Have we turned nature into another form of self-indulgence?
There is something lovely over at The Guardian today, namely a photo gallery of the winners of the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. While I know nothing about photography, I do like a pretty picture of landscape, and here are fourteen very fine ones, all of this green and pleasant land too.
Three of the pictures feature Cumbria, or Cumberland as it once was, the county my maternal grandfather was born in, and, far more importantly, the native soil of the man who more or less invented the concept of “the view”, William Wordsworth, a place I have always wanted to visit but never have.
The works of Jane Austen, as well as the Victorian novels that followed her, are full of people driving out to see a view. You may remember the ill-fated trip to Box Hill in Emma, the drive to Clifton in Northanger Abbey, and also the trip to Derbyshire in Pride and Prejudice. There is also a fair amount of view-chasing in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son when Mr Dombey goes up to Matlock after the death of his first wife, and is driven over with his future second wife to admire Warwick Castle. The nineteenth century was mad about views, and it was a recent thing too, following a fashion inaugurated by the Romantic poets.
We too are children of the Romantic Movement, and we too love a view, and we all know about various “famous views”. I have been to a place near Balmoral which is called “the Queen’s View” because dear Queen Victoria loved it so much, and I have been to the various punte di vista in Rome that are recommended by Augustus Hare, such as the summit of the Janiculum, and the top of the Spanish Steps. Like most readers of this article, I myself have a favourite view: it is the view of the Grand Harbour from the Upper Barracca Garden in Valletta. To me it is the finest thing on earth. The only thing that comes close is the view of Istanbul from the back of the ferry that takes you across the Bosphorus.
But why do we look at views? It is rather odd that views are such a huge part of our lives and that a whole industry, tourism, seems to be founded on them. A view is an abstraction, too: when we look at a view, we see a picture, and we do not look at the things that lie outside the ‘frame’ of the view. A view concentrates on one aspect of looking and ignores others, and a view is supposed to have some sort of moral effect on us: the beauty of nature, or the beauty of an urban landscape (after all, Wordsworth thought the view from Westminster Bridge was better than anything else earth had to show.) But what is the moral effect of beauty? Isn’t this really just turning nature into another form of self-indulgence? And is modern view-chasing in effect just another way of showing off your cultural credentials?
Our ancestors never really cared for views: it has often been said (Jane Austen mentions it) that great houses of the past were built with no regard for views, but for practicality. Moreover, before the Romantic revolution, nature was often seen as threatening and savage, and not in a good way. Indeed, nature in its unspoilt state was not admired at all: the Garden of Eden was a cultivated and walled space, a park, rather than a wilderness. That was where God chose to walk in the cool of the day. The writers of the Book of Genesis would not really have warmed to Cumberland, one surmises. Cumberland is for those who have forgotten the necessity of God’s beneficent rule; it is more akin, in the Biblical mind, to the wilderness into which Adam and Eve were expelled.
The modern age sees nature as beautiful and serene, which is perhaps why natural disasters horrify us so much. Christians until the late eighteenth century had no such illusions about nature, and perhaps a truer sense of their need for God. I love these photographs, and I love their evocation of this beautiful God-made world, but I wish we could see beyond what God has made as well.