Arrogance, Humility and the Sacred in ‘The Trouble with Nature’ by Illum Jacobi

By Luca Bugnone in ZEST Letteratura sostenibile

“And from the desire to please myself and in the eyes of men I became rotten in your eyes” 


Sublime mistakes

There are artists teased by difficult words like post-human, intra-action, eco-sexual. They use them as broken mirrors because basically “art doesn’t have to be explained”. There are refractory and revolutionary intellectuals, in solidarity with endless struggles. At the proposal to put the words into practice, however, they claim the right to pure thought, the invisible Barrier to be manned like the Night’s Watch from Game of Thrones. There are the information trawlers, sellers of salted words such as biodiversity, resilience, anthropocentrism: words drained of meaning, hashtag words consumed and thrown away. There remain the word seekers able to survive the “plague of language” described by Italo Calvino in the American Lessons, that tendency “to level the expression on the most generic, anonymous, abstract formulas, to dilute the meanings, to smooth out the expressive tips “. The antidote, as in agriculture, are the ancient varieties, the stories told through symbols rather than stranoms, the translations of concepts into parables capable of infiltrating social, cultural and environmental emergencies in bars, bakeries, changing rooms.

A good attempt is The Trouble with Nature by Danish director Illum Jacobi, which had its world premiere at the 50th Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR). The film shows the physical and philosophical wandering of Edmund Burke, author of one of the pivotal works of romantic sentiment, A philosophical investigation into the origin of our ideas of Sublime and Beautiful. Burke (Antony Langdon) wants to confirm what he imagined sitting at his desk twelve years earlier. Strangled by financial problems in 1769 he decided to avert bankruptcy by updating his youthful masterpiece so as to revive its success. He leaves London for the Alps escorted by the servant Awak (Nathalia Acevedo), an indigenous woman from the West Indies.

Burke looks for the sublime among the flounces wrapped in a crimson frilly suit, complete with moccasins and foulards. In contact with wild nature for the first time, predictably, he finds it detestable. Burke is one of those who grill chops and play beach tennis on the shores of Alpine lakes. Weepy and inept, he stumbles at every step, never shuts up, gets entangled, gets dirty. He addresses the environment in which he moves as useless, sad, revolting, despicable. “I’ve never really liked the green,” he says contemplating the Alpine sea, and it’s almost an epiphany. On the other hand, however: not identifying the error as confirming a vanity extraneous to shame and penance.

Eve and Adam

Jacobi places before our eyes a good part of the dualisms sprouted from Cartesian thought and collected in a list by Val Plumwood in 1993 in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature: Burke is a white, European, cultured and civilized male — too much too. When he is not engaged in clumsy attempts to free himself from the hindrances he sings about himself, reason, man’s invincible will. It fills the “deafening” silence with a compulsive naming, with an exhausting stream of consciousness. Awak is his nemesis: female and Amerindian, therefore primitive, she is calm, silent and contemplative. Once abandoned the monstrous baggage of the master (almost the metaphor of his unsustainable ego) she moves gracefully dressed only in a white veil unable to hide its shapes. Whether Burke’s pathetism arouses annoyance or at most some smiles, Awak bewitches, exudes charisma, remains a mystery.

The shots and backgrounds enhance the radical diversity of the relationship between the two with the earth. Burke is filmed from above, lost in a hell cluttered with withered trunks and annoying insects or surrounded by boulders and climbs on which he tries uncomfortable seats. We follow Awak looking into her eyes, we see her participate in a flourishing Eden in which she plunges half-naked, in peace. She reads the landscape, observes plants and animals in silence. In a moment of definitive symbiosis (eco-sexual, in fact), she accompanies one hand between her legs while with the other she caresses the mosses. By contrast, Burke filters the landscape with his nose stuffed into a book — his own — waking filthy, hooded, with bare testicles and a crooked wig. At the rise of jealousy for Awak and her empathy with the earth, he can only reaffirm the hierarchies of power: “I am the master and you serve me”.

The relationship that Burke has with Awak is identical to that, ruinous, tempted with the mountain: “We are on top and we are the masters, born to tame it,” he says. Awak indulges her carelessly, but is never submissive and, in her own way, corrects the philosopher: “Masters? It scares me to think that I am the owner of something so big ”. Burke is frustrated by a sublime reluctant to reveal himself; he only knows reason, he does not let herself go to the senses, to animality, to that “spiritual experience” accessible to Awak not because of her origins but thanks to a meditative approach, devoid of categories and words, which disposes her to things : “The world is not rational, we are not just body and mind. Nature has a soul and we too. Maybe it’s the same soul ”.

Entrenched in intellectual prejudice even before aristocratic self-confidence, Burke remains impervious to the intuitions of the Indian. He cannot embrace a gaze other than his own, therefore, dissatisfied with the world, he sinks into himself in search of a transcendental dimension: “Nature must be filtered by man”, he says, “otherwise it is nothing but a void”. Reality does not come close to the spirit, on the contrary, the spiritual life is “beyond reality”. The definitive thesis reaffirms the urban reflections that converged on the concept of the sublime: “I have to seek the sublime within myself”, in a sort of sublimation of existence and of the ego. As a last act before crossing the Pillars of Hercules, Burke ignores the recommendations of the mountaineers who try to dissuade him from facing the “cathedral of solid water”, the glacier and the summit. His search leads him and Awak, who cannot escape and does not want to abandon her master, to a double abyss: the alpine and the intellectual.

In white

“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear”, no passion deprives the mind of its power of action and reasoning as effectively as fear, wrote Edmund Burke – the real one – in his treatise on sublime. Sublime: sub, below, and limes, door, border, limit. Reaching under the highest threshold, on the last threshold. That’s where Burke and Awak venture. Up there, among the imperishable snows, in the white that for the Latins contained candidus, dazzling white, and albus, opaque white. Therefore the opposites: joy and mourning, presence and absence, life and nothing.

Bianco titled Alberto Castoldi an exquisite essay in 1998, reflecting on a non-color with infinite potential that can be left empty or saturated with the creative act. Word and writing have always been understood as a confrontation with the bare sheet: “Alba pratalia araba …”, says the Veronese riddle, imagining the sheet as a snowy earth in which to plant seeds.

Reading between the lines is therefore a glimpse of death, the silent abyss to be filled with the horror vacui of words. To keep silent is to die, but given that a literature without words does not exist (yet) and it is impossible to transcend the page as Lucio Fontana did by cutting the canvas, the I, writes Castoldi, “in his search for the absolute, he pushes the work to extreme limits of enunciatability, where it can no longer materialize “. Absence is embodied in literature in the white teeth of Edgar Allan Poe’s Berenice or in the candid drift of Gordon Pym. Emily Dickinson sang the “immaculate mystery” of God, the “sacred thing”, and Herman Melville in his Moby Dick presented to the nineteenth-century imaginary a “white ghost” and merciless, opening up the possibility of a journey into the unconscious.

But the root of it all was already in Edmund Burke, in the terror intended as Finisterrae of the mind, in the challenge to the sublime and secret Sacred. It is here that Jacobi drags “his” Burke, placing him like Giacomo Leopardi’s Icelandic in the presence of a “half face between beautiful and terrible”. Awak begs the philosopher to desist, to go back, but in vain. Burke’s hubris or hubris spits on the humility of the magical world that leaves the powers untouched.

Burke emerges alone and transfigured. He turns the crimson jacket over, throws off the wig and walks over a sea of ​​fog recreating the 1818 painting by Caspar David Friedrich. In that symbol, an icon of Romanticism, the impossible squaring of the circle is revealed, the eternal confirmation of human fracity. Edmund Burke’s loneliness reifies the lost opportunity to redeem Descartes’ legacy by welcoming and listening to offended minorities. The lights go out, the fog rises. We became romantic, and we still are.

The title of Illum Jacobi’s work could be embedded in Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016). The prefix khthon in Greek refers to the underworld, chthonic, as opposed to Gaea, the vital surface now known as the biosphere. Chthulucene is therefore the era of underground connections, of a man who is no longer a protagonist, summit and sovereign but part of a network of living beings, a member of a community.

“This is the trouble with nature: it’s so insistent,” says Burke at the beginning of the film. The insistence that characterizes life, this indefatigable, indomitable, invincible wave so hateful to him and so agreeable to Awak, according to Haraway, must be ridden with the joy of relationship, exchange, hybridization between languages ​​and bodies, human and otherwise. human: the solution is to experience chaos, to stay within it conscious of being fallacious, ephemeral, composite. Compost is a key word for Haraway, who in fact shuns the post-humanist label. Human matter is fluid, constantly stirred and remade, it comes to life and, in restoring it, gives life to another life.

There is nothing to seek further, within, or beyond. As above, so below, the hermetics said, indicating that earthly things reflect the celestial planes. The sacred is not pursued, it only manifests itself. It should be awaited by opening eyes and ears, observing, making silence. Life itself is sublime below the threshold of the mind, closer to the heart. It is already sacred, here and now.

“The poet contemplates nature better than the scientist.”

By Dafne Franceschetti 8.7.2020 in Sentieri Selvaggi

It is an old diatribe that guides our minds to more or less vague high school artistic-literary reminiscences, the one raised by the aphorism of the German poet Novalis. As if to say that science and rationalism cannot push themselves to grasp the endemic sublimity of nature, they cannot go beyond that, and cross those thresholds where only the genius daimon of the artist, the seer poet, the melancholy and saturnine soul in the his creative act of faith, they come. For romantics like Novalis, nature is mysterious, dark, uncanny and grandiose, something that man, infinitely small, can only contemplate, or in which Leopardian can drown, observing you ecstatically, from above, the uncontainable chaos; just like in the perhaps most exquisitely romantic picture of art history, the greatest pedagogical example of the spirit of the time, painted by Friedrich in 1818: we naturally speak of the Wayfarer in the sea of fog, a famous work that wanders like a perpetual spirit in the film d debut of the Danish director Illum Jacobi, presented as a world preview at the 50th Rotterdam International Film Festival (50th IFFR), and now for the first time in Italy at the ShorTS Film Festival in Trieste. Entitled The Trouble With Nature, the work owes much to the landscape painting of the late nineteenth century and not by chance. It is in fact a cross- section of the life of the naturalized British Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, author of the treatise entitled A philosophical investigation on our ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, a milestone in the aesthetic discipline, ready, at the time, to arouse attention (and criticisms) of philosophers and theorists of the caliber of Immanuel Kant. An ante litteram romantic – thus sanctioning the official distancing himself from the rigor of the neoclassical “beauty” – for the English philosopher “it is the darkness that contains the sublime. Everything that can arouse ideas of pain and danger, that is, everything that is in a certain sense terrible, or that concerns terrible objects, or that acts in a similar way to terror, is in a certain sense sublime ».

The director chooses to tell a precise and sensitive moment in Burke’s biography (played by Antony Langdon), when, poor and in full creative impasse, he decided to leave England to hide in the Alps, in an attempt to rewrite, more than ten years later, the work that made him famous. On this grand naturalistic tour he is not alone, but accompanied by the maid Wank (Nathalia Acevedo), coming from the colonies of the West Indies. Two worlds and two ways of perceiving and experiencing nature, diametrically opposed, which bring to mind the post-colonial and ontological suggestions launched by Malick in The New World. But it does not end here, because in the Alpine skyline, a land dear to the director Jacobi who has a career as a mountain documentary filmmaker, the echo of another masterpiece of the American filmmaker becomes domineering: there, in the valleys and in the woods , The Trouble With Nature rereads in its way all those unsolved questions about the finiteness of man put on the field in A Hidden Life.

A man in search of beauty, an ‘on the road’ journey bathed in a cold, surgical natural light, carefully chosen by Jacobi – who in addition to directing also signed photography – as if to imply the impossibility of this Fitzcarraldiana challenge. Here, in fact, it is not a question of passing a ship through the mountains, but of the all-human overbearing claim to grasp and fix in words the greatness and mystery of nature; in other words, to dominate it.

And then the real question is perhaps not what Beauty is and what Sublime is but, rather, who is the owner, man or Nature? At the same question, in times not far from those of Burke, a great poet ended an unfortunate Icelandic buried under “a sand mausoleum”, punished for having dared to challenge in a dialectical duel Mother Nature. Today, in the new geological era called anthropocene, the power ratio seems alas to be reversed. And here the servant becomes master.

The only solution, therefore, to be able to live in this scenario is to “stay with the trouble”, as Donna Haraway would say, and perhaps it is no coincidence that Illum Jacobi used this term in the title of his film.

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