Oceana and Mountains
As Alain Corbin has shown in his monograph Lure of the Sea (French original, 1988), European ideas about the sea underwent a crucial change between 1750 and 1840. Once seen as a dark and sinister force, the domain of monsters, the sea was associated with dread and catastrophe and fear. The flotsam and jetsam dotting the ocean’s edge ranked as sinister reminders of the Great Flood that had almost destroyed humanity.
A text from the early eighteenth century by the English critic Joseph Addison shows the beginnings of this shift in attitudes. “Of all the objects that I have ever seen, there is none which affects my imagination so much as the sea or ocean. I cannot see the heavings of the prodigious bulk of waters, even in a calm, without a very pleasing astonishment, but when it is worked up in a tempest, so that the horizon on every side is nothing but foaming billows and floating mountains, it is impossible to describe the agreeable horror that arises from such a prospect. A troubled ocean, to a man who sails upon it, is, I think, the biggest object that he can see in motion, and consequently gives the imagination of the highest kinds of pleasure that can arise from greatness. . . . Such an object naturally raises in my thoughts the idea of an Almighty Being, and convinces me of his existence as much as a metaphysical demonstration.”
Gradually, then, attitudes towards the ocean began to shift from the negative to the positive, so that by the mid-nineteenth century our present-day understanding of the seashore as an attractive and salubrious place had come into being.
Darwinism showed that the sea was the origin of all life. In a more mundane way, ocean bathing came to be seen as therapeutic, and the shore became a locale for self-exploration and reverie. Discovery of the seaside had political, economic, and social effects, too. In Europe the attractions of the shore fostered the rapid growth of coastal towns such as Brighton and Scarborough, Dieppe and Cannes.
Ever cautious, ancient mariners had favored the coastline, being reluctant to venture far from the land. With the Age of Discovery, ships did not hesitate to go from continent to continent, eventually even charting the Arctic and Antarctic. As ship technology moved from sail to steam, sea-going vessels were ever more vital in trade, migration, and the sustenance of imperial ambitions.
These changes were mirrored in complex ways in art. The German painter Caspar David Friedrich frequently depicted his local Baltic. Unique in his oeuvre is the brooding “Monk by the Sea” of 1808. If one were to subtract the tiny figure in the middle ground, one would have a protoabstract work.
The impressionist painters achieved unforgettable images of a happy Europe at play by the sea side. These paintings are homages to light, color, and the therapeutic benefits of bathing. A more ambivalent interpretation occurs, however, in the Waterlily paintings of Claude Monet. While these show a pond rather than the sea, they capture the inderterminacy implicit in the surface of a body of water and the plants growing on it.
Something of the older idea of dread recurred in Arnold Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead,” so popular that he created five versions. Other German symbolists, such as Eugen Bracht and Franz von Stuck, provided their own versions of ominous seas. In their works the sea is shown solo, without an island, boat or other distinctive feature.
It was left to Piet Mondrian to make the transition from the seashore to abstraction. His paintings of dunes show a shifting indeterminacy. In his pier and other plus-and-minus paintings he uses views of the sea as starting points for abstract compositions.
In music one might think of Claude Debussy’s masterpiece “La Mer.” This is not a tone poem in the usual sense, because specific events are not characterized. Debussy’s work is “absolute music,” that is, abstract.
A late manifestation of the attraction and ambiguity of the sea appears in the correspondence between the French novelist Romain Rolland and Sigmund Freud. Beginning in 1923, this correspondence evolved on several planes. The central debate, however, revolved about the question of le sentiment océanique. This, Rolland says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he posits as being present in millions of people. It is a feeling he would like to call a sensation of "eternity," an intimation of something limitless, unbounded, indeterminate—in short, "oceanic.” While the novelist failed to convert the atheist Freud, the correspondence stimulated other thinking that has granted the expression a life of its own. See William B. Parsons, Jr., The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York, 1999).
The story of Western response to mountains follows a similar trajectory. For that reason if can be addressed much more briefly here. Around 1800 “mountains became ‘temples of Nature built by the Almighty’ and ‘natural cathedrals or natural altars … with their clouds resting on them as the smoke of a continual sacrifice.’ A century and a half earlier, however, they had been ‘Nature’s Shames and Ills’ and ‘Warts, Wens, Blisters, Impostumes; upon the otherwise fair face of Nature. For hundreds of years most men who climbed mountains had climbed them fearfully, grimly, resenting the slightest aesthetic gratification.” (Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, Ithaca, 1959, p. 2).
For centuries the conventional wisdom was that, as much as possible, high mountains must be avoided—quite sensibly in the case of Alps in winter. Yet with the emergence of the aesthetics of the Sublime the awesomeness of mountains began to fascinate. And with the related doctrine of the picturesque mountain ranges (though generally low ones) were admired for their pleasing qualities. For some this appreciation of hills and gentle mountains was schooled by the seventeenth-century paintings of Claude Lorrain.
Very different are the mountain landscapes, sometimes shrouded by wisps of fog, of the proto-Symbolist C. D. Friedrich. Perhaps his favorite subject was the vastness of the mountains of the “Saxon Alps,” where the vistas are marked only by a solitary wanderer or a remote mountain cross, the sole intrusions of humanity into these magnificent speckles.
Mountains are prominent in the figural work of Vassily Kandinsky of a hundred years ago. In the last preabstract period of his work, the Russian artist frequently depicted hills and mountains, sometimes showing himself together with his companion Gabriele Münther, both reclining on the grassy sward. Gradually the rippling lines of the mountains became less specific, though sometimes acquiring a crowning feature in the form of idealized Russian city, with domes and bulbous turrets. In Kandinsky’s Improvisations and the early Compositions we can see the natural motifs gradually becoming less and less salient, while the dynamism of the line, originally inspired by mountains, remains.
In conclusion let us return to the general theme of oceans and mountains in the light of the new understanding that emerged some two hundred years ago. This sense of awe relates to a larger complex: nature mysticism, an almost pantheistic sense of oneness with the universe. It is this type of sensation which William James studied in his work The Varieties of The Religious Experience. James found the majority of religious or mystical experiences tended to occur in natural settings, usually in scenes of wildness or grandeur. He concluded that the natural environment has a unique capacity to awaken feelings of transcendence, divine presence
Rudolf Otto defined nature mysticism as "the sense of being immersed in the oneness of nature, so that man feels all the individuality, all the peculiarities of natural things in himself. He dances with the motes of dust and radiates with the sun; he rises with the dawn, surges with the wave, is fragrant with the rose, rapt with the nightingale: he knows and is all being, all strength, all joy, all desire, all pain in all things inseparably." Aldous Huxley termed mystical oneness with nature "the perennial philosophy."