heeft angelaroothaan het volgende geschreven:

    > >

  3. Albert Sonntag said:

    I enjoyed your post very much, Angela, and I I take it to be only a brief overview of your own thought on this subject. I would add an additional name to the commentary on the ideology of the human bond to Nature, about which so much has been written since Rousseau: Wordsworth’s. In his work, Nature is a reflection of himself, and, therefore, of History, History as balm. “How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
    O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods, . . . .

    • Thanks, Albert, that you read my post on nature, with Victor Klemperer in it. Yes, I wrote an entire book on the subject of nature, although, alas, only in Dutch…

      Thanks for the reference to Wordsworth, of whom I know little – I will keep his name in mind when returning to the subject.

      Here is the Dutch blurb of my book (as you know German, you might understand my language a little too?)

      • Albert Sonntag said:

        Yes, Angela, I can read Dutch, slowly, and will look for the book. I love everything about your culture and your country and have visited many times. I was in the house of Spinoza in Rijnsburg. Thank you.

      • That is nice, that you can understand Dutch, but more still that you were in the Spinoza house in Rijnsburg – it is a special place! Thank you too.

  4. Albert Sonntag said:

    I enjoyed reading this again, after reading your last post on Nietzsche. There you assert that Nietzsche’s main antagonist is Kant, so he remains within the antagonism between Reason and Sentiment, Culture and Nature. Here you state: ” A true understanding of nature should not feed on the opposition of reason and feeling. Nature is not hate against certain people, groups, ‘races’, but the enjoyment and development of the richness of life. One should almost say (but that is a rare word in Klemperer’s cautious language): It is love.” It is a ‘rare word’ in Nietzsche as well.

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