Blake, Heidegger, Buddhism, and Deep Ecology: A Fourfold Perspective on Humanity's Relationship to Nature
Romanticism and Buddhism
Blake, Heidegger, Buddhism, and Deep Ecology: A Fourfold Perspective on Humanity's Relationship to Nature
Louise Economides, University of Montana
This study examines the controversy surrounding Deep Ecology and argues that this branch of ecological theory usefully interrogates anthropocentric humanism. Parallels between Deep Ecology and Buddhist thought are explored as a means of countering the charge that Deep Ecology is narrowly 'romantic,' while its endebtedness to Romanticism, particularly that evident in William Blake and Martin Heidegger's phenomenology, is also acknowledged. This essay appears in _Romanticism and Buddhism_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.
Deep ecology, that branch of environmental philosophy that most radically challenges the assumptions of anthropocentric humanism, has recently become something of a bête-noir within mainstream ecological thought. Following Luc Ferry's influential linking of deep ecology with fascism in The New Ecological Order, many environmental thinkers have published work criticizing the movement's anti-modernism and potentially totalitarian holism. For example, in "Ecofascism: An Enduring Temptation," Michael Zimmerman identifies instances of such holism in the politics of noted European environmentalist Dr. Walter Schoenichen and in American environmentalist J. Baird Collicott's early approval of deep ecology's "biocentric" philosophy. Citing Aldus Leopold's collectivist land ethic as a major influence upon American biocentrists, Zimmerman sums up the threat of organic holism at work in certain branches of deep ecological thought:
According to Leopold, 'the land' refers to the internally related complex of organic and inorganic elements . . . that constitute a particular biome or bioregion. Leopold sometimes described these elements as being analogous to the organs of an organism. To survive, an organism's organs must cooperatively limit their behavior in ways that serve the higher good of the whole organism. Individual organisms lack ethical importance, for they are temporary instantiations of enduring species whose interlocking relationships constitute 'the land.' (400)
If taken as a biological foundation for political policy, it is not difficult to see how Leopold's land ethic can lead to a form of holistic totalitarianism wherein the rights of individuals are automatically subordinated to the collective good. Similarly, in Imagining Nature: Blake'sEnvironmental Poetics, literary critic Kevin Hutchings analyzes the Polypus in Blake's Jerusalem as a "travesty or parody of the holistic relationality which is a definitive yet ultimately irreducible or undefinable trait of Blakean 'Life'" (194). Hutchings analyzes the Polypus as a figure whereby Blake explores the horrific implications of a human society that has been "overwhelmed by the 'Outside' or objective universe" (196) to such an extent that it behaves like an assimilating "organism" in which "the individual human loses all autonomous identity." He goes on to link such a totalitarian vision with Arne Naess's philosophy:
One of the founders of the 'deep ecology' movement, Naess advocates an ethic of human 'identification' with all life, a mode of relationship entailing [according to critic Ralph Pite] 'an extension of sympathy that reaches so far and becomes so constant that the self loses any desire to differentiate between itself and the world.' (quoted in Hutchings 197)
Far from offering a desirable alternative to modernity's dualistic alienation of human beings from nature as a domain to be dominated in the name of civilization, Hutchings's deep ecological Polypus embodies an inverse, pathological form of identification which "entails a holistic totalitarianism that actually forecloses ethical possibilities" (197).
Such critiques are important insofar as they identify regressive elements within the deep ecology movement that, in the name of holism, seek to efface différance and to deny political contingency via recourse to specious biological determinism. The historical consequences of such ideology in Nazi "blood and soil" totalitarianism should serve as a powerful reminder of the risks entailed in reactionary dismissals of modernity and of humanism's ethical legacy for our species. However, as Cary Wolfe and other scholars have pointed out, traditional liberal humanism is—in and of itself—theoretically "impoverished" when it comes to providing non-anthropocentric models for how to conceive the rights of non-human species. Indeed, changes currently underway in global ecology and in technology indicate that non-human nature is rapidly being altered by human culture to such an extent that any distinguishable difference between what is "natural" and what is artificial may soon be rendered meaningless. Although the cultural dimension of nature's meaning has always been a product of human artifice, the scope of physical changes underway in today's global weather systems, increasingly ubiquitous genetically modified organisms, and in continually shrinking habitat for endangered species all suggest that nature's material "différance" is being effaced by humanity on an unprecedented scale. Indeed, it is the latter erasure that has led contemporary ecologists such as Bill McKibben to conclude that our era marks the "end of nature" and philosophers such as Michel Serres to argue that global culture has itself become a force of nature, the human equivalent of plate tectonics (16). In other words, if we continue to apply powerful technology under the influence of a traditionally humanist mindset that remains blind to the pitfalls of anthropocentrism, nature as an "outside" will cease to function as a useful counterbalance to human activity or as a domain which provides a window onto other modes of being. In essence, the risk of humanity being reduced to a subset of biological nature feared by opponents of totalitarian holism seems far less likely today than an opposite (equally problematic) monism wherein nature is completely subsumed by the category of the human.
Insofar as it attempts to inaugurate a means of thinking alternatives to the latter dilemma, deep ecology remains a significant facet of environmental philosophy. Of all the major schools of ecological thinking currently available, deep ecology addresses most directly the problem of anthropocentrism and the need to re-consider the status of non-human entities as co-inhabitants of planet earth. It does so primarily via the Deep Ecology Platform (DEP)'s recognition of "intrinsic value" in all life forms and its assertion that human beings have no essential "right" to reduce the richness of biodiversity "except to satisfy vital needs" (Naess and Sessions quoted in Deep Ecology 70). Although the concepts of "inherent worth" and humanity's "vital needs" are subject to deconstruction, the platform nonetheless raises the question of why non-human life has traditionally been excluded from "subject" status in western thought, and (therefore) from inclusion within the sphere of "intrinsic value" and/or unalienable rights. Indeed, the notion of intrinsic value, I will argue, necessarily compliments the principle of "wide identification" that also underwrites deep ecological thought as an "ultimate premise" (Glasser 219). As is illustrated in Zimmerman's and Hutchings's analysis, the charge that deep ecology promotes totalitarian holism hinges largely upon exclusive attention to the "identification" principle without an acknowledgement of the tension that is produced by deep ecology's concurrent inclusion of the "intrinsic value" principle. At a fundamental level, the latter represents an attempt to acknowledge the value of both "human and nonhuman" diversity, as reflected in the platform's second basic principle: "richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of [intrinsic] values" (Naess and Sessions quoted in Deep Ecology 70). It is difficult to see how a commitment to human diversity as a "value in [itself]" gels with the charge of totalitarian holism leveled by critics of deep ecology. Moreover, diverse traditions have informed the philosophical premises of the DEP (including Spinozan Christianity, feminism, pre-industrial or "primal" cultures, ecological science, contemporary physics and—particularly significant for the present study—Romanticism and Eastern religion).
The humanist tradition in Western thought enables us to contemplate human life's "intrinsic value," arguably one of the most important ethical achievements of this philosophy. Although subject to the charge of logical fallacy (it might be argued that nothing has inherent value but that all value derives from human attribution), the principle nonetheless possesses a certain wisdom insofar as it guards against the reduction of value to utility. This is why Kant's "categorical imperative" asserts that it is wrong to see a human being as a "means" to some end rather than as an "end in his/herself"—i.e. to see subjects in terms of their functional utility rather than as entities with a value that transcends all notions of use. Following in this tradition, Naess attempts to extend the concept of what constitutes an "end in itself" to non-human entities. Thus, following Tom Regan, he defines "intrinsic value" as "the presence of inherent value in a natural object . . . independent of any awareness, interest, or appreciation of it by any conscious being" (Regan quoted in Naess 197). The humanist tradition, however, maintains that differences in kind which exist between humans and animals (language use, rationality, capacity for ethical behavior) justifies their exclusion from the domain of "intrinsic rights." For example, Kant maintained that because animals lacked consciousness, they could not be ends in themselves but were mere means to human ends. Given recent discoveries regarding animal consciousness in the field of cognitive ethology and regarding humanity's close genetic kinship with other animals, many of the discriminatory markers invoked by earlier humanist thinkers have proven to be problematic and/or not nearly as clearly defined as was once believed. Deep ecology challenges us to reconsider why we continue to deny that non-human life can also be perceived as possessing inherent worth and why, for purposes of expediency, human beings should automatically have the right to determine a natural entity's value, or, conversely, to deny it. In order to consider the possibility that non-human life forms might possess intrinsic value, deep ecologists have had to seek philosophical models beyond those afforded in humanism, insights derived from non-dominant traditions within Western thought and in Eastern traditions such as Buddhism.
Humanity's ability to identify with certain non-human life forms may at first seem to be a sufficient basis for attributing intrinsic value to an entity, yet in actuality identification alone in no way ensures that an organism's right to life will be acknowledged. For example, human beings might identify with a tiger's strength and beauty or a wolf's intelligence, yet this very identification contributes to the slaughter of tigers for aphrodisiac products in the Far East and has contributed to our competitive drive to exterminate the wolf in the West. Likewise, the popularity of bird feathers and furs as objects of aesthetic admiration (human identification with the beauty of these things) has contributed to extinction and/or drastic reduction in the populations of other animals. This is why "wide identification" alone is an insufficient principle upon which to ground an ecological philosophy that goes beyond the limitations of traditional humanism. Conversely, if we cannot identify with non-human life at all (seeing human interests as being entirely distinct from the interests of other organisms and denying the latter a capacity for thought or feeling) then we also run the risk of objectifying and exploiting natural entities as wholly alien "others." In an effort to avoid either scenario, deep ecology attempts to counterbalance "wide identification" with an acknowledgement of all life's "intrinsic value." The great risk of this strategy is that, from a conventionally rational perspective, it may appear to be incoherent. Operating from within such a perspective, one might critique the logic of asking human beings to identify with natural entities while simultaneously asserting that life's value is ultimately "independent" of any human "awareness, interest, or appreciation" of it. From such a standpoint, a philosophy must choose whether it bases its ethical claims upon principles of sameness (identification) or différance (attribution of value to things because they resist the homogenizing effects of identification).
This paper will make a case for the necessity of deep ecology's inclusion of these apparently contradictory (but actually complementary) principles within its philosophical framework. Three key sources of deep ecological thought—Romanticism, Martin Heidegger's philosophy, and Buddhism— collectively illustrate the importance of combining both "wide identification" and "intrinsic value" in one's environmental ethos. William Blake's monistic art demonstrates the vital importance of human identification with nature; Martin Heidegger's late philosophy outlines the limitations of identification and the need to acknowledge "intrinsic value" in non-human entities; and Buddhist thought parallels both approaches, providing a means for recognizing their complementarity. Conceptually, this essay will revolve around the insight suggested in Zen master Ch'ing-Yüan's famous sermon on mountains and waters (Sheng-yu Lai 358-359). Ch'ing-Yüan states that when he first began to study Zen, mountains were mountains and waters were waters, when he thought he understood Zen, mountains were not mountains and waters were not waters, and when he actually experienced Zen awakening mountains were again mountains and waters were again waters. One way to interpret this sermon is to note that we in the West are inheritors of a dominant mode of dualistic thinking wherein mountains and waters appear to be objects existing "outside" the human subject, which could be likened to the first phases of understanding in Ch'ing-Yüan's sermon. However, we also inherit a less dominant tradition (Romanticism) that seeks to foster a mode of consciousness that transforms mountains and waters into phenomena the subject identifies with on a deeper level. In this second phase of awareness, mountains no longer appear to be the objects they once were, but take on an altered phenomenological status within the mind of the perceiver. Yet, such identification must go a step further in order for the human subject to achieve a truly enlightened relationship with mountains and waters. A third phase must be achieved wherein mountains and waters again are acknowledged as being separable from humanity, although this insight is now accompanied by a greater sense of compassion than was available at the outset. Inspired by Ch'ing-Yüan's sermon, this paper will consider whether deep identification is a necessary prerequisite to "letting things be," by acknowledging that such identification does not require a one way projection of human identity onto nature, nor an insistence that nature be absolutely revealed to us. True identification humbly acknowledges the limits of human understanding and values the mystery of nature's "suchness"—its irreducible otherness—by creating a space for acknowledging its "intrinsic value."
In "Blake's Deep Ecology, or the Ethos of Otherness," critic Mark Lussier usefully revises the traditional characterization of Blake as an archetypal champion of art and reviler of nature as something hostile to the imagination. As he convincingly illustrates, what Blake objected to was the Cartesian construct of nature as an object domain separable from human consciousness, a world of dead matter that could be exploited ad infinitum to benefit humanity's estate. In such a view, nature's unpredictability is effaced within a mechanistic framework that characterizes it as a machine-like system composed of discreet parts, whose power can be harnessed by human beings. Nature remains a material other, but one that can be controlled by humanity. Blake's texts—perhaps more than those of any other Romantic poet—consistently subvert this construction of nature and the anthropocentric subjectivity that underwrites it. This is because of his conviction (expressed in a 1799 letter to Rev. Dr. Trusler) that "to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself" (Complete Poetry 702). For Blake, nature and humanity are in fact one, originally unified in Albion, the Eternal Man. Albion's fragmentation gave rise to the dualistic illusion that humanity is separate from nature, but Imaginative perception—particularly that enacted in poetic reflection—reveals the true interconnection of all things. In order to experience what a deep ecologist might term "wide identification" with nature, however, Blake asserted that we must revise our atomistic understanding of subjectivity in order to comprehend all existence as reflecting the Human Form Divine. Within this monistic schema, all entities share humanity's capacity for intellect, feeling, and "speech" because, on a deep level, they are synonymous with the human mind or imagination.
Blake realized that human identification with nature requires an acknowledgment of how non-human entities "signify" even though they don't literally possess human language. This is why, in poems such as "The Book of Thel" natural entities "speak" to Thel in the sense that they are capable of educating her if she is receptive to their lessons. As Lussier points out, this poem anticipates what we would today describe as an ecological awareness that "every thing that lives, / Lives not alone, nor for itself" (II: 26-27)—that although lilies, clouds, worms and human beings are (as individuals) impermanent, they sustain wider networks of life that do not pass away. This is why the Lilly (Blake's spelling) of the field explains she doesn't lament death because her life nourishes other animals like the lamb and the bee. Likewise, a little cloud explains that when it appears to vanish, it in fact remains part of the water cycle that gives "tenfold life" (II: 11) to other beings. Thel's existential dilemma (a uniquely human dilemma) is that she cannot accept either her mortality or her integration within the web of life. This is why Thel fears that she "live[s] only to be at death the food of worms," to which the cloud replies "Then if thou art the food of worms. O virgin of the skies, / How great thy use, how great thy blessing" (II: 23-26). Here, the text playfully subverts Thel's speciesist revulsion at the prospect of becoming worm food by reversing the anthropocentric assumption that human beings use nature (but not vice versa) to celebrate Thel's inescapable "purposiveness" within ongoing natural cycles. Yet, due to a dualistic philosophy that locates subjectivity exclusively in the individual's disembodied mind, Thel is incapable of consciously accepting her own impermanence, an understanding that would provide insight into what Lussier terms "the splendors of a complementary, undifferentiated existence" (55). As many commentators have pointed out, an acceptance of impermanence as an existential condition common to all things is also a major facet of Buddhist thought, one that implies a need for the individual ego to free itself from a grasping mentality that would seek to escape or avoid such a realization. D. T. Suzuki sums up this stance succinctly: "we are all finite, we cannot live out of time and space . . . salvation must be sought in the finite itself . . . if you seek the transcendental, that will cut you off from this world of relativity, which is the same thing as annihilation of yourself" (14).
Blake consistently presents "self-annihilation" an ethical imperative that permits a fundamental re-visioning of nature. However, as Kevin Hutchings points out, such "annihilation" is not synonymous with the human subject's complete loss of identity due to its absorption into nature as an "outside," as may be erroneously inferred from Lussier's notion of "undifferentiated existence." On the contrary, in Blake's schema, the atomistic Cartesian subject is "annihilated" not by being absorbed into nature, but instead is transformed via a radical expansion outward so that it comes to be perceived as encompassing both humanity and nature within a higher "Human" identity. I would argue that what could be termed Blake's monistic "higher humanism" is something that distinguishes his art from both Zen Buddhist thought and from deep ecology. However, Blake's emphasis on phenomenological experience as a gateway to realizing this higher state of unity is something that also connects his thought with these approaches, as scholars such as John G. Rudy have noted. In poems such as Milton, self-annihilation is not merely arrived at via abstract contemplation, but is experienced as an ecstatic, embodied expansion of the self outward in moments of intense inspiration. What critic Michel Haar says of Rilke's attempt to explore the "'unheard of center' or 'pure space' of the heart of the world that is no longer subject or object" (130) seems equally descriptive of Blake's project. Haar asserts that when Rilke says "The birds fly through us" he "does not mean our consciousness represents the flight of the birds; not only do we experience their very flight in our body, but it happens through our body in a sense that is not simply a matter of perception but a fit of passion, of an ecstatic outburst , of 'sympathy,' of a fluttering of wings that quivers through and beyond us in a space that gathers and envelops us" (Haar 126). Such ecstatic "sympathy" enables Blake to experience (via his imagination) the being of other animals and to assert that they have the ability to "signify" through and beyond the scope of language. A vivid instance of this occurs in Milton's famous lark song passage:
The Lark sitting upon his earthly bed: just as the morn
Appears; listens silent; then springing from the waving Corn-field! loud
He leads the Choir of Day! trill, trill, trill, trill,
Mounting upon the wings of light into the Great Expanse:
Reechoing against the lovely blue & shining heavenly Shell.
His little throat labours with inspiration; everyfeather
On throat & breast & wings vibrates with the effluence Divine
All Nature listens silent to him & the awful Sun
Stands still upon the Mountain looking on this little Bird
With eyes of soft humility, & wonder love & awe (II, 31:29-38)
Inspired, the lark's song moves its whole being, makes it quake with "Divine effluence"; its whole body "vibrates" with inspiration, just as the poem resonates with a sound but half its own. The poet, like the bird, "labours" to give voice to this "ecstatic outburst" whereby the reader may experience something of the bird's vibrant trace: "the bird flies through us" when our bodies resonate with the text, or when we experience the lark's song first hand. The lark signifies as an emergent phenomenon at the juncture of bird, text, song and consciousness, so that its voice becomes indistinguishable from the poet's. Such identification, whereby the bird is no longer just a bird, nor the text just a vehicle for representation, would be quite impossible from a dualistic perspective. Similarly, Rudy interprets the lines "How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,/ Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five" in Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell" as "draw[ing] the reader meditatively into the prior oneness of text and bird, of text and world, as the emergent base of all reading" (102). Rudy notes that the question "How do you arrive at the knowledge of immensity suggested in the phrase 'immense world of delight'" meditatively leads the reader towards the insight that "the bird is not simply a representation of delight. It is the realm of delight itself, requiring not simply knowledge about but knowledge as that which is under the pen" (104). What we see in Blake's poetics that is common to both Zen and deep ecology is, therefore, an emphasis on action as a form of knowledge that compliments discourse, "a shift from saying to doing" (100).
And yet, is Blake's romantic identification enough to provide us with a blueprint for subjectivity that moves beyond anthropocentrism to cultivate an ethos of alterity? Given Blake's monistic position, his belief that all things are part of a higher Human (with a capital H) identity, one might question in what sense his poetry permits the thinking nature's alterity as true "otherness." It seems to me that Blake's thought is incompatible with deep ecology's desire to recognize nature's "inherent value" if by this we mean the ability to acknowledge nature's worth beyond any human "awareness, interest or appreciation" of it. Indeed, Blake's thinking does not break with humanism's tendency to see in man "the measure of all things"—why else would his figure of ultimate unification (Albion) bear a human form? From an ecological perspective, Blake's monistic equation of nature with Human imagination poses potential difficulties. For example, what about the need to protect species or landscapes with which we humans have difficulty identifying (perhaps why there aren't more "save the leech or swamp" campaigns)? Likewise, as aforementioned, too much human identification with a species can also lead to destructive ecological practices. Still more problematic is the potential to justify continuing radical alteration of the environment based on the principle of identity. In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx explores how the pastoral ideal guiding western cultivation of so-called "barren" wilderness is underwritten by the notion that all human arts (including technology) are a product of nature, that nature evolved our tool wielding species to permit its own transformation. In the humanities, the equivalent of this thinking is reflected in assertions that without art, nature would not signify—in Heideggerian terms, that nature requires the "clearings" of human language so that the "truth" of its being may shine forth. The common theme here is, to quote Blake, "where man is not, nature is barren." Yet deep ecology seeks to balance "wide identification" with an ability to recognize that nature (even without humans) constitutes a richly diverse panorama of life, much of which evolved long before humans arrived on the scene. Is there a way to balance identification with an acknowledgment that this domain has inherent value, a right to exist apart from us?
In order to create room for thinking the truth of inherent value, deep ecology draws upon both post-Romantic Western thought and insights from Eastern philosophy, most notably from the late work of philosopher Martin Heidegger and from Zen Buddhism. As Bill Devall and George Sessions note in Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, Heidegger "made three contributions to the deep, long-range ecology literature," namely: his critique of Western philosophy's development after Plato (which "paved the way for the technocratic mentality that espouses domination over Nature"), his characterization of Thinking as something "closer to the Taoist process of contemplation than to Western analytical thinking," and finally, an ethos that urges modern culture to develop ways of "dwell[ing] authentically on this Earth" via increased alertness to one's bioregion and to natural processes (98). Despite these potentially useful ideas, however, it must be acknowledged that Heidegger not only remains a controversial figure due to his allegiances with Nazi politics, but also a problematic thinker even from an ecological perspective. For example, in Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, Jacques Derrida notes that Heidegger's characterization of animals as "world poor" in comparison to human beings constitutes a "discourse on privation [that] cannot avoid a certain anthropocentric or even humanist teleology" (55). In "Eating Well," Derrida even claims that Heidegger's theory of animal privation belies a "sacrificial structure" (113) that underwrites western culture's putting to death (in a non-criminal manner) of not only animals but also groups of de-humanized people. While I do not endorse Derrida's conclusion that Heidegger's desire to deny humanity's kinship with animals implies that human beings do not "have a responsibility to the living in general" (112), it is important to acknowledge potentially destructive components in Heidegger's thinking which tend to essentialize both human and animal identity alike. Philosophers sympathetic to deep ecology would do well to interrogate such flaws in Heidegger's critique of humanism, as Michael Zimmerman has in recent years.
Nevertheless, in spite of the many shortcomings in Heidegger's work (and life), his thought does inaugurate, in a unique manner, a way towards thinking the underlying complimentarity of "wide identification" and "inherent value" which is critical to the deep ecological platform. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the evolving relationship of "poiesis" to physis in Heidegger's work as an indication that nature's "presence" or truth may not ultimately require human artifice to be revealed. I will focus on "The Origin of the Work of Art" (1935) and "The Thing" (1950) as texts that reflect, in Zimmerman's words, a turning away from an earlier anthropocentrism in Heidegger's thought when the philosopher concluded that "he could no longer conceive of being in terms of human understanding, but instead had to conceive of human understanding as an aspect of being itself" ("Heidegger" 247). That is, Heidegger's late philosophy regarding the mutually "appropriating mirror-play" ("The Thing" 179) of the fourfold (earth, sky, mortals and the divine) suggests that the "physis" (self-revealing event) of natural entities constitutes a form of value ("intrinsic value") that cannot be reduced to the clearings afforded by western poiesis (human facilitated modes of revealing), such as art and technology. Heidegger's eventual turn away from formal philosophy is sometimes attributed to his interest in poets writing in the Romantic tradition, such as Hölderlin and Rilke. Certainly in essays like "As When On a Holiday…" (1939) we can see the influence of romantic identification with nature at work. Here, Heidegger develops his hermeneutics of resonance, whereby the poet responds to the "call" of nature by creating linguistic "clearings" through which the truth of its "holy chaos" (82) can be simultaneously revealed and concealed, or perhaps more to the point, revealed in its concealment. But beyond the identification that permits the poet to respond to nature's sublimity, there is also a play in this essay between nature's presence and absence, a revealing and concealing flux that is not evident (or possible) in Blake's monistic ethos. Is there another tradition that Heidegger brings into play that enables insight into an irreducible nothingness that is ever at work in nature's revealing? Many scholars have pointed to the influence of Eastern thought—and particularly Buddhism and Taoism—on the development of Heidegger's late work. The philosopher was already referencing Eastern thought in his lectures during the 1930's, worked with a Chinese scholar to translate Lao-tzu in 1946, and, upon reading D.T. Suzuki's Zen Buddhism in the 1950's, remarked "[i]f I understand this man correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings" (quoted in Suzuki xi). As Zimmerman asserts in "Heidegger, Buddhism and deep ecology," there is much to suggest that Zen thinking enabled Heidegger's late philosophy of dwelling to go beyond anthropocentric identification in order to explore how all things (man-made and natural entities) are at once absent and present, gathering the world into presence by virtue of their emptiness.
This shift is perhaps most evident in the different treatment of the relationship between art and nature in "The Origin of the Work of Art"(1935) and in "The Thing"(1950). In the "Origin" essay, Heidegger discusses the way a Greek temple "accomplishes" (175) the strife between earth and world necessary for the revealing of truth, and in doing so "acquire[s] the shape of destiny for human being" (167). That is, the temple both embodies occidental culture's pitting of human history (world) against an earth that is conceived of as being "ahistorical," and brings these domains into an antagonistic "belonging to one another"(174). Natural entities require the temple's work for their "truth" to come into presence, and historical world requires the earth as a foundation that grounds its unfolding destiny. Through a series of violent cuts, the temple's différance permits an otherwise invisible earth to become visible:
Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging
above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence . . .
The temple's firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air . . .
Tree, grass, eagle and bull, snake and cricket first enter into their
distinctive shapes and thus appear as what they are. The Greeks early called
this emerging and rising in itself and in all things physis. (167-68)
What is curious about the description of the temple's poiesis—its bringing into presence of nature—is the way in which the temple's "world" has usurped the original meaning of physis, which is an "emerging and rising in itself" [my emphasis]. That is, natural phenomena only become "visible" via the temple's enframing; by implication, earthly things cannot manifest themselves as what they truly are without the presence of human poiesis (which originally included both art and technology as forms of technē). The earth's reliance upon human enframing for its truth to appear is even more pronounced in the world of modern (as opposed to ancient) art. In his famous discussion of Van Gogh's painting of peasant shoes, Heidegger analyzes the way in which the painting reveals the truth of the shoes as equipment, which in turn reflects the truth of the peasant's "world" and, only indirectly, the earth's truth as part of the peasant's world. Indeed, the earth's status in the world revealed through this relatively modern, representational work of art is arguably even more removed than what we see in the Greek temple. This is because "earth" in the painting is subject to many layers of mediation: its traces are only indirectly apparent by considering signs of wear upon the shoes, the earth's significance for the (hypothetical) peasant woman who owns the shoes, the artist Van Gogh's interpretation of the peasant's world, the viewer's interpretation of Van Gogh's interpretations. On the one hand, Heidegger tells us that "in the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field" (159). On the other hand, we are told that the shoes are a completely de-contextualized aesthetic object: "there is nothing surrounding this pair of peasant shoes in or to which they might belong—only an undefined space. There are not even clods of soil from the field or the field-path sticking to them, which would at least hint at their use." The question therefore arises as to how the earth can be at once present and absent in modern representational art; a paradox that can only be resolved by seeing the earth's "presence" as being entirely contingent upon the viewer's apprehension of its role in the peasant's experience of world: "on the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls." The earth's physis as a mode of self-revealing is, therefore, particularly inaccessible within the alethias (clearings) afforded by Van Gogh's painting. Although a trace of the earth's materiality is evident in the ancient temple's marble and in the natural environment which surrounds it, nature's physis is completely subsumed in the painting by the shoes' utility, the peasant woman's world, and the decontextualized nature of the art object itself.
By 1954, however, physis makes a remarkable comeback in "The Question Concerning Technology." There, Heidegger claims that not only art, but physis itself is a form of poiesis ("bringing forth"): "physis is indeed poiēsis in the highest sense," as evident in the "bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself"(10). Rather than pitting technology's poiesis against earth's physis in an effort to alter the latter, Heidegger suggests that technology should ideally allow the earth's own presence to "be" instead of transforming nature into a gigantic "standing reserve"(17) of energy. What can account for the dramatic shift in physis's status in this late work? I believe a careful study of "The Thing," a text written four years before "The Question Concerning Technology," suggests that concepts derived from Eastern traditions may well have influenced this change in Heidegger's thought. In this text, there is an attempt to re-think the value of physis, of learning to respect what is inherent in nature—what Zen philosophy might refer to as nature's "suchness." Such thinking would see humanity's identification with nature as a first (not final) step towards granting natural entities the right to "just be" (inherent value). Paradoxically, deep identification entails granting non-human things a certain distance from humanity's modes of being, while also acknowledging that all things are "appropriated" within the fourfold "thinging" of earth, sky, mortals, and the divine. The former creates a space for thinking how the physis of natural entities constitutes a mode of poiesis, while the latter (in a suggestive parallel with Buddhist thought) implies that all things have "presence" by virtue of an underlying absence (emptiness).
As in "The Question Concerning Technology" essay, "The Thing" begins with a discussion of the many ways in which contemporary technology appears to have virtually eliminated "distances in time and space" (165). That is, circa 1950, air travel, telecommunications, film, and other technologies seem to have "abolish[ed] every possibility" of temporal or spatial "remoteness" as great distances can be overcome with a speed that is historically unprecedented (an abolition that is even more pronounced in the 21st Century internet era). Yet, Heidegger argues that in spite of this "conquest of distances" there is a "terrifying" sense in which we remain remote from the nature of things: "the nearness of things remains absent" (166). In the course of the essay, it becomes clear that "things" include both man-made and natural entities, the phenomena that constitute "being" as a whole. Heidegger suggests that the "thingness of things" (167) remains remote from us as long as we conceive of things as objects: "the thingly character of the thing does not consist in its being a represented object, nor can it be defined in any way in terms of objectness, the over-againstness, of the object." That is, the essence of thing-ness does not appear in "objective" scientific accounts of an entity's physical composition, or in modes of enframing which equate things merely with their utility as man-made products. Nor do we gain insight into the nature of things by dividing the world between "objects" represented within the subject's consciousness versus things-in-themselves (Kant's account): "'Thing-in-itself,' thought in a rigorously Kantian way, means an object that is no object for us, because it is supposed to stand, stay put, without a possible before: for the human representational act that encounters it" (177). Instead of seeing things as static objects that are "represented" within human consciousness, Heidegger proposes that we contemplate all things as instances of "gathering"—as clearings that enable a bringing together of four modes of being—earth, sky, mortals (human beings), and the divine—that mutually appropriate (179) each other. A thing's thing-ness therefore consists in its "bringing near" (178) the fourfold in a way that "sets each of the four free into its own, [yet] binds these free ones into the simplicity of their essential being toward one another" (179). For example, a jug "things" insofar as it holds the "gift" of wine, and thereby gathers the sky's water, the earth's grape, humanity's production of wine, and the presence of gods when wine is used in religious ceremonies (libation). Such gatherings constitute the thingness of things, something not only true of the products of human poiesis, but also of the physis of natural entities:
Inconspicuously compliant is the thing: the jug and the bench, the footbridge and the plow. But tree and pond, too, brook and hill, are things, each in its own way. Things, each thinging from time to time in its own way, are heron and roe, deer horse and bull. Things, each thinging and each staying in its own way, are mirror and clasp, book and picture, crown and cross. (182)
Two things are striking regarding this penultimate passage in "The Thing." First, there is an acknowledgement here that poiesis is not the only means whereby things come into "presence"; rather, all things do this insofar as they gather the fourfold, "each in [their] own way." A tree, for example, can also be said to "gather" the fourfold insofar as it is nourished by the earth's soil, and the sky's light can be affected by human care and perceived as a symbol of divine creation. Unlike what we see in the "Origin of Art" essay, Heidegger insists here that things do not appear as things "by meansof human making," but neither, he insists, do they appear "without the vigilance of mortals" (181). From a human perspective, things do not appear in their thing-ness unless we reconsider what it means to "dwell" more responsively in a world where we are always already part of a larger "dance of appropria[tion]" (180) over which we cannot exert ultimate control. In acknowledging that all things gather the world, "each in [their] own way," Heidegger's thought inaugurates a way towards understanding natural entities' "inherent value" and challenges human beings to find ways to honor this value in their own poiesis (technological or artistic clearings).
How did Heidegger arrive at such a different perspective on the relationship between physis and poeisis in his later work? Scholars such as Reinhard May and Michael Zimmerman have suggested that Heidegger's encounters with Eastern thought—particularly his interest in Buddhism and Taoism—may well have influenced this shift. A crucial step toward acknowledging humanity's appropriation within the fourfold lies in recognizing a deeper relationship between emptiness and form than has traditionally been available in post-Platonic Western philosophy—a relationship convincingly elaborated within Eastern traditions. As Zimmerman argues, both Heidegger and Mahayana Buddhism acknowledge "humans can learn to 'let things be' only by gaining insight into the nothingness that pervades all things" ("Heidegger" 240). In Mahayana Buddhism, nothingness connotes the "emptiness" and impermanence of all things, yet is not synonymous with formless, chaotic negativity. Rather, the Sanksrit word for nothingness, "sunyata," is derived from a term meaning "to swell" (quoted in "Heidegger" 252), suggesting that emptiness can be conceived of as a "clearing" or openness that constitutes a generative space in which things appear. It is no accident that Heidegger chooses a jug as the focus of his discussion in "The Thing." A jug is an ideal focus for critiquing of our understanding of things as solid, discreet objects, rather than "clearings" which gather the world. The jug's "thing-ness" is not to be understood as synonymous with its material composition, but is instead suggested by its "holding" (or gathering) nature:
When we fill the jug, the pouring that fills it flows into the empty jug. The emptiness, the void, is what does the vessel's holding. The empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as the holding vessel . . . [t]he vessel's thingness does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that holds. (169)
In contrast to the Greek temple in the "Origin" essay, whose columns make the air visible, it is the emptiness of the jug, not its form, that constitutes its thingness. In Taoist fashion, the jug is a clearing through which the fourfold comes to presence, as it gathers together the earth's soil and the sky's rain in wine that mortals pour in libation to the gods. Indeed, as Reinhard May illustrates in Heidegger's Hidden Sources, "The Thing's" discussion of the jug remarkably parallels Chapt. 11 of Lao Tzu's exploration of how "[t]he work of pitchers consists in their nothingness" (30). Similarly, Zimmerman discusses suggestive parallels between Heidegger's characterization of the fourfold's mutually appropriating "mirror-play" and insight regarding the universe's luminosity in Mahayana Buddhism. In the most famous expression of this insight, the universe is conceived as the jewel net of the god Indra. All things are analogous to "perfect gems" within this net (or network), and their reflective light is simultaneously produced by all the gems collectively, "no one of which stands in a 'superior' or 'causal' relation to the others" ("Heidegger" 253). Zimmerman argues that "Heidegger's account of the dance of earth and sky, gods and mortals, the dance in which things manifest themselves in the event of mutual appropriation, bears remarkable similarities to the Buddhist account of the moment-by-moment coproduction of self-luminous phenomena" (257).
Critics steeped within a Western tradition that posits the human individual's dignity and "inherent value" might find the suggestion that all things (human and otherwise) are "empty" has troubling implications if applied to political subjectivity, fearing that an emptying of selves is often a prerequisite of totalitarian political regimes or can lead to too intense an identification with the "objective" domain. For example, Brian Victoria's Zen War Stories makes a compelling case for a link between the Zen concept of "selflessness" and Japanese militarism during World War II, and Karla Poewe's New Religions and the Nazis similarly links the German Faith movement, militarism and Indo-Aryan religious doctrine, particularly Jakob Hauer's interpretation of Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gita. Poewe claims that Hauer's efforts to forge a new Indo-Aryan religion with a fatalistic warrior code "anticipated justification of the deeds committed by the Nazi regime" (79). Such work, as with critiques of radical elements within the deep ecology movement, usefully analyzes potential effects of state-sanctioned religious ideology, instead of maintaining that religious discourse necessarily "transcends" politics. As convincing as such studies are as explorations of how Eastern thought has been appropriated by totalitarian regimes, it is problematic to conclude that Buddhist and/or Hindu thought is essentially nationalistic and/or totalitarian. To draw such a conclusion is to not only distort what Hirata Seikō describes as "the absolute rejection of war in ancient Indian Buddhism" (4), but also to deny that any set of ideas is subject to variable interpretation or, more rigorously, (re-) construction over time. As is well known, when Chinese scholars translated Indian Hinayanan and Mahayanan texts, they interpreted Buddhism within the framework of existing Taoist thought, resulting in "Cha'an" Buddhism; likewise, Japanese monks reinterpreted these texts to form Zen Buddhism. Any western interpreter of Buddhism brings to the table certain cultural and/or ideological lenses through which he or she constructs interpretations of this thought. Concepts such as "emptiness" are therefore not only subject to ideological appropriation (in both a positive and negative sense), but also to unintended distortion. As John Rudy and other interpreters of Zen Buddhism have pointed out, a western, dualistic tradition that divides the world between subjects and objects can contribute to misinterpretation of the concept of emptiness. In Romanticism and Zen Buddhism, Rudy points out that:
For Zen Buddhists, engaging [a] spiritual ground [inclusive yet prior to subject-object dualities] follows patterns of meditative emptying by which individuals relinquish the compulsion either to assert independence through radical emphases on difference or to establish unity through variant modes of bridged togetherness. The result is neither subjective nor objective. It is, rather, an opening process that reveals how each thing in nature is both an autonomous unit of codependent activity and a holistic manifestation of ultimate reality. (xiii)
Rather than underwriting identification with "objective" or state-sanctioned structures (totalitarian or otherwise), emptiness as Rudy interprets it suggests an alternative to both subjective individualism and objective obedience to collectives. Indeed, it is such alternatives to dualistic accounts of human subjectivity vis-à-vis the rest of the living world that appealed not only to Heidegger in the later stages of his philosophy, but also continues to appeal to deep ecologists. As "The Thing" makes clear, insight into the self's "appropriation" within the world's mirror play does not entail a collapsing of any one dimension of the fourfold into the others. Human beings still retain a unique manner of "gathering" the world in relation to other beings: "men alone, as mortals, by dwelling attain to the world as world" (182)—that is, human beings alone can self-consciously choose the mode of their dwelling and experience the world as one of many possible worlds. Nonetheless, other non-human beings also participate in the fourfold, "each in its own way," and this diversity implies the inherent value of each unique mode of gathering. The metaphor of "mirror-play" enables Heidegger to suggest a deep identification between human and non-human actors in the "dance" of creation, yet this mirroring never stabilizes into a form of monistic holism. I would suggest that this is because, unlike his Romantic predecessors such as William Blake, Heidegger ultimately resists equating "nature" with a higher Human identity, such as the Imagination. Instead, the philosopher, like deep ecologists influenced by his thought, challenges us to think of identification and inherent worth as a productive "coincidence of opposites" (in Dennis McCort's parlance), the kind of paradoxical truth embraced by Buddhist and Toaist traditions. If we re-conceive the identity of all things as at once unique (having inherent value) and empty (inescapably appropriated by other beings), a truly non-anthropocentric understanding of nature becomes possible. Paradoxically, only by learning to "identify" with the emptiness of all things while retaining a sense of our distinctive perspective may we eventually find it in ourselves to allow mountains to be mountains and waters to be waters.
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