Landscape and Allegory

I think I can see why a friend of mine might have brought up e. e. cummings with regard to the themes of Innocence and Experience, as contraries which can potentially come together in some utopian middle term. Or perhaps we might say that could be joined to form a Landscape. Because the age of Diderot was a golden age of Landscape Architecture, or Site-Construction.

Castle Howard
Yorkshire, England,
Landscape Plan (1701)

Site-Construction is that form of art which attempts to find an ideal harmony between raw Nature and human Artifice. And it is in Landscape, which must always be seen as artificial and mediated, that we experience not the Real but rather the pure effect of reality, a sudden a thrill of recognition. This affective state is a total belief that we are actually experiencing something in its absolute authenticity, and for the very first time, even the we know full well that others before us have seen this very sight, and even though this conviction of total novelty arises in response to something we oddly feel as if we ourselves had seen or done before. So-called deja-vu, then, penetrates into the very heart of consciousness and aesthetic experience.

In landscape, as much as possible, we experience the Birth Of The World, not as if it were coming into existence ex nihilo, but rather as if it were being brought back into being before us. Notice how, for example, Landscape Architecture, as well as Picturesque Landscape painting, from this age, always features not only monuments, but even more importantly Ruins. This can be seen in classical 17th-century landscape, for instance one by Poussin.

Holy Family on Steps

Destruction of Temple at Jerusalem

What are these building if not “ruins in the making”, that which, later or sooner, will become ruins? Meanwhile, the figures in them, who inhabit what will become ruins, appear to have only the faintest consciousness of the absolute fact of Time (click). Also see Claude Lorrain (click). But the truth of Landscape as genre comes out best in aberrant fantastic forms, such as that of 18th-century painter Marco and Sabastiano Ricci, which by foregrounding eclecticism and assemblage, reveals the intrinsically artificial and allegorical character of the genre.


All this is crucial to Preromantic aesthetics. The presence of ruins allows Landscape to reveal the New World, or Modernity and the Present, to be phenomena created right before us, out of the wreckage of the Old World, out of Antiquity and the Past. In landscape architecture and landscape painting, History is always the product of recycling.


Or to push this idea even more radically, Landscape functions as if it were the case that our very gaze brings the world to life, gives it Spirit. This is exactly the rapturous Blakean feeling, one anticipated by Molineaux’s experiment, of seeing the entire world bloom open before us as we step forward out of the darkness to see and hear and touch and smell and taste for the first time (click). This mode of existence is an ecstasy of simultaneous sensibility and creativity which Kant (though he, as always, is extremely cautious about it, and more than anything is interested in shutting down this impossible fantasy) will call the intuitive intellect, a state in which the object and its concept, or the subject and the thing itself, are not yet distinguished. In other words, for the intuitive intellect, thinking and being are the same thing. To conceive of an thing is literally to cause it to be.

You might think of this as an instant of pure poetics, in the highest sense of that word, as the activity of Genius. And you’ll notice, just off hand, that “Rameau’s Nephew” is set in a Paris densely populated with geniuses, Philodor the famous chess master being only one of them. Well, Kant does not deny genius, but he does want to keep it in its place, and the way he’ll do this is through a dramatic shift which make the reception of art more important than its actually production. Or reception will appear as the final step of production. Because art, for Kant, will always appear on its own, and we don’t need to worry about running out of it. Whereas, our sensitivity to it; i.e.’ our Taste, is something we should be concerned about. And not just our taste for art but also our taste for ideas, which as Diderot has shown, can run out of control. And this is where Kant steps in, to make sure that science and aesthetics remain “nothing if not critical.”

But let me return to cummings. Perhaps he makes us aware of the possibility of a kind of poetry which is not pre-constituted or preformed, but one which rather comes to life right in front of us on the page, as we read it. The idea that the poem exists only as ruins, only as pure potential, until we bring it to life by imposing our gaze upon it, which is to say the powers and constraints and the grammar of human understanding.


Above is a poem by Susan Howe, who is writing today in Buffalo, NY. Obviously, she has borrowed her share from cummings. But it seems as if she is resisting not only inherited forms and meanings, but also the very availability of poetry as a vehicle for these. With cummings, as with Landscape, it’s as if the vision, or the poem, already preexisted us, at least as a pure potentiality of meaning, and we need only to come to the poem to actualize it. Whereas with Howe, on the other hands, there is never any actualization but only infinite encounter without any formal and semantic synthesis. If cummings’s poems are ruins awaiting the dawn of a new civilization; i.e., a fresh reader; then perhaps Howe’s poems are poems determined to remain wild.

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